A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 19, 2023

As Ukraine Holds In Bakhmut, Russia Attempts To Advance Elsewhere Also Stall

Russia's repeatedly failed efforts at Bakhmut are a testament to its inability to mount a combined arms offensive because it lacks the trained troops, functioning equipment and leadership necessary. 

But it is also sucking resources away from the rest of the battlefield, giving Ukrainian forces the ability to maneuver and counterattack. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Fighting in Ukraine, Wagner has suffered 30,000 casualties. Of those, over half have come in the last two months and 90% have been prisoner recruits. That Wagner has been cut off from a fresh supply of prison cannon fodder may be the best indicator that what Ukrainian forces are weathering right now is temporary. As with most of Donetsk, fighting still taking place within spitting distance of the original line is a testament to how well dug in Ukrainian forces were and how unable Russia has been to conduct the combined forces operations needed. What’s happening at Bakhmut could be as costly to Russia as the failure in Afghanistan - a failure directly related to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the last two weeks, Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group mercenaries, has alternated between bragging about ending recruitment at Russian prisons as if it was his own decision, and complaining that the government wasn’t giving him more prisoners. If the estimates that came on in a Friday briefing at the White House are anywhere close to correct, it’s easy to see why even leadership with as little regard for human life as Vladimir Putin’s Russia might have been reluctant to keep the taps open for Prigozhin.

In a question and answer sessions, NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby confirmed three things about Bakhmut:

  • The city is of “no strategic value to the Russians.”
  • The operations there is “almost exclusively run by Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner Group” rather than the Russian military.
  • If Wagner is able to turn “incremental gains” around the city into success in capturing Bakhmut, “it will prove of no real worth to them.”

But the most astounding thing that Kirby had to say may have been this: “I do want to say this about the Wagner Group, and particularly with respect to Bakhmut.  I mean, again, they’re treating their recruits, largely convicts, as basically—as cannon fodder, throwing them into a literal meat grinder here, inhuman ways, without a second thought.

And while fighting in Ukraine, we estimate now that Wagner has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including approximately 9,000 killed in action.”

Of those 30,000 casualties, the U.S. estimates that over half have come in the last two months. And of the men that Wagner has sent to the slaughter at Bakhmut, 90% are thought to have been prisoner recruits.

“Men that [Prigozhin] just plucked out of prisons and threw on the battlefield with no training, no equipping, no organizational command, just throw them into the fight, “ said Kirby. “Ninety percent killed were convicts.”

Not only were most of those lost convicts, U.S. intelligence believes that Wagner continues to lean almost entirely on these prisoner troops for its recent gains around Bakhmut. So the idea that they’ve been cut off from a fresh supply of this cannon fodder may be the best indicator yet that what Ukrainian forces in the city are weathering right now is temporary—the last fitful squall of a storm front rather than a change in seasons. There have already been reports from parts of the front that Wagner’s role in areas both north and south of Bakhmut is fading. Pro-Russian military channels and bloggers continue to credit Wagner with everything that happens around Bakhmut, but Ukrainian sources have reported Wagner forces being replaced with Russian regulars.

Considering the widening, highly-visible schism between Prigozhin and the the Russian military, and the admission that they’ve been cut off from access to more cannon fodder courtesy of the prisons, it’s unclear if Wagner Group will continue to be a force in or out of Ukraine. Five years ago, Bloomberg estimated the total size of Prigozhin’s mercenary force at around 6,000 men. By last December, the estimate was of 50,000 men, with 40,000 of those being convict recruits. Since the time of that estimate, Wagner has burned though at least 15,000. It’s not clear what they have left, but they are a declining force whose power is apparently no longer being refreshed.

The zergs … are running out of zerglings.

Ukrainian servicemen of the State Border Guard Service wait for an order to move to the mortar position at the entrance of the shelter in Bakhmut on February 16, 2023, as the head of Russia's mercenary outfit Wagner said it could take months to capture the embattled Ukraine city and slammed Moscow's "monstrous bureaucracy" for slowing military gains. - Russia has been trying to encircle the battered industrial city and wrest it ahead of February 24, the first anniversary of what it terms its "special military operation" in Ukraine. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian forces shelter in a doorway in Bakhmut as they wait out an artillery barrage. 16 Feb 2023

That 2017 Bloomberg article is worth another look just to put what’s happening in Ukraine in scale. In that article, analysts noted that Russia stopped any public reporting of military casualties previous to the first Ukraine invasion. However, insurance claims continue to give insight into how many people Russia has lost in Putin’s various internal and external campaigns. In the four years between 2012 and 2016, there were 3,198 claims related to death. That would cover not just the whole period of Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, but ongoing losses over that period in Chechnya and in Syria. Going back further, the then Soviet Union lost an estimated 15,000 over the whole course of the 10+ year war in Afghanistan.

