Elite Russian Marine units backed by Moscow’s latest tanks were decimated in futile attacks in the eastern Vuhledar sector. Massive Ukrainian artillery strikes and, according to some reports, unexpected high-tech minefields scattered in their path by cannon fire, brought Russian armored columns to a standstill.
Two infantry formations based in Russia’s far eastern provinces, 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades, kicked off assaults against the Donbas industrial town on Feb. 4, using armored personnel carriers loaded with infantry, and supported by late-model T-80 and T-90 tanks from Russia’s high-profile 90th Tank Regiment.
By Feb. 14, practically all sources monitoring the fighting – including independents and information platforms loyal to the Kremlin – were reporting devastating Russian losses in equipment and men in the Vuhledar attacks, and some documented cases of Russian troops fleeing the battlefield.
In contrast with other hotspot Donbas sectors hit by Russia’s winter offensive, such as urban regions around the city of Bakhmut to the south of Vuhledar, or the rolling hills and mountains of Kreminne in the north, where infantry combat is predominant, the terrain around Vuhledar is flat and open.
The Vuhledar sector has, perhaps because of that open terrain, seen by far the biggest concentration of professional Russian ground units and armored vehicles committed to combat by the Kremlin in 2023 thus far, a Kyiv Post survey of battle and media reports over the first half of February showed.
Straight into the line of fire
According to those reports, Russian area commander Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov ordered attack units led by the Marine Infantry brigades to advance as rapidly as possible towards Ukrainian defenses, with the short-term objective of establishing forward infantry fighting positions to act as a base for future attacks.
Ukrainian artillery and fire direction networks had been long-established in the sector, and day after day, Russian armored columns were halted and then crushed by accurate shell strikes adjusted by Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) drones, or Ukrainian artillery observers perched atop the highest terrain in the vicinity: Vuhledar’s tallest buildings, all reports said.
In a week of fighting, the 155th Marines had been effectively wiped out, losing 36 tanks, 130 other armored vehicles, and at least half its soldiers, said Oleksy Dmitrashovsky, spokesman for Joint Forces Tavriia, in a Feb. 12 statement. At full strength, the 155th Naval Infantry would number about 2,000 men.
Russian Marine Aleksandr Gorshkov, made an AFU prisoner following one of the assaults, in a video interview made public by the AFU described poor training, weak commanders and shoddy planning in the 155th Brigade. In the account made public on Feb. 12, he said his brigade received orders simply to advance straight at Ukrainian positions. When leading units hit mines or were stopped by Ukrainian defensive fires, the entire armored column came under devastating AFU artillery fire, he said.
Artillery-delivered anti-vehicle mines were, according to multiple but unconfirmed social media reports, a tactical surprise for Russian armored troops expecting to advance quickly. Ukrainian battlefield drone video captured primarily in the second week of February, and geolocated to the Vuhledar sector, has shown multiple cases of a fast-moving Russian infantry fighting vehicle detonating a land mine, and the following armored personnel carrier charging past, without slowing down, only to blow up on a second, also seemingly unexpected, land mine.
Small-scale use of anti-vehicle mines delivered by cannon was first reported, in the Russo-Ukraine war, in Feb. 2022 in the Kharkiv sector. AFU employment of the munitions in Vuhledar sector a year later would, if recent reports are confirmed, mark the first large-scale deployment of the Cold War-era weapon, by either side, since the war began.
Other major Russian formations participating in attacks against Vuhledar since early February, according to multiple reports in Russian military social media, include a specialized northern warfare infantry brigade brought to Ukraine from the Arctic Circle region, and a special forces commando brigade.
According to unconfirmed, isolated reports, units of conscripts raised in Ukraine’s Russia-occupied Crimea likewise have been thrown against Vuhledar’s defenses. All, like the 40th and 155th Marine Infantry, are now gutted by losses and incapable of advancing further, and under nearly continuous Ukrainian artillery fire, a leading Kremlin military critic said.
“There is no movement, the situation for our troops is grave, the positions that they have grabbed are extremely difficult to hold, but they are banned from retreating, and they have no capacity to advance,” said Igor Girkin, a former commander in Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014. An outspoken opponent of Russian army generalship, in a Feb. 14 Telegram statement he referred to “cretins…(and)…idiots capable of any stupidity.”
A Feb. 12 situation estimate by Britain’s Defense Ministry said that Kremlin casualties over the first weeks of February appear to have quadrupled following major attacks in Vuhledar and elsewhere: “Over the past two weeks, Russia has likely suffered its highest rate of casualties since the first week of the invasion of Ukraine…the uptick in Russian casualties is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources across the front – this is exemplified in Vuhledar and Bakhmut.”
In Russia, already, political players are understood to be weaponizing the Vuhledar disaster and calling for heads to roll. In the Telegram channel Gray Zone, an information platform widely thought to be run by Yevgenyy Prigozhin, a former chef for Russian President Vladimir Putin and now commanding the Wagner mercenary corporation. He, like Girkin, is inveterately hostile to the Russian army and its top leadership. Blogger Aleksei Sukhonin called for the overall commander of the Vuhledar offensive to be shot by his own troops, as is happening elsewhere in the Russian military.
“This cowardly b*tch (General Muradov) sat at a checkpoint and sent column after column, until one of the brigade commanders participating in the attack on Vuhledar died on the front line. This cowardly b*tch was lucky that he wasn’t there with the frontline troops, they would have killed him on the spot, like other ‘super intelligent’ commanders. There have already been cases like that.”
Kyiv Post researchers have become aware of increasing reports of Russian troops murdering their commanders since November, although it has not been possible to validate these claims.
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