Yevgeny Prigozhin maintains that every centimetre of Bakhmut has been taken, but Ukraine’s much heralded spring offensive is still to come. Jack Conrad looks at the military and political situation
Everything tells us that the war in Ukraine ought to be entering a new stage. Winter is long over and with it the below-zero temperatures that brought hell for civilians huddled in cities such as Kyiv, which, because of air strikes, suffered from repeated outages of mains electricity.
Spring is now well and truly advanced and the mud season - known in Ukraine as bezdorizhzhia - is finally over. In the south the soil has been dry since mid-April and the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts usually dry out completely from mid-May. Generals, it should be noted, prefer fighting on solid ground - even if it is frozen. Mud bogs down tanks, troop carriers and artillery pieces. Crucially, unpaved roads become impassable. Wheels spin and spin, and dig vehicles deeper and deeper into the thick mud. Lorries cannot deliver fuel, ammunition and food to the front. Sustaining any significant forward movement becomes impossible.
So, with the changed weather, Ukraine is now under pressure to launch an offensive, thus avoiding a stalemate and Ukraine becoming another of those ‘forever wars’. Failure to make some progress by taking back Russian-occupied land, or inflicting a serious defeat on Russian forces, could harm morale at home and certainly test the patience of Ukraine’s US, Nato and G7 backers.
After all, Ukraine has not only been receiving real-time intelligence, wall-to-wall propaganda support, massive financial subsidies and infantry kit and equipment, assault rifles, mortars, rocket launchers and land mines, costing billions of dollars. A whole range of high tech military equipment has been donated besides. Shoulder-launched Nlaws and Javelins from Britain and the US famously wrought havoc on vulnerable Russian T-72s and T-80s. The road from Kyiv was clogged with their wrecked carcases. The US supplied 38 multiple-launch M142 Himars. Their surface-to-surface missiles hit targets with pinpoint accuracy and have had a devastating effect on Russian massed artillery and ammunition dumps, forcing generals to constantly move their forces or pull back out of their 50-mile range. This has further stretched supply lines. Now the Russians have another headache, with the British-made Storm Shadow cruise missile. They have a range of 300 miles, fly low and can avoid radar detection. Logistical hubs, storage points, railheads, bridges and command posts can be hit. Unless they are deeply bunkered in, Russian generals fear for their own lives - an important psychological factor in any war.
Then there are the many hundreds of fighting vehicles - armoured cars, troop carriers and light tanks - the Ferrets, Scorpions, Fenneks, Marders, Strykers and Bradleys. Ukraine has also received, or is about to receive, Leopard 1 and Leopard 2, Challenger 2 and M1 Abram battle tanks. True, the 14 Challengers from Britain and 31 Abrams from the US are mainly of symbolic value. However, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark have combined to donate some 200 Leopards. On top of that, former Warsaw Pact Nato countries have given Ukraine large numbers of refurbished, Soviet-era T-72s. If sufficiently concentrated and logistically supported, massed tank formations might well puncture Russian lines.
Ukraine’s air defence systems have been revolutionised by Nato-supplied jammers, radar and surface-to-air missiles. Stingers, Stormers and Hawks have clipped the wings of the Russian airforce - that is for sure. Instead of exercising air superiority and bombing when and where they please, as might have been expected at the beginning of the war, Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighter planes have been reduced to making ground-hugging lightning strikes or launching long-range missiles from the safety of their own air space. Even then, with the US-made NASAMS and Patriot systems, Ukraine has been successfully intercepting incoming planes, missiles and drones. Eg, since April 28, Russia has reportedly launched a total of 67 missile and 114 drone attacks. Only seven missiles and 11 drones got through, and none hit Kyiv. And a week or so ago Ukraine says it shot down Russia’s most advanced hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal-47 - a weapon previously considered unstoppable.
