‘This isn’t Russian roulette any more… it’s like the suicide of lemmings’
Published by The Daily Mail (14th February, 2023)
Russia has suffered some of the heaviest military losses in a single battle since the start of the war after elite units repeatedly tried to storm a fortified coal mining town in broad daylight.
Ukrainian officials claim huge numbers of enemy troops have been killed, wounded and captured in failed attempts to seize the Donetsk hamlet of Vuhledar.
They say that one marine brigade of 5,000 men was almost entirely destroyed, for the third time since the Kremlin launched the full-scale invasion nearly a year ago.
The carnage – and loss of at least 130 armoured vehicles – led Russian hardliners to call for public show trials to punish incompetent generals responsible for the repeated battlefield massacres of their soldiers.
‘Some of them are complete cretins – all the mistakes that were made before were repeated,’ said Igor Girkin, a Russian former intelligence officer who helped stage the pro-Moscow 2014 insurgencies in Donetsk and Crimea. Girkin complained that Russian soldiers were mown down ‘like turkeys in a shooting range’ as Ukrainians held higher positions.
The latest attempt to seize Vuhledar began in late January with Spetsnaz special forces, armoured battalions and infantry troops attacking from several directions. But in an early setback for the Russians, the Spetsnaz commander was killed.
The mining town, home to 14,000 people before the war and sitting on high ground close to the only rail link between Crimea and Donetsk, was fortified with artillery after withstanding three months of attack. The heaviest waves of assault came last week, leading to the bloodbath of marines.
Evgeny Nazarenko, spokesman for one of the defending Ukrainian units, said the Russian advances had been easily spotted from high-rise buildings as they crossed open fields towards the town.
‘We are at the top and they are at the bottom. They are perfectly visible,’ he said. Tom Cooper, a military historian who has studied the battle, describes Vuhledar as ‘a big, tall fortress in the middle of an empty, flat desert’.
The defeat came days after Sergei Shoigu, the Kremlin defence minister, boasted about a ‘successful offensive near Vuhledar’. Kyiv’s Defence Ministry responded by posting a video showing the destruction of a Russian military column in the area.
Ukrainian military drones have filmed Russian tanks driving into minefields, bombs dropped on armoured vehicles, troops running around in panic and the bodies of soldiers strewn across the ground. ‘This is not even Russian roulette anymore – this is like seasonal suicide of lemmings,’ one Ukrainian military analyst commented.
Ukrainian officials say some of the worst losses were suffered by the Pacific Fleet’s 155th Marine Brigade, one of Russia’s most elite naval units based at Vladivostok, although Russian president Vladimir Putin insists his ‘marine infantry is working as it should’.
The 155th became infamous for looting around Kyiv last year, and was nicknamed Russia’s ‘unhappiest’ unit after suffering heavy losses in the failed attack on the capital and again in an assault in Vuhledar three months ago.
‘The 155th brigade already had to be restaffed three times,’ said Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, a Ukrainian military spokesman. ‘And now almost the entire brigade has been destroyed.’
After losing 300 men in four days attacking a village near Vuhledar last November, mutinous survivors wrote a letter blaming the eastern commander – Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov – for their casualties. Now Muradov, a close ally of Moscow’s military chief General Valery Gerasimov, is being blamed again for this latest debacle by hardline military bloggers and media channels close to Yevgeny Prigozhin, boss of the brutal Wagner mercenary group.
One social media channel linked to Wagner has even threatened Muradov with assassination after calling him a ‘sissy b****’ who was ‘sitting out at the command post’ in Vuhledar while he sent ‘column after column’ into battle.
Another prominent blogger with half a million followers demanded public trials ‘to punish officers, especially high-ranking officers, who over and over again demonstrate failures on the battlefield.’
More sober analysts in Moscow have condemned the movement of tanks and armoured vehicles in columns within range of Vuhledar’s artillery, saying battlefield commanders were failing to link up with intelligence operatives.
Ukraine believes Putin has ordered that by next month his troops should fully occupy the Donetsk region – about half of which is currently under Kremlin control – with expectations growing of a looming offensive.
But the Vuhledar fiasco has encouraged Kyiv to believe Moscow has failed to heal divisions among senior commanders and overcome the chronic tactical failures seen over the past year.
‘This is a serious setback with huge losses from one brigade,’ said Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Centre for Defence Reforms think-tank in Kyiv. ‘If they continue to use their troops in this way, it could lead to a collapse of Russian military forces during their expected major offensive.’
Vuhledar is 100 miles from Bakhmut, the town at the centre of the war’s fiercest fighting for several months.
Both sides have sustained heavy losses there after Russia hurled vast numbers of conscripts and prisoner recruits into ‘the meat grinder’. Ukraine says that Russian soldiers have been dying this month in the highest numbers seen since the start of the war with an average of 824 fatalities a day – four times higher than rates seen last summer.
The British Ministry of Defence confirmed the figure as ‘likely accurate’, saying that the rise in casualties in places such as Vuhledar ‘is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination, and resources across the front.’
The ministry said fleeing Russian troops had abandoned ‘at least 30 mostly intact armoured vehicles in a single incident after a failed assault’ in Vuhledar, yet were making small advances on the town’s western edge.
Besides a lack of Western-supplied longer range weapons, Ukrainian analysts fear that they will not be able to restock their frontlines with shells and anti-tank missiles fast enough.
For now, the high ground of Vuhledar is holding back the Russians – for how long remains to be seen.