Really, really f’n stupid.
There is some confusion as to whether Russia targeted this apartment complex directly, or whether the Russian missile was knocked off course by a Ukrainian air defense missile. It doesn’t matter either way. Here are the basic facts:
Russia is engaging in a massive rocket, missile, and drone assault on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. That infrastructure is, by definition, in civilian areas. Those Russian anti-ship missiles are notoriously inaccurate. In a best-case scenario, a certain number of them will veer off course and hit unintended targets.
And the ones who do hit their targets? Some Ukrainians lose power and/or heat for a day or three.
None of that brings Russia closer to winning the war. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ukraine’s allies are meeting this Friday, January 20, in Ramstein Germany for the next round of coordinated aid. The alliance is currently riven by disagreements over transferring two critical pieces of weaponry to Ukraine—main battle tanks, and long-range ATACMS artillery rockets.
A smart Russia lays low at this time, focusing on their tactical advances around Soledar, near Bakhmut. They make fake noises about “peace process” and string Germany along, pretending to be interested in finding resolution, if only the West didn’t encourage Ukraine to be so unreasonable!
Instead, they engaged in a war crime so blatant, so viscerally horrifying, that a recalcitrant German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will have no choice but to agree to “free the Leopards”—the European-standard battle tanks manufactured by Germany’s arms industry. And it gets even harder for the United States to justify holding back on its own capabilities—whether it’s those ATACMS long-range rockets, or F-16 fighter jets, or even M-1 battle tanks. Europe may have several hundred Leopards potentially available to Ukraine, but the United States has thousands of M1s sitting in storage in the desert. We’ve long argued about the horrific logistical challenges of fielding the Abrams, but at this point, the hell with it all.
Even if it takes 6-12 months to get Abrams fielded, and 18-24 months to get F-16s in the air, just announcing them would not only give Ukraine a necessary morale boost, but remove cover from laggards like Germany’s Scholz who want others to lead the way and send a clear message to Russia that things aren’t going to get any better for them. That while they struggle to mobilize another 500,000 fodder for the Ukrainian wood chipper, without any heavy armor to support them, Ukraine’s capabilities will only improve and modernize.
Russia is still banking on the West losing its patience and pressuring Ukraine to freeze the current lines. Announcing everything would dash those Russian dreams, and might even spur a reassessment of their war effort.
I would now also send cluster munitions.
I’ve argued against the use of cluster munitions twice before (here and here), but I’ve changed my mind. Turkey has been the first to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, which (depending on the munition) scatters dozens or hundreds of grenade-style bomblets over a wide area. The MLRS cluster rocket carries between 518 to 644 bomblets depending on the version, dispersing them over the area of a football field. In this war, they’d be incredibly effective in clearing out entire sections of trenches and defensive lines, and would also be effective in stopping the human-charge tactics Russia has employed to some success in Soledar and Bakhmut.
On the other hand, cluster munitions are banned under international treaty. The problem is that the dud rate on those bomblets is extremely high, exceeding 5% at times. The original MLRS rocket carried 644 of the cluster bomblets. A 5% dud rate means about 32 of them remain unexploded. Imagine them dug into the ground, or hidden under rubble. They remain a constant threat to follow-on friendly forces and perhaps more importantly from a moral standpoint, civilians, for years to come.
The United States, Russia, and Ukraine are not signatories to the treaty. Despite that, the U.S. has been decommissioning MLRS rockets containing the cluster bomblets and has resisted Ukrainian requests for them (which is particularly salient given the extreme overall shortage in MLRS/HIMARS munitions). Ukraine would love to worry about unexploded munitions in the future, but doesn’t have the luxury of engaging in that moral debate today. Civilians are already dying, by the thousands, and that number will only climb the longer the war lasts.
There’s a utilitarian argument to be made here—would unexploded cluster munitions kill more civilians in the future than the number of civilians dying in Russian attacks now? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t consider the overall benefits of shortening the war—fewer combat deaths, less destruction of core Ukrainian infrastructure, and less economic devastation (for both Ukraine, as well as globally). Ukraine knows the potential costs of fielding cluster munitions, and has decided that on balance, it would come out ahead if it had them. (Not to mention, Russia is already using them in the war.)
The key question is whether the Pentagon even has cluster-munition-MLRS rockets left. The Pentagon had budgeted money to decommission the rockets, and had been in the process of doing so when the Trump administration halted the effort. There is no public information on how many, if any, remain. It would be ironic if an asshole decision by Trump ended up helping Ukraine today. Still, given that destruction of those rockets began in 2007, I would be personally shocked if we had any left.
