Gradually, and then Suddenly
Since Russia’s surprise decision to voluntarily withdraw from west bank Kherson in the first week of November, there has been little in the way of dramatic changes to the frontlines in Ukraine. In part, this reflects the predictable late autumn weather in Eastern Europe, which leaves battlefields waterlogged and clogged with mud and greatly inhibits mobility. For hundreds of years, November has been a bad month for attempting to move armies any sort of significant distance, and like clockwork we started to see videos of vehicles stuck in the mud in Ukraine.
The return of static positional warfare, however, also reflects the synergistic effect of increasing Ukrainian exhaustion along with a Russian commitment to patiently attriting and denuding Ukraine’s remaining combat capability. They have found an ideal place to achieve this in the Donbas.
It has gradually become apparent that Russia is committed to a positional attritional war, as this maximizes the asymmetry of their advantage in ranged fires. There is an ongoing degradation of Ukraine’s warmaking ability which is allowing Russia to patiently maintain the current tempo, while it organizes its newly mobilized forces for offensive action in the coming year, setting the stage for cascading and unsustainable Ukrainian losses.
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, a formerly wealthy, now down on his luck character is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways”, he replies, “gradually and then suddenly.” Someday we may ask how Ukraine lost the war and receive much the same answer.
It is safe to say that western regime media has set a very low standard for reporting on the war in Ukraine, given the extent to which the mainstream narrative is disconnected from reality. Even given these low standards, the way the ongoing battle in Bakhmut is being presented to the population is truly ludicrous. The Bakhmut axis is being spun to western audiences as a perfect synthesis of all the tropes of Russian failure: in a nutshell, Russia is suffering horrible casualties as it struggles to capture a small town with negligible operational importance. British officials, in particular, have been highly vocal in recent weeks insisting that Bakhmut has little to no operational value.
The truth is the literal opposite of this story: Bakhmut is an operationally critical keystone position in the Ukrainian defense, and Russia has transformed it into a death pit which compels the Ukrainians to sacrifice exorbitant numbers of men in order to hold the position as long as possible. In fact, the insistence that Bakhmut is not operationally significant is mildly insulting to the audience, both because a quick glance at a map clearly shows it at the heart of the regional road network, and because Ukraine has thrown a huge number of units into the front there.
Let’s take a step back and consider Bakhmut in the context of Ukraine’s overall position in the east. Ukraine began the war with four operable defensive lines in the Donbas, built up over the last 8 years both as part and parcel of the simmering war with the LNR and DNR, but also in preparation for potential war with Russia. These lines are structured around urban agglomerations with road and rail links between each other, and can be roughly enumerated as follows:
The Donbas is a particularly accommodating place to construct formidable defenses. It is highly urbanized and industrial (Donetsk was the most urban oblast in Ukraine prior to 2014, with over 90% of the population living in urban areas), with cities and towns dominated by the typically robust Soviet buildings, along with prolific industrial complexes. Ukraine has spent much of the last decade improving these positions, and the frontline settlements are riddled with trenches and firing positions that are clearly visible on satellite imagery. A recent video from the Avdiivka axis demonstrates the extent of Ukrainian fortifications.
So, let’s review the state of these defensive belts. The first belt, which ran roughly from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to Popasna, was broken in the summer by Russian forces. Russia achieved a major breakthrough at Popasna and was able to begin the full rollup of this line, with Lysychansk falling at the beginning of July.
At this point, the frontline sits directly on what I have labeled as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian defensive belts, and both of these belts are now heavily bleeding.
The capture of Soledar by Wagner forces has severed the connection between Bakhmut and Siversk, while around Donetsk, the heavily fortified suburb of Marinka has been almost completely cleared of Ukrainian troops, and the infamous keystone Ukrainian position in Avdiivka (the place from which they shell Donetsk city’s civilian population) is being flanked from both directions.
These positions are absolutely critical for Ukraine to hold. The loss of Bakhmut will mean the collapse of the last defensive line standing in the way of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, which means Ukraine’s eastern position will rapidly contract to its fourth (and weakest) defensive belt.
The Slavyansk agglomeration is a far worse position for Ukraine to defend than the other belts, for several reasons. First and foremost, as the belt farthest to the west (and thus the farthest from the February 2022 start lines), it is the least improved and least fortified of the belts. Secondly, lots of the, shall we just say “good stuff” around Slavyansk is to the east of the city, including both the dominating high ground and the major highways.
