Russian soldiers are being ordered to use shovels in “brutal, low-tech” combat as the country struggles with a shortage of ammunition in its war against Ukraine.
That’s the latest assessment of the conflict by the UK’s defence ministry.
It comes as the city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, remains a battle zone.
There have been reports of some Ukrainian soldiers pulling out of Bakhmut, but Kyiv has said it is “further strengthening” its defences.
At the same time, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group which is spearheading the assault on Bakhmut has openly complained of delays in getting supplies of ammunition from the Kremlin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin alleged on Sunday that Russian reservists meant to deploy to Bakhmut had been diverted and that ammunition promised by the military was days late in arriving.
“We are trying to understand what the reasons are – the usual bureaucracy, or betrayal,” Prigozhin said on social media, suggesting some in Moscow are uncomfortable about the high-profile role the Wagner group is playing.
In an intelligence update on Monday, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russian conscripted troops were being forced to go into “hand-to-hand combat” with just “firearms and shovels” against a Ukrainian concert defensive position.
It said MPL-50 spades were being given to reservists with the tool “mythologised” in Russia as a lethal weapon.
The 50cm-long tool has been part of the standard issue Russian military kit for decades and is used primarily to dig but also can be a surface to cook food, has a sharp edge for cutting, and can potentially a weapon.
“Little has changed since it was designed in 1869,” the report said.
“Its continued use as a weapon highlights the brutal and low-tech fighting which has come to characterise much of the war.”
The MoD said there had been an increase in close combat on the battle field.
“This is probably as a result of the Russian command continuing to insist on offensive action largely consisting of dismounted infantry with less support from artillery fire because Russia is short of munitions,” the report said.
Russia has been making gains around Bakhmut in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle during the more than year-long invasion.
Kyiv has said the fighting is becoming increasingly difficult. The US-based Institute for the Study of War has stated that Ukrainian soldiers may have initiated a strategic retreat.
“Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut, although it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city,” it said in a recent analytical note.
Outside Bakhmut, some Ukrainian soldiers told media they had lost hope that Kyiv would hold the city.
“Bakhmut will fall,” a soldier said near the town of Chasiv Yar, 10km west of Bakhmut.
“We are almost encircled. The units are progressively retreating in small groups.”
But Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky met with top commanders on Monday and his office said they favoured “continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut”.
Neither side has said how many troops they have lost in the battle, with observers saying both Moscow and Kyiv are trying to exhaust each other.
– with AAP