Part 2 – Choke Hold: Russia pins down its large Ukrainian opponent

We previously examined Bakhmut’s significance to Ukrainian forces’ movement over distance and time, often described as „logistical considerations”. This essay develops that discussion further by considering how more distant even peripheral operations honored Bakhmut’s central importance in Russian planning for the Special Military Operation (SMO) from 24 February 2022.

The Donbas Line
Due to the prevailing logistical and political factors, the Bakhmut area took on other significant value to the Ukrainian Donbas defence by its long-prepared defensive works and entrenchments. In the Soledar area, Bakhmut’s neighboring town to the northeast, such combined defensive and logistical value was enhanced by networks of overhead protection in often deep underground salt mines, whereas Bakhmut itself reportedly also held some underground access from its western approaches.

Ukrainian defensive preparations in the Bakhmut area were part of an eight-year construction and entrenchment program of defence in depth. Ukrainian planners and military engineers emphasized this area up to the boundary of then-separatist forces’ lines in the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Indeed, the defensive lines interspersed minefields with fortifications of traditional bunkers and dug-in command posts, as well as more modern manufactured hard points with metallic and other strengthening. These lines consolidated over those years of preparation.

Fig. 1 Hard Points: prefabricated steel-clad observation posts of the Donbas Line

Of course, costly defensive preparations over that period posed a major obstacle to any Russian plans to help protect the more-or-less Russian-affiliated autonomous republics, let alone if seeking to complete the incorporation of the Donbas region into the Russian Federation, as was likely the only viable alternative policy.

Ukraine’s defence works expressed literally a „hard line” position over its rebellious Donbas oblasts (regions or provinces), which built up quickly from 2014 to the larger-scale warfare from 2022.

Fig. 2 Defence in Depth: Russian Defence Ministry public briefing’s depiction of AFU defensive works on the Avdeevka and Marinka axes March 2022 (top), and in more generalized open-source mapping such as that for the Popasna-Soledar axis of Bakhmut District February 2015 (middle) and February 2022 (bottom)

There are three perhaps most obvious downsides to strong defensive works. First is the problem of a fabled ‘Maginot’ mentality, or a tendency by which fortifications render a defence passive and predictable, literally immobilized. Second is a predicament wherein any penetration of these lines can threaten to turn the front deep from inside, thus compelling construction of interior and lateral defensive works to prevent that. A third vulnerability is that to maintain such defensive lines’ integrity they need a full complement of troops and equipment, with local reserves to cover fast for likely losses from any focused and prolonged enemy attack, especially by barrage and precision strike.

Failure to replenish force strength would all but guarantee a much costlier and riskier AFU defensive response to stave off wider front collapse. The predicament then poses a cruel irony: where Russian forces occupy newly taken entrenchments and fortifications they do so cheaply in ready-made works. Any AFU counterattack to retake and restore that line becomes costlier still. Initiative and momentum prevail.

On a larger scale the maintenance of such defensive lines depends on another factor, related to that third point, failure in which would pose further disadvantage to the defender i.e., ammunition supply, especially for artillery and other heavy weapons. This factor is ultimately the main determinant for which side could better afford to hold their Donbas line. But as many Ukrainian reports have attested, disparity in artillery supply has favored Russian firepower strongly, thus eventually all but negating Ukrainian advantages of defensive strength in the Bakhmut area and its deeper Soledar positions.

Therefore, in order to minimize cost to their own in one of the most difficult of missions – breakthrough of fortified lines – Russia’s military needed to delay Ukrainian force replenishment for as long as possible. To these ends, the Russian Army would need to make feint attacks and other deception in order to distract and draw away massive Ukrainian reserves and other undeployed forces in a vast area from the western half of Ukraine far across to behind the Donbas Front itself.

From 24 February 2022, that is precisely what the Russian Armed Forces did.

Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium

As a general, workable definition in military theory, the Clausewitzian term „friction” describes obstruction, delay, confusion and uncertainty in the practice of warfare. It follows that warring parties will seek to minimize such friction to their own side while causing as much friction as possible to their enemy.

