UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Conflicting information right now from Avdiivka. Ukrainian Telegram channel Deep State says “no changes have been recorded” in the area, but Russian sources are reporting that Ukrainian troops have advanced as much as 1.5 km toward the H20 highway, which represents a significant transportation route for Russian forces. Looking for confirmation.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
The U.S. is expected to announce another support package tomorrow that is valued at $300 million, mostly in the former of ammunition and support vehicles, including fuel trucks. One new item on this list is the Hydra 70 rocket. These are simple, unguided rockets that can be used for many purposes, but are generally loaded into drum canisters for firing from planes or helicopters. All those videos in which a helicopter pulls up for a moment and discharges a pack of small missiles? They’re firing something like the Hydra 70.
It’s May. Since last fall, people have been pointing at this month as the month, the month in which Ukraine was likely to begin what could be the most important action of the war–a counteroffensive to break through what has become an almost immobile front and throw back Vladimir Putin’s invading army.
As the winter wore on, and Russia’s winter offensive fizzled in the snow and rain, expectations for what Ukraine would achieve when the sun came round and the mud dried up only grew. Many of the most enthusiastic predictions have come from supporters of Ukraine who seriously feel, especially after the victories at Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson, that the Ukrainian forces are capable of anything. For the most optimistic, the counteroffensive isn’t about making a serious dent in the front lines and liberating some portion of Donetsk or Luhansk, it’s about breaking the Russian army and seeing Wagner Group go scuttling away leaving Ukraine at the borders it held before 2014.
What Ukraine needs to do to secure continued support and show that Russia can be defeated is still open to debate. However, as The Atlantic points out, the one thing higher than the bar for success may be the stakes; because, “The future of the democratic world will be determined by whether the Ukrainian military can break a stalemate with Russia and drive the country backwards—perhaps even out of Crimea for good.
It’s not just Ukraine supporters who keep raising expectations for the coming weeks. Supporters of Russia want to set the bar for Ukrainian success at the maximum.
You can see this in speeches from people such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who wants to define anything less than Ukraine liberating all of its territory in a matter of weeks as a “failure.” That will give her, and others like her, a reason to demand reduced U.S. support should Volodymyr Zelenskyy not be addressing victorious troops in Sevastopol by June.
That Atlantic article provides the official definition of victory in this war as set out by the Ukrainian government and military. It’s a good explanation of why calls for a negotiated peace are bound to fail unless that peace comes along the pre-2014 borders:
Victory means, first, that Ukraine retains sovereign control of all of the territory that lies within its internationally recognized borders, including land taken by Russia since 2014: Donetsk, Luhansk, Melitopol, Mariupol, Crimea. “Every centimeter of our 603,550 square kilometers,” Kuleba says. Ukrainians believe that the de facto ceding of territory to Russia in 2014 gave Putin the idea that he could take more, and they don’t want to repeat the error. Instead of ending the conflict, a cease-fire that leaves large chunks of Ukraine under Russian control could give him an incentive to regroup, rearm, and try again. They also point out that territory under Putin’s control is a crime scene, a space where repression, terror, and human-rights violations take place every day. Ukrainians who remain in the occupied territories are at constant risk of losing their property, their identity, and their lives. No Ukrainian leader can give up the idea of saving them.
But ultimate victory in the war is not the same as victory in the coming weeks. It would be great if Russian forces were so crushed when Ukraine begins to move that their military command and control structure falls apart, the front becomes a scene of mass surrenders, and the Russian military—already revealed as a “paper bear”—disintegrates into squabbling factions.
That’s possible. But it’s very unlikely.
Here’s what we know: Ukraine has a reported twelve new brigades of soldiers and equipment that are ready to join the fight at the front line. Nine of those brigades have been reportedly trained in combined-armed tactics by NATO forces. Those same nine brigades are also likely to be the recipient of many of the Western vehicles and weapons systems that have been rolling into Ukraine since the first of the year. Eight of the new brigades have been called “Storm Brigades,” and there is some expectation that these eight, composed of about 40,000 troops and their gear, will be the tip of the spear when the counteroffensive comes. One of those eight is a brand new Azov brigade. Others have names like “Rage” and “Hurricane.”
Why are there nine new brigades trained in combined arms warfare, but only eight storm brigades? That, I don’t know. But we can be pretty sure that other forces will be brought in behind these eight brigades to help mop up and secure the areas after break through. That 40,000 to 50,000 troop force will keep moving, keep breaking through until Russia is able to blunt their attack.
We know a few details about how some, though far from all, of these brigades have been trained and equipped. For example, the 47th Assault Brigade is outfitted with a mix of up to 50 Bradley fighting vehicles donated by the United States and 28 highly upgraded M-55S tanks from Slovenia. The 37th Assault Brigade will have an unknown number of American Oshkosh M-ATV MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles as well as some or all of the 30 AMX-10rc wheeled vehicles that France has donated to Ukraine.
