How Wagner fights Bakhmut: frontal assault theory in 2023

(To Philip Del Monte)

In the battle of Bakhmut a tactical situation is reappearing which was already extensively analyzed by theorists and general staffs during the First World War: the frontal assault in trench warfare.

The major effort of the Russian offensive against Bakhmut, which from the extreme north to Yahidne extends south along the Ivanivske-Chasiv yar line, is supported by the airborne units of the Vozdushno-desantnye vojska (VDV), the marines of the Morskaya pechota (MPR) and the mercenaries of the Wagner Group. Since the first days of the conflict in Ukraine, all the units named have had a fundamental strategic and tactical role for the development of the lines of advance and the realization of the war plan. Just think of the conquest of the Hostomel airport (Kiev front, 24-25 February 2022) by the VDV, abandoned only in March 2022, in conjunction with the retreat of the Russians from that front; the intense participation in the fighting of Mariupol (southern front, 24 February-20 May 2022) of the Marine Infantry, the leading element of the Russian forces in that quadrant; and the massive presence of Wagner mercenaries on the Donbass front since the beginning of the war, where they contributed to the stabilization of the lines after the tactical crisis of the Muscovite military apparatus following last summer's Ukrainian offensive.

VDV, MPR and Wagner, deeply different units, which perform different functions according to the needs identified by the commanders, some of which also fight "distorted" compared to their tasks (just think of the fact that the paratroopers are used as line infantry right now on the Bakhmut front), are united by the tactical choices that are currently conditioning the Russian war in Donbass.

If the strategic objective of General Valerij Vasil'evič Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and commander of the grouping of the Russian Forces in Ukraine, is to stress the enemy's defensive line up until it collapses, by reaching the its logistic lines that pass through the T0504, tactically the Russian troops are forced to maintain a constant offensive pressure on the Ukrainian entrenchments.

The trench is the emblem of the operational theater of Donbass - configured since 2014-2015 as a "frozen conflict" despite being the one where, in all likelihood, the fate of the current war will be decided - and positional warfare requires that it be the frontal assault the most popular tactical principle, on whose success the fate of the battle depends. Several Ukrainian mibloggers have underlined the devastating impact that the use of modern weapons has in addition to trench warfare tactics. The Russian colleagues/enemies instead analyzed the behavior of the Wagner fire groups on the Bakhmut front for the conquest of the Ukrainian trenches.

Wagner mercenaries conduct assaults in staggered waves, with groups of 8 men, variously equipped, with decreasing scale of heavy weapons. The first group, armed as a "heavy infantry" unit, also with rocket launchers, constitutes the "hammer" of the Wagner company, with the aim of disjoining the Ukrainian defense at first impact. The teams that follow are, in fact, made up of light infantry with the task of exploiting the gaps opened by the first group and then continuing in depth.

It is a tactic directly borrowed from the trench warfare doctrine of 1914-1918, based on the consideration according to which a lower density of men in an open field, equipped, however, with such firepower as to overwhelm the numerical superiority of the defender, allows to reduce the losses for the attacker and inflict more on the enemy. In fact, the old - yet never disproved in practice - idea that fire beats mass is carried forward. But the high losses suffered by the mercenaries of the Wagner in the battle of Bakhmut seem to highlight how the "keystone" for victory in the frontal assaults of contemporary conventional warfare is another and lies not in the superiority of the fire over the mass, but in the timing employed by the attacker in arriving in contact with the defender and in the correct management of the timing of the attack.

In other words, the fundamental role for the overall progress of the battle is played by those in charge of establishing the precise moment in which, coordinating with the artillery fire, launch the various waves of infantry to attack.

The rigidity of Wagner's hierarchical-decision-making chain caused the offensive mechanism to jam several times and, consequently, the failure of the attack. According to various testimonies, the mercenaries are only ordered to advance, with no margin of decision-making autonomy, a factor which would, on the contrary, be strongly required in kinetic conditions and therefore susceptible to sudden changes which a remote commander cannot make up for. As absurd as it may seem, Wagner's "violinists" are feared, considered unstoppable and insensitive to danger precisely because of the tactical error in managing the timing of the attack.

The same type of offensive method is also carried out by the troops of the VDV and the MPR, with the result that the Ukrainian artillery can easily defeat the attackers before they can come into direct contact with the infantry.

Frame: YouTube