„Heat” and „burn out” in Ukraine’s extended supply lines describe two obvious, routine forms of less direct friction due to longer distances and continual Russian focus on Bakhmut and its flanks. Such energy expenditure would increase sharply when supply lines catch hostile attention from added fire at longer ranges by artillery and air power, and by ground forces which penetrate to form a stable and consolidated challenge especially with mortars, and from direct fire weapons aided by closer and more intense surveillance and reconnaissance.

Such action by fire and carefully planned incursion was the means to exacerbate the main Ukrainian logistical problem into a vexing predicament as Russian forces infiltrated directly into their supply routes. If AFU reserves pressed on with advances to the Donbas Front they risked Russian feints wreaking havoc on their base and rear areas, along with obvious political damage to AFU prestige and legitimacy. If AFU reserves stayed back to secure assets or counterattack, they would be abandoning the Donbas Front to Russian and Russian separatist advances.

This process of threatening AFU routes has been a clear Russian priority from the start of the SMO. It was no mere fluke of time and space that particular transit areas became target of Russian diversionary attacks, or „feints”, spanning late-February to mid-April 2022.

In fact, the western extremities of Russia’s rapid advances in February and March 2022 too helped to highlight the central importance of these supply routes to the Ukrainian Donbas defence. Russian planners had targeted, quite correctly, these westernmost approaches as critical vulnerabilities affecting AFU Donbas operations.

Russia’s north-central array of SMO feint attacks drew and held ten full, first-line Ukrainian brigades at full readiness, plus the equivalent of at least four artillery and rocket brigades

Map 3 AFU MSR vulnerabilities: early Russian interdiction & diversion of Ukrainian reserves & supply

Russian SMO plans included an intensified assault on the Bakhmut Axis (early further east at the Popasnaya area) while simultaneously constricting severely the very flow of troop reserves and supplies necessary to meet that easternmost threat in enough strength. Given vast publicly available detail in the time elapsed since, the following firm conclusions about the SMO’s main Theater-level components arise:

(1) Western Kiev Oblast. This high-profile feint aroused immediate alarm, even hysteria, in unfounded claims that Russian forces’ aim was to enter or otherwise take the Ukrainian capital, Kiev City. Aside from an early and isolated nuisance raid by a small recon team, such was clearly never the case – Russian forces deployed in nowhere near the strength needed to make a protracted occupation at even part of their bounds out to Gostomel Aerodrome or the E40 Highway, let alone to besiege the much larger and far more dangerous terrain of the capital city of some four million inhabitants with its huge local pool of AFU and National Guard forces.

This central ploy nonetheless relied on psychological effect to excite disproportionate reaction among the Ukrainian political class (including as it does an unbalanced AFU command structure, to be discussed later).

(1a) Chernigov-Sumy Supporting Feint. As Gostomel and western Kiev Oblast caught most national and World attention, Chernigov on the capital’s northeastern flank alarmed the nearest regional command i.e., Operations Command-North (OC-N). Daring, long-range Russian advances via Sumy Oblast supported the western feint by posing added superficial threat to both the Capital and OC-N Headquarters itself.

Russia’s north-central array of SMO feint attacks drew and held ten full, first-line Ukrainian brigades at full readiness (called broadly here „line brigades”), plus the equivalent of at least four artillery and rocket brigades. This was in addition to another five territorial brigades already in the process of being brought to strength by local territorial battalions – large Territorial Defence Forces (TrO) already undergoing an initial wave of mobilization since before 24 February. This powerful Ukrainian force was the basis of a yet broader array from fast-mobilized reserve companies, as well as volunteer units, especially ultra-nationalist battalions of the Pravy Sektor, Azov Movement and Karpatska Sich. These latter were incorporated largely into AFU reconnaissance and Special Forces (SSO) formations under Ukrainian Military Intelligence (GUR).

(2) Kharkov & Trostyanets. A Russian northeastern feint onto the area around Kharkov City and its Sumy approaches drew AFU forces first from Donbas local reserves and later from those line brigades and others delayed in their eastward direction by the western Kiev Oblast feint.

