“Russia has run out of weapons”, “Russians are out of ammunition”, “Russians have run out of tanks”, “Russian army, running out of soldiers and missiles”. These and similar claims have been in the public domain for a year now, either from sources or assumed by officials. Yet Russia is resisting, Ukraine is being bombed daily and suffering heavy losses, the war has been going on for 410 days. So how does Russia manage to continue the war “without weapons”? And more importantly, in the context of international sanctions, where does Russia get the raw materials for weapons? Which countries supply it with ammunition, weapons and what kind of ammunition, tanks and missile supplies does Moscow have today?
Then, in what key should we read the increasingly critical outbursts of the head of the Wagner mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has even published a video of his dead soldiers, blaming them on the lack of ammunition, modern equipment and, in general, military infrastructure appropriate to the situation on the front? Last but not least, who does it benefit, technically and militarily, to prolong the war?
Victor Sămărtinean, historian and researcher at the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICMER) and researcher at the Institute of History “Nicolae Iorga” of the Romanian Academy, offered some explanations to G4Media based on these questions.
- Russia has sufficient ammunition stocks for infantry, but they have a serious problem with artillery, on which the countering of the Ukrainian offensive depends;
- The Russians have resorted to a typical World War I genocidal strategy of firing huge numbers of shells which eventually led to a significant drop in stocks;
- Russia is short of missiles, has exhausted its stocks, and the heterogeneity of the models used is emblematic in this regard
- Vladimir Putin resembles the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, in that the latter also pinned his hopes on the demoralising effect that missile strikes have on the civilian population, but only succeeded in increasing people’s desire for resistance;
- Prigozhin continues to send his mercenaries to their deaths in attacks reminiscent of the madness of World War I, the last card he tries to play, namely that of the “betrayed warrior” who sacrifices himself (sic!) for the greatness of Russia;
- (On the myth of the Russians shovel-fighting in Ukraine): In the visual culture of the population of the former USSR there still resides that image of the Soviet soldier shoveling at the “fascist invader” who, although armed with a rifle with bayonet attached, fails to resist the assault;
- Russia produces for Russia. The Federation has managed to keep much of the military-industrial heritage of the Soviet era in working order, albeit at an incomparably lower level of production;
- Russia imports from Iran and North Korea (according to US administration sources), and there is a rumour circulating in military journalism, as yet unverified, that both India and Pakistan sell ammunition to both sides. Russia has unrestricted access to both technical and ammunition stocks in Belarus;
- Russia is a nuclear triad state, i.e. it can unleash a veritable “Armageddon” (…) These military capabilities do not currently pose a serious threat, but are part of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda rhetoric;
- The tank, as the main means of striking ground forces, continues to play a central role on Ukraine’s battlefields;
- (What Bakhmut symbolizes for both sides): The Russians are desperate for a success, a new Mariupol. Zelensky insists on keeping Bakhmut at all costs, the mood of the population depending on the resilience of this new symbol;
- Ukraine’s offensive will begin at the earliest at the end of April, when the unpaved roads, and especially the steppe, dry up and allow heavy vehicles to cross them;
- The passage of time is to the advantage of the Ukrainians, who are gaining time to form new battle groups made up of soldiers sent for training in NATO partner countries and equipped with the Western techniques that will be essential in the forthcoming spring offensive.
Reporter: A few months after the start of the war, the media started reporting statements, either from sources or assumed by officials, that “Russia is out of ammunition”, “Russians are out of tanks”, “Russian army running out of soldiers and missiles”, etc. Nevertheless, Russia is moving forward, even if more difficulty, Ukraine is being bombed daily, the war continues. How’s that for “Russia running out of ammunition?” after all.
Victor Sămărtinean: In order to be able to try to answer this question, I think it is necessary first of all to establish what “ammunition” means, because under this term, which broadly defines the various types of material used by most categories of weapons to hit one or more targets, we find everything from cartridges used by pistols and assault rifles to shells, missiles, torpedoes, intercontinental ballistic missiles and so on, Therefore, in order to understand the issues you have raised, it is necessary to make a breakdown by different types and categories of ammunition.
