KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) The scenes are chaotic: Russian tanks spin wildly before exploding or heading straight into minefields, men running in all directions, some burning, the bodies of soldiers getting caught in tank tracks.
Russian military bloggers are calling it a fiasco and worse.
These scenes have been recorded over the past two weeks by Ukrainian military drones around the Donetsk town of Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine, where successive Russian attacks have failed.
The Vuhledar debacle points to chronic failures in leadership and tactics as Russians prepare for a spring offensive. If such mistakes are repeated elsewhere along the long military front in Donetsk and Luhansk, they could jeopardize the Kremlin’s plans to gain more territory.
About 20 videos geolocated by CNN show basic tactical errors in an open and flat area where Ukrainian observers can direct artillery attacks on higher ground and where minefields aggravate Russian casualties.
Satellite images showed craters left behind by heavy artillery shelling around Vuhledar.
A video shows a tank running into a minefield and exploding, followed almost unnoticed by an infantry fighting vehicle, which suffers the same fate. Others show Ukrainian drones dropping small explosive charges on stationary tanks in open terrain – and a graveyard of abandoned armor.
According to videos released by the Ukrainian military and analyzed by CNN and military experts, at least two dozen Russian tanks and infantry vehicles were disabled or destroyed in a matter of days. Satellite imagery shows intense patterns of impact along lines of trees where Russian tanks attempted to advance.
The Russian Defense Ministry has insisted that the attack on Vuhledar, in which the 155th Naval Brigade has been instrumental, is proceeding according to plan. In a remark recorded for a TV program on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the “Marines are working as they should. Just now. She fights heroically.”
But the leader of the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, acknowledged on Friday that the area was “hot” and said “the enemy continues to transfer reserves in bulk and this has slowed the liberation of this settlement.” .”
Members of a Ukrainian artillery unit cut firewood while waiting near Vuhledar in Donetsk.
Built for the nearby coal mine (the name translates to ‘gift of coal’), Vuhledar rises above the surrounding plains. Its high-rises give its defenders – mainly the Ukrainian 72nd Mechanized – a significant advantage, as well as hardened underground cover.
Military historian Tom Cooper, who has studied the Battle of Vuhledar, describes it as “a great, lofty fortress in the midst of an empty, flat desert.”
The city has become a linchpin in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have been trying to take it for three months. A victory for Moscow here would make it harder for the Ukrainians to shut down a nearby railway linking Donetsk with Russian-held Crimea and allow the Russians to begin a northern “hook” as part of their expected spring offensive.
A previously ill-conceived plan to take Vuhledar in November resulted in heavy casualties and a near mutiny among men from the 155th Marine Brigade.
Critics of Russia’s military high command say the handling of the latest offensive is even worse, with one military blog describing it as a “shameful debacle.”
Cooper says the Russians have built up an impressive force around Vuhledar, “let’s say about 20,000 troops in all, 90 MBTs [main battle tanks]maybe twice as many IFVs [infantry fighting vehicles]and about 100 pieces of artillery.”
But attacks launched in the last week of January were fatally flawed, he said. “They advanced along a relatively narrow route, all the while in sight of Ukrainian observers posted on tall buildings in Vuhledar, and now face about 500 yards of empty ground on the east side of town,” Cooper wrote on his blog.
“Ukrainian artillery not only inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing units, but also hit their rear, cutting off both their supply lines and possible routes of retreat.”
“Only idiots attack head on”
A number of prominent Russian military bloggers have unreservedly criticized the Vuhledar offensive.
“They were shot like turkeys at a shooting range,” said former DPR Defense Minister Igor Strelkov, who has become a harsh critic of the campaign.
Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, added on Telegram that “a lot of good T-72B3/T-80BVM tanks and the best paratroopers and marines were liquidated”.
In another post on Telegram, Strelkov wrote: “Only idiots attack head-on in the same place, heavily fortified and extremely uncomfortable for the attackers for many months.”
Russia’s military bloggers have tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their Telegram channels. They have been very critical of previous episodes of the campaign.
Satellite images show intense patterns of impacts where Russian attempts were attempting to advance.
One of them – Moscow Calling – said over the weekend that the movement of tanks and armored personnel carriers in “narrow columns” near Vuhledar was asking for trouble. He claimed that Russian units in the area lack intelligence because commanders failed to integrate intelligence gathering into battlefield decisions.
In contrast, he said: “All of this has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Moscow Calling claimed that older T-72 tanks operating at Vuhledar did not have upgrades that would improve the driver’s sight range. That might help explain several instances where Russian tanks appeared to become tangled or reverse blindly.
“How are blind, deaf tanks, armored personnel carriers supposed to fight with equally blind, deaf infantry without columns? And then how are actions to be coordinated when there is no communication and situational awareness?” he wrote.
“If Russian forces try to disperse, they will shoot at each other because they don’t understand who is in front of them.”
Several Russian commentators have called for the dismissal of Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, commander of the Eastern Group. Muradov was in charge in November when men of the 155th protested that his tactics had caused catastrophic casualties.
The fighting around Vuhledar has intensified in recent weeks.
Another blogger said that if such commanders stayed put, the Russian armed forces would be doomed to repeat their mistakes.
In a post laden with explosives, the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Gray Zone said of Muradov: “This coward lies down at the checkpoint and sends column after column until the commander of one of the brigades involved in the Vuhledar attack is dead on the line of contact. “
The killed commander, according to unofficial Russian sources, was a special forces colonel Sergey Polyakov.
Another Russian blog with more than 500,000 followers said of Muradov’s team: “These people killed a significant number of personnel and equipment [in November] and took no responsibility. After that, with the same mediocrity, they began to storm Ugledar [Vuhledar]. Impunity always leads to freedom of movement.”
Troop training questions
But the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says poor leadership is only part of the problem: The “highly dysfunctional tactics do much more to suggest that the 155th Marines Brigade is likely composed of poorly trained mobilizers staff as bad command.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry reported on Sunday that a spike in Russian casualties in places like Vuhledar “is likely due to a number of factors including a lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources on the front lines”.
Ukrainian military officials say there is a haphazard mix of Russian forces in the Vuhledar area, including professional units, the recently mobilized DPR militia and infantry from a private military company called Patriot, said to be close to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The setbacks around Vuhledar do not bode well for a broader Russian offensive. ISW estimates that they “have probably further weakened the belief of the Russian ultra-nationalist community that Russian forces are capable of launching a decisive offensive operation”.
However, some Ukrainian units are running out of ammunition as the pace of Russian operations has picked up.
“The key to success on the battlefield is effective fire damage, which requires a reasonable amount of weapons and ammunition,” commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said on Saturday.
Analysts say the challenge for the Ukrainians is to supply front-line units with grenades and anti-tank missiles quickly enough.
Russian forces continue to have a distinct advantage in firepower. On Saturday, they launched a barrage of thermobaric missiles on Vuhledar, a reminder that they can wreak havoc rather than conquer territory.