Russia thinks taking Mariupol will free up its forces to work their way up into a pincer maneuver, surrounding Ukrainian troops dug in hard along the Donbas front line.
All those Russian troops that failed to advance around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy are moving toward Izyum and the rest of the Donbas front (purple areas). Well, the ones Russia can threaten, beg, and cajole into heading back into Ukraine. They’ve had some issues, such that of the 120 or so battalion tactical groups (BTG) Russia had at the start of the war (around 800 soldiers each, on paper), only 65 remain in the country according to the Pentagon. And as we’ve seen, many, if not most of those BTG were, and remain, severely undermanned.
The Pentagon, Ukrainian military, and every Very Serious Military Analyst is convinced Russia is massing troops to execute that pincer maneuver in the Mother of all offensives. Just you wait for the hellish shock-and-awe Russia has in store! The Pentagon even thinks Russia has eyes on Dnipro further west, which is so implausible and stupid, Russia just might give it a shot.
Yet every day that goes by, any such massive offensive seems less and less likely. And not just because of the rain that has made a slurry of all ground off the major roads, and will keep it that way for at least the next several weeks. (Mark Sumner hilariously talks about “General Mud.”) Russia’s fundamental problem is that it keeps executing the exact same tactics that failed around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy.
Russian forces continued small-scale, tactical attacks on the Izyum and Severodonetsk axes; additional reinforcements to date have not enabled any breakthroughs of Ukrainian defenses. Russian forces continue to deploy reinforcements to eastern Ukraine but show no indication of taking an operational pause. The Russian military appears to be carrying out an approach in eastern Ukrainian similar to its failed efforts north of Kyiv in early March—continuing to funnel small groups of forces into unsuccessful attacks against Ukrainian defensive positions without taking the operational pause that is likely necessary to prepare for a more successful offensive campaign.
Russia is gathering an army in the east. That much is true! Bur rather than wait for them to get in place, it keeps dribbling out 1-2 BTG-for ill-fated assaults (see here, here, here, and here), perhaps hoping to exhaust Ukrainian defenders into submission. The Ukrainian General Staff reported yesterday:
Yes, in the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, eight enemy attacks have been repelled over the past 24 hours, four tanks destroyed, six armored transport vehicles, four infantry fighting machines, as well as one enemy artillery system.
Would an army preparing a major assault waste troops and equipment with these undersized and under-resourced drip-drip-drip probes? Of course, note that Russia attacks this way because it is the only way it knows how to attack. It simply cannot open up the spigot.
Even if Ukraine exaggerates Russia’s losses, those assaults inevitably degrade their foe’s ability to wage war. Ukraine ambushes an infantry fighting vehicle here, steals a tank there, drops a mortar on some poor Donbas conscripts bunched up in a foxhole over yonder, and at least a couple of times a day, lays down some artillery on one of those long convoys making their way toward Izyum from the Russian border.
Just look at that wide open terrain, with nary any cover. Makes it hard for anyone to make a move, and right now, that’s mostly Russia. (Remember that when someone says Ukraine should counter-attack to retake separatist territory.)
Down south is looking only a little better for Russia.
Mark gave us a Mariupol update yesterday—pockets of resistance are shrinking, but the fighting remains. Russia should’ve taken this isolated, surrounded, and difficult-to-defend city (no hills or rivers to form natural barriers) on the first day of the war. Instead, here we are 51 days, and Russia is still suffering major casualties with their clumsy, hapless urban offensive.
Once Russia takes Mariupol conventionally (a guerrilla war will inevitably continue), what shattered remnants will it have left to turn north? I remain skeptical these remnants would have enough juice to get through the existing Ukrainian defensive emplacements, much less push more than a few kilometers north.
I am excited to see who is right—those of us who still can’t believe Russia is doing nothing to learn and change its failed tactics, or the Very Serious Military punditry who continues to assume a basic level of competence that Russia has never met this entire war.
Can you believe Kyiv’s Presidential Palace has never been hit this war? Russia supposedly sent assassin squads to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, yet they’ve never targeted his workplace?
Why are rail lines still operating from the west of the country, allowing easy, efficient movement of troops, material, and ammunition from the west to the front lines?
Heck, why hasn’t Russia targeted all the NATO heavy equipment streaming in from Ukraine’s western border? Don’t they have satellites to track that equipment’s entry points, spies to report on railway movements, and missiles to strike the convoys as they enter Ukraine? Where are Russia’s special forces, to conduct sabotage operations?
Why did Russia wait until last week to start hitting fuel depots?
Once their shock and awe failed, why did Russia keep hitting civilian targets, instead of degrading Ukraine’s military and command and control infrastructure. Killing sick children is utterly useless in winning any war.
If Russia can’t even manage the most basic military tasks, how is it supposed to deploy a navy that protects its flagship, an army that can perform combined-arms attacks with infantry, army, artillery, and air support, and an air force that can fly deeper than a few kilometers into Ukrainian airspace … when it flies at all.
People are free to believe Russia can pull off some kind of big offensive. Me, I’ll wait for evidence before jumping on that bandwagon. Given what we’re still seeing on the battlefield, I’m not holding my breath.
The best stories of the week have been those stories about how, in many of the towns formerly occupied by Russia, services are being restored, debris is being cleared away, and to every extent possible life is returning. And it’s good to see that this is also an area where Ukraine is getting some assistance.
Heavy shelling has been reported all through Luhansk on Saturday, mostly along the lines of defense that have held since 2014. Russian forces have made attempts to break these lines at at least two places, but it appears those attempts have been repulsed.
Still, towns and villages that have lived near the separatist line for years while suffering few direct assaults are getting heavily shelled, and residents who had long felt battle-hardened are trying to leave the area.
It’s easy to feel that Russia’s propaganda game has been utterly unconvincing outside of Russia. But it is disappointingly easy to find people on Twitter with 40k+ followers who are spouting every line fed to them by the Kremlin, and who are constantly praising Russia’s “feint” toward Kyiv as they await that inevitable victory over NATO. There are uncountable threads out there explaining how the sinking of the Moskva had nothing to do with Ukraine.
Those guys will eat this up.