Ukraine Conflict Updates

This page collects ISW and CTP's updates on the conflict in Ukraine. In late February 2022, ISW began publishing daily synthetic products covering key events related to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. These Ukraine Conflict Updates replaced ISW’s previous “Indicators and Thresholds for Russian Military Operations in Ukraine and/or Belarus,” which we maintained from November 12, 2021, through February 17, 2022.

This list also includes prominent warning alerts that ISW and CTP launched beyond our daily Ukraine Conflict Updates. These products addressed critical inflection points as they occurred.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2023.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2022.

Click here to see ISW's interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map complements the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW daily produces with high-fidelity and, where possible, street-level assessments of the war in Ukraine.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will add new time-lapses to our archive on a monthly basis. This high-definition interactive map is resource-intensive. The performance and speed of the map correlate with the strength of your hardware.

Click here to read about the methodology behind ISW and CTP's mapping of this conflict. 


 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 28, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 28, 2024, 7:45pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin grossly misrepresented the Ukrainian Constitution and Ukrainian domestic law on May 28 in order to further promote the Kremlin information operation claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine. Putin claimed on May 28 during a press conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan that the Ukrainian Constitution provides for the extension of the powers of the Verkhovna Rada but "does not say anything about the extension of the powers of the president."[1] Putin claimed that although the Ukrainian law on martial law prohibits presidential elections during martial law, which Ukraine was under for one month in 2018 and has been under since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022, "this does not mean that [the Ukrainian president's powers] are prolonged." Putin cited Article 111 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which he alleged provides that "in this case...presidential powers are transferred to the speaker of the parliament." Putin claimed that "the only legitimate authority" remaining in Ukraine is the Verkhovna Rada and the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada. Putin claimed that "if [the Verkhovna Rada] wanted to hold presidential elections, then the law on martial law would have been abolished...and elections would be held." 

The Ukrainian Constitution states that "if the term of office of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine expires during the period of martial law or a state of emergency, its powers shall be extended until the day of the first meeting of the first session of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine elected after the abolition of the state of martial law or emergency."[2] The Ukrainian law "On the Legal Regime of Martial Law" prohibits "conducting elections for the President of Ukraine" while martial law is in effect.[3] Putin inaccurately cited Article 111 of the Ukrainian Constitution, however, which actually states: "The President of Ukraine may be removed from office by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine by impeachment if he commits treason or another crime."[4] Article 112 describes how "the performance of the duties of the President of Ukraine for the period before the election and entry into office of the new President of Ukraine is entrusted to the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine." Article 112, however, specifies that this transfer of power from the President to the Speaker only applies "in the case of early termination [emphasis added] of the powers of the President of Ukraine in accordance with Articles 108, 109, 110, 111 of this Constitution," which describe how "the powers of the President of Ukraine are prematurely terminated in the event of their resignation, inability fulfill their powers due to their health, removal from office by impeachment, and death." Putin's baseless claim that the Verkhovna Rada could abolish martial law and hold presidential elections "if [it] wanted to" is also incorrect, as the law "On the Legal Regime of Martial Law" states that "before the end of the period for which martial law was imposed, and on the condition that the threat of attack or danger to the state independence of Ukraine and its territorial integrity is eliminated, the President of Ukraine may issue a decree on the abolition of martial law on the entire territory of Ukraine or in some of its localities, which must be immediately announced through the media."[5] Not only is the Verkhovna Rada not responsible for lifting martial law, but the Ukrainian President is also legally unable to lift martial law while Russia continues to attack Ukraine and pose a danger to Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, as it clearly does.

Ukrainian Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk directly responded to Putin's deliberate misinterpretation of Ukrainian law and explicitly stated that the Ukrainian Constitution and laws stipulate that Zelensky remain in office until the end of martial law in Ukraine.[6] Stefanchuk specifically drew attention to Part 1 of Article 108, which reads: "The President of Ukraine shall exercise their powers until the newly elected President takes office."[7] Stefanchuk advised "curious readers" of the Ukrainian Constitution to not read "selectively."[8] Putin observed correctly, for the first time on this issue, during his remarks in Tashkent that "this is a preliminary analysis" and "we need to take a closer look."[9]

Russian allegations about Zelensky's lack of legitimacy are a known Kremlin information operation that Kremlin officials have been promoting extensively in recent weeks, in part targeted at foreign audiences. Putin made similar claims rejecting Zelensky as the president of Ukraine during a press conference in Minsk, Belarus on May 24.[10] Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov also denied Zelensky's legitimacy in an interview with Newsweek on May 25.[11] Putin's May 28 allegations contain specific legal jargon and references - largely incorrect or taken out of their legal context - to the text of the Ukrainian Constitution and laws. Putin is likely purposely inflating his statements with such nuanced legalese language to make it seem that he is highly educated in Ukrainian legal matters and is a definitive voice on the matter. The use of such language is likely also meant to cause listeners to believe Putin's false narratives without fact-checking, as legal jargon is inherently dense and opaque. The Ukrainian Constitution and the law relating to martial law, however, are not so opaque that a normal reader cannot understand them. The fact that Kremlin officials have recently promoted these narratives in detail at events in foreign countries and major Western publications suggests that this Kremlin information operation is largely aimed at foreign – predominantly Western – audiences.

Reuters paraphrased Putin's statements under a headline that misrepresented even the thrust of Putin's comments on May 28 but did not note the obvious errors in Putin's claims.[12] Reuters wrote that "Zelensky has not faced an election despite the expiry of his term, something he and Kyiv's allies deem the right decision in wartime" without offering the actual legal context that Putin's comments misrepresented the Ukrainian legal framework that specifically stipulates that martial law remains in force, that presidential elections not be held during Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine's independent and sovereign territory and people and that Zelensky remains the legitimate president of Ukraine until his successor takes office.

Russian forces recently conducted four reduced-company-sized or smaller mechanized assaults on multiple operational axes in Donetsk Oblast without making significant advances, likely to test Ukrainian reactions following the first wave of the Russian offensive effort in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Footage published on May 27 and 28 shows Russian forces conducting reinforced platoon-sized mechanized attacks east of Chasiv Yar and east of Novopokrovske (northwest of Avdiivka) and roughly-company sized mechanized attacks near Novomykhailivka (southwest of Donetsk City) and in Staromayorske (south of Velyka Novosilka).[13] Russian forces only marginally advanced in the attacks east of Novopokrovske and in Staromayorske and did not make confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar or Novomykhailivka. Russian forces have reduced their tempo of attacks and advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast and increased their tempo of attacks in the Pokrovsk (Avdiivka) direction in recent days.[14] These Russian mechanized attacks – one across each of Russia's current four operational axes – are limited in comparison to prior Russian mechanized attacks at the start of or during a dedicated offensive effort. The May 27 and 28 attacks were likely intended to gauge Ukrainian forces' reactions and defensive abilities in the Donetsk direction. The recent Russian offensive effort in northern Kharkiv Oblast likely aimed to take advantage of Ukrainian manpower and materiel shortages before anticipated Western military assistance arrives at the frontline and create opportunities for Russian forces elsewhere, and Russian forces likely aimed to test whether and where any of these opportunities for exploitation may exist on the Donetsk Oblast frontline.[15]

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)'s Committee on Culture supported a resolution that recognizes Russia's deliberate erasure of Ukrainian culture as an element of Russia's genocidal campaign in occupied Ukraine, consistent with ISW's longstanding assessment that Russia is pursuing a broad occupation strategy premised on eradicating Ukraine's national identity and independence. PACE Committee on Culture Chairperson and Ukrainian Servant of the People Representative Yevheniia Kravchuk stated on May 28 that the PACE Culture Committee unanimously supported her resolution on "Countering the Destruction of Cultural Identity in War and Peace," which the Committee will vote on in June 2024 and notably recognizes that Russia uses "cultural purges" as a tool of war in Ukraine that indicate "specific genocidal intent to destroy the Ukrainian nation by destroying Ukrainian identity and culture."[16] Kravchuk emphasized that the resolution affirms that Russia's cultural genocide in Ukraine is part of the wider genocidal campaign that Russia is pursuing against the Ukrainian people. If PACE's Culture Committee adopts the resolution in June 2024, it would represent an important international recognition of cultural genocide as a constituent element of a wider genocidal policy.[17] International legal procedure has not yet created an official legal definition for cultural genocide, and it is not formally defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[18] The Genocide Convention, however, defines genocidal acts as those that intend to destroy "in whole or in part" a specific group, and Russia's pursuit of cultural genocide in Ukraine is explicitly intended to destroy the Ukrainian nation and people "in whole or in part."[19] ISW has reported at length on Russian efforts to destroy Ukrainian cultural, linguistic, and historic heritage in occupied Ukraine and completely supplant it with Russian cultural conceptions.[20] Russia's cultural genocide in Ukraine cannot be viewed in isolation from its wider genocidal policy in Ukraine, as it is a fundamental component of Russia's efforts to completely subsume and subjugate Ukraine and its people.

Russian authorities are preparing to intensify the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia throughout Summer 2024, further consolidating another component of Russia's genocidal campaign in Ukraine. Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) Head Leonid Pasechnik announced on May 27 that Russian federal subjects (regions that are constituent entities of the Russian Federation) will "host" over 12,000 children from occupied Luhansk Oblast over the course of 2024 and that the Russian "Useful Vacations" program will sponsor 40,000 children from occupied Ukraine to "visit" Russia for summer camps and educational activities.[21] Pasechnik also reported that summer camps for children in occupied Crimea and within Russia are preparing to "host" over 600 children from occupied Ukraine throughout the summer, including the "Okean" summer camp in Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai (which is closer to Alaska than it is to Ukraine).[22] The Kherson Oblast occupation Ministry of Labor also announced that an unspecified number of children from occupied Kherson Oblast will travel to the "Okean" camp for an "educational, sport, and cultural program."[23] Kherson Oblast occupation senator Andrey Alekseenko reported on May 27 that 575 children from occupied Kherson Oblast will attend three-week summer camps in occupied Crimea and in Russia's Adygea Republic on Russian federal subject funds.[24] The LNR's Ministry of Education and Science reported that an unspecified number of adolescents from occupied Luhansk Oblast will attend a military-patriotic sports camp at the "Avangard" camp in Russia's Volgograd Oblast and train in military engineering, tactics, fires, parachuting, communications, national security fundamentals, drone operation, and tactical medicine.[25]

Despite Russian efforts to frame summer camps for Ukrainian children as temporary recreational and educational affairs, they are a fundamental component of Russia's campaign to deport Ukrainians, including children, to Russia.[26] The forcible transfer of children from one group to another is a recognized act constituting genocide, and Russia's multifaceted schemes deporting Ukrainian children to Russia may therefore be classed as genocidal acts.[27] Ukrainian children who have been deported to Russia for such "vacations" or "summer camps" face Russification programs premised on isolating them from their Ukrainian families, language, culture, and history.[28] Russian authorities will likely escalate deportation efforts throughout the summer under the guise of summer vacations, but these programs represent genocidal acts against the Ukrainian people despite Russian efforts to cloak them as temporary and positive educational opportunities.

Iran's continued support for Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) and provision of lethal aid to Russia is bolstering Russia's technological output and military capabilities on the battlefield in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a report on May 28 detailing Russian efforts to produce Shahed-136/131 drones at the Alabuga Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the Republic of Tatarstan using Iranian-provided technologies and a labor force recruited largely from eastern Africa.[29] WSJ cited the international hacking group Prana Network, which reportedly hacked an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) email server in February 2024 and revealed that Russia intends to produce 6,000 Shahed drones at the Alabuga SEZ in 2024 alone. The Institute for Science and International Security (IISS) assessed that the Alabuga SEZ has already produced 4,500 Shaheds as of the end of April 2024, ahead of schedule, and could produce all 6,000 by mid-August 2024.[30] WSJ found that Russia is currently producing more advanced models of Iranian Shaheds domestically and intensively using them to strike Ukraine.[31] WSJ also noted that Russian authorities are recruiting from African countries, particularly Uganda, and especially enticing young women to participate in work-study programs at Alabuga to produce Shahed drones. Russia would not be able to operate the Alabuga SEZ without Iran's consistent support for the Russian war effort—Iranian production models for Shahed drones and Iranian drone technologies are at the center of the entire Alabuga enterprise.[32] German outlet BILD similarly reported on May 27 that Iran has also likely supplied Russia with Qaem-5 television-guided air-to-ground bombs, which Iran started producing as recently as 2019.[33] BILD noted that an Iranian-provided Mohajer-6 drone carrying the Qaem-5 bombs crashed in Kursk Oblast for an unknown reason but that Russian forces may have intended to strike Sumy Oblast. ISW has not yet observed confirmation that Russia has used these projectiles in Ukraine, but their use would be consistent with the pattern of continued and intensified Iranian military support to Russia.[34]

The Georgian Parliament overrode Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" law in an 84-to-4 vote on May 28. Sixty-six Georgian parliament members spoke against the presidential veto.[35] The Georgian Constitution requires Zurabishvili to sign and publish the law within three days of the vote, but if she refuses, Georgian Parliament Chairperson Shalva Papuashvili can sign and publish the law within five days of the vote.[36] Papuashvili is a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which initiated the foreign agents bill, and will therefore likely sign the bill into law, as Zurabishvili will likely refuse to sign the bill into law given her initial veto of the bill. Zurabishvili addressed protestors against the foreign agents bill outside the Georgian parliament on May 28 and called on Georgian protestors to gather signatures to allow her to call for a referendum on the foreign agents bill.[37] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian service noted that the Georgian Constitution allows the president to call for a referendum at the request of the parliament, the government, or at least 200,000 citizens, but that holding a referendum requires signatures from both the president and prime minister in cases when the parliament or citizens call for a referendum.[38] Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze would likely oppose such a referendum against the foreign agents bill. Kobakhidze claimed that the passage of the foreign agents law will strengthen Georgia's sovereignty and improve its chances to achieve European Union (EU) membership.[39] The EU has repeatedly emphasized that the Georgian foreign agents law "goes against EU core principles and values," that the law's enactment “leads to a backsliding on at least three out of the nine steps" that the EU Commission recommended for Georgia's EU candidacy status, and that the law negatively impacts Georgia's path to EU membership.[40] ISW continues to assess that Georgian Dream actors likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for Euro-Atlantic integration, which plays into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[41]

A limited segment of the Russian ultranationalist information space has resumed its standard public criticisms of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and warned that new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov may not solve certain systemic issues within the Russian MoD and military. A Russian milblogger and former Storm-Z instructor warned that any "emerging progress" from Belousov's appointment and the dismissals of several senior defense officials may "not be allowed" to go far enough to address systemic issues currently hindering the Russian war in Ukraine.[42] The former Storm-Z instructor particularly highlighted the poor, incomplete, and short training of new personnel as having a compounding effect on other systemic issues, including "excessive and unjustifiably" high casualties, no troop rotations, poor tactical and operational decision-making, degradation of combat-experienced units, inability to preserve combat knowledge, and lack of command-staff accountability.[43] The Storm-Z instructor claimed that these issues are all interconnected and cyclical and that Russia has accumulated significant reserves that are not undergoing training due to these systemic issues.[44] Other Russian milbloggers, many of whom frequently complained about the Russian MoD prior to the mass MoD dismissals in late April-May 2024, agreed with the Storm-Z instructor and claimed that Russian "middle management" has been operating under the assumption that the current war in Ukraine is not actually a war, which is consistent with prior milblogger complaints that the Kremlin has failed to mobilize Russian society into a wartime mindset.[45] The Storm-Z instructor claimed that the fact that certain high-ranking officials, such as Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, have retained their positions further supports this complaint and that the appointments of new deputy defense ministers will indicate whether or not Belousov may be able to solve some of these systemic issues.[46]

The Russian ultranationalist information space has largely praised Belousov and the dismissals and arrests of senior Russian defense officials thus far. The milbloggers' praise of Belousov and the dismissals comes with harsh criticisms of the corruption and ineptitude under former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, representing a significant break with the self-censorship largely enforced by the MoD following the Wagner Group rebellion in June 2023.[47] The condemnation of the MoD's ineptitude prior to the dismissals and the resulting praise for Belousov's appointment has largely benefited the MoD thus far as it helps rehabilitate the MoD's image to Putin's core ultranationalist constituency, secure their loyalty, and message to MoD officials that no one is safe from the consequences of falling from Putin's favor.[48] The former Storm-Z instructor's warning and resulting skepticism among like-minded milbloggers may represent the start of a return to prior complaints that undermined the MoD. The former Storm-Z instructor highlighted in his complaint that he was censoring himself throughout the conversation, suggesting that the MoD may not intend to lift censorship and self-censorship requirements on Russian milbloggers even if the bounds on what is acceptable criticism have shifted in the short term.[49]

Portugal and Belgium both signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Ukraine on May 28. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Portuguese Prime Minister Luís Montenegro signed a bilateral security agreement during Zelensky's visit to Lisbon on May 28.[50] The bilateral security agreement provides for at least €126 million ($138 million) in Portuguese military support for Ukraine in 2024 and reaffirms Portugal's commitment to Ukraine through various international cooperation platforms. Zelensky also met with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo in Brussels on May 28 and signed a long-term bilateral security agreement with Belgium that provides for at least €977 million ($1 billion) in Belgian military aid to Ukraine in 2024, as well as continued military support for the next 10 years.[51] Zelensky noted that the bilateral Ukraine-Belgium agreement also specifies that Belgium will provide 30 F-16 jets to Ukraine by 2028, including an unspecified number sometime in 2024.[52] Belgium and Portugal are the eleventh and twelfth countries, respectively, to sign long-term bilateral security agreements with Ukraine.[53]

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support on May 28 for delisting the Taliban as a prohibited organization in Russia, indicating that Russia will likely do so soon. Putin stated that it is necessary for Russia to build relations with the Taliban because the Taliban controls Afghanistan.[54] Putin claimed that Russia is considering the opinion of each country in the region surrounding Afghanistan and will work with them when Russia considers whether to recognize the Taliban. Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev stated on May 28 that Russia is close to establishing "fully-fledged" relations with the Taliban.[55] Russia has maintained contacts with the Taliban since the Taliban deposed the Afghan government in August 2021, and ISW recently assessed that Russia may be hoping to leverage its relationship with the Taliban to degrade the Taliban's adversary, Afghan-based Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which conducted the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow.[56] Putin's statement that Russia is working with the countries of the region when considering whether to recognize the Taliban indicates that Russia likely is following Central Asian states in normalizing relations with the Taliban.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin grossly misrepresented the Ukrainian Constitution and Ukrainian domestic law on May 28 in order to further promote the Kremlin information operation claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk directly responded to Putin's deliberate misinterpretation of Ukrainian law and explicitly stated that the Ukrainian Constitution and laws stipulate that Zelensky remain in office until the end of martial law in Ukraine.
  • Russian allegations about Zelensky's lack of legitimacy are a known Kremlin information operation that Kremlin officials have been promoting extensively in recent weeks, in part targeted at foreign audiences.
  • The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)'s Committee on Culture supported a resolution that recognizes Russia's deliberate erasure of Ukrainian culture as an element of Russia's genocidal campaign in occupied Ukraine, consistent with ISW's longstanding assessment that Russia is pursuing a broad occupation strategy premised on eradicating Ukraine's national identity and independence.
  • Russian authorities are preparing to intensify the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia throughout Summer 2024, further consolidating another component of Russia's genocidal campaign in Ukraine.
  • Iran's continued support for Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) and provision of lethal aid to Russia is bolstering Russia's technological output and military capabilities on the battlefield in Ukraine.
  • The Georgian Parliament overrode Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" law in an 84-to-4 vote on May 28.
  • A limited segment of the Russian ultranationalist information space has resumed its standard public criticisms of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and warned that new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov may not solve certain systemic issues within the Russian MoD and military.
  • Portugal and Belgium both signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Ukraine on May 28.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support on May 28 for delisting the Taliban as a prohibited organization in Russia, indicating that Russia will likely do so soon.
  • Ukrainian forces recently made confirmed advances near Lyptsi, and Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • The Russian military is reportedly intensifying efforts to recruit citizens from Central African countries to fight in Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 27, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 27, 2024, 6:30pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:00pm ET on May 27. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 28 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly called on member states to lift their prohibitions against Ukraine using Western-provided weapons to strike within Russian territory. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly adopted a declaration on May 27 calling for NATO states to support Ukraine's "international right" to defend itself by lifting "some restrictions" on Ukraine's use of Western weapons to strike Russian territory.[1] The declaration also calls for member states to accelerate their deliveries of critical weapons to Ukraine, and more than 200 representatives of NATO member states supported the declaration. Some NATO states, including the UK, have already lifted such restrictions on weapons they provide to Ukraine, but not enough Western states have done so to allow Ukraine to challenge Russia's sanctuary from which it can freely conduct airstrikes or stage ground operations against Ukraine.[2] Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson told Swedish outlet Hallandsposten on May 26 in response to a question about Ukraine using Swedish-provided weapons against Russian territory that Sweden supports Ukraine's right under international law to defend itself through combat operations against Russian territory so long as these operations comply with international laws on combat.[3]

Spain signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on May 27.[4] The agreement stipulates that Spain will provide Ukraine with one billion euros (about $1.08 billion) worth of military aid in 2024 and another five billion euros (about $5.4 billion) worth of aid before 2027.[5] El Pais reported on May 27 that the new military aid package will include 19 restored Leopard tanks (likely referring to 19 previously-announced Leopards), Patriot air defense missiles, a "large batch" of 155mm artillery ammunition, and other Spanish-produced weapons.[6] El Pais reported that Spain intends to send 10 refurbished Leopard tanks to Ukraine before June 30.[7]

Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian long-range early warning radar systems and oil and gas infrastructure within Russia on May 26 and 27. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported on May 27 citing its sources in Ukrainian special services that the Ukranian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) flew drones a record 1,800 kilometers to strike a Voronezh-M long-range early warning radar system in Orsk, Orenburg Oblast on May 26.[8] Satellite imagery dated May 26 and 27 shows new burn marks near the radar system, but the extent of damage to the system is unclear.[9] Oryol Oblast Governor Andrey Klychkov claimed on May 27 that Ukrainian drone strikes damaged an administrative building at a Rosneft fuel station in Livny, Oryol Oblast, and images of the aftermath show extensive damage to the building.[10] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces also intercepted a drone over Bryansk Oblast, another drone over Belgorod Oblast, six drones over Oryol Oblast, and four drones over Krasnodar Krai overnight.[11] Krasnodar Krai Governor Veniamin Kondratyev claimed that falling drones caused fires in Krinitsa and Dzhankhot, Krasnodar Krai.[12]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Ukraine is not an independent state and that Russia can unilaterally and forcibly change Ukraine's borders. Ukrainian media reported that Scholz stated at the Freedom for Democracy Festival in Berlin on May 26 that Putin stated that "Ukraine and Belarus are parts of Russia" and that Scholz's discussion with Putin demonstrated that Putin thinks that one can change borders "with the help of force."[13] Putin has consistently demonstrated that he does not consider Ukraine an independent state with its own history, identity, and culture separate from Russia, as evidenced by his 2021 essay, "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”; that his war aims include the total defeat of Ukraine; and that he has expansive territorial ambitions in Ukraine.[14]

The New York Times (NYT) reported on May 26 that Western intelligence officials stated that the Russian General Staff's Main Directorate (GRU) are behind a series of low-level sabotage operations throughout Europe that aim to disrupt Western arms supplies to Ukraine and create the appearance of a European movement opposing support for Ukraine.[15] The NYT stated that the GRU often recruits locals to conduct arsons and noted that the concerted Russian effort has targeted a paint factory in Poland, homes in Latvia, an IKEA store in Lithuania, and a warehouse in the United Kingdom connected with arms supplies to Ukraine. Western officials have recently reported on widespread Russian sabotage efforts throughout Europe, and NATO reported on May 2 that Russia is intensifying its hybrid activities in Europe.[16] Russian investigative outlet The Insider reported on April 29 that GRU agents established a long-term presence in the Czech Republic and Greece and have been conducting operations, including attacks on ammunition depots and assassination attempts, since 2014.[17]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on May 27 that he signed documents that will allow French military instructors to visit training centers in Ukraine.[18] Syrskyi stated that he and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov had a video call with French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu, and Syrskyi welcomed France's initiative to send French military instructors to Ukraine. Syrskyi also expressed optimism that France's determination would encourage other Ukrainian partners to join this "ambitious project." The French Defense Ministry told French outlet Agence France-Presse (AFP) on May 27 that France has been discussing sending French military instructors to Ukraine since French President Emmanuel Maron met with European leaders on February 26 to discuss European support for Ukraine but did not explicitly confirm that France would send French military instructors to Ukraine.[19]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) offered to help Armenia mitigate the effects of flooding in northern Armenia, although Armenia has not publicly requested help from Russia. The Russian MoD claimed on May 27 that it commanded the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia to allocate personnel and equipment to help Armenia mitigate the effects of floods and mudflows.[20] The Russian MoD stated that it will send Russian military personnel to the disaster areas at Armenia's request. The Russian MoD's phrasing obscures whether Armenia has actually requested help from Russia, however. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed on May 26 that the Russian-Armenian Center for Humanitarian Response (RACHR) (an organization under the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations) gave portable motor pumps to the Armenian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to assist with rescue operations in flooded areas and that the RACHR is in "constant contact" with the Armenian MVD's Center for Crisis Management.[21] ISW has not observed reports from Armenian officials or Armenian media that Armenia specifically requested assistance from Russia. Armenian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ani Badalyan stated on May 27 that Armenia would coordinate measures for mitigating the impacts of the floods with international partners after assessing the overall damage.[22] Russian officials are likely publicizing Russian offers to help Armenia mitigate the effects of a natural disaster to portray Russia as a reliable ally amid Armenia's ongoing attempts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia.[23]

Russian officials are considering delisting the Taliban as a prohibited organization in Russia and will likely do so in the near term. Russian Special Representative to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov stated on May 27 that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Ministry of Justice reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia can remove the Taliban from its list of prohibited organizations.[24] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Taliban is the "real power" in Afghanistan and that the initiative to remove the Taliban from the prohibited organization list "reflects objective reality."[25] Russian officials have yet to delist the Taliban as a prohibited organization, but Kabulov's and Lavrov's comments suggest that Russia will do so in the near term. Kabulov added that Taliban representatives will attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in early June 2024.[26] Putin met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Tashkent on May 27 and signed a statement on bilateral commitments, which included intentions to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan.[27] The Kremlin has maintained contacts with the Taliban since the Taliban deposed the Afghan government in 2021, although more outright Russian recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan will likely portend increased Russian-Taliban cooperation. Russia likely hopes to leverage its relationship with the Taliban to degrade the operations of Afghan-based Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which organized and conducted the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack in Moscow, among other things.[28] The Taliban continue efforts to repress anti-Taliban groups throughout Afghanistan, including ISKP, and Russia may hope to help the Taliban intensify its anti-ISKP activities.[29] Kazakhstan delisted the Taliban as a terrorist organization in December 2023, and Uzbekistan has expanded agreements with the Taliban in recent years.[30] Russia may view direct engagement with the Taliban as an increasingly normalized trend among Central Asian states.

Russia may sign an agreement with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) exchanging weapons for a Russian logistics hub at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. SAF Assistant Commander-in-Chief Yasser Al-Atta stated on May 25 that a SAF delegation will travel to Russia in the near future to conclude an agreement exchanging "vital weapons and munitions" for a Russian logistics hub at Port Sudan.[31] Al-Atta described the planned Russian hub as "not exactly a military base."[32] A prominent, Kremlin-awarded Russian milblogger also claimed on May 27 that the SAF was able to recapture several areas of Khartoum due to supplies of Iranian drones.[33] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative for the Russian President in Africa and the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov met with SAF head Abdel Fattah al Burhan and several other Sudanese officials during a two-day visit to Sudan on April 28 and 29.[34] ISW previously assessed that Russia may be switching sides in the Sudanese civil war to support the SAF in pursuit of acquiring a Red Sea naval base and that Russian backing of the SAF would greatly benefit Iran by aligning Russian and Iranian policy and strategy in the region.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • The NATO Parliamentary Assembly called on member states to lift their prohibitions against Ukraine using Western-provided weapons to strike within Russian territory.
  • Spain signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on May 27.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian long-range early warning radar systems and oil and gas infrastructure within Russia on May 26 and 27.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Ukraine is not an independent state and that Russia can unilaterally and forcibly change Ukraine's borders.
  • The New York Times (NYT) reported on May 26 that Western intelligence officials stated that the Russian General Staff's Main Directorate (GRU) are behind a series of low-level sabotage operations throughout Europe that aim to disrupt Western arms supplies to Ukraine and create the appearance of a European movement opposing support for Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on May 27 that he signed documents that will allow French military instructors to visit training centers in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) offered to help Armenia mitigate the effects of flooding in northern Armenia, although Armenia has not publicly requested help from Russia.
  • Russian officials are considering delisting the Taliban as a prohibited organization in Russia and will likely do so in the near term.
  • Russia may sign an agreement with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) exchanging weapons for a Russian logistics hub at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
  • Ukrainian forces recently made confirmed advances near Lyptsi and Russian forces advanced near Svatove and northwest of Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces continue formalization efforts for irregular units.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 26, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

Russian forces are reportedly concentrating forces of unspecified size in western Belgorod Oblast near the border with Ukraine, likely to fix and draw Ukrainian forces to the area and prepare for offensive operations that aim to expand the Russian foothold in the international border area in northeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on May 26 that Russian forces are preparing for new offensive actions and are concentrating a grouping of an unspecified size near the Ukrainian border 90 kilometers northwest of Kharkiv City.[1] Zelensky appears to be referring to the Grayvoron-Borisovka-Proletarskiy area in western Belgorod Oblast, and ISW has observed satellite imagery of the area that suggests that Russian forces have expanded activities at depots and warehouses in settlements in the area in recent weeks.[2] The current size of the possible Russian force concentration in the Grayvoron-Borisovka-Proletarskiy area remains unclear, however. Ukrainian State Border Service Representative Andrei Demchenko stated on May 26 that Russian forces may launch offensive operations into Sumy Oblast or areas of Kharkiv Oblast bordering Sumy Oblast in order to stretch and fix Ukrainian forces further along the international border area in northeastern Ukraine.[3]

The Grayvoron-Borisovka-Proletarskiy area would notably offer Russian forces opportunities to launch offensive operations to the south in the direction of Zolochiv and Bohodukhiv, two Ukrainian towns northwest of Kharkiv City within 25 kilometers of the international border, or to the west in the direction of settlements along the P-45 highway that connects Bohodukhiv with Sumy City. Russian forces could pursue offensive operations in either one or both directions, and the Russian concentration here could be intended to cause Ukrainian forces to commit manpower and materiel to a wider section of the border in Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts. Russian forces are also concentrating limited forces in Kursk and Bryansk oblasts close to the border with Sumy Oblast, and even limited concentrations in the areas could aim to achieve the likely desired effect of further drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces in the international border area.[4] Russian forces are currently bringing the Northern Grouping of Forces in the international border area up to its reported planned end strength and will likely launch only limited offensive operations along the Sumy-Kharkiv axis until the Northern Grouping of Forces is closer to its end strength.[5] Even limited Russian offensive operations in these areas will add pressure that stretches Ukrainian manpower and materiel along a wider front and possibly allow Russian forces to establish tactical footholds to support subsequent operations either northwest of Kharkiv City or in the direction of Sumy City. The Northern Grouping of Forces, even at the upper limit of its reported end strength, will lack the necessary manpower needed to conduct a successful operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv or Sumy cities, however.

Western officials continue to publicly debate Ukraine's right to use Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia amid Russian efforts to persuade the West to continue its self-imposed limitations and divide the NATO alliance. Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated during an interview with The Guardian published on May 25 that Poland supports Ukraine's right to strike military targets within Russia and that the West must stop "constantly limiting" its support for Ukraine.[6]  Sikorski noted that Russia continues to strike civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and that Europe must improve its ability to "play the escalation game... by keeping Putin guessing." Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani stated on May 26 that Ukraine should only use Italian-provided weapons within Ukraine, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that there is "no reason" to lift the West's restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western weapons to strike within Russia as Germany's restrictions "work."[7] Chairperson of Ukraine's Permanent Delegation to NATO's Parliamentary Assembly Yehor Chernev insinuated that the White House is reviewing its policy restricting Ukraine's ability to strike targets in Russia with US-provided weapons, which is consistent with the New York Times May 22 report that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is urging US President Joe Biden to lift these restrictions.[8] ISW continues to assess that Western limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border area from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[9]

Sikorski also insinuated during his May 25 interview that US officials have threatened to strike Russian military concentrations and frontline positions in Ukraine if Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which prompted a response from Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev who threatened that a US strike against a Russian target in Ukraine would "start a world war."[10] Medvedev denied that the US has issued such a threat, criticized Sikorski as inept, and threatened that Poland would "get its share of radioactive ash" if NATO places tactical nuclear weapons in Poland. Medvedev issued this threat on his English language X (formerly Twitter) account, suggesting that his statements are meant for an international audience. Medvedev may be attempting to single out Sikorski's statements as escalatory in order to drive a wedge between Poland and other NATO member states. Russian officials will likely continue to demand that the West respect arbitrary "red lines" on Western support for Ukraine in the face of continual Russian war crimes and aggression, particularly as the West continues to debate allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons to strike targets in Russia.

Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) will reportedly manufacture and refurbish three times as many artillery shells as the West will produce in 2024, although Russian shells reportedly suffer from quality-control issues and Ukrainian artillery is reportedly more precise than Russian artillery. Sky News, citing open-source research from US-based consulting firm Bain & Company, reported on May 26 that Russian DIB producers will likely be able to manufacture and refurbish 4.5 million artillery shells in 2024 compared to 1.3 million artillery shells that the US and European countries will collectively produce in 2024.[11] Sky News reported that it costs Western countries about $4,000 to produce one NATO-standard 155mm shell – although this price "significantly" varies depending on the country of production – while it costs Russia about $1,000 to produce one 152mm shell. The report does not make clear if the dollar value comparison between the price to produce one shell accounts for the difference in purchasing power parity between Western countries and Russia, however. A Ukrainian artillery battery commander operating in northern Kharkiv Oblast told Sky News that Russian forces operating in this area have a five-to-one artillery shell advantage but noted that Ukrainian forces can "completely destroy" a target using one to three shells. Ukrainian and Western officials and several Russian milbloggers previously stated that Ukrainian artillery is more precise than Russian artillery despite the fact that Russian artillery supplies greatly outnumber those of Ukrainian forces.[12] Russian milbloggers recently complained that the amount of gunpowder in Russian artillery shells widely varies, causing artillery systems to perform inconsistently.[13] The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported in March that Russia currently has about three million rounds of old artillery ammunition in its stockpiles, but that much of it is in poor condition.[14] RUSI and other Western analysts also assessed that Russia’s current domestic ammunition production is not sufficient for its war in Ukraine, so Russia will likely continue relying on supplies from partners.[15] Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi reported in February that Russia had imported about 1.5 million rounds of ammunition from North Korea, but that about half of the munitions did not function and the other half required restoration or inspection before use.[16]

Kremlin officials continue to indicate that Russia is not interested in meaningful negotiations with Ukraine and promote Kremlin information operations that aim to push the West to make concessions on Ukraine's sovereign territory and people. Chairperson of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin claimed on May 26 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky violated the Ukrainian constitution by "canceling" elections and is not the legitimate leader of Ukraine.[17] Volodin alleged that Zelensky therefore has no right to make official decisions, including announcing mobilization. Volodin claimed that Ukraine "ceased to exist as a rule of law state" in 2014 and that "any agreements with an illegitimate president are invalid and may be challenged in the future." Volodin's statements are in line with multiple longstanding Kremlin narratives about Ukrainian electoral law and Ukraine's legitimacy over the past decade. Putin claimed on May 24 that the Ukrainian parliament and constitutional court need to examine the Ukrainian constitution to determine the legality of officials remaining in office past their stated terms.[18] The Ukrainian law defining martial law, which Ukraine has been under since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022, clearly states that "conducting elections of the President of Ukraine" is "prohibited in the conditions of martial law."[19] The Kremlin has also consistently promoted narratives that the Ukrainian state and government lost its legitimacy, sovereignty, and independence as a result of the EuroMaidan movement in 2014.[20] Volodin's May 26 statement suggests that Russia does not consider any agreements it made with Ukraine since 2014 as valid and that Russia will likely also not respect any future agreements it makes with the current Ukrainian government, including any possible future negotiated settlement. The Kremlin has repeatedly promoted information operations that aim to persuade the West to make concessions on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.[21] Any negotiated settlement that does not directly involve the legitimate government of Ukraine would be ignoring Ukraine's sovereignty as an independent state.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces are reportedly concentrating forces of unspecified size in western Belgorod Oblast near the border with Ukraine, likely to fix and draw Ukrainian forces to the area and prepare for offensive operations that aim to expand the Russian foothold in the international border area in northeastern Ukraine.
  • Western officials continue to publicly debate Ukraine's right to use Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia amid Russian efforts to persuade the West to continue its self-imposed limitations and divide the NATO alliance.
  • Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) will reportedly manufacture and refurbish three times as many artillery shells as the West will produce in 2024, although Russian shells reportedly suffer from quality-control issues and Ukrainian artillery is reportedly more precise than Russian artillery.
  • Kremlin officials continue to indicate that Russia is not interested in meaningful negotiations with Ukraine and promote Kremlin information operations that aim to push the West to make concessions on Ukraine's sovereign territory and people.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Svatove, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Former Wagner Group fighters reportedly continue to form new units under Rosgvardia and Chechen Akhmat Spetsnaz.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 25, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 25, 2024, time 7:20pm ET 

Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukrainian forces are increasingly contesting the tactical initiative in northern Kharkiv Oblast and characterized Russian operations in the area as defensive, although Russian forces are likely attempting to bring the Northern Grouping of Forces up closer to its reported planned end strength before possibly intensifying offensive operations in the area. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 24 that Ukrainian forces are pushing Russian forces back from Ukrainian defenses in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[1] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces established "combat control" over an unspecified section of the border where Russian forces had initially crossed into northern Kharkiv Oblast following the start of Russian offensive operations on May 10.[2] A Ukrainian commander operating in the Lyptsi direction (north of Kharkiv City) stated that Ukrainian forces have completely stopped Russian offensive operations in the Strilecha-Hlyboke direction (north of Lyptsi) and that Ukrainian forces are now focused on regaining territory in the area.[3] The commander stated that Ukrainian forces are successfully pushing Russian forces out of captured positions but that Russian forces are saturating the area with manpower and equipment to prevent Ukrainian forces from seizing the tactical initiative.[4] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Russian forces have partially transitioned to the defensive in northern Kharkiv Oblast after consolidating captured positions and are currently focused on destroying reserves that Ukrainian forces have concentrated near Kharkiv City.[5] The milblogger assessed that Ukrainian forces would have to launch counterattacks in the area at the end of May 2024 to push Russian forces out of northern Kharkiv Oblast and that future Russian plans on this axis likely depend on the outcome of Ukrainian counterattacks.[6] Russian forces launched their offensive operation into northern Kharkiv Oblast with limited manpower and have yet to commit significant reserves to the area, leading to a decreasing tempo of Russian advances and offensive operations.[7] This decreasing tempo is likely presenting Ukrainian forces with tactical opportunities to counterattack, although Ukrainian forces are not yet conducting a limited counteroffensive operation that aims to push Russian forces completely out of northern Kharkiv Oblast.

The disparate Russian elements currently operating in northern Kharkiv Oblast and the Russian military's apparent hesitance to commit available reserves to fight suggests that Russian forces are likely attempting to bring the Northern Grouping of Forces up to its reported planned end strength before intensifying offensive operations and pursuing subsequent phases of the offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Russian forces reportedly had roughly 35,000 personnel in the international border area as a part of the Northern Grouping of Forces when they started offensive operations on May 10, whereas Ukrainian sources had been indicating that the Russian military intends to concentrate a total of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel in the international border area.[8] Russian forces likely launched the offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast earlier than intended with an understrength force hoping to establish a foothold before the arrival of resumed US military aid to the front made that task more difficult.[9] Ukrainian sources have identified elements of the 11th Army Corps [AC], 44th AC, and 6th Combined Arms Army [CAA] as the main elements of the Northern Grouping of Forces, and limited elements of these formations have participated in the offensive operation and have reportedly suffered significant casualties.[10] Zelensky stated in an interview published on May 25 that Russian forces have suffered an eight-to-one casualty ratio in northern Kharkiv Oblast in the past two weeks, although these losses do not appear to have forced the Russian military to commit significant reserves from the 11th AC, 44th AC, or 6th CAA to sustain Russian offensive operations in the area.[11]

Instead, Russian forces appear to be relying on limited elements of units that are part of various different force groupings in eastern Ukraine. Limited elements of the 47th Tank Division's 153rd Tank Regiment and 272nd Motorized Rifle Regiment (1st Guards Tank Army [GTA], Moscow Military District [MMD]) and limited elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division's 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment (1st GTA, MMD) are reportedly operating near Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City).[12] Elements of the 47th Tank Division and the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division are currently heavily committed to intensified Russian offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line, and Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets previously reported that the Russian Western Grouping of Forces is "leasing" limited elements to the Northern Grouping of Forces.[13] Elements of a battalion of the 98th Airborne (VDV) Division's 217th VDV Regiment are reportedly operating in a border area in Kursk Oblast, even though elements of the 217th VDV Regiment and other elements of the 98th VDV Division are participating in intensified assaults on Chasiv Yar's eastern outskirts.[14] Russian forces have either been attacking with an understrength 217th VDV Regiment in the Chasiv Yar area for some time or have recently transferred a battalion of the regiment to the Northern Grouping of Forces.

Russian forces are likely holding back reserves of the 11th AC, 44th AC, and 6th CAA in order to establish the Northern Grouping at closer to its intended end strength. The Russian military command may be waiting to intensify offensive operations and pursue a second phase of the operation because its plans require a grouping of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel strong. Russian forces likely intend to launch the second phase of their offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast following their intended seizure of Vovchansk, although positional fighting and possible Ukrainian counterattacks could require Russian forces to conduct another wave of intensified assaults in the area to complete the seizure of the settlement.[15] Russian forces currently aim to establish a "buffer zone" in northern Kharkiv Oblast and advance to within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City, and it is unclear which goal a second phase of the operation will support or if Russian forces have a more ambitious operational objective in mind.[16] The Northern Grouping of Forces, even at the upper limit of its reported end strength, will lack the necessary manpower needed to conduct a successful operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv City.

The likely premature start of Russian offensive operations appears to have undermined Russian success in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Russian forces reportedly managed to surprise Ukrainian forces on May 10 and made tactically significant gains in areas that Ukrainian officials reported were less defended.[17] The Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) announced on MAY 25 that it has launched an investigation into improperly prepared Ukrainian defenses in the area and the abandonment of Ukrainian positions in the Lyptsi and Vovchansk directions.[18] The SBI noted that this allowed Russian forces to advance to a second line of Ukrainian defenses in the area, although it appears that limited manpower prevented Russian forces from achieving a deeper penetration. While it is possible that the Russian military command thought the accumulation of a larger force would have alerted Ukrainian forces and prevented the opportunity for operational surprise, the Russian decision to not immediately introduce significant reserves likely prevented Russian forces from achieving rapid gains and a deeper penetration. Ukrainian forces have now established themselves at defensive positions in the area, and Russian forces have likely expended their tactical opportunity to make relatively rapid gains against lightly-held positions in this area.

Russian forces continue to leverage their sanctuary in Russian airspace to strike Kharkiv City to devastating effect, likely as part of efforts to depopulate the city and demoralize Ukrainians. Russian forces conducted four distinct missile and glide bomb strikes against Kharkiv City on May 25: a missile strike with an Iskander-M missile and S-300/S-400 air defense missiles against an educational facility just after midnight; a strike with two KAB precision-guided glide bombs against the Epicenter construction hypermarket in the city at around 1300; a strike with unspecified munitions against Central Park in Kharkiv City just after 1700; and a strike in a residential area in central Kharkiv City just after 1900.[19] The hypermarket strike sparked a fire that spread to more than 15,000 square meters and engulfed the entire hypermarket.[20] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that up to 200 people could have been in the hypermarket at the time of the strike, and Ukrainian officials have since confirmed that the Epicenter hypermarket strike has killed at least five people, injured at least 40 and that 16 are currently missing.[21] Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast Head Oleh Synehubov reported that the evening strike against a central Kharkiv residential area has injured at least 18 people.[22]

The Russian use of precision-guided bombs against civilian areas in Kharkiv City indicates that Russia likely intends for these strikes to scare Ukrainians into leaving the city. Russian forces have been heavily targeting Kharkiv City with missile strikes and glide bombs – often FAB and KAB bombs modified with glide modules frequently equipped with guidance systems – in recent weeks in part to force residents to flee.[23] Russian aircraft have conducted these strikes from their sanctuary in Russian territory without fear of Ukrainian air defenses due to Western constraints on Ukraine using Western-provided systems against military targets in Russian territory and airspace.[24] Russian forces will very likely continue these strikes as part of the offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast as long as Western prohibitions prevent Ukrainian forces from adequately challenging the Russian military's sanctuary in Russian territory.

Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities reportedly impacted the effectiveness of select Western weapon systems in Ukraine in 2023 as Ukraine and Russia continue to compete in a technical offense-defense race. The Washington Post and the New York Times (NYT) reported on May 24 and 25, respectively, that senior Ukrainian military official sources and confidential Ukrainian military assessments described how Russian EW has previously decreased the effectiveness of Western weapons in Ukraine.[25] The NYT reported that the success rate of M982 Excalibur guided artillery shells fell from 55 percent to seven percent between January and August 2023 and that Ukrainian forces stopped using the shells.[26] Ukrainian forces also reportedly experienced issues with Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range (JDAM-ER) guided munitions in early 2023.[27] US JDAM-ER manufacturers reportedly delivered more EW-resistant systems to Ukraine in May 2023, but Russian forces adapted their countermeasures, causing the JDAM-ER's success rate to drop to its lowest point in July 2023. The Washington Post noted, however, that the JDAM-ER's success rate was more than 60 percent for much of 2023. The Washington Post reported that the effectiveness of Ukraine's M30/M31 rockets for multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) also decreased but that the Ukrainian military assessment that the Washington Post reviewed did not discuss these issues. The NYT stated that Russian forces often deploy EW systems near headquarters and command centers, and Thomas Withington of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NYT that Ukrainian forces have focused on striking fixed Russian radars and other EW equipment, especially in occupied Crimea, in order to then strike Russian command posts and supply depots.[28] The Washington Post noted that the United States has the means to combat Russian EW jamming, stating that the US military would likely not experience the same issues with Russian EW since the United States has a more advanced air force and "robust" EW countermeasures.[29] Ukrainian forces have notably recently conducted successful ATACMS missile strikes on Russian targets in occupied Ukraine, including Crimea, suggesting that Ukrainian forces have been able to at least partially overcome Russian jamming and/or that Russian EW capabilities are not pervasive throughout all of occupied Ukraine.[30] Both the NYT and the Washington Post noted that Russia and Ukraine are engaged in an offense-defense race as both sides aim to adapt to the other's innovations – as ISW has frequently assessed.[31]

Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov categorically rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy and outlined Russia's maximalist conditions for peace negotiations during an interview with Newsweek on May 25.[32] Antonov denied Western statements that Russia is unwilling to negotiate with Ukraine and criticized these statements as a "deliberate attempt" to misrepresent reality. Antonov stated that any Russian-Ukrainian peace agreement must account for the battlefield situation and be signed by a "legitimate" Ukrainian leader, but that it is unclear who could sign such a document since Zelensky has "lost [his] legitimacy." ISW has previously noted that the Ukrainian constitution allows a sitting president to postpone elections and remain in office past the end of his term during times of martial law, which is currently in effect in Ukraine due to Russia's full-scale invasion.[33] Russian officials' focus on Zelensky's presidential term is only the latest talking point in the Kremlin's ongoing information operation to discredit Zelensky and frame any pro-Western Ukrainian government as illegitimate.[34] Antonov also dismissed the upcoming Ukrainian Peace Conference in Switzerland as meaningless and as part of a perceived Western effort to legitimize Zelensky's presidency.[35] Antonov threatened that Ukraine would lose much more territory if the United States continued to ignore Russia's peace proposals, highlighting the Kremlin's persistent belief that Russia could subvert Ukraine's interests and sovereignty by negotiating with the West.[36]

Antonov insinuated that Russia would reject any peace agreement predicated on the retreat or withdrawal of Russian forces from any part of occupied Ukraine, likely including recently occupied areas of Kharkiv Oblast.[37] Antonov claimed that Russia's constitution prohibits the external division of Russian territory and that Russia's "new federal subjects" — referring to the illegally annexed and occupied areas of Crimea and Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts — are now part of Russia's clearly marked border and thus cannot and should not return to Ukrainian control. Antonov's claim insinuates that Russian authorities have clearly determined the borders of the Ukrainian territory that Russia has illegally annexed, but occupation authorities have previously presented conflicting assessments of the extent of Russia's illegally annexed territory. Occupation authorities published conflicting maps in honor of the anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory in September 2023, with some maps showing the entirety of occupied Crimea and Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts up to their administrative borders as claimed Russian territory and others showing claimed Russian territory extending roughly to the frontlines.[38] It is unlikely that the Kremlin has taken further steps to determine the boundaries of the Ukrainian territory it illegally annexed in September 2022, and it is unclear how the Kremlin envisions the previously and recently occupied areas of Kharkiv Oblast fitting into this framework. Official Russian statements continue to support ISW's assessment that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any peace agreement that would prevent him from pursuing the complete destruction of an independent Ukrainian state and the subjugation of the Ukrainian people.[39]

Russia is likely helping North Korea develop its defense industrial base (DIB) in exchange for North Korean munitions supplies, and US officials reportedly assess that Russia may also be supplying North Korea with military equipment, weapons, or technology. NBC reported on May 24 citing six senior US officials that the Biden administration is concerned that the Russian-North Korean relationship could help North Korea expand its nuclear capabilities.[40] US officials reportedly stated that Russia may push North Korea to conduct its "most provocative military actions in a decade" close to the US presidential election in November 2024. NBC reported that a senior US official stated that US intelligence officials assess that Russia is providing North Korea with nuclear submarine and ballistic missile technology in return for North Korea's provision of munitions to Russia. US officials reportedly assess that Russia may be helping North Korea develop a long-range ballistic missile that can re-enter the atmosphere with its payload intact — likely referring to the capability required to field an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). NBC noted, however, that US officials stated that they do not have an "entirely clear understanding" of what technology Russia is giving to North Korea as it is difficult to detect and track military technology exchanges. NBC reported that US officials also stated that North Korea may want Russian ballistic missile parts, aircraft, missiles, and armored vehicles and that Russia may help North Korea develop its own DIB. Known facts suggest that Russia is likely at least helping North Korea develop its DIB. Western officials previously stated that North Korea supplied Russia with more than one million artillery shells in 2023.[41] Although these shells are reportedly mostly old, North Korean authorities likely would have agreed to relinquish such a high quantity of munitions only if they thought they would be able to replenish their stockpiles in the near future.[42] North Korea's ability to produce such a high quantity of shells rapidly would likely require some level of Russian funding and assistance.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukrainian forces are increasingly contesting the tactical initiative in northern Kharkiv Oblast and characterized Russian operations in the area as defensive, although Russian forces are likely attempting to bring the Northern Grouping of Forces up closer to its reported planned end strength before possibly intensifying offensive operations in the area.
  • The likely premature start of Russian offensive operations appears to have undermined Russian success in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian forces continue to leverage their sanctuary in Russian airspace to strike Kharkiv City to devastating effect, likely as part of efforts to depopulate the city and demoralize Ukrainians.
  • Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities reportedly impacted the effectiveness of select Western weapon systems in Ukraine in 2023 as Ukraine and Russia continue to compete in a technical offense-defense race.
  • Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov categorically rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy and outlined Russia's maximalist conditions for peace negotiations during an interview with Newsweek on May 25.
  • Russia is likely helping North Korea develop its defense industrial base (DIB) in exchange for North Korean munitions supplies, and US officials reportedly assess that Russia may also be supplying North Korea with military equipment, weapons, or technology.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Donetsk City.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has cancelled its annual "Army Games" international competition for the second year in a row, prompting celebration among critical Russian ultranationalist milbloggers.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 24, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 24, 2024, 8:45pm ET

Western media continues to report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine, although Kremlin rhetoric and Russian military actions illustrate that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any settlement that would prevent him from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukrainian state. Reuters reported on May 24 that four Russian sources who currently work or have worked with Putin stated that Putin is ready to negotiate a ceasefire that recognizes the current frontlines and that Putin is prepared to present the current amount of occupied Ukrainian territory as a Russian military victory to the Russian public.[1] Western media reported similar interest from Putin in a negotiated ceasefire or settlement based on statements from unspecified Russian sources with some level of alleged connection to Putin or the Kremlin in December 2023 and January and February 2024.[2] Western media has cited limited unspecified US and international officials as confirming that Putin has expressed interest in a ceasefire, although other Western media has reported that US sources have denied that there has been any official Russian outreach to the US on the matter.[3]

The Kremlin routinely feigns interest in meaningful negotiations as part of a longstanding information operation that aims to persuade the West to make concessions on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and it is unclear if the unspecified Russian sources talking to Western media are advancing these efforts or accurately portraying Putin's interests and viewpoints.[4] ISW cannot determine the veracity of the Russian sources' claims about Putin's intentions, and these private anonymous statements contrast sharply with Russian official public rhetoric and action. Putin and the Kremlin have notably intensified their expansionist rhetoric about Ukraine since December 2023 and have increasingly indicated that Russia intends to conquer more territory in Ukraine and is committed to destroying Ukrainian statehood and identity completely.[5] Russian forces have conducted offensive operations in recent months that aim to make operationally significant advances and collapse the frontline, have opened a new front in Kharkiv Oblast (which Russia has not claimed through illegal annexation), and have sought to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian warfighting capabilities and economic potential in regular large-scale missile and drone strikes.[6] These military operations suggest that the Kremlin is more interested in achieving its long-term goal of maximalist victory in Ukraine than in any settlement that would immediately freeze the frontline where it is currently located. 

Russian sources that have spoken to Western media have also offered mutually contradictory characterizations of Putin's stance on negotiations. Reuters reported that a Russian source stated that Putin aims to take as much territory as possible in order to compel Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate, but another Russian source assessed that Putin is unwilling to negotiate with Zelensky.[7] Russian sources also told Reuters that Putin believes that the West will not give Ukraine enough weapons but understands that making any "dramatic" Russian advances would require another Russian nationwide mobilization.[8] Delays in Western security assistance have severely constrained Ukrainian defensive capabilities in recent months, and if Putin believes that there are limits to Western support for Ukraine, then he would logically conclude that such constraints could reemerge in the medium term and allow Russian forces with their current capabilities to make "dramatic" gains without conducting a wider mobilization of manpower or the Russian economy.[9] A Russian source stated that Putin is concerned that a longer war will generate more dissatisfied veterans with poor job prospects and economic situations that could generate domestic tensions, although this assessment is at odds with Russia's ongoing chronic labor shortages and the Kremlin's effort to prepare Russian society for a long war effort.[10] These contradictions cast further doubt on the accuracy with which these Russian sources are reflecting Putin's actual thinking.

These Russian sources notably highlighted territorial concessions as part of Putin's alleged envisioned ceasefire but have sparsely addressed the wider strategic objectives of Putin's war in Ukraine. Reuters reported that its Russian sources stated that Putin views Russia maintaining control over currently occupied Ukrainian territory as a non-negotiable basis for negotiations, and previous Western reporting about Putin's openness to negotiations has similarly highlighted Russian territorial desires.[11] Bloomberg reported in January that two unspecified sources close to the Kremlin stated that Putin signaled to senior US officials that he may be willing to drop demands for Ukraine’s “neutral status” and even may ultimately abandon his opposition to Ukraine’s NATO accession.[12] Russian demands for Ukrainian “neutrality” and a moratorium on NATO expansion have always been and continue to be one of Putin’s central justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and any hypothetical concession on these demands would represent a major strategic and rhetorical retreat on Putin’s behalf that Putin is extremely unlikely to be considering at this time.[13] Putin also launched his invasion of Ukraine to replace the Ukrainian government with one he determined appropriate and to "demilitarize" the Ukrainian military so that Russia could unilaterally impose its will on Ukraine in the future without facing significant Ukrainian resistance.[14] Russian sources that have talked about a ceasefire to Western media have not mentioned these two goals, which Kremlin officials regularly reiterate.[15] The repeated focus on the recognition of occupied Ukrainian territory as Russian territory does not indicate that Russia would drop these wider strategic objectives, however. A ceasefire that cedes currently occupied territory would concretize the idea that Ukrainian territorial integrity is negotiable, a precedent that the Kremlin would most certainly revisit to push for further territorial concessions and contest the idea of Ukrainian statehood altogether.[16]

A ceasefire does not preclude Russia from resuming its offensive campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood, and Russia would use any ceasefire to prepare for future offensive operations within Ukraine. Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 violated numerous Russian international commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Russia’s recognition of Ukraine as an independent state in 1991 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia specifically committed not to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.[17] There is no reason to assess that the Kremlin will respect any new agreement obliging Russia to not violate Ukrainian sovereignty or territorial integrity. A ceasefire would provide Russia with the opportunity to reconstitute degraded forces, divert manpower to large-scale expansion and reform efforts instead of ongoing fighting in Ukraine, and allow Russia to further mobilize its defense industrial base (DIB) without the constraints of immediate operational requirements in Ukraine.[18] Russia could use a ceasefire to prepare a force more suitable to pursue a subsequent series of offensive operations in pursuit of regime change, demilitarization, and conquest in Ukraine. A ceasefire would provide Ukraine opportunities of its own to address force generation and defense industrial capacity, to be sure, but the Kremlin may not unreasonably expect that a frozen frontline will make support for Ukraine less urgent and salient for the West and allow Russia to outpace Ukraine in preparing for a resumption of hostilities.

Russia is currently preparing for the possibility of a conventional war with NATO, and the Kremlin will likely view anything short of Ukrainian capitulation as an existential threat to Russia's ability to fight such a war.[19] Russian military leaders planning a war against NATO will have to assume that Ukraine might enter such a war on NATO’s behalf regardless of Ukraine’s membership status.[20] A front with NATO along Russia's entire western border with Europe presents the Russian military with serious challenges, as ISW has previously assessed, whereas a Ukrainian defeat would give Russia the ability to deploy its forces along Europe's entire eastern flank from the Black Sea to Finland.[21] Russian victory in Ukraine would not only remove the threat of Ukraine as a potential adversary during a possible conventional war with NATO but would also provide Russia with further resources and people to commit to a large-scale confrontation with NATO. Regardless of how Russian victory would partition Ukraine between Russian annexation and the Kremlin-controlled puppet state that would follow Putin's desired regime change, Russia would have access to millions more people it could impress into military service and the majority of Ukraine's resources and industrial capacity. Putin and the Kremlin therefore likely view victory in Ukraine as a prerequisite to being able to fight a war with NATO and any ceasefire or negotiated settlement short of full Ukrainian capitulation as a temporary pause in their effort to destroy an independent Ukrainian state.

The Kremlin will continue to feign interest in negotiations at critical moments in the war to influence Western decision-making on support for Ukraine and to continue efforts to extract preemptive concessions from the West. The Kremlin has repeatedly engaged in a large-scale reflexive control campaign that aims to influence Western decision-making.[22] Reflexive control is a key element in Russia's hybrid warfare toolkit and relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia.[23] Kremlin officials claimed that Russia was open to negotiations in December 2022, likely to delay the provision of Western tanks and other equipment essential for the continuation of Ukrainian mechanized counteroffensives.[24] Western reporting on Putin's alleged interest in negotiations in Winter 2023-2024 coincided with prolonged debates in the US about security assistance for Ukraine, and the Kremlin may have feigned interest in a ceasefire at this time to convince Western policymakers to pressure Ukraine to negotiate from a weakened position and agree to what would have very likely been a settlement that heavily favored Russia.[25] The Kremlin may again be feigning interest in negotiations in order to influence the ongoing Western debate about lifting restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia and convince Western policymakers that changes in these restrictions may lead to Russian unwillingness to negotiate in the future. The Kremlin may also be feigning interest in negotiations again to preemptively influence any future Western discussions about the provision of the additional aid that Ukrainian forces will need to contest the initiative and launch their own counteroffensive operations in the medium term. ISW continues to assess that the consistent provision of key Western systems will play a crucial role in Ukraine's ability to contest the theater-wide initiative and conduct future counteroffensive operations.[26] US officials have recently stated that the resumption of US security assistance will help Ukrainian forces withstand Russian assaults throughout the rest of 2024 and that Ukrainian forces will look to conduct counteroffensive operations to recapture territory in 2025.[27]

Putin directly rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president on May 24, the latest in a series of efforts to dismiss Zelensky's authority to engage in or reject negotiations with Russia and undermine Ukrainians' trust in Zelensky. Putin stated during a press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus on May 24 that Russia is willing to negotiate with Ukraine but that the "legitimacy of the current [Ukrainian] head of state has ended," referring to a Russian information operation falsely claiming that Zelensky is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine after his term was set to expire on May 20.[28] Putin claimed that the Ukrainian parliament and constitutional court need to examine the Ukrainian constitution to determine the legality of officials remaining in office past their stated terms, which Putin described as an internal Ukrainian matter (about which he nevertheless chose to opine).[29] Putin's invocation of the Ukrainian constitution while explicitly denying Zelensky's legitimacy is odd because the Ukrainian constitution explicitly allows a sitting president to postpone elections and remain in office past the end of his term during times of martial law.[30] Zelensky's decision to postpone the March 2024 elections is in full accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. While Putin seems to lack an understanding of Ukrainian law, his statements advance a broader Russian information operation that aims to degrade Ukrainians' trust in Zelensky by portraying him as the sole obstacle to a negotiated peace in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is trying to foment domestic unrest in Ukraine centered around distrust in the Ukrainian government under Zelensky. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) warned on February 27 that Russia is running an information operation entitled "Maidan 3" that uses multiple rhetorical lines to undermine domestic trust and international support for the Ukrainian government, undermine Zelensky's legitimacy, sow panic, and incite conflict.[31] GUR Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov warned on April 27 that "Maidan 3" has "advanced" and aims to disguise pro-Russian actors, ideals, and movements as social tensions and other issues to influence Ukrainian society.[32] The GUR warned that the "Maidan 3" operation will peak in March-May 2024, and GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov similarly warned on May 23 that Russia will continue to intensify the "Maidan-3" operation through July 2024.[33] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported on May 20 that anonymous online accounts called on groups of hundreds of Ukrainian Telegram users to participate in "Maidan-3" demonstrations in Kyiv's Independence Square on May 21, including some offering payments of 1,000 hryvnia (just under $25) per hour.[34] RFE/RL noted that all these Telegram groups chose the May 21 date to coincide with the end of Zelensky's first presidential term had Ukraine held elections in March 2024.[35] RFE/RL reported that a similar information operation is occurring on TikTok, both calling on users to demonstrate against Zelensky and spreading propaganda claiming that Zelensky is no longer a legitimate president.[36]

The Kremlin may be setting informational conditions to eventually declare a Kremlin-backed actor as Ukrainian president instead of Zelensky. Putin stated on May 24 that Russia seeks to understand who the "legitimate [Ukrainian] authorities" are before engaging in negotiations, implying that the Kremlin could declare a figure of its choice as "legitimate" at some point in the future.[37] Independent monitoring project Belarusian Hajun reported that the plane of former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych--who fled Ukraine to Russia during the 2014 EuroMaidan protests against his rule--notably arrived in Minsk on May 24, coinciding with Putin's and Russian Defense Minister Andrey Belousov's visit to Minsk for extensive Union State negotiations.[38] It is unclear why Yanukovych would be in Minsk or with whom he met. Western and Ukrainian media have floated Yanukovych as a possible Kremlin-picked replacement for Zelensky had the initial days of the Russian invasion forced Ukraine to capitulate.[39] Yanukovych last visited Minsk in March 2022, and Ukrainian intelligence told Ukrainska Pravda that the trip was for the Kremlin to prepare Yanukovych for a "special operation" to be reinstated as president of Ukraine.[40]

Unnamed Russian government officials and sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin told the independent Russian outlet The Moscow Times that the ongoing effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and uniformed commanding officers will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.[41] The Moscow Times, citing unnamed sources, reported on May 24 that the Russian Federal Security Service's (FSB) recent arrests of five high-ranking defense officials are likely the first of dozens or hundreds of anticipated arrests. Russian authorities have notably arrested five senior Russian MoD officials and former military commanders since April 24, including Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Major General Ivan Popov, Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Head of the Main Communications Directorate Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, and Head of the Russian MoD's Department for State Procurement Vladimir Verteletsky.[42] A source told The Moscow Times that the FSB is "mopping up" defense officials associated with former Defense Minister and recently appointed Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu and that the FSB could only conduct this type of operation with Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval. The source claimed that "more arrests await us," and an unnamed acting Russian government official claimed that these arrests could spiral into the largest effort to remove Russian military officials in modern Russian history. The official suggested that Russian authorities will arrest up to hundreds of defense officials of various unspecified ranks this year. Another acting Russian government official claimed that the FSB hopes to install FSB-affiliated officials in the Russian MoD and take control of the MoD's budget.

A source close to the Kremlin claimed that these arrests indicate that the FSB is "triumphing" over the Russian MoD and that the arrests are part of the FSB's effort to convince Putin that the Russian MoD is responsible for the failures during the initial weeks of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Kremlin has undoubtedly debated which department deserves the blame for the Russian military's initial failures in Ukraine, but it is unclear if Putin remains interested in assigning blame for the initial months of the invasion over two years later.[43] Moreover, the FSB is one of the most logical arms of the Russian government to conduct these arrests as it is tasked with addressing domestic security issues, counterintelligence, economic crimes, and surveillance of the Russian military.[44] While Putin has been known to balance his favor between siloviki (Russian strongmen with political influence) and encourage infighting, it is at least as likely that the FSB's involvement in the ongoing removal of high-ranking Russian defense officials and military officers is due to its mandated responsibilities as guided by the Kremlin and not as part of a wider FSB conspiracy to gain control of or divert blame to the MoD.[45]

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of successful missile strikes against military targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine on May 23 and 24. Geolocated footage published on May 24 shows that Ukrainian forces struck a Russian S-400 air defense system, destroying four of its missile launchers and its radar station in occupied Obrizne, Donetsk Oblast.[46] Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukrainian forces used ATACMS missiles in the strike.[47] Geolocated footage published on May 23 shows a strike near occupied Alushta, Crimea, and Ukrainian Crimean-based "Atesh" partisan group stated that Ukrainian forces struck a Russian military communications center.[48] "Atesh" stated that the strike likely significantly damaged equipment and possibly destroyed the control center. Crimean occupation administration head Sergei Aksyonov claimed that Ukrainian forces struck an unspecified target in Simferopol and an empty commercial property near Alushta.[49] A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces launched up to 16 missiles toward Crimea, including ATACMS, and that some missiles penetrated Russian air defense systems.[50] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces destroyed three ATACMS missiles over Crimea and three naval drones in the Black Sea overnight.[51]

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian early warning radar system in Krasnodar Krai, Russia on the morning of May 23. Ukrainian and Russian sources posted photos of the aftermath of a Ukrainian drone strike on a Voronezh-DM ground-based early warning radar station on the territory of the Russian 818th Radio Technical Center near Armavir, Krasnodar Krai.[52] The sources noted that Russian forces used the radar to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at a range of up to 6,000 kilometers.[53] Radio Svoboda published satellite imagery from shortly after the strike showing damage to the radar system.[54]

The Ukrainian military command continues to address Ukraine's manpower challenges. Head of the Ukrainian General Staff's Main Department of Defense Planning Brigadier General Yevgeny Ostryanskyi stated on May 24 that the Ukrainian military command plans to reduce the General Staff's personnel by 60 percent and reallocate the personnel following a functional survey of the General Staff in February and March 2024.[55] Ostryanskyi stated that the General Staff will disband 25 percent of its elements and will transfer the other 35 percent to other branches of the Ukrainian military. Ostryanskyi stated that the Ukrainian military command plans to re-staff operational and tactical level management bodies and combat military units, presumably by reallocating these personnel, in order to conduct rotations on the frontline. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on March 22 that the Ukrainian military was optimizing its military organization structures to simplify and maximize the quality and efficiency of Ukraine's force management.[56] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on May 17 that consistent rotations for frontline units are an important step in improving Ukrainian morale and noted that Ukraine must sufficiently staff its units in order to conduct counteroffensive operations in the future.[57]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a military assistance package worth $275 million on May 24 to help Ukrainian forces repel Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[58] The package includes HIMARS ammunition; 155mm and 105mm artillery ammunition, Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; anti-tank systems, precision aerial munitions, mines, and other parts and equipment.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on May 24 that NATO member states should consider lifting restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.[59] Stoltenberg stated that these restrictions make it difficult for Ukrainian forces to defend against the Russian offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. ISW continues to assess that Western limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border area from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[60]

Key Takeaways:

  • Western media continues to report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine, although Kremlin rhetoric and Russian military actions illustrate that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any settlement that would prevent him from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukrainian state.
  • Russian sources that have spoken to Western media have also offered mutually contradictory characterizations of Putin's stance on negotiations.
  • These Russian sources notably highlighted territorial concessions as part of Putin's alleged envisioned ceasefire but have sparsely addressed the wider strategic objectives of Putin's war in Ukraine.
  • A ceasefire does not preclude Russia from resuming its offensive campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood, and Russia would use any ceasefire to prepare for future offensive operations within Ukraine.
  • Russia is currently preparing for the possibility of a conventional war with NATO, and the Kremlin will likely view anything short of Ukrainian capitulation as an existential threat to Russia's ability to fight such a war.
  • The Kremlin will continue to feign interest in negotiations at critical moments in the war to influence Western decision-making on support for Ukraine and to continue efforts to extract preemptive concessions from the West.
  • Putin directly rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president on May 24, the latest in a series of efforts to dismiss Zelensky's authority to engage in or reject negotiations with Russia and undermine Ukrainians' trust in Zelensky.
  • Unnamed Russian government officials and sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin told the independent Russian outlet The Moscow Times that the ongoing effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and uniformed commanding officers will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a series of successful missile strikes against military targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine on May 23 and 24.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian early warning radar system in Krasnodar Krai, Russia on the morning of May 23.
  • The Ukrainian military command continues to address Ukraine's manpower challenges.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a military assistance package worth $275 million on May 24 to help Ukrainian forces repel Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on May 24 that NATO member states should consider lifting restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Vovchansk, Svatove, Kreminna, and Donetsk City.
  • The Financial Times (FT) reported on May 23 that Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Lytvynenko stated that Russia recruited more than 385,000 military personnel in 2023.
 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 23, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 23, 2024, 7pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:00pm ET on May 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Kremlin is pursuing a concerted effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and has likely expanded this effort to senior officers commanding Russian combat operations in Ukraine. The Russian Investigative Committee announced on May 23 the arrests of Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Head of its Main Communications Directorate Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin and Head of the Russian Ministry of Defense's (MoD) Department for State Procurement, Vladimir Verteletsky.[1] Shamarin is accused of accepting a bribe of at least 36 million rubles (about $392,000), and two defendants in the Russian telecommunications industry have agreed to testify against him.[2] Verteletsky is accused of corruption and accepting a large bribe with total damages of 70 million rubles (about $763,000).[3] Five senior Russian MoD officials and former military commanders have been arrested on corruption charges since the arrest of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on April 24, and a Russian insider source previously claimed that six more MoD officials plan to resign following former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's removal from the MoD.[4] The Kremlin is likely using the guise of corruption charges as an excuse to hide the real reasons for ousting specific individuals from the MoD who have fallen from favor, as ISW has recently assessed.[5]

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers also claimed that the Russian MoD dismissed the commander of the 20th Combined Arms Army (Moscow Military District [MMD], formerly Western Military District [WMD]), Lieutenant General Sukhrab Akhmedov.[6] ISW is unable to confirm Akhmedov's removal, but claims of his removal are notable as this would be the first removal of an officer actively commanding Russian forces in Ukraine as a part of the most recent round of dismissals. The 20th CAA is currently heavily committed to offensive operations in the Lyman direction and failed to achieve significant tactical gains in the area during the Winter-Spring 2024 offensive on the Kharkiv-Luhansk axis.[7] The milbloggers also directly connected Akhmedov's arrest with significant command issues in Ukraine, referencing their prior complaints about Akhmedov by name for his role in commanding attritional Russian assaults near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast in winter 2022–2023 when he commanded the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade or his role in Russian forces suffering significant casualties due to a Ukrainian rear area strike in summer 2023.[8]

Official Kremlin statements and milblogger speculation about the arrests and command changes signal that more senior officers could face removal. Russian state newswire TASS cited Russian law enforcement on May 23 as saying there will be continued investigations in connection with Shamarin's arrest.[9] Some Russian milbloggers and insider sources have alleged that some of the arrested officials have ties to Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov but have largely not gone so far as to claim that Gerasimov himself will be removed.[10] Peskov oddly stated on May 13 that "no changes are foreseen yet" when specifically asked about Gerasimov's position, however, suggesting that Gerasimov's tenure over the longer term is not assured.[11] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notably denied on May 23 that there is a "campaign" against Russian MoD officials, instead asserting that the MoD arrests are part of a consistent fight against corruption.[12] Peskov has previously deflected reporters' questions about the Russian MoD, and his decision to answer questions about the MoD's command changes and arrests indicates that the Kremlin may want its support of these purges.[13] Peskov's claim that the removals are part of a consistent effort are difficult to square with the sudden flurry of dismissals and arrests at an anomalous rate and with high publicity.

Russian milbloggers largely celebrated the arrests of Russian MoD officials they have claimed were inept and speculated about possible additional removals of senior commanders and officials. Russian ultranationalist milbloggers celebrated the arrests of Shamarin and Verteletsky and the alleged removal of Akhmedov and have offered criticisms of MoD officials and military officers more vocally than they had been doing before the start of the arrests in late April.[14] The milbloggers began speculating about which officials and commanders could be removed or charged next. Some named a deputy defense minister as likely next to face investigation and pointed to supposed connections between arrested or dismissed individuals and remaining MoD and military officials, presumably to indicate future possible targets.[15] Many milbloggers vaguely claimed that Russian authorities are not done with their investigations and detentions of these officials and celebrated the arrests as the start of an effort to bring corrupt officials to justice under new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov.[16] The Kremlin is likely allowing these criticisms because they are specifically directed against individuals the MoD is targeting, thereby supporting Belousov's image as the one who will solve issues within the MoD in a way that Shoigu has not. The Kremlin also benefits from allowing the milbloggers to emphasize that no Russian defense or military official is safe from the consequences of falling from Putin's favor. The Kremlin is likely attempting to secure the loyalty of the milbloggers who have long argued for significant changes in the Russian MoD and military command by allowing them to criticize the ousted individuals after months of active censorship and self-censorship as long as the criticism advances larger Kremlin objectives.

Russian border guards removed buoys in Estonian waters of the Narva River, which demarcates the Estonian-Russian international border, likely to set conditions to further question maritime borders and test NATO resolve. The Estonian Police and Border Guard Board reported on May 23 that on the night of May 22 to 23 Russian border guards removed 24 buoys used to mark shipping routes in Estonian waters in the Narva River, which demarcates the international border between Estonia and Russia.[17] The Estonian Eastern Prefecture Border Guard Bureau Head Eerik Purgel stated that Estonia had placed the first 50 of a planned 250 buoys on May 13 in accordance with a 2022 Estonian-Russian agreement made prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[18] Purgel reported that Russia announced that it did not agree with the locations of about half of the planned placements of the buoys earlier in 2024. The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that Russia's removal of the buoys "fits well within the broader pattern of Russia's provocative behavior" and stated that Estonia would treat the event as a "provocative border incident."[19] The Estonian MFA demanded an explanation from Russian border and diplomatic officials and the buoys' immediate return. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas stated that "Russia uses border issues as a means to create fear and anxiety."[20] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) proposed on May 21 that the Russian government reassess its maritime borders in the Baltic Sea, and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the Russian MoD's proposal "appropriate steps" to "ensure [Russian] security" in response to the escalation of tensions and the increased level of confrontation in the Baltic region.[21] Russian border guards are likely attempting to create contention along the international border between Russia and a NATO member country to gauge NATO reactions to future Russian efforts to challenge established delimitations.

