Putin's War, Week 50. The Calm Before the Storm

AP Photo

.Here we are at Week 50 of Putin’s war in Ukraine. I hate to sound like a broken record, but the tactical situation is basically unchanged in the last month. The only proviso I would add is that the Russians are visibly trying to gain the initiative in Donbas. This squares with reports we’ve had that Putin gave the new theater commander, General Valery Gerasimov, orders to reach the historical borders of Donbas by the end of March.


Putin’s War, Week 49. Waiting for the Russian Offensive

Putin’s War, Week 48. The Logjam Breaks and the Leopards Are About to Roam the Ukrainian Landscape

Putin’s War, Week 47. Gerasimov Shakes Up the Russian Army and the Russian Spring Offensive Looms

Putin’s War, Week 46. Putin Shakes up the Army Command, Prigozhin Shows How It’s Done, and Western Tanks for Ukraine Are on the Way

Putin’s War, Week 45: Putin Declares a Cease Fire, Zelensky Gets Putin’s Terms for Peace, and if You’re Fighting a War, Leave Your Cell Phone Home

Putin’s War, Week 44. Drones Strike Russian Strategic Bomber Base…Again… Prigozhin Makes His Move

Putin’s War, Week 43. Zelensky Visits the Front Lines and Washington, Putin Tries to Push Belarus Into War

Putin’s War, Week 42. Ukraine Gets the Nod to Strike Targets in Russia and Some Tools to Do It With

Many more are available at this link.

Politico-Strategic Level

While the tactical side of the operation was stable, a lot of stuff happened at the strategic level. My overall observation is that the Ukrainians seem to better grasp the nature of war than the Russians. Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as “a continuation of politics by other means.” Zelensky is pursuing political and economic objectives Ukraine had before the war and doing so successfully. Folks can hate on Zelensky all they want, but he’s kicking Putin’s ass. They can make fun of the green sweater he wears, but it has become as much a symbol as Patton’s ivory-handled .45-caliber pistols. It shows his nation is at war, and he is a wartime leader.

Zelensky Addresses the British Parliament

Back in December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress (Zelensky’s Speech Did What It Needed to Do but It Wasn’t a Home Run). Wednesday, he addressed the  British Parliament. His trip was rewarded by a promise to provide Ukraine with British fighter aircraft.

The downside to this is that Britain doesn’t have many to spare, and the older models they are promising have been cannibalized for parts to keep the RAF flying. So, most see it as a gambit, like donating 14 Challenger 2 tanks (see my Week 48 update) that will give cover to other nations donating aircraft.

Zelensky Speaks at European Parliament

Thursday, President Zelensky followed up his speech to the British Parliament with another to the European Parliament.

Not everyone was happy. In the group photo, he’s positioned right in front of Hungarian President Viktor Orban, who is as close to an ally as Russia has left in Europe. I think Orban’s position is much more nuanced than being a Russian stooge, YMMV.


The takeaway is that Ukraine is on a glide path for EU membership. The EU is preparing a new sanctions package against Russia, as well as increasing non-lethal aid, military training, and weapons transfers. This support, as long as he keeps it, gives Zelensky immense power to shape Ukraine’s conduct of the war and the “peace” that will follow.

Prigozhin Challenges Zelensky to a Duel

Yes, you read that correctly. Prigozhin has released a video of him flying as the backseater in a Su-24 tactical bomber, NATO code name FENCER, allegedly dropping ordnance on Ukrainian positions in the Bakhmut area. Presumably, the aircraft is flown by one of his Wagner Group pilots. His challenge to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is to meet him in aerial combat to decide the battle in Bakhmut and the war.

To tell you the truth, Prigozhin is starting to sound like he’s seen Patton one too many times. For instance:

You know, Dick, if I had my way, I’d meet Rommel face to face; him in his tank and me in mine. We’d meet out there somewhere… salute each other, maybe drink a toast, then we’d button up and do battle. The winner would decide the outcome of the entire war.

This bravado will play well on the Moscow streets. Still, given the crap relationship between Prigozhin and his Wagner Group and the Russian military hierarchy, it probably isn’t going to help things very much.

Czechs Rebuilding Russian Tanks for Ukraine to Use

I’ve posted about this before (see Putin’s War, Week 41. The Mud Freezes in Ukraine Setting the Stage for the Next Round of Fighting). Last update, there was a report from a “secret” factory in Poland updating Russian tanks. The Czechs are a little more open about it. They let cameras into the facility.

