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Mines, Machinery, and Manpower in Ukraine
'Like cockroaches, we’ll find a way through, because our lives depend on it'
The Economist recently interviewed Ukrainian combat engineers fighting in Zaporizhzhia who “say progress would be much faster if Ukraine had sufficient engineering equipment and air cover to make a mechanical push viable.” As I have explained for paying subscribers in recent weeks, combined arms breakthrough requires at least contesting air superiority. Even when armies learn to coordinate artillery, aircraft, tanks, and infantry with effective command and communications, the result can be an attritional grind. Ukraine will burn through many more Bradleys before they are done.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian forces have taken yet another page from the tactical development history of the Western Front in World War I to press forward with boots on the ground. In one recent video that got quite a bit of attention, a squad of Ukrainian marines stormed a Russian defensive complex, apparently killing a man who resembled the Telegram blogger Semyon Pegov, known as WarGonzo, enough to feed a brief storm of internet speculation.
Sappers always lead the way. In Zaporizhzhia they are leading the way by clearing minefields, sometimes under fire, in teams. The “new small-group tactics are achieving modest results,” The Economist reports, even if the rate of advance is slow.
But the biggest factor in determining Ukrainian success may well be morale. Beaver says the counter-offensive has inflicted on his combat engineering division worse casualty figures than on any in the army. “Frankly, many of our men became frightened.” One soldier breaks out in hives every time he hears buzzing; he is afraid of “flies”, the military jargon for drones. Others, like “Casper”, a 29-year-old company commander, admit to struggling with the more gruesome side of the job—working through the stench of blood and corpses. But there are signs the newest advances near Robotyne might have instilled a sense of courage among Ukrainian sappers. Casper reported he just returned from an operation to demine a medical-evacuation route running within 100 metres of Russian positions.
“Like cockroaches, we’ll find a way through, because our lives depend on it.” Inch by inch, six weeks of Ukraine’s first counteroffensive phase have recovered as much territory as Russian forces claimed in the previous six months. Yet this sort of accounting is quite beside the point, right now.
Using only part of their available western equipment, the Ukrainian General Staff has fixed the Russian force in Zaporizhzhia by attacking on three axes. Attacks that end with a handful of burning, abandoned vehicles are not really cause for tankie Twitter celebrations. Every small attack draws Russian artillery fire in response, and Ukraine has focused an impressive share of their own artillery on the counterbattery role, claiming more than three hundred destroyed Russian artillery systems so far.
Furthermore, every small success draws a substantial Russian counterattack. Due to the shortage of night vision equipment, these take place in daylight, and because of the geography they happen in the open. This is the scenario in which Ukrainian artillery inflicts the greatest losses. Commentary on these operations reminds us that Ukrainian troops have not reached the first main line of Russian fortifications yet. While this is true, the Russian Ministry of Defense seems determined to accomodate Ukraine by bleeding out their formations in counterattacks beyond their main line of defense, anyway.
The greatest fortress will not stand if there are no soldiers left inside it. Awaiting the F-16s, Ukraine is undertaking a force-directed offensive. Capturing the T04-08 highway is the objective, perhaps, but breaking a Russian army is the point. Is it working? Ask the Russians.
Gen. Sergey Surovikin started constructing the ‘main line’ defenses in the oblast last October. Most of the units defending the oblast against the Ukrainian counteroffensive have also been there since October. So as complete as their entrenchments and fire plans and minefields will be by now, many of those troops will also be close to the psychological breaking point.
Russian troop density in the southern direction is surprisingly low. The Institute for the Study of War has assessed “that Russian forces lack operational reserves that would allow them to carry out rotations of personnel defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives and that Russian defensive lines may be brittle.”
As if to confirm this analysis, the commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army was fired last week after he “raised the issue of the need to rotate units that have been on the line of combat for a long period of time and have suffered significant losses,” threatening to go over the head of the defense minister, according to the original report.
Gerasimov accused Popov of alarmism and blackmailing top management. After Popov's statement about his readiness to personally report on the problem to Putin, Gerasimov removed him from his post and sent him to the front lines.
