Kyiv Post Defense Correspondent Stefan Korshak offers his view of the latest battlefield developments..
The short version is, the Russian military appears to have been particularly stupid in the last few weeks, and my best guess is that isn’t going to stop any time soon. For the long version, read on!
The Russian army somewhat surprisingly to me seems to still think attacking around Avdiivka is a good idea.
Since Oct. 10 we have seen two major armored attacks on a scale we hadn’t seen since February when the Russian army leadership decided massed mounted assault would put Vuhledar and a nice local victory in their hands. I’ve attached a map with some red graphics.
Some of you may recall that plan fell apart after it turned out that not only did 72nd brigade have artillery target reference points planned up and down the avenues of approach, but that they had artillery-scattered mines so that once the Russians got embroiled in a gunfight with the forward Ukrainian positions, the Ukrainian artillery dropped mines on top of and behind the Russians, effectively locking the Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) in place. Then Ukrainian artillery, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and drones toting explosives took the stuck vehicles out.
The attack on Avdiivka left me scratching my head at the outset because those are positions the Ukrainians have held since the start of the war, at least some of the fortifications are reinforced concrete, and the Ukrainians are so sure of the sector they when they rotate troops in and out the general idea is that Avdiivka is supposedly a relatively safe sector. Sure the Russians will shoot artillery. But drive out in the open and run assaults? That would be absurd.
As it worked out, “absurd” has, and this is confirmed from multiple sources, come twice so far. I’m guessing here, but if you look at a map and pretend the Ukrainian fortifications, minefields and artillery target reference points exist, Avdiivka at the center of a Ukrainian salient sticking into the Russian front, and my guess some big generals or some staff officers looked at the map and decided “We will encircle the Ukrainians here, because big encirclements is what we Russians do.”
Based on observations from the Ukrainians and griping from the Russian military internet, that translated to a bunch of air strikes (the Russian air force has glide bombs now and the Ukrainians don’t seem to have air defenses capable of reaching deeply enough into Russia-controlled air space to hit the bombers before they release the glide bomb) on Ukrainian positions around Avdiivka.
Leaving aside the obvious question about how accurate a Russian glide bomb manufactured with guidance electronics available to Russia via supply chains normally used by drug gangs is, there remained the issue of the deep Ukrainian fortifications. Aerial bombs are big and scary, but they won’t blow up a reinforced concrete bunker unless it’s a direct hit, and even then, that’s one bunker out of how many dozens or hundreds on the line.
In other words, touching off a lot of impressive explosions where you think the enemy is, is not always the same thing as destroying the enemy, and the better the enemy is dug in, the greater the chances your fireworks display will ring the enemy’s bell but not really hurt him.
The Russians then followed up, twice now, by launching battalion-sized columns (think 40 or so armored vehicles with maybe 500 men) at Ukrainian lines. The main short-term objectives early on seem have been a coking factory and a mining slag head (think mini-mountain) on the north side of Avdiivka, so the reasonable guess is the Russians wanted to get infantry into those places and then use that as a lever/base for further attacks. Again, probably in the headquarters in Moscow, it seemed like a reasonable idea.
But out on the landscape, that translated to files of Russian vehicles trundling along dirt roads until the lead vehicle stopped for some reason, hit a mine, got nailed by an ATGM, the lieutenant didn’t know which way to turn, the road went right when the briefing said it was going to go left, whatever, and then sooner or later the Ukrainians hammered the stacked up Russian tanks and APCs.
Sometimes it’s clear the Russians moved on, sometimes it’s equally clear they turned back. The Ukrainian standard operating procedure (SOP) is that a busted Russian vehicle should be pounded into scrap if at all possible, so between the drones and follow-up artillery, it’s not likely that much that the Russians sent out, made it back to Russian lines.
The evidence is clear that the same “hit them when you can but especially once they stop” Ukrainian drill — by 110th Brigade in the north and 53rd Brigade in the south — got applied to Russian infantry that managed to dismount, and there are horrific videos and photographs of Russian soldiers dead and dying following a cluster munition strike in their general area, or just a drone grenade dropped in a man’s lap.