All this to say, Ukraine has been very anxious to hold the Bakhmut line, as this is a vastly preferable position to hold, and accordingly they have been pouring units into the sector. The absurd levels of Ukrainian force commitment in this area have been well noted, but just as a quick refresher, publicly available Ukrainian sources locate at least 34 brigade or equivalent units that have been deployed in the Bakhmut area. Many of these were deployed months ago and are already shattered, but over the full span of the ongoing battle this represents an astonishing commitment.
Russian forces, primarily Wagner PMC and LNR units, have been slowly but surely collapsing this Ukrainian stronghold by making liberal use of artillery. In November, now former Zelensky advisor Oleksiy Arestovych admitted that Russian artillery on the Bakhmut axis enjoyed roughly a 9 to 1 tube advantage, which is turning Bakhmut into a death pit.
The battle is being presented in the west as one where Russians – usually stereotyped as convict soldiers employed by Wagner – launch frontal assaults on Ukrainian defenses and take horrible casualties attempting to overwhelm the defense with pure numbers. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Russia is moving slowly because it irons out Ukrainian defenses with artillery, then pushes forward cautiously into these pulverized defenses.
Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to funnel units in to more or less refill the trenches with fresh defenders. A Wall Street Journal piece about the battle, while trying to present a story of Russian incompetence, accidentally included an admission from a Ukrainian commander on the ground who said: “So far, the exchange rate of trading our lives for theirs favors the Russians. If this goes on like this, we could run out.”
The comparisons have been liberally made (and I cannot take credit for them) to one of the most infamous battles of World War One – the bloody catastrophe at Verdun. While it does not do to exaggerate the predictive value of military history (in the sense that a thorough knowledge of the first world war does not allow one to predict events in Ukraine), I am, however, a great fan of history as analogy, and the German scheme at Verdun is a useful analogy for what’s happening in Bakhmut.
The Battle of Verdun was conceived by the German high command as a way to cripple the French army by drawing them into a preconfigured meatgrinder. The notion was to attack and seize crucial defensive high ground – ground so important that France would be forced to counterattack and attempt to recapture it. The Germans hoped that France would commit their strategic reserves to this counterattack so that they could be destroyed. While Verdun failed to completely sap French combat power, it did become one of the most bloody battles in world history. A German coin commemorating the battle depicted a skeleton pumping blood out of the earth – a chilling but apt visual metaphor.
Something similar has indeed occurred in Bakhmut, in the sense that Russia is pressing on one of the most sensitive points on the front line, drawing Ukrainian units in to be killed. A few months ago, on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal from west bank Kherson, the Ukrainians talked ecstatically of continuing their offensive efforts with a strike southward in Zaparozhia to cut the land bridge to Crimea, along with continued efforts to break through into northern Lugansk. Instead, forces from both of these axes have been redirected to Bakhmut, to the point where this axis is actively draining Ukrainian combat strength in other areas. Ukrainian sources, previously full of optimism, now unequivocally agree that there will be no Ukrainian offensives in the near future. As we speak, Ukraine continues to funnel forces into the Bakhmut axis.
At the present moment, Ukraine’s position around Bakhmut has badly deteriorated, with Russian forces (largely Wagner infantry supported by Russian army artillery) making substantial progress on both of the city’s flanks. On the northern flank, the capture of Soledar pushed Russian lines to within spitting distance of the north-south highways, while the near simultaneous capture of Klishchiivka on the southern flank has propelled the frontlines to the dootstep of Chasiv Yar (firmly in Bakhmut’s operational rear).
The Ukrainians are not presently encircled, but the continued creep of Russian positions ever closer to the remaining highways is easily discernable. Currently, Russian forces have positions within two miles of all the remaining highways. Even more importantly, Russia now controls the high ground to both the north and south of Bakhmut (the city itself sits in a depression surrounded by hills) giving Russia fire control over much of the battle space.
I am currently anticipating that Russia will clear the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line by late March. Meanwhile, the denuding of Ukrainian forces on other axes raises the prospect of decisive Russian offensives elsewhere.
At the moment, the front roughly consists of four main axes (the plural of axis, not the bladed implement), with substantial agglomerations of Ukrainian troops. These consist, from south to north, of the Zaporozhia, Donetsk, Bakhmut, and Svatove Axes (see map below). The effort to reinforce the Bakhmut sector has noticeably diluted Ukranian strength on these other sectors. On the Zaporozhia front, for example, there are potentially as few as five Ukrainian brigades on the line at the moment.
At the moment, the majority of Russian combat power is uncommitted, and both western and Ukrainian sources are (belatedly) becoming increasingly alarmed about the prospect for a Russian offensive in the coming weeks. Currently, the entire Ukrainian position in the east is vulnerable because it is, in effect, an enormous salient, vulnerable to attack from three directions.