We also know that some of those who were trained on Western weapons came from existing Ukrainian units and have experience at the front. For example, about half of those trained on the British Challenger 2 tank came from the 80th Air Assault Brigade, members of which are still fighting it out near Bakhmut. It seems likely that these trained and experienced fighters will be rolled into the new units, rather than having the Western weapons folded back into their old brigades. But we can’t be sure.
All together, the new brigades are likely to total between 50,000 and 60,000 men. What kind of difference can that make on a front line where the number currently engaged likely exceeds half a million?
Quite a lot. Those Ukrainian brigades are not going to spread out along the whole line. They're going to hit at some location where 50,000 gives Ukraine a large advantage and the best possibility for rapid movement. Western estimates put the number of Russian forces currently in the area of Bakhmut at somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000. In recent weeks, reports have indicated that Russian forces have been pulled from both the south and the north to bolster those numbers–in large part because the U.S. estimates that Russia has lost 20,000 troops since December in its efforts to capture the city.
While Ukrainian estimates of Russian deaths, which are now edging toward 200,000 are considered high by Western analysts, that’s not a bad number for the total casualties on the Russian side. That’s 50,000 more men than Russia sent to Ukraine in total in the opening months of the war. By the most conservative estimates, Russia is losing men in Ukraine at 25 times the rate it did in either of the wars in Chechnya, including the one it lost. As Lawfare notes, “Russia has suffered more combat fatalities in Ukraine in the first year of the war than in all of its wars since World War II combined.”
MInus the forces crowded in around Bakhmut, Russia has, on average, about 200 men defending each kilometer of the front. Only that’s not accurate either, because the remaining Russian forces aren’t spread evenly. They are concentrated in a few areas. In particular, they're in the areas around Avdiivka and Marinka, both of them near Donetsk. Smaller forces are near Kreminna and Svatove in the north, and south of Orikhiv and Hulyaipole in the south. These forces are primarily defending, not cities, but highway and railroad nexuses.
Recent satellite imagery has indicated that many of the Russian forces which had been behind the lines are now at the front, with bases in Crimea largely abandoned. It’s worth noting that commentary from Russian sources indicates that the reason the equipment may have been moved was to get it out of the way of a potential Ukrainian advance—which says a lot about Russia’s confidence in their ability to meet the coming counteroffensive.
When it comes to picking a point and punching through, there’s little doubt that Ukraine can do it. Some locations, like the northern route between Svatove and Starobilsk, seem to be practically inviting Ukraine to step in and take control. Some seem to offer the potential for capturing a large area,
As kos pointed out one week ago, the best outcome is likely to end with Russia regrouping around Crimea and some fragment of the area they now control. And there are reasons to expect something like that best outcome. In addition to the things we know about the new Ukrainian forces, we also know these things about Russia:
Their logistics continue to be crap, with both the Russian military and Wagner Group constantly harping on a lack of ammunition and other supplies. Thanks to Ukraine’s dedicated program of using precision weaponry to take out accumulations of supplies or fuel near the front, Russia has been forced to stage major depots 100 km or more back from the lines. For a nation that can’t even manage to put things on pallets, that’s a big deal.
Russia’s leadership continues to be poor. Putin regards any combination of competence and power as a threat, so he keeps trying to prevent the two from coming in contact. Russia’s lack of dedicated non-commissioned officers and lack of unit cohesion requires that high level officers (colonels and generals) operate near the front lines, resulting in high rates of officer casualties. The shortage is profound enough that Russia’s latest class of cadets has reportedly been shoved out of academies early so that they can be used as officers in Ukraine.
Russia is burning through its stock of equipment. With over 10,000 major weapons systems lost, including somewhere between 1,900 and 3,700 tanks, Russia is edging toward a point where it almost doesn’t matter how many men they can mobilize, because they can’t equip new recruits. The shipments of older, and older, and older gear to Russian forces in Ukraine is a direct result of Russia’s inability to manufacture, repair, or buy anything newer.
Here’s Shashank Joshi, defense editor at The Economist, putting Russia’s inability to apply force in context.
There is something wild about the fact that Russia has mobilized 300,000 men since September, conducted over 700 air and drone strikes since October, and hurled itself at Donbas since January, with as many as 20,000 killed in action … and actually managed a net loss of territory in April.
That’s before the counteroffensive begins. Ukraine hasn’t just fought Russia to a standstill; it has seriously degraded Russia’s military and reduced Russia’s ability to project force. In that most jargony of terms, Russia has been attrited.
The worst outcome for a Ukrainian counteroffensive at this point might be one in which Ukrainian forces break through the lines, but their own staggeringly complex logistical chain, burdened with dozens of different types of equipment from almost as many different militaries, makes it difficult for them to exploit that breakthrough. Russia is able to reposition, the many defensive trenches slow Ukraine’s roll, and the territory liberated by Ukraine is limited—perhaps to only 1,000 square kilometers of Zaporizhzhia or Luhansk. That’s about the same size as the area liberated in the Kharkiv counteroffensive.