The same Wagner-affiliated war blogger then later confirmed Popov had been fired for raising “a real question about the lack of rotation in the Pologovsky district of the Zaporizhzhia region (Orikhiv direction),” referring to the attacks around Robotyne.
The general did not go quietly, however. “Popov, whose military call sign was ‘Spartacus’ and who commanded Russian units in southern Ukraine, explicitly raised the deaths of Russian soldiers from Ukrainian artillery and said the army lacked proper counter artillery systems and reconnaissance of enemy artillery,” Reuters reported.
Echoing the Wagner mutineers and Yevgeny Prigozhin, ‘Spartacus’ — who actually calls his men “gladiators” — said in his ‘leaked’ audio recording that “the Ukrainian army could not break through our ranks at the front but our senior chief hit us from the rear, viciously beheading the army at the most difficult and intense moment.”
Ah yes, the ‘stab in the back.’ This war gets more like the First World War all the time. Right on cue, indicted war criminal Igor Girkin announced that
THE REVOLUTION IS SUCCESSFUL. The powers within the ruling mafia are currently being redistributed as (or close to) as planned by the conspirators behind Garzon. The “Shoigu-Vorobiev-Sobyanin Tower” has lost some of its positions (although not completely demolished), and part of its influence and resources “flows” into a group of oligarchs from the Ozero Cooperative (Rotenbergs, Kovalchuks and Co.). This group, vitally interested in ending the war "on any terms" - will not let us win in any case and will lead the president to realize the need to accept defeat and transfer supreme power to a successor nominated from this group (Kiriyenko? Prigozhin?).
In the coming months, we should expect new campaigns aimed at “inoculation” not only of the RF Ministry of Defense, but also at the demolition of the influence of Patrushev and those parts of the FSB that are not controlled (or not completely controlled) by the APeshechka and the oligarchic groups behind it. In the meantime, they will do everything so that the urgently necessary measures to prepare the army, rear and industry for a long hard war are not taken or slowed down as much as possible. Up to major defeats at the front, caused by a lack of reserves and a shortage of personnel, military equipment and ammunition. (And then these defeats will be the reason for a new blow to the "siloviki" in favor of the "peacekeepers" (or rather, supporters of surrender)).
Girkin has also left St. Petersburg because he no longer feels safe there. An opponent of Prigozhin, his narrative of sabotage is a political poison in the well of deafeat. Anything that goes wrong will be part of the conspiracy against Vladimir Putin, now, according to Girkin.
Purges of disloyal officers continue in the wake of the Wagner mutiny. The most loyal, like Valery Gerasimov, are also the least competent, while the ones with courage, like Popov, are all being fired or arrested.
Altogether, the Wall Street Journal counts 28 high-ranking officers who are no longer at their posts, and this number is probably low. They are likely the most competent professionals within the command cadres. Gen. Surovikin, now being held at Lefortovo Prison for his alleged role in the Wagner mutiny, was probably the single most competent combined arms commander Russia had.
If the Russian army in Zaporizhzhia appears brittle, then the cracks have spread thoughout the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin, too. Speed kills; so does pressure. The whole thing could shatter in an instant — and Ukraine is still holding back at least 75 percent of their offensive combat power.
During an hour-long video uploaded Friday morning, Girkin confirmed our picture of how Ukrainian forces are succeeding, even slowly, in Zaporizhzhia.
Ukrainian “offensive actions are led by fairly small assault groups with the support of several armoured vehicles, and all weapon systems used to destroy them are located by all types of enemy reconnaissances and then struck with artillery and high-precision missiles,” he said.
Girkin expressed concern that “even in the secondary directions, the staffing of our forces again does not exceed 70%. In areas of the most fierce battles, it is significantly less.” Low troop density confirmed.
“Of course, it does not compare to the situation at the end of last summer/early autumn, when 20% staffing of units was considered normal,” Girkin said, referring to the Kharkiv offensive, which shocked the Kremlin into partial mobilization last October when Ukraine exploited the low Russian troop density in that oblast. “But our forces are taking losses continuously, while the stream of reinforcements and reservists from the rear has died down.”