Two operational depth objectives in particular have the potential to shatter Ukrainian logistics and sustainment. These are, respectively, Izyum in the north and Pavlograd in the South. A Russian thrust down the west bank of the Oskil river towards Izyum would simultaneously threaten to cut off and destroy the Ukrainian grouping on the Svatove axis (S on the map) and sever the vital M03 highway from Kharkov. Reaching Pavlograd, on the other hand, would completely isolate the Ukrainian forces around Donetsk and sever much of Ukraine’s transit across the Dneiper [cf. map in title]
Both Izyum and Pavlograd are roughly 70 miles from the start lines of a prospective Russian offensive, and thus offer a very tempting combination – being both operationally significant and in relatively manageable reach. Beginning yesterday, we started to see Russian advances on the Zaporozhia axis. While these consist, at the moment, mainly of reconnaissance in force pushing into the “grey zone” (that ambiguous interstitial frontage), RUMoD did claim several settlements taken, which could presage a genuine offensive push in this direction. The key tell would be a Russian assault on Orikhiv, which is a large town with a genuine Ukrainian garrison in it. A Russian attack here would indicate that something more than a probing attack is underway.
It is difficult sometimes to parse out the difference between what we predict will happen and what we want to happen. This, certainly, is what I would choose if I was in charge of Russian planning – a drive south along the west bank of the Oskil river on the Kupyansk-Izyum axis, and a simultanious attack northward past Zaporozhia towards Pavlograd. In this case, I believe simply screening Zaporozhia in the short term is preferable to getting bogged down in an urban battle there.
Whether Russia will actually attempt this, we do not know. Russian operational security is much better than either Ukraine’s or their proxy forces (Wagner and the LNR/DNR Milita), so we know significantly less about Russia’s deployments than we do about Ukraine’s. Regardless, we know that Russia enjoys a strong preponderance of combat power right know, and there are juicy operational targets within range.
Please Sir, I Want Some More
The bird’s eye view of this conflict reveals a fascinating meta-structure to the war. In the above section, I argue for a view of the front structured around Russia progressively breaking through sequential Ukrainian defensive belts. I think that a similar sort of progressive narrative structure applies to the force generation aspect of this war, with Russia destroying a sequence of Ukrainian armies.
Let me be a bit more concrete. While the Ukrainian military exists at least partially as a continuous institution, its combat power has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times at this point through western assistance. Multiple phases – life cycles, if you will – can be identified:
- In the opening months of the war, the extant Ukrainian army was mostly wiped out. The Russians destroyed much of Ukraine’s indigenous supplies of heavy weaponry and shattered many cadres at the core of Ukraine’s professional army.
- In the wake of this initial shattering, Ukrainian combat strength was shored up by transferring virtually all of the Soviet vintage weaponry in the stockpiles of former Warsaw Pact countries. This transferred Soviet vehicles and ammunition, compatible with existing Ukrainian capabilities, from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, and was mostly complete by the end of spring, 2022. In early June, for example, western sources were admitting that Soviet stockpiles were drained.
- With Warsaw Pact stockpiles exhausted, NATO began replacing destroyed Ukrainian capabilities with western equivalents in a process that began during the summer. Of particular note were howitzers like the American M777 and the French Caesar.
Russia has essentially fought multiple iterations of the Ukrainian Army – destroying the pre-war force in the opening months, then fighting units that were refilled from Warsaw Pact stockpiles, and is now degrading a force which is largely reliant on western systems.
This led to General Zaluzhny’s now-famous interview with the economist in which he asked for many hundreds of Main Battle Tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and artillery pieces. In effect, he asked for yet another army, as the Russians seem to keep destroying the ones he has.
I want to note a few particular areas where Ukraine’s capabilities are clearly degraded beyond acceptable levels, and observe how this relates to NATO’s effort to sustain the Ukrainian war-making effort.
Russia has been prioritizing counterbattery action for many weeks now, and seems to be having great success hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery.
It seems that this partially coincides with the deployment of new “Penicillin” counterbattery detection systems. This is a rather neat new tool in the Russian arsenal. Counterbattery warfare generally consists of a dangerous tango of guns and radar systems. Counterbattery radar is tasked with detecting and locating the enemy’s guns, so they can be destroyed by one’s own tubes – the game is roughly analogous to enemy teams of snipers (the artillery) and spotters (the radar) attempting to hunt each other – and of course, it makes good sense to shoot the other side’s radar systems as well, to blind them, as it were.
