Discover more from Polemology Positions
What Is The Russian Word For 'Clusterf*ck'?
Debacle at Vuhledar is an ill omen
Setting out behind a smokescreen on Thursday, a battalion of mobilized Russians — reportedly “Alga” battalion of the 72nd Brigade of the 3rd Army Corps — bogged down in a minefield and lost at least 31 tanks and armored vehicles to mines and accurate Ukrainian artillery fire. Col. Sergey Polyakov, commander of the 144th Special Forces Brigade, was killed along with most of the troops in the attack.
Now Russians are waiting to see whether anyone will be punished for this disaster. “Recent footage of a failed Russian assault near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast has become the latest point of neuralgia in the Russian information space,” the Institute for the Study of War reports. “Milbloggers latched onto the footage to launch several critiques of Russian military leadership.”
Let the circular firing squad resume.
Planning was evident: the mobiks had a tank with a mine plow. They advanced on the TM-62 highway because the ground is not frozen enough for rapid off-road movement. The road was cleared of mines, but Ukrainian 155mm howitzers laid a new Remote Anti-Armor Mine (RAAM) minefield in advance of their mission. Not having rehearsed that scenario, Alga battalion devolved into panic as they started taking casualties.
Once the first vehicle was destroyed, the next vehicle hit another mine going around the stricken one, and then another, and so on. Caught in open ground that had been pre-registered by Ukrainian artillery for months, they never had a chance. Hiding densely behind the smoke vehicle simply gave the Ukrainian gunners a target reference.
During November, Vuhledar was the scene of similar attacks that effectively destroyed the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade. Similar attacks in recent days at the same point, by the replenished unit, have repeated previous failures. Ukrainian drone video of the botched assault has convinced Russian critics of their armed forces that nothing has changed.
“Russian milbloggers claimed that the same Russian commanders who oversaw highly attritional assaults by the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade on Pavlivka (near Vuhledar) in November 2022 are responsible for the effort to capture Vuhledar, and argued that the video illustrates that these commanders continue to make the same costly mistakes,” ISW says.
A post to the Wagner GRAY ZONE channel on Telegram made threats against Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, commander of the Eastern Military District in occupied Ukraine, blaming him for the disaster.
“Another Russian milblogger called for public trials to punish high-ranking officers who repeatedly fail on the battlefield and argued that Russian forces will continue to repeat the same mistakes if these commanders remain in their positions,” ISW says.
Nor was Alga battalion the only recent disastrous frontal assault. The 155th Naval Infantry Brigade has also suffered heavily in recent days. ISW assesses the unit failed because it “is likely comprised of poorly trained mobilized personnel than of poor command.” Prisoners of the 155th taken by Ukraine indicate their unit has suffered 50 percent casualties — it is effectively destroyed again.
As we have observed for nearly a year, the Russian problem is not the general in charge of any Russian unit. It’s the Russian armed forces in general. Because Russian training cadres were first to get sacrificed in Vladimir Putin’s Donbas drive, they have not been on hand to raise new units that might do better than this. Quality has not improved. ISW:
Russian milbloggers likely blamed Russian commanders to downplay the fact that the systemic poor training of Russian mobilized personnel will likely continue to result in similar tactical failures throughout Ukraine. Russian milbloggers have routinely accused Russian commanders of being responsible for tactical failures throughout the war, likely to shift the overall Russian military failure in Ukraine from the Russian military as an institution onto individuals.
Russia’s armed forces have been consistent organizational failures. Nothing about the basic problems of Russian military culture — habitual lying to superiors, indiscipline, reinforced failures — has changed, because Putin’s Russia is bad at change. Not always, or all the time, but more than enough to inhibit success at combined arms enough of the time to defeat his ambitions.
Igor Girkin thinks that Wagner PMC will be unable to operate in Ukraine now that Putin has redirected the supply of prisoner recurits over to Patriot PMC, owned by his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. A Ukrainian armed forces spokesman has mentioned Patriot operating “in the area of Stepne on the Vuhledar front.”
Whereas Wagner formed whole units out of prisoners and threw their lives away in headlong human wave assaults, Patriot prefers to mix squads of prisoners into larger formations of professionals and use small unit tactics. Patriot employees are also reportedly paid quite well by Russian standards.
Illegal according to Russian law, but above the law in Putin’s Russia, private military contractors (PMCs) are corroding the state. A ministry of defense that serves private interests will never be good. It is the wrong kind of competition, especially in the future event of a post-Putin power struggle.
Indicted for war crimes, Girkin’s bloody-minded pessimism has at least the virtue of brutal honesty, a rare thing in Russia.
The only thing I will repeat for the hundredth time is that the “death battalions” cannot win the war in the absence of normal military discipline and order in the rest of the active army. And the active army (judging by the numerous video messages to the president form the “mobiks”) - everything remains the same “amazing” state (in terms of supply, armament, provision of basic food and uniforms, etc.) and demonstrates the same signs of decay that our media and “cheerleaders” “relish” when discussing the problems of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
And remember, this is supposed to be just the tip of the spear in terms of mobilization. Russia is still building up their offensive. The orchestra of annihilation will not reach a crescendo until later in the month, perhaps even March. Rather than exhaust Ukraine or sap their enemy’s strength, Russian efforts could very well end up exhausting men and equipment reserves while setting themselves up for a counterstroke.
Russians are not idiots, though. They can tell what’s happening.
“Russian milbloggers continue to appear demoralized at the Kremlin’s prospects for executing a major offensive,” ISW reports. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) commander Alexander Khodakovsky questioned why Russian forces are wasting their limited resources on small-scale grinding advances rather than accumulating combat force to launch larger-scale offensives.”
Attacks around Bakhmut, such as the one at Vuhledar, were supposed to complement a second offensive breakout from Kreminna. Russians were hard-pressed to defend this vital logistical hub by the time the first wave of hastily-raised mobiks arrived. The “advances” you see on this line-of-control map are filled with dead Russians and burned-out armor. The resulting salient is a death zone enfiladed on three sides by artillery. “Progress.” Recent scenes from this area are similar to the one at Vuhledar.
Vuhledar also suggests another continuing problem in Russian formations: ineffective EMSO (electromagnetic spectrum management). Ukrainian drones can operate overhead with impunity, capturing the destruction in detail, because control signals are not getting jammed. Ukraine has improved their drones’ jamming resistance with encryption and software. Still, this is inexcusable. At the very least, someone in the formation should be looking out for drones with a MANPAD. No one has instilled that habit in the unit.
Russian bloggers are understandably angry, but they are wrong to think that punishing the chain of command will fix problems that are larger than any one person. Heads must surely roll in order to fix Russia, but that needful process will be further retarded by the war.
We may already see the outlines of a war that might come after this one, but inside of Russia, as all that head-chopping tension finally comes free in seismic fashion, like a subterranean fault that has built up great pressure.
In my US Army days, we used the word “clusterfuck” for any situation in which everything seems to go wrong all at once. This was useful in tank warfare training at Fort Irwin, California, where units go to fail repeatedly until they learn to do this kind of warfare. According to Google Translate, the Russian equivalent is групповуха.
Vuhledar was a групповуха. Kreminna is a групповуха. “Russian forces’ reported culmination and tactical failures around Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, have likely further weakened the Russian ultranationalist community’s belief that Russian forces are able to launch a decisive offensive operation,” ISW assesses.
Russians are many things, but they are not fools. They know a групповуха when they see one.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe to support my work