A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 8, 2023

Has Russia's Winter Offensive Already Fizzled?

According to the US and European press, the fall of Bakhmut has been imminent...for weeks. So has the fall of Vuhledar and maybe even Kreminna. 

Except that, none of them have fallen - yet - and there is growing intelligence suggesting that the Russian strategy of attempting to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders with vast numbers of advancing soldiers has largely failed to gain any significant ground. The problem is that a mild winter is causing them to stick to well marked roads around which Ukrainian defenders are waiting - just like they did a year ago. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

A funny thing happened on the way to Russia’s capture of Vuhledar, Siversk, and even Bakhmut. The thing that happened is that they … didn’t happen. Has Russia’s new offensive already fizzled? Russian leadership is demanding advances that Russian forces on the ground can’t deliver. This is a replication in miniature of Russia’s biggest defeat so far in the invasion: Those “40 kilometer convoys” that were supposed to crush Kyiv. Lining up slow-moving vehicles and parading them (to) ambush points. Sheer numbers of opponents only matter if (the defense) runs out of bullets.

A funny thing happened on the way to Russia’s capture of Vuhlendar, Siversk, and even Bakhmut. The thing that happened is that they … didn’t happen. Or at least they certainly haven’t happened yet. What has happened is a jaw-dropping loss of Russian forces that have generated the highest body counts, and equipment counts, since the opening days of the war. 

On Monday, Russia made no notable gains at Bakhmut, no notable gains north of Bakhmut, and no notable gains south of Bakhmut. Fifty kilometers to the north, there doesn’t seem to have been any change around the city of Kreminna. That includes Ukrainian forces still reporting to have repelled advances in the area of Kreminna and around Shypylivka to the south. There are also doubts about previous reports of Russia advancing north of Kreminna. That “big push” in Zaporizhzhia turned out to be a complete illusion, and at Vuhledar … we’ll get to that in a minute.

But the question for the morning has to be: Has Russia’s new offensive already fizzled?

According to the Ukrainian ministry of defense, Russia is now engaged in five simultaneous offensives in Ukraine. One is near Kupyansk, where Russia claims to have occupied the village of Synkivka in the last few days. The second is in that stretch between Kreminna and Lyman, where reported Russian assaults were repulsed. The third is the expansive effort around Bakhmut. The fourth is the endless effort to move the line by a single meter down near Donetsk, with most of the focus on the town of Avdiivka. The final area of attack is more general, with multiple attacks along the southern end of the line from Orikhiv to Vuhledar.

Estimated Russian losses
The one day losses for Russia on Monday are jaw-dropping

By best estimates, Russia now has somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 men under arms in Ukraine, with all of that force spread along a front that’s now reduced to only about 500 kilometers of contact along the land, and another 350 km in which the forces are facing off across the wide Dnipro River. There aren’t enough Russian soldiers in Ukraine to stand shoulder to shoulder, but if they stretch out their arms, they could hold hands along the front. That’s in spite of losses that are certainly over 100,000 (Ukraine estimates 130,000 Russian soldiers killed).

How big is Ukraine’s military? It’s hard to tell. A decent estimate places the total around 240,000, with about half of that number away from the front, either undergoing training or keeping an eye on potential Russian lines of attack from Kharkiv to Kyiv. The Ukrainian military reportedly still has more volunteers than it can train at any given moment, but there’s no doubt it’s also suffering some horrendous losses at the front. On any given day, the largest number of images arriving from Ukraine are the funerals of Ukrainian soldiers.

Right now, Russia may be at its greatest advantage in men along the front line since shortly after the opening days of the invasion. And, since Ukraine doesn’t yet have longer-range missiles with which to harass their movement, Russian forces should be able to maneuver behind the lines, massing troops for an assault on any place where Ukrainian forces are stretched thin.

And maybe it will. Maybe tomorrow Russia will come surging out of Kreminna, or send for the 30,000 men reportedly massing near Mariupol, or finally break through the lines where it’s been spinning its tank treads near Donetsk since the invasion began. Maybe. But right now, that assessment from the U.K. Ministry of Defense certainly looks accurate—Russian leadership is demanding advances that Russian forces on the ground can’t deliver.

An abandoned battle tank remains in the snow near Yampil on February 6, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
Abandoned Russian tank between Lyman and Kreminna

Even though kos already covered it last night, it’s worth looking again at the latest debacle around Vuhledar, because it’s a prime example of what’s happening when Russia tries to overreach.

At this point, when anyone talks about the game Warcraft, the first thing that comes to mind is the expansive online roleplaying game. However, that’s not where things started. The original game appeared in 1994 (it was released on my birthday, and yes, I bought it), and it was a real-time strategy game in which the forces of humans and orcs faced off in a series of battles. It wasn’t the first real-time strategy game, or even the first to support multiplayer over a network. But it was well done, with a slick combination of easy-to-pick-up game mechanics and fairly deep strategy. It was a big success, and quickly spawned a sequel that was released just one year later.

One of the things that made these games popular is that they were not only easy to play, but easy to modify, and one of the modifications that came out breathed new life into the games at a point when most players had just about wrung all the possibility from the boxed product. That new innovation was tower defense.

In tower defense, one player represented the human forces and was charged with defending a fixed position on the map. From the other side would enter endless hordes of orcs, who would charge head-on toward that target, more or less following the same path every time. The job of the human player was to simply place defenses along that route—machine guns, artillery, flame throwers, bombs—so that the advancing orcs went down as fast as they spawned. As more and more poured onto the field, action could become frantic. But the careful placement of those defensive positions could simply take down an almost unlimited number of forward-marching orcs.

In a tower defense, the key is simply getting the right defensive emplacements in the right places, then waiting for those orcs to fall. But what makes it really possible to defend against such lopsided numbers is knowing that the brainless opponent will follow the same path again. And again. And again.

Something very much like this.

What are those Russian forces doing? Well, the ground is soft and muddy. So they’re driving up the road in convoy. This is the same road where the last two major assaults on Vuhledar were destroyed. Ukrainian forces don’t so much have to defend this road and just … press the trigger. They’re already pre-aimed.

In some ways, this is a replication in miniature of Russia’s biggest defeat so far in the invasion: Those “40 kilometer convoys” that were supposed to crush Kyiv. Lining up slow-moving vehicles and parading them past ambush points was a big part of why Volodymyr Zelenskyy is still in his home, and not leading a rag-tag militia in Ukraine’s western mountains.

If the two forces were meeting on even ground, fighting off in some theoretical nose-to-nose battle, Russia might quickly capture Vuhledar. Somewhere, there is absolutely some general fuming that they have sent more men and more armor to capture the town that Ukraine has in position, so why don’t they have it? Because this isn’t a battle. It’s a tower defense. And in a tower defense, sheer numbers of opponents only matter if you run out of bullets.

This is also a pretty good explanation of why Ukraine has not made that final charge for Svatove or Kreminna. With current conditions limiting the approaches to trying to bring in lines of forces at a few points, any of them could end up with the kind of losses Russia is seeing a Vuhledar. Ukraine isn’t going to do that. It’s certainly not going to do it over and over.

These days, the follow-up to Warcraft—a game called Starcraft—is more famous among real-time strategy fans. It’s the games of that series that spawned the first international video gaming leagues and introduced the world to the infamous “zergs” that try to take down enemy positions with sheer numbers. The tactic is so well known, that Russia’s human wave attacks at Bakhmut and other locations have become known as zerg attacks. The term has even entered into official dispatches from military officials.

But before there were zergs … there were orcs, which seems completely appropriate to what’s happening at Vuhledar.


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