Select US officials are reportedly pressing for a reconsideration of the White House's current policy prohibiting Ukraine from using US-provided weapons to strike within Russia. The New York Times (NYT) reported on May 22 that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is urging US President Joe Biden to lift restrictions on the Ukrainian use of American weapons for strikes within Russia but noted that the proposal is in a formative stage.[22] NYT reported that two US officials stated that it is still unclear how many people within the Biden administration support the measure and added that the proposal's proponents have yet to formally present it to Biden.[23] ISW assesses that Western limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border areas from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and settlements and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[24]

Polish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Pawel Wronski stated on May 23 that Poland is considering using its air defense to protect Ukrainian airspace against Russian strikes.[25] Wronski stated that Poland is considering protecting unspecified airspace along the Ukrainian-Polish border and acknowledged that Ukrainian officials have submitted a request to Poland on the matter.[26] Wronski stated that Poland has yet to make any decisions on the policy and that international law and technical specialist should review it.[27] Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian energy and gas infrastructure in western Ukraine in recent months, including in Lviv Oblast, which borders Poland.[28]

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a series of drone strikes against Russian defense industrial facilities in the Republic of Tatarstan on May 23. Sources in Ukrainian special services told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that the GUR’s drones attacked Russian defense industrial facilities in Kazan and Nizhnekamsk, which is notably just south of the Shahed-136/131 drone production facility in Tatarstan’s Alabuga Special Economic Zone (SEZ).[29] Suspilne and Russian media outlets reported that Russian officials evacuated employees from the Nizhnekamsk Thermal Power Plant, Teneko oil refinery, Taif-Nk oil refinery, Nizhnekamskneftekhim petrochemical facility, and Nizhnekamskshina tire production facility in Nizhnekamsk and the Kazanorgsintez chemical plant in Kazan.[30] Yelabuga City Mayor Rustem Nuriyev stated that Russian air defenses destroyed a Ukrainian drone near the city and denied that the strikes caused any damage in the area.[31] Footage published on May 23 purportedly shows Russian air defenses destroying at least one Ukrainian drone near Nizhnekamsk.[32] Ukrainian forces conducted a long-range strike against Russian defense industrial and oil refining infrastructure in the Alabuga SEZ on April 2, and ISW assessed that the April 2 strike represented a significant inflection in Ukraine’s demonstrated ability to conduct long-range strikes far into the Russian rear.[33]

Iranian leaders have used the occasion of President Ebrahim Raisi's funeral events to emphasize close ties with Armenia even as tensions between Yerevan and Moscow continue to increase. NOTE: A version of this text appears in ISW-CTP's May 23 Iran Update. Mokhber met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry, and Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon on May 22.[34] Mokhber emphasized that Iran will continue its policy of “expanding relations and cooperation” with neighboring countries during his meeting with Pashinyan.[35] Mokhber added that Iran will continue to adhere to its “commitments and agreements” with Armenia. Pashinyan also met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on May 22.[36] It is notable that Khamenei and Mokhber met with Pashinyan amid his deteriorating relations with Russia. Pashinyan's meetings with Khamenei and Mokhber come shortly after he indirectly accused Russia of helping Azerbaijan to prepare for the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.[37]

It is also notable that the Azerbaijani prime minister and foreign affairs minister, who both traveled to Iran to attend Ebrahim Raisi’s funeral, have not yet met with senior Iranian officials, such as Khamenei and Mokhber, on the sidelines of the funeral.[38] Raisi inaugurated a dam on the Iran-Azerbaijan border with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev shortly before his death on May 19.[39] Iranian media highlighted on May 22 that Aliyev, along with the presidents of Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela, did not attend Raisi’s funeral.[40]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin is pursuing a concerted effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and has likely expanded this effort to senior officers commanding Russian combat operations in Ukraine.
  • Russian border guards removed buoys in Estonian waters of the Narva River, which demarcates the Estonian-Russian international border, likely to set conditions to further question maritime borders and test NATO resolve.
  • Select US officials are reportedly pressing for a reconsideration of the White House's current policy prohibiting Ukraine from using US-provided weapons to strike within Russia.
  • Polish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Pawel Wronski stated on May 23 that Poland is considering using its air defense to protect Ukrainian airspace against Russian strikes.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a series of drone strikes against Russian defense industrial facilities in the Republic of Tatarstan on May 23.
  • Iranian leaders have used the occasion of President Ebrahim Raisi's funeral events to emphasize close ties with Armenia even as tensions between Yerevan and Moscow continue to increase.
  • Ukrainian forces advanced near Lukyantsi and Kreminna, and Russian forces advanced near Berestove, Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and Velyka Novosilka.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) proposed applying regular military punishments to volunteers, likely as part of the MoD's continued formalization efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 22, 2024, 8:40pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00pm ET on May 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 23 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) proposed on May 21 that the Russian government reassess Russia’s maritime borders in the Baltic Sea so that these borders “correspond to the modern geographical situation.”[1] The Russian MoD produced a since-deleted document, which appeared on the Russian government’s legal portal on May 21, proposing that the Russian government should reassess the 1985 maritime borders in the Gulf of Finland because these borders were based on outdated “small-scale nautical navigation maps” developed in the mid-20th century.[2] The document proposed to partially recognize the 1985 resolution as “defunct.” The document suggested that the Russian government should adjust the maritime border coordinates in the Gulf of Finland in the zone of Jähi, Sommers, Gogland, Rodsher, Malyy Tyuters, and Vigrund islands and near the northern delta of the Narva River. The document also proposed that the Russian government revise the area of the Curonian Spit, Cape Taran, a cape south of Cape Taran, and the Vistula Spit in the Baltic Sea. Sommers, Gogland, Rodsher, Malyy Tyuters, and Vigrund island are under Russian control, while Russia and Finland split control over the Jähi island. The northern delta of the Narva River is located between Russia and Estonia, while the Curonian Spit leads to the international border between Russia and Lithuania. The Vistula Spit (also known as the Baltic Spit in Russia) is split between Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia and Poland, and Cape Taran is just northwest of Kaliningrad City. The document stated that these proposed changes would establish a system of baselines for maritime borders on the southern part of the Russian islands in the eastern part of Gulf of Finland as well as in the areas of Baltiysk and Zelenogradsk, both in Kaliningrad Oblast. The document also noted that these changes will allow Russia to use corresponding water areas as Russian internal sea waters, and that the line of the Russian state border will shift due to the changes in the position of the external border of the territorial sea.

Kremlin and Russian MoD officials denied on May 22 that Russia is planning to change the Russian maritime border, but invertedly implied that the Russian government is considering undertaking some “security” measures in the Baltic Sea. Russian state news agencies Ria Novosti and TASS published statements from unnamed military-diplomatic sources, who claimed that “Russia did not have and does not have any intentions of revising the state border line, economic zone, and continental shelf in the Baltic [region].”[3] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian MoD’s proposal is not politically motivated, despite the fact that the “political situation has changed significantly” since 1985.[4] Peskov added that the escalation of tensions and the increased level of confrontation in the Baltic region “requires appropriate steps” from relevant Russian agencies to “ensure [Russian] security.” Russian officials did not explain why the MoD proposal was removed from the government’s legal portal.

Western officials noted that Russia may be reassessing the basis for maritime borders in order to revise maritime zones in the Baltic Sea.[5] Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen stated on May 22 that the Finnish Foreign Ministry (MFA) is reviewing the reports about Russia's reassessment and that Finland expects Russia to act according to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.[6] Finnish Prime Minister stated that Russia's review of maritime borders will likely be routine and that Finland is not worried about the reassessment.[7] Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis announced that Lithuania summoned the Russian charge d'affaires in connection with the reassessment.[8] The Lithuanian MFA told Politico that Lithuania sees Russia’s actions as “deliberate, targeted, escalatory provocations to intimidate neighboring countries and their societies.”[9] The Lithuanian MFA added that the Russian MoD’s proposal is “further proof that Russia’s aggressive and revisionist policy is a threat to the security of neighboring countries and Europe as a whole.” Swedish Commander-in-Chief Mikael Byden expressed concern about Russian ambitions in the Baltic Sea and warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to control the Baltic Sea and that Putin “has his eyes” on the island of Gotland.[10] Byden did not rule out the possibility that Russia is already using oil tankers to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage in the Baltic Sea and near Gotland.[11]

The Kremlin appears to be developing a system to legalize the status of Russia's so-called “compatriots abroad,” likely as part of its efforts to set information conditions to justify further aggression and hybrid operations abroad as “protecting” Russia's compatriots. Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) General Director Yevgeny Primakov stated during an interview with Kremlin newswire TASS published on May 22 that Rossotrudnichestvo is developing an “Electronic Card of Compatriots” program that will allow Russia's compatriots abroad to access unspecified government services, visit and work in Russia, and even apply for Russian citizenship in the future.[12] Primakov stated that Russia is preparing to launch a pilot version of the program in several unspecified neighboring countries and may begin issuing the first cards by the end of 2024. Primakov stated that Russia's compatriots can provide their personal identifiable information through an online application in exchange for a card and access to these various services, which will presumably be available through an unspecified online platform. Primakov noted that while some of Russia's compatriots abroad do not have Russian citizenship and are “skeptical” of Russia's policies, they are still compatriots in “one way or another” and that this program will help compatriots and their children maintain ties with Russia. Primakov estimated that Russia has between 20 and 40 million compatriots abroad, although it is unclear what definition of “compatriot abroad” Primakov is using. Primakov also emphasized the importance of Russia's educational and cultural exchange programs with students from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries and noted that the Russian government has been increasing the number of foreign students allowed to study in Russia over the past several years. Primakov stated that Russia has set a goal of having 500,000 foreign students studying in Russia every year by 2030. Primakov noted that Rossotrudnichestvo is having issues operating in the US, United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and other Western countries due to “unfriendly” Western policies and absurdly claimed that Russian Houses (Russkyi Dom) in Europe “do not engage in political propaganda or anything else” and only conduct “cultural activities.” Moldovan and Ukrainian officials have previously warned that Russian officials use Russkyi Dom to promote Russian propaganda and conduct “subversive work” abroad.[13]

Rossotrudnichestvo has been working on the “Electronic Card of Compatriots” project since at least 2021 but has yet to publicly launch the program, and Primakov stated in June 2023 that Rossotrudnichestvo plans to open “certification centers” in Russkyi Dom centers throughout the world where compatriots can verify their identity as part of the application process.[14] The Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP), a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit, issued a series of recommendations during the World Russian People's Council on March 27 and 28, which included a call for Russia to prioritize the mass repatriation of “compatriots” to Russia, and the “Electronic Card of Compatriots” program could be a viable pathway for Russia to pursue this recommendation.[15] Russia's compatriots abroad — whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously defined as anyone with historical, cultural, or linguistic ties to Russia — are a key aspect of the Kremlin's Russkyi Mir (Russian World) narrative, which the Kremlin intends to use to justify future Russian aggression under the guise of “protecting” Russian compatriots.[16] The Russian government previously eased language and ancestry requirements for compatriots interested in moving to Russia and may be attempting to further broaden its vague definition of a compatriot to encompass as many people as possible.[17]

United Kingdom (UK) Defense Minister Grant Shapps stated on May 22 that US and UK intelligence have evidence that the People's Republic of China (PRC) “is now or will be” providing lethal military assistance to Russia, a statement that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan questioned.[18] Shapps stated that this evidence is a “significant development” as the PRC has previously presented itself as a “moderating influence” but did not provide further information about the supposed intelligence. Sullivan stated during a press conference that he has previously warned that the PRC may supply Russia with lethal military assistance but that the US has “not seen that to date.”[19] Sullivan stated that he will speak with his British counterparts to ensure that the US and UK have a “common operating picture” and to clarify Shapps' comment.

Western officials warned that Russian intelligence services intend to increase sabotage activities and other hybrid operations against NATO member countries. Norway's Police Security Service (PST) and the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) warned on May 22 that there is an increased threat of Russian sabotage against Norwegian arms supplies and other Norwegian organizations involved in the delivery of military materiel to Ukraine.[20] PST Counterintelligence Head Inger Haugland stated that the PST has warned Norwegian arms suppliers to be on high alert and previously warned that Russian actors were planning acts of sabotage in western Norway, where Norwegian naval bases and oil and gas infrastructure are located.[21] Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned on May 20 that Polish authorities have recently arrested and charged nine suspects for engaging in acts of sabotage in Poland on behalf of Russian security services.[22] Haugland stated that Russian security services have used non-Russian nationals to conduct sabotage in Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom in order to have deniability.[23] Tusk also warned on May 21 that Russian actors plan to illegally smuggle thousands of migrants from Africa to Europe and that more than 90 percent of those recently apprehended illegally entering Poland have had Russian visas in their passports.[24] Russian officials recently attempted to create an artificial migrant crisis on the Finnish border in late 2023 in an effort to destabilize NATO and the European Union (EU).[25] Russian security services are likely intensifying sabotage operations in European countries to disrupt the arrival of resumed US security assistance to Ukraine and will likely continue hybrid operations aimed at fomenting discord in Europe ahead of European Parliament elections scheduled for early June 2024.

US Space Command reported on May 21 that Russia recently launched an anti-satellite weapon, the most recent report that Russia intends to field disruptive anti-satellite capabilities.[26] US Space Command reported that Russia launched the COSMOS 2576 satellite on May 16 and that US intelligence assesses that it is a counterspace weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit.[27] Pentagon Spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder added that Russia deployed the COSMOS 2576 satellite into the same orbit as a US government satellite.[28] Russia reportedly launched a separate satellite as part of its program to develop a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in early February 2022.[29] Russian reportedly has yet to field nuclear components of the nuclear anti-satellite weapon and that weapon is likely not yet operational, although the most recent anti-satellite weapon likely is.[30] Russian efforts to field anti-satellite capabilities aimed at disrupting US and partner satellites likely aim to support preparations with a future confrontation with NATO.[31]

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indirectly accused Russia and directly accused Belarus of helping Azerbaijan to prepare for the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, against the backdrop of deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated that he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev conversed before the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and concluded that Azerbaijan could be victorious during Lukashenko's May 16-17 state visit to Azerbaijan.[32] Lukashenko also visited Fizuli and Shusha, two settlements that Azerbaijani forces took control of in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Pashinyan responded to Lukashenko's statement at a question-and-answer session between the Armenian National Assembly and the Armenian government by stating that Lukashenko said aloud “what he has been trying to metaphorically say to Armenia for four years.”[33] Pashinyan added that he knows of at least two Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member countries that “participated in preparations for the war [in 2020]” and claimed that Azerbaijan's objective in the war was to destroy the “independent state of Armenia.”[34] Pashinyan's implication that Russia helped Azerbaijan prepare for the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and by extension, supported Azerbaijan's objective of destroying Armenia, is part of Pashinyan's continued criticisms of Russian-Armenian relations and efforts to distance Armenia from political and security relations with Russia.

Pashinyan met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Interim President Mohammad Mokhber on May 22.[35] Pashinyan's meeting with Khamenei and Mokhber indicates that Iran may intend to pursue positive relations with Armenia amid Armenia's souring relations with Russia.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) proposed on May 21 that the Russian government reassess Russia’s maritime borders in the Baltic Sea so that these borders “correspond to the modern geographical situation.”
  • Kremlin and Russian MoD officials denied on May 22 that Russia is planning to change the Russian maritime border, but invertedly implied that the Russian government is considering undertaking some “security” measures in the Baltic Sea.
  • Western officials noted that Russia may be reassessing the basis for maritime borders in order to revise maritime zones in the Baltic Sea.
  • The Kremlin appears to be developing a system to legalize the status of Russia's so-called “compatriots abroad,” likely as part of its efforts to set information conditions to justify further aggression and hybrid operations abroad as “protecting” Russia's compatriots.
  • United Kingdom (UK) Defense Minister Grant Shapps stated on May 22 that US and UK intelligence have evidence that the People's Republic of China (PRC) “is now or will be” providing lethal military assistance to Russia, a statement that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan questioned.
  • Western officials warned that Russian intelligence services intend to increase sabotage activities and other hybrid operations against NATO member countries.
  • US Space Command reported on May 21 that Russia recently launched an anti-satellite weapon, the most recent report that Russia intends to field disruptive anti-satellite capabilities.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indirectly accused Russia and directly accused Belarus of helping Azerbaijan to prepare for the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, against the backdrop of deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations.
  • Ukrainian forces recently recaptured territory near Vovchansk and Chasiv Yar, and Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Vovchansk, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and Velyka Novosilka.
  • Russian courts reportedly began forcibly hospitalizing Russians charged with political crimes such as spreading “fake” information about the Russian military, in psychiatric hospitals.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 21, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 21, 2024, 9:15pm ET 

The Kremlin continues to time its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West as part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign to influence Western decision-makers. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 21 that missile elements of the Southern Military District (SMD) began the first stage of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons exercises.[1] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian Aerospace Forces will also exercise with Iskander ballistic missiles and Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles. The Russian MoD announced the preparations for these exercises on May 6.[2] A prominent Kremlin-awarded milblogger explicitly tied Russian tactical nuclear weapons exercises to Kremlin efforts to influence Western decision-making — particularly targeting the recent discussions about the restrictions on Ukraine's use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia — echoing ISW's assessment that Russia's tactical nuclear weapons tests are part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign that often uses nuclear saber-rattling to influence Western decision-makers to engage in self-deterrence.[3] Reflexive control is a key element of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit — it is a tactic that relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia.[4] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated to the New York Times (NYT) on May 20 that Russia currently enjoys a sanctuary in Russian territory from which Russian forces can conduct missile and glide bomb strikes against Ukraine and launch offensive operations with forces amassed in the international border area, as is the case with the ongoing limited Russian offensive in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[5] ISW continues to assess that US and Western policies limiting Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia are severely compromising Ukraine's ability to defend itself against current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast or any area along the international border where Russian forces may choose to conduct offensive operations in the future.[6]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that the limited Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is achieving its goal of drawing attention away from intense Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky stated in an interview with Reuters published on May 20 that the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast is now stable but that “no one” is paying attention to the wave of Russian offensive operations in Donbas in the Chasiv Yar (Bakhmut), Pokrovsk (Avdiivka), and Kurakhove (west of Donetsk City) directions.[7] Zelensky stated that the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast has been stable for about a week, which is consistent with the slowing pace of Russian advances in the Lyptsi (north of Kharkiv City) and Vovchansk directions following the initial few days of relatively rapid tactical advances.[8] Russian forces recently intensified their efforts to seize the operationally-significant town of Chasiv Yar west of Bakhmut as the tempo of operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast decreased, highlighting how the northern Kharkiv Oblast effort aims to draw and fix Ukrainian forces and create opportunities for Russian forces elsewhere in the theater.[9] As ISW has consistently reported, Russian forces' most immediate prospect for operationally-significant gains remains the Chasiv Yar direction, as seizing Chasiv Yar would enable Russian forces to set conditions to attack part of a "fortress belt" of cities forming the backbone of Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast defenses, and Russian forces likely seek to exploit unfavorable situations for Ukrainian forces defending near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka before US military assistance arrives at the frontlines at scale.[10] The Ukrainian General Staff has reported for the past week that Russian forces maintain a higher tempo of offensive operations in the Avdiivka direction even as the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast has stabilized.[11]

The Russian military command reportedly initially planned that Russian forces would quickly make significant advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, but the limited force grouping deployed to the area suggests that the Russian military command likely changed these plans in the lead up to offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast. The Economist reported on May 20 that it viewed Russian military plans from an unspecified date about a planned Russian offensive in the Kharkiv City and Vovchansk directions.[12] The Russian plans reportedly called for Russian forces to advance to Borshchova (about 20 kilometers northeast of Kharkiv City and about 16 kilometers from the international border) within 72 hours in order to place Russian forces within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City. The Russian plans also reportedly called for Russian forces to advance to Pechenihy (south of Vovchansk and about 50 kilometers from the international border) in an unspecified time frame. The Russian offensive was reportedly initially planned to begin May 15 to 16, and the Economist stated that it is unknown why Russian forces pushed forward their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast to May 10 instead. ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced a maximum of about 10 kilometers deep in the Kharkiv City direction and a maximum of about seven kilometers deep in the Vovchansk direction since May 10. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi reported on May 2 that Russian forces had concentrated about 35,000 personnel in the international border area and planned to concentrate a total of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel.[13] Russian forces reportedly launched offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast when the Northern Grouping of Forces was understrength and have only committed a limited amount of combat power to the area thus far.[14]

The Russian military command very likely did not expect these limited and understrength forces to be able to reach these objectives, and a Ukrainian reserve officer observed that Russian forces have focused on ”creeping advances” rather than swift drives to an operational depth since their military failures in 2022.[15] The Economist did not specify when the Russian military command created these reported plans, and it is possible that the Russian military command created the plans before it became clear that the Northern Grouping of Forces would not be staffed at its desired end strength or that an earlier or more limited attack was desired. The Russian military command may have also decided to start offensive operations with an understrength grouping to take advantage of Ukrainian manpower and materiel shortages before the arrival of Western aid at scale to the frontline.

Russian authorities recently arrested the former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA), Major General Ivan Popov, on fraud charges. Popov was largely responsible for Russian defenses against the Ukrainian Summer 2023 counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[16] The 235th Garrison Military Court reported that authorities arrested Popov on May 17 for large-scale fraud and will hold Popov in detention for two months.[17] Popov's lawyer stated that authorities investigated the case for eight months before arresting Popov.[18] A prominent Russian milblogger, who alleged that they knew about Popov's arrest before it was officially announced, claimed that authorities charged Popov with fraud worth 100 million rubles (about $1.1 million) after Popov was involved in the sale of 2,000 tons of metal products intended for the construction of fortifications in the 58th CAA's area of responsibility in the Zaporizhia direction.[19] The milblogger claimed that an unspecified entrepreneur from Krasnodar Krai and an unspecified high-ranking Southern Military District commander are also defendants in the case. A Russian insider source claimed that the Russian military command summoned Popov to Moscow from Syria at an unspecified date and threateningly urged him to resign but Popov refused.[20] A Kremlin-awarded milblogger claimed that when they tried to clarify information last year about Popov's removal, unspecified sources did not mention any corruption charges but only discussed Popov's "military mistakes."[21] Select Russian milbloggers responded to the news of Popov's arrest by praising Popov as a competent and respected military commander and expressing hope that authorities would forgive him and allow him to return to military service.[22] Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov fired Popov in July 2023 after Popov voiced his concerns over the need for troop rotations in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid the Ukrainian Summer 2023 counteroffensive.[23] Popov claimed in leaked audio that former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed him for expressing persistent grievances about problems in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[24]

The Kremlin is likely using the pattern of recent arrests of high-ranking officials on corruption charges in the Russian MoD to conceal the real reasons for Popov's punishment almost 10 months after his conflict with the Russian military command and subsequent dismissal from his command position. Russian authorities likely did not want to publicly punish Popov in July 2023 out of fear of a rush of public support for the competent commander. The Kremlin also likely did not want to draw attention to issues in the Russian military command in the aftermath of the June 2023 Wagner Group's rebellion.[25] Popov's arrest comes after multiple recent high-profile arrests of MoD officials reportedly close to Shoigu on corruption charges.[26] The Kremlin likely hopes that arresting Popov in the middle of this alleged wide-scale anti-corruption campaign will minimize attention to Popov's previous insubordination. Popov's arrest, however, sends a clear signal to Russian military commanders that insubordinate senior officers will face serious punishments eventually and that Russian President Vladimir Putin values loyalty over competence.

Satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian forces likely damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet's (BSF) Tsyklon small missile ship in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on May 19. Satellite imagery dated May 20 shows a damaged building, a rescue ship, and a floating crane near the port where the Tsyklon was docked on May 17.[27] Ukrainian and Russian sources reported on May 20 that Ukrainian forces struck the Russian Tsyklon Karakhut-class (project 22800) small missile ship in Sevastopol Bay with three US-provided ATACMS missiles on May 19.[28] Ukraine's Southern Operational Command and Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated on May 21 that that there are no more Russian Karakurt-class ships in the Black Sea following the Ukrainian strike against the Tsyklon on May 19.[29] Pletenchuk stated that the Tsyklon was the "last missile carrier" in occupied Crimea and that Russian forces have likely moved all remaining BSF missile carriers to basing in Novorossiysk.[30] Pletenchuk stated that the Tsyklon had only been in service for a year and had not yet launched a cruise missile strike. Pletenchuk stated that Russia planned to deploy five Karakurt-class ships in the Black Sea, but that Ukrainian forces previously destroyed the Askold in November 2023, that Russian forces moved the Amur and Tucha from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, and that the fifth unnamed ship is still under construction in Taganrog, Krasnodar Krai.[31]

Key Takeaways: 

  • The Kremlin continues to time its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West as part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign to influence Western decision-makers.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that the limited Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is achieving its goal of drawing attention away from intense Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • The Russian military command reportedly initially planned that Russian forces would quickly make significant advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, but the limited force grouping deployed to the area suggests that the Russian military command likely changed these plans in the lead up to offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian authorities recently arrested the former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA), Major General Ivan Popov, on fraud charges.
  • The Kremlin is likely using the pattern of recent arrests of high-ranking officials on corruption charges in the Russian MoD to conceal the real reasons for Popov's punishment almost 10 months after his conflict with the Russian military command and subsequent dismissal from his command position.
  • Satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian forces likely damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet's (BSF) Tsyklon small missile ship in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on May 19.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Vovchansk, Kreminna, Chasiv Yar, and Donetsk City.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that frequent Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian vehicles that lack electronic warfare (EW) systems along the frontline have created an "urgent" shortage of off-road vehicles.
  • Russian authorities continue to illegally and forcibly deport Ukrainian citizens, including children, to Russia and to forcibly remove Ukrainian citizens deeper into occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 20, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 20, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on May 20. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian sources indicated that Russian forces are concentrating limited, understaffed, and incohesive forces in the Sumy direction, but even such a Russian grouping of forces will be able to achieve the likely desired effect of drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces in the international border area. The deputy commander of a Ukrainian brigade operating in northern Kharkiv Oblast reported on May 20 that Russian forces, including Chechen forces, are accumulating in the Sumy direction but that the limited number of Russian personnel suggests that the Russian objective is to draw and fix Ukrainian forces to the international border area.[1] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on May 20 that the Russian grouping in Kursk Oblast consists of 9,000–10,000 personnel.[2] Mashovets stated that this grouping consists of up to three under-strength motorized rifle regiments (each lacking one to two battalions); eight motorized rifle, tank, and infantry battalions; and one airborne (VDV) battalion all redeployed from various units, formations, and military districts; and at least two assault detachments at the echelon of a reinforced company or an under-strength battalion.[3] Mashovets also reported on May 5 that an unspecified VDV battalion is part of the Russian grouping in Kursk Oblast, and a Russian milblogger (who has an avowed bias against the VDV and "Dnepr" Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky) claimed that the Russian 3rd VDV Battalion of the 104th VDV Regiment (76th VDV Division) is in Kursk Oblast.[4] ISW continues to assess that even limited Russian activity in other areas of the international border below the threshold of Russian offensive operations could have the effect of stretching Ukrainian forces along a wider front and that Russian forces will be able to draw and fix Ukrainian forces to this area as long as Russia threatens penetrations of other border areas beyond northern Kharkiv Oblast.[5]

Kremlin officials expressed their condolences to senior Iranian officials following the announcement of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's and Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian's deaths on May 20. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a condolence letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in which he called Raisi a "true friend of Russia."[6] Putin had a telephone call with Iranian Interim President Mohammad Mokhber on May 20 and expressed condolences to Mokhber, Khamenei, and the Iranian people.[7] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that Putin and Mokhber discussed their desire to further strengthen Russo-Iranian relations.[8] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Raisi and Abdollahian "true friends" who were "invaluable" in strengthening Russo–Iranian cooperation.[9] Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu stated that Russia is ready to help investigate the cause of the helicopter crash.[10] Putin instructed Head of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations Alexander Kurenkov on May 19 to send specialists and equipment to assist in search and rescue operations in Iran.[11]

Russian President Vladimir Putin fired Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yury Sadovenko on May 20, replacing him with former Deputy Economic Minister and current Federation Council Accounts Chamber Auditor Oleg Savelyev.[12] Sadovenko had held his position in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) since January 2013, and a Russian insider source speculated that Sadovenko may become a defendant in a criminal case for violating anti-corruption laws.[13] The insider source added that some additional Russian deputy defense ministers who worked closely with former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu may soon resign. Russian milbloggers observed that Savelyev’s appointment is consistent with the Kremlin’s effort to improve the wartime economy, given that Savelyev has an extensive background in economics and experience in overseeing the audits of defense, national security, and law enforcement activities.[14] The milblogger added that recently appointed Russian Defense Minister Andrey Belousov is beginning to form his own team within the Russian MoD.[15] Putin likely replaced Sadovenko with Savelyev in an effort to remove Shoigu’s allies from the Russian MoD and appoint economic advisors to the agency to improve the wartime economy.

Putin also dismissed Presidential Advisor Alexandra Levitskaya on May 20, but the reason for Levitskaya’s dismissal is unclear.[16] Putin appointed Levitskaya as a presidential advisor in August 2013. Levitskaya previously served as the deputy minister of health and social development from 2007 to 2012, and the Russian Government’s first deputy chief of staff in 2012.[17] Putin transferred several presidential assistants to the presidential advisor rank on May 14 as part of changes to the presidential administration leadership.[18]

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated the White House's unwillingness to approve Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons in strikes against military targets in Russia following a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (also known as the Ramstein format) on May 20. Austin stated that the US expects that Ukraine will "continue to use the weapons that [the US] provided on targets inside of Ukraine."[19] Austin vaguely noted that "the aerial dynamic is a little bit different," but stated that he would not speculate further. ISW continues to assess that US and other Western limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border areas from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and settlements and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[20] These US and Western policies are severely compromising Ukraine's ability to defend itself against current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast or any area along the international border where Russian forces may choose to conduct offensive operations in the future.[21] UK Foreign Minister David Cameron recently announced that Ukrainian forces may use UK-provided weapons to strike targets in Russian territory, and other European countries may be considering lifting similar restrictions.[22] French National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson Jean-Louis Bourlanges stated on May 19 that France should allow Ukrainian forces to use French-provided weapons to strike military targets inside of Russia and noted that "the right to self-defense excludes the right to protect the territory of the aggressor."[23] Bourlanges stated that lifting the current restriction is not a question of Western intervention in the theater of operations but would "lift an unjustifiable taboo."

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas stated that some unspecified countries, presumably NATO member states, have already sent personnel to train Ukrainian soldiers "on the ground."[24] Kallas stated to the Financial Times (FT) on May 19 that some countries have assumed the risk of sending personnel to train Ukrainian soldiers "in a risk zone" during the war and stated that NATO states should not fear the risk of escalation from such deployments.[25] Kallas' statement is the latest in a series of back-and-forth comments between senior Estonian officials about whether Estonia is planning to send its own personnel to perform non-combat support roles in deep rear areas in Ukraine.[26]

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev amplified a known Russian information operation aimed at directly undermining Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president. Medvedev gave a long interview to Kremlin newswire TASS on May 20 in which Medvedev doubled down on the Russian information operation falsely portraying Zelensky as an illegitimate president and deepened the information operation by tying it to other Kremlin rhetorical lines.[27] Other Russian officials and ultranationalist milbloggers either made or amplified similar statements on May 20 accusing Zelensky of now "illegally" holding office.[28] Medvedev likely timed his statements to reinject the narrative into the Russian information space on May 20, when Zelensky's current presidential term would have ended had Ukraine held presidential elections in March 2024. The Ukrainian constitution permits postponing elections and allows a sitting president to serve after the designated end of his term under martial law, and Zelensky's decision not to hold elections during its existential defensive war is fully in accord with Ukraine's constitution.[29]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian sources indicated that Russian forces are concentrating limited, understaffed, and incohesive forces in the Sumy direction, but even such a Russian grouping of forces will be able to achieve the likely desired effect of drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces in the international border area.
  • Kremlin officials expressed their condolences to senior Iranian officials following the announcement of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's and Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian's deaths on May 20.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin fired Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yury Sadovenko on May 20, replacing him with former Deputy Economic Minister and current Federation Council Accounts Chamber Auditor Oleg Savelyev.
  • Putin also dismissed Presidential Advisor Alexandra Levitskaya on May 20, but the reason for Levitskaya’s dismissal is unclear.
  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated the White House's unwillingness to approve Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons in strikes against military targets in Russia following a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (also known as the Ramstein format) on May 20.
  • Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas stated that some unspecified countries, presumably NATO member states, have already sent personnel to train Ukrainian soldiers "on the ground."
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev amplified a known Russian information operation aimed at directly undermining Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Vovchansk, Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and the Dnipro River Delta.
  • Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii (iStories) reported that Russian military authorities and Kazakh law enforcement acting on Russian orders detained at least two more servicemen in Kazakhstan who had deserted from the Russian military.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 19, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 19, 2024, 5:15pm ET

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian military infrastructure and oil refineries in occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Leningrad Oblast on the night of May 18 to 19. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces destroyed nine ATACMS missiles over occupied Crimea.[1] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces launched 12 ATACMS against Sevastopol Bay — nine of which Russian forces shot down near Sevastopol and Belbek airfield, and three of which struck a vessel in Sevastopol port.[2] Footage published on May 19 purportedly shows Russian forces attempting to repel Ukrainian drones over the port in Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai.[3] Krasnodar Krai Governor Venyamin Kondratyev claimed that Russian air defense suppressed over 10 drones near Novorossiysk and that falling debris caused fires.[4] Sources in Ukrainian intelligence told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) and Unmanned Systems Forces conducted successful drone strikes against the Slavyansk oil refinery in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, Krasnodar Krai and against the Kushchyovskaya airfield in Krasnodar Krai where Russian forces station Su-34, Su-25, Su-27, and MiG-29 aircraft used to conduct strikes in Ukraine.[5] The sources stated that the Ukrainian drone strikes damaged several aircraft at the Kushchyovskaya airfield and several distillation columns at the Slavyansk oil refinery. Slavyanskiy Raion Head Roman Sinyagovsky claimed that six drones fell on the Slavyansk oil refinery, and Krasnodar Krai Operational Headquarters reported that Russian air defense suppressed at least 10 drones over Slavyanskiy and Kushchyovskiy raions.[6] Ukrainian forces previously conducted successful drone strikes against the Kushchyovskaya airfield in April 2024 and the Slavyansk oil refinery in March and April 2024.[7] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces also destroyed the Russian Black Sea Fleet's (BSF) Kovrovets Natya-class minesweeper, although it is unclear if Ukrainian forces destroyed the minesweeper near occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, or Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai as the BSF has redeployed the majority of its naval assets to Novorossiysk over the past year.[8] Suspilne also reported on May 19 that its sources within Ukrainian special services stated that Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) caused explosions at an unspecified number of vertical fuel tanks at the Vyborg oil depot in Leningrad Oblast with three explosive devices.[9] Geolocated footage published on May 18 shows a large fire at the oil depot, although Leningrad Oblast Governor Alexander Drozdenko denied reports that drone strikes caused the explosions and claimed that pyrotechnics caused the explosions near the oil depot.[10]

Russian milbloggers appear to be experimenting with different ways to express critical opinions of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) following the recent appointment of Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov. A prominent Russian milblogger posted a photo on May 18 of an undated document allegedly from the Russian MoD's Head of the Missile and Artillery Weapons Service responding to an appeal about the inaccuracy of Russian artillery.[11] The document claimed that any issues with artillery ammunition are due to Russian servicemen's improper handling of the rounds and demanded that Russian servicemen follow the Russian Chief of the General Staff's previously issued order prohibiting military personnel from disassembling and weighing artillery ammunition. The milblogger then described the alleged issues by using general terms as well various code words, such as names of other countries or places from popular science fiction films, that multiple Russian milbloggers have repeatedly used recently to cautiously discuss issues in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).[12] The milblogger claimed that Russian military personnel noticed that artillery systems were performing strangely, subsequently discovered that the amount of gunpowder in the ammunition shells widely varied, and reported the issue to the Russian military command but to no avail. Another Russian milblogger responded and used some of the same code words to criticize the Russian MoD and to express hope that Belousov will make reforms that solve the larger bureaucratic issues in the MoD.[13] A third milblogger, who previously served as a "Storm-Z" unit instructor, however, was direct with his criticisms of the Russian military and claimed that he has previously heard information from Russian servicemen about the inconsistent amounts of gunpowder in some artillery shells.[14] The milblogger claimed that this issue began in Spring 2022 and that the alleged order from the Russian General Staff described in the document indicates that the Russian military leadership has been aware of the issue for some time. The milblogger criticized the Russian military command for not finding a solution and claimed that Russian artillery systems are also suffering from barrel wear (which is very likely given their extremely heavy use).

Founder of the Kremlin-linked Rybar Telegram channel, Mikhail Zvinchuk, whom the Kremlin likely co-opted as part of the Kremlin's wider efforts to gain control over the Russia information space, gave an uncharacteristically public interview in which he criticized the Russian MoD and directly connected some of the milbloggers' code words to the Russian MoD on May 18.[15] Although it is unclear if Zvinchuk gave this interview with Kremlin approval or not, the Kremlin's permittance of criticisms by select prominent Russian milbloggers of the Russian MoD could increase public pressure for reforms, that would, if implemented, assist Russia's war effort in Ukraine.[16]

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev threatened Russian internet technology and telecommunications company Yandex because its large language model failed to provide responses that cohere with ongoing Russian information operations. Medvedev criticized Yandex's Alisa voice assistant (ostensibly similar to Amazon's Alexa) on May 19 for being unable to answer questions about the US law approving the seizure of Russian foreign assets or supposed monuments in Ukraine to Nazi sympathizers.[17] Medvedev asserted that Yandex's artificial intelligence (AI) is a "coward" for failing to provide his desired answers to these questions and suggested that Yandex may be concerned about offending its Western clients. Medvedev suggested that Yandex's supposed unwillingness to provide answers to these questions greatly undermines trust in Yandex's products and could provide grounds for the Russian government to recognize Yandex's services as "incomplete" and even identify Yandex's current managers as "foreign agents." Russian news outlet RBK reported that Russian officials have previously submitted complaints against similar large language models for failing to generate sufficiently patriotic responses.[18] Russian officials will likely continue to struggle with shortcomings of large language models that are well known to others with more experience of those systems as the Kremlin continues efforts to solidify its control over the Russian information space.

A St. Petersburg court ruled that Russian authorities can seize over 700 million euros ($760 million) of assets from three large European banks on May 18 on behalf of a Gazprom subsidiary.[19] The court determined that Russian authorities could seize assets, accounts, property and shares belonging to Deutsche Bank, German Commerzbank, and Italian bank UniCredit after ruling in favor of a suit from Gazprom subsidiary RusChemAlliance.[20] The European banks were among the guarantor lenders under a contract for the construction of a gas processing plant in Russia with German-based engineering company Linde, which involved parties terminated due to Western sanctions following the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[21] The court also ruled that Deutsche Bank cannot sell its subsidiary businesses in Russia without the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin and stated that the measure is necessary to prevent the bank from "alienating its property in Russia."[22]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian military infrastructure and oil refineries in occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Leningrad Oblast on the night of May 18 to 19.
  • Russian milbloggers appear to be experimenting with different ways to express critical opinions of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) following the recent appointment of Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev threatened Russian internet technology and telecommunications company Yandex because its large language model failed to provide responses that cohere with ongoing Russian information operations.
  • A St. Petersburg court ruled that Russian authorities can seize over 700 million euros ($760 million) of assets from three large European banks on May 18 on behalf of a Gazprom subsidiary.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced within Vovchansk and near Chasiv Yar and Donetsk City. 



Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

May 18, 2024, 9:15pm ET 

Russian forces have recently intensified their effort to seize the operationally significant town of Chasiv Yar, seeking to exploit how Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast and ongoing offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine have generated greater theater-wide pressure on Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted an unsuccessful roughly reinforced company-sized mechanized assault with two tanks and 21 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in the direction of the Novyi Microraion in eastern Chasiv Yar on May 17.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted a roughly reinforced platoon-sized mechanized assault in the same area on May 18.[2] Geolocated footage published on May 17 shows Russian forces attacking with at least seven armored vehicles near Ivanivske (east of Chasiv Yar).[3] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Russian forces are widely using armored vehicles in the Chasiv Yar area, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy thanked Ukrainian forces near Chasiv Yar for destroying at least 20 Russian armored vehicles (presumably over the past day).[4] Russian forces have not made notable tactical gains in the Chasiv Yar area since conducting a company-sized mechanized assault on the town's eastern outskirts on April 4 and have not conducted similar sized-mechanized assaults in the area until May 17.[5] The April 4 mechanized assault was followed by intensified Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, and recent Russian mechanized assaults in the area likely portend an overall intensification of the Russian effort to seize the town.[6] The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would be operationally significant since it would provide Russian forces with favorable positions to launch subsequent offensive operations against Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka, cities that form the southern portion of a Ukrainian defensive belt that is the backbone of Ukraine's defense of Donetsk Oblast.[7]

Russian forces launched a limited offensive operation into northern Kharkiv Oblast on May 10 that aims to strategically draw and fix Ukrainian manpower and materiel from ongoing Ukrainian defensive operations in eastern Ukraine.[8] Russian forces have maintained the tempo of their offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine in the previous week and will likely continue to do so in order to exploit any vulnerabilities from the transfer of Ukrainian materiel and manpower to defensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[9] Ukrainian forces have recently transferred elements of a Ukrainian brigade defending in the Chasiv Yar area to the Vovchansk area, and Russian forces have likely intensified offensive operations near Chasiv Yar to quickly take advantage of weakened Ukrainian defenses.[10] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that Russian forces aim to force Ukrainian forces to commit available reserves to the defensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian forces may hope that intensified offensive operations near Chasiv Yar will be more successful if Ukraine cannot commit additional reserves to the area in the future.[11] Russian forces will likely pursue an offensive operation in Ukraine over the coming months that aims to stretch Ukrainian forces across a wide frontline and maintain regular offensive pressure to attempt to weaken the Ukrainian defensive line in aggregate.[12] Russian forces likely hope to make an operationally significant penetration anywhere along the frontline but will likely prioritize the Chasiv Yar area, where Russian forces have the most immediate prospects for an operationally significant advance, and the front west of Avdiivka, where Russian forces have been able to achieve tactically significant gains in recent weeks.[13] Russian forces are currently attempting to achieve tactically and operationally significant gains in Ukraine before the arrival of US security assistance at scale in June and July 2024 allows Ukrainian forces to blunt Russian advances.[14]

Russian forces are likely preparing for the second phase of their offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast, which Russian forces likely intend to launch following their anticipated seizure of Vovchansk. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on May 18 that Russian forces advanced between five and 10 kilometers in northern Kharkiv Oblast before Ukrainian forces stopped Russian advances and that Russian forces are conducting the first of several waves of offensive operations in the area.[15] A second wave of tactical attacks is not the same as the second phase of the operation, and Russian forces may need to launch several "waves" of tactical attacks to achieve the objective of any given singular phase of their offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Zelensky stated that the Russian military command seeks to attack Kharkiv City but that Russian forces lack the manpower required to seize such a large city, so Russian forces will slowly push towards Kharkiv City as part of efforts to force Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the area. Available evidence indicates that Russian forces have so far only committed a limited amount of the prepared forces that Russia maintains in Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk oblasts for offensive operations in the area.[16] Ukrainian sources previously stated that Russian forces have committed 2,000 personnel to the frontline along the border and have 1,500 to 2,000 personnel in immediate reserve as of May 11.[17] Ukrainian sources, however, have noted that the Russian forces so far committed to offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast may already be degraded after suffering heavy losses.[18] Ukrainian sources have also recently stated that Russian forces are "leasing" limited elements of Russian formations operating in the Svatove area as part of the Western Grouping of Forces but that other Russian forces groupings do not have "free" combat-ready forces or regiment- or brigade-level assets to transfer to the Northern Grouping of Forces to help sustain and intensify Russian offensive operations along the border.[19] The Russian military command is likely not committing available reserves from the Northern Grouping of Forces to current offensive operations because it intends for these elements to support later phases of the offensive operations or subsequent waves of assaults.

Russian forces reportedly launched offensive operations in the international border area before they completed bringing the Northern Grouping of Forces up to its reported planned end strength and will likely continue offensive operations in the border area in waves as the Russian military attempts to reinforce the grouping. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi recently reported that Russian forces have roughly 35,000 personnel deployed to the border area in Kursk, Bryansk, and Belgorod oblasts and that Russian forces intend to establish a grouping in the area that is between 50,000 to 75,000 personnel in size.[20] Ukrainian sources also recently reported that an additional 3,750 Russian personnel may arrive in the northern Kharkiv Oblast area in the near future. Russian forces have repeatedly conducted offensive operations along different sectors of the front in "pulses" with one sector decreasing in intensity as another increases, and Russian forces may temporarily slow offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast in order to replenish losses and bring the Northern Grouping of Forces up to its desired end strength before resuming the tempo in a second wave at a later time of their choosing.[21]

Russian forces are currently prioritizing the seizure of Vovchansk because it is likely one of the remaining tactical objectives of the first phase of offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Russian forces conducted strikes on bridges across the Siverskyi Donets River to quickly isolate the battlefield east of the river in order to improve their chances to degrade Ukrainian ground lines of communication and quickly seize Vovchansk.[22] Russian forces are reportedly conducting a larger number of glide bomb strikes on the settlement than elsewhere along the border and appear to have committed more manpower to the area than in the Lyptsi direction.[23] The Russian military command likely chose the seizure of Vovchansk as one of the key tactical objectives of the first phase of the offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast, since Vovchansk is the largest settlement immediately on the border that would provide Russian forces a staging ground close to the Russian rear to prepare for and launch the second phase of the Russian offensive operation. It is unclear if the second phase of the Russian offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast will prioritize Russia's operational objective to expand the desired "buffer zone" further in width along the international border or Russia's operational objective to advance to within effective tube artillery range of Kharkiv City and its environs.[24] Russian forces could also envision a subsequent phase of the offensive operation from Vovchansk that aims to advance towards Velykyi Burluk to threaten the operational rear of the Ukrainian force grouping defending in the Kupyansk direction.[25]

Zelensky also outlined materiel requirements for Ukraine to combat Russia's air superiority and defend against the Russian air threat, especially given US-imposed restraints on Ukraine that prohibit Ukraine from striking targets within Russian territory and airspace.[26] Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces only have 25 percent of the air defenses that Ukraine needs to defend against Russian strikes and called for Western countries to send two Patriot batteries, which Ukraine would specifically deploy to Kharkiv Oblast, as a show of strength against the Russian offensive. Zelensky also stated that Ukraine would need about 120-130 F-16s or other advanced fighter aircraft to achieve air parity with Russia. Air parity is the lowest level of air control, in which no side controls the sky.[27] Zelensky stated that Russia's biggest advantage is Ukraine's restriction against using Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia, and ISW has recently noted that this restriction creates a sanctuary for the Russian military in Russia to strike Ukraine safely without leaving Russian airspace.[28] Ukrainian forces have been able to strike Russian airbases in Russia and occupied Ukraine with some success, but Ukrainian forces have not made a sufficient impact to deter Russian forces from conducting missile and drone strike campaigns against Ukrainian deep-rear areas or glide bomb strikes on frontline and near rear areas.[29] Zelensky's proposed two Patriot batteries in northern Kharkiv Oblast will have a limited effectiveness in defending against Russian airstrikes if Ukrainian forces cannot use the Patriots to intercept Russian fighter-bombers in Russian airspace.[30]

Ukrainian officials have reportedly asked the US presidential administration to ease the restriction against using US-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia. The New York Times (NYT) and Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on May 17, citing Ukrainian and US officials, that Ukraine submitted the request within the past week.[31] The NYT and WSJ reported that Ukraine also requested additional targeting assistance for military targets inside Russia, and former Ukrainian military officials reportedly told the NYT that targeting assistance would allow Ukrainian forces to more accurately plan for drone and missile strikes given the requirements for more detailed terrain mapping for these strikes. White House officials state that the United States does not want to encourage or enable attacks within Russia, and the NYT noted that the White House has rejected similar appeals in the past. ISW continues to assess that this US policy severely compromises Ukraine's ability to defend itself, particularly against Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[32]

Zelensky noted that Ukraine must overcome its manpower challenges in order to contest the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine. Zelensky stated that Ukraine is currently forming a significant number of brigades as part of its reserve and that Ukraine still needs to fully staff some of these units.[33] Zelensky stated that consistent rotations for frontline units are an important step in improving Ukrainian morale and noted that Ukraine must first stabilize the frontline and sufficiently staff its units in order to conduct counteroffensive operations in the future. ISW has repeatedly assessed that addressing Ukraine's manpower challenges will be crucial to Ukraine's ability to conduct counteroffensive operations and contest the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine in the future.[34] ISW continues to assess that Ukraine should contest the initiative as soon as possible as Russian forces are reaping a variety of benefits from holding the initiative, including deciding where and at what scale offensive operations will occur throughout the theater and how much materiel Ukrainian forces will have to expend to defend against such efforts.[35]

Ukraine's new mobilization law went into effect on May 18 and will help Ukraine stabilize its force generation apparatus amid ongoing manpower constraints.[36] The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted the law, which included lowering the mobilization age from 27 to 25, on April 11 and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed the law on April 16.[37] Ukrainian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Ukraine's new mobilization law will help address its manpower challenges and, alongside the delivery of US military assistance, empower Ukraine's defense in critical areas and future counteroffensive operations.[38]

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev called for Russia's envisioned "buffer zone" to encompass all of Ukraine, illustrating that the Kremlin’s concept of the buffer zone is a thinly veiled justification for Russia's long-held intent to subsume the entirety of Ukraine and likely an effort to garner domestic support for the Russian war effort. Medvedev stated in a post on his Russian-language Telegram channel on May 17 that Russia's "sanitary [buffer] zone" must at least extend over all central Ukraine and a significant part of western Ukraine in order to place Russian cities out of the range of Ukraine's Western-provided long-range strike systems.[39] Medvedev claimed that if Ukraine continues to strike Russian cities, then Russian forces will have to extend the sanitary zone further to Ukraine's western border with Poland or within Poland itself. Mikhail Zvinchuk, founder of the Rybar Telegram channel, also called during an interview on May 18 for Russian forces to occupy additional areas of Ukraine as part of a "buffer zone," claiming that Russian forces should seize areas of Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts along the Russian border.[40] Russian President Vladimir Putin recently characterized Russia's offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast as part of Russia's effort to develop a "buffer zone" on Ukrainian territory to defend Belgorod City against Ukrainian strikes.[41] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested during an interview on April 19 that Russian forces will have to keep attacking further into Ukraine to protect the settlements that come under Russia's expanding buffer zone, insinuating that the Kremlin intends to use the creation of a buffer zone to justify Russian offensive operations even further into Ukraine.[42] Medvedev's and Zvinchuk's comments highlight Russia's likely intent to use this buffer zone narrative to justify Russia's occupation of all of Ukraine. Medvedev's decision to publish this post on his Russian-language Telegram channel suggests that his message is intended for a domestic Russian audience, and Medvedev may intend to generate support and excitement around an imagined future Russian victory in Ukraine ahead of Russia's anticipated summer 2024 offensive operations, which will likely result in large-scale Russian personnel losses.

Founder of the Kremlin-linked Rybar Telegram channel, Mikhail Zvinchuk, gave an uncharacteristically public interview in which he criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and speculated on possible changes within the MoD. Zvinchuk gave an interview to Russian-language diaspora-focused outlet RTVi on May 18 that focused on the replacement of former Russian Defense Minister and current Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu and corruption in the Russian MoD.[43] Zvinchuk complained about the Russian MoD's bureaucratic issues and claimed that recently appointed Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov will need to start to make "positive changes" to the MoD within three months before people "start asking questions." Zvinchuk claimed that Belousov will likely replace former Russian Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov, who reportedly submitted his resignation to Shoigu a week before Shoigu's replacement, because Tsalikov was Shoigu's "right hand man," not Belousov's. Zvinchuk also claimed that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Tatyana Shevtsova and Russian Deputy Defense Minister and Head of the Russian MoD's Main Military-Political Directorate Viktor Goremykin will remain in their positions. A Russian insider source, who has previously accurately reported on Russian military command changes, claimed on May 14 that Shevtsova will likely resign, however.[44] Zvinchuk claimed that he has information that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov will leave his post to head the Russian MoD's Africa Corps and that Head of the Russian MoD's Main Directorate of Military Police General Sergei Kuralenko will replace Yevkurov.

Should the Kremlin allow select prominent Russian milbloggers to increase their criticisms of the Russian MoD, public pressure may grow in favor of reforms that would, if implemented, assist Russia's war effort in Ukraine. The Russian MoD notably awarded Zvinchuk in December 2023 for his efforts in military-patriotic education and military-political work for the Russian military, and Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Zvinchuk with the Russian Order of Merit to the Fatherland Second Class in November 2023.[45] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin awarding Zvinchuk, whose Telegram channel has over 1.2 million followers as of May 18, was likely part of wider efforts to gain control over and co-opt the often-critical Russian milblogger information space.[46] Russian milbloggers have largely reduced their personal criticisms of Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov following the Wagner Group's armed rebellion in June 2023.[47] Zvinchuk may be trying to use his public interview to gauge the Kremlin's response to critical voices following Shoigu's replacement with Belousov. Considering Zvinchuk's affiliations with the Kremlin, however, the Kremlin may have tasked Zvinchuk with criticizing the Russian MoD publicly while dictating the content and severity of his statements, which may establish an accepted bound of criticisms against the MoD. Any possible Kremlin permittance of increased criticisms of the Russian MoD from Russian milbloggers could lead to bureaucratic reforms that improve the efficacy of Russia's war effort in Ukraine, especially when coupled with Belousov's and Putin's intentions to mobilize the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine and possibly prepare for a future confrontation with NATO.[48]

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili vetoed the Russian-style "foreign agents" bill on May 18, but the ruling Georgian Dream party will likely override Zurabishvili's veto in the coming weeks. Zurabishvili announced on May 18 that she vetoed the foreign agent bill that is "fundamentally Russian" and contradicts both Georgia's constitution and all European standards after she previously signaled that she would veto the bill should it pass Georgian parliament.[49] The Georgian parliament passed the foreign agents bill in its final reading on May 14 in an 84-30 vote largely spearheaded by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has the votes needed to override Zurabishvili's veto.[50] The Georgian parliament will reportedly meet again in four weeks, and Georgia Dream will likely propose to override Zurabishvili's veto to pass the foreign agents bill at that time.[51]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces have recently intensified their effort to seize the operationally significant town of Chasiv Yar, seeking to exploit how Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast and ongoing offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine have generated greater theater-wide pressure on Ukrainian forces.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing for the second phase of their offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast, which Russian forces likely intend to launch following their anticipated seizure of Vovchansk.
  • Zelensky also outlined materiel requirements for Ukraine to combat Russia's air superiority and defend against the Russian air threat, especially given US-imposed restraints on Ukraine that prohibit Ukraine from striking targets within Russian territory and airspace.
  • Ukrainian officials have reportedly asked the US presidential administration to ease the restriction against using US-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.
  • Zelensky noted that Ukraine must overcome its manpower challenges in order to contest the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine's new mobilization law went into effect on May 18 and will help Ukraine stabilize its force generation apparatus amid ongoing manpower constraints.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev called for Russia's envisioned "buffer zone" to encompass all of Ukraine, illustrating that the Kremlin’s concept of the buffer zone is a thinly veiled justification for Russia's long-held intent to subsume the entirety of Ukraine and likely an effort to garner domestic support for the Russian war effort.
  • Founder of the Kremlin-linked Rybar Telegram channel, Mikhail Zvinchuk, gave an uncharacteristically public interview in which he criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and speculated on possible changes in the MoD.
  • Should the Kremlin allow select prominent Russian milbloggers to increase their criticisms of the Russian MoD, public pressure may grow in favor of reforms that would, if implemented, assist Russia's war effort in Ukraine.
  • Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili vetoed the Russian-style "foreign agents" bill on May 18, but the ruling Georgian Dream party will likely override Zurabishvili's veto in the coming weeks.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Avdiivka, Hulyaipole, and Robotyne.
  • The BBC News Russian Service reported on May 18 that Russian military authorities in Astana, Kazakhstan, detained a Russian contract service personnel (kontraktnik) for desertion on April 23 – the first such instance in Kazakhstan.


Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 17, 2024, 6:35pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin framed Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast as part of Russian efforts to create a "buffer zone" to protect Russian border areas from Ukrainian strikes, confirming ISW's previous assessments. Putin responded to a journalist's question about Russian forces' objectives in the Kharkiv direction, stating that Russian forces are achieving success "according to plan" and that Russian forces have no immediate plans to seize Kharkiv City.[1] Putin stated that Russian offensive operations in the Kharkiv direction are aimed at creating a "buffer zone" to protect Russian border areas, including Belgorod City, from Ukrainian strikes. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces appear to be prioritizing the establishment of a "buffer zone" along the international border over setting conditions for deeper penetrations into northern Kharkiv Oblast.[2]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the front in northern Kharkiv Oblast and that Russian forces have not reached Ukraine's "concrete" and "most powerful" line of defense in the area.[3] Zelensky stated that Russian forces have currently reached the "first line" that Ukrainian forces built further from the border and that Ukrainian forces have also built a second and third line of defense. Zelensky described the third line of defense as the "most powerful" as it is further from the border and was not under threat of Russian shelling during its construction. Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the situation in the area and that the deepest Russian forces have advanced is 10 kilometers, which is consistent with ISW's assessment of Russian advances near Lyptsi. Western and Ukrainian media reported on May 10 that Ukrainian military sources stated that Russian forces intend to establish a 10-kilometer-deep buffer zone along the northern border of Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian forces will likely prioritize leveling the front in northern Kharkiv Oblast at this depth over deeper penetrations.[4]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that elements of the Russian military command strengthened the Northern Grouping of Forces with elements of the 6th Combined Arms Army and 11th and 44th Army Corps (all of the Leningrad Military District [LMD]), echoing previous statements from Ukrainian military observers about the Northern Grouping of Forces' composition.[5] Syrskyi stated that Russian forces launched offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast "well ahead of schedule" when Ukrainian forces were "turning over," possibly referring to a Ukrainian troop rotation.[6] Russian forces made their narrow penetration towards Ocheretyne in late April by attacking during a Ukrainian brigade-level rotation on the frontline, and Russian forces may have sought to take advantage of similar situations to penetrate Ukrainian positions.[7]

Russian forces will likely be able to stretch Ukrainian forces along a wide front and fix Ukrainian troops in the international border area even as the tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast slows. Syrskyi stated that Russian forces have expanded the area of active hostilities by about 70 kilometers since starting offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast and are trying to force Ukrainian forces to commit brigades from reserves to the frontline.[8] ISW continues to assess that Russian offensive operations along the Kharkiv international border likely have the strategic objective of drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces to this axis to enable Russian advances in other areas of eastern Ukraine.[9] Geolocated footage published on May 17 shows Ukrainian forces striking two Russian tanks moving towards the international border near Sumy Oblast.[10] Even limited Russian activity in other areas of the international border below the threshold of Russian offensive operations could have the effect of stretching Ukrainian forces along a wider front. Russian forces will be able to draw and fix Ukrainian forces to the border area as long as Russia sustains a presence in northern Kharkiv Oblast and threatens penetrations of other border areas. Russian forces have shown a propensity for conducting offensive operations along different sectors of the front in "pulses" with one sector decreasing in intensity as another increases, and Russian forces may slow offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast for a time but resume the tempo at a later time of their choosing.[11]

Russian forces reportedly leveraged notable electronic warfare (EW) capabilities to support tactically significant gains during the first days of their limited offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. The Washington Post reported on May 17 that elements of a Ukrainian brigade operating in northern Kharkiv Oblast lost connection to drone and communications systems due to intense Russian EW jamming when Russian forces began their incursion into Kharkiv Oblast on May 10.[12] The Washington Post reported that the Ukrainian soldiers stated that the Russian EW jamming completely disrupted Ukrainian forces' satellite internet connection via Starlink devices, reportedly the first time that Russian EW has completely knocked out Ukrainian Starlink connection since the start of the full-scale invasion.[13] A Ukrainian soldier told the Washington Post that these disruptions forced Ukrainian forces to communicate only through radio and phones and prevented Ukrainian forces from conducting basic reconnaissance.[14] Russian and Ukrainian forces have been in an offense-defense race involving EW systems and counter-EW adaptations, and it is notable that Russian forces were able to achieve such a widespread effect with their EW capabilities in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[15] Russian forces may have waited to deploy a new EW adaptation to achieve widespread disruptions during the beginning of their limited offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have previously adapted quickly to changes in each other's EW capabilities, and Russian forces may have decided that leveraging a new capability to make tactically significant gains at the outset of a new offensive operation would be the most worthwhile use of the capability's novelty.[16]

Senior NATO military commanders confirmed ISW's prior assessments that Russian forces do not have sufficient forces to achieve a "strategic breakthrough" in Ukraine. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and US European Command Commander General Christopher Cavoli stated on May 16 that Russian forces do not have the necessary number of troops or the skill to conduct operations at the scale necessary to achieve and exploit a strategic-level breakthrough in Ukraine, and expressed confidence that Ukrainian forces will "hold the line" near Kharkiv City.[17] Cavoli noted that NATO member states have not observed Russian forces accumulate the resources required for such a breakthrough, further supporting ISW's recent assessments that Russian forces are unlikely to make operationally significant gains against more well-provisioned Ukrainian forces during the Russian summer offensive effort.[18] NATO commanders also indicated that Russian forces are preparing for a longer-term war effort, however. Cavoli stated that Russian forces have improved in some unspecified areas but failed to improve in others, but that the Russian military has proven that it is a learning organization.[19] NATO Military Committee Chairperson Lieutenant Admiral Rob Bauer stated that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is more efficient than the Western DIB but that Russian forces still struggle with troop quality and training, all consistent with ISW's longstanding assessments about Russia's attempts to sustain its long-term war effort amid short to medium-term struggles with manpower and materiel.[20]

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of large-scale aerial and naval drone strikes against Russian energy and port infrastructure in Krasnodar Krai and occupied Crimea on the night of May 16 to 17. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported on May 17 that its sources in Ukrainian intelligence stated that Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) and Security Service (SBU) struck Russian military facilities in Novorossiysk and Tuapse, Krasnodar Krai and in occupied Sevastopol on the night of May 16 to 17.[21] The Ukrainian intelligence sources reportedly stated that the GUR and SBU targeted Black Sea Fleet (BSF) ships in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 17 that Russian forces destroyed 123 drones over Crimea and Krasnodar Krai and 25 unmanned boats in the Black Sea in the past day.[22] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces launched over 140 drones and 20 unmanned boats in the overnight strikes on Sevastopol and Krasnodar Krai.[23] Russian and Ukrainian sources stated that Ukrainian forces struck a port and fuel terminal in Novorossiysk.[24] The Krasnodar Krai operational headquarters stated that falling drone debris caused a fire at an oil refinery in Tuapse on the morning of May 17, and Russian milbloggers and opposition media posted footage of the Ukrainian strike on the Tuapse oil refinery.[25] Reuters reported that two unspecified sources stated that Russian authorities conducted an emergency shutdown of the Tuapse oil refinery after the drones hit the facility's liquified petroleum gas production unit but that the refinery will likely restart "relatively soon."[26] The SBU reportedly struck the Rosneft oil refinery in Tuapse in late January 2024, and Reuters reported that the oil refinery resumed operations in late April 2024.[27] Sevastopol occupation governor Mikhail Razvozhaev stated that drone debris damaged a power substation near Sevastopol and caused partial blackouts in the city.[28]

US officials reiterated the White House's unwillingness to support Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons in strikes against military targets in Russia. US Defense Department Spokesperson Sabrina Singh stated on May 16 that the Biden Administration has not changed its position against Ukrainian forces using US weapons to strike targets within Russia and that the administration believes that the equipment should be used to liberate occupied Ukrainian territory.[29] ISW continues to assess that US and other Western limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border areas from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and settlements and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[30] This US policy is severely compromising Ukraine's ability to defend itself against Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[31]

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to further known Russian information operations intended to directly undermine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president. Putin claimed during his press conference in Harbin on May 17 that the current Ukrainian government "has its origins" in a Western-facilitated coup d'état, referring to the Kremlin's information operation falsely asserting that Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 was an externally organized and funded coup against pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych that installed a series of pro-Western governments in Ukraine.[32] Putin additionally claimed that Ukraine's political and legal systems must determine if Zelensky will still be considered Ukraine's legitimate president when his first term technically expires on May 20. Ukraine would have held its presidential election on March 31 and would have begun a new presidential term on May 20 if Russia had not illegally invaded Ukraine.[33] Ukraine's constitution permits postponing elections and allows a sitting president to continue to serve after the designated end of his term under martial law, and Zelensky's decision not to hold elections given Ukraine's ongoing existential defensive war is fully in accord with the Ukrainian constitution.[34] Ukrainian officials have repeatedly warned that the Kremlin is currently running a series of information operations aimed at undermining and questioning Zelensky's legitimacy.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin framed Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast as part of Russian efforts to create a "buffer zone" to protect Russian border areas from Ukrainian strikes, confirming ISW's previous assessments.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the front in northern Kharkiv Oblast and that Russian forces have not reached Ukraine's "concrete" and "most powerful" line of defense in the area.
  • Russian forces will likely be able to stretch Ukrainian forces along a wide front and fix Ukrainian troops in the international border area even as the tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast slows.
  • Russian forces reportedly leveraged notable electronic warfare (EW) capabilities to support tactically significant gains during the first days of their limited offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Senior NATO military commanders confirmed ISW's prior assessments that Russian forces do not have sufficient forces to achieve a "strategic breakthrough" in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a series of large-scale aerial and naval drone strikes against Russian energy and port infrastructure in Krasnodar Krai and occupied Crimea on the night of May 16 to 17.
  • US officials reiterated the White House's unwillingness to support Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons in strikes against military targets in Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to further known Russian information operations intended to directly undermine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's legitimacy as president.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the annual Russian-Chinese Expo and forum on interregional cooperation and visited Harbin Polytechnic University during the second and last day of his trip to the People's Republic of China (PRC) on May 17.
  • Ukrainian and Western sources continue to report that Russian forces are committing war crimes in newly occupied areas of Kharkiv Oblast.
 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 16, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

May 16, 2024, 7:55pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on May 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are stabilizing the situation along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area continues to decrease. Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated on May 16 that Ukrainian forces are partially stabilizing the situation in the Kharkiv direction, and the Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian forces have so far denied Russia’s tactical objectives to penetrate Ukrainian defenses within Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City) and establish a foothold in the area.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian forces have forced Russian forces to significantly decrease the tempo of their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces continue to inflict significant losses on Russian forces in the area.[2] Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration Head Oleh Synehubov stated that Ukrainian forces have stopped Russian forces’ active advance in Kharkiv Oblast and that Ukrainian forces have regained more favorable positions in some unspecified areas.[3] Synehubov added that Russian forces are transferring reserves to the area in an attempt to continue advancing.[4]

Zelensky stressed in an interview with ABC News on May 16 that the situation in the Kharkiv direction is very serious and that Ukrainian forces cannot afford to lose Kharkiv City.[5] Zelensky argued that Russia will not be able to seize Kharkiv City if Ukrainian forces receive two Patriot air defense systems to deploy to the area.[6] Russian fixed-wing aircraft have increasingly targeted Kharkiv City and its environs with glide bombs and various missile strikes in recent weeks to degrade Ukrainian defenses and prompt residents to flee the city.[7] Sufficient air defense coverage in the Kharkiv City area would allow Ukrainian forces to constrain Russian aviation operations, but only if Western countries permitted Ukraine to use the systems to intercept Russian aircraft in Russian airspace, since Russian aircraft can strike Kharkiv City without ever leaving Russian airspace.[8] Russia is leveraging Russian airspace as a sanctuary to strike Kharkiv Oblast due to prohibitions on the use of Western-provided systems to strike targets within Russia.[9]

Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Ihor Klymenko reported that Russian forces have executed civilians and taken civilians captive in Vovchansk. Klymenko stated on May 16 that Russian forces in northern Vovchansk are preventing residents from evacuating and are holding civilians captive in basements in the settlement.[10] Klymenko stated that Russian forces have begun to execute civilians and reported that in one instance Russian forces killed a fleeing civilian who refused to follow Russian commanders’ orders.[11] The detention and summary execution of civilians is a war crime and emblematic of Russian forces‘ behavior in all occupied Ukrainian territories. The United Nations (UN) reported in December 2023 that it had documented at least 142 cases of Russian forces executing Ukrainian civilians.[12] Russian military massacres like the massacres in Bucha and Izyum are a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas, and the Russian military has shown no indication that it has attempted to constrain Russian forces from brutally victimizing Ukrainian civilians and committing other war crimes.[13] For almost the past year and half Russian forces have mainly been gradually advancing near small settlements that have been largely depopulated by the war, and it is notable that relatively rapid Russian tactical advances into a populated settlement were immediately accompanied by the detention and execution of civilians. Russian forces committed blatant war crimes in Bucha and Mariupol in the first months of the full-scale invasion; and over two years of fighting in Ukraine and the Kremlin's corresponding dehumanization of Ukrainians have likely inured Russian forces to such crimes. Russian attempts to seize major population centers like Kharkiv City do not just threaten Ukraine with operationally significant setbacks but also with war crimes and violations that accompany Russian occupation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely views Russia's relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC) as decisive to his effort to further mobilize the Russian economy and defense industry to support a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin arrived in Beijing and met with PRC President Xi Jinping on May 16, and the two leaders signed a series of documents intended to recognize and deepen their bilateral cooperation.[14] Putin and Xi signed a joint statement, several agricultural and ecological agreements, an infrastructure and engineering construction agreement, and several media agreements.[15] Putin and Xi highlighted bilateral trade and economic cooperation throughout their public speeches, and Putin's delegation included several Russian officials and businessmen likely involved in Putin's efforts to further mobilize the Russian defense industry, including Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Head Dmitry Shugaev, Russian aluminum company RUSAL founder Oleg Deripaska, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, and Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev.[16] Belousov professed his intention to focus on integrating the Russian military's economy into the general Russian military economy during a speech on May 14, and Putin announced that Shoigu will work with the Presidential Administration's Military-Industrial Complex Commission on May 15.[17] The Russian delegation likely aimed to expand cooperation with their Chinese counterparts that will facilitate increased economic ties between Russia and the PRC. The Economist reported on April 29 that Russia's defense industry has increasingly relied on the PRC to provide dual-use goods, such as semiconductors and navigational equipment, to support arms production.[18] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 1 that PRC exports of dual-use goods to Russia have helped Russia significantly increase its defense production and that 70 percent of Russia's machine tools and 90 percent of its microelectronics are from the PRC.[19] The PRC has previously signaled concerns that its economic relationship with Russia may place PRC entities under threat of secondary sanctions, and Putin likely intends to head off these concerns as the Russian defense industry grows increasingly reliant on the PRC.[20]

Putin also used his meeting with Xi to promote known Kremlin narratives feigning interest in peace negotiations and a diplomatic resolution to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Putin and Xi signed a joint statement on May 16 that alluded to Russia's support for the PRC's proposed peace plan and a possible future PRC-led negotiation to end the war in Ukraine.[21] The statement claims that both Russia and the PRC are against any efforts that prolong or further escalate the war and that both countries support a "sustainable settlement" for the "Ukraine crisis." Xi stated during a joint press conference with Putin that the PRC and Russia both perceive a political settlement as the right way to resolve the situation in Ukraine.[22] ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin will continue to use any calls for peace negotiations to feign interest in negotiations in hopes of undermining Western support for Ukraine and prompting the West to force Ukraine into negotiations with Russia that make concessions on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.[23]

Russian forces are reportedly able to conduct fixed-wing drone reconnaissance deep in the Ukrainian rear due to Ukraine's lack of air defense interceptors. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported on May 14 that Ukraine has had to husband its diminishing supply of surface-to-air missiles (SAM), which has allowed Russian reconnaissance drones to fly more freely into Ukrainian rear areas, including over Kharkiv City, and optimize Russian forces’ reconnaissance fire complex (RFC).[24] RUSI stated that Ukraine's decreased air defense interceptor supplies have forced Ukraine to increasingly make difficult decisions between deploying air defense coverage to critical infrastructure in rear areas or to frontline areas, as ISW has repeatedly assessed.[25] RUSI noted that well-provisioned Ukrainian forces were previously able to curtail Russian reconnaissance capabilities for most of the full-scale invasion.[26] Russian forces have been conducting a large-scale air campaign against Kharkiv City as part of their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv City and have been using glide-bomb strikes to enable Russian ground maneuver in Kharkiv Oblast.[27] Russian forces notably used glide-bomb strikes to tactical effect during their seizure of Avdiivka.[28] Ukrainian forces require Western-supplied air defense interceptors in order to destroy Russian reconnaissance drones in both rear and frontline areas at scale and defeat the optimized Russian RFC that is enabling Russian tactical advances along the front.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian defense industrial plant in Tula City on the night of May 15 to 16. Ukrainian intelligence sources told several Ukrainian outlets that Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted successful drone strikes against the "Bazalt" defense industrial plant, which produces weapons and ammunition for the Russian military.[29] Footage published on May 16 purportedly shows the strike in Tula City.[30] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 16 that Russian forces downed two Ukrainian drones over Tula Oblast, and Bazalt denied claims that any drones struck its production facilities in Tula City.[31]

Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since March 2024 have likely caused long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure and repeated energy blackouts. Ukraine's largest private energy operator DTEK reported energy blackouts in Kyiv City and Oblast on May 14 and stated that blackouts occur without warning.[32] Ukrainian energy company Yasno stated that Russian strikes cause Ukrainian energy operators to conduct emergency blackouts in order to balance the power system.[33] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo's supervisory board member Yuriy Boyko stated that Ukraine may experience power outages that began on May 14 until August or September 2024.[34] The Ukrainian Energy Ministry reported on May 16 that it began receiving emergency electricity from Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.[35] DTEK warned in late March that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage to Ukrainian energy facilities than previous Russian attacks did.[36] Russian forces will likely continue to conduct mass strikes to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure as degraded Ukrainian air defense capabilities persist until US-provided air defense missiles and other Western air defense assets arrive at scale.[37] Long-term damage to Ukraine's energy grid that generates persisting energy disruptions threatens to constrain Ukrainian efforts to expand its defense industrial base (DIB).[38]

A Russian insider source, who has previously accurately reported on Russian military command changes, claimed that senior Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials are vying for the position of Chief of the General Staff. The insider source claimed on May 14 that unspecified Russian deputy defense ministers and heads of unspecified main directorates in the Russian MoD are likely competing to become Russian Chief of the General Staff, a position that Army General Valery Gerasimov has held since 2012.[39] The insider source claimed that some unspecified actors are prioritizing placing disgraced Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin in the position of Chief of the General Staff, but that there are other considerations for Surovikin to take other roles, and that it is too early to determine whether Gerasimov‘s position as Chief of the General Staff is coming to an end. The insider source claimed that there are three main "centers of power" within the Russian MoD. The "preservation group" reportedly consists of Russian deputy defense ministers Ruslan Tsalikov, Colonel General Viktor Goremykin, and Nikolai Pankov. The "lockout group" reportedly consists of Russian deputy defense ministers Colonel General Alexander Fomin, Army General Pavel Popov, Colonel General Yuriy Sadovenko, Alexey Krivoruchko, and Tatyana Shevtsova — all of whom the insider source claimed will likely resign. The insider source did not expound upon the designations of "preservation group" and "lockout group." The insider source claimed that the "bastions" in the Russian MoD include Gerasimov and deputy defense ministers Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Lieutenant General Andrei Bulyga. The insider source claimed that Bulyga will likely resign. ISW cannot independently verify any of the insider source's claims. Several Russian milbloggers and insider sources claimed on May 13 that Tsalikov and Krivoruchko submitted their resignations to former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a week before Putin removed Shoigu as defense minister.[40]

Kremlin and Georgian officials promoted established Kremlin information operations alleging that the West is orchestrating protests against Georgia's "foreign agent" law in order to overthrow the Georgian government. Several officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party alleged that Iceland, Lithuania, and Estonia are taking "hostile" steps and trying to overthrow the Georgian government after the Icelandic, Lithuanian, and Estonian foreign ministers visited protests in Tbilisi against the "foreign agents" law on May 15.[41] Russian Federation Council Vice Speaker Konstantin Kosachev similarly claimed that the West is orchestrating protests in Georgia in order to overthrow the Georgian government and that the Georgian "foreign agents" law is necessary to protect Georgia from "externally sponsored coups."[42] Kosachev reiterated longstanding Kremlin narratives about the US government's alleged involvement in Ukrainian protests in 2013–2014. ISW assessed on May 15 that Kremlin and Georgian officials would increasingly allege that the West is attempting to interfere in Georgian affairs, and ISW has recently observed how Georgian Dream and Georgian security officials have intensified their use of established Kremlin information operation and are increasing their rhetorical alignment with Russia against the West.[43] Georgian Dream actors likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for European integration, which play into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[44]

Turkey and Russia are reportedly exploiting European Union (EU) sanctions regulations to export Russian oil to the EU, allowing Russia to continue to receive significant oil revenues to fund its war effort in Ukraine. Politico reported on May 15 that the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the Center for the Study of Democracy, and Politico's independent reporting indicate that Turkey is likely disguising the origin of Russian oil in order to exploit EU sanctions regulations that allow "blended" oil containing certain proportions of Russian oil that have undergone "substantial transformation" to enter the EU.[45] Politico stated that Russian oil imports to the Turkish ports of Ceyhan, Marmara Ereglisi, and Mersin significantly increased between February 2023 and February 2024 while these three ports' oil exports to the EU also significantly increased — "strongly" indicating that Turkey is "repackaging" large amounts of Russian oil. Politico stated that not all of the Turkish ports are "substantially transforming" Russian oil into entirely new products — as required by EU sanctions regulations — and that Turkey is "rebranding" the oil with a Turkish "certificate of origin." Politico reported that this scheme likely has generated up to three billion euros (about $3.2 billion) of revenue for Russia between February 2023 and February 2024 from these three ports alone.

