The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is likely a strategically sound effort despite its costs for Ukraine. While the costs associated with Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut are significant and likely include opportunity costs related to potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere, Ukraine would also have paid a significant price for allowing Russian troops to take Bakhmut easily. Bakhmut itself is not operationally or strategically significant but had Russian troops taken it relatively rapidly and cheaply they could have hoped to expand operations in ways that could have forced Ukraine to construct hasty defensive positions in less favorable terrain. One must also not dismiss the seemingly “political” calculus of committing to the defense of Bakhmut lightly—Russian forces occupy more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory including multiple Ukrainian cities and are inflicting atrocities on Ukrainian civilians in occupied areas. It is not unreasonable for political and military leaders to weigh these factors in determining whether to hold or cede particular population concentrations. Americans have not had to make such choices since 1865 and should not be quick to scorn considerations that would be very real to them were American cities facing such threats.
Ukrainian forces have previously employed a similar gradual attrition model to compel Russian operations in certain areas to culminate after months of suffering high personnel and equipment losses in pursuit of marginal tactical gains. Russian troops spent months attempting to grind through effective Ukrainian defenses in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the early summer of 2022 and captured Lysychansk only after a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the area. The capture of Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast administrative border, however, quickly proved to be operationally insignificant for Russian forces, and the ultimate result of the Ukrainian defense of the area was the forced culmination of the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast, leading to the overall stagnation of Russian offensive operations in Donbas in the summer and fall of 2022. Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut will likely contribute to a similar result—Russian forces have been funneling manpower and equipment into the area since May 2022 and have yet to achieve any operationally significant advances that seriously threaten the Ukrainian defense of the area. ISW continues to re-evaluate its assessment that the Russian offensive on Bakhmut may be culminating but continues to assess that Ukrainian forces are effectively pinning Russian troops, equipment, and overall operational focus on Bakhmut, thus inhibiting Russia’s ability to pursue offensives elsewhere in the theater.
The West has contributed to Ukraine’s inability to take advantage of having pinned Russian forces in Bakhmut by slow-rolling or withholding weapons systems and supplies essential for large-scale counteroffensive operations.
Milblogger discourse surrounding the reported replacement of Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky with Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich as commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) has further emphasized the fracture between two main groups within the Russian MoD—the pro-Gerasimov camp, comprised of those who represent the conventional MoD establishment, and milblogger favorites who are less aligned with the MoD institution. A prominent milblogger announced Teplinsky’s replacement on January 20, triggering a wave of discontent among other milbloggers who voiced their confusion and concern over the situation. Several milbloggers questioned why the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would replace a well-respected career VDV commander with an “academic” with no combat experience. One milblogger remarked that the Russian MoD has now “removed” two of the “key” commanders of Russian operations in Ukraine—Teplinsky and former theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin (although Surovikin was merely demoted to a lower command position rather than removed from office). Several milbloggers claimed that Teplinsky was dismissed following a disagreement with the Russian General Staff, most likely meaning the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, regarding the use of Russian paratroopers for planned offensive operations. The staunch milblogger criticism of a move that was likely orchestrated by Gerasimov suggests that the Russian information space is increasingly viewing changes made within the Russian MoD in a binary with the pro-Gerasimov camp on one hand and those perceived as milblogger favorites on the other.
The milblogger discourse on this issue additionally offers insight into internal Russian MoD dynamics that may have led to Teplinsky’s removal. The suggestion that Teplinsky was removed following an argument with the General Staff over the use of paratroopers in offensive operations suggests that Teplinsky may have resisted Gerasimov’s desires to use VDV forces to support operations in the Bakhmut area, where Russian offensive operations are largely focused. ISW previously observed that VDV forces took high losses in the early phases of the war and were likely held in reserve following the Russian withdrawal from the right (west) bank of Kherson Oblast in the fall of 2022. Teplinsky could have resisted committing VDV units to highly attritional offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast that have been largely led by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group on the grounds that traditional motorized rifle or tank units would have been more appropriate or for more purely parochial reasons. He may have resigned or been fired over the disagreement. Gerasimov likely seeks to weaken the significant airborne mafia that has long protected the airborne troops (which are a separate service from the ground forces in Russia) from policies and reforms that applied to the ground forces by replacing Teplinsky with Makarevich, a ground forces officer with no VDV experience. Milblogger discussion of this reported interaction suggests that Gerasimov is increasingly seeking to commit conventional Russian elements, including VDV elements, to operations in Ukraine, and the resulting pushback from the Russian information space indicates that his campaign to do so will not be well received.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched a series of information operations aimed at portraying himself as a sacrificial hero of Russia in a crusade against petty and corrupt Russian authorities. Prigozhin’s personal press service on January 21 amplified a letter from the family of a deceased Wagner PMC soldier that contrasted “indifferent” local officials, who did not help with the funeral of their son, with Prigozhin, who listens to their appeals. The letter referred to Prigozhin as “the only Person [sic] who is not indifferent to the fate of the Defender of Russia and his family.” Prigozhin also responded to reports that the Mayoral Office of Kamyshlovsky Raion, Sverdlovsk Oblast denied a Wagner Group fighter a funeral with honors with the claim that “we,” likely showing solidarity with “the common man,” will “deal with this scum” and “pull their children by the nostrils” to participate in the war in Ukraine. These statements set Prigozhin at odds with unpopular Russian officials who operate under a different set of rules from the majority of Russians and increase his appeal as a “hero” of the voiceless. They also support Prigozhin’s ongoing campaign to gain legal recognition – primarily in the forms of recognition and funerary honors for Wagner PMC soldiers – for Wagner PMC, as private military companies remain illegal in Russia. Prigozhin is falsely portraying himself and Wagner Group as moral entities that will continue their moral acts despite prosecution. Prigozhin claimed on January 20 that he would not mind if someone brought a criminal case against him because he would be able to participate in Wagner PMC from prison and that international fighters seek out Wagner due to the “call of their conscience.”
