Ukraine started the new year with a major attack which killed many Russian soldiers in their barracks, and with a defensive victory – the air force said it had managed to shoot down all the Iranian drones Russia had launched against Ukrainian infrastructure since the beginning of the year.
Ukraine launched six artillery rockets at a barracks in Makiivka, Donetsk region, using the US-supplied HIMARS system a few minutes after New Year’s Day.
Four of the missiles passed through air defenses, the Russian Defense Ministry admitted, and hit their target.
Russia acknowledged 63 deaths two days after the strike and later increased that number to 89.
But video footage of the wreck showed that the temporary barracks, a former vocational school, had been almost completely razed to the ground, suggesting that the number of casualties may be much greater and that it may take some time to free the bodies.
Ukraine said the soldiers were housed next to a large ammunition depot, which exploded, claiming an estimated 400 Russian soldiers were killed and 300 wounded.
The strike caused a furor among Russian military reporters and lawmakers, who called for the resignation of Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, although he is not technically part of the Russian military hierarchy.
Donetsk law enforcement officials tried to deflect blame by suggesting that the soldiers themselves were responsible using their mobile phonesallowing Ukrainian electronic surveillance to track them.
“For now, the reason for the HIMARS hit was the active use of mobile phones by the [newly] arrived soldiers. The enemy, using the ECHELON reconnaissance complex, revealed the activity of mobile communications and the location of subscribers,” a source told the Russian Tass news agency.
Russian Defense Ministry adopted that explanation.
Ukraine said it had also had some success on the ground.
Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov said Ukrainian ground forces had advanced 2.5 km (1.5 mi) into the occupied city of Kreminna in the Luhansk region in the last week of 2022 and continued to make progress.
Military analysts believe that if Ukraine recaptured Kreminna and Svatove, both just a few miles from the line of contact at Luhansk, they could roll over a 40 km (25 mi) chunk of territory before reaching the next natural Russian defense position in a counteroffensive similar to the one that recaptured much of the Kharkiv region last September.
“In the event of a breakthrough … of the defensive lines of the Russian occupiers on the Svatove-Kreminna line and, accordingly, the transfer of hostilities closer to the city of Luhansk, a significant part of the servicemen of the units of the 2nd Army Corps, especially among those mobilized for temporarily occupied areas intends to surrender,” said Gromov.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said Ukraine could capture the Kreminna as early as early 2023.
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s chief of military intelligence, told the BBC that the two sides are in an effective stalemate for now and that hardware would make all the difference.
“The situation is just stuck,” Budanov said. “We can’t completely beat them in all directions. Neither can they… We are very much looking forward to new weapons stockpiles and to the arrival of more advanced weapons.”
Russia continues air campaign
Russia was not sitting still on the last day of 2022 and bombarded Ukraine with drone and rocket fire, albeit at a slightly lower intensity.
Ukraine said it shot down all 13 Russian-launched drones and 12 of 20 cruise missiles. Eight people were injured when one of the rockets hit a residential building. More drones would follow overnight and Ukraine declared on January 1 that it had shot down all 45 Shahed-136 drones that Russia had sent on New Year’s Eve.
Ukraine reported shooting down a further 39 drones on New Year’s Day.
On Jan. 2, Ukraine said it maintained a 100 percent kill rate from enemy drones, a rate “never reached before,” according to Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat.
“Only two days have passed since the beginning of the year and the number of Iranian drones shot down over Ukraine has already exceeded 80,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address on January 2.
“We have information that Russia is planning a prolonged attack with the Shahed drones,” he said. “She may be betting on exhaustion. About the exhaustion of our people, our air defenses, our energy. But we must and will make sure that this terrorist target fails like any other.”
Ukraine’s air defenses have been reinforced in recent weeks with at least two NASAMS and one IRIS-T air defense systems. But even without those measures, the Ukrainian Air Force had begun developing pioneering countermeasures effective against drones and cruise missiles, the latter of which are notoriously difficult to stop.
For example, on Dec. 29, Ukrainian officials reported that their forces had shot down 54 of 69 cruise missiles launched by Russian forces, and 11 of 23 drones.
Ukraine has also made it a priority to remind Russia that it itself is not immune to long-range airstrikes.
On December 29, Ukraine attacked the Engels airbase on Russian territory with a drone, three days after a similar attack killed three people there. Engels hosts part of Russia’s strategic long-range bomber fleet. Ukraine killed another three soldiers at Engels and Dyagilevo bases on December 5.
The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) said Moscow is “struggling to counter air threats deep within Russia”, with air defense systems such as the Pantsir needed to protect forward field headquarters in or near Ukraine.
Who has the greatest stamina in weapons and troops?
There has been ongoing debate among military observers about Russia’s ability to generate firepower and manpower. Ukraine has destroyed both with precision strikes, such as the one on Makiivka, since July thanks to deliveries of HIMARS missile systems.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Russian forces maintain artillery shells and are firing 19,000 to 20,000 a day, a lower rate compared to their previous record.
The British Ministry of Defense agreed that “a shortage of ammunition is likely to remain the main limiting factor” for Russia, which “probably has not increased its stockpile of artillery ammunition enough to allow large-scale offensive operations”, as “even defensive operations alone along its long front line requires considerable daily use of shells and rockets.”
Russia has been buying artillery shells from Belarus and North Korea to replenish the heavy losses in ammunition dumps at the front.
But a Ukrainian official warned against complacency.
“One should not underestimate the resource of the Russian Federation as a state in general. They may not be able to carry out hostilities with the same intensity as before, but unfortunately they still have enough reserves and there is no way they can relax,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a telethon.
Retaining manpower was a challenge for both sides. Ukraine has imposed conscription since the early days of the war, but Russia delayed mobilization, an unpopular move, until September and October, when it recruited 300,000 men into the war.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said regular autumn conscription had brought in 120,000 men by November. The announcement emphasized that the conscripts were not destined for Ukraine and would receive five months of training on “modern weapons and military equipment”.
“Citizens called up for military service are not involved in the special military operation in Ukraine, and conscripts who have fulfilled the established conditions of military service are discharged in a timely manner and sent to their place of residence,” the ministry said.
The delay in mobilizing troops and assurances that regular conscripts would not be sent to Ukraine could be signs of growing unease about the war in Russia.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov questioned Russia’s reassuring words, saying Russia was in such need of manpower that it was about to declare martial law, close its borders to men in military service age and perform a new mobilization a week or so into the new year.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview that Moscow will not accept the peace plan proposed by Zelenskyy in early November, in the first official Russian refutation of its specific terms.
The Kremlin rejects conditions that Russian troops withdraw to the 1991 borders, that Russia pay reparations to Ukraine and that it participate in an international criminal tribunal in The Hague.