Thus, starting from the ammunition used by the basic infantry armament, i.e. “Kalashnikov” assault rifles (AKM, AK-74/M, AK-12), machine guns (RPK; RPK-74; RPK-74M) and general-purpose machine guns (PKM, PKP “Pecheneg”), to refer only to the types widely used by Russian forces (including mercenaries of the “Wagner” group) and separatists in the two so-called People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, so far there seem to be no serious problems in terms of supplying the necessary ammunition. This is evidenced by the stockpiles of arms and ammunition captured by Ukrainian troops during various offensives over the past year, plus captured or killed enemies on whom sufficient ammunition has been found. In this connection, it should also be mentioned that, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, one of the main products offered for export by Russia was infantry ammunition, both from the stocks of the former Soviet army and products made to order by the various factories throughout the Federation, with the latter managing to keep their manufacturing lines open and, in some cases, even to refurbish them. In conclusion, infantry ammunition seems to be sufficient so far, but a serious problem will arise, in my view, when the Russian Federation wants to increase the number of troops present on the Ukrainian front, which will lead to an exponential increase in ammunition needs, which remains to be seen whether it can be provided solely by existing production capacities.
The next category of ammunition, in order of frequency of use on the Ukrainian front by Russian infantrymen, is the various types of grenades and anti-tank rockets. Here we refer from hand-thrown grenades (offensive and defensive), which, from public information sources (including various Russian ‘Telegram’ channels), seem to be in sufficient numbers, to anti-tank grenades fired by the RPG-7 launcher, which are widely used mainly against Ukrainian infantry in pre-prepared positions (pillboxes, trenches, individual firing positions, etc.). ) and which, like the above-mentioned category, are found in significant quantities (especially the ‘classic’ PG-7VL anti-tank grenade). In connection with these products it should be noted, before going any further, that they were, like infantry ammunition, some of the most exported types by the Russian Federation after 1991.
A different situation from those mentioned above is encountered with regard to anti-tank missiles used in portable systems. Both sides of the war widely use the old Soviet (second generation) 9K111 “Fagot” and 9M113 “Konkurs” systems (and by the Russians including modernised versions of the latter – purchased from Belarus!), the problem with this category of weapons is the procurement of ammunition for modern Russian systems such as 9M133 “Kornet” and 9K115-2 “Metis-M”. These were used in significant numbers by Russian (special) forces in the first months of the invasion, but since then they have appeared less and less in the public eye (photos, videos taken by propaganda offices or ordinary soldiers), a situation which can only be explained by (possible) problems in the production chain.
After this brief analysis of the infantry ammunition situation (which is broadly positive for the aggressors), it is necessary to focus attention on the main instrument of destruction that is widely used and has some of the most horrific effects, namely artillery. Having proved incapable of successfully using the techniques and strategies of manoeuvre warfare (all the more paradoxical given that Russian military art had, at a theoretical level, the necessary foundation for such an offensive since the mid-1920s, through the research of the Soviet general Vladimir Trandafilov, who devised the strategy known as “Operation/Battle in Depth”, copied and adapted by the Germans under the name of “Blitzkrieg”, the Russians resorted to a strategy specific to the First World War, which, broadly speaking, can be summed up by the dictum “artillery conquers and infantry occupies”. A murderous strategy in the truest sense of the word, because it involves concentrating as much firepower as possible on as little territory as possible in order to achieve a devastating effect on the target. A strategy that the Russians have used, and will most likely continue to use, regardless of where the frontline is located, whether it is in a plain area devoid of human settlements or in an urban centre from which the civilian population has not been evacuated. Naturally, the use of this genocidal strategy involves the firing of a huge number of projectiles (classic or reactive) which eventually lead to a significant drop in stocks. Thus, earlier this year, US officials estimated that Russian artillery fire had been reduced across the entire front by about 75%, in other words, from about 20,000 shells fired per day to about 5,000. However, it continued to be concentrated at key points on the front, such as Bakhmut. There is therefore every reason to say that the Russians have a serious problem in terms of the level of stockpiles of these types of ammunition, the solution to which will depend on their very ability to resist the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive, which is expected to take place sometime in the spring of this year.
