A couple of weeks ago, pro-Ukrainian sources were ecstatic at the imminent fall of Russian-occupied Kreminna, but it wasn’t so. While Ukraine was advancing (and still is, at this time), Russia was in no imminent danger of losing Kreminna.
The last couple of days, pro-Ukrainian sources have been in near panic at the fall of Ukrainian-held Soledar, northeast of Bakhmut, but as the sun came up today, turns out … well, who knows.
Soledar does not appear to be in imminent danger of falling to Russia, though the situation is certainly described as “difficult” and Wagner released geolocated footage of soldiers in the city’s center (though bullets fly nearby, proving the situation remains fluid). Furthermore, the location remains outside the soon-to-be-famous salt mines—yet another industrial complex with deep underground tunnels that should tie up Russian forces for weeks or months, like the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, or the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk.
Russian sources also claim that they have taken Podhorodne, just northeast of Bakhmut, and claim to be advancing across those open fields to Krasna Hora and Paraskovivka. Some of them claim Krasna Hora is already in Russian hands. There has been no visual confirmation of any of those claims, and it seems incredible that Russia has managed to cross those open fields under relentless Ukrainian artillery and machine gun fire. But I posted yesterday about their successful human-wave tactics, as reported by a Ukrainian officer on the ground:
At first, the first group, usually of 8 people, is put forward to the finish line. The whole group is maximally loaded with [ammunition], each has a "Bumblebee" flamethrower. Their task is to get to the point and get a foothold. They are almost suicidal. Their [ammo] in case of failure is intended for the following groups.
The group gets as close as possible to the Ukrainians and digs in as quickly as possible. A white cloth or other sign is left on the tree so that the next group can navigate in the event of the death of their predecessors and find where shelters have already been dug and where there are weapons.
During the fire contact, the "Wagners" detect Ukrainian fire positions and transfer them to their artillery. As a rule, 120-mm and 82-mm mortars work in them. Up to 10 mortars simultaneously begin to suppress the discovered Ukrainian position. Artillery training can last several hours in a row.
During this time, 500 meters from the first group, the second group concentrates. It has lighter equipment. And under the cover of artillery, this group begins an assault on the Ukrainian position. If the second group fails to take a position, it is followed by the third and even the fourth. That is, four waves of eight people for one Ukrainian position.
Wagner mercenary group reportedly recruited up to 40,000 Russian prisoners to throw at Ukrainian positions. Some reports claim that half of them are out of the war—dead or grievously wounded. That seems too crazy to be true, but then you read what they’re doing above, you see pictures of fields littered with the Wagner dead, and suddenly it all seems plausible, if not probable.
The frightful body count hasn’t deterred pro-Russian Twitter and Telegram from near-orgasmic levels of excitement. You’d think Russia was on the verge of an actual victory, not throwing everything they have left at attempting to take a town with a pre-war population of 10,000. This is it. After losing all of Kharkiv and half of Kherson oblasts (plus Kherson city itself), Russia thinks that taking Soledar and maybe Bakhmut somehow cancels out those humiliating losses. Their pathetic stans certainly pretend it does. And yet it brings Russia nothing of real value. Let’s look at the remaining active front:
Ukraine is pushing toward Svatove and Kreminna in the north, while Russia is pushing at Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and (not so much lately) Pavlivka/Vuhledar. Ukraine’s efforts have a strategic goal: If they can break through at Svatove, they can push east toward Starobilsk and cut off Russia’s entire northern supply line from Belgorod. If Ukraine eventually attacks toward Melitopol, it would cut Russia’s land bridge to Crimea and cut Russia’s forces in two.
That’s called “strategy.” There is a strategic purpose to both those options. What is Russia’s strategy? Once upon a time, they had one! Remember this?
Originally, Russia aimed to push north through Mykolaiv, and down from Kyiv, to cut off the bulk of Ukraine’s forces from their supply lines out west.
When Russia failed in both directions, they redeployed the bulk of their forces to Izyum, which then intended to push down toward Zaporizhzhia oblast, cutting off the bulk of Ukrainian forces in Ukraine’s eastern third.
Well oops, nothing was happening down south, so those forces in Izyum started pushing toward the twin fortress cities of Kramatorsk/Sloviansk while attempting to break Ukrainian defenses around Donetsk city. The goal at that point was to cut off Ukrainian defenses on that Donbas line of contact. But then the push out of Izyum fizzled, and by June, Russia was excited merely to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
So what’s the goal today? There is none, just a mindless push westward, regardless of the cost.
The Soledar-Bakhmut push has become all-consuming at a time when Russia is running out of gear and ammunition. CNN reports that “Russia’s artillery fire is down dramatically from its wartime high, in some places by as much as 75 percent.” Also, this tracks with what I’ve written before:
US and Ukrainian officials have offered widely different estimates of Russian fire, with US officials saying the rate has dropped from 20,000 rounds per day to around 5,000 per day on average. Ukraine estimates that the rate has dropped from 60,000 to 20,000 per day.
Ukraine has every reason to exaggerate Russia’s shell usage in order to spur aid deliveries. But regardless who is right, the trend is clear, and it’s confirmed anecdotally by both sides. Here’s some Wagner a-holes in the Bakhmut theater complaining about running out of shells:
The reason some areas are seeing a 75% drop in Russian artillery is because the invaders are sending almost everything they have left to Soledar. It may not be their last gasp, but it’s certainly a massive gamble for little payoff.
Soledar and Bakhmut are just two of many, many, well-entrenched Ukrainian cities. If Russia eventually manages to take these two, Ukraine merely falls back to the next position, while Russia must extend their supply lines yet further away from their all-important railheads. What then? Russia has been able to tolerate the human cost in large part because it’s been shouldered by jailed criminals. But Wagner is running out of prison conscripts. And Russia can only hide the overall death toll for so long, particularly as its economy is finally starting to buckle under the weight of sanctions and collapsing energy prices.
Over the summer, the price of Ural crude was nearly $100. Now India and China are viciously taking advantage of Russia’s woes to get an over-50% discount over the rest of the world. Ural crude is particularly expensive to extract, estimated at around $42 per barrel. Even if that estimate is high, it’s clear Russia’s profit margins are, at best, hovering around break-even.
Putin knows he must keep his populace docile even as conditions worsen. Russia propaganda is starting to work on that.
Mardan posed a startling question to his economic expert, Denis Raksha: “What are our chances? Do we even have them or not? Will we have to live like South Korea in the 1950s-1960s? Will we end up having to eat fire ants?”
Raksha explained that if Russia intends to drastically rebuild its economy in order to be self-sustaining everyday life will become quite difficult, even if Russians won’t have to resort to eating ants. He added: “Currently, the industrialization reminiscent of that of the 19th century or the 1920s-1930s is practically impossible. In that case, we’d have to live not like South Koreans, but like North Koreans.” ...
Concluding the program, Mardan grimly noted: “To everyone who says that Russia should get up off its knees—myself included—my friends, I’m afraid that our former way of life is a thing of the past... It’s practically unavoidable... perhaps we’ll be reflecting upon the past year as our last fat year. On the other hand, a great victory is ahead of us!”
“Don’t worry, comrades! Yeah, it might suck to live like North Koreans, but that’s okay. You may be thin and hungry, but we have Bakhmut, the most glorious victory of all!”
Russia is the most absurd place on earth.