With one week left before the mud season starts, the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine sees Russia’s much-vaunted new offensive spluttering in the soon-to-be-melting snow. After a year of escalating warfare, Russia has little to show from its war other than a doubling of its troops in Ukraine and a doubling down on its threatening rhetoric.
To mark the anniversary, this weekend will see a surge of attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, grabbing the headlines at home and abroad. But this will do little to alter the balance on the battlefield where the Russian army is weighed down by incompetency and badly trained troops with low morale.
Having failed to achieve his original objectives in the short term, Putin has simply adjusted the timeframe. Crushing Ukrainian sovereignty and severing its relationship with the West is now a long-term goal that seems increasingly beyond his reach. One year into his three-week “special operation”, he finds himself invoking the heroic wars of Russia’s past to prepare the Russian people for a long war, throwing mercenaries, convicts and untrained conscripts into battle and adopting desperate battlefield tactics to make progress at all costs.
While both sides in the war have been accused of sending troops on suicide missions, the Ukrainians have gone further in mitigating this by delegating decision-making powers to commanders on the ground. Russian operations however remain hamstrung by its army’s rigid hierarchical structure and the Kremlin’s political demands. In the dynamic environment of this modern mechanised war, Russian commanders have shown a glaring inability to make sound judgements. Since the very start of the war, this has resulted in disaster for the Russian campaign.
Putin expected to take Kyiv in the early days of the war. By keeping his plans secret from mid-ranking commanders until the very last minute, he sent them into battle with little preparation. The much-vaunted 40-mile-long column of tanks that appeared north of Kyiv posed an ominous threat to the capital and sent a shudder through the world. The column however was beset with problems from the start. Poor co-ordination between commanders, a lack of basic supplies such as food, water and fuel hampered the mission. Hundreds of vehicles soon found themselves jammed into a single-file traffic jam.
Artillery warfare is determined by a simple geometric calculation measuring the target’s estimated distance and the trajectory of the shell. A drone operator observes the impact from the first shell strike and passes improved target coordinates to the gunner, who adjusts direction and trajectory after each strike to optimise accuracy. The calculation is made much easier when all the targets are in one line.
Stuck along one single line, the Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were sitting ducks for Ukraine’s nimble army hiding under the cover of forest. With the help of Soviet artillery and modern anti-tank weaponry the column was routed and Kyiv was saved.
Despite the failures of its Kyiv battle plan, Russia persisted with its “kitchen-sink” approach elsewhere. In the South, the Russians rolled through Kherson and headed West towards Odesa. Key to the plans for supplying the southern offensive was the Kherson International airport in Chernobaivka. Russia captured Chernobaivka in the first week of the war but failed to push the Ukrainian army beyond artillery range. Despite the airport’s vulnerability to attack, orders were given to use it as a helicopter base. When the first helicopters were destroyed, the Russians replenished the base with new ones, which were also destroyed.
For months attempts by the Russian military to resupply and reinforce the Chernobaivka base were consistently overwhelmed and destroyed by Ukrainian artillery and drones. More than 30 successful waves of attacks on the base were recorded, ultimately resulting in its liberation in November.
Chernobaivka became a byword for Russian wastefulness and incompetence throughout Ukraine. Among the memes inspired by the ill-fated operation was one depicting a scene from the American comedy, Groundhog Day, showing Bill Murray cheerfully driving the groundhog back to Chernobaivka. Even President Zelensky chimed in with the claim that the town “will go down in the history of wars as the place where Russian commanders showed themselves in full for what they are – talentless, capable only of driving their own people to slaughter”.
With Russia failing to make significant gains in its ground war, it’s politically-driven urgency has resulted in an over-reliance on conscripts, mercenaries, and other desperate measures down the chain of its army’s command.
These were evident earlier this month around the Ukrainian-held town of Vuhledar. A dusty soviet mining town with a pre-war population of 15,000, Vuhledar is prized by both armies for its elevated vantage point overlooking Ukraine’s vast southern Steppe. The Russians have been trying to take it since November.
On February 8, dozens of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles gathered into battle formations near Pavlikva, a few miles south of Vuhledar. The Russians hoped to surprise the Ukrainian army in Vuhledar with a partial encirclement but failed to take into proper account a number of factors including the ability of Ukrainian intelligence to see their every move.
Loyalties are split in towns and villages along both sides of the 1200 km-long frontline. Both sides have spotters and collaborators living clandestinely under enemy control providing human intel on force movement to their handlers. Large-scale attacks are rarely ordered by commanders in wars of attrition because of this. In this war, however, short term progress at all costs is the Kremlin’s guiding principle. Commanders on the ground are given little choice but to follow the edicts of those who make operational decisions far from the frontline.
Pro-Ukrainian spotters living around Pavlivka were quick to inform their intelligence handlers of the Russian advance. The Ukrainians swiftly mobilised artillery units equipped with drones. Meanwhile, Russian commanders took the decision to minimise the threat from mines by sending the tanks out towards Vuhledar in another single-file column.
