UPDATE: Mark Sumner
If you’ve ever played the online game “World of Tanks,” you’ll be familiar with this family of vehicles. Speedy. Agile. And packing a 105mm gun up front, is it an APC, a tank destroyer, or a light tank? That may depend on the day.
These French light tanks, or simply wheeled vehicles, are a real pain in the butt for drivers of regular treaded tanks. They can really build up some momentum and pop over a hill, or fly down a road, at a speed that makes them a challenging target. However, I have no idea how they behave in winter mud.
This particular model has been around since the 1980s, but like all the NATO tanks (or armored carrier … this one is a puzzler, even for those who are sticklers about the use of “tank”) heading into Ukraine, they’ve been heavily updated since that time.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin announced that all Russian schools would now teach students how to interpret “international military-political and domestic events and facts from the position of a patriot of the Fatherland." And when they are not being dosed with propaganda, Russian high school students—all Russian high school students—are now to be taught how to march, salute, dig trenches, and conduct “combined arms tactics.” It doesn’t say where they would get the teachers, which could be an issue,since no one in the Russian Army seems to know how to conduct combined arms tactics.
All of this sounds sad, ridiculous, and very much like a nation that expects to be at war forever. It also sounds very, very like the past actions of nations that were on the losing end of prolonged conflicts. The only good news for those high school kids is that this government, and all its requirements, are likely to fall before they’ve managed to reach Hole Digging 201.
This action is emblematic of where Russia now sits in relation to the invasion that it launched against Ukraine. They’ve gone from assuming that Ukraine would fall in days to insisting that Russia would always hold Kherson and Kharkiv to a position where they’re telling themselves that war is good. That war is the natural state of Russia. That Russia should never expect anything but war.
What does the future look like to Russian leadership right now? It looks like Bakhmut. It looks like sending men through rubble to certain death, every day, forever.
Meanwhile, in Bakhmut, here are the voices of two Ukrainian defenders, both of whom pass along the same message: Ukraine’s defense holds and while Russia keeps sending large numbers forward, very little changes.
The six-month effort to capture the battered city of Bakhmut has now cost Russia tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of tanks, and involved the expenditure of so much artillery that for the moment at least, Russian guns are virtually silenced. Where do things stand in Bakhmut? Something like this:
This is a map from before Christmas. Russia occupies a few locations in the industrial rubble east of the city, makes multiple attempts daily to move up Patrisa Lumumby Street past all those very familiar factories, and occasionally makes it far enough to have people die along Pershotravnevyy Street. This map is still perfectly fine for today.
Russia has lost so many people along that stretch at this point that if they were all still lying there, the mound would be 20 meters high for over a kilometer. If you laid all those Russian soldiers on a football field, you could walk anywhere you wanted to go on that field and never touch the ground. And Russia is still attacking along the same road, using the same tactics, generating the same results. If that seems incomprehensible, that’s because it is. This is a very special form of madness.
Russia has actually asked that fighting be stopped at times expressly so they can collect bodies. Even so, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief reported: "Soldiers showed me a section where dead bodies are piled up like something you would see in a movie.”
To the south, Russia has claimed repeatedly to have taken all of Optyne. They haven’t. The lines there are also about where they were at this time two months ago. Russia also hasn’t taken Soledar to the north.
In the last week Russia claims to have captured Bakhmutske, a small area south of Soledar. Russian military bloggers are reporting this as “the breakthrough” that will allow Russia to surge across Donetsk Oblast. However, it’s not clear that even this small gain actually happened. In fact, it’s not clear that Russia has advanced 1 meter beyond the point it occupied when the Russian military last claimed to have captured Bakhmutske on Dec. 13.
As for that big breakthrough, it’s the same thing that Russian military bloggers said about Russia’s reported capture of Ozarianivka last month. Russia troops were going to surge through there, hitting locations to the west. Only as of yesterday, fighting was still going on in Ozarianivka. Big battles to the west that Russian sources were reporting only last week simply vanished from Telegram channels.
