It might be the most intensive fighting in the almost year-long Ukraine War as masses of Russian troops press down hard around the ruined city of Bakhmut.
BBC reported Wednesday that Russian Federation troops (RF) are closing in — albeit very, very slowly — on Bakhmut from three sides. The Russians “have reached one of the main highways into the city, and are closing in on the outskirts.”
A reliable milblogger with the handle Def Mon noted today that “the envelopment is getting more and more narrow,” meaning the escape routes that Ukraine’s armed forces (AFU) would need in case of a retreat are becoming fewer. “At this rate,” Def Mon estimated, “I think it’s a matter of days rather than weeks before the AFU gives the order to evacuate.”
The social media platform Telegram is favored by Russian milbloggers who serve as a semi-independent voice on Russian war reporting. One such blogger, Strelkov Ivanovich, wrote early Wednesday that “For the Wagner command [Russian mercenaries] and the RF Armed Forces, the capture of Bakhmut is of fundamental importance, so the battle will continue on our side until victory or until complete exhaustion of forces.”
With Russia’s huge population advantage over Ukraine — which we discussed last week — Moscow can probably afford to keep pressing on Bakhmut longer than Kyiv can afford to defend it.
And this is just the beginning. ISW published a backgrounder Monday that “that Russian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale decisive offensive in eastern Ukraine in mid-to-late February.” That would be in time for, or directly on, the first anniversary of the war’s start.
If Kyiv is already giving ground, it’s a fair question what the army might be forced to do if the expected Russian wave starts really crashing down later this month.
So all is lost in the Ukraine War?
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Not so fast.
ISW reported Tuesday night on the latest UK Ministry of Defence appraisal:
The UK MoD assessed on February 7 that Russia has highly likely been attempting to launch a major offensive operation to reach the Donetsk Oblast administrative borders since early January 2023 but had only been able to gain several hundred meters of territory per week. The UK MoD attributed such a slow pace to Russian munitions shortages and a lack of maneuver units that are necessary for a successful and rapid offensive.
Maneuver units are armored and mobile forces like tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and even trucks that can move men and firepower around quickly. Russian maneuver unit losses, including around 3,000 main battle tanks (documented!), have been breathtaking.
It’s easy enough to replace the men, sad to say. Give them basic equipment, a bare minimum of training, and send them to the front with the knowledge that if they don’t advance, they’ll be shot as cowards. That is exactly what Moscow has been doing with “mobiks,” the estimated 300,000 men mobilized since last fall.
Here’s just one example of what Russian mobiks — undoubtedly brave — have been wearing into combat.
Review of Russian BR-4 class bulletproof vest and a Kolpak 20 helmet “high-tech” equipment, produced in 2022 for the mobilised. The vest uses a rusty iron plate, the helmet is from the WW2 era wrapped into modern and fashionable casing. pic.twitter.com/b1CZjXnWXC
— Dmitri (@wartranslated) February 8, 2023
Roughly speaking, combat power is the number of troops plus the “weight” of their weapons multiplied by training, experience, and unit cohesion. Lacking any of those things, mobiks don’t produce much combat power. But Moscow keeps throwing them at Bakhmut to score Putin’s propaganda win.
Casualties in Bakhmut and the surrounding area are measured in the thousands, advances are measured in meters. It’s World War I-style trench fighting that Germany’s invention of panzer (armored) maneuver forces made obsolete almost 90 years ago. Simply throwing more men and stuff at the same fortifications wasn’t an effective solution in 1916, and it isn’t an effective solution in 2023.
The danger for Putin is that a renewed offensive may culminate — that is, exhaust itself and halt — before it achieves its objectives, which Putin refuses to scale back despite last year’s costly failures.
Russia can’t afford to fail at Bakhmut because Putin has already made it a focus of his war propaganda. However, Ukraine can afford to lose Bakhmut because the city’s only real strategic significance is what Putin’s propaganda has given it.
There’s much at stake in Bakhmut, none of it necessary, all of it to be paid for with the blood of men who would all much rather be elsewhere.