Russian-Ukrainian war: The factor of Bakhmut and the failure of the Russian special services in the Bryansk region

The situation at the front

The situation near Bakhmut remains one of the most difficult at the front. The fighting around the city is one of the five areas where the Russians are trying to realize their so-called big offensive. They are trying to move towards Bakhmut in three directions: from the south, north, and east. The most difficult situation is in the north – after the capture of Yahidne and Berkhivka, the Russians are trying to move towards Khromove. The purpose of this advance is to cut the city’s supply line.

Currently, Ukrainian units in Bakhmut hold the defense around the entire perimeter of the city. In the south, they even make counterattacks in the Ivanivske area. They are pushing back the Russians, who are trying to reach the highway between Konstantynivka and Bakhmut. Despite the complexity of the situation, the opportunity for them to hold the city remains. Earlier it was decided to strengthen the defense of Bakhmut with reserves. Both logistical arteries that supply the Ukrainian units in Bakhmut are under Russian fire pressure, but the logistics, albeit at risk, still work. So there are no grounds yet for Ukrainian forces to leave the city. But, as soon as the remaining logistical routes to Bakhmut are threatened with physical cutting, then the Ukrainian units fighting there will be withdrawn.

However, even if Bakhmut is captured by the Russians, this will not bring catastrophic changes to the Ukrainian defense line in this area. Consequently, holding Bakhmut had from the very beginning a different purpose and meaning.

Firstly, it allowed buying time to receive Western armored vehicles, as well as to continue the formation and mobilization of new units.

Secondly, the attack on Bakhmut exhausts the Russian troops and forces them to spend their ammunition. In addition, the Russians suffered significant losses there during all the months of assaults. The same Wagner PMC ceased to exist as a separate force. Its remnants continue to operate near Bakhmut, but as a separate combat unit, this PMC ceased to exist.

Thirdly, Ukrainian units in Bakhmut hold the line of defense so that it does not crumble, and at the same time create conditions for improving the building of the next line, which begins already beyond Bakhmut.

Fourthly, many months of unsuccessful attempts to capture Bakhmut demoralize the Russians. As of today, their last significant victory – the capture of Lysychansk – was back in July. For more than six months, the Russian army has not been able to achieve a single significant military success.

In general, the several-month-long defense of Bakhmut demonstrates the ability of Ukrainian forces to deter the Russians in those sectors of the front where they tried to turn tactical successes into strategic victories but instead expended colossal human and weapons resources without achieving any significant results.

In the Luhansk direction, the front line does not change, although the fighting there is intense. In the Svatove-Kreminna section, the Russians continue to build up forces and make attempts to push the Ukrainian forces from the Oskil River. Fighting continues in the Kreminna area. But there is no significant change in the front line in this direction.

In the South, there are no particular dynamics, except, perhaps, for the ongoing regular destruction of Russian military depots and other objects by Ukrainian artillery strikes. This, in particular, is a continuation of the strategy that the Ukrainian forces used on the right bank of the Kherson region. That is, they carry out fire destruction of the command and control system and logistics of the Russians in areas that in the future may become the main ones for a future Ukrainian offensive operation.

It should also be noted that, despite the recent significant losses of Russians in manpower and equipment in an attempt to capture Vuhledar (according to the NYT, Ukraine won the largest tank battle of the entire war near Vuhledar), they are likely to make another offensive attempt on this area soon. Vuhledar is of great importance to them. They need to ensure supply routes near Volnovakha and somehow move Ukrainian units (primarily artillery) away from them. Also, by advancing on Vuhledar, the Russians are trying to divert the attention of the Ukrainian command from other areas, in particular from Bakhmut, and not allow it to maneuver with his forces.

In addition, given that, as in the case of Bakhmut, the Russians in trying to capture Vuhledar are guided not only by military expediency but also by political guidelines from Kremlin, it is unlikely that they will give up trying to capture this city.

What do the losses of Russians in equipment say

The news: Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has lost up to half of its tank fleet. According to the estimates of the Dutch monitoring group Oryx which collects visual evidence of the loss of military equipment in Ukraine, Russians lost 1688 tanks. The total losses of Russians in equipment, according to Oryx, amount to almost 9.1 thousand.

Details: The losses of Russians in equipment show both scarcity and their limited ability to compensate for losses. For example, losses of tanks and artillery are compensated by deliveries to the combat zone at limited values. That is, the Russians within a month can compensate exactly as much as the Ukrainian forces are destroying now.

As for armored combat vehicles, there is a decrease in the potential of Russians to compensate for losses in this type of equipment. Its available quantity does not satisfy the needs of Russian units.

The process of compensation for the losses of medium and light armored vehicles is increasingly hampered by the long-term degradation of the Russian military industry, which was not prepared to meet the needs of the Russian army in a full-scale war.

