Vuhledar: Mauling of Russian forces in Donetsk hotspot may signal problems to come
The scenes are chaotic: Russian tanks veering wildly before exploding or driving straight into minefields, men running in every direction, some on fire, the bodies of soldiers caught in tank tracks.
Russian military bloggers are calling it a fiasco, and worse.
These scenes have been recorded by Ukrainian military drones over the past two weeks around the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where successive Russian assaults have failed.
The Vuhledar debacle suggests chronic failures in the command and tactics of the Russians as they gear up for a spring offensive. If replicated elsewhere on the long military front in Donetsk and Luhansk, such failings could jeopardize the Kremlin’s plans to seize more territory.
About 20 videos geolocated by CNN show basic tactical blunders in an area that’s open and flat, where Ukrainian spotters on higher ground can direct artillery strikes and where minefields are worsening Russian casualties.
One video shows a tank running into a minefield and exploding, followed almost obliviously by an infantry fighting vehicle that suffers the same fate. Others show Ukrainian drones dropping small explosive charges on static tanks in open country – and a graveyard of abandoned armor.
At least two dozen Russian tanks and infantry vehicles have been disabled or destroyed in a matter of days, according to the videos, which were released by the Ukrainian military and analyzed by CNN and military experts. Satellite images show intensive patterns of impacts along tree lines where Russian tanks tried to advance.
The Russian Defense Ministry has insisted the assault on Vuhledar, where the 155th Marine Brigade is prominently involved, is going according to plan. In remarks recorded for a Sunday television show, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the “marine infantry is working as it should. Right now. Fighting heroically.”
But the leader of the self-declared, Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, acknowledged Friday that the area was “hot” and said “the enemy continues to transfer reserves in large quantities, and this slowed down the liberation of this settlement.”
Vuhledar was built for the nearby coal mine (the name translates as “gift of coal”) and sits above surrounding plains. Its high-rise buildings give its defenders – principally the Ukrainian 72nd Mechanized – a significant advantage, as well as hardened underground cover.
Military historian Tom Cooper, who has studied the battle for Vuhledar, describes it as “a big, tall fortress in the middle of an empty, flat desert.”
The town has become a lynchpin in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have been trying to take it for three months. Victory for Moscow here would make it harder for the Ukrainians to shut down a nearby railroad that links Donetsk with Russian-occupied Crimea and allow the Russians to begin a northern “hook” as part of their anticipated spring offensive.
A previously ill-conceived plan in November to take Vuhledar led to heavy casualties and a near mutiny among men of the 155th Marine Brigade.
Critics of Russia’s military high command say the handling of the latest offensive is worse still, with one military blogger describing it as a “shameful debacle.”
Cooper says the Russians built a formidable force around Vuhledar, “say, a total of about 20,000 troops, 90 MBTs [main battle tanks], perhaps two times as many IFVs [infantry fighting vehicles], and about 100 artillery pieces.”
But attacks launched in the last week of January were fatally flawed, he said. “They were advancing along a relatively narrow route, all the time in sight of Ukrainian observers posted atop of high buildings in Vuhledar, and now facing about 500 meters of empty terrain on the eastern side of the town,” Cooper wrote on his blog.
“Ukrainian artillery not only caused heavy losses to the advancing units but hit their rear too – cutting off both their supply links and their possible withdrawal routes.”
A number of prominent Russian military bloggers have been unrestrained in their criticism of the Vuhledar offensive.
“They were shot like turkeys at a shooting range,” said former DPR Defense Minister Igor Strelkov, who has become a strident critic of the campaign.
Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, added on Telegram that “a lot of good T-72B3/T-80BVM tanks and the best paratroopers and marines were liquidated.”
In another post on Telegram, Strelkov wrote: “Only morons attack head-on in the same place, heavily fortified and extremely inconvenient for the attackers for many months in a row.”
Russia’s military bloggers have tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their Telegram channels. They have been highly critical of previous episodes in the campaign.
One of them – Moscow Calling – said at the weekend that the movement of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in “slender columns” near Vuhledar was asking for trouble. He alleged that Russian units in the area lack information because commanders have failed to integrate intelligence-gathering into battlefield decisions.
By contrast, he said: “All this has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented by the Ukrainian armed forces.”
Moscow Calling asserted that older T-72 tanks deployed in Vuhledar lack upgrades that would improve the driver’s breadth of vision. That may help explain several instances in which Russian tanks seemed to get entangled or reverse blindly.
“How are blind, deaf tanks, armored personnel carriers, with equally blind, deaf infantry supposed to fight without columns? And then how to coordinate any actions if there is no communication and situational awareness?” he wrote.
“If the Russian Armed Forces try to disperse, they will shoot each other, because they do not understand who is in front of them.”
Several Russian commentators have called for the dismissal of Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, the commander of the Eastern Grouping of Forces. Muradov was in charge in November when men of the 155th protested that his tactics had caused disastrous losses.
Another blogger said that Russian forces were doomed to repeat their mistakes if such commanders remained in place.
In an expletive-laden post, the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone said of Muradov: “This coward is lying down at the control point and sending column after column until the commander of one of the brigades involved in the Vuhledar assault is dead on the contact line.”
The commander killed was a special forces colonel, Sergey Polyakov, according to unofficial Russian sources.
Another Russian blog with more than 500,000 followers said of Muradov’s team: “These people killed a significant number of personnel and equipment [in November] and did not bear any responsibility. After which, with the same mediocrity, they began to storm Ugledar [Vuhledar]. Impunity always breeds permissiveness.”
But the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says that poor leadership is only part of the problem: the “highly dysfunctional tactics are far more indicative of the fact that the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade is likely comprised of poorly trained mobilized personnel than of poor command.”
The UK defense ministry reported Sunday that an uptick in Russian casualties in places like Vuhledar “is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination, and resources across the front.”
Ukrainian military officials say there is a random mix of Russian forces in the Vuhledar area, including professional units, the recently mobilized, militia of the DPR and infantry of a private military company called Patriot, which is said to be close to the Russian defense ministry.
The setbacks around Vuhledar don’t bode well for a broader Russian offensive. ISW assesses that they “have likely further weakened the Russian ultranationalist community’s belief that Russian forces are able to launch a decisive offensive operation.”
However, some Ukrainian units have been running short of munitions as the tempo of Russian operations has increased.
“The key to success on the battlefield is effective fire damage, which requires an appropriate amount of weapons and ammunition,” said the commander of Ukrainian forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi on Saturday.
Analysts say the challenge for the Ukrainians is to resupply frontline units with shells and anti-tank missiles fast enough.
Russian forces continue to have a distinct advantage in firepower. On Saturday they launched a barrage of thermobaric missiles at Vuhledar, a reminder that they are more capable of inflicting destruction than taking territory.