Drones come in a wide variety of forms and guises, and have transformed aerial warfare. Ukraine’s Turkish-built Baykars and loitering US Switchblades are capable of taking out tanks and pose a constant threat to Russian troops. However, new supplies are vital. Russia has an electronic warfare unit stationed every six miles along the front line and they are mainly focused on neutralising drones by buggering up their navigation systems. The Royal United Services Institute reports that Ukraine is losing 10,000 drones every month.1 Most are small, commercial, used for surveillance purposes and come reassuringly cheap. Ironically, the most common Ukrainian drone, the DJI Mavic, is made in China and has an extraordinarily modest price tag of just £1,615.2
Now we have Joe Biden’s say-so, allowing US allies to send F-16s to Ukraine. This highly effective, US-designed, fourth-generation multirole fighter plane is standard Nato equipment (with the exception of Britain and France, which each has their own semi-independent aerospace industry). Well over four thousand have been produced since the late 1970s and, with the shift to fifth-generation F-35s, there are plenty going second-hand. US reluctance to go-ahead supplies of F-16s, till the Hiroshima summit announcement, is easily explained. The proxy war with Russia is carefully calibrated. The US administration wants a war of attrition that slowly drains Russia’s life blood until the point where it triggers regime change in Moscow. It does not want to provoke a full-scale European, let alone a world, war. That would be to invite Mutually Assured Destruction.
Will the F-16s be a game-changer? Though they can be delivered double-quick and there is an ample supply of weapons and spare parts, it will take three or four months of basic training to get Ukrainian pilots to safely take them up and down - and much longer before maintenance crews are ready to do their job ... and F-16s need a lot of maintenance (16 hours for every hour of flying3). So F-16s are unlikely to enter a ‘dynamic threat environment’ any time soon. Low-altitude night/all-weather ground-attack missions, using infrared systems and laser-guided bombs, take years of experience. Without that Ukrainian F-16s will be sitting ducks for Russian MiG-29 and Su-27 pilots and S-300 surface-to-air missiles. And, while we still have no real idea about how many will be donated (though the talk is of 200), the chances are that a beefed-up Ukrainian airforce will prove no more effective than the much stronger one Russia has. Probable then that Ukraine’s F-16s will be largely confined to relatively safe operations such as air defence.
Yevgeny Prigozhin insists that his Wagner group has “taken every centimetre” of Bakhmut - something hotly disputed, of course, by Volodymyr Zelensky. Seemingly Ukrainian forces still have a toehold in the outskirts. While winning the battle of Bakhmut has been celebrated in Moscow “as a victory that brings final victory nearer”, this is surely something of a “Pyrrhic victory”.4 After nine months of bitter street-by-street fighting and almost uninterrupted artillery bombardment, Russia has gained a completely wrecked town. True, there are nine million bottles of sparkling wine stored in deep underground cellars, but that prize hardly compensates for the toll in human life.
Naturally, estimates of deaths and injuries vary considerably. Russian sources put Ukrainian fatalities at between 15,000 and 20,000. Ukraine, on the other hand, gives Russian casualties at around 100,000. Whatever the exact figure, it represents an enormous slaughter and is testimony to the barbaric tactics employed, in particular by the Russian army and the Wagner group.
Human waves - including former prisoners - have been thrown at Ukrainian fixed positions.5 Allegedly, it was the ex-convicts who constituted the first wave. Getting them to charge into the jaws of almost certain death required, of course, either fanaticism or terror (doubtless, in this case terror).6 Reportedly deserters were summarily executed by barrier troops - an unattributed piece of savagery inherited from Leon Trotsky’s civil-war Red Army.
But what is true of the Russians is also true of the Ukrainians. Military commentators talk of Zelensky being lured into a trap. He made Bakhmut into a sacred national cause - a fortress with its own official YouTube music video. He even handed the town’s flag to the US Congress. Tens of thousands of men were committed to a battle which they could not win. Instead of fighting on other fronts, probing Russian weak-points, organising hit-and-run raids, everything that could be spared was shovelled into Bakhmut. Battle-hardened veterans and raw recruits alike were sent into a Wagner meat grinder. While on the Ukrainian side it seems clear that national fanaticism, not terror, provided motivation, the end result was the same - huge numbers of troops tied down, injured or dead.
