Bakhmut appears to be in crisis, again, as areas of Russian occupation expand

Shot of highway near Khromove

Based on the pre-war rate of production, Russia would need a decade to replace the tanks it has lost in Ukraine. Fifteen years if the Ukrainian figures are correct. Considering the sanctions now in place, Russia could find it impossible to replace those tanks-—or at least, impossible to equip them with modern fire control systems, communications, and imaging. 

Vladimir Putin has burned down the Russian military in the mud around Bakhmut. Every neighbor, every enemy, every ally, and every client state is right now evaluating a new world; a world in which Russia is unable to project military force.

Compared to the damage Putin has done to Russia with this invasion, what the Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan was a paper cut.

No Good News from Bakhmut

In the area around Bakhmut, Ukraine has continued to push Russian forces back from the area south of Ivaniske, protecting the T0504 highway southwest to Kostyantynivka. Ukraine also repelled Russian forces north of Bohdanivka, protecting the northernmost bend in the road that runs from Khromove to Chasiv Yar. 

But both those roads have serious problems.

It’s not without reason that over the last week, the nickname “road of life” for the road running west through Kromove has flipped to “road of death.” Russia has put enough artillery into place to the north in the area around Berkhivka that the road has turned into an incredible path of wreckage. The number of dead and disabled vehicles seems to grow constantly. Within the last day, another Humvee appears to have been added to the mix. 

Shot of highway near Khromove
Highway near Khromove.Remains include a M113 and a Humvee

Driving down this road seems to be about as sensible as the multiple Russian advances on Vuhledar, though videos show some vehicles making it through using the sophisticated principle of just driving like a bat out of hell. 

Despite what some sources claim, this isn’t the only lifeline into Bakhmut. For some weeks, the T0504 highway to the southwest has provided a better route. Only now Russian forces within the city have reportedly advanced to the junction between that highway and Korsunskogo Street, with Russian sources saying Wagner mercenaries have occupied the remains of a school and grocery store near that junction.

There are other roads. In fact, one of the reasons that Ukraine felt that they could hold onto Bakhmut even at a point where it seemed that Russia might capture one end or the other of the Khromove — Chasiv Yar road was the fact that they had already constructed new routes into the city. However, those routes are not paved, and as we’ve been reporting in recent days, the weather around Bakhmut has consisted of alternating days of rain, snow, and more rain, before settling into a pattern of rain, rain, rain.

Here’s what that weather has done to conditions in the trenches around the city. Ukrainian troops, and presumably Russian forces as well, are wading knee-deep mud topped with several inches of water. These are not the semi-comfortable, wood-lined trenches / underground bunkrooms we’ve seen elsewhere. These are just muddy holes in the ground. They’re barely livable even without someone adding artillery shells.

Considering what these trenches look like at the moment, it’s hard to believe that any of the unpaved routes into Bakhmut — all of which have seen heavy traffic from supply trucks and armored vehicles in the past month — can currently be described as readily passable. Current conditions make the T0504 and the “road of death” more important than ever for maintaining lines of communication with Ukrainian forces still in the city. It is not now certain that those lines remain open.

Russian forces make significant gains in Bakhmut. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

Put it together and you have: the Road of death all but impassable, T0504 unable to supply forces north of Ivaniske, newly made roads certainly at least very difficult. So how is materiel getting into Bakhmut? It seems, from some images, that Ukraine is making fresh tracks across areas that haven’t been wallowed out into mudholes, and some of these roads look pretty decent — though it’s unclear how they get into the city itself.

For some weeks, the situation within Bakhmut seemed almost as stable as that in the surrounding area, but that is no longer true. Wagner forces have connected their north and south advance on the west side of the Bakhmutka River, and that river, which for some time represented the limits of the Russian advance, is now six or seven blocks behind the lines. 

A week ago, it was possible to say that while Wagner had reached the “city center” in terms of ruined administration buildings, they were not near the areas where Ukrainian forces had been maintaining their center of control. That’s no longer true. Fighting has moved rapidly to the west. On Saturday, there are images of forces under assault at sites reportedly near the train station — right under that “Bakhmut” label at the center of the map.

