When I began researching for this article, I planned to write about how Ukraine had made a mistake in launching repeated assaults that have now been bogged down north and south of Bakhmut. I thought Ukraine needed to transfer most of these troops to the southern front as soon as possible. I was going to start things off by asserting that Ukrainian Supreme Commander General Zaluzhnyi, who I once called a military genius, surely made a miscalculation at Bakhmut that needed to now be fixed.
But having done a deep dive into the topography of the Battle of Bakhmut, I’m coming to the realization that the Ukrainians may be playing a much more complicated game of attritional chess than I realized. I think Ukraine can and will transfer a significant force of troops from Bakhmut to the southern front in the near future—and they told several Western generals on August 10 that they were planning on doing so.
But this move may be because the trap Ukraine laid for Russia at Bakhmut has run its course, not because those attacks lacked meaning.
american criticism of Ukrainian allocation of military strength
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported an August 10th meeting held between top Western military officials and their Ukrainian counterparts, including Zaluzhnyi.
Ukraine’s Forces and Firepower Are Misallocated, U.S. Officials Say
American strategists say Ukraine’s troops are too spread out and need to concentrate along the counteroffensive’s main front in the south.
Ukraine’s grinding counteroffensive is struggling to break through entrenched Russian defenses in large part because it has too many troops, including some of its best combat units, in the wrong places, American and other Western officials say.
The main goal of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine by severing the so-called land bridge between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula. But instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have divided troops and firepower roughly equally between the east and the south, the U.S. officials said.
As a result, more Ukrainian forces are near Bakhmut and other cities in the east than are near Melitopol and Berdiansk in the south, both far more strategically significant fronts, officials say.
American planners have advised Ukraine to concentrate on the front driving toward Melitopol, Kyiv’s top priority, and on punching through Russian minefields and other defenses, even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process.
Here is the U.S. officials' criticism, in map form.
Very broadly speaking, the Russo-Ukrainian War can, in its present form, be divided into roughly four theaters of conflict.
- Northern front (Luhansk front): A Russian offensive aimed at recapturing Kupiansk and Lyman;
- Eastern front (Donbas front): A Ukrainian counterattack near Bakhmut, with both sides launching attacks near Donetsk suburbs, such as around Avdiivka and Makiivka;
- Southern front (Zaporizhzhia front): Predominantly Ukrainian attacks toward Tokmak, and south of Velyka Novosilka; and
- Western front (Kherson/Dnipro River front): Minor skirmishes and artillery duels around Ukrainian river-crossing missions, which arguably now includes the western coast of Crimea due to Ukrainian raids.
In the simplest terms, American officials told Ukraine they had misallocated their troops, that there were too many troops committed to the Eastern front, and not enough to the Southern front.
Those are the two fronts where Ukraine has committed troops for major offensives of their own.
Russia has committed reportedly nearly half its army to the Northern front, and Ukraine has assumed a strategic defensive stance in that region. Only company-sized and smaller units have been observed fighting in the Western front, with neither side committing to any major actions, apart from some significant artillery duels.
To a certain extent, Ukraine’s needs for troop allocations in the North are dictated by the amount of pressure applied by Russian combat resources in that area, unless Ukraine is prepared to give up strategic locales like Kupiansk or Lyman. Both are key logistical cities that defend important regions behind them (Kupyansk is to Kharkiv, as Lyman is to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk). Thus it makes sense that Ukraine’s commitment of forces to these areas would not be voluntary in any sense of the term. Pointedly, these brigades were not part of the U.S. leadership’s allegations of misallocation of resources.
The criticism from American military leadership focused on the Eastern Front, but listed only one city by name: Bakhmut.
The current allocation of Ukrainian forces
:et us explore the current makeup of Ukrainian forces presently allocated to Ukraine’s two primary offensives in the South, and Ukraine’s Bakhmut counterattack.
I am looking primarily at well-trained regular army and elite brigades because these are the only units that generally participate in offensive actions. Air Assault, Marine, Mountain Assault, Mechanized Infantry, Assault, and Tank Brigades fit this definition.
Territorial Defense Forces and Ministry of the Interior units (like the Operational Storm Brigades) generally assist by holding down territory and defending, but rarely lead attacks, therefore are not included units in a tabulation of purely “offensive force.”
Relying on unit locations, as geolocated by Ukraine Control Maps and Poulet Volant:
The Southern front has 14 Brigades. The Tokmak/Robotyne axis has seven offensive brigades: the 82nd and 46th Air Assault; and the 47th, 33rd, 65th, 116th, and 118th Mechanized, while the Velyka Novosilka axis also has seven offensive brigades: the 23rd and 31st Mechanized, and the 35th, 36th, 37th, and 38th Marine, as well as the 4th Tank.
The Eastern front’s Bakhmut Axis has 12 Brigades: In the south (Klishchiivka/Kurdyumivka), there’s the 3rd Azov Assault, 5th Assault, 24th Aidar Assault, 80th Air Assault, 22nd and 24th Mechanized, and the 17th Tank. The north (Dubovo Vasylivka/Berkhivka/Zaliznyanski) is currently home to the 30th and 93rd Mechanized; 57th Motorized, 77th Airmobile, and 10th Mountain..
Presently, out of roughly 26 brigades that could theoretically be used by Ukraine on the offensive, a mere 54% of the brigades are committed to the critical attacks southward to attempt to cut off the land bridge. Ukraine is believed to have only three armored brigades suitable for an offensive left in reserve—the 115th and 117th Mechanized, and the 1st Tank.
Even assuming these forces are slated for the Southern front, that would leave only 59% of Ukraine’s brigades committed to the assault on the Russian land bridge, and almost half of Ukraine's available offensive resources committed to attacking Bakhmut.
American and British officers argued to the Ukrainian General Staff that this was an overallocation to Bakhmut when there were better strategically valuable routes of advance available in the Southern theater.
Bakhmut as an attritional battlefield
Over the past week, I got into a significant disagreement on that app formerly known as Twitter, about whether it was wise for Ukraine to commit large amounts of troops to attacks around Bakhmut. I argued it was not, those in disagreement with me argued that it was.
The arguments presented in favor of attacks in Bakhmut were as follows:
- Ukraine is fixing Russian troops at Bakhmut so they cannot be deployed to the Southern front.
- Bakhmut is a symbolically important location for Russia that they must defend, so it represents an ideal location to wear down Russian forces.
On a surface level, this made no sense to me. Ukraine launched assaults on Russian defensive positions on formidable heights both north and south of Bakhmut, before bogging down in back-and-forth combat for more than the past month. It made no sense to me to continue to launch assaults at strong Russian defensive positions that hadn’t budged for so long.
However, upon studying the topography of the fighting more carefully, I came to a realization: Ukraine’s advance had weirdly stopped; rather than repeatedly assaulting Russian-held heights, it was focused on low-lying areas, near freshly captured Ukrainian-controlled hills.
Bakhmut as a fixing operation
There are a few circumstances when a fixing operation—pinning down enemy troops in an area—makes sense.
- The primary offensive area is so crowded already that additional troops are not needed, and attacks elsewhere to draw defenders benefits the main vector of attack.
- The attacker can pin down more defenders than it commits to the attack.
- The attacker can efficiently attrit the enemy with minimal losses and maximal damage.
The first condition does not apply here, Ukraine has plenty of complementary axes of attack where it could invest more offensive resources into, but has not.
However, Ukraine may have been drawing Russia into an attritional battle that satisfies the 2nd and 3rd conditions since at least mid-July.
For example, Ukraine continues to launch attacks into and around Klishchiivka, trying to drive Russian forces back south of Bakhmut, but then retreats in the face of Russian counterattacks—only to repeat the process over the course of a few days.
This pattern has held true since Ukraine fully secured the heights west of Klishchiivka around July 19, but arguably held the crest of the hill since July 8.
Put the battlefield map over a topographical map south of Bakhmut, and you see what’s going on.
Ukraine has controlled the dominant heights south of Bakhmut and west of Klishchiivka since early to mid-July. Ukraine controls the southern portion of the town proper as well. Kllischiivka lies in a gully between two hills, and has been fiercely contested by both Russian and Ukrainian troops.
Interestingly, after Ukraine gained control of the dominant heights, Ukraine quickly moved into the city of Klishchiivka, then the broader advance was halted. Ukraine has, indeed, launched repeated attacks towards Klishchiivka and Andriivka in the lowlands east of the heights, over and over. Yet each time, Russia has counterattacked and regained possession or prevented full control.
This is a somewhat odd state of affairs. Attacks often peter out right as they reach a strong enemy position. Consider Ukraine’s counteroffensive last fall, when Russian troops finally put up a stiff defense at Kreminna, and a rampaging-but-exhausted Ukrainian army was finally stopped. That’s not what’s happening here. Ukraine has the combat capability to push forward but has chosen not to.
if Ukraine’s objective is to attrit Russian troops, as opposed to gaining ground, there are no better places than here. Sitting on these dominant heights, Ukrainian observers and drones can look down into the lowlands, providing laser-spotting and GPS coordinates of Russian positions to Ukraine’s conventional and rocket artillery.
For example, this video of Russian tanks rolling toward Klishchiivka was posted by The Telegraph just four days ago. From their high vantage point, Ukrainian artillery observers easily watch the tanks moving through the lower lying roads, then call in devastating Ukrainian artillery fire.
And having human drone operators on the hills helps with effectiveness and survivability. Those reconnaissance drones are vulnerable to electronic warfare—jamming in particular. A drone on a 600ft tall hill, flying 50 feet above air is more difficult to detect, and therefore more likely to survive than a drone flying 650 feet above sea-level ground.
Drones have reduced the importance of higher ground in artillery observation, but such advantages certainly have not been eliminated.
Ukrainian tactics north of bakhmut
Ukraine appears to be doing something similar north of Bakhmut. Many assumed they were trying to take territory to encircle Bakhmut from the north. Instead, Ukraine stopped right at the base of a series of hills under Ukrainian control.
So here too, along the M03 highway north of Ukrainian-controlled heights, in the valley to the west of Dubovo Vasilivka, and the towns of Berkhivka and Yahidne, Ukraine just happens to have stopped at the base of hills they control.
Many assumed that Russian resistance stymied further Ukrainian advances, but look at the map below—from May to late July, Ukraine has systematically advanced to the edge of the hills north and south of Bakhmut, and precisely no further.
It’s hard to see that as anything but deliberate.
By all rights, it looks like Ukraine has established itself in a solid defensible position controlling the flanks of the western heights around Khromove, then proceeded to invite Russian troops to run headlong into the lowlands below the heights over and over—into Ukrainian artillery kill zones.
American, British and Ukrainian Military Leadership agree this has become poor resource allocation
Having looked at all of that, one might conclude that Ukraine’s attacks north and south of Bakhmut may have been a worthwhile use of Ukrainian forces, up to now. Ukraine captured or firmly secured a series of dominant heights north and south of Bakhmut, then spent several weeks attacking and withdrawing at the base of those heights, sending just enough troops to entice Russian units to counterattack and retake those villages in the lowlands.
But does the present situation continue to be a good allocation of Ukrainian offensive forces? In The New York Times article, Zaluzhnyi reportedly agreed with the assessment that Ukraine had misallocated its forces. Too many forces were committed to the Eastern front, and not enough to the Southern front.
I shall posit a purely speculative hypothesis for why this happened. Most Western observers assumed that Russia had exhausted most of its offensive energy during Russia’s lengthy winter offensive, and that Russia would devote its remaining reserves to fortifying its defenses in the south. It seems likely that Ukraine might have thought the same.
However, Russia instead had a far more aggressive strategy. Australian retired Major General Mick Ryan observes that Russian General Valery Gerasimov had taken an active defense strategy, aimed at stripping Ukrainian resources by taking the offensive in the north, draining Ukrainian reserves. Given the huge concentration of Russian forces arrayed in the north—up to half of all Russian troops in Ukraine—it makes sense that Ukraine’s defense would require an immense number of units.
It may be that once Russian offensive pressure forced Ukraine to transfer units from its operational reserves to the north, Ukraine’s force commitments to the south sharply declined as a percentage of overall forces committed to the southern offensive.
If my read of the situation is right, Ukraine allocated troops to the Bakhmut fight with two likely objectives: securing heights on either flank of the western heights to prevent further Russian advance, and to then draw Russia into a series of attritional counterattacks, based on Russian fear of an encirclement that Ukraine had no intention of completing.
But now that Russia has been attrited for some time, and Ukraine has presumably had plenty of time to prepare defenses on the heights, it may be time to move these troops elsewhere. There’s no further particularly useful ground to be gained either north or south of Bakhmut. Devoting about 40% of Ukraine’s forces to an attack where Ukraine has seemingly no intention of advancing seems excessive.
For tomorrow’s update, I will explore where these Bakhmut-based units could be more effectively deployed on the Southern front.
Tokmak Offensive Update
A new open source intelligence—commonly referred to as OSINT—geolocation from a Russian drone unit was too shocking not to include.
Russian Bober FPV Drone Group posted a video that OSINT Technical group member Imi (m) geolocated on Friday
That would be where the red pin and blue star are below.
This puts the Ukrainian advance east of Novoprokopivka—within 1000-1500m of the main Russian defense line and what I call Hill 166. This was considerably further than was understood by even the most optimistic Ukraine mappers.
RELATED STORY: Ukraine Update: Ukraine is about to reach the 'downhill' part of the Tokmak offensive—literally