Probably the death ratio would be something like 5:1. By occupying tunnels, mining drains, preparing strong points, traps and surprise attacks, urban warfare acts as a force multiplier for defenders. But from Prigozhin’s point of view the whole exercise has been more than worthwhile. Far from being a Pyrrhic victory, for him Bakhmut was Wagner’s version of the Soviet army taking Berlin in May 1945. He wanted, he needed, he had to take Bakhmut, if he was to further his political ambitions. That is why Prigozhin publicly ranted and raved against the Russian high command on Telegram, demanded more and more artillery shells and even threatened to take his forces back home to Mother Russia.
The regular Russian army - demoralised by defeat in the Kharkiv oblast and the forced withdrawal from Kherson in the south - required time to recuperate and reorganise, time to train up hundreds of thousands of conscripts, time to integrate the challenges of drone warfare into military doctrine: in other words, time to make ready for the much-fanfared Ukrainian offensive.
For his part, Prigozhin had to have a victory if he was going to grow his public profile and maintain Vladimir Putin’s protection for his mercenary army, which, it should be added, operates on pretty shaky legal foundations. So Wagner attacked and attacked and attacked again. Perhaps he fancies himself as Russia’s version of Napoleon Bonaparte and establishing a personal dictatorship after Putin dies or is eased aside. A risky game and unlikely to succeed, unless he can win over the Federal Security Service (FSB). Either way, for the moment at least, Prigozhin is the best Russia has, when it comes to a conquering hero. Meanwhile, he has made many enemies in the Russian defence ministry and the Russian army, who will be eager to use any opportunity to bring him down.
Despite Prigozhin’s triumphalism, Ukraine’s defence ministry tops claim that Wagner forces in Bakhmut are “semi-encircled”.7 Though there is little evidence of that on theatre maps, a Ukrainian offensive could try for a Stalingrad scenario.
Under general Friedrich Paulus the German 6th army finally took Stalingrad in southern Russia, after gruelling street fighting. Adolf Hitler was ecstatic. However, in the winter of 1942-43, Soviet forces mounted a massive counterattack with operation Uranus. The 250,000-strong Sixth Army found itself surrounded in Stalingrad and eventually surrendered, that in spite of the specific instructions from the Fuhrer demanding a fight to the last man. Defeat at Stalingrad was a pivotal moment in World War II. But whether or not the Ukrainian army could pull off such a feat remains an open question - certainly, though, it is important for Zelensky that the battle of Bakhmut continues, even if conducted outside the city’s limits. There is also the war against Russia itself. Western hardware comes with the proviso of no use against Russia itself. However, Zelensky must have given the nod for the attack on Belgorod by the Ukrainian-based Freedom for Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps - both fascist groups with more than a whiff of Nazi ideology about them.
Zelensky’s dogged defence of ‘fortress Bakhmut’ has, however, served a number of purposes. Morale was boosted not only at home, but abroad too. Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak all take public pride in Ukraine’s fighting capacity and regularly burnish their tarnished reputations with visits to Kyiv and meetings with him. There is also the message it sends to the Russian military: if chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov decides to push on from Bakhmut towards Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both fortified at least as well as Bakhmut, it should expect the loss of a similar amount of men and materiel - a message that is likely to be heeded, at least in the short-to-medium term. Unlike Wagner, which needs a unique fighting reputation if it is to avoid being absorbed into the regular army, the Russian defence ministry and army high command seem to be going for a war of attrition and that means digging in.