Why it’s important: The Russian army is moving steadily from the tank and motorized infantry formations to rifle formations. This is another explanation for why the Russian “big offensive” has no prospects. After all, the emerging Ukrainian units with modern Western armored vehicles will be opposed by Russian light infantry. In such circumstances, Russians will increasingly be forced to resort to the tactics of “human waves”. “Human waves”, in turn, will increasingly deplete the human resource of the Russian army, and they cannot do without new waves of mobilization. Taking into account the experience of mobilization activities already carried out in Russia and the quality of training and equipment of the mobilized personnel, there is great doubt that the replenishment of the Russian army within the framework of new waves of mobilizations will be better than the previous ones. And this will have a direct impact on the situation of Russian troops at the front.

Saboteurs in the Bryansk region

The news: On March 2, the Russian authorities and the media reported on the penetration of a “Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group” (SRG) into the Bryansk region of Russia. The Bryansk governor Alexander Bogomaz was the first to claim that the SRG had penetrated the territory of the region. According to him, “saboteurs” fired at the car, killed a local resident, and wounded a ten-year-old child. Later, telegram channels and Russian state media reported that dozens of “saboteurs” (40-50 people) allegedly took hostages.

By evening, the FSB said that “the enemy was squeezed into the territory of Ukraine, where a massive artillery strike was inflicted on him.”

Details: Russian President Vladimir Putin called the events in the Bryansk region “another act of terrorism.” Later, the Russian media reported that in response to the events in the Bryansk region, the President of Russia would urgently convene the Russian Security Council. However, later, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that “there were no such plans” and Putin would hold a scheduled meeting only on Friday.

For his part, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak called reports about a “Ukrainian sabotage group” that penetrated the Bryansk region a “classic provocation”. At the same time, the official said that “the partisan movement in the Russian Federation is becoming stronger and more aggressive.”

As soon as the Kremlin announced the attack of “terrorists” on the Bryansk region, the “Russian Volunteer Corps” (RVC) took responsibility for it. A video appeared on its Telegram channel with two men in camouflage, who stated that the “volunteer corps” crossed the Russian state border to demonstrate that “Russian people with weapons in their hands can fight the regime.”

Later, the Russian FSB published its version of the events in the Bryansk region – a video that consists of several fragments and photos. Two cars were filmed on the video – a VAZ-2107 with bullet holes in the body and broken windows, and a “Niva” without significant external damage. In both cars, the bodies of the dead were shown. The video also contains several photos of mines and cartridge cases that lie directly on the ground.

However, immediately after the appearance of this video, many questions arose about it. For example, on the VAZ-2107, the car number is torn off so that the numbers and letters on it are not readable. In addition, at the beginning of the video, the car is in one place, but when the photo of the shot car appears, it is already in another place. As for the “Niva”, in the FSB video, the car is completely intact and there are no bullet marks on it. All glass is in place. The video shows only a broken wheel. At the same time, it was previously stated that the driver was killed in this car and a boy was wounded. “Niva” was also filmed in different places: first – on the road itself, and then – in a ditch.

Why it’s important: Firstly, the RVC is a real organization that takes part in the war against Russia on the side of Ukraine. One of the saboteurs in the video is 38-year-old Denis Nikitin, who, according to some reports, is the head of the RVC. That is, the RVC’s group really penetrated the territory of the Bryansk region, and, having completed its task, successfully left it.

Secondly, given that the real result of the work of the RVC’s SRG in the Bryansk region was a video against the background of local administrative buildings (to confirm that they were there), the main goal of this SRG likely was to declare itself as a serious force, which opposes the current Russian regime, as well as to demonstrate the low level of effectiveness of the actions of the Russian special services (FSB, border services, as well as the police) and that on the territory of Russia, under their noses, foreign special operations and sabotage actions can be carried out. The “piquancy” of this story is added by the fact that it took place in a region in which a “yellow” terrorist threat level has been introduced since April 2022. Moreover, since October a “medium response level” was introduced there, which, in particular, allows local authorities to strengthen the protection of public order, introduce a special mode of entry and exit, restrict the movement of vehicles, and inspect it, as well as restrict movement and introduce a special mode of operation of facilities.

Thirdly, the FSB version with “video evidence” about the activities of the “Ukrainian SRG”, which has too many blank spots, is nothing more than its reaction to the obvious failure of their (and their fellow border guards) work. At the same time, this reaction is very weak and even more discrediting the Russian special services. Because if they allow an enemy SRG of 40-50 people to enter a region with an enhanced counterintelligence and anti-terrorist regime, carry out sabotage operations there (the results of which were shown on the FSB video), and quietly disappear without losses, then very big questions arise to their professional suitability.

It is likely that after the FSB and the border service missed the RVC raid in the Bryansk region, serious proceedings and the search for the guilty ones will begin within this Service. It can also strain relations between the FSB and the Kremlin – which, together with the abovementioned, is also a very good result of the “Bryansk saboteurs.”

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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March 2023
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