The Centers of Gravity
I’ve been waiting for the Ukrainian counter-offensive to begin, and, well, we’re still waiting. Either they’re taking a while to set it up, or it may end up being less spectacular than we’ve been hoping for. Or we are still somewhat lost in the “fog of war,” as is normal.
There are certainly reports of Ukraine being shorter of ammunition and other supplies than they should be. The NATO allies have been providing them a lot of support—but often more slowly than we should. As I keep saying, a lot of Western strategy seems to be oriented at making sure Ukraine doesn’t lose, rather than making sure they win.
As we’ve been waiting, the main action has been in Bakhmut, a town of no particular importance that the Russians somehow decided was so crucial to their war effort that they threw everything they had at it.
“Hell Knows How”
There has been a lot of debate between the Ukrainians and their Western advisors about whether it was wise to resist the Russians there, but the Ukrainian case is that if the Russians are willing to take huge losses, why not help them out?
That is certainly the result.
The Ukrainian military does not release casualty numbers, but military experts believe the country has suffered significant losses in Bakhmut, though notably fewer than Russia. The country has not had to expend any of its troops currently being trained for its coming offensive, Col. Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, confirmed to The Wall Street Journal this week.
"The Ukrainians saw that they could generate a relative advantage over the Russians by killing more Russians than they lost themselves in Bakhmut," Ryan said.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Russian neo-Nazi “Wagner Group” of mercenaries, which has been the main Russian force in Bakhmut, confirms this.
While regular Russian military officials keep a lid on the number of casualties in Ukraine, Prigozhin said that 20,000 Wagner fighters have died in the battle for Bakhmut. Even if an undercount, the figure eclipses the last official number given by Moscow in September, when Shoigu claimed that 5,937 soldiers had died….
Military experts attribute such a high death toll among Wagner fighters to its commanders’ brutal tactics of sending waves of poorly trained convicts to exhaust Ukrainians, at times threatening the prisoners with death if they retreated.
Some estimates go as high as 40,000 dead, and President Biden recently gave what is presumably the official US estimate of total Russian losses there, including both dead and wounded: 100,000 troops. If true, this is absolutely staggering.
Back to the report on Prigozhin, who has been trying to promote himself by dragging down the regular Russian military, amid reports that he was willing to give the Ukrainians intelligence on other Russian positions if they let him take Bakhmut. If I were him, I wouldn’t be drinking tea by the window any time soon. But as a result, he is willing to speak some hard truths that other Russians won’t dare to name.
Instead of demilitarization, he said, the invasion turned “Ukraine’s army into one of the most powerful in the world” and Ukrainians into “a nation known to the entire world.”
“If they, figuratively speaking, had 500 tanks at the beginning of the special operation, now they have 5,000,” he said. “If they had 20,000 fighters who knew how to fight, now they have 400,000. How did we ‘demilitarize’ it? Now it turns out that we militarized it—hell knows how.”
Meanwhile, there are reports that Ukrainians have mostly ceded the city of Bakhmut—which, again, is not a crucial crossroads and has no strategic importance—and is instead trying to encircle the city, trapping large numbers of Russian troops there. Remember that we’re deep in the fog of war, so it’s hard to tell yet whether this is a realistic strategy, wishful thinking, or PR spin.
The Centers of Gravity
We can bring a little more clarity to the fog of war if we look at the big picture.
Going back to Clausewitz, military strategists talk about the center of gravity of a military force: the source of power that allows it to accomplish its military objectives—or, if denied, prevents it from accomplishing them. Let’s ask that question about this current conflict.
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