Girkin is worried that Russian armies will once again start to break, soon. “This means that if urgent measures are not taken, the enemy, unfortunately, has a chance to gnaw through our defence in Zaporizhzhia.”
And it will be then very difficult to stop him, and no Surovikin’s line which is still in a pretty deep rear will stop the enemy if it’s not taken by trained, properly equipped, and experienced troops.
If these troops die in the field, there will be no one to stop the enemy. This is the main question now: will the enemy be able to gnaw through our defence in 2-3 weeks, exchanging his soldiers for ours, or not, and will exhaust himself earlier.
Following Russian tradition, the force defending Zaporizhzhia has been thrown right up to the front line with instructions to stand or die — and no hope of reinforcements. Ukrainian units are rotating in and out of combat, Russians are not. Gerasimov cannot sustain this state of affairs.
Russian drone defense has been abysmal. Ukrainian drone operators seem to work with impunity against Russian reinforcements, support, and logistics. For example, two days ago a Russian convoy of trucks and howitzers was caught by a drone and destroyed with HIMARS fire over ten miles behind the front line of fighting at Robotyne.
As a result, Ukrainians are also inflicting lopsided losses. This is not supposed to happen. Normal offensive mathematics are dismal: history suggests the attacker should lose lives and equipment three times faster than the defender, but open source reporting shows this ratio has been inverted in Zaporizhzhia.
Add the Ukrainian advances on the flanks of Bakhmut, and the Russian offensive west of Kreminna that gains little ground at great cost to no advantage, seeming only to fulfill Gerasimov’s primal urge to attack. Gerasimov is not making up these losses. The lack of strategic and operational depth invites calamity, according to Girkin.
Gerasimov does not have prepared and equipped reserves. Simply does not. All he has is already on the frontline, at the very least in tactical reserves. Transferring from other areas means weakening them. But transferring poorly trained mobilised units who are, let’s say, covering the “old regions” of Russia, is not a solution. These units have no experience, no vehicles, no good commanders, they will be simply smashed by the enemy and no one will be able to do anything about it.
Indicating that dissatisfaction with the status quo is widespread in the ranks, Girkin warns that the state of deadlock is unsustainable. His ‘Angry Patriots Club’ is enthusiastic for the war in Ukraine, but also pessimistic about the future.
Now clearly oppositional to Prigozhin’s clique, they would likely support ‘General Spartacus’ if Popov made a bid for power at some point in the future. For unlike the mercenary leader, Popov has Girkin’s respect. He is not listed among the back-stabbers.
Alluding to Popov, Girkin specifically mentioned the poor Russian counterbattery performance in Zaporizhzhia as a point of failure. Ukraine now holds the upper hand in sheer weight of artillery fire. “The enemy has a lot of shells, he’s not counting high-precision missiles,” Girkin complained.
A Russian army is slowly being outmanned and outgunned. This is never supposed to happen. It is happening. Twitter Russophiles strain to pretend it is not happening, that American cluster munitions are a sign of desperation, that everything is fine. Everything is not fine for Russian troops in Zaporizhzhia.
If nothing else, the war in Ukraine has forced everyone to examine their ancient ‘war machinery’ anew. Fossilized mobilization machinery has revealed its weaknesses in Russia as soldiers without weapons or boots; ‘mechanized’ formations without armor; obsolete T-54/55 tanks taken from storage; Orlan-10 drones that cannot cope with Ukrainian electronic warfare; shells that arrive crated one, two, or three to a box because Russian logistics have never been palletized, and so on.
The decade of ‘reforming’ and ‘modernizing’ Russian MoD under Gerasimov and Shoigu failed to build a force capable of combined arms at scale. It could, however, throw enormous amounts of destructive force at targets of convenience, such as hospitals and apartment buildings and cafés.
Much of that ammunition was the ‘cluster’ type that deploys submunitions to spread the destruction, producing some number of duds that can explode to kill and injure people many years later.
