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Spring in the Steppes: Running out of steam in Bakhmut

2023 04 08 23 15 08
Written by Adrian Hill

Former soldier and diplomat Adrian Hill sees the Russian offensive in Ukraine bogged down in Bakhmut. Meanwhile modern tanks and trained crews for Ukraine are arriving from the UK, USA and elsewhere. Putin claims that the West will find it harder to produce weapons than will Russia, but this is the opposite of the truth.

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The Russian offensive to seize the eastern Ukraine city of Bakhmut has culminated, reports the team at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington DC. In other words, Russia’s ground forces have run out of steam. About 65% of the city has been taken, mainly by mercenaries from the Wagner group.

Already, the military blogger community in Russia is busy typing messages to each other speculating which generals are destined for the sack. Russia’s ministry of defence has become so adept at playing musical generals that they now can recall them from gardening leave rather than early retirement.

ISW’s team conclude that the Russian forces driving the offensive probably no longer have enough men, weapons, ammunition, rations and supplies to revive their drive to capture the whole city of Bakhmut. Consumption of ammunition has been high on both sides but the Russians use roughly double the amount fired by the Ukrainians. Russian losses have been appalling. Wagner mercenary group – which employed released convicts to launch human wave attacks over several weeks – suffered huge casualties. Rumour claims this was the Kremlin’s way to reduce the political threat from the group’s proprietor while at the same time reducing the population of criminals. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, commented that his private army’s lack of ammunition could be ‘ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal.’ He is positioning himself as a possible candidate in the next election for the national president.

The city of Bakhmut until recently had 70,000 residents and regarded itself as a rather comfortable place to live. Today there are barely a few thousand residents left, who struggle against desperate conditions yet somehow manage to survive. Most will leave if the Ukrainians withdraw completely. Their city has been largely demolished by shell and rocket fire. The significant Russian achievement has been to harden the determination of Ukrainians to throw out their invaders. The Ukrainians built strong defensive lines to the west of Bahkmut though decided to fight to keep their foothold in the city. They paid a price but one far lower than Russia’s. Furthermore, they are assembling the means to move over to the offensive as the weather improves.

In a democratic country an opposition would remove Putin and his cronies at best speed. If only the Russians had some real politicians but they don’t. They threw democracy overboard when they elected Putin. In this bizarre world, we should hang on to Putin, our best general by far and who may well win the war – for the Ukrainians.

What next?

The first trained tank crews arrived home in Ukraine this week with some Challenger and Leopard tanks plus other armour and British S90 self-propelled medium guns. The tank warfare school at Bovingdon in Dorset, according to a former Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Tank Regiment, were highly impressed by their students from Ukraine who worked twelve hours a day and completed their training much quicker than anticipated. Although the numbers are small, my hunch is that we may well add more Challenger 2s until the Ukrainians have a regiment – fifty to sixty tanks. I will stick my neck out further – having been an officer cadet for about six weeks in the Royal Tank Regiment before opting to stay a Royal Engineer – and suggest that the British 120mm rifled gun will prove as lethal in Ukraine as it did in Iraq. The Challenger held the record for the longest range kill of another tank, roughly three miles, its victim a Russian made T 72. The sabot shot travelled at a mile a second. That was in 1991. Since then a Ukrainian T64B has taken out a Russian tank at six-and-a-half miles.

Challenger 2 is equipped with optronics – like our nuclear submarines – and with its lazer range finder capable of fighting at night or through a sand storm. Add to this all that has come to pass since Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet and the kind of all round observation provided by drones and satellites.

Only a single Challenger has been knocked out in battle – through a blue on blue shot by another Challenger. The great advantage of Challenger 2, the Abrams and Leopard is their ability to fight at night. If the Ukrainians plan well – and it seems they do – they will find a way to create the maximum impact with their small fleet of modern tanks. The trick will be to avoid the heavier NATO tanks requiring a dedicated force of supporting engineers complete with stronger bridges and larger pontoons to cross rivers and obstacles. Old soldiers will recall the eighty ton Conqueror tank back in the 1960s – the only way to put a 120mm gun on a tank chassis in those days – where each squadron of Centurion tanks was complimented with a troop of three Conqueror tanks. Those three required their own dedicated ferry and the heavy girder bridge which needed a crane to build. Moving the Rhine Army became more complicated overnight. The old Bailey bridge was like giant Meccano that one could build by hand. No doubt the Ukrainians will find a solution.

The two dozen AS90 self-propelled 155mm guns will allow the tanks supporting fire at 15 miles range. That is a lot of firepower and would add a solid punch to a larger force of Warsaw Pact built armour. Some multiple rocket launcher systems are also part of the supply package. AS 90 is due for replacement but…..

Dare I suggest, given the possibility of another isolationist Trump administration, that we might be wiser to invest in re-opening the Challenger production lines including its British rifled gun rather than switching to smooth bores purchased from the Germans. Rifled guns can fire HESH – High Explosive Squash Head rounds, effective against buildings and thin skinned vehicles, moreover extending the gun’s range another 5 miles. Americans who wear uniform know they and the British draw mutual conclusions from large scale tank battles fought together during the last fifty years, the only NATO allies who have done so. Yet their pensioner Commander-in-Chief, multiple medical deferments Joe, maintains that the smaller continental European members of NATO rely on France and Germany more than on the Brits. That’s the green dream deciding the facts and thereby Washington’s global strategy. None of my Irish American pals would regard this as a sensible way to confront real rogue states, starting with a lunatic Russia.

Where to strike?