That’s the bad outcome.
But if people like Greene are able to raise enough political capital to shut down or even reduce future assistance to Ukraine by spreading the idea that “the counteroffensive failed” then that outcome really is pretty bad. Let’s hop back to The Atlantic article:
Ukrainians need a military success … one with enough symbolic power to force change in Russia.
Their interview with Zelenskyy suggests this doesn’t necessarily mean that Putin gets taken down by some other jackass within the Kremlin. What it means is reaching a point where Russia thinks staying in Ukraine is more costly than leaving.
Only one thing matters: Russia’s leaders must conclude that the war was a mistake, and Russia must acknowledge Ukraine as an independent country with the right to exist. … When that happens in Russia, the war will be over. Not suspended, not delayed for a month or a year—over.
Kos has written at length on the possible goals for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and about how some targets might give Ukraine a big boost both in terms of territory recovered and the political damage done to Putin’s assertions about Russia’s control over Ukraine. That one or more of these targets could lead to the kind of success that leaves Russia scrambling to negotiate, not because it wants to hold onto much of Ukraine but because it needs peace to secure its own stability, is entirely possible. The bad outcome, one that moves the lines in Ukraine’s favor then leaves both sides gathering their strength for another move, is also possible.
But the idea of a complete success, one that really does have Zelenskyy sticking his toes in the sand off Sevastopol, shouldn’t be completely discounted. After all, if there’s anything the Russian military has demonstrated in Ukraine, it’s that they are capable of unexpectedly large, unexpectedly rapid defeat.
And Russia’s situation is only getting worse. If Russia isn’t forced completely out of Ukraine in this counteroffensive, there will be another.
There have been a lot of obituaries like this from Bakhmut in the past few days, showing that the losses there continue to be extreme and that Ukraine isn’t hesitating to send in foreign volunteers and its own most experienced troops.
On Tuesday, the commander of Ukraine’s 93rd Brigade, which is on its second tour of Bakhmut and has been fighting in the city since January, noted that in spite of Russian and Wagner complaints, the artillery fire from Russian positions has been intense and the number of defensive positions available to Ukraine has shrunk as Russia reduced the city to rubble. “But it's been four months and we're still here,” said Col. Pavlo Palisa. He also indicated that supply routes into the city were open and under Ukrainian control. It’s unclear if that includes the T0504 highway to the south, which may at least allow Ukrainian forces to get as close to the city as Ivaniske before having to move to secondary routes.
One concerning report was a report of a failed Russian attack ''at Predtechyne,” which is about 10 km southwest of Ivaniske. This could suggest Russian forces have managed to push west again from Klishchiivka after losing ground in that area two months ago. On the other hand, it may just be a push “in the direction of” Predtechyne, which is how the Ukrainian military often describes assaults that aren’t near any particular town.
Heavy fighting in Bakhmut continues and Russia has staged numerous air strikes against targets in the city, but the pace of change seems to have again slowed over the past two days.
As awful as this video looks, the traffic moving both ways on the T0504 could be a good indicator that Ukraine has pushed Russian forces away from the highway enough that it is once again being used as a supply route into the city. If so, that’s a very good sign when it comes to Ukraine’s ability to hold on to that western edge.
I honestly can’t tell if the smoking and damaged tank in this video is from Ukraine or Russia. At least two of the burned-out APCs are Ukrainian, but then so are the ones actively sweeping down the road. What I don’t see in this video that I did see in the last videos of the road through Khromove, is any sign of active Russian shelling.
There are unconfirmed reports that Ukrainian forces advanced at multiple points along the southern front on Monday. These advances, which reportedly involved movements south of Orkiv and Myme, have been refuted by Russian sources. However, it’s interesting that in this area on Tuesday morning, rather than reporting any Russian assaults on Ukrainian positions, the report from the Ukrainian general staff simply says that in this area, Russian forces “defended themselves.” That certainly makes it seem as if Ukraine at least made some offensive move in the region.
I’m bringing this area up because for the past several days, here is how it has been described in Ukrainian reports: “The enemy did not conduct offensive actions in the Kupyansk area.” A number of towns around the area reported some shelling, but that’s all.
Russian sources made a big deal out of movements north of Kupyansk back in December and January as Russian troops moved to occupy a series of towns that had not been garrisoned by Ukrainian forces. There were even Russian sources claiming that Russia was about to force Ukrainian troops to retreat across the Oskil River. That never happened.
Instead, the whole area just went more or less silent. The number of forces on either side in this area was never large, but it may be that Russian forces originally pressing around Kupyansk have been relocated to Bakhmut, Avdriivka, or another of the more active areas.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.