Russia reportedly launched a satellite as part of its program to develop a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in the weeks before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of Russian preparations for a future confrontation with NATO. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on May 16 that US officials stated that Russian launched a satellite in space as part of its nuclear anti-satellite weapon development program on February 5, 2022 — 19 days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[46] US officials reportedly stated that the satellite Russia launched does not contain a nuclear weapon but contains components of the new weapon system that Russia is developing to destroy hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit, particularly in areas where there are many US government and commercial satellites, including SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are stabilizing the situation along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area continues to decrease.
  • Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Ihor Klymenko reported that Russian forces have executed civilians and taken civilians captive in Vovchansk.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin likely views Russia's relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC) as decisive to his effort to further mobilize the Russian economy and defense industry to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin also used his meeting with Xi to promote known Kremlin narratives feigning interest in peace negotiations and a diplomatic resolution to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are reportedly able to conduct fixed-wing drone reconnaissance deep in the Ukrainian rear due to Ukraine's lack of air defense interceptors.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian defense industrial plant in Tula City on the night of May 15 to 16.
  • Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since March 2024 have likely caused long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure and repeated energy blackouts.
  • A Russian insider source, who has previously accurately reported on Russian military command changes, claimed that senior Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials are vying for the position of Chief of the General Staff.
  • Kremlin and Georgian officials promoted established Kremlin information operations alleging that the West is orchestrating protests against Georgia's "foreign agent" law in order to overthrow the Georgian government.
  • Turkey and Russia are reportedly exploiting European Union (EU) sanctions regulations to export Russian oil to the EU, allowing Russia to continue to receive significant oil revenues to fund its war effort in Ukraine.
  • Russia reportedly launched a satellite as part of its program to develop a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in the weeks before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of Russian preparations for a future confrontation with NATO.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Lyptsi, Vovchansk, Kupyansk and Donetsk City.
  • Several Russian opposition media outlets reported on May 16 that Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Kartapolov rejected a bill that would grant deferment from mobilization to certain Russian civilians, likely to support ongoing and future crypto-mobilization efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 15, 2024

click here to read the full report

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 15, 2024, 7:35pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on May 15. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 16 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast continues to decrease after Russian forces initially seized areas that Ukrainian officials have now confirmed were less defended. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian military officials stated that Ukrainian forces have partially stabilized the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast bordering Russia.[1] Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated that Russian forces are attempting to make tactical gains near Lukyantsi and Vovchansk to create footholds for future advances, but that Ukrainian counterattacks and artillery and drone strikes are preventing Russian forces from gaining a foothold in these areas.[2] Kharkiv Oblast Administration officials stated on May 15 that constant Russian shelling makes it impossible for Ukrainian forces to establish fortifications within three to five kilometers of the international border in Kharkiv Oblast and that Ukrainian forces constructed the first and second lines of defense about 12 to 13 kilometers and 20 kilometers from the international border, respectively.[3] ISW currently assesses that Russian forces have advanced no more than eight kilometers from the international border in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Russian forces operating in Russia could easily conduct artillery strikes against Ukrainian defensive positions close to the international border, and Western prohibitions on the use of Western-provided weapons systems for strikes against rear Russian areas across the border make potential fixed Ukrainian defensive positions close to the international border vulnerable and possibly indefensible. Russian forces have been able to make tactical advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast since May 10 in areas where Ukrainian forces purposefully did not establish significant defensive lines and currently appear to be prioritizing the creation of a "buffer zone" over a deep penetration into Kharkiv Oblast.[4]

The US Helsinki Commission stated that the US should allow Ukraine to conduct strikes against military targets in Russia's border areas amid an ongoing Russian offensive operation into Kharkiv Oblast from Russia, although US officials continue to express unwillingness to support such strikes. The US Helsinki Commission stated on May 15 that the US should "not only allow but encourage" Ukrainian forces to strike Russian forces firing and staging in Russia's border areas as part of Russia's offensive operations into northern Kharkiv Oblast.[5] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated earlier on May 15 that the US has not "encouraged or enabled" Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory but noted that Ukraine must decide how to conduct this war.[6]  Politico reported on May 14, citing two unnamed US officials, that the Biden Administration's policy prohibiting Ukraine's use of US-provided weapons to strike Russian territory has not changed.[7] Politico's sources stated that US military assistance to Ukraine is "for the defense and not for offensive operations" into Russian territory. A Ukrainian operation to strike systems in Russia that are directly supporting Russia's offensive ground operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast would be an inherently defensive effort and to characterize such an effort as "offensive" would be inaccurate. ISW recently assessed that US limitations on Ukraine's ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia's border areas from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and settlements and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[8] This US policy is severely compromising Ukraine's ability to defend itself against Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[9]

Russian President Vladimir Putin emphatically downplayed the threat of Ukrainian counterattacks along the entire frontline, further indicating that he assesses that Ukraine cannot and will not be able to liberate territory seized by Russian forces and that this will allow Russian forces to pursue creeping advances indefinitely. Putin stated on May 15 in a meeting with Russia's military district commanders that Russian forces are repelling all Ukrainian counterattacks and that Russian forces are constantly improving their positions in all directions in Ukraine.[10] The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence's (ODNI) 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably believes" that Russian forces have blunted Ukrainian efforts to retake significant territory and that US and Western support for Ukraine is "finite."[11] Limited Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast suggest that Putin and the Russian military command may be evaluating the risks, prospects, and timeline of offensive operations based on the assumption that Russian forces will be able to advance in any area of the front and consolidate any gains without having to account for Ukrainian tactical counterattacks or a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive operation in the future.[12]

Putin likely has made this assumption based on months of gradual grains throughout eastern Ukraine, but this calculus fundamentally misjudges the tactical capabilities that Ukrainian forces will have once US security assistance begins to arrive to the front at scale. The New York Times reported on May 15 that US officials have expressed confidence that the arrival of US security assistance to Ukrainian forces at scale by July 2024 will likely allow Ukrainian forces to reverse many of the tactical gains that Russian forces have achieved in recent weeks.[13] US officials were reportedly hesitant to discuss how US security assistance may facilitate Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2025, however.[14] It is imperative for Ukrainian forces to be able to pursue large-scale counteroffensive operations that liberate Russian-occupied territory as soon as conditions permit, otherwise Putin will likely continue to believe that he can pursue grinding offensive operations indefinitely and force Ukraine into the strategic defense until achieving victory.[15]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly prioritize the further mobilization of the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) while also attempting to assuage possible domestic fears about the negative effects of increased Russian defense spending. Putin met with the commanders of the Russian military districts and with officials involved in the Russian DIB on May 15 and focused both meetings on the need to develop the Russian DIB and economy.[16] Putin appointed Russian Presidential Aide Alexei Dyumin and Minister of Industry and Trade Anton Alikhanov to the supervisory board of state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec and specifically tasked Dyumin with assisting Russian efforts to provide the Russian military with the necessary weapons and equipment.[17] Putin stated that Russia's "cumulative defense and security spending" in 2024 will be about 8.7 percent (likely referring to defense spending as percentage of GDP), but noted that although this amount is significant, it is much less than Soviet defense spending in the mid-1980s of about 13 percent.[18] Russian business journalists estimated in November 2023 that Russian authorities planned to spend about 39 percent of the 2024 federal budget on defense and law enforcement, and Reuters reported in October 2023 that the 2024 Russian federal budget would allocate 29.4 percent to national defense.[19]  Putin attempted to downplay the negative effects of increased defense spending on civilians' lives while also claiming that increased defense spending will boost the civilian sector of the economy. Putin stated that even as Russian defense spending grows, the Russian state must fulfill all its social obligations to Russian citizens and develop Russian social spheres, such as education, healthcare, support for veterans, and pensions. Putin claimed that increased Russian defense spending is connected to various civilian production sectors and boosts overall industrial development and job creation. Putin's continued focus on social spending indicates that Putin remains concerned about Russian domestic opinion and is unwilling to rapidly put the Russian economy on a full wartime footing in a way that generates fundamental economic disruption.

Putin specifically noted that the Russian DIB must increase the quality of Russian weapons. Putin stated that "whoever masters the latest means of armed struggle faster, wins" and called for the Russian defense industry to "double, triple" production and create more effective, accurate, and powerful weapons in order to decrease Russian losses.[20] Putin's focus on how technology can facilitate victory is likely a response to Ukrainian officials' recent discussions about how Ukraine needs to innovate technologically in order to beat a numerically superior Russian force.[21] Putin's emphasis on producing higher quality weapons is likely a direct response to Ukraine's higher-quality Western weapons and equipment. Ukrainian officials have noted recently that although Russian artillery supplies have greatly outnumbered those of Ukrainian forces, Ukrainian artillery is more precise than Russian artillery.[22] Although Russian forces have been able to exploit under-provisioned Ukrainian forces and make tactically significant advances along several sectors of the front recently, Russian forces have been unable to make operationally significant gains with their numerical manpower and materiel advantages alone.[23] Putin has consistently indicated that he is unwilling to transfer Russia to a full wartime economy, and a Russian DIB on a full wartime footing would likely still suffer from limiting factors, such as continued labor shortages in Russian defense industrial enterprises and the lack of the domestically produced goods required for advanced systems, and would likely not be able to produce the quantity of all types of weapons and equipment required to sustain Russian operations in Ukraine for years.[24]

Putin is likely concerned about the economic and diplomatic implications of decreased Russian arms exports. Putin thanked former Defense Minister and current Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu for reshaping the Russian military in recent years and claimed that no one, including Russia, understood the "modern methods of conducting armed struggle" before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a likely attempt to soften the blow of Shoigu's de facto demotion. Putin stated that Shoigu will work with the Military-Industrial Complex Commission under the Presidential Administration as well as the Federal Service for Cooperation with Foreign Countries.[25] Putin stated that Russia must ensure its contractual obligations to supply weapons and military equipment to foreign countries but noted that the Russian military's needs are the first priority. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported in March 2024 that Russia exported major arms to 31 countries in 2019 and only 12 in 2023 with Russian arms exports falling by 53 percent between 2014-2018 and 2019-2023.[26] Putin's renewed emphasis on arms exports is likely due to concerns about how the continued loss of federal budget revenue from arms exports will affect the Russian government's ability to sustain or even increase defense spending. Putin's statement about arms exports also suggests that Putin is concerned with how Russia's inability to fulfill arms export contracts since the start of the war in Ukraine has negatively affected Russia's bilateral relations, particularly with non-Western countries with which Russia is trying to curry favor in hopes that these countries will join Russia's imagined wide coalition opposing the collective West. Russia, for example, reportedly delayed the delivery of air defense systems to India, and Indian government sources have previously stated that India wants to distance itself from Russia because the war in Ukraine has limited Russia's ability to provide India with munitions.[27]

The Kremlin confirmed the appointments of the newly formed Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) and other military district commanders on May 15. Putin met with the Russian military district commanders and senior Russian defense officials on May 15 thereby confirming that former Russian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin became LMD commander and former Southern Military District (SMD) Colonel General Sergei Kuzovlev became MMD commander.[28] The Kremlin meeting also confirmed that Lieutenant General Alexander Sanchik replaced Colonel General Sergei Kuzmenko as acting Eastern Military District (EMD) commander, that Colonel General Gennady Anashkin replaced Kuzovlev as acting Southern Military District (SMD) commander, and that Colonel General Andrey Mordvichev will remain Central Military District (CMD) commander.[29] A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, correctly reported on these command changes in early May.[30] ISW has routinely observed that Putin regularly rotates officials and military commanders in and out of favor with the aim of incentivizing different factions to strive to accomplish his objectives and continues to assess that the Kremlin may have decided to change the leadership of the military districts in preparation for its expected summer offensive effort, which is forecasted to begin in late May or in June.[31]

Russian sources speculated that the May 13 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov is only the beginning of a wider effort to root out corruption within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). A Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed on May 15 that Kuznetsov's detention and the April 24 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on charges of accepting bribes prompted rumors that Russian authorities may arrest other unspecified corrupt officials serving in the Russian MoD's Main Operational-Mobilization Directorate, Main Directorate of Combat Training, and other high-level directorates.[32] The milblogger noted that bribery schemes have been incredibly common and pervasive in Russia over the last 15 years and that Russian authorities may limit their efforts to corruption cases that have caused tangible issues with Russian forces' combat effectiveness or operational security. Several Russian milbloggers lamented the pervasiveness of corruption and ineptitude among the Russian high command, and one Russian milblogger called on the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Investigative Committee to "shake out" all of the corrupt officials within the Russian MoD.[33]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15 that the US will provide a two billion dollar "defense enterprise fund" to Ukraine.[34] Blinken stated that the fund has three components: assisting Ukraine in acquiring needed weapons, investing in Ukraine's defense industrial base (DIB), and helping Ukraine purchase military equipment and weapons from the US and other countries.

Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly struck a Russian fuel depot in Rostov Oblast on the night of May 14 to 15.[35] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported that its sources stated that GUR attacked a fuel depot in Proletarsky Raion, Rostov Oblast with drones and that a fire broke out at the facility.[36] Suspilne's sources added that Russian forces used the fuel depot for military purposes.[37] Rostov Oblast Governor Vasyl Golubev stated that two Ukrainian drones caused explosions at the facility but denied that there was a fire at the facility.[38]

The Kremlin continues to add European officials to Russia's wanted list as part of Russia's efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign NATO member states. Russian opposition outlet Mediazona published an updated review of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs' (MVD) wanted list on May 15 and noted that the Russian MVD added several dozen more Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Czech, and Polish officials to the wanted list since February 2024.[39] Mediazona reported that there are currently 88 Latvian and 66 Lithuanian politicians from various government levels; five Polish mayors; an unspecified number of former and current council members of several Czech municipalities; and four current and former Estonian officials, including current Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Minister of Internal Affairs Lauri Laanemets, on Russia's wanted list. Mediazona noted that the Russian MVD also recently added and removed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, as ISW previously reported.[40] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin's efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian law in sovereign European states are intended to set information conditions justifying possible future Russian aggression against NATO.[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • The tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast continues to decrease after Russian forces initially seized areas that Ukrainian officials have now confirmed were less defended.
  • The US Helsinki Commission stated that the US should allow Ukraine to conduct strikes against military targets in Russia's border areas amid an ongoing Russian offensive operation into Kharkiv Oblast from Russia, although US officials continue to express unwillingness to support such strikes.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly prioritize the further mobilization of the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) while also attempting to assuage possible domestic fears about the negative effects of increased Russian defense spending.
  • Putin specifically noted that the Russian DIB must increase the quality of Russian weapons.
  • Putin is likely concerned about the economic and diplomatic implications of decreased Russian arms exports.
  • The Kremlin confirmed the appointments of the newly formed Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) and other military district commanders on May 15.
  • Russian sources speculated that the May 13 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov is only the beginning of a wider effort to root out corruption within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15 that the US will provide a two billion dollar "defense enterprise fund" to Ukraine.
  • Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly struck a Russian fuel depot in Rostov Oblast on the night of May 14 to 15.
  • The Kremlin continues to add European officials to Russia's wanted list as part of Russia's efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign NATO member states.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, near Siversk, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Lytyvyenko assessed on May 15 that Russian forces will have enough tanks and armored fighting vehicles for the next year and half of fighting in Ukraine at their current operational tempo.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 14, 2024 

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 14, 2024, 8:35pm ET 

The pace of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast appears to have slowed over the past 24 hours, and the pattern of Russian offensive activity in this area is consistent with ISW's assessment that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a "buffer zone" in the international border area over a deeper penetration of Kharkiv Oblast. Several Ukrainian military officials reported on May 14 that they believe the situation in Kharkiv Oblast is slowly stabilizing — Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated on May 14 that the situation in Kharkiv Oblast began stabilizing on the night of May 13 into May 14 as additional Ukrainian units deployed to the area and began defending against Russian advances.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff and Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn noted that Ukrainian forces have begun to "clear" Vovchansk by targeting visible Russian assault groups in the settlement.[2] Several Russian and Ukrainian sources also reported that Russian forces are using new tactics in this direction — using smaller assault groups of no more than five people to penetrate Ukrainian positions before merging with other small assault groups to unite into a larger strike group.[3] Drone footage purportedly from Vovchansk shows Russian foot mobile infantry operating within the settlement in small squad-sized assault groups, consistent with Ukrainian reports.[4]

The use of small assault groups, however, may be contributing to higher Russian manpower and materiel losses and slowing the overall pace of the Russian offensive in this direction. One Russian military commentator, who previously served as a "Storm-Z" unit instructor, complained that footage of small Russian assault groups is indicative of poor training and preparation, not an effective new tactic.[5] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets noted that growing Russian losses in this direction are leading to a decrease in the overall pace of offensive operations.[6] Ukrainian Chief of the General Staff Major General Anatoliy Barhylevych suggested that Russian forces have lost up to 1,740 soldiers in this direction over just the past day, which would be a very high rate of losses.[7] ISW cannot independently confirm this number, but the purported loss rate may be consistent with the generally slower rate of offensive operations observed on May 14. If the pace of Russian operations remains relatively lower, Russian forces will likely focus on consolidating new positions and building out a lateral salient in Kharkiv Oblast by merging the Lyptsi and Vovchansk efforts and creating a "buffer zone" in the border area, as opposed to pushing further into the oblast, as ISW has previously assessed.[8]

Russian President Vladimir Putin's candidate for Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov outlined his and Putin's intended priorities for the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) during a speech to the Russian Federation Council on May 14. Belousov stated that Putin has set two tasks for a Belousov-led Russian MoD – ensuring the full integration of the Russian military's economy into the general Russian economy and making the Russian MoD as open to innovation as possible.[9] Belousov stated that the Russian MoD's "most pressing issue" is equipping and supplying the Russian military with modern equipment, ammunition, missiles, communications equipment, drones, and electronic warfare (EW) systems. Belousov stated that his other top priorities are the implementation of the 2025 state defense order, the Russian MoD's annual request for new weapons and equipment from the Russian defense industry, and recruitment efforts, but noted that there is no need to discuss "emergency measures" such as a partial or general mobilization of Russian citizens. Belousov noted that the Russian MoD must optimize its spending and gain greater control over the Russian defense industry. Belousov's identified priorities are largely consistent with ISW's assessment that Belousov's appointment indicates that Putin is taking significant steps towards mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industry to support a protracted war effort in Ukraine and possibly prepare for a future confrontation with NATO.[10]

Russian authorities detained Russian Deputy Defense Minister and Russian MoD Main Personnel Directorate Head Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov on May 13 on charges of accepting large-scale bribes. The Russian Investigative Committee and Russian media reported on May 14 that the Russian 235th Garrison Military Court detained Kuznetsov on suspicion of accepting a large bribe in the period 2021-2023 while serving as the head of the Russian General Staff's 8th Directorate, which is in charge of the protection of state secrets.[11] The Russian Investigative Committee reported that authorities raided Kuznetsov's home and discovered over 100 million rubles (about $1 million) worth of cash, including foreign currency, and luxury items. Moscow's Basmanny Raion Court also detained Russian businessman Lev Martirosyan as part of Kuznetsov's case.[12] Russian outlet Kommersant reported that Martirosyan bribed Kuznetsov with a total of 30.5 million rubles ($333,935) to help Martirosyan's hotel companies win government contracts.[13] Kommersant reported that the same Investigative Committee department is investigating Kuznetsov's and detained Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov's cases and that the Investigative Committee is forming a special team to investigate similar cases involving high-ranking military personnel. Russian authorities detained Ivanov on April 24 on charges of accepting bribes.[14] Ongoing speculation about further changes within the Russian military and political leadership prompted Russian sources to speculate about the possible return of disgraced Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin to Russian President Vladimir Putin's favor, but Russian sources concluded that insider reports that Surovikin is in Moscow are inaccurate.[15]

Putin appointed former Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin and former Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev as his presidential assistants on May 14, further re-balancing his ministerial cabinet for his fifth term.[16] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that Dyumin will oversee issues regarding the Russian defense industrial base (DIB), State Council, and sports policy, while Patrushev will oversee the strategic development of the Russian shipbuilding industry as well as "other areas, perhaps."[17] Russian presidential assistants typically help the Russian president in the execution of their powers, including by preparing proposals for presidential work and by participating in official meetings alongside the president.[18] Presidential assistants may perform other tasks as the president orders. Dyumin's appointment as Putin's assistant on DIB issues is consistent with Putin's apparent effort to restructure the Russian economy for a protracted war — Dyumin generally has a positive reputation amongst Russian commentators and is seen as a solid and effective professional, and Putin likely is hoping to leverage Dyumin's good reputation to manage his own.[19]

Russian commentators received the news of Patrushev's new position less certainly, however. Russian opposition outlet Meduza, citing sources close to the Kremlin, stated that its sources were "stunned" when they saw that Putin had removed Patrushev from the Security Council, and even more "shocked" that his new position is to be Putin's assistant on shipbuilding.[20] Putin may have moved Patrushev to this new position in order to rebalance the siloviki-run power vertical that exists within the Russian security services, as ISW previously reported Putin tends to do with powerful siloviki.[21] Patrushev is reportedly a close Putin ally, the individual personally responsible for the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Putin's personal diplomat who frequently conducted diplomatic trips on Putin's behalf, according to Western reporting.[22] Putin can continue to use Patrushev's connections and experience even if Patrushev is nominally acting as an expert on "shipbuilding" strategy. The new position is nevertheless an obvious demotion.

The Georgian parliament passed Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" bill in its third and final reading on May 14, amid continued protests against the bill in Tbilisi. The Georgian parliament passed the bill in an 84 to 30 vote, after which it will go to Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili to for final signature.[23] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Georgian service reported that members of the European Socialist party and the People's Force party, a breakaway party from the ruling Georgian Dream, supported the bill alongside Georgian Dream members.[24] Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili previously stated that she intended to veto the bill, although RFE/RL's Georgian service noted that Georgian Dream has enough votes to override her veto.[25] Zurabishvili also proposed postponing the law's entry into force until November 1, after the October 26 Georgian parliamentary elections.[26] Georgian opposition figures and Western officials have expressed concern that the Georgian government could also utilize the bill to target and justify domestic repression and that its passage could block Georgia’s path to joining the European Union (EU).[27] US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien previously met with senior Georgian officials and opposition members in Tbilisi on April 14. O'Brien stated that Georgian Dream party founder and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili refused to meet with him because Ivanishvili claimed that the US had "de facto" sanctioned him, which O'Brien stated was false.[28] ISW has recently observed Ivanishvili and the Georgian State Security Service (SUS) intensifying their use of established Kremlin information operations and increasing rhetorical alignment with Russia against the West.[29] Georgian Dream actors likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for Euro-Atlantic integration, which plays into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[30]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States is interested in a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv on May 14. Blinken stated during a speech in Kyiv that more than 32 NATO states are negotiating 10-year bilateral security commitments with Ukraine, including nine states with completed agreements.[31] Blinken also reiterated the US commitment to supporting Ukraine's military and industrial efforts. Blinken met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on May 14 and is expected to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15.[32] Zelensky and Blinken discussed the importance of newly arrived US security assistance in helping Ukrainian forces repel Russian attacks along the frontline and long-term security and economic support for Ukraine.

Likely Ukrainian actors conducted a strike against a Russian railway line in Volgograd Oblast on May 14. Geolocated footage published on May 14 purportedly shows the aftermath of a likely Ukrainian drone strike against a train in Samofalovka.[33] The train was allegedly transporting fuel.[34] Volga Railway's Press Service stated that "unauthorized persons" derailed several cars of a freight train, and unspecified Russian operational services reported that the derailment and subsequent fire damaged almost 300 meters of railway tracks.[35]

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur clarified that Estonia is not currently considering sending its forces to deep rear areas in Ukraine for non-combat roles.[36] Pevkur stated on May 14 that previous discussions about possibly sending troops to deep rear areas of Ukraine have not gained traction in either Estonia or the European Union (EU) and noted that Estonia would not take such a measure alone. Breaking Defense reported on May 13 that National Security Advisor to the Estonian President, Madis Roll, stated that the Estonian government is "seriously" considering sending Estonian troops to western Ukraine to take over non-combat roles in the rear from Ukrainian troops, allowing Ukrainian forces to deploy to frontline areas.[37] Roll clarified to Breaking Defense on May 14 that the discussion of sending Estonian forces to Ukraine in non-combat roles is "not dead" and "ongoing in Estonia in general."[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • The pace of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast appears to have slowed over the past 24 hours, and the pattern of Russian offensive activity in this area is consistent with ISW's assessment that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a "buffer zone" in the international border area over a deeper penetration of Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin's candidate for Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov outlined his and Putin's intended priorities for the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) during a speech to the Russian Federation Council on May 14.
  • Russian authorities detained Russian Deputy Defense Minister and Russian MoD Main Personnel Directorate Head Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov on May 13 on charges of accepting large-scale bribes.
  • Putin appointed former Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin and former Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev as his presidential assistants on May 14, further re-balancing his ministerial cabinet for his fifth term.
  • The Georgian parliament passed Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" bill in its third and final reading on May 14, amid continued protests against the bill in Tbilisi.
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the US is interested in a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv on May 14.
  • Likely Ukrainian actors conducted a strike against a Russian railway line in Volgograd Oblast on May 14.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Lyptsi, Vovchansk, Svatove, Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and Krynky.
  • The Russian MoD is reportedly coercing Russian citizens and migrants into Russian military service through false job opportunities, likely as part of ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.
  • Ukrainian officials continue efforts to return forcibly deported Ukrainian children to Ukrainian-controlled territory from Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 13, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 13, 2024, 8:45pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:45pm ET on May 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces continued to make tactically significant advances north and northeast of Kharkiv City on May 13 and currently appear to be prioritizing the rapid establishment of a "buffer zone" along the international border over setting conditions for deeper penetrations into northern Kharkiv Oblast. Geolocated footage published on May 13 shows that Russian forces have advanced into Hlyboke (north of Lyptsi) and raised a flag in the center of the village, but Russian sources claimed that Russian forces have not yet seized the entirety of Hlyboke and advanced west of the settlement along the west (left) bank of the Kharkiv River.[1] Additional geolocated footage shows that Russian forces advanced southwest of Oliinykove (northeast of Lyptsi) and north of Lukyantsi (northeast of Lyptsi and southeast of Oliinykove).[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces achieved unspecified tactical success near Lukyantsi.[3] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces entered Lukyantsi, but ISW has not observed visual confirmation of this claim.[4] Russian forces also continued attacking in the Lyptsi direction near Pylna (northeast of Lyptsi and Oliinykove), and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Ukrainian forces counterattacked near Hlyboke.[5]

Geolocated footage published on May 12 shows that Russian forces seized the Vovchansk Meat Processing Plant in northern Vovchansk, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces also captured a shoe factory in northern Vovchansk on the morning of May 13 and advanced into central Vovchansk up to the northern (right) bank of the Vovcha River by the evening.[6] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are also clearing Starytsya and Buhruvatka (both west of Vovchansk on the C-210817 road) but that Russian forces do not control the settlements, and also advanced in a forest area further south of Ohirtseve (northwest of Vovchansk).[7] Russian forces also attacked on the Izbytske-Starytsya-Buhruvatka line west of Vovchansk and near Tykhe (east of Vovchansk), where the Russian MoD also reported Ukrainian counterattacks.[8] Russian sources claimed that fighting continued between the Lyptsi and Vovchansk salients near Zelene (on the international border between Lyptsi and Vovchansk) and that Ukrainian forces partially withdrew from Ternova (immediately southeast of Zelene).[9]

Russian forces' relatively rapid rate of advances in Vovchansk and their reported destruction of several bridges across key waterways within the settlement suggest that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a "buffer zone" over a deeper penetration, as ISW previously assessed they would.[10]  ISW has not yet observed claims or confirmation that Russian forces have crossed to the southern (left) bank of the Vovcha River in Vovchansk or its immediate environs. Russian forces notably conducted strikes against bridges over the Vovcha River immediately west and east of Vovchansk on May 12 and began targeting bridges over the river and logistics lines in Vovchansk itself on May 13, reportedly only leaving Ukrainian forces with two usable bridges over the Vovcha in Vovchansk.[11] It is unclear why Russian forces would largely target bridges they would need to cross and ensure stable logistics across the Vovcha River for offensive operations deeper into northern Kharkiv Oblast, so these strikes suggest that Russian forces may be prioritizing immediate gains in an unfortified area of northern Ukraine. Russian forces are also reportedly fielding armor in this area -- Russian sources reported that Russian forces conducted a mechanized attack with an unspecified number of tanks against Vovchansk on the night of May 12 and continued armored attacks during the day on May 13.[12] The deployment of armored assets in this area suggests that Russian forces are seeking to make rapid gains, but they do not appear to be setting conditions at this time for such gains to be on the southern side of the Vovcha River deeper into northern Kharkiv Oblast. These indicators collectively suggest that Russian forces are likely trying to create the promised "buffer zone" in the border area instead of pursuing deeper gains into Kharkiv Oblast or towards Kharkiv City.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have frequently suggested that Russia establish a "demilitarized buffer zone" in occupied Ukraine to protect Russian territory from Ukrainian strikes, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov directly connected this buffer zone with intensified Russian offensive operations south of Belgorod Oblast on May 13.[13] Ukrainian and Western officials have also recently stated that Russian forces intend to establish a 10-kilometer buffer zone in Kharkiv Oblast, and ISW has recently noted that this buffer zone would simultaneously bring Russian forces within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City and remove major Russian logistics hubs from Ukrainian tube artillery range.[14] A Ukrainian battlefield commander recently expressed concern that Ukrainian fortifications in northern Kharkiv Oblast are not along the immediate international border area, enabling Russian forces' quick and relatively shallow advance.[15] More senior Ukrainian commanders have recently stated that Ukrainian forces have established a multi-layered defense-in-depth deeper in the oblast, which is congruent with the other battlefield commanders' reports.[16] The current pace of Russian advances on this axis is not necessarily indicative of the further offensive capabilities of the Russian forces conducting the offensive operations, although Russia reportedly retains considerable reserves available to exploit initial successes on this axis.

Newly appointed Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu participated in his first Security Council meeting as secretary on May 13, amid continued reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is focusing on mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine.[17] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov clarified that Shoigu will also be a "curator" of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission but will not lead it.[18] Russian opposition news outlet Meduza reported on May 13, citing its sources in the Russian government and presidential administration, that Shoigu's alleged criticisms of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec General Director Sergei Chemezov for failing to provide a sufficient number of modern weapons to the Russian military for the past several months contributed to Shoigu's removal from the Russian MoD.[19] This claim further emphasizes that Putin is focused on improving the Russian DIB's capacity and ability to modernize and produce new technologies.[20] Several Russian milbloggers expressed hope that Shoigu's removal as defense minister and Andrei Belousov's appointment will improve the bureaucratic issues within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Russian DIB's efficiency.[21] Russian milbloggers also largely attempted to alleviate concerns that Belousov's lack of military experience would hinder his ability to effectively serve as defense minister and portrayed him as a competent manager who can root out corruption.[22] Belousov's lack of military experience is not anomalous in the context of Putin's ministerial management, and Shoigu also lacked military experience before becoming defense minister.[23] Putin has always appointed a civilian defense minister since firing Boris Yeltsin-appointed Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev in 2001.[24]

Putin's decision to remove Shoigu from the Russian MoD appears to have also opened the door for the departure of certain Shoigu affiliates from the MoD, likely one of the intended effects of Putin's recent cabinet reshuffles. Several Russian milbloggers and insider sources claimed on May 13 that two deputy defense ministers—Ruslan Tsalikov and Alexey Krivoruchko—submitted their resignations to Shoigu a week before Putin removed Shoigu as defense minister.[25] Russian milbloggers claimed that Tsalikov was "Shoigu's right-hand man" for many years and oversaw troop support and the Russian MoD's department on information policy and information warfare.[26] Krivoruchko is also reportedly close with Shoigu and oversaw military-technical support, weapons development, special equipment, and the implementation of state defense orders.[27] Russian sources claimed that both Tsalikov and Krivoruchko were embroiled in corruption scandals, and one Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger noted that frontline troops directly suffered as a result of their corrupt practices.[28] Russian insider sources claimed that Russian authorities questioned Tsalikov over possible corruption charges in late April, and suggested at the time that Tsalikov would be forced into retirement.[29] Russian authorities recently removed former Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, also a reported close Shoigu ally, from his position on corruption charges.[30] Tsalikov and Krivoruchko may have resigned in hope of receiving new positions outside of the MoD in order to avoid criminal prosecution on charges similar to Ivanov's charges. Kremlin-awarded milblogger suggested that Tsalikov will also take a new role in the Russian Security Council following Shoigu.[31] Russian insider sources speculated that Belousov, as new defense minister, will only want to leave a maximum of two to three officials affiliated with Shoigu in the Russian MoD, suggesting that more Shoigu affiliates may still resign or be fired in the coming weeks.[32] One Russian milblogger speculated that Shoigu and his affiliates were part of the alleged "pro-China" party in the Russian MoD and suggested that other MoD officials associated with Russia's China policy will be removed or resign alongside Shoigu, Ivanov, and others, although ISW cannot verify these speculations.[33] Putin likely used the constitutionally mandated ministerial resignations following his inauguration and subsequent nomination of new senior officials as a convenient moment to dismiss ineffective officials. Putin likely assessed that Shoigu's constitutionally mandated resignation, almost a year after deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion to remove Shoigu and Russian Chief of the Army General Staff Valery Gerasimov from power, was the appropriate time to remove Shoigu from the Russian MoD without appearing to give in to Prigozhin's demands.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful missile strikes against a Russian air defense base in occupied Crimea and successful drone strikes against Russian energy infrastructure in Russia. Russian opposition news outlet Astra reported, citing a source in the Crimean occupation Ministry of Emergency Services, that Ukrainian forces struck a Russian air defense base of the 3rd Radio Engineering Regiment (Russian Aerospace Forces' [VKS] radio engineering troops) on Mount Ai-Petri in occupied Crimea on May 13, likely with several Storm Shadow missiles.[34] Astra reported that the strike killed an unspecified number of Russian personnel and likely the commander of the 3rd Radio Engineering Regiment. Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda reported on May 13 that one of its sources in the Ukrainian military confirmed the Mount Ai-Petri strike.[35] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces shot down four Storm Shadow missiles and seven drones over Crimea.[36] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported on May 13 that its sources in Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) stated that the SBU conducted a drone strike against the Oskolneftesnabzheniye oil depot near Stary Oskol, Belgorod Oblast, and the Yeletskaya electrical substation in Lipetsk Oblast, which supplies traction substations to Russian Railways, the Stanovaya oil pumping station, and transit between Lipetsk, Oryol, and Bryansk oblasts' power systems.[37] Lipetsk Oblast Governor Igor Artamonov claimed that Russian forces suppressed drones in Lipetsk Oblast and stated that a fire occurred at an electrical substation, presumably due to one of the Ukrainian drones.[38]

Breaking Defense reported on May 13 that Estonia may be considering sending its troops to Ukrainian rear areas in order to free up Ukrainian troops for redeployment to more critical areas of the theater.[39] National Security Advisor to the Estonian President, Madis Roll, told Breaking Defense that the Estonian government is "seriously" considering sending Estonian troops to western Ukraine to take over non-combat roles in the rear from Ukrainian troops, allowing Ukrainian forces to deploy to frontline areas. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė noted on May 8 that the Lithuanian government has granted permission for Lithuanian troops to serve in similar non-combat rear area training roles in the future.[40]

Key Takeaways: 

  • Russian forces continued to make tactically significant advances north and northeast of Kharkiv City on May 13 and currently appear to be prioritizing the rapid establishment of a "buffer zone" along the international border over setting conditions for deeper penetrations into northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian forces' relatively rapid rate of advances in Vovchansk and their reported destruction of several bridges across key waterways within the settlement suggest that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a "buffer zone" over a deeper penetration, as ISW previously assessed they would.
  • Newly appointed Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu participated in his first Security Council meeting as secretary on May 13, amid continued reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is focusing on mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin's decision to remove Shoigu from the Russian MoD appears to have also opened the door for the departure of certain Shoigu affiliates from the MoD, likely one of the intended effects of Putin's recent cabinet reshuffles.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful missile strikes against a Russian air defense base in occupied Crimea and successful drone strikes against Russian energy infrastructure in Russia.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Lyptsi and Vovchansk in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • The Russian military may be intensifying efforts to recruit conscripts through the Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF) as part of ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 12, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

May 12, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2pm ET on May 12. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 13 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Sergei Shoigu with Andrei Belousov as Russian Minister of Defense on May 12, moving Shoigu to the position of Security Council Secretary in place of Nikolai Patrushev. These high-level reshuffles following the Russian presidential election strongly suggest that Putin is taking significant steps towards mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine and possibly prepare for a future confrontation with NATO. The Russian Federation Council posted a list of Putin's proposed cabinet ministers on May 12, which notably confirms that Putin has "proposed" Belousov as the new Minister of Defense (Putin's proposals are orders).[1] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Kremlin newswire TASS that Shoigu, who has served as Russian defense minister since 2012 — will assume the position of Security Council Secretary and act as Putin's deputy on the Russian Military-Industrial Commission.[2] Peskov also announced that Putin dismissed Patrushev from his former position as Security Council Secretary "due to [his] transfer to another job," which was not specified and that the Kremlin will announce his new role in the "near future."[3] Peskov also noted that Army General Valery Gerasimov will remain Chief of the Russian General Staff, and a change in this position is not foreseen at this time.[4] Gerasimov is also currently the overall theater commander for Russian forces in Ukraine.

Belousov's appointment to the position of Russian Defense Minister is a significant development in Putin's efforts to set full economic conditions for a protracted war. Belousov has no military experience and is an economist by trade — he served as Russian Minister of Economic Development from 2012–2013, following a career in economic analysis and forecasting between 1981 and 2006.[5] His lack of military experience is not anomalous — Shoigu also lacked experience in uniform before he took over the Defense Ministry.[6] Belousov then served as First Deputy Prime Minister from 2020 until his new 2024 appointment.[7] Belousov is also a known advocate for greater government involvement in the economy.[8] Peskov announced Belousov's appointment to state newswire TASS on May 12 and explained that "it is very important to fit the economy of the security bloc [domestic security power vertical] into the country's economy," suggesting that the Kremlin intends for Belousov to integrate and streamline the DIB and industries affiliated with Russia's security and defense forces with wider domestic economic policy.[9] Several Russian insider sources similarly responded to Belousov's new position and claimed that it shows that Putin has serious concerns over corruption levels and misuse of funds within the Russian military, conflicts between the military and the Russian DIB, and the perceived inefficacy of the Russian MoD as a whole.[10] An unnamed Russian federal official told Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii that Belousov will work in his new role to "competently organize work and logistics processes, ensure the necessary production and supplies, orient the economy towards the 'special military operation,' and squeeze the technological maximum out of the defense industry."[11] A prominent Kremlin-awarded milblogger noted that Belousov's new role "means the beginning of a large-scale audit and restructuring of all financial models" in the Russian MoD.[12]

Belousov's nearly decade-long tenure as an economic minister in the Russian federal government and his more recent involvement managing various domestic DIB innovation and drone projects, prepare him well to lead the struggling Russian MoD apparatus. The Russian MoD under Shoigu struggled with allegations of high-level corruption and bureaucratic inertia, facing constant scathing critiques from Russian military commentators.[13] Belousov has a stronger reputation for being an effective technocrat, and insider sources have claimed that he has a positive relationship with Putin.[14] Belousov met with Putin in November 2023 to discuss DIB projects and technological cooperation and has spoken to Putin about issues with Russia's domestic drone production.[15] Belousov also more recently highlighted a draft state order for 4.4 billion-rubles (roughly $48 million) for the production of drones until 2030, as well as plans to financially support drone producers and train drone developers and operators.[16] The focus on maximizing the technological innovation and output of the Russian DIB, particularly in the drone sphere, is likely to be extremely valuable to the Kremlin's war effort —the Kremlin has recently had to reckon with a gap between Russian drone production and contemporary battlefield realities.[17] Belousov personally announced in January 2023 that Russia had finalized the "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" project, which provides 696 billion rubles (about $7 billion) for the production of 32,000 drones per year until 2030.[18] Putin likely intends Belousov to use his experience in a civilian government position to bridge federal economic policies with the Russian MoD agenda, thereby more fully mobilizing the Russian DIB at a larger and longer-term scale and integrating it with domestic economic policy. This effort sets conditions for a fuller economic mobilization, suggesting that the Kremlin continues to prepare for a protracted war in Ukraine.

Shoigu's replacement of Patrushev as Security Council Secretary is in line with Putin's general pattern of quietly sidelining high-level security officials by granting them peripheral roles within the Russian security sphere rather than simply firing them. The Russian Security Council is an advisory body that also plays a role in executing security-related policies and developing Russian strategic culture, making Shoigu's appointment as Security Council Secretary and de facto demotion from the prestigious post of Russian Defense Minister less humiliating.[19] Putin has removed Shoigu from the direct MoD chain of command but granted him continued influence in the security space. Shoigu has remained an important and loyal subordinate, and sometimes a scapegoat, and Putin likely benefits from maintaining Shoigu's leadership and experience in some official capacity. Shoigu's removal also follows two high-profile incidents — the removal of his reported ally Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on corruption charges and Putin's meeting with Shoigu's political adversary and Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin to discuss DIB updates, which were likely leading indicators of the Kremlin's preparations to remove Shoigu from his long-held position.[20]

Putin has previously similarly sidelined his failed generals by appointing them to peripheral security and defense related positions outside of the direct chain of command, sometimes allowing them to redeem themselves and return to Putin’s favor as ISW has assessed.[21] Putin's removal of Patrushev from the Security Council is noteworthy, however, since several Western and Russian reports that Patrushev is a close personal ally of Putin—the Wall Street Journal alleged in December 2023 that Patrushev was the individual responsible for the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023.[22] WSJ reported that Patrushev's 2008 appointment as Security Council Secretary was largely a formality and that Patrushev serves as de facto head of all Russian security services, making him the second most powerful person in Russia.[23] WSJ also reported that Patrushev acts as a "hybrid intelligence official and diplomat" and routinely pays visits to world leaders on Putin's behalf. ISW cannot yet confirm what Patrushev's new role will be but considering Patrushev's reported personal importance to Putin's regime stability and Putin's longtime tendency to balance Russian siloviki (strongmen with political influence) such as Patrushev within the power vertical, Patrushev’s next position will be an important reflection of Putin's intent. The Kremlin may establish a new role or office for Patrushev to lead, such as establishing a higher-ranking position to manage the siloviki faction.

Aside from Patrushev's dismissal, Putin largely reappointed the heads of core Russian security services, suggesting that he maintains a core cadre of loyal siloviki. Putin reappointed Vladimir Kolokoltsev as Minister of Internal Affairs, Sergei Naryshkin as Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Alexander Bortnikov as Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Viktor Zolotov as Director of Rosgvardia.[24] ISW previously assessed that Russian security services and affiliated siloviki, particularly Bortnikov, were key constituencies for Putin's election to his fifth term, and Putin has relied heavily on the work of the aforementioned security agencies to maintain regime stability, particularly following the failed Wagner Group rebellion.[25] Kolokolstev has been instrumental in coordinating the Kremlin's migrant policy (which has been especially relevant in the aftermath of the March 22 IS attack on Crocus City Hall); Naryshkin has been an important player in establishing information conditions and propagating justifications for the war; Putin has personally praised Bortnikov and the FSB for protecting Russian sovereignty; and Zolotov has spearheaded efforts to absorb former Wagner Group fighters into Rosgvardia.[26] These siloviki form the backbone of Putin's core cabinet, and their reappointment suggests that Putin will continue to rely on, and empower them, into his next term.

Russian offensive efforts to seize Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City) are in large part a consequence of the tacit Western policy that Ukrainian forces cannot use Western-provided systems to strike legitimate military targets within Russia. Russian forces appear to be attempting to encircle Vovchansk as Russian forces approach city itself via Buhruvatka, Starytsya, and Izbytske to the west along the C-210817 road and via Vovchanskyi Khutory to the east along the O-210825 road.[27] The Russian seizure of any of these settlements would cut these Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Vovchansk and make the remaining GLOCs (T-2104 highway) increasingly crucial to the city's defense. Russian forces have also increasingly targeted bridges across nearby water features to isolate the Ukrainian defense of Vovchansk from other areas.[28] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets assessed that Vovchansk is the main Russian effort in the northern Kharkiv Oblast direction and that Russian forces intend to bypass Vovchansk itself from the southwest and south.[29] Mashovets noted that Vovchansk's proximity to the international border affords Russian forces "many opportunities," including allowing Russian forces to conduct operations with limited forces and means to achieve a specific result; provides Russian forces with a "small shoulder of delivery" to allow stable control and fire support without moving their artillery; and allows for quick fuel and weapons deliveries to the frontline. 

Russian forces are reaping the benefits of the West's long-term restriction on Ukraine using Western-provided weapons to strike legitimate military targets on Russian territory — territory that Russian forces now depend on to sustain their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Western officials have prohibited Ukraine from using Western-supplied weapons to strike targets on Russian territory, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly stated their adherence to this condition.[30] UK Foreign Minister David Cameron only recently greenlit Ukrainian forces to use UK-provided weapons to strike targets in Russian territory, but this is insufficient for Ukraine's interdiction needs in Russian territory and came too late to allow Ukrainian forces to inhibit Russia's ability to concentrate forces along the international border.[31] Ukrainian forces have previously used US-provided HIMARS to devastating effect, particularly in forcing Russian forces to withdraw from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast in November 2022 and continue to use HIMARS and other US- and Western-provided weapons to strike Russian force concentrations in rear and deep rear areas in occupied Ukraine.[32] Ukrainian forces regularly conduct drone strikes against infrastructure and airfields in Russia, but these lack the same interdiction effects that Ukrainian forces now need to generate to undermine the Russian offensive operations.[33]   Ukrainian forces would greatly benefit from being able to use advanced long-range weapons systems to disrupt Russian logistics nodes and routes that are currently supplying the Kharkiv offensive but must instead rely on their limited and depleted stock of indigenous weapons.

Kremlin information operations encouraging Western self-deterrence likely aimed to allow Russian forces to build up and launch offensive operations without the threat of Ukrainian strikes against military and logistics assets. Russian President Vladimir Putin, senior Kremlin officials, and pro-Kremlin mouthpieces have regularly threatened Western states and accused them of "provocations" for continuing to provide military assistance to Ukraine.[34] Kremlin mouthpieces have maintained this rhetorical line even after the passage of a $61 billion dollar US military assistance package to Ukraine in late April, likely in support of an effort to prevent Ukrainian forces from using these weapons to degrade Russia's various ongoing offensive efforts.[35] The Kremlin will likely continue to leverage this information operation as part of its ongoing reflexive control campaign to inhibit Ukraine's ability to use all its available weapons to defend against the current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast, forcing Ukraine to allocate other resources to a less effective defense and creating opportunities for Russian forces on other sectors of the front to exploit.[36]

Ukrainian forces continue to conduct repeat strikes on Russian oil and defense industrial infrastructure, prompting Russian milbloggers to complain about Russian forces' clear and continued inability to defend against these strikes. Ukrainian outlets Ukrainska Pravda and RBK Ukraine cited sources in Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) as stating that the GUR conducted strikes with Ukrainian-made drones against the Kaluganefteprodukt oil depot in Kaluga Oblast, the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant in Lipetsk Oblast, and the Lukoil oil refinery in Volgograd Oblast overnight on May 11 to 12.[37] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces destroyed two drones over Lipetsk Oblast and one drone over Volgograd Oblast.[38] Volgograd Oblast Governor Andrey Bocharov claimed that a falling Ukrainian drone detonated and started a fire at the Volgograd oil refinery, and Lipetsk Oblast Governor Igor Artamonov claimed that Russian forces repelled a strike on infrastructure in the Lipetsk City industrial zone.[39] Russian opposition media published footage on May 12 of a fire at the Volgograd oil refinery.[40] ISW cannot independently verify the reported Ukrainian strikes against Kaluga and Lipetsk oblasts. Ukrainian forces reportedly struck the Lukoil Volgograd oil refinery on the night of May 10 to 11 and on February 3, struck the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant on the night of April 23 to 24 and February 23 to 24, and struck the Kaluganefteprodukt oil depot on April 28.[41]

A Russian milblogger extensively complained about Russian forces' inability to repel Ukrainian strikes on Russian infrastructure, claiming that the Russian military command consistently underestimates Ukrainian capabilities and that Russian forces should learn from Ukraine's ability to adapt to Russian strike methods.[42] The milblogger criticized the way Russian forces are trying to combat drone strikes with outdated Soviet-era weapons and without reconnaissance equipment. Another prominent, Kremlin-awarded milblogger agreed with the first milblogger, claiming that Russian forces lack an understanding of asymmetric warfare and that the Russian military command is slow to make changes.[43] The milblogger also blamed the issue on Russian military commanders who submit dishonest reports to the senior Russian military command — a common complaint among Russian milbloggers.[44] The milblogger claimed that Ukraine and the West are "more flexible, smarter, and more efficient" than Russian forces. The milblogger oddly and preemptively noted that this statement does not "discredit" the Russian military, which is a crime in Russia, but is instead an "adequate assessment" of the potential of the "enemy" that Russia is fighting.

Several German politicians from different political parties expressed support for using NATO air defense systems stationed in NATO member states to shoot down Russian drones over western Ukraine. German outlet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on May 11 that German Bundestag members Roderich Kiesewetter of the Christian Democrat Union Party, Agnieszka Brugger of the Green Party, and Marcus Faber of the Free Democratic Party expressed support for using NATO air defenses in countries bordering Ukraine, such as Poland and Romania, to intercept Russian drones over western Ukraine to allow Ukrainian air defenders to focus on protecting frontline areas.[45] 

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Sergei Shoigu with Andrei Belousov as Russian Minister of Defense on May 12, moving Shoigu to the position of Security Council Secretary in place of Nikolai Patrushev. These high-level reshuffles following the Russian presidential election strongly suggest that Putin is taking significant steps towards mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine and possibly prepare for a future confrontation with NATO.
  • Belousov's nearly decade-long tenure as an economic minister in the Russian federal government and his more recent involvement managing various domestic DIB innovation and drone projects, prepare him well to lead the struggling Russian MoD apparatus.
  • Shoigu's replacement of Patrushev as Security Council Secretary is in line with Putin's general pattern of quietly sidelining high-level security officials by granting them peripheral roles within the Russian security sphere rather than simply firing them.
  • Russian offensive efforts to seize Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City) are in large part a consequence of the tacit Western policy that Ukrainian forces cannot use Western-provided systems to strike legitimate military targets within Russia.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to conduct repeat strikes on Russian oil and defense industrial infrastructure, prompting Russian milbloggers to complain about Russian forces' clear and continued inability to defend against these strikes.
  • Several German politicians from different political parties expressed support for using NATO air defense systems stationed in NATO member states to shoot down Russian drones over western Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Lyptsi and Vovchansk in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Former Roscosmos (Russian space agency) head and ultranationalist figure Dmitry Rogozin highlighted Russian forces' continued difficulty repelling Ukrainian drones on the frontline.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 11, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 11, 2024, 8:20pm ET 

Russian forces are conducting relatively limited offensive operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast and continued to make tactically significant gains in likely less defended areas. The reported sizes of the Russian elements committed to these limited operations and of the Russian force grouping deployed along the border in northeastern Ukraine indicate that Russian forces are not pursuing a large-scale operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv City at this time. Ukrainska Pravda reported that Russian forces resumed offensive operations north of Lyptsi (north of Kharkiv City) on the morning of May 11 and focused on Hlyboke (immediately north of Lyptsi), where Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced to the outskirts of the settlement and later seized and cleared the settlement.[1] NASA Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) data captured on May 10 indicates that there has likely been heavy fighting near Hlyboke, and ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced up to the outskirts of the settlement.[2] Geolocated footage published on May 11 indicates that Russian forces have seized Morokhovets and Oliinykove (both northeast of Lypsti), and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces seized these settlements.[3] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian assaults west of Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City) near Ohirtseve and Hatyshche, two settlements that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces seized as of May 11.[4] ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced at least to the outskirts of Ohirtseve and Hatyshche. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces also seized Strilecha, Pylna, and Borsivika (north to northwest of Lypsti), claims that ISW assesses to be accurate, as well as Pletenivka (north of Vovchansk).[5] Russian sources also claimed that Russian forces seized Hoptivka and Kudiivka (both northwest of Lyptsi and southeast of Kozacha Lopan).[6] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced further towards Lukyantsi (northeast of Lyptsi), to the northern outskirts of Neskuchne (northeast of Lyptsi), and to the western outskirts of Staritsa and Izbytske (west of Vovchansk and east of Lyptsi).[7] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced from Hatyshche to the northwestern outskirts of Vovchansk, south from Pletenivka, and towards Tykhe (on Vovchansk's northeastern outskirts).[8] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces seized Tykhe and are currently trying to advance east of the settlement into Vovchansk.[9] ISW has not observed evidence that would support an assessment that these Russian claims correspond with Russian advances at this time.

Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated that Russian forces are trying to advance in areas that were already contested "grey zones," suggesting that Ukrainian forces did not maintain enduring positions in many of the small border settlements that Russian forces have seized or have reportedly seized.[10] It is unlikely that Ukrainian forces would have established serious strongholds and fortifications along a contested grey zone or enduring positions in small border settlements that Russian forces have long subjected to routine indirect fire. Russian forces will likely face more intense resistance when trying to advance near settlements further south of the border and into larger border settlements like Lyptsi and Vovchansk. The proximity of Kharkiv City to the border magnifies the significance of limited Russian tactical gains, however, as Russian forces do not have to advance much further to begin threatening Kharkiv City with routine shelling.[11]

Russian forces reportedly launched offensive operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast before they had completed bringing the Northern Grouping of Forces up to its reported planned end strength and have so far only committed a limited amount of combat power to offensive operations in the area. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on May 11 that Russian forces have committed up to two companies of the 7th Motorized Rifle Regiment (11th Army Corps [AC], Leningrad Military District [LMD]) and up to two battalions of the 18th Motorized Rifle Brigade (11th AC, LMD) to the ongoing operations in the Lyptsi and Vovchansk directions.[12] Ukrainian military observer Alexander Kovalenko stated on May 11 that elements of the 30th Motorized Rifle Regiment (72nd Motorized Rifle Division, 44th AC, LMD) and the 128th Motorized Rifle Brigade (44th AC, LMD) are also operating in the area.[13] Kovalenko stated that Russian forces have committed 2,000 personnel to the frontline along the border and have 1,500 to 2,000 personnel in immediate reserve.[14] Kovalenko stated that elements of the 44th AC are currently redeploying to Belgorod Oblast and that 3,750 additional Russian personnel from the 44th AC may arrive in the area within the next week.[15] Kovalenko stated that the Russian Northern Grouping of Forces has 30,000 to 35,000 personnel deployed along the entire border with Ukraine in Kursk, Bryansk, and Belgorod oblasts, a figure consistent with Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi's May 2 report that Russian forces had roughly 35,000 personnel deployed to the international border area.[16] Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces intend to establish a grouping in the area that is between 50,000 and 75,000 personnel in size.[17] Ukrainian sources stated that Ukrainian forces have destroyed at least 20 Russian armored vehicles since Russian forces began offensive operations in the area on the morning of May 10, but Russian and Ukrainian sources continue to characterize Russian offensive operations along the border as consisting primarily of heavy infantry assaults.[18] Russian forces will likely introduce reserves to intensify ongoing offensive operations in the area in the coming days, however, the Russian forces lack the necessary manpower required to attempt a large-scale offensive operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv City according to all available reports.

ISW continues to assess that the Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast likely aim to draw Ukrainian forces from other sectors of the front while allowing Russian forces to advance to within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City.[19] Russian forces are maintaining the tempo of their offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Chasiv Yar, and west of Avdiivka, and the Russian military command likely hopes that operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast could cause the Ukrainian military command to dedicate manpower and materiel to the defense north of Kharkiv City that it could otherwise dedicate to defending in these other directions. A Russian advance towards Kharkiv City that would allow Russian forces to conduct effective and routine indirect fire would give Russian forces the capability to inflict significant damage to Kharkiv City in order to prompt mass migration from the city and set conditions for a larger offensive operation at a later date.[20] US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated on May 10 that Russian forces are preparing to use long-range fire capabilities within the radius of Kharkiv City and that this indicates that the Russian military is considering a larger offensive operation against Kharkiv City.[21] Russian long-range fire may similarly intend to set conditions for a subsequent offensive operation against Kharkiv City, and Kirby did not indicate that the White House believes that the Russian military is considering an immediate effort to seize Kharkiv City. The seizure of Kharkiv City most certainly is a desired operational objective for Russian forces, but not one that the Russian military appears to be pursuing in the near term.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military command may be evaluating the risks, prospects, and timeline of offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast based on the assumption that Ukraine cannot and will not be able to liberate territory seized by Russian forces. Putin's and the Russian military command's calculus about the threat of Ukrainian territorial gains is likely shaping Russia's overall operational approach to seizing territory in Ukraine. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence's (ODNI) 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably believes" that Russian forces have blunted Ukrainian efforts to retake significant territory and that US and Western support for Ukraine is "finite."[22] Russia's intended timeline for its ongoing offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast remains unclear, but Russian forces may intend for their offensive operations in northern and northeastern Kharkiv Oblast to achieve their operational objectives long after summer 2024. The Russian military command may assume that Russian forces will be able to hold any limited gains they make in northern Kharkiv Oblast and other oblasts in perpetuity because they think that Ukrainian forces will be unable to launch successful counteroffensive efforts at any point in the future. Russian forces have made a series of tactically significant advances in Donetsk Oblast, particularly near Avdiivka, in recent months without Ukrainian counterattacks even momentarily pushing back Russian forces, and these recent unchallenged gains may be contributing to Putin's and the Russian military command's calculus.[23] Putin may believe that Russian forces can continue to make opportunistic and unchallenged advances throughout the frontline over the next months, or even years, and ultimately force Ukraine to submit to total Russian subjugation. Ukrainian materiel constraints due to delays in Western security assistance have prevented Ukrainian forces from launching significant counterattacks against Russian offensive operations, but the arrival of US security assistance to the front at scale will likely allow Ukrainian forces to resume counterattacks that threaten Russian forces' ability to hold tactical gains.[24]

The limited Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast suggest that the resumption of US security assistance has not changed Putin's calculus or that he launched the Kharkiv effort without reassessing the operation's fundamental assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities in light of the resumption of aid. Russian forces are currently attacking with a force grouping well below its reported intended end strength, a risky decision if Putin and the Russian military command believed that there was a threat for Ukrainian forces to roll back any tactical gains that this understrength force could make before Russian forces staffed it to end strength. Russian forces are currently advancing in several areas that do not provide immediate avenues of advance toward Kharkiv City or other immediate operationally significant objectives. Russian forces may be advancing in these areas because they believe that they can hold any seized ground indefinitely and use that ground to launch subsequent operations to more operationally significant goals. Russian forces may also believe that they can pursue gradual creeping advances across a wide swath of territory in northern and northeastern Kharkiv Oblast for an extended period of time without achieving relatively rapid operationally significant advances but in a way that would disadvantage any future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in the area.

It is imperative for Ukrainian forces to disrupt any such Russian calculations as soon as possible through both limited and large-scale counteroffensive operations that liberate Russian-occupied territory as soon as conditions permit. ISW has routinely argued that Ukrainian forces should contest the theater-wide initiative as soon as possible because ceding the theater-wide initiative to Russia into 2025 affords Russian forces the ability to determine the timing, location, and intensity of Russian attacks and control the resources that Ukrainian forces expend during this protracted period.[25] Ukrainian forces will not have a chance to liberate territory if they remain on the defensive for the foreseeable future, and remaining entirely on the defensive will only encourage Putin to continue grinding offensive operations indefinitely seeking complete victory over time. ISW has repeatedly assessed that the consistent provision of key Western systems to Ukraine will play a critical role in Russia's prospects in 2024 and Ukraine's ability to conduct future counteroffensive operations and liberate Ukrainian territory from Russian occupation.[26] The West must proactively and preemptively provide Ukrainian forces with the necessary equipment and weapons for their future counteroffensive operations if Ukrainian forces are to liberate significant swaths of occupied Ukraine and challenge Putin's belief that Ukraine is and will remain unable to do so.

The directions of Russian offensive operations in the international border area suggest that Russia may be attempting to create a "buffer zone" to protect Belgorod City, as Russian and Ukrainian officials have recently stated. Russian officials, including Russian Vladimir Putin, have recently called for the creation of a "buffer zone" to protect Russia's claimed and actual territories from Ukrainian strikes.[27] Although this stated goal is actually unachievable as long as an independent Ukraine with any strike capabilities and will to fight remains, Kremlin officials have explicitly listed Kharkiv City as a part of a hypothesized limited demilitarized zone aimed at protecting Belgorod City.[28] Western and Ukrainian media reported on May 10 that Ukrainian military sources stated that Russian forces intend to establish a 10-kilometer deep buffer zone along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast.[29] This objective likely is intended not only to push Ukrainian tube artillery out of range of Russian military logistics in Belgorod Oblast, but also to bring Russian tube artillery within striking distance of Kharkiv City. Russian forces are currently conducting offensive operations near Hoptivka (northwest of Lyptsi), and it is notable that Russian forces are also attempting to advance in areas that are separate from the area north of Lyptsi where Russian forces have already made tactically significant advances. Russian forces are also notably conducting offensive operations north and west of Vovchansk on both sides of the Siverskyi Donetsk River, which would pose a significant obstacle to Russian forces on the east side of the river should they attempt to advance southwestward to Kharkiv City. These various directions of Russian offensive operations further suggest that Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast are not aimed at an immediate large-scale offensive operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv City. Russian forces may, however, be aiming to seize a wide swath of Ukrainian territory in the area immediately south of the border with Belgorod Oblast, likely including Vovchansk, to create a "buffer zone." Russian attempts to advance in an area that is relatively wide and not very deep along the border, especially in the area north of Hoptivka towards Kozacha Lopan, would further indicate that this is the Russian operational objective in the international border area.

Russian forces appear to be attempting to quickly isolate the battlespace east of the Siverskyi Donets River and seize Vovchansk, a direction of advance that Russian forces may believe could threaten the Ukrainian grouping defending in the Kupyansk direction. Geolocated footage published on May 11 shows a Russian strike destroying the Siverskyi Donets Dam bridge in Stary Saltiv (southwest of Vovchansk).[30] Footage published on May 11 purportedly shows Russian forces striking a bridge over the Vovcha River connecting Tykhe and Vovchanski Khutory (both west of Vovchansk).[31] Russian forces likely destroyed the bridges in an effort to isolate the Ukrainian forces operating on either side of the water features to prevent them from supporting Ukrainian forces defending against ongoing Russian attacks near Vovchansk. Russian attempts to destroy Ukrainian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) southwest and east of Vovchansk indicate that Russian forces will likely focus on seizing Vovchansk instead of attempting to bypass the settlement or expanding the front further east along the international border between Russia and Ukraine. Russian forces reportedly conducted at least 20 glide bomb strikes against Vovchansk on May 11 and are heavily focusing artillery, MLRS, and drone strikes on the settlement.[32] Russian forces may also intend to use offensive operations near Vovchansk to pressure the operational rear of Ukrainian forces defending against Russian attacks in the Kupyansk direction and draw away Ukrainian units defending in the Kupyansk area. A Russian foothold in Vovchansk does little to support a Russian effort to advance towards Kharkiv City, although Russian forces may imagine that a foothold in the settlement could allow Russian forces to launch offensive operations in the direction of Velykyi Burluk, a notable settlement in the rear of the Ukrainian grouping in the Kupyansk direction. Russian advances further south of Vovchansk would require long drives across open terrain, a capability that Russian forces have not shown in the past year and a half of fighting in Ukraine even during the period of most acute Ukrainian resource shortages.[33]

Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin reiterated a series of Kremlin narratives intended to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine and attempted to flatter Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military during an interview in honor of the 10th anniversary of the DNR's founding, likely in an attempt to curry favor in the Kremlin. Pushilin claimed during an interview with Kremlin newswire TASS on May 11 that Russia must seize Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, Sumy, and a number of other unspecified cities during its invasion of Ukraine and "liberate" all of the "Russian people" who live in these supposedly "Russian" cities.[34] Pushilin strangely claimed that his list of cities encompasses more than "real historical Russian cities." Pushilin claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to not conduct strikes against Ukraine's energy grid this past winter due to Putin's great concern for Ukrainian civilians but also claimed that Russian forces should intensify their strikes against bridges and transportation hubs in Ukraine.[35] Pushilin claimed that Putin is the "main curator" of Donbas and Novorossiya and is "immersed" in the details of everything happening in occupied Ukraine and that the pace of Russian forces operation to seize the remainder of Donetsk Oblast is "adequate" and is not "too fast or too slow."[36]

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian oil refinery in Volgograd Oblast on the night of May 10 to 11. Sources in Ukrainian special services told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted drone strikes against a Lukoil refinery in Volgograd Oblast and damaged the AVT-1 and AVT-6 oil processing facilities and control cables for the facility's air coolers.[37] Volgograd Oblast Governor Andrei Bocharov claimed on May 11 that Russian forces intercepted a drone over Volgograd Oblast and that it did not damage any infrastructure.[38] Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) reportedly conducted a drone strike against the same oil refinery on February 3.[39]

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin submitted proposals on the composition of the new Russian government to the State Duma on May 11.[40] Mishustin proposed that current Minister of Agriculture Dmitry Patrushev become a Deputy Prime Minister and that current Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoit become the Minister of Transport.[41] Mishustin also proposed that current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov leave his position as Minister of Industry and Trade and become First Deputy Prime Minister. Mishustin nominated current Kaliningrad Oblast Governor Anton Alikhanov to replace Manturov as Minister of Industry and Trade. Dmitry Patrushev is notably the son of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and this is the second recent case of nominations to high ranking positions for children of people in Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle after Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matvienko nominated Boris Kovalchuk – the son of Putin's "personal banker" Yuri Kovalchuk – as a candidate for the head of the Federation Council Accounts Chamber on May 10.[42]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces are conducting relatively limited offensive operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast and continued to make tactically significant gains in likely less defended areas. The reported sizes of the Russian elements committed to these limited operations and of the Russian force grouping deployed along the border in northeastern Ukraine indicate that Russian forces are not pursuing a large-scale operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv City at this time.
  • Russian forces reportedly launched offensive operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast before they had completed bringing the Northern Grouping of Forces up to its reported planned end strength and have so far only committed a limited amount of combat power to offensive operations in the area.
  • ISW continues to assess that the Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast likely aim to draw Ukrainian forces from other sectors of the front while allowing Russian forces to advance to within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military command may be evaluating the risks, prospects, and timeline of offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast based on the assumption that Ukraine cannot and will not be able to liberate territory seized by Russian forces. Putin's and the Russian military command's calculus about the threat of Ukrainian territorial gains is likely shaping Russia's overall operational approach to seizing territory in Ukraine.
  • The limited Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast suggest that the resumption of US security assistance has not changed Putin's calculus or that he launched the Kharkiv effort without reassessing the operation's fundamental assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities in light of the resumption of aid.
  • The directions of Russian offensive operations in the international border area suggest that Russia may be attempting to create a "buffer zone" to protect Belgorod City, as Russian and Ukrainian officials have recently stated.
  • Russian forces appear to be attempting to quickly isolate the battlespace east of the Siverskyi Donets River and seize Vovchansk, a direction of advance that Russian forces may believe could threaten the Ukrainian grouping defending in the Kupyansk direction.
  • Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin reiterated a series of Kremlin narratives intended to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine and attempted to flatter Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military during an interview in honor of the 10th anniversary of the DNR's founding, likely in an attempt to curry favor in the Kremlin.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian oil refinery in Volgograd Oblast on the night of May 10 to 11.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin submitted proposals on the composition of the new Russian government to the State Duma on May 11.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast; near Svatove, Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City; in western Zaporizhia Oblast; and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to highlight frontline Russian units fighting in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 10, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan 

May 10, 2024, 9:15pm ET

Russian forces began an offensive operation along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast on the morning of May 10 and made tactically significant gains. Russian forces are likely conducting the initial phase of an offensive operation north of Kharkiv City that has limited operational objectives but is meant to achieve the strategic effect of drawing Ukrainian manpower and materiel from other critical sectors of the front in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have so far launched two limited efforts in the area, one north of Kharkiv City in the direction of Lyptsi and one northeast of Kharkiv City near Vovchansk. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Russian armored assault groups of an unspecified size attempted to break through Ukrainian defenses near Vovchansk early in the morning and that fighting continued in the area after Ukrainian forces repelled the Russian assaults.[1] Russian and Ukrainian sources stated that Russian forces also began infantry-heavy assaults between Strilecha (north of Lyptsi) and Zelene (northeast of Lyptsi) on the night of May 9 to 10.[2] Russian and Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces significantly intensified airstrikes, shelling, and MLRS strikes against Ukrainian positions, logistics, and infrastructure ahead of and during Russian offensive operations in these areas.[3]

Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov and Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda reported that Russian forces seized Strilecha, Krasne, Pylna, and Borisivka (all north to northeast of Lyptsi), and Butusov reported that Russian forces have established a foothold in the area five kilometers deep and 10 kilometers wide.[4] Geolocated footage confirms that Russian forces have seized Pylna and advanced south of the settlement, and Russian sources have also widely claimed that Russian forces seized Strilecha, Krasne, and Borisivka.[5] NASA Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) data from May 10 indicates that heavy fighting has likely occurred in and near these four settlements.[6] ISW assesses with high confidence, based on credible Ukrainian reporting and the preponderance of evidence, that Russian forces have seized Strilecha, Krasne, and Borisivka, but has yet to observe geolocated confirmation of this assessment. Russian milbloggers also claimed that Russian forces seized Zelene, Ohirtseve, and Hatyshche (both west of Vovchansk), although ISW has not observed confirmation of these claims.[7] Reuters reported that a senior Ukrainian military source stated that Russian forces advanced at least one kilometer in depth near Vovchansk.[8] ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced in the direction of Vovchansk but has not observed enough evidence to assess an approximate frontline trace in the immediate area. Ukrainian sources reported that fighting continued near Krasne, Morokhovets (northeast of Lyptsi), Oliinykove (northeast of Lyptsi), and Hatyshche later in the afternoon.[9]

Russian forces will likely leverage their tactical foothold in northern Kharkiv Oblast in the coming days to intensify offensive operations and pursue the initial phase of an offensive effort likely intended to push back Ukrainian forces from the border with Belgorod Oblast and advance to within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Russian forces have started "a new wave of offensive actions" in the Kharkiv direction, and Ukrainian officials have been warning about a Russian offensive effort in the direction of Kharkiv City in recent months.[10] Available combat footage suggests that Russian forces committed relatively limited manpower and a limited number of armored vehicles to their initial assaults.[11] Russian forces have been establishing the Northern Grouping of Forces along Ukraine's northern border with Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod oblasts and have reportedly concentrated between 35,000 and 50,000 personnel in the area.[12] Russian and Ukrainian sources did not specify the Russian elements that launched the offensive operations along the border, but it is highly likely that Russian forces have reserves ready to commit to intensify their offensive operations north of Kharkiv City in the coming days. Western and Ukrainian media reported that Ukrainian military sources stated that Russian forces intend to establish a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast, a zone likely intended to push Ukrainian forces out of tube artillery range of Russian logistics in Belgorod Oblast and bring Russian forces within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City.[13] Russian forces are unlikely to deploy tube artillery right along the frontline, so Russian forces likely intend to advance closer to Kharkiv City than the 25-kilometer range of most Soviet tube artillery systems. Russian forces are currently approximately 30 kilometers from the outskirts of Kharkiv City, and a Russian advance to within 20 kilometers of the city would likely allow Russian forces to conduct routine indirect fire against Kharkiv City with tube artillery. Routine indirect fire, in combination with continued glide bomb and missile strikes, would likely be intended to set conditions for a larger offensive effort against Kharkiv City at a later date.  

The limited efforts that Russian forces are currently conducting do not suggest that Russian forces are immediately pursuing a large-scale sweeping offensive operation to envelop, encircle, and seize Kharkiv City, however. Russian operations in the Vovchansk direction do not immediately support an advance towards Kharkiv City since Vovchansk is located on the eastern side of the Siverskyi Donets River and Pechenizkyi Reservoir. Ukrainska Pravda reported that Ukrainian military sources are considering that Russian offensive actions near Vovchansk may be diversionary.[14] Russian offensive operations near Vovchansk may intend to draw defending Ukrainian units from the area north of Kharkiv City to the other side of the Siverskyi Donets River and Pechenizkyi Reservoir or may intend to draw Ukrainian elements currently defending against resumed Russian offensive operations in the Kupyansk area away from that line. Russian advances in the Vovchansk area could also allow Russian forces to pressure the operational rear of Ukrainian forces defending in the Kupyansk direction. The Russian effort in the Lyptsi direction could support a narrow frontal assault against Kharkiv City, although it is highly unlikely that the Russian military command, which has been improving its operational planning in recent months, would pursue such a vulnerable avenue of advance towards Kharkiv City.[15] Russian forces are likely conducting offensive operations in the Lyptsi area because it offers the most direct route to advance to within effective tube artillery range of Kharkiv City.

Russian offensive operations along the Kharkiv international border likely have the strategic objective of drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces to this axis to enable Russian advances in other areas of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated that Russian forces are attempting to incite panic in Ukrainian forces to cause them to divert resources and manpower from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to Kharkiv Oblast.[16] Russian forces have sought to take advantage of opportunities to advance in multiple sectors of the frontline in eastern Ukraine due to Ukrainian manpower and materiel shortages in recent weeks, achieving tactical gains northwest and west of Avdiivka as well as intensifying efforts towards Chasiv Yar.[17] Resuming offensive efforts in northern Kharkiv Oblast and achieving even tactically significant gains could cause the Ukrainian military command to dedicate manpower and materiel to the defense north of Kharkiv City that it could otherwise dedicate to defending elsewhere. Ukrainian Commander in Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported on April 28 that Ukrainian forces deployed artillery and tank units to the "most threatened" areas in the Kharkiv direction, and the Ukrainian MoD reported on May 10 that Ukrainian forces have already deployed additional reserves to defend against the Russian offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[18] This Russian offensive effort likely aims to stretch Ukraine's limited resources and worsen Ukrainian manpower constraints by forcing Ukraine to respond to ongoing Russian offensive operations across a wider swath of territory in eastern Ukraine. The Russian military command likely hopes that this strategic effort to draw and fix Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv direction will weaken the Ukrainian defense in aggregate and allow Russian forces to achieve a breakthrough in any area that becomes the most vulnerable. Russian forces will likely attempt to exploit this intended theater-wide effect to intensify efforts to expand the breach northwest of Avdiivka and push to seize Chasiv Yar, especially as Ukrainian forces continue to wait for US and other Western aid to reach the frontlines at scale.

ISW continues to assess that Russian forces will likely struggle to seize Kharkiv City should they aim to do so. A Russian effort to seize Kharkiv City would require long drives across open terrain on a scale that Russian forces have not conducted since the start of the full-scale invasion.[19] Some reported elements of the Russian Northern Grouping of Forces may not be highly combat-effective. Elements of the 6th Combined Arms Army (Leningrad Military District) are reportedly operating as part of the Russian Northern Grouping of Forces, but these forces failed to make significant tactical gains despite repeated mass infantry and mechanized assaults over a months-long offensive in the Kupyansk direction.[20] The Russian Northern Grouping of Forces likely also lacks the quantity of personnel required to conduct an operation as ambitious as the seizure of Kharkiv City successfully. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported in March 2024, citing a Kremlin source, that the Russian military assesses that it needs 300,000 additional personnel (roughly 60 percent of the approximately 510,000 personnel Russian forces currently have in Ukraine) in order to launch an operation to encircle Kharkiv City.[21] Ukrainian sources have indicated that Russian forces in the international border area are far below this quantity, however. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on May 2 that Russian forces have currently concentrated roughly 35,000 personnel in the international border area and plan to concentrate a total of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel in this area.[22] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on May 5 that the Russian military has gathered about 50,000 troops in the Northern Grouping of Forces in Kursk, Belgorod, and Bryansk oblasts, with 31,000 troops in Belgorod Oblast.[23] Russian forces have previously demonstrated an inability to conduct large-scale offensive operations in multiple directions simultaneously, and the Russian military does not appear to have established a "strategic reserve" on a scale that would be able to support two or more large-scale offensive operations in the near future.[24] A large-scale Russian effort to seize Kharkiv City would therefore likely require Russian forces to deprioritize other critical sectors of the front and redeploy a significant quantity of forces to the international border area, which Russian forces are highly unlikely to do given the Russian military's longtime objective of seizing the remainder of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Russian forces likely decided to launch offensive operations along the international border area to take the best advantage of the relatively brief time left before Western aid arrives at the Ukrainian frontline at scale. Ukrainian officials have recently stated that Russian forces may plan to seize Kharkiv or Sumy cities in a Russian offensive effort in late May or early June 2024.[25] The Russian military command may have decided to begin offensive operations in the Kharkiv direction before this late May-June period in order to take advantage of the limited time window before Western military aid reaches Ukrainian frontline units in sufficient quantities to complicate Russian offensive capabilities. ISW has recently assessed that Russian forces are trying to take advantage of this closing window in order to pursue tactical gains throughout eastern Ukraine.[26]

Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stated that the war in Ukraine will enter a critical phase in the next two months and commented on recent Russian advances around Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka.[27] Pavlyuk stated during an interview with the Economist published on May 10 that Russia is currently committing all its combat-ready materiel and troops to the frontline before substantial quantities of US military assistance reach frontline Ukrainian units. Pavlyuk reiterated Ukrainian assessments that Russia's summer offensive operations will likely focus on Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and warned about the possibility of a large-scale Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts aimed at further stretching Ukraine's already taxed defensive lines.[28] Pavlyuk noted that he is working to stand up 10 new Ukrainian brigades ahead of the anticipated summer 2024 Russian offensive operation and noted that equipment, and not manpower, is the main bottleneck in Ukraine's defensive operations. Pavlyuk attributed recent Russian advances near Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka) to "insane" Russian pressure on Ukrainian positions, "overwhelming [Russian] air superiority," and a 20-to-one Russian artillery advantage in that area.[29] ISW has previously observed a report that Russian forces initially advanced near Ocheretyne when Russian forces exploited an alleged mistake during a tactical rotation of Ukrainian forces, a mistake that the Ukrainian brigade involved in the situation later denied having made, although ISW cannot confirm either report.[30] Russian forces may have broken through the gap left by Ukrainian forces rotating in and out of the defensive line by chance and were able to exploit the opportunity because of the advantageous location of their breakthrough and Russia's overwhelming air and artillery advantage in the area, as Pavlyuk highlighted. While ISW is unable to confirm whether Ukrainian forces did make a mistake during a rotation, tactical mistakes occur periodically on any battlefield, and the advantages Russian forces had resulting from Ukraine's manpower and materiel shortages made any mistake far more dangerous than it normally would be.