None of this means that Russian actions along the line north and south of Bakhmut are not a threat, or that the cost of holding this line has not been terrible. But it’s genuinely unclear at this moment if Russia even has a goal beyond sending the next group of men to die at Bakhmut. Do they have a plan for what happens next if they actually capture the city?
Fortunately, we’re unlikely to ever find out. Meanwhile, as Russia prepares to feed an neverending line of troops into a meat grinder, it’s also increasingly convinced that this war is coming home.
This morning, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense produced the usual list of locations shelled and assaulted by Russia, though this time that list is incomplete. For example, near Kreminna, there are reports of shelling in Makiivka, Ploshchanka, and Dibrova, but no mention of Chervonopopivka, along the highway north of the city. The report explicitly says that over 15 locations in the area were shelled by Russia, while naming only eight. So hopefully this doesn’t represent a change in control of that highway area.
One thing that was clear in this report was that Ukraine is continuing its HIMARS attacks against Russian positions. However, over the last few days the focus of those attacks has changed from mostly ammunition depots to “clusters of Russian troops.” Ukraine reported that helicopters carried out a dozen sorties against Russian troop concentrations on Tuesday, while HIMARS “struck two Russian command posts, five concentrations of manpower and equipment, one ammunition storage location, and a Russian UAV control post.”
That doesn’t mean that Ukraine isn’t still finding some ammo dumps.
Those attacks on troop concentrations are contributing directly to daily reports of high Russian casualties. On Tuesday, the reported number of Russian troops killed was 720.
CNN reports on a Ukrainian intelligence assessment that took a look into one of those cheap Iranian drones Russia is now using to attack Ukrainian cities. What makes them possible? American technology.
Parts made by more than a dozen US and Western companies were found inside a single Iranian drone downed in Ukraine last fall, according to a Ukrainian intelligence assessment obtained exclusively by CNN.
President Joe Biden has already appointed a task force to determine ways in which the flow of these technologies might be cut off, but considering the ubiquity of the chips in consumer devices sold around the world, it’s unclear how much can be done.
One more thing to note from those reports by the Ukrainian MOD this morning: In the Zaporizhzhia area, a whole string of cities and towns have seen strikes on both troop concentrations and bases. That includes strikes at Berdyansk, Melitopol, Polohy, Tokmak, and Vasylivka in the last day.
Predicting Ukraine’s next move is a fool’s game, but darned if this doesn’t look like the area is being softened up.
South of Kreminna, Russian sources have repeatedly mentioned Ukraine moving “in the direction of Lysychansk” over the last day. However, it seems likely this is just another way of describing the movement of Ukrainian forces toward Shypylivka and Pryvillya, both of which hold strategic positions for attacking either toward Kreminna or toward Rubizhne and Lysychansk.
North of Kreminna, Russian Telegram channels reported that Russia has been trying to dislodge Ukraine from positions along the highway with “daily attacks.” However, Ukraine has repelled all these attacks, which suggests that the area around Chervonopopivka is still under Ukrainian control.
On Wednesday morning, Ukraine’s director of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, sat down with ABC News and made a series of statements that were very blunt. Among them:
- “Russia's weaponry is depleting.” That’s responsible for both decreased shelling along the front lines, and for the replacement of Russian missiles with cheaper Iranian drones.
- Ukraine is expecting Bradley fighting vehicles from the U.S. “We are waiting for them. We're looking forward to them very much. This will significantly improve the combat ability of our units."
But the biggest news of the interview was a frank statement that Ukraine is planning a major offensive started in March. "This is [when we will see more] liberation of territories and dealing the final defeats to the Russian Federation. This will happen throughout Ukraine, from Crimea to the Donbas."
Of course, any such interview is likely to be studded with upbeat assessments and positive predictions. There’s also a fair chance that the “just wait until March” message could also be another means of passing along a message to Russia that they don’t have to worry about an offensive in the next two months. Go on Vlad, have a nap.
One side of this illegal, unprovoked invasion is planning to keep up a losing effort forever, the other side plans to win quickly. I know which one I would bet on.