Last week’s article highlighted the ‘tipping point’ that appears to be developing in the land battle. A tipping point at which Ukraine will either be able to prosecute a larger offensive; or will need to stop, consolidate its advances and preserve its reserves. It seems that even with advances in precision-strike technology, vastly superior morale and training; breaking into well-engineered defensive positions may be unfeasible without large losses or total air-superiority.  Ukraine does not have the manpower to suffer large casualties and currently does not have air-superiority, so needs to look for other options. 

The problem Ukraine faces is attrition. In that, Russia’s defending force needs to be attritted before an attack can be made successfully. Enough of its soldiers, artillery and other equipment destroyed in an area so that Ukraine can over-match it in a sector of the front.   Ukraine, is fighting a clever battle using manoeuvre to draw Russian reserves forwards and to locate artillery, so that both can be destroyed using precision-strike weapons and sophisticated counter-battery tactics.  However, progress is slow and it may be that Russia’s defences are just too strong, that Ukraine’s technological and training advantages are not enough to beat Russian numbers. However, the situation is still uncertain as we get near to the tipping point and the offensive either grinds to a halt; or we see Ukraine exploiting a breakthrough.  

Supplying cluster munitions is an admission of United States concern and this decision sharpens tactical considerations because the arrival in country of large numbers of cluster munitions will either provide Ukraine with sufficient artillery supremacy to achieve a breakthrough; or confirm that to break Russia’s lines will require air power.  The term ‘cluster munition’ refers to artillery shells called Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), each filled with dozens of anti-armour or anti-personnel grenades that upon detonation spread over a wide area, vastly increasing the lethality of each shell.  Already, United States DPICM stocks prepositioned in Europe, probably since the end of the Cold War, are moving into Ukraine and are likely to be used in action soon.  DPICM provide a quick way to augment Ukrainian firepower so they can attrit the defenders. The effect of large numbers of DPICM could be significant, especially if Ukraine can achieve artillery supremacy on a narrow frontage. 

Attrition is always a part of war and is well-understood in United States and NATO Manoeuverist war-fighting doctrine that Ukraine is employing. However, historically the United States and its allies relied on air power to achieve attrition; and the interesting tactical discussion from this war regards whether (or not) precision-strike weapons are able to replace conventional airpower.  This week we are starting to see options for deployment of Ukraine’s main effort; or its reserve of 9-10 uncommitted brigades developing in the south and in the east. However, until a hole can be blasted in the Russian line by artillery, deployment of this force would be very costly. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s command problems continue as Putin purges his military’s commanders after the recent Wagner Group coup. Speaking on Sky News this week Professor Michael Clarke, retired director of the Royal United Services Institute, an old and well-respected military ‘think tank’ estimated that 28 Russian generals were being questioned in relation to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted coup three weeks ago.  Further, Professor Clarke said that reports indicated 15 of these officers had already been sacked. This should not be a surprise for anybody familiar with Putin; or dictators generally.  Putin has had a shock, however has quickly re-established control and is now cracking down to ensure that there are no repeats. 

Putin is also working hard to ensure that he retains the services of Prigozhin’s Wagner Group soldiers. An interview with Putin in Kommersant, a Russian state media channel revealed that he is playing a delicate game of ‘cat and mouse’ with Prigozhin and his senior lieutenants. On 29 June, he met with Prigozhin and 35 of his commanders to discuss the situation and in the interview, Putin confirmed he is working hard to keep this group of experienced soldiers together and fighting in Ukraine, but wants to separate Prigozhin from Wagner Group.  The Guardian reporting on Friday that “The interview appears to be part of a broader effort by the Kremlin to win the loyalty of the Wagner rank and file, even while seeking to discredit Prigozhin by leaking sensitive and embarrassing information about him.” 

This situation demonstrates how convoluted and corrupt Putin’s kleptocracy has become.  Putin needs experienced soldiers in Ukraine, he also understands that Wagner Group’s lucrative African operations provide these soldiers with freedom to ‘walk away’ from the war in Ukraine. Further, if they do retreat to Africa, he risks losing his share of the valuable revenue that their operations there produce. Putin is in an unenviable position of having to negotiate with Prigozhin and his commanders to try and find a mutually agreeable solution. It is comical, Putin allowed Prigozhin to build a private army that he has used to enrich himself and to keep political pressure on Russia’s military.  Unfortunately for Putin, his ‘dogs of war’ are now nipping at the hand that feeds them because they know he needs their services.  Putin does not appear to have killed, disappeared or imprisoned Prigozhin so we can infer that it is politically too dangerous to do so and instead, Putin is forced to negotiate.  It is an interesting insight into the confused power struggles that must be taking place within Russia’s elite.

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Later, in the week Putin had more problems when Major General Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Army was sacked.  Popov’s supporters are vocal and powerful, claiming he was sacked for criticising Russian command during the war. The 58th Combined Arms Army is headquartered at Melitopol and is a crucial formation in Russia’s defence of the ‘Crimean Land Bridge.’ Responsible for the section of frontline north of Melitopol it bears the brunt of Ukraine’s push south from Orikhiv. Its failure would be a disaster for Russia. Popov’s concerns are that:

  • 58th Combined Arms Army does not have enough surveillance technology and equipment to effectively contest the artillery battle.
  • Soldiers in the 58th Combined Arms Army are not rotated and rested enough to maintain their combat performance.

