Russians Keep Digging Holes In Ukraine Soil (Because They're Losing)

Russians Keep Digging Holes In Ukraine Soil (Because They're Losing)

Satellite photo of Russian fortifications on Ukraine battlefront

Screenshot from New York Times

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The thing about a hole in the ground is, it’s not going anywhere, and neither are the soldiers who dig them, unless it is to leave the hole behind and go backward. That’s because soldiers know what holes mean: they’re losing.

This discussion of holes in the ground and warfare was brought about by a highly detailed report in the New York Times last week about an enormous system of defensive anti-tank ditches and trenches between Bakhmut, a town the Russians took from Ukraine in March and lost to the big Ukrainian offensive in the northeast in May, and Propasna, another town the Russians seized in the spring and are now struggling to hold onto. There are other defensive trenches and anti-tank barriers the Russians have built in Ukraine, but the Times was able to detail just what Russia’s needs and intentions appear to be by studying satellite photos provided by Planet Labs and comparing the photos, which were taken in late November, to satellite imagery taken earlier in the year.

The photos published by the Times show the system of anti-tank ditches dug over a period of just 11 days in November. The ditches stretch for miles across open ground and appear to be designed to funnel any attack by Ukrainians onto nearby roads where they would be vulnerable to Russian artillery and land-launched missiles. Interestingly, the trenches and ditches are unmanned by Russian forces.

The Times quoted Philip Wasielewski, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, saying that the trenches and ditches would be useful only if there is a well-planned and orderly Russian retreat from the positions it holds closer to Bakhmut. “There’s no guarantee that those [Russian] soldiers will make it to those fortifications. Or once they get there, not just keep running,” Wasielewski told the Times. “These are just holes in the ground unless they are held by motivated, disciplined soldiers, who are supported by artillery, mobile reserves and logistics.”

He didn’t need to point out the lack of such Russian front-line troops as winter really gets its grip on northeastern Ukraine. Russia has been moving untrained recruits from training sites east of Moscow directly to the front lines. In another extensively researched piece published by the Times last week, soldiers recovering from wounds in rear area hospitals told Times reporters via cell phone interviews that they were being sent into battle with nearly no food, little ammunition and instructions to go to Wikipedia and look up what to do if their weapons failed.

Russia’s failures on the battlefield since they invaded Ukraine in late February are by now an old story. There are reports from the British defense department that Russia has suffered as many as 90,000 casualties over the last nine months. Other reports from the Institute of the Study of War say that Russian forces are running low on artillery shells and small arms ammunition, which may account for Russia’s strategy over recent weeks of bombarding Ukraine’s large cities and power infrastructure with drones and what they have left of cruise missiles. When you’re losing on the battlefield, take the fight to civilians seems to be Putin’s fallback strategy as the war approaches the end of its first year.

The defensive trenches and ditches are more evidence that Russia appears to have settled on defending what they have of Ukraine rather than making a new offensive against the by-now well trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated Ukrainian army. The short answer to the question of how Russia is doing is not well at all. When you invade a foreign country, the aim is to take land and keep on going and take more land and cities until the government of your enemy surrenders. That didn’t happen when Russia tried to take Kyiv in March and April, and it’s not happening now. You don’t dig ditches when you’re on the offensive. You dig when you’re losing, and Russian soldiers know this like they know their own names and the names of buddies who have died on the battlefield.

The anti-tank ditches appear in satellite photos to have been dug by heavy earth-moving equipment like excavators and backhoes. But there is a problem with holes in the ground: Rain fills them with water, and soldiers must be used to pump out the water to keep the ditches and trenches from collapsing on themselves and becoming shallow, mud and water or snow-filled versions of what they were. And if Putin thinks his entrenchment strategy will cause Ukrainian soldiers to take roads to get around them, he should talk to his battalions that were trapped in miles-long convoys on roads leading into Kyiv last spring, who were devastated by Ukrainian ground-attacks. Russia may be reduced to using Wikipedia to research how to win wars, but Ukraine’s military has learned its lessons the way winning armies always do – with victories over the enemy.

Holes in the ground don’t win wars. Soldiers hate them because you’re fighting the weight of the earth itself and the force of gravity when you dig them. Once they’re dug, holes in the ground become immediate sources of soldiers’ age-old miseries: Fight from trenches, and you’re hot in the summer with no shade and freezing in the winter, and in between, you’re wet and muddy and worst of all, you are sitting still, waiting for the enemy to attack.

I haven’t seen satellite imagery of what the rear areas look like in Russian held-territory to the east of Bakhmut and Popasna, but I would bet my keyboard there is almost nothing of military merit and power between Russia’s new trench-lines and the Russian border. They’ve lost much of the army they put onto the front lines early in the war, and their lame attempts to recruit and train new soldiers haven’t produced the numbers that would enable them to hold significant forces in reserve in those areas behind the lines in the northeast and the south where Russia has dug more trenches and anti-tank ditches to the east of Kherson where their purpose is defending the crucial resupply routes Russia has used between Crimea and its forces in the southeast of Ukraine.

It doesn’t take a von Clausewitz to see that Vladimir Putin’s army has gone from an invading force with the mission of bending Ukraine to its will to an army tasked with defending what they occupy of Ukraine and the motherland itself from the day when Ukrainian soldiers are looking across the border at the retreating Russian army.

It's never a good sign when earth moving gear is brought forward from the rear areas to dig trenches, and it’s an even worse sign when soldiers are ordered to defend holes in the ground with their lives.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.


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