The effort to capture Bakhmut over the last six month, just Bakhmut, is ten times what Russia lost everywhere across that four year period of study, including the entire first invasion of Ukraine. What’s happening at Bakhmut could easily end up being as costly to Russia as the entire failure in Afghanistan—a failure directly related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Which certainly makes it seem as if Putin will be very, very lucky if Wagner Group is the only thing that disappears due to his disastrous management of this invasion.

How is Bakhmut today? Bakhmut holds. The situation remains extremely difficult, conditions for Ukrainian forces remain extremely hard. Fighting on the north side of the city is extremely intense.

However, the news on Friday was not of Russian advances, but of Ukrainian counterattacks. Earlier in the week, Russian forces were pressed back from efforts to cross the T0504 highway south of Ivaniske and forced to retreat to high ground near Klishchiivka. The word on Friday is that Ukrainian forces have continued to press in this area, driving back Russian lines once again.

Lines represent approximate positions on Thursday. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

I don’t have enough information to accurately redraw the lines at this point, but it’s a good bet that the area of Ukrainian control south of Ivaniske has advanced by another kilometer. There have been no claims that Ukrainian forces have actually pushed Russia back out of Klishchiivka and the fortified hilltop that overlooks that town. However, reports are that Ukraine has advanced across this area, further protecting both the T0504 highway and the road that runs through Khromove to connect to the highway at Chasiv Yar.

Russia’s plan to place the city in a “pincer” by capturing Chasiv Yar seems to be running in reverse.

North of the city, Russian sources claim that Wagner has capture Paraskoiivka and have published pictures that are supposed to prove it, but all images published so far are at the northern end of Paraskoiivka close to Blahodatne (see location of little red man) and there remains no evidence that they have taken the remainder of Paraskoiivka or the complex of road crossings in that area. Russian sources claim Wagner is now fighting its way south in the northern part of Bakhmut proper. Again, there seems to be no evidence that Russia has advanced in this area over the last two days.

BAKHMUT, EASTERN UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16:  Ukrainian border control soldiers meet in an underground basement before firing mortar rounds at a Russian position on February 16, 2023 in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have been holding the city as Russian Wagner mercenary forces press a winter offensive, at great cost to both sides. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Ukrainian border control soldiers plan their next action in a Bakhmut basement. 16 Feb 2023

"We will hold Bakhmut,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday. “Anyone who complains that the defense demands too many victims should not forget: if we withdraw, another city will become a new Bakhmut. That is why our soldiers fight for every square centimeter.”

Why is Russia throwing away thousands in Bakhmut if it has no strategic value? Because logistical factors make it the easiest place for Russia to attack. Quite possibly Bakhmut is the only place that Russia can currently muster consistently large forces, because the logistical effort at other locations is too great.

Why is Ukraine willing to expend men and materials in fighting at Bakhmut? Because the longer they keep the fighting concentrated around this once already heavily damaged area, the longer they spare other locations in Ukraine from the kind of destruction seen around Bakhmut.

Those aren’t the kind of justifications that are usually assigned to the sites of major battles in the history books, but both of those reasons speak deeply to the nature of the conflict that has emerged following Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion.

One place where Russia has made some advances over the last week appears to be in the city of Marinka, just west of the “breakaway capital” of Donetsk.

Marinka. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

As with most of the area adjacent to Donetsk, fighting has been underway in Marinka since the day the invasion began. That it’s still taking place within spitting distance of the original line is a testament to both how well dug in Ukrainian forces were at the outset of this conflict and how unable Russia has been to conduct the kind of combined forces operations needed to move Ukraine back from defensive positions.

However, in the last two weeks, Russia begun a creeping advance through the battered and rubble-filled streets of Markina, making a block by block movement that has gradually overrun the eastern third of the city. That advance seems to be continuing in the last few days, with units in the area giving the same kind of this factory / that store kind of notation to Russian movements that was previously seen in attacks on eastern Bakhmut. So far, Russian forces seem to be east of Druzhby Avenue that divides the city, and Ukraine appears to be fighting a defensive retreat. It’s unclear where the next real defensive line might be or if Ukraine intends to continue the sort of make-them-pay-for-each-meter battle that’s been seen at Bakhmut.

From Avdiivka down to Novomykolivka, Russia has been attempting to break out of the pocket around Donetsk. The advances in Markina look pretty small from a distance, but the fact that there have been advances at all is worrisome.

Russia reportedly was able to bring a TOS-1 launcher to the west end of Kreminna on Thursday and hit the areas around Dibrova and Kuzmyne with those godforsaken thermobaric explosives. However, the fact that Ukrainian forces are still at Kuzmyne, just west of Kreminna proper, shows that Russia hasn’t made a major advance in this area.

Even more mysterious: On Friday, the Ukrainian military noted Zhytlivka, immediately north of Kreminna, as one of the places that Russia shelled. That may be the first time this location has come up on this list. If not, it’s the first time in many weeks. All the evidence tends to indicate that Ukrainian forces are still just south, west, and north of Kreminna. If any area is looking foggy right now in terms of who controls what, it’s probably Kreminna. Lots of fighting, little information.


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