A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 1, 2023

The Reason Bakhmut Could Be Russia's "Glass Jaw"

Commentary about the direction of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has focused primarily on the southern landbridge between Russia and Crimea.

But reports of Russian weakness - and Wagner's poor defensive capabilities - may make Donetsk an attractive target. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

A well-coordinated counterattack straight at Wagner would collapse the Bakhmut front, allowing Ukraine to rush its troops into a breach straight into Russia’s undefended rear, taking advantage of thin Russian defenses around Donetsk city in the middle of the Donbas, the heart of territory occupied by Russia since 2014. Considering the poor state of their troops in Bakhmut, launching a counter-offensive in this direction could cause a serious blow to Russian morale. This is just one of many potential directions for such an attack.

A week ago I wrote about potential Ukrainian counterattack options as we wait for the mud to dry. I wrote about obvious targets in Starolisk in Ukraine’s northeast, and cutting Putin’s precious “land bridge” connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula in the south, with potential advances toward Melitopol or Mariupol.

But I concluded with a pipe-dream idea: taking advantage of potentially thin Russian defenses around Donetsk city smack in the middle of the Donbas, at the heart of territory occupied by Russia since 2014.

Along with a strike at the similarly thinly defended Starobilsk approach, this fantasy attack would look like this, engulfing the bulk of Russian forces in one sweeping pincer maneuver.


While I still don’t expect anything of this sort, the notion got added support from @Tatarigami_UA, a Ukrainian officer who recently served around Vuhledar. In a thread analyzing Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s latest proclamations (which I wrote about in yesterday’s update), he dropped the following speculation:

While it's unclear if our command will decide to counter-attack in the [Bakhmut] area, it's quite possible that what russia was able to achieve in the course of 9 months will be reversed within a week and result in a breakthrough and encirclement of Horlivka and the rears of Donetsk.

While this is mere speculation on my part, considering the poor state of their troops in Bakhmut, launching a counter-offensive in this direction could cause a serious blow to russian morale. This is just one of many potential directions for such an attack.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Someone asked him the same question many asked me after I wrote about focusing the counterattack around Donetsk city: “Interesting observations. However, I do have a question: Why do you believe Ukraine can counter attack in Horlivka? Isn't the pre-2022 Donbas border supposedly heavily fortified? If they can go past said fortifications, why not go for Donetsk city instead?”

His answer: “Not Horlivka itself, but cutting off important supply routes that lead to Donetsk through Horlivka area, hence most of their troops around Donetsk. It's always better to force your enemy to retreat or surrender than to perform large assaults on cities like Donetsk”

Let me show you what he’s talking about. It’s not quite what I had proposed, but close, and better:


Tatarigami_UA argues that “Wagner troops lack both training and experience in preparing complex and organized defenses. Organizing defenses, establishing firing positions, and managing logistics in a well-structured manner is difficult, and Wagner is not designed or equipped for it.” The assumption is that a well-coordinated counterattack straight at Wagner would collapse that front, allowing Ukraine to rush its troops into a breach straight into Russia’s undefended rear.

All indications are that the bulk of Russia’s forces are defending the land bridge, which would allow Ukraine to romp all that way to Amvrosiivka, cutting off Donetsk city’s main logistical lifeline: the T0507 highway and the one rail line from Russia feeding the city of 1 million.

Russia would then be in a bind. Without knowing just now much of Ukraine’s reserves were committed, it would be loath to move forces from the land bridge area or up north, lest they open up a second avenue for Ukraine. And quite frankly, the mobilized mobiks sitting in defensive trenches would be quite useless attempting to dislodge any competent, well-equipped Ukrainian advance. If these could attack, they would’ve done it this winter instead of sitting still as Wagner did most of the moving and dying. The few Russian army units that engaged—VDV airborne troops around Kreminna in the northeast and naval infantry (Marines) around Vuhledar—got their asses kicked. They are no longer effective fighting forces.

The benefits of liberating Donetsk city would be incalculable. As I previously wrote, “​​In addition to the incalculable propaganda value of liberating a city of 1 million under Russian control since 2014, it would effectively split the Russian army into northern and southern halves. It would deprive Russia of a key source of cannon fodder. A key logistics distribution center, it would cut the only rail line from Russia to Mariupol and the rest of the occupied land bridge (at least until the Kerch Bridge rail line is operational again, which still isn’t the case).”

And remember, there are no defensive lines back there. If Ukraine is romping in the backfield, it can move in any direction it wants (so long as it can establish and defend its supply lines). That pincer maneuver toward the north would still be in cards. And if you’re wondering, “couldn’t Ukraine be outflanked by Russian forces attacking from Russia,” just remember that NATO estimates that over 97% of Russia’s forces are already inside Ukraine. There’s nothing else to send.

To be very clear, this officer is just speculating. He doesn’t have inside knowledge. If Russian intelligence is tracking his account and taking it seriously, maybe it means they pull defenders from other active fronts, making Ukraine’s job easier assuming they strike in one of the more obvious directions. But I don’t believe his speculation is intended in that fashion.

In context, he’s saying Wagner is running out of steam, and they only know one thing: how to push forward. If forced to go on the defensive, he argues they would fold, opening up a gap for a potential Ukrainian spearhead to exploit.

There is already a ton of arguing over what “success” looks like for Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive. You know what would be inarguable? Liberating the capital city of Donetsk.

Last night, Russia aimed a new round of missiles and rockets at Ukraine.

What was expected to be a massive barrage seemed to fizzle. As I write this, Ukraine reported 18 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles were launched, and 15 of them were shot down. By all indications a great number of them were directed toward Kyiv. Given the extremely high intercept rate, there’s a good chance that Ukraine’s shiny new Patriot batteries got their battle christening.

At one point, OSINT sources tracking radio chatter counted 20 TU-95/TU-160s strategic bombers in the air. I don’t know if it was subterfuge (Russia has launched “phantom” missiles before to try and fool and overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses) or if the OSINT trackers messed up, but Ukraine claims that just 11 aircraft launched missiles. Given that only 18 cruise missiles were launched, that means that each aircraft, on average, carried fewer than two missiles. For context, each aircraft could carry eight cruise missiles.

Unfortunately, earlier Sunday, Russia did score a direct hit on a military target in Pavlohrad, hitting the rail station in a bid to hamper Ukrainian logistics ahead of its counteroffensive, and apparently hitting a munitions dump. (Russia claims air defense missiles.)

Other sources suggested Russia targeted, weirdly enough, jet fuel once used to fuel Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, now stored at a chemical plant. (Here’s a 2013 article about the program.)


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