A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 6, 2023

Russia Has Been Attacking In Ukraine For Months, With Little To Show For It

The battle lines have been remarkably stable since October since Ukraine paused after its huge summer offensive - and despite aggressive Russian attacks since then. 

While there have been repeated attempts to reverse the massive Ukrainian gains, little has changed. The current uptick in Russian attack tempo is believed to be aimed at offsetting the arrival of new western weaponry for Ukraine. Whether lightly armed human waves can achieve significant success despite repeated Russian failure remains to be seen. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Russia has been fairly aggressive the last month or so, with nothing to show for it. It’s a testament to how static the lines have been (despite thousands killed) that it wasn’t until now, two and a half months later, that an update was merited. With over 300,000 Russians now in the country, Russia can keep using their human-wave tactics to scratch out incremental gains. (But) Russia has run out of local proxy forces from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” and even Russia’s “elite” units are not so elite anymore after suffering battlefield attrition. (As) Ukraine was hampered by mud on their attack so too is Russia being hampered by it. Ukraine's greatest ally continues to be Russian incompetence.

The last time I took stock of the current front lines was November 25. It’s a testament to how static the lines have been (despite tens of thousands killed in that time) that it wasn’t until now, nearly two and a half months later, that an update was merited. 

Here’s the map from November, which still works for today: 

Related, here’s the latest map of Russian defenses: 


This has been a pretty flat front line for a while. That is finally starting to change. Let’s go clockwise, from the north. 


Ukraine’s northern campaign aims toward Starobilsk, the literal crossroads (and cross-rail roads) of Russia’s most important supply lines into Ukraine. 


After months of grinding gains toward Svatove, Russia’s defensive lines and the seems the lack of cold winter proved too difficult to overcome. The mud has been awful, and it’s difficult to advance when relegated to roads. It’s just too easy to target them with artillery and ambush. Armor needs to go off-road to be most effective. 

The attractiveness of this approach remains, however. Not only would cutting that Starobilsk supply line dramatically increase Russia’s logistical challenges, but Russia hasn’t invested in multiple lines of defenses (yet), like they have further south. This approach offers the last chance for the kind of lightning-strike territorial advances that we saw in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts late last year.

As of now, things seem to have stabilized after Ukraine’s liberation of Novoselivs’ke two weeks ago. With Russia on the offensive across the entire contact line (including here), it seems that Ukraine is either forced to, or is content with, simply playing defense.


After months of grinding their way forward around the forests and towns surrounding Kreminna, Ukrainian forces seem to have been pushed back several kilometers this past week. Mark Sumner had more on the tactical situation in his update yesterday, noting that just as Ukraine was hampered by mud on their march toward Kreminna, so too is Russia being hampered by it on its pushback. Regardless, Kreminna won’t be liberated anytime soon as Russia plays the aggressor.

Also look, Russia is employing strategy


With Russia advancing north of Bakhmut, that push out out of Kreminna is creating the first real salient we’ve seen in month around Sivers’k. Now, the amount of territory isn’t big, it’s a blip on the big map. But it would allow Russia to essentially push Ukraine almost entirely out of Luhansk oblast (an important Russian political objective), as well as creep closer to the truly strategic twin fortress cities of Slovyanks and Kramatorsk. 


Once again, Mark’s update yesterday summed up the tactical situation nicely. For the first time in eight months, I finally believe the loss of the city is a real possibility, if not probability. The difference has been a change in Russian strategy. 


While Wagner mercenaries continue to send people to die with head-on assaults on the city’s industrial eastern side (they’re near the winery again), they also deployed their prison fodder, supported by Russia’s better trained and equipped VDV airborne troops, to the towns surrounding Bakhmut, working on wrapping around the city and putting its two remaining supply lines close to direct fire control.

Russia’s challenge, of course, is that taking Bakhmut isn’t particularly noteworthy. Yes, it pushes the front lines an extra kilometer or two out, but they’ll just run into the next layer of Ukrainian defenses. Is losing thousands of men per kilometer really sustainable for Russia? 

That’s where the mobiks come in. Russia mobilized around 300,000 earlier in the year. About half of them were immediately sent to the front lines to stabilize the situation and arrest Ukraine’s big advance in Kharkiv in the fall. They may have been speed bumps, but speed bumps are effective. That’s why they exist. And it worked. 

The other half of the mobiks were held back and “trained.” They are flooding into Ukraine today. With over 300,000 Russians now in the country, Russia can keep using their human-wave tactics  pioneered by Wagner to scratch out incremental gains indefinitely. And when they eventually run out of mobiks, they can get more and don’t even need to pretend to train that next batch to do this: 

At first, the first group, usually of 8 people, is put forward to the finish line. The whole group is maximally loaded with [ammunition], each has a "Bumblebee" flamethrower. Their task is to get to the point and get a foothold. They are almost suicidal. Their [ammo] in case of failure is intended for the following groups.  

The group gets as close as possible to the Ukrainians and digs in as quickly as possible. A white cloth or other sign is left on the tree so that the next group can navigate in the event of the death of their predecessors and find where shelters have already been dug and where there are weapons.

During the fire contact, the "Wagners" detect Ukrainian fire positions and transfer them to their artillery. As a rule, 120-mm and 82-mm mortars work in them. Up to 10 mortars simultaneously begin to suppress the discovered Ukrainian position. Artillery training can last several hours in a row.

During this time, 500 meters from the first group, the second group concentrates. It has lighter equipment. And under the cover of artillery, this group begins an assault on the Ukrainian position. If the second group fails to take a position, it is followed by the third and even the fourth. That is, four waves of eight people for one Ukrainian position.

In a report from Bakhmut today, a Ukrainian soldier says even the VDV is using those tactics. It’s bad enough Wagner uses their recruited prisoners this way, but if that’s how they’re using VDV, that’s … it’s just unbelievable. 

By the way, this is why Ukraine needs cluster munitions. The U.S. may not have any left, they were being dismantled over the previous decade, but if any exist, nothing would be more effective in slowing this Russian advance tactic. 

Avdiivka/Donetsk City

I honestly don’t understand how Russia hasn’t been able to push Ukraine out of the immediate area around the capital city of their Donetsk region. What magical defensive tactics is Ukraine employing, that has allowed it to resist since 2014. 

Russia has been fairly aggressive in this area the last month or so, with nothing to show for it.

Russia has run out of local proxy forces from their occupied Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” (although since their supposed annexation, I guess they’re not that anymore). If Russia wants gains here, it’ll have to feed its mobiks to the grinder. 


I wrote this area up last week. Tactically, nothing has changed since. What we do know, however, is that even Russia’s supposedly “elite” units are not so elite anymore after suffering serious battlefield attrition.


After a weird Telegram offensive two weeks or so ago, where Russia pretended to make big gains in this corner of the map, turns out it was all bullshit, perhaps an attempt to draw Ukrainian force into the area. 

Of course. Ukraine would know if their forces in this area were under attack. And if there was any question, one quick drone flyover would put any questions to rest. 

Russia has gone nuts layering this area with defensive trenches. It clearly sees its precious “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea as critical must-hold territory. 


If you’re Ukraine, that’s a daunting challenge, one that will require not just dozens of Western battle tanks, but hundreds. And given the limited stock of European Leopard tanks, and the abysmal state of European ammo and supplies, it’s likely going to fall on us, the United States, to provide the heft to punch through this corner of the map.


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