Both sides have used cluster munitions, of course, because they are convenient for destroying concentrations of the enemy, but only Russians have used them to destroy concentrations of enemy civilians.
Amusing as the outcry over the United States sending Cold War cluster munitions to Ukraine off the shelf is, Russia has already deployed so many landmines in Ukraine that complete removal will take decades. Like some battlefields in France that remain unreclaimed ‘red zones’ due to the explosive hazards and toxic contamination left behind in 1918, some parts of Ukraine are probably not going to be reclaimed in this writer’s lifetime.
Neither the United States nor Russia is signatory to the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines because they are the essential weapon of territorial denial in the age of factory-made militaries. North and South Korea also both rely on landmines for the same reason and neither of them has signed the Ottawa Treaty. This tactical dynamic is not changing just because Princess Diana wanted us to be nicer.
Suggested substitutions in the anti-landmine literature include, no kidding, the use of tamed geese to detect enemy movement. No one has invented a better technology than the landmine for what the landmine does. Until that happens, they will remain essential to land warfare, and armies will use them, whatever paper agreements they have signed.
Qualitatively, the US-made cluster munitions being sent to Ukraine will produce far fewer duds than Russian ones — a little more than 2 percent versus failure rates as high as 30 percent. But they are too easily confused with landmines anyway, which Russia uses in huge quantity, for example in Zaporizhzia. Mines, not artillery, are what keeps stopping the small armored attacks that Ukraine uses to reveal the Russian guns. Still largely emplaced by hand, though also by rocket and shell, landmines are a cheap way to put large areas off-limits. Absurdly, cluster munitions can potentially be used to clear minefields. Empty moralisms save no one.
At the moment, Ukrainian combat engineers must pick their way forward at great risk to establish clear lanes for logistical support of units at the front because up to a third of the country is “contaminated” with landmines. “What we're seeing is just industrial level… industrial mine-laying,” Michael Newton, leader of a landmine clearing organization in Ukraine, said at the end of May.
Before the invasion last year, he said, his organization estimated it would take 20 years to fully clear eastern Ukraine of mines. But now it will likely take significantly longer.
“Regardless of the threat of landmines, people in many parts of Ukraine don’t have a choice but to get out and still do their business,” Newton said.
“This is ultimately the new normal being created for the Ukrainian people.”
Ukrainians have returned to their homes in liberated areas only to find them booby-trapped. Farmland will have to be demined before it can be used again. Newton predicts “that there will likely be a spike in casualties as displaced Ukrainians return home” in the event of liberation.
Nevermind, though: the US is sending cluster bombs, which is apparently just like sending nuclear bombs, or something, and it must mean that the west is desperate, because something something conspiracy theory.
In fact the west has indeed slowly gotten up, dusted off its mothballed governmental-industrial complexes, and begun producing something like enough ammunition for Ukraine. (I am of course kidding, because there can never be enough ammunition for Ukraine.)
Ukraine is making ammunition. Europeans are making ammunition. The United States is making ammunition. Ramping up production took too long but it has happened, after all.
To borrow a sports metaphor, the idea now is to run through the tape. Kyiv saved up a large stock of shells and rockets for Zaporizhzhia but they will have burned through a great deal of it by now. Ammunition delivery must keep pace with battlefield consumption rates. This challenge has not diminished in the last century and western powers should take notice: keep your powder dry.
During the Second World War, the United States developed a strategic paradigm that has stood its armed forces in good stead ever since. Rather than send infinite soldiers to fight battles abroad, America sent seemingly-infinite machinery.
Tens of thousands of aircraft, a similar number of trucks, and all the mechanical sundries of war were sent overseas by the millions of tons in support of American armies, or to arm American allies. All that war machinery had the effect of limiting American and allied casualties. It won the war.
The same principle applies to Ukrainian losses, now. An M-2 Bradley knocked out by a mine has nevertheless reduced casualties among the soldiers inside it. Soldiers inside the Bradley are safer from artillery fire than outside it. And so on. Those Ukrainian sappers have the best appreciation of the situation on the ground of anyone. They understand what is needed better than Elon Musk does. It is their country, after all.
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