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In mid-January 2023 a separatist militia force attempted to assault and capture the village of Vodyane, West of Donetsk City. This was supported by a Russian Army bridge-layer. The action was calamitous if not farcical. Eight years of proxy and today open Russian military support to the Donbass separatists has not produced even moderately competent or professional forces. The assault was also paradigmatic of wider problems facing the Russian war. There have been countless such assaults on the stalemated Eastern fronts.
This article reviews the action with a view to making observations on the tactical shortcomings of Russian forces. Detail of the sequence of actions and images are drawn from the Ukrainian National Information Portal ‘Tysk’ reported by Censor.net.
Context and opposing forces
Vodyane is a small village roughly 10 kilometres West of the Donetsk City outskirts and South-West of the contested town of Avdiivka. The frontline has been static in this area since the fighting in 2014-2015. Immediately South is the village of Pisky and to the East Opytne. South-East is the long abandoned Sergey Prokofiev International Airport (where football fans once arrived to watch home matches of the prestigious Shaktar Donetsk).1 The area is open with some undulations and isolated plantations. Vodyane itself stretches for roughly one kilometre along the line of a waterway and series of reservoirs that once fed the city and mining industry. Ukrainian defenders blew the small dam East of the town flooding approaches from the East and South.
Towards the end of 2022 separatist forces managed to take hold of Pisky and Optyne as well consolidate their positions at the deserted airport. The southern half of Vodyane was also occupied. This seemed to encourage attempts to advance further to capture the entire village, despite the settlement has no particular tactical or strategic significance.
Separatist forces involved in the assault were drawn from the ‘Vostok’ 11th Separate Motor Rifle Regiment (11 OMSP) (1st Army Corps (1st AK), People’s Militia of the DPR). Troops from 1st ‘Slovyanska’ Separate Mechanised Brigade (OMSBR) were lodged in the Southern half of the village with the flooded waterway acting as a frontline. Ukrainian defenders in the sector included troops from 501st Separate Marine Battalion (36th Separate Marine Brigade (36 OMRMP) and 59th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (59 OMPBR).
The action was a company-battalion level fight. Ukrainian intelligence learned about the impending assault a week before it was mounted.
First action: 14 January – Bridge-laying by MTU-72
The day before the assault, a single, unescorted MTU-72 bridge-layer travelled three kilometres West from separatist-held Opytne and laid a bridge over the partially frozen, flooded area where Ukrainian defenders had blown the dam.
The militias are not equipped with modern bridge-layers (or any at all) so it is possible the vehicle was operated by Russian Army engineers who deployed the bridge and left. Ukrainian defenders responded to this development by destroying the bridge with a precision shell. For unclear reasons, it appears the destruction of the bridge was not reported by militiamen lodged in the Southern half of Vodyane as the following day an attempt was made to assault the village by crossing the now unusable bridge. This action is described later.
Second Action: 15 January, morning – Squad assaults from the south
On 15 January, around 9-10am, militia from 1st Slovyanska Separate Mechanised Brigade (OMSBR) began to mount squad-sized assaults against Ukrainian positions in the village. These ‘moved through the ice from the southern part to the northern part.’
The assaults were unsupported and uncoordinated with any other actions. There is no further detail on these attacks. It is surmised from what followed that they were not pressed with conviction and at the end of the day the frontline remained unchanged with the militia lodged in the same houses in the Southern half of Vodyane. It is possible this was intended as a distraction but it only served to alert the defenders.
Third action: 15 January, midday – Armoured infantry company assault
Around noon a column of around 8-9 BMP-2s departed from the area of Pisky to the South and travelled North. At 12:52pm the column approached the intersection of the Donetsk district and the Vodyane road, where it was spotted by a Ukrainian drone. At the intersection, the column turned off the road and headed cross-country in a north-westerly direction towards a plantation. One of the BMP-2s was destroyed at the intersection.
In the words of Tysk’s account: ‘When the column approached that place, they were fired at from everything that was at hand: artillery [and] uncrewed aerial vehicles with explosives.’
The company commander’s BMP-2 was hit first. In his account: ‘Our car was hit first, we took up all-round defence. We went to the forest plantation, cleared it.’ It then appears he was wounded by a grenade dropped by a quadcopter. ‘I was copied by a ‘bird’, and a mine of eighties [grenade] flew two meters from me, wounded in the leg and in the intestines. The guys dragged me away, waiting for evacuation. The car [BMP-2] exploded.’
The subsequent account is confused. ‘The platoon commander ‘Sibiryak’ (300) [‘300’ is wounded], I, [and] the squad leader (300), survived from the platoon.’ He tells ‘200th more than half [‘200’ is killed)’, but also writes ‘about 70% of all died.’ He describes house-to-house fighting and ‘ATGMs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine working from prepared positions.’ He was personally carried two kilometres back at night (presumably to Pisky) where, ’I lost consciousness twice.’ The attack had failed with heavy losses.
Fourth action: 15 January, early afternoon – The cavalry arrives, or two tanks
At some point in the mid-afternoon – after the BMP-2 company had got into trouble – two T-72Bs approached Vodanye following the same route used by the infantry. The first was hit and destroyed by a Stugna-P ATGM.
The second managed to reach the cover of the plantation and attempted to hide. However, trees at this time of year have no vegetation so it is impossible to conceal a vehicle such as tank. The Ukrainian defenders dropped grenades from a quadcopter on the engine compartment and disabled the tank.