Pavlyuk argued during his interview that the possible future loss of Chasiv Yar will have no "decisive significance" for the Ukrainian war effort, which is consistent with ISW's running assessment that the Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would be operationally significant.[31] ISW uses the expression "operationally significant" to describe an advance that can alter the course of a campaign composed of multiple individual battles. ISW refers to advances that merely push the frontline back some distance without securing major objectives or significantly increasing the odds of securing major objectives as "tactically significant." The seizure of Chasiv Yar would shift the frontline further west and create a large and defensible Russian salient from which Russian forces could launch further offensive operations north, west, or south. A possible Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would not result in the immediate collapse of the Ukrainian eastern line but would change the configuration of the frontline to a degree that would set much more favorable conditions for future Russian offensive operations against Ukraine's belt of "fortress" cities, which runs from Slovyansk to Kostyantynivka and form the backbone of Ukraine's defense of Donbas.[32]

US President Joe Biden approved up to $400 million worth of military assistance for Ukraine as part of the Presidential Drawdown Authority Fund on May 10.[33] The US Department of Defense reported that the assistance package will include: air defense missiles for Patriots and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS); Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; equipment to integrate Western launchers, missiles, and radars with Ukrainian systems; HIMARS ammunition; 105mm and 155mm artillery rounds; Bradley infantry fighting vehicles; M113 armored personnel carriers; Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles; Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and At-4 anti-armor missiles; HARM missiles; and other equipment and weapons.[34]

Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike on the night of May 9 to 10 against an oil refinery in Kaluga Oblast that Ukrainian forces previously struck in March 2024. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported on May 10 that sources within Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that the GUR conducted a drone strike against an oil refinery in Kaluga Oblast and that a fire broke out at the facility.[35] Geolocated footage published on May 10 shows a fire at the Perviy Zavod Refinery in Dzerzhinsky Raion, Kaluga Oblast.[36] The Pervyi Zavod refinery is reportedly the largest petrochemical complex in Kaluga Oblast.[37] Kaluga Oblast Governor Vladislav Shapsha stated that a fire broke out overnight at an unspecified enterprise in Dzerzhinsky Raion following a drone strike.[38] Ukrainian forces struck the Perviy Zavod oil refinery on the night of March 14 to 15.[39] Ukrainian forces conducted a second drone strike on an oil refinery in Ryazan Oblast on the night of April 30 to May 1 after first striking the facility in mid-March 2024.[40]

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is retaining his position in the Russian government for Russian President Vladimir Putin's new term of office, and there have been speculations but no confirmations of changes to Putin's cabinet. The Russian State Duma voted overwhelmingly in support of Mishustin's renomination as prime minister, and Putin signed the corresponding decree reappointing Mishustin on May 10.[41] Russian outlet RBK, citing three sources familiar with personnel consultations in the Kremlin, reported that Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov will retain his title as Deputy Prime Minister but will relinquish his post as Minister of Industry and Trade, and RBK reported that Kaliningrad Oblast Head Anton Alikhanov will take over this position.[42] Putin publicly embarrassed Manturov in January 2023, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu heavily criticized Manturov on May 2, 2024, but RBK's source stated that the new appointment is "logical and expected" as all the possible candidates for the Minister of Industry and Trade are "in one way or another, from Manturov's team."[43] Russian State Duma Chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin stated that the Duma will consider appointments for deputy prime ministers and ministerial positions on May 14.[44]

Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matvienko announced on May 10 that she delivered a list of candidates to Putin for the head of the Federation Council Accounts Chamber, which notably includes Presidential Control Directorate Deputy Head Boris Kovalchuk.[45] Boris Kovalchuk is the son of Putin's "personal banker" Yuri Kovalchuk, who is often credited with being Putin's close confidant and influential ideologue, including reportedly being one of three Russians to convince Putin to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.[46] Yuri Kovalchuk is also a close associate of Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergey Kiriyenko, whose own influence has expanded following the start of the full-scale invasion.[47] Putin only recently appointed Boris Kovalchuk to his post in the Presidential Control Directorate on March 15, before which Boris Kovalchuk headed the Russian energy company Inter RAO for 15 years.[48] The other two candidates for Federation Council Accounts Chamber head include Accounts Chamber Acting Head Galina Izotova, who has served in this position since the former head resigned in 2022 and served as deputy head since 2019, and Anatoly Artamonov, chairperson of the Federation Council Committee on Budget and Financial Markets.[49] Boris Kovalchuk is the only one of these three candidates to lack a doctorate in economics and extensive experience in the field.[50] Boris Kovalchuk's candidacy for a Federation Council post given his lack of experience and newness to the presidential administration is notable given Yuri Kovalchuk's closeness to Putin, indicating that Kovalchuk's favor with Putin may be increasing. Putin will consider Matvienko's list of candidates and choose one for the Federation Council to consider in the coming days.[51]

US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb stated that US defense officials partnered with SpaceX to stop the Russian military's unauthorized use of Starlink internet terminals in frontline areas of Ukraine. Bloomberg reported on May 9 that Plumb warned that Russia will likely continue to look for ways to exploit Starlink and other commercial communications systems but stated that the US has found "good solutions" for Russian Starlink use in Ukraine.[52] Several Western media outlets reported in March 2024 that investigations indicated that Russian forces may be using Starlink terminals in Ukraine.[53]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces began an offensive operation along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast on the morning of May 10 and made tactically significant gains. Russian forces are likely conducting the initial phase of an offensive operation north of Kharkiv City that has limited operational objectives but is meant to achieve the strategic effect of drawing Ukrainian manpower and materiel from other critical sectors of the front in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces will likely leverage their tactical foothold in northern Kharkiv Oblast in the coming days to intensify offensive operations and pursue the initial phase of an offensive effort likely intended to push back Ukrainian forces from the border with Belgorod Oblast and advance to within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City.
  • The limited efforts that Russian forces are currently conducting do not suggest that Russian forces are immediately pursuing a large-scale sweeping offensive operation to envelop, encircle, and seize Kharkiv City, however.
  • Russian offensive operations along the Kharkiv international border likely have the strategic objective of drawing and fixing Ukrainian forces to this axis to enable Russian advances in other areas of eastern Ukraine.
  • ISW continues to assess that Russian forces will likely struggle to seize Kharkiv City should they aim to do so.
  • Russian forces likely decided to launch offensive operations along the international border area to take the best advantage of the relatively brief time left before Western aid arrives at the Ukrainian frontline at scale.
  • Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stated that the war in Ukraine will enter a critical phase in the next two months and commented on recent Russian advances around Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka.
  • US President Joe Biden approved up to $400 million worth of military assistance for Ukraine as part of the Presidential Drawdown Authority Fund on May 10.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike on the night of May 9 to 10 against an oil refinery in Kaluga Oblast that Ukrainian forces previously struck in March 2024.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is retaining his position in the Russian government for Russian President Vladimir Putin's new term of office, and there have been speculations but no confirmations of changes to Putin's cabinet.
  • US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb stated that US defense officials partnered with SpaceX to stop the Russian military's unauthorized use of Starlink internet terminals in frontline areas of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian and Belarusian authorities continue to illegally deport Ukrainian citizens, including children, to Russia and Belarus.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 9, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 9, 2024, 7:30pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:00pm ET on May 9. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 10 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his May 9 Victory Day speech to relitigate his belief that the West is attempting to erase the Soviet Union's contributions to defeating Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (Second World War), a grievance that is at the core of Russia's adversarial perceptions of the West. Putin claimed during the Victory Day parade, which is held to commemorate the Soviet Union's victory and sacrifices during the Second World War, that "they," referring to the West, are attempting to "distort" the truth about the Second World War and "demolish" the memory of Soviet heroism and sacrifice.[1] Putin claimed that perceived Western efforts to rewrite the history of the Second World War and the West's supposed support of "Nazism" in Ukraine, another long-standing Kremlin narrative, are part of a wider Western effort to incite interethnic and interreligious conflict throughout the world. Putin claimed that while the West would like to forget the lessons of the Second World War, Russia remembers that the Soviet Union decided the "fate of humanity" during battles "from Murmansk to the Caucasus and Crimea." Putin similarly used his 2023 and 2022 Victory Day speeches to reiterate existing narratives about the West's war against Russia and absurdly to equate the threat of Nazi Germany with that of Ukraine.[2] Putin's willingness to repeatedly re-emphasize imagined Western efforts to discount the Soviet Union's contribution in defeating Nazi Germany suggests that Putin wholeheartedly believes that this is a genuine threat to the Soviet Union's legacy, and by extension the modern Russian state.[3] This belief is in line with Putin's repeated efforts to rewrite and rehabilitate the Soviet Union's aggression towards Poland, its brief alliance with Nazi Germany, and crimes committed against its own people before, during, and after the Second World War.[4]

Putin simultaneously used his Victory Day speech to present a picture of Russia as a bastion in the fight against Nazism. Putin claimed that Russia has never belittled the contributions of the other Allied powers in the Second World War and highlighted the courage of Allied servicemen, resistance fighters, and the people of China who fought against Japan's aggression.[5] Putin claimed that Russia will do everything possible to prevent a global conflict, but at the same time will not allow anyone to threaten the country. Putin framed Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine as a "difficult transitional period" that Russia must get through and as part of Russia's greater historical fight against Nazism.[6] The Kremlin routinely invokes the mythos of the Second World War to generate domestic support for its invasion of Ukraine and frame its conquest of Ukraine as part of a wider existential conflict with the West.[7] Putin's rhetorical efforts to frame Russia as both a victim of Nazi aggression and the leader of its imagined anti-Nazi coalition tread a thin line that Putin likely hopes will appeal to both his ultranationalist constituency and the wider Russian population.

Putin seized on a recent meeting with the commanders of several frontline Russian formations to portray himself as an informed and effective Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, aware of the intricacies of the frontline situation and involved in finding solutions to issues that plague Russian forces. Putin met with the commanders of the Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet), 24th Spetsnaz Brigade (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff [GRU]), and 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]) on May 7, and the commanders made several requests of Putin based on their combat experience.[8] The Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) publicized the meeting on May 9, likely to capitalize on the emotions surrounding Victory Day. Putin responded to the 24th Spetsnaz Brigade commander's question about increasing Russia's domestic drone production and claimed that "modern means of armed struggle" are changing at a very high speed. Putin claimed that Russia must always be one step ahead of its enemies if it wants to be successful in combat but conceded that Russia does not always succeed in this because Russia is fighting against modernized, Western equipment in Ukraine, admitting that it is difficult for Russian servicemen to operate while Ukrainian drones are constantly flying overhead. Putin noted that increased and improved drone production is critical to the Russian war effort and stated that the Russian MoD and defense industry is working on the issue, but that it is not an easy task. Putin is likely engaging in such tactical-level details for reputational effect. Putin then interrupted the commander of the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade, who was attempting to ask about increasing domestic production of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and claimed that he is aware that it was difficult for Russian forces to seize Berdychi (northwest of Avdiivka) but that Russian forces "finally got it." Putin appears to have seized on comments by both commanders to present himself as more in tune with the battlefield situation than his own commanders. Putin bragged about the seizure of a frontline settlement with a pre-war population of 267 as part of a Kremlin effort to oversell the seizure of tiny frontline settlements to the general Russian population who have no concept of where or how big these settlements are.

Putin also attempted to present the previously ordered expansion of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade into a division as his own extemporaneous problem-solving. The commander of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade asked Putin to consider reorganizing the brigade into several groupings due to the fact that the brigade is "overstaffed."[9] The commander implausibly claimed that the brigade currently has over 11,000 troops (a brigade would normally have around 3,000 troops), to which Putin responded that the Russian military command will reorganize and expand the brigade into a division. Ukrainian forces have reportedly defeated and destroyed significant elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade in southern Ukraine several times during the war thus far, forcing the Russian military command to repeatedly reconstitute the formation.[10] It is highly unlikely that the 810th is staffed by over 11,000 troops unless as part of a reformation into a division already underway, and Putin's seemingly spontaneous decision to reorganize the brigade into a division is likely part of the Russian Ministry of Defense's (MoD) previously announced plan to reorganize seven motorized rifle brigades into motorized rifle divisions.[11] Putin has previously attempted to present himself as an effective Supreme Commander-in-Chief by engaging in minute tactical undertakings, such as seemingly spontaneously granting Russian military personnel leave in the presence of Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov during a December 2023 meeting and during his December 2023 Direct Line.[12] ISW assessed that the December 2023 interaction was likely staged in order to bolster Putin's reputation, and Putin's recent meeting with Russian commanders was likely also highly staged and publicized on May 9 to link Putin's involvement with tactical battlefield affairs to the reputations of Soviet military commanders during the Second World War.[13]

Putin surrounded himself with a number of foreign officials at the Victory Day parade, likely in order to posture himself as an effective statesman capable of galvanizing an alternative coalition to the power structures of the collective West. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló, and Laotian President Thongloun Sisoulith stood with Putin on the podium at the Victory Day parade.[14] It is customary for Putin to invite foreign officials to Victory Day celebrations, although Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has decreased the number of willing participants. In 2023, for example, a number of heads of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) partners, including Lukashenko, Tokayev, Japarov, Rahmon, Berdimuhamedov, and Miriziyoyev, were present on the podium alongside Putin.[15] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was notably absent after attending last year, as Pashinyan has recently engaged in a concerted effort to distance Armenia from the Russian sphere of influence.[16] The presence of a tiny but relatively diverse set of heads of state from Central Asia, Southeast Asia, west Africa, and the Caribbean suggests that Putin is continuing to cast himself as an effective diplomat at the helm of a coalition of Russia-friendly states that ideologically oppose, or do not see a place for themselves within, Western-led alliance systems and political-economic blocs.[17] Putin sees Russia at the center of his envisioned new "multipolar world" and is likely trying to align himself with foreign heads of state whom he sees as receptive to this vision for the international system.[18] Representatives from Iran, North Korea, and the People's Republic of China (PRC) were notably not on the podium alongside Putin, however, which may suggest that Putin desires to reach past the leading states Russia has explicitly affiliated itself with in order to strengthen the image of an internationally popular Russian-led multipolar world order.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the Moldovan government is engaged in a Nazi-like "genocide" in Moldova — a notable inflection in Kremlin officials' rhetoric about Moldova that is likely meant set conditions for a Russian effort to secure control over Moldova and not just some of its regions. Zakharova gave a Victory Day interview to Kremlin newswire TASS in which she absurdly claimed that Moldovan President Maia Sandu and her administration are engaging in "eugenic" practices comparable to those of the Nazi Third Reich.[19] Zakharova focused heavily on the Moldovan government's policies towards Moldovan language, claiming that the Sandu government is replacing the Moldovan language with Romanian and that this constitutes "elements of genocide against an entire people." Zakharova claimed that Moldovan language, culture, and identity will remain after Sandu leaves office and that Sandu will leave "a dark spot in the history of Moldova," suggesting that the Kremlin expects a new administration that is unlike Sandu's Western-oriented government to come to power in the future. Zakharova notably did not lambast the Sandu government for its policies towards Russian speakers in Moldova as other Russian and pro-Kremlin Moldovan officials have done recently, focusing instead on the Moldovan language.[20] The Kremlin has repeatedly invoked its self-proclaimed need to protect Russia's "compatriots," particularly Russian speakers allegedly facing discrimination, to justify Russian aggression abroad, including in Ukraine and Moldova.[21] Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, have recently promoted the narrative that Russia is in an existential geopolitical conflict with an alleged modern Nazi movement that is purportedly prolific in the West.[22] ISW previously assessed that many people may not identify with Kremlin narratives about Russian "compatriots abroad" and that the Kremlin may have decided that claims of Western "neo-Nazism" may be more effective with a wider audience.[23] Moldova's two pro-Russian regions, the autonomous region of Gagauzia and the breakaway republic of Transnistria, are home to large Russian speaking populations, and the Kremlin's shift from allegations about persecution of Russian speakers to that of Moldovan speakers indicates that the Kremlin is likely trying to justify future Russian aggression in all of Moldova.

The leaders of the pro-Kremlin Moldovan Victory opposition electoral bloc attended the Victory Day parade in Moscow, further indicating that the Kremlin intends to use these actors to destabilize all of Moldova and attack Moldova's democracy and EU accession process. US-sanctioned Moldovan politician Ilan Shor, Governor of Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul, and US-sanctioned and close Shor affiliate Moldovan member of parliament Marina Tauber attended the May 9 Victory Day in Moscow reportedly at Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation.[24] Shor, Gutsul, and Tauber are the principal leaders of the recently created Moldovan Victory electoral bloc, which will reportedly run a candidate in the October 2024 Moldovan presidential election.[25] Shor's, Gutsul's, and Tauber's attendance of the Victory Day parade is a notable public demonstration of the importance of these three Moldovan actors — and consequently the Victory electoral bloc — to Kremlin efforts in Moldova. Although Gutsul has personally met with Putin and other Kremlin officials recently and Russian-Gagauzian bilateral ties have notably increased in recent months, the inclusion of Shor and Tauber in the Moscow celebrations further indicates that the Kremlin's efforts in Moldova are not limited to Gagauzia.[26] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is engaged in efforts to destabilize all of Moldova and prevent Moldova's EU accession and is likely trying to exploit Gagauzia's and Transnistria's Kremlin ties and opposition to the Moldovan federal authorities as part of these wider efforts.[27]

Russian forces have markedly increased the rate of ground attacks in eastern Ukraine over the past month, likely reflecting current battlefield conditions and the intent of the Russian military command to secure gains before the arrival of Western military aid to the frontlines. Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated on May 9 that the number of combat engagements increased significantly from 84 on May 8 to 146 on May 9 and noted that most of the fighting occurred in the area of responsibility of the Khortytsia Group (the area from Kharkiv Oblast down to the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area).[28] The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that the rate of Russian attacks increased by 17 percent between March and April 2024 and that over 75 percent of reported ground attacks took place in the Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Marinka directions.[29] UK MoD noted that the number of Russian attacks near Chasiv Yar increased by 200 percent between March and April. Voloshyn suggested that the current intensification of Russian attacks is a result of the fact that the soil has dried out after the spring mud season, which facilitates more rapid mechanized maneuver, and that Russian forces are trying to take advantage of Ukraine's relative weakness while it awaits the arrival of Western aid.[30] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces will maintain the high rate of attacks across eastern Ukraine in order to make gains before the arrival of Western aid in Ukraine, which will likely stymie Russia forces' ability to maintain the high rate of attacks and tactical gains that they are currently able to pursue.[31] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky similarly stated on May 9 during a meeting with European Parliament Head Roberta Mestola that the arrival of Western aid to Ukrainian frontline units will allow Ukrainian forces to blunt Russia's initiative in eastern Ukraine.[32]

Russian border guards are withdrawing from much of Armenia as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continues to face domestic backlash for decisions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on May 9 that Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a meeting on May 8 to stop Russian border guard operations in a number of Armenian regions due to "changed conditions," likely referring to Armenia's loss of Nagorno-Karabakh.[33] Peskov noted that Russian border guards will remain stationed on the Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Iranian international borders.[34] Meanwhile, thousands of protestors have completed a multi-day march to Yerevan, Armenia, where they are currently protesting in Yerevan's Republic Square against Pashinyan's decision to transfer control over four border villages in Tavush Province to Azerbaijan in the wake of Armenia's loss of Nagorno-Karabakh.[35] Armenian Apostolic Church Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, who serves as the Primate of the Tavush Diocese, has emerged as a leader of these protests and issued a public call on May 9 for Pashinyan to either resign within the hour or face a vote of no confidence in the parliament.[36] Galstanyan met with Armenian opposition parliamentarians after the deadline elapsed to discuss initiating a vote of no confidence to oust Pashinyan.[37] Armenia's constitution stipulates that at least a third of parliamentarians or the president must support a draft resolution of no confidence to bring a vote, and at least half of parliamentarians must then vote in favor of the final no confidence resolution.[38] The constitution also stipulates that the final vote of no confidence occur between 48 and 72 hours of the draft's initial submission. Pashinyan's ruling Civil Contract party holds roughly 54 percent of the seats in Armenian parliament, so it is unlikely that a vote of no confidence would oust Pashinyan without defectors from the Civil Contract party voting for the opposition.[39]

The Kremlin may seek to capitalize on opposition outrage in Armenia to punish Pashinyan for increasingly pulling away from Russia. Russian state media has closely followed the protests and is widely amplifying Galstanyan's calls for Pashinyan's resignation or a vote of no confidence.[40] A prominent, Kremlin-awarded Russian milblogger has tracked the protest march from Kirash, Tavush Province to Yerevan and expressed support for the protestors.[41] This milblogger and other Russian officials and pro-Kremlin voices have frequently spread information operations accusing Pashinyan of "weakness" and incompetence for ceding territory to Azerbaijan after Russia failed to prevent the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh.[42] Pro-Kremlin actors may amplify reports of discontent or perpetuate ongoing Kremlin information operations in the wake of Armenian opposition protests to further pressure Pashinyan into mending relations with Russia.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) conducted long-range drone strikes against Russian oil depots and refinery infrastructure in Krasnodar Krai and the Republic of Bashkortostan on May 9. The Krasnodar Krai operational headquarters claimed that Ukrainian forces attempted to attack an oil depot in Yurovka (near Anapa) with at least seven drones, and that Russian air defense suppressed six drones but at least one fell on the depot itself, causing a fire.[43] Some Russian sources reported that the strike damaged several oil tanks.[44] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that an "informed source" stated that this was an SBU operation targeting oil shipment points through which the Russian military supplies oil to troops in occupied Crimea.[45] Geolocated footage published on May 9 additionally shows a drone attack against the Gazprom Neftekhim Salavat oil refinery in Salvat, Republic of Bashkortostan.[46] The Republic of Bashkortostan's Ministry of Emergency Situations reported that the strike damaged the building housing a pumping station at the refinery.[47] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne stated that its SBU sources took responsibility for the drone strike and reported that it damaged a catalytic cracking unit, which is used to refine crude oil into gasoline and other petroleum products.[48] Suspilne noted that this is a "record" distance for a Ukrainian strike on Russia, as Salvat is 1,500 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Ukraine recently conducted a long-range drone strike against the Republic of Tatarstan, which is 1,200 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, and the Bashkortostan strike therefore represents an inflection in Ukraine's long-range strike capability.[49]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin used his May 9 Victory Day speech to relitigate his belief that the West is attempting to erase the Soviet Union's contributions to defeating Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (Second World War), a grievance that is at the core of Russia's adversarial perceptions of the West.
  • Putin seized on a recent meeting with the commanders of several frontline Russian formations to portray himself as an informed and effective Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, aware of the intricacies of the frontline situation and involved in finding solutions to issues that plague Russian forces.
  • Putin surrounded himself with a number of foreign officials at the Victory Day parade, likely in order to posture himself as an effective statesman capable of galvanizing an alternative coalition to the power structures of the collective West.
  • Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the Moldovan government is engaged in a Nazi-like "genocide" in Moldova — a notable inflection in Kremlin officials' rhetoric about Moldova that is likely meant set conditions for a Russian effort to secure control over Moldova and not just some of its regions.
  • The leaders of the pro-Kremlin Moldovan Victory opposition electoral bloc attended the Victory Day parade in Moscow, further indicating that the Kremlin intends to use these actors to destabilize all of Moldova and attack Moldova's democracy and EU accession process.
  • Russian forces have markedly increased the rate of ground attacks in eastern Ukraine over the past month, likely reflecting current battlefield conditions and the intent of the Russian military command to secure gains before the arrival of Western military aid to the frontlines.
  • Russian border guards are withdrawing from much of Armenia as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continues to face domestic backlash for decisions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • The Kremlin may seek to capitalize on opposition outrage in Armenia to punish Pashinyan for increasingly pulling away from Russia.
  • Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) conducted long-range drone strikes against Russian oil depots and refinery infrastructure in Krasnodar Krai and the Republic of Bashkortostan on May 9.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continue to struggle with discipline in their ranks, with some Russian soldiers reportedly killing other members of their units.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 8, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 8, 2024, 7:00pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on May 8. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 9 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted large-scale missile and drone strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of May 7 to 8, continuing to exploit Ukraine's degraded air defense umbrella ahead of the arrival of US and Western security assistance at scale. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk reported on May 8 that Russian forces launched 21 Shahed-136/131 drones and 55 missiles, including 45 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles, four Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles, two Iskander-M ballistic missiles, an Iskander-K ballistic missile, two Kh-59/69 cruise missiles, and a Kh-47 "Kinzhal" aeroballistic missile.[1] Oleshchuk reported that Ukrainian forces intercepted 33 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles, all four Kalibr cruise missiles, both Kh-59/69 cruise missiles, and 20 Shaheds.[2] Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko reported that Russian forces struck electricity generation and transmission facilities in Poltava, Kirovohrad, Zaporizhia, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Vinnytsia oblasts.[3] Ukraine’s largest private energy operator DTEK reported that Russian forces attacked three unspecified thermal power plants (TPPs) in Ukraine and seriously damaged unspecified equipment.[4] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo spokesperson Maria Tsaturyan stated that regional energy authorities will implement shutdowns evenly across all oblasts in Ukraine due to energy shortages and warned that the Ukrenergo control center will issue a command for emergency shutdowns throughout Ukraine if consumption continues to grow in the evening.[5] Ukrainian state railway operator Ukrzaliznytsia reported that Russian forces also targeted railway infrastructure in Kherson Oblast, forcing railway administrators to reduce train travel along the Kyiv-Kherson and Kyiv-Mykolaiv routes.[6] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that it targeted Ukrainian energy facilities and defense industrial enterprises in order to reduce Ukraine's ability to produce military materiel and transfer Western materiel to the frontline.[7]

This is the fifth large scale Russian missile and drone strike targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure since March 22, 2024, as the Russian military has attempted to exploit degraded Ukrainian air defense capabilities in spring 2024 to collapse Ukraine's energy grid and constrain Ukraine's defense industrial capacity.[8] Russian forces will likely continue to conduct mass strikes to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure as degraded Ukrainian air defense capabilities persist until the arrival of US-provided air defense missiles and other Western air defense assets at scale.[9] Russian forces have also intensified strikes against Ukrainian transportation infrastructure in recent weeks in an apparent effort to disrupt Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) and constrain the flow of expected US security assistance to the frontline.[10] Russian forces have continued to heavily target Ukrainian energy facilities in limited larger missile and drone strike series, however, suggesting that Russia is either prioritizing the effort to collapse the energy grid over interdiction efforts or must use a larger number of missiles to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses near energy facilities and cause significant damage to these facilities.

Recent satellite imagery of depleted Russian military vehicle and weapon storage facilities further indicates that Russia is currently sustaining its war effort largely by pulling from storage rather than by manufacturing new vehicles and certain weapons at scale. Newsweek reported on May 8 that a social media source tracking Russian military depots stated that satellite imagery indicates that Russia's vehicle stores have significantly decreased from pre-war levels by nearly 32 percent from 15,152 in 2021 to 10,389 as of May 2024.[11] The military depot tracker noted that Russia has pulled most from its stores of MT-LB multipurpose armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), which are down from 2,527 prewar to 922 remaining; BMD airborne amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), which are down from 637 prewar to 244 remaining; and BTR-50 armored personnel carriers (APCs), down from 125 prewar to 52 remaining. The military depot tracker noted that Russia no longer has newer model BTR-60s, 70s, and 80s in storage and that only 2,605 remain — likely referring to vehicles currently fielded — from its prewar stocks of 3,313. The military depot tracker noted that Russia is currently fielding 1,000–2,000 of its remaining MT-LBs in Ukraine. Another open-source account on X (formerly Twitter) cited satellite imagery dated May 27, 2020 and March 26, 2024 and concluded that Russia has pulled roughly 60 percent of its artillery systems at an unspecified towed artillery storage base, reportedly one of Russia's largest.[12] The source reported that about half of the remaining artillery systems at this base are likely unusable due to degradation while in storage and because many of the remaining systems are Second World War era artillery systems incompatible with modern ammunition.[13]

Russia is relying on vast Soviet-era stores of vehicles and other equipment to sustain operations and losses in Ukraine at a level far higher than the current Russian DIB could support, nor will Russia be able to mobilize its DIB to replenish these stores for many years. The British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank reported on February 12 that Russia is likely able to sustain its current rate of vehicle losses (over 3,000 armored fighting vehicles annually) for at least two or three years by mainly reactivating vehicles from storage.[14] The IISS also estimated that Russia has lost over 3,000 armored fighting vehicles in 2023 and close to 8,000 armored fighting vehicles since February 2022, and that Russia likely reactivated at least 1,180 main battle tanks and about 2,470 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers pulled from storage in 2023.[15] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on February 4 that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) can produce 250–300 new and modernized tanks per year and repair an additional 250–300 tanks per year.[16] Russia will likely struggle to adequately supply its units with materiel in the long term without transferring the Russian economy to a wartime footing — a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to avoid thus far.[17]

The Georgian State Security Service (SUS) is employing standard Kremlin information operations against Georgians protesting Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" bill following the lead of Georgian Dream party founder and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The SUS claimed on May 8 that "certain groups of people" funded by foreign countries, party leaders, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are trying to organize provocations at protests against the "foreign agents" law.[18] The SUS claimed that Georgian citizens living abroad, particularly those fighting in Ukraine, are planning to conduct acts of violence against Georgian law enforcement and block and burn government buildings. The SUS further claimed that the alleged provocateurs are attempting to cause riots and chaos to cause "Maidanization" and that these methods have been used to organize "color revolutions." The SUS' references to Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, which drove out Ukraine's Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, and its reference to color revolutions — attempts at democratization in post-Soviet countries — mirror boilerplate Russian rhetoric attempting to blame the West for inciting and directing perceived anti-Russian protests to frame domestic dissent and calls for democratization as illegitimate.[19] The SUS made similar claims in September 2023 and alleged that former Georgian officials, Ukrainian military intelligence officials of Georgian descent, and Georgians fighting with Ukrainian forces in Ukraine were plotting a violent coup.[20] Ivanishvili recently reiterated a series of standard anti-Western and pseudohistorical Kremlin narratives during his first public speech since announcing his return to Georgian politics.[21] Ivanishvili's and the SUS' intensified use of established Kremlin information operations and increasing rhetorical alignment with Russia against the West indicate that Georgian Dream actors likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for Euro-Atlantic integration, which plays into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[22]

Armenia's efforts to distance itself from Russia are increasingly forcing the Kremlin to acknowledge issues in the bilateral relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met in Moscow on May 8 following a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).[23] Putin claimed that Russian-Armenian bilateral relations are "developing successfully," but noted that there are "questions" regarding security in the South Caucasus that the two will discuss privately. Pashinyan stated that "questions have accumulated that need to be discussed" since the two met in December 2023. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that there are "problematic issues" in the bilateral relationship in response to a question about how difficult the meeting would be but claimed that both Putin and Pashinyan are willing to discuss these issues.[24] Peskov claimed that Russia is "rather optimistic" about the future of the bilateral relationship. Peskov and Putin have previously publicly attempted to downplay tension in Russian–Armenian relations, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made several frank assessments of the deteriorating relationship and issued public threats against Armenia in recent months.[25] Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Ani Badalyan told Radar Armenia on May 7 that Armenia will not contribute to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization's (CSTO) budget in 2024.[26] An unnamed source within the CSTO told Kremlin newswire TASS that the CSTO is aware of Armenia's decision but noted that Armenia remains a member of the CSTO.[27] Armenia's decision to stop financing CSTO activities is the latest in a series of decisions to pivot away from Russian-led political and security organizations, including continuing to make Armenia's involvement in the CSTO increasingly nominal, over the past eight months.[28]

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė stated that the Lithuanian government has granted permission for Lithuania to send troops to Ukraine for training missions in the future.[29] Šimonytė stated during an interview with the Financial Times (FT) published on May 8 that Ukraine has not requested Lithuanian troops and noted that Russia would likely see the deployment of Lithuanian troops to Ukraine as a provocation. Šimonytė stated that if Europe only considered Russia's response to manpower and materiel assistance to Ukraine, Europe would not send anything and stated that "every second week you hear that somebody will be nuked [by Russia]." French President Emmanuel Macron called on Europe to build a strategic concept of "credible European defense" during a speech on April 25 and has previously urged the West to not "rule out" the possibility of sending Western troops to Ukraine in the future.[30]

Reports indicate that there is an available open-source tool that allows people to search by specific coordinates for Telegram users who have enabled a certain location-sharing setting. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on May 8 that this tool allows people to input coordinates to discover all Telegram users who have enabled the "find people nearby" setting located within 50–100 meters of the coordinates.[31] Meduza noted that the "find people nearby" setting usually only allows users to find other Telegram users within 50–100 meters of their current location. Users can enable or disable this location-sharing setting in the "contacts" settings of the application.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted large-scale missile and drone strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of May 7 to 8, continuing to exploit Ukraine's degraded air defense umbrella ahead of the arrival of US and Western security assistance at scale.
  • Recent satellite imagery of depleted Russian military vehicle and weapons storage facilities further indicates that Russia is currently sustaining its war effort largely by pulling from storage rather than by manufacturing new vehicles and certain weapons at scale.
  • Russia is relying on vast Soviet-era stores of vehicles and other equipment to sustain operations and losses in Ukraine at a level far higher than the current Russian DIB could support, nor will Russia be able to mobilize its DIB to replenish these stores for many years.
  • The Georgian State Security Service (SUS) is employing standard Kremlin information operations against Georgians protesting Georgia's Russian-style "foreign agents" bill following the lead of Georgian Dream party founder and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
  • Armenia's efforts to distance itself from Russia are increasingly forcing the Kremlin to acknowledge issues in the bilateral relationship.
  • Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė stated that the Lithuanian government has granted permission for Lithuania to send troops to Ukraine for training missions in the future.
  • Reports indicate that there is an available open-source tool that allows people to search by specific coordinates for Telegram users who have enabled a certain location-sharing setting.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Svatove, Kreminna, and Avdiivka and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to highlight Russian formations involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 7, 2024, 6:15pm ET 

Russian President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term as Russian President on May 7 and stressed Russia's need for unchallenged autocratic rule while indirectly calling for victory in Ukraine.[1] Putin thanked Russian citizens, the residents of Russia’s “historical lands,” participants in the “special military operation,” and those who have “defended the right to be together with the motherland,” and called on Russia to unite for victory. Putin did not specify what this Russian victory entails and only vaguely referenced Russia's “serious challenges.” Putin has long justified his effort to destroy Ukrainian statehood by claiming that Russia is fighting for "historic lands" in Ukraine and coming to the aid of "compatriots abroad" who desire to reunite with Russia.[2] Putin likely intended to acknowledge the war without setting heightened expectations for Russian prospects in Ukraine with his vague call for victory. Putin more heavily suggested that Russia "needs" strong autocratic rule, claiming that the Russia state and socio-political system must be strong and must resist any challenges and threats in order to ensure the development, unity, and independence of Russia. Putin added that his ability to fulfill his duties as president depends on Russian unity and cohesion and warned Russians to remember historical lessons "about the tragic price of internal turmoil and upheaval." Putin has routinely invoked historical parallels to justify his own increasingly autocratic rule by suggesting that autocracy is a Russian tradition and has regularly argued that without unchallenged autocracy Russia would lose its sovereignty.[3] Putin notably alluded in October 2022 to the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great's authority in the mid-1770s to warn deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin about challenging the Kremlin, a warning that did not prevent Prigozhin from launching his own failed rebellion in June 2023.[4] Putin had observed in 2022 that the Pugachev Rebellion occurred because the "weakening of the central power" caused someone to claim that he was the tsar. Putin's inauguration speech was otherwise filled with tired, boilerplate rhetoric and vague calls for national triumph, and his focus on internal stability indicates that Putin likely sought to emphasize to the Russian public that his fifth term as president will continue to be increasingly autocratic.

Russian ultranationalists lauded the start of Putin's fifth term as a historic event and explicitly approved of the autocratic tradition in which Putin is casting himself, with one of them hailing him as "imperator," the formal title of the Russian tsars since the time of Peter the Great. Russian ultranationalists claimed that Putin's fifth term would be a new stage for Russia and expressed hope that Putin would make meaningful changes to government officials and military commanders.[5] Several ultranationalist Russian milbloggers attended the inauguration, including Alexander “Sasha” Kots, who is on the Kremlin Human Rights Council, and Kremlin-affiliated WarGonzo Telegram channel founder Semyon Pegov.[6] The WarGonzo channel marked the inauguration by describing Putin as Russia's imperator, the Russian literal translation of emperor, and notably the official title of the Russian tsars from 1721 to 1917.[7] WarGonzo dubbed Putin's fifth his "imperial term" and asserted that the presidential term is only presidential in law but not in character.[8] Many Russian ultranationalists have long embraced Putin's autocratic character, and the unabashed praise for Putin as emperor from a prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger suggests that the Kremlin is likely coordinating with co-opted milbloggers to justify the Kremlin's increasing autocracy.

Russian ultranationalists also expressed hope that Putin will continue to deepen an anti-Western ideology that the Kremlin has been heavily developing since the start of the full-scale invasion. WarGonzo claimed that Putin carried out a "coup d'etat" against a "globalist" Russian elite who have ruled Russia since Boris Yeltsin's presidency following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[9] WarGonzo claimed that Putin had given Russian elites a choice during the past two years of the war in Ukraine to cut ties with other "globalists and oligarchs" and support Russia's current path, and implied that Putin would soon begin to disempower the elites who chose poorly by continuing the war in Ukraine and pursuing a new domestic political course.[10] WarGonzo's calls to cut ties with "globalists" likely refers to permanently severing economic ties between the West and Russia, and WarGonzo's focus on breaking with the precedents set during Yeltsin's presidency likely includes both the enrichment of Russia's oligarchs as well as Russia's attempted democratization and involvement in Western multilateral bodies.[11] WarGonzo's claims and hopes are reflective of an increasingly widespread and entrenched anti-Western ideological viewpoint in Russia, one that Putin will likely continue to foster in his fifth term. Russian opposition outlet Meduza recently reported that a source close to the Russian Presidential Administration claimed that Putin is focused on conservatism, removing all dissenters, achieving victory in the war in Ukraine, and “turning to the East.”[12] The Kremlin is currently attempting to forge a multilateral partnership with the People's Republic of China (PRC), Iran, and North Korea. This will likely intensify the Kremlin’s use of anti-Western ideology to justify this effort.[13] The Kremlin has been attempting to establish a more coherent ideology for the war in Ukraine and Russia's expansionist future, and anti-Western sentiment appears to be one of the most consistent ideological narratives the Kremlin has pursued and will likely be a main element of whatever ideology the Kremlin establishes.[14]

The current Russian cabinet of ministers and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin formally resigned on May 7 as constitutionally mandated, and the ministers who return to service and the ones whom Putin replaces will indicate who has Putin's favor and signal his political priorities for his fifth term.[15] The Russian Constitution requires that the current cabinet of ministers, including the prime minister, resign upon the inauguration of the elected Russian head of state, and stipulates that the new president has two weeks to nominate a new prime minister following cabinet resignations.[16] Mishustin and all cabinet ministers accordingly resigned their powers to Putin on May 7, changing all minister titles to "acting" in the interim.[17] Incumbent ministers and new candidates must submit their applications for Putin's review before May 15.[18]

The resignation of the Russian government is standard political practice, but the ministers whom Putin decides to re-appoint, or those he decides to let go and replace, will signal exactly whom Putin trusts, and what political tasks he hopes they will accomplish. Putin can use this opportunity to build an even more consolidated cadre of political appointees, who will help guide Russian domestic and foreign policy in line with Putin's objectives. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on May 6 that certain elites and Kremlin officials are already vying for positions within the new cabinet, potentially in a premature bid to secure high-ranking positions in the event that Putin leaves power at the end of his new term.[19] Putin is likely to re-appoint several trusted high-ranking cabinet members, such as Mishustin and acting First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko.

Belarus has announced a surprise nuclear readiness inspection likely as part of the Kremlin's re-intensified reflexive control campaign targeting Western decision-making. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered on May 7 that Belarusian and Russian forces participate in a joint inspection of the non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapon carriers, forces, and means under the Union State framework.[20] Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Viktor Khrenin stated that a battery of Iskander missile launchers and a squadron of Su-25s will be on standby for the inspection.[21] Lukashenko reiterated standard rhetoric regarding Belarusian doctrine on the deterrent use of nuclear weapons and his desire to avoid entering the war against Ukraine.[22] Lukashenko's announcement comes a day after the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced preparations for non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons exercises to “practice the preparation and use” of tactical nuclear weapons, and is likely meant to bolster the Kremlin's effort to coerce the West into self-deterring from providing additional military assistance to Ukraine.[23] ISW continues to assess that neither Russia nor Belarus seeks nuclear escalation and that their use of nuclear weapons remains unlikely.[24] The US Department of Defense (DoD) reported on May 6 that it has not observed a change in the disposition of Russia's strategic nuclear forces despite Russia's "irresponsible rhetoric."[25]

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) reported on May 7 that it exposed a network of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives who were planning to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence and military officials.[26] The SBU stated that the exposed agents included two colonels of Ukraine's Office of State Security (State Guard) who were operating as part of the FSB's Fifth Service.[27] The FSB's Fifth Service originates from the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB)'s Fifth Service, which conducted counterintelligence and espionage operations in non-Russian Soviet states and now essentially functions as a foreign espionage branch of the FSB.[28] The SBU noted that the FSB recruited the agents out of Ukraine's State Guard before the 2022 full-scale invasion.[29] Both agents are facing life imprisonment on charges of treason.

The Russian Prosecutor General's Office declared US non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House an "undesirable organization" on May 7, likely as part of an ongoing effort to consolidate control over the domestic information space and further deprive Russians of access to civil society organizations and independent assessments of Russian civil and political rights. The Russian Prosecutor General's Office justified Freedom House's designation as an "undesirable organization" by claiming that Freedom House had previously supported Western assistance to Ukraine to "defeat Russia" and Western efforts to use frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine.[30] The Russian Prosecutor General's Office also blamed Freedom House for providing legal and financial support to "pro-Western" Russian activists and Russian activists opposing Russian "traditional values." Freedom House publishes annual "Global Freedom Scores" that rate access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories using qualitative analytical methodologiesand ranked Russia "16/100 Not Free" in 2022 and further downgraded the rating to "13/100 Not Free" in 2023.[31] Freedom House also supports civil society and democratization in Europe and Eurasia through partnering with local NGOs and activist organizations.[32] The Kremlin has been increasing its control over the Russian information space by depriving Western and independent Russian journalists and civil society organizations of the ability to operate in Russia.[33] The Kremlin notably blocked access to the website of French organization Reporters Without Borders on April 21, which scores countries according to a Freedom Index, similar to the one created by Freedom House, and had also scored Russia as having decreasing civil and political rights in recent years.[34]

Key Takeaways: 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term as Russian President on May 7 and stressed Russia's need for unchallenged autocratic rule while indirectly calling for victory in Ukraine.
  • Russian ultranationalists lauded the start of Putin's fifth term as a historic event and explicitly approved of the autocratic tradition in which Putin is casting himself, with one of them hailing him as "imperator," the formal title of the Russian tsars since the time of Peter the Great. Russian ultranationalists also expressed hope that Putin will continue to deepen an anti-Western ideology that the Kremlin has been heavily developing since the start of the full-scale invasion.
  • The current Russian cabinet of ministers and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin formally resigned on May 7 as constitutionally mandated, and the ministers who return to service and the ones whom Putin replaces will indicate who has Putin's favor and signal his political priorities for his fifth term
  • Belarus has announced a surprise nuclear readiness inspection likely as part of the Kremlin's re-intensified reflexive control campaign targeting Western decision-making.
  • Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) reported on May 7 that it exposed a network of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives who were planning to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence and military officials
  • The Russian Prosecutor General's Office declared US non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House an "undesirable organization" on May 7, likely as part of an ongoing effort to consolidate control over the domestic information space and further deprive Russians of access to civil society organizations and independent assessments of Russian civil and political rights.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian occupation officials continue efforts to forcibly recruit Ukrainian civilians into the Russian military in occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • The Kremlin is working with occupation administrators to strengthen Russia's control over the child welfare system in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 6, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Liam Karr, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 6, 2024, 7:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on May 6. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 7 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Kremlin appears to be re-intensifying a reflexive control campaign targeting Western decision-making using nuclear threats and diplomatic manipulation. Reflexive control is a key element of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit — it is a tactic that relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia.[1] Soviet mathematician Vladimir Lefebvre defined reflexive control as “the process of transferring the reasons of making a decision” to an adversary via “provocations, intrigues, disguises, creation of false objects, and lies of any type.”[2] Russia has frequently used nuclear saber-rattling throughout the course of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine to cause the West (Russia’s self-defined adversary) to stop providing military support for Ukraine, and this nuclear saber-rattling has become a frequently used form of Russian reflexive control.[3]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on May 6 that Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian General Staff to prepare to conduct non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons exercises to “practice the preparation and use” of tactical nuclear weapons.[4] The Russian MoD stated that these exercises will involve missile formations of Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) as well as Russian aviation and naval forces. The Russian MoD and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) both notably claimed that Russia will conduct nuclear exercises in response to “provocative statements and threats” made by Western officials against Russia.[5] The Russian MFA accused the US of deploying ground-based intermediate and short-range missiles “in various regions around the world,” which the Russian MFA claimed allows Russia to reciprocate in kind.[6] The Russian MFA also claimed that it will consider the arrival of F-16s to Ukraine as a provocation because Russia will consider F-16s carriers of nuclear weapons, a boilerplate threat that Russian officials have been making since Western states first committed to sending F-16s to Ukraine in summer 2023.[7] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev accused US, French, and British officials of considering sending their troops to Ukraine and claimed that this justifies Russia testing its tactical nuclear weapons.[8] Medvedev also directly threatened a “world catastrophe” as a result of Western involvement in Ukraine and warned of Russian strikes against Washington, Paris, and London.

Russian officials, particularly Medvedev, are critical elements of Russia’s efforts to use nuclear rhetoric as a form of reflexive control, as ISW has frequently reported.[9] Russian officials consistently time nuclear readiness exercises and vague threats of nuclear retaliation with important Western policy decisions regarding the war in Ukraine to force Western decision-makers to self-deter and temper their support for Ukraine. The current apparent resurgence of nuclear rhetoric, this time in the form of planned tactical nuclear weapons exercises, coincides with the imminent arrival of Western weapons in Ukraine. Russian officials are likely using the nuclear weapons information operation to discourage Ukraine’s Western partners from providing additional military support and to scare Western decision-makers out of allowing Ukrainian forces to use Western-provided systems to attack legitimate military targets in Russia. Russian troops engage in routine nuclear exercises as part of this wider nuclear rhetoric information operation, but ISW continues to assess that Russia is highly unlikely to use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine or anywhere else.[10]

The Russian MFA also summoned the British and French ambassadors to Russia as part of the wider ongoing reflexive control campaign aimed at discouraging Western governments from supporting Ukraine.[11] The Russian MFA claimed that it summoned British Ambassador to Russia Nigel Casey in connection with recent statements by British Foreign Minister David Cameron asserting that Ukraine has the right to strike military targets inside of Russia.[12] The Russian MFA accused Cameron of “escalating” the conflict by stating that Ukraine has the right to strike within Russia and warned that Russia can respond by striking “any British military facilities and equipment on the territory of Ukraine and beyond its borders.”[13] Russian MFA Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and Kremlin newswire TASS also reported that Russia summoned the French Ambassador to Russia due to French leadership’s “belligerent statements and the growing involvement of France in the conflict in Ukraine,” in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent calls for expanded Western security assistance to Ukraine.[14] Russia likely summoned these ambassadors to discourage France and the UK, and by extension the rest of the West, from providing further support for Ukraine.

Russian elites and Kremlin officials are reportedly vying for influential positions in the Russian government ahead of the Russian presidential inauguration on May 7 to prematurely secure powerful roles in the event that Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves power around the end of his new term. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on May 6 that its sources in the Kremlin claimed that the Russian elites began actively speculating about who would join the new Russian government after Putin’s inauguration and noted that some elites are “tense” hoping for promotions and worrying about demotions.[15] Another source close to the Russian government told Meduza that Kremlin officials and Russian elites are currently trying to occupy the “highest possible position” in case Putin’s upcoming six-year presidential term is his last due to his age. ISW has not observed any indications that Putin intends to leave power after the conclusion of his upcoming presidential term. Putin’s possible efforts to position elites to succeed him and elites’ efforts to position themselves within the government are likely therefore premature. One source claimed that Russian elites are speculating that Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin or Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko could become the next Russian Prime Minister, while other sources expressed doubt that current Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin would resign. A source close to the Russian Federal Assembly told Meduza that Russian Duma deputies are already prepared to re-approve Mishustin as Prime Minister. Two sources close to the Russian Presidential Administration and government stated that Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev and Kemerovo Oblast Governor Sergei Tsivilev want new positions in the Russian government and suggested that Trutnev could head an unspecified government ministry and Trutnev could take a leading job in the Presidential Administration. Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin stated that they have no information regarding Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s potential resignation in the wake of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov’s April 24 arrest and claimed that Shoigu “still has the opportunity to work on his job, at least until the completion of this phase of the [war in Ukraine].” Position changes among Russian elites are unlikely to have major effects on in Russia’s domestic and international decision-making and policy planning, however. A source close to the Russian Presidential Administration claimed that Putin is focused on conservatism, removing all dissenters, victory in the war in Ukraine, and “turning to the East,” likely referencing deepening Russian relations with China, Iran, and North Korea. Putin appears to be attempting to create ideological homogeneity among the Russian elite, which is consistent with ISW’s continued assessment that Putin values personal loyalty (and, by extension, the sharing of his worldview) over professional achievement.[16]

A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, claimed that the Russian military command appointed the commanders and chiefs of staff of the newly formed Leningrad and Moscow military districts (LMD and MMD). The insider source claimed that Russian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin became the commander of the LMD, echoing claims from a Russian regional outlet from March 31.[17] The insider source claimed that the former commander of the 36th Combined Arms Army (CAA) (Eastern Military District), Lieutenant General Valery Solodchuk, became the LMD Chief of Staff.[18] The insider source claimed that Solodchuk commanded an unspecified Russian group of forces responsible for the Russian state border in February 2024, during which he “quickly found a common language” with Lapin, resulting in Solodchuk‘s appointment to LMD Chief of Staff. Commander of the Southern Military District (SMD) Colonel General Sergei Kuzovlev reportedly became the commander of the Moscow Military District (MMD). Lieutenant General Mikhail Zusko, who commanded the 58th CAA (SMD) in 2022, reportedly became the MMD Chief of Staff.[19] ISW cannot confirm the insider source’s claims but notes that the source has been highly accurate about past military command changes.[20]

The Kremlin continues tightening the restrictions on individuals it designates as “foreign agents,” restricting their ability to serve in government roles, likely in a disguised purge of officials who do not adequately align with the Kremlin. The Russian State Duma unanimously passed a bill in its second and third readings on May 6 that prohibits individuals designated as “foreign agents” from running in Russian elections for or serving at any level of government.[21] The bill stipulates that any government officials who are also designated as foreign agents have 180 days to somehow remove themselves from the list of foreign agents before Russian authorities strip the officials of their office.[22] The bill also prohibits foreign agents from serving as election observers or election proxies — individuals appointed to campaign on behalf of high-level candidates.[23] The bill notably prevents the Russian authorities from designating election candidates as foreign agents during the course of the election.[24] It is unclear how many incumbent Russian officials this bill will affect. Russian State Duma Chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin stated that foreign agents can participate in Russian elections after authorities remove the foreign agent designation.[25] The Kremlin has recently been cracking down on foreign agents and expanding the legally prosecutable definition of extremism — both labels that deprive Russians of certain rights and increasingly portray Russians who gain these designations for expressing anti-war sentiment as directly opposing the Kremlin itself.[26] The Kremlin may be pushing this bill through now to coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 8 inauguration and subsequent new cabinet.[27]

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a successful maritime drone strike against a Russian patrol boat in occupied Crimea on May 6, and Ukrainian forces are reportedly adapting their maritime drones to combat Russian defensive measures. The GUR-published footage on May 6 of a GUR Magura V5 maritime drone striking a Russian Project 12150 Mangust-class patrol boat in Vuzka Bay near occupied Chornomorske, Crimea.[28] The GUR stated that the destroyed Mangust-class patrol boat was likely worth $3 million. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that elements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) destroyed five Ukrainian maritime drones near the northwestern Crimean coast and published footage purportedly of a Russian helicopter striking one of the drones.[29] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces had adapted the drones to defend against Russian strikes, particularly from helicopters, with heat-seeking missiles and to break through containment booms.[30] Several prominent Russian milbloggers expressed anger that the Russian military bureaucracy is causing Russian forces to respond too slowly to Ukrainian maritime drone adaptations.[31]

Russia may be switching sides in the Sudanese civil war to support the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in pursuit of a Red Sea naval base for Russia, which would align Iranian and Russian Sudanese policy and create opportunities for increased Iranian-Russian cooperation in Sudan and the broader Red Sea area. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative for the Russian President in Africa and the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov met with SAF head Abdel Fattah al Burhan and several other Sudanese officials during a two-day visit to Sudan on April 28 and 29.[32] Bogdanov stated that his visit could lead to increased cooperation and expressed support for “the existing legitimacy in the country represented by the [SAF-backed] Sovereign Council.”[33] France-based Sudanese news outlet Sudan Tribune reported that Russia offered “unrestricted qualitative military aid” during the meetings and also enquired about its longstanding but unimplemented agreement to establish a naval base in Port Sudan.[34]

Bogdanov’s discussions indicate that the Kremlin is willing to risk the gold it had been getting from supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which are fighting a civil war against the SAF, to advance its longstanding Red Sea basing ambitions. The Wagner Group had been arming and training the RSF since the outbreak of the civil war in April 2023 due to preexisting ties owing to the RSF’s control of Sudan’s gold mines.[35] However, the civil war has halted some Wagner-linked gold operations, and it is unclear if this support has continued to the same extent after the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023.[36] US officials and an independent report from non-profit groups claimed that Wagner smuggled out an estimated 32.7 tons of gold worth $1.9 billion during the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[37]

Russia has pursued a Red Sea port since 2008 to protect its economic interests in the area and improve its military posture by increasing its ability to challenge the West in the broader region, including in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.[38] Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously made an agreement with Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al Bashir in 2017 for a Red Sea base capable of stationing 300 Russian servicemembers and four ships in exchange for various kinds of military and regime security support.[39] The Kremlin subsequently supported both the RSF and SAF after Bashir’s ouster in 2019 to pursue an implementation of the deal.[40] RSF Commander General Hemedti led these negotiations after the RSF and SAF overthrew Sudan’s civilian-led transitional government in 2021, but the civil war that broke out between the RSF and the SAF once again put the deal on hold.[41] The SAF controls Sudan’s coast, making it the key gatekeeper for any naval base.[42]

Russia backing the SAF would greatly benefit Iran by aligning Iranian and Russian policy and strategy in the region, which would advance Iran’s own aims of securing a Red Sea base in Sudan. Iran strengthened its bilateral relations with the SAF throughout 2023 and started sending drones to the SAF in late 2023 and early 2024.[43] The Wall Street Journal reported in March 2024 that Iran unsuccessfully attempted to use these ties and promises of a helicopter-carrier ship to secure a permanent naval base in Port Sudan.[44] Iran seeks a Red Sea naval base for reasons similar to Russia's–to project power further westward. Iran would use a Red Sea base to support out-of-area naval operations and attacks on international shipping. This power projection includes threatening Red Sea shipping traffic and creating opportunities to launch attacks into Israel with systems fired from surface combatants.

The Kremlin may also align its Sudan policy with Iran to lighten its own military commitments. Russian insider sources reported in mid-April that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) was redeploying Russian soldiers from unspecified MOD-affiliated Africa Corps units to the Ukrainian border.[45] These demands from the Ukraine war compound ongoing capacity issues stemming from Africa Corps’ recruitment struggles.[46] Russia aligning with Iran would enable the Kremlin to coordinate aid with Iran and potentially free the resources and soldiers that it had devoted to supporting the RSF.[47] Bogdanov met with Iranian Deputy PM Ali Bagheri Kani two days before leaving for Sudan when they discussed "the importance of bilateral ties and regional issues,” indicating they are already coordinating on the issue.[48]

The Kremlin is additionally pursuing secondary objectives, including sidelining Ukrainian and US influence in Sudan, through its outreach to the SAF. The Sudan Tribune reported that Bogdanov enquired about Sudanese military cooperation with Ukraine during his visit.[49] Ukraine has provided military support to the SAF as one of its many initiatives to boost support in Africa as many African countries have been ambivalent about or supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[50] The Wall Street Journal reported that Ukraine sent nearly 100 Ukrainian special forces soldiers to Sudan at Burhan’s request in August 2023 that have supported the SAF through occasional combat, drone support, training, and supplies provision.[51] Ukraine‘s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) claimed on April 17 that the Kremlin planned to launch an information operation accusing Ukrainian forces of illegally using Western weapons in Sudan to discredit Ukraine and undermine Western support for Ukraine.[52]

Russia's backing of the SAF also risks undermining impending US-backed peace talks.[53] The US has been urging a resumption of peace talks after US-Saudi efforts failed throughout 2023.[54] Other foreign intervention contributed to these failures by emboldening actors to take hardline negotiating stances.[55]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin appears to be re-intensifying a reflexive control campaign targeting Western decision-making using nuclear threats and diplomatic manipulation.
  • Russian elites and Kremlin officials are reportedly vying for influential positions in the Russian government ahead of the Russian presidential inauguration on May 7 to prematurely secure powerful roles in the event that Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves power around the end of his new term.
  • A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, claimed that the Russian military command appointed the commanders and chiefs of staff of the newly formed Leningrad and Moscow military districts (LMD and MMD).
  • The Kremlin continues tightening the restrictions on individuals it designates as “foreign agents,” restricting their ability to serve in government roles, likely in a disguised purge of officials who do not adequately align with the Kremlin.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a successful maritime drone strike against a Russian patrol boat in occupied Crimea on May 6, and Ukrainian forces are reportedly adapting their maritime drones to combat Russian defensive measures.
  • Russia may be switching sides in the Sudanese civil war to support the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in pursuit of a Red Sea naval base for Russia, which would align Iranian and Russian Sudanese policy and create opportunities for increased Iranian-Russian cooperation in Sudan and the broader Red Sea area.
  • Russia has pursued a Red Sea port since 2008 to protect its economic interests in the area and improve its military posture by increasing its ability to challenge the West in the broader region, including in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
  • Russia backing the SAF would greatly benefit Iran by aligning Iranian and Russian policy and strategy in the region, which would advance Iran’s own aims of securing a Red Sea base in Sudan.
  • The Kremlin is additionally pursuing secondary objectives, including sidelining Ukrainian and US influence in Sudan, through its outreach to the SAF.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances northwest of Svatove, near Avdiivka, in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian Zaporizhia Oblast Head Ivan Fedorov stated that Russian authorities have created the infrastructure necessary to conscript Ukrainians in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast and plan to conscript more than 150,000 Ukrainians into the Russian army in an unspecified time period.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 5, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

May 5, 2024, 6:50pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on May 5. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 6 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian military reportedly redeployed a battalion of the 76th Airborne (VDV) Division to Kursk Oblast as part of a larger ongoing Russian effort to gather an operationally significant force for a possible future Russian offensive operation against northeastern Ukraine and Kharkiv City. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on May 5 that the Russian military has gathered roughly 50,000 personnel in Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk oblasts as part of its Northern Grouping of Forces.[1] Mashovets stated that the Russian military has concentrated over 31,000 troops in Belgorod Oblast; over 10,000 troops in Kursk Oblast; and over 8,000 troops in Bryansk Oblast.[2] Mashovets noted that an unspecified VDV battalion is part of the Russian grouping in Kursk Oblast, and a Russian milblogger, who has an avowed bias against the VDV and “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, claimed on May 5 that the Russian 104th VDV Regiment’s (76th VDV Division) 3rd VDV battalion is currently in Kursk Oblast.[3] Elements of the 104th Regiment were previously operating in Zaporizhia Oblast as of February and March 2024, suggesting that elements of the 104th Regiment recently redeployed from southern Ukraine to Russia’s border with northeastern Ukraine.[4] ISW recently observed unconfirmed reports that the Russian military is redeploying elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions from Zaporizhia Oblast to various new directions, including eastern Ukraine, but has not observed visual confirmation that elements of the 104th VDV Regiment are operating in Kursk Oblast.[5][6]

The Russian military is reportedly preparing and forming the Northern Grouping of Forces from elements of the Leningrad Military District (LMD) to primarily operate in the Belgorod-Kharkiv operational direction. Mashovets noted that Russian forces are continuing to transfer newly formed military units of the Russian 44th Army Corps [AC] (LMD) to the Northern Grouping of Forces. Mashovets stated that the Russian military transferred manpower and equipment of the Russian 30th Motorized Rifle Regiment (72nd Motorized Rifle Division, 44th AC, LMD) and the 128th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade to the Northern Grouping of Forces as of May 3.[7] Mashovets stated that the Russian military is pretending to unload troops and equipment redeploying to the Northern Grouping of Forces at railway stations in isolated areas of Kursk Oblast, only to then have Russian forces march to their deployment points in Belgorod Oblast. Mashovets noted that elements of the 30th Motorized Rifle Regiment first redeployed to the Kursk Railway Station but then deployed further to Belgorod Oblast, to possibly head to staging areas near Kharkiv Oblast. Mashovets also observed that Russian forces recently intensified air, drone, and missile strikes against northeastern Ukrainian border regions such as Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv oblasts. Mashovets echoed ISW’s assessment that the Russian Northern Grouping of Forces would likely be unable to conduct a successful offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City and suggested that elements of the Russian 11th AC, 44th AC, and 6th CAA (all LMD) may attempt to conduct limited offensive actions or cross border raids into Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts in the future.[8] Ukrainian officials have increasingly warned about the threat of a possible future Russian offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City.[9] ISW continues to assess that the Russian military lacks the forces necessary to seize the city but that Russian offensive operations against Kharkiv or Sumy cities would draw and fix Ukrainian forces from other, more critical parts of the frontline.[10]

US officials continue to signal their support for new Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2025, although ISW continues to assess that Ukraine should contest the theater-wide initiative as soon as possible because ceding the theater-wide initiative to Russia for the entirety of 2024 will present Russia with several benefits. The Financial Times (FT) reported on May 5 that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that Ukraine will look to conduct a counteroffensive operation to recapture Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory in 2025 after using US military assistance to blunt further Russian advances in 2024.[11] Sullivan stated that he expects Russian forces to continue making marginal advances for an unspecified time and noted that US military assistance will not “instantly flip the switch” on the battlefield situation in Ukraine. Sullivan stated that US military assistance will empower Ukrainian forces to “hold the line” and withstand Russian assaults throughout the rest of 2024. ISW continues to assess that it will likely take several additional weeks for Western weapons and ammunition to arrive to frontline Ukrainian units and begin to have tangible battlefield impacts and that the arrival of US military aid to Ukraine will likely allow Ukrainian forces to stabilize the frontline and seize the initiative.[12]

FT reported in January 2024 that US officials advocated for Ukraine to conduct a more “conservative” “active defense” in 2024 and prepare for a counteroffensive in 2025.[13] ISW has previously argued at length that a Ukrainian “active defense” into 2025 would cede the theater-wide initiative to Russian forces for over a year, allowing the Russian command to shape preferable conditions by determining the timing, location, and intensity, of Russian attacks, and in by doing so control the resources that Ukrainian forces expend over this protracted period.[14] A Russian milblogger positively responded to FT‘s May 5 report and stated that Russian forces can simply conduct glide bomb air strikes against Ukrainian positions for the remainder of 2024 if Ukrainian forces are not going to launch a counteroffensive operation that pressures Russian forces this year.[15] Tactically significant Russian advances northwest of Avdiivka and the potential threat of a Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv Oblast are directly linked to Russian forces’ ability to indiscriminately conduct glide bomb strikes along the frontline, constrained and degraded Ukrainian defensive operations, and Russia’s control over the theater-wide initiative. Ukrainian forces will of course have to receive and integrate US military assistance to frontline units, stabilize the frontline, defend against the predicted summer Russian offensive effort, prevent operationally significant Russian advances, and address their ongoing manpower challenges before they will be able to contest the theater-wide initiative and conduct a counteroffensive operation later in 2024 or 2025.[16] Ukraine’s ability to liberate its territory and conduct counteroffensive operations rests on a number of unmade decisions in the West, Russia, and Ukraine and any external efforts to impose a timeline on Ukrainian counteroffensive operations ignore the reality of the battlefield situation.

European intelligence agencies reportedly warned their governments that Russia is planning to conduct “violent acts of sabotage” across Europe as part of a “more aggressive and concerted effort” against the West. The Financial Times (FT) reported on May 5, citing unspecified European intelligence officials, that Russia has been actively preparing “covert bombings, arson attacks, and damage to infrastructure” in Europe using its own forces and proxies.[17] German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) Thomas Haldenwang stated that the BfV assesses that there is a “significantly increased” risk of Russian state-controlled acts of sabotage on European territory. An unspecified senior European government official stated that NATO-member security services' information sharing indicated coordinated Russian sabotage efforts “at scale.” NATO recently reported that it is “deeply concerned” about intensifying Russian hybrid operations on NATO member territory and that these operations constitute a threat to the alliance's security.[18] FT reported that German authorities recently arrested two individuals on charges of allegedly planning to attack German military and logistics sites for Russia and that the United Kingdom (UK) accused two individuals of working for Russia after they were charged with setting fire to a warehouse containing aid for Ukraine.[19] ISW also observed recent reports that the Kremlin is pursuing hybrid operations against NATO member states using GPS jamming and sabotage on military logistics.[20] Russian milbloggers have widely celebrated incidents of sabotage in Western countries, most recently celebrating the factory fire at German arms company Diehl in Berlin, Germany, even though German officials have not speculated on the causes of the fire.[21]

The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) seized on the Orthodox Easter holiday on May 5 to further its efforts to garner domestic support for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. ROC MP Head Patriarch Kirill delivered an Easter message in which he stated that Russia is going through “difficult” and “fateful” trials and labeled Russian lands as “sacred.”[22] Patriarch Kirill called on people to pray for Russian authorities and the Russian military and expressed hope that God would bring about an end to the “internecine” war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the service, thanked Patriarch Kirill for his “fruitful collaboration” during the “current difficult period.”[23] Putin claimed that the ROC MP and “other Christian denominations” are preserving Russian heritage and societal values.[24] Russian independent outlet Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) reported that Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-run television network Zvezda broadcasted the service and deleted any comments from viewers with calls for peace.[25] Russian authorities have systematically repressed religious freedom in Russia as a matter of state policy and have persecuted certain Christian denominations within Russia.[26] Russian authorities are also systematically persecuting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Protestants, Roman Catholics, and other non-ROC faiths in occupied Ukraine.[27] The ROC MP has consistently supported the war in Ukraine, and the ROC MP leadership has reportedly defrocked several clergy members who refused to promote Kremlin-introduced prayers supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[28] The ROC MP has also recently cast Russia’s war in Ukraine as an existential “holy war” and approved an ideological policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.[29]

Kremlin officials also used the Orthodox Easter holiday to spread narratives that the West indirectly threatens Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet states, particularly in the Baltics, likely as part of ongoing Kremlin efforts to set information conditions to justify future Russian aggression abroad. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ambassador-at-Large Gennady Askaldovich published an article in the Kremlin outlet Izvestiya on May 5 in which he alleged that the US and its allies use religion as a foreign policy tool to influence other states.[30] Askaldovich claimed that some churches with “American patrons” politicize religion and falsely accused the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople of allegedly splitting Orthodoxy in Ukraine and trying to displace the ROC from Eastern Europe and former Soviet states. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted autocephaly (independence) to the OCU from the Kremlin-controlled Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) in 2019.[31] Askaldovich accused the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople of trying to take over small Orthodox autocephalous churches, including churches in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian military reportedly redeployed a battalion of the 76th Airborne (VDV) Division to Kursk Oblast as part of a larger ongoing Russian effort to gather an operationally significant force for a possible future Russian offensive operation against northeastern Ukraine and Kharkiv City.
  • The Russian military is reportedly preparing and forming the Northern Grouping of Forces from elements of the Leningrad Military District (LMD) to primarily operate in the Belgorod-Kharkiv operational direction.
  • US officials continue to signal their support for new Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2025, although ISW continues to assess that Ukraine should contest the theater-wide initiative as soon as possible because ceding the theater-wide initiative to Russia for the entirety of 2024 will present Russia with several benefits.
  • European intelligence agencies reportedly warned their governments that Russia is planning to conduct “violent acts of sabotage” across Europe as part of a “more aggressive and concerted effort” against the West.
  • The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) seized on the Orthodox Easter holiday on May 5 to further its efforts to garner domestic support for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Kupyansk and Robotyne.
  • Bureaucratic issues continue to constrain frontline Russian units’ ability to conduct strikes on Ukrainian targets.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 4, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 4, 2024, 9 pm ET 

Russian forces made a notable tactical advance northwest of Avdiivka near Arkhanhelske on the night of May 3 to 4, likely following a Ukrainian decision to withdraw from the area on May 3. A Russian milblogger posted footage on May 4 reportedly of elements of the Russian “Lavina” Battalion of the 132nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] Army Corps) raising a flag in Arkhanhelske, and ISW geolocated this footage to northern Arkhanhelske.[1] Additional geolocated footage published on May 4 indicates that Russian forces advanced in the eastern outskirts of Arkhanhelske.[2] ISW assesses that the Russian seizure of Arkhanhelske also indicates that Russian forces likely control Keramik and Novokalynove (both southeast of Arkhanhelske). Geolocated footage published on May 3 shows Ukrainian forces withdrawing from northern Arkhanhelske, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced in the settlement overnight on May 3 to 4 following the Ukrainian withdrawal.[3] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces conducted offensive operations to seize Arkhanhelske in several stages, with Russian forces advancing from Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka and southwest of Arkhanhelske) a week ago and Russian forces from Keramik (east of Ocheretyne) seizing the settlement on May 3.[4] Ukrainian forces may have decided to trade space for time as they wait for the arrival of US aid to the frontline at scale in the coming weeks – an appropriate decision for an under-resourced force at risk of being outflanked.[5] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are likely trying to take advantage of the limited time window before the arrival of Western military aid deliveries by intensifying offensive operations and that Russian forces may make further tactical advances in this area in the near future.[6]

Russian forces appear to be choosing to exploit the tactical situation northwest of Avdiivka – a sound military undertaking – but their ultimate objective in this frontline sector remains unclear. Russian forces appear to be choosing to exploit the area where Russian forces are most likely to make tactical gains in the near future, but it is unclear if they will continue to drive north toward Toretsk or return to their previous focus on Pokrovsk to the northwest.[7] Russian forces have already committed roughly a division’s worth of combat power (comprised mainly of four Central Military District [CMD] brigades) to the frontline northwest of Avdiivka and were reportedly continuing to introduce additional forces in this general area.[8] Ukrainian sources have recently reported that Russia committed elements of the 55th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army, CMD) to the Novobakhmutivka area (south of Ocheretyne).[9] Russian forces were likely to continue to push northwest of Avdiivka as long as there were opportunities to exploit the tactical situation in the area.

