Ukraine at D+375: Bakhmut remains Russian's main objective.
N2K logoMar 6, 2023

Intense fighting for Bakhmut continues as the Wagner Group criticizes the support it's receiving from Russia's Ministry of Defense. Cyber ops remain apparently uncoordinated with conventional operations.

Ukraine at D+375: Bakhmut remains Russian's main objective.

Over the weekend Russian forces continued to press Bakhmut. Ukrainian authorities call the situation "critical," but reports indicated that Ukrainian forces' defense of the city continues.

The UK's Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported, Saturday morning: "The Ukrainian defence of the Donbas town of Bakhmut is under increasingly severe pressure, with intense fighting taking place in and around the city. Regular Russian Army and Wagner Group forces have made further advances into the northern suburbs of the city, which is now a Ukrainian-held salient, vulnerable to Russian attacks on three sides. Ukraine is reinforcing the area with elite units, and within the last 36 hours two key bridges in Bakhmut have been destroyed, including a vital bridge connecting the city to the last main supply route from Bakhmut to the city of Chasiv Yar. Ukrainian-held resupply routes out of the town are increasingly limited."

Russian infantry tactics emphasize unsupported close combat.

On Sunday morning the MoD described how Russian commanders are using their infantry. "In late February 2023, Russian mobilised reservists described being ordered to assault a Ukrainian concrete strong point armed with only ‘firearms and shovels’. The ‘shovels’ are likely entrenching tools being employed for hand-to-hand combat. The lethality of the standard-issue MPL-50 entrenching tool is particularly mythologised in Russia. Little changed since it was designed in 1869, its continued use as a weapon highlights the brutal and low-tech fighting which has come to characterise much of the war. One of the reservists described being ‘neither physically nor psychologically’ prepared for the action. Recent evidence suggests an increase in close combat in Ukraine. This is probably a result of the Russian command continuing to insist on offensive action largely consisting of dismounted infantry, with less support from artillery fire because Russia is short of munitions."

Don't put too much into the explanation of the MPL-50 as "little changed"--it is, after all, a shovel, a tool with limited potential for improvement. Entrenching tools can be swung like axes in hand-to-hand fighting, which is surely medieval in style but the sort of thing that might be done in any army. The report's significance lies in the indications that Russian forces are seeking to redress the failure of their armor and (more surprisingly) their artillery to take ground, making up for the shortfalls of the other arms by feeding infantry into Ukrainian positions. If the new tactics really are the partial result of Russia's shortage of artillery ammunition, as the British MoD suggests, that's a significant development. The New York Times, reporting from the vicinity of Marinka, has an account of trench warfare, and of the Russian tactic of sacrificing infantry in order to get Ukrainian forces to reveal their positions when they fire at the advancing Russian troops. It's a tactic that's profligate of soldiers' lives.

Russian armor losses being replaced with old vehicles drawn from storage.

This morning the MoD reported the Russian withdrawal of retired tanks and armored personnel carriers from storage. "The Russian military has continued to respond to heavy armoured vehicle losses by deploying 60-year-old T-62 main battle tanks (MBT). There is a realistic possibility that even units of the 1st Guards Tank Army (1 GTA), supposedly Russia’s premier tank force, will be re-equipped with T-62s to make up for previous losses. 1 GTA had previously been due to receive the next-generation T-14 Armata MBT from 2021. In recent days, Russian BTR-50 armoured personnel carriers, first fielded in 1954, have also been identified deployed in Ukraine for the first time. Since summer 2022, approximately 800 T-62s have been taken from storage and some have received upgraded sighting systems which will highly likely improve their effectiveness at night. However, both these vintage vehicle types will present many vulnerabilities on the modern battlefield, including the absence of modern explosive reactive armour." Less significant than the lack of reactive armor is that the vehicles are being removed from long-term storage, where they are unlikely to have received the attention and maintenance necessary to their reliable operation. Putting the reserve equipment into the line may take some refurbishment, and that will take time and resources.

MoD and Alt-MoD are at odds (says Alt-MoD).

Wagner Group capo Yevgeny Prigozhin complained this morning, according to Al Jazeera, that his representative had been denied access to Army headquarters. “On March 6, at 8 o’clock in the morning, my representative at the headquarters had his pass cancelled and was denied access to the group’s headquarters.” The door-slamming, if it happened, appears to be retaliation for Mr. Prigozhin's complaints that his troops aren't getting enough ammunition.

“We are continuing to smash the Ukrainian army in Bakhmut,” Mr. Prigozhin said, but he also warned that ammunition shortages place such continued smashing at risk. “If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Al Jazeera quotes Prigozhin as saying. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.” The remarks are unlikely to be welcome at Russia's Ministry of Defense because, first, they criticize the Ministry for failure to deliver ammunition, which is a blow to any reputation for logistical competence, and second, because they claim central importance for a mercenary formation of contract soldiers (in some respects now "penal battalions" manned with convicts) as opposed to army regulars, which is a blow to any reputation for tactical competence.

A look at a year of the GRU's Sandworm.

The Record reviews a year's worth of action by Sandworm, the familiar GRU-run threat actor. Sandworm's most prominent contribution to the cyber phases of Russia's war against Ukraine has been deployment of wiper malware, which has challenged Ukrainian defenses but fallen short of expectations. Sandworm has not carried out the attacks against infrastructure, particularly Ukraine's power grid, that had been widely expected. The group has used ransomware against targets of interest to Russia, notably in reprisal against organizations that have rendered material assistance to Ukraine.

"Sandworm hackers also contribute to information operations," the report notes. For example, they distribute conspiracies about Western biological weapons labs in Ukraine on their own Substack blog and through a GRU-controlled Telegram channel." But apparently tactical coordination with conventional kinetic military operations may be either outside Sandworm's remit or beyond its capabilites. "It is not yet clear whether the Sandworm hackers coordinate their cyberattacks with Russian military operations."

Privateering or criminal economic rationality, carding is rising in Russia.

A free leak of some two-million paycard numbers on the Russophone dark web criminal souk cheekily named "BidenCash" seems to be a loss-leader intended to draw attention to its wares. Many of the cards are nearing their expiration date, there's still time left for criminals to use them. The Record notes that stolen cards are often used to buy goods for subsequent resale, an activity that's grown increasingly attractive as the Russian economy has labored under the twin burdens of war and international sanctions.