UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Not much appears to have moved around Bakhmut today. Russian sources are claiming that Wagner has taken Paraskoiivka and showing photos of mercenaries in front of an official looking building. However, geolocating that building places it far up closer to Blahodatne — I’ve added a little red man to the map to show the location.
One statement that appeared on pro-Ukrainian channels today suggests that Ukraine is pulling back behind the narrow Bakhmutovka River. As many people have pointed out in the past, when it comes to obstacles in the landscape, this is not a big one. It’s only a few meters wide and the banks are not particularly steep. I’ve highlighted the course of the river inside the city to give an idea of what this would mean if Ukraine did step back to this point.
I still don’t have a good handle on the location of the new trenches and fortifications Ukraine has been constructing west of Bakhmut, but I’ll scan the satellite images and see if there’s anything to be seen.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
This. This is the best, simplest, and most convincing answer to “why is Russia wasting thousands of soldiers trying to capture Bakhmut if Bakhmut isn’t of high strategic value?” that I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, it’s on a YouTube “short” which doesn’t embed as neatly as a a regular YouTube video. So just go watch it. Seriously.
Why does Russia keep attacking Bakhmut? Because it can.
On Saturday, we took a look at Russia’s supply of main battle tanks. Based on published figures at the outset of the invasion, the best guess was that Russia still had somewhere between 5,200 and 8,000 tanks out there, with roughly 2,000 on the battlefield and the rest “in storage.” Those stored tanks need repair and updating before they can enter the fight, so at this point they reach Ukraine at at a rate of about 60 a month—well below the number that Russia is losing each month.
As it turns out, this number seems to be fairly accurate, but in one sense it may overestimate what Russia can actually put in the field. The annual meetings of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) was held this week. (These are the folks that create the best known list ranking the size of each of the world’s militaries and laying out what equipment each holds.) Right now, they believe that Russia has around 1,800 tanks in Ukraine and another 5,000 in storage. However, they also believe that much of that Russian reserve is “junk.” It consists of old tank bodies too badly damaged by time and corrupt officials to ever be made workable again.
More than that, the IISS believes that Russia has already burned through more than two-thirds of its more modern T-80 and T-90 series tanks. What’s on the ground in Ukraine now is already substantially worse than what it was able to bring to bear at the outset of the war. As time goes on, Russia’s supply of armor is both diminishing and degrading, which would seem to indicate that there might be one big driver for the idea that Russia is about to launch a major offensive: desperation.
But now there are signals that Russia’s “big new offensive” may not happen at all.
For weeks now, there have been warnings that Russia was about to launch a major offensive, only no one has been able to agree on exactly where, or how, or with what target. Maybe it’s all those Russian forces training in Belarus and about to swoop down for a second go at Kyiv. Maybe it’s all those Russian planes supposedly massing east of Ukraine about to open a new wave of air assaults across Ukraine. Maybe it’s Russian forces said to be lining up tanks and transports at Melitopol for a push on Zaporizhzhia. Maybe they’re going to flood through Kupyansk in a new push on Kharkiv. Maybe they’re coming surging out of Kreminna to retake Lyman.
Maybe it’s all of the above!
Yeah, maybe. However, there has so far been little indication that Russia is fighting any more effectively than it has in the past. What small gains it has made, mostly north and south of Bakhmut, had come in the form of those old standbys: human wave assaults backed up by heavy artillery. Elsewhere in Vuhledar, south of Kreminna, and at various points near Donetsk, Russian efforts to break Ukrainian forces appear to have met with the same kind of high costs as the attacks around Bakhmut, but without even a few blocks of shattered buildings and rubble to show for it.
In an article this week from the Financial Times, the coming Russian offensive was described as something that will “arrive unheralded” with nothing to mark the “moment Russian Russian troops attack and go ‘over the top.’”
Maybe that statement isn’t supposed to diminish the scale of this coming offensive, but it certainly makes it seem more theoretical. No one had any doubt that an offensive had begun when Russian tanks rolled across the border, just as no one had to be given an official signal when Ukraine began its counteroffensive in Kharkiv. It was obvious.
As CNN reports, some Western officials have an even more diminishing phrase with which to tag the upcoming Russian offensive: “It’s likely more aspirational than realistic.”