The Kremlin continues efforts to portray its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine as something other than what it is while continuing to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign states. Russian state media reported on May 4 that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) placed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Russia’s wanted list and opened criminal cases against the three Ukrainian leaders.[10] Russian state media noted that the Russian MVD did not specify Zelensky‘s, Pavlyuk‘s, or Poroshenko’s crimes nor the alleged crimes of the previous Ukrainian officials that Russia placed on its wanted list, including Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov and Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) Head Vasyl Malyuk. One Russian milblogger expressed hope that the warrant for Zelensky’s arrest will prevent Zelensky from visiting countries with an extradition treaty with Russia.[11] The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) called the arrest warrants an act of Russian propaganda.[12] Ukrainian officials have recently warned that the Kremlin is intensifying an existing information operation called “Maidan 3” aimed at creating doubt about the legitimacy of Zelensky’s presidency among Ukrainians and that “Maidan 3” will likely peak around late May 2024.[13] The Kremlin’s decision to place Zelensky, Pavlyuk, and Poroshenko on Russia’s wanted list is likely part of Russia‘s “Maidan 3” information operation and of the Kremlin’s wider efforts to discredit the current and previous pro-Western Ukrainian governments that followed Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 as well as to isolate Ukraine diplomatically.[14]

The Kremlin’s decision to place Ukrainian officials on Russia’s wanted list is also an aspect of its continued efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal laws in sovereign European and post-Soviet countries where Russia has no legal jurisdiction. The Russian MVD has previously placed multiple officials from NATO member countries – including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – on Russia’s wanted list for allegedly breaking a variety of Russian federal laws within NATO member countries.[15] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin’s efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russia's efforts to set informational conditions justifying possible future Russian aggression against NATO states.[16]

Russian law enforcement conducted a search on May 4 of supporters of imprisoned Russian ultranationalist and former officer Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) in Tula Oblast, possibly in an attempt to set information conditions to ban the movement in Russia. Russian law enforcement officials, including the Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, reportedly conducted a search of the Russian Strelkov (Girkin) Movement (RDS) branch in Tula Oblast on May 4.[17] The RDS reported that Russian law enforcement officials searched the RDS Tula Oblast branch for members of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), who were recently found guilty by a local court of inscribing a “Freedom for Strelkov” slogan on a waste heap in Novomoskovsk, Tula Oblast on April 29.[18] A Russian Telegram channel, which published insider information from law enforcement agencies, reported that Russian law enforcement officials searched at least three RDS members and detained RDS member Alexander Omelchenko. Russian law enforcement officials later released Omelchenko but confiscated his phone. The RDS implied that Russian law enforcement officials are deliberately trying to discredit and ban the movement by claiming that the RDS is affiliated with RDK, which the Russian government has designated as a terrorist organization in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin notably recently met with Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin on May 2, but it is unclear if these two events are related.[19]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces made a notable tactical advance northwest of Avdiivka near Arkhanhelske on the night of May 3 to 4, likely following a Ukrainian decision to withdraw from the area on May 3.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to portray its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine as something other than what it is while continuing to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign states.
  • The Russian law enforcement conducted a search on May 4 of supporters of imprisoned Russian ultranationalist and former officer Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) in Tula Oblast, possibly in an attempt to set information conditions to ban the movement in Russia.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Avdiivka and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • The Kremlin is continuing its ongoing campaign to centralize control over Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) irregular forces by co-opting DNR commanders and officials.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 3, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 3, 2024, 9:05pm ET

Ukrainian officials continue to highlight that Russia’s main goal for 2024 remains the seizure of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as Russian forces plan for their Summer 2024 offensive operation. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk reiterated during an interview with The Times published on May 3 that Russia’s offensive goals in 2024 are to seize all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and that Russian forces may attempt to seize the rest of Zaporizhia Oblast in 2024 if they seize Donbas.[1] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated in an interview with The Economist published on May 2 that Russian forces will likely continue pursuing their longtime goal of reaching the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts over the summer as other Ukrainian officials have recently noted.[2] Pavlyuk reiterated that Russian forces have a plan to seize Kharkiv or Sumy cities but noted that it is unclear how serious this plan is or whether Russian forces will be capable of capturing one or both of the cities.[3] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces would struggle to seize Kharkiv City but that a Russian offensive operation in the area would likely draw and fix Ukrainian forces from other areas of the frontline.[4] Pavlyuk stated that Ukrainian forces are doing everything possible to stop Russian efforts to seize Chasiv Yar but noted that Russian forces have an estimated 10-to-1 artillery advantage over Ukrainian forces and “total air superiority,” likely referring to Russian forces' ability to indiscriminately conduct glide bomb strikes in the area.[5] Skibitskyi stated on May 2 that Russian forces will not imminently seize Chasiv Yar although it is “probably a matter of time” before the settlement falls, which is consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces may take Chasiv Yar but are unlikely to do so immediately.[6]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine is also paying increased attention to the Pokrovsk (Avdiivka) direction, where Russian forces have recently made tactically significant advances and are “pressing” on Ukrainian positions.[7] Zelensky warned that Russian forces are preparing to expand their offensive operations in Ukraine, likely referring to the anticipated Summer 2024 Russian offensive operation, and that Ukraine is facing a “new stage” of the war.[8] Pavlyuk expressed hope that US and European military assistance will arrive in frontline areas in the near future and help blunt Russian assaults this summer and contest the theater-wide initiative in the future.[9]

The first deliveries of resumed US military assistance reportedly arrived in Ukraine earlier this week, although it will likely take several additional weeks before Western weapons and ammunition arrive in frontline areas at scale. The New York Times reported on May 3 that the first installment of US military assistance comprised of anti-armor rockets, missiles, and 155-mm artillery shells arrived in Ukraine on April 28, four days after US President Joe Biden signed a bill providing roughly $60 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, and that a second installment of unspecified aid arrived on April 29.[10] The New York Times, citing an unnamed Spanish official, reported that Spanish missiles for Patriot air defense systems recently arrived in Poland and will arrive at the frontline in Ukraine “soon.” The New York Times reported that Germany’s newly pledged Patriot air defense system is not expected to arrive in Ukraine until late June at the earliest but that the Patriot’s arrival could coincide with the arrival of the first F-16 fighter jets.[11] Unnamed officials told The New York Times that it could take several months for a substantial number of Western weapons and equipment to arrive in Ukraine, however.[12] A senior US official, citing a confidential US military assessment, stated that Russia likely will continue to make marginal gains in the east and southeast in the leadup to the May 9 Victory Day holiday but that Russian forces likely do not have enough manpower concentrated in unspecified frontline areas to conduct an immediate large-scale offensive effort. The US military assessment concluded that the Ukrainian frontline will not collapse in the near term despite severe Ukrainian ammunition shortages. The US military assessment is consistent with ISW’s ongoing assessment that Russian forces will likely attempt to build on tactical gains to pursue operationally significant gains in key sectors, such as near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka, in the weeks before US military assistance arrives to frontline Ukrainian units at scale but that these Russian gains will not portend a collapse of the Ukrainian defense.[13]

Ukrainian officials indicated that Russian forces in Ukraine have not significantly increased in size in recent months but that the Russian military continues to improve its fighting qualities overall despite suffering widespread degradation, especially among elite units since the start of the war. Pavlyuk stated that roughly 510,000 to 515,000 Russian personnel are currently deployed in occupied Ukraine.[14] Ukrainian officials reported in January 2024 that Russian forces had roughly 462,000 personnel deployed in Ukraine and noted that this was the entire land component of the Russian military at the time.[15] Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in December 2023 that there were 617,000 Russian personnel in the “combat zone,” likely referring to all Russian military personnel in the zone of the “special military operation,” which includes areas within Russia bordering Ukraine.[16] These figures likely encompass combat personnel and other military personnel who perform support functions and do not represent the immediate combat power that Russian forces have and can commit to offensive operations in Ukraine. Putin previously signed a decree in December 2023 claiming that the Russian military has a total of 2.039 million personnel, 1.32 million of whom are combat personnel, suggesting a roughly 60 to 40 ratio between Russian combat and non-combat personnel on average.[17] The specific breakdown between Russian combat and non-combat personnel in Ukraine is unclear. The overall marginal increase in the size of the Russian deployment to occupied Ukraine between January and April 2024 indicates that Russian forces have likely committed the majority of recently generated forces to ongoing offensive operations instead of efforts to establish strategic-level reserves.[18]

Skibitskyi stated that the current Russian military is unrecognizable from the force that launched the full-scale invasion in February 2022.[19] Skibitskyi noted that Russia’s once-elite airborne (VDV) and naval infantry elements have been completely degraded and that Russia will not be able to reconstitute them to their former combat capabilities for at least a decade.[20] Russian forces have heavily degraded relatively elite units by employing them in attritional ground assaults and counterattacks regardless of their designated functions and elite capabilities.[21] Degradation and the Russian military command’s decision to commit all forces along the frontline to more or less similar operations have transformed all Russian units in Ukraine regardless of their formal designations into motorized rifle units — mechanized infantry responsible for conducting combined arms ground assaults. Skibitskyi acknowledged that the Russian military is improving in some respects, however, and stated that the Russian military is now operating as a “single body, with a clear plan, under a single command.”[22] The Russian military has demonstrated an uneven propensity for operational, tactical, and technological innovation and learning, particularly with operational planning.[23] The Russian military is now entirely comprised of less-elite de facto motorized rifle units, but these units continue to innovate and adapt to fighting in Ukraine while relying on materiel and manpower advantages to increasingly pressure Ukrainian forces and exploit Ukrainian vulnerabilities.[24]

Ukrainian officials indicated that the Russian military will likely maintain its current personnel replacement rate and will not generate the significant number of available personnel needed to establish strategic-level reserves for larger-scale offensive operations in 2024. Pavlyuk stated on May 2 that Russia intends to “mobilize” about 100,000 more personnel for use in offensive operations this June and July and 300,000 more personnel by the end of 2024.[25] Pavlyuk is likely referring to ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts and efforts to recruit contract service personnel and is likely not referencing another call-up of reservists similar to Russia‘s September 2022 partial mobilization. Skibitskyi stated that Russia is also “generating a division of reserves,” likely between 15,000 and 20,000 personnel, in central Russia to use in Russia’s anticipated Summer 2024 offensive. The “division of reserves” that Skibitskyi is referring to is likely included in Pavlyuk’s figure of 100,000 personnel that Russia intends to generate for use in June or July. Pavlyuk stated that Russian forces suffer about 25,000 to 30,000 killed and wounded personnel per month, indicating that Russian forces intend to generally maintain the current number of forces fighting in Ukraine in 2024 and are unlikely to generate significantly more available personnel. ISW has observed recent reports that the Russian military has intensified crypto-mobilization efforts, which are likely intended to maintain replacement rates during intensified offensive operations this spring and expected offensive operations this summer.[26] ISW continues to assess that Russia will struggle to form strategic-level reserves while sustaining the current replacement rate or an increased replacement rate during intensified offensive operations.[27] The Kremlin would likely have to conduct another wave of partial mobilization to generate the manpower required to both sustain the tempo of current Russian offensive operations and successfully form strategic-level reserves in the near term. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin will rely on crypto-mobilization efforts and remains unlikely to conduct another unpopular wave of partial mobilization.[28]

Pavlyuk stated that neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces will be able to achieve victory in Ukraine solely through attritional warfare – a consistent throughline that Ukrainian officials and military analysts have emphasized in recent months.[29] Pavlyuk stated that the Russian military command does not care about high losses in Ukraine and that Ukraine will only be able to win the war through technological superiority and the international isolation of Russia. Former Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi notably assessed in a November 1 essay that military parity resulted in the onset of a positional front in Ukraine and that neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces would be able to break through this positional front without achieving a technological advantage over the other.[30] The rough parity in forces and means has since degraded with the delay of US military assistance to Ukraine, but Russian forces are still unable to make operational-level gains in the near term. Pavlyuk stated on May 3 that Russian forces have advantages over Ukrainian forces in artillery and aviation but suggested that Ukrainian forces can obtain a technological advantage over Russian forces using drones.[31] Pavlyuk stated that drones have enabled both Russian and Ukrainian forces to conduct aerial reconnaissance up to 30 kilometers behind the front line and that neither force can concentrate forces within 30 kilometers of the front for an offensive effort. Pavlyuk noted that drones have forced both Russian and Ukrainian forces to operate in smaller infantry groups to avoid the enemy’s reconnaissance fire complex (RFC) and noted that Ukrainian forces have moved away from moving in battalion- or company-sized groups. Pavlyuk’s statements are consistent with ISW’s recent observations and forecasts about Russian forces’ offensive prospects, and Russian forces seem content to make grinding, attritional gains at the tactical level in the near term despite the disproportionately limited benefit these gains offer to Russia at such a high cost.[32]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu issued a notably candid assessment of recent Russian advances in Ukraine and refrained from sweeping claims about the success of the Russian war effort, possibly in an attempt to temper domestic expectations about Russia’s near future successes in Ukraine ahead of the summer 2024 Russian offensive operation. Shoigu claimed during a conference call with Russian military leadership that Russian forces have seized 547 square kilometers of territory in Ukraine since January 1, 2024.[33] ISW has observed evidence confirming that Russian forces have seized approximately 516 square kilometers in 2024 as of April 29, and Shoigu’s claim is notably more realistic than previous claims that surpassed ISW’s assessed Russian advances by roughly 100 square kilometers.[34] Shoigu also reiterated the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) previous claims that Russian forces have seized Novobakhmutivka, Semenivka, and Berdychi and ongoing Kremlin information operations aimed at overestimating Ukrainian manpower and equipment losses.[35] Shoigu claimed that Russian forces are continuing to break into Ukrainian strongholds along the entire frontline and are forcing Ukrainian forces to retreat from their positions in unspecified areas. Shoigu previously used a similar conference call in December 2023 to downplay Russian operations in Ukraine as an “active defense,” likely in an effort to temper expectations about Russia’s forces’ months-long operation to seize Avdiivka.[36] Shoigu may hope to similarly temper domestic expectations about Russian forces anticipated Summer 2024 offensive operation, particularly since Russian forces will be facing better-equipped Ukrainian forces than the Russian military command likely previously expected.

A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, claimed on May 2 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has replaced several high-level Russian commanders in recent months. The insider source claimed that the Russian MoD recently replaced Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Colonel General Sergei Kuzmenko with Lieutenant General Alexander Sanchik and Southern Military District [SMD] Commander Colonel General Sergei Kuzovlev with Colonel General Gennady Anashkin in late March 2024.[37] The insider source claimed that former Western Military District (WMD) Commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov dropped out of an ongoing competition for the commander of the newly reformed Moscow Military District (MMD) and is now the Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces.[38] The insider source did not offer claims about the command of the newly reformed Leningrad Military District [LMD], which is reportedly under the command of former Russian Ground Forces Chief of Staff Colonel General Alexander Lapin, or about the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces, which is under the command of Russian Airborne (VDV) Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky.[39] The insider source claimed that the Russian MoD also appointed Lieutenant General Alexei Podivilov to SMD Chief of Staff and that the role of EMD Chief of Staff is currently vacant.[40] The insider source claimed that the Russian MoD has made no changes to the command of the Central Military District [CMD], which Colonel General Andrey Mordvichev has commanded since January 2023 with Lieutenant General Denis Lyamin as his chief of staff since October 2023.[41] Russia’s military district commanders have all recently commanded a corresponding “grouping of forces” in Ukraine, and it is highly likely that the new commanders also assumed responsibility of their military district’s respective grouping of forces.[42] ISW cannot confirm the insider source’s claims but notes that the source has been highly accurate about past military command changes.[43]

The Russian military has increasingly highlighted Mordvichev in recent months and credited him with the capture of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024.[44] The Kremlin has decided to heavily obscure the status of current military district commanders in recent months, and Mordvichev’s public prominence and the lack of changes within the CMD at a time of reported widespread changes suggests that Mordvichev has the favor of his superiors and/or the Kremlin. The Russian military command has attempted to establish the Central Grouping of Forces (comprised almost entirely of CMD elements) as an operational maneuver force west of Avdiivka, and elements of four CMD brigades are currently attempting to exploit a tactical penetration northwest of Avdiivka.[45] The Russian military command may also believe that command changes may be too disruptive to what it views as an offensive operation in the Avdiivka area that could achieve tactically or even operationally significant gains.

The Kremlin has made previous command changes following the culmination of Ukrainian and Russian operational efforts and in preparation for previous offensive operations, notably publicly confirming the identities of all four military district commanders ahead of its failed Winter-Spring 2023 offensive effort in eastern Ukraine.[46] The Kremlin may have decided to change the leadership of the military districts in preparation for its expected summer offensive effort, which is forecasted to begin in late May or in June.[47] Anashkin’s reported appointment to SMD commander in late March 2024 notably aligns with the intensification of the Southern Grouping of Forces’ effort to seize Chasiv Yar, and Anashkin may have assumed command of the SMD (and likely the Southern Grouping of Forces) to specifically oversee the effort to seize Chasiv Yar and possible subsequent offensive operations in the direction of Kostyantynivka.[48] Russian President Vladimir Putin may currently seek to reduce Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's power by balancing him with rivals, and these reported recent command changes may play into factional balancing efforts as previous command changes have.[49] Command changes do not necessarily have immediate battlefield and operational effects, however, and it will likely take some time before new commanders prove their abilities one way or another, should reports of these changes prove accurate.

NATO stated on May 2 that it is “deeply concerned” about intensifying Russian hybrid operations on NATO member territory and that these operations constitute a threat to Allied security. NATO stated that it is concerned about recent malign activities including those resulting in recent investigations and charges in Czechia, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom (UK).[50] NATO reported that these malign activities are part of intensifying Russian hybrid activities including “sabotage, acts of violence, cyber and electronic interference, disinformation campaigns” that Russia conducts directly and through proxies. NATO stated that it will continue to boost its resilience, counter hybrid threats, and ensure that member states are prepared to deter and defend against such attacks. The Norwegian Police Security Service reported on May 2 that it discovered an unspecified number of Russian intelligence agents operating in Vestland County who may have been preparing to sabotage critical infrastructure.[51] The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned the Russian Charge d’Affaires in Germany on May 3 over reports that Russian hackers under the Russian General Staff’s Main Directorate’s (GRU) control conducted cyberattacks against Germany’s Social Democratic Party as well as German logistics, defense, aerospace, and information technology (IT) companies in 2023.[52] ISW also observed recent reports that the Kremlin is pursuing hybrid operations against NATO member states using GPS jamming and sabotaging military logistics.[53]

UK Foreign Minister David Cameron announced the United Kingdom’s intent to provide long-term support for Ukraine and stated that Ukrainian forces can conduct long-range strikes within Russia with UK-provided weapons. Cameron visited Kyiv on May 2 and 3 and stated that Ukraine has a right to self-defense by striking military targets inside Russia “just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine” and that the UK has no issue if Ukraine chooses to use UK-provided weapons to conduct these strikes.[54] ISW has not yet observed Ukraine conduct strikes against military or industrial targets inside Russia using Western-provided weapons. Cameron announced that the UK intends to provide three billion pounds (about $3.7 billion) of annual military assistance to Ukraine “for as long as is necessary.”[55] Cameron also met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal about assistance to Ukraine and began negotiations for a new agreement on a century-long UK-Ukraine relationship to build strong security, trade, scientific, technological, educational, and cultural relationships.[56]

Kremlin officials reacted to Cameron’s statement about Ukrainian strikes on May 3 with boilerplate rhetoric accusing the UK of “provocations” against Russia. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that the Kremlin views Cameron’s statement as a “direct escalation.”[57] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the West of openly encouraging “Ukrainian crimes” of striking Russian territory and threatened a “crushing blow of retaliation” against Western states if Ukraine strikes the Kerch Strait Bridge (which is notably in occupied Crimea, not Russian territory).[58] Russian ultranationalist milbloggers largely parroted the Russian officials’ outage, with one milblogger calling the statement a casus belli.[59] Russia is extraordinarily unlikely to initiate an open war with NATO, which Russia would certainly lose at this time because Ukraine uses Western-provided weapons to strike legitimate targets in Russia. Russian officials have levied this rhetoric for months in an effort to coerce the West into self-deterrence from providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend against the Russian invasion and striking legitimate Russian military targets both in occupied Ukraine and in Russia.[60] Cameron’s May 3 statement permitting the use of UK weapons in long-range strikes against Russian territory as well as the recent US decision to provide long-range ATACMS to Ukraine both directly counter this Russian effort.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to downplay recent tension in Tajik-Russian relations in a May 3 phone call with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon discussing Russian government crackdowns against Central Asian migrants living in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack. The Kremlin stated that Putin and Rahmon “exchanged views” about cooperation to fight terrorist threats and issues regarding migration.[61] The Kremlin reported that both leaders blamed “certain forces, including those from Tajikistan” for attempting to “artificially escalate” the situation regarding labor migrants’ entry into Russia, but expressed confidence that Tajikistan and Russia could jointly suppress these efforts and maintain their “time-tested fraternal relations.” The Tajik readout of the phone conversation notably did not include such accusations.[62] Putin and Rahmon both agreed to improve ministerial and departmental coordination regarding migration and to fight terrorism and extremism.[63] Putin’s call with Rahmon was likely an attempt to downplay and control recent public complaints from senior Tajik officials regarding the treatment of Tajik citizens living in Russia and mass detentions of Tajik citizens entering Russia at airports and border checkpoints.[64]

The Uzbek Foreign Labor Migration Agency’s office in Russia claimed on May 3 that Russian law enforcement did not detain Uzbek citizens at Vnukovo, Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo airports in Moscow or at border crossings in Orenburg, Samara, and Saratov oblasts as some Telegram channels claimed.[65] Human rights and migrant rights activist Valentina Chupik told Russian opposition news outlet Agentstvo on May 2 that starting on May 24 Russian airports detained about 4,500 migrants at Russian airports and refused a similar number from entering Russia at land border crossings. Chupik stated that about half of the detainees were Uzbek citizens while Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens each made up a quarter of the detainees.[66] Remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan appear to be declining and consist of a smaller portion of Uzbekistan’s yearly GDP in comparison to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[67]

Reuters reported on May 2 that Russian military personnel are operating at a military base currently hosting US forces in Niger.[68] A senior US defense official told Reuters that Russian forces are using a separate hangar from US forces at Airbase 101 near the Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger. The official told Reuters that the situation is “not great” but is manageable in the short term. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated during a press conference that Russian forces are in a separate compound and do not have access to US forces or equipment and that he currently does not see a significant issue in terms of US force protection.[69] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov did not confirm or deny reports that Russian forces are present at the base but stated that Russia is “developing ties” with various African countries.[70] The American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP) reported on April 12 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled Africa Corps arrived in Niger and assessed that the Africa Corps' arrival will challenge US efforts to remain in Niger in the immediate term and create long-term opportunities for the Kremlin to create conventional and irregular threats that strategically pressure Europe.[71]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials continue to highlight that Russia’s main goal for 2024 remains the seizure of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as Russian forces plan for their summer 2024 offensive operation.
  • The first deliveries of resumed US military assistance reportedly arrived in Ukraine earlier this week, although it will likely take several additional weeks before Western weapons and ammunition arrive to frontline areas at scale.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Russian forces in Ukraine have not significantly increased in size in recent months but that the Russian military continues to improve its fighting qualities overall despite suffering widespread degradation, especially among elite units since the start of the war.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that the Russian military will likely maintain its current personnel replacement rate and will not generate the significant number of available personnel needed to establish strategic-level reserves for larger-scale offensive operations in 2024.
  • Pavlyuk stated that neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces will be able to achieve victory in Ukraine solely through attritional warfare – a consistent throughline that Ukrainian officials and military analysts have emphasized in recent months.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu issued a notably candid assessment of recent Russian advances in Ukraine and refrained from sweeping claims about the success of the Russian war effort, possibly in an attempt to temper domestic expectations about Russia’s near future successes in Ukraine ahead of the summer 2024 Russian offensive operation.
  • A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, claimed on May 2 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has replaced several high-level Russian commanders in recent months.
  • NATO stated on May 2 that it is “deeply concerned” about intensifying Russian hybrid operations on NATO member territory and that these operations constitute a threat to Allied security.
  • UK Foreign Minister David Cameron announced the United Kingdom’s intent to provide long-term support for Ukraine and stated that Ukrainian forces can conduct long-range strikes within Russia with UK-provided weapons.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Kupyansk, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Rostec General Director Sergei Chemezov announced that Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec is increasing its production of all variants of guided glide bombs during a May 3 meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 2, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 2, 2024, 8pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on May 2. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 3 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian intelligence officials identified three Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine and achieve victory, and both Ukrainian and US intelligence officials issued assessments about the battlefield situation that are consistent with prior ISW forecasts that Russian forces may take Chasiv Yar but are very unlikely to seize major Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated in an interview with the Economist published on May 2 that the first effort to destabilize Ukraine is comprised of military operations that aim to take advantage of Ukraine’s ongoing materiel and manpower shortages.[1] Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces knew that April and May 2024 would be difficult months for the Ukrainian military as existing supplies dwindled and as Ukraine waits for sufficient quantities of fresh US military assistance to filter to the frontline.[2] Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces will likely continue pursuing their longtime goal of completely seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and that the Russian command wants to achieve a battlefield victory before the May 9 Victory Day holiday or Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s visit to Beijing in mid-May.[3] Skibitskyi stated that Ukraine is currently focusing on Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast, where ISW assesses that Russian forces have the best opportunity to achieve operationally-significant gains, and that while it is “probably a matter of time” before Chasiv Yar falls, Russian forces will not seize the town “today or tomorrow.[4] Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces have achieved only tactical successes near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast following a recent tactical penetration northwest of the city, and ISW has noted that Russian forces remain far from any operationally-significant objective in the area and are unlikely to pose such a threat here in the near-term.[5]

Skibitskyi assessed that Russian forces will likely begin an offensive effort towards Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts at the end of May or start of June 2024 but that Russian forces will not be able to take Kharkiv or Sumy cities. Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces have currently concentrated roughly 35,000 personnel in the international border area and plan to concentrate a total of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel for this effort, presumably before the start of the offensive operation.[6] Skibitskyi stated that this grouping will be insufficient for achieving anything beyond localized gains, consistent with ISW’s assessments that Russian forces would likely struggle to take Kharkiv City but that Russian offensive operations in the area would draw and fix Ukrainian forces from other parts of the frontline.[7] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on April 28 that Ukrainian forces are monitoring the increased number of Russian forces regrouping in the Kharkiv direction, likely referring to Belgorod Oblast, and that Ukrainian forces have reinforced defensive positions in the "most threatened" areas with additional artillery and tank units.[8]

US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines stated to US Senate Armed Services Committee on Global Threats on May 2 that Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that domestic and international trends are in his favor and views his personal staying power, the state of Russia’s economy, and Russian rearmament efforts as advantageous compared to the current challenges facing Ukraine.[9] Haines stated that Russian forces are capable of achieving tactical breakthroughs, particularly in Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts, although she did not specify any operational direction.[10] Haines stated that Putin is portraying Russia as revitalizing its defense industrial base (DIB) and portraying Russia’s artillery ammunition and missile production as increasing while Western production struggles to meet Ukraine‘s needs. Haines stated that Putin’s “increasingly aggressive tactics,” such as strikes against Ukrainian energy and critical infrastructure, intend to signal to Ukrainians that continuing to fight will only increase the damage to Ukraine with no clear path to victory. Haines stated that Russian forces are also striking Ukrainian military logistics to interdict supplies to the front, slow defense production, and further pressure Ukraine to consider pathways out of the war, such as through negotiations, even though the Kremlin has shown no willingness to make any concessions in good-faith negotiations.

Skibitskyi noted that the Kremlin views information operations as a second line of effort to defeat Ukraine and that current Russian information operations heavily focus on undermining Ukrainian mobilization efforts and the legitimacy of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.[11] Kremlin-affiliated former Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk notably supported the Kremlin’s informational efforts to delegitimize Zelensky on May 2 and falsely claimed that Zelensky will not be a legitimate president starting on May 21.[12] Ukraine would have held its presidential election on March 31 and would have begun a new presidential term on May 20 if Russia had not illegally invaded Ukraine.[13] Ukraine’s constitution permits postponing elections and allows a sitting president to continue to serve after the designated end of his term under martial law, and Zelensky’s decision not to hold elections given Ukraine’s ongoing existential defensive war is fully in accord with the Ukrainian constitution.[14] Ukrainian officials have warned that Russian actors intend to intensify an existing information operation called ”Maidan 3“ in May 2024 to spread doubts about Zelensky’s legitimacy as president, specifically among Ukrainian military personnel.[15] Medvedchuk is a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and was rumored to be a candidate for the head of the Russian-controlled Ukrainian government that the Kremlin sought to establish following the envisioned quick regime change in Ukraine in 2022.[16] Several prominent Russian milbloggers dismissed Medvedchuk as an irrelevant information actor for failing to properly organize a pro-Russian opposition in Ukraine, however.[17] Ukrainian officials have warned that ”Maidan 3” will peak around late May 2024, and former Ukrainian officials who have sided with the Kremlin, like Medvedchuk, may become increasingly involved with this information operation in the coming weeks to try to foment further internal Ukrainian division.[18]

Skibitskyi stressed that Russia’s third line of effort to achieve victory in Ukraine is an ongoing campaign to diplomatically isolate Ukraine.[19] Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated in an interview with Foreign Policy published on May 1 that Russia believes that it still can litigate Ukraine’s future on the battlefield and urged the West to pursue a strategy that impresses upon Russia an understanding that Ukraine is a part of the West.[20] Delays in US security assistance have placed heavy constraints on Ukrainian forces along the frontline, and Kuleba noted that a window before the arrival of critically needed air defense assets and artillery ammunition from the US will allow Russian forces to cause further damage through drone and missile strikes and pursue tactical gains on the front.[21] The Kremlin has routinely engaged in rhetorical efforts to prompt the West into self-deterring from providing military and other support to Ukraine over fears of escalation, and the Kremlin has previously intensified offensive operations alongside debates in the West about support for Ukraine to strengthen Western defeatism.[22] The Kremlin may have expected delays in US and Western security assistance to persist, and the recent passage of the US supplemental aid bill may prompt the Kremlin to recalibrate its efforts to compel the West into self-deterrence. Kuleba also noted that Russia inherited relationships with many non-Western states from the Soviet Union and is better positioned than Ukraine to engage these countries.[23] The Kremlin has increasingly cast Russia as the leader of the “world majority,“ a group of countries including post-Soviet and non-Western states that Russia intends to rally to oppose the West, and Russian officials may seek to intensify this line of outreach as Ukraine seeks to involve post-Soviet and non-Western states in the Global Peace Summit in Switzerland in June 2024.[24]

Skibitskyi stated that he does not see a way for Ukraine to win solely on the battlefield and that the Ukrainian liberation of all occupied territory would not necessarily end the war.[25] Skibitskyi stated that wars like the one in Ukraine only end with treaties and that both Russia and Ukraine are competing for the most favorable position ahead of potential talks that could begin as early as the second half of 2025.[26] Kuleba added that the only way to compel Russia to consider meaningful negotiations is through military operations or the creation of a coalition of countries with the same values and approach to a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine.[27] Russian efforts to diplomatically isolate Ukraine aim to constrain critical provisions of consistent and timely security assistance to the Ukrainian military and degrade Ukraine’s ability to form a bloc of partners that can support Zelensky’s peace formula.

The US Department of State (DoS) announced on May 1 that it has determined that Russian forces are violating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which Russia is a signatory. The US DoS stated that it made a determination under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act) that Russian forces have used chloropicrin and riot control agents (RCAs) against Ukrainian forces in Ukraine in violation of the CWC.[28] Chloropicrin is a pesticide and lung damaging agent, and Ukrainian officials have previously reported that Russian forces are increasingly equipping grenades with chloropicrin.[29] Russian forces have reportedly extensively used chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS) gas, a type of RCA, in grenades dropped from drones on Ukrainian positions throughout the frontline.[30] The US DoS noted that Russian forces likely use chemical weapons in an effort to dislodge Ukrainian forces from fortified positions and achieve tactical gains.[31] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov denied the US DoS determination and claimed on May 2 that Russia is abiding by its obligations to the CWC.[32] ISW previously observed the Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade acknowledge in a now-deleted post that elements of the brigade deliberately used K-51 grenades with CS gas on Ukrainian positions near Krynky in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast in December 2023.[33] The US DoS also announced sanctions against the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Radiological, Chemical, and Biological (RCB) Defense Forces; the stated-owned Scientific Research Institute of Applied Acoustics; and the MoD’s 48th Central Scientific and Research Institute as well as four Russian companies for their involvement in the development and use of chemical weapons.[34]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on May 2 in which it confirmed that Russian forces have executed at least 15 surrendering Ukrainian soldiers since December 2023.[35] HRW reported that combat footage shows that Russian forces likely executed an additional six surrendering Ukrainian soldiers since December 2023.[36] HRW noted that in one case Russian commanders explicitly ordered Russian forces to execute Ukrainian soldiers instead of letting them surrender.[37] Attacking soldiers recognized as hors de combat, specifically including those who have clearly expressed an intention to surrender, is a violation of Article 41 of the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict.[38]

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Tula Oblast Governor and known Wagner Group-affiliate Alexei Dyumin on May 2, further indicating that Putin may be seeking to reduce Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's power by balancing him with rivals. Dyumin notably briefed Putin about Tula Oblast’s contributions to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the presidential estate in Novo-Ogaryovo, Moscow Oblast.[39] Dyumin focused on three topics: support and housing for participants of Russian military personnel fighting in Ukraine, improvements to the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) and improving the medical system in Tula Oblast. Dyumin claimed that the Tula Oblast administration is cooperating with the Russian MoD to fully equip Russian military units with necessary materiel identified by the local commanders. Dyumin also boasted that Tula Oblast opened one of the first training centers for drone operators in cooperation with the Russian MoD to support the Russian MoD and other security agencies’ interests. Dyumin emphasized the Tula Oblast administration’s commitment to producing weapons and supporting Russia’s industrial base (DIB). Dyumin welcomed Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov’s proposal for the federal government to assist with the construction of additional DIB enterprises and bragged about Russia’s increasing DIB production capabilities. Dyumin’s brief appeared to be an attempt to win Putin’s favor following Dyumin's notable fall from Putin’s grace during Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny in late June 2023.[40] Dyumin repeatedly sided with Prigozhin throughout 2022 and 2023 reportedly in an attempt to facilitate firings within the Russian MoD and possibly hoping to replace Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu himself.[41]

Putin likely deliberately publicized his meeting with Dyumin following the high-profile arrest of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on April 24 and before the presidential inauguration on May 7, possibly to punish the Shoigu-led MoD for failing to accomplish the Kremlin’s military goals. The Putin-Dyumin meeting generated a significant amount of discourse within the Russian information space, with numerous milbloggers and political commentators pointing out that the meeting occurred between Ivanov’s arrest and the expected government reshuffle following the inauguration.[42] Russian insider sources speculated that the Kremlin may appoint Dyumin to a new role involving the Russian DIB, such as deputy chairman of the Russian Military Industrial Commission.[43] These speculations may be the result of Dyumin’s hyperfocus on DIB and mention of Manturov during his meeting with Putin. Russian insider sources also interpreted Shoigu’s May 1 statement that Russia needs to increase the volume and quality of weapons and military equipment to ”maintain the required pace of the offensive” during the meeting at the Joint Headquarters of the ”Special Military Operation” on the night of May 1 as a direct attack on certain Russian political figures.[44] (Prigozhin similarly justified Wagner Group’s slow and bloody advance in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast in winter 2023 with claims of ammunition shortages that he colorfully blamed on Shoigu.) One political commentator claimed that Shoigu is trying to shift the blame for his military and DIB failures onto Manturov and the CEO of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, Sergei Chemezov. Another Russian insider source similarly claimed on May 1 that Shoigu heavily criticized Manturov, Rostec, and Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev in response to Ivanov’s arrest.[45] Shoigu reportedly had a particularly close relationship with Ivanov and that Ivanov's arrest alongside the sudden reemergence to prominence of Dyumin may indicate that the Kremlin is dissatisfied with Shoigu’s performance.[46] One Russian source, however, assessed that Shoigu‘s dismissal is unlikely in 2024.[47]

The Putin-Dyumin meeting suggests that Putin is likely the responsible decision-maker behind Ivanov’s arrest. ISW has routinely observed that Putin regularly rotates officials and military commanders in and out of favor in hopes of incentivizing different factions to strive to accomplish his objectives.[48] ISW has also observed that Putin routinely marks a shift in his favor by offering high-profile meetings with members of the opposing faction or dismissing military commanders. Putin, for example, humiliated Dyumin in August 2023 by reportedly cancelling their one-on-one meeting and ordering him to publicly escort Shoigu at an event.[49] ISW assessed that this gesture signified a notable victory for Shoigu’s circle within the Russian MoD and marked the confirmation of Dyumin’s fall from Putin’s favor.[50] Russian officials also arrested and dismissed some officials and commanders following Prigozhin’s mutiny in summer 2023.[51]

Putin awarded the rank of lieutenant general to several Russian commanders on May 2. Putin promoted deputy commander of the Eastern Grouping of Forces (deployed in western Donetsk Oblast and the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area) Oleg Luchansky, the commander of the 68th Army Corps (Eastern Military District [EMD]) Vitaly Podlesny, and head of the Russian General Staff’s Operational Training Department Fanil Sarvarov to lieutenant general.[52]

Recent Russian government crackdowns against Central Asian migrants living in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack appear to be straining Kyrgyz-Russian relations in addition to Tajik-Russian relations. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) warned Kyrgyz citizens on May 2 to temporarily refrain from visiting Russia while Russia continues to conduct increased security measures and enhance border control measures.[53] The Kyrgyz MFA additionally stated that Russia did not inform Kyrgyzstan about recent mass refusals of Kyrgyz citizens entering Russia. The Russian MFA has not responded to the Kyrgyz MFA’s statement at the time of this publication. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed in an April 30 phone call with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin that Russia has not taken measures against specific ethnicities and religious minorities, which Muhriddin called false.[54] ISW has observed increased crackdowns targeting Russian indigenous and migrant Muslim communities, especially Central Asian migrants, following the Crocus City Hall attack and continues to assess that Russia has no intention of scaling back crackdowns.[55]

The Georgian parliament passed Georgia’s Russian-style “foreign agents” law in its second reading on May 1 amid continued protests against the law in Tbilisi.[56] Russian opposition news outlets widely reported that the 83 of 150 Georgian parliament members voted for the bill – the same number of members who supported the bill in its first reading on April 17 since the Georgian opposition refused to participate in both votes.[57] The Georgian parliament is expected to vote on May 17 on the third and final reading of the bill, after which the bill will go to the Georgian president for the final signature.[58] Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has stated her intent to veto the bill, but the BBC noted that the ruling Georgian Dream party has sufficient numbers to overrule that veto.[59] The bill, which was first proposed by the Georgian Dream party in 2023 and quickly withdrawn due to large protests, would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets that receive foreign funding amounting to over 20 percent of their annual income to register with the government.[60] The bill resembles Russia’s foreign agent law, which the Kremlin has used to crack down against independent media and opposition organizations, consolidate control over the domestic information space, and eliminate domestic objections to the Kremlin.[61] Georgian opposition figures and Western officials have expressed concern that the Georgian government could also utilize the bill to target and justify domestic repression and that its passage blocks Georgia’s path to joining the European Union (EU).[62] US Ambassador to Georgia Robin Dunnigan stated on May 2 that senior Georgian leaders recently rejected a US invitation to discuss the US–Georgian “strategic partnership and any concerns with US assistance.”[63] Former Georgian Prime Minister and founder of the Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili recently reiterated a series of standard anti-Western and pseudohistorical Kremlin narratives during his first public speech since announcing his return Ivanishvili’s decision to rhetorically align with Russia against the West indicates that Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for Euro-Atlantic integration, which plays into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[64]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian intelligence officials identified three Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine and achieve victory, and both Ukrainian and US intelligence officials issued assessments about the battlefield situation that are consistent with prior ISW forecasts that Russian forces may take Chasiv Yar but are very unlikely to seize major Ukrainian cities.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi assessed that Russian forces will likely begin an offensive effort towards Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts at the end of May or start of June 2024 but that Russian forces will not be able to take Kharkiv or Sumy cities.
  • Skibitskyi noted that the Kremlin views information operations as a second line of effort to defeat Ukraine and that current Russian information operations heavily focus on undermining Ukrainian mobilization efforts and the legitimacy of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • Skibitskyi stressed that Russia’s third line of effort to achieve victory in Ukraine is an ongoing campaign to diplomatically isolate Ukraine.
  • The US Department of State (DoS) announced on May 1 that it has determined that Russian forces are violating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which Russia is a signatory.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Tula Oblast Governor and known Wagner Group-affiliate Alexei Dyumin on May 2, further indicating that Putin may be seeking to reduce Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's power by balancing him with rivals.
  • Putin likely deliberately publicized his meeting with Dyumin following the high-profile arrest of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on April 24 and before the presidential inauguration on May 7, possibly to punish the Shoigu-led MoD for failing to accomplish the Kremlin’s military goals.
  • The Putin-Dyumin meeting suggests that Putin is likely the responsible decision-maker behind Ivanov’s arrest.
  • Recent Russian government crackdowns against Central Asian migrants living in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack appear to be straining Kyrgyz-Russian relations in addition to Tajik-Russian relations.
  • The Georgian parliament passed Georgia’s Russian-style “foreign agents” law in its second reading on May 1 amid continued protests against the law in Tbilisi.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances west of Avdiivka.
  • The Russian military may have recruited numerous prisoners with convictions for serious crimes in fall of 2023.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 1, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

May 1, 2024, 7:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:15pm ET on May 1. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 2 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian military is reportedly redeploying elements of the 76th and 7th airborne (VDV) divisions from Zaporizhia Oblast in the direction of eastern Ukraine, likely to reinforce and intensify ongoing offensive operations. Select Russian and Ukrainian sources claimed that elements of the Russian 76th and 7th airborne (VDV) divisions that have been deployed to the Robotyne area in western Zaporizhia Oblast since the height of the Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive are redeploying to new directions, but disagreed on the units redeploying and the areas to which these elements are redeploying.[1] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on May 1 that the Russian military command recently decided to redeploy at least a battalion of the 76th VDV Division from the Orikhiv direction (western Zaporizhia Oblast) to the general Luhansk Oblast frontline or the Kramatorsk direction (the Bakhmut direction).[2] A Russian milblogger, who has an avowed bias against VDV and “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, claimed on April 29 that the Russian military command decided to redeploy elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions from the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces (deployed in east [left] bank Kherson Oblast and western Zaporizhia Oblast) to other unspecified directions.[3] The milblogger later claimed on May 1 that the Russian command decided to transfer elements of the 76th VDV division to relieve elements of the 104th VDV Division near the limited Ukrainian tactical bridgehead in Krynky, Kherson Oblast.[4] The milblogger has not yet offered any updates on the claimed redeployment of elements of the 7th VDV division. ISW has not yet observed confirmation that elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions have redeployed to other directions, though these Russian and Ukrainian reports are significant and any VDV redeployments from Zaporizhia Oblast towards eastern Ukraine warrant closer study in the coming days.

Russian forces notably redeployed elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions from the Lyman and Kherson directions to the Robotyne area in mid-summer 2023, and this successful redeployment reinforced Russia’s defense at a critical time to prevent Ukrainian forces from breaching the Russian defense in the area.[5] These redeployed elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions conducted counterattacks that demonstrated that the 76th and 7th VDV divisions were relatively more combat effective than other Russian forces at the time, and these Russian elements have likely reconstituted to some degree during low-intensity Russian offensive operations in the Robotyne area since fall 2023. Russian forces have seized most of Robotyne in recent weeks, and the Russian military command may have decided that the likely combat effective elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions would be more useful elsewhere.[6]

The Russian military may seek to redeploy elements of the 76th or 7th VDV division or both to eastern Ukraine to support Russia’s offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast and to capitalize on the current window of vulnerability before American military aid begins reaching the frontline at scale. Russian forces are currently attempting to exploit a tactical penetration northwest of Avdiivka to achieve a wider breach in the area and are intensifying offensive operations to seize the operationally significant town of Chasiv Yar.[7] The Russian military command may intend to introduce elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions as significant reinforcements to either of these efforts in pursuit of operationally significant gains before the arrival of US security assistance allows Ukrainian forces to slow Russian advances and stabilize the frontline.[8] Russian forces in the Avdiivka direction have currently established a relatively cohesive grouping of forces comprised mainly of elements of the Central Military District (CMD) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 1st Army Corps (AC), though these forces are likely attritted from conducting intense offensive operations over the past several months, and elements of the 76th and 7th VDV could serve as an exploitation force to press on with attacks in the area.[9] Russian forces have established a less cohesive grouping of forces in the Bakhmut direction that is notably comprised of elements of several VDV divisions and brigades, and redeployments of elements of the 76th and 7th to this area could reinforce the ongoing offensive operation to seize Chasiv Yar.[10] The Russian military command could deploy elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions to the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line where Russian forces have resumed offensive operations along the entire line, but Russian forces appear to be attempting to consolidate this entire sector under the responsibility of the Moscow Military District (MMD), and redeployments of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions may not be as useful in this effort relative to more intensive operations currently underway in Donetsk Oblast.[11] Any redeployment of these elements would offer Russian forces the opportunity to intensify offensive operations and place Ukrainian forces under increasing pressure regardless of the location. ISW offers no assessment of which area is the most likely area where VDV forces may redeploy, if they redeploy at all. ISW will continue to monitor reports about the possible redeployment of elements of the 76th and 7th VDV divisions as it poses a significant risk to Ukraine’s ability to slow ongoing Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks ahead of the arrival of US security assistance.

Ukrainian forces struck an oil refinery in Ryazan Oblast for the second time in less than a month on the night of April 30 to May 1. Ukrainian outlets Suspilne and RBK-Ukraine reported that sources in Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that the GUR conducted a drone strike on the Rosneft oil refinery in Ryazan City.[12] Ukrainian and Russian sources posted footage of a fire at the refinery.[13] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces shot down one drone over Ryazan Oblast.[14] Ryazan Oblast governor Pavel Malkov acknowledged that a drone struck Ryazan Oblast, however, but did not specify any damage.[15] Ukrainian forces first struck the Ryazan oil refinery on the night of March 12 to 13.[16] Ukrainian strikes within Russia are reportedly forcing Russian forces to take additional defensive measures.[17] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that Russian forces have begun to withdraw up to 43 operational-tactical and army aircraft from forward air bases, likely out of fear of Ukrainian drone and long-range high-precision strikes.[18] Mashovets stated that the total number of Russian aircraft deployed at frontline air bases has decreased from 303–305 aircraft to 280–283 aircraft.

Russian state-run news outlets appear to be amplifying anti-Western rhetoric from former Georgian Prime Minister and founder of the Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili and are negatively portraying Georgians protesting against Georgia’s “foreign agents” bill, likely in an attempt to destabilize and divide Georgia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Georgian service Radio Tavisupleba reported on May 1 that Russian state-run news outlets Rossiya-1, NTV, and Channel One (Perviy Kanal) are amplifying anti-Western rhetoric from Ivanishvili’s April 29 speech.[19] ISW previously reported that Ivanishvili reiterated a series of standard anti-Western and pseudohistorical Kremlin narratives during his first public speech since announcing his return to Georgian public politics in December 2023.[20] Radio Tavisupleba reported that Russian state media framed the protestors as “aggressive” and “radicals” who attacked Georgian law enforcement while celebrating Ivanishvili‘s criticisms of the West.[21] Kremlin newswire TASS similarly seized on allegations of violence and “mass arrests” and claimed that protestors “provoked” Georgian security forces.[22] Russian state media’s focus on Ivanishvili’s statements and their negative portrayal of protestors is likely part of ongoing efforts to destabilize, divide, and weaken domestic Georgian politics. The Kremlin has routinely attempted to portray Ukraine’s and other post-Soviet countries’ politics as chaotic in an attempt to destabilize target states and make them more susceptible to Russian influence or outright attack.[23]

The United Nations (UN) and Western organizations continue to demonstrate how North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are directly and indirectly helping Russia’s war effort. Reuters reported on April 29 that the UN North Korean sanctions monitoring panel issued a report to the UN Security Council (UNSC) confirming that Russian forces used a North Korean Hwasong-11 ballistic missile in a strike on Kharkiv City on January 2, 2024.[24] The panel reportedly noted that Russia’s use of North Korean missiles violated the 2006 UN arms embargo on North Korea. Russia vetoed an annual UNSC resolution extending the monitoring panel on March 28, and the panel’s mandate expired on April 30.[25] The Economist reported on April 29 that the PRC is providing Russia with semiconductors, navigation equipment, jet parts, ball bearings, computer numerical controlled tools, and other dual-use equipment supporting Russian arms production.[26] The Economist, citing data from the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), reported that Russia often imports goods through a complex system of shell companies, many of which can be traced back to the PRC. The Economist noted that Russian imports of goods from the PRC appeared to surge following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with PRC President Xi Jinping in Moscow in March 2023. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 1 that Russian imports of dual-use items from the PRC have helped Russia significantly increase its defense industrial production and that 70 percent of Russia’s machine tools and 90 percent of its microelectronics come from the PRC.[27] ISW previously reported about the recent uptick in public meetings between Russian, PRC, North Korean, Iranian, and Belarussian officials that underscores these countries’ deepening mutual partnership aimed at confronting the West.[28]

Russian insider sources speculated that the criminal investigation into Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov may also implicate another deputy defense minister, Rustam Tsalikov. A Russian insider source claimed on April 26 that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) summoned Tsalikov for questioning, and later claimed on April 27 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may force Tsalikov into retirement and that authorities may bring criminal charges against Tsalikov in relation to Ivanov’s bribery case, for which Ivanov was arrested on April 24.[29] The insider source claimed that Tsalikov is the third highest-ranking member of the Russian MoD only behind Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and that Tsalikov is a close ally of Shoigu like Ivanov. The UK MoD published a corroborating report on May 1 citing unspecified Russian sources.[30] ISW is unable to confirm the Russian claims, however. The Russian MoD has not commented on reports of an investigation involving Tsalikov and notably featured Tsalikov visiting a Russian drone production enterprise on its Telegram channel on April 30.[31]

Bloomberg reported that four sanctioned Russian oil tankers have changed their names and are sailing under new flags.[32] Bloomberg reported on April 30 that tankers from Sovcomflot, Russia’s state-owned oil tanker company, renamed four of its sanctioned vessels: the NS Columbus to the Kemerovo, the NS Bravo to the Belgorod, the NS Captain to the Kaliningrad, and the NS Creation to the KrasnoyarskBloomberg reported that these ships are now flying Russian flags after previously sailing with Gabonese flags. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Sovcomflot and 14 of its vessels in February 2024, and Bloomberg reported that it is common for sanctioned vessels to change their names to distance themselves from international sanctions even though each ship has a permanent identification number that remains the same despite a name change. It is unclear why these ships changed their names and flags to highlight their connection with Russia, and this decision seems counterproductive if these vessels hope to distance themselves from international sanctions against Russia.

Key Takeaways:

 

  • The Russian military is reportedly redeploying elements of the 76th and 7th airborne (VDV) divisions from Zaporizhia Oblast in the direction of eastern Ukraine, likely to reinforce and intensify ongoing offensive operations.
  • The Russian military may seek to redeploy elements of the 76th or 7th VDV division or both to eastern Ukraine to support Russia’s offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast and to capitalize on the current window of vulnerability before American military aid begins reaching the frontline at scale.
  • Ukrainian forces struck an oil refinery in Ryazan Oblast for the second time in less than a month on the night of April 30 to May 1.
  • Russian state-run news outlets appear to be amplifying anti-Western rhetoric from former Georgian Prime Minister and founder of the Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili and are negatively portraying Georgians protesting against Georgia’s “foreign agents” bill, likely in an attempt to destabilize and divide Georgia.
  • The United Nations (UN) and Western organizations continue to demonstrate how North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are directly and indirectly helping Russia’s war effort.
  • Russian insider sources speculated that the criminal investigation into Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov may also implicate another deputy defense minister, Rustam Tsalikov.
  • Bloomberg reported that four sanctioned Russian oil tankers have changed their names and are sailing under new flags.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian authorities continue recruiting convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 30, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 30, 2024, 7:10pm ET 

Russian forces did not make any confirmed advances in the Avdiivka area on April 30 for the first time in several days, while Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces conducted several more attacks in the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar direction than near Avdiivka. The Ukrainian General Staff’s morning and evening reports on April 30 stated that Ukrainian forces repelled a total of 47 Russian attacks in the Avdiivka direction and 57 Russian attacks in the Bakhmut direction throughout the day, notably a much higher number of attacks in the Chasiv Yar direction than Ukrainian sources have recently reported out on.[1] One day’s worth of reporting is not sufficient to establish a pattern, but it may suggest that Russian forces are somewhat slowing down the rate of attacks around Avdiivka while re-committing to offensive pushes around Chasiv Yar, as ISW recently forecasted they would.[2] Russian forces have focused on building on tactical success near Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka) and Novokalynove (north of Avdiivka) since around April 20, but the rate of confirmed advances appears to have slowed as of April 30. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced 2.7 kilometers wide and 1.52 kilometers deep north of Novokalynovein southern Keramik (north of Avdiivka); and in an area up to 1.75 kilometers wide and 1.15 kilometers deep northwest of Ocheretyne in the direction of Novooleksandriivka.[3] Russian milbloggers also claimed that Russian forces advanced west of Semenivka and Berdychi (both northwest of Avdiivka).[4] ISW has not observed visual evidence of any of these claims. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces operating near Ocheretyne are 13 kilometers from the T-0504 (Pokrovsk-Kostyantynivka) highway, which is consistent with ISW‘s assessed Russian advances in the area.[5] Fighting also continued northwest of Avdiivka near Arkhanhelske, Sokil, and Solovyove west of Avdiivka near Umanske, and southwest of Avdiivka near Netaylove.[6] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that elements of the Russian 132nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st Donetsk People’s Republic Army Corps [DNR AC]) and 35th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]) are operating near Novokalynove and Keramik; elements of the 30th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd CAA, CMD) are attacking toward Novooleksandrivka; elements of the 27th Motorized Rifle Division (2nd CAA) are operating near Solovyove, Berdychi, and Semenivka; elements of the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st CAA) are operating near Berdychi; and elements of the 114th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC) are operating west of Orlivka.[7]

Russian forces may decide to push from their salient north of Avdiivka towards the Toretsk area to complement Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, which would likely require Russian forces to conduct a tactical pause to concentrate forces for such a drive. Mashovets stated that Russian forces may focus their efforts on the Stara Mykolaivka-Sukha Balka line (north of the Ochertyne-Keramik line and southwest of Toretsk) instead of northwest of Ocheretyne as Russian forces are already struggling to defend the flanks of their salient near Ocheretyne.[8] ISW recently assessed that Russian forces may decide to advance north from their tactical penetration near Ocheretyne along the H-20 (Donetsk City-Kostyantynivka) highway to pressure Ukrainian forces defending in the Toretsk area and possibly threaten the operational rear of the Ukrainian defense in and west of Chasiv Yar.[9] Chasiv Yar is an operationally significant objective as it would provide Russian forces with a staging ground to launch offensive operations against Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka, which form the fortress belt of four major cities in Donetsk City. Russian forces would likely require a longer pause to reinforce existing units and redeploy additional forces to the Ocheretyne area should they choose to attempt to advance northward to the Toretsk area, however. Mashovets stated that the Russian Central Grouping of Forces (currently responsible for the Avdiivka area) has created a tactical reserve of three small infantry regiments in the Avdiivka direction, and ISW previously assessed that Russian forces have been establishing operational- and strategic-level reserves likely to support an anticipated spring-summer offensive effort.[10]

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a short-range MGM-140 ATACMS strike against targets in occupied Crimea on the night of April 29 to 30. Crimean occupation administration head Sergei Aksyonov claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted an ATACMS strike against Simferopol and that Russian forces downed the missiles.[11] Aksyonov claimed that undetonated cluster munitions scattered in the area after air defenses downed the missiles but did not specify if the strike caused any damage. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces launched between 12 and 15 ATACMS missiles targeting Simferopol and the Dzhankoi airfield but claimed that Russian air defenses downed all the missiles.[12] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses destroyed six ATACMS missiles in an unspecified area, likely referring to occupied Crimea.[13] Russia opposition outlet Astra reported that Ukrainian missiles, presumably ATACMS missiles, struck facilities of the Russian 31st Air Defense Division in Chornomorsk and Saky raions and the Dzhankoi airfield, causing a fire and wounding several Russian servicemen.[14] Ukrainian officials have not responded to the reported strike, and ISW cannot independently verify Russian claims about the strike.

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin expressed outrage over Russian authorities’ treatment of Central Asian migrants, particularly Tajik citizens, indicating that increased Russian efforts to control migrants living in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack are continuing to strain Tajik-Russian relations. Muhriddin stated in an April 30 phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russian authorities are violating Tajik citizens’ rights and freedoms in Russia and noted that such treatment of Tajik citizens in Russia does not comply with the Tajik-Russian Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Relations and Allied Cooperation treaties.[15] Muhriddin called Lavrov’s claim that Russia has not taken measures against specific ethnicities or religious minorities following the Crocus City Hall attack false and stated that Russian authorities have had an “exclusively“ negative reaction to Tajik citizens. ISW observed increased crackdowns against Russian indigenous and migrant Muslim communities after the Crocus City Hall attack, including crackdowns against Tajik migrants.[16] The BBC News Russian Service reported on March 27 that Russian authorities have initiated a significantly increased number of criminal cases for migration law violations since the Crocus attack, particularly against Tajik citizens.[17] The Russian MFA claimed that Lavrov explained to Muhriddin that Russian authorities are temporarily increasing checks on foreigners attempting to enter Russia in an effort to prevent terrorism following the Crocus City Hall attack.[18] The Russian MFA notably did not report Muhriddin’s criticisms of Russian authorities’ treatment of Tajik citizens in Russia, indicating that Russia is likely attempting to downplay the current rift in Tajik-Russian relations but has no intention of scaling back crackdowns.

Former Georgian Prime Minister and founder of the Georgian Dream political party Bidzina Ivanishvili reiterated a series of standard Kremlin information operations during his first public speech since announcing his return to Georgian public politics in December 2023. Ivanishvili claimed during a Georgina Dream rally in support of Georgia’s “foreign agents” bill on April 29 that Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) orchestrated Georgia’s pro-democracy and pro-Western 2003 Rose Revolution and installed pro-Western governments that held office between 2004 to 2012.[19] Ivanishvili claimed that Western influence and control over Georgia resulted in the persecution of innocent Georgians and that the West ordered and directed all the policies of pro-Western Georgian governments.[20] Ivanishvili claimed that he attempted to free Georgia from Western control during his time as prime minister and returned to politics in order to finish this work. Ivanishvili accused the “global war party,” which he characterized as unspecified Western actors that have a decisive influence over NATO and the European Union (EU), as only seeing Georgia and Ukraine as “cannon fodder” against Russia and forced Georgia and Ukraine into confrontations with Russia in 2008, 2014, and 2022. The “foreign agents” bill, which the Georgian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee recently approved in its second reading amid continued protests against the bill, will require NGOs that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “an organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”[21] The Kremlin made similar baseless claims that the West controls Ukraine and orchestrated “color revolutions” in several post-Soviet countries in an effort to delegitimize pro-Western governments in post-Soviet countries and question the sovereignty of those countries.[22] The Kremlin also routinely accuses the West of using Ukraine as a “proxy” in what the Kremlin views as its long-term, existential confrontation with the West and NATO.[23]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces did not make any confirmed advances in the Avdiivka area on April 30 for the first time in several days, while Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces conducted several more attacks in the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar direction than near Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces may decide to push from their salient north of Avdiivka towards the Toretsk area to complement Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, which would likely require Russian forces to conduct a tactical pause to concentrate forces for such a drive.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a short-range MGM-140 ATACMS strike against targets in occupied Crimea on the night of April 29 to 30.
  • Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin expressed outrage over Russian authorities’ treatment of Central Asian migrants, particularly Tajik citizens, indicating that increased Russian efforts to control migrants living in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack are continuing to strain Tajik-Russian relations.
  • Former Georgian Prime Minister and founder of the Georgian Dream political party Bidzina Ivanishvili reiterated a series of standard Kremlin information operations during his first public speech since announcing his return to Georgian public politics in December 2023.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Chasiv Yar, and Robotyne.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on April 30 that Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov and First Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov inspected a drone testing ground in an unspecified area of occupied Ukraine.
  • An investigation by Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii implicates Kremlin-appointed Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova and her sister in the deportation of special needs Ukrainian adults to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 29, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 29, 2024, 6:45pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 29. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 30 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces secured additional marginal tactical gains northwest and southwest of Avdiivka as of April 29, but have not made significant advances in the Avdiivka direction over the last 24 hours. Geolocated footage published on April 28 and 29 indicates that Russian forces advanced in western and northeastern Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka), along the rail line to the northwestern outskirts of Ocheretyne, and in Netaylove (southwest of Avdiivka).[1] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces also advanced northwest of Ocheretyne towards Novooleksandrivka in an area 1.2 kilometers wide and 1.7 kilometers deep.[2] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces advanced 400–450 meters west of the C051801 (Orlivka-Netaylove) highway between Netaylove and Umanske (west of Avdiivka).[3] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of these claimed Russian advances, however. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially stated that Russian forces seized Semenivka (west of Avdiivka) following Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s April 28 statement that Ukrainian forces withdrew from the settlement.[4] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces are conducting clearing operations in Berdychi (west of Avdiivka), and Ocheretyne, Novokalynove, and Keramik (both northwest of Avdiivka and east of Ocheretyne).[5] Fighting also continued northwest of Avdiivka near Kalynove, Arkhanhelske, Novobakhmutivka, Solovyove, Sokil, Novopokrovske, and Novoselivka Persha; and west of Avdiivka near Orlivka and Umanske.[6]

Russian forces have the opportunity to choose among multiple tactical directions for future offensive drives near Avdiivka, but it remains unclear where they will focus their efforts in the near future. Russian milbloggers speculated about which objectives Russian forces may pursue northwest of Avdiivka but offered no clear consensus. Several prominent milbloggers claimed that Russian forces are conducting offensive operations near Keramik to advance towards Arkhanhelske but are also trying to advance west from the Ocheretyne area towards Sokil and southwest towards the Novoprokovske-Novoselivka Persha line.[7] ISW continues to assess that the continued Russian stabilization of their salient northwest of Avdiivka presents the Russian command with a choice of either continuing to push west towards its reported operational objective in Pokrovsk or trying to drive northwards to conduct possible complementary offensive operations with the Russian effort around Chasiv Yar.[8]

Investigations by both Ukrainian news agencies and Russian opposition outlets suggest that Russia is denying the legal guardians of forcibly deported and adopted Ukrainian children the ability to repatriate these children, further undermining the Kremlin’s claims that the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children is a necessary humanitarian endeavor. BBC Panorama and Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii published investigations in November 2023 that detailed how “A Just Russia” Party leader Sergey Mironov and his wife Inna Varlamova deported a ten-month girl and a two-year old boy from an orphanage in Kherson Oblast in fall 2022.[9] Mironov and Varlamova adopted the girl and changed her name, surname, and birthplace on her new Russian birth certificate, and the whereabouts of the boy remain unknown. Ukrainian outlet TSN posted an investigation on April 28, 2024, that further details the circumstances of Mironov’s adoption of the girl and includes footage of Mironov and his wife attending a baptism for the child.[10] TSN alleged that Mironov and Varlamova brought both the girl and the boy to Moscow Oblast, but that the boy was ill and that Mironov and Varlamova abandoned him, which is why his whereabouts remain unknown.[11] TSN also reported that the Ukrainian Ombudsman’s Office found that the girl, who is now nearly three years old, actually has a legal guardian and a younger sister living in Greece and noted that the girls’ guardian is asking for her return.[12] Russian opposition outlet TV Dozhd similarly reported on April 27 that a Russian woman adopted a deported six-year-old boy from occupied Donetsk Oblast and changed his name and surname, which made it harder for journalists and the boy’s family to find him.[13] TV Dozhd noted that the boy’s sixteen-year-old sister attempted to find him and gain custody through the Russian court system, which denied her right to guardianship.[14]

The practice of changing the names and birthplaces of deported Ukrainian children and adopting them into Russian families is likely intended to erase the paper-trail of the circumstances of their deportations and their true identities to make it more challenging for the Ukrainian government or their guardians to find or repatriate them. Russian authorities, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin-appointed Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, frequently try to justify the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children on humanitarian grounds and cloak what is ultimately part of a genocidal enterprise to destroy Ukrainian identity in the guise of rescuing orphaned Ukrainian children.[15] Reports that some of these children have legal guardians who are asking for their return undermines the Russian effort to claim that the deportation of Ukrainian children is a humanitarian necessity and highlights the fact that Russian authorities seem intent on covering their tracks to make deported children harder to find and return to Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated during an unexpected visit to Kyiv on April 29 that Ukraine’s Western allies must provide long-term, predictable military assistance to Ukraine and signal to the Kremlin that Russia cannot “wait out” Western support for Ukraine.[16] Stoltenberg stated during a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that serious delays in Western military support have resulted in serious battlefield consequences. Stoltenberg noted that Ukrainian forces have been “outgunned” and have downed fewer Russian missiles over the last several months due to materiel shortages and that Russian forces are currently advancing in several areas of the frontline due to manpower and material shortages. Stoltenberg stated that he expects Ukraine’s Western allies to soon announce additional unspecified military assistance commitments and stressed that NATO member states need to make “major,” multi-year financial commitments to support Ukraine and emphasize to Moscow that Russia cannot win by “wait[ing] out” Western support for Ukraine. Zelensky noted during the press conference that NATO and Ukraine continue to work towards further interoperability of their forces, and Stoltenberg expressed confidence in Ukraine’s eventual accession to NATO.[17]

The consistent provision of key Western systems to Ukraine will play a critical role in Russia’s prospects in 2024 and beyond, as well as in Ukraine’s ability to contest the theater-wide initiative, conduct future counteroffensive operations, and liberate Ukrainian territory from Russian occupation.[18] US and European failures to sustain the timely provision of critical systems to Ukraine will not only continue to constrain Ukraine’s ability to plan and wage offensive and defensive operations, but also signal weakness and hesitancy in Western support for Ukraine to the Kremlin. These signals in turn strengthen the Kremlin’s belief that it can “wait out” Western support for Ukraine and achieve its objectives of destroying Ukrainian statehood and subjugating the Ukrainian people after the West abandons Ukraine thereby encouraging Putin to persist in his aggression. Recent Kremlin information operations targeting the West have specifically emphasized the idea that Russia can and will outlast Western military assistance to Ukraine and Ukraine’s will and ability to defend itself.[19]

The Kremlin is pursuing a hybrid campaign directly targeting NATO states, including using GPS jamming and sabotaging military logistics in NATO members’ territory. Financial Times (FT) reported on April 29 that Baltic ministers are warning that Russia is behind recent cases of GPS jamming that have interfered with commercial navigation signals and forced two Finnair flights to turn back in the middle of flights from Helsinki to Tartu in the past week.[20] FT estimated that GPS jamming has affected “tens of thousands” of civilian flights in recent months. UK outlet the Sun also reported on April 23 that suspected Russian GPS jamming impacted over three thousand UK civilian flights over the Baltic region, and British officials also believe that Russia jammed the satellite signal of a Royal Air Force jet that was transporting British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps back to the UK from Poland in March.[21] Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsakhna told FT that Estonia considers recent GPS jamming instances “part of Russia’s hostile activities” and a “hybrid attack.”[22] FT noted that there are three suspected sources — Russian electronic warfare (EW) assets in Kaliningrad; another source in Russia causing GPS disturbances in Estonia and Finland; and a third source that is active farther north and impacting the northern parts of Norway and Finland.[23] An open-source intelligence account focusing on GPS jamming in the Baltic region assessed that the GPS jammer affecting the Estonian flights is in Russia roughly halfway between St. Petersburg and Narva, Estonia.[24] ISW has observed widespread GPS disruptions across Poland and the Baltics since late December 2023.[25]

Russian investigative outlet The Insider published a report on April 29 detailing how agents of the Russian General Staff’s Main Directorate (GRU) established a long-term presence in the Czech Republic and Greece to help agents of notorious GRU Unit 29155 — which previously conducted high-level assassination attempts with nerve agents and is reportedly responsible for nonlethal energy or acoustic attacks against US diplomatic, military, and intelligence personnel — conduct sabotage operations in European NATO states.[26] The Insider reported that two agents with Russian citizenship in particular helped GRU Unit 29155 facilitate attacks against ammunition depots in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, including destroying 150 tons of ammunition and killing two people in the Czech Republic in 2014, by providing intelligence about weapons shipments and a safehouse for GRU agents.[27] The Insider also implicated the two Russian agents in helping facilitate GRU Unit 29155’s first assassination attempt against the head of the Bulgarian arms company EMCO, Emilian Gebrev, who provided ammunition to Ukraine in 2014. The Insider reported that Unit 29155 also attempted to poison Gebrev in 2015 after the first assassination attempt failed but did not implicate the other Russian agents in facilitating the second attack.[28]

The Kremlin has been waging this hybrid campaign to destabilize NATO for the past decade through these various assassination attempts, logistics sabotage, and allegedly acoustic and energy attacks against government personnel.[29] The recent GPS jamming incidents indicate that the Kremlin likely intends to continue this campaign.

Telegram recently temporarily blocked chatbots meant to facilitate civilian reports on Russian military activity to official Ukrainian channels, including some channels run by Ukrainian security services. Telegram blocked the bots of Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR), Security Service (SBU), and Ministry of Digital Development as well as chatbots associated with the Ukrainian channel Crimean Wind and the Freedom of Russia Legion on August 27 and 28.[30] Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security reported on April 29 that Telegram had restored a number of channels’ chatbots, including those belonging to the GUR and SBU.[31] Reuters reported that a Telegram spokesperson stated that Telegram had “temporarily disabled” the bots due to a “false positive” but had since reinstated them.[32] Telegram chatbots allow Telegram users to submit comments or questions to the administrators of certain Telegram channels, and Ukrainian authorities have used these chatbots to allow Ukrainians to submit questions or tips about Russia’s war effort directly to the appropriate Ukrainian agencies.[33] Telegram founder Pavel Durov stated on April 24 that Telegram bans accounts and bots that collect information for military intelligence purposes and that Apple had sent Telegram requests to make unspecified changes to the platform for Telegram users using Ukrainian SIM cards.[34] Russian milbloggers initially expressed enthusiasm after reports emerged about Telegram banning the Ukrainian bots, and some later criticized Telegram for reversing the decision.[35] The Kremlin has previously pressured Telegram to censor certain content, including after the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, but the Kremlin’s possible role in the recent bot bans is unclear at this time.[36]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces secured additional marginal tactical gains northwest and southwest of Avdiivka as of April 29, but have not made significant advances in the Avdiivka direction over the last 24 hours.
  • Russian forces have the opportunity to choose among multiple tactical directions for future offensive drives near Avdiivka, but it remains unclear where they will focus their efforts in the near future.
  • Investigations by both Ukrainian news agencies and Russian opposition outlets suggest that Russia is denying the legal guardians of forcibly deported and adopted Ukrainian children the ability to repatriate these children, further undermining the Kremlin’s claims that the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children is a necessary humanitarian endeavor.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated during an unexpected visit to Kyiv on April 29 that Ukraine’s Western allies must provide long-term, predictable military assistance to Ukraine and signal to the Kremlin that Russia cannot “wait out” Western support for Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin is pursuing a hybrid campaign directly targeting NATO states, including using GPS jamming and sabotaging military logistics in NATO members’ territory.
  • Telegram recently temporarily blocked chatbots meant to facilitate civilian reports on Russian military activity to official Ukrainian channels, including some channels run by Ukrainian security services.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to report that Russian authorities are coercing Ukrainians in occupied Ukraine to join the Russian military.
 
 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 28, 2024

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 28, 2024

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 28, 2024, 7:20pm ET 

Recent Russian gains northwest of Avdiivka have prompted Ukrainian forces to withdraw from other limited tactical positions along the frontline west of Avdiivka, although these withdrawals have yet to facilitate rapid Russian tactical gains. Russian forces remain unlikely to achieve a deeper operationally significant penetration in the area in the near term. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported on April 28 that Ukrainian forces withdrew from Berdychi (northwest of Avdiivka) and Semenivka (west of Avdiivka) to positions further west in order to preserve Ukrainian personnel.[1] Syrskyi acknowledged that Russian forces are making tactical advances northwest of Avdiivka, and Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces have deployed up to four brigades to their tactical penetration in the Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka) area.[2] Russian forces have committed roughly a reinforced division’s worth of combat power (comprised mainly of four Central Military District [CMD] brigades) to the frontline northwest of Avdiivka to stabilize a small salient in the area and pursue a wider penetration of the Ukrainian defense along the frontline west of Avdiivka.[3] Russian forces have not made relatively rapid tactical gains west of Ocheretyne, Solovyove (northwest of Avdiivka), Berdychi, and Semenivka following Ukrainian withdrawals from limited tactical positions in the area, however, suggesting that Ukrainian forces maintain positions and capabilities in the area that are slowing further westward Russian advances for the moment. Russian forces will likely continue to make tactical gains in the Avdiivka direction in the coming weeks, and Ukrainian commanders may decide to conduct additional withdrawals if Russian forces threaten other Ukrainian tactical positions in the area.[4] The next line of defensible settlements in the area is some distance from the Ukrainian defensive line that Russian forces have been attacking since the seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024, although Ukrainian forces may be able to use defensible windbreaks in fields immediately west of the current frontline to slow future Russian attacks.[5] The complete Ukrainian withdrawal to reportedly fortified positions further west of Avdiivka would likely allow Russian forces to make relatively rapid advances through these fields, although the advances would likely be rapid only if Ukrainian forces do not try to hold positions in the fields.

Syrskyi added that Ukrainian forces are committing elements of brigades that have undergone rest and reconstitution to stabilize the situation in the Avdiivka direction.[6] The arrival of reconstituted Ukrainian reinforcements will likely allow Ukrainian forces to slow Russian tactical gains and possibly stabilize the front. Ukrainian forces have struggled with under-resourcing and are facing a reported one-to-three manpower disadvantage northwest of Avdiivka, but have nonetheless prevented more than a division’s worth of Russian combat power from making the types of advances that these force and materiel disparities should in principle have allowed Russian forces to achieve.[7] The arrival of Ukrainian reinforcements and additional materiel will force the Russian command to either accept that a near-term wider or deeper penetration is unlikely or commit additional reserves to the area to continue pursuing tactical gains. Russian forces currently have opportunities to achieve operationally significant gains near Chasiv Yar and are preparing reserves to support a large-scale offensive effort expected this summer.[8] The immediate commitment of additional Russian reserves to an opportunistic tactical penetration in the Avdiivka area, where Russian forces are far away from operationally significant objectives, may consume manpower that otherwise could support operationally significant gains in the Chasiv Yar area or that were intended for use in summer 2024.[9] Russian forces will likely have to replenish and reinforce attacking units and decrease the tempo of offensive operations west of Avdiivka if they do not commit additional reserves, which would likely constrain Russia’s ability to make additional rapid tactical advances in the area.[10]

The continued Russian stabilization of their salient northwest of Avdiivka presents the Russian command with a choice of continuing to push west towards its reported operational objective in Pokrovsk or trying to drive northwards to conduct possible complementary offensive operations with the Russian effort around Chasiv Yar. Ukrainian officials have previously identified Pokrovsk as the Russian operational objective in the Avdiivka direction, and Syrskyi reiterated this assessment on April 28.[11] Russian forces could alternatively decide to advance north from their tactical penetration in the Ocheretyne area along the H-20 (Donetsk City-Kostyantynivka) highway to pressure Ukrainian forces defending in the Toretsk area and possibly the operational rear of the Ukrainian defense in and west of Chasiv Yar. Russian forces have long aimed to seize four major cities that form a fortress belt in Donetsk Oblast (Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka), and Chasiv Yar is operationally significant because it would provide Russian forces with a staging ground to launch offensive operations against Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka.[12] The Russian military command could decide that advances north along the H-20 highway would allow Russian forces to conduct subsequent complementary offensive operations from the east and south against the southern edge of the Ukrainian fortress belt in Donetsk Oblast. The Russian tactical penetration northwest of Avdiivka is roughly 20km southwest of Toretsk, roughly 18km south of Oleksandro-Kalynove (the next major settlement south of Kostyantynivka), and roughly 28km south of Kostyantynivka. This distance is notably not greater than the distance to Pokrovsk, which is roughly 30km west of the Russian salient northwest of Avdiivka. A drive up along the H-20 would be a serious undertaking and would not be rapid. The Russian command may decide to continue pushing west towards Pokrovsk because there may be greater opportunities for tactical gains in the area west of Avdiivka than towards the north, however, and because of the Russian preoccupation with reaching the western borders of Donetsk Oblast.

Syrskyi also noted that the threat of a possible future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City is causing Ukraine to allocate additional forces and equipment to defending the city, although ISW continues to assess that the Russian military lacks the forces necessary to seize the city. Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces are monitoring the increased number of Russian forces regrouping in the Kharkiv direction, likely referring to Belgorod Oblast, and that Ukrainian forces have reinforced defensive positions in the "most threatened" areas with additional artillery and tank units.[13] Syrskyi‘s statement provides no indication about the imminence of the possible Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City about which Ukrainian officials have recently warned.[14] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets recently stated that Russian forces are regrouping elements of the 11th Army Corps (AC) and 6th Combined Arms Army (CAA) (both Leningrad Military District [LMD]) from the Kupyansk direction into Russia's newly-formed Northern Grouping of Forces and that the Northern Grouping’s best-equipped elements are concentrated in the Belgorod Oblast direction.[15] Elements of the 6th CAA have previously had exclusive responsibility for offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk, particularly near Synkivka.[16] Syrskyi noted that Ukrainian forces have recently improved their positions near Synkivka (northeast of Kupyansk) and a Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces retreated a short distance from Synkivka due to manpower shortages in the area, suggesting that Russian forces have likely pulled at least some elements of the 6th CAA from the area.[17]

ISW has not observed reports of elements of the 6th CAA operating in the Kupyansk direction since late March, and Russian forces are not conducting active offensive operations in the areas where elements of the 6th CAA were previously attacking.[18] Elements of the Russian 6th CAA were previously involved in offensive operations near Synkivka that began in October 2023 and continued throughout the winter and early spring 2024.[19] Likely elements of the 6th CAA’s 25th and 138th motorized rifle brigades conducted several company-sized mechanized assaults near Synkivka in December 2023, which resulted in significant armored vehicle losses and no tactically significant advances.[20] The brigades’ inability to seize Synkivka despite repeated mass infantry and mechanized assaults over a months-long offensive effort calls into question their combat effectiveness and the combat effectiveness of the 6th CAA and Northern Grouping of Forces more broadly. ISW continues to assess that a potential future Russian offensive to seize Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to Russian forces, particularly since Russian forces will be facing better-equipped Ukrainian forces following the arrival of US military assistance.[21] Russian forces would not have to seize Kharkiv City to reap the benefits of drawing Ukrainian manpower and equipment away from other critical areas of the frontline, however. The Russian military appears to be learning from past operational planning mistakes and may intend for the threat of a Russian offensive on Kharkiv City to stretch Ukrainian forces across a wider frontline in eastern Ukraine ahead of the start of the Russian summer offensive effort.[22]

The Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade denied a recent report that Ukrainian forces had pulled US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks from the frontline. The Associated Press (AP) reported on April 26, citing two unspecified US military officials, that Ukraine has removed Abrams tanks from the frontline partly because Russia’s widespread drone usage has made it too difficult for Ukrainian forces to operate Abrams without Russian forces detecting and striking Abrams with drones.[23] The Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade denied the report, stating that Abrams perform well on the battlefield and that the 47th Mechanized Brigade would not “hide [a tank] from the enemy that makes the enemy hide themselves” or leave Ukrainian infantry without fire support.[24] ISW does not report on the specific Ukrainian tactical deployment or use of its own or Western-provided weapons systems apart from what US or Ukrainian officials say.

