A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 14, 2023

As Ukraine Prepares To Go On Offensive, Russian Shortages Become More Obvious

Ukraine's influx of new more modern NATO weapons and freshly trained troops comes as Russian troops are beginning to experience shortages of ammunition, particularly for their artillery and of tanks, which have been destroyed profligately, in failed suicidal winter assaults at Bakhmut and Vuhledar. JL 

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The Ukrainian military is training tens of thousands of fresh troops, including in camps operated abroad by the U.S. and European allies, for three new army corps expected to take part in the spring advances. Kyiv is also receiving a large influx of Western-made heavy weapons. One key difference between last year’s battles and fighting today is that Russia’s giant war machine is beginning to experience shortages.“In the past, the Russians would fire 200 shells into one of our positions, without thinking. Now, they too have to save up."

Exhausted by winter combat that has resulted in heavy casualties but few significant changes to the front line, Ukraine and Russia are preparing for spring offensives that both sides hope will shift the course of the war.

As the muddy ground dries up, unpaved roads and fields will become passable again in the coming weeks, first in Ukraine’s south and then in the east, enabling both countries’ militaries to attempt breakthroughs with mobile mechanized units.

Bled by the monthslong defense of the eastern city of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military is training tens of thousands of fresh troops, including in camps operated abroad by the U.S. and European allies, for three new army corps expected to take part in the spring advances.

Kyiv is also receiving a large influx of Western-made heavy weapons, including Leopard 2 tanks, Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles and Paladin and Archer self-propelled howitzers, replenishing the equipment it lost over a year that saw the most intense fighting in Europe since World War II. It is the first time Ukraine is deploying such Western-made tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to the battlefield.\


The offensive is “a question of months—one-and-a-half, two, two-and-a-half months away,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “We are accumulating our resources.” Seeking to maintain an element of surprise, he and other Ukrainian officials declined to discuss where along the 530-mile-long active front line Ukraine may seek to strike.

Russia, meanwhile, has also gathered forces as it attempts to break Ukrainian defenses across the eastern Donetsk region, where Bakhmut is located. It has made slow gains in Donetsk while incurring heavy losses during the winter.

“The advances that Russia has managed to achieve, every 100 to 200 meters into terrain scorched by artillery, have come at the cost of covering the ground with the corpses of their troops,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, chief of the Ukrainian military administration that controls nearly half of Donetsk. “We don’t have such a manpower resource, and even if we did, nobody would accept using it like cannon fodder this way.”

Ukraine is feeling growing pressure to show results on the battlefield, as Russia girds for a long war and President Vladimir Putin bets that Western willingness to provide military and financial support to Kyiv won’t endure. “This summer is incredibly important for Ukraine’s military,” said British lawmaker Robert Seely, head of the Ukraine parliamentary group. “If they cannot make progress by the end of it, the voices in the West either calling for a negotiated settlement, or arguing that we should not be supporting Ukraine at all, will grow.”

While Ukrainian leaders seek to expel Russia by force from all the territories it occupies, they also understand that the success—or failure—of the coming offensive will determine Kyiv’s hand in any negotiations that may be eventually imposed by Ukraine’s Western partners. “To be strong in any talks, Ukraine must be strong on the battlefield. That’s the way to just peace,” Mr. Zelensky said last month. “Let’s de-occupy the maximum of what we can.”

Ukrainian officials view a Russian military defeat as the only guarantee of their country’s survival, wary of Western pledges short of full membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, something not on offer anytime soon. Ukraine, they point out, gave up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union after the U.S., the U.K. and Russia, in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, provided security assurances that force wouldn’t be used against the country’s territorial integrity or independence. These assurances turned out to be worthless.

The Ukrainian and Russian armed forces are entering this spring campaign having lost a large part of their professional soldiers over the past year. While neither country releases casualty statistics, combined losses in wounded and dead are in the hundreds of thousands, according to Western officials. As a result, the two armies now increasingly rely on recruits with limited skills.

“Last year, when we would get reinforcements, you didn’t need to tell them what to do. They knew how to sit atop a troop carrier, how to take care of a gun and how to handle a hand grenade,” said a Ukrainian army captain on the Bakhmut front. “Now, we’ve run out of people with experience. Some of the new guys have motivation, others don’t, but they all need to be taught everything.

Aiming to stabilize the front line, Russia’s regular armed forces mobilized some 300,000 reservists last fall, while the Wagner paramilitary organization fighting mostly in Bakhmut recruited some 50,000 convicts. These moves redressed Moscow’s major vulnerability in the first eight months of the war: the Ukrainian advantage in the number of troops on the battlefield.