Here’s how the pro-Ukrainian Telegram Channel Deepstate puts it:

Enemy advance in the center of Bakhmut has been clarified. Katsaps continue to press with the aim of pushing the Defense Forces behind the railway. Battles are taking place for the pre-trial detention center, the railway station and the Avangard stadium. 

Honestly, the conflict in the area of the stadium may already be over.

It seems that Ukraine is having extreme difficulty in effectively resisting the Russian advance along much of the line inside the city, and there are multiple reports — granted, from Russian sources — that Wagner has broken previous defensive lines of Ukraine to occupy buildings that until the last few days have served as Ukrainian strong points.

How much of this is due to the difficulty of keeping those supply lines open? That’s not clear, but it certainly can’t be helping. A week ago, Ukraine was reportedly sending an additional relief force into Bakhmut, and there were scenes of a significant line of armor that was said to be on its way to the beleaguered city. It’s also unclear if any of that force actually went into Bakhmut.

The conflict in and around Bakhmut is now over eight months old. It’s been over three months since Soledar was occupied by Russian forces and Ukraine repositioned to meet an assault from three sides. Since that time, the tides in and around the city seem to have turned several times. The days on which it seemed that Russia was about to finally take Bakhmut have been numerous. There have also been days when it seemed that Wagner forces were all but exhausted and a liberation of the whole city seemed eminently possible. It hasn’t even been three weeks since the last time it seemed Russia was on a roll, only to have things settle into another temporary stalemate.

But right now, there is no good news from Bakhmut. 

The importance of thermal cameras on drones

We’re continuing our efforts to cut back on the use of Twitter, especially considering the Friday news that one of the first steps Elon Musk took when he purchased the social media site was to elevate the visibility of posts from Vladimir Putin and from Russian state media. However, there continue to be some videos and images which seem to be unavailable from other locations. Until that changes, the choice is between using Twitter or not sharing that information.

You may have noticed that in the last week the updates have used more images and links where possible rather than embedding Twitter posts. There are reasons for that that go beyond just trying to cut down on connections to a site where management can’t be trusted to not boost Russian propaganda. Under Musk, Twitter has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to cut off access to APIs and even to expressly make embedded posts more difficult to use. It’s obvious that any embedded tweet in an Daily Kos post could turn into a void in the page tomorrow—or turn into an ad for Vladimir Putin’s favorite restaurant should Musk decide to make that happen.

Even with all that said, here’s another tweet. I can only apologize.



One drone
Two cameras
Same action
‼️A perfect example why thermal drones are needed.
💥🦅To donate for more thermal drones for this brigade 👉🏻

💥the Separate Presidential Brigade

— Tonya Levchuk 🇺🇦 (@TonyaLevchuk) April 6, 2023

At first glance, this video might not seem to show anything special. By now, any observer of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly seen dozens, if not hundreds, of videos showing quadcopter drones dropping either grenades or makeshift bombs on unsuspecting troops. From the Ukrainian side, we’ve also seen how Russian forces, thinking they were safe under the cover of darkness, were picked off by drones using thermal imagery.

That’s part of what’s happening here. The two images in the video show side by side views of the same drone and the same bomb being dropped. The difference is that this video was shot in the day. Even in well-lighted conditions, the troops in the normal camera are all but invisible, obscured by camo and by vegetation. However, those same troops might as well be walking naked across a basketball court when it comes to the thermal view. Those men are dead because a thermal camera works both in the day and the night to not just penetrate darkness, but remove the value for much of what normally would be considered good cover.

CAn Ukraine Update work as an audio report?

Roughly 410 days ago, we started talking about turning Ukraine Update into a daily podcast. However, there never really seemed to be the time to make that happen and the folks who have experience in making fantastic podcasts like The Downballot and video content like The Brief are up to their necks making those programs happen. 

