A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 15, 2022

As Russia Digs Miles of Pointless Defensive Trenches, Ukraine Troops Hold Bakhmut

Ukrainian forces continue to hold Bakhmut despite continuous Russian attacks which are causing horrendous Russian casualties. 

In the rest of occupied Ukraine, as well as Russia and Belarus, they are digging miles of trenches, at least in part because it is something their untrained conscripts can do without dying (at the same rate as in pointless attacks). JL  

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Russian penetration into Bakhmut is still limited to an area a few blocks beyond where they were months earlier. At this moment, Bakhmut holds. What started as the laughable “Wagner line” at an obscure location has become an epidemic of ditches all over Ukraine. And Russia. And Belarus. Russian forces have engaged in a flurry of ditch digging. Part of the reason is because even “mobliks” who never got basic training can still be taught which end of a shovel goes in the ground.  Some are pointless because we see images showing what happens when 1914-style trenches meet 2022 drones. More often than not, Ukraine has bypassed these positions until they become isolated or ignored.


More tough fighting and intensive shelling going on in the area near Donetsk city. 

Donetsk Area. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

What’s amazing here is that, for all the months of fighting, the border in this area is often exactly where it was at the end of 2014. To the north, Russia is claiming to have captured Pisky, Avdiivka, and Vodyane. The truth is that they seem to occupy parts of these locations (and in the case of Vodyane, maybe not even that).

BTW, the pre-war population of Vodyane is listed as 19. There are no zeroes missing from that number. This hasn’t stopped pro-Russian bloggers from celebrating their supposed victory over a crossroads that likely hasn’t been taken.

Overnight and into Wednesday morning, there have been multiple reports of Russian advances in and around Bakhmut. While the situation has been described in dire terms, at this moment the extent of Russian penetration into eastern Bakhmut is still limited to an area a few blocks beyond where they were months earlier. However, even this limited advance has pushed Ukrainian forces from long-held positions and changed the character of the fight.

Eastern Bakhmut. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

Where Russia was previously moving across an area best characterized by large, disconnected industrial locations—the cement factory, the trash dump, etc.—some Russian forces are now in a more urban area, where fighting is street-to-street. Whether this will make it more difficult to fight Russian wave attacks, which by many reports have been frequent over the last day, isn’t yet clear.

For months, the fight on this side of Bakhmut has been characterized by all those sites up and down Patrisa Lumumby Street. Then Russia managed to get a more secure hold on positions around the cement factory and moved forces along Pershotravnevyy street to reach an area of homes and shops. This area had previously been one of those positions from which Ukrainian defenders were able to fire out into this more open area. Now it seems that this stage of the fighting is all but over.

What kind of price Russia paid in terms of casualties taken to occupy this area isn’t clear. Over the course of nearly six months of fighting, they’ve certainly lost more than 10,000 in the attempt to capture Bakhmut, and this is where they are now. But Ukraine’s losses in the area have also been great—and that’s on top of the utter destruction of a city that was home to 73,000 people when Russia’s invasion began.

Evacuation of the remaining civilians from Bakhmut continues, despite the reluctance of some citizens to leave. By several accounts, that evacuation has become much more dangerous and difficult thanks to Russian forces shelling highways around the city. In the last few days, no more than a dozen or so people have been evacuated each day. 

There are also big concerns that Russian forces could move up from Optyne, just south of Bakhmut,  or Klishchiivka to the southwest. Both of those areas are now in dispute, though Ukrainian forces are still in place in both towns.

All that said, for the moment, Bakhmut holds.

What started as the laughable “Wagner line” at an obscure location in eastern Ukraine has become an epidemic of ditches all over Ukraine. And Russia. And Belarus. All over occupied Ukraine, and into neighboring countries, Russian forces have engaged in a flurry of ditch digging. 

Some of these constructions are so obviously pointless as to be laughable—like a series of ditches cut across sand beaches in Crimea.

