A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 16, 2022

Why Ukraine's Strategy May Now Be To Pivot From Bakhmut, Attacking Elsewhere

Ukraine's military appears to be reaching the same conclusion at Bakhmut as they did at Severodonetsk last summer: that the relentless defense of this one relatively unimportant town has probably cost Russia about as much as it can and that the Russians are unlikely to be able to follow with any further advance. 

And, as the ground hardens, Ukraine may be able to make better use of the forces assigned to Bakhmut as they consider launching another counteroffensive elsewhere. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine's leadership seems to feel that the point of Bakhmut is what Ukraine did at Severodonetsk—the relentless attack forces Ukraine to relentlessly defend, pinning down an increasing amount of their military and keeping those forces from being used elsewhere. If Ukraine recognizes that Bakhmut is a delaying action (by) Russia, meant to keep Ukrainian forces pinned down while Russia gets its act together, then it makes sense that Ukraine find a way to stop playing into Russia’s plans. What we’re seeing as “Russia finally making progress in Bakhmut” may be “Ukraine finally disengaging from Russia’s plans at Bakhmut.”

Ukraine has forces training in Poland, the U.K., and other sites in Europe. Now, the AP is reporting on an increased commitment from the United States. 

The Pentagon will expand military combat training for Ukrainian forces, using the slower winter months to instruct larger units in more complex battle skills, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Over 3,100 Ukrainian troops have already gone through some level of U.S. training, but the focus on larger units here seems to be directly connected with how both Russia and Ukraine have had difficulty in launching and coordinating large scale actions. Right now, reports of “major assaults” are often limited to no more than two or three dozen soldiers, and that’s not just on the Russian side.

Past U.S. training efforts have also included working with Ukraine on a form of combined arms tactics that acknowledges the equipment involved in the low-aircraft / high-artillery battle conditions currently present in Ukraine. Expanding that across larger units would certainly help in getting the right resources to the right point on the line.

UPDATE: Thursday, Dec 15, 2022 · 1:45:01 PM EST · Mark Sumner

Following up on the same theme, The Guardian has an interview with the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. And what does he have to say about that secret Russian army?

“The second part of the mobilization, 150,000 approximately, started their training courses in different camps,” said Reznikov. “The [draftees] do a minimum of three months to prepare. It means they are trying to start the next wave of the offensive probably in February, like last year. That’s their plan.”

To be clear, I can’t tell if Ukrainian officials think Russia is really about to launch a Whole New Army, or if this is a play for more Western support, or they're trying to gaslight Russia into complacency. Probably all of the above.

However, the need to keep up Western assistance in the face of a perception that Ukraine has this in the bag is probably the biggest part of this mix. Ukraine is likely to be much less afraid of what Russia is doing — east of the Urals or anywhere else — than they are of NATO and the U.S. losing interest.

I’m bringing up this story because of an interview that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and members of his military staff did with The Economist this week. That interview is overall a fascinating piece, with some good insights into Zelenskyy and into the head of the Ukrainian military, General Valery Zaluzhny. The interview is also remarkably open when it comes to what’s happening in Ukraine right now, with a “triumphant autumn” that has come to a near halt against both the mud and Russian reinforcements of early winter. Russian attacks on infrastructure, in particular, seem to weigh heavily on everyone, even more so than it might seem from reports on Russian bombings.

“It seems to me we are on the edge,” said Zaluzhny. If Russia continues to wage war against the civilian infrastructure, “That is when soldiers’ wives and children start freezing. What kind of mood will the fighters be in? Without water, light and heat, can we talk about preparing reserves to keep fighting?”

Sure. It’s possible this is just another effort to nudge along slow-moving efforts to bring more air defenses to Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine clearly needs more air defenses, and that need is urgent. How it can be addressed is a couple of notches down in importance from when, and when needs to be Real Soon Now. Preferably two weeks ago.

The interview then moves into an extended discussion of the fighting at Bakhmut, which includes this paragraph that seems as if it could have been lifted from Daily Kos on any given day:

Bakhmut is not an especially strategic location. Although it lies on the road to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two biggish cities, Ukraine has several more defensive lines to fall back on in that direction. What is more, Russia lacks the manpower to exploit a breakthrough.

Ukraine’s military leadership seems to feel that the point of Bakhmut is sort of what Ukraine did at Severodonetsk in reverse—the relentless attack forces Ukraine to relentlessly defend, pinning down a large and increasing amount of their military reserves and keeping those Ukrainian forces from being used elsewhere. 