However, a significant part of these fresh Russian forces has already been killed or injured this winter, particularly in Bakhmut, where Wagner has taken ground in fierce urban combat, and in the city of Vuhledar, where Russia has lost well over a hundred tanks and other fighting vehicles with little to show for. Ukrainian commanders say they expect more such Russian attacks to be launched in the coming weeks on other stretches of the front line.

“The Russian occupiers have accumulated a large number of troops here, but they are waiting,” said the deputy commander of the Carpathian Sich battalion fighting near the Donetsk region town of Lyman—which Kyiv recaptured in October—who goes by the call sign Rusyn. “As long as Bakhmut resists, they are not focusing so much on Lyman, but should Bakhmut fall, they will concentrate on us, for sure.”


One key difference between last year’s battles and fighting today is that Russia’s giant war machine is beginning to experience shortages. Russia fired artillery as if its resources were limitless in the first several months of the war, but now appears to be running out of ammunition, making it harder to offset greater Ukrainian accuracy with sheer firepower. Analysts estimate that Russia is firing some 10,000 shells a day, down from 20,000 to 30,000 last summer—but still well above Ukraine’s 3,000 or so. Moscow is also struggling to replace huge losses of tanks, howitzers and other heavy weapons. 

“Russia hadn’t imagined in its worst nightmare that it would end up in this kind of war. They expected it to end quickly, but it didn’t end—and they have by now expended huge resources,” Ukraine’s national-security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, told The Wall Street Journal.

The challenge of Bakhmut weighs over Ukraine’s hopes for regaining occupied lands soon. Many Ukrainian—and Western—military officers and analysts fear that Mr. Zelensky’s determination to keep fighting for Bakhmut, despite rising losses and the growing risk of enriclement there, distracts Ukraine from the bigger prize, such as ousting Russia from the coastline of the Azov and Black Seas.

“The problem is that committing the forces required to hold Bakhmut risks depleting forces that will be used for Ukraine’s strategically critical spring offensive,” said Rob Lee, a senior Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow who recently visited the city. Now that Wagner’s troops have seized Bakhmut’s flanks and entered parts of the city, he added, the ratio of casualties is no longer as favorable to Ukrainian troops.

In December, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces who oversees the campaign in eastern Ukraine, played down the strategic importance of Bakhmut. But on Thursday, he said that “every day of defending the city allows us to gain time to train reserves and prepare for future offensive operations.”

Ukrainian leaders say that they want to liberate all the land occupied by Russia, including Crimea and other territories seized by Moscow in 2014, regardless of the fact that many U.S. and European officials consider such ambitions unrealistic. “If we don’t solve the question of Crimea, we won’t solve the question of our country’s very existence. Nobody will put any money here if an unsolved territorial issue remains,” said Mr. Danilov, the national-security adviser.

Russia’s objectives in Ukraine are far more ambiguous. At the very least, Mr. Putin seeks to gain full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, which he has proclaimed to be Russian territory.

Moscow also hasn’t given up on installing a pliant regime in Kyiv, its original invasion goal. Russia sent troops to Belarus over the winter, implying that it considered another attack on Kyiv from the north, an endeavor that ended in failure a year ago. No such attack materialized.

Russia attempted instead several localized offensive operations along the length of the front line, but none gained momentum outside the Bakhmut area.

That failure has sparked harsh criticism from some quarters inside Russia.

In a video posted online Friday, retired FSB intelligence service colonel Igor Girkin, who served as minister of defense of the Russian-installed so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014, said that “a lot of manpower, a lot of equipment and a huge lot of ammunition were expended for a miserly result.”

“As a chess player, I can say that we have made our move, it was unsuccessful, and the next move is up to the adversary,” he added.

The Russian debacle in Vuhledar, in particular, has already prompted recriminations and calls to discipline the chief Russian commander in the theater, Rustam Muradov. Instead, Mr. Putin promoted the officer to colonel general rank and named him chief of Russia’s Eastern Military District. Fighting for Vuhledar continues.

Russia’s shortage of ammunition undermined its chances in Vuhledar, explained Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of Russia’s Vostok Battalion fighting there. “In Vuhledar, the army was reducing its daily usage of shells to the minimum to save up reserves at least for the first day of the offensive,” he wrote on Telegram. “This was obviously insufficient to suppress the enemy, and we have seen the consequences.”


Such shortages mean that Russia is using older ammunition—and guns—that don’t always function properly. A Ukrainian trooper on the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region said he recently came under shelling by Russia’s 152-millimeter howitzers. However, only three out of 20 rounds exploded, all of them wide off the mark. The remaining 17 were duds, probably because they were too old and improperly stored.

“In the past, the Russians would fire 200 shells into one of our positions, without thinking,” said a Ukrainian soldier serving near Lyman. “Now, they too have to save up."


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