A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 13, 2023

Russia Appears Increasingly Panicky As Ukraine Advances Across the Front

Although Ukrainian officials have repeatedly claimed that their counteroffensive is still some time off, multiple advances by their troops from Bakhmut to Kherson have sufficiently unnerved Russian forces that their behavior has been panicky, as have the reports in Russian media. 

The question is whether these tactical successes will change Ukraine's timeline and locus for the offensive so as to build on opportunistic openings. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

As Ukraine prepares for the counteroffensive, Russian sources—both on the ground and on the internet—seem to believe that it is already here. Ukrainian forces are moving confidently through areas of western Bakhmut that were scenes of heavy conflict last week. Ukraine seems to have dislodged Russia from most of the islands in the Dnipro southwest of Kherson amid reports of Ukrainian landing forces on the eastern bank of the Dnipro. Russia seems to be in a panic state everywhere, and rushing to the left bank of the Dnipro may sound a lot more appealing than hurrying to plug the holes at Bakhmut.Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made clear on Thursday that, despite all the fingernail-chewing hype being spread across the internet by analysts counting every crate arriving in Lviv or making a deep-dive into the daily weather forecast at Bakhmut, the much-anticipated counteroffensive is still some weeks away. That makes perfect sense. Not only are thousands of Ukrainian troops still training on combined arms tactics and becoming familiar with new gear, that gear is still arriving.

The incoming equipment doesn’t just include a big bundle of Leopard 1 tanks that are likely to equip 20 new platoons: There continue to be surprises. Those include vehicles that have appeared in Ukraine even though they were never announced by allies, such as the new long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles which could result in genuine strategic changes in how Ukraine goes forward, and even some interesting homegrown experiments.

But as Ukraine prepares for the counteroffensive, Russian sources—both on the ground and on the internet—seem to believe that it is already here. Or over here. No, over here! Movements on the ground may be small, but the direction of those movements seem to have taken a serious shift in the past week as Russian forces have reportedly curled in on themselves in response to prodding by the Ukrainian military … or they’ve run away screaming.

When it comes to what’s still to arrive in Ukraine, here’s something that few of the headlines ever pick up, but which signals how much is changing about war in the 2020s: crowd-funded warfare.

Early in the conflict, crowdsourced funding and private donations were used to purchase vehicles such as pickup trucks to supply to volunteers and medical personnel. Some groups have now purchased dozens of vehicles, painted and modified them to be more effective in the field, and provided them to both NGOs and military units. Some of those vehicles have undergone some fairly serious upgrades. But it doesn’t stop with ordinary cars and trucks. There have now been several instances in which such funding was used to purchase the same kind of gear that might otherwise be donated by a government—like a tracked armored personnel carrier with a machine gun and a few add-on grenade launchers.

Honestly, I do not know where you go to buy a Spartan for transnational shipment. Crowdsourced groups are also sending Ukraine a flood of body armor, communications gear, and drones. So many drones. [NOTE: None of these links constitutes an endorsement of any of the groups involved. I have done no research and cannot vouch for their authenticity or effectiveness.]

All of this gear is given with the best of intentions. Some of it may be genuinely vital. However, just as with the plethora of systems coming from government sources, crowdsourced materiel—which may come after careful consultation with troops on the front line, or may have no more thought behind them than “I bet they need some of this!”—has to be incorporated into planning and logistics if it’s going to be put to use.

The stream of new equipment coming into Ukraine is just that: a stream. Hopefully, it will never stop. Which means that the perfect time to launch a counteroffensive with the best-equipped, best-trained military is sometime in the future. And it always will be.

Fortunately, that’s not Zelenskyy’s target. He’s made it clear that the counteroffensive will proceed when the Ukrainian military has enough equipment and enough training that it can achieve significant objectives without suffering high levels of loss. That may not be today, but it could still easily come within the next few weeks. That the summer months will also come with drier, firmer ground over which all those new Western tanks can roll is just a bonus.

Of course, it wouldn’t be possible to wait if Russia was making daily advances on the front. If, as seemed all too possible a few weeks ago, Bakhmut was in Russia’s rearview mirror and the threat was creeping steadily closer to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the need for Ukraine to do something to take the pressure off Donetsk oblast would have been extreme—even if that something meant limiting the potential scope and impact of a counteroffensive.

Surprise: That didn’t happen. If there’s anything that best defines the difference between those gloomy assessments for the potential of a counteroffensive from last fall and rising expectations that Ukraine might just sink Russia’s metaphorical battleship (along with its real battleships), it’s simply this: Ukraine’s 56th largest city did not fall into the hands of Russia.

The town of Bakhmut held little strategic significance. The Battle of Bakhmut may turn out to be of infinite significance. It means that Ukraine doesn’t need to shape its plans around a Russian advance. It can take its time, select its targets, and focus its forces for maximum impact.

Still, just because the counteroffensive could be weeks away, that doesn’t mean Ukrainian forces can’t go on the attack. And reports are that they have. Those reports are, quite literally, from one end of the front to the other—from the roads north of Kupyansk to the swamps south of Kherson, and at many points in between.