The Penicillin system offers potent new capabilities to Russia’s counterbattery campaign because it detects enemy artillery batteries not with radar, but with acoustic locating. It sends up a listening boom which, in coordination with a few ground componants, is able to locate enemy guns through seismic and acoustic detection. The advantage of this system is that, unlike a counterbattery radar, which emits radio waves that give away its position, the Penicillin system is passive – it simply sits still and listens, which means it does not offer an easy way for the enemy to locate it. As a result, in the counterbattery war, Ukraine currently lacks a good way to blind (or rather, deafen) the Russians. Furthermore, Russian counterbattery abilities have been augmented by increased use of the Lancet drone against heavy weapons.
All that to say, Russia has been destroying quite a bit of Ukrainian artillery lately. the Russian Ministry of Defense has made a point of highlighting counterbattery success. Now, I know at this point you’re thinking, “why would you trust the Russian Ministry of Defense?” Fair enough – let’s trust but verify.
On January 20, NATO convened a meeting at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, against a backdrop of a massive new aid package being put together for Ukraine. This aid package contains, lo and behold, a huge amount of artillery pieces. By my count, the aid announced this week includes nearly 200 artillery tubes. Multiple countries, including Denmark and Estonia, are sending Ukraine literally all of their howitzers. Call me crazy, but I seriously doubt that several countries would just spontaneously decide, at the exact same time, to send Ukraine their entire inventory of artillery pieces were Ukraine not facing crisis levels of artillery losses.
Furthermore, the United States has taken new, unprecedented steps to supply Ukraine with shells. Just in the past week, they have dipped into its stockpiles in Israel and South Korea, amid reports that American stocks are so depleted that they will take more than a decade to replenish.
Let’s review the evidence here, and see if we can make a reasonable conclusion:
- Ukrainian officials admit that their artillery is outgunned by 9 to 1 in critical sectors of the front.
- Russia deploys a cutting edge counterbattery system and increased numbers of Lancet drones.
- The Russian MoD claims that they have been hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery systems in large numbers.
- NATO has hurried to put together a massive package of artillery systems for Ukraine.
- The United States is raiding critical forward-deployed stockpiles to supply Ukraine with shells.
I personally think it is reasonable, given all of this, to assume that Ukraine’s artillery arm has been largely shattered, and NATO is attempting to rebuild it yet again.
My kingdom for a tank
The main point of contention in recent weeks has been whether or not NATO will give Ukraine Main Battle Tanks. Zaluzhny hinted at a badly depleted Ukrainian tank park in his interview with the Economist, in which he pleaded for hundreds of MBTs. NATO has attempted to provide a stopgap solution by giving Ukraine various armored vehicles like the Bradley IFV and the Stryker, which do restore some mobility, but we must unequivocally say that these are in no way substitutes for MBTs, and they fall far short in both protection and firepower. Attempting to use Bradleys, for example, in the MBT role is not going to work.
Thus far, it appears that Ukraine is going to receive a small handful of Challenger tanks from Britain, but there is also talk of donating Leopards (German make), Abrams (American), and Leclercs (French). As usual, the battlefield impact of Ukraine receiving tanks is being both greatly overstated (by both Ukrainian shills and pessimistic Russians) and understated (by Russian triumphalists). I suggest a middle ground.
The number of tanks that can be reasonably given to Ukraine is relatively low, simply because of the training and sustainment burden. All of these tanks use different ammunition, special parts, and require specialized training. They are not the sort of systems that can simply be driven off the lot and directly into combat by untrained crew. The ideal solution for Ukraine would be to receive only Leopard A24s, as these might be available in decent numbers (perhaps a couple hundred), and at least they would be standardized.
We should also note, of course, that these western tanks are not likely to be game changers on the battlefield. The Leopard already showed its limitations in Syria under Turkish operation. Note the following quote from this 2018 article:
“Given that the tanks are widely operated by NATO members – including Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Norway – it is particularly embarrassing to see them so easily destroyed by Syrian terrorists when they are expected to match the Russian Army.”
Ultimately, the Leopard is a fairly mundane MBT designed in the 1970’s outclassed by the Russian T-90. It’s not a terrible piece of equipment, but it’s hardly a battlefield terror. They will take losses and be attrited just like Ukraine’s prewar tank park was. However, that doesn’t change the fact that a Ukrainian army with a few companies of leopards will be more potent than one without them.
I think it’s fair to say that the following three statements are all true:
- Receiving a mixed bag of western tanks will create a difficult training, maintenance, and sustainment burden for Ukraine.
- Western tanks like the Leopard have limited combat value and will be destroyed like any other tank.
- Western tanks will raise the combat power of the Ukrainian army as long as they are in the field.