The US military had assessed it would take as long as until May for the Russian military to regenerate enough power for a sustained offensive, but Russian leaders wanted action sooner. The US now sees it as likely that Russian forces are moving before they are ready due to political pressure from the Kremlin, the senior US military official told CNN.
If an unprepared, unsuccessful offensive is what everyone is talking about, there has certainly been plenty of that in the last two weeks. Vladimir Putin stuck a pin in Feb. 21 for a “major speech” to his nation some time back. Maybe he thought that speech was going to be about how Russia had captured Bakhmut, and Vuhledar, and how the Russian army was on the march across the front.
Maybe Russian forces have been told to get off their collective asses and move that football in the next five days. If so, that’s not an offensive. It’s a formula for an even more extended disaster.
“It’s unlikely Russian forces will be particularly better organized and so unlikely they’ll be particularly more successful, though they do seem willing to send more troops into the meat grinder,” a senior British official told CNN.
At that IISS meeting much of the talk was about Russian tanks, Chinese fighter jets, and how drones are shifting the balance of power. But there was one point about Ukraine that may be the most important statement of the day, and the most decisive factor in this war.
Rule number two: Double tap.
Official Russian military sites are reporting “two major victories” on Wednesday, but there are few details to go with these claims. Russia had been previously reporting that they had reoccupied the town of Masyutivka between Kupyansk and Dvorichna, but that’s in Kharkiv Oblast. The best bet guess might be for somewhere northwest of Kreminna. Russian forces had previously conducted an assault on Makiivka … though also on Wednesday there were reports that Ukraine was still at Ploshchanka to the east of that location.
At this point, it’s more a matter of waiting to see if Russia is going to provide more information, or if Ukrainian sources are going to confirm any movement. Otherwise, I’m calling a big shrug over this announcement.
Al Jazeera wins the award for the morning’s most contradictory headline: “Russia surrounds Bakhmut as Ukraine sends in troops.”
If Bakhmut is surrounded, then how is Ukraine … forget it, the first paragraph of this article is enough to make me question whether there’s anything here that can be taken at face value.
Ukraine faced its toughest week so far this year on the eastern front, where its defenders lost more ground to Russian forces but committed enormous resources to holding Bakhmut, a coal-mining town that has acquired emblematic importance to both sides.
Yes, things are difficult at Bakhmut and the last two weeks have been particularly bad in the area. However, there have been no reports of Ukraine pushing large numbers of new troops or equipment into Bakhmut. Many of the troops that had defended the city for months were relieved back in December, and it’s unclear if the number of Ukrainian forces there is higher or lower than it has been since Russia first began assaulting the town almost eight months ago.
Also … Bakhmut is not “a coal-mining town.” Vuhledar is a coal-mining town. The only mine in Bakhmut is for salt. Salt mining in Bakhmut goes back three centuries and was a major employer in the city not too long ago. One theory of the town’s name is that it means “salt water.” But there is no coal. Never was.
Oh, wait, what’s this …
“Blocking of Ukrainian supplies began in the area of Chasov Yar and Berkhovka,” a Russian military reporter said, referring to two settlements through which Bakhmut’s lines of communication run.
Russia does not hold Chasiv Yar. It’s not near Chasiv Yar. Also, if there is a Berkhovka in this area, I can’t locate it. This appears to be a pure Russian propaganda piece, citing nothing but Russian military sources and making claims that they have captured areas they do not hold.
So the real question is, why is Al Jazeera publishing this, and why is MSN republishing it?
One thing that’s definitely been noted around Bakhmut in recent times is that Wagner Group seems to be fading from the scene. Even though pro-Russian sites continually mark down every meter of advance to Wagner, reports from Ukrainian sources indicate that in the fighting north and west of Bakhmut, Wagner’s role is diminishing.
According to UAWire, Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin agrees.
Prigozhin made it clear that his mercenaries could not capture the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. He accused the Russian Defense Ministry of impeding the operations of his PMC in Ukraine.
"Advance is not going as fast as we would like. I think they [Wagner mercenaries] would have already taken Bakhmut before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy and not the roadblocks that are set every day. Today we have a certain number of structural changes. The admission of prisoners to our ranks has been stopped," Prigozhin said.
Doesn’t sound like things between Prigozhin and the Russian military are all that peachy. Has Wagner stopped recruiting prisoners, or has it been denied the ability to gather more cannon fodder?