The final category of ammunition that I think is worth paying attention to is missiles (especially cruise and ballistic missiles), which have been used by the Russian Federation since the early hours of the conflict and which, more than a year after the start of the invasion, continue to be used as weapons designed to terrorise and, at the same time, demoralise the civilian population, mainly by attacking critical infrastructure targets. Prior to the 24th ofFebruary 2022 attack, Russia’s arsenal of short-range cruise and ballistic missiles was touted as one of the most imposing in the world, both in terms of technical capabilities and numbers.
Used (tested) in the last years of the last decade against military and civilian targets on the territory of Syria, which had no air defence, the missiles (especially the cruise missiles) induced the political-military decision-makers of the Russian Federation to believe that the handicap created by the collapse of the Soviet Union had been overcome and that, parity has finally been achieved in this category of weapons with the United States (which has used the famous Tomahawk cruise missiles on a large scale and to notable effect in all the conflicts in which it has participated over the last 31 years). After entire launches of cruise missiles (using all available models, from the ‘Kalibr’ family to the famous Kh-101, launched by the Tupolev 95 and 160 intercontinental bombers) and ballistic missiles (here we mean, mainly the OTR-21 “Tocica” and 9K720 “Iskander” systems), the only long-term effect, apart, of course, from the senseless destruction of human lives, has been the effective exhaustion of missile stocks. This is confirmed by the reduction in the frequency of such attacks, with the 9th of March 2023 attack being preceded by the 16th of February attack, so there is a three-week time gap between the two. Emblematic of this missile shortage problem is also the heterogeneity of the models used, from the latest generation hypersonic missiles (Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal”) to the modification of the missiles used by the S-300 anti-aircraft system (technology at the level of the 1970s and 1980s!) for use in ground strikes, to the Iranian-made Shahed 136 drones. With regard to the latter, it should be noted that the frequency and quantity of firing has been steadily decreasing in recent months and therefore we can suspect problems in the production and supply chain.
If I may conclude on this last issue, the missile issue, I would say that on this issue (as on many others) Vladimir Putin is similar to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, in that he too pinned his hopes on the demoralising effect of missile strikes (V-1 and V-2) on the civilian population, which in the end only increased the desire for resistance and the sense of the necessity and justness of war.
Rep: Even the head of the Wagner mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, published a video of his dead soldiers, blaming them on the lack of ammunition, modern equipment and, in general, military infrastructure appropriate to the situation on the front. How do you explain Prigozhin’s critical outbursts, coupled with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s criticism of Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu? Then reports emerged that Russian soldiers were going into battle “with shovels”, especially in close combat with the Ukrainians. How do you comment?
V.S.: I think that the deterioration of the relationship between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the political-military leadership of the Russian Federation, and here I refer mainly to Vladimir Putin, is a direct consequence of the disastrous development of the military campaign to conquer Ukraine. Let us not forget that Prigozhin is a creation of Putin, his former close associate turned big businessman and head of Russia’s leading mercenary company, a faithful executor of his master’s orders to the point where he began to give himself importance, becoming a ‘victim’ of his own propaganda. It is more than clear that this individual, Yevgeny Prigozhin, at some point, most likely in the autumn-autumn of last year, took steps to reconsider his role and place in the Putin regime’s pyramid of power, an attempt that resulted in his (pseudo?) marginalization. As for Ramzan Kadyrov, the situation is different from that of Prigozhin, the former is a despot over a republic within the Russian Federation that has caused great problems for the state body in the past (the Chechen wars) and which, in view of the heavy losses suffered by Chechen units in last year’s fighting in Ukraine, must present itself as a defender of the interests of its people, whose ‘heroism’ and sacrifice must not be in vain (in view of Ukrainian victories and the stagnation of the front).