Prigozhin is simultaneously building his domestic power base and reputation as a significant international actor in an effort that is both fueled by and further fuels his information operations against the Russian government. Wagner-affiliated news outlet RIAFAN published staged footage of Wagner forces placing the bodies of supposed Ukrainian soldiers into coffins to send back to Ukraine, and Prigozhin claimed that he advocated sending 20 truckloads of bodies to Ukraine in a likely attempt to humanize Wagner Group and portray Wagner fighters as honorable while portraying Wagner Group as willing and able to act in place of the Russian state to return war dead to the opposing side. Some Russian milbloggers notably amplified this narrative of human and honorable Wagner fighters, while another accused Wagner of staging the whole scene. Prigozhin’s press service challenged US Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby to name the war crimes Wagner Group has committed in response to the US Treasury designation of Wagner as a transnational criminal organization. Prigozhin even claimed that the US designation of Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization “finally” indicates that the US and Wagner Group are “colleagues,” implying that the US is also a transnational criminal organization. Wagner Group continues to operate militia training centers in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts in a likely effort to provide military support for regions that the Russian MoD supposedly neglects to defend, although neither faces any risk against which Wagner Group could defend.
The Sun reported that US intelligence estimates total Russian military casualties in Ukraine as 188,000 as of January 20, suggesting a possible 47,000 Russians killed in action in less than a year of fighting. The historical ratio of wounded to killed in war is 3:1, suggesting that Russian casualties in Ukraine thus far are close to the total US deaths in the Vietnam War. The US National Archives estimates that the total US battle deaths in Vietnam is roughly 58,000 across eight years of fighting. Soviet forces suffered 15,000 deaths across nine years of war in Afghanistan, a threshold that the UK Ministry of Defense assessed Russian casualties surpassed in May 2022 after just three months of hostilities.
- The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is likely a strategically sound effort despite its costs for Ukraine.
- Milblogger discourse surrounding the reported replacement of Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky with Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich as commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) has further emphasized the fracture between two main groups within the Russian MoD—the pro-Gerasimov camp, comprised of those who represent the conventional MoD establishment, and milblogger favorites who are less aligned with the MoD institution. The milblogger discourse on this issue additionally offers insight into internal Russian MoD dynamics that may have led to Teplinsky’s removal.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched a series of information operations aimed at portraying himself as a sacrificial hero of Russia in a crusade against petty and corrupt Russian authorities.
- The Sun reported that US intelligence estimates total Russian military casualties in Ukraine as 188,000 as of January 20, suggesting a possible 47,000 Russians killed in action in less than a year of fighting.
- Russian forces conducted a small ground reconnaissance into northeastern Sumy Oblast.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City. Russian forces are likely making incremental gains around Bakhmut.
- Available open-source evidence as of January 21 indicates that Zaporizhia Oblast Russian occupation official Vladimir Rogov’s January 20 claims of a major territorial capture are likely part of a Russian information operation.
- Complaints from Russian milbloggers indicate that Russian forces continue to rely on cell phones and non-secure civilian technologies for core military functions – serious breaches of operational security (OPSEC).
- Ukrainian Counteroffensives—Eastern Ukraine
- Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine (comprised of one subordinate and one supporting effort);
- Russian Subordinate Main Effort—Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
- Russian Supporting Effort—Southern Axis
- Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
- Activities in Russian-occupied Areas