Moscow's Slow, Bloody March to Defeat

  • U.S. intelligence believes that Russia will ultimately lose the war in Ukraine due to its poor battlefield performance, rigid command structure and heavy losses.
  • Even if Russian troops capture Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, it would not be a victory and does not show any improvement in their military effectiveness, U.S. defense officials believe.
  • Moscow has managed to move its army just 43 miles in seven months, while Ukraine ferociously defends its territory at great human cost.
  • The Russian army is facing up to 70 percent casualties among troops on the front line, U.S. defense officials say, and the Wagner Group of mercenaries is also suffering from shortages of ammunition and supplies.

Russia's capture of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, if and when that happens, will be the grim culmination of a near seven-month campaign to take a city of 70,000 at a cost of thousands of soldiers killed and injured. But it does not constitute a victory, U.S. defense officials say, nor show any improvement in Russian military performance or augur any change in the ultimate direction of the war.

"Russia is not winning, and the cracks in its foundations are getting larger," says a senior Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer who spoke exclusively to Newsweek. The official cites atrocious morale, poor battlefield performance, an overly rigid command structure, poor coordination (and even interference) between the Russian regular army and the Wagner Group of mercenaries, and shortages of everything due to disrupted and unreliable supply lines.

"I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Monday, commenting about Bakhmut while he was on a visit to Jordan in the Middle East. Austin said that the fall of Bakhmut wouldn't mean that Russia has "changed the tide" of the war. He observed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was "continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops" into the Bakhmut battle while Ukraine was patiently "building combat power."

Despite Russia's slow advance, Bakhmut delivers a stark message: the two sides are fighting different battles. Russia plods along into graveyards of its own making in a losing battle where it shows no regard for human lives, including its own. Meanwhile, Ukraine is ferociously defending its territory at great human cost while also increasingly utilizing all of the tools of modern warfare, from advanced technology to superior intelligence. Russia is stuck in the 20th century while Ukraine practices a form of 21st century jujitsu, thwarting the invaders beyond the trenches while also taking advantage of Russian weaknesses.

Russia Ukraine War
A Ukrainian infantryman with the 28th Brigade on Sunday takes cover in a partially dug trench along the front line facing Russian troops outside Bakhmut, Ukraine. Russian forces have been attacking Ukrainian troops as part of an offensive to encircle Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Slow-Motion Loss

Since its offensive in the Donbas began in April, Russia has managed to move its army all of 43 miles, from outside Severodonetsk to Bakhmut. That's the distance from the White House to the northern suburbs of Baltimore, halfway from the Hague to Brussels, from central London not even to Cambridge.

Russia "is continuing its attempted assault on Bakhmut and surrounding towns," the Ukrainian General Staff said on Monday, with Ukrainian forces repelling almost 100 ground attacks on Sunday alone. "Civilians are fleeing the region to escape Russian shelling continuing round the clock as additional Russian troops and weapons are being deployed there," Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko also said on Monday.

Despite Russia's moves, Ukrainian military commanders want to hold their defensive position in Bakhmut, the Ukrainian president's office said Monday. General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine's ground forces, "spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening positions in Bakhmut," the office said in a statement on its website.

Part of the reason for Ukraine's stubbornness is its recognition that the Russian way of war in Ukraine remains rigid and unchanging: utilize massive barrages of indirect fire (artillery, rockets, missile and air attack) in attempts to pulverize Ukrainian defensive positions. This was the tactic Russia used in the cities of Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk last year. "Soften up" and destroy with artillery and follow up with frontal ground assaults.

Destroyed Russian Headquarters in Occupied Ukraine
An Orthodox church lies in ruins on February 27, 2023, in Bogorodychne, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The church grounds had reportedly been used as headquarters for occupying Russian forces and was the scene of intense fighting with Ukrainian troops, who liberated the town in the fall. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the destruction has been stark. "Burnt ruins" is how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described Bakhmut during a brief visit in December.