Now, with that being said, at this point it does not appear that NATO wants to give Ukraine main battle tanks. At first it was suggested that tanks from storage could be dusted off and given to Kiev, but the manufacturer has stated that these vehicles are not in working order and would not be ready for combat until 2024. That leaves only the possibility of dipping directly into NATO’s own tank parks, which thus far they are reticent to do.
Why? My suggestion would simply be that NATO does not believe in Ukrainian victory. Ukraine cannot even dream of dislodging Russia from its position without an adequate tank force, and so the reticence to hand over tanks suggests that NATO thinks that this is only a dream anyway. Instead, they continue to prioritize weaponry that sustains Ukraine’s ability to fight a static defense (hence, the hundreds of artillery pieces) without indulging in flights of fancy about a great Ukrainian armored thrust into Crimea.
However, given the intense war fever that has built up in the west, it’s possible that political momentum imposes the choice upon us. It is possible that we have reached the point where the tail wags the dog, that NATO is trapped in its own rhetoric of unequivocal support until Ukraine wins a total victory, and we may yet see Leopard 2A4s burning on the steppe.
Summary: The Death of a State
Ukraine’s military is extremely degraded, having taking exorbitant losses in both men and heavy weaponry. I believe Ukrainian KIA are approaching 150,000 at this point, and it is clear that their inventories of both artillery tubes, shells, and armored vehicles are largely exhausted.
I expect the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line to be cleared before April, after which Russia will push towards the final (and weakest) defensive belt around Slavyansk. Meanwhile, Russia has significant combat power in reserve, which can be used to reopen the northern front on the west bank of the Oskil and restart offensive operations in Zaporozhia, placing Ukrainian logistics in critical danger.
This war will be fought to its conclusion on the battlefield and end in a favorable decision for Russia.
Coda: A Note about Coups
Feel free to ignore this segment, as it’s a little more nebulous and not concretely related to events in Ukraine or Russia.
We’ve seen lots of fun rumors about coups in both countries – Putin has foot cancer and his government will collapse, Zelensky is going to be replaced with Zaluzhny, on and on it goes. Patriots in control and all that good stuff.
In any case, I thought I would just generally write about why coups and revolutions never seem to lead to nice and cuddly democratic regimes, but instead almost always lead to political control passing to the military and security services.
The answer, you might think, is simply that these men have the guns and the power to access the important rooms where decisions are made, but it is not only that. It also relates to a concept in game theory called Schelling points.
A Schelling point (named after the gentleman that introduced the concept, an economist named Thomas Schelling) refers to the solution that parties choose given a state of uncertainty and no ability to communicate. One of the classic examples to illustrate the concept is a coordination game. Suppose that you and another person are each shown four squares – three are blue and one is red. You are each asked to choose a square. If you both select the same square, you receive a monetary prize – but you are unable to talk to one another about your choices. How do you choose? Well, most people rationally choose the red square, simply because it is conspicuous – it stands out, and you therefore presume that your partner will also choose this square. The red square isn’t better, per se, it’s just obvious.
In a state of political turmoil, or even anarchy, the system works itself towards Schelling points – obvious figures and institutions that radiate authority, and are therefore the conspicuous choice to assume power and issue commands.
The Bolsheviks, for example, understood this very well. Immediately after declaring their new government in 1917, they dispatched commissars to the various office buildings in Saint Petersburg where the Tsarist bureaucracies were headquartered. Trotsky famously turned up at the foreign affairs ministry building one morning and simply announced that he was the new Foreign Minister. The employees laughed at him – who was he? how did he presume to be in charge? – but for Trotsky the point was to insinuate himself on a Schelling point. In the state of anarchy that began to spread in Russia, people naturally look for some obvious focal point of authority, and the Bolsheviks had cleverly positioned themselves as such by claiming control over the bureaucratic offices and titles. On the other side of the civil conflict, political opposition to the Bolsheviks clustered around Tsarist army officers, because they too were Schelling points, in that they already had titles and position within an existing hierarchy.
All of this is to say that in the event of a coup or state collapse, new governments are virtually never formed sui generis – they always arise from preexisting institutions and hierarchies. Why, when the Soviet Union fell, did political authority devolve to the Republics? Because these Republics were Schelling points – branches that one can grab for safety in a chaotic river.
I simply say this because I am tired of phantasmagorical stories about liquidation of the regime in Russia and even territorial dissolution. The fall of Putin’s government will not and cannot lead to an acquiescent, western-adjacent regime, because there are no institutions of real power in Russia that are thus disposed. Power would fall to the security services, because they are Schelling points, and that’s where power goes […]
my related pieces
in November 2022
the prospects of destruction of the Ukrainian forces east of Dnieper river
since early December 20222
the result of NATO meeting in Ramstein on January 20, 2023