After examining hundreds of satellite images, the BBC says it has identified a “significant build-up of trenches and other fortifications” since October 2022. Its report gives us a real insight into what any Ukrainian offensive will encounter. The first line of Russian defence usually consists of a deep anti-tank ditch, followed by rows of ‘dragons teeth’. These pyramid-shaped concrete blocks are also designed to stop tanks and other military vehicles. Next there comes successive lines and networks of trenches and bunkers. Likely there will be hidden mines too. Behind those defences there are well-protected artillery positions. The Russians will no doubt attempt to “funnel Ukrainian forces down certain routes which are heavily mined and pre-targeted by Russian artillery.”8 The BBC provides a useful map, which shows such defences guarding the whole of Russia’s front line in Ukraine and all the way up the internationally recognised border between the two countries.
In other words, the Ukraine war much nearer resembles World War I than World War II. Successful surprise attacks are less and less likely. Instead we have entrenched positions and siege warfare. In World War I artillery was said to conquer and infantry occupy the ground (the battle plan of French commander Joseph Joffre). That required railways, the accumulation of huge stocks of artillery shells, prolonged bombardments and then concentrated infantry assaults.
The Germans, having been forced onto the defensive in 1915, responded by fortifying their front line with some considerable skill and ingenuity. They put in place an outer trench with infantry and machine guns and connected that trench to a second one 200 yards to the rear. Behind those two lines they placed machine guns in concrete bunkers. German chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn promulgated a military doctrine that allowed for no retreat. As with a city under siege, the “standard response” was that any breach of the walls had to be met with swift counterattacks, no matter what the cost.9 Given that German forces had behind them a thousand square miles of captured French territory, such a doctrine was militarily unnecessary, but helped to ensure that the final outcome ultimately depended on who could produce the most ammunition and who could sustain the greatest losses.
What we have in Ukraine is World War I trench warfare with the addition of drones and missiles. Tanks and manned fighter aircraft seem to have gone the way of the cavalry. In 1914-15 the French and British allies kept cavalry divisions in reserve in the expectation of the breakthrough that never came. When the British cavalry did charge German fixed positions, they were mown down. Few survived the hail of bullets.
Will the expected Ukrainian offensive result in a sensational breakthrough? Unlikely, even with Leopard, Challenger and Abrams tanks. Even if Ukraine was to be supplied with a thousand top-grade western battle tanks, even if it got a whole airforce of F-16s, everything points to a long, bitter, grinding war of attrition.
The US and its UK rottweiler are quite prepared for the Ukrainian people to fight such a war for the sake of their imperial ambitions: reining in France and Germany, degrading and dismembering the Russian Federation and strategically surrounding and strangling the People’s Republic of China.
There were those in Russia who feared just such an outcome. Amongst the military, political and business elite most preferred to keep their counsel to small circles of trusted friends and colleagues. However, 150 prominent individuals - including Leonid Ivashov, a retired senior Russian general - did put their names to an open letter, issued just before the launch of the ‘special military operation’. It warned that an attack on Ukraine would be “pointless and extremely dangerous” and would threaten Russia’s existence.10
As should have been expected, Ukraine’s armed forces proved to be no pushover. By late March Ukraine was on the counteroffensive and Russian forces were hightailing it back to the border. On April 2 2022 Zelensky’s government announced that the entire Kyiv oblast had been retaken. True, Putin and his generals launched their phase two almost immediately afterwards. But then, in September 2022, came the twin-front Ukrainian counteroffensive, which opened what I have called phrase three of the war - for the first time things were being actively shaped by Ukraine.
So what has Putin got to show for his war? Given the considerable budget, size and once awesome reputation of Russia’s armed forces, in terms of territory the answer has to be, precious little. True, to much Kremlin trumpeting, four Ukrainian oblasts - Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson - were, “forever” incorporated into the Russian Federation on September 30 2022. However, about half of these supposed Russian lands were either held or regained by Ukrainian forces in phase three - not least Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south. Humiliating reversals for Putin that are hardly made up for by the Wagner group finally capturing Bakhmut.
What about the cost in lives and suffering? Well, to date, there are 100,000 Ukrainians dead and wounded and perhaps a much greater figure on the Russian side. There are moreover some 8 million internally displaced Ukrainians, 7.8 million Ukrainians and 500,000 Russians fleeing abroad. And on top of that Mariupol, Volnovakha, Rubizhne, Popasna, Lyman, Sievierodonetsk and now Bakhmut have been turned to rubble.