Fifth action: 15 January, late afternoon – Platoon assault from the east
Later in the afternoon, a platoon comprising of one BMP-1 (a 1960s vintage vehicle) and three BMP-2s approached from Opytne in the east and attempted to use the destroyed bridge laid by the MTU-72 bridge-layer the previous day. The BMP-1 was hit by artillery fire at a road intersection and advanced no further. In the description of Tysk’s account the remaining three BMPs ‘stood next to each other on the southern edge of the embankment [unable to cross the destroyed bridge] where they continued to be shot at by artillery, as a result of which they all scattered. One BMP-2 was destroyed, two were damaged.’
This was the last action of the day. A lack of night fighting capabilities means fighting almost always stops during the hours of darkness.
Poor operational security
Poor operational security has been a feature of Russian forces. Two contributing reasons have been the widespread use of insecure Chinese or Motorola walkie-talkies, and the ill-disciplined use of mobile phones.
Timing and direction of the assault
The most advantageous time and direction for an assault would have been at dawn and from the East. The sun would have been in the eyes of the defenders. Only sentries may have been deployed at this early hour. An assault at midday from the South offered no advantages.
A consistent tactic of Russian forces has been repeated frontal attacks heedless of repeated failures and the human and equipment cost. This was one example of scores such actions. There was no attempt to surprise, feint, or use deception. The assault was signalled and quickly detected by uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance.
Lack of UAV cover
The assault was not supported by uncrewed aerial vehicles. The Russians do not supply the separatists with UAVs. The militia pool money to buy Chinese Mavik-style quadcopters but in this instance it appears none were available. The lack of drones in militia forces, in fact, is a perennial complaint. This contrasts with the better-funded Wagner PMC that makes extensive use of small drones to command and control assaults. At Vodyane, the Ukrainian defenders made good use of drones to detect, track and target the assaulting groups.
Lack of fire support
In the summer, excessive firing of artillery systems and barrel wear led to the withdrawal of artillery pieces from the Donbass militias and prioritisation of available barrels to Russian Army units. Subsequently, ‘shell hunger’ has become a problem. At the beginning of January 2023 it was reported Russian artillery fire had declined by as much as 75 percent. The attack on Vodyane was neither preceded nor supported by artillery or even mortar fire.
And the effectiveness of accurate Ukrainian artillery support
In contrast with the assaulting separatist forces, Ukrainian defenders benefited from timely and accurate artillery support. The assault was effectively stopped by the Ukrainian gunners. With the exception of the two T-72Bs, every other vehicle (as many as 12 BMPs) was destroyed or damaged by shellfire. The majority of fatalities and wounded were inflicted by the shell fire.
Ukrainian gunnery illustrated that precision versus conventional munitions is a false debate. Both are needed. The bridge was destroyed by a precision shell. The assault was checked by conventional shells.
Lack of Air or Aviation support
The much-criticised NATO air campaign over Kosovo (Op ALLIED FORCE 1999) began with a low average of 150 daily strike sorties and eventually ramped up the effort to 483 daily strike sorties. Currently, The Russian Air Force (VKS) is averaging around 10-20 daily tactical bombing runs (Su-25s) (the Ukrainian MOD daily situation update reports the numbers).2 Aviation (Ka-52 and Mi-28N attack helicopters) averages less. This is a completely inadequate level of effort.
In the case of the separatist forces, there is no Air or Aviation support. They lack forward air controllers and what Air and Aviation is made available is prioritised for the Russian Army and Wagner PMC (some pilots are Wagner contractors). The Su-25s launch unguided bombs and rockets in risky low-level attack profiles. Attack helicopters typically launch unguided rockets. It is entirely possible the attacks fail to hit intended targets.
Total lack of coordination in the assaulting forces
The assault on Vodyane was s series of separate, uncoordinated actions. An impression is given that a week before the attack (when the Ukrainians learned something was afoot), a group of separatist commanders came to a verbal agreement to ‘have a go’ at Vodyane after the Orthodox Christmas lull, and there was little more preparation other than rough confirmation of timings and where each would attack. There were likely no orders groups (that a Western soldier would recognise), or rehearsals. Nobody was ‘in charge’. Each group answered to its own leader.
Lack of or inadequate tactical communication systems
The separatist vehicles (T-72Bs and BMP-1/2s) are fitted with Soviet-era radios (for the British reader, equivalent to Larkspur radio sets). A proportion likely no longer work and spares are either no longer available or difficult to obtain, hence the ubiquity of insecure, short range walkie-talkies.
Lack of coordination with flanking units
The assault on Vodyane on 15 January was an isolated effort. There was no attempt to coordinate the attack with flanking units. In this regard it was paradigmatic of the Russian war. The operational level of command (brigade-division) has been largely absent, mostly due to the inadequacies of tactical communication systems, but also because of the mix of forces answering to different chiefs (and in the case of the militias, effectively local warlords).
At the time of writing, February 2023, Vodyane remains contested. To the North, the stalemate at Avdiivka continues with recent separatist attacks resulting in the loss of four tanks and nine BMPs. Drone footage showed clusters of dead lying in the snow. To the South, the frontline remains unchanged at Marinka. TV Zvezda visited on 10 February 2023. ‘There is not a single living place here,’ said Zvezda correspondent Roman Zakurdaev. He filmed a wasteland.
Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer. He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review. He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- The war has forced the club to move several times and today it plays home matches in Kyiv.
- Surge sortie days are uncommon. 8 February was an example with 37 Russian air strike sorties. The Ukrainian Air Force mounted 24 on the same day. These remain very low numbers and too weak an effort to influence the land war.