The issue of the so-called lack of weapons of the mercenaries of the “Wagner” group is directly related to the evolution of the relationship between Prigozhin and Putin. If one is to look at last year’s battles in which Wagner mercenaries participated, they were provided with air support, artillery and tanks to accompany them on the offensive, plus ammunition as needed, the situation changed after the (suspected) feud between the two, so that although he is (allegedly) deprived of what he needs to conduct combat activity effectively, Prigozhin continues to send his mercenaries to their deaths in attacks reminiscent of World War I madness. Masses of men, armed only with Kalashnikov assault rifles, attacking Ukrainian defensive lines without artillery or armoured support and ending up like targets in a firing range. This pointless sacrifice, is, in my view, part of the ultimate card Prigozhin is trying to play, namely that of a “betrayed warrior” who sacrifices himself (sic!) for the greatness of Russia and thereby aims to gain support, both publicly and within the various decision-making levels of the Russian politico-military body, that will protect him from Putin’s wrath.
With regard to the last question, again in my view, I think we are dealing with a propaganda claim. The infantry shovel (the famous MPL-50 model), was transformed in the post-World War II years into a symbol of Soviet soldier heroism. Based on a real, documented fact, namely the use of the infantry shovel as an axe (a practice common in all European armies since the First World War!), the Soviet propaganda machine took care to insert such scenes in almost all films made at the time and which had as their subject the Great World War. The image of the Soviet soldier shovelling at the “fascist invader” who, although armed with a rifle and bayonet, fails to resist the assault, is still present in the visual culture of the population of the former Soviet Union. If the intention was indeed to underline the shortage in a way that was not intended to make a propaganda statement, Prigozhin could well have said that his mercenaries, lacking ammunition, had to resort to fighting with bayonets.
Rep: Who produces ammunition, tanks, missiles etc. for Russia? In the context of international sanctions, where does Russia get the raw materials for weapons? Which countries can supply Russia with ammunition, weapons, etc.? How many/what kind of supplies of ammunition, tanks, missiles does Russia still have?
V.S.: I would say that, first of all, Russia produces for Russia, in the sense that, despite the economic problems of the last 31 years, the Federation has managed to keep most of the military enterprises inherited from the Soviet period in working order, even if with an incomparably lower level of production. Thus, broadly speaking, they can ensure, in a self-sufficient manner, the production of (almost) all categories of armaments, from assault rifles to nuclear submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the problem being, as mentioned before, their quantity and usefulness in the context of the war in Ukraine. Because there is no point in building some of the best submarines in the world if they cannot be used to give you a more or less decisive advantage over the enemy. The Russian problems therefore lie in two issues: the inability to produce enough ammunition and to repair or produce new combat vehicles; the lack of electronic components (in particular, microchips) needed for the various types of computers used in modern combat technology. These problems are easily observable, one only has to look at photos or videos from the first days and weeks of the invasion and compare them with those showing newly mobilised Russian soldiers. Thus, from assault rifles, which were initially AK-74Ms, and now AKMs and AK-74s taken out of mobilization stock (where they were not kept as required! ), to tanks which, at the time of the invasion, were almost exclusively of the T-90/A, T-72B3 and T-80U types, i.e. relatively modern or modernised versions which, in many respects, were superior to the Ukrainian tanks, and now we see Russian tank units equipped with modernised (in the 1980s) versions of the T-62 tank (which, as the name indicates, became part of the Soviet army in the early 1960s).
As regards the import of combat equipment, so far the Russians seem to have purchased only Iranian drones of the HESA Shahed 131/136 and Mohajer-6 types (some sources mention the possibility of Iranian deliveries of missiles from the S-300 system, but this has not yet been confirmed), as regards ammunition, sources within the US administration say that large quantities of ammunition have been bought from North Korea, most likely artillery shells, and there is a currently unverified rumour in military journalism that both India and Pakistan are selling ammunition to both sides. I do not think there is any point here in referring to Belarus, which, through the dictator Lukashenko, is in a relationship of complete servitude to the Russian Federation, a state which has unlimited access to both the reserves of technology and ammunition and to elements of the military-industrial complex in that country. As a stage conclusion on this matter, in my view, the situation will change dramatically to the disadvantage of the Ukrainians (and thus of the entire free world) when China decides to sell ammunition and combat technology to Russia. Such a criminal decision will allow Russian forces to resume their artillery campaign with genocidal effects and turn every conquered metre into a selenian landscape.
