Feb 8, 2023
Russia’s widely-anticipated winter offensive has begun. Aiming to extend its control over eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russian troops are attacking north and south of Donetsk city.
In the northern sector, around the city of Bakhmut, the Russians slowly are advancing—albeit at staggering cost.
In the south, around Vuhledar, the Russians’ losses are just as steep—but they’ve made no clear gains that could justify the casualties. Vuhledar is turning into a meatgrinder for the Russian army, with enormous implications for the wider offensive.
The latest Russian attack on Vuhledar—a town with a pre-war population of just 14,000 that lies a mile north of Russian-held Pavlivka, 25 miles southwest of Donetsk—kicked off on Monday.
Seemingly a couple of battalions of Russian mechanized troops, together riding in a few dozen T-80 tanks and BMP-1 and BMP-2 fighting vehicles, advanced north.
The Ukrainian army’s elite 72nd Mechanized Brigade is entrenched around Vuhledar. It has laid minefields along the main approaches from Pavlivka. Its drones surveil the front. Its artillery is dialed in.
The Russians know this. And the assault force took rudimentary precautions. Tank crews injected fuel into their exhausts to produce smokescreens. At least one T-80 carried a mine-plow.
But leadership and intelligence failures—and Ukraine’s superior artillery fire-control—neutralized these measures. The Russian formation rolled into dense minefields. Destroyed tanks and BMPs blocked the advance. Vehicles attempting to skirt the ruined hulks themselves ran into mines.
Panicky vehicle commanders crowded so tightly behind the smoke-generating tanks that Ukrainian artillery, cued by drones, could score hits by firing at the head of the smoke. The Russians’ daylong attack ended in heavy losses and retreat. The survivors left behind around 30 wrecked tanks and BMPs.
Vuhledar is further evidence of the downward spiral in Russian military effectiveness. Armies that lack robust recruitment, training and industrial bases tend to become steadily less effective as losses deepen.
Desperate to maintain the pace of operations, the army replaces any well-trained, well-equipped troops who’ve been hurt or killed with an equal number of new recruits—but without taking the time, or expending the resources, to train and equip those new troops to the previous standard.
So the army gets less and less competent even as it inducts more and more new personnel. Incompetence leads to even greater losses, which prompts the army to double down: draft more green troops, train them even less and hurry them to the front even faster than it did the previous recruits.
Apply this tragic model to Vuhledar and the Russian army’s failures make more sense. For months, the Russian marine corps’s 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades were responsible for the sector around Pavlivka. But the marines suffered devastating losses in repeated failed assaults starting last fall.
It’s possible both marine brigades now are combat-ineffective. Their replacement appears to be the 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade, a new and inexperienced formation that belongs to the ill-fated 3rd Army Corps. The 72nd MRB was formed in Russian Tatarstan and, as such, includes a high proportion of ethnic minorities. Cannon fodder to the Kremlin.
Outside Vuhledar, the Russian 72nd Brigade met the Ukrainian 72nd Brigade—and got beaten at least as badly as the marine brigades did. If this is the best Russia can do after a year of wider fighting in Ukraine, its ballyhooed winter offensive could be costly, and brief.