War in Ukraine: a “meat grinder” that causes astronomical human losses

War in Ukraine: a “meat grinder” that causes astronomical human losses

In the early hours of Wednesday, Evgueny Prigojine, Wagner’s boss, diffuses a video in which he is filmed facing the Soviet monument (the classic World War II tank perched on a pedestal) which sits on the eastern bank of Bakhmout. For a few hours, his men, auxiliaries of the Russian forces, claim to have conquered “everything east of the Bakhmuta River” in this battle that has been going on for more than seven months in eastern Ukraine, between Kramatorsk and occupied Donbass. A trench warfare for a city reduced to rubble and overturned earth, where Moscow has concentrated part of its winter offensive. The result is a slow and thin advance, a retreat of Ukrainian forces in this area. But behind the symbolic gain wielded by Evgueny Prigojine and the victorious speeches are emerging the contours of a Pyrrhic victory.

“You have not yet encountered a well-trained and equipped Russian army”, says Prigozhin in a video standing next to a tank monument in Bakhmut. According to him, there turns out to be a secret Russian army ready to go when Bakhmut falls and operational space opens.

— Dmitri (@wartranslated) March 8, 2023

Vladimir Putin’s forces have steadily lost territory since the initial phase of the invasion a year ago, first withdrawing from Kyiv in the face of the failed flash take of the capital, then faced with the Ukrainian counter-offensive on various fronts during the summer. But since the beginning of winter, Russian forces have launched several offensives, without obvious success, such as at Vuhledar or at Kreminna. Attention is focused on Bakhmout, attacked since the end of the summer. And the total capture of the city by Moscow seems more and more inevitable.

“The Wagner group massacres, rapes, executes. It should be placed on the list of terrorist organizations”

Astronomical human cost

But at what cost ? Assessing the losses suffered by Russia or Ukraine is difficult in the midst of the fog of war, where information is difficult to circulate and propaganda is in full swing on an extremely sensitive subject. Since the beginning of the conflict, the two camps have brandished, with great blows of graphs, human balance sheets and more or less phantasmagorical hunting tables (such as ici or To be), behind which it remains difficult to estimate the real orders of magnitude as we explained it in a previous article.

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Several figures have nevertheless been released by various international media, pointing to the astronomical human cost of the advance for the Russian forces. CNN explains in particular that “NATO estimates that Russia lost five times more soldiers in Bakhmout than Ukraine”, anonymously quoting a “military official” of the transatlantic organization. Or the Guardian, which evokes between “20,000 and 30,000 losses”, killed and wounded, for the Russian side, again according to a military source who remains anonymous, specifying that the Ukrainian losses were “significantly inferior”, without giving a figure.

This human toll, and the fact that it is so unfavorable to Moscow, is explained by the way in which Wagner leads this assault. The strategy of the Kremlin’s private military company, completely outside conventional tactics, is to send poorly trained soldiers (mainly men recruited from Russian prisons) in successive waves, as reported among others the Wall Street Journal March 5. What Yevgueny Prigojine himself had conceded bluntly, and in his characteristic style: in mid-February he admitted that “the meat grinder” was “in action” in Bakhmout, about the heavy losses suffered by Wagner.

A tough situation for Kyiv, but “bearable”

The “motivation” for the Russian belligerents in these assaults, where the chances of survival are close to zero, is found in the prohibition to surrender (on pain of being executed later) or even to withdraw. This tactic is costly in human lives, transformed into cannon fodder. However, Wagner’s calculation is to sacrifice poorly trained troops used as consumables and replaceable from a military point of view. Which is not the case of the Ukrainian troops facing them. The journalist from Wall Street Journal in Bakhmout, Yaroslav Trofimov, summed up on Twitter: “The problem is that Russia is reducing its prison population while Ukraine is losing its best people.”

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However, this war of attrition was not necessarily a disadvantage for Ukraine until now, as Russian military doctrine specialist Vincent Tourret, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec in Montreal, explains: “We are increasingly coming to the conclusion that attrition is very unfavorable to the Russians. The tension is high for the Ukrainians, because if they have fewer losses, they are proportionally harder to bear, but they seem to be able to accumulate reserves [ne pas déployer l’intégralité de leurs forces et à en préserver certaines, ndlr] : the situation seems hard for Kyiv, but bearable.”

In the background, more than a risk of a Russian breakthrough, it is above all the Ukrainian capacities to carry out a counter-offensive in the spring which could be reduced by the wear and tear generated in Bakhmout. As explained on Twitter the renowned American military researcher and analyst Rob Lee, who also visited Bakhmout recently, “The casualty ratio worsened for Ukraine once it lost control of Bakhmout’s flanks. Conditions are less favorable for the defense of Bakhmout than in Vuhledar or elsewhere and Kyiv needs as many forces as possible for its offensive”. An analysis also raised by various Ukrainian officials.

Will the Ukrainian army withdraw from Bakhmout? “If it starts to rain, it will be very difficult”

The map of military catastrophism

A question nevertheless remains omnipresent behind this butchery: why such a focus on this city? In his video filmed in front of the Bakhmout monument, Yevgueny Prigojine asserts that after the capture of the city, “We will have access to operational space. And so far, the world has yet to meet the well-trained Russian army with its well-trained units that have not yet entered combat. Claims that are to be taken with a grain of salt, although they are not entirely invalidated by a recent response from the head of the Ukrainian army, Oleksandr Syrsky : “Prigozhin’s statement once again confirms that after the capture of Bakhmut by Wagner’s troops, the enemy will have a free hand and will be able to launch a large-scale offensive using its army [régulière] and parachute units […]. This once again proves the very important role of Bakhmout.” President Volodymyr Zelensky, questioned about CNN Tuesday underlined the risk to Ukrainian defenses if the city fell. However, it is not excluded that the Ukrainian camp plays the card of military catastrophism for political and geopolitical reasons as it has already been able to do during other phases of the conflict, certain analysts and researchers questioning the most pessimistic assertions. .

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Vincent Tourret believes that this battle is not necessarily the turning point in the war that some want to see there: “The attention paid to Bakhmout is explained because we have a battle that has lasted for more than seven months, with tens of thousands of losses, a symbolic climb of the hairpin on both sides, and above all the risk of a ” “Russian” victory. The researcher emphasizes other ongoing Russian offensives of at least as great strategic interest. “The offensive on Kreminna [au nord de Bakhmout] is largely ignored, he recalls. And we tend to forget the Vuhledar offensive, led by the regular forces [du Kremlin]which is not brilliant for the Russians, whereas it is doubly important for them: it is a question of better securing [l’axe] Melitopol-Mariupol as well as the land link with Crimea, to reduce the salient with Donetsk, and potentially, even if I do not think that they believe in it themselves, to succeed in breaking through to the reverse of Donbass.

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