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The state of Russia’s offensive Wagner Group’s tactics near Bakhmut, destroyed Russian tanks by Vuhledar, and other updates to Meduza’s interactive combat map
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Meduza has adopted a consistent antiwar position, holding Russia responsible for its military aggression and atrocities. As part of this commitment, we regularly update an interactive map that documents combat operations in Ukraine and the damage inflicted by Russia’s invasion forces. Our map is based exclusively on previously published open-source photos and videos, most of them posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We collect reports already available publicly and determine their geolocation markers, adding only the photos and videos that clear this process.
Meduza’s goal is not to track the conflict in real time; the data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old.
Key updates on the combat situation
Russia’s first Donbas offensive since the New Year has made clear that the Russian armed forces have not solved their tactical problems, remaining disparate and uneven in terms of different units’ combat power. While the Ukrainian military has great difficulty in holding back Wagner Group formations around Bakhmut and in resisting the elite airborne units near Kreminna, Kyiv’s troops have been quite successful in deflecting the Russian joint forces’ attacks outside Vuhledar and Marinka.
As a result, the Russian offensive has devolved into a series of localized battles, without any apparent unifying plan. Nor can the Russian assaults be described as usually successful: the marines of Russia’s Pacific Fleet have lost dozens of tanks and fighting vehicles near Vuhledar. The most that can be achieved at this rate of success is to distract the Ukrainian army from accumulating the forces sufficient for a counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian command, meanwhile, remains faithful to its strategy of exhausting Russia’s forces to win time for more arms deliveries from the West. Kyiv’s goal appears to be a counteroffensive in the spring (with invigorated forces).
For the time being, it seems likely that Ukraine will lose Bakhmut in the course of its efforts to deplete Wagner Group — a mercenary corps of several dozen thousand troops and its own armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and aviation.
- Wagner Group forces have concentrated on clasping the city from the north and south. The capture of Krasna Hora in the north threatens the Ukrainian positions in Paraskoviivka and along the Bakhmut–Slovyansk highway.
- In the south, the mercenary group is advancing towards the Bakhmut–Kostyantynivka highway and the village of Ivanivske. The bridge across the canal connecting Siverskyi Donets River with the Donbas along that highway has been blown up, which makes the road unusable for supply to Bakhmut.
- The only paved road connecting Bakhmut with the “mainland” Ukraine is the road through Khromove towards Chasiv Yar. There are several dirt roads in this area too, but it’s unclear whether they’re currently passable for wheeled military equipment.
- Once Wagner Group mercenaries entered the main roads in and around Bakhmut (near the Stupky railway station and towards the north of the city), the Ukrainian defense split into localized segments, which now complicates the delivery of supplies.
- The pace of the offensive doesn’t let Wagner Group fully surround any large Ukrainian formations. Instead of mechanized breakthroughs, Wagner tactics rely on advancing on foot, in multiple small assault units. Still, the looming danger of being surrounded will likely get the Ukrainian units to leave Bakhmut. The experience of Mariupol defenders, who stayed to fight when completely enveloped by the Russian forces, seems to have convinced the Ukrainian command not to repeat that scenario.
- Wagner Group’s effectiveness is grounded in its high tolerance of losses. Dozens of videos document Wagner assault units advancing under Ukrainian artillery fire and dying in their entirety, only to be replaced immediately by new mercenary groups. But this disregard for the personnel and their lives cannot be scaled up to the whole Russian army since regular army formations remain quite sensitive to personnel losses.
- In late January, the forces of Russia’s Eastern Military District launched an offensive on Vuhledar, a small coal-mining town west of Donetsk with a pre-war population of 14,000. Vuhledar had already been captured by Russia last spring, but was later regained by the Ukrainian military, who have since turned it into a powerfully fortified strategic point.
- The town is made up of high-rise apartment buildings in the center, summer cottages in the east, and coal mines in the north. From its hilltop position, it controls (in military terms) a large flat area at the foot. The only railroad connecting Donetsk with Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia crosses this flat expanse, but, because it’s within the Ukrainian artillery’s firing range, it is now out of service.
- If they succeed in capturing Vuhledar, the Russian forces may gain at least hypothetical access to the heart of the Donbas from the south, in the direction of the Ukrainian military’s key logistics hub in Pokrovsk. If this offensive could be synchronized with breakthroughs in Marinka (a western suburb of Donetsk, torn for many months by street fights between the two sides) and near Bakhmut, the Kremlin would have at least a theoretical chance of capturing the Donetsk region.
- In reality, though, the offensive on Vuhledar has not been successful. Pacific Fleet marines managed to break through to the summer cottages in the east of the town, but their neighbors, the mechanized infantry brigades of the Eastern Military District and the so-called “volunteers” from Tatarstan, failed to coordinate with the marines. Instead, mechanized infantry formations wondered onto mine fields set up remotely by the Ukrainian artillery, losing dozens of tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
- The marines are maintaining their positions by the Vuhledar cottages, but supply is complicated. The Ukrainian command has reinforced its units in Vuhledar, including the artillery, and is now trying to undo the Pacific Fleet’s gains in the area.
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- The Ukrainian military’s fall offensive on Kreminna in the Luhansk region came to a halt back in January. Ukrainian units occupied the greater part of a forest preserve south of Kreminna, but couldn’t get any closer to the city itself. Their plans for a breakthrough towards Siverodonetsk and Lysychansk were postponed, at least till spring.
- The Russian command then decided to eliminate any threat of potential Ukrainian breakthrough. They reinforced Kreminna with paratrooper units that had already proven themselves when fighting on the right bank of Dnipro in the Kherson region. These airborne units had conducted a relatively successful counteroffensive towards Lyman. In the first weeks of 2023, they were able to push back the Ukrainian lines by several kilometers from Kreminna. If they can capture the crossings over the Zherebets River near Torske and Terny, the Ukrainian army will probably have to proceed from its remaining bridgehead in the woods.
- Russian units are now advancing at the flank of the Ukrainian grouping that has been trying, since fall and early winter, to make its way towards Svatove (a large transportation hub in the Luhansk region). Over the past few weeks, Russian formations have come a few kilometers closer to Kupyansk, the place of several crossings over Siverskyi Donets River that currently serve the Ukrainian army.
- The pace of the Russian offensive is not very fast here, either. The invading military may be advancing by several kilometers a week: this is the most they can do in their current condition. Without actively introducing aviation, the offensive is unlikely to accelerate, but Russia has tried to keep its warplanes out of Ukrainian air defense systems’ firing range and avoided using aircraft except over Bakhmut.
Meduza is careful in working with data, but mistakes are still possible, and perhaps even inevitable. If you spot one, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected]. Thank you!
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