Regardless, the Dnipro catastrophe has brought renewed focus on the need to end this war as quickly as possible, and that means delivering to Ukraine everything possible, as quickly as possible. The United Kingdom has already announced a potent package of 14 Challenger main battle tanks, which is a great political decision, as well as 30 AS-90 Self propelled howitzers, an even better military contribution. Artillery is the King of Battle, and even more so in Ukraine where air power is nearly non-existent. Towed artillery is great for defense or in a static front, but any offensive effort needs self-propelled guns to keep up with the armor vanguard.
If the U.S. has any cluster munitions left and decided to share with Ukraine, I’d expect them to deliver those quietly. The political backlash would be fierce and counterproductive. But if the allies want to send a clear message to Russia that it will suffer exponentially greater losses the longer it insists on remaining in Ukraine, then everyone needs to follow the U.K. lead.
That means the U.S. announces ATACMS long-range artillery rockets. It announces even more M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Rather than announce 50 more every 2-4 weeks, just say “we’re sending 500 this year.” They should announce M-1 Abrams, or, at the very least, offer to backfill tank units of any European power currently fielding Leopards, allowing those to be donated to Ukraine. The U.S. should further announce that it will begin training Ukrainian pilots and maintenance personnel on F-16 fighter jets. We have hundreds in storage. There’s no need to announce plane shipments. Training will take over a year, more like two. But let Russia know that they’ll eventually face F-16s if they insist on a protracted war.
Germany should announce both the approval of any Leopard export requests to Ukraine, but should also order a batch from industry. Ukraine won’t get those for a year, but again, the goal here is both to help Ukraine today while also ensuring Russia knows allied support will be ongoing as long as the war continues.
Poland has hundreds of remaining Soviet-era tanks, as well as almost 250 Leopards. They should hand them over now, and the U.S. should accelerate M-1 shipments to the Polish army. Poland’s security is assured by existing emergency NATO deployments, including an American armored division seen offloading in the Netherlands en route to Eastern Europe. It’s not as if Russia has an armored vanguard left able to punch into Poland. Any such effort certainly wouldn’t survive NATO’s massive air fleet.
Altogether, if the allies can announce 300-500 tanks, 1,000 infantry fighting vehicles, and hundreds more artillery pieces, it has in place the pieces for several offensive-minded mechanized armored brigades. If it can announce the delivery of long-range rockets like ATACMS, it can allow Ukraine to further degrade Russian logistics, pushing out their critical rail hubs another 100 miles from the front lines. And if it can announce the training of Ukrainian pilots and maintenance personnel on modern NATO fighter jets, it’ll let Russia know that its floundering war effort will only get more challenging in the next two years.
We’ll have a few days before we know what the allies will announce. But the Dnipro apartment attack has just made it a lot more likely that the allies go big. It would sure be fitting if Russia’s unfathomably cruel campaign on Ukrainian infrastructure was what finally compelled the allies to throw everything they have into Ukraine’s hands.
Russia has taken Soledar. The question is now whether it was worth the cost to Russia.
The intensity of the fighting has ebbed the last 24-48 hours. The copium take is that Russia’s Wagner mercenary troops are exhausted, while Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s ministry of defense are locked in a battle for “credit.” That could be, or maybe they’re consolidating their gains while they refit and resupply. As is, Ukraine continues to hold the Western edge of Soledar. So all it means is that Ukraine falls back to the next defensive line.
And even consolidating gains in Soledar is a lot harder than it looks. Here is rare drone video of a HIMARS strike on a concentration of Wagner infantry.
The Financial Times quoted an American official claiming that Wagner lost 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded in the battles for Soledar and Bakhmut, out of a total of 50,000 (all but 10,000 of them being recruited prisoners). I would take any such numbers with a hefty grain of salt. Regardless of the exact numbers, Russia’s toll has been frightful. And their supply of prison fodder isn’t endless. These infantry Zerg-rush tactics aren’t sustainable.
Now, while the intensity is down, Wagner continues to try and push forward.
Here is a translated version of that video.
Also, don’t look now, but Ukraine now appears to have a foothold in Kreminna, to the north of Bakhmut. Things are vague and the fog of war is thick, but Ukrainian general staff has, for several days now, reported coming under attack in Kreminna.
Pre-war population of Soledar: 10,000, Ukraine’s 316th largest city, and it took Russia five months to capture. Strategically irrelevant. Its value to Ukraine is that if Ukraine doesn’t defend here, it just means the next town will be razed to the ground.
Pre-war population of Kreminna: 18,000. Very strategic city—guarding the southern approach to Svatove, and ultimately Starobilsk (and Russia’s entire supply line from Belgorod into northern Ukraine), as well as the gateway to cities of Rubizhne, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk.
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