These tanks get a significant upgrade in the optics package, standard and thermal. The engine is upgraded from the stock 780hp to 840hp. The tank gets a new communications system, improvements in fire control, and many analog gauges are replaced with digital ones. It is still made in Russia, but it is a qualitatively superior tank to the T-72s used by the Russian Army.

North Korea Makes Its Appearance

North Korea is emerging as a major partner for Russia. Winter uniforms for the Russian Army are being produced in North Korea. Russia is buying artillery ammunition from North Korea. Now, North Korea is sending workers to help “rebuild” Donbas, and with them come North Korean security forces.


If forced labor abroad were considered human trafficking, North Korea would be one of the world’s worst offenders. Korean men are drafted to work overseas, usually in primitive and dangerous conditions, and the state keeps their hard-currency wages. This deal is unusual because North Korea plans to send military personnel as laborers, with police to keep them in line.

Ukraine Launches Drone Attack Near Moscow

Tuesday, a Ukrainian drone crashed and exploded near the Russian city of Kaluga, about 80 miles from Moscow.

One of the Tu-141 reconnaissance drones the Ukrainians have modified to carry explosives was programmed to fly at low altitude and clipped some tree tops. My Week 44 update has more information on this weapon.

It is hard to tell what the target was, but the drone seemed to be headed toward Moscow. My Week 48 update covered the hasty installation of antiaircraft systems on the rooftop of key government buildings in Moscow. Maybe they knew something was up?


War From the Russian Perspective

Recently I’ve dropped in some commentary by Russian political and media figures to give you an idea of how Putin’s War is being sold in Russia.

The first is Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explaining that Russia is entitled to a buffer zone inside Ukraine that is larger than the maximum range of any Ukrainian weapon. I suppose, with enough vodka, this could sound perfectly reasonable.

Here, a panel discussion explains why Russia can afford to lose a million men.

Finally, a lot of pro-Russian people made a big deal out of Zelensky banning the Moscow-owned-and-operated Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in favor of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukraine is involved in an existential conflict. This is the kind of stuff preached from the pulpits of the Kremlin AstroTurf Church, while Ukraine is at war.


Operational Level

We’re beginning to see the first outlines of the anticipated Russian offensive. This is how it is being framed by some observers.

I’d only agree to that assessment with a ton of caveats.

The Ukrainians are pulling some of their most successful units out of the line and sending them to Germany for maneuver training. Trained tank crews are on the way to Poland and Britain for transition training to let them use the new Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks. Instead of shoveling draftees into the line, they are being sent to Britain and Germany for training. This strategy cedes ground now, but will result in a more capable force in a few months.

What I don’t think we’re seeing is any indication that the Russian Army can achieve anything other than small tactical gains.

My gut feeling is that the Russians don’t have the resources to prepare for an offensive and continue what they are doing — 1) support a spoiling attack in northern Luhansk in the Svatove-Kreminna area, 2) keep up the pressure around Bakhmut, while 3) carrying out shaping attacks in southern Donetsk to set the stage for their offensive.

I also don’t see how Russia can translate an army of notionally 350,000 mobiks into combat power, rather than a mob that needs to be fed and clothed. They are battering their way to small gains at great cost. They could reach the culmination point of their offensive (read more about what a culmination point is at Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Reaches Its Culmination Point and Zelensky Plays Hardball in the Peace Negotiations) about the time fresh Ukrainian formations with modern tanks and fighting vehicles appear.

Prisoner Exchange

More Ukrainian prisoners returned home in exchange for Russian ones.

New Weapons

Germany Releases More Leopards

In my Week 48 update, I noted that Britain’s transfer of a single company’s worth of Challenger 2 tanks had opened the way for Germany to agree to the re-export of Leopard 2 tanks. The total number of Leopard 2 tanks pledged to Ukraine is about 100 from 12 nations. Training is underway.

This week, another source of tanks was made available. Germany has agreed to allow the export of 187 Leopard 1 tanks out of storage.



The Leopard 1 uses the same 105mm gun as the M60-series of US tanks. There is some concern that the 105mm main gun can’t penetrate the frontal armor of the T-72. That may or may not be true. The one thing we’ve learned about Russian armor is that it rarely measures up to the press releases and sales brochures. For instance, during the Gulf War, we discovered, contrary to what the intelligence weenies told us, that the depleted uranium round fired from the M242 25mm Bushmaster on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle would eat up T-72 tanks from the flank. Regardless, the Leopard 1 is superior in optics, communications, maneuvering ability, and crew survivability to the T-72. If they have to avoid engaging in front-on combat, that is a small price to pay. The Sherman Easy 8 was able to overcome that same disadvantage against German armor with superior tactics.