As far as ammunition supplies are concerned, there is no quantitative information in the public domain; we can only suspect, as in the case of missiles, that stocks are dwindling by the day and that the Putin regime’s hope is that, in addition to imports, it will be possible to expand the production capacities of the domestic war industry quickly enough to be able to continue the war beyond the threshold which, at least in theory, the current reserves could sustain.
As regards the quantitative situation of the combat equipment available to Russian forces, according to the publication “The Military Balance 2023”, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, they have 1800 tanks (150 T-62M/MV; 400 T-72B/BA; 500 T-72B3; 250 T-72B3M; 100 T-80BV/U; 100 T-80BVM; 200 T-90A; 100 T-90M (and 5000 tanks in reserve); over 5350 armoured personnel carriers of all types and 4458 artillery pieces of various calibres, to mention only the main striking tools at the disposal of ground forces. Of course, they are not all concentrated on the Ukrainian front, nor could they be, because that would mean a loss of defense in sensitive areas – such as Chechnya and the unionised republics in the central-eastern part of Asia – belonging to the Russian Federation.
Rep: What kind of weapons does Russia currently have? What are their characteristics?
V.S.: Russia is a nuclear triad state, i.e. it can unleash a veritable “Armageddon”, to use a biblical term, by means of platforms on and under water, in the air and on land, with enough warheads to effectively wipe out major urban centres and make large parts of the planet uninhabitable (due to radiation from nuclear explosions). However, these military capabilities do not currently pose a serious threat, as they are part of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda rhetoric, which, by raising the issue, is intended to underline Russia’s status as a great power, especially to its own people.
We therefore need to discuss the categories of weapons that have or will have an impact on the development of the war in Ukraine. In the tank category, as the main means of striking ground forces, the Russians have used and are using only modernised versions of vehicles that entered active service or were designed during the Soviet Union. I think I should also mention a bit of the context of these modernizations. After the disastrous war with Georgia in the summer of 2008, when the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation looked and were equipped like a ‘Third World’ army, a modernisation programme was launched in the winter of the same year, named (unofficially) after Russia’s Defence Minister at the time, Anatoly Serdyukov. This ambitious programme, in addition to structural changes, also aimed at a massive modernisation of combat technology. Thus, large sums were invested in all categories of forces, with the ground forces receiving the least investment (according to IISS research). As a result, new combat technology development programmes, the “Armata”, “Kurganets” and “Bumerang” platforms, are either in testing or pre-production, and Russian troops have to make do with various upgrades of Soviet vehicles.
Nor is the situation any more encouraging for the fifth-generation Suhoi Su-57 aircraft, which, according to open sources, is believed to exist in about 21 examples (including prototypes). Also problematic is the equipment of the ordinary infantryman who, instead of receiving the “Ratnik” (“Warrior”) combat system, consisting of ballistic protection systems, communications and modern night vision instruments, is equipped with elements that visually and technically constitute a mix between the period of the war in Afghanistan (1980s) and that of the conflicts in Chechnya (1990s-2000s).
While we are on the subject of infantrymen, the situation of vehicles for transporting and providing fire support, i.e. TABs and infantry fighting machines, is equally unfortunate. Russian Armoured Amphibious Transporters are either Cold War-era models of the BTR-60/70/80 type, or modernised versions of the latter manufactured in recent years (called BTR-82/A) but retaining the relatively low (by contemporary standards) armour protection of the Soviet model. The situation is the same for infantry fighting vehicles, with Russian forces having to rely mainly on the BMP-2 (with its modernised version called the BMP-2M “Berezhok”), manufactured in the 1980s as a modernisation of the BMP-1 vehicle based on observations made during the Afghan War. Alongside this combat vehicle, the next generation, also designed and put into production during the Soviet period, called the BMP-3, is used on the Ukrainian front. The BMP-3 is clearly superior to the first two models mentioned above, both in terms of armour protection and mobility, but above all in terms of firepower (equipped with a 100 mm main gun and a coaxially mounted 30 mm secondary gun), equalling in certain performance parameters contemporary Western vehicles of the same generation.