Also, Ukraine Update almost invariably includes maps, images, videos, and other items that just don’t immediately translate to an audio format. One abortive effort at rewriting a day’s worth of update to make it more audio-friendly and getting one of the really good voices here (that would be … not me) to record it turned out to be a significant effort, to the tune of not being able to get it done the day it was written. So the idea has gathered dust on a shelf, lo these many months.

But yesterday I decided to sit down in front of my rarely used microphone and just read the bulk of yesterday’s Update in an absolutely no-frills stream. There’s very little effort here to read around the visual elements, no editing to get rid of mangled words, and absolutely nothing in the way of production values. Like Oryx reporting on Russian tanks being taken out, this is the absolute bare minimum of what an audio version of Ukraine Update could be.

Here’s the question: Does it still work? Is it a valid alternative — or supplement — to the written version? Can you imagine anyone actually listening to this if it appeared as a 10 to 20 minute podcast each day? Again, this isn’t an official Daily Kos product. It’s an experiment that I cooked up on my way to taking a shower last night and dumped into SoundCloud. Because I could. I can imagine the real deal—if it ever happens—would be tweaked, edited, and hey, maybe accompanied by a little music to make it more tolerable. This is a test, this is only a test, for the next fifteen minutes, etc.

If you actually did listen in, I feel like you deserve both thanks and an apology. But any feedback would be good feedback. And now, imagine how much fun I’m going to have saying “Kostyantynivka“ and “Korsunskogo Street” if I try to record today’s update.

By the numbers

On Friday, the number of reported Russian assaults in Ukraine’s morning situation report dropped to just 40, with 16 of those happening inside Bakhmut. On Saturday, the number was back to 60, which seems to have become an almost standard value over the last week. Here’s how the last five weeks of assault values look when comparing one day to the next. There are a couple of days in here — including April 6 — that are a bit confusing, because one of the daily updates was missing. That was also true of an earlier date where I thought the reported values were very low, but that turned out to not be the case.

Russian assaults on Ukrainian positions as reported in morning situation updates from Ukrainian general staff.

Honestly, what’s emerging here seems to be less a steady trend than a series of falling shelves. Early in March (and in February) Russia was frequently launching over 100 assaults a day. By mid month, the average day was seeing something more in the range of 80 assaults, but there was a lot of variability. Since the last week of March, numbers have run about 60-70 a day with one low day in the mix. That very low day could be weather related, as if followed a heavy snow near Bakhmut.

My working theory on this decline is that it’s related to reported decreases in the number of artillery shells Russia is expending each day. That number has gone down from a reported 60,000 shells a day early in the invasion, to around 20,000 shells / day toward the end of the year, and to a reported value of somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 shells a day now. This could represent Russia burning through their reserve of artillery shells and being forced to operate closer to their actual production values. If Russian tactics involve sending forces forward under artillery cover, then a lack of artillery could translate into a shortage of assaults.

To help confirm this, I’m collecting more information on both the number of shells Russia is expending each day and the number of sites reportedly shelled. But don’t expect those numbers in the next couple of days, because no one has been thoughtful enough to assemble that data into a near, spreadsheet-friendly source for me.

Even if Russia is facing a sharp fall in available artillery shells, that doesn’t mean Ukraine is doing any better. In spite of recently announced donations from the U.S. and elsewhere, The Washington Post reports that Ukraine is dealing with a critical ammunition shortage at every level. According to sources in that report, Ukraine is firing 7,700 shells a day, which would be the highest estimate I’ve seen for Ukraine. Of course, that report also has Russia still firing at a 20,000 shell rate, which exceeds not only other estimates but is double the top figure currently offered by the Pentagon.

In any case, Ukraine does seem to be taking some extreme steps to avoid wasting ammo and to recover material for creating more ammunition, not just for artillery, but for machine guns and small arms. It would be nice to think this shortage is simply Ukraine squirreling ammunition away for that coming counteroffensive, but the instructions given to front line soldiers make it seen that the difficulty is real.

Updated Russian losses
Latest update on Russian losses from Ukrainian general staff

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