Then on 15 July, commander of the 106th Guards Airborne Division, Major General Vladimir Seliverstov was sacked. Like Popov, he is a popular commander and his force is performing well, limiting Ukrainian gains on an important section of the front near Bakhmut.  Although the reason has not been made public there are reports that Seliverstov’s crime is reporting similar issues to higher command.

 Sacking well-respected senior commanders at a critical time is dangerous for Russia; and contributes significantly to Ukraine’s campaign. Popov’s statements also help to confirm assessments made in recent weeks by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and by the Institute for the Study of War that Russian forces in the south are tired and not being rotated. Popov’s information about the counter-battery battle is new and provides a contrary opinion to many commentators that have highlighted the success of Russian artillery.   

Throughout Ukraine the battle continues, in the south-west Ukrainian forces are making incremental advances against stiff resistance.  Ukraine’s objective is Tokmak, a key rail junction about 40km north of Melitopol.  Tokmak is also a first step towards capturing Melitopol on the coast and if it is captured Ukraine can disrupt Russia’s ability to supply its forces in Kherson, Crimea and Zaporizhia.   The thrust from Orikhiv, is starting to develop more potential this week.  Ukrainian forces advancing south along the T0408 motorway toward the village of Robotyne, and reportedly capturing an entry point into the first line of Russian defensive trenches.  

When a trench line is breeched, it becomes hard to hold because troops can advance along it and widen the gap.  If these reports are correct then this activity may establish conditions for a Ukrainian advance south along the T0408 towards Novoprokopivka, a more significant town enroute to Tokmak. The Ukrainians will probably ‘bound;’ or pause to reorganise a kilometre or two north of Novoprokopivka, using undulations in the ground to protect them against fire coming from Russia’s next line of defensive trenches approximately two-to-three kilometres south of the town.  The Ukrainian’s assuming their attack formations, securing the local area and preparing themselves for their next push.  Probably south; but possibly west or east to clear a wider gap in the first line of Russian defences.  

 This area is one to watch in the next few days because when it is secured, Tokmak will be within artillery range; and the extensive trench systems in the area can be engaged with DPICM.  It may be an opportunity for us to assess the effectiveness of DPICM.  Another option, is that the Ukrainians may decide to push west or east and clear the first line of Russian trenches expanding the breech and developing a firm base from which to attack the next line of Russian defences.   Last week, the perception that this area’s defences are ‘brittle’ was discussed. Essentially, that although the forward defence lines are strongly held, they are not supported by adequate reserves able to counter attack and contain a breech. This means that if Ukraine can break the line then exploitation of the break through will be possible. 

Further east, Ukraine’s efforts are paying dividends against the Velyka Novosilka salient, a bulge that once pushed north into Ukrainian lines about 40km east of Huliapole.  The operation continues to progress and the salient is slowly being flattened. Ukrainian forces pressing the Russians back up-to nine kilometres along a roughly 30 km frontage.  This represents significant progress and puts Ukraine’s forces 10-11km from the single line of Russian trenches that protects this sector of the frontline.  A line that if breeched could allow an advance to the T0518 motorway leading to Mariupol.  Another, interesting option because deployment of DPICM against the relatively thin defence lines here could create the breech that Ukraine is trying to achieve. However, the ground in this area is quite undulating and bisected by valleys, canal and rivers so may be difficult to advance through quickly making exploitation of a break through harder. 

This week’s most interesting tactical developments were near Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces are advancing incrementally both north and south of the city slowly encircling it.  Ukrainian soldiers have advanced about five to six kilometres both north and south of the city and continue to advance this week threatening Klishchiivka an important village in the south. Klishchiivka is important because if the high ground around it can be secured it provides a firm base for an advance north towards Bakhmut.  

The place to watch on this section of front is around 15km north of Bakhmut where a new Ukrainian offensive is developing from a village called Rozdolivka.  Ukrainian forces are pushing south from here towards Soledar, the historic salt mining town that was a critical first step for Wagner Group’s operation in Bakhmut.  The advance is on a frontage of about three kilometres and is about two kilometres deep, if it keeps going it will soon hit a Russian trench line; another potential opportunity to observe the impact of DPICM on the battle.  If the trench line is broken then Ukrainian troops can advance south towards Soledar threatening to link up with their comrades operating to the north of Bakhmut and encircle troops from Russia’s 6th Motor Rifle Regiment, 60th Separate Motor Rifle Battalion, 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade and 9th Motor Rifle Regiment; approximately 6-7,000 soldiers.   Or more likely force their withdrawal.  

In summary, regardless of Russia’s political problems the ground campaign is reaching a tipping point.  Ukraine’s tactics are working, drawing out Russian reserves and artillery so they can be destroyed.  Ukraine certainly has the initiative, setting the timing and tempo of operations and potential cracks in Russia’s defences are starting to show.  However, Ukraine’s attrition of Russian force is not yet significant enough to create conditions for successful deployment of its large reserve to break through the defensive trench lines. The United States recognises this situation providing DPICM to increase Ukrainian firepower. Over the next week or two we will see if this decision influences which way the scales tip.  

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger

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