A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 23, 2023

Ukrainians Expose Russia's Latest Offensive Blunders, Poor Training

Russia's desperation to deliver some sort of victory, its troops lack of preparation and its commanders' incompetence are creating the same results they have throughout the war as Ukraine slaughters their cannon fodder and stymies their advances. JL 

Isabel Coles and Thomas Grove report in the Wall Street Journal:

Drone footage across the icy battlefields of the eastern Donbas area to reveal demolished tanks, a Russian soldier lying face down in a pool of blood, a smoldering Russian tank trampling two soldiers and a Russian soldier, his clothing on fire, fleeing a tank moments before it explodes. Russia’s urgency to make advances now underscores the poor training of recently mobilized soldiers as well as chronic problems in Russia’s command. "Their tactical behavior on the battlefield is leading to their own collapse. They are suffering World War I levels of attrition.”

Drone footage taken by the Ukrainian military panned across the icy battlefields of the eastern Donbas area to reveal demolished tanks and a Russian soldier lying face down in a pool of blood.

Other footage captured nearby showed a smoldering Russian tank trampling two soldiers—it is unclear if they are dead or wounded—while trying to maneuver. In a third video shared by Ukrainian commanders, a Russian soldier, his clothing on fire, flees a tank moments before it explodes.

The chaotic scenes in the videos are from the front lines around Vuhledar, a new focus of a Russian offensive aimed at making decisive gains on the battlefield while Moscow still holds a numerical advantage there and before Kyiv receives billions of dollars’ worth of new Western weaponry.


Russia has commenced its long-awaited offensive as it seeks to turn the tide after a series of defeats since the summer. Instead of a lightning thrust, Moscow has dialed up offensives in a handful of spots, resulting in fighting that is slow and extremely costly to both sides.


According to Western officials, military analysts and Ukrainian commanders, the conflict around Vuhledar reflects broader shortcomings that still afflict the Russian army after a year of fighting in Ukraine.

Russia’s urgency to make advances now underscores the poor training of recently mobilized soldiers as Moscow continues to struggle in executing the large-scale mechanized assaults needed to advance against Ukrainian forces, they say. The new offensive, officials say, also reveals chronic problems in Russia’s command and control structure.

Those problems—which have plagued the Russian army since their botched initial invasion last year—are resulting in extraordinarily high Russian casualty rates, as military commanders send underprepared soldiers to their deaths in what has become a battle of attrition, say Western officials and Ukrainian military commanders. Western officials estimate that as many as 60,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far, with 200,000 either dead or wounded. Western officials estimate that Russia has sent about 350,000 soldiers to Ukraine. The U.K. says Russia has deployed 97% of its ground forces in Ukraine.

Ukraine doesn’t disclose figures on its dead and wounded, though Western officials have estimated 100,000 casualties among Ukrainian troops. 

Russia has likely lost more than 2,000 tanks in its war in Ukraine, or more than half of its operational fleet, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Over 10 days this month, a company commander within Ukraine’s 68th Mechanized Brigade, which is deployed near Vuhledar, said Russia had lost 30 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles as well as hundreds of men.

“This is one of their best divisions, but their tactical behavior on a battlefield is leading to their own collapse,” said a commander who goes by the call-sign Dolphin. “There are more of them, but we are without a doubt stronger.”

Ukrainian officials say the uptick in fighting is the beginning of a large offensive aimed at retaking the initiative on the battlefield and capturing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up Donbas. After failing to take Kyiv last year and giving up swaths of the territory it took in the early weeks of the war, the Kremlin has scaled back its most immediate war aims to the capture of four Ukrainian regions, including Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia’s offensive maneuvers come weeks after the appointment of Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov to head its operations in Ukraine, a move Western officials interpreted as an effort to re-energize Moscow’s flailing war efforts.

An active Russian officer said he had expected a coming offensive to be larger than what is currently unfolding in Donbas, with the recent intensification of fighting aimed at wearing Ukrainians down in places like Bakhmut, the site of a large intersection of roads and rail lines that lead to Ukrainian-held Donbas cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. 

The Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces says it has found and destroyed more electronic warfare systems, an indication that Russia may be attempting to jam Ukrainian communications and is planning more advanced operations.

“If we can take Bakhmut, it’s likely Ukraine won’t be able to hold on to the rest of Donetsk, and lose Slovyansk and Kramatorsk,” the Russian officer said.

To be sure, Russia has the ability to sustain a long, grinding campaign. Moscow can call up tens of thousands of more soldiers and has already ratcheted up production of new munitions. The possible results of a sustained mobilization effort by the Ukrainians are less clear, say analysts.

But there are doubts about how successful any Russian push would be in the near term. In addition to the personnel and tank losses, Russia appears to be running low on ammunition, according to U.K. officials.

“Can they muster a lot of soldiers? Yes, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s going to be a weaker armored air blow than it was a year ago,” said Phillips OBrien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.


Furthermore, the Ukrainians have used strikes by High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars, to force Russians to move their storage facilities further from the front line, lengthening their supply lines and complicating Russian operations.

In Vuhledar, the elevated flat terrain of Donbas gives an advantage to Ukrainian soldiers, who are dug in at a local coal mine. The town’s location near the sole railway line linking Russian-occupied Donetsk to the Crimean Peninsula, a major base for Moscow’s operations, has made it an important target for Moscow.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Russian brigade involved in attacks on Vuhledar had lost more than 1,000 men in the space of two days last week, describing it as “almost World War I levels of attrition.”

Many of the losses around Vuhledar have been inflicted on Russia’s 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, which fought around Bucha, near Kyiv, and then later in eastern Ukraine, sustaining losses both times, Ukrainian officials have said. Now it is made up to a great degree by poorly trained contract and mobilized soldiers, instead of the professional soldiers it started the war with. 

The deputy commander of a battalion within Ukraine’s 68th Mechanized Brigade doubted Russia would be able to mount a bigger attack.

“The 155th may have too many losses and now they don’t have enough force,” said a commander who goes by the call-sign Lermontov.

Outside of Vuhledar, the commander Dolphin looked over a map of the area on a tablet, with Russian positions marked with red crosses labeled with expletives.

Although Russian forces haven’t achieved a significant breakthrough here, Dolphin said the repeated assaults were exhausting for Ukrainian forces.

At an artillery position in a forest, one member of the unit said they had begun sleeping in their vehicles after several nighttime attacks by Russian forces. In the dark, it took too long to scramble out of the fortified bunkers to their vehicles. 

Still, most Ukrainians here are confident they will maintain the upper hand until Western deliveries of arms arrive, including Leopard 2 tanks, which Ukrainians are currently training on in Poland, as well as Abrams tanks, more precision artillery and Patriot air-defense systems.


“I don’t know what more they can do,” said a drone operator in the 68th Brigade. “If they just send more and more and more infantry, yes, we will have more casualties, but I think they have no chance [of breaking through].”


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