There are a lot more than 187 Leopard 1 tanks scattered around Europe that will inevitably end up in Ukraine.

Combat Operations

Swtichblade in Action

I discussed the transfer of the Switchblade suicide drone in an earlier post (Cutting Edge Weapons Are Being Sent to Ukraine by the US and Britain, But Is It What They Really Need?). This is a video of one of them in action.

Northern Front


This week marked a lull in Russian military strikes against civilian targets in Ukraine. The city of Kharkiv was the only major target of missile attacks.


The Bakhmut Meatgrinder

The major combat operations over the past week have been in Donbas, specifically in the area around Bakhmut. This map shows changes in the frontline over the last month.

This battle is getting a lot of play in social media. An increasing number of observers are claiming that this is the big Russian offensive we’ve been waiting for.

That attention, I think, is driven by Russian accounts and people who are Russian partisans attempting to manufacture a significant Russian victory to offset the nearly unbroken string of Russian failure going back to March 2022. My point now is the same as it has been for weeks. Bakhmut is purely a symbol. It has no operational value because once the Russians take Bakhmut, the really hard work starts. As this topographical map shows, Bakhmut is overshadowed by a ridge over 300 feet higher than the city and a river between Bakhmut and the ridge that can’t be forded.


CREDIT: Topographic-Map.com

Some people are predicting Bakhmut will fall by the end of January. My assessment is that Ukraine can hold Bakhmut as long as they are willing to expend the manpower to do it. Colonel Mike Ford and I discussed this offline, and we both arrived at the same conclusion–that the best tactical move would be for the Ukrainians to make a rapid withdrawal to prepared positions on the ridgeline and force the Russians to move troops, logistics, headquarters, and communications forward, making them easier to target while moving.

I don’t know that Ukraine can afford to do that politically.

Battle at Vuhledar

A sharp battle occurred near the southern Donetsk city of Vuhledar earlier in the week. A Russian mechanized battalion made a bold attack against prepared Ukrainian positions and paid dearly. This is the second such battalion-level attack near the same place in two weeks, and both have ended badly.

These are some things to keep in mind here. First, unlike Bakhmut, where Wagner Group has been thinning out the Russian prison population, the attacking troops at Vuhledar are Naval Infantry and regular Army. Second, they made two large, if ill-conceived, attacks in the same area in less than two weeks. This indicates that a) there is something important they are trying to do and b) there is enough pressure on troop commanders to make these attacks despite the low chance of success. If there is a Russian March offensive, see my Week 49 update, and, as reported, the objective is to secure the historical border of Donbas, then I think we’re seeing the Clausewitzian schwerpunkt, the focus of effort of that offensive right here.

Russian Counteroffensive in Svatove-Kreminna

The Ukrainians have been carrying out a low-key offensive around the northern Luhansk cities of Svatove and Kreminna for several weeks. It is important for a couple of reasons. First, the Russian troops there seem to be third rate even by Russian standards. Second, if the Ukrainians can break through here, the major road-rail center of Starobilsk is within reach, and if that falls, the northern flank of the Russian Army becomes unhinged. In the past week, the Russians have carried out their own offensive operations in the area. I think these are designed less to gain ground than spoiler attacks to stop Ukrainian momentum.

Russian Hamlet Assassinated

Back in August, a Russian named Igor Mangushev gave a speech holding what he said was the skull of a Ukrainian soldier and promised to kill “as many Ukrainians as necessary” to achieve success. Mangushev is a crony of Wagner Group honcho Yevgeny Prigozhin and the founder of his own PMC called “United People’s Communal Fellowships” — I’m sure it lost some nuance in the translation — or ENOT. That group was heavily involved in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.


Mangushev died of a single gunshot wound to the head, when his car was stopped at a checkpoint in Russian-occupied Luhansk. There is no word if this was partisan activity or just a routine Russian business dispute.

Southern Front


Prominent Collaborator Assassinated

Friday, Ukrainian partisans assassinated prominent quisling Yevheniy Kuzmin. He’d been a police officer in Ukraine until the latest Russian invasion and defected to the invaders. He worked in the collaborations security apparatus. He is just the latest to die in these partisan attacks.

What’s next

To the extent the Russians can unleash a “decisive” offensive, that offensive will take place in southern Donetsk with the objective of gaining possession of the entirety of the historical area of Donbas.

The Ukrainian offensive operations around Svatove-Kreminna will continue, and Russia will have to devote men and supplies to stop the advance there.

The first Leopard 2 and Bradley crews will appear around the end of March. Ukraine’s challenge will be to contain whatever offensive the Russians can muster until fresh troops and modern equipment arrive.


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