A Russian soldier takes aim in the Donbass. Image: Tass / Река Александр

Ukrainian forces in the embattled Donbas region, suffering under an epic pounding from Russian guns, are about to get some assistance.

The deployment of a high-precision, medium-range multiple launch rocket system by the US offers Kiev one counter to Moscow’s overwhelming weight in artillery.

But the system will not arrive for three weeks, and it may be too little, too late, as Ukrainian forces fighting in the key battle of the war at present – for control of the city of Severodonetsk – desperately cling on.

The head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration, Serhiy Haidai, stated that Russian troops now control upwards of 70% of the city. The defenders have reportedly retreated into an industrial district, ideal for defense.

Still, Russia’s grinding firepower-heavy offensive may be masking a weakness. Despite the vulnerability of the defenders, Russian forces continue to take territory in a piecemeal fashion. They have not managed to cut off and surround their opponents, despite the Ukrainians’ massive vulnerability to a pincer operation.

This and other factors and signals suggest weaknesses in Russian infantry and armor. But the intensity of a full-scale war that has been raging since February 24 may be impacting the morale of the defenders, too.

While the Ukrainian front has not broken and a fighting retreat through the Donbas has not turned into a rout, there are also indications of unrest and sagging morale within Ukrainian units.  

Russia continues to prosecute a piecemeal attack in the east, rather than cutting off Ukrainian forces at the west of the broad, deep salient in the Donbas. Map: Institute for the Study of War

Here comes the HIMARS

On May 31, the US announced, after much urging and pleading from Kiev, that it will be sending the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a multiple launch rocket system, to Ukraine. The self-propelled rocket artillery piece can fire a salvo of six 227mm rockets, and can reportedly be reloaded within minutes.

The rockets being packaged with the weapon have a range of about 43 miles, meaning they can not only be used to take out Russian artillery sites, command posts and forming up points but potentially also supply dumps and logistic links behind the front.

In terms of firepower, the HIMARS rocket warheads are packed with either conventional high explosives or up to 400 cluster munitions. Neither of these can compete in quantity with the vast artillery park Russia has in Ukraine, nor can they compete with the psychological impact of the thermobaric warheads Russia has already used to terrifying effect.

But firepower is not the key advantage of the HIMARS. Unlike the short-range, high-capacity, “fire-and-forget” truck-mounted Grad MLRS used by both sides for saturation bombardments, the HIMARS is a precision weapon – a class of weaponry that, multiple analysts believe, Russia’s armory is running short of.

HIMAR rockets are GPS-guided onto their targets, enabling near-pinpoint 5-meter precision if spotted by drones – of which the Ukrainians are well supplied – or provided with satellite coordinates of Russian positions by Western intelligence agencies.

This makes the HIMARS the artillery equivalent of a sniper rifle, rather than a scattergun, like the Grad.

And it is not only precision. The other key advantage is that the HIMARS rockets outrange the tactical Russian artillery in theater – albeit, not air-mounted or ballistic missiles. That will make them precious assets to the battered defenders, who are massively outgunned in the Donbas.

The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. Photo: WikiCommons

US Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl laid out the benefits.

“Right now, the [155mm, towed] howitzers we provided them have about a 30km range. The HIMARS have more than twice that, which will allow them — even with fewer systems — greater stand-off,” he said during a Pentagon briefing on June 1.

“These are precision-guided systems with extended range,” Kahl said, making them “very useful” against “high-value targets.”

To expedite their shipment, HIMARS already deployed with US troops in Europe will be given to Ukraine, Kahl said.

Even so, the US will reportedly not supply the system’s longest-range missiles to ensure the weapon is not used to target Russian cities well beyond Ukraine’s borders.   

And given the scale of the US gift, the HIMARS is unlikely to change the game. The Pentagon announced that only four – yes, four – HIMARS will be sent into Ukraine. It is not known how many rockets will accompany them.

Moreover, Kahl said the training to be given to the Ukrainians in the use of the systems will take about three weeks. That is a long time, given the intensity of the fighting underway at present.

Given the frugal deployment, force protection will be at a premium. Even though the HIMARS can be parked out of range of tactical Russian guns in the field, their survivability, both while en route to the battlefield and then when in situ, against Russian drone, air and long-range missile assets must be in question.

Devastating barrages

The massed firepower the Russians are using in Donbas, and elsewhere around the country to conduct harassing fire, has focused much attention on the artillery arm. Drone footage has captured wide fields peppered with shell holes and barrages obliterating tree lines.

Urban areas devastated by missiles or shellfire are perhaps the dominant images of the war on Western TV screens.

It is a very different kind of fighting to the close-range battle among the homes and apartments of Mariupol, the Azov Sea port city that after a six-week-long street battle ended up resembling Stalingrad in 1943.  

The use of firepower, rather than maneuver, by Russian forces in the Donbas offensive is telling. The offensive has been underway for seven weeks now. It has been described by many as “grinding” or “deliberate.” In terms of its pace, it could be called “feeble.”  

Much of this is due to the Ukrainian defense. The cream of Kiev’s forces has been fighting separatists in the Donbas since 2014. They have had plenty of time to dig into deep defenses and know the ground.

Moreover, they have taken full advantage of rivers and other water obstacles in the north and east of the line they now hold. And the nature of the region, scattered with villages, towns and small industrial cities, favors the echeloned defense.

But it cannot have escaped the gaze of Russian generals that Ukrainian forces are extremely vulnerable.

A pro-Russian soldier standing near a burnt out building in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, April 10, 2022. Image: Screengrab / BBC

They are in a deep salient, with the city of Severodonetsk at its easternmost point. Russian forces are massed on the salient’s northern and southern shoulders. But a large-scale, pincer operation to cut off the defenders from the rear and trap them in a kessel, or cauldron, has not transpired.

There are two possible reasons for the non-appearance of this potentially war-winning “deep operation.”

One is the attrition suffered by regular Russian Battalion Tactical Groups, or BTGs, in the fighting in the north in the war’s first phase. There, road-bound columns of armor and supply convoys were easily ambushed.

Losses may have negatively impacted the Russian command’s ability to mount large-scale maneuver operations – hence the prioritization of stand-off firepower.

Two is the nature of the Russian army.

Armies are divided into three combat arms: Horse, foot and guns. Both the Red and Russian armies see artillery – “The God of War” – as the key arm, rather than the maneuver arm (cavalry, or more latterly, armor) or infantry (the foot soldiers who take and hold ground).

Orders of battles of individual BTGs are not published, but US army studies of their makeup in the pre-2022 Donbas fighting found them surprisingly light on infantry compared with Western units.

And it is clear that Russian infantry lacks the kind of priority enjoyed by their Western counterparts, such as the much smaller numbers of optical sights seen on the small arms wielded by the infantry.

This factor, combined with the attrition suffered by Russian BTGs – including crack Guards and VDV (airborne) units in the first phase of fighting in the north – appears to be impacting Russia’s assault potential.

This may be lost on shell-shocked Ukrainians cowering in collapsing trenchworks under the howl of incoming fire. But Russia’s emphasis on firepower may be covering weaknesses.

Artillery can prepare the ground, but it is infantry who seize and hold it. Even the mightiest artillery barrages of modern times – in the World War I battles of Verdun and the Somme, and at the climax of World War II, on the Seelow Heights east of Berlin – were not battle winners.

Infantry still had to advance to take the terrain and the ruins churned up by the big guns. In Ukraine, a relatively small number of specialist infantry units appear to be in use for the deadliest form of fighting: urban combat.

Chechen irregulars and Donbas militia battalions were prominent for Russia in both Mariupol and Severodonetsk, while Wagner Group mercenaries played a key role in the seizure of the key town of Popasna.

Up close combat journalism with a Donbas militia battalion in the battle for Mariupol. Clip: YouTube

A telling strain

These issues are beginning to be felt in Russian media. In the early days, the narrative held that operations were proceeding “according to plan.” But in recent weeks, the possibility of defeat – and even a nuclear Armageddon – has been aired in alarmist talk shows.

More professional analysts in state media are now acknowledging the stubbornness of Ukrainian resistance and the stretched capacities of the Russian army.

“We have to admit that Ukraine as an adversary turned out to be much stronger than it seemed for many on the eve of the offensive,” wrote analyst Sergey Poletaev for Russia Today on May 31.

“Russia is fighting with a peacetime army, essentially an expeditionary corps at maximum capacity.”

While President Putin has declined to call up conscripts, he has extended the age of service and offered higher pay for volunteer troops. The Russian army is taking retired tanks out of mothballs – tanks that entered service in the early 1960s.

“As long as the Russian army’s tactic of slow advance with reliance on artillery is paying off, we should not expect it to change,” continued Poletaev. “If the Russian Armed Forces completely stall … the issue of a broad military mobilization will have to be resolved, which is still politically unacceptable for the Kremlin.”

But if Russian troops are feeling the heat, the intensity of combat may well be eroding the psychology of their opponents, too. President Volodymyr Zelenksy says his forces are losing 100 men a day – the equivelant of a battalion a week. Other estimates are higher.

While Ukrainian and Western media talk up the high morale of the defenders, multiple video clips have emerged online, purporting to show Ukrainian units arguing with their commanders and even reading statements that verge on the mutinous.

Troops who say they are from Ukraine’s 18th Marine Battalion complained that they were forced to attack into heavy shelling, taking heavy losses and failing to capture their objective.

Another clip shows purported troops of the Ukrainian 57th Motor Rifles Brigade arguing with their commanding officer about advancing into the Donbas.

Asia Times cannot verify the authenticity of these clips.  

Follow this writer on Twitter: @ASalmonSeoul