When I described the two miles between Popasna and Pervomaisk as “the center of the world” two weeks ago, what I missed was that those two miles are also apparently much larger than any other miles on the planet. How else to account for Russia reporting “steady progress” in Popasna for 12 days in a row, without actually taking Popasna?
As of Thursday, more of the town appears to have come under Russian control, and there are Chechen forces in the eastern part of the town performing what seems to be the specialty of Kadyrov’s forces: making propaganda videos. Those videos are supposed to show Ukrainian forces running away from Popasna as the Chechen fighters laugh. Shockingly, they seem to be fakes.
So far as can be discerned at this point, the center of Popasna remains under Ukrainian control, but the fighting there has devolved to a horrendous street-by-street nightmare. Russian artillery is continuing to fire into the heavily damaged town, and 10 more houses were reportedly taken out. But if Russia took more ground in the past 24 hours, it could be measured with a yardstick. And that’s in spite of hitting the small town with everything, including reportedly using cluster bombs, phosphorus, and something similar to napalm.
The tactic being used at Popasna is the tactic Russia is using everywhere, as well as the tactic Russia deployed in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria: Fire artillery until everything ahead is dust. Then advance across the dust.
This is why getting the artillery sent to Ukraine by the U.S. and other Western nations to the front lines is so vital. The 110 U.S. M777 howitzers (over half of which are now in Ukraine, with trained crews) have a range up to 24 miles, and they are closely coupled to anti-artillery radar systems that are specifically designed to trace back the source of incoming fire so that it can be destroyed. Artillery that is outranged by modern opposing artillery fires once. Then it’s gone.
Loitering munitions like the Switchblade and still-mysterious Phoenix Ghost can also help take out Russian artillery, but it’s not clear that these systems have been effective at this task to this point.
In any case, Russia’s grind with an artillery-and-then-advance system isn’t just slow; it’s costly for Russia. As kos noted earlier, Russia’s “tactical successes” gained by days of shelling have come at a cost of high levels of casualties and significant losses of equipment. Quoting former DNR separatist leader Igor Girkin:
“...after a certain time, in this area, the same situation will repeat as in Rubezhnoe-Severodonetsk, Popasnaya, Avdeevka and Maryanka, where united forces are advancing extremely slowly and with huge losses (especially among the infantry), or not moving at all (Avdeevka).”
When Russia advances over that dust, troops are not just crossing the rubble of Ukrainian cities. They’re walking on the bodies of their own troops and the wreckage of their own gear.
There is an axiom that moving forward against an enemy in defensive position requires a 3 to 1 force advantage, all other things being equal. Considering the training and unit cohesiveness of Russian forces, they have historically moved forward by employing a 7 to 1 advantage. They don’t have 7:1. They don’t have 3:1. That doesn’t mean they can’t advance. It means they can advance, but only at a very high rate of attrition.
Some of the numbers that are coming out of the Ukrainian ministry of defense, like those that suggest Russia has lost 100 tanks in the past four days, are certainly exaggerated. But considering the proven losses Russia has already seen, they may not be that exaggerated.
Russia is crawling toward Popasna, and a dozen other towns and cities, behind a screen of artillery, losing men and machines all the way, because they’ve been told to advance despite having insufficient forces to overwhelm defenders. Ukraine can’t allow that advance to continue forever. On the other hand, Russian forces can’t survive this rate of attrition forever.
If it sometimes seems that sites like CNN are wringing their hands over the idea that Russia is winning everywhere while Daily Kos continues to be optimistic about the chances for Ukraine, it’s because CNN is looking only at what Russia bought. Meanwhile, we’re looking at the price.
The U.S. has already issued a warning advising American citizens in Moldova to get out. What everyone is expecting there isn’t clear, but the odds of some kind of chaos are increasing.
Today’s summary from MilitaryLand.net is a great example of how, in spite of Russia appearing to do nothing but attack, attack, attack, that doesn’t by any means suggest they are “winning.”
Check out how many times the words “without success” or “but failed” appear in this report when describing attempted Russian advances. Russia attempted to advance at Velyka Novosilka, Solodke, and Novomykhailivka near Donetsk. They tried to move forward at Velyka Komyshuvakha, Dibrovne, and Yampil north of Slovyansk. All of those attempted advances failed.
All of those attempted advances came with a body count.
Listen to Markos and Kerry Eleveld talk Ukraine and speak with Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler on how hitting back at Republicans helps win elections on Daily Kos’ The Brief podcast