But wait. If Bakhmut isn’t strategic, why doesn’t Ukraine just step back from that location and let Russia have it while they direct their efforts to somewhere they can make progress? Because there’s a concern that if they just let Russia waltz past (or troika past), then they might soon be at a location that actually is strategic, with Ukrainian forces struggling to hold Russia back from important supply lines and cities that have remained more or less intact. 

All of that makes Bakhmut kind of semi-strategic. However, all of this may be related to what happened in the last two weeks as Ukraine announced a “new strategy” at Bakhmut and a reorganization that cycled some of their most experienced forces out of the area. It’s quite possible that Ukraine has moved from a policy of “hold Russia out of Bakhmut at all costs and make them pay for every step in bodies” to “slow Russian progress in the Bakhmut area, but do it with a reduced force so we can get on with business elsewhere.”

If Ukraine recognizes that Bakhmut is actually a delaying action on the part of Russia, meant to keep Ukrainian forces pinned down while Russia gets its act together, then it makes one helluva lot of sense that Ukraine should find a way to stop playing into Russia’s plans. What we’re seeing as “Russia finally making progress in Bakhmut” may simply be “Ukraine finally disengaging from Russia’s plans at Bakhmut.”

And finally, it’s the idea of Russia getting its act together that finally brings me back to what triggered all that Prester John stuff back at the beginning of this article. Only this time, it’s not that the forces in Europe are expecting an army from the east to come and save them. This time … I’ll let the general in charge of the Ukrainian military tell it.

“Russian mobilisation has worked,” said Zaluzhny. “A tsar tells them to go to war, and they go to war. “Just as in [the second world war]…somewhere beyond the Urals they are preparing new resources. They are 100% being prepared.”

You could put another Ukraine inside the Russian border, and still not reach the Ural Mountains. Russia is truly vast.

Zaluzhny believes that, somewhere in the east, at an unspecified location beyond the Ural Mountains, Russia is actually training a large army — an army that could strike Ukraine as soon as January. The head of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, agrees. Syrsky also points out that just by putting more untrained bodies on the line, Russia has succeeded in slowing or halting Ukrainian progress in areas where they had been moving through more thinned out Russian forces.

“The enemy shouldn’t be discounted, “ said Syrsky. “They are not weak… and they have very great potential in terms of manpower.” 

 Zaluzhny and Syrsky express a general fear that the moment we’re experiencing right now—the one in which Russia is fighting to advance in a small space at Bakhmut, while Ukraine determines what happens over the rest of the battlefield—is fleeting. Somewhere out there, the anti-Prester John is waiting, at the head of a huge and at least somewhat better-trained and supplied Russian army, ready to enact another run for the whole of Donbas or even Kyiv.

Does this force exist? I don’t know. Is this simply a ploy for more assistance? I don’t think so. 

For Zelenskyy, Zaluzhny, and Syrsky, this sets up a tremendous dilemma. They could push everything to the front now, expend their reserves and materiel resources on an all-in attempt to break Russia right now. But if they do so, they’ll have nothing left to absorb that second hammer blow. If it comes.

The historical Prester John never showed. The vast Russian army beyond the Urals may be no more real than the lost Christian kingdom. 

On the other hand, the renewed interest in the mythical king was fueled in part by travelers’ tales of a rising power in the East. That power turned out to be the nascent Mongol Empire that really would shake up the world. Staying prepared for the worst is not necessarily a bad thing.

For those of us following along each day on paper or pixels, the temptation to shout “All in!” and grab one of those pool-cue things from the movies and slide all the tiny men and wooden tanks toward the front lines on the big map table is considerable. Those whose actual job is defending the cities of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people have other thoughts on their minds.

Ukrainian Pravda has an extended article today providing new details on how the Russian warship Moskva became the Russian submarine Mosvka.

Almost no one knows about it, but the first combat use of the Neptunes took place not in April but in the first days of the full-scale invasion by Russia. It was then that three Russian landing ships left the ports in Crimea and headed towards the Ukrainian coast in Mykolaiv Oblast. The landing of Russian troops in this area gave them a springboard to attack both Mykolaiv and Odesa.

The first three Neptune missiles were launched to destroy these ships.

Because those first missiles had to actually travel over the city of Odesa, they were pushed up to a higher elevation. That allowed Russian radar to spot them and shoot them down. The first use of Neptunes was a failure. Thankfully, Ukraine tried again.

Russia is vast. It’s not untouchable. This is in Irkutsk, just north of Mongolia. So far from Ukraine that it’s hard to get both on the same side of the globe. However, this distant location is not untouched by Vladimir Putin’s folly.


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