Despite the fact that many defence experts in the years since the end of the Cold War have ‘sung’ its ‘eulogy’, the tank, as the main means of striking ground forces, continues to play a central role on Ukraine’s battlefields. Like the above-mentioned categories of weapons, the tanks, because we are talking about several models that are used in parallel, are modernised versions of Soviet-era vehicles.
Thus, the main models used are based on the T-72B platform, and here I am referring to both upgrades of the basic vehicle in the form of the T-72B3 and radical modifications such as the T-90/A/M. Also quite widespread are vehicles based on the T-80B tank, the modernized versions T-80BV (by adding a reactive armor of the “Kontakt-1” type, made in the ʾ80s) and BVM (publicly presented in 2017), as well as T-80U/UD which represent the last radical modernizations to the mentioned platform before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The tank losses suffered during the invasion, as well as in the heavy fighting in the months that followed, could not be replaced by the Russian defence industry, as the lack of industrial capacities required for large-scale modernisation of the T-72 and T-80 family of vehicles forced the armed forces to resort to drawing from mobilisation stocks of the T-62 series of tanks in the form of the Soviet-era modernised versions T-62M and MV last spring and summer. Vehicles whose firepower, represented by the 115 mm calibre gun, is inferior to the T-64/72/80 series, equipped with the powerful 125 mm calibre gun. If the introduction into active service, more precisely into the front line, of vehicles whose technical capabilities were considered outdated as early as the 1970s and 1980s, is a clear sign of weakness in the self-styled “second army of the world”, the pictures that appeared on the internet last week of a train carrying T-54 (1951 and B models) and T-55 tanks from a storage facility in Siberia to the west of the Russian Federation need no further comment. It remains to be seen just how quickly and in what form of modernisation (most likely equipped with first generation reactive armour) these vehicles will reach frontline operational units.
The last major category of weaponry used extensively in Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is artillery. As you might expect, given the above, in this sector too, Soviet-made technology is the majority. Thus, the towed artillery is mainly composed of 122 and 152 mm caliber firearms of the D-30 (122 mm – entered into Soviet Army service in 1960), 2A36 “Giatsint-B” (152 mm – entered active service in 1975) and 2A65 “Msta-B” (152 mm – the most modern artillery piece of this type – entered service in 1987). In parallel with these and with greater effect, due to their increased mobility, Russian forces use various types of self-propelled artillery.
These can be divided into two main categories according to the Russian nomenclature, the so-called medium-calibre, and here I refer to the 2S1 “Gvozdika” (122 mm – entered service in 1972), 2S3 “Akatsia” (152 mm – entered service in 1971), 2S5 “Giatsint-S” (self-propelled version of the 2A36 gun – entered the Soviet Army in 1978) and 2S19 “Msta” (152 mm – entered service in 1989 and still in production – modernized version 2S19M2) and heavy calibre, represented by the 2S7 “Pion” (203 mm – entered service in 1976 and upgraded to the 2S7M “Malka” standard in 1983) and the 2S4 “Tulpan” (240 mm – entered service with the Soviet Army in 1971) self-propelled bomb (mortar) launcher, which holds the world record for the largest calibre of such a piece.