With some 100 ground attacks per day, nonetheless, Russia inches forward at great cost. U.S. intelligence estimates that Russian forces—soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries—are facing up to 70 percent casualties in frontline units; that is, for every 10 soldiers thrown into the fight, only three emerge unscratched.

Ukrainian General Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander in the National Guard, said last week that the Russians aggressors "take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every meter of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy."

Though much has been written about the brutality and bloodthirstiness of the private Wagner Group in the assaults on Bakhmut, it has simultaneously been at war with the Kremlin. Yegveny Prigozhin, leader of the mercenary group, said Monday that his liaison officers have been denied access to Russian military command posts, and he has railed against Moscow denying his forces ammunition and supplies. "On March 5, I wrote a letter to the [Russian] commander ... about the urgent need to allocate ammunition," Prigozhin said.

"For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal," he said.

U.S. intelligence is reporting that Wagner troops, though more successful than the regular Russian army, have not only had little to no coordination with the Russian high command, but it is taking a larger number of casualties and even suffering numerous "friendly fire" incidents in the small space of the battlefield.

"I would say the Wagner forces have been a bit more effective than the Russian forces," Secretary Austin said on Monday. "Having said that, we have not seen exemplary performance from Russian forces."

"Effectiveness at the micro level does not equal operational effectiveness," says the DIA officer. "Bakhmut means little in the overall scheme." In some ways, the officer says, the whole Bakhmut battle demonstrates even more of a defeat for Putin.

"Russia can't seem to learn from its experiences, and it can only move forward while taking unsustainable losses." The addition of the Wagner fighters, the officer says, also complicates Putin's war. Not only are Prigozhin and Wagner proving to be a thorn in Putin's side, but they are further demoralizing the regular army.

The Kremlin's response so far has been to say and claim little. Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Ministry of Defense even mentioned Bakhmut on Monday. And Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu showed up in the occupied city of Mariupol, touring what Moscow says is the city's rebuilt infrastructure, trumpeting the only "win" it has left amid enormous losses in the fight for Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Dense to the End

"Russia has slowly moved forward, but it has been unable to change its tactics or capitalize on its numerical superiority," writes a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded an American division in battle in response to a Newsweek query. The officer, now a defense industry executive, says that though Ukraine made some early tactical mistakes, it now has built a solid defense. "Western replenishment of ammunition and newer technologies are giving Ukraine advantages, but the credit ultimately goes to the grit and perseverance of the individual soldiers on the ground."

President Zelensky is particularly careful to give the soldiers on the ground credit for the fight. "I would like to pay special tribute to the bravery, strength and resilience of the soldiers fighting in the Donbas," he said over the weekend, adding that Bakhmut has been "one of the hardest battles ... painful and difficult."

As the Bakhmut battle reaches its climax, it is worth remembering that Russian victories have all been in the headlines and not in reality. In the first hours of Russia's offensive, most Western officials and pundits issued dire predictions about the "decapitation" of the Ukrainian government, about a 72-hour capture of Kyiv, and of the taking of Ukrainian territory by superior Russian forces. Captured invasion plans now show that the Russian military itself expected to sprint hundreds of miles across Ukraine and triumph within days. U.S. intelligence also got the Russians and the war wrong in the early days.

As the months accumulated to a year, little changed. Russia withdrew from the Kyiv region, lost Kherson and Kharkiv, mobilized more troops, lost its grip on the Luhansk region, and then stalled. Neither of the leviathans of war—neither Russian tanks nor artillery—have had much effect on the overall war beyond their capacity for destruction. The human cost is obscene and the destruction tragic, but Russia continues to falter.

"I've been wrong in the past in saying that it's only a matter of time," says the DIA officer. "But it's been only a matter of time till Russia loses, not when it will win. Bakhmut is important because Russian victory or Ukrainian perseverance, either one, will serve to redouble Kyiv's efforts. It's only a matter of time."