Presently the Ukrainians fight along a thousand miles of front. After failing to grab Kiev through an attack out of the blue, Russia opened several fronts. Already three have collapsed and their Bakhmut winter front looks both static and costly. That leaves the Ukrainians with plenty of options for shortening their front lines. An obvious one is to roll up the whole Russian force spread over the southern parts of the country. And an imaginative way to do that might involve a surprise means of persuading the Russians to abandon the Crimea and run for the bridge. Indeed, there are arguments for destroying the bridge first, then watching the mass panic as the Russians dash north-eastwards. Such a debacle would allow the Ukrainians to evict the Russians from the most parts of the country, leaving the invaders back where they started in 2014.

There remains a risk of another attack from the north but this might rely on tanks that are museum pieces. Another disaster would still leave Putin in the Kremlin as there is no such thing as public opinion in Russia today. However, he or his replacement – someone might decide he’s done enough damage – would control a much weaker country heading towards further decline. Indeed, the Ukrainians believe their big bully neighbour actually is heading for another collapse and further fragmentation.

The inspector-general

Putin launched a predictable new information campaign with an interview on a state-owned Russian news channel on 25 March. The ISW team reported it as follows: –

‘Putin claimed that the West cannot sustain weapons provisions to Ukraine and exaggerated Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defence industrial base (DIB) to create the false impression that further Ukrainian resistance and Western support for Ukraine are futile. Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces expend up to 5,000 shells a day, while the United States produces an average of 14,000–15,000 shells a month. Putin alleged that planned Western defence production increases will not match Russian planned increases. He announced that Russia will build over 1,600 new tanks by the end of 2023 and that Russia will have more than three times the number of tanks as Ukraine by that time’. 

The ISW team suggest that Putin likely seized the opportunity to advance this narrative based on The Financial Times’s edition of 19 March reporting that European arms manufacturers are “hobbled” by an explosives shortage. Putin argued that continued Western weapons provisions to Ukraine are merely an attempt to prolong the war.

Putin compared the state of the Russian wartime DIB with current Western military industrial outputs, warning that the West would need to make significant sacrifices to civilian projects to increase military production to support war in Ukraine. Putin added that unlike the West, Russia does not need excessive militarization of the economy to expand its DIB capabilities.

ISW say these claims are not supportable. The US GDP alone is 10 times the size of Russia’s. Germany, the UK, and France together have economies nearly five times the size of Russia’s. The US and its allies certainly must make choices when considering spending the large sums required to support Ukraine, but the choices they face are nothing like as hard as those confronting Russia. That’s one of the main reasons for NATO impatience with the fence sitting by Scholtz and Macron. Both are more concerned with resuming business as usual rather than saving a neighbour from the greedy bear.

The balance of overall available resources and industrial capacity is decisively weighted toward the West. Russian military industrial potential is, in fact, hopelessly outmatched by Western military industrial potential. Putin’s messaging is intended to persuade the West to commit less of that potential to supporting Ukraine by convincing the West, falsely, that it cannot match Russia. The reality is that Russia must move to a full war footing to sustain its current military operations—something Putin has been very reluctant to do. The West does not need to shift to a wartime footing to continue to support Ukraine if it chooses to do so.

Putin’s stated goals for Russian tank production in 2023 and comparisons with Ukrainian tank stocks also disregard Russia’s limited industrial capacity to produce more advanced tanks, rapidly, and ignore Russian tank losses on the battlefield. Russia’s sole tank production factory, Ural Vagon Zavod, reportedly produces 20 tanks a month. It would take over six years to meet Putin’s goal at that rate. Ural Vagon Zavod is unlikely to expand production of modern tanks such as the T-90 rapidly enough to meet these targets in nine months due to international sanctions and shortages of skilled labour. The Kremlin will thus likely continue to pull archaic tanks from storage and may attempt to refurbish some older tanks to meet the stated quota. A Kremlin pundit stated on a live broadcast on March 25 that Russia would pull old T-34 tanks from storage and monuments if needed for the war effort while attempting to justify Russia’s recent deployments of the T-54 and T-55 tanks to the frontlines. These tanks are not comparable to modern Abrams, Challenger, or Leopard tanks, or even to T-72s, in either armament or armour protection.

No wonder Putin makes out that British tank rounds with depleted uranium tips are nuclear weapons. One fired by a Challenger 2 could pass through two or three museum worthy Russian tanks before it ran out of enough energy to go through the next. Let’s give the last word to Bohdan Nahaylo, Chief Editor of the Kiev Post……writing to retired British diplomats…..of which I’m one…

Moscow would like the world to view its war as a local, backyard, conflict wherein the Kremlin is simply regaining ‘Russian’ imperial territory that it was forced to give up. But the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine clearly has a much greater significance for the entire world. It has undermined the international order, and challenged fundamentals – the very notion of Europe and European security and indeed, international security as we understand it – the very basic principles on which the UN Charter is based. Russia’s cynical actions have exposed the ineffectiveness of international institutions, such as the UN and the OSCE, that are supposed to prevent wars, invasions, war crimes, genocide and nuclear threats. They have forced the democratic world out of its complacency and united it around the need to defend not only its security but also basic democratic values……

After all, we are witnessing a historic reconfiguration of Europe and what it represents. Britain left the EU after Brexit but on account of the war has become a far stronger European autonomous player on the international scene and a staunch supporter of Ukraine. Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, and Romania have also gelled together as a force to be reckoned with. So, in the east of Europe, another healthy and much-needed counterbalance to the would-be domination by Berlin and Paris has emerged. Britain has played a leading role in this regard and its principled stance and sterling support for Ukraine have won the admiration and appreciation not only of Ukrainians but many other nations. Britain, in this regard, has set the tone.

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About the author

Adrian Hill