Recent Russian efforts to increase control over migrants in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack appear to be straining relations between Russia and Tajikistan. The Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) warned Tajik citizens on April 27 to temporarily refrain from traveling to Russia on all modes of transportation “unless absolutely necessary.”[25] Tajik news outlet Asia-Plus reported on April 25 that Russian authorities had stopped almost 200 cars with Tajik license plates from entering Russia at a checkpoint on the Russian-Kazakh border as of April 22.[26] Russian authorities reportedly questioned Tajik citizens and looked through the contents of their phones but allowed children under 14 and people over 60 to enter Russia without questioning. The Tajik MFA reported on April 28 that Russian authorities detained almost 1,000 Tajik citizens at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow and dozens of Tajik citizens in Zhukovsky, Domodedovo, and Sheremetyevo airports in Moscow and held them in poor sanitary conditions.[27] The Tajik MFA stated that Russian authorities allowed 322 Tajik citizens to enter Russia and added 306 others to an “expulsion list.” Russian MFA Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed on April 27 that Russian authorities are taking measures to resolve issues at border checkpoints but defended temporary ”thorough checks” of foreign citizens as ”intensified measures to prevent terrorism.”[28] Tajikistan’s Deputy Minister of Labor, Migration, and Employment Shakhnoza Nodiri stated on March 30 that Tajikistan observed an outflow of Tajik migrants from Russia following the Crocus attack and that many Tajik migrants are calling the Tajik government stating that they want to leave Russia out of fear and panic.[29] Russian authorities increased crackdowns against Central Asian migrants entering and living in Russia, particularly Tajiks, after the Crocus City Hall attack since the majority of people arrested in connection with the attack were Tajik citizens.[30]

Russian authorities arrested several Russian journalists working for Western publications in Russia within the past several days, likely as part of an ongoing effort to limit Western and independent Russian media’s ability to reliably report on Russia. Western and Russian opposition media widely reported that Russian authorities recently arrested Sergei Karelin, who previously worked with the Associated Press (AP) and Deutsche Welle, and Konstantin Gabov, who previously worked with Reuters, on charges of working with an “extremist organization” for their previous work with the Anti-Corruption Fund founded by deceased Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.[31] A Russian court also recently placed Forbes Russia journalist Sergei Mingazov under house arrest for spreading false information about the Russian military by reposting news articles about the Russian military’s massacres in Bucha on his Telegram channel.[32] Russian opposition outlet Mediazona reported on April 26 that Russian courts have charged more people with ”participating” in ”undesirable” Russian opposition and foreign media organizations so far in 2024 than were charged with such crimes in 2022 or 2023.[33] ISW has recently reported on the Kremlin’s effort to increasingly use the vague “extremism” legal definition to increasingly prosecute anti-war sentiment, and the arrests of Karelin and Gabov in particular demonstrate one such application of this expansion.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • Recent Russian gains northwest of Avdiivka have prompted Ukrainian forces to withdraw from other limited tactical positions along the frontline west of Avdiivka, although these withdrawals have yet to facilitate rapid Russian tactical gains. Russian forces remain unlikely to achieve a deeper operationally significant penetration in the area in the near term.
  • The continued Russian stabilization of their salient northwest of Avdiivka presents the Russian command with a choice of continuing to push west towards its reported operational objective in Pokrovsk or trying to drive northwards to conduct possible complementary offensive operations with the Russian effort around Chasiv Yar.
  • Syrskyi also noted that the threat of a possible future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City is causing Ukraine to allocate additional forces and equipment to defending the city, although ISW continues to assess that the Russian military lacks the forces necessary to seize the city.
  • The Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade denied a recent report that Ukrainian forces had pulled US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks from the frontline.
  • Recent Russian efforts to increase control over migrants in and entering Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack appear to be straining relations between Russia and Tajikistan.
  • Russian authorities arrested several Russian journalists working for Western publications in Russia within the past several days, likely as part of an ongoing effort to limit Western and independent Russian media’s ability to reliably report on Russia.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Svatove.
  • The United Kingdom’s (UK) Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Leo Docherty, stated on April 27 that the UK assesses that Russian forces have suffered 450,000 killed and wounded personnel since the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 27, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps 

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 27, 2024, 8:10pm ET

Russian forces will likely make significant tactical gains in the coming weeks as Ukraine waits for US security assistance to arrive at the front but remain unlikely to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses. Politico reported on April 26 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson in December 2023 that Ukrainian forces would be able to “hold out” until March or April 2024 without additional US security assistance, a period through which Ukrainian forces are now passing without the arrival of US military aid.[1] The arrival of US aid at the front in the coming weeks will allow the Ukrainian forces to address their current materiel constraints and blunt ongoing Russian offensive operations, and Russian forces appear to be intensifying efforts to destabilize Ukrainian defenses and gain ground ahead of the arrival of the American security assistance.[2] Two Ukrainian intelligence officers reportedly told the Financial Times that Russian forces aim to use ongoing offensive operations and missile strikes against Ukraine to prepare the battlefield for an expected large-scale Russian offensive operation in late May or in June.[3] The Financial Times reported that a Western official stated that Russian forces may make further “tactical breakthroughs” in the coming weeks but will not “overrun” Ukraine.[4] Russian forces have opportunities to make significant tactical gains in the Avdiivka area and pursue an operationally significant objective with the seizure of Chasiv Yar; but, neither of these efforts is likely to develop into an operationally significant penetration in the near term, let alone cause the collapse of the Ukrainian defensive line in Donetsk Oblast.[5]

Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces will likely be able to prevent operationally significant Russian advances during Russia’s expected summer offensive effort, although Russian forces will nevertheless leverage select advantages and adaptations to pose a significant threat to Ukraine this summer. Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have previously prevented Russian forces from making even tactical gains during previous large-scale offensive efforts in Ukraine, and it is unlikely that Russian forces will conduct an offensive operation this summer that is significantly larger and more intense than their previous offensive efforts.[6] The Financial Times reported that a Western official stated that the Russian military is still an ineffective army characterized by old equipment and poorly trained soldiers and asserted that Russian forces have not improved since starting the invasion in February 2022.[7] Judging Russian military effectiveness on the absolute quality of Russian forces ignores how Russian forces are leveraging their temporary relative advantages over Ukraine to place Ukrainian forces under increasing stress. The Russian military is facing constraints on the amount of modern and effective equipment that it can and will be able to deploy in Ukraine, and the overall combat effectiveness of Russian formations and units continues to decline as they suffer degradation in Ukraine.[8] Russian forces are in part relying on their quantitative advantages in equipment and manpower to place consistent and increasing pressure on Ukrainian forces, however, and the Russian military is accepting losses that Ukrainian forces could not sustain.[9] The Russian focus on mass, regardless of quality, has supported tactical Russian gains, especially as delays in Western security assistance have degraded Ukraine’s qualitative advantages over Russian forces, and Russian forces will likely use mass to achieve tactical advances against even well-provisioned Ukrainian forces this summer.[10]

Russian reliance on mass is not the only adaptation that Russian forces have made in Ukraine, however, as the Russian military has demonstrated an uneven propensity for operational, tactical, and technological innovation and learning.[11] The Russian military command appears to be learning from past operational planning mistakes in Ukraine and will likely conduct a summer offensive operation that aims to stretch and overwhelm Ukrainian forces across a larger frontline in eastern Ukraine.[12] Russian forces have also significantly changed tactical aviation operations in Ukraine with their mass use of glide bombs, allowing fixed-wing aircraft to more safely conduct strikes from further in the rear.[13] These glide bomb strikes will continue to play a critically important role in supporting Russian ground operations this summer despite the likely improved air defense capabilities that Ukrainian forces will be able to leverage against Russian aircraft as additional Western air defense materiel arrives.[14] Russian forces continue to deploy technological innovations throughout the front at scale to support offensive pushes and appear to be timing the deployment of these innovations to exploit Ukrainian vulnerabilities and make gains before Ukrainian forces subsequently adapt to the Russian innovations.[15] Russian forces may intend to leverage new technological or tactical innovations precisely at the beginning of their summer offensive effort to offset the stronger capabilities that Ukrainian forces will possess following the arrival of US security assistance. Russian forces still suffer from widespread tactical failures, however, and Ukrainian forces will still be able to exploit those failures as long as the Russian military command continues to struggle with internalizing and disseminating adaptations at the tactical level.[16] Ukraine will be able to neutralize many of the materiel constraints it currently faces in the coming weeks and is taking steps to alleviate its manpower challenges in the coming months, but Russia will continue to pursue its own advantages as Ukrainian capabilities improve. Ukraine is very likely to stabilize the frontlines in the coming months and may be able to begin limited counteroffensive operations in late 2024 or early 2025.

Russian forces are continuing to exploit a tactical penetration north and northwest of Avdiivka and recently made additional confirmed advances in the area. Geolocated footage published on April 27 shows that Russian forces advanced to northern Novokalynove (north of Avdiivka), and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces completely seized the settlement on April 27.[17] Some milbloggers also claimed that Russian forces advanced into Keramik (directly northwest of Novokalynove), although ISW has not yet observed visual evidence of Russian forces in Keramik.[18] Geolocated footage published on April 27 also shows that Russian forces advanced in western Ocheretyne, in southwestern Solovyove, and to a treeline south of Novobakhmutivka (all northwest of Avdiivka).[19] Milbloggers claimed that Russian forces captured the entirety of Solovyove, which is consistent with available geolocated footage of Russian forces in the southwestern part of the settlement.[20] Several Russian sources also claimed that fierce fighting continued in western Berdychi (northwest of Avdiivka) and that Russian forces were pushing Ukrainian forces further west of the settlement.[21]

Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn reiterated reports on April 27 that Russian forces introduced additional reserves from the 55th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]) to the Novobakhmutivka-Ocheretyne line to break through Ukrainian defenses, and that Ukrainian forces are responding by committing additional reserve forces and resources to the area.[22] The Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies similarly noted on April 26 that Russian forces have committed two motorized rifle brigades and one motorized rifle regiment directly to the tactical penetration in the Ocheretyne area, which has created a threefold advantage in Russian forces and assets over Ukrainian forces and assets.[23] The Ukrainian General Staff reported continued fighting north of Avdiivka near Arkhanhelske and Keramik; northwest of Avdiivka near Semenivka and Ocheretyne; west of Avdiivka near Umanske; and southwest of Avdiivka near Netaylove.[24] Elements of the 132nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st Donetsk People’s Republic Army Corps [DNR AC]) reportedly seized Novokalynove and are now operating near Keramik; elements of the 35th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st CAA, CMD) are operating near Arkhanhelske; elements of the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st CAA, CMD) are operating in and near Berdychi; elements of the 114th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC) are operating near Semenivka; and elements of the 9th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st DNR AC) are operating in the Pervomaiske-Netyalove area southwest of Avdiivka.[25]

The tempo of Russian offensive operations is currently higher in the Avdiivka direction than near Chasiv Yar, as Russian forces focus on exploiting a tactical situation that is unfavorable to Ukrainian troops northwest of Avdiivka. Russian forces are likely to intensify offensive operations near Chasiv Yar in the coming weeks, however, as Chasiv Yar provides Russian forces with the opportunity for more operationally significant advances. Russian forces have recently committed roughly a division’s worth of combat power northwest of Avdiivka, which has lent them a roughly threefold advantage over Ukraine’s available combat power in the same area, by unofficial Ukrainian estimates.[26] Russian forces have committed roughly doctrinal end strength and relatively doctrinally-consistent formations to an area where Ukrainian forces have struggled with under-resourcing, which has allowed Russian forces to achieve tactical gains in areas north and northwest of Avdiivka over the course of recent weeks. Russian offensives in the Chasiv Yar direction, by contrast, have significantly slowed over the past week — a Russian milblogger noted on April 27 that the frontline has remained without significant changes and that the tempo of Russian operations has decreased.[27] ISW has frequently assessed that Russian forces have struggled to conduct simultaneous large-scale offensive operations throughout the war but have more recently been able to conduct shorter alternating offensive operations in offensive “pulses,” as has been the case in the Lyman, Chasiv Yar, and Avdiivka directions for most of 2024 thus far.[28] Russian forces are likely leaning into attacks northwest of Avdiivka in order to build on the recent tactical success they have achieved, while Russian forces committed in the Chasiv Yar direction are likely temporarily pulling back from offensives to rest and reconstitute. Russian forces will likely soon increase the pace of offensives near Chasiv Yar once again, and this offensive pressure has the potential to become significant.[29] If Russian forces are able to intensify attacks and seize Chasiv Yar, they would be able to use Chasiv Yar as a staging point for subsequent offensive operations against Ukraine’s critical fortress belt cities of Kostyantynivka, and Druzhkivka.[30] Russian forces will need to replenish and reinforce the units that are currently attacking around Avdiivka, and the process of replenishment and reinforcement is likely to blunt the overall intensity of their attacks and inhibit their ability to reach their wider operational objective — Pokrovsk and the Donetsk Oblast administrative border — rapidly as long as Ukrainian forces receive necessary reinforcements and supplies.

Russian forces conducted large-scale cruise and ballistic missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 26 to 27 and have likely resumed sea based Kalibr cruise missile strikes after a long pause. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk reported on April 27 that Russian forces launched 34 missiles: nine Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from Saratov Oblast; nine Kh-59/69 cruise missiles from Belgorod Oblast and the Sea of Azov; two S-300 missiles from Belgorod Oblast; two Iskander-K ballistic missiles, four Kh-47 Kinzhal ballistic missiles from Ryazan and Tambov oblasts; and eight Kalibr cruise missiles from the Black Sea.[31] Oleshchuk stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed 21 total missiles: six Kh-101/555s, eight Kh59/69s, one Iskander-K, and six Kalibrs. Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko and Ukraine’s largest private energy operator DTEK reported that unspecified Russian missiles struck Ukrainian energy infrastructure facilities in Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts and “seriously” damaged four unspecified thermal power plants (TPPs).[32]

This is notably the first large-scale Russian strike package since late December 2023 that did not include Shahed drones. Russian forces also notably launched Kalibr missiles as part of the strike package after conducting only a handful of individual Kalibr strikes in recent months. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated that this strike series was only the third confirmed use of Kalibr missiles in over six months and that Russian forces launched them from two Kilo-class submarines for fear of losing surface ships to Ukrainian strikes.[33] Pletenchuk stated that the two submarines are based in Novorossiysk, indicating that the Russian military has sufficiently improved the infrastructure at the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) port in Novorossiysk to load Kalibrs.[34] Ukrainian and United Kingdom (UK) military officials reported in February and March 2024 that the BSF naval base in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea was the only BSF base with the infrastructure to load these missiles onto Kalibr carriers.[35] The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on April 18 that Russian forces had likely improved the infrastructure at the Novorossiysk port to accommodate the redeployment of the majority of BSF assets away from its main base in occupied Sevastopol and reported that Russian forces had loaded an unspecified Russian Grigorovich-class guided missile frigate with cruise missiles at the Novorossiysk port.[36] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi reported in April 2024 that Russia had accumulated at least 260 Kalibr missiles and aimed to produce an additional 30 in April.[37] Russian forces will likely continue conducting Kalibr strikes from submarines based in Novorossiysk by leveraging the stockpile and the new missile-loading infrastructure in Novorossiysk. However, increased BSF surface vessel sorties will make them more vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes.

Ukrainian forces successfully conducted drone strikes against a Russian airfield and oil refineries in Krasnodar Krai on the night of April 26 to 27. Unspecified sources told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and the Ukrainian military successfully conducted drone strikes against the Kushchyovskaya airfield while “dozens” of Russian military aircraft, radar systems, and electronic warfare (EW) systems were stationed there, although ISW has not observed visual confirmation of damaged equipment at the airfield.[38] Geolocated footage published on April 27 shows the aftermath of the Ukrainian strike at the Kushchyovskaya airfield and purportedly shows damaged glide bomb kits.[39] Russian milbloggers widely criticized the Russian military for failing to protect the airfield after multiple successful Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian airfields in occupied Ukraine and Russia.[40] Suspilne’s sources stated that Ukranian drones struck the Ilskiy and Slavyansk oil refineries, damaging their distillation columns and causing fires.[41] Krasnodar Krai Governor Veniamin Kondratev stated that Ukrainian drones attempted to strike oil refineries and infrastructure facilities in Slavyanskiy, Siverskiy, and Kushchyuvskiy raions but that the strikes did not cause “serious” damage.[42] Slavyansk Oil Refinery Security Director Eduard Trudnev stated that 10 drones struck the refinery, causing it to partially stop functioning, and noted that there could be additional unseen damage.[43] The Ukrainian SBU, Special Forces (SSO), and Unmanned Systems Forces previously struck the Slavyansk Oil Refinery on the night of March 16 to 17.[44] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 66 Ukrainian drones over Krasnodar Krai on the night of April 26 to 27.[45]

The Russian federal government continues efforts to codify increased control over migrant communities living in Russia. The Russian State Duma introduced a bill on April 27 that “proposes a number of innovations that will help modernize Russian legislation and resolve certain issues of ensuring national security in the field of migration.”[46] The proposed bill also includes provisions to introduce a deportation regime for migrants who “have no grounds” to be in Russia, including those who commit certain crimes.[47] The proposed bill will also prevent foreigners who are subject to the deportation regime from purchasing real estate, opening bank accounts, or getting married.[48] The deportation bill will allow the Russian federal government to define whichever foreign individuals or communities it chooses as subject to deportation—a move that will likely allow the government to extend more oppressive control over migrant communities and cater to Russian ultranationalists who have frequently called for such harsh policies.[49] The Russian Ministry of Education and Science similarly announced on April 27 that the 12 Russian universities that are authorized to conduct Russian-language certification exams have terminated their contracts with commercial partners, meaning that only the universities and state and municipal organizations can administer Russian language certification testing.[50] This development will significantly complicate the process of obtaining Russian language certification for migrants, which will likely limit their access to certain jobs or even social services and provide the Russian government with greater control over migrant communities. The Russian government appears to be selectively empowering some migrant communities as it further disenfranchises others, however. A joint project run by Russian state media source RT and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) called “Not One on One” sends requests to the MVD to help foreigners obtain Russian citizenship in certain limited cases.[51] The RT project reported that it sent a request to the MVD regarding the citizenship of a migrant from Kyrgyzstan who fled Kyrgyzstan for Russia after being convicted for fighting for Russian forces in Ukraine.[52] Russian authorities have increased crackdowns against Central Asian migrants living in Russia, particularly after the wake of the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, and the RT project emphasizes the fact that the Russian government is interested in selectively protecting some migrants from Central Asian communities as long as they are ideologically useful in the context of the Russian war effort.

The Kremlin is likely setting conditions to intensify its hybrid operations against Moldova. Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul told Kremlin newswire TASS on April 26 that Moldovan law enforcement officials detained her and three of her advisors for several hours when the group arrived at the Chisinau airport after a series of recent meetings in Russia and Turkey.[53] Gutsul claimed that Moldovan law enforcement inspected her luggage and detained her for an hour before releasing her, and one of Gutsul’s advisors told TASS that Moldovan authorities interrogated the three advisors for an additional two hours.[54] It is unclear if Moldovan authorities formally detained Gutsul and her advisors. TASS reported that a group of 100 people gathered outside the airport to welcome Gutsul and chanted “Victory” when Gutsul exited the airport, likely referring to Gutsul’s position as the newly formed pro-Russian Moldovan Victory electoral bloc’s executive secretary.[55] Gutsul claimed that Moldovan authorities are making every effort to humiliate her and other pro-Russian Moldovans and framed Moldovan authorities’ recent confiscation of over one million dollars from Kremlin-linked Moldovan opposition politicians as a “biased” effort to humiliate innocent Moldovans.[56] Gutsul and other pro-Kremlin actors will likely continue to seize on short-term detentions and legitimate efforts by the Moldovan government to defend itself against Russian hybrid operations to justify further Russian aggression towards Moldova.

The Moldovan government is also taking steps to address known Russian information operations aimed at Gagauzia. The Moldovan Audiovisual Council announced on April 26 that it fined two regional and local television (TV) stations in Gagauzia, “TV-Gagauzia” and “ATV,” 100,000 Moldovan lei ($5,627) for spreading disinformation, hate speech, and not ensuring “information security” with their broadcasts.[57] The Audiovisual Council determined that the TV stations provided a platform for public figures to spread symbols and messages intended to “fortify a divergence” between Gagauzia's connection to Moldova and its alleged proximity to the Russkyi Mir (Russian World). The Audiovisual Council reported that the TV stations amplified narratives justifying Gagauzia’s theoretical future secession from Moldova, accusing Moldova of losing its sovereignty and traditional family values, and equating Moldova’s future accession to the European Union (EU) or NATO with “war.” ISW has extensively reported on the Kremlin’s use of its Russian World framework — an intentionally vague ideological and geographic idea that includes any former territory of the Kyivan Rus, the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation and the inhabitants of those territories - to justify Russian aggression under the guise of ”protecting” Russian “compatriots abroad” in Russia’s “historical territories.”[58] Russian President Vladimir Putin noted during his annual New Year’s address on December 31, 2023, and has since reiterated that 2024 is the “Year of the Family” for Russia and has since pursued domestic policies aimed at strengthening Russia’s “traditional family values.”[59] The Gagauzian TV stations’ efforts to equate the EU and NATO with “war” are also in line with the Kremlin’s informational efforts to justify Russia’s ongoing military reforms and invasion of Ukraine as a response to inherently escalatory actions by NATO and the EU and in preparation for the Kremlin’s envisioned long-term existential conflict with the West.[60] The Kremlin will likely continue to disseminate known narratives in Moldovan society through a variety of means and may intend to use the newly-formed Victory electoral bloc to amplify its narratives.

Russian peacekeeping forces conducted another undisclosed training exercise in the Russian-backed Moldovan breakaway republic of Transnistria, likely aimed at creating unease in Moldovan society and increased tension in the already fraught relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The Moldovan Bureau of Reintegration reported on April 23 that Russian peacekeeping forces violated the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Joint Control Commission (JCC) protocols by conducting training exercises to “repel attacks on the positions of peacekeeping forces” near four settlements in Transnistria on April 23 without coordinating with Moldovan authorities.[61] Moldovan authorities called the incident a “provocation” and a violation of the founding acts of the peacekeeping mission and stated that the incident would be discussed at the next JCC meeting. Transnistrian Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev claimed on April 25 that the peacekeeping exercises were “justified” and “necessary” to ensure the combat readiness of Russian peacekeeping units.[62] Moldovan authorities previously urged the JCC to conduct an investigation into Russian peacekeepers’ use of undisclosed drones and weapons during a December 2023 training exercise, another violation of JCC protocols.[63] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is likely engaged in hybrid operations in Moldova and intends to use pro-Russian actors in Gagauzia and Transnistria to destabilize and degrade Moldovan democracy and ultimately prevent Moldova’s accession to the EU.[64]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces will likely make significant tactical gains in the coming weeks as Ukraine waits for US security assistance to arrive at the front but remains unlikely to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses.
  • Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces will likely be able to prevent operationally significant Russian advances during Russia’s expected summer offensive effort, although Russian forces will nevertheless leverage select advantages and adaptations to pose a significant threat to Ukraine this summer.
  • The tempo of Russian offensive operations is currently higher in the Avdiivka direction than near Chasiv Yar, as Russian forces focus on exploiting a tactical situation that is unfavorable to Ukrainian troops northwest of Avdiivka. Russian forces are likely to intensify offensive operations near Chasiv Yar in the coming weeks, however, as Chasiv Yar provides Russian forces with the opportunity for more operationally significant advances.
  • Russian forces conducted large-scale cruise and ballistic missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 26 to 27 and have likely resumed sea based Kalibr cruise missile strikes after a long pause.
  • Ukrainian forces successfully conducted drone strikes against a Russian airfield and oil refineries in Krasnodar Krai on the night of April 26 to 27.
  • The Russian federal government continues efforts to codify increased control over migrant communities living in Russia.
  • The Kremlin is likely setting conditions to intensify its hybrid operations against Moldova.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances north of Avdiivka and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian federal subjects continue to sponsor Russian military formations.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 26, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 26, 2024, 6:15pm ET

Western media continues to report that select US officials have resumed discussing the idea of “freezing the lines” where they are because the latest package of US military assistance to Ukraine may not be enough for Ukraine to regain all its territory.[1] Supporters of the current package have not claimed that it would by itself allow Ukraine to liberate all occupied territory, and the discussion of possible end states of the war is very premature as President Joe Biden signed the bill authorizing the new package only two days ago. US military assistance is currently en route to Ukraine and will take several weeks to arrive to frontline units and have tangible battlefield impacts.[2] Ukrainian forces will first have to leverage the incoming US aid to stabilize the frontlines and stop ongoing Russian advances, particularly in the Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar directions, in the coming weeks. The scale and intensity of the forecasted Summer 2024 Russian offensive operation that will likely begin in June also remains unclear, and the Russian military command may be actively assessing and revising plans for its summer offensive effort to account for facing better-equipped Ukrainian forces.[3] Ukrainian forces will have to defend against the Russian summer offensive effort and prevent Russian forces from making operationally significant advances over the summer months before Ukrainian forces will be in a position to contest the theater-wide initiative and conduct a counteroffensive operation later in 2024 or 2025. Ukrainian forces must also address their ongoing manpower challenges through training new personnel, equipping new units, and reconstituting old units. The exact timeline for these efforts, which will likely play a significant role in determining the timeline for Ukraine‘s future counteroffensive operations, is unclear.[4] ISW continues to assess that sufficient and consistent Western aid will be critical for future Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts, although the US and the West will likely need to be responsive as the Ukrainian military command determines the scope and focus of such operations and relays Ukraine’s needs to Western partners in the weeks and months preceding future counteroffensive operations.[5] Ukraine’s ability to regain all of its territory in the long term rests on numerous future decisions in the West, in the Kremlin, and in Kyiv, and any discussions that treat the prospects of Ukrainian victory or defeat as predetermined outcomes ignore how all involved parties could dynamically alter the course of the war in Ukraine. 

Public meetings between officials from Russia, Belarus, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Iran, and North Korea have surged in recent days, with at least 10 high-level bilateral meetings between April 22 and 26, underscoring the deepening multilateral partnership these states are constructing to confront the West. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting of defense ministers in Astana, Kazakhstan on April 26.[6] Shoigu met with PRC Minister of National Defense Dong Jun on the sidelines of the meeting and highlighted the “unprecedented” level of Russo-Sino relations.[7] Shoigu also met with Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani and stated that Russia is prepared to expand Russo-Iranian military and military-technical cooperation.[8] Dong and Ashtiani held a bilateral meeting and called for increased Sino-Iranian cooperation, including in the defense and military spheres.[9] Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Viktor Khrenin also met with Dong and Ashtiani at the SCO meeting on April 26.[10] The April 26 SCO meeting marked Iran’s first SCO meeting as a member state since joining the organization in July 2023.[11]

The SCO meetings are only the latest in a series of bilateral meetings between Russia, Belarus, the PRC, Iran, and North Korea. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative to the Russian President for Middle East and African Countries Mikhail Bogdanov met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Ali Bagheri Kani in Moscow on April 26.[12] Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev met with PRC Communist Party Politburo member Chen Wenqing on April 23 in St. Petersburg and discussed strengthening cooperation between Russian and PRC intelligence services.[13] Patrushev also met with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Akbar Ahmadian in St. Petersburg on April 24, and they signed a memorandum of understanding between the two countries’ security councils.[14] A North Korean delegation led by Minister for External Economic Relations Yun Jong Ho traveled to Iran on April 23.[15] Head of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Department of International Military Cooperation Major General Valery Revenko met with Iranian Deputy Minister of Defense and rector of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology Mehdi Jafari on April 22 in Minsk.[16] Although the details and results of these various bilateral meetings are unclear, the overt increase in their number and frequency is notable and demonstrates the group’s increased eagerness to publicly display its military and political cooperation in its competition and confrontation against the West.

PRC officials claimed that NATO bears responsibility for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine amid meetings between PRC officials and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 26. Blinken met with PRC President Xi Jinping and stated that the PRC’s support for the Russian defense industry is enabling Russia’s war effort and undermining European and transatlantic security.[17] Blinken noted that the PRC is supplying Russia’s defense industry with machine tools, microelectronics, nitrocellulose (an intermediary good used in producing gunpowder and explosives), and other dual-use items and warned that the US is prepared to act if the PRC continues to support the Russian defense industry.[18] ISW has recently observed reports that Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) continues to rely heavily on Chinese-produced machine tool components and electronics.[19] PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated, likely in response to Blinken, that Russia imports more than 60 percent of weapons components and dual-use items from the US and other Western countries.[20] Wang added that NATO bears “unshirkable” responsibility for the ”Ukraine crisis“ and that the PRC continues to promote peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.[21] Wang’s statement is noticeably stronger than previous PRC statements about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that have portrayed the PRC as an objective and impartial mediator for future peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, and Kremlin newswire TASS framed Wang’s statements as placing ”direct responsibility” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on NATO.[22] The Kremlin will likely seize on stronger PRC rhetoric about the war in Ukraine to frame the PRC as supporting Russia’s objectives in Ukraine, as it has previously attempted to do.[23]

Ukraine’s Western partners continue to provide Ukraine with immediate and longer-term military assistance, particularly for Ukraine’s air defenses. The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced on April 26 a new package of military assistance to Ukraine worth $6 billion as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI).[24] The package includes Patriot air defense munitions, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) munitions, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) munitions, artillery ammunition, and equipment to integrate Ukrainian and Western air defense systems. The US DoD stated that the announcement marks the beginning of the “contracting process,” and the timeline of the production and delivery of these weapons is unclear at this time. Spanish outlet El Pais reported on April 26 that Spain will send a ”limited” number of Patriot missiles to Ukraine.[25] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on April 26 at the Ramstein format meeting that Ukraine needs long-range weapons and air defense systems and reported that Russian forces have used more than 9,000 guided glide bombs against Ukraine since the start of 2024.[26] US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin observed that the Patriot is not a silver bullet and that many factors will determine the course of the fighting.[27] No single weapons system is a silver bullet, to be sure, but the Patriot is one of the very few air defense systems able to engage Russian ballistic missiles and also to hit Russian fighter-bombers outside the range of Russian glide bombs. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s degraded air defense capabilities have allowed Russian aviation to heavily degrade Ukrainian defenses along the front with glide bomb strikes.[28] Zelensky stated that although Russian forces have seized the battlefield initiative in the past six months, Ukrainian forces will still be able to "not only stabilize the front but also advance.”[29]

The Ukrainian military has reportedly pulled US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks from the frontline in part because of the widespread threat of Russian drones and other strikes. The Associated Press (AP) reported on April 26, citing two unspecified US military officials, that Ukraine has removed Abrams tanks from the frontline partly because Russia’s widespread drone usage has made it too difficult for Ukrainian forces to operate Abrams without Russian forces detecting and striking Abrams with drones.[30] Ukrainian drone operators recently told the Washington Post that the number of drones that both Russian and Ukrainian forces use has made the battlefield “almost transparent” given that up to 100 Russian and Ukrainian reconnaissance and attack drones can operate simultaneously within a 10-kilometer radius.[31] Any armored vehicles that Russian or Ukrainian forces may field on the frontline are visible to each other’s reconnaissance drones, so Ukrainian forces are likely prioritizing efforts to protect the limited number of Abrams tanks they currently possess. Any armored vehicles on the battlefield without active protection and counter-drone systems are highly vulnerable to enemy drone, artillery, and anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) strikes. The Russian government has hyper-fixated on Russia’s ability to destroy Western-made weapon systems to posture Russian military equipment as superior to Western designs. Russia will soon open an exhibition of captured Western equipment in Moscow and has given military and monetary awards to Russian soldiers who destroyed Western armored vehicles.[32]

Russian authorities continue efforts to expand the definition of prosecutable anti-war sentiment to portray Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine as opposing Russia itself. The Russian Ministry of Justice appealed to the Russian Supreme Court on April 26 to recognize the alleged “Anti-Russian Separatist Movement” and its “structural divisions” as an extremist organization, which would allow Russian authorities to prosecute Russians for belonging, supporting, financing, or spreading the ideology of this movement.[33] Russian opposition media outlets largely responded to the appeal by noting that no such organization exists, and Russian authorities have previously designated other non-existent organizations meant to encompass broader “social movements” as “extremist.”[34] The Russian Ministry of Justice described the “Anti-Russian Separatist Movement” as an “international social movement [aiming] to destroy the multinational unity and territorial integrity of Russia,” indicating that Russian authorities likely intend to use this new extremist designation to further prosecute anti-war sentiment among Russians and within occupied Ukraine, particularly movements opposing Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and movements within ethnic minority communities advocating for better treatment of Russian military personnel and mobilized personnel from these communities.[35] The “Anti-Russian Separatist Movement” extremist designation also sets informational conditions to further paint Russians who oppose the war or Russian imperialism as actually opposing the Kremlin and Russia itself.

Key Takeaways:

  • Western media continues to report that select US officials have resumed discussing the idea of “freezing the lines” where they are because the latest package of US military assistance to Ukraine may not be enough for Ukraine to regain all its territory. Supporters of the current package have not claimed that it would by itself allow Ukraine to liberate all occupied territory, and the discussion of possible end states of the war is very premature as President Joe Biden signed the bill authorizing the new package only two days ago.
  • Public meetings between officials from Russia, Belarus, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Iran, and North Korea have surged in recent days, with at least 10 high-level bilateral meetings between April 22 and 26, underscoring the deepening multilateral partnership these states are constructing to confront the West.
  • PRC officials claimed that NATO bears responsibility for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine amid meetings between PRC officials and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 26.
  • Ukraine’s Western partners continue to provide Ukraine with immediate and longer-term military assistance, particularly for Ukraine’s air defenses.
  • The Ukrainian military has reportedly pulled US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks from the frontline in part because of the widespread threat of Russian drones and other strikes.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to expand the definition of prosecutable anti-war sentiment to portray Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine as opposing Russia itself.
  • Russian forces recently made a confirmed advance northwest of Avdiivka, and Ukrainian forces made a confirmed advance in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, although this advance was likely not recent.
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkort service Idel Realii reported on April 26 that Samara Oblast is forming a new “Batyr” volunteer motorized rifle battalion.
  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a joint statement on behalf of 45 member states stating that Russia has arbitrarily detained thousands of Ukrainian civilians in occupied Ukraine and subjected them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 25, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 25, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on April 25. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces are stabilizing their small salient northwest of Avdiivka and may make further tactical gains that could cause Ukrainian forces to withdraw from other tactical positions along the frontline west of Avdiivka to a more defensible line. Geolocated footage published on April 25 indicates that Russian forces advanced into central Solovyove (northwest of Avdiivka) from Novobakhmutivka after likely seizing all of Novobakhmutivka on the night of April 24 to 25.[1] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces seized all of Solovyove on April 25 and advanced up to two kilometers in depth in eastern Novokalynove (northwest of Avdiivka) on the night of April 24 to 25.[2] Russian sources claimed that elements of the 15th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]) and the Arbat Spetsnaz Battalion made the advances in Novobakhmutivka and Solovyove.[3] Russian forces have committed roughly a reinforced division’s worth of combat power (comprised mainly of four CMD brigades) to the frontline northwest of Avdiivka and appear to be attempting to widen their penetration of the Ukrainian defense in the area following significant advances into Ocheretyne (northwest of Avdiivka) as of April 18.[4] These recent Russian gains northwest of Avdiivka have been relatively quick but still relatively marginal, with Russian forces advancing at most roughly five kilometers in depth since April 18. Russian forces continue offensive operations throughout the frontline west of Avdiivka but have so far only achieved gradual marginal gains west and southwest of Avdiivka.[5]

The recent Russian advances in Novobakhmutivka and Solovyove widen the salient Russian forces are advancing along northwest of Avdiivka and afford Russian forces a more stable position from which to pursue a wider penetration. This salient is roughly two kilometers in width at its widest section, however, and would still be vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks should Ukrainian forces stabilize the tactical situation in the area. Ocheretyne notably sits on a junction between the Ukrainian defensive line that Russian forces have been attacking since their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024 and a subsequent defensive line further west, which Russian sources have identified as a more heavily fortified line.[6] Russian forces could further stabilize their salient northwest of Avdiivka and advance further west of Ocheretyne, making positions along the Berdychi-Semenivka-Umanske line increasingly difficult for Ukrainian forces to hold. The Ukrainian command could decide to withdraw Ukrainian forces further west if it deems Russian tactical gains in the area to be too threatening to current Ukrainian positions. Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiivka to relatively poorly prepared defensive positions immediately west of Avdiivka following the Russian seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February and proceeded to slow Russian advances.[7] Positions further west would likely afford Ukrainian forces similar or better opportunities to blunt Russian advances, and Russian forces would likely have to maintain a relatively high tempo of offensive operations to place these subsequent Ukrainian defensive positions under immediate pressure. Russian forces will likely have to replenish and reinforce attacking units northwest of Avdiivka and will likely not be able to maintain the tempo of offensive operations required to rapidly advance west of the Berdychi-Semenivka-Umanske line. Russian forces will likely continue to make tactical gains northwest of Avdiivka, but these gains are unlikely to develop into an operationally significant penetration, let alone cause the collapse of the Ukrainian defense west of Avdiivka.

Russian offensive operations west of Avdiivka aim to exploit opportunities for tactical gains while the Russian offensive operation to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances. Russian forces in the Avdiivka area remain roughly 30 kilometers from their reported operational objective of Pokrovsk and roughly 17 kilometers from relatively large villages east of Pokrovsk.[8] Even if Russian tactical gains do cause Ukrainian forces to withdraw to positions further west, the current Russian gains northwest of Avdiivka are unlikely to become operationally significant advances in the near term. Russian pressure on Chasiv Yar is more significant. Russian forces currently on the eastern outskirts of Chasiv Yar have been intensifying efforts to seize the city since March 2024.[9] The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances as the seizure of the town would likely allow Russian forces to launch subsequent offensive operations against cities that form a significant Ukrainian defensive belt in Donetsk Oblast.[10] Russian forces do pose a credible threat of seizing Chasiv Yar, although they may not be able to do so rapidly.[11] Russian forces are likely attempting to seize as much territory as possible before the arrival of US security assistance significantly improves Ukrainian defensive capabilities in the coming weeks, and the Russian military command may be intensifying offensive operations northwest of Avdiivka because the area provides greater opportunities for making more rapid tactical gains despite the relative operational insignificance of those gains.

US officials are reportedly worried that the latest package of US military aid to Ukraine may not be enough for Ukraine to regain all of its territory. US military assistance is only part of what Ukraine currently needs, moreover; but Ukraine is itself working to address other war fighting requirements — primarily manpower challenges and the expansion of its defense industrial base (DIB). Politico reported on April 25 that three US officials believe that the recent provision of US aid may not be enough for Ukraine to restore its territorial integrity due to changes in the situation on the battlefield in the past few months.[12] One US official reportedly stated that the “immediate goal” of the US aid package is to stop Ukrainian losses and help Ukraine “regain momentum” on the battlefield, after which the goal will be to help Ukraine regain its territory. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated on April 24 that it is “certainly possible” that Russian forces could make further tactical advances in the coming weeks but that the US will be able to provide Ukraine “with what it needs through 2024.”[13] The commander of the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade, Colonel Pavlo Palisa, stated on April 25, however, that Ukraine’s manpower problems are “much more important than ammunition.”[14] Palisa stated that one Ukrainian soldier is currently having to perform the tasks of three to four soldiers and that Russian forces outnumber Ukrainian forces by about five to seven times in the Bakhmut direction. Palisa stated that Russian forces are taking advantage of this numerical superiority by conducting attacks that result in personnel and equipment losses, which Ukrainian forces cannot afford to do.

ISW previously assessed that Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensive operations and eventually challenge the theater-wide initiative heavily depends on both the US provision of military aid and on Ukraine’s efforts to restore and reconstitute existing units and create new ones.[15] US military assistance is currently en route to Ukraine, and Ukraine has recently taken steps to address its manpower issues.[16] Ukraine is also dramatically expanding its defense industrial capacity to develop the ability over time to satisfy its military requirements with significantly reduced foreign military assistance.[17] Russian forces are likely trying to take advantage of the limited period of time before US aid appears on the battlefield by intensifying offensive operations on certain sectors of the front in order to make tactical gains in the coming weeks.[18] Russian forces are unlikely, however, to translate these tactical advances into operationally significant gains before this window closes.[19] The timeline for Ukraine’s resolution of its manpower challenges is less clear. Ukraine has recently taken steps to increase significantly the pool of manpower conscripted into the army and will need time to induct and train new conscripts. The Ukrainian command has been taking steps to get more manpower to front line units already on a limited scale, as ISW has previously reported.[20] The arrival of new ammunition and equipment will likely help blunt ongoing Russian offensives, but the timeline for the incorporation of new manpower will likely play a larger role in determining the timeline for future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

Russian forces are reportedly fielding drones adapted to be more resilient against Ukrainian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities on critical sectors of the frontline, likely in an attempt to leverage new technological capabilities to exploit a limited window before US security assistance arrives in Ukraine. Ukrainska Pravda reported on April 15 that its sources in the Ukrainian General Staff stated that the number of Russian drones in “hot” sectors of the frontline has “at least doubled” in the past three months.[21] The Ukrainian General Staff sources reported that Russian forces are using modernized drones that operate on frequencies between 700 to 1,000 MHz, which are difficult for Ukrainian EW to jam because Ukrainian EW systems are chiefly designed to jam Russian drones operating on frequencies around 900 MHz. The sources stated that Ukraine is developing a unified system to collect information about Russian drone adaptations in order to quickly adapt Ukrainian electronic warfare systems to counter the Russian drones. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces are attempting to adapt their drone technology and tactics along the frontline as part of an offense-defense arms race to mitigate Ukrainian technological adaptations designed to offset Russian material advantages.[22] The Russian military likely chose to deploy drones operating on a frequency more difficult for Ukrainian EW to jam to support continued ground operations in critical sectors of the frontline to further exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages. The Russian military may have assessed that Ukrainian forces would eventually adapt their EW systems to jam drones at a larger frequency range and employed them now to support ongoing offensive operations as Ukrainian forces wait for US security assistance to arrive. The pattern of one side seizing on a fleeting technological advantage to support immediate ground operations while it lasts will likely become a characteristic of this kind of conflict.

A prominent Kremlin-awarded Russian milblogger channel announced that it opened a “media school” in the Balkans, likely supporting Kremlin efforts to expand its reach in the international information space. The Rybar Telegram channel claimed on April 25 that it opened the “Rybar Media School” in the Balkans and that a Rybar team spent the past week in Serbia and the territory of Republika Srpska (the Serbian political entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina).[23] Rybar claimed that its team taught students, journalists, politicians, and academics how to create and run Telegram channels, organize these channels into networks, distribute “correct” content, and fight “misinformation.” Rybar claimed that founder Mikhail Zvinchuk gave lectures, adopted 10 “bright and promising” projects, and reached agreements to hold regular in-person masterclasses with authors of unspecified Russian Telegram channels. Rybar previously gave a masterclass on the importance of Telegram and other social media to press heads and communications personnel at Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec likely in an effort to normalize the war without involving the Kremlin.[24] Rybar’s public expansion to international media influence operations is notable, particularly as the Kremlin seeks to expand its influence over the Russian information space and coopt more Russian milbloggers like it has with Rybar.[25] Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev met with Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik in St. Petersburg on April 23 and discussed increasing interstate cooperation and the situation in the Balkans and Europe.[26]

French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the importance of Europe’s self-sufficiency for its defense and sovereignty during an April 25 speech.[27] Macron stated that Russia has “no inhibitions” and “no limits” and threatens Europe’s ability to ensure its security.[28] Macron called on Europe to build a strategic concept of “credible European defense” and develop its defense industry to build its sovereignty and autonomy.[29] Macron stated that European countries should give preference to European suppliers when buying military equipment and supported proposals for an EU loan program to finance preferential buying. Macron also supported increasing Europe’s cybersecurity and cyber defense capacities, closer defense ties with the UK, and the creation of a European academy to train high-ranking military personnel.

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces are stabilizing their small salient northwest of Avdiivka and may make further tactical gains that could cause Ukrainian forces to withdraw from other tactical positions along the frontline west of Avdiivka to a more defensible line.
  • Russian offensive operations west of Avdiivka aim to exploit opportunities for tactical gains while the Russian offensive operation to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances.
  • US officials are reportedly worried that the latest package of US military aid to Ukraine may not be enough for Ukraine to regain all of its territory. US military assistance is only part of what Ukraine currently needs, moreover; but Ukraine is itself working to address other war fighting requirements — primarily manpower challenges and the expansion of its defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Russian forces are reportedly fielding drones adapted to be more resilient against Ukrainian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities on critical sectors of the frontline, likely in an attempt to leverage new technological capabilities to exploit a limited window before US security assistance arrives in Ukraine.
  • A prominent Kremlin-awarded Russian milblogger channel announced that it opened a “media school” in the Balkans, likely supporting Kremlin efforts to expand its reach in the international information space.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the importance of Europe’s self-sufficiency for its defense and sovereignty during an April 25 speech.
  • Ukrainian forces recently made confirmed advances near Siversk, and Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin justified Russia’s ongoing efforts to nationalize Russian enterprises, including defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises on April 25.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 24, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 24, 2024

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 24, 2024, 8:45pm ET 

US President Joe Biden announced on April 24 that the US will begin sending military equipment to Ukraine  “a few hours” after signing a bill that will provide roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine. Biden signed the Ukraine supplemental appropriations bill on April 24 after the US Senate passed the bill on the evening of April 23 and the US House passed the bill on April 20, and Biden emphasized the need to deliver military assistance to Ukraine as quickly as possible.[1] The Pentagon announced that the first tranche of US military assistance from this bill is worth $1 billion and includes: RIM-7 and AIM-9M air defense missiles; Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; HIMARS ammunition; 60mm mortar rounds;  105mm and 155mm artillery shells; Bradley infantry fighting vehicles; High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs or Humvees); Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs); Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems; precision aerial munitions; and other equipment and transport vehicles.[2] Russian forces have recently intensified offensive operations east of Chasiv Yar and northwest of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast in an effort to take advantage of the limited window before US security assistance arrives in Ukraine.[3] The bill’s relatively quick passage through the US Senate has eliminated a potential source of delay, however, and US security assistance may arrive at the frontline in Ukraine within the next few weeks ahead of Russian expectations. The battlefield situation will continue to degrade until Ukrainian forces can receive and use enough military equipment at scale, however, and Ukrainian forces may still struggle to defend against Russian efforts near Chasiv Yar and northwest of Avdiivka in the near term.[4]

The United States reportedly provided an unspecified number of long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine in March 2024, some of which Ukraine has already used to strike Russian targets in deep rear areas. Western media reported that senior US officials stated that the United States secretly shipped an unspecified number of ATACMS with a range of roughly 300 kilometers to Ukraine in March 2024.[5] A senior US official reportedly stated that Ukrainian forces have since conducted strikes with the ATACMS missiles against a Russian military base in occupied Crimea and an unspecified target east of occupied Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.[6] Geolocated footage published on April 23 shows Ukrainian forces striking several radar systems for a Russian S-300 air defense system southeast of occupied Volnovakha (northeast of Berdyansk).[7] Ukrainian Mariupol Mayoral Advisor Petro Andryushchenko stated that Ukrainian forces struck Russian positions 10 times in Babakh-Tarama (immediately east of Berdyansk) on the night of April 23 to 24.[8] It is unclear if either of these strikes is the strike to which the US official was referring, and Ukrainian military officials have yet to confirm a Ukrainian strike near Berdyansk. Ukrainian forces appear to have used ATACMS missiles in a strike against a Russian military airfield in occupied Dzhankoi, Crimea on the night of April 16 to 17 that reportedly destroyed or critically damaged four S-400 air defense launchers, three radar stations, an air defense equipment control point, and a Murom-M airspace surveillance system.[9] US officials told Western media that the United States will include additional long-range ATACMS missiles as part of the announced $1 billion tranche of security assistance for Ukraine.[10]

The arrival of long-range ATACMS missiles in sufficient quantities will allow Ukrainian forces to degrade Russian logistics and threaten Russian airfields in deep rear areas, although months of delay may have provided the Russian military time to offset the potential operational impacts that ATACMS will afford Ukraine. Ukraine used US-provided ATACMS long-range missiles to strike Russian targets in occupied Ukraine for the first time on October 17, 2023, targeting Russian airfields in occupied Berdyansk and Luhansk City.[11] Ukrainian forces likely aimed to disrupt Russian aviation support for localized Russian offensive efforts at the time but were not provided with enough ATACMS to conduct a sustained interdiction effort against Russian aviation assets at scale.[12] Cluster-munition-armed versions of the ATACMS missiles allow Ukrainian forces to conduct more efficient strikes against airfields that can more widely destroy Russian aircraft and other assets than individual missile strikes on individual aircraft.[13] These strikes may prompt Russian forces to relocate aircraft further away from the frontline, although this would likely be much more significant for Russian rotary-wing aircraft than for most Russian fixed-wing aircraft that have much longer ranges.[14] Russian forces used rotary-wing aircraft to significant effect when repelling Ukrainian mechanized assaults during Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive in Zaporizhia Oblast but have since employed far fewer rotary-wing aircraft in support of ongoing offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.[15] Russian forces are currently heavily using fixed-wing aircraft to conduct glide bomb strikes throughout the frontline, and the withdrawal of these aircraft to airfields further away from the front would likely only have marginal impacts on the loitering time Russian pilots have to conduct glide bomb strikes.[16]

The arrival of ATACMS long-range missiles could also pose a significant threat to Russian ammunition depots in rear areas and may force the Russian command to choose between fortifying existing depots and further dispersing depots throughout occupied Ukraine.[17] Russian forces may already have adapted to the potential new Ukrainian strike capabilities following the use of ATACMS in October 2023, although it remains unclear if Russian forces sufficiently hardened ammunition depots or widely dispersed depots.[18] The arrival of HIMARS in Ukraine in June 2022 allowed Ukrainian forces to conduct an operationally significant interdiction campaign in support of counteroffensive operations in Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts and forced the Russian command to extend Russian logistics along longer ground lines of communications (GLOCs), which ultimately complicated the Russian provision of ammunition and supplies.[19] If the Russian command began efforts to offset the impacts of ATCAMS in October 2023, then Ukrainian ATACMS strikes in spring and summer 2024 may present fewer challenges to Russian logistics in Ukraine. Long-range ATACMS will, nonetheless, allow Ukrainian forces to threaten a wider set of Russian targets in deep rear areas, and Ukrainian forces can use the ATACMS to cause more substantial damage to Russian logistics facilities and critical bridges along key Russian GLOCs. Ukrainian strikes against Russian logistics or Russian aviation assets in deep rear areas will likely be operationally significant, however, only if Ukrainian forces successfully coordinate them with ground operations to exploit the degraded Russian capabilities resulting from the strikes.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian energy and industrial facilities in Smolensk and Lipetsk oblasts on the night of April 23 to 24. Unspecified sources told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne on April 24 that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) successfully conducted drone strikes against oil depots in Yartsevo and Razdorovo, Smolensk Oblast.[20] Smolensk Oblast Governor Vasily Anokhin stated that the drone strikes caused fires at fuel and energy facilities in two raions in Smolensk Oblast.[21] Geolocated footage published on April 24 shows fire and smoke at oil depots near Razdorovo and Yartsevo.[22] Lipetsk Oblast Governor Igor Artamonov claimed that a drone fell in an industrial zone in Lipetsk Oblast on the night of April 23 to 24.[23] Russian opposition outlet Astra reported that two drones struck the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant in Lipetsk City, damaging part of a building and forcing the plant to shut down two oxygen units.[24] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted Ukrainian drones in Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, and Smolensk oblasts on the night of April 23 to 24.[25]

Russian authorities arrested Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on April 24 on charges of accepting bribes, although other Russian sources reported that Ivanov is suspected of treason. The Russian Investigative Committee announced on April 23 that Russian authorities detained Ivanov and are investigating whether he accepted bribes, and the Moscow Basmanny Court formally arrested Ivanov on April 24 for the bribery charge.[26] Ivanov has been responsible for property management, troop quartering, housing, and medical support for the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) since 2016, and the Basmanny Court stated that Ivanov accepted bribes while conducting contract and subcontract work for the Russian MoD.[27] Russian authorities also arrested Ivanov’s alleged business partner Sergei Borodin for complicity in Ivanov‘s corruption.[28] Ivanov’s lawyer stated that the defense will appeal Ivanov’s arrest.[29] Russian media reported that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has been collecting case materials on Ivanov’s corruption for at least a month and possibly up to five years.[30] The FSB stated that FSB military counterintelligence is involved in the investigation into Ivanov, and Russian opposition sources noted that is not typical for the military counterintelligence department to handle corruption issues.[31]

Russian opposition media outlet Vazhnye Istorii reported that two sources close to the FSB stated that Russian authorities suspect Ivanov of treason, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the FSB to detain Ivanov under the guise of bribery after convincing the FSB that Ivanov had committed treason.[32] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded to Vazhnye Istorii’s reporting, claiming that he knows nothing about whether Ivanov is charged with treason and calling for an end to speculation about Ivanov’s arrest.[33] Russian sources have yet to specify what Ivanov‘s suspected treason may be connected to. Ukrainian media reported that sources in Ukrainian intelligence stated that the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a cyber infiltration of MoD networks in March 2024 and obtained official documents and confidential information about Ivanov, prompting Russian authorities to start an investigation into Ivanov.[34] The GUR sources reportedly noted that the Kremlin was already aware of Ivanov’s corruption but did not elaborate on what the reported documents about Ivanov detailed.[35] ISW has yet to observe evidence confirming the allegations of treason.

Ivanov’s arrest prompted Russian information space speculation about a new round of personnel changes in the Russian military and claims that the arrest is part of Kremlin factional conflicts. Russian insider sources claimed that Ivanov was a supporter of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and that his arrest is likely part of an effort to diminish the power and influence that Shoigu has cemented over the MoD since the Wagner Group rebellion in June 2023.[36] Russian insider sources differed on which faction is trying to undermine Shoigu’s position, however, with one claiming that First Deputy of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev targeted Ivanov because Ivanov had tried to fire Alekseyev and another Russian insider source claiming that a faction associated with Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitri Medvedev aims to disempower Shoigu.[37] A Russian insider source claimed that Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko was Ivanov’s patron and that Timchenko routinely defended Ivanov to Putin.[38] A prominent Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ivanov is part of a Kremlin faction that has been lobbying for a “soft exit“ from the war in Ukraine.[39] ISW has not observed a preponderance of Russian claims suggesting that Ivanov’s arrest is associated with a specific factional dispute, however. Russian sources labeled Ivanov’s arrest the first of many expected personnel changes, specifically for Russian deputy defense ministers.[40] A Russian milblogger called the arrest the start of a “purge” within Russian military departments.[41] ISW has not observed indications that the Russian military has begun large-scale dismissals or detentions of Russian military personnel, however.

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers largely celebrated Ivanov’s arrest and used it as an opportunity to publicly criticize the Russian MoD. Russian milbloggers largely called for Russian courts to bring Ivanov to justice for his crimes and lamented the Russian MoD’s failures throughout the war, describing the arrest of an MoD official as long overdue.[42] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger tempered the other milbloggers’ celebrations, asking how much has meaningfully changed since the Russian MoD replaced many other officials throughout the war, including cycling some defense and military officials between posts rather than firing them outright.[43] Other milbloggers noted that Ivanov’s arrest brings much-desired justice even if nothing changes and that Ivanov’s arrest presents an opportunity for the MoD to clean the ”Augean stables” of their filth and corruption.[44] One milblogger even called for Russian authorities to send Ivanov to fight in the “forests of Lyman” - referring to the highly attritional, infantry-led Russian assaults in forest areas west and south of Kreminna.[45] Russian milbloggers have not directly criticized the Russian MoD or officials by name with such vitriol or magnitude since before the Wagner Group rebellion in June 2023 and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in August 2023.[46] The public nature of Ivanov’s arrest and charges appears to have opened the floodgates of broader Russian milblogger criticism of the Russian MoD, though it is unclear to what degree the milblogger community will sustain these complaints or return to its norm of self-censorship.

The Kremlin explicitly threatened Armenia if Armenia does not resume active engagement in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and resume its pro-Kremlin alignment. Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan announced on April 23 that he would not participate in the International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues in St. Petersburg on April 24 and 25.[47] Grigoryan’s refusal to participate in a Russian-led multilateral meeting is likely part of a continuing Armenian effort to distance Armenia from political and security relations with Russia by freezing its participation in the CSTO and refusing to participate in multilateral political and security engagements.[48] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) board meeting on April 23 to discuss promoting Russian interests in the South Caucasus, in which he claimed that the West is attempting to strategically defeat Russia by destabilizing ”other parts of the post-Soviet space, including the South Caucasus.”[49] Lavrov blamed the West for allegedly attempting to undermine and destroy Russian security and economic relations with countries in the South Caucasus. Lavrov is likely attempting to portray Armenian efforts to deepen relations with the West as a deliberate hostile Western effort against Russia to set information conditions to justify any potential future Russian efforts to coerce or force Armenia to resume its pro-Russian alignment. The Russian MFA also explicitly threatened Armenia by claiming that the West is attempting to “drag the South Caucasus into a geopolitical confrontation” between Russia and the West and warning that Armenia could “go down the wrong path,” following Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s April 5 meeting with senior EU and US officials.[50] CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov (a Kazakh official) also directly threatened Armenia if it did not resume active engagement in the CSTO. Tasmagambetov stated in an interview published on April 24 that the CSTO is aware of NATO’s activity in the South Caucasus and that the CSTO Secretariat’s analysts indicate that the balance of power in the South Caucasus may change if Armenia leaves the CSTO.[51] Tasmagambetov stated that he hopes that the likelihood of a “confrontation” between the CSTO and Armenia is “no more than hypothetical” but that such a confrontation would require all parties to consider their resources and capabilities. Lavrov’s and Tasmagambetov’s threats against Armenia were made around the April 24 Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day indicating that Russia likely intended to tie a tragedy in Armenian history with Armenia’s efforts to distance itself from Russia.

Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova deliberately misrepresented recent Qatari-mediated negotiations between Russia and Ukraine as the first face-to-face negotiations on the return of Ukrainian children forcibly removed and deported by Russia, likely in an effort to minimize Russia’s responsibility for the coordinated removal and deportation of Ukrainian children. Lvova-Belova posted deliberately misleading photos and claimed on April 24 that Qatari officials mediated face-to-face negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Doha and that the Russian delegation agreed to return 29 forcibly deported Ukrainian children from Russia to Ukraine.[52] Lvova-Belova claimed that previous statements that Russian authorities have forcibly deported thousands of Ukrainian children are “nothing more than a myth” and that Qatar is a witness to the truth, the latest talking point in Lvova-Belova's efforts to downplay and censor information about Russia’s illegal removal of Ukrainian children within Russian-controlled territory.[53] Lvova-Belova stated in an October 2023 report that Russia has “accepted” over 700,000 Ukrainian children since February 24, 2022, and the Ukrainian government has confirmed the deportation and/or displacement of 19,546 Ukrainian children as of January 2024, however.[54] Ukrainian Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets explicitly denied Lvova-Belova's claim about face-to-face negotiations and stated that there were “no direct negotiations” between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations on April 24.[55] Lubinets clarified that Qatari officials mediate all discussions and act as intermediaries for all negotiations on the return of Ukrainian children from Russia. Lubinets stated that the Ukrainian delegation met with Qatari International Cooperation Minister Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater to discuss the return of Ukrainian children, civilians, and prisoners of war (POWs) from Russia on April 24 and will meet with the Qatari delegation again on April 25. ISW has extensively reported on Russia’s forced deportation and removal of Ukrainian citizens, including children, and continues to assess that Russia is attempting to eliminate the Ukrainian language, culture, history, ethnicity, and identity, including through activities that appear to violate the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[56]

Moldovan authorities filed a criminal case against Yevgenia Gutsul, the Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, for campaign finance violations as Moldovan officials continue to warn about Russia’s threat to Moldova. Moldovan media reported on April 24 that the Moldovan Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office completed its criminal investigation into Gutsul’s connections with the Shor Party, a political party that sanctioned pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor founded and financed, and filed a criminal case against Gutsul on two counts of knowingly accepting financial support from an organized criminal group.[57] The Moldovan Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office determined that Gutsul knowingly transported unaccounted funds from an organized criminal group likely based in Russia to Moldova and used those funds to support the Shor Party’s activities in Moldova while Gutsul worked as a secretary for the Shor Party from 2019 to 2022. The Moldovan Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office also charged Gutsul with knowingly organizing and paying anti-government protesters over 42.5 million Moldovan lei ($2.39 million) in illicit funds in October and November 2022. Gutsul denied the Moldovan government’s allegations and claimed that the Moldovan government fabricated the case against her.[58] The new pro-Russian Moldovan Victory electoral bloc, which is also affiliated with Shor, responded to the case and demanded that the Moldovan government end its “groundless” and politically-motivated prosecution of Gutsul.[59] The Victory electoral bloc threatened that “provocations” by the Moldovan government could “destabilize the situation in Gagauzia.” Pro-Kremlin actors may seize on and spin the legitimate criminal charges against Gutsul to justify Russian intervention and aggression in Moldova as necessary to protect Russia’s “compatriots abroad.”

Moldovan Foreign Minister Mihai Popșoi stated during an interview with Bloomberg published on April 23 that Moldova is a “petri dish” of Russian hybrid warfare and election meddling.[60] Popșoi stated that Russia is using a range of covert and informational tactics to destabilize Moldova, including smuggling money into Moldova to bribe voters and protestors, creating deep fake videos of Moldovan politicians, and conducting cyberattacks against Moldovan infrastructure. Russia reportedly conducted a significant cyberattack against the Moldovan postal service and temporarily disrupted postal services in February 2024, and Moldovan authorities notably confiscated over one million dollars from Kremlin-linked Moldovan opposition politicians at the Chisinau airport on the night of April 22 to 23.[61] Popșoi, citing Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, noted that Russia is conducting daily rhetorical attacks against Moldova and Moldovan officials and that Moldovan officials are monitoring the possibility of a future Russian military threat to Moldova. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is likely engaged in hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing Moldovan society, degrading Moldova’s democracy, and preventing Moldovan’s accession to the EU.[62]

Key Takeaways:

  • US President Joe Biden announced on April 24 that the US will begin sending military equipment to Ukraine  “a few hours” after signing a bill that will provide roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine.
  • The United States reportedly provided an unspecified number of long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine in March 2024, some of which Ukraine has already used to strike Russian targets in deep rear areas.
  • The arrival of long-range ATACMS missiles in sufficient quantities will allow Ukrainian forces to degrade Russian logistics and threaten Russian airfields in deep rear areas, although months of delay may have provided the Russian military time to offset the potential operational impacts that ATACMS will afford Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian energy and industrial facilities in Smolensk and Lipetsk oblasts on the night of April 23 to 24.
  • Russian authorities arrested Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on April 24 on charges of accepting bribes, although other Russian sources reported that Ivanov is suspected of treason.
  • Ivanov’s arrest prompted Russian information space speculation about a new round of personnel changes in the Russian military and claims that the arrest is part of Kremlin factional conflicts.
  • Russian ultranationalist milbloggers largely celebrated Ivanov’s arrest and used it as an opportunity to publicly criticize the Russian MoD.
  • The Kremlin explicitly threatened Armenia if Armenia does not resume active engagement in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and resume its pro-Kremlin alignment.
  • Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova deliberately misrepresented recent Qatari-mediated negotiations between Russia and Ukraine as the first face-to-face negotiations on the return of Ukrainian children forcibly removed and deported by Russia, likely in an effort to minimize Russia’s responsibility for the coordinated removal and deportation of Ukrainian children.
  • Moldovan authorities filed a criminal case against Yevgenia Gutsul, the Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, for campaign finance violations as Moldovan officials continue to warn about Russia’s threat to Moldova.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and Robotyne.
  • Russian State Duma Committee on Information Policy Head Alexander Khinshtein stated on April 24 that unspecified Russian officials will soon submit a draft law to the State Duma that would ban the extradition of foreigners who have fought in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine if the foreigners face prosecution for their military service in their home countries.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 23, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Annika Ganzeveld, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 23, 2024, 6:20pm ET 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu highlighted ongoing Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and announced Russia’s intent to intensify its strike campaign to disrupt Ukrainian logistics. Shoigu addressed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) collegium on April 23 and focused on the recently claimed Russian seizure of Bohdanivka (northeast of Chasiv Yar), Pervomaiske (southwest of Avdiivka), and Novomykhailivka (southwest of Donetsk City).[1] ISW has not observed visual confirmation that Russian forces have seized all of these settlements yet, however. Shoigu also focused on claimed Russian gains northwest of Avdiivka near Berdychi and west of Donetsk City near Heorhiivka.[2] Russian forces have yet to make significant tactical gains near Chasiv Yar after advancing up to the eastern outskirts of the settlement in early April 2024 but have recently made significant tactical gains northwest of Avdiivka and marginal advances southwest of Donetsk City.[3] Shoigu is likely trying to broadly depict the various ongoing Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine as equally successful despite mixed and limited tactical Russian success in these directions.[4] Russian forces will likely intensify ongoing offensive operations in the coming weeks to exploit Ukrainian materiel constraints ahead of the expected arrival of US security assistance.[5] Shoigu’s focus on Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, west of Avdiivka, and west and southwest of Donetsk City further indicates that Russian forces will likely intensify assaults in these areas, where Russian forces are currently prioritizing broader offensive operations, instead of elsewhere along the front.

Shoigu also announced that Russian forces will intensify strikes against Ukrainian logistics centers and storage facilities for Western-provided weapons.[6] Russian forces have heavily targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure during missile and drone strikes through March and April 2024, exploiting already degraded Ukrainian air defense capabilities in an effort to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid and cause long-term damage to Ukrainian war waging capabilities and public morale.[7] Russian forces will likely intensify drone and missile strikes in the coming weeks to maximize damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and defense industrial base capacity before the expected arrival of US security assistance begins to alleviate Ukraine’s critical shortage of air defense missiles.[8] Shoigu’s focus on striking Ukrainian logistics suggests that Russian forces may shift their target set to hit Ukrainian transportation infrastructure, logistics, and military storage facilities. Russian forces heavily targeted Ukrainian transportation infrastructure in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on April 19, and Russian forces may intend to replicate and expand these strikes in the coming weeks to interdict Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs).[9] The Russian military command may hope that a coordinated interdiction effort will constrain Ukraine’s ability to sufficiently distribute manpower and materiel to critical sectors of the front and delay the improved capabilities that the arrival of US security assistance will afford Ukrainian forces.[10]

Shoigu also discussed ongoing Russian military reforms during his April 23 MoD collegium address, cloaking ongoing expansion efforts in an information operation meant to falsely frame all Russian military activity as inherently defensive and responsive to supposed NATO aggression.[11] Shoigu claimed that Russian forces would continue efforts to improve their composition and structure “in proportion to the threat” posed by the United States and its allies — echoing a standard Kremlin information operation that frames the West as a constant aggressor and Russia as a passive victim trying to defend itself against external attacks. Shoigu went on to discuss the Russian military’s ongoing efforts to stand up the Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) and accused Sweden of increasing tensions on Russia’s northwestern and western flanks through its accession to NATO. Shoigu also reported that the 44th Army Corps (AC) has formed within the LMD (potentially naming the AC that Russian forces have been forming in the Republic of Karelia on the border with Finland, which borders the LMD’s new area of responsibility) and confirmed that Russia is expanding three unspecified motorized rifle brigades into motorized rifle divisions.[12] Kremlin officials have frequently claimed that Finland’s NATO accession forced Russia to create the LMD on Finnish borders, and Shoigu’s suggestion that routine NATO defensive exercises and responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine necessitate the sort of long-term Russian military buildup that Russia is currently undertaking are both continuations of the longstanding Kremlin narrative that Russia is an innocent victim of aggressive NATO expansion.[13] Ongoing Russian military reforms and expansion are likely meant to prepare Russia for a potential future conventional confrontation with NATO, but the Russian attempt to justify the reforms as inherently passive and reactionary is an information operation that likely aims to force NATO states to self-deter from increasing their own defensive capabilities.[14]

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Akbar Ahmadian traveled to St. Petersburg on April 23 to attend the 12th Russian International Security Summit.[15] The Iranian Embassy in Moscow announced that Ahmadian will meet with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev while at the summit.[16] Ahmadian met with Iraqi National Security Adviser, Qasem Araji, on the sidelines of the summit on April 23, where Araji emphasized the importance of expelling United States and international coalition forces from Iraq. The two also discussed the March 2023 security agreement between Iran and Iraq that requires Iraqi authorities to disarm and relocate members of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups away from Iran’s borders. Ahmadian will also meet with his Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and South African counterparts at the summit. High-level meetings between Iranian and Russian defense officials such as Ahmadian and Patrushev help both sides align their national security and defense strategies and bolster Russia’s informational reputation as the leader of a coalition of like-minded states that counterbalance the West.

The Chechen Republic appears to be trying to align itself more closely with Iran over the backdrop of intensifying bilateral security cooperation between Russia and Iran. Russian State Duma Deputy and head of the Chechen Rosgvardia branch Adam Delimkhanov stated on April 22 that he met with Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Akbar Ahmadian during a visit to Iran on Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s orders.[17] Delimkhanov reported that he and Ahmadian discussed security issues in Central Asia and the Middle East and the prospects of Russo-Iranian cooperation in countering national security threats to both states. Iran is pursuing its own interests in the North Caucasus, especially Muslim-majority regions, and is likely interested in strengthening bonds with Chechen officials to expand its influence in the region. Representatives of Iranian airline Mahan Air met with Chechen Prime Minister Muslim Huchiev in December 2023 to discuss the prospect of opening regular flights between Chechnya and Iran to strengthen trade, economic, and cultural ties between the two.[18]

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the UK’s largest ever package of military assistance to Ukraine valued at 500 million pounds (around $662 million) on April 23.[19] Sunak announced on April 23 that the UK will provide over 400 vehicles, 4 million rounds of small arms ammunition, 60 boats, air defense equipment, and Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine. Sunak also stated that the UK will increase its military spending to 2.5 percent of its GDP by 2030, with spending gradually increasing to 87 billion pounds (about $108 billion) in the next six years.[20] Sunak stated that the increased defense spending will put the UK “on a war footing” as the UK is facing an “axis of authoritarian states with different values...like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.”[21]

Moldovan authorities confiscated over one million dollars from Kremlin-linked Moldovan opposition politicians at the Chisinau airport on the night of April 22 to 23, and the opposition politicians likely intended to use to bribe protestors and voters. Moldovan law enforcement officers conducted over 150 searches mostly at the Chisinau airport and in some personal homes after receiving a tip that opposition politicians who were returning from the April 21 meeting of Moldovan opposition politicians in Moscow, which resulted in the creation of the pro-Russian Moldovan Victory electoral bloc, were smuggling money into Moldova.[22] Moldovan authorities reported that they confiscated about 62,000 rubles (about $660), 3,000 euros (about $3,200), and over $1.1 million during the searches. The Moldovan General Police Inspectorate Chief Viorel Cernauteau stated on April 23 that the money was meant to finance Moldovan political parties led by affiliates of US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor. Unspecified actors reportedly used “couriers” to transport the money from Russia to Moldova and promised them compensation ranging from 300 to 500 euros (about $320-520). Cernauteau noted that the “couriers” carried under 9,000 euros (about $9,600) of cash to avoid customs laws which require people to declare amounts over 10,000 euros (about $10,700). Shor reportedly paid demonstrators to protest Moldovan President Maia Sandu in 2022, and Moldovan authorities are investigating the Shor Party for bribing voters during the 2023 Gagauzia gubernatorial election.[23] Moldovan authorities have also detained members of Moldovan parliament who reportedly took bribes from Shor affiliates.[24] ISW previously assessed that the creation of the Victory electoral bloc would allow the Kremlin to focus on a unified political effort as part of its efforts to destabilize Moldovan society, attack Moldova’s democratic government, and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU).[25]

Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor is blocking 150 virtual private network (VPN) services in Russia, another step in the Kremlin’s efforts to further censor and control the Russian information space. Rozkomnadzor Department for Control and Supervision Head Yevgeny Zeitsev announced during a speech at the Safer Internet Forum in Moscow on April 23 that Roskomnadzor is currently blocking 150 popular VPN services and that Roskomnadzor began restricting access to websites and social media posts that advertised VPNs on March 1, when a federal ban on advertising ways to bypass Roskomnadzor’s restrictions came into effect.[26] Zeitsev stated that Roskomnadzor has blocked roughly 700 sites that advertised VPNs since March 1 and 200,000 sites accused of spreading false information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since February 2022. The Russian government has previously attempted to downplay its efforts to block VPNs, although the Kremlin appears increasingly unwilling to tolerate VPN usage that allows Russians to bypass censorship efforts amid ongoing efforts to further consolidate control over the Russian information space.[27]

Ukrainian drone strikes and recent flooding in Russia have reportedly brought weekly Russian oil refining to an 11-month low, although the decrease in refining output has so far been marginal.[28] Bloomberg reported on April 22 that as of mid-April 2024 Russia processed 5.22 million barrels of crude oil per day, 10,000 fewer barrels than the average in early April.[29] Russia has reportedly processed 1.23 million barrels of crude oil per day since January at refineries that Ukrainian forces previously struck with drones, a 280,000-barrel-per-day decrease from before Ukrainian forces started targeting Russian oil refineries in late January 2024.[30] Ukrainian drone strikes reportedly shut down 14 percent of Russia’s overall oil refining capacity as of April 2.[31] Flooding in Orenburg Oblast forced the Orsk oil refinery to go offline on April 7, but Reuters reported that the Orsk refinery resumed full operations on April 23.[32] Decreased Russian refining capacity likely forced Russia to import gasoline from Kazakhstan and Belarus in early April to address shortages and attempt to prevent domestic gasoline prices from rising, although there are no indications that constraints on Russian gasoline production are significant to international market values.[33] Russian officials have noted that a reduction in primary oil refining in 2024 will likely lead to increases in Russian crude oil exports since Russia would not be able to refine as much as it usually does.[34] Future Ukrainian drone strikes may disable and disrupt more of Russia’s refining capacity and inflict critical constraints on Russian refining that begin to substantially impact Russia’s production of distillate products. Ukrainian drone strikes have yet to significantly impact Russian refining production or the domestic Russian or international supply of crude oil and distillate products, however.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu highlighted ongoing Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and announced Russia’s intent to intensify its strike campaign to disrupt Ukrainian logistics.
  • Shoigu also discussed ongoing Russian military reforms during his April 23 MoD collegium address, cloaking ongoing expansion efforts in an information operation meant to falsely frame all Russian military activity as inherently defensive and responsive to supposed NATO aggression.
  • Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Akbar Ahmadian traveled to St. Petersburg on April 23 to attend the 12th Russian International Security Summit.
  • The Chechen Republic appears to be trying to align itself more closely with Iran over the backdrop of intensifying bilateral security cooperation between Russia and Iran.
  • United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the UK’s largest ever package of military assistance to Ukraine valued at 500 million pounds (around $662 million) on April 23.
  • Moldovan authorities confiscated over one million dollars from Kremlin-linked Moldovan opposition politicians at the Chisinau airport on the night of April 22 to 23, and the opposition politicians likely intended to use to bribe protestors and voters.
  • Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor is blocking 150 virtual private network (VPN) services in Russia, another step in the Kremlin’s efforts to further censor and control the Russian information space.
  • Ukrainian drone strikes and recent flooding in Russia have reportedly brought weekly Russian oil refining to an 11-month low, although the decrease in refining output has so far been marginal.
  • Ukrainian forces recently advanced near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and Russian forces recently advanced near Donetsk City.
  • Prominent Russian milbloggers continue to complain about the ineffectiveness of Russian drones on the battlefield.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 22, 2024, 9:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2pm ET on April 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 23 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Kremlin is conducting a concerted air and information operation to destroy Kharkiv City, convince Ukrainians to flee, and internally displace millions of Ukrainians ahead of a possible future Russian offensive operation against the city or elsewhere in Ukraine. Kharkiv Oblast Head Oleh Synehubov and the Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office reported that Russian forces struck a TV tower in Kharkiv City possibly with a Kh-59 cruise missile on the afternoon of April 22 and that the strike disrupted TV signals in the area.[1] Ukrainian and Russian media and Russian milbloggers widely amplified footage and images of the damaged TV tower, which broke in half and partially collapsed as a result of the strike.[2] Russian state media and milbloggers attempted to justify the strike by claiming that Ukrainian forces installed unspecified air defense communication and coordination equipment on the tower.[3] Russian milbloggers praised the accuracy of the Russian strike and insinuated that Russian forces had tried and failed to down the Kharkiv City TV tower and other TV towers in Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts several times, including in March 2022.[4] Russian forces notably struck a TV tower in Kyiv City on March 1, 2022, shortly after Russian forces launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[5] Kremlin may intend to invoke the memory of the March 2022 Kyiv City strike and the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to create panic among Ukrainians during another challenging moment of the war.

Kremlin mouthpieces are seizing on concerns about a future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to conduct a likely coordinated information operation in an effort to create outsized panic among Ukrainians. ISW assesses that the likelihood of a successful Russian ground offensive against Kharkiv is very low if Ukraine receives renewed US military aid rapidly. The Ukrainian Center for Combatting Disinformation warned as early as February 2024 that Russian Telegram channels are spreading claims that Ukrainian officials were fleeing Kharkiv City, and Russian sources claimed in early April that there is a “mass exodus” of civilians from Kharkiv City.[6] The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security recently identified a Russian information operation claiming that Ukrainian officials prevented civilians from leaving Kharkiv City and noted that Russian forces are seizing on concern about a possible Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to sow panic and a feeling of “impending, inevitable catastrophe” in Ukraine.[7] Russian state TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov claimed on March 28 that Russian forces should destroy Kharkiv City “quarter by quarter” and suggested offering Ukrainian civilians 48 hours to leave the city, presumably before being killed in Russia‘s destruction of the city.[8] Russian neo-nationalist publication Tsargrad amplified claims from several unspecified military sources on April 16 that a Russian offensive operation to capture Kharkiv City is inevitable and that the situation in Kharkiv City will become “worse than Bakhmut and Avdiivka.”[9] Tsargrad claimed that there is “no doubt” that Russian forces will seize Kharkiv City but that “blockade tactics,” such as “cutting off electricity, gas, and water” for civilians, are the most reasonable way for Russian forces to seize the city and avoid large-scale losses. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russia’s April 22 strikes against Kharkiv City are an indication that Ukrainian civilians should leave Kharkiv City “while they still can” and that it does not make sense for civilians to hide in and protect their apartments if Ukrainian forces are “hiding in the basement,” implying that Russian forces may deliberately target residential infrastructure.[10] Another Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainians should abandon Kharkiv City before their “neighbors” kill them, likely referring to Russian forces.[11] Ukrainian officials have previously discussed the possibility that Russian forces might launch a ground operation against Kharkiv city later this summer, and ISW continues to assess that the Russians lack the forces necessary to seize the city as long as Ukrainian forces defending it are adequately supplied, as they will be if the US restarts military assistance soon.

