Ukraine update: Russia’s shrinking war effort, failing drone attacks, and the defense of Soledar

Ukraine update: Russia’s shrinking war effort, failing drone attacks, and the defense of Soledar

In case you missed it the last few weeks:

  • A high-level overview of the current active front. I wrote that nearly a month ago, but nothing has changed since. 
  • A look at Ukraine’s future offensive options. This piece is two weeks old, and for sure nothing has changed. Ukraine won’t launch any winter offensive until the ground is good and frozen. General Mud doesn’t care if it’s Russia or Ukraine on the march. Current chatter is for something to happen in mid-to-late January.
  • Why Bakhmut holds. I wrote this one yesterday. Added here because, while lots of people are dying across the entire front line, this is where Ukraine is bleeding Russia dry. 

Today, quick looks at Russia’s ever-shrinking war effort, failing drone attacks, and the defense of Soledar, near Bakhmut. 

Russian artillery tells the story of their ever-shrinking war effort.

Shelling locations reported by UA general staff today

— Def Mon (@DefMon3) December 19, 2022

There are Russian nuisance artillery strikes on civilian targets in Kherson in the south, near Zaporizhzhia east of there (I can finally spell “Zaporizhzhia” without looking!), and around Kharkiv in the north. Russia is a terrorist state. 

But the real action is around Bakhmut, Kreminna, and Svatove. Bakhmut is the only place where Russia is seriously attempting to advance, and the latter two are under serious pressure from methodically advancing Ukrainian forces. It’s quite a change from Russia’s original grand plans. Remember this? 

March 16 map

In that first month of the war, Russia pushed up from Crimea toward Mykolaiv, Kryvyi Rih, and Mariupol. They pushed west from Luhansk and Donetsk in occupied Donbas. They pushed south from Belarus toward Kyiv and Chernihiv, pushed through Sumy toward Kyiv, and pushed down toward Kharkiv. It was a five-axes attack, with multiple lines of attack in each axis, and it was all far more than Russia’s rickety armed forces and logistics system could handle in the face of fierce and determined Ukrainian resistance. That’s why today, the mighty Russian army is down to a single axis—the Donbas—and even there, it is struggling to hold ground. 

Unable to win on the ground, Russia decided to try to terrorize Ukraine into submission, launching a series of rocket, missile, and drone attacks to seriously degrade Ukraine’s electrical and heating grid ahead of the cold winter. Yet last night, Ukraine shot down 30 of the 35 killer drones Russia sent toward Kyiv, and even more air defense is flooding into Ukraine from its Western allies. Russia’s terror campaign is relegated to pretty much this: 

Last night an #Iranian kamikaze drone destroyed the home of an elderly couple in the #Kyiv region.

— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) December 19, 2022

One wonders just what this war might look like if Russia struck military targets instead of attempting to terrorize a population into submission. Russia, of all countries, should know that that rarely works. 

I live between Kyiv downtown & the region & hear what’s going on in the city & in some@part of the region. 🇷🇺disco night. Do you differ the explosions of missiles & air defense? Do you know how kamikadze drones sound? I hope I won’t need this knowledge for anything in the future

— Iuliia Mendel (@IuliiaMendel) December 19, 2022

Western and Ukrainian sources both claim Russia is running out of ballistic missiles, and while Iranian drones are plentiful, Ukraine has gotten really good at shooting them down. One effective tool in their anti-drone arsenal is pickup trucks. 

Mykolaiv National Guard fighters created a launcher with PK machine guns to destroy enemy drones. For mobility, it was installed on a pickup truck. It has already shot down three Shahed-136 drones. #UkraineWllWin

— UkraineWorld (@ukraine_world) November 7, 2022

These Iranian drones are slow and lumbering, and while their low flight path helps them avoid traditional air defense missiles, it makes them extremely vulnerable to a large network of these mobile air defenses. This is war—new developments spur innovations, then countermeasures, then counter-countermeasures, and so on. The era of the cheap terror drone is already coming to a close.

That’s not to say that these drones won’t continue being a nuisance to Ukraine, and incredibly deadly to people who lose homes or family members to them. But as a strategic factor, the best that can be said about these drones is that they delayed the end of the war by several months as Ukraine prioritized air defenses in their requests from allies.

Yes, Ukraine asked for both air defenses and offensive weapons, but there are political, financial, logistical, and material reasons for allies to prioritize certain weapons systems over others. For example, Ukraine will reportedly soon get a Patriot air defense system (it was supposed to be announced yesterday, but it hasn’t happened yet). That system costs $1 billion. For comparison, that would buy 172 Leopard 2 tanks at $5.75 million each. It would buy nearly 9,000 GMLRS rockets for HIMARS/M270. 

The Western allies have been reluctant to provide Ukraine with NATO-standard battle tanks, likely for logistical reasons we’ve repeatedly discussed. So given the choice between Ukrainian requests for air defense or main battle tanks, it seems everyone was happy to jump on the air defense bandwagon. Logistical challenges still apply, but maintaining a handful of batteries is likely easier than hundreds of tanks. And given their locations far behind enemy lines, they might even be maintainable by defense contractors. 

If you were following the blow-by-blow of the Battle of Bakhmut last week, you might remember that Russian forces reportedly penetrated a few blocks of the city’s eastern residential neighborhood. Those reports were true. Here is drone video of Ukrainian forces pushing those Russian/Wagner troops out. 

Heavy fighting in the eastern suburbs and industrial area of Bakhmut, as seen by a Ukrainian drone. Ukrainian forces, dismounted and reinforced by British-donated Wolfhound TSV MRAPs, assault a Russian position.

— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) December 19, 2022

I wish I could read the captions, but the overall gist is clear, as is the overall scale of Bakhmut’s destruction. I found it particularly noteworthy that the Russian vanguard was hung out to dry. Russian artillery is too inaccurate to fire anywhere near frontline troops, but I saw no mortar fire hitting the counterattacking Ukrainian forces, and certainly no armor support. They never had a chance. (Yesterday’s update details how Ukraine is defending the city.)

Yet as Bakhmut proper seems relatively secure for the moment, and lines south of the city equally strong, there is increasing worry about next-door Soledar. 

Russia has shifted much of its recent attention to the Soledar approach, hoping to isolate Bakhmut from the north, and putting that supply road heading northwest out of Bakhmut under fire control. As always, this is a lot of work and blood for a city with limited strategic value, but Russia is desperate for anything they can call a victory after months of humiliating defeats. 

Here, a Ukrainian tank is destroyed by Russia in that Soledar area. Luckily, it looks like the crew got out. It’s tough work.

An AFU tank near Soledar was hit twice by ATGM.

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) December 19, 2022

Russians holding the edge of Soledar aren’t having a much better time of it. 

This footage from Soledar appears to be recent and it allows us to pinpoint where Russian troops are hiding. These buildings are at the south eastern end of the town and they are getting hammered by Ukrainian artillery #Soledar #Ukraine

— (((Tendar))) (@Tendar) December 16, 2022

And this is quite the story, following combat medics supporting Soledar’s defenders. This video has scenes of battlefield injuries, so discretion is advised. 

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