Then there are western sanctions, the EU, G7+Australia oil price cap, ousting Russian banks from the Swift system and the confiscation of assets owned by so-called oligarchs. The initial expectation was that sanctions would break Russia. Joe Biden predicted, back in March 2022, that the Russian economy was “on track to be cut in half”, while Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister, boasted that sanctions were “hitting the Putin system … at its core of power” and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised that the EU was “working to cripple Putin’s ability to finance his war machine”.11
Their model is unmistakably Germany and its defeat in two world wars. Rubber, iron ore, nickel, manganese, aluminium, oil, cotton, tea and food were all put in short supply, as a blockaded Germany was cut off from the global market. It was not just the unmatched power of the Royal Navy, but control over international shipping, insurance and money markets. Of course, for woolly-minded liberals sanctions are often regarded as a civilised alternative to war. Famously, American president Woodrow Wilson credited sanctions with being “something more tremendous than war”. But, in fact, sanctions are the very essence of “total war”.12
Not that sanctions alone should be expected to bring about the “dissolution of the Russian empire” (George Soros).13 Russia is no Germany. It is a continent in its own right and behind it there lies the “no limits partnership” with the world’s second largest economy. Note, Anthony Blinken’s ominous threat, made at the Munich Security Conference, about the serious “consequences” if China provides “lethal support”.14 And, interviewed by Die Welt, Zelensky warned that “if China allies itself with Russia, there will be a world war, and I do think that China is aware of that”.15
Predictably, Russia’s electronic and car industry has tanked and there is an acute shortage of high-tech chips, castings and connectors - vital in modern weapons systems.16 However, after an initial plunge, the rouble has been successfully stabilised and all manner of loopholes in the sanctions regime found and exploited. Crucially Russia has plenty of oil and gas to trade. Not only is China quite willing to get Russian oil and gas on the cheap, but so are India and Turkey. As a result, Russian gross domestic product is reported to have shrunk only by between 2.2% and 3.9% in 2022 - and is expected to grow by 0.3% in 2023 (International Monetary Fund figures).17
Unsurprisingly the social-imperialist ‘left’ complains about an “out of control” Putin, ineffective sanctions and the lack of will shown by “western powers” (Simon Pirani).18 The implication is clear: the G7+ must be urged, persuaded, forced into imposing effective sanctions - presumably of the kind that led to the premature death of some 567,000 Iraqi children in the run-up to the second Gulf war (The Lancet19). If only they were listened to, put in charge, then the “western powers” would conduct an effective, not a phoney, war.
But Biden’s strategy is perfectly clear: combine an economic war - which doubtless inflicts harm on Germany and France, but largely leaves the US unaffected - with a Ukrainian proxy military war against Russia. Zelensky’s forces are to be gifted enough military equipment and financial support to ensure that they do not lose, but not enough to trigger a desperate Russia into widening the conflict or going nuclear. In other words, America is willing to pay for Ukrainians and Russian to die in a war that was, from the start, an elephant trap designed to bring about regime change in Moscow.
By giving covert approval to Kyiv’s dramatic upping of its artillery bombardment and military preparations to retake the ‘people’s republics’ in the Donbas, by demanding the return of Crimea, by supplying military hardware, training and advisors, by holding out the distant prospect of Nato and EU membership for Ukraine, Putin was, yes, tricked into ordering a full-scale invasion. A staggeringly stupid miscalculation.
Strategically Russia is now in a very bad position. Far from the eastward march of Nato being halted, Putin - the man who oversaw the defeat of Georgia in a mere five days, who reunited Crimea with Mother Russia and who faced down the US over Syria - has seen France, Italy and above all Germany thoroughly subordinated to US strategic plans, Finland and Sweden apply for Nato membership and Ukraine act as a militarily effective proxy in what is a (Nato-armed) people’s war.