Russia is intensifying strike and information operations against Ukrainians in Kharkiv City to exploit ongoing constraints on Ukrainian air defenses and heightened tensions in Ukraine in the likely relatively brief window before the anticipated arrival of US military assistance to frontline areas. Ukrainian officials have recently warned about a possible future Russian offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s interest for such an operation on April 19, claiming that Kharkiv City “plays an important role” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to supposedly protect Russian border settlements from Ukrainian strikes.[12] Russia’s envisioned “sanitary zone” could represent a range of on-the-ground conditions from the seizure of Kharkiv City and the surrounding areas to the creation of an uninhabitable, razed “no man’s land” that neither side controls. ISW previously assessed that a Russian offensive operation aimed at seizing Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to Russian forces and that the Russian military command will likely have to reconsider its objectives for its forecasted summer 2024 offensive effort to account for better equipped and manned Ukrainian forces.[13] The Russian military command may attempt to destroy Kharkiv City with air, missile, and drone strikes and prompt a large-scale internal displacement of Ukrainian civilians if the Russian military determines that it cannot successfully seize the city with ground operations. Continued timely US and Western military assistance, particularly the provision of air defense systems and missiles, will be critical to Ukraine’s defense of Kharkiv City.

Russian forces appear to be aiming to make a wide penetration of Ukrainian lines northwest of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, but their ability to do so will likely be blunted by the arrival of US and other Western aid to the frontline. Russian forces have committed roughly a reinforced division’s worth of combat power (comprised mainly of four Central Military District [CMD] brigades) to the Berdychi-Novokalynove line northwest of Avdiivka.[14] These forces are pursuing three mutually reinforcing drives — pushing westward of Berdychi; pushing into and westward of Ocheretyne along the O0544 (Keramik-Myrhorod) road; and pushing northwards towards Novokalynove — which are all likely aimed at supporting the Russian operational-level goal of reaching the Donetsk Oblast administrative boundary via Pokrovsk (west of the Avdiivka area). Russian offensive operations in these three areas north and northwest of Avdiivka have succeeded in creating three small salients along a frontline that is about seven kilometers long, but each of these three salients is currently too narrow in isolation to serve as meaningful launch points for further ground offensives that would accomplish a broad encirclement of the general area west of Avdiivka. The force composition, density, and general battlefield geometry of this area suggest that Russian forces currently hope to combine the pushes from all three salients to create a wider breach along the Berdychi-Novokalynove line, predominantly using forces of the CMD.

Russian forces do not have an indefinite timeframe in which to pursue this wider breach, however. European military aid will soon start arriving in Ukraine’s arsenal along with renewed US military aid should the US Senate pass the supplemental appropriations bill.[15] European Union (EU) High Commissioner Josep Borrell stated on April 22 that the first deliveries of artillery ammunition sourced through the Czech-led initiative for Ukraine will arrive in country by the end of May to beginning of June.[16] Ukraine’s ability to even the ratio of artillery fires in comparison to Russian forces on the battlefield will be essential to Ukraine’s ability to deprive Russian forces of the initiative and slow the rate of ongoing Russian advances in areas of the front such as the Avdiivka direction. Russian forces are similarly intensifying the rate of tactical-level gains elsewhere in the theater, namely in the Lyman direction and west and southwest of Donetsk City, to consolidate gains as rapidly as possible. The Russian military command is likely aware of the closing window before more Western aid arrives and is trying to secure offensive gains before the window closes. Russian forces are likely to continue to make tactical gains along the Berdychi-Novokalynove line and elsewhere in theater in the coming weeks as they intensify offensive operations in anticipation of the arrival of Western aid. However, the currently closing window of low Ukrainian resources will likely inhibit Russian forces from being able to translate tactical advances into operationally significant gains for the most part, though some are possible; and Ukraine’s receipt of Western aid will likely position Ukrainian forces to receive the upcoming offensives for which Russian forces are preparing.[17]

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 22 that Finland is taking concrete steps to protect itself against Russian hybrid operations weaponizing Russian-manufactured migrant crises on the Russian-Finnish border.[18] WSJ noted that the Finnish government believes that Russia has sent waves of migrants to the Finnish border as part of a wider hybrid operation meant to intimidate Finland and test its security services following Finland’s accession into NATO. WSJ reported that in addition to the manufactured migrant crisis in late 2023, Russia has also escalated cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns against Finland. Finnish diplomat and former Finnish Ambassador to Russia Heikki Talvitie told WSJ that recent Russian hybrid efforts against Finland have fundamentally changed the Finland–Russia relationship and that it is now “existential.” The Kremlin explicitly threatened Finland on April 6 and accused Finland of pursuing a “destructive course” in its relationship with Russia in order to undermine Finnish sovereign decision-making and NATO accession.[19] ISW has consistently assessed that such Russian statements against NATO states are meant to force NATO leaders into self-deterring against taking concrete actions to protect themselves against Russian hybrid efforts.[20]

The Kremlin appears to be highlighting its relationship with Azerbaijan while downplaying deteriorating Russian–Armenia relations following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Moscow on April 22 to discuss “very sensitive” regional security questions.[21] Putin stated that relations between the two countries are at a high level and are continuing to develop. Putin stated that Russian–Azerbaijani trade is increasing and highlighted that Russia has invested $6 billion in the Azerbaijani economy. Aliyev called Russia a “fundamental country” in ensuring the security of the Caucasus region. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on April 22 that Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will likely meet in person soon — a repetition of Peskov‘s similarly vague statement on April 10.[22] Peskov also claimed that Russian peacekeepers, whom the November 2020 Russian-brokered Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire stipulated would remain to the area until 2025, withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh because the “geopolitical realities” in the region changed “after Armenia recognized Azerbaijan’s 1991 borders” and there were no more functions for the peacekeepers to perform.[23] Secretary General of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Imangali Tasmagambetov stated that relations between the CSTO and Armenia are “not going through the best period,” but that Armenia’s activities in the CSTO are continuing.[24] Tasmagambetov stated that Armenia and the CSTO are working on unspecified issues in a “working manner.” Pashinyan previously stated that Armenia would leave the CSTO if the CSTO fails to meet certain Armenian expectations.[25]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin is conducting a concerted air and information operation to destroy Kharkiv City, convince Ukrainians to flee, and internally displace millions of Ukrainians ahead of a possible future Russian offensive operation against the city or elsewhere in Ukraine.
  • Kremlin mouthpieces are seizing on concerns about a future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to conduct a likely coordinated information operation in an effort to create outsized panic among Ukrainians. ISW assesses that the likelihood of a successful Russian ground offensive against Kharkiv is very low if Ukraine receives renewed US military aid rapidly.
  • Russia is intensifying strike and information operations against Ukrainians in Kharkiv City to exploit ongoing constraints on Ukrainian air defenses and heightened tensions in Ukraine in the likely relatively brief window before the anticipated arrival of US military assistance to frontline areas.
  • Russian forces appear to be aiming to make a wide penetration of Ukrainian lines northwest of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, but their ability to do so will likely be blunted by the arrival of US and other Western aid to the frontline.
  • The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 22 that Finland is taking concrete steps to protect itself against Russian hybrid operations weaponizing Russian-manufactured migrant crises on the Russian-Finnish border.
  •  The Kremlin appears to be highlighting its relationship with Azerbaijan while downplaying deteriorating Russian-Armenia relations following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • The Russian state “Sudoplatov” volunteer drone initiative is reportedly equipping Russian military personnel operating in the Bakhmut direction with cheap and defective first-person view (FPV) drones.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 21, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Karolina Hird

April 21, 2024, 8:15 pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on April 21. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 22 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

US Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Senator Mark Warner reported on April 21 that US provisions of military aid to Ukraine, including long-range ATACMS missiles, will be in transit to Ukraine “by the end of the week” if the Senate passes the supplemental appropriations bill on April 23 and US President Joe Biden signs it by April 24.[1] Warner stated in an interview with CBS News on April 21 that the US presidential administration has been prepared to provide long-range ATACMS to Ukraine, as specified in the bill, for the past several months.[2] Warner emphasized the extensive battlefield impact that Ukrainian forces have achieved using US-provided military assistance, stating that Ukrainian forces have been able to destroy “87 percent of Russian pre-existing ground forces” (potentially in reference to Russia’s pre-full-scale invasion professional force), 67 percent of Russian tanks, and 32 percent of Russian armored personnel carriers (APCs) for the past two years with less than 3 percent of the US defense budget and military aid from the US and Europe. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated on April 20 that the National Security Supplemental that provides support to Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific allows about $50 billion to flow into the US defense industrial base (DIB) and will create jobs in over 30 US states.[3]  Pentagon Spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder stated on April 20 that the US Department of Defense (DoD) is considering sending “several additional advisors to augment the Office of Defense Cooperation (OCD)” to the US Embassy in Kyiv.[4] Politico reported on April 20 citing an unidentified individual familiar with the matter that the US advisors in Kyiv will help Ukrainian officials plan to sustain US equipment provided to Ukraine and help US embassy officials in Kyiv coordinate new weapons shipments after the supplemental appropriations bill becomes law, likely as part of an effort to alleviate DoD personnel limitations in documenting certain aid.[5]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on April 21 that the swift delivery of US military aid to Ukraine could allow Ukrainian forces to stabilize the frontline and seize the initiative.[6] Zelensky stated during an interview with NBC News that US military support gives Ukraine a chance at victory but warned that Ukrainian battlefield progress will depend on how fast military aid arrives on the frontlines. Zelensky noted that delays in the delivery of military assistance have already contributed to Ukrainian materiel and personnel losses in “several directions.” Zelensky stated that the Ukrainian military is especially anticipating the deliveries of air defense and long-range weapon systems since Ukrainian forces currently lack significant long-range capabilities to prevent Ukrainian casualties on the frontlines. ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian forces may suffer additional setbacks in the coming weeks while waiting for US security assistance that will allow Ukraine to stabilize the front, but they will likely be able to blunt the current Russian offensive assuming the resumed US assistance arrives promptly.[7] Russian forces will likely intensify ongoing offensive operations and missile and drone strikes in the coming weeks in order to exploit the closing window of Ukrainian materiel constraints.[8]

Ukrainian forces struck and damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) Kommuna submarine support ship – the world’s oldest active-duty naval vessel – in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on April 21.[9] Geolocated footage published on April 21 shows fire and a smoke plume in Sevastopol Bay, and Russian sources claimed that Russian air defenses intercepted a Ukrainian anti-ship missile in the area.[10] Ukrainian Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk confirmed that a Ukrainian strike damaged the Kommuna and that while Ukrainian forces are still clarifying the degree of damage, the Kommuna is clearly incapable of operating.[11] Pletenchuk noted that the Kommuna is over 111 years old and that Russian forces modernized it in 2016 to perform deep sea work, including raising submarines and sunken cargo. Pletenchuk stated that the Kommuna is the only rescue vessel of its class in the BSF. Pletenchuk reported that the Kommuna previously performed rescue operations in the area of the sunken Russian missile cruiser Moskva and large landing ship Tsezar Kunikov and that Russian forces would be unable to perform similar rescue and retrieval operations without the Kommuna. Open-source intelligence analyst HI Sutton noted that the Kommuna provides the Russian Navy with ”valuable capabilities” and that the ship has frequently participated in sea trials and can conduct seabed warfare.[12] Another maritime intelligence analyst suggested that the strike may limit the BSF’s submarine operations and disrupt Russian submarine Kalibr missile launching operations.[13]

US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor created the new pro-Russian Moldovan Victory electoral bloc on April 21, which plans to run a candidate in the October 20 Moldovan presidential election. Shor led a meeting of Moldovan opposition politicians in Moscow on April 21 and announced that the Shor Party, Revival Party, Chance Party, Alternative Forces of the Salvation of Moldova Party, and the Victoria Party will form the Victory electoral bloc.[14] Shor stated that he will act as the chairperson of the bloc’s executive committee.[15] Yevgenia Gutsul, the governor of Gagauzia, a pro-Russian autonomous region of Moldova, will act as the bloc’s executive secretary.[16] Marina Tauber, a US-sanctioned Moldovan member of parliament and close Shor affiliate, will act as the secretary of the executive committee.[17] Shor stated that the bloc aims to improve Moldova‘s relations with Russia and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and advocate against Moldova’s accession into the European Union (EU).[18] The bloc reportedly intends to run a candidate in the October 2024 Moldovan presidential elections and will announce their candidate soon.[19] Shor, Gutsul, and Tauber notably do not meet the minimum age requirement to run for president in Moldova.[20]

The Victory electoral bloc will likely allow the Kremlin to focus on a unified political effort in Moldova instead of maintaining relations with multiple pro-Russian Moldovan actors and parties, as it has done recently.[21] The electoral bloc is likely intended to create the impression of widespread support in Moldova for pro-Russian policies and Shor himself, who continues to be the major conduit of Kremlin influence in Moldovan politics even though he lives in exile in Israel. Most of the parties that make up the new Victory electoral bloc are already extensively affiliated with Shor and do not possess widespread influence in the Moldovan political sphere. The Chance Party, previously known as the Ours Party, joined Shor’s “Chance. Duties. Realization.” (S.O.R.) electoral bloc in June 2023 after Moldovan authorities banned the Shor Party.[22] Moldovan authorities barred the Chance Party from participating in local elections in November 2023, however.[23] The Alternative Forces of the Salvation of Moldova Party registered as a political party in March 2022 and later joined the S.O.R. electoral bloc in June 2023 but does not currently hold any seats in parliament.[24] The Victoria Party is a new party having only registered in late December 2023, and its head, Vadim Groza, was formerly a member of the Socialist Party and is the current mayor of Soldanesti (a city in northeastern Moldova).[25] The Revival Party is likely the most influential of the parties that make up the new Victory electoral bloc, but it currently only holds four seats in Moldova’s 101-seat parliament.[26] The Revival Party was largely defunct until two Moldovan politicians left the Socialist Party to join the Revival Party in May 2023 after meeting with Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Head Leonid Slutsky in Russia in March 2023 and with Shor in Israel in May 2023.[27] The Revival Party orchestrated a large-scale protest in Chisinau in February 2024 that called for Moldovan President Maia Sandu to step down.[28] The Moldovan Constitutional Court recently reversed a ruling that banned politicians who were previously members of the Shor Party from running in Moldovan elections, and ISW assessed at the time that the Kremlin would likely more directly exploit and promote Shor Party affiliates before the upcoming Moldovan presidential election.[29] The Kremlin is likely engaged in hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing Moldovan society, attacking Moldova’s democratic government, and preventing Moldova’s accession to the EU, as ISW has extensively reported.[30]

The Russian and Chinese navies signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation on April 21 amid recent reports of China’s increased support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Alexander Moiseev signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation with Chinese Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Hu Zhongming regarding naval search and rescue operations during Moiseev’s visit to China.[31] Moiseev and Hu also discussed Russian and Chinese naval cooperation, and Moiseev will participate in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao on April 22-23, where he will meet with China‘s and other unspecified countries’ senior navy officials.[32] Moiseev’s visit to China notably precedes US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s travel to China from April 24 through April 26.[33]

The Kremlin blocked domestic access to the website of the French non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), depriving Russians of access to independent assessments of Russian freedom of speech and press. Independent Russian non-governmental organization Roskomsvoboda reported on April 21 that the RSF website was blocked in Russia alongside other resources that publish information about Russia’s war in Ukraine.[34] Roskomsvoboda noted that the official Russian register of blocked sites did not include the federal agency responsible or the official reason for blocking RSF and assessed that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office was the likely responsible party.[35] RSF publishes an annual “Freedom Index,” in which it scores and ranks 180 countries based on a quantitative analysis of abuses against media and qualitative analyses of journalists’ answers to a survey that gauges five contextual indicators: political, economic, and sociopolitical contexts, legal framework, and safety. The Freedom Index ranked Russia between 148 and 150 out of 180 between 2015 and 2020 before sharply downgrading to 155 in 2022 and 164 in 2023 due to the 2022 censorship laws criminalizing “fake” or “discrediting” information about the Russian military, ongoing disinformation campaigns, and declaring almost all independent media organizations as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations” since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[36] The Kremlin has been slowly increasing its physical and informational control over the Russian information space, including by arresting journalists and other opposition voices, implementing laws depriving certain media organizations and figures of their income, and forcing international telecommunications operators to comply with Russian data laws.[37] Blocking the RSF’s site now deprives Russian citizens of a resource to evaluate the impact of such measures on freedom of speech and press in Russia.

Key Takeaways:

  • US Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Senator Mark Warner reported on April 21 that US provisions of military aid to Ukraine, including long-range ATACMS missiles, will be in transit to Ukraine “by the end of the week” if the Senate passes the supplemental appropriations bill on April 23 and US President Joe Biden signs it by April 24.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on April 21 that the swift delivery of US military aid to Ukraine could allow Ukrainian forces to stabilize the frontline and seize the initiative.
  • Ukrainian forces struck and damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) Kommuna submarine support ship – the world’s oldest active-duty naval vessel – in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on April 21.
  • US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor created the new pro-Russian Moldovan Victory electoral bloc on April 21, which plans to run a candidate in the October 20 Moldovan presidential election.
  • The Victory electoral bloc will likely allow the Kremlin to focus on a unified political effort in Moldova instead of maintaining relations with multiple pro-Russian Moldovan actors and parties, as it has done recently.
  • The Russian and Chinese navies signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation on April 21 amid recent reports of China’s increased support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin blocked domestic access to the website of the French non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), depriving Russians of access to independent assessments of Russian freedom of speech and press.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Kreminna and Avdiivka and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian forces have increased their use of small, lightweight, off-road vehicles along the frontline.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 20, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 20, 2024, 7:30pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 20. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The US House of Representatives passed a supplemental appropriations bill on April 20 providing for roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine.[1] The bill must now be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before aid can begin to flow. These requirements and the logistics of transporting US materiel to the frontline in Ukraine will likely mean that new US assistance will not begin to affect the situation on the front line for several weeks. The frontline situation will therefore likely continue to deteriorate in that time, particularly if Russian forces increase their attacks to take advantage of the limited window before the arrival of new US aid. Ukrainian forces may suffer additional setbacks in the coming weeks while waiting for US security assistance that will allow Ukraine to stabilize the front, but they will likely be able to blunt the current Russian offensive assuming the resumed US assistance arrives promptly. The US Senate will reportedly vote on the bill sometime in the coming week.[2] Pentagon Spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder stated on April 19 that the Pentagon’s robust logistics system will allow the United States to move security assistance within a matter of “days” and that he believes that the United States will be able to “rush the security assistance in volumes” that the United States believes Ukraine will need to be successful.[3] US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander reportedly told US lawmakers that the Pentagon would begin moving ammunition, artillery shells, and air defense assets quickly once Congress approves the aid.[4] US media reported that US officials stated that the US Department of Defense (DoD) has been assembling the first tranche of resumed US security assistance for Ukraine ahead of the vote in the US House of Representatives but noted that the Biden administration has yet to make a final decision on how large the first tranche of aid will be or what it will include.[5] US officials reportedly stated that the United States will be able to “almost immediately” send certain munitions to Ukraine from US storage facilities in Europe, particularly critically needed 155mm artillery shells and air defense missiles.[6] The US officials noted that other security assistance will likely take weeks to arrive in Ukraine depending on where it is currently stored.[7] Ukraine has systematically improved its military logistics operations in recent months, but this new system has not yet accommodated a sudden and large influx of materiel, and no system would be able to immediately distribute large quantities of materiel throughout the frontline.[8]

Ukrainian forces will therefore likely continue to face ongoing shortages of artillery ammunition and air defense interceptors in the coming weeks and the corresponding constraints that these shortages are placing on Ukraine’s ability to conduct effective defensive operations.[9] Ukrainian artillery shortages are letting Russian mechanized forces make marginal tactical gains, and Ukraine’s degraded air defense capabilities are permitting Russian aviation to heavily degrade Ukrainian defenses along the front with glide bomb strikes.[10] Russian forces could continue to leverage these operational advantages in the coming weeks to make further tactical gains and destabilize the Ukrainian defensive line in hopes of achieving operationally significant advances. ISW continues to assess that material shortages are forcing Ukraine to conserve ammunition and prioritize limited resources to critical sectors of the front, increasing the risk of a Russian breakthrough in other less well-provisioned sectors and making the overall frontline more fragile than the current relatively slow rate of Russian advances suggests.[11] The threat of an operationally significant Russian advance in the coming weeks remains, although the Ukrainian command may have more latitude to take short-term risks with dwindling supplies to prevent such an advance once it knows that more materiel will be arriving soon.

Russian forces will likely intensify ongoing offensive operations and missile and drone strikes in the coming weeks in order to exploit the closing window of Ukrainian materiel constraints. Russian forces have maintained and, in some areas, intensified ongoing offensive operations, likely to exploit abnormally dry spring ground conditions and persisting Ukrainian materiel shortages before the arrival of promised Western security assistance.[12] Russian forces have also sought to exploit Ukraine’s degraded air defense capabilities in an effort to collapse the Ukrainian energy grid and cause long-term damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure and defense industrial capacity.[13] The now expected arrival of US security assistance has likely emphasized these considerations for Russian forces, and the Russian military command will likely intensify offensive operations and missile and drone strikes to pursue operationally significant effects that will certainly become harder to achieve against well-provisioned Ukrainian forces. Russian forces have only achieved tactical gains during the past six months of worsening Ukrainian constraints and remain unlikely to achieve a breakthrough that would collapse the frontline.[14] Russian forces may still be able to make operationally significant advances in the coming weeks and may prioritize sectors of the front where the Ukrainian defense appears relatively unstable, particularly west of Avdiivka, or areas of the front where Russian forces are within reach of an operationally significant objective, such as near Chasiv Yar.[15]

Russian forces may hope that continued and possibly intensified missile and drone strikes will be able to collapse the Ukrainian energy grid and force Ukraine to contend with a humanitarian crisis alongside its ongoing defensive operations. Russian forces could also shift their target set to strike Ukrainian transportation infrastructure to constrain Ukraine’s ability to sufficiently distribute manpower and materiel to critical sectors of the front. Russian forces heavily targeted Ukrainian transportation infrastructure in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on April 19, and Russian forces may intend to expand these strikes in the coming weeks to interdict Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs).[16] Russian forces will likely also decide to exploit poor Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front and intensify glide bomb strikes in the coming weeks in hopes of causing widespread damage to Ukrainian defensive positions before it becomes riskier for Russian aircraft to conduct these strikes amid an improved Ukrainian air defense umbrella.

Ukraine will likely be in a significantly improved operational position by June 2024 regardless of delays in the arrival of US security assistance to the frontline, and the Russian military command will likely consider significant changes to the large-scale offensive operation that it is expected to launch in June, although it may still proceed as planned. Ukrainian forces will likely leverage sufficient US security assistance to blunt Russian offensive operations in June 2024, which Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov recently highlighted as the likely month that Russian forces will launch their expected large-scale summer offensive effort.[17] The Russian military has likely been assessing that Ukrainian forces would be unable to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations due to delays in or the permanent end of US military assistance. This assumption was likely an integral part of Russia’s operational planning for this summer.[18] Russian forces have been establishing operational- and strategic-level reserves to support their expected summer offensive effort, but likely have been doing so based on the assumption that even badly-trained and poorly-equipped Russian forces could make advances against Ukrainian forces that lack essential artillery and air defense munitions.[19] Ukraine is also addressing its own manpower challenges and will likely continue to conduct rotations to rest and replenish degraded units, although it will take time for these efforts to generate large-scale effects.[20]

Ukrainian officials have previously indicated that Russian forces will likely continue to conduct offensive operations this summer focused on seizing the remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts but may also launch an offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City.[21] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov notably signaled on April 19 Russia’s intent to seize Kharkiv City.[22] The Russian military command may have envisioned that simultaneous offensive efforts towards Kharkiv City and along the current frontline in eastern Ukraine would stretch and overwhelm poorly-provisioned and undermanned Ukrainian forces and allow Russian forces to achieve a major breakthrough in at least one sector of the frontline. The Ukrainian forces with improving materiel and manpower supplies that will likely hold the frontline in June 2024 will undermine this operational intent of simultaneous Russian offensive operations across a wider front. The Russian military command will likely have to consider if the intended areas and objectives of its summer offensive effort are now feasible and if the current means that Russian forces have been concentrating and preparing are sufficient to conduct planned offensive operations considering the expected resumption of US security assistance to Ukraine. ISW offers no forecast of the decisions the Russians will make at this time.

The likely resumption of US security assistance to Ukraine is a critical turning point in the war in Ukraine, but the Kremlin, the West, and Ukraine still have additional decisions to make that will determine the character and outcome of the fighting. The Kremlin still retains the ability to further mobilize its economy and population to support its campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity and may determine to pursue domestically unpopular decisions should it deem them necessary. Ukraine still faces persisting force generation, sustainment, and defense industrial challenges that will heavily affect the capabilities that it can bring to bear. The United States and its Western allies must provide Ukraine with regular and consistent aid and deliver new critical systems to Ukrainian forces in a timely and effective manner for Western security assistance to have operationally significant effects. ISW has been considering a very wide forecast cone from the most advantageous to the most dangerous possible outcomes in recent months due to the uncertainty about the resumption of US aid to Ukraine.[23] ISW will likely be narrowing the forecast cone in the coming months as the impacts of Western security assistance become clearer in Ukraine and as the Kremlin decides how to respond.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against several energy infrastructure facilities and a fuel storage facility within Russia on the night of April 19 to 20. Ukrainian media reported that sources in Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR), and Special Operations Forces (SSO) stated that the SBU, GUR, and SSO jointly launched dozens of drones against Moscow, Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Tula, Smolensk, Ryazan, and Kaluga oblasts, and struck at least three electrical substations and a fuel storage facility.[24] Ukrainian media reported that the SBU, GUR, and SSO targeted Russian energy facilities that support Russian defense industrial facilities.[25] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses destroyed and intercepted 50 Ukrainian drones over the same eight oblasts.[26] Bryansk Oblast Governor Alexander Bogomaz claimed that a drone crashed at an energy facility in Bryansk Oblast and caused a fire.[27] Kaluga Oblast Governor Vladislav Shapsha claimed that a drone strike slightly damaged energy infrastructure in Maloyaroslavetsky Raion, Kaluga Oblast.[28] Smolensk Oblast Governor Vasily Anokhin claimed that falling drone debris caused a container of fuel to catch fire in Kardymovsky Raion, Smolensk Oblast.[29] Geolocated footage published on April 20 shows a fire at a fuel storage facility in Kardymovo, Smolensk Oblast.[30] A Russian milblogger claimed that a fire started after an explosion in Stary Oskol, Belgorod Oblast.[31] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes against Russian energy facilities are a necessary component of Ukraine’s campaign to use asymmetric means to degrade industries that supply and support the Russian military.[32]

The Kremlin appears to be censoring demands for an investigation into the reported murder of a former Donetsk People Republic (DNR) serviceman amid a wider trend of the Kremlin coopting or otherwise censoring DNR-affiliated voices within the Russian information space. Russian sources recently claimed that Russian propagandist, former DNR serviceman, and US national Russell Bonner Bentley III disappeared in Donetsk City on April 8.[33] Russian sources alleged that elements of the Russian 5th Tank Brigade (36th Combined Arms Army [CAA], Eastern Military District [EMD]) detained and interrogated Bentley under the impression that Bentley was a Ukrainian spy due to his foreign accent and later killed Bentley.[34] Veteran Russian propagandist and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan announced Bentley‘s death on April 19.[35] Deputy Head of the DNR Main Directorate of Rosgvardia, Commander of the DNR’s special rapid response and riot police (OMON and SOBR), and former DNR Security Minister Alexander Khodakovsky called for an investigation into Bentley’s reported kidnapping and murder and “exemplary punishment” for the perpetrators in a post on April 19, which Khodakovsky later removed reportedly due to pressure from Russian officials.[36] The DNR “Vostok“ Battalion, which Khodakovsky previously commanded, claimed that Russian officials likely forced Khodakovsky to remove the post and that Khodakovsky complied with the demand in accordance with the unspecified “rules" of having a government position despite his personal relationship with Bentley.[37] Khodakovsky claimed on April 20 that being a government official and “a person” often creates competing priorities between his personal and professional loyalties, and insinuated that he agreed to remove his social media post to keep his government position.[38] Khodakovsky insinuated that censorship was necessary during the war and claimed that unspecified actors could pursue justice for Bentley after Russia won in Ukraine. Another DNR-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed on April 19 that unspecified actors are threatening to file charges against the milblogger for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces (a charge that could result in a fine of up to five million rubles ($65,530), up to five years of correctional or forced labor, or up to seven years in prison) after the milblogger demanded an official investigation into Bentley’s kidnapping and murder.[39]

Russian efforts to cover up Bentley’s death are the latest in what appears to be a concerted Kremlin effort to censor or coopt DNR officials and DNR/Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR)-affiliated voices within the Russian information space. The Russian Investigative Committee arrested former Russian officer and argent ultranationalist Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a prominent DNR commander in 2014, on charges of discrediting the Russian Armed Forces on July 21, 2023.[40] Russian authorities also arrested milblogger and former DNR serviceman Andrei Kurshin who reportedly ran the “Moscow Calling” Telegram channel in August 2023, and Russian milblogger and sergeant in the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd LNR Army Corps) Andrei Morozov reportedly committed suicide after refusing the Russian military command’s orders to censor his reporting about high Russian casualty rates around Avdiivka in February 2024.[41] The Kremlin may be targeting DNR and LNR-affiliated voices within the Russian information space due to concerns that groups within the DNR and LNR, which have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014, are becoming disillusioned as the war drags on. Girkin, Kurshin, and Morozov were all vocal critics of the Russian military command, and Khodakovsky had previously disagreed with the Russian military command and ongoing Kremlin censorship efforts. All four, however, are and were firm supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[42] It is unclear how or if Kremlin officials will respond to Bentley’s death or how the targeting of DNR officials and affiliated voices will impact the Kremlin’s relationships with its proxies in occupied Ukraine.

Key Takeaways:

  • The US House of Representatives passed a supplemental appropriations bill on April 20 providing for roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine. The bill must now be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before aid can begin to flow.
  • These requirements and the logistics of transporting US materiel to the frontline in Ukraine will likely mean that new US assistance will not begin to affect the situation on the front line for several weeks. The frontline situation will therefore likely continue to deteriorate in that time, particularly if Russian forces increase their attacks to take advantage of the limited window before the arrival of new US aid.
  • Ukrainian forces may suffer additional setbacks in the coming weeks while waiting for US security assistance that will allow Ukraine to stabilize the front, but they will likely be able to blunt the current Russian offensive assuming the resumed US assistance arrives promptly.
  • Russian forces will likely intensify ongoing offensive operations and missile and drone strikes in the coming weeks in order to exploit the closing window of Ukrainian materiel constraints.
  • Ukraine will likely be in a significantly improved operational position by June 2024 regardless of delays in the arrival of US security assistance to the frontline, and the Russian military command will likely consider significant changes to the large-scale offensive operation that it is expected to launch in June, although it may still proceed as planned.
  • The likely resumption of US security assistance to Ukraine is a critical turning point in the war in Ukraine, but the Kremlin, the West, and Ukraine still have additional decisions to make that will determine the character and outcome of the fighting.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against several energy infrastructure facilities and a fuel storage facility within Russia on the night of April 19 to 20.
  • The Kremlin appears to be censoring demands for an investigation into the reported murder of a former Donetsk People Republic (DNR) serviceman amid a wider trend of the Kremlin coopting or otherwise censoring DNR-affiliated voices within the Russian information space.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Avdiivka, and Ukrainian forces recently made confirmed advances south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Russian forces are using US-made 203mm artillery ammunition that Russia may have received from Iran.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 19, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

April 19, 2024, 6:35pm ET

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s intent to seize Kharkiv City in a future significant Russian offensive operation, the first senior Kremlin official to outright identify the city as a possible Russian operational objective following recent Ukrainian warnings that Russian forces may attempt to seize the city starting in Summer 2024. Lavrov stated during a radio interview with several prominent Russian state propagandists on April 19 that Kharkiv City “plays an important role” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to protect Russian border settlements from Ukrainian strikes.[1] Lavrov stated that Putin has very clearly stated that Russian forces must push the frontline far enough into Ukraine – which Lavrov explicitly defines as into Kharkiv Oblast – to place Russian settlements outside of the Ukrainian strike range. This requirement is a very vague definition that could include the entirety of Ukrainian territory as long as an independent Ukrainian state exists and is willing to defend itself. Lavrov stated in response to a question about where Russian forces will go after creating a “sanitary zone” that Russian authorities are “completely convinced” of the need to continue Russia’s war against Ukraine. Lavrov responded in seeming agreement to a comment from one of the interviewers, who suggested that Lavrov’s earlier remarks meant that Russian forces will have to continue to attack further into Ukraine after creating the “sanitary zone” to protect the settlements that would then be within the zone and Ukrainian strike range. Lavrov’s remarks suggest that the Kremlin will likely use the idea of a constantly shifting demilitarized “sanitary zone” to justify Russian offensive operations further and further into Ukraine.

Prominent Russian propagandist and state television host Olga Skabeyeva framed Russia’s drone and missile strikes against Kharkiv Oblast as part of Russia’s efforts to create the “sanitary zone” during a speech on April 19, suggesting that additional prominent Kremlin mouthpieces are also laying the informational groundwork to justify ongoing Russian strikes and a future offensive operation against Kharkiv City under the pretext of defending Russian citizens.[2] Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, have recently identified the threat of a possible Russian summer offensive operation aimed at seizing Kharkiv City.[3] ISW continues to assess that a Russian offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to both the Russian forces responsible for the effort and to the wider Russian campaign in Ukraine.[4] ISW also assesses that US military assistance is vital to Ukraine’s ability to defend against any summer Russian offensive operation, including against Kharkiv City.[5]

Ukrainian officials announced that Ukrainian forces downed a Russian aircraft as it conducted missile strikes against Ukraine for the first time overnight on April 18 to 19, demonstrating a capability that may constrain how Russia conducts its strike campaign against Ukraine. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk announced on April 19 that Ukrainian forces downed a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber that had launched Kh-22 cruise missiles against Ukraine.[6] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that Ukrainian forces shot down the Tu-22M3 at a distance of 300 kilometers from Ukraine with the same means that Ukraine used to down two Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft.[7] Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine reported that Ukrainian security sources stated that Ukrainian forces used S-200 air defense systems to down the Tu-22M3.[8] The GUR reported that the Tu-22M3 crashed in Stavropol Krai, where footage shows the plane losing altitude and crashing.[9] GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that the downing of the Tu-23M3 compelled another Russian Tu-22M3 to turn around and noted that it is “practically impossible” for Russia to manufacture new Tu-22M3 bombers.[10] Russian forces reportedly had roughly 60 Tu-22 strategic bombers as of 2023.[11]The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged the plane crash but attributed it to a technical malfunction rather than Ukrainian forces, and Russian milbloggers largely coalesced around the MoD’s narrative.[12] Stavropol Krai officials reported that the crash killed one Russian pilot and inflicted non-life-threatening injuries on two others and that a fourth crewmember remains missing.[13]

Ukrainian air defense capabilities remain limited and degraded, however, allowing Russian aircraft to operate freely without threat on certain critical areas of the front. Russian milbloggers have recently amplified multiple pieces of video footage, including on April 19, showing Russian Su-25 and Su-34 aircraft operating at low altitudes near Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast and striking Ukrainian positions to support Russian advances in the area, and Russian milbloggers have praised Russian aircraft for enabling relatively quick Russian advances in the area since at least late March 2024.[14] The ability of Russian aircraft to operate over 100 kilometers deep in Ukrainian airspace near the frontline without sustaining significant losses indicates that Ukrainian air defenses in the area are currently insufficient to deter or deny Russian aircraft from operating on the front line. The Ukrainian capability to conduct long-range strikes to down Russian strategic aircraft conducting combat operations may temporarily constrain Russian aviation operations as the previous downing of tactical aircraft has achieved.[15] This Ukrainian strike capability, however, is unable to compensate for Ukraine’s critical air defense shortages across the theater. Ukrainian forces still must husband materiel and prioritize allocating its limited air defense assets to some areas of the theater over others at great expense, allowing Russian aviation to support more consistent and rapid gains on the ground, including near Chasiv Yar.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukraine requires Western provisions of artillery ammunition, air defense materiel, long-range artillery and missile systems, and fighter aircraft as Ukrainian constraints continue due to delays in US military assistance.[16] Zelensky addressed the Ukraine-NATO Council on April 19 and reiterated that Ukraine needs a minimum of seven additional Patriot air defense systems to defend against Russia’s ongoing missile and drone strike campaign and called on Western countries to fulfill their promise to deliver one million artillery shells to Ukraine.[17] Zelensky added that long-range missiles and artillery systems are crucially needed to improve Ukrainian long-range strike capabilities and that Ukraine requires a sufficient number of fighter aircraft to contend with Russian aviation.[18] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that several unspecified NATO members made unspecified commitments during the Ukraine-NATO Council meeting to provide additional air defense, artillery, deep precision strike, and drone materiel to Ukraine.[19]

Ukrainian artillery shortages are allowing Russian mechanized forces to make marginal tactical gains, and Ukraine’s degraded air defense capabilities are permitting Russian aviation to heavily degrade Ukrainian defenses along the front through glide bomb strikes.[20] Ukrainian officials have highlighted promised F-16 fighter aircraft as a crucial element of a combined air defense system that can intercept more Russian missile and drone strikes and constrain Russian tactical aviation operations.[21] Ukrainian forces have previously leveraged NATO 155mm artillery systems and ammunition capable of striking targets at longer ranges than Soviet equipment to conduct superior counterbattery fire, and more effective long-range artillery systems would support sustained effective Ukrainian counterbattery operations.[22] Ukrainian forces have previously conducted several successful interdiction efforts against Russian forces with Western-provided missile systems and have indicated that they are prepared to resume more regular interdiction efforts should Ukraine receive sufficient provisions of long-range missiles.[23] ISW assesses that continued US delays in security assistance to Ukraine are limiting Ukraine‘s ability to conduct effective defensive operations while offering Russian forces increasing flexibility to conduct offensive operations — a dynamic that can lead to compounding and non-linear opportunities for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the future.[24]

Pro-Russian Moldovan actors continue to set conditions to justify possible future Russian aggression in Moldova as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared Moldova to Ukraine and Armenia. The People’s Assembly of Gagauzia, the pro-Russian autonomous region in Moldova, appealed to the Moldovan Parliament on April 19 to grant the Russian language the special legal status of a language of interethnic communication in Moldova.[25] Kremlin-affiliated Governor of Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul claimed in a statement to Kremlin newswire TASS that the Moldovan government is ”Russophobic” and will resist this initiative.[26] The Gagauzian appeal is likely part of Kremlin efforts to set information conditions to blame Moldova for discriminating against Russian speakers and justify future Russian aggression in Moldova as necessary to protect Russia’s ”compatriots abroad.” Lavrov claimed during a radio interview with Russian state media on April 19 that the West made Moldovan President Maia Sandu “openly drag Moldova into NATO, either directly or through unification with Romania” and that the West did the same with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.[27] Lavrov criticized both Moldova’s and Armenia’s moves towards the West and urged them to rethink their decisions by claiming that the West will force its citizens to fight in a possible future war against Russia. Russian officials have recently claimed that the West is ”dragging” the South Caucasus region into a ”geopolitical confrontation” between Russia and the West and explicitly threatened Armenia over Armenian outreach to the West.[28] Lavrov’s comparison of the Moldovan government to both the Armenian and Ukrainian governments is likely a tacit threat. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is likely trying to destabilize Moldovan society, attack Moldova’s democratic government, and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union.[29]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s intent to seize Kharkiv City in a future significant Russian offensive operation, the first senior Kremlin official to outright identify the city as a possible Russian operational objective following recent Ukrainian warnings that Russian forces may attempt to seize the city starting in Summer 2024.
  • Ukrainian officials announced that Ukrainian forces downed a Russian aircraft as it conducted missile strikes against Ukraine for the first time overnight on April 18 to 19, demonstrating a capability that may constrain how Russia conducts its strike campaign against Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian air defense capabilities remain limited and degraded, however, allowing Russian aircraft to operate freely without threat on certain critical areas of the front.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukraine requires Western provisions of artillery ammunition, air defense materiel, long-range artillery and missile systems, and fighter aircraft as Ukrainian constraints continue due to delays in US military assistance.
  • Pro-Russian Moldovan actors continue to set conditions to justify possible future Russian aggression in Moldova as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared Moldova to Ukraine and Armenia.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to expand the newly reformed Leningrad Military District (LMD) in preparation for an anticipated future large-scale conventional conflict with NATO.
  • Russian officials continue to forcibly deport and Russify Ukrainian children as Ukrainian authorities work to return deported children to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 18, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 18, 2024, 5:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on April 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov specified that Russian offensive effort that Ukrainian officials have been forecasting will likely begin in June 2024. Budanov stated in an April 17 article in the Washington Post that Russia will launch a “big” offensive in June 2024 with the aim of seizing all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.[1] Budanov also stated that Russian forces will try to make battlefield gains throughout 2024 as part of efforts to influence Western decision-making. Budanov had previously forecasted that a future major Russian offensive would begin in late May or early June 2024, and it is notable that Budanov has now narrowed his forecast to June and identified the likely aim of the Russian offensive. Previous major Russian offensive efforts have similarly aimed to seize the remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.[2] Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, have recently warned about the threat of a potential future Russian ground offensive operation targeting Kharkiv City.[3] Ukrainian officials have repeatedly warned that US security assistance is vital to Ukraine’s ability to defend against possible future Russian offensive operations in summer 2024.[4] ISW continues to assess that current Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance are allowing Russian forces to make marginal tactical advances and that future Russian assaults may be able to achieve more significant gains should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine.[5] Ukrainian forces have, however, previously demonstrated their ability to repel Russian assaults and inflict significant personnel and equipment losses on Russian forces when adequately provisioned.[6]

Budanov also stated on April 17 that Ukraine plans to counter future Russian offensive operations by continuing strikes against Russian military targets within Russia. Budanov stated in his interview with the Washington Post that the GUR plans to strike Russian defense industrial base (DIB) and critical military targets, such as airfields and command and control posts, in response to Russia’s forecasted summer 2024 offensive.[7] Budanov stated that these strikes are intended to show that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot “protect the [Russian] population from the war.” ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes against targets within Russia are an appropriate component of Ukraine’s campaign to degrade industries that support the Russian war effort and military capabilities deployed in the Russian rear.[8] Recent Ukrainian strikes that have targeted Russian military infrastructure within Russia, threatened Russian oil refining and exports, and increased pressure on Russia’s air defense umbrella have demonstrated that Ukraine can achieve some asymmetrical impacts through strikes with limited numbers of mostly domestically produced weapons.[9]

Russian forces reportedly continue to intensify crypto-mobilization efforts ahead of the expected Russian summer 2024 offensive operation but will likely struggle to establish effective operational- and strategic-level reserves rapidly. Bloomberg reported on April 18 that three sources familiar with the Kremlin’s force-generation discussions stated that the Kremlin is intensifying crypto-mobilization efforts in order to avoid conducting another partial mobilization call-up of reservists.[10] Ruslan Pukhov, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and a member of a Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) civilian advisory board, claimed that current Russian crypto-mobilization efforts are generating roughly 30,000 new personnel each month and that the Russian military could recruit 300,000 total personnel in 2024.[11] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi reported on January 15 that Russia recruits around 30,000 personnel per month, and Pukhov’s claim about 300,000 total recruits matches Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s April 3 warning that Russia is preparing to “mobilize” an additional 300,000 personnel on June 1.[12] Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on March 22 that high-ranking sources in the Russian MoD, presidential administration, and regional governments similarly stated that Russia may intend to generate an additional 300,000 personnel within an unspecified time frame.[13] Bloomberg noted that Russian regional one-time payments for signing a contract have increased by 40 percent to an average of 470,000 rubles ($4,992), and a Russian insider source claimed that some Russian authorities are offering one million rubles ($10,622) for people to sign military contracts.[14] Russian officials are reportedly concerned about decreasing recruitment rates and may intend to make economic incentives a cornerstone of crypto-mobilization efforts in spring and summer 2024.[15] The Russian MoD claimed on April 3 that more than 100,000 Russians had signed military service contracts since the start of 2024, but intensified Russian crypto-mobilization efforts are highly unlikely to generate an additional 200,000 personnel ahead of the expected Russian offensive effort in summer 2024.[16]

The Russian military has been generating forces at rates equal to its losses in Ukraine in recent months, and intensified monthly recruitment rates are unlikely to generate a considerable surplus of manpower for Russian operational- and strategic-level reserves.[17] Russian forces have maintained and even intensified offensive operations this spring, and these offensive operations will continue to consume a significant amount of manpower that could otherwise be used to form reserves as long as Russian forces sustain their current offensive tempo.[18] Russian forces are therefore unlikely to establish extensive reserves ahead of their expected summer 2024 offensive effort. The limited remaining time for Russian forces to prepare for the expected summer offensive effort will likely mean that any additional manpower added to reserves in the coming months will be poorly trained and less combat effective. The Russian insider source bemoaned poor Russian training capacity and claimed that some Russian volunteer formations are abandoning ranks altogether for new personnel due to the lack of proper training.[19] ISW continues to assess that planned Russian operational- and strategic-level reserves are unlikely to be ready to act as a first-echelon penetration force or as a second-echelon exploitation force capable of conducting large-scale assaults in 2024 if Ukrainian forces have the wherewithal to resist them.[20] Russian forces are more likely to use these reserves as they have previously done — as immediately available manpower pools for restaffing and reinforcing committed units conducting grinding, infantry-heavy assaults with occasional limited mechanized assaults.[21]

Ukrainian officials clarified that the Ukrainian strike on a Russian military airfield in occupied Dzhankoi, Crimea overnight on April 16 to 17 caused significant damage to Russian air defense equipment. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed on April 17 that Ukrainian forces conducted a successful strike against the Russian airfield in Dzhankoi.[22] Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on April 18 that the strike destroyed or critically damaged four S-400 air defense launchers, three radar stations, an air defense equipment control point, and a Murom-M airspace surveillance system.[23]

Russian milbloggers seized on a violent crime committed by a migrant in Moscow on April 18 to reiterate calls for further restrictions in Russian migration policies. Russian news outlet Mash reported on April 18 that an Azeri migrant killed a Russian man in Moscow and fled the scene.[24] Russian milbloggers largely responded to the murder by calling on Russian authorities to further restrict Russia’s migration policies and extend punishments for crimes committed by migrants.[25] Russian milbloggers warned that if the Russian government fails to respond to violence committed by migrants, Russians will be forced to “take matters into their own hands.”[26] Kremlin newswire TASS notably avoided framing the crime as an ethnic issue until Russian authorities publicly identified the suspect as a migrant from Azerbaijan.[27] Russian ultranationalists intensified their calls for revised and further restricted migration legislation following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, and several Russian officials, including Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin, have recently contradicted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent efforts to quell anti-migrant sentiments among Putin’s ultranationalist constituency.[28] Putin’s competing efforts of placating ultranationalist anti-migrant demands and maintaining Russia’s war effort and economic viability will likely continue to generate inconsistencies and contradictions within the Kremlin’s migration policy and rhetoric.

The Russian government may be responding to Russian ultranationalist’ demands for stricter migrant policies in a limited fashion. Russian news outlet RBK reported on April 18 that the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) is considering implementing an oral Russian language exam for migrant workers and increasing the minimum Russian language, history, and law exam score for foreigners interested in a Russian residence permit or Russian citizenship.[29] Rosobrnadzor stated that migrants are currently allowed into Russia without taking an oral language exam. Russian Education and Science Minister Valery Falkov announced that only one Russian state university per federal subject will be allowed to administer Russian language, history, and law exams to migrants as of May 1, 2024 in an effort to “strengthen control over the quality of the exam.”[30] The Kremlin may be willing to introduce these limited measures in hopes of appeasing Russian ultranationalist demands, but ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is unlikely to implement any anti-migrant measures that could significantly hinder Russia’s ongoing force generation efforts or worsen Russia’s labor shortages.[31]

German authorities detained two individuals suspected of aiding Russia in its ongoing efforts to sabotage NATO member states’ military infrastructure and logistics. German outlet Der Spiegel reported on April 18 that German authorities arrested two suspects in Bayreuth, Bavaria for allegedly planning sabotage operations in Germany on behalf of Russian security services.[32] German investigators reportedly found that the suspects agreed to conduct arson and plant explosives at German military infrastructure facilities, weapons factories, and industrial sites, with a focus on routes used to transport military goods, in order to undermine German military assistance to Ukraine. The investigation also reportedly found that one of the suspects conducted reconnaissance for Russian intelligence services of US military facilities in Germany, including an area where the US military trains Ukrainian soldiers in Bavaria. Der Speigel reported that one of the suspects previously served in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia between 2014 and 2016. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock summoned the Russian ambassador to Germany on April 18 in response to the arrests.[33] The Russian Embassy in Germany denied the allegations, claiming that German authorities presented “no evidence” about the suspects’ connections with Russian security services and that the arrests were an “outright provocation.” The Russian embassy also used the incident to further multiple Kremlin narratives against the West aimed at deterring Western military assistance to Ukraine. ISW has observed reports of Russian efforts to degrade NATO member states’ transport logistics since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including through cyber-attacks against Czech, Latvia, Lithuanian, Romanian, and Estonian railway companies.[34]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov specified that Russian offensive effort that Ukrainian officials have been forecasting will likely begin in June 2024.
  • Budanov also stated on April 17 that Ukraine plans to counter future Russian offensive operations by continuing strikes against Russian military targets within Russia.
  • Russian forces reportedly continue to intensify crypto-mobilization efforts ahead of the expected Russian summer 2024 offensive operation but will likely struggle to establish effective operational- and strategic-level reserves rapidly.
  • Ukrainian officials clarified that the Ukrainian strike on a Russian military airfield in occupied Dzhankoi, Crimea overnight on April 16 to 17 caused significant damage to Russian air defense equipment.
  • Russian milbloggers seized on a violent crime committed by a migrant in Moscow on April 18 to reiterate calls for further restrictions in Russian migration policies.
  • German authorities detained two individuals suspected of aiding Russia in its ongoing efforts to sabotage NATO member states’ military infrastructure and logistics.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) “Schemes” investigative project, citing Ukrainian intelligence, reported on April 17 that Russia’s defense industry is using US- and Japanese-made components in the navigation and communication systems of Russian Sukhoi fixed wing aircraft.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 17, 2024

click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

April 17, 2024, 5:10pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces struck a Russian military airfield in occupied Dzhankoi, Crimea, overnight on April 16 to 17. Geolocated footage posted on April 16 shows explosions at the airfield in Dzhankoi, where the Russian 39th Separate Helicopter Regiment (27th Composite Aviation Division, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army, Southern Military District) is based.[1] The Atesh Crimean partisan movement reported that its agents confirmed that the strike destroyed a S-400 missile system at the airfield, and severely damaged several other unspecified vehicles.[2] Ukrainian sources posted an image reportedly showing three destroyed S-400 launchers following the strike.[3] Russian forces have deployed Mi-8, Mi-25M, Mi-28, and Ka-52 helicopters to the Dzhankoi Air Base, although ISW has not yet observed visual evidence of damage to any helicopters as a result of the April 16 strike.[4] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces used around 12 MGM-140 ATACMS missiles to strike the airfield.[5] ISW cannot independently confirm at this time the type of ordinance Ukrainian forces used in this strike, nor the extent of damage the strike caused. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk noted, however, that the military airfield and affiliated aviation assets are legitimate military targets, tacitly acknowledging the strike.[6] Russian combat and transport helicopters have provided Russian forces with distinct offensive and defensive battlefield advantages, particularly in southern Ukraine, and are legitimate military targets.[7] Ukrainian forces have previously conducted ATACMS strikes against Russian military helicopters at airbases in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast and Luhansk City, Luhansk Oblast in 2023.[8]

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly targeted Russian aviation assets in the Republic of Mordovia, the Republic of Tatarstan, and Samara Oblast on April 17. GUR sources told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne on April 17 that GUR agents targeted a S9B6 “Container” over-the-horizon radar station at the base of the 590th Separate Radio Engineering Unit in Kovylkino, Mordovia, but did not specify how the GUR conducted the strike or whether the strike successfully damaged the radar station.[9] The “Container” radar station reportedly has a 3,000-kilometer detection range and 100-kilometer detection height and is over 680 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.[10] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defense destroyed a Ukrainian drone over Mordovia, which if accurate, could explain the lack of footage showing the aftermath of a strike in Kovylkino.[11] Ukrainian special services sources additionally told Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine on April 17 that the GUR also targeted the Gorbunov aviation plant in Kazan, Republic of Tatarstan.[12] Geolocated footage shows that Russian air defense likely downed at least one Ukrainian drone near the Shahed-136/131 drone production plant near Yelabuga, Tatarstan.[13] The GUR also cryptically stated on April 17 that unspecified actors destroyed a Russian Mi-8 helicopter at the Kryaz airfield in Samara Oblast and posted footage of a fire at the airfield, suggesting that the GUR may have also been responsible for a strike in Samara Oblast.[14] Ukrainian strikes against Russian aviation assets in occupied Crimea, as well as within Russia, appear to represent a fairly coordinated and wide-reaching series of strikes specifically targeting Russian aviation, air defense, and radar detection capabilities.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov officially confirmed on April 17 that Russian peacekeeping forces began their anticipated withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, as Russian sources largely blamed Armenian leadership for Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia.[15] The Azerbaijani Presidential Administration’s Foreign Policy Department Head, Hikmet Hajiyev, stated on April 17 that senior Russian and Azerbaijani leadership decided to prematurely withdraw Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh.[16] The November 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended a month and a half of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas stipulated that Russia would deploy peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh until 2025.[17] Russia previously deployed 1,960 Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh including elements of the 15th Motorized Rifle Peacekeeping Brigade (2nd Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]), 31st Air Assault (VDV) Brigade, and 45th Spetsnaz Brigade.[18] Footage published on April 17 purportedly shows a column of Russian armored vehicles leaving Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russian sources did not specify its destination.[19] The limited amount of manpower and materiel that Russian forces are moving out of Nagorno-Karabakh will not substantially affect Russian combat operations in Ukraine, should the Russian military decide to deploy these forces to Ukraine. Russian milbloggers largely responded to the announcement of Russian peacekeepers’ withdrawal by defending Russian forces for their failure to support Armenia during the fall 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and by blaming Armenian leadership for perceived weakness.[20] A Russian milblogger claimed that Armenian leadership’s and the de facto Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh authority’s failure to respond militarily to the fall 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh crisis demonstrates that Armenians deserve “to be deprived of their homeland.”[21] The milblogger further claimed that the current withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the region will allow Azerbaijan to control all Armenian domestic and foreign affairs. Russian milbloggers’ criticism of Armenian leadership is consistent with ongoing Russian criticism of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's efforts to limit security cooperation with Russia.[22]

The Georgian parliament approved a bill in its first reading similar to Russia’s “foreign agents” law on April 17, which Russian state media seized on to further Kremlin efforts to amplify reports of political discord in Western and former Soviet states. The bill will require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “an organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”[23] Pro-Western Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili responded to the vote and stated that she will veto the bill, calling the bill a “Russian strategy of destabilization.”[24] The European Union (EU) also responded to the bill, stating that it could negatively impact Georgia’s EU accession and is not in line with the EU’s norms and core values.[25] Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, claimed that Georgia will adopt the bill despite Western criticism, however.[26] Kremlin newswire TASS reported extensively on the developments regarding the bill and ongoing protests against the bill.[27] The Georgian parliament passed a similar bill in 2023 but later withdrew the bill from further consideration following widespread public protests.[28] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov continued to deny Russian involvement in the bill’s creation and passage, and Peskov and Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitri Medvedev insinuated that the West is somehow involved in the protests against the bill.[29] The Kremlin has routinely attempted to portray Ukraine’s and other post-Soviet countries’ politics as chaotic in an attempt to destabilize target states and make them more susceptible to Russian influence or outright attack.[30]

US President Joe Biden warned that Russia and its partners pose an increasing threat to NATO and stressed that US security assistance to Ukraine can address the Russian threat. Biden stated in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on April 17 that Russia is intensifying its war against Ukraine with military and non-lethal materiel support from China, Iran, and North Korea.[31] Biden called for the US House of Representatives to urgently pass security assistance for Ukraine as Ukrainian forces continue to face ammunition shortages and the prospect of losing more territory.[32] Biden stated that if Russia achieves its objective to subjugate and subsume Ukraine then Russian forces will move closer to NATO.[33] Biden stressed that support for Ukraine can stop Russia from encroaching on America’s NATO allies and prevent US involvement in a hypothetical future conventional war between Russia and NATO.[34] ISW assesses that a Russian victory in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for the defense of NATO, whereas a Ukrainian victory would make a successful Russian attack on Poland or the Baltic States harder and riskier for Russia.[35]

The US House of Representatives filed a supplemental appropriations bill on April 17 that would provide roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine, and will reportedly vote on the measure on April 20.[36] The supplemental appropriations bill largely resembles a previous supplemental bill passed by the US Senate and would offer Ukraine $48.3 billion in security assistance: $23.2 billion for replenishing weapons and equipment from the US Department of Defense (DoD) inventory; $13.8 billion for the purchase of weapons and munitions for Ukraine from US manufacturers; and $11.3 billion for continued US support to Ukraine through ongoing US military operations in the region.[37] The overwhelming majority of the proposed assistance for Ukraine, if passed, would go to American companies and US and allied militaries.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces struck a Russian military airfield in occupied Dzhankoi, Crimea, overnight on April 16 to 17.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly targeted Russian aviation assets in the Republic of Mordovia, the Republic of Tatarstan, and Samara Oblast on April 17.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov officially confirmed on April 17 that Russian peacekeeping forces began their anticipated withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, as Russian sources largely blamed Armenian leadership for Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia.
  • The Georgian parliament approved a bill in its first reading similar to Russia’s “foreign agents” law on April 17, which Russian state media seized on to further Kremlin efforts to amplify reports of political discord in Western and former Soviet states.
  • US President Joe Biden warned that Russia and its partners pose an increasing threat to NATO and stressed that US security assistance to Ukraine can address the Russian threat.
  • The US House of Representatives filed a supplemental appropriations bill on April 17 that would provide roughly $60 billion of assistance to Ukraine, and will reportedly vote on the measure on April 20.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is preparing a special training course for ROC clergy deployed to combat zones in Ukraine.


Nicole Wolkov, Chistina Harward, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan

April 16, 2024, 8:15pm ET 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized that continued shortages in air defense systems and artillery are preventing Ukraine from effectively defending itself against Russian strikes and ground assaults. Zelensky stated in an interview with PBS News Hour, which aired on April 15, that Ukrainian forces continue to lack enough air defense systems to protect Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces were only able to destroy the first seven of the 11 Russian missiles launched against the Trypilska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) on April 11 before running out of air defense missiles, allowing the remaining four missiles to destroy the plant.[1] Zelensky also expressed frustration with the differential US response to strikes against Ukraine and Israel and stated that the United States and the West are continuing to limit military aid out of the false belief that such self-restraint will prevent further Russian aggression.[2] Zelensky reported that Ukrainian forces currently suffer from a 1-to-10 artillery shell disadvantage and that this artillery ammunition disadvantage allows Russian forces to push Ukrainian forces back each day. ISW continues to assess that continued US delays in security assistance to Ukraine limit Ukrainian forces’ ability to conduct effective defensive operations while giving Russian forces flexibility in conducting offensive operations — a dynamic that can lead to compounding and non-linear opportunities for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the future.[3] Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a constant air domain offense-defense innovation-adaptation race, in which Russia continues to adjust the timing, scale, composition, and targets of its strike packages to attempt to penetrate Ukraine’s air defense umbrella. Significant delays in US military assistance have already created shortages in Ukraine’s air defense missile stockpiles and hinder Ukraine’s ability to adapt to evolving Russian strike packages. Limited air defense systems and interceptors have forced Ukraine to make difficult decisions to allocate air defense systems between rear and frontline areas leaving frontline troops largely exposed to Russian air attack, and only the United States can rapidly provide air defense systems to Ukraine at the scale necessary to significantly improve Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.[4]

Zelensky signed a new mobilization law on April 16, codifying a difficult but critical decision in Ukraine’s efforts to stabilize its force generation apparatus and adequately prepare the Ukrainian fighting force both defensively and offensively.[5] The new mobilization law, which the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted on April 11, lowers the Ukrainian draft age from 27 to 25 years of age, cancels the status of “limited suitability” for military service, and requires citizens living abroad to register for military service in Ukraine. Ukrainian military officials have emphasized the exigency of a new Ukrainian mobilization law to address Ukraine’s manpower shortages that, together with the shortages of Western aid, are making Ukrainian defense on critical areas of the front extremely difficult.[6] Ukraine’s ability to defend throughout the theater and eventually contest Russia’s battlefield initiative is contingent on Ukraine’s ability to restore existing units and create new units, as well as on the provision of US military assistance to existing and new units.

Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are using smaller groups to conduct assaults and are reportedly suffering from morale issues, but Russian attacks are unlikely to culminate in the near term despite these challenges because of Ukrainian materiel shortages. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian National Guard Colonel Ruslan Muzychuk stated that Russian forces in eastern Ukraine have not recently used large units to conduct assaults but are instead using groups split into two detachments reinforced with armored vehicles to conduct ground attacks.[7] Muzychuk stated that Russian forces are also using small vehicles without protection to approach Ukrainian positions quickly and set conditions for a subsequent Russian infantry group to secure these positions. Muzychuk reported that Ukrainian drones destroyed about 70 percent of Russian armored vehicles last week, although it is unclear if Muzychuk is claiming that Ukrainian drones actually destroyed armored vehicles or temporarily rendered them hors de combat.[8] The press officer for the Ukrainian 26th Artillery Brigade, Oleh Kalashnikov stated that Russian forces in the Bakhmut direction are not conducting battalion-sized ground attacks because Ukrainian drones immediately detect them and that Russian forces are instead using company-sized groups at most.[9] Kalashnikov stated that Russian forces in the Bakhmut direction are suffering from low morale and are also using barrier troops to prevent Russian soldiers from retreating. Russian forces previously used mass infantry-led frontal assaults in their seizure of Bakhmut and in the beginning of the Russian effort to seize Avdiivka, but Russian forces appear to have shifted to using smaller infantry groups recently to conduct ground attacks.[10] Russian sources have also recently indicated that Russian forces suffered from exhaustion and lacked rotations but had to continue to fight on new lines west of Avdiivka following Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka.[11] ISW has previously (and not always accurately) assessed how low Russian morale and exhaustion affected the prospects of Russian offensive operations, but Ukraine’s current material shortages may make it difficult for Ukrainian forces to defend against Russian forces — even those that are exhausted and unmotivated.[12] ISW continues to assess that Russia’s opportunities to exploit Ukrainian vulnerabilities will widen as Ukrainian materiel shortages persist.[13]

A Russian Storm-Z instructor argued that Russian forces should capitalize on Ukrainian disadvantages brought on by materiel shortages to increase Russian guided glide bomb strikes to support Russian ground operations. The instructor claimed on April 15 that Ukrainian forces are unable to defend against Russian guided glide bomb strikes, which had caused significant damage to Ukrainian manpower, equipment, and other materiel.[14] The instructor claimed that Russian forces “linked” guided glide bomb strikes to Russian ground assaults on Avdiivka and more recently on Umanske (west of Avdiivka) to ensure Russian tactical advances. The instructor stated that Russian forces are conducting guided glide bomb strikes “situationally” and “episodically,” not systemically, and highlighted how Russian forces conducted guided glide bomb strikes near Terny in the Lyman direction but have not made significant advances in this area for months. The instructor claimed that Russian forces are currently “testing” Russian aviation near Chasiv Yar and may be able to turn local tactical successes into operational-level effects. The instructor claimed that Ukraine’s decreased air defense systems and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) are allowing Russian reconnaissance drones to operate significantly further forward and called on Russian forces to optimize their use of multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to conduct counterbattery strikes and isolate the battlefield. ISW observed that sparse and inconsistent Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front resulting from shortages in Ukrainian air defense systems and missiles has facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in February 2024 and which Russian forces are using again during their current offensive operations near Chasiv Yar.[15]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to show support for Iranian aggression against Israel during a March 16 call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Putin expressed hope that Israel and Iran would “show reasonable restraint” and not allow a “new round of confrontation,” effectively preemptively blaming Israel for any response to the massive but unsuccessful Iranian missile and drone strike.[16] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reported that Raisi told Putin that Iran was “forced” to take “retaliatory measures” against Israel in response to the April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus.[17] The Russian MFA claimed that Raisi stated that Iran’s response was “limited in nature,” despite the fact that Iran launched about 170 Shahed drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles — a large-scale strike package very likely intending to cause significant damage.[18] The Russian MFA also claimed that Raisi expressed Iran’s disinterest in further escalation in the region. The Russian MFA’s portrayal of Raisi’s claims notably diverges from IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency’s claim that Raisi stated that Iran will respond to any Israeli action that harms Iranian interests “more fiercely, widely, and painfully” than before.[19] Putin and the Russian government will likely continue to amplify information operations designed to justify Iran's April 13 strikes against Israel and continue to rhetorically support Iran against Israel to the international community.

People’s Republic of China (PRC) President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on April 16 and proposed prerequisites for the end to the war in Ukraine in a manner that suggests that Xi is continuing to posture himself as a neutral mediator in the war despite increasing reports of China’s support for the Russian war effort. During a meeting with Scholz in Beijing, Xi proposed four tenets to “restore peace” in Ukraine — prioritizing peace and stability and “refrain from seeking selfish gain,” “avoid adding fuel to the fire,” creating the conditions for peace, and reducing the negative impact on the global economy and stability of global industry supply chains.[20] Xi’s language is fairly neutral and does not explicitly come down on one side or the other, which is generally consistent with Xi’s reticence to make the Sino-Russian partnership as deep as Putin desires, partially in order to maintain access to Western markets.[21] Xi and other Chinese officials have additionally refrained from calling the war in Ukraine a war. Various NATO and US officials have recently warned that China is helping to “prop up” the Russian defense industrial base and support Russia via microelectronics, optics, machine tools, and missile propellant deliveries.[22] Xi’s generally vague signaling to Scholz vis a vis Ukraine over the backdrop of reportedly intensifying Chinese support for Russia is therefore more likely an attempt to maintain China’s access to European markets by garnering goodwill with Germany than to show actual interest in facilitating an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) recently destroyed a Russian Nebo-U long-range radar station in Bryansk Oblast.[23] SBU sources told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne on April 16 that the Nebo-U station allowed Russian forces to surveil up to 700 kilometers into Ukrainian airspace, detect Ukrainian weapons, and support Russian bombers in targeting Ukrainian force concentrations.[24] The SBU also previously destroyed a Nebo-U station in Belgorod Oblast and recently targeted a Kasta-2E modern radar system near occupied Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.[25]

The Kremlin continues to centralize authority over Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s “Akhmat” Spetsnaz forces via the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on April 16 appointing Commander of the Akhmat Spetsnaz Apty Alaudinov as the Deputy Head of the Main Directorate for Military-Political Work at the Russian MoD.[26] The Russian MoD’s Main Directorate for Military-Political Work is a department responsible for supporting “military-patriotic work” at the Russian Armed Forces such as ensuring that Russian forces subscribe to Russia’s political ideology.[27] Kadyrov stated that Alaudinov was relieved of his responsibilities as the Deputy Commander of the 2nd Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Army Corps but will continue to command Akhmat Spetsnaz forces.[28] Alaudinov’s appointment notably took place on the 15th year anniversary of the Kremlin declaring victory in Chechnya on April 16, 2009, under Kadyrov’s pro-Kremlin rule.[29] The appointment also follows Kadyrov’s recent announcement that 3,000 former Wagner Group personnel would join Akhmat Spetsnaz after Alaudinov reached an agreement with Wagner leadership on April 5.[30]

Putin is likely pursuing two objectives with Alaudinov’s appointment: establishing safeguards to ensure that Chechen leadership remains loyal to the Kremlin as Kadyrov continues to grow his forces and advancing the Kremlin’s ongoing force formalization efforts under the Russian MoD. Kadyrov has been steadily growing his forces since the start of the full-scale invasion and had used Russia’s reliance on Chechen forces to blackmail the Kremlin into ordering high-profile military command changes within the Russian MoD alongside deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.[31] Alaudinov’s appointment into the Russian MoD, therefore, ensures that Kadyrov and Alaudinov can no longer exercise the same level of freedom to make similar demands as they did in late 2022 and early 2023. The Kremlin enforced similar measures to coopt the Russian milblogger community by appointing several milbloggers into Kremlin-led initiatives, effectively buying their loyalty.[32] One Russian political blogger observed that Alaudinov’s appointment formally ensures that Akhmat Spetsnaz is now officially part of the Russian MoD.[33] The observation is consistent with the Kremlin’s recent progress in subordinating irregular forces fighting in Ukraine, such as Kadyrov’s units, to the Russian MoD.

Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor is considering banning TikTok in Russia. The Russian Association of Professional Users of Social Networks and Messengers (APPSIM) recently appealed to Roskomnadzor to block TikTok, and Roskomnadzor announced on April 16 that it will consider the appeal until May 8.[34] TikTok banned Russian users from posting new content on the platform in March 2022 due to the “security implications” of Russia’s new law against spreading false information about the Russian military.[35] Russian TikTok users have since only been able to view videos from before 2022 but can bypass these restrictions in various ways including by using foreign SIM cards or VPNs.[36] The APPSIM called for Roskomnadzor to investigate if TikTok has adhered to Russian personal data laws, which require all companies that collect personal data on Russian citizens to use databases located on Russian territory.[37] APPSIM’s appeal to Roskomnadzor reportedly stated that TikTok announced its readiness to localize the data of Russian citizens in 2019 but that TikTok had not publicly reported if it had done this or not.[38] APPSIM claimed that blocking TikTok will increase audiences on Russian social media networks, such as VKontakte, which will boost the “professional community’s” number of subscribers on domestic platforms.[39] A Russian court fined Google 15 million rubles (about $159,000) in November 2023 for repeatedly refusing to localize the personal data of Russian users in Russia, and it is unclear if Roskomnadzor would ban TikTok for the same offense for which it simply fined Google.[40]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized that continued shortages in air defense systems and artillery are preventing Ukraine from effectively defending itself against Russian strikes and ground assaults.
  • Zelensky signed a new mobilization law on April 16, codifying a difficult but critical decision in Ukraine’s efforts to stabilize its force generation apparatus and adequately prepare the Ukrainian fighting force both defensively and offensively.
  • Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are using smaller groups to conduct assaults and are reportedly suffering from morale issues, but Russian attacks are unlikely to culminate in the near term despite these challenges because of Ukrainian materiel shortages.
  • A Russian Storm-Z instructor argued that Russian forces should capitalize on Ukrainian disadvantages brought on by materiel shortages to increase Russian guided glide bomb strikes to support Russian ground operations.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to show support for Iranian aggression against Israel during a March 16 call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
  • People’s Republic of China (PRC) President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on April 16 and proposed prerequisites for the end to the war in Ukraine in a manner that suggests that Xi is continuing to posture himself as a neutral mediator in the war despite increasing reports of China’s support for the Russian war effort.
  • Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) recently destroyed a Russian Nebo-U long-range radar station in Bryansk Oblast.
  • The Kremlin continues to centralize authority over Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s “Akhmat” Spetsnaz forces via the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor is considering banning TikTok in Russia.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on April 16.
  • The Republic of Tatarstan is reportedly preparing a new youth employment program that would allow minors aged 14 and older to work at Russian defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises, likely as part of an ongoing effort to expand the Russian DIB.
  • Russian occupation officials are using the education system, particularly history courses, to Russify Ukrainian children living in occupied areas.

America’s Stark Choice in Ukraine and the Cost of Letting Russia Win

Click here to read the full report with maps

By Fredrick W. Kagan

April 16, 2024

The current US debate about providing additional military assistance to Ukraine is based in part on the assumption that the war will remain stalemated regardless of US actions. That assumption is false.[1] The Russians are breaking out of positional warfare and beginning to restore maneuver to the battlefield because of the delays in the provision of US military assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine cannot hold the present lines now without the rapid resumption of US assistance, particularly air defense and artillery that only the US can provide rapidly and at scale.[2]  Lack of air defense has exposed Ukrainian front-line units to Russian aircraft that are now dropping thousands of bombs on Ukrainian defensive positions for the first time in this war.[3]  Ukrainian artillery shortages are letting the Russians use armored columns without suffering prohibitive losses for the first time since 2022.[4]  The Russians are pressing their advantage and advancing slowly but steadily on several sectors of the front. Since the beginning of this year, Russian forces have seized over 360 square kilometers - an area the size of Detroit. Russian advances will accelerate absent urgent American action. US policymakers must internalize the reality that further delaying or stopping American military assistance will lead to dramatic Russian gains later in 2024 and in 2025 and, ultimately, to Russian victory.

The United States thus has only two real choices today. It can quickly resume providing military aid to let Ukraine stabilize the front lines near the current locations. Or it can let the Russians defeat the Ukrainian military and drive toward the NATO borders from the Black Sea to central Poland.  There is no third option. The risks of a Russian attack against NATO in the near future would rise dramatically if the US allows Russia to defeat Ukraine now, and the challenge of defending the Baltic States in particular could become almost insurmountable.  These long-term risks and costs far outweigh the short-term price of resuming assistance to Ukraine.

Russian victory in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for the defense of NATO.[5]  Ukrainian success, even if Ukraine just holds the frontlines roughly where they now are, on the other hand, would make a successful Russian attack on Poland or the Baltic States much harder and riskier. It would dramatically strengthen NATO’s ability to deter and defend against future Russian aggression. The two maps presented below illustrate the advantages Russia would secure by defeating Ukraine and those that NATO would receive from helping Ukraine hold the line or push the Russians further east and south.

NATO’s Future Is Linked with Ukraine’s Regardless of Ukraine’s Membership Status

A successful Ukrainian military will be the largest and most powerful in Europe after Russia’s—it will be far stronger than that of any European NATO state.  Ukraine will deploy its forces along its borders with Russia and Belarus to deter and defend against future Russian aggression.  Ukraine will rely on continued assistance at first in the form of equipment but, over time, primarily in the form of money to purchase and maintain its own equipment, from a wide array of European and Asian states that keenly understand the importance of preventing a renewed Russian attack.[6] Ukrainians will recognize that their future is linked with NATO’s survival and deterring Russian attacks on NATO as well as on Ukraine, even if Ukraine is not a member of the alliance.

Russian military leaders planning an invasion of the Baltic States or an attack on Poland will have to assume that Ukraine might enter such a war on NATO’s behalf regardless of Ukraine’s membership status. That planning assumption will have a dramatic impact on Russian campaign plans for a war of aggression against NATO, as we shall see.

If Russia defeats Ukraine, on the other hand, NATO will face tremendous challenges in defending its northeastern members.  Ukrainians will not tamely submit to Russian conquest, to be sure, and Russian military victory will very likely be followed by a massive Ukrainian insurgency.[7] But the Russians are already preparing forces distinct from their regular military units to handle such an insurgency, and they will very likely be able to sustain conventional military capabilities to threaten NATO from Ukrainian territory even while addressing Ukrainian insurgents.[8]  The Russians will also impress hundreds of thousands or even millions of Ukrainians into military service, along with the defense industrial base Ukrainians are now constructing, significantly increasing Russia’s military and economic potential.

In this dire scenario, therefore, NATO must expect to face large Russian conventional forces along its entire border from the Black Sea to the Arctic, bringing the southern Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, and Romanian borders under threat of Russian ground attack for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. This threat would pin NATO forces in southeastern Europe and would draw additional forces from the US and Western European NATO states to southern and central Europe, depriving NATO of reserves that would otherwise be available to reinforce the Baltic States rapidly in the event of a threatened Russian invasion. These NATO troops, inexperienced in fighting modern mechanized war, would be staring down a battle-hardened Russian military, emboldened from its victory in Ukraine.

The Russian military could prepare campaign plans for an attack on Poland and/or the Baltic States with no concern for its rear areas. That planning assumption would allow Russia to concentrate against the Baltic States forces they would otherwise have to array along the Ukrainian frontier to deter or defend against a Ukrainian effort to help defend NATO.  It is almost impossible to overstate how much the success or failure of Ukraine’s current efforts to fight off the Russian attack changes the prospects of a future Russian attack against NATO’s northeastern flank.