It seems like, from Oct. 10–14 the Russians launched something like four of these attacks around Avdiivka, all failures. There seems to have been another, less substantial push attempted from Oct. 18–20. The Russian military blogs are very clear this has basically gutted Russian forces in the vicinity of combat vehicles and the soldiers that are left are exhausted.
The way it looks to me, over the past three weeks, the Russians have thrown away something like two to four brigades of trained, regular army troops, against the very strongest Ukrainian fortifications on the entire front, for very close to zero results. Or something like 200 combat vehicles destroyed and not recoverable, and 1,000–1,500 men killed or severely wounded.
The last two to three weeks of fighting at Avdiivka are a serious battlefield defeat and the worst probably suffered by the Russians in the entire war – since they tried to force crossings on the Siverskyi Donets River in May 2022, and surround Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk, but were unpleasantly surprised to find out the Ukrainians had just received about 200 NATO-standard howitzers and that tanks and APCs in a river ford are an excellent artillery target.
I am even more sure, like lives of members of my family in the balance sure, that there are Russian officers in the Russian chain of command that predicted all of this, and either kept their mouths shut because they knew the big bosses wouldn’t listen to them, or, they said “this won’t work” and got told to “shut up.”
I think that the presence of Vladimir Putin at joint forces west HQ in Rostov on the 20th is the opposite of a coincidence. Everything we have seen from the Russian military leadership so far, makes more than likely that a major driver of these attacks and everything they involved — their assumptions, conception, task organization, and execution — was simply that generals several levels of the chain of command above the soldiers actually going out under the Ukrainian artillery fire, concluded they had to try something to show Putin the army has the initiative and is attacking in Ukraine. Soldier lives and fighting capacity in the future were, in the judgement of those Russian military leaders, I am guessing, far less important. Pic attached.
What we are witnessing is not the prosecution by professional statesmen in a national government answerable to others of a plan with rational and logical objectives.
What we are seeing, the way it looks to me anyway, are the actions of several dysfunctional government institutions and people inside them with influence, who are somewhat reliant on each other, but thanks to internal institutional narratives divorced from reality (the Kremlin says Russia will win and will always prevail, therefore, we cannot consider more reasonable options), answerable to just about no one. Why take responsibility for a failed attack or a weapon that didn’t deliver victory like it was supposed to, when an official can always say “Well, the big boss thought it would work.”? Who’s going to challenge that?
The net result is that what we are seeing right now, is the Russian national leadership conducting a war with decisions being driven primarily by individuals motivated almost solely by the desire to protect their personal material possessions and families.
Within the framework of the Russian military-industrial complex, for those individuals, the only safe policy is one that places blame for government-caused disasters on others, or even better, simply suppresses information documenting the disaster.
I’ll leave it to others to decide what other states starting with Ukraine should do to deal with the, as I see it, dysfunctional inertia of the Russian military-industrial complex. It’s certainly not good news — even a stupidly-run army the size of the Russians’ could, unless it cracks internally, take years to break on the battlefield.
Years. The Russian state propaganda says Russia will fight forever and only will accept victory, but we know that’s not true: 1904–5 vs. Japan, 1914–1917 vs. the Central Powers, 1919–20 vs. Poland, 1941–45 vs. Finland, 1979–89 vs. Afghanistan (image), and 1991–4 vs. Chechnya.
There are plenty of historical precedents of a country neighboring Russia and attacked by Russia, that repels the invasion. Arguably Russian troop reductions in Syria, in progress right now, are the same process, just the latest iteration. But even with a national leadership capable of immolating tens of thousands of troops in battles like Siversky Donets, Vuhledar, Bakhmut and now Avdiivka in the space of about six months, it usually takes years before the people in charge of Russia conclude it’s now in the decision-maker’s best, personal, individual interest to stop the mass sacrifice of others.
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