The Ukrainians waited until the column reached the most heavily-mind part of the steppe before starting their attack. In the ensuing panic, many Russians fled the artillery barrage only to be blown up by mines. According to Russian and Ukrainian reports, over 30 tanks, 130 vehicles, and between 200 and 300 infantrymen were killed.
Russian military blogger, Igor Girkin, wrote that the Ukrainians, “pounded the tanks like in a shooting gallery.” According to Girkin, a key figure in the 2014 war in the Donbass who was found guilty of commanding the unit which brought down the MH17 airliner, the Russian generals who ordered the attack were “morons, who never learn from their mistakes.”
The ill-fated attack was part of a week-long, broader attempt to take Vuhledar by Russia’s elite 155th Guards Naval Infantry in what was described by another Russian mil-blogger as a series of suicide missions. Newly constituted with conscripts after being reconstituted twice since the war began, the brigade of 5000 soldiers was destroyed in Bucha and Irpin, and a second time after a defeat near Donetsk. According to UK Defence secretary, Ben Wallace, the entire Russian brigade had effectively been “annihilated”.
Russia’s “kitchen-sink” approach to modern warfare has reached its apex in Bakhmut. The East Ukrainian town with a pre-war population of 70,000 has been the crucible of the war in the East for over four months. Despite the town’s lack of strategic military value, the battle for Bakhmut has taken on enormous political significance for both sides, serving as an important symbol both of Russian determination and Ukrainian resilience.
The battle for Bakhmut has been led on the Russian side by the notorious Wagner Group, Russia’s biggest private mercenary group. According to both US and UK secret services, it operates 10,000 highly trained, contracted soldiers in the area as well as 40,000 Russian convicts. Run by an oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict himself, the Wagner group has guaranteed clemency for any Russian convicts who survive their six-month contract of fighting in Ukraine.
Private mercenary groups operate in conflicts all over the world for a wide range of financial, operational, and political reasons. They have a long and storied history in Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as Syria. The Wagner group stands out however for its leading battlefield role in Ukraine as well as its brutal disregard for human life.
When Wagner convicts are taken from prisons their movements are curtailed and controlled under heavy guard until they are dispatched onto the battlefield. According to multiple testimonies of Wanger deserters and POWs, they are shot by their commanders if they try to retreat. Their primary function is to serve as cannon fodder – targets for the enemy to expend their ammunition on. Once they have exhausted enemy fire, professional Wagner fighters follow them into battle.
In an interview with The Currency, the commander of a mobile infantry unit with Ukraine’s 63rd Brigade described a harrowing battle his platoon fought against a company of 200 Wagnerites. For security purposes we use only his first name, Andriy.
In mid-January, Andriy’s platoon of 20 soldiers was occupying a small trench system outside Bakhmut when they were suddenly overrun by the Wagnerites. “It was crazy. There was a 10-hour firefight without a break. Our guns were getting too hot from overuse, and we had to replace them every couple of hours.,”
Confirming the Wagnerites’ use of convicts as cannon fodder, Andriy described in graphic detail how they were pushed onto them “in wave after wave, swarming over their fallen comrades like zombies.” Eventually, the professional Wagner fighters joined the battle, and Andriy’s platoon was forced to retreat before being surrounded. “We lost 5 soldiers in the assault,” Andriy confirmed, “but our commander later told me the Wagnerites had lost 140.”
Andriy’s story outlines Ukraine’s current battlefield strategy of holding the Russian advance back while exacting as many casualties as possible. But he is not discounting the Russian tactics. “They’re using tactics from the second World War. From Stalingrad. They’re ruthless and wasteful, but Russia has hundreds of thousands of people to call on so they can be effective.”
In recent rhetoric, Putin has turned to the theme of Stalingrad, the seminal battle of the Great Patriotic War in which an estimated two million people perished. Tens of thousands of Russians were used as cannon fodder in Stalingrad. Many deserters were shot. These facts are mere footnotes in the version of Putin’s history that glorifies Stalingrad as the nation’s greatest moment in history.
By invoking the seminal battle of the Great Patriotic War, Putin is preparing his people for a long war as well as justifying the reprisal of Stalin’s battle tactics.
Putin’s habit of draping policies in the garments of a heroic past has allowed him to shape the narratives demonising the collective West as a historical enemy. During his state of the nation speech on Tuesday, he blamed the West for provoking the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, equating this with the roots of the current conflict in Ukraine.
This alternative version of history has been largely accepted by a submissive Russian populace who still support the war effort. But given the backfiring tactics deployed by his army, Putin is in danger of getting swamped by his own alternative version of history.
With a limited window to drive home its numerical advantage before Ukraine regroups in the late spring with superior equipment, we may soon find out if the tactics deployed in Stalingrad will be successful in a modern war of the digital age.
Johnny O’Reilly is currently working on a feature documentary about the battle for Kherson