May 28, 2023

Friday was the first day of the latest Ramstein conference among the nations assisting Ukraine. This was the 11th meeting and over 50 nations were present. Following the first rounds of meetings, Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Miley spook publically after hearing from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What they had to say was largely encouraging.

In addition to promises of support vehicles, mine removal equipment, and air defenses, Austin spoke to the commitment to increase production of ammunition—over not just the short term, but for “the long haul.”

“Putin made a series of grave miscalculations when he ordered the invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. He thought that Ukraine wouldn’t dare to fight back, but Ukraine is standing strong with the help of its partners. Putin thought that our unity would fracture, but Russia’s cruel war of choice, has only brought us closer together.”

Austin pointed out that Finland was present as a member of NATO, not just an observer, and said he expected Sweden to soon follow. And then he said something that ought to be carved in the street outside the Kremlin.

“Putin’s war is not the result of NATO enlargement. Putin’s war is the cause of NATO enlargement.”

When Miley came to the microphone, he gave some interesting numbers about the amount of ammunition and weapons systems that have already been delivered to Ukraine. Butmore importantly, he gave the number of Ukrainian forces who have trained with United States troops stationed in Germany. Miley broke those down as 2,500 currently in training; 8,800 who have completed training, and 65 more who have just begun training on the Patriot missile defense system.

Better than 11,000 Ukrainian forces training with American troops in Germany alone is an impressive number, but when the question and answer session began, Sec. Austin’s first response might have been the most illuminating, because it confirmed numbers that have been seen elsewhere.

Asked about the U.S. attitude toward the possibility of success for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Miley was largely upbeat, while understandably refusing to talk about details of what Ukraine will do next. Then he said this:

“Our task and our commitment to Ukraine was to provide the training and the equipment for up to nine brigades, armored mech brigades, to conduct either offensive or defensive operations. Those brigades are trained, they’re manned, and they’re equipped.”

That description of nine brigades matches statements that have come from sources inside Ukraine. It may not represent the total of the force that Ukraine could deploy in any counteroffensive, but it certainly represents the minimum force that Ukraine can direct at the front in an effort to liberate occupied territory.

So how much is that?

In the United States, a brigade traditionally ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers and their associated vehicles and gear. A mechanized armor brigade was at the high end of this number, so nine brigades might be almost 50,000 troops. However, the U.S. recently reorganized into brigade combat teams that are between 4,000 and 4,500. Nine of those would be around 38,000 troops.

In the past, Ukraine’s brigade sizes have been … erratic, might be the best description. Before the invasion, many of the official brigades fit comfortably into that 3,000-5,000 range, but some were no larger than about 1,600 troops. 

Ukrainian soldier training on machine gun

Hedging bets against what Ukraine has done in the past, a good minimum for the size of the force now prepared to go might be around 35,000 troops, 1200 Armored vehicles (including tanks, APCS, etc.), 450 artillery & mortars.

It’s quite likely that this is not the full size of the force that Ukraine intends to deploy in a counteroffensive. For one thing, the whole of the Ukrainian army at the outset of the war was around 245,000 people. Much of that army is, of course, currently deployed at the front line, including what’s thought to be somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 in the vicinity of Bakhmut.

Much of that Ukrainian force now along the front will likely remain in place during any counteroffensive to make sure Russia doesn’t attempt to match Ukraine with an offensive of its own. However, some troops will almost certainly roll into the counteroffensive group. In addition, assuming that Miley’s nine-brigades represent those units that have trained with NATO forces, there are certainly additional forces which had been training in western Ukraine for the last several months. Based on reports from many of those who spent time earlier in Bakhmut but who were rotated out of that area for additional training, there are, at least, tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops being trained elsewhere in the country.

On Wednesday, Financial Times took a look at some of those troops in training. They found survivors of horrific situations at Bakhmut, as well as newbies who had yet to see combat. 

Aged from their 20s to their 60s, the former lawyers, interpreters, programmers and retired factory workers are now part of Ukraine’s big push to train up less experienced and completely new troops for its much-anticipated counter-offensive against Russia’s occupying forces.

That may make it seem as if all those involved were fresh from the streets of Kyiv or Odesa, but according to an officer quoted in the article, the average trainee had seven and ten months of combat experience. So not exactly raw recruits. This training is more about strategy and tactics of combined arms warfare than learning which end of the gun to point at the enemy.

According to the article, as Russia was struggling to launch an offensive over the winter, Ukraine was conducting a recruitment drive that netted around 40,000 additional volunteers. Some of those volunteers will finish their training and go to the front anywhere from the hellhole of Bakhmut to relatively quiet locations to the north or south. Others will join the force being prepared for the counteroffensive.

Ukrainian volunteers training to be part of the "Army of drones"
Some Ukrainian forces are training to operate the so-called “army of drones”

The force that eventually drives into the Russian line could well be around 50,000 soldiers backed by about 400 tanks of both Western and Soviet designs, riding to battle in a plethora of different APCs and fighting vehicles, preceded by a wave of wave of drones, and accompanied by the thunder of a hundred guns. When compared to the greater than 250,000 Russian troops that may be in Ukraine at the moment, that force doesn’t seem overwhelming. But Ukraine doesn’t need to crush every Russian soldier everywhere at once. It only has to crush the force that’s in front of it.