Alongside these, an important role in Russia’s artillery firepower is played by reactive systems, the modern or less modern descendants (depending on the standard against which they are compared) of the famous “Katyusha” family of World War II-era launchers. These too can be divided into several categories, depending on the calibre of the missiles used and their technological level. The most widespread system is the BM-21 “Grad” launcher, 122 mm calibre, a single vehicle can launch a salvo of 40 missiles in just a few tens of seconds, capable of covering an area of about 1 hectare with fire. These systems, as old as they are effective in saturation bombardment, are accompanied by a modernised version, called the 9A53-G “Tornado”, which benefits, among other things, from a modern fire control system. In line with Russian ‘good practice’, the ‘medium’ and ‘heavy’ calibres are also used in this category of artillery. Thus, at 122 mm, the BM-21 ‘Grad’ system is considered to be of ‘medium’ calibre, while for destroying targets at a greater distance or better protected, the ‘heavy’ calibre is used, either in the form of the BM-27 ‘Hurricane’ (cal. 220 mm) and BM-30 ‘Smerch’ (cal. 300 mm) launchers, or the TOS-1/A thermobaric system (cal. 220 mm).
Rep: It seems that both armies are “stalling” in Bakhmut. Who and how does a prolonged war benefit? Is Ukraine preparing its counteroffensive? From a tactical and armament point of view, who does it benefit and why does the passage of time?
V.S.: The battle for the city of Bakhmut began in August 2022 and became famous, as you mentioned earlier, for the widespread use of mercenaries from the “Wagner” group and the dramatic rhetoric of Prigozhin (often filmed giving speeches in cemeteries filled with the fresh graves of his mercenaries). The Russian offensive line on that sector of the front stretches some 40 km north and south of the town of Bakhmut. The Russian advance into the urban area was slowed by fortification works carried out by Ukrainian forces both before and during the fighting, but the area adjacent to Bakhmut has another feature that gives the defenders a tremendous advantage. The area between Bakhmut and Soledar (north of Bakhmut) has been extensively mined for salt, resulting in a network of tunnels over 200 km long, effectively connecting the two towns underground. It therefore allowed both the reinforcement and resupply of resistance points, without the risks and pressure of exposure to enemy fire, and rapid retreat to new alignments and pre-prepared points, giving the Ukrainians the chance of a ‘resilient’ defence which in the context of the Russians’ use of ‘human waves’, i.e. infantry attacks without artillery, air and (especially) armoured support, caused the latter losses in the order of hundreds of men per day.
The town of Bakhmut has become a symbol, hence the apparent “stalling” by both sides, with the Russians desperate for a success (a new Mariupol) to demonstrate to public opinion in the Federation that the war is moving in the desired direction, namely, victory, and the Ukrainians who publicly state that they are using the battle of Bakhmut as an instrument to fix and destroy as many Russian units as possible and that, if the situation requires it, a strategic withdrawal from the town will be carried out (cf. Zelensky, 5th of April 2023, speech in Poland). The situation as far as the Ukrainians are concerned is largely in line with Zelensky’s statements, but we should not forget that both sides are using propaganda in their public communication and that unofficial sources have been circulating since the first months of this year the information that senior officers in the Ukrainian army leadership, led by Valery Zalutin, have repeatedly called for the abandonment of the settlement in favour of a new alignment, free of the risks of encirclement. These sources also say that Kaluzhny’s proposal was categorically rejected by Zelensky, who insisted on keeping the town at all costs, as the mood of the population depended on the resistance of this new symbol.
Clearly Ukraine is preparing a new offensive, information which has been transmitted through public communication channels and repeated at regular intervals recently, both to encourage the population and to put pressure on the aggressors, who must identify, in good time, the sector of the front where it will take place and, of course, counter it. As regards the timing, it is quite certain that the timetable will wait for the completion of the clearing, i.e. the end of April at the earliest, when the unpaved roads, and in particular the steppe, will dry out and allow heavy vehicles to cross them.
The passage of time, and by this we mean fixing as many Russian units as possible in difficult sectors of the front and preventing them from carrying out offensive actions aimed at changing the geographical configuration of the contact line, is of course to the Ukrainians’ advantage. On the one hand, they retain the territorial integrity of the country, but more importantly, they gain time to form new battle groups made up of soldiers sent for training in NATO partner countries and equipped with Western techniques, which will be essential in the upcoming offensive in the spring.
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