(3) Izyum. A more serious Russian thrust further southeast took high ground south of the Severodonets River and posed a Donbas envelopment threat via the Kupyansk-Barvenkovo Axis. But the main purpose here was direct seizure of the AFU’s northern MSR into the Donbas via Bakhmut – a logistical strangulation which persisted to weaken the AFU’s main Donbas defence at the Popasna-Bakhmut Axis, straining its local hubs at Kramatorsk and Slavyansk.

Izyum’s heights helped form the SMO’s first major „cauldron” (kotel), or pocket, by fast outflanking AFU reserves during their rushed Donbas response. This process set the pattern for Russian operations wherein concentrations at select AFU flanks reduced space for AFU movement under more intensive indirect and direct Russian fires. Such dynamics served the SMO’s longer-term attritional aim, which was a logical contingency for Ukraine’s protracted mobilization of its huge standing and reserve armies, and reasserted by Kiev’s scuttling of peace negotiations by April 2022.

(4) Crimea Land Bridge & Mariupol. Securing Crimea’s northern links to the Donbas made obvious Russian political and economic goals in road and coastal support for the Crimea. The major port and industrial city of Mariupol added to this mission’s political dimension due to the proximity of the National Guard’s AZOV Regiment base to its west. Moreover, Mariupol was the farthest and most fraught possible destination for AFU relief: desperate AFU efforts there were doomed into yet greater waste of forces and further disarray to the Ukrainian defence.

(4a) Energodar Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). Often called the „Zaporozhye NPP”, this vital asset needed to be secured early and fast: it was and remained a potential escalation threat from any Ukrainian (or other foreign) „scorched earth”-style sabotage with a likely aim to goad international outrage and intervention.

(5) Kherson & Voznesensk. Russia’s southwestern SMO feint was a smaller but similarly very daring counterpart to the north-central diversions, but also contained complex and longer-term aims. The most obvious difference here from the Kiev-Chernigov feints was the concurrent mission to seize and hold terrain to secure Crimea’s approaches at the Dniepr River.

The Russian drive to Voznesensk only demonstrated a threat to the Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP and the open plains leading towards the ethnic Russian separatist area of Transnistria. Even less than the drive west of Kiev, Russian forces deployed here were nowhere near enough to realize either of those threats, but had enough depth and flank protection to make successful withdrawal while seriously disrupting the AFU’s alternative Donbas-bound MSR from the Romanian border.

(5a) Dniepr River hydro infrastructure. This area included as target the Dniepr River water supply to Crimea, which had been interrupted by Ukrainian revenge action.

(5b) Koblevo & Snake Island. These small amphibious raids, early at the SMO’s very start, combined with „leaked” operational plans for amphibious landings along the southern Bug estuary and inland towards Nikolaev City. This action demonstrated direct seaborne threat very near the local regional command i.e., Operations Command-South (OC-S) at Odessa and served as counterpart feint to the Voznesensk thrust less than a week later.

Together these southwestern efforts combined to further divert AFU forces’ eastward movement, while helping to prevent serious counterattack at Kherson and Kakhovka on the Dniepr. Like the north-central feint attacks, the southwestern thrust helped to destabilize the AFU’s front further east, but it also achieved longer-term goals in allowing consolidation of a Land Bridge in Zaporozhye Oblast up to the Ugledar-Volnovakha corner.

Map 4 Ukrainian Decision Nodes Feb-Apr 2022: targeted for special attention

Overwhelmingly, the Russian SMO plan of attack worked, as outlined above. In a sense it is still working at the time of this writing, because the war is being fought largely on terrain of the Russian Army’s choosing as the AFU deploys mostly to the costliest and farthest possible stretches away from its interior bases and lines. And Russian forces have shaped the entire theater, using a strategic timing to their advantage, later building their own defensive lines in depth while enlarging their own strength through mobilization by the end of 2022.

For the AFU the overall trend is the reverse. The only similar aspect of trend shared by both sides has been in acquisition of new weapons.

The next essay in this series will examine more closely the extent to which the attack plan achieved its goals.


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