The Russian soldiers had fled weeks before. But they left their traces everywhere.
Concrete steps led into the basement of their hastily abandoned headquarters in this small riverside town in eastern Ukraine. A bunker smelling of damp lay behind a steel door marked “Command Group.” Papers, some charred, were stuffed into a furnace. Others were scattered across the floor.
In a floral notebook, an unnamed staff officer left a sketch of a cartoon soldier and mused about going home. The book’s 91 handwritten pages contained other information, too: coordinates of Russian intelligence units, records of calls from commanders, details of battles, men killed and equipment destroyed. And accounts of a breakdown in morale and discipline.
In all, the bunker yielded thousands of pages of documents. Reuters reviewed more than a thousand of them. They detail the inner workings of the Russian military and shed new light on events leading up to one of President Vladimir Putin’s most stinging battlefield defeats: Russia’s chaotic retreat from Ukraine’s northeast in September.
In the weeks before that defeat, Russian forces were struggling with surveillance and electronic warfare. They were using off-the-shelf drones flown by barely trained soldiers. Their equipment for jamming Ukrainian communications was often out of action. By the end of August, the documents show, the force was depleted, hit by death, desertions and combat stress. Two units – accounting for about a sixth of the total force – were operating at 20% of their full strength.
The documents also reveal the increasing effectiveness of Ukraine’s forces and offer clues to how the eight-month-old war might unfold, with Russia now under intense pressure on the southern front around the Black Sea coast. In the weeks before their retreat, Russian forces around Balakliia, a town 90 kilometres south of Kharkiv, came under heavy bombardment from HIMARS rocket launchers, recently supplied by the United States. The precision missiles repeatedly hit command posts. [Continue reading…]