Kupyansk area. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

Kupyansk: Russian sources are reporting that Ukraine has sent reinforcements into this area and there have been reports of increasing shelling from both sides. What’s more interesting is where Russia has been shelling—towns like Lyman Pershyi and Hryanykivka which they previously claimed to control. Earlier this week, Ukrainian forces were reportedly fighting north of Synkivka on the outskirts of Vilshana, as well as pushing through the villages southeast of Dvorichna. Russia even shelled Vilshana on Friday.

I’m not quite ready to report any of these villages as liberated, and Ukraine has yet to confirm this activity. It’s also hard to tell what the scale of these engagements might be. When Russia moved into some of these locations over the fall and winter, they did so because Ukraine had essentially withdrawn from the area, so Russia’s “advance” was more of just strolling in to take open positions.

But now Ukraine appears to be actively pushing Russia back to where the lines stood last summer, and with reports of new Ukrainian forces in the area, that advance could soon carry them into areas that Russia has controlled since the first days of the invasion.

Deep State map of Bakhmut area on May 12

Bakhmut: Yes, I skipped my own map here and pulled in one from the Ukrainian Telegraph channel Deep State. I did that for a very special reason. See those patches of blue south of the city? That’s the first blue that Deep State has added to their map in six months.

Ukrainian forces have made multiple thrusts over 1 km into formerly Russian-occupied areas south of the city. Honestly, that Deep State map is very conservative, because there are reports from both Ukrainian and Russian forces that Ukraine has pushed back Russian forces north of Khromove and at multiple locations within the city. Several of these moves seem directed at making both the T0504 and “Road of life” routes more passable, and videos of vehicles on the move seem to suggest that Bakhmut has already gone from a location where the only routes in and out were over mud, to a place where Ukrainian forces have options in their lines of communication.

Videos on Friday appear to show Ukrainian forces moving confidently through areas of western Bakhmut that were scenes of heavy conflict last week. The most enthusiastic of the on-the-ground sources are already talking about Ukraine launching a move that encircles Russian troops, completely reversing the situation that seemed so ominous a short time ago.

In the last hour, Russian military officials announced that Russia was pulling back from northern Bakhmut to “more advantageous positions by the Berkhivka Reservoir.” If true, that’s just astounding. That’s literally thousands of Wagner troops who died so Russia could occupy a slice of Bakhmut for just a few weeks before handing it back.

Updating my own map is going to be so much fun.

It’s way too early to go to “Ukraine is going to rout Russia at Bakhmut,” or to think the possibility of Russia making further advances there is over. But for the moment, the disorder on the Russian side continues and everywhere Ukraine attacks, they seem to be advancing.

One final Bakhmut note: There are reports about what’s happening that don’t pin the results on squabbling among the Russians, but exactly what is expected from the counteroffensive—improved Western tactics and better conditions on the ground.

Avdiivka: There were multiple reports of a Ukrainian advance on Thursday, but both Ukrainian and Russian sources are now denying any significant change in the area. Ukraine had already driven well east of the city last week, approaching the H20 highway junction and limiting Russian movements in the area. However, for right now, it doesn’t seem there have been any significant changes in the past few days.

Novodonetske: This Russian-occupied town is located west of Vuhledar and east of Velyka Novosilka. Reports suggest that Ukraine may have broken Russian lines in this area and placed control of Novodonetske in doubt. But at the moment I have no confirmation of this action and no good way to determine the scope of changes, so I’m skipping the map for now. Treat it as rumor.

Kherson: There are two things underway in this area worth noting. One is that Ukraine seems to have dislodged Russia from most of the islands in the Dnipro southwest of Kherson. These areas may not have been liberated by Ukraine, but they have at least moved from Russian control to disputed … though they’re probably liberated.

The more interesting activity may be continued reports of Ukrainian landing forces on the eastern bank of the Dnipro. There have been small-scale crossings at several points since shortly after Russia was forced to abandon its positions west of the river. This area has also been a hotbed of partisan activity, with many Russian troops meeting mysterious ends and several facilities blown up without the need for artillery.

But in the past two days, Russian accounts on Telegraph have been rife with reports that Ukrainian troops were crossing the river in force and setting up camp

Russia certainly seems to believe it, as they are reported to be moving forces from the area northeast of Crimea to meet this supposed threat.

However, the biggest thing that seems to be underway in the area is Russian Panic. Not only are they reportedly moving more troops to the area, the reports that Ukraine has already crossed—at Kakhovka, or near Tyahynka, or somewhere just northeast of Kherson—keep pouring in. There are calls for Russian forces to mine the riverbank.

There almost certainly have been several actual, though small, Ukrainian crossings in the last few days, in addition to Ukrainian troops pushing Russia from positions in the river. Pair that with continued partisan activity and both sides lobbing shells across the river, and a Kherson crossing seems to be high on the list of things that are worrying Russia—or at least, pro-Russian sources.

But honestly, I can’t tell how much of this is real. Russia seems to be in a panic state everywhere, and rushing to the left bank of the Dnipro may sound a lot more appealing than hurrying to plug the holes at Bakhmut.

Waiting for confirmation.

Large explosions were reported in the occupied city of Luhansk. At least one of these seems to be at the Luhansk Machine Building Plant, which was reportedly involved in the repair of military vehicles. These explosions were about 80 to 100 km from the front lines. That puts them in range of a variety of weapons, possibly including HIMARS, but there are some suggestions that this may represent Ukraine trying out those Storm Shadow missiles.


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