Russia lost one of its most devastating battlefield weapons when Ukraine launched a bloody Valentine’s Day attack on forces stuck in a minefield.
The losses were sustained in the botched Russian advance on the eastern town of Vuhledar, one of Moscow’s primary targets in its latest offensive to capture more territory in the Donbas.
Drone footage of the aftermath showed the explosive wreckage of what appeared to be a TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launcher, which fires rockets that can melt human organs.
Ukrainian forces also appeared to have destroyed at least 30 enemy armoured vehicles, many of them stranded in minefields surrounding Vuhledar.
In a daily intelligence briefing, British military officials on Monday claimed Russia’s “elite 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Bridges have sustained very high losses in Vuhledar and are likely combat ineffective”.
Heavy losses in botched advance
Moscow’s forces in Ukraine have made Vuhledar, a coal-mining town in the Donetsk region, one of the key targets for the renewed offensive efforts in the east.
They have sustained heavy losses attempting to cross wide-open plains that lead to the town, according to Western intelligence.
Videos of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles being destroyed in failed attempts to cross the heavily-mined area have circulated widely online.
Ukraine’s forces are dug in heavily fortified defensive positions, including bunkers connected to the coal mines.
Thermobarics are particularly suited to breaking enclosed bunkers because their pressurised explosion sucks in oxygen, burning anything within a 650ft radius alive.
The weapons, described as “barbaric” by many Western leaders, were used by Russia to flush out Ukrainian resistance fighters holed up in the Mariupol steelworks during the months-long siege of the city.
Elsewhere, pro-Russian channels on the Telegram messaging app have advanced on Bakhmut, another key target for the Russian offensive, and taken a nearby railway station.
“In Bakhmut, the ‘Wagnerites’ went deep into the defence lines of the armed forces of Ukraine in the Stupka area in the north of the city, freeing the territory of the railway station,” Rybar, an authoritative Russian military blogger, reported.
Russians ‘under pressure’ to make gains
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said Russian forces are under significant political pressure to make gains around Bakhmut in time for the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion later this week.
“If Russia’s spring offensive fails to achieve anything then tensions within the Russian leadership will likely increase,” officials wrote.
Michael Kofman, a prominent war analyst, said Russia’s offensive efforts are spread thinly over “five-six axes” in the Donbas to make a significant impact.
“The Russian winter offensive, which began three plus weeks ago, and has so far yielded little progress for Russian forces,” he wrote on social media. “Poor force quality, loss of junior officers, ammunition, and equipment constraints limit Russian offensive potential.”
Intelligence officers inside Nato now no longer believe Russia has the firepower to carry out a successful assault on the eastern Donbas region, and that 2023 will be the year of a Ukrainian counter-offensive supported by donations of Western weapons.
But Mr Kofman suggested Ukraine’s forces might be better suited to “absorbing the Russian attack and exhausting Russian offensive potential, than taking the initiative later this spring”.