- Isaac Bly
Hot channels on cold fronts
Source: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
War in Winter
With the end of the Kherson counteroffensive and the arrival of winter in Ukraine, many predicted that the next few months would bring a lull to the fighting in Ukraine. However, the hardening of the ground from frost and awareness of the effects of the weather has only caused an adaptation of the conflict rather than a rest period. Though neither has yet to unleash any sweeping offensives, forces continued to concentrate and clash. While Ukraine has retained the initiative over the Russians across most of the front, there are certainly some anomalies, particularly in the front in the east. Most prominently discussed is Bakhmut. These battles have often been small in geographic area but densely occupied, forcing more attritional tactics which moved the expected pace of advance in many areas from kilometers to meters over days. As the extreme rate of attrition being suffered in Bakhmut and the chain of settlements around it indicate, the intensity of the conflict is still growing even if the scale and breadth seem to have been reduced to a smaller area. Fighting in the eastern fronts of Ukraine has proven devastating, with traditional maneuver tools providing little assistance, leaving the battlefield dominated by artillery, mines, fortified positions, and drones. These factors, combined with the small surface area and density of forces, turn battles such as Bakhmut meat grinders in ruined terrain.
Though the fighting in Bakhmut continues to consume Russian and Ukrainian men and material rapidly, attention recently pivoted 10 km northeast, to the smaller city of Soledar, with a population of only 10,000. Soledar has been an anchor in the east. However, like Bakhmut, the strategic value of this city appears to be minor. Nevertheless, both sides were willing to fight bitterly over this town in the Donbas. Recently, Russian forces have claimed to have captured Soledar though there is debate over the degree of control they possess over it, even with the Ukrainian evacuation on the 16th. This is not the only debate in Soledar either.
There is a deeper conflict within Soledar between the Russian mercenary organization, Wagner Group, and the uniformed Russian armed forces over the credit for capturing Soledar. A strange thing for two supposedly allies of the same national organism to argue over, but certainly a revealing one. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin tried to claim that Wagner Group was solely responsible for the victory, a claim refuted by many of the Kremlin’s top authorities, including Vladimir Putin himself. This contest has been playing out since the 12th over various media from Russian state-controlled TV or Prigozhin’s Telegram channels. This contest is worth considering for two reasons: firstly, Putin and his allies have shown dominance over more traditional media, such as television or radio, while Prigozhin has shown to be more reliant on internet-oriented platforms. Though, with Russia's heavily restricted information environment, it is hard to understand the results and trends of this contest. Secondly, Wagner’s relationship with the Kremlin is important and illuminating in the interior situation. While the Wagner Group is often referred to as a private military company, it does not exist in Russia as a legal entity. It is far closer to a private paramilitary organization, reliant on Russian transportation services and healthcare. It draws on Russian manpower with the consent and cooperation of the Russian state. The debate between the Russian military and the state with the Wagner Group is an internal debate within Putin’s inner circle.
Source: Maxim Levin / Reuters / Forum
‘A slow period’
The war in Ukraine is not truly frozen. Some of the most devastating fighting has occurred in narrow, concentrated battles fought day in and day out. While this fighting over limited strategic objectives without the advantages of maneuver and speed is not as dramatic, the scale and cost of these engagements should not be underestimated. It is essential to see the bigger picture, the terrain at and around Bakhmut does not make for a good place for the Russians to attrition the Ukrainians down, and it is not even a battle the Ukrainians desperately need to fight. Russia throws its forces into a grueling battle for little gains. That is what the Russians have done with their control of the initiative. A fighting force that had once been assumed to take Kyiv in weeks is celebrating the capture of a single town. Bakhmut is where they choose to commit their forces after a year of harsh fighting. It is hard not to see this battle as crucial to the Russians politically, with the active debate over the credit for the minor gains of Soledar. If the fighting in Bakhmut indicates anything, it is how small of a scope the Russians are engaging with at such a high cost. Whatever the Russian’s intentions, it is difficult to imagine this is their desired result.