Today’s update is a short one, because I do want to get to my Labor Day holiday, but this site’s “Ukraine” tag might be the highest quality of them all. There is tons of additional fantastic staff and community Ukraine coverage to peruse if you are looking for more information.
Yesterday’s update by Ukraine’s general staff was typical of recent months. Their claims of destroyed Russian personnel and equipment were relatively light with just four tanks claimed destroyed, and 460 Russian soldiers killed (almost assuredly inflated, but about half of what we were seeing during Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive). But it certainly wasn’t light on the two most important categories at this time—artillery (31 guns and MLRS), and trucks (47), which are used to supply Russian forces on the line of contact.
While big recent Ukrainian gains have slightly quelled the “Ukraine is advancing too slowly” kvetching, Ukraine is still mostly shaping the battlefield—that is, creating the conditions for future successes.
Remember, there is no longer such a thing as “surprise attack” in this age of drones, and Ukraine still hasn’t shown a real ability to move at night. As such, any advancing Ukrainian forces have been at the mercy of Russia’s big guns, which lay down a curtain of steel death on any advance. But take that artillery away? And suddenly you see the kinds of advances we’ve seen from Ukraine the last two weeks.
Same with supplies. Russians on the defensive line need food, water, fuel, lubricants, ammunition, and tons of things you don’t even think about (I assume they don’t get toilet paper, but they should). Look at video of overrun Russian positions and you see the mountains of trash, including piles of plastic water bottles.
All of those supplies got to that trench in a truck. Take away the trucks, and you have hungry, thirsty, and ineffective soldiers at the trenches. Better yet, their armored vehicles can’t move.
Thus, while people have complained about the lack of “progress” on the front lines, the artillery balance of power has completed shifted to Ukraine’s advantage. That kind of unheralded success makes scenes like this one possible:
Ukrainian soldiers sit in their trenches enjoying the relentless artillery barrage on Russian positions. This was the sort of video that we’d see reversed the first year of the war, even at Bakhmut this year—non-stop Russian artillery pounding the crap out of Ukrainian positions.
Now, not only does Ukraine enjoy that newly earned artillery edge, but that artillery seems unconcerned with counter battery fire. Not only do Western guns outrange Russia’s Soviet-era guns, and not only are they more accurate and efficient, but Russia doesn’t have much left to strike back. And let’s not even talk about those Ukrainian soldiers. Nothing is hitting them.
There have been recent videos of Russian suicide drones taking out Ukrainian artillery, but all those hits are in daytime. At night, Ukrainian artillery can do whatever it wants unimpeded, with little fear of Russian countermeasures. (See image at top for what Ukraine has to do during the day to counter the suicide drone threat.) Not that daytime brings Russia any reprieve:
Trenches are designed in those jagged lines to minimize the impact of a direct artillery hit. But that is cold comfort when getting pounding by tube artillery, mortars, and both suicide drones, and those carrying grenades.
So what we have is the return of the Soviet-style tactics that Russia used to get most of their gains—pound the bejeezus out of an enemy defensive emplacement, probe it to see if anything is left over, rinse, lather, and repeat until no defenders are left. The advances are slower, but once those lines are all breached, it’s off to the races. And unlike Russia that probed with recruited criminals, Ukraine can fly a drone to assess the damage.
Interestingly, we haven’t heard Ukraine complain about shell shortages lately, and that nighttime barrage suggests none exists at this time. Turns out that shipping several million cluster shells to Ukraine alleviated any immediate needs, while ramped up global production should feed Ukraine’s hungry artillery machine in the future. (Russia has serious “shell hunger,” and they seem ready to receive ammunition from North Korea alleviating their challenges.)
Want to see another consequence of “shaping the battlefield”? Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen Ukraine successfully destroy major Russian air defense systems all around the contact line. The biggest was the destruction of a half-billion dollar S-400 complex in Crimea, followed up with a special forces raid the next day that reportedly destroyed an air defense radar complex.
Why does this matter? Yesterday, Ukraine released video of two attacks carried out by TB2 Bayraktar drones.
The first destroyed a small Russian landing boat trying to ferry a sabotage party into Ukrainian held territory.
We also got this video of a TB2 taking out a supply truck.
You’d be forgiven if you forgot all about the Bayraktar, the hero of the first few weeks of the war. They had been essentially limited to long-range reconnaissance, as they were too vulnerable to Russian air defense systems. Indeed, the only reason they had their moment at the start of the war was because Russia didn’t move air defenses in with their invading spearhead, thinking that light resistance and army defections would end the war quickly. There’s even been reports that Russia didn't turn on the systems they did have out of some sense of “give Ukraine time to surrender” sentiment.
Once those air defense systems were turned on, Bayraktars disappeared from the battlefield, both literally (shot down) and figuratively (relegated to other non-visible roles, far behind enemy lines).
Ukraine might still have up to 20 TB2s, and they’re suddenly flying over Kherson oblast again.
Shaping the battlefield might not be sexy for those expecting video of big tank armies flying across open fields, but that’s how Ukraine wins this war. Doing the methodical work of degrading Russian artillery, defenses, and logistics, will pay huge dividends when Ukraine finally punches through Russia’s prepared defensive lines.
A Ukrainian love sonnet to the British Challenger tank.