That is why Zelensky has not been pleading for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Quite the opposite, in fact. Zelensky speaks of wanting “everything back”. This means the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kherson, Mariupol and the Crimea too. In other words, total Russian defeat. An uncompromising stance, which owes as much to geo-strategic calculations being made in Washington, London and Brussels as it does to growing Ukrainian military prowess.
It is not hard to imagine the thinking of imperialist policy-makers. In another year or four, with an exhausted Russia still bogged down in an unwinnable war, the conditions needed to bring about regime change will align: Prigozhin marches on Moscow at the head of his private army; the siloviki retire Putin to a sanatorium; back from prison, Alexei Navalny launches a colour revolution; anti-Russian ‘national liberation wars’ break out in Belarus, Moldova and Georgia; separatist movements within the Russia Federation press for independence - in particular the Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, Crimean Tatars, Yakuts and Volga Tatars (CIA options that are already surely operative).
If the US state department could get its man into the Kremlin - say, the already presidential Navalny - there could well be a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. But that would be Russia’s Versailles. The defeated country would face war crimes tribunals, crippling reparations, termination of its high-end arms industry and being reduced to an oil- and gas-supplying neo-colony.
There is already excited talk of demilitarising, denuclearising and decentralising a post-Putin Russia, so as to “remove” it as a threat to world peace and make it safe for neighbours.20 More sober voices warn of a Pax Sinica: that is Russia throwing itself into the arms of China and becoming its Austria-Hungary. While China remains officially neutral there can be no doubting the support China is giving in what is clearly a highly unequal relationship. Trade between the two countries has surged by 41.3% in the first four months of 2023 alone. Chinese vehicle companies have certainly been more than willing to substitute for the western companies such as Toyota which have pulled out from Russia due to sanctions - helping to make China the world’s biggest car exporter for the first time. China has also gained access to Vladivostok - formerly Haishenwai under the Qing dynasty - the home port of Russia’s Pacific fleet. This will greatly enhance the fortunes of China’s Jilin province. All that and more goes to explain why it has almost become a journalistic cliché to write of China being the ‘biggest winner of the Russia-Ukraine war’. Precisely the reason why America’s main strategic target remains China. Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjian are already set up for such purposes.
It is certainly worth recalling Joe Biden addressing the Business Roundtable of top American CEOs back in March 2022. He talked of instituting a “new world order”, led, of course, by god’s blessed US of A.21 In his brave new world order the US would be able to “manage” at last the Eurasian world island - as envisaged by Zbigniew Brzezinski.22
In reality, however, the result would not be a new age of democracy, peace and prosperity, as he promised: rather the imposition of breakdown, warlordism and social regression. The declining US hegemon is the bringer, nowadays, not of new heights of (capitalist) civilisation: eg, the post-World War II social democratic settlement (in western Europe, Japan and, with a final flourish, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore). Instead it brings barbarism (eg, the contras in Nicaragua, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, sectarian fragmentation in Iraq, civil war in Syria and Libya). Fear of the pending US new world order, surely, at least in part, explains why, despite Zelensky’s pleadings, a whole raft of countries - and not only the ‘usual suspects’ (eg, Belarus, North Korea, Iran and China), but Turkey, India, South Africa … even Saudi Arabia - have refused to join the anti-Russia crusade.
The Washington Post February 14 2023.↩︎
. N Phifer A handbook of military strategy and tactics New Delhi 2012, p158ff.↩︎
. A Jones The art of war in the western world London 1988, p456.↩︎
. Quoted in The Guardian February 20 2023.↩︎
. See N Mulder The economic weapon: the rise of sanctions as a tool of modern war New Haven CT 2022.↩︎
. Voice of America February 16 2023.↩︎
The Washington Post February 19 2023.↩︎
The Jerusalem Post February 20 2023.↩︎
. S Zaidi, ‘Child mortality in Iraq’ The Lancet October 11 1997.↩︎
. Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard New York 1997, p30.↩︎