Scenarios and Assumptions

The maps below depict current NATO deployments, notional Ukrainian deployments based on pre-war Ukrainian military positions, and notional Russian force concentrations for an invasion of the Baltic States.  The underlying scenario assumes that the Russians will prioritize cutting the Suwalki Corridor that runs between northwestern Belarus (around Grodno) and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to prevent NATO from reinforcing or supplying the Baltic States while Russian armored and airborne units seize the Baltic States themselves. The scenario also assumes that the Russians will seek to prepare and attack fast enough to avoid giving NATO time to bring large reinforcements from the US, France, Germany, and the UK to the Suwalki Corridor and the Baltic States before they invade.  It thus considers a Russian invasion force largely drawn from units in the newly-reestablished Leningrad and Moscow Military Districts, as those forces could move to attack positions and launch an invasion much more rapidly than a larger Russian force drawing on units in the Caucasus, near Central Asia, or in the Far East. The challenge the Russians would face in covering the frontier of a strong and independent Ukraine would likely consume any forces the Russians might choose to make available from further south and east in any event. Generating the Russian combat power necessary to take the Baltic States with the reduced strike force in that scenario would likely require some reinforcement from central Russia as well. That scenario would require a much larger and slower mobilization of Russian forces that NATO would see and be able to respond to.

The deployments and movements depicted on these maps are notional, and the details are open to debate and discussion. The bottom line, however, is very clear. An independent Ukraine with a strong military and a pro-Western government will make a Russian attack on NATO much more difficult, risky, and costly for Moscow. An independent and strong Ukraine will thus help NATO deter such a Russian attack and defeat it if deterrence fails. A victorious Russia that succeeds in its aim of destroying Ukraine entirely, on the other hand, will pose a major conventional military threat to NATO in a relatively short period of time. It will be much harder to deter future Russian aggression and both more difficult and far more costly to defeat it if deterrence fails.  The choice before the US today is thus stark, but the answer is clear. American interests now and in the future are served far better by resuming aid to Ukraine now than by allowing Russia to win.

 


Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

April 15, 2024, 8pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on April 15. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 16 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials continue to warn that US security assistance is vital to Ukrainian forces’ ability to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations forecasted to begin in late spring and summer. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces are preparing to repel a future Russian major offensive expected in late May or the beginning of June but noted that this will be “catastrophically difficult” without Western military assistance.[1] Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov stated on April 14 that the current situation in eastern Ukraine is “tense” and that Russian forces are focusing their efforts west of Bakhmut in the Chasiv Yar direction.[2] Umerov stated that Ukrainian forces are successfully using modern technology against Russia’s larger quantities of personnel. The spokesperson for the Ukrainian Khortysia Group of Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn, stated on April 15 that Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka directions can only use one to five artillery shells for every 10 artillery shells that Russian forces fire, but that Ukrainian artillery is more precise than Russian artillery.[3] Ukrainian forces’ ability to repel recently intensified Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine has degraded due to materiel shortages and will likely continue to degrade in the near future should delays in US security assistance continue.[4] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are currently capitalizing on Ukrainian materiel shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance to make marginal tactical advances but that future Russian assaults may be able to achieve more significant and threatening gains, particularly west of Bakhmut, should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine.[5]

A senior Estonian military official described intensified Russian offensive frontline operations and deep rear area strike campaigns as intended to degrade both Ukraine’s will to fight and Western unity. Chief of the Estonian General Staff Major General Enno Mots stated in an interview published on April 14 that Russian forces’ attempts to exploit vulnerabilities on the frontline across the theater — which Mots described as “amoeba tactics” — and Russia’s escalation of deep rear strikes are attritional tactics ultimately aimed at exploiting the Ukrainian military’s current materiel shortages, which is consistent with ISW’s recent observations about Ukrainian air defense, artillery, and manpower shortages.[6] Mots noted that Ukraine needs significant resources for repelling Russian aggression and reconstruction, and that fragmenting Western unity creates a dilemma that interrupts the “smooth” timely and consistent flow of supplies to Ukraine, ultimately backfiring and reducing support for Ukraine.[7] Mots’ interview underscores several salient observations, including: that US failures to provide timely and consistent military aid to Ukraine (which only the US can provide at scale) has negative ripple effective on Ukraine‘s international partners globally; that materiel shortages are forcing Ukraine to husband materiel and prioritize areas of the front at the expense of others; and that persistent Russian information operations are aimed at convincing Western policymakers that Russia can and will outlast Western military assistance to Ukraine.[8] Mots emphasized that Russia does not care about manpower or materiel losses. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Lytvynenko similarly stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “addicted” to the idea conquering Ukraine and will not give up his aims of completely seizing Ukraine and destroying the Ukrainian state.[9] Lytvynenko emphasized the importance of not conceding territory to Putin and ensuring meaningful Western security guarantees for Ukraine to deter future aggression.[10]

Russian forces continue to adapt their drone tactics along the frontline as part of an offense-defense arms race to mitigate Ukrainian technological adaptions designed to offset Russian materiel advantages along the frontline. Ukrainian drone operators told the Washington Post in an article published on April 14 that the number of drones that both Russian and Ukrainian forces use has made the battlefield “almost transparent,” but that Russian forces have significantly increased electronic warfare (EW) jamming since fall 2023.[11] The Ukrainian drone operators stated that it can be difficult to distinguish between Ukrainian and Russian drones because about 100 Russian and Ukrainian reconnaissance and attack drones can operate simultaneously within a 10-kilometer radius. The Ukrainian drone operators also reported that Russian forces understand how valuable Ukrainian drone operators are and specifically target them with guided glide bomb and multiple rocket launch system (MLRS) strikes. A Ukrainian drone instructor and brigade commander stated on April 15 that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is rapidly developing drones that operate at a wide range of frequences to make it more difficult for Ukrainian EW systems to down them, and observed that both sides are increasingly using first-person view (FPV) drones that were not as prominent a year ago.[12] The instructor reported that his brigade detects 70 to 90 FPV drones per day but cannot down all of them, and that Russian forces sometimes equip drones with munitions that can detonate after Ukrainian forces down them. ISW has observed an increase in Russian reconnaissance and FPV drone usage along the frontline and Russian complaints about the lack of sufficient EW, especially in southern Ukraine, in fall 2023.[13]

Russian officials doubled down on efforts to amplify Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes against Israel that falsely equates them with an April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus. Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) Vasily Nebenzya claimed at an April 14 UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting that Iran conducted the April 13 strikes in response to the UNSC’s inaction following Israel’s April 1 strike against IRGC officials. Nebeznya also claimed that Israel constantly bombs Syria.[14] Nebenzya called on Israel to “abandon its military actions in the Middle East” and reiterated Russian calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.[15] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that Russia opposes escalation and supports a political and diplomatic resolution of conflicts in the Middle East.[16] The Russian government will likely continue to amplify information operations designed to justify Iran’s April 13 strikes against Israel to the international community.

A Russian insider source claimed that Russian officials are preparing to redeploy some former Wagner Group elements serving in Africa Corps to Belgorod Oblast. The insider source claimed on April 15 that the Kremlin believes that Russian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU) Lieutenant General Andrei Averyanov failed to meet the Kremlin’s deadlines to develop the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled Africa Corps.[17] The insider source claimed that Russian authorities are preparing to redeploy unspecified detachments of the Africa Corps from Africa to Belgorod Oblast. The insider source implied that the Wagner Group’s ongoing efforts to recruit personnel for its activities in Africa are actually meant to recruit personnel to deploy to Belgorod Oblast. Russian Africa Corps soldiers deployed to Niger on April 12, and it is unclear if the insider source is claiming that the Africa Corps will cease operations in Africa completely or if only some Africa Corps detachments will redeploy to the Ukrainian-Russian border area.[18] Averyanov previously participated in the Russian delegation that met with officials in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali and appeared to be heavily involved in the Russian government’s efforts to subsume the Wagner Group.[19] Averyanov is notably the commander of GRU unit 29155, who is responsible for the 2018 assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom and whom a joint investigation by 60 Minutes, Der Spiegel, and the Insider has recently implicated in non-lethal directed energy or acoustic weapons attacks against US government personnel within the US and internationally.[20]

Crimean occupation administration head Sergei Aksyonov passed a decree restricting migrant labor in occupied Crimea, undermining the Kremlin’s effort to mitigate labor shortages. The decree banned businesses from hiring migrants for 35 different types of jobs, including transportation, agriculture and food production, natural resource supplies, public utilities, trade (except trade in motor vehicles and motorcycles), culture, and education.[21] The decree notably does not ban migrants from construction work, which indicates that Crimean occupation officials may be able to legally employ migrants to build fortifications, logistics routes, or other infrastructure in support of Russia’s war effort.[22] Aksyonov stated that the uncontrolled presence of labor migrants in occupied Crimea and in Russia is “unacceptable” and that Crimean occupation law enforcement identified more than 500 individuals who had violated Russian migration laws.[23] Russian authorities have notably imported migrants from Russia to occupied Ukraine as part of efforts to repopulate and rebuild in occupied areas, as ISW has previously reported.[24] Some Russian milbloggers welcomed these restrictions and noted that Russian officials should enforce more measures to control migrant labor and enforce stricter visa and citizenship requirements.[25] Aksyonov’s decree and milblogger suggestions, however, contradict the Kremlin’s recent attempts to balance opposing efforts to set social expectations for a protracted Russian war effort and to assuage Russian society’s concerns about the economic consequences of the war and labor migration.[26] Putin implied on April 4 that Russia needs to continue importing foreign laborers given that Russia will experience a high demand for human capital and face labor shortages in the coming years.[27] ISW assessed on April 4 that Putin appeared to be telling Russia’s xenophobic ultra-nationalist community that Russia must continue to rely on migration, while Aksyonov’s decree appears to be directly appealing to this ultra-nationalist community while disregarding Putin’s messaging.

Russian state media seized on Georgian protests against a proposed law similar to Russia’s “foreign agent” law, likely as part of Kremlin efforts to amplify political discord in Georgia. Kremlin newswire TASS reported extensively on Georgian parliamentary debates on April 15 about a proposed law that would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 20 percent of their budget from foreign sources to register as “an organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power” - a label that notably replaces the term “foreign agent” that Russia uses and was featured in previous versions of the proposed law.[28] The Georgian parliament passed the first reading of the bill in 2023, then withdrew it from further consideration following widespread public protests opposing the bill.[29] TASS particularly focused on the protests in Tbilisi against the proposed law and repeatedly emphasized that Western diplomats in Georgia, such as the EU mission and US embassy in Georgia, opposed the bill.[30] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded on April 4 to the reintroduction of the bill in the Georgian Parliament and called claims that this is a “Russian project” absurd.[31] Peskov claimed that such laws are a “global practice” and that “no sovereign states wants interference from other countries in domestic politics.” Russian media similarly largely highlighted public protests and societal discord during the 2023 protests in opposition to the first version of the foreign agent law.[32] Russia has routinely attempted to portray Ukraine’s and other post-Soviet countries’ politics as chaotic in an attempt to destabilize target states and make them easier for Russia to influence or outright attack.[33]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian officials continue to warn that US security assistance is vital to Ukrainian forces’ ability to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations forecasted to begin in late spring and summer.
  • A senior Estonian military official described intensified Russian offensive frontline operations and deep rear area strike campaigns as intended to degrade both Ukraine’s will to fight and Western unity.
  • Russian forces continue to adapt their drone tactics along the frontline as part of an offense-defense arms race to mitigate Ukrainian technological adaptions to offset Russian materiel advantages along the frontline.
  • Russian officials doubled down on efforts to amplify Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes against Israel that falsely equates them with an April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus.
  • A Russian insider source claimed that Russian officials are preparing to redeploy some former Wagner Group elements serving in Africa Corps to Belgorod Oblast.
  • Crimean occupation administration head Sergei Aksyonov passed a decree restricting migrant labor in occupied Crimea, undermining the Kremlin’s effort to mitigate labor shortages.
  • Russian state media seized on Georgian protests against a proposed law similar to Russia’s “foreign agent” law, likely as part of Kremlin efforts to amplify political discord in Georgia.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Siversk (northeast of Bakhmut), Avdiivka, and west of Donetsk City on April 15.
  • Russian prosecution rates of men who had fled compulsory military service have reportedly increased since fall 2022.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 14, 2024

click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 14, 2024, 7:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Israel’s success in defending against large-scale Iranian missile and drone strikes from Iranian territory on April 13 underscores the vulnerabilities that Ukrainian geography and the continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella pose for Ukrainian efforts to defend against regular Russian missile and drone strikes. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force launched roughly 170 Shahed-136/131 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles at targets in Israel in a strike package similar to recent Russian strike packages against Ukraine.[1] Russian forces have experimented with cruise missile, ballistic missile, and drone strikes of varying sizes and combinations, and are now routinely conducting large, combined strikes against targets in Ukraine.[2] Iran’s similarly large, combined strike package was far less successful than recent Russian strikes in Ukraine, however, with Israeli air defenses intercepting almost all of the roughly 320 air targets except several ballistic missiles.[3] Iranian drones and missiles had to cross more than 1,000 kilometers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian airspace before reaching Israel, affording Israel and its allies hours to identify, track, and intercept missiles and drones on approach to Israel.[4] Russian forces launch drones and missiles from throughout occupied Ukraine and in close proximity to Ukraine from within Russia, affording Ukrainian air defenders a fraction of the time that Israel and its allies leveraged to successfully blunt the mass Iranian missile and drone strike.[5] Israel also has a robust air defense umbrella that is responsible for responding to potential attacks across shorter borders with its neighbors, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank; whereas, Ukraine has increasingly degraded air defense capabilities to employ against missile and drone strikes across a much wider frontline in Ukraine as well as its international borders with Belarus and Russia. Ukraine also currently lacks the capability to conduct air-to-air interception with fixed wing aircraft as Israel and its allies did on the night of April 13. Ukraine’s large size compared to Israel makes it more difficult for Ukraine to emulate the density of air defense coverage that Israel enjoys, especially amid continued delays in US security assistance.

The exhaustion of US-provided air defenses resulting from delays in the resumption of US military assistance to Ukraine combined with improvements in Russian strike tactics have led to increasing effectiveness of the Russian strike campaign in Ukraine.[6] Without substantial and regular security assistance to Ukraine, Russian strikes threaten to constrain Ukraine’s long-term warfighting capabilities and set operational conditions for Russia to achieve significant gains on the battlefield.[7] Ukraine requires significant provisions of Western air defense systems and fighter jets capable of intercepting drones and missiles in order to establish a combined air defense umbrella that is even remotely as effective as the one Israel and its allies successfully used on April 13.[8]

Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine demonstrates that even a limited number of successful ballistic or cruise missile strikes can cause significant and likely long-term damage to energy and other infrastructure, highlighting the need for an effective and well-provisioned air defense umbrella capable of a sustained high rate of interception. Recent large-scale Russian strike packages using drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles against Ukraine have caused significant damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure. All 15 ballistic missiles and seven of the 44 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian energy facilities on the night of March 21 to 22 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses.[9] Some of the missiles significantly damaged the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) in Zaporizhzhia City and took it completely offline, and it will take some time to repair the plant.[10] Three of seven ballistic missiles and eight of 30 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian HPPs on the night of March 28 to 29 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses, damaging HPPs and thermal power plants (TPPs) in central and western Ukraine.[11] All 18 ballistic missiles and six of the 24 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of April 10 to 11 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses, of which five missiles completely destroyed the Trypilska TPP in Kyiv Oblast.[12] The Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities on the night of April 10 to 11 also damaged energy facilities in Zaporizhia and Lviv oblasts.[13] The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 11 that Russian strikes, not including the April 10 to 11 strike series, have disrupted 80 percent of the generation capacity of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, which supplies about 20 percent of Ukraine’s power.[14]

Ukrainian Deputy Energy Minister Svitlana Hrynchuk told CNN in an article published on April 14 that successful Russian strikes over the course of just a few days in the past few weeks have destroyed a year's worth of Ukrainian repairs to energy facilities following the winter 2022-2023 Russian strike campaign.[15] A Ukrainian source told CNN that Russian forces have changed their strike tactics to launch a large number of missiles and drones simultaneously against a limited number of targets. DTEK Head Maksym Timchenko stated that Russia began targeting Ukrainian energy generation infrastructure, instead of transmission systems, in late March 2024.[16] DTEK previously warned that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage against Ukrainian energy facilities than previous Russian attacks did.[17] Israel, the US, and their allies and partners should be cognizant of the risk that even small numbers of missiles penetrating defense umbrellas can cause nonlinear damage to modern societies if they hit the right targets.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is falsely equating the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes targeting Israel with the April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus, amplifying Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 strikes. The Russian MFA issued a statement on April 14 in response to the April 13 Iranian strikes amplifying Iran's claim that Iran conducted the April 13 strikes as an act of “self-defense” in response to claimed Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets, including the April 1 strike targeting IRGC officials in Damascus.[18] The Russian MFA reiterated its condemnation of the April 1 Israeli strike and accused Western members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) of impeding the UNSC’s ability to “adequately respond” to the April 1 Israeli strike targeting IRGC officials. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a phone call with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian later on April 14, and the Russian MFA again amplified Iran’s claim that the April 13 strikes were a response to the April 1 Israeli strike in the readout of the call.[19] Russian MFA Spokesperson Maria Zakharova notably refused an Israeli request for Russia to condemn the April 13 Iranian strikes, claiming that Israel has never condemned a Ukrainian strike against Russia and criticizing Israel for its statements supporting Ukraine.[20] The Russian government is willfully furthering an information operation to justify Iran’s April 13 strikes against Israel to the international community.

Russian milbloggers largely responded to the April 13 Iranian strikes against Israel by suggesting that the increased threat of military escalation in the Middle East will likely draw Western, specifically US, attention and aid away from Ukraine. Russian milbloggers leaned into an established information operation on April 13 and 14 claiming that the Western media will slowly stop covering the war in Ukraine as Western attention turns to the risk of escalation in the Middle East and suggested that the US and Ukraine’s other Western allies may begin to falter in their expected aid deliveries to Ukraine because the West may prioritize aiding Israel.[21] Several Russian milbloggers specifically gloated that if Ukraine does not receive additional Western air defense systems, Russian drones and missiles will “safely cruise” in uncontested Ukrainian air space.[22] Russian milbloggers and Kremlin officials, including Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, expressed similar hopes following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.[23] Significant delays in US military assistance have already created shortages in Ukraine’s air defense missile and ammunition stockpiles, hindering Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian frontline offensive operations and drone and missile strikes against rear areas, creating opportunities that Russian forces are actively exploiting. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely operating on the assumption that US military assistance to Ukraine will either be further delayed or permanently ended, and any evidence supporting that notion will likely encourage Russian efforts to strain Ukrainian forces past their breaking point on the battlefield and in deep rear areas. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensive operations and Russia’s ongoing strike campaign is heavily dependent on continued US security assistance and that the longer Ukrainian forces go under-provisioned, the harder it will be to defend against Russian offensive operations.[24]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that the senior Russian military command aims to seize Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast by Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9.[25] The Russian military command’s objective to seize Chasiv Yar in only three and a half weeks indicates that the Russian command likely assesses that Russian forces will be able to seize the town at a faster tempo of offensive operations than efforts to seize Bakhmut in May 2023 or Avdiivka in February 2024.[26] The Russian military command likely assesses that continued Ukrainian critical munitions shortages will enable Russian forces to seize Chasiv Yar in several weeks, despite ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have currently only reached the easternmost part of the Kanal Microraion in easternmost Chasiv Yar. The Russian command has routinely set unrealistic goals for Russian advances, however, and a Russian milblogger expressed hope that Russian forces may be able to just enter the Novyi Microraion in southeastern Chasiv Yar by May 9.[27] The Russian military will likely intend to capitalize on significant Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages that are crucial to Ukrainian defense and that were not constraining Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut or Avdiivka to the same degree as their current constraints, however. The Russian military command will likely continue efforts against Chasiv Yar until the effort culminates, but Russian forces may be able to make speedier advances than in prior efforts given the degree of Ukraine’s current artillery and air defense shortages.

The Russian military’s ongoing restructuring of the Western Military District (WMD) into the Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) is reportedly shifting areas of operational responsibility (AOR) for Russian force groupings in Ukraine. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on April 14 that Russian units part of the Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod border groupings will form part of the LMD and that elements of the 11th Army Corps (AC) and the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade (6th Combined Arms Army [CAA]) and likely elements of the currently-forming 44th AC and the 25th Motorized Rifle Brigade (6th CAA) will form the “Northern” Grouping of Forces alongside existing units on the border in Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod oblasts.[28] This report suggests that the entire 6th CAA and 11th AC are also subordinated to the LMD, which would be consistent with the boundaries of the military district and the permanent stations of those formations. Mashovets also reported that the 1st Guards Tank Army, 20th CAA, and 25th CAA will integrate into the MMD and be responsible for the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast axis — an observation also largely consistent with the military district boundaries and permanent stations of those formations. Mashovets also speculated on possible commanders for the MMD as well as the LMD and Northern Grouping of Forces, but ISW is unable to confirm these speculations.[29] Mashovets’ report suggests that the LMD’s Northern Grouping of Forces is pulling Russian formations currently operating on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line — including elements of the 6th CAA and 11th AC — to the northern international border and elsewhere in the theater, which will undermine any Russian offensive efforts on that line and may create confusion in the Russian military command as it seeks to disentangle the WMD into the MMD and LMD.[30] This redeployment could support possible future Russian operations against Kharkiv City to which Ukrainian leaders have previously alluded.[31]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reportedly fired the commanders of a combined arms army and motorized rifle regiment operating in southern Ukraine likely for failing to recapture areas lost during the Ukrainian summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive. Russian sources claimed on April 13 and 14 that the Russian military command fired Lieutenant General Arkady Marzoev, commander of the Russian 18th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District [SMD]) that has been fighting near Krynky, Kherson Oblast, as well as the commander of the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment (42nd Motorized Rifle Division, 58th Combined Arms Army [CAA], SMD) that has been fighting near Robotyne, Zaporizhia Oblast.[32] ISW is unable to confirm these reported firings. Elements of the 18th CAA have been repelling Ukrainian attacks and attempting to push Ukrainian forces from their positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast since Ukrainian forces established a limited tactical bridgehead in November 2023, and have notably failed.[33] Elements of the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment have been conducting periodic counterattacks to recapture territory in and around Robotyne since September 2023 and suffered significant degradation as a result.[34] Elements of the 18th CAA and the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment have been unable to recapture all the territory that Ukrainian forces captured in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts during the summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive. If the Russian sources’ speculations are accurate, the Russian MoD is likely replacing these commanders in hopes that new leadership will oversee the seizure of more territory around Robotyne and Krynky, thereby allowing the Russian MoD to claim with some degree of believability that Russia has undone the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Key Takeaways:

  • Israel’s success in defending against large-scale Iranian missile and drone strikes from Iranian territory on April 13 underscores the vulnerabilities that Ukrainian geography and the continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella pose for Ukrainian efforts to defend against regular Russian missile and drone strikes.
  • The exhaustion of US-provided air defenses resulting from delays in the resumption of US military assistance to Ukraine combined with improvements in Russian strike tactics have led to increasing effectiveness of the Russian strike campaign in Ukraine.
  • Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine demonstrates that even a limited number of successful ballistic or cruise missile strikes can cause significant and likely long-term damage to energy and other infrastructure, highlighting the need for an effective and well-provisioned air defense umbrella capable of a sustained high rate of interception.
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is falsely equating the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes targeting Israel with the April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus, amplifying Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 strikes.
  • Russian milbloggers largely responded to the April 13 Iranian strikes against Israel by suggesting that the increased threat of military escalation in the Middle East will likely draw Western, specifically US, attention and aid away from Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that the senior Russian military command aims to seize Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast by Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9.
  • The Russian military’s ongoing restructuring of the Western Military District (WMD) into the Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) is reportedly shifting areas of operational responsibility (AOR) for Russian force groupings in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reportedly fired the commanders of a combined arms army and motorized rifle regiment operating in southern Ukraine likely for failing to recapture areas lost during the Ukrainian summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive.
  • Ukrainian forces advanced south of Kreminna and southwest of Donetsk City and Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and Avdiivka. 


Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 13, 2024, 7:45pm ET 

Russian forces are pursuing at least three operational-level efforts that are not mutually reinforcing but let Russian forces prioritize grinding, tactical gains on a single sector of their choice at a time. Ukrainian forces will increasingly struggle to defend against these Russian efforts the longer Ukraine lacks further US military assistance. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on April 13 that the situation in eastern Ukraine has significantly worsened in recent days and that Russian forces are conducting mechanized attacks in the Lyman, Bakhmut, and Pokrovsk (west of Avdiivka) directions.[1] Syrskyi stated that hot and dry weather conditions have made most open terrain accessible to Russian tanks and that Russian forces are dedicating new units to achieving tactical successes despite heavy losses. The Russian efforts in the Lyman, Chasiv Yar, and Pokrovsk directions each pursue operationally significant objectives, but these operations are not mutually supporting, and Russian forces still seem to be alternating emphasis among the different operational directions rather than leaning into all three at any given time.[2] Ukrainian forces have successfully defended against prior Russian operational-level offensive efforts of this sort when they had the resources the US is currently withholding, forcing these efforts to culminate before they could achieve operationally significant results.[3] Ukrainian forces currently struggle with significant shortages of both artillery shells and air defense means, both of which are critical components of their defense, and Russian forces are capitalizing on these shortages and improved weather conditions.[4]

The Russian military command likely assesses that Ukrainian forces will be unable to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations due to delays in or the permanent end of US military assistance. Russian forces have recently periodically shifted their focus among offensive operations in the Lyman, Chasiv Yar, and Pokrovsk directions; Russian forces first prioritized the capture of Avdiivka in early 2024, alongside simultaneous but less intense operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, then leaned into the Lyman direction while slightly decreasing the tempo near Avdiivka, and now are intensifying efforts to seize Chasiv Yar in March-April 2024.[5] Though Russian forces likely lack the ability to conduct more than one simultaneous effective large-scale operational effort as they have throughout the war, Russian forces are now able to use multiple alternating offensive efforts to stretch Ukrainian defensive capabilities amid Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages.[6] The current pattern of Russian offensive operations allows elements of units participating in less intensive efforts to rest and reconstitute while other units, presumably those that are more rested or those that have recently received reinforcements. They can then intensify efforts in another operational direction, forcing Ukrainian forces to reallocate their defensive resources across the theater and creating vulnerabilities that Russian forces can exploit. Russian forces are reportedly developing operational- and strategic-level reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations in Ukraine, likely to support an anticipated spring-summer offensive effort.[7] ISW continues to assess that these reserves are unlikely to be ready to act as a first-echelon penetration force or second-echelon exploitation force capable of conducting large-scale mechanized assaults in 2024 as long as Ukrainian forces have the wherewithal to resist them.[8] Russian forces would more likely use these reserves to restaff or reinforce existing formations and continue grinding, infantry-led assaults with occasional limited mechanized pushes in their direction of choice at key moments. If the United States does not resume providing aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian forces continue to lack essential artillery and air defense munitions in particular, however, even badly-trained and poorly-equipped Russian troops might be able to conduct successful offensive operations.

The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances as the seizure of the town would likely allow Russian forces to launch subsequent offensive operations against the cities that form in effect a significant Ukrainian defensive belt in Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces have long aimed to capture a group of major cities in Donetsk Oblast that include Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka, and the Russian military initially attempted and failed to conduct a wide operational encirclement of Ukrainian forces in eastern Donetsk Oblast by driving on Slovyansk in spring 2022.[9] The Ukrainian liberation of Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and further advances in northern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts during the fall of 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive disrupted Russian plans to resume efforts to drive on the northern edge of this Ukrainian “fortress” belt.[10] Russian forces continued their drive towards the southern portion of the Donetsk Oblast “fortress” belt with their attritional, months-long effort to seize Bakhmut, but the seizure of the city and the culmination of Russian offensive operations in the area in May 2023 did not allow Russian forces to immediately threaten the southern edge of the “fortress“ belt.[11] Russian forces began localized offensive operations west of Bakhmut in November 2023 and are now operating on the eastern outskirts of Chasiv Yar. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would allow Russian forces to begin attacking the southern “fortress” cities in the Ukrainian defensive belt directly. Chasiv Yar is roughly seven kilometers from Kostyantynivka (the southernmost “fortress” city) and roughly 20 kilometers from Druzhkivka. Russian forces could launch subsequent offensive operations directly on Druzhkivka or Kostyantynivka after some period of rest and replenishment following the possible seizure of Chasiv Yar. Russian forces could also drive on Oleksiilevo-Druzhkivka (15km west of Chasiv Yar) in an effort to cut off and isolate Kostyantynivka from the rest of the “fortress” belt and set conditions for the operational encirclement of the city. These options depend on the Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar, however, which is not certain.

Russian threats to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka are very operationally significant since these “fortress” cities help form the backbone of the Ukrainian defense in Donetsk Oblast and of eastern Ukraine in general. The isolation of Kostyantynivka or the outright seizure of the settlement would likely significantly degrade Ukraine’s ability to hold the frontline further south in Donetsk Oblast as it would sever a major ground line of communication along the H-20 (Kostyantynivka-Donetsk City) highway and require Ukrainian forces to commit a significant portion of manpower and materiel to the defense of the remaining “fortress” belt and relatively less fortified areas of central and western Donetsk Oblast. Russian advances through Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka and then further west into Donetsk Oblast would likely present Russian forces with greater opportunities to collapse the Ukrainian frontline in Donetsk Oblast and possibly restore relatively rapid maneuver to the battlefield in pursuit of seizing all of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces will be challenged to seize either city rapidly as long as Ukrainian forces have the wherewithal to defend them, however. ISW is not forecasting that the Russians will be able to seize either city in the near term. Russian advances further west of these “fortress” cities into Donetsk Oblast could also present Russian forces with opportunities to make offensive operations along diverging axes along the Donetsk Oblast frontline mutually supporting an offensive push on Pokrovsk and the western borders of Donetsk Oblast. The possible Russian seizure of Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka would significantly degrade Ukraine’s operational position even if the frontline then stabilized since the possible Russian seizure of these cities would present Russian forces with more secure positions from which threaten a wider area of Donetsk Oblast that is more sparsely populated and offers less advantageous terrain to defend. These cities, even after the likely widescale destruction that a Russian offensive operation would cause, would present opportunities for Russian forces to establish a significant defensive line that could materially degrade the prospects for Ukrainian counteroffensive operations to retake them. The threat to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka presents a potential major operational setback for Ukraine that would be very challenging to reverse. ISW is neither forecasting that Russian forces will seize Chasiv Yar nor forecasting that Russian forces will be able to threaten or even seize Kostyantynivka or Druzhkivka. ISW offers these considerations of the threat that the Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would present because they are a plausible most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) especially if the US does not rapidly resume the provision of military assistance to Ukraine.

Russian forces may not be able to seize Chasiv Yar rapidly and would likely struggle to leverage its operational significance immediately as long as Ukrainian forces have the resources needed to hold their positions. The Russian Southern Grouping of Forces and substantial elements of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces are currently responsible for offensive operations from northeast of Bakhmut to southeast of Chasiv Yar, and elements of the 98th VDV Division, 11th VDV Brigade, the 150th Motorized Rifle Division’s 102nd Motorized Rifle Regiment (8th Combined Arms Army [CAA], Southern Military District [SMD]) are attacking the immediate outskirts of Chasiv Yar.[12] Elements of the 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade (Northern Fleet) and Volunteer Corps and limited elements of the 98th VDV Division are attempting to advance on Chasiv Yar from the northeast, and elements of the 83rd VDV Brigade, the Luhansk People’s Republic 2nd Army Corps (AC), and the 3rd AC are currently attempting to recapture territory southeast of Chasiv Yar and push Ukrainian forces across the Siversky-Donets Donbas Canal.[13] Russian forces appear to have committed their most combat-effective elements in the area to frontal assaults on Chasiv Yar, and these frontal assaults will likely produce gradual gains at attritional costs as long as Ukrainian defenders have essential materiel. The elements that Russian forces have currently concentrated northeast and southeast of Chasiv Yar are relatively less combat effective and will struggle to make advances similar to those made east of Chasiv Yar against supplied Ukrainian defenders. Russian tactical gains east of Chasiv Yar have not set conditions for an encirclement or envelopment of the settlement, and Russian forces would likely have to make notable tactical gains southeast and northwest of Chasiv Yar before pursuing an envelopment or encirclement of the settlement, which may require additional and combat effective units and formations. Available imagery, which ISW will not present or describe in greater detail at this time to preserve Ukrainian operational security, shows that Ukrainian forces have established significant fortifications in a ring shape in the Chasiv Yar area, and Russian forces will likely struggle to rapidly break through these defenses at their current offensive tempo in the area as long as Ukrainian forces have the ammunition needed to resist.[14] In the absence of significant new Russian deployments, Russian forces will likely have to fight their way directly through the town or attempt a narrow tactical-level turning movement, which would force Russian forces to contend with Chasiv Yar’s fortifications, elevated Ukrainian positions, and the obstacle of the Siversky-Donets Donbas Canal.

The possible Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar in itself does not allow Russian forces to conduct a successful operation to threaten Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka, and Russian forces would likely need to set other operational conditions to threaten the southern “fortress” cities. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would create a notable salient, and a Russian attempt to advance further west immediately from Chasiv Yar would make that salient increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks. Russian forces would likely need to recapture territory that Russian forces lost southeast of Chasiv Yar during the summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive to stabilize the advancing Russian front, an effort that elements of the 83rd VDV Brigade, 2nd AC, and 3rd AC have struggled to pursue. Russian attempts to advance towards Kostyantynivka would likely allow Ukrainian forces to use positions in the Toretsk-Pivnichne area to interdict and threaten rear Russian logistics lines and possibly isolate the immediate battlespace west of Chasiv Yar. The terrain between Chasiv Yar and the southern edge of the Ukrainian “fortress” belt is predominantly open fields with limited cover and concealment, which would likely require Russian forces to conduct effective mechanized maneuver to advance up to the cities. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated their ability to repel intensive Russian mechanized assaults and degrade Russian logistics when well-provisioned, and the Russian ability to leverage the operational significance of Chasiv Yar likely rests in large part on whether the US will resume security assistance to Ukraine.[15]

Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance are allowing Russian mechanized forces to make marginal tactical advances, and future Russian mechanized assaults may be able to achieve more significant gains should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine. Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces are strengthening the “most problematic” areas at the front with electronic warfare (EW) systems, air defense systems, drones, and anti-tank missiles.[16] Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces also need to improve the quality of their training, especially for infantry units to optimize their use of limited and dwindling Western-supplied weapons and equipment. The Telegraph reported on April 12 that a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel stated at the end of February 2024 that Russian forces often have three times as many artillery shells as Ukrainian forces and that some Ukrainian artillery units only have enough shells to strike a single Russian mechanized assault group out of several Russian mechanized groups, forcing the Ukrainians to use small arms to defend against subsequent Russian mechanized assaults.[17] A Russian Storm-Z instructor stated on April 13 that recent Russian mechanized assaults have achieved tactical successes but have been unable to make significant advances due to Ukrainian counterattacks, the exhaustion of Russian fire support during the assault, and the incompetence of Russian forces that are meant to consolidate gained positions.[18] The instructor stated that recent Russian tactical advances are not the result of improvements in the quality of Russian combat capabilities, increases in Russian technical means, or the optimization of Russian organizational structures but are rather due to Russia’s increased use of glide bombs and constraints on Ukrainian artillery fire resulting from the lack of US supplies. The instructor claimed that Ukrainian forces are attempting to compensate for their decreased firepower by increasing their use of strike drones but noted that Ukrainian drones are able to strike but not destroy Russian armored vehicles, as ISW has previously observed.[19]

ISW continues to assess that continued delays in US security assistance are specifically impacting Ukraine’s ability to respond to an increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in eastern Ukraine.[20] Sparse and inconsistent Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front resulting from shortages in Ukrainian air defense systems and missiles has facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in February 2024 and which Russian forces are using again during their current offensive operations near Chasiv Yar.[21] Ukrainian forces have also suffered from ongoing artillery ammunition shortages, which they have partially mitigated by using first person view (FPV) drones to blunt Russian infantry and armored vehicle assaults.[22] ISW continues to assess, however, that while Ukrainian FPV drones are likely able to temporarily render armored vehicles hors de combat, the relatively light payloads on the current FPV drones are unlikely to destroy armored vehicles very often.[23] Ukrainian forces have been partially able to repel the recently increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults despite these shortages but will likely be unable to continue to defend against Russian mechanized assaults as effectively in the future should delays in US security assistance continue.

Ukrainian forces have previously demonstrated their ability to repel Russian mechanized assaults and inflict significant equipment losses on Russian forces when adequately provisioned. Ukrainian forces destroyed significant elements of a Russian motorized rifle brigade that tried to cross a pontoon bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River in 2022, and Russian forces lost at least 130 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) during a three-week offensive near Vuhledar in 2023.[24] Ukrainian forces were recently able to inflict serious armored vehicle losses during several waves of Russian mechanized assaults on Avdiivka in fall 2023 before artillery shortages worsened through the winter into the spring of 2024.[25] ISW has generally observed that recent Russian mechanized assaults have exhibited the same tactical patterns that have previously resulted in large Russian vehicle losses in 2022 and 2023, and Ukrainian forces are therefore likely able to repeat their previous successes against Russian mechanized assaults should the US provide Ukraine with the necessary assistance.[26]

Germany announced that it will immediately transfer another Patriot air defense system to Ukraine in response to recent very urgent Ukrainian requests for additional Patriot systems to defend against the increased Russian strike campaign amid ongoing Ukrainian efforts to expand Ukraine’s air defense capabilities. The German Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 13 that Germany will immediately transfer another Patriot system to Ukraine to defend against the ongoing increased Russian strike campaign against the Ukrainian energy grid.[27] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later clarified that the Patriot system includes an unspecified number of missiles and that Germany and Ukraine are discussing the provision of an additional IRIS-T air defense system.[28] German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated that the Russian strike campaign against Ukrainian citizens and infrastructure is endangering Ukraine’s energy supply and destroying defense industrial facilities that are critical to Ukraine’s operational readiness.[29] Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently called on Ukraine’s Western allies to send Ukraine more Patriot batteries to protect Ukrainian cities and frontline areas, particularly Kharkiv City, from Russian ballistic missiles.[30] Kuleba stated on April 10 that Ukraine urgently needs seven Patriot batteries, and the additional German-provided Patriot system will significantly ease, but not resolve, the strain on Ukraine‘s air defense umbrella and the limited number of Patriot batteries currently in Ukraine.[31] Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhaylo Podolyak stated during an interview on April 13 that Ukraine has not run out of Patriot and IRIS-T missiles, but that Ukraine’s supply of Western air defense missiles is “in deficit.”[32] Former Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat warned in January 2024 that Ukraine began rationing its air defense equipment and ammunition and used a considerable amount of Ukraine’s existing air defense missile stockpile in defending against several large Russian drone and missile strike series in the first two weeks of January.[33] Recent large-scale Russian strikes have likely only further degraded Ukraine’s air defense missile stockpiles, and the German MoD and Zelensky did not specify how many additional Patriot missiles Germany is sending to Ukraine alongside the system.

Ukrainian officials also continue to discuss their envisioned use of F-16 and other fixed wing aircraft as part of Ukraine’s broader air defense umbrella. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Major Ilya Yevlash stated on April 13 that Ukraine needs at least 150 aircraft to effectively conduct air operations and noted that the Ukrainian Air Force will base its rearmament around F-16s, Swedish produced Gripen multirole fixed-wing aircraft, and other aircraft.[34] Yevlash stated that Ukraine will use F-16s to augment existing Ukrainian ground-based air defenses defending against Russian Shahed-136/131 drones and cruise and guided missiles and to constrain Russian aviation operations. Yevlash noted that even two squadrons, roughly 18 aircraft, could significantly influence the situation in the Ukrainian air space and ease pressure on strained Ukrainian air defense systems. Zelensky stated on April 6 that the promised F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine’s Western partners only account for 10 percent of the fighter aircraft that Ukraine would need to defeat the Russian aviation threat.[35] Zelensky suggested that Ukraine will need a combination of air defense systems and fighter aircraft to defeat the Russian aviation threat. Some of the promised European-provided F-16s are expected to arrive in Ukraine in the summer of 2024, although ISW continues to assess that only the United States can rapidly provide aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine at the scale necessary to significantly improve Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.[36]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces are pursuing at least three operational-level efforts that are not mutually reinforcing but let Russian forces prioritize grinding, tactical gains on a single sector of their choice at a time. Ukrainian forces will increasingly struggle to defend against these Russian efforts the longer Ukraine lacks further US military assistance.
  • The Russian military command likely assesses that Ukrainian forces will be unable to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations due to delays in or the permanent end of US military assistance.
  • The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances as the seizure of the town would likely allow Russian forces to launch subsequent offensive operations against the cities that form in effect a significant Ukrainian defensive belt in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian threats to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka are very operationally significant since these “fortress” cities help form the backbone of the Ukrainian defense in Donetsk Oblast and of eastern Ukraine in general.
  • Russian forces may not be able to seize Chasiv Yar rapidly and would likely struggle to leverage its operational significance immediately as long as Ukrainian forces have the resources needed to hold their positions.
  • Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance are allowing Russian mechanized forces to make marginal tactical advances, and future Russian mechanized assaults may be able to achieve more significant gains should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine.
  • Germany announced that it will immediately transfer another Patriot air defense system to Ukraine in response to recent very urgent Ukrainian requests for additional Patriot systems to defend against the increased Russian strike campaign and ongoing Ukrainian efforts to expand Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and Donetsk City.
  • Bloomberg reported on April 12 that Russia still relies on Chinese companies to supply most of the foreign-produced machine tool components and microelectronics to Russia’s defense industry for Russian weapons production.

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 12, 2024, 5:55pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russia’s ongoing strike campaign against Ukrainian energy facilities aims in part to devastate the Ukrainian defense industry, confirming ISW’s ongoing assessment that Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity. Putin stated during a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on April 11 that Russian drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s energy sector are connected to Russia’s goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine – one of his three stated goals in Ukraine.[1] Putin characterized Russia’s ongoing strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure as a “forced” response to recent Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil and gas facilities and openly stated that Russian strikes indirectly aim to degrade Ukraine’s defense industrial capacity. The recent Russian strike campaign is degrading Ukraine's power generation capacity while also exploiting reported Ukrainian air defense missile shortages in a renewed effort to collapse Ukraine’s power grid.[2] Putin likely hopes to prevent Ukraine’s defense industry from developing to the point of near self-sufficiency in the long term as a strong defense industry could put Ukraine in a good position to defend against future Russian aggression and significantly reduce Ukraine's dependence on Western aid.[3] Significant delays in Western aid, due in part to successful Russian information operations and Western hesitancy, have created an opportunity for Russian offensive operations and Russia’s strike campaign.

ISW continues to assess that the development of Ukraine’s defense industrial base (DIB) over time can allow Ukraine to sustain its defense against Russia and longer-term national security needs with significantly reduced foreign military assistance.[4] Ukrainian officials have expressed their intention to expand Ukraine’s DIB domestically and abroad since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov previously identified increased Ukrainian domestic production of weapons and military equipment as a priority for 2024.[5] US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller has stated that the short- and medium-term provision of Western air defenses to Ukraine will be a critical element of Ukraine’s ability to stand up its defense industry, which will, in turn, decrease Ukrainian dependence on Western aid and especially US aid to Ukraine in the long term.[6] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently emphasized that Ukraine cannot mitigate the lack of sufficient air defense systems and that only Western-provided air defense systems, namely Patriot systems, allow Ukraine to defend Ukraine against the intensified Russia strike campaign.[7] ISW continues to assess that the US will not need to send large security assistance packages to Ukraine indefinitely if Ukraine can sufficiently expand its defensive industrial capacity, but the West’s provision of air defense systems and missiles to Ukraine is crucial for Ukraine’s ability to defend its energy infrastructure and its developing defense industry against Russian strikes.[8]

Russian forces are domestically producing and fielding a new air-to-surface subsonic cruise missile against Ukraine designated the Kh-69 as part of continued efforts to improve strike packages and penetrate Ukraine’s degraded air defense. Ukrainian media reported on April 11 that Ukrainian law enforcement sources stated that Russian forces destroyed the Trypilska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in Kyiv Oblast on April 11 with new Kh-69 missiles, which Russian forces had reportedly used in “isolated cases” in 2023 prior to the April 11 strike.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Major Ilya Yevlash confirmed on April 12 that Russian forces used the Kh-69s in the April 11 strike and described the Kh-69 missiles as an improved version of Kh-59 cruise missiles, which Russian forces have frequently used in strike packages against Ukraine in recent weeks.[10] ISW has not previously observed the Russian use of Kh-69 missiles in Ukraine. Russian forces have reportedly launched Kh-69 missiles from 400 kilometers away from their targets, exceeding a previous estimated range of 300 kilometers and the 200-kilometer range of the most recent Kh-59MK2 variant.[11] Russian forces can reportedly launch the missiles from more numerous Su-34 and Su-35 tactical aircraft rather than exclusively from strategic bombers.[12] Yevlash stated that Russian forces are domestically producing the Kh-69 missiles but that their ability to manufacture the missiles depends on their ability to source critical components.[13] While the Russian stockpiles and production capability of these Kh-69 missiles are unclear, Russia is unlikely to be able to produce them at a significantly greater speed or quantity than its other domestically produced missiles. Yevlash noted that Ukrainian forces are still developing methods to counter the Kh-69s but emphasized that Patriot air defense systems would likely be able to intercept them.[14]

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a group of Central Asians from perpetrating a terrorist attack against a Russian military facility in occupied Ukraine with Ukraine’s help, likely as part of efforts to set information conditions to portray any future Ukrainian attack on legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine as “terrorist” attacks. The FSB claimed on April 11 that it detained six citizens of an unspecified Central Asian state for allegedly preparing a Ukrainian-orchestrated terrorist attack on a Russian military facility in occupied Donetsk Oblast.[15] The FSB claimed that the attackers were planning to go to Turkey and then back to Ukraine after carrying out the attack - a narrative that likely attempts to parallel how the Crocus City Hall attackers traveled to Turkey before the March 22 attack.[16] Russia routinely labels Ukrainian strikes against legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine and within Russia as ”terrorist” attacks.[17]

The FSB also claimed that it prevented a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Moscow on April 10 and that the FSB killed one of the alleged terrorists, a native of an unspecified Central Asian country, during a shootout.[18] The FSB claimed on March 7 that it prevented members of the Islamic State (IS) in Kaluga Oblast from conducting an attack on a Moscow synagogue.[19] The FSB may have not claimed that Ukraine was involved in the attack that the FSB allegedly stopped on April 10 due to the FSB’s prior public statements connecting the previous plans for an attack on a Moscow synagogue to IS. Russian authorities recently conducted counterterrorism operations in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria and the Republic of Dagestan, and ISW continues to assess that the increased frequency of counterterrorism operations in Russia is likely due to either Russian law enforcement’s actual heightened fears of another terrorist attack in Russia or is part of efforts to show the Russian public that authorities are taking competent preventative steps following the major law enforcement and intelligence failure that was the Crocus City Hall attack.[20] These counterterrorism activities are also further evidence that Russian authorities actually assess that terrorist threats emanate from Central Asian and Muslim communities instead of Ukraine.[21]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russia’s ongoing strike campaign against Ukrainian energy facilities aims in part to devastate the Ukrainian defense industry, confirming ISW’s ongoing assessment that Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity.
  • ISW continues to assess that the development of Ukraine’s defense industrial base (DIB) over time can allow Ukraine to sustain its defense against Russia and longer-term national security needs with significantly reduced foreign military assistance.
  • Russian forces are domestically producing and fielding a new air-to-surface subsonic cruise missile against Ukraine designated the Kh-69 as part of continued efforts to improve strike packages and penetrate Ukraine’s degraded air defense.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a group of Central Asians from perpetrating a terrorist attack against a Russian military facility in occupied Ukraine with Ukraine’s help, likely as part of efforts to set information conditions to portray any future Ukrainian attack on legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine as “terrorist” attacks.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russia is reportedly sending about 2,400 Eastern Military District (EMD) military personnel currently in Russia to fight in Ukraine to make up for personnel losses at the front.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to expand educational programs that aim to indoctrinate Ukrainian children and erase their Ukrainian identity.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 11, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 11, 2024, 6:25pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on April 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11 that caused notable and likely long-term damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 82 air targets at Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11, including 20 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from Saratov Oblast; six Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles from Tambov Oblast; 12 S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Belgorod Oblast; four Kh-59 cruise missiles from occupied Zaporizhia Oblast; and 40 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and occupied Cape Chauda, Crimea.[1] Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 57 air targets, including 16 Kh-101/555 missiles, two Kh-59 missiles, and 39 Shahed drones.[2] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo stated that this strike series was the third large-scale Russian strike on Ukrainian electricity generation in 2024, likely referring to the March 22 and 28 strikes that damaged Ukrainian thermal and hydroelectric power plants (TPPs/HPPs).[3] Ukrainian energy company Centrenergo reported that an unspecified Russian strike destroyed the Trypilska TPP in Kyiv Oblast — the largest supplier of electricity to Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Zhytomyr oblasts.[4] Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration Head Oleh Synehubov stated that Russian forces conducted at least 10 strikes on critical infrastructure in Kharkiv City and Oblast.[5] Lviv Oblast Military Administration Head Maksym Kozytskyi reported that Russian forces struck a gas distribution facility and electric substation in Lviv Oblast with drones and unspecified missiles.[6] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Russian forces damaged an energy facility in Zaporizhia Oblast with unspecified missiles, that debris from a downed drone caused a fire at an energy facility in Odesa Oblast, and that Russian forces targeted Odesa City with a Kh-31 anti-radar missile, but that the missile malfunctioned over the Black Sea.[7] Ukrainian officials also reported that an unspecified number of Russian ballistic missiles struck Mykolaiv City and that Russian guided glide bombs struck a power plant in Sumy City during the day of April 11.[8] The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 11 that Russian strikes, not including the April 10–11 strike series, have disrupted 80 percent of the generation capacity of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, which supplies about 20 percent of Ukraine’s power.[9] The WSJ reported that DTEK’s chief executive, Maksym Timchenko, stated that DTEK spent $110 million repairing damage during the war’s first year and that it will cost more than twice that much to fix the most recent destruction caused by Russian strikes.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Ukraine needs more Patriot air defense batteries to protect both Ukraine’s population centers and frontline areas. The Washington Post reported on April 10 that Kuleba is currently focusing on obtaining seven Patriot batteries from other countries as quickly as possible to defend Ukraine’s largest cities.[10] Kuleba reportedly stated that Ukraine would place at least one of these batteries closer to the frontline. Kuleba recently emphasized that Ukraine especially needs Patriot systems to defend against Russian ballistic missiles, such as Kinzhal missiles, as Ukraine’s Soviet-era air defense systems are unable to intercept these missiles.[11] Russian strikes have forced Ukraine to make difficult decisions between providing air defense coverage to large population centers in the rear and active areas on the frontline, and Russia appears to be exploiting Ukraine’s degraded air defense umbrella in an attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid and constrain Ukraine’s defense industrial capacity while Russian ground forces take advantage of their ability to use air strikes on Ukrainian frontline positions to make slow but steady gains.[12] ISW continues to assess that sparse and inconsistent air defense coverage along the front has likely facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024 and which Russian forces appear to be using again during their current offensive operations near Chasiv Yar.[13]

The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted a new mobilization law on April 11, a significant step in addressing Ukraine’s manpower challenges amid growing manpower constraints in Ukrainian units defending on the frontline.[14] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the new mobilization law will come into force after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signs the law in May.[15] Ukrainian Joint Forces and “Khortytsia” Group of Forces Commander Lieutenant General Yuriy Sodol addressed the Verkhovna Rada ahead of the vote and reiterated that one of Ukraine’s main problems is its manpower challenges.[16] Sodol stated that some Ukrainian units are severely undermanned and suggested that some Ukrainian detachments are undermanned to the point that the detachment can currently only defend roughly 20 of the 100 meters a detachment at full end strength is typically able to defend. Sodol suggested that the Ukrainian military is currently deploying three partially manned brigades to cover the same area that one fully manned brigade can typically defend, forcing Ukraine to allocate additional units to defensive actions that could otherwise be resting in rear areas or preparing for future counteroffensive actions. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensive operations and eventually challenge the theater-wide initiative depends heavily on the provision of US military assistance and the continuation of non-US military support as well as on Ukraine’s efforts to restore and reconstitute existing units and create new units.[17]

US European Command (EUCOM) Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Chistopher Cavoli reported that EUCOM and NATO are strengthening their ability to respond to the “chronic threat” that Russia poses to global stability and European security in hopes of deterring future Russian aggression against NATO. Cavoli stated during a briefing to the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on April 10 that Russia poses a “chronic threat” to the world and warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not intend to limit or stop his aggression at the borders of Ukraine.[18] Cavoli reported that EUCOM is responding to the Russian threat by enhancing its deterrence posture across Europe, including strengthening EUCOM’s eastern flank with rotational force deployments, expanding EUCOM’s pre-positioned stocks, and modernizing EUCOM’s infrastructure to enable a rapid reception of reinforcing forces. Cavoli stated that EUCOM and NATO are exercising extensively to demonstrate their ability to defend against and deter future Russian aggression against NATO. Cavoli noted that China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are forming “interlocking, strategic partnerships” that are antithetical to US national security interests and aim to challenge the existing global security framework. Kremlin officials, particularly Putin, are increasingly contextualizing the war in Ukraine as part of a long-term geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West in order to justify Russia’s long-term war effort in Ukraine and future Russian aggression against other European countries.[19]

Ukraine and Latvia signed a bilateral security agreement on April 11 providing for long-term Latvian assistance and security commitments to Ukraine.[20] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the agreement will provide annual aid to Ukraine valued at 0.25 percent of Latvia’s GDP from 2024 through 2026 and confirms Latvia’s 10-year commitment to aid Ukraine in reconstruction, the protection of critical infrastructure, de-mining, unmanned technology, and cyber security.[21] Latvia will also provide about 112 million euros (about $120 million) worth of military aid to Ukraine in 2024.[22]

Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly killed two suspected terrorists in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria on April 11. The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) stated that Russian authorities declared a counterterrorism regime in Nalchik and Chereksky Raion, Kabardino-Balkaria and killed two militants who were reportedly planning sabotage and terrorist attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria.[23] The NAK also conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly detained three militants in the Republic of Dagestan on March 31.[24] Russian security forces are likely intensifying counterterrorism operations in Russia — particularly in the North Caucasus, which has seen Islamic State-Caucasus Province (Wilayat al Qawqaz) and other jihadist activity over the years — due to heighted fears of terrorism in Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack. Continued Russian counterterrorism operations in the North Caucasus and intensified measures targeting Central Asian migrants in Russia are further evidence that Russian authorities actually assess that threats emanate from Russia’s Central Asian and Muslim communities instead of Ukraine despite Russian efforts to baselessly tie Ukraine to the Crocus City Hall attack.[25] ISW remains confident that Islamic State (IS) conducted the Crocus City Hall attack and has yet to observe independent reporting or evidence to suggest that an actor other than IS was responsible for or aided the attack.[26]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile and drones strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11 that caused notable and likely long-term damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Ukraine needs more Patriot air defense batteries to protect both Ukraine’s population centers and frontline areas.
  • The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted a new mobilization law on April 11, a significant step in addressing Ukraine’s manpower challenges amid growing manpower constraints in Ukrainian units defending on the frontline.
  • US European Command (EUCOM) Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Chistopher Cavoli reported that EUCOM and NATO are strengthening their ability to respond to the “chronic threat” that Russia poses to global stability and European security in hopes of deterring future Russian aggression against NATO.
  • Ukraine and Latvia signed a bilateral security agreement on April 11 providing for long-term Latvian assistance and security commitments to Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly killed two suspected terrorists in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria on April 11.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, in the direction of Chasiv Yar west of Bakhmut, and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area on April 11.
  • Russian exiled opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe reported on April 11 that Russian courts have commuted sentences in over half of all criminal cases against Russian veterans and active-duty servicemen due to military service in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 10, 2024

Click Here to Read the Full Report

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

The Ukrainian military’s effective use of drones on the battlefield cannot fully mitigate Ukraine’s theater-wide shortage of critical munitions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in an interview with German outlet BILD published on April 10 that Ukraine is successfully domestically producing drones, but that drones cannot replace air defense systems, long-range missile systems, or artillery.[1] Ukrainian forces have partially mitigated ongoing artillery ammunition shortages by using first-person view (FPV) drones to blunt Russian infantry and armored vehicle assaults, although artillery systems can deliver much more powerful strikes than loitering munitions and drone-dropped munitions. An unnamed NATO official told Foreign Policy in an article published on April 9 that Ukrainian forces have used FPV drones to “destroy” over two-thirds of the total number of Russian tanks that the Ukrainians have “destroyed” in recent months.[2] Ukrainian FPV drone pilots reportedly target a Russian tank’s ”open hatch, the engine or ammunition stored in the turret.”[3] Ukrainian FPV drones are likely able to temporarily render armored vehicles hors de combat during a combat operation, but current FPV drones with relatively light payloads are unlikely to destroy armored vehicles rendering them irretrievable and irreparable very often. Electronic warfare systems and increased armor on armored vehicles can also make it difficult for FPV drones to strike a specific target location on the vehicle, although technological and tactical competition can create periodic windows of opportunity for offense or defense to gain an advantage.[4] Reuters reported on March 26 that Ukrainian FPV drone pilots acknowledged that they would be unable to hold the frontline without artillery and infantry.[5] Ukrainian forces have managed partially to repel an increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in recent weeks despite ammunition shortages.[6] Ukraine’s ability to repel mechanized assaults with FPV drones is a partial mitigation, however, and continued shortages of artillery deprive Ukrainian forces of the ability to destroy armored vehicles rapidly and in large numbers.

US European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Christopher Cavoli warned on April 10 that Russian forces currently have a five-to-one artillery advantage along the frontline – a statement consistent with Ukrainian officials’ reports – but that Russian forces could have a 10-to-1 artillery advantage “in a matter of weeks” if the United States continues to delay the provision of military aid to Ukraine.[7] Zelensky and senior Ukrainian military officials have recently warned that delays in Western military assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative to Russia and that the Ukrainian military cannot plan a successful counteroffensive or defensive effort without knowing when and what kind of aid Ukraine will receive. ISW continues to assess that delays in Western military assistance have forced the Ukrainian military to husband materiel and that Ukrainian forces must make difficult decisions prioritizing certain aspects of its defense at the cost of lives and lost territory as well as at the expense of contesting the initiative to constrain Russian military capabilities or planning for future counteroffensive operations.[8]

Zelensky stated that there are no mitigations for insufficient air defense systems and indicated that Russian strikes are forcing Ukraine to reallocate already scarce air defense assets to defend Kharkiv City. Zelensky told BILD that drones cannot replace air defenses and that Ukraine needs air defenses to survive.[9] Russian forces have recently intensified their strike campaign against Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials have recently warned that if Russian forces sustain the current high tempo of this campaign, then Ukraine will likely lack the air defense missile stocks necessary to protect Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.[10] Zelensky discussed plans with Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk on April 10 to redeploy Ukrainian air defenses to protect Kharkiv City, against which Russian forces have recently intensified missile, drone, and glide bomb strikes.[11] The Russian strike campaign has pressured Ukraine to prioritize protecting strategic objects, population centers, and energy infrastructure in deep rear areas over the frontline and near rear areas such as Kharkiv City.[12] This further reorganization of Ukrainian air defenses to protect Kharkiv City will presumably draw from Ukraine’s existing arsenal of missiles and launchers, which will stretch Ukraine’s already limited air defense capabilities and provide Russian forces with the opportunity to further exploit weakened air defenses elsewhere. As ISW has recently assessed, degraded and thin Ukrainian air defenses would afford Russian aviation prolonged security to operate on the frontline, significantly increase devastating glide bomb strikes at scale, and possibly even permit routine large-scale Russian aviation operations against near rear Ukrainian logistics and cities.[13]

US emergency efforts to bolster Ukraine’s existing air defense capabilities remain insufficient to protect Ukraine against Russian strikes. The US Department of Defense (DoD) approved the possible sale of equipment worth $138 million on April 9 to repair and modernize Ukraine’s HAWK air defense systems due to Ukraine’s “urgent need” to defend against Russian airstrikes but acknowledged that the possible transfer would “not alter the basic military balance” in Ukraine absent additional aid.[14] Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently emphasized that Patriots can shoot down Russian ballistic missiles that Ukraine’s Soviet systems cannot, and Zelensky recently stated that Ukraine will need an additional 25 Patriot air defense systems, likely meaning launchers, to extend full air defense coverage to all of Ukraine’s territory.[15] NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and US European Command Commander General Christopher Cavoli warned on April 10 that Ukraine will run out of missiles for the launchers it already has “in fairly short order” if the United States does not continue to support Ukraine and stressed that the US failure to provide Ukraine with additional military assistance has generated battlefield effects that favor Russia.[16]

Zelensky warned about the threat of a potential future Russian ground offensive operation targeting Kharkiv City, which would force Ukraine to reallocate some of its already-strained manpower and materiel capabilities away from other currently active and critical sectors of the front. Zelensky told BILD that he cannot rule out the possibility of a major Russian offensive operation on Kharkiv City and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to seize Kharkiv City since the beginning of the full-scale invasion because Kharkiv City is a major Ukrainian city and has symbolic meaning for both Russia and Ukraine.[17] Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces are doing everything possible to prevent Russia from seizing Kharkiv City. Zelensky recently told CBS that Ukrainian forces are also constructing fortifications and defensive positions near Sumy City in response to a reported significant buildup of Russian forces in neighboring Bryansk Oblast.[18] A Russian ground operation against Kharkiv in the very near future is unlikely, but Russian efforts to create strategic reserves and reposition forces in the theater could allow Russian forces to launch an offensive toward the city in the summer.[19]

The threat of a Russian offensive operation targeting Kharkiv or Sumy city appears to be forcing the Ukrainian military to redistribute its limited manpower and materiel to the construction of defensive fortifications in those areas and an active Russian operation to seize these cities would only further exacerbate this dynamic. The Russian military maintains the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine, and Russia’s ability to conduct opportunistic offensive operations in almost any area of the frontline will continue to strain Ukraine’s already stretched resources, regardless of any one operation’s success in actually seizing a targeted city or settlement.[20] The Russian forces are able to allocate significant resources in hopes of achieving operationally significant breakthroughs in frontline areas of their choosing and can exploit areas of the front previously made vulnerable by Ukrainian manpower and materiel transfers. Russian forces are currently concentrating significant resources near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka and continue to make slow, grinding advances in those areas, largely due to Ukrainian manpower challenges and delays in US and Western aid.[21] Ukrainian forces will likely not be able to contest the theater-wide initiative and more proactively allocate their resources without continuing to address their manpower issues and receiving additional Western aid.

The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada considered and adopted provisions from Ukraine’s draft mobilization law on April 10 as part of an ongoing effort to increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term. The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada National Security and Defense Committee adopted the second reading of the draft mobilization law on April 9 and submitted it to the wider Verkhovna Rada for consideration, which began on April 10.[22] Ukrainian officials reported that the Verkhovna Rada adopted a provision from the law allowing for the mobilization of Ukrainian convicts and a provision amending Ukraine’s criminal code to increase penalties for mobilization evasion.[23] Ukrainian officials reportedly removed an existing provision from the draft law that would have stipulated the end of active military service for mobilized personnel after 36 months of service.[24] Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Spokesperson Dmytro Lazutkin stated on April 10 that Ukrainian officials will consider issues regarding the conclusion of military service of individuals and rotations of military personnel in a separate draft law.[25] Ukrainian efforts to establish a more sustainable mobilization apparatus will support the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and reconstitute existing units and create new units. ISW continues to assess that Western-provided materiel continues to be the greatest deciding factor for the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and augment its combat power, however.

Russian officials continue to indicate that they are not interested in any meaningful negotiations on the war in Ukraine amid Switzerland’s announcement that it will host a global peace summit on the war on June 15 and 16.[26] Swiss officials stated that Switzerland will send invitations for the summit to representatives of over 100 countries and that the summit will include discussions of various peace proposals, including Ukraine’s Peace Formula and China’s vague 12-point peace plan.[27] The Russian Embassy in Switzerland reiterated previous Russian statements that Russia would reject any invitation to the summit and that any discussions about Ukraine without Russia are pointless.[28] Russian officials have repeatedly falsely blamed Ukraine and the West for the lack of peace negotiations, despite numerous public Russian statements suggesting or explicitly stating that Russia is not interested in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine.[29] The Kremlin continues efforts to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity and fundamentally weaken NATO and has shown no legitimate indication that it is open to reconsidering these objectives.[30]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to downplay tension in Armenian-Russian relations amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia. Peskov claimed on April 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will meet in the near future to discuss “existing questions” about Armenian-Russian relations.[31] Peskov asserted that Armenia is Russia’s ally and that Russia engages with Armenia on the assumption that Russia and Armenia can resolve all problems through dialogue.[32] Pashinyan stated on April 10 that Armenian-Russian relations are “not experiencing their best time” and that Armenia has “not made a single wrong step” in this relationship.[33] Pashinyan stated that Armenian-Russian relations are transitioning from a “historical” nature to “real” relations, likely a reference to growing dissatisfaction at Russia’s inability and unwillingness to support Armenian interests in Nagorno-Karabakh and increasing Armenian interest in deepening cooperation with the West.[34] Pashinyan stated that Armenia is still considering whether it will participate in the May 8 Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit and did not mention if he would attend Putin’s presidential inauguration on May 5.[35] Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan announced on April 9 that he would not attend the Council of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting on April 12 in Minsk, although Kremlin newswire TASS claimed that Armenia would send a deputy minister.[36] Armenian Minister of High-Technology Industry Mkhitar Hayrapetyan stated that Armenia is considering terminating an agreement with Russia that allows Russia to broadcast Russian state television programs in Armenia following the March 29 announcement that Armenia blocked two of Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s shows.[37]

Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed that Russia has no economic reason to import foreign labor, a direct contradiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent efforts to justify Russia’s current migration laws to his xenophobic ultra-nationalist constituency. Bastrykin claimed during a speech at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum on April 10 that Russia has no economic reason to import migrant workers, particularly workers from Central Asian countries.[38] Bastrykin stated that an Uzbek government official once asked Bastrykin why Russia takes in so many migrants and allows migrants to apply for Russian citizenship, particularly young migrants whom Bastrykin insinuated were dangerous. Bastrykin claimed that there is “no way” Russia can overcome the reported trend of increased migrant crime in Russia and claimed that migrants in Russia are unwilling to assimilate into Russian culture and society. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) published a “criminogenic index” in January 2024 that detailed which migrant groups are more predisposed to criminal activity and indicated that the number of crimes committed by migrants in Russia has increased annually since 2019.[39] Bastrykin reiterated a sentiment that he claimed to see on social media – that migrants who are Russian citizens should sign military service contracts and fight in Ukraine while migrants who are unwilling to fight in Ukraine should return to their native countries.[40] Russian milbloggers and some State Duma members have previously justified Russia’s ongoing coercive crypto-mobilization effort, which disproportionally targets migrants, by claiming that migrants who receive Russian citizenship must fight in Ukraine to “earn” their Russian citizenship and that migrants who fight in Ukraine will receive Russian citizenship.[41] Putin stated on April 4 that Russia’s future labor shortage is “absolutely certain” and that Russia will either have to import labor from abroad or increase its existing labor productivity.[42] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is unlikely to approve anti-migrant policies that could worsen Russia’s labor shortages and degrade Russia’s crypto-mobilization efforts despite xenophobic demands from Russian ultranationalists to drastically reduce – if not eliminate – migration to Russia.[43] Bastrykin’s contradiction of Putin further illustrates that the Kremlin’s attempts to appeal to ultranationalist anti-migrant fervor may continue to generate inconsistencies and contradictions with the Kremlin’s migration policy and rhetoric.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Ukrainian military’s effective use of drones on the battlefield cannot fully mitigate Ukraine’s theater-wide shortage of critical munitions.
  • Zelensky stated that there are no mitigations for insufficient air defense systems and indicated that Russian strikes are forcing Ukraine to reallocate already scarce air defense assets to defend Kharkiv City.
  • Zelensky warned about the threat of a potential future Russian ground offensive operation targeting Kharkiv City, which would force Ukraine to reallocate some of its already-strained manpower and materiel capabilities away from other currently active and critical sectors of the front.
  • The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada considered and adopted provisions from Ukraine’s draft mobilization law on April 10 as part of an ongoing effort to increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term.
  • Russian officials continue to indicate that they are not interested in any meaningful negotiations on the war in Ukraine amid Switzerland’s announcement that it will host a global peace summit on the war on June 15 and 16.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to downplay tension in Armenian-Russian relations amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia.
  • Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed that Russia has no economic reason to import foreign labor, a direct contradiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent efforts to justify Russia’s current migration laws to his xenophobic ultra-nationalist constituency.
  • Russian forces recently captured Ivanivske, a settlement east of Chasiv Yar, and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Eight Russian senators and 16 State Duma deputies submitted a bill to the Russian State Duma that would likely allow Russian authorities to deploy Russian Federal Penitentiaries Service (FSIN) employees to Ukraine, amid reports that Russia is intensifying its crypto-mobilization efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 9, 2024

Click Here to Read the Full Report

Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

April 9, 2024, 8pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30 pm ET on April 9. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 10 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian state media highlighted Russia and China’s joint effort to combat perceived Western “dual containment” targeting Russia and China during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on April 9. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Wang suggested that China and Russia engage in “dual counteraction” in response to alleged Western attempts at “dual containment” targeting Russia and China.[1] Lavrov claimed that the Russian–Chinese “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction” have reached an “unprecedented level,” and that Russia and China have mutual international interests and will coordinate to solve internal and external problems.[2] Lavrov claimed that Russian–Chinese relations extend beyond a “military-political alliance of the Cold War” and that both countries are working to create a “multipolar world order” through multilateral formats that include BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).[3] Russia has consistently pushed the idea of a Russian-led “multipolar world order” that imagines Russia as the leader of a coalition of non-Western states in opposition to the US and West.[4] Lavrov claimed that Russia and China will continue to cooperate on anti-terrorism measures and that Russia and China signed another plan for inter-Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) consultations in 2024.[5] The Russian MFA stated that China and Russia “exchanged views” on possible ways to resolve the war in Ukraine, that both sides called international meetings that discuss an end to the war without Russia “futile,” and that Russia “positively” assesses China’s suggestions for an end to the war, likely in reference to the 12-point peace plan that China released in February 2023.[6] The Russian MFA notably did not mention bilateral military or technological cooperation, possibly due to recent reports that China is increasingly helping Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) and even providing Russia with geospatial intelligence that Russia likely uses to support military operations in Ukraine.[7] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin continues to be concerned with China’s reticence to participate fully in the Kremlin's desired no-limits partnership, and that China continues to hold the upper hand in the Russian–Chinese relationship despite recent reports suggesting that China is increasingly willing to assist Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.[8]

US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on April 9 that it transferred roughly a brigade’s worth of small arms and ammunition seized from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Ukraine on April 4. CENTCOM reported that the US government transferred over 5,000 AK-47s, machine guns, sniper rifles, RPG-7s and over 500,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to the Ukrainian military.[9] CENTCOM stated that it obtained these munitions on December 1, 2023 through a Department of Justice (DoJ) civil forfeiture claim opened against the IRGC in July 2023.[10] CNN reported that CENTCOM had already transferred over one million rounds of seized IRGC ammunition to Ukraine as of October 2023.[11]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) is likely responsible for a drone strike against the Borisoglebsk Airbase in Voronezh Oblast overnight on April 8 to 9. GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that two unspecified drones struck the aviation center in Borisoglebsk, which reportedly trains Russian frontline bomber and attack aviation flight crews, and that preliminary information suggests that the strike damaged unspecified production facilities at the airbase.[12] Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine cited its own source within GUR as confirming that the Borisoglebsk strike was a GUR operation.[13] Geolocated footage published on April 9 shows one drone striking the airbase.[14] Russian sources reported that one Ukrainian drone struck the facade of the Chlakov aviation training center near the airbase and another drone struck the same spot an hour later, only damaging the outside of the building.[15] ISW has not yet observed visual confirmation of the type and extent of damage from the drone strike.

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers continue to employ virulently anti-migrant rhetoric and call for xenophobic domestic policies, but in doing so are exposing the inherent hypocrisy in Russia’s treatment of its own indigenous ethnic minority communities. Several ultranationalist milbloggers seized on an April 5 post by the Leningrad Oblast House of Friendship cultural center for awarding the local “Khorezm” Uzbek cultural organization with a grant for its work in “harmonization of interethnic relations and support for small indigenous peoples of Leningrad Oblast.”[16] Several milbloggers retorted that Uzbeks are not indigenous to Leningrad Oblast and questioned why an Uzbek cultural organization received an award from the Leningrad Oblast budget.[17] One milblogger emphasized that Leningrad Oblast has formally defined Vepsians, Vods, and Izhorians as the ethnic groups indigenous to Leningrad Oblast.[18] Another Russian milblogger published a post on April 9, which was later amplified by a Telegram channel affiliated with imprisoned Russian former officer and ultranationalist commentator Igor Girkin, calling the domestic situation in Russia a “migration catastrophe,” accusing migrants of attacking the Russian domestic rear and of “unleashing ethnic, economic, and religious terror against indigenous citizens of the Russian Federation of all ethnicities.”[19] The milbloggers who criticized the Leningrad Oblast authorities and the post amplified by the Girkin-affiliated channel all narrowly define Muslim migrants from Central Asian countries as an explicit threat to “indigenous Russians.”[20]

This same ultranationalist community, however, has been inconsistent and hypocritical in selectively defining who it believes to be an “indigenous Russian,” and the actual indigenous populations of Russia’s ethnic minority republics have faced discrimination and poor treatment at the hands of ethnic Russians, particularly against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers have criticized Tuvans, an ethnic minority group indigenous to Siberia, for using indigenous Tuvan orthography on road signs, while accusing Tuvan activist groups of inciting “ethnic discord” in Russia.[21] The Kremlin has also heavily relied on the more geographically remote and economically disenfranchised Russian federal subjects, many of which are indigenous ethnic minority republics, to disproportionately bear the brunt of mobilization for the war in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians in major population centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg from high casualties and the realities of the war.[22] Indigenous Buryat, Kalmyk, Tuvan, and Sakha activist organizations have spoken out against the Kremlin’s heavy reliance on ethnic minority indigenous populations for force generation purposes.[23] Russian authorities have also been trying to undermine cultural identity in the Republic of Tatarstan through amendments to state national policy that remove provisions on “strengthening Tatarstan’s identity.”[24]

Russian ultranationalists’ anti-migrant rhetoric, which has increased exponentially following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terror attack, has exposed gaps in the Kremlin’s already strained relationship with migrant communities within Russia. The Kremlin is likely struggling to balance appeasing the anti-migrant calls of ultranationalist commentators, who comprise a major Kremlin support base, with its reliance on migrants and ethnic minority communities to fill roles both on the battlefield and in the domestic labor economy, as ISW has previously assessed.[25]

The Kremlin will likely be able to leverage a new agreement signed by the Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, and a state-owned Russian bank to further its efforts to destabilize Moldovan society, attack Moldova’s democratic government, and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU). Gutsul met with Petr Fradkov, the chairman and CEO of Russian state-owned bank Promsvyazbank (PSB), in Moscow on April 9.[26] Petr Fradkov is the son of Mikhail Fradkov, the former long-time director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and current director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.[27] PSB will reportedly open accounts for an estimated 5,000 government employees and 20,000 pensioners in Gagauzia, who will reportedly receive cards for Russia’s Mir payment system, whose operator the US sanctioned in February 2024.[28] Gutsul asked PBS to provide “humanitarian aid” and “additional funding” to Gagauzian pension payments and public sector salaries.[29] Gutsul claimed that Moldovan authorities may detain her upon her return to Chisinau, echoing previous claims by pro-Russian Moldovan actors that Moldovan authorities were going to detain Gutsul in Chisinau following her visit to Moscow in March 2024, though authorities did not detain Gutsul.[30] It is unclear if Gagauzia will be able to implement the agreement with PSB, however. Gagauzian outlet Notka reported that the head of the Gagauzian Department of Justice Petr Manol noted that the governor of Gagauzia does not have the power to independently sign international agreements under Moldovan law.[31] The Mir system also does not work in Moldova except in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, the other pro-Russian region of Moldova.[32] Fradkov mentioned that PSB will give “special services at PSB at a separate tariff” to Gagauzian residents’ relatives who live in Russia, but it is unclear if PSB payments to Gagauzian pensioners and public sector employees will only go through the Gagauzian diaspora in Russia.[33]

The current pro-Russian Gagauzian government previously attempted to use Russian money to finance increased pension payments that were part of a campaign promise from a Kremlin-affiliated political candidate, and the new Gagauzia-PSB deal may be part of propaganda efforts to portray Russia as the sole benefactor of the autonomous region. Ilan Shor, a US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician who founded the Kremlin-affiliated Shor Party under which Gutsul ran for governor of Gagauzia, promised to increase pensions in Gagauzia and other Shor Party-affiliated Moldovan regions in October 2023 in the lead up to the November 2023 local elections.[34] Moldovan outlet NewsMaker reported that a Russian citizen living i