Others that look as if they have no value, as with the small and unanchored “dragon’s teeth” that Russian forces have been spreading somewhat haphazardly along these lines, may turn out to have some actual stopping power, or at least slowing power, when they’re connected to multiple lines of trenches and fortifications.

Trench warfare reminiscent of World War I has become a horrifyingly familiar part of the fight in Ukraine. The reason for this is simple enough: lack of effective air power by either side. In a fight that has often come down to artillery duels, it shouldn’t be surprising that the lines between armies end up looking like they did when “the king of battle” first ruled the day.

Obviously, some things have changed. Because day after day, we see images and videos showing what happens when 1914-style trenches meet 2022 drones. These entrenched positions can, and have been broken through. More often than not, Ukraine has simply bypassed these positions until they become isolated and can either be approached from the rear or ignored entirely. But Russia is putting an enormous effort into creating more and more miles of trench across the Ukrainian landscape. The formula for these things isn’t new: areas of minefield, backed by dragon’s teeth, backed by another minefield, backed by trenches, backed by a second row of trenches or fortifications.  These are exactly the kind of “unassailable” positions that in World War II proved to be absolutely assailable. However, penetrating these lines does require either concentration of force, coordinated action, or time.

Russia is building these lines all across eastern Ukraine. They’re going up (or down) around Svatove, Starobilsk, and across a sizable portion of both Donetsk and Luhansk. They’re being built around Crimea, around locations in Zaporizhzhia, and now along the eastern bank of the Dnipro River across from Kherson city. Part of the reason is simple enough—even “mobliks” who never got a chance to hold a gun during the train trip that passed for basic training can still be taught which end of a shovel goes in the ground. “Digging is easier than fighting” is an old, old saying, and it remains true. Given a choice between digging a trench and assaulting one, even Russian forces aren’t confused about the preferred option. 

Sitting back behind those lines across the river, Russia bombarded Kherson a reported 57 times on Monday alone. That bombardment of the city Putin declared “Russia forever” is continuing.

If Ukraine wants to stop this in the short term, they will need to employ either more air power or some form of artillery (i.e., HIMARS) that can outrange the Russian guns in an effective counterbattery fire. In the long term, they will need to do what was always on the agenda eventually—cross the river and force Russia to step back from the city.

In fact, almost everywhere Ukraine is now trying to advance, with the exception of small towns in the northeastern edge of Kharkiv and some locations around Kreminna, are behind these beefed-up Russian trenchworks, and more are being dug every day.

Two weeks ago, Task and Purpose looked at why these “ancient” defenses continue to be used, and why they continue to work.

“In World War I, the trenches existed for four years. Both sides tried to break through the trenchline and get back to maneuver warfare,” retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former Commanding General of United States Army Europe, told Task & Purpose. In that case, Hertling said, soldiers were going up against machine guns, artillery, mustard gas, and dug-in positions. The issue is, Hertling said, if you can’t get around or over a trenchline, you can’t defeat it. That’s true even in Ukraine.


Something not far removed from pure speculation—that’s been circulating around both Ukrainian and Russian Telegram channels over the last week. According to those channels, Ukraine is massing large numbers of forces in two locations: Near Svatove in the north, and near Zaporizhzhia in the south. According to the reports/rumors/wild-ass speculation, as soon as the ground is solidly frozen around Svatove, Ukraine intends to attack with both forces at once. 

Then, the story continues, if Ukraine wins in the north, they can rapidly take most of Luhansk, cut off multiple supply routes into Donetsk, and negate anything going on around Bakhmut. If Ukraine wins in the south, they can push forward to Berdyansk and Mariupol, break Russia’s lock on the coast, and threaten Crimea. If Ukraine wins in both places—the war is over and Russia has no choice but to try and sue for peace on any terms available.

It’s a very nice story, and it’s always good to see the pro-Russian sources feeling gloomy. But it should be pointed out that right now, I know of zero evidence that this is the plan, or even that the “massing of forces” in these locations is really happening.


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