Nine brigades is enough to lead a counteroffensive. However, it’s definitely not enough to sustain that offensive and turn it into a general rout of Russian forces. To make that happen, Ukraine needs more. A lot more. Let’s hope that’s what all those “lawyers, programmers and retired factory workers” are going to be doing. Let’s hope there are, oh, around 100,000 of them.

Of course, Russia may respond with a quick redeployment, getting troops to the battlefront and blocking Ukraine before it can make a significant breakthrough. Secretary Austin had something to say about that.

“Russians lack leadership, lack will, their morale is poor, and their discipline is eroding.”

Air Defenses are key

In a speech two weeks ago, Zelenskyy made it clear that the number one item on his shopping list was now ground-based air defenses: Anti-aircraft guns, missile defense systems, and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). He brought that message to Ramstein on Friday, and it appeared to be heard. 

As part of his speech following the meetings, Sec. Austin repeated that the most needed item in Ukraine was more air-defenses. “That is what is most important in the immediate future,” said Austin. He said that these systems were necessary so that Ukrainians have the ability to protect citizens, infrastructure, and troops on maneuver. 

TOPSHOT - Ukrainian servicemen fire with a S60 anti-aircraft gun at Russian positions near Bakhmut on March 20, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian servicemen fire with a S60 anti-aircraft gun near Bakhmut. 20 Mar 2023

The final part of that statement once again points out that part of the purpose of the call for more air defenses is specifically to support what Ukraine sees as a real concern for the counteroffensive. With Russia constructing extensive, multi-tiered fortifications at many points along the line, Ukrainian forces are going to be slow in their initial advance, even in the best of circumstances. Russia could bring in helicopters and fighters to strike into Ukrainian forces while they’re picking their way past “dragon’s teeth” and bridging tank-sized trenches.

Air defenses are necessary to keeping Ukraine moving forward, and the availability of these systems may be as important as the weather when it comes to determining when the Ukrainian effort will begin.

Russia forces reportedly preparing for “big push” at Bakhmut

Two weeks ago, there were widespread reports that Ukraine was building up forces to the north and south of Bakhmut. However, even as those reports were coming in, it was clear no one knew if this represented an intentional buildup, or was the result of a declining ability to actually move forces in and out of the city. 

Also two weeks ago, Russia first captured the area around the train station at the heart of Bakhmut, surrendered it for a day, then came back to capture it again. Since then, hard fighting has continued inside the city, and Russia has continued to advance, but the pace of that advance has definitely been slower than it was in the weeks leading up to the capture of the station.

Bakhmut. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

Russian forces have clipped off another couple of blocks on the north of the area held by Ukraine, and have continued to consolidate their gains in other areas. The most consequential attacks may not actually be on the city itself, but assaults and artillery directed at the T0506 road through Khromove.  Together with Russian forces pressing up against the T0504 highway to the south, Ukraine no longer appears to have any paved route in and out of Bakhmut. Everything that reaches the city has to come in along some dirt roads between these two routes—mud or no mud.

That’s an ugly situation in terms of supplying and sustaining Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, and it explains why some worry that the buildup of Ukrainian forces on the flanks is more traffic jam than tactical move.

There’s another factor. In the last few days, as Russian attacks in the city have declined, there have been reports that Russia is building up both ammunition and forces for a major push into the western area of Bakhmut. The idea seems to be to catch the remaining Ukrainian forces in the city at a time when they have no means of a quick exit and aren’t in a great position to defend. Russia has cleared the obstacle of the river. They’ve pushed beyond the rail lines. Now there’s not great defensive line for remaining Ukrainian forces and nowhere left to retreat without falling under fire from those Russian forces north and west of the city.

So the reports are that Russia is stocking up for one last push to capture all of Bakhmut, a push that could come within days. 

Should Ukrainian forces survive that push, Russia might have actually culminated at Bakhmut, at least for the moment. Also, every Russian plan to conduct a “big push” so far has broken down into disconnected, small unit actions which often fail to support each other. What was it Sec. Austin said again? “Russians lack leadership, lack will, their morale is poor, and their discipline is eroding.” That.

But before anyone can think about what happens after, Ukraine first has to survive this push, if it comes. Honestly, the current situation looks like a whole lot of Not Great. If we’re here again next Saturday, and the map in Bakhmut doesn’t look much different, I’m going to be very relieved.

How happy is this guy to have his Leopard 2 tank in Ukraine?

I would guess he’s about as happy as the former driver of this Russian T-90A is unhappy. But hey it does make a decorative pizza tray.

We don’t have to guess about Ukraine’s future, because it’s in good hands

You know what these young Ukrainian Plast Scouts are doing? Not field stipping a kalashnikov and pretending to murder people. That’s what they’re doing.

These kids are Ukraine’s future. Not Vladimir Putin. Not Russia.

Scouting has a long tradition in Ukraine, but under Soviet occupation it was repressed, or turned into a recruiting tool for the Soviet military. As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Ukrainians formed clandestine scouting groups for their kids. The first gathering of such scouts in 1989 was raided by the KGB, with children beaten and arrested.

The scouts persisted. They are still there. Like Ukraine.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *