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 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 read about the methodology behind ISW and CTP's mapping of this conflict.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 24, 9 pm 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.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s declarations about which categories of Russian males will be exempted from partial mobilization may not reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions or orders. A Russian media insider claimed on September 24 that officials of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reprimanded military commissars in person for negligence in carrying out mobilization and sending out summonses in “excess,” and contrary to the explicit MoD guidance regarding exemptions for age, disability, or other limiting factors. Another Russian source claimed that certain heads of federal subjects acknowledged that they have mobilized citizens who are technically ineligible.
Responsibility for the partial mobilization appears to be divided and complex, possibly contributing to confusion, disorganization, and violations of Shoigu’s commitments regarding exemptions. The mobilization decree specifies that Russian federal subjects are responsible for executing the mobilization while the MoD sets quotas and deadlines for filling them. A Russian milblogger, in fact, criticized the governor of Russia’s Belgorod Oblast for not being an active participant in the mobilization process and noted that the mobilization decree places the onus of carrying out mobilization orders on the heads of federal subjects and not on military commissars. Military commissars likely work for the heads of federal subjects, however, rather than directly for the MoD, making both responsible for mobilization and creating a possible gap between them and the Defense Ministry.
The military commissars are generally acting as if they had received orders to prioritize getting bodies to training centers over adhering to Shoigu’s guidelines, and the seemingly confused chains of responsibility for executing the mobilization decree may be responsible for the divergence between Shoigu’s statements and commissars’ actions. Shoigu emphatically reiterated on September 21 that mobilization is partial and will only rely on those already in the reserve and with combat experience and military experience, but military commissars failed to adhere to Shoigu’s guidance, practically from the onset of the mobilization order. Continued reports of military commissars conducting chaotic distribution of mobilization summonses indicate that they feel significant pressure to carry out mobilization as quickly as possible. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian authorities are immediately mobilizing individuals in occupied areas of Ukraine after “rewarding” them with Russian passports for participating in sham referenda rather than waiting until annexation makes the mobilization of eligible males in Russian-occupied areas legal under Russian law. This haste suggests that military commissars feel pressure to expedite mobilization which is not reflected in Shoigu’s statements. The MoD is evidently not in full control of mobilization, raising questions about which Russian males actually will be mobilized and how effective the mobilized force will be.
Positions held by senior Russian military leadership are continuing to change hands, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing to see systemic problems as the result of the personal failings of senior subordinates. The Russian MoD reported on September 24 that Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev has been appointed Deputy Defense Minister and will oversee logistics for the Russian Armed Forces, replacing Army General Dmitry Bulgakov. Mizintsev previously acted as head of the Russian National Defense Control Center and served during Russian operations in Syria, notably commanding troops on the operational-tactical level during the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol. The replacement of individual senior leaders is very unlikely to fix fundamental structural problems in the Russian military. It reflects Putin’s personality-driven approach to leadership and relative disdain for system-building—both factors that contributed to the overall failures of the Russian military in this war.
Russian forces may be preparing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) to fight for Russia, which would constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. Russian state media reported on September 24 that Ukrainian POWs detained at the Olenivka prison camp orally “requested” Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) authorities to allow them to fight in the DNR’s volunteer “Bohdan Khmelnitsky” Cossack Battalion.  If Russian or Russian proxy forces coerced Ukrainian POWs into combat, it would be a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which stipulates that “no prisoner of war may at any time be sent to or detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone” and shall not “be employed on labour which is of an unhealthy or dangerous nature.”
- Local military commissars are carrying out mobilization orders in a way that suggests a possible disconnect between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s guidelines for partial mobilization and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands for haste.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely continuing to address systemic issues in Russian senior command by replacing individual senior subordinates.
- Russia may be preparing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian prisoners of war in what may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War.
- Ukrainian forces likely continued to make gains along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and northwest of Lyman.
- Ukrainian military officials indicated that the continued Ukrainian interdiction campaign in southern Ukraine is degrading Russian combat capabilities.
- Russian sources identified three locations where Ukrainian troops conducted ground operations in Kherson Oblast- northern Kherson Oblast, western Kherson Oblast near the Inhulets River, and northwest of Kherson City near the Mykolaiv-Kherson Oblast border.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian authorities continue to coerce residents of occupied Ukrainian territory into voting in sham referenda.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 23, 10:00 pm 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.
The Russian mobilization system is struggling to execute the task Russian President Vladimir Putin set and will likely fail to produce mobilized reserve forces even of the low quality that Putin’s plans would have generated unless the Kremlin can rapidly fix fundamental and systemic problems. Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the Russian Armed Forces would mobilize combat-ready reservists to quickly stabilize the frontlines and regain the initiative on the battlefield. Milblogger and social media reports, however, show that Russian military recruitment centers, enlistment officials, and local administrations are mobilizing men who do not meet the Kremlin’s stated criteria, especially Shoigu’s promise that mobilization would prioritize men with “combat experience.” Russian opposition outlets and Telegram channels leaked information suggesting that the Kremlin aims to complete this partial mobilization by November 10 and that the Kremlin is seeking to mobilize 1.2 million men instead of the publicly announced 300,000. ISW cannot verify these reports, but significant available information suggests that this mobilization campaign (the first in post-Soviet Russia) is overwhelming an ineffective and unmotivated bureaucratic system and could fail to generate the much-needed combat-ready reserve force in a short time or at all.
Russian pro-war milbloggers and social media users are raising concerns about unlawful mobilization practices and showcasing many serious Russian mobilization problems on the second day of the mobilization effort. Russian milbloggers reported receiving numerous complaints from social media users that older men, students, employees of military industries, and civilians with no prior military experience are receiving illegal mobilization notices. Shoigu and other officials have repeatedly stated that these categories of individuals would be exempt from this partial mobilization. Other sources reported that Russians are mobilizing airport and airline employees and workers from other industries. The Russian government FAQ portal also indicated that local mobilization-enforcing officials may mobilize part-time students, despite the Kremlin’s declaration that no students will undergo mobilization.
Some milbloggers noted that Russian enlistment personnel are assigning men with prior military service to very different specializations from those in which they served, while other sources recounted instances of military recruitment centers mobilizing men with chronic illnesses.
The quality of Russian bureaucrats and military trainers are also raising fears among the Russian pro-war crowd that the partial mobilization effort may not succeed. Milbloggers noted that employees of the military enlistment centers are unmotivated and underpaid, reducing their enthusiasm to adhere to the envisioned mobilization plan. Milbloggers also pleaded with officers and commanders in charge of preparing mobilized men for war to train them before deployment.
Challenges and errors in the first days of executing a large-scale and demanding partial mobilization in the midst of a failing war are not necessarily surprising, although they suggest that the Russian military mobilization infrastructure was not better prepared for a major war than the Russian armed forces themselves. It is nevertheless conceivable that the Russian Ministry of Defense will address some of the worst problems and get the mobilization effort on track. It is also possible, moreover, that much of the partial mobilization is proceeding more or less as planned and that social media and the milblogger community are highlighting problems that are serious but not necessarily pervasive. Some of the reports suggest, however, that regional mobilization officials have been given quotas to fill and received pressure to fill them in ways that are more likely to cause errors than to reward adherence to the stated principles and the needs of an effective, combat-ready reserve force.
Divergences from the mobilization decree and from Putin’s and Shoigu’s statements about the categories of men who are exempt from mobilization are also causing anger and mistrust toward Russian federal subjects and the Kremlin itself. Some social media footage already shows mobilized men fighting with enlistment officers, arguing with mobilization representatives, and refusing to serve under unlawful orders. Some milbloggers claimed that some of the discontented men who have been wrongfully mobilized would have accepted their fate if they had actually met the mobilization criterium. The Kremlin is thus committing unmotivated and potentially angry men to war with the task of regaining the initiative in an offensive war in a foreign land on a battlefield far from home.
The highly nationalist and pro-war milblogger community is calling on the Kremlin to address these mobilization issues rapidly, but the Kremlin is unlikely to be able to meet their demands. Russian milbloggers express cautious optimism that partial mobilization will reinforce degraded combat units and allow Russian forces to advance in Donetsk Oblast, but are concerned that the Kremlin’s failures to enforce mobilization according to the law and stated policies will create political unrest. One milblogger stated that the Kremlin’s poor handling of the partial mobilization is giving rise to “separatist movements” and opposition media. Another milblogger noted that the Kremlin’s failure to fix mobilization practices within the military recruitment centers may shatter Russians‘ trust in the military-political leadership. A failed or badly flawed partial mobilization campaign may risk further alienation of the Russian nationalist crowd that has been supportive of the war and mobilization.
Disparate mobilization processes across different regions may exacerbate social tensions in Russia already raised by perceived inequalities in the creation of volunteer battalions. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated in a live TV broadcast that the Republic of Chechnya will not conduct mobilization because the Republic has already exceeded an unspecified force generation plan by 254 percent. Kadyrov added that Chechnya has already deployed 20,000 servicemen to war since February 24. Kadyrov threatened to mobilize any protesters in Chechnya and send them to the front, however. Kadyrov then seemingly modified his statements by encouraging those opposing mobilization to respect Russian sovereignty instead of using the constitution to avoid service. Kadyrov’s initial statement, addressed to the Chechen public, may be an attempt to both address and discourage criticism of mobilization, the war, and himself within the Chechen community. Kadyrov’s statement could also be a worrisome indicator for the Kremlin—if one of the war’s most vociferous and aggressive advocates feels the need to refuse to mobilize his people, at least publicly, that could indicate that even Kadyrov senses the popular resentment the partial mobilization will cause and possibly even fears it.
- Russian partial mobilization efforts are suffering from serious and systemic problems in their first days, generating popular resentment and setting conditions to produce a mobilized reserve force incapable of accomplishing the tasks Russian President Vladimir Putin has set for it.
- Protests, attacks against recruiting centers, and vandalism have occurred across Russia in the first 48 hours after the announcement of partial mobilization.
- Ukrainian forces continued to advance north and northwest of Lyman.
- Ukrainian forces continued their interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast and maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian progress on the axis.
- Russian forces continued to launch unsuccessful assaults near Bakhmut and northwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down an Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone in an unspecified area of the Black Sea, likely near Odesa.
- Russian occupation authorities began the voting period for their sham annexation referenda on September 23 with overt coercion and falsified turnout numbers.
- Russian occupation authorities remained on high alert to prevent partisan attacks against sham election workers, polling stations, and government facilities.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, and Mason Clark
September 22, 8:15 pm 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.
The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization may successfully meet the Kremlin’s internal quota of mobilized personnel but is unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain. Russian authorities are forcibly recruiting Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine on flimsy pretexts, violating the Kremlin’s promise to recruit only those with military experience. Russian authorities are also demonstrably mobilizing personnel (such as protesters) who will enter the war in Ukraine with abysmal morale. The Kremlin's heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization will likely exacerbate domestic resentment of a measure that would have been unpopular even if implemented without the harsh approaches observed in the last 24 hours.
The Kremlin is openly not adhering to its promised conditions for partial mobilization just 24 hours after its September 21 declaration Russian officials previously claimed that partial mobilization will only impact 300,000 men, and only those with previous military experience. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on September 22 that the practice of administering mobilization notices to detained protesters does not contradict the September 21 mobilization law. Peskov’s threat contravenes the Kremlin's claim that it will abstain from mobilizing men outside of composed reservist lists. Western and Russian opposition media outlets reported instances of Russian military commissars administering draft notices to protesters in Moscow and Voronezh. Russian opposition outlets also reported on a bank IT specialist who had received a draft notice despite never having served in the army or attended military-education courses in university. The IT specialist is likely one of many Russian men who received mobilization notices despite not meeting the stated criteria for partial mobilization. A university student in Buryatia released footage of Rosgvardia and military police pulling students from lessons, reportedly for mobilization, despite Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu repeatedly stating that Russian students will not be mobilized.
Kremlin quotas will likely force local officials to mobilize any men, regardless of their military status, to meet quota numbers. The quota for mobilized men remains unverifiable, with Kremlin officials claiming that Russia will mobilize only 300,000 men and Russian opposition outlets’ sources suggesting that the number might reach a million. Regardless of the total quota, the Russian federal subjects executing the mobilization order will likely undertake recruitment measures outside of the outlined reservist call up. Some Russian federal subjects such as the Republic of Yakutia (Sakha) and Kursk Oblast are imposing laws restricting reservists from leaving their places of permanent residence. Russian enlistment officers and police are also reportedly enforcing unscrupulous mobilization practices (as ISW previously observed during their crypto-mobilization campaigns) by calling up men by phone, issuing notices in the middle of the night, and notifying men of their mobilization via state social benefits websites.
The Kremlin will also likely mobilize ethnically non-Russian and immigrant communities at a disproportional rate. A member of the Kremlin’s Russian Human Rights Council, Kirill Kabanov proposed mandatory military service for Central Asian immigrants that have received Russian citizenship within the last ten years, threatening to confiscate their Russian citizenship if they do not mobilize. Current Time reported that residents of Kurumkan, a village in the Republic of Buryatia, noted that Russian enlistment officers mobilized about 700 men of the total population of 5,500 people. If witness reports from Kurumkan are accurate, they would indicate that Russian officials mobilized about 25% of the male population from a single village in a majority ethnically Buryat district. An Armenian Telegram channel published a mobilization list from Tuapse, Krasnodar Krai that reportedly consists of 90% ethnically Armenian residents, despite the town’s total Armenian community being only 8.5% of the population.
The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to mobilization is prompting public anger and distrust across Russia. Independent Russian human rights outlet OVD-Info reported that protests took place in 42 cities across the country, including protests even in small villages in the Republic of Dagestan. Unidentified assailants set fire to several military recruitment centers and local administration buildings in Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Tolyatti, and Zabailkalsky Krai. Tge Kremlin will likely subdue such protests in the coming days. However, declaration of partial mobilization and blatant disregard for even the government-dictated parameters for the mobilization may alienate concerned swathes of the Russian public who were previously more tolerant of the less personally impactful Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin likely attempted to downplay a prisoner swap with Ukraine that is deeply unpopular among Russian nationalists and milbloggers by undertaking the swap the same day Putin announced partial mobilization. The Kremlin exchanged 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), including captured foreign nationals and Azov Battalion leaders, for at least 55 Russian POWs and political prisoners, including Putin’s personal friend, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Medvechuk, on September 21. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on September 22 that Russian and DNR and LNR POWs were in “mortal danger” in Ukrainian custody. Far-right Russian milbloggers criticized the exchange and asked if the Kremlin had given up on the ”de-Nazification” of Ukraine, one of the stated goals of the Russian invasion. Kremlin propagandists had heavily publicized the capture and planned prosecution of Azov personnel, accusing them of being Ukrainian Nazis. Other milbloggers criticized the Kremlin for enabling what they called Ukrainian information operations and ”allowing Kyiv to manipulate the mood in Russia.” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov described the exchange as ”incomprehensible,” implied that Chechen forces tortured Azov prisoners in captivity, and implied that Russian forces who capture ”Nazis” should kill them rather than taking them as POWs if they will be traded back to Ukraine. Torturing or killing POWs is a war crime and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it began negotiations to establish a nuclear safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Such negotiations are unlikely to significantly ameliorate the situation due to continued Russian efforts to stage provocations at the plant. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated on September 22 that the IAEA has begun “productive conversations” with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and French President Emmanuel Macron in order to establish a Nuclear Safety and Protection Zone at the ZNPP. Despite the positive intentions of external negotiators, Russian forces may use negotiations as an opportunity to stage further provocations at the ZNPP and accuse Ukrainian troops of endangering safety of the plant, as they have repeatedly done in the past. As ISW has previously reported, Russian forces previously exploited the IAEA presence at the ZNPP in order to accuse Ukraine of disregard for nuclear safety and blame Ukrainian forces for shelling the plant, despite being unable to provide visual evidence to support their accusations. Russian authorities may seek to leverage the IAEA negotiations to accuse Ukraine of nuclear irresponsibility in an attempt to degrade continued Western support to Ukraine.
- The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization may successfully meet the Kremlin’s internal quota of mobilized personnel, but is unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain.
- The Kremlin is openly not adhering to its promised conditions for partial mobilization.
- Kremlin quotas will likely force local officials to mobilize any men, regardless of their military status, to meet quota numbers and will likely incentivize the mobilization of ethnically non-Russian and immigrant communities at a disproportional rate.
- The Kremlin likely attempted to downplay a prisoner swap with Ukraine that is deeply unpopular among Russian nationalists and milbloggers by undertaking the swap the same day Putin announced partial mobilization.
- IAEA negotiations around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant are unlikely to significantly improve the situation at the plant and may provide an information opportunity for Russian forces to stage provocations.
- Ukrainian forces likely continued limited counteroffensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and continued attacks toward Lyman on September 22.
- Ukrainian military officials maintained their operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground attacks in Kherson Oblast on September 22 and reiterated that Ukrainian forces are conducting an operational-level interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the frontlines in Donetsk Oblast on September 22.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 22 and continued routine strikes throughout western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian occupation forces are hurriedly setting conditions to hold sham annexation referenda across occupied Ukraine from September 23-27.
- Russian officials created polling stations in parts of Russia, ostensibly to enable displaced (in many cases meaning kidnapped) Ukrainian residents of occupied territories to “vote.”
- Russian occupation officials in Ukraine likely expect to be forced to provide personnel to meet Russian regional mobilization quotas after the Kremlin annexes occupied Ukrainian territories.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Mason Clark, Kat Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 21, 9:30 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” on September 21 reflected many problems Russia faces in its faltering invasion of Ukraine that Moscow is unlikely to be able to resolve in the coming months. Putin’s order to mobilize part of Russia’s “trained” reserve, that is, individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service, will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months. It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear. It will occur in deliberate phases, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview on September 21, likely precluding any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war. Russia’s partial mobilization will thus not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter.
Putin and Shoigu emphatically said that only reservists who have completed their initial military service will be mobilized, making clear that Russia will not be expanding conscription. Shoigu also declared that students will not be affected and told them to go about their studies without concern. These comments were clearly intended to allay fears among the Russian population that “partial mobilization” was code for general conscription.
It is not clear how much of the Russian reserve has already been deployed to fight in Ukraine. Western intelligence officials reportedly said in November 2021 that Russia had called up “tens of thousands of reservists” as part of its pre-war mobilization. Ukrainian military officials reported in June 2022 that Russian forces had committed 80,000 members of the mobilized reserve to fight in Ukraine. The Russian military likely called up the most combat-ready reserves in that pre-war mobilization effort, which suggests that the current partial mobilization will begin by drawing on less combat-ready personnel from the outset.
Russian reserves are poorly trained to begin with and receive no refresher training once their conscription period is completed. Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time. Shoigu referred to the intent of calling up reservists with “combat experience,” but very few Russian reservists other than those now serving in Ukraine have any combat experience.
Reports conflict regarding how much training reservists called up in the partial mobilization will receive. Shoigu described a deliberate training process that would familiarize or re-familiarize mobilized reservists with crew, team, detachment, and then platoon-level operations before deploying them to fight. That process should take weeks, if not months, to bring reservists from civilian life to war readiness. Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security head Viktor Bondarev reportedly said that mobilized reservists would train for over a month before being deployed. A military commissariat in Kursk Oblast, on the other hand, reportedly announced that reservists under 30 would deploy immediately with no additional training.
Putin emphatically did not say that the Russian nuclear umbrella would cover annexed areas of Ukraine nor did he tie mobilization to the annexation. He addressed partial mobilization, annexation referenda in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war in his speech—but as separate topics rather than a coherent whole. The fact that he mentioned all three topics in a single speech was clearly meant to suggest a linkage, but he went out of his way to avoid making any such linkage explicit.
Putin framed his comments about the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons use in the context of supposed Western threats to use nuclear weapons against Russia. He claimed that Western officials were talking about “the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—against Russia.” He continued, “I wish to remind those who allow themselves such statements about Russia that our country also has various means of attack...” His comment on this topic concludes by noting that Russia would use all means at its disposal in response to a threat to “the territorial integrity of our country, for the defense of Russia and our people.” That comment could be interpreted as applying in advance to the soon-to-be annexed areas of occupied Ukraine, but its placement in the speech and context do not by any means make such an interpretation obvious. Nor is Putin’s language in making this comment different from formal Kremlin policy or from previous statements by Russian officials. Putin’s speech should not be read as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.
Putin did not connect annexation with the partial mobilization either, defending the need for partial mobilization by referring to the length of the lines along which Russian forces are now fighting and Western assistance to Ukraine. He noted that the front lines now stretch for more than a thousand kilometers to explain why more Russian forces are needed. He and Shoigu also heavily emphasized the false narrative that Russia is fighting not Ukraine but NATO and the West. This narrative is not new. It is not even markedly different from the initial false justifications Putin offered before ordering the invasion in February. The formal Kremlin position has long been that NATO was pushing Ukraine to war with Russia, that NATO was preparing to give Ukraine nuclear weapons, and that NATO forces were taking up or preparing to take up positions in Ukraine. Putin’s and Shoigu’s repetitions of that line do not reflect an escalation in their rhetoric.
Russia’s partial mobilization will not transform the war this year and may or may not have a significant impact on Russia’s ability to continue operations at their current level next year. Ukraine and the West should neither dismiss it nor exaggerate it.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announced “partial mobilization” will not materially affect the course of the war in the coming months.
- Putin did not explicitly threaten to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues counter-offensive operations to liberate occupied areas after Russian annexation.
- Ukrainian forces likely continued offensive operations around Lyman.
- Ukrainian forces conducted strikes north and east of Kherson City as part of an operational-level interdiction campaign against Russian logistics, military, and transportation assets in Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian and Russian sources identified three areas of kinetic activity on September 21: northwest of Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border around Vysokopillya.
- Russian federal subjects (regions) are continuing crypto-mobilization efforts regardless of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of partial mobilization.
- Russian-appointed occupation administrators are likely increasing law enforcement and filtration measures in occupied areas of Ukraine in preparation for Russia’s sham annexation referenda.
Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 20, 8:45pm ET
Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27. The Kremlin will use the falsified results of these sham referenda to illegally annex all Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and is likely to declare unoccupied parts of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts to be part of Russia as well.
The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely hopes to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war to “defend” newly claimed Russian territory. Putin and his advisors have apparently realized that current Russian forces are insufficient to conquer Ukraine and that efforts to build large forces quickly through voluntary mobilization are culminating short of the Russian military’s force requirements. Putin is therefore likely setting legal and informational conditions to improve Russian force generation without resorting to expanded conscription by changing the balance of carrots and sticks the Kremlin has been using to spur voluntary recruitment.
Putin may believe that he can appeal to Russian ethnonationalism and the defense of purportedly “Russian peoples” and claimed Russian land to generate additional volunteer forces. He may seek to rely on enhanced rhetoric in part because the Kremlin cannot afford the service incentives, like bonuses and employment benefits, that it has already promised Russian recruits. But Putin is also adding new and harsher punishments in an effort to contain the risk of the collapse of Russian military units fighting in Ukraine and draft-dodging within Russia. The Kremlin rushed the passage of a new law through the State Duma on September 20, circumventing normal parliamentary procedures. This law codifies dramatically increased penalties for desertion, refusing conscription orders, and insubordination. It also criminalizes voluntary surrender and makes surrender a crime punishable by ten years in prison. The law notably does not order full-scale mobilization or broader conscription or make any preparations for such activities.
ISW has observed no evidence that the Kremlin is imminently intending to change its conscription practices. The Kremlin’s new law is about strengthening the Kremlin’s coercive volunteerism, or what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called “self-mobilization.”
The Kremlin is taking steps to directly increase force generation through continued voluntary self-mobilization and an expansion of its legal authority to deploy Russian conscripts already with the force to fight in Ukraine.
- Putin’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory will broaden the domestic legal definition of “Russian” territory under Russian law, enabling the Russian military to legally and openly deploy conscripts already in the Russian military to fight in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian leadership has already deployed undertrained conscripts to Ukraine in direct violation of Russian law and faced domestic backlash. Russia’s semi-annual conscription cycle usually generates around 130,000 conscripts twice per year. The next cycle runs from October 1 to December 31. Russian law generally requires that conscripts receive at least four months of training prior to deployment overseas, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that conscripts will be deployed to Ukraine. Annexation could provide him a legal loophole allowing for the overt deployment of conscripts to fight.
- Russian-appointed occupation officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts announced the formation of “volunteer” units to fight with the Russian military against Ukraine. Russian forces will likely coerce or physically force at least some Ukrainian men in occupied areas to fight in these units, as they have done in the territories of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).
- The Russian State Duma separately passed new incentives for foreign nationals to fight in Russia’s military to obtain Russian citizenship and will likely increase overseas recruitment accordingly. That new law, which deputies also rushed through normal procedures on September 20, allows foreign nationals to gain Russian citizenship by signing a contract and serving in the Russian military for one year. Russian law previously required three years of service to apply for citizenship.
- Putin’s appeals to nationalism may generate small increases in volunteer recruitment from within Russia and parts of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. However, forces generated from such volunteers, if they manifest, will be small and poorly trained. Most eager and able-bodied Russian men and Ukrainian collaborators have likely already volunteered in one of the earlier recruitment phases.
- Local Russian administrators will continue to attempt to form volunteer units, with decreasing effect, as ISW has previously reported and mapped.
- Russian forces and the Wagner Private Military Company are also directly recruiting from Russian prisons, as ISW has previously reported. These troops will be undisciplined and unlikely to meaningfully increase Russian combat power.
Putin likely hopes that increasing self-mobilization, and cracking down on unwilling Russian forces, will enable him to take the rest of Donetsk and defend Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts. He is mistaken. Putin has neither the time nor the resources needed to generate effective combat power. But Putin will likely wait to see if these efforts are successful before either escalating further or blaming his loss on a scapegoat. His most likely scapegoat is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Reports that Shoigu would accompany Putin while Putin gave a speech announced and then postponed on September 20 suggest that Putin intended to make Shoigu the face of the current effort.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely also intends to deter Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensives by annexing occupied Ukrainian territory and framing Ukrainian attempts to liberate occupied territory as attacks on Russia. Russian officials and propagandists such as Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev issued vague warnings on September 20 that “the infringement of Russian territory is a crime; committing this crime permits using all means of self-defense.” Russian officials are demonstrably panicked over Ukrainian advances, as ISW assessed on September 19. The Kremlin likely intends these vague warnings to exacerbate Ukrainian and global fears of nuclear escalation. However, Putin has already declined to enforce any territory-specific redlines in response to Ukrainian attacks on Russian-annexed Crimea, occupied territory he has controlled for eight years and declares to be Russian.
Ukrainian and Western leaders responded to reports of the impending referenda with renewed declarations of commitment to restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on September 20 that “sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything ... Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 20 that “[sham referendums] will only further worsen the situation, and therefore we need to provide more support to Ukraine.” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on September 20 that the United States “will never recognize this territory as anything other than a part of Ukraine” and will continue to provide “historic support” to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz emphasized on September 19 that “Ukraine has every right to defend the sovereignty and integrity of its own territory and its own democracy.” French President Emmanuel Macron called the sham referenda a “parody” and a “provocation.”
- Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27.
- The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely intends to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war ostensibly to defend newly-claimed Russian territory.
- Ukrainian forces continued disrupting ongoing Russian efforts to reestablish ground lines of communications (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces are likely targeting Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts to threaten Ukrainian positions along the Siverskyi Donets River.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on September 20.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 20 and continued routine artillery strikes throughout Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian forces continue to degrade their force generation capabilities by cannibalizing training elements to fight in combat formations in Ukraine.
Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, Mason Clark, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 19, 9 pm ET
Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which is not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers. The legislatures of Russia’s proxies in occupied Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), each called on their leadership to “immediately” hold a referendum on recognizing the DNR and LNR as Russian subjects. Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan spoke glowingly of the call, referring to it as the “Crimean scenario.” She wrote that by recognizing occupied Ukrainian land as Russian territory, Russia could more easily threaten NATO with retaliatory strikes for Ukrainian counterattacks, “untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”
This approach is incoherent. Russian forces do not control all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Annexing the claimed territories of the DNR and LNR would, therefore, have Russia annex oblasts that would be by Kremlin definition partially ”occupied” by legitimate Ukrainian authorities and advancing Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian strikes into Russian-annexed Crimea clearly demonstrate that Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s illegally annexed territory do not automatically trigger Russian retaliation against NATO, as Simonyan would have her readers believe. Partial annexation at this stage would also place the Kremlin in the strange position of demanding that Ukrainian forces un-occupy “Russian” territory, and the humiliating position of being unable to enforce that demand. It remains very unclear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to place himself in such a bind for the dubious benefit of making it easier to threaten NATO or Ukraine with escalation he remains highly unlikely to conduct at this stage.
Russian leadership may be running out of ways to try to stop Ukrainian forces as they advance across the Oskil River in Luhansk Oblast. The Kremlin may believe that partial annexation could drive recruitment of additional forces, both from within Russia and from within newly annexed Ukrainian territory. Russian forces are desperately attempting to mobilize additional forces from all potential sources to backfill their heavily degraded and demoralized units but have proven unable to generate significant combat power, as ISW has repeatedly written.
This latest annexation discussion also omits other parts of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine in which the Kremlin was previously planning sham annexation referenda. A willingness to abandon the promise to bring all the occupied areas into Russia at the same time would be a significant retreat for Putin to make in the eyes of the hardline pro-war groups he appears to be courting. It remains to be seen if he is willing to compromise himself internally in such a fashion. The Kremlin’s proxies in Donbas regularly outpace Kremlin messaging, on the other hand, and may have done so again as they scramble to retain their occupied territory in the face of Ukraine’s successful and ongoing counter-offensive.
Recent Ukrainian counter-offensive successes are further reducing the already poor morale among Russian units that had been considered elite before February 24. Independent Belarusian media outlet Vot Tak posted images of intercepted documents left behind by Russian soldiers of Unit 31135 of the 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division as they fled Izyum en masse. The signed documents (dated to August 30, prior to Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kharkiv on September 7) include written pleas to commanders of Unit 31135 to dismiss the letters’ authors due to persistent “physical and moral fatigue.” Ukrainian intelligence claimed that 90% of the personnel of the 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment wrote damning reports on the state of morale as early as May 23, 2022. The 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division is one of three divisions of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which, prior to the current war in Ukraine, was considered Russia’s premier mechanized force and was to be Russia’s key force in a large-scale conventional war with NATO. The intercepted letters indicate pervasive morale issues among Russia’s most elite units and the degradation of Russia’s conventional capabilities against NATO.
- Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which are not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers.
- Ukrainian counter-offensive successes are degrading morale among Russian units that were regarded as elite prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
- Ukrainian forces are likely continuing limited and localized offensive operations across the Oskil River and along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks south of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing to strike Russian military, transportation, and logistics assets in Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian and Russian sources identified three areas of kinetic activity on September 19: northwest of Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and in northern Kherson Oblast near Olhine.
- The size of volunteer units Russia can generate is likely decreasing.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 18, 9:35 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on irregular volunteer and proxy forces rather than conventional units and formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. ISW has previously reported that Putin has been bypassing the Russian higher military command and Ministry of Defense leadership throughout the summer and especially following the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Putin’s souring relationship with the military command and the Russian (MoD) may explain in part the Kremlin’s increasing focus on recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units.
A prominent Russian milblogger reported that Russian forces have “already began the process of forming and staffing the 4th Army Corps, at least on a documentation level.” The report may be true given the recent Russia-wide push for the formation of more regional volunteer units among the Kremlin representatives following the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian federal subjects had previously begun advertising for contract service in volunteer units around the time of the formation of the 3rd Army Corps. Russian forces are also increasingly recruiting prisoners, involving Cossack units, deploying elements of Russian security services such as the Russian Federal Security Service and Rosgvardia, and covertly mobilizing men from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The continued focus on the formation of irregular units is receiving some criticism from retired Russian officers who are calling for proper conventional divisions rather than volunteer battalions.
The formation of such ad-hoc units will lead to further tensions, inequality, and an overall lack of cohesiveness between forces. Ukrainian and Russian sources have reported instances of Russian Armed Forces refusing to pay veteran benefits, one-time enlistment bonuses, or provide medical treatment to BARS (Russian Combat Army Reserve) servicemen. Some military formations offer financial incentives for every kilometer that the serviceman’s unit advances, an incentive that few soldiers will likely benefit from considering that Russian forces are on the defensive almost everywhere apart from the areas around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, where gains have been slow and very limited. Russian opposition publication Insider reported instances of ethnic discrimination within Chechen units, noting that the Chechen leadership deploys non-Chechens to the frontlines before committing Chechens to the battle. Professional military staff are likely to confront behavioral issues among recruited prisoners, especially considering the likely prevalence of prisoners convicted of violent crimes, narcotics, and rape. The Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR and DNR) have both previously refused to fight for each other’s territory. All these groups have different levels of military training, decentralized command structures, and different perceptions of the war and motivations to fight, which makes conflict and poor unit coordination more probable. The one thing they have in common is wholly inadequate training and preparation for combat.
The formation of irregular, hastily-trained units adds little effective combat power to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Forbes noted that the 3rd Army Corps rushed in to defend Russian positions around Kharkiv Oblast during the counteroffensive but failed to make any difference and “melted away.” The reported arrival of increasing numbers of irregular Russian forces on the battlefield has had little to no impact on Russian operations.
Russian forces are likely attempting to conduct a more deliberate and controlled withdrawal in western Kherson Oblast to avoid the chaotic flight that characterized the collapse of Russian defensive positions in Kharkiv Oblast earlier this month. The Russians have heavily reinforced western Kherson Oblast over the past several months including with airborne units and at least some elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army. These ostensibly more professional and well-trained and equipped units are concentrated in a small area in Kherson Oblast and were prepared for the expected counteroffensive. They appear to be performing significantly better than Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast. The Ukrainians destroyed a number of units of the 1st Guards Tank Army in Kharkiv Oblast, putting them to flight and capturing large amounts of high-quality equipment. The worse performance of professional Russian soldiers in Kharkiv Oblast compared with those in Kherson Oblast may be due to the thinner concentration of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast as well as the fact that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast appeared to surprise the Russian defenders.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is nevertheless making progress, and Russian forces appear to be attempting to slow it and fall back to more defensible positions rather than stop it cold or reverse it. Continuous Ukrainian attacks on Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River to western Kherson Oblast appear to be having increasing effects on Russian supplies on the right bank—recent reports indicate shortages of food and water in Russian-occupied Kherson City and at least a temporary slackening of Russian artillery fire. Poor-quality proxy units have collapsed in some sectors of the Russian front lines, moreover, allowing Ukrainian advances. Ukrainian forces remain likely to regain much if not all of western Kherson Oblast in the coming weeks if they continue to interdict Russian GLOCs and press their advance. Ukrainian gains may continue to be slow if the Russian troops can retain their coherence but could also accelerate significantly if Russian forces begin to break.
A prominent Russian milblogger also claimed that the Russian command issued a “no retreat” order last week for all units serving in Donbas, requiring that Russian forces operating on the axis hold their positions regardless of the unfolding situation in front of them. This order would be noteworthy in two ways if the report is accurate. First, Donetsk Oblast is the only area in Ukraine in which Russian forces are still attempting offensive operations. There have been sporadic reports of limited Ukrainian counterattacks, but no evidence that Ukraine is preparing a large-scale counteroffensive operation in this area. The order suggests that the Russian military may fear a Ukrainian counteroffensive into the teeth of their last offensive efforts, however. Second, it shows deep mistrust of the combat capabilities of the units receiving the order in contrast with the apparently higher confidence Russian commanders have in the units in western Kherson Oblast, where sensible efforts to conduct a controlled withdrawal appear to prevail.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be increasingly relying on irregular, poorly trained ad-hoc volunteer and proxy units rather than attempting to rebuild damaged or destroyed conventional Russian ground forces units.
- Ukrainian forces continue to consolidate positions on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast despite Russian efforts to contain them.
- Russian forces in western Kherson Oblast may be attempting to fall back to more defensible positions in a controlled withdrawal to avoid the chaotic retreat that characterized the collapse of Russian defenses in Kharkiv earlier in September.
- Russian forces suffered devastating losses of manpower and equipment in their fight for eastern Ukraine and especially during the Ukrainian Kharkiv counter-offensive. Multiple Russian armored and mechanized units have likely been effectively destroyed according to assessments released on September 18.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 17, 9:30 pm ET
Russian forces continue to conduct meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut instead of focusing on defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives that continue to advance. Russian troops continue to attack Bakhmut and various villages near Donetsk City of emotional significance to pro-war residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) but little other importance. The Russians are apparently directing some of the very limited reserves available in Ukraine to these efforts rather than to the vulnerable Russian defensive lines hastily thrown up along the Oskil River in eastern Kharkiv Oblast. The Russians cannot hope to make gains around Bakhmut or Donetsk City on a large enough scale to derail Ukrainian counteroffensives and appear to be continuing an almost robotic effort to gain ground in Donetsk Oblast that seems increasingly divorced from the overall realities of the theater.
Russian failures to rush large-scale reinforcements to eastern Kharkiv and to Luhansk Oblasts leave most of Russian-occupied northeastern Ukraine highly vulnerable to continuing Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Russians may have decided not to defend this area, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated declarations that the purpose of the “special military operation” is to “liberate” Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Prioritizing the defense of Russian gains in southern Ukraine over holding northeastern Ukraine makes strategic sense since Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts are critical terrain for both Russia and Ukraine whereas the sparsely-populated agricultural areas in the northeast are much less so. But the continued Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, which are using some of Russia’s very limited effective combat power at the expense of defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives, might indicate that Russian theater decision-making remains questionable.
Ukrainian forces appear to be expanding positions east of the Oskil River and north of the Siverskyi Donets River that could allow them to envelop Russian troops holding around Lyman. Further Ukrainian advances east along the north bank of the Siverskyi Donets River could make Russian positions around Lyman untenable and open the approaches to Lysychansk and ultimately Severodonetsk. The Russian defenders in Lyman still appear to consist in large part of BARS (Russian Combat Army Reserve) reservists and the remnants of units badly damaged in the Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensive, and the Russians do not appear to be directing reinforcements from elsewhere in the theater to these areas.
- Russian forces continue to prioritize strategically meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut over defending against continued Ukrainian counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces liberated a settlement southwest of Lyman and are likely continuing to expand their positions in the area.
- Ukrainian forces continued to conduct an interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to conduct unsuccessful assaults around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
- Ukrainian sources reported extensive partisan attacks on Russian military assets and logistics in southern Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian officials continued to undertake crypto-mobilization measures to generate forces for war Russian war efforts.
- Russian authorities are working to place 125 “orphan” Ukrainian children from occupied Donetsk Oblast with Russian families.
Katherine Lawlor, Grace Mappes, Mason Clark, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 16, 8pm ET
The revelations of mass graves of civilians and torture chambers in newly liberated Izyum confirm ISW’s previous assessments that the Bucha atrocities were not isolated war crimes but rather a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas. The Ukrainian General Staff published images on September 16 showing a mass burial site in Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and noting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the site contained more than 400 bodies showing signs of torture and brutality. The Ukrainian Ministry of Reintegration reported that the number of war crimes victims in Izyum may exceed those of Bucha. The head of Ukraine’s National Police, Ihor Klymenko, stated that Ukrainian officials have found 10 Russian torture chambers in Vovchansk, Kupyansk, Balaklia, and Izyum. One torture chamber was reportedly located in the Balakliya police department, where “Russians wore masks and tortured civilians with bare electric wires,” according to Andriy Nebytov, the head of the National Police Main Directorate in the Kyiv region.
ISW Non-Resident Fellow Nataliya Bugayova had warned in April 2022 that “Bucha is an observable microcosm of a deliberate Russian terror campaign against Ukrainians. Similar intentional atrocities are happening throughout Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine.” Ukrainian officials will likely continue to find evidence of Russian war crimes and atrocities as Ukrainian forces liberate occupied areas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to threaten increased attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure if reported Ukrainian attacks on Russian military positions in Russian Federation territory continue. Putin said that Russia has been “rather restrained in our response” to Ukrainian “terrorist acts [and] attempts to damage our civilian [sic] infrastructure” in a question-and-answer session with reporters following the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting on September 16. He continued “more recently, the Russian armed forces have dealt a couple of sensitive blows” that are “warning shots,” and threatened that more serious attacks could follow. Putin did not explicitly refer to the reported Ukrainian strikes on the base of the Russian 3rd Motorized Rifle Division near Valuyki that occurred on September 16, nor did he make clear which Russian actions he was referring to. But Russian forces have increased attacks on civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine over the past several weeks as Russian media personalities increase explicit calls for such attacks.
Putin’s comments are likely in part a response to criticism by Russian milbloggers, who attacked the Kremlin for failing to protect Russian territory and for failing to respond adequately. One milblogger asked if the Kremlin still regards Belgorod Oblast as part of Russia, part of the “special military operation” zone, or part of Ukraine. Another blamed the reported Ukrainian attack on Valuyki on the so-called “regrouping” of Russian forces (referring to the initial language the Russian Ministry of Defense used to describe the rout of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast) and warned that another “regrouping” could allow Ukrainian forces to attack other critical Russian areas. Putin has increasingly shown a determination to appease the milbloggers and the constituencies they speak to and on behalf of, even at the expense of the uniformed Russian military and the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The Ukrainian Resistance Center warned on September 16 that Russian forces are planning to conduct false flag attacks against civilian population in Russian-occupied Ukraine and urged Ukrainians in occupied areas to avoid public places between September 17 and September 20. The Resistance Center suggested that such false flag attacks could be attempts to “divert the attention of the world community from the defeat in Kharkiv and the discovery of Russian war crimes” in liberated areas.
Correction: ISW's 9/15/2022 update contained several errors. We mistakenly located the Kinburn Spit in Crimea rather than Kherson Oblast. We reported Ukrainian attacks northwest of Kharkiv City rather than Kherson City. And we reported Ukrainian operations continuing southwest of Izyum, near Lyman, instead of southeast of Izyum. We apologize for these errata, which have been corrected in the 9/15 update text.
- The discovery of mass graves and torture chambers in liberated Izyum confirm previous ISW assessments that the Bucha atrocities were emblematic of Russian activities in occupied areas rather than an anomaly.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently threatened to expand Russia’s attacks on civilian Ukrainian infrastructure if Ukraine continues reported attacks on military facilities in Russia.
- The Ukrainian Resistance Center warned that Russian forces may conduct false flag attacks in occupied areas between September 17 and September 20.
- Ukrainian forces captured all of Kupyansk City on September 16, continuing offensive operations east of the Oskil River.
- Ukrainian forces reportedly shelled targets in Valuyki, Belgorod Oblast, Russia, overnight on September 15-16.
- Ukrainian forces struck Russia’s occupation headquarters in Kherson, likely using HIMARS, and are continuing ground maneuvers in three areas of Kherson Oblast as part of the ongoing southern counteroffensive.
- Russian administrative officials are rallying around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s call for “self-mobilization” at a local level to provide additional forces to the Russian military.
- Forced Russian mobilization campaigns are likely depleting male populations in parts of the claimed territory of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) along the front lines.
- Immediate and coordinated Russian information responses suggest that Ukrainian partisans may not be responsible for the September 16 assassination of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Prosecutor General and his deputy.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 15, 9:30 pm ET
Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine, increasingly pressuring Russian positions and logistics lines in eastern Kharkiv, northern Luhansk, and eastern Donetsk oblasts. Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground operations southwest of Izyum, near Lyman, and on the east bank of the Oskil River, reportedly compelling Russian forces to withdraw from some areas in eastern Ukraine and reinforce others. Russian forces in eastern Ukraine will likely struggle to hold their defensive lines if Ukrainian forces continue to push farther east.
The Kremlin is responding to the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast by doubling down on crypto-mobilization rather than setting conditions for general mobilization. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on all federal subjects to initiate “self-mobilization” and not wait on the Kremlin to declare martial law. Kadyrov claimed that each federal subject must prove its readiness to help Russia by recruiting at least 1,000 servicemen instead of delivering speeches and conducting fruitless public events. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan echoed the need for Russians to volunteer to join the war effort, and several loyalist Russian governors publicly supported Kadyrov’s speech. The Russian-appointed head of occupied Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, announced the formation of two volunteer battalions on the peninsula in support of Kadyrov’s calls.
The defeat around Kharkiv Oblast prompted the Kremlin to announce a Russia-wide recruitment campaign. Kremlin officials and state media had not previously made country-wide recruitment calls but had instead tasked local officials and outlets to generate forces ostensibly on their own initiative. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov vaguely welcomed the creation of the battalions on July 12, while 47 loyalist federal subjects advertised and funded the regional volunteer battalion recruitment campaign. A prominent Russian milblogger and a supporter of general mobilization praised officials such as Kadyrov for taking the recruitment campaign from the ineffective Russian Ministry of Defense; this recruitment revamp is likely to secure more support for the Kremlin among nationalist figures who are increasingly critical of the Russian MoD, even if the drive does not generate large numbers of combat-effective troops.
The Kremlin has likely abandoned its efforts to shield select federal subjects from recruitment drives, which may increase social tensions. ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin attempted to shield Moscow City residents from reports of the formation of the Moscow-based “Sobyaninsky Polk” volunteer regiment. Russian opposition outlet The Insider noted that several groups in the republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tyva, and Yakytia (Republic of Sakha) are publicly opposed to the Kremlin's emphasis on recruitment on an ethnic basis. Simonyan’s statement about “self-mobilization” prompted numerous negative comments among Russians calling on Russian oligarchs to pay for and fight in the war.
The Kremlin has almost certainly drained a large proportion of the forces originally stationed in Russian bases in former Soviet states since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, likely weakening Russian influence in those states. A Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) investigation reported on September 14 that the Russian military has already deployed approximately 1500 Russian personnel from Russia’s 201st Military Base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began and plans to deploy 600 more personnel from facilities in Dushanbe and Bokhatar, a southern Tajik city, in the future. RFE/RL additionally reported on September 13 that Russia has likely redeployed approximately 300 Tuvan troops from the Russian Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan to fight in Ukraine at varying points since late 2021.
The withdrawals from the Central Asian states are noteworthy in the context of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards exchanged fire in three separate incidents on September 14, killing at least two people. The uptick in violence between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which are members of the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comes alongside renewed aggression by Azerbaijan against CSTO member state Armenia. Russian forces also withdrew 800 personnel from Armenia early in the war to replenish losses in Ukraine, as ISW has previously reported.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin is responding to the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast by doubling down on crypto-mobilization, rather than setting conditions for general mobilization.
- The Kremlin has almost certainly drained a large proportion of the forces originally at Russian bases in former Soviet states since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, likely weakening Russian influence in those states.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources reported Ukrainian ground attacks northwest of Kharkiv City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border.
- Russian-appointed occupation officials and milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a landing at the Kinsburn Spit (a narrow peninsula of the Crimean Peninsula).
- Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults and are reinforcing positions on the Eastern Axis.
- The Russian proxy Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is likely attempting to stop its administrators from fleeing ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, demonstrating the bureaucratic fragility of the DNR.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 14, 8:15pm ET
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant. A Russian milblogger noted that Prigozhin is introducing a “Stalinist” method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society. Milbloggers have been consistently praising Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some even said that he should replace the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom milbloggers and Kremlin pundits blame for the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian military correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) claimed to have spoken to Prigozhin about the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the area. The Prigozhin-Fomin meeting, if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command. Prigozhin is Putin’s close confidant, and his developing relationship with milbloggers may help retain milblogger support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin has changed its information approach to address the demands of the Russian milbloggers and nationalists’, suggesting that Putin seeks to win back the critical milblogger community alienated by Russian failures.
Russian forces likely targeted Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on September 14 to interfere with Ukrainian operations across the Inhulets River. Ukrainian sources reported that eight Russian cruise missiles struck unspecified targets in Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and caused extensive flooding in areas of Kryvyi Rih. Russian sources identified the target location as the Karachun Dam, which sits along the Inhulets River on the western outskirts of Kryvyi Rih. Footage of the aftermath of the strike shows a 2.5m increase in the water level of the Inhulets River, which runs south of Kryvyi Rih and is an important geographical feature for the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive along the Kherson-Mykolaiv border. Russian forces likely targeted the Karachun Dam to damage Ukrainian pontoon bridges further downstream, especially in light of recent reports that Ukrainian troops are attempting to expand their bridgehead over the Inhulets River near Davydiv Brid as part of the ongoing Kherson counteroffensive.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine.
- Russian forces likely targeted Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in order to interfere with Ukraine’s ability to operate across the Inhulets River
- The Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Kharkiv Oblast continues to degrade Russian forces and threaten Russian artillery and air defenses.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources reported Ukrainian ground attacks in northern Kherson Oblast, western Kherson Oblast, and northwest of Kherson City but did not report any major gains.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and northwest and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Funding volunteer battalions is likely placing financial strain on Russian cities and oblasts.
- Russian occupation authorities shut off mobile internet in occupied Luhansk Oblast on September 14, likely to preserve Russian operational security and better control the information environment as Russian forces, occupation officials, and collaborators flee newly-liberated Kharkiv Oblast for Russian and Russian-controlled territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 13, 10:15 pm ET
The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin officials and state media propagandists are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, a marked change from their previous pattern of reporting on exaggerated or fabricated Russian successes with limited detail. The Kremlin never admitted that Russia was defeated around Kyiv or, later, at Snake Island, framing the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas and the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill.” The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup, but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online. The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the defeat is part of an effort to mitigate and deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the uniformed military command.
Kremlin sources are now working to clear Putin of any responsibility for the defeat, instead blaming the loss of almost all of occupied Kharkiv Oblast on underinformed military advisors within Putin’s circle. One member of the Kremlin’s Council for Interethnic Relations, Bogdan Bezpalko, even stated that military officials who had failed to see the concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment and disregarded Telegram channels that warned of the imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast should have their heads ”lying on Putin’s desk.” ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin delayed Putin‘s meeting with Russian defense officials immediately after the withdrawal of troops from around Kharkiv, increasing the appearance of a rift between the Kremlin and the Russian MoD. The Kremlin’s admission of defeat in Kharkiv shows that Putin is willing and able to recognize and even accept a Russian defeat at least in some circumstances and focus on deflecting blame from himself.
Several members of the Russian State Duma expressed concern about the dire situation on the frontlines in Ukraine during the Duma’s first plenary meeting of its autumn session on September 13. Leader of the Russian Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov stated that Russia needs to announce full mobilization because the Russian “special military operation” is a war. Zyuganov said that one can end a “special military operation” at any time, but that a war can end only in victory or defeat, and “we have no right to lose” this war. Leader of the “Fair Russia—For Truth” Party Sergey Mironov called for social “mobilization,” in which regular Russians would pay attention more to the war in Ukraine, rather than for full military mobilization. Leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky also noted that Russia will continue to fight in the geopolitical “scrum” with the West. All three MPs had publicly advocated for Putin to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) before the February invasion and were instrumental in setting information conditions for the invasion itself. The MPs also discussed a December date for the next hearing on a bill that will simplify the delivery of the semiannual conscription notices. The bill, which is likely to pass, will allow Russian military recruitment centers to send out conscription notices via mail instead of presenting them in person and will oblige men who have not received a notice in the mail to show up at the local recruitment center anyway.
The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts. Zyuganov’s, Mironov’s, and Slutsky’s statements could be aimed at raising concern and patriotism among Russians to encourage them to get more involved in the war. The bill could further facilitate the ongoing crypto mobilization campaign, which aims to promote recruitment into contract service via deception, coercion, or promised financial rewards. Recruitment centers throughout Russia have been delivering unofficial summonses that look like conscription notices via mail and phone calls, but many men are aware that Russian law requires military recruitment centers to issue conscription notices in person. Russian men who have responded to the unofficial summonses have recounted recruiters attempting to persuade or pressure them into signing a military contract. The bill legalizing mailed conscription notices will facilitate this dishonest practice. Both the bill and MPs’ statements may evoke fear of general mobilization among men, which could incentivize some to sign military contracts and receive financial bonuses for volunteering, as opposed to being conscripted and forced to serve without such compensation.
Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly. Large-scale conscription would very likely overwhelm the Russian MoD’s ability to induct, train, and equip new soldiers, particularly since the Russian training base appears to be strained in preparing the limited numbers of volunteer battalions currently being fielded. Russia would likely first have to expand its training base significantly, a time-consuming process, and then find and prepare for combat sufficient equipment to kit out large numbers of new units before it could even begin to handle a large influx of new conscripts. Widely-reported Russian materiel shortages suggest deep failures in the Russian military industry that would make generating the necessary equipment, ammunition, and supplies for a large conscript army very difficult. ISW has not identified any indicators that preparations for such activities have been ordered or are underway.
The Kremlin has adopted narratives that echo longstanding milblogger demands and complaints, suggesting that Putin seeks to appease and win back the critical milblogger community rather than censor it. Russian milbloggers have long complained about the Russian MoD and the military high command, and now the Kremlin state media is openly expressing dissatisfaction with the progress of the war and the lack of situational awareness of events on the ground. Milbloggers are advertising Telegram channels covering frontline developments 24/7 and urging readers to subscribe if they “believe” in Putin. Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-influenced media are now openly calling for an intensive missile campaign against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure and transit routes, an idea with broad support among many milbloggers. These new calls are a stark departure from the Kremlin‘s previous line claiming that Russian forces did not target civilian infrastructure, and this new narrative is earning the Kremlin public support among milbloggers. Slutsky’s statement at the Duma meeting pointing to the disinterest of most Russian civilians in the war echoes frequent milblogger complaints about the harmful side effects of conducting a limited war.
Russia’s defeat in Kharkiv Oblast is causing panic among Russians in occupied Ukrainian territories, servicemen, and milbloggers. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) reported that Russian authorities in Crimea urged their families to flee to Russia, while employees of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) are selling their homes on the peninsula and are urgently evacuating their families due to Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that forcibly mobilized proxy units are suffering low morale and psychological problems. Russian milbloggers are increasingly worrying about Ukrainian counter-offensives in different areas along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblasts frontline, and preemptively identifying vulnerable Russian positions.
Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating a Russian-brokered ceasefire and attacking Armenian forces along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border on September 13. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and convened a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states later in the day but did not invoke the CSTO’s collective security agreement, according to government readouts of both meetings. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on whether the Kremlin would fulfill its CSTO obligations to Armenia if Azerbaijan continued to press its attack. Russia’s hedging approach may damage Russia’s relationship with Armenia and with other CSTO member states, particularly If Russia cannot provide military or peacekeeping support.
The CSTO is a Russia-created and Russia-dominated intergovernmental military alliance that the Kremlin claims is about collective security, but typically uses to justify or further its hybrid war aims. The degraded Russian military likely does not have sufficient forces to enforce a ceasefire or to deploy additional peacekeepers to the area after six months of devastating war in Ukraine. ISW reported on March 13 that Russia pulled 800 personnel from Russia’s base in Armenia and elements of its Nagorno-Karabakh “peacekeeping deployment” to replenish early losses in Ukraine. ISW has observed no redeployments to Nagorno-Karabakh or Russia’s base in Armenia since then.
- The Kremlin has recognized its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first defeat Russia has acknowledged in this war. The Kremlin is deflecting blame from Russian President Vladimir Putin and attributing it instead to his military advisors.
- The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts by intensifying patriotic rhetoric and discussions about fuller mobilization while revisiting a Russian State Duma bill allowing the military to send call-ups for the regular semiannual conscription by mail. Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly in any case.
- The successful Ukrainian counter-offensive around Kharkiv Oblast is prompting Russian servicemen, occupation authorities, and milbloggers to panic.
- Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union as Russia appears unwilling to enforce a violated ceasefire it brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan or to allow Armenia to invoke provisions of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in its defense.
- Ukrainian troops likely continued ground attacks along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line in northern Donetsk Oblast and may be conducting limited ground attacks across the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources indicated that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground maneuvers in three areas of Kherson Oblast as part of the ongoing southern counter-offensive.
- Russian troops made incremental gains south of Bakhmut and continued ground attacks throughout Donetsk Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces provided the first visual evidence of Russian forces using an Iranian-made drone in Ukraine on September 13.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 12, 8:45pm 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.
Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive is continuing to have significant impacts on Russian morale and military capabilities in southern Ukraine. Satellite imagery of known Russian positions in Kyselivka, 15km northwest of Kherson City, shows that all but four Russian vehicles have departed from previous forward positions, consistent with rumors that Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) troops have abandoned Kyselivka and moved back towards the Dnipro River. Kyselivka is an operationally significant location for Russian forces around Kherson City because it is the last major settlement along both the E58 highway and a railway line between current Ukrainian positions and Chornobaivka, the outermost part of Kherson City. The apparent withdrawal of Russian troops from this position may compromise the Russians’ ability to defend the northwestern outskirts of Kherson City and suggests that Russian troops in this area perceive an imminent threat to their positions. Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command, Natalya Humenyuk, stated on September 12 that Russian forces located along the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast are attempting to negotiate for surrender under the auspices of international law. Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast are unlikely to have had such a dramatic psychological effect on Russian troops this far south, and both the withdrawal of troops from forward positions in Kyselivka and reports of surrender negotiations are indicators that Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south are progressing in a significant way, even if visibility on this axis is limited by the shift in focus to Kharkiv.
The success of recent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may be impacting the will or ability of the Russian military command to use newly formed volunteer units in Ukraine in a timely fashion. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the Russian military command has suspended sending new, already-formed units to Ukraine due to recent Russian losses and widespread distrust of the Russian military command, factors which have caused a large number of volunteers to categorically refuse to participate in combat. This assessment is still unconfirmed, but low morale due to Ukrainian counteroffensive success may prove devastating to the Kremlin’s already-poor ability to generate meaningful combat capability. The deployment of these newly formed units to reinforce defensive lines against Ukrainian counteroffensives would be an operationally-sound decision on the part of Russian military leadership; and the delay or potential suspension of these deployments will afford Ukrainian troops time to consolidate and then resume the offensive, should they choose to do so, without having to face newly arrived and fresh (albeit undertrained and understrength) units.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing to make impactful gains in Kherson Oblast and are steadily degrading the morale and combat capabilities of Russian forces in this area.
- The Russian military command may be suspending the deployment of newly formed units to Ukraine due to recent Russian losses and overall degraded morale.
- Russian forces are failing to reinforce the new frontline following Ukrainian gains in eastern Kharkiv Oblast and are actively fleeing the area or redeploying to other axes.
- Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian military assets and positions in Kherson Oblast, likely steadily degrading them.
- The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum has likely degraded Russian forces’ ability to conduct artillery strikes along the Izyum-Slovyansk highway.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced the restoration of the second reserve power transmission line to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
- Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive is damaging Russian administrative capabilities and driving Russian departures from occupied parts of Ukraine far behind the line of contact.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Angela Howard, and Mason Clark
September 10, 11:30pm ET
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast is routing Russian forces and collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis. Russian forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum. Russian forces have previously weakened the northern Donbas axis by redeploying units from this area to Southern Ukraine, complicating efforts to slow the Ukrainian advance or at minimum deploy a covering force for the retreat. Ukrainian gains are not confined to the Izyum area; Ukrainian forces reportedly captured Velikiy Burluk on September 10, which would place Ukrainian forces within 15 kilometers of the international border. Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places and captured over 3,000 square kilometers of territory in the past five days since September 6 – more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.
Ukrainian forces will likely capture the city of Izyum itself in the next 48 hours if they have not already done so. The liberation of Izyum would be the most significant Ukrainian military achievement since winning the Battle of Kyiv in March. It would eliminate the Russian advance in northwest Donetsk Oblast along the E40 highway that the Russian military sought to use to outflank Ukrainian positions along the Slovyansk – Kramatorsk line. A successful encirclement of Russian forces fleeing Izyum would result in the destruction or capture of significant Russian forces and exacerbate Russian manpower and morale issues. Russian war correspondents and milbloggers have also reported facing challenges when evacuating from Izyum, indicating Ukrainian forces are at least partially closing a cauldron in some areas.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, falsely framing the retreat as a “regrouping” of forces to support Russian efforts in the Donetsk Oblast direction – mirroring the Kremlin’s false explanation for the Russian withdrawal after the Battle of Kyiv. The Russian MoD did not acknowledge Ukrainian successes around Kharkiv Oblast as the primary factor for the Russian retreat, and claimed that Russian military command has been carrying out a controlled withdrawal from the Balakliya-Izyum area for the past three days. The Russian MoD falsely claimed that Russian forces undertook a number of demonstrative actions and used artillery and aviation to ensure the safety of withdrawing Russian forces. These Russian statements have no relation to the situation on the ground.
The Russian MoD’s inability to admit Russian failures in Kharkiv Oblast and effectively set information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space. Kremlin-sponsored TV propagandists offered a wide range of confused explanations for Ukrainian successes ranging from justifications that Russian forces are fighting against the entire Western Bloc, to downplaying the importance of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) in Kupyansk. The Kremlin’s propagandists appeared unusually disorganized in their narratives, with some confirming the liberation of certain towns and others refuting such reports. Guest experts also were unable to reaffirm the hosts’ narratives that Ukrainian successes are not significant for the Donbas axis. Such programming may reveal the true progress of the Russian “special military operation” to the general Russian public that relies on state media and the Russian MoD for updates.
The withdrawal announcement further alienated the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision for capturing the entirety of Ukraine. Russian milbloggers condemned the Russian MoD for remaining quiet, choosing self-isolation, and distorting situational awareness in Russia. One milblogger even stated that the Russian MoD’s silence is a betrayal of Russian servicemen that fought and still fight in Ukraine. A Russian milblogger also noted that the Russian MoD has repeatedly ignored or demeaned the milblogger community that raised concerns with Russian military leadership and lack of transparency on the frontlines. The milbloggers called on the Russian MoD to take the information space into its own hands and stop relying on silencing information.
Prior to the withdrawal announcement, the Russian MoD released footage of Russian military convoys reportedly moving to reinforce the Kharkiv direction on September 9. Many Russian outlets and milbloggers expressed hope that these reinforcements would stabilize the frontline and repel Ukrainian advances on Izyum despite the Russian MoD failing to address the unfolding situation days prior. Russian milbloggers would have likely accepted MoD’s announcement of a withdrawal like they previously did with the Russian retreat from the Snake Island and other tactical Russian losses if the Russian information space was not oversaturated with footage of Ukrainian successes. Such inconsistencies in messaging further support ISW’s assessment that the Russian MoD faces challenges in responding to unexpected developments within the established informational framework, which portrays Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation. Most importantly, such unaware information practices erode the Russian public’s trust in Russian MoD messaging and disrupt the Kremlin’s propaganda facade.
Russian milbloggers also criticized the Russian occupation authorities for failing to organize evacuation measures in Kharkiv Oblast. Some milbloggers noted that occupation administrations are disoriented and lack initiative. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is effectively paralyzing the Russian occupation leadership that is likely afraid for its fate.
- Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv Oblast are collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis, and Ukrainian forces will likely recapture Izyum itself in the next 48 hours.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, and the Russian MoD’s failure to set effective information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space.
- The withdrawal announcement and occupation authorities’ failure to organize evacuation measures is further alienating the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision of capturing the entirety of Ukraine.
- Ukrainian forces reached positions within 15–25km of the Russo-Ukrainian border in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, Izyum’s northern outskirts, and Lyman’s south and southwestern outskirts, and captured the western half of Kupyansk.
- Russian forces are reinforcing frontline positions in Kherson Oblast while Ukrainian forces conduct positional battles and continue their interdiction campaign against Russian logistics lines.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults north of Kharkiv City, south of Bakhmut, and west of Donetsk City.
- Russian recruitment drives are generating some criticism among Russian milbloggers and regions.
- Russian forces are reportedly intensifying filtration measures in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts in response to Ukrainian counteroffensives on the Southern Axis.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark
September 9, 11:15pm ET
Ukrainian forces have captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers in Kharkiv Oblast in the Kharkiv area counteroffensive as of September 9. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhnyi stated on September 8 that Ukrainian forces liberated over 1,000 square kilometers between September 1-8 – a day before Ukrainian forces reached the southern approach to Kupyansk and the Oskil River on September 9. Ukrainian forces are likely clearing pockets of disorganized Russian forces caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance to Kupyansk, Izyum, and the Oskil River, given the influx of observed pictures of Russian prisoners of war in the past 48 hours.
Ukrainian forces may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) north and south of Izyum. Ukrainian forces continued to advance on Kupyansk and towards Izyum on September 9, and are undertaking measures to isolate the Russian Izyum grouping of forces. If Ukrainians are successful in severing the Russian GLOCs, then they will have an opportunity to create a cauldron around Izyum and collapse a major portion of the Russian positions in northeastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin is rushing resources to the Kharkiv City-Izyum line in an attempt to halt Ukrainian advances after Ukrainian forces achieved remarkable operational surprise. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Kremlin wires published footage of Russian military convoys reportedly en route to reinforce Kupyansk, Izyum, and the general Kharkiv direction but did not acknowledge Ukrainian successes in the area. While Russian milbloggers largely welcomed the reports of reinforcements, some criticized the Kremlin for first relocating units away from the Kharkiv City-Izyum line, only to deploy them again to the same location. Russian forces have been redeploying out of southern Kharkiv Oblast to reinforce Donetsk Oblast and the Southern Axis to address the threat of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast and to resume offensive operations west of Donetsk City for several weeks. The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive is upending the Kremlin’s effort to make Izyum an economy of force area. Some milbloggers also noted that September 10 will be a decisive day if Russians are unable to generate reserves and capable command in time.
The Kremlin is refusing to publicly address Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv Oblast, but the counteroffensive likely prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to convene a meeting with top Russian security and political officials on September 9. The Kremlin did not discuss the topic of the security council meeting, and the Kremlin’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that the Kremlin will not comment on the “situation around Balakliya and other events in the special operation zone.” Peskov directed all inquiries regarding the issue to the Russian MoD.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive operation in Kherson Oblast to degrade Russian forces on the Southern Axis is continuing simultaneously with Ukrainian operations on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line. Ukrainian forces continue to target Russian pontoon and ferry crossings daily, indicating a long-term commitment to consistently destroying re-emerging Russian GLOCs. Ukrainian forces are maintaining a strict operational silence in southern Ukraine, which may appear as if Ukrainian forces are not advancing. Ukrainian forces are also likely operating in several directions in Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces have captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers in Kharkiv Oblast in the Kharkiv counteroffensive as of September 9.
- The Kremlin is rushing resources to Kharkiv Oblast in response to effective Ukrainian operations.
- Ukrainian forces reached the outskirts of Kupyansk and are advancing on Izyum from the northwest, north, northeast, and southeast as of September 9 and will likely sever Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) to Izyum within the coming days.
- Ukrainian forces may have advanced north of Hrushivka towards a Russian logistics hub in Velykyi Burluk, northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine, including interdicting Russian GLOCS, and degrading Russian morale.
- Russian forces conducted ground assaults north of Kharkiv City and across the Eastern Axis.
- The United Nations released a report detailing poor Russian treatment of Ukrainian POWs and detained civilians.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark
September 8, 11:00 pm ET
Ukrainian successes on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line are creating fissures within the Russian information space and eroding confidence in Russian command to a degree not seen since a failed Russian river crossing in mid-May. Ukrainian military officials announced that Ukrainian forces advanced 50km deep into Russian defensive positions north of Izyum on September 8, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) notably did not issue any statement regarding Ukrainian advances in Kharkiv Oblast. Ukrainian successes and the Russian MoD’s silence prompted many Russian milbloggers to criticize and debate Russian failures to retain control over the city of Balakliya, approximately 44km northwest of Izyum. Some milbloggers claimed that Russian forces fully or partially withdrew from Balakliya in good order, while others complained that Ukrainian forces beat Russian forces out of the settlement. Others noted that Rosgvardia units operating in the area did not coordinate their defenses or have sufficient artillery capabilities to prevent Ukrainian counterattacks in the region. Milbloggers warned about an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive northwest of Izyum for days prior to Ukrainian advances, and some milbloggers noted that Russian command failed to prepare for “obvious and predictable” Ukrainian counteroffensives. Others noted that Ukrainian forces have “completely outplayed” the Russian military command in Balakliya, while others encouraged readers to wait to discuss Russian losses and withhold criticism until Russian forces stabilize the frontlines.
The current tone and scale of Russian milblogger criticism echo the response to Russia’s loss of a large amount of armor in a failed Russian river crossing in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast, in May. ISW assessed at the time that the catastrophic Russian losses suffered due to incompetence shook the confidence of pro-Russian milbloggers, sparking criticism of the Russian war effort. Russian milbloggers and social media users accessed satellite imagery that showed devastating losses of Russian military equipment, which caused many to comment on the incompetence of the Russian military and analyze the scene on a tactical level. The Russian MoD did not comment on the situation, fueling burgeoning doubts about Russia’s prospects in Ukraine.
The Russian MoD repeated its Bilohorivka information mistake by failing to acknowledge the situation around Kharkiv Oblast and establish a desired narrative, leaving milbloggers to fill this gap with criticism of Russian forces. The Russian MoD only claimed to have destroyed a Ukrainian ammunition depot in Balakliya. Some milbloggers complained that the Russian MoD did not seize the information space in a timely manner to prevent the spread of Ukrainian social media on Russian Telegram channels, leading to distrust among Russian audiences. Milbloggers largely supported the Russian MoD’s narratives that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast had completely failed just days prior to Ukrainian breakthroughs in Kharkiv Oblast. Such a shift in milblogger perceptions of Russian progress in Ukraine can be partially attributed to the flaws in the Russian war-time information strategy, namely that:
- The Russian MoD struggles to address unexpected Ukrainian operations because its information strategy relies on portraying the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation. This promotes a lack of situational awareness within the Kremlin and the Russian media space.
- The Russian MoD needs a significant amount of time to develop and spread false narratives in the Russian information space. The Kremlin and Russian MoD successfully did so prior to the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, and milbloggers largely followed the Kremlin’s line. The Russian MoD failed to have a narrative ready for Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
- Milbloggers will share and promote footage and imagery of fighting unfavorable to Russian forces that will dominate coverage in the Russian information space if the Russian MoD does not provide its own media.
- Ukrainian successes on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line are creating fissures within the Russian information space and eroding confidence in Russian command to a degree not seen since a failed Russian river crossing in mid-May.
- Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensives advanced to within 20 kilometers of Russia’s key logistical node in Kupyansk on September 8.
- Ukrainian forces will likely capture Kupyansk in the next 72 hours, severely degrading but not completely severing Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Izyum.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing to target Russian GLOCs, command-and-control points, and ammunition depots in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to intensify crackdowns and filtration measures to curb Ukrainian partisans and pro-Ukrainian saboteurs.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks across the Eastern Axis.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark
September 7, 9:30 pm ET
Ukrainian forces in southeastern Kharkiv Oblast are likely exploiting Russian force reallocation to the Southern Axis to conduct an opportunistic yet highly effective counteroffensive northwest of Izyum. Ukrainian forces likely used tactical surprise to advance at least 20km into Russian-held territory in eastern Kharkiv Oblast on September 7, recapturing approximately 400 square kilometers of ground. Russian sources claimed that Russian troops began deploying reinforcements to the area to defend against Ukrainian advances, and the Russian grouping in this area was likely understrength due to previous Russian deployments to support ongoing efforts to capture the remainder of Donetsk Oblast and support the southern axis. Ukraine’s ongoing operations in Kherson Oblast have forced Russian forces to shift their focus to the south, enabling Ukrainian forces to launch localized but highly effective counterattacks in the Izyum area. Russian milbloggers voiced concern that this Ukrainian counterattack seeks to cut ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Russian rear areas in Kupyansk and Izyum, which would allow Ukrainian troops to isolate the Russian groupings in these areas and retake large swaths of territory. These milbloggers used largely panicked and despondent tones, acknowledged significant Ukrainian gains, and claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south may be a distraction from the ongoing actions in Kharkiv Oblast, which they name as the main Ukrainian effort. The level of shock and frank discussion of Ukrainian successes by Russian milbloggers speaks to the scale of surprise achieved by Ukrainian forces, which is likely successfully demoralizing Russian forces. While it is unlikely that the southern counteroffensive and effort to attrit Russian forces in southern Ukraine is a feint for renewed operations in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukrainian forces likely took prudent advantage of a reallocation of Russian troops, equipment, and overall operational focus to launch localized counteroffensives toward critical points in Kharkiv Oblast.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Putin claimed that there is no Russian military equipment on the grounds of the ZNPP other than Rosgvardia elements. Rosgvardia elements have carried out both occupation functions and frontline combat operations during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s admission that there are Rosgvardia elements on the plant’s grounds further confirms that Russian forces have militarized their presence at the ZNPP despite constant Russian denials. Putin also accused the IAEA of acting under Western pressure to not directly blame Ukraine of shelling the plant. As ISW previously assessed, the IAEA report was a coded yet damning condemnation of Russian activities at the ZNPP.
- Ukrainian forces are skillfully exploiting Russia’s deployment of forces away from the Izyum-Kharkiv area to retake territory and threaten Russian GLOCs in the area, prompting demoralized responses from Russian milbloggers.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
- Ukrainian forces continued strikes on Russian logistics nodes, manpower and equipment concentrations, transportation networks, and command and control points in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources reported kinetic activity in northern Kherson Oblast and in western Kherson Oblast along the Kherson-Mykolaiv border.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks north of Kharkiv City, northwest of Slovyansk, northeast of Siversk, south and northeast of Bakhmut, and northwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces gained 400 square kilometers of territory northwest of Izyum on September 6-7 as part of an opportunistic and highly effective counteroffensive in southeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian occupation authorities announced November 4 as the potential date for annexation referenda in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 6, 10:00 pm ET
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) described numerous ways in which Russian occupation authorities and the Russian military are jeopardizing the safe operation of the plant. The report does not attempt to determine which party is responsible for the shelling that has damaged the facility and repeatedly calls on “all relevant parties” to take measures to improve the situation. The moderation and apparent neutrality of that language can overshadow the extremely clear articulation of the Russian activities undermining the plant’s safety and the fact that the report attributes no dangerous actions to Ukraine. The IAEA’s report is thus a coded condemnation of Russian moves that have created and are perpetuating the danger of nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
The report specifically notes that Ukraine reported to the IAEA that Russian forces had positioned military equipment in two turbine halls and various other facilities in and around the ZNPP. It adds that the inspection team that finally visited the plant recently directly observed Russian military equipment in turbine halls and elsewhere around the plant. It added that personnel from Russia’s state atomic energy organization, ROSATOM, were at the site and observed that “the presence of Rosatom senior technical staff could lead to interference with the normal lines of operational command or authority and create potential frictions when it comes to decision-making.” It also noted that “the operating staff did not have unrestricted access to some areas, such as the spray cooling ponds, roofs of the buildings, and structures in the area of the water intake, and that access to the cooling ponds area was required to be granted by the military personnel at the site.” The IAEA’s inspection team was told that “the on-site emergency centre was not accessible to the plant staff for emergency response as it was occupied by the military authority.” The team visited the alternative emergency center and observed that it lacked “an independent power supply or an independent ventilation system, and there is no internet connection to enable effective communication with all parties involved in an emergency response.”
The IAEA report thus demonstrates that Russian officials have placed military equipment in locations inhibiting access to essential facilities, installed their own personnel to oversee the plant’s operations in ways that the IAEA judges could undermine effective response to a nuclear emergency, restricted the Ukrainian operating staff’s access to key parts of the facility, and shifted the emergency center to a location lacking essential components vital to an effective response to a serious nuclear emergency. The Russians have thus created conditions at the ZNPP that increase the risk that an emergency could occur and significantly increase the danger that the operating staff will be unable to respond efficiently and effectively in such an event.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could seek to use the fears that his actions are causing to coerce the IAEA and the international community into a de facto recognition of Russia’s right to be involved in the operation of the ZNPP, which he might seek to portray as de facto recognition of Russia’s occupation of southern Ukraine. The somewhat coded language of the IAEA report reflects the fact that Ukraine remains the operator of the ZNPP and the party responsible for its safe operation and for complying with the IAEA under international law. The IAEA cannot directly engage Russia regarding the plant’s operation without at least tacitly admitting that Russia has some right to be consulted. Putin might seek to take advantage of this situation to attempt to create a process analogous to the Minsk Accords that established the “ceasefire” in Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 invasion. The Minsk and Minsk II agreements treated Russia as a neutral party rather than a participant, thereby tacitly accepting Putin’s assertion that Ukraine was in civil war rather than the victim of Russian aggression. Putin might seek to use the conditions he has created at the ZNPP to establish a parallel international framework undermining Ukraine’s sovereign rights over the much greater expanse of Ukrainian territory Russian forces now occupy.
Ukrainian forces conducted a counterattack in Kharkiv Oblast near Balakliya that likely drove Russian forces back to the left bank (north side) of the Severskyi Donets and Serednya Balakliika rivers on September 6. Ukrainian forces likely captured Verbivka (less than 3 km northwest of Balakliya) on September 6. Geolocated footage posted on September 6 shows Ukrainian infantry in eastern Verbivka (less than 3 km from Balakliya). Multiple Russian sources acknowledged Ukrainian gains in Verbivka and reported that Russian forces demolished unspecified bridges in Balakliya‘s eastern environs to prevent further Ukrainian advances. Images posted on September 6 also show a destroyed Russian bridge over the Serednya Balakliika River—a geographic feature behind which the Russian front line in this sector likely lies. Social media users reported that Russian forces withdrew from checkpoints six kilometers west of Balaklia on September 6.
Russian forces likely no longer maintain their previous positions in Bairak and Nova Husarivka (just south of Balakliya on the right bank of the Seversky Donets River). Russian forces likely abandoned Bayrak and Nova Husarivka in late August. Images posted on August 30 show that Russian forces blew the bridge over the Seversky Donetsk River near Bayrak on an unspecified date. Bridge demolition activity indicates a planned Russian withdrawal. Ukraine’s General Staff reported on September 6 that Russian forces conducted air strikes against Bayrak, indicating that Ukrainian forces may have advanced in the area.
Russia’s deployment of forces from Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine to Ukraine’s south is likely enabling Ukrainian counterattacks of opportunity. The September 6 Ukrainian counterattack in Kharkiv was likely an opportunistic effort enabled by the redeployment of Russian forces away from the area to reinforce Russian positions against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast. Obituary data on Russian servicemen indicates that Russia deployed elements of the 147th Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army to Kherson Oblast no earlier than late August. This is the first time ISW has observed elements of Russia’s elite 1st Guards Tank Army operating in southern Ukraine. Elements of the 147th previously fought in Bucha in Kyiv in March and elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army were active primarily along the Kharkiv Axis after the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency report released on September 6 describes Russian activities that increase the likelihood of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant while decreasing the ability of the plant’s personnel to respond to such an accident effectively.
- Ukrainian forces have launched likely opportunistic counterattacks in southern Kharkiv Oblast and retaken several settlements. Russian redeployments of forces from this area to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson likely prompted and facilitated these counterattacks.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing an operational-level interdiction campaign and striking Russian logistics nodes, transportation assets, manpower and equipment concentrations, and control points across Kherson Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources discussed kinetic activity northwest of Kherson City and in western Kherson Oblast along the Inhulets River.
- Russian forces made incremental gains south of Bakhmut and continued ground attacks north, northwest, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian authorities continue setting conditions to Russify Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Angela Howard, and Mason Clark
September 5, 10:30pm ET
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in occupied southern Ukraine. As ISW has previously reported, Ukrainian officials explicitly confirmed that Ukrainian troops seek to attrit Russian logistical capabilities in the south through precision strikes on manpower and equipment concentrations, command centers, and logistics nodes. These counteroffensive actions also have intentional radiating effects on Russian occupation authorities. The head of the Kherson Oblast occupation regime, Kirill Stremousov, told Russian media outlet TASS that his administration has paused annexation referendum plans in Kherson Oblast due to “security” concerns. The Ukrainian Resistance Center similarly reported that Russian occupation authorities are abandoning plans for referenda due to the ongoing counteroffensive. Shortly after TASS published his comment, Stremousov posted on Telegram denying he called for a pause because his administration had never set an official date for the referendum. Both of Stremousov’s statements indicate a high level of disorganization within occupation regimes that is likely being exacerbated by the effects of the counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces intend to slowly chip away at both Russian tactical and operational level capabilities in Kherson Oblast, and in doing so will likely have significant impacts on the administrative and bureaucratic capabilities of occupation officials.
Putin publicly praised DNR and LNR forces (and denigrated the Russian military) on September 5, likely to motivate proxy recruitment and reframe Russian coverage of the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on September 5 that personnel in the 1st and 2nd Army Corps (the armed forces of the DNR and LNR) are fighting better in Donbas than professional Russian soldiers and insinuated that he is unhappy with the performance of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Putin’s comments are likely intended to promote recruitment and force generation in the DNR and LNR and refocus coverage of the war in the Russian media space away from the fighting in southern Ukraine. Russian forces have increasingly relied on DNR and LNR personnel as core fighting forces, and the Kremlin likely seeks to rhetorically elevate their role in the war to enhance recruitment and increase morale. Putin additionally likely seeks to elevate the Kremlin’s preferred (and false) narrative of its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to “protect” the DNR and LNR by praising their forces.
- The Ukrainian counteroffensive is tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in occupied southern Ukraine.
- Putin publicly praised DNR and LNR forces (and denigrated the Russian military) on September 5, likely to motivate proxy recruitment and reframe Russian coverage of the war.
- Ukrainian military officials maintained their operational silence regarding the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but reported on the further destruction of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Central Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks east of Siversk, northeast and south of Bakhmut, and along the northwestern outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian special forces conducted a limited operation against a Russian FSB base in the Enerhodar area.
- Power unit No. 6 of the ZNPP became disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid.
- Russian authorities continue to seek unconventional sources of combat power and are increasingly turning to ill and infirm individuals.
- Occupation authorities set a 1.25 ruble/1 hryvnia exchange rate in Zaporizhia Oblast in order to facilitate the economic integration of occupied Zaporizhia into the Russian Federation.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, Frederick W. Kagan
September 4, 10:00 pm ET
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is making verifiable progress in the south and the east. Ukrainian forces are advancing along several axes in western Kherson Oblast and have secured territory across the Siverskyi Donets River in Donetsk Oblast. The pace of the counteroffensive will likely change dramatically from day to day as Ukrainian forces work to starve the Russians of necessary supplies, disrupt their command and control, and weaken their morale even as counteroffensive ground assaults continue. The Russians will occasionally counterattack and regain some lost ground and will of course conduct likely fierce artillery and air attacks against liberated settlements and advancing Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces have made substantial enough progress to begin evoking more realistic commentary from the Russian milbloggers, who had been hewing very closely to the Kremlin’s optimistic rhetoric until today.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukrainian forces liberated two unnamed settlements in southern Ukraine and one settlement in Donetsk Oblast on September 4. Zelensky added that the Ukrainian 54th Mechanized Brigade also advanced in the direction Lysychansk-Siversk and established positions on unspecified heights. Ukrainian officials shared geolocated footage that shows Ukrainian forces raising a Ukrainian flag on a hospital building in Vysokopillya, south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast administrative border. Social media sources confirmed that Ukrainian forces crossed the Siverskyi Donets River and liberated Ozerne, 20 km northwest of Siversk.
Geolocated footage from September 2-3 shows Russian forces firing MLRS rounds from positions on the grounds of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) within 1km of a nuclear reactor. Russian opposition outlet The Insider’s footage of Russian forces operating MLRS systems at the ZNPP reaffirms ISW’s prior assessment that Russian forces have militarized the ZNPP. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on September 3 that the ZNPP has been disconnected from the power grid for the second time in its operational history (the first instance occurred on August 25), likely due to continued Russian false flag attacks and other military activities in and around the ZNPP. Russian sources claimed the ZNPP has stopped providing energy to Ukraine.
Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia is ready to negotiate Moscow’s conditions for ending the Russian war in Ukraine on September 4, but the Kremlin is maintaining its maximalist goals to “denazify” Ukraine. Peskov said that the Kremlin would discuss with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky how Ukraine would meet Russian conditions during peace negotiations and noted that Russia will complete all stated objectives of the “special military operation.” Peskov also noted that all conflicts end at the negotiations table and expressed that relations between Russia and the West will improve soon. Peskov’s statement comes amidst the reports of the Ukrainian counteroffensive progress in southern Ukraine. The stated objectives of the “special military operation” include regime change in Kyiv as well as the surrender of all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to the Kremlin. Russian efforts to integrate occupied areas of Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Kharkiv Oblasts demonstrate that Moscow expects to keep those territories permanently as well. Peskov’s statement is thus a reiteration of Moscow‘s demands for Ukrainian surrender and offers no indication that Moscow is willing to negotiate seriously and on the basis of a realistic assessment of its prospects in a war that is turning in Ukraine’s direction.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukrainian forces liberated two unnamed settlements in southern Ukraine and one settlement in Donetsk Oblast. ISW has independently confirmed the liberation of the settlement in Donetsk Oblast and one of the settlements in Kherson Oblast.
- Geolocated footage shows Russian forces firing MLRS rounds from positions on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs), ammunition depots, and key positions to exhaust Russian forces and restrain Russian combat power.
- The Ukrainian liberation of Vysokopillya ignited critical discussions among some Russian milbloggers while the Russian Defense Ministry maintained that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct “unsuccessful attempts” to advance.
- Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 127th Regiment of the 1st Army Corps personnel reportedly refused to fight due to a lack of supplies.
- Ukrainian forces regained territory on the left bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces are reportedly moving military assets to areas situated along major ground lines of communication (GLOCS) in rear areas in Zaporizhia Oblast.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Mason Clark
September 3, 8:00 pm ET
Ukrainian officials directly stated on September 3 that the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine is an intentionally methodical operation to degrade Russian forces and logistics, rather than one aimed at immediately recapturing large swathes of territory. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovych told the Wall Street Journal on September 3 that the current goal of Ukrainian forces in the south is the “systemic grinding of Putin’s army and that Ukrainian troops are slowly and systematically uncovering and destroying Russia’s operational logistical supply system with artillery and precision weapon strikes. Arestovych’s statement echoes ISW’s assessment that the ongoing counteroffensive will likely not result in immediate gains and that Ukrainian forces seek to disrupt key logistics nodes that support Russian operations in the south and chip away at Russian military capabilities.
The Kremlin could intensify its efforts to promote self-censorship among Russian milbloggers and war correspondents who cover the war in Ukraine. Russian authorities arrested and later released prominent Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov (employed by Telegram channel WarGonzo) in Moscow on September 2, due to what WarGonzo described as Pegov drunkenly threatening a hotel administrator. Pegov is an experienced military journalist and WarGonzo has extensive links to the Russian military and access to Russian military operations in Donbas in 2014, Syria in 2015, and Ukraine in 2022. ISW continues to track anomalous activity regarding Russia's milbloggers. We cannot confirm the circumstances of Pegov’s arrest, but WarGonzo’s explanation may be correct.
However, ISW previously assessed in July that the Kremlin seeks to promote self-censorship among milbloggers who have undermined Kremlin efforts to portray the war in Ukraine as a decisive Russian victory, and the Kremlin may seek to amplify this censorship. Russian military bloggers have candidly reported on Russian forces‘ poor performance in Ukraine and have discussed how the Kremlin has attempted to censor their coverage in Ukraine. Prominent milblogger Rybar noted that the relationship between the Russian military command and war correspondents particularly soured after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with war correspondents during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17, during which Putin likely tried to defuse milbloggers’ discontent. The Kremlin later likely intensified efforts to promote self-censorship among milbloggers by using a leaked letter from mothers of Russian soldiers who demanded the ban of journalist activity on the frontlines in July.
The Kremlin so far has not escalated to detaining milbloggers for their coverage. Pegov’s arrest—if connected to his coverage in Ukraine—would be a significant development in Russian efforts to control the Russian information space. ISW forecasted that the Russian information space would change significantly if the Ministry of Defense cracked down on milbloggers and stopped them from operational reporting since ISW uses milbloggers and Russian war correspondents as sources of Russian claims on a daily basis. We will continue to observe and report on milblogger and war correspondent behavior and will flag significant changes in the Russian information space as we observe them.
- Ukrainian officials directly stated that the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive is a methodical operation to intentionally degrade Russian forces and logistics in the south, rather than one aimed at immediately recapturing large swathes of territory.
- The Kremlin may be intensifying efforts to foster self-censorship among Russian milbloggers and war correspondents who are covering the war in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces continued positional battles along the Kherson-Mykolaiv frontline and that Ukrainian troops are focusing on striking Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs), equipment and manpower concentrations, and logistics nodes along the Southern Axis.
- Social media footage shows evidence of effective Ukrainian strikes in western and central Kherson Oblast.
- Russian mibloggers continue to claim that Ukrainian forces are fighting in western Kherson Oblast, along the Inhulets River, and in northern Kherson south of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut and north and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces may be conducting localized attacks along the line of contact in Western Zaporizhia Oblast to disrupt ongoing Russian troop deployments.
- Russian authorities continue to generate combat power from recruitment through state-owned enterprises and prisons to circumvent general mobilization.
- Russian occupation authorities are increasingly struggling to provide basic services in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Mason Clark
September 2, 9:00 pm ET
Russian independent polling organization Levada posted survey results on September 1 indicating that while the majority of Russians still support military operations in Ukraine, public support for the war may be gradually declining. Levada stated that the overall support for Russian forces in Ukraine has not changed significantly over the summer, with 76% of the survey’s respondents in favor of the action of Russian forces in Ukraine (46% strongly supporting and 30% generally supporting). Levada also noted that 48% of respondents believe that it is necessary for Russian operations in Ukraine to continue. The polls showed that 44% of respondents were in favor of peace negotiations and that a majority of Russia’s younger segments of the population (18-39-year-olds) favor negotiations. In March of 2022, Levada found that 53% of respondents strongly support Russian military actions in Ukraine but that the percentage of respondents in this category declined to 46% by August. This is a minor deterioration and will not fundamentally impair the Kremlin’s ability to conduct the war. However, declining support and war weariness will likely increasingly impede Russian recruitment and force generation efforts.
Russian and proxy officials are solidifying their narratives surrounding the Ukrainian counteroffensive to amplify false claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is detrimental to Ukraine’s continued existence. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed on September 2 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky planned the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast solely to create an illusion among “Western curators” that Ukrainian forces can conduct an effective counteroffensive. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Deputy Interior Minister Vitaly Kiselyov claimed that Ukrainian forces’ engagement in the counteroffensive was (referring to the offensive in past tense) “collective suicide” and suffered high casualties. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on September 1 that internal Ukrainian divisions will soon force the military conflict to end. Russian milbloggers increased their amplification of these narratives on September 1-2 as the information space around the success and tempo of the Ukrainian counteroffensive remained murky. Russian sources will likely continue propagating these false information narratives to exploit Ukrainian operational silence. As ISW has previously noted, complex counteroffensives cannot be resolved overnight or in a matter of days, and the Russian presentation of an immediate Ukrainian failure due to a lack of constant Ukrainian claims of territorial gains is a deliberate obfuscation of reality.
- Independent polling showed that a majority of Russians still support the Russian war in Ukraine.
- Russian and proxy officials are solidifying their narratives surrounding the Ukrainian counteroffensive to claim it will debilitate the Ukrainian military.
- Ukrainian officials reported that positional battles are underway in unspecified areas of Kherson Oblast and that Ukrainian forces are continuing to strike Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs), logistics nodes, and reinforcement efforts throughout southern and central Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks south and northeast of Bakhmut and along the western and northern outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued targeting Ukrainian rear areas along GLOCs and may be reinforcing the Southern Axis by reallocating equipment from Russian rear areas in Donbas and Crimea.
- Ukrainian sources claim that Russia can pull an additional 300,000-350,000 military personnel from support units in Russia, Syria, Armenia, Tajikistan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Kazakhstan. These figures do not accurately represent the fact that support units placed into combat roles will not generate substantial combat power and are necessary for supporting combat, training, and other operations.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Mason Clark
September 1, 11pm 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his false framing of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a defensive operation to protect Russia on September 1. During a meeting with schoolchildren in Kaliningrad, Putin stated that the purpose of the “special military operation” is to eliminate the “anti-Russian enclave” that is forming in Ukraine and is an existential threat to the Russian state. Putin similarly invoked the concept of an “anti-Russia” in his February 24 speech declaring a “special operation” in Ukraine. Putin’s reiteration of an “anti-Russian” entity that must be defeated militarily to defend Russia reaffirms his maximalist intentions for Ukraine and is likely intended to set the information conditions to call for further Russian efforts and force generation going into the fall and winter of this year.
Russian milbloggers continued attempts to claim that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has already failed. Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist and former commander of militants in the 2014 fighting in Donbas, stated that Ukrainian forces are continuing to attack after the “failure of the first attack”—falsely portraying ongoing Ukrainian operations as separate attacks after an initial failure—and reiterated the common Russian narrative that what he claims are Ukraine’s “Western handlers” pushed Ukraine to conduct a counteroffensive. Girkin additionally stated that Ukraine’s Western partners poorly planned for the counteroffensive, underestimated Russian capabilities and assumed Russians are incompetent, and principally accounted for political—not military—considerations. One milblogger stated that Ukraine’s defeat in the south will be the strongest psychological blow to Kyiv and that this failure will have a continued long-term psychological effect on Ukraine’s morale. The Russian milbloggers are increasingly centrally describing Ukrainian attacks as tactless and “suicidal” rushes.
As ISW has reported, military operations on the scale of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive do not succeed or fail in a day or a week. Ukrainians and the West should not fall for Russian information operations portraying the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast as having failed almost instantly or that depict Ukraine as a helpless puppet of Western masters for launching it at this time.
The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin has extended the deadline for Russian forces to capture Donetsk Oblast from August 31 to the still highly unlikely target date of September 15, and Russian forces are conducting several redeployments to meet this goal. Deputy Chief of the Ukrainian Main Operational Department Oleksiy Gromov stated that Russian forces are regrouping elements of the Central Military District (CMD) operating in the Luhansk-Donetsk Oblast directions in an effort to increase the number of troops west of Donetsk City. Gromov added that Russian forces deployed two battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the direction of the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline from Belgorod Oblast, which he noted might support resumed Russian offensive operations in Donbas. Gromov stated that Russian military officials are continuing to form the 3rd Army Corps to deploy to Donetsk Oblast, also likely to resume offensive operations in the Donetsk operational area. Gromov noted that it is unclear if all mobilized 3rd Army Corps servicemen have undergone military training. Russian forces also reportedly introduced one BTG each to the Slovyansk and Mykolaiv directions. RFE/RL’s footage also shows that Russian forces are continuing to react to the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast by consistently transferring military convoys to southern Ukrainian via the Kerch Strait Bridge. These Russian deployments are likely intended to set conditions for a revised operation to capture Donetsk Oblast, but Russian forces remain highly unlikely to make the progress necessary to capture the Oblast by September 15.
The Kremlin is likely seeking to capitalize on the significance of seizing areas around Donetsk City that have been contested since 2014 to boost the morale of Russian and proxy forces. Russian forces have not been successful in advancing toward Siversk or capturing the E40 highway to Slovyansk-Bakhmut since the fall of Lysychansk and are likely experiencing challenges incentivizing Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) elements to continue fighting to reach the Donetsk Oblast administrative borders. Russian forces had minor territorial gains around Avdiivka, which generated positive chatter among the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) fighters in early August after which the advances stalled west of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian logistical nodes and key positions throughout Kherson Oblast in support of the ongoing counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
- Russian milbloggers reiterated claims that Ukrainian forces are fighting along four axes of advance in Western Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk, south and northeast of Bakhmut, and northwest and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian authorities escalated claims that Ukrainian forces are threatening both the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and the newly arrived International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation on the territory of the ZNPP.
- The Russian 3rd Army Corps is continuing to form for deployment to Donbas.
- Russian occupation authorities are likely increasingly recognizing their inability to successfully hold sham referenda in occupied areas of Ukraine due to Russian military failures and ongoing Ukrainian resistance in occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 31, 10:45 pm 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.
Ukrainians and the West should not fall for Russian information operations portraying the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast as having failed almost instantly or that depict Ukraine as a helpless puppet of Western masters for launching it at this time. The Russian Ministry of Defense began conducting an information operation to present Ukraine’s counteroffensive as decisively failed almost as soon as it was announced on August 29. Several prominent military bloggers—even bloggers who have historically been critical of the Kremlin—are promoting this message. Other milbloggers are additionally promoting the narrative that Ukraine’s Western handlers pushed Ukraine to launch the counteroffensive prematurely and/or too late for “political” reasons and because the West expected a counteroffensive. Kremlin media outlets have also centrally amplified allegations of civil-military conflict between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi to bolster the narrative that Zelensky sought to conduct a counteroffensive for inappropriate political reasons whereas Zaluzhnyi assessed Ukrainian forces were not militarily prepared to do so.
Military operations on the scale of this counteroffensive do not succeed or fail in a day or a week. Ukrainian officials have long acknowledged that they do not have the sheer mass of mechanized forces that would have been needed to conduct a blitzkrieg-like drive to destroy the Russian defenses in Kherson Oblast or anywhere. They have instead been setting conditions for months by attacking and disrupting Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs), Russian command and control, and Russian logistics systems throughout southwestern occupied Ukraine. The timing of the start of the counteroffensive is consistent with the observed degradation of Russian capabilities in western Kherson Oblast balanced against the need to start liberating occupied Ukrainian lands and people as soon as possible. There is no reason to suspect that the timing has been materially influenced by inappropriate considerations or tensions. Counteroffensive operations now underway will very likely unfold over the coming weeks and possibly months as Ukrainian forces take advantage of the conditions they have set to defeat particular sectors of the line they have identified as vulnerable while working to retake their cities and towns without destroying them in the process.
Military forces that must conduct offensive operations without the numerical advantages normally required for success in such operations often rely on misdirections and feints to draw the defender away from the sectors of the line on which breakthrough and exploitation efforts will focus. The art of such feints is two-fold. First, they must be conducted with sufficient force to be believable. Since they are feints, however, rather than deliberate attacks expected to succeed, they often look like failures—the attacking units will fall back when they feel they have persuaded the defender of their seriousness. Second, they take time to have an effect. When the purpose of the feint is to draw the defender’s forces away from the intended breakthrough sectors, the attacker must wait until the defender has actually moved forces. There will thus likely be a delay between the initial feint operations and the start of decisive operations. The situation during that delay may well look like the attack has failed.
The Ukrainian military and government are repeating requests to avoid any reporting or forecasting of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, a measure that is essential if the counteroffensive includes feints or misdirections. It is of course possible that the counteroffensive will fail, that any particular breakthrough attempt that fails was not a feint, or that the Ukrainian military has made some error in planning, timing, or execution that will undermine the success of its operations. But the situation in which Ukraine finds itself calls for a shrewd and nuanced counteroffensive operation with considerable misdirection and careful and controlled advances. It is far more likely in these very early days, therefore, that a successful counteroffensive would appear to be stalling or unsuccessful for some time before its success became manifest.
ISW and other analysts studying this war have been appropriately cautious and circumspect in announcing the culmination or defeat of major Russian offensive operations. ISW will apply the same caution and circumspection to assessing the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and exhorts others to do the same.
Russian authorities released a list of the locations of schools in occupied areas, including precise coordinates, ostensibly warning of possible Ukrainian attacks against them as the school year begins on September 1. This announcement could be preparation for Russian false-flag attacks on schools, for an explanation of very low attendance, or for some other purpose. The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) issued a statement on August 31 warning that Ukrainian forces are preparing to shell schools in occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts. The Russian MoD released a list of the addresses and exact locations of all schools in occupied areas of Ukraine under the pretext of “ensuring the safety of students and teachers.” This statement, along with the list of schools in occupied areas, could be an attempt to set information conditions for three potential courses of action on September 1. The first, and most dangerous, may be a preparation for Russian troops to stage a false-flag attack against educational infrastructure in occupied areas of Ukraine and blame the Ukrainian armed forces for the attack. The second scenario, which is more likely, is that Russian authorities may be setting conditions to explain very low enrollment and attendance in Russian-run schools as the school year begins. As ISW reported on August 30, Ukrainian families with children have been increasingly leaving Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine as the school year approaches. Russian authorities may seek to amplify the claimed threat of Ukrainian strikes against schools in order to explain low attendance levels. The third scenario is that Russian authorities could be attempting to establish a published no-strike list by identifying specific civilian infrastructure, which will later allow them to use the identified schools as military bases with the expectation that Ukrainian forces will not target designated civilian infrastructure.
Russian authorities are additionally using the start of the new school year to escalate efforts to institutionalize the elimination of Ukrainian identity. Russian authorities continued to disseminate Russian educational materials in schools in occupied areas of Ukraine. Russian-backed authorities from Sevastopol arrived in Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, to deliver backpacks and official state symbols of the Russian Federation to local schools. The Russian-appointed head of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, similarly called on educators in Crimea to intensify patriotic programming in Crimean schools, notably to teach children about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to conduct a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Ukrainian outlet Strana reported that the first lesson that will be taught in schools in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts is oriented on a lesson outline that pulls from Putin’s article on “The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, his speeches on the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), and the commencement of the "special military operation.” In these speeches, Putin rejected the legitimacy of Ukrainian identity, declaring that it “is entirely the product of the Soviet era... shaped on the lands of historical Russia.” He also repeatedly declared that Ukraine is part of Russia and cannot be a state in its own right. The explicit link between Russian-imposed curricula in Ukrainian schools and these speeches and writings is part of an effort to erase the Ukrainian identity in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine through educational control.
The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group stated that Russian attempts to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) would be “unacceptable,” ahead of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation’s visit to the plant. The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group noted that the ZNPP should not be used for military activities or the storage of military material. Satellite imagery provided by Maxar previously showed Russian combat vehicles sheltering under the ZNPP infrastructure very close to a reactor vessel.
Russian and Ukrainian sources again exchanged accusations of shelling and loitering munition strikes on Enerhodar on August 31. Kremlin-sponsored sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike on the Enerhodar City Council building, and Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces shelled the building in an effort to frame Ukrainian forces ahead of the IAEA visit.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense and Russian milbloggers began an information operation declaring the Ukrainian counteroffensive a failure almost as soon as it was launched. It is far too soon to assess the progress of the counteroffensive operation, however, which will likely be difficult to evaluate in the short term if it relies on feints and misdirection.
- Russian occupation authorities are imposing a curriculum on Ukrainian students aimed at eliminating the notion of Ukrainian national identity, explicitly in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speeches and writings falsely claiming that Ukraine is part of Russia, and that the Ukrainian identity was an invention of the Soviet period.
- The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group condemned Russian attempts to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant from the Ukrainian power grid as “unacceptable” ahead of the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation to the plant.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks south of Bakhmut and along the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian-appointed officials in Crimea began “reconstructing” air defense systems to counter smaller targets in response to recurring drone attacks on the peninsula. Russian officials are likely strengthening Crimean air defenses at the expense of other theaters.
- Zabaykalsky Krai announced the formation of the “Daursky” volunteer engineer-sapper battalion.
- Ukrainian partisans conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against the headquarters of the “Together with Russia” political organization in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast, where occupation authorities were reportedly preparing for sham referenda.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 30, 10:30 pm 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.
Ukrainian forces began striking Russian pontoon ferries across the Dnipro River on August 29, which is consistent with the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The effects of destroying ferries will likely be more ephemeral than those of putting bridges out of commission, so attacking them makes sense in conjunction with active ground operations. Ukrainian military officials confirmed that Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian pontoon-ferry crossing in Lvove, approximately 16km west of Nova Kakhovka on the right bank of the Dnipro River on August 29. Ukrainian and Russian sources have also reported that Ukrainian forces struck a pontoon crossing constructed out of barges near the Antonivsky Road Bridge.
Ukrainian forces have long undertaken efforts to destroy Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) prior to the announcement of the counteroffensive operation, which likely indicates that Ukrainian forces are committed to a long-term effort - composed of both strikes and ground assaults. Ukrainian strikes on Russian GLOCs disrupt the Russians’ ability to supply and reinforce their positions with manpower and equipment, which will assist Ukrainian ground counteroffensives. Satellite imagery shows that Russian forces are continuing to use ferries to transfer a limited amount of military equipment daily via the Dnipro River.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is thus a cohesive process that will require some time to correctly execute. The Kremlin will likely exploit the lack of immediate victory over Kherson City or Ukrainian operational silence on the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to misrepresent Ukrainian efforts as failing and to undermine public confidence in its prospects.
Russian forces are continuing to react and adjust their positions throughout southern Ukraine, likely both as a response to the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive and in preparation for broader Ukrainian counter-offensives further east. Russian forces are continuing to transfer large convoys of military equipment from Crimea and Melitopol. Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov also noted that Russian forces have opened up around five military bases and barracks in Melitopol and will likely continue to prepare defenses around Melitopol given its strategically vital GLOCs between Rostov Oblast and southern Ukraine. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that Russian forces in Kherson Oblast are attempting to conduct rotations of troops, likely in an effort to reinforce some vulnerable positions.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely driving Russian redeployment and reprioritization throughout the theater. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are reinforcing the grouping of forces operating west of Donetsk City area with elements of the Central Military District (CMD). ISW has previously identified that CMD units, under the command of the CMD Commander Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, operated in the Lysychansk-Siversk area and recently concluded an operational pause in mid-August. The movement of CMD units to Donetsk City area further suggests that Russian forces are deprioritizing the Siversk advance in favor of attempting to sustain momentum around the Donetsk City area. ISW has previously reported that Russian advances around Avdiivka and the western Donetsk City area have effectively culminated following Russian limited breakthroughs around the Butivka Coal Mine ventilation shaft. The redeployment suggests that the Russian command has recognized that it cannot pursue more than one offensive operation at a time.
The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces are deploying elements of the newly-formed 3rd Army Corps, which is at least in part composed of inexperienced volunteers, to reinforce neglected Russian positions in Kharkiv and Zaporizhia Oblasts. The deployment of the 3rd Army Corps may indicate that Russian forces seek to recoup combat power for use in offensive operations around Donetsk City or defensive operations in Kherson by replacing experienced troops with raw and poorly trained volunteer units.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely setting conditions for the coerced cultural assimilation of displaced Ukrainians in Russia to erase their Ukrainian cultural identity. Head of the Russian Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs, Igor Barinov, spoke about the creation of “adaptation centers” for “migrants” living in Russia with Putin on August 29.  Barinov stated that with Putin’s permission and support, the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs is working on programs in unspecified pilot regions to ensure that “migrants” to Russia know and respect Russian traditions, customs, and laws to prevent “migrants” from experiencing “social isolation” in Russia. Barinov claimed that there is a risk of ethnic minorities in Russia forming enclaves that will exacerbate ethnic crime within Russia, and that “adaptation centers” would be an effective tool in maintaining the stability of migrant communities. Russian outlet Vot Tak amplified statements made by Russian migration expert Alexander Verkhovsky that such programs should structure themselves as something between refugee camps and vocational training centers for migrants. Verkhovsky also noted that over 3.5 million displaced Ukrainians have entered Russia since the full-scale invasion began on February 24. Many displaced Ukrainians in Russia are not in Russia voluntarily, and the Russian government has forcefully transferred at least 1,000 children from Mariupol to Russia. The forcible transfer of children of one group to another “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The creation of so-called social adaptation programs in Russia would add a social dimension to the legal frameworks through which Putin likely seeks to forcibly culturally assimilate Ukrainians into the Russian Federation. As ISW previously reported on August 29, Putin signed two decrees on August 27 in a purported effort to assist stateless peoples and migrants from Ukraine to indefinitely live and work in the Russian Federation with certain social payments allocated to those who left Ukraine following February 18. Russian Security Council Chairman Dmitry Medvedev also stated that Russia will begin working on a bill in September for the condition of entry, exit, and stay in Russia for foreigners. Putin’s decrees and the bill alluded to by Medvedev are likely meant to set conditions for migrants from Ukraine to remain in Russia permanently, thus essentially forming the backbone of an extended campaign to at population transfer between Ukraine and Russia with the purpose of Russifying Ukraine. Programs at so-called adaptation centers would likely serve as a form of cultural reprogramming to erase Ukrainian cultural identity from displaced Ukrainian who either fled to Russia or were deported by Russian authorities.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations with ground assaults and strikes against Russian GLOCs across the Dnipro River. Ukrainian forces made gains on the ground and have begun striking pontoon ferries across the river.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely setting legal and social conditions for the coerced cultural assimilation of displaced Ukrainians in Russia to erase their Ukrainian cultural identity.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southwest of Izyum, south of Bakhmut, and near the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack in northern Kherson Oblast.
- An anonymous senior US military official stated that the US believes that Russia is firing artillery from positions around and in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian occupation authorities are continuing efforts to forcibly-integrate schools in occupied Ukraine into the Russian educational system and extending methods of social control.
- Russian forces are continuing to move military equipment into Crimea.
- Russian federal subjects (regions) are continuing to recruit and deploy volunteer battalions.
- Russian occupation authorities are taking measures to forcibly-integrate Ukrainian schools into the Russian education space in preparation for the approaching school year.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 29, 10:15 pm ET
Ukrainian military officials announced the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast on August 29. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces have broken through the first line of defenses in unspecified areas of Kherson Oblast and are seeking to take advantage of the disruption of Russian ground lines of communication caused by Ukrainian HIMARS strikes over many weeks. Ukrainian officials did not confirm liberating any settlements, but some Russian milbloggers and unnamed sources speaking with Western outlets stated that Ukrainian forces liberated several settlements west and northwest of Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border. The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD), Russian proxies, and some Russian milbloggers denounced the Ukrainian announcement of the counteroffensive as “propaganda.”
Many Russian milbloggers nevertheless reported a wide variety of Ukrainian attacks along the entire line of contact, and the information space will likely become confused for a time due to panic among Russian sources. Russian outlets have also vaguely mentioned evacuations of civilians from Kherson Oblast, but then noted that occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast are calling on residents to seek shelter rather than flee. ISW will report on the Ukrainian counteroffensive in a new section below.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced that the IAEA mission to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) left for the plant on August 29. Grossi specified that he is leading the mission but neither he nor the IAEA specified a timeline for the investigation.
Russian sources continue to make claims likely intended to manipulate public opinion and the IAEA investigation. Several Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces shelled Enerhodar and shared photos allegedly showing the location where Ukrainian forces struck a nuclear fuel storage site on the territory of the ZNPP on August 29. Ukrainian sources reported continued Russian shelling of Enerhodar near the ZNPP. Russian sources claimed on August 29 that Ukrainian forces fired on the Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant deep in western Ukraine and far from the front lines; Ukrainian authorities denied these claims. Russian authorities also alleged that several IAEA members from the current mission will remain at ZNPP permanently, but ISW cannot confirm these reports at this time.
Satellite imagery from August 29 provided by Maxar Technologies shows Russian combat vehicles apparently sheltering under ZNPP infrastructure very close to a reactor vessel.
- Ukrainian military officials announced that Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive operation in Kherson Oblast on August 29.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced that the IAEA mission to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant left for the plant.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults north of Slovyansk, southeast of Siversk, south of Bakhmut, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued efforts to advance around Donetsk City.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground assault in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Russian federal subjects continued efforts to form new battalions, attract new recruits, and coerce conscripts into signing military contracts.
- Ukrainian partisan activity continues to threaten Russian occupation authorities’ control in occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 28, 8:30 ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees on August 27 in a reported effort to assist stateless peoples and residents of Donbas and Ukraine live and work in the Russian Federation. The first decree allows Donbas residents, Ukrainians, and stateless peoples to live and work in Russia indefinitely. The decree also allows Ukrainian and Donbas residents to work in Russia without a permit so long as they have acquired an identification card within 30 days of the August 27 decree. The order also requires that all Donbas and Ukrainian residents arriving to Russia undergo mandatory fingerprint registration and a medical examination for the use of drugs, psychotropic substances, infectious diseases, and HIV.
The second decree orders Russian social services to provide social payments to individuals forced to leave Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic (DNR and LNR) for Russia after February 18, 2022. The decree mandates that social services provide monthly pension payments of 10,000 rubles (approximately $167) to all affected peoples, pension payments of 3,000 rubles (approximately $50) to those with disabilities or those over the age of 80, and payments of 5,000 rubles (approximately $83) to World War II veterans. The decree also orders that social services pay pregnant women 10,000 rubles during pregnancy and an additional 20,000 rubles (approximately $332) when the child is born. The decree excludes refugees and specifies that Russian Federal Republics must execute the payments to the parties.
Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to trade claims of shelling at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, including at the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Russia blocked a proposal aimed at strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons on August 27 in objection to a clause concerning Ukrainian control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The Ukrainian Mission to the United Nations published a statement signed by a large proportion of NPT signatories at the last meeting of the conference that condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine, nuclear rhetoric, and provocative statements as “inconsistent with the recent P5 Leaders Joint Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races.”
Russia has further begun to implement strategies similar to those used by Iran in attempt to manipulate and possibly delay an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to the plant in the near future. The New York Times reported on August 27 that the IAEA had assembled a mission consisting of IAEA Chief Rafael Mariano Grossi and 13 experts from “mostly neutral countries” to visit Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant for observation next week. The list notably excludes the United States and the United Kingdom, which Russia views as unfairly biased. The IAEA stated that the IAEA remained in active consultations for an upcoming mission. Ukrainian official sources have reported that Russian special forces are torturing Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant employees to prevent them from disclosing safety violations to IAEA inspectors, that Russian authorities are attempting to limit the presence of Ukrainian employees at the plant, and that occupation authorities have begun collecting signatures from Enerhodar residents demanding an end to Ukrainian shelling to present to inspectors. Manipulation of the nationality of inspectors and attacks on the “fairness” of IAEA inspections are tactics that Iran has long used to obfuscate its obstruction of IAEA inspections.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin issued two decrees in a reported effort to assist stateless peoples and residents of Donbas and Ukraine live and work in the Russian Federation.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations northwest of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southeast of Bakhmut and west and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces did not conduct any reported offensive operations in Kherson or Zaporizhzhia Oblasts.
- The Kremlin likely directed a media outlet closely affiliated with Moscow to criticize the Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov for failing to incentivize recruitment to volunteer battalions within the city.
- Russian occupation authorities continued efforts to facilitate the integration of the education system in occupied territories in Ukraine according to Russian standards.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 27, 7:30ET
The volunteer battalions constituting Russia’s 3rd Army Corps will likely deploy to Ukraine in ad hoc combined arms units to renew offensive operations, possibly on the Donetsk City axis and the Southern Axis. The volunteer battalions Russia has been forming have been divided into two general groups, as ISW has previously reported. Some battalions are deploying to the front lines as soon as they have completed their abbreviated initial training. Others have been coalescing into a new 3rd Army Corps. An analysis by Janes Intelligence Group of new images from combat training for elements of the 3rd Army Corps at the Mulino Training Ground in Nizhny Novogorod found 3rd Army Corps troops training with more modern Russian equipment such as BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, T-80BVM and T-90M tanks, and the latest AK-12 assault rifle variants. The other Russian volunteer battalions that have fought in Ukraine, such as the North Ossetian “Alania” Battalion, have entered combat with older equipment. The fact that the 3rd Army Corps units are training on better gear and apparently being held back to deploy in more coherent combined arms groups suggests that the Russian military intends to commit them to offensive operations and hopes to regain momentum somewhere along the front line. Elements of the 3rd Army Corps are reportedly already deploying from Nizhny Novgorod closer towards Russia’s border with Ukraine. The Georgia-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) observed T-80BV and T-90M tanks that were in Mulino likely of the 3rd Army Corps deploy to Rostov Oblast on August 27. If this report is correct, it could suggest that the Russian military intends to commit the 3rd Army Corps to reinforce offensive operations near Donetsk City, where drives around Mariinka, Pisky, and Avdiivka have been stalling after making some gains. Elements of the 3rd Army Corps may also deploy to the Southern Axis. A Russian Local media outlet reported that the Khabarovsk Krai “Baron Korf” signals battalion will support the deployment of Russian field posts in Kherson Oblast and provide command and control to the new Russian 3rd Army Corps, indicating the Kremlin will likely deploy 3rd Army Corps elements to Kherson and Ukraine’s south.3rd Army Corps elements are unlikely to generate effective combat power, however. Better equipment does not necessarily make more effective forces when the personnel are not well-trained or disciplined, as many members of the 3rd Army Corps’ volunteer units are not. Previous military experience is not required for many of 3rd Army Corps’ volunteer elements. Images of the 3rd Army Corp elements have shown the volunteers to be physically unfit and old. Analysts have also noted that Russia’s lack of experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will hurt the 3rd Army Corps effectiveness. ISW has previously commented on reports of indiscipline among the personnel of the 3rd Army Corps as well.
Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated that a 10-person Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group attempted assault operations in Kherson Oblast on August 27, suggesting that Russian offensive capabilities in Kherson Oblast have degraded even further.  A 10-person group amounts to a squad, which is too small to act effectively as a maneuver unit. If the Southern Operational Command correctly reported the size and mission of this unit, it would indicate that Russian ground forces in Ukraine have degraded to the point that they are attempting to conduct offensive operations and echelons too low to make meaningful gains. ISW has no independent confirmation of the current size of Russian assault echelons attempting ground attacks in Ukraine, but this report is consistent with the Ukrainian campaign to degrade Russian logistics capabilities in western Kherson Oblast and ISW’s prior assessments of diminished Russian military morale in Ukraine.
- Volunteer battalions that comprise Russia’s 3rd Army Corps are likely being prepared to attempt offensive combined arms operations but will likely lack sufficient combat power to make a material difference on the battlefield.
- Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated that a 10-person Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group attempted assault operations in Kherson Oblast, indicating that Russian offensive capabilities in Kherson Oblast have degraded further.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southwest of Izyum, northeast of Siversk, northeast and south of Bakhmut, and west and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces targeted Russian airborne command-and-control elements in western Kherson Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources traded accusations of shelling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian military leadership may be shifting to a new phase of mobilization in central Russia and have likely exhausted pools of potential recruits in more peripheral and disenfranchised regions.
- Russian authorities are intensifying law enforcement operations in occupied areas.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Mason Clark
August 26, 6:45pm ET
Russian forces did not make any claimed or assessed territorial gains in Ukraine on August 26, 2022, for the first time since August 18, 2022. However, Russian forces still conducted limited and unsuccessful ground attacks on the Eastern Axis on August 18.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that unspecified actors (but almost certainly Russian forces) reconnected part of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to the Ukrainian power grid on August 26. Ukrainian nuclear operating enterprise Energoatom stated that unspecified actors reconnected one of the power units to the ZNPP and are working to add capacity to the ZNPP’s operations. Russian forces remain in full control of the plant, though it is unclear why they would have reconnected the power unit.
Russian occupation authorities remain unlikely to successfully conduct sham referenda to annex Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation by early September, despite reports of advancing preparations for referenda. Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky stated on August 26 that Russian authorities have completed administrative preparations for referenda and created election headquarters, drawn up voter lists, and created election commissions, which Skibitsky stated indicates that the preparatory process for referenda is “almost complete.” Russian-backed occupation authorities in Zaporizhia Oblast announced that they have already audited polling stations, analyzed voter lists, and selected candidates for work in voter precincts and territorial election commissions.
However, Russian occupation authorities are unlikely to be able to carry out referenda as they intend (with cooperation from local collaborators) by the purported September 11 deadline due to continued frictions within occupation administrations and ongoing partisan attacks. The Ukrainian advisor to the head of Kherson Oblast, Serhiy Khlan, stated on August 26 that the Kherson occupation administration is struggling to find people to head administrative units in charge of referendum preparations, likely due to a lack of willing locals and low levels of trust in Ukrainian collaborators. Khlan notably stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have ordered occupation administrators to avoid importing Russian administrators to fill these roles in order to make the referendum process appear like a grassroots initiative with local support. Ukrainian sources have previously reported that Ukrainian resistance and increasing partisan attacks are inhibiting preparations for the referendum. While Russian authorities could hypothetically forcibly annex Ukrainian territories on an arbitrary date, they are unlikely to do so without holding staged referenda. All observed indicators suggest that Russian authorities seek to create a veneer of local support and participation before conducting the referenda to frame them as widely supported initiatives but face ongoing setbacks that will delay any annexation effort.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that elements of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) reconnected to the Ukrainian power grid on August 26.
- Russian occupation authorities remain unlikely to successfully conduct sham referenda to annex Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation by early September, despite reports of advancing preparations for referenda.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southwest of Izyum, northeast and south of Bakhmut, and on the northwestern outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) and military infrastructure in Kherson Oblast which support operations on the west bank of the Dnipro River.
- Russian federal subjects (regions) continued additional recruitment drives for volunteer battalions, which continue to deploy to Ukraine.
- Ukrainian partisans and internal division continue to pose threats to Russian control of occupied territories.
Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 25, 6:30 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s August 25 decree to increase the size of the Russian military starting in January 2023 is unlikely to generate significant combat power in the near future and indicates that Putin is unlikely to order a mass mobilization soon. The decree increases the nominal end strength of the Russian Armed Forces by 137,000 military personnel, from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628, starting on January 1, 2023. The Russian military likely seeks to recover losses from its invasion of Ukraine and generate forces to sustain its operation in Ukraine. The announcement of a relatively modest (yet likely still unattainable) increased end strength target strongly suggests that Putin remains determined to avoid full mobilization. The Kremlin is unlikely to generate sufficient forces to reach an end strength of over 1,150,000 soldiers as the decree stipulates. The Russian military has not historically met its end-strength targets. It had only about 850,000 active-duty military personnel in 2022 before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, for example, well shy of its nominal end strength target of over one million.
Russia would likely face serious obstacles to adding large numbers of new soldiers quickly. Apart from the challenges Russian recruiters face, Russia’s net training capacity has likely decreased since February 24, since the Kremlin deployed training elements to participate in combat in Ukraine and these training elements reportedly took causalities. Russia may use the fall conscription cycle in October 2022, which should bring in about 130,000 men, to replenish Russian losses, which reportedly number in the tens of thousands killed and seriously wounded. The Kremlin may alternatively use the additional end strength to formally subsume into the Russian military the forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and/or the new Russian volunteer units that are not formally part of the Russian military. The net addition to Russia’s combat power in any such case would be very small.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) disconnected from the power grid for the first time in its operational history on August 25. Ukrainian nuclear operating enterprise Energoatom reported that Russian shelling caused the disconnection by starting fires at ash pits near the Zaporizhia Thermal Power Plant (ZTPP), approximately 5km from the ZNPP. Energoatom stated that the ZTPP is currently supplying the ZNPP with power and that work is ongoing to reconnect one of the ZNPP power units back to the Ukrainian power grid.
Russian sources accused Ukrainian forces of firing at the ZNPP, but Russia has not provided clear evidence of Ukrainian troops striking the plant. As ISW has previously reported, Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that Russian troops deliberately conducted mortar strikes against the ash pits at the ZTPP. The GUR also has not provided clear evidence to support its claims. The Russians’ failure to provide unequivocal evidence of the extensive shelling they accuse Ukraine of conducting is more noteworthy, however, because Russia controls the ground and could provide more conclusive evidence far more easily than Ukraine could. The GUR also reported on August 20 that Russian officials had indefinitely extended the order for Ukrainian employees of the ZNPP to stay home, and there have been no reports of any rescission of that order, which means that a portion of the ZNPP’s workforce is apparently still absent on Russian orders despite the ongoing emergency. Russian forces have also heavily militarized the ZNPP since its capture, despite the fact that the facility is far from the front line and at no risk of imminent Ukrainian ground attack. This pattern of activity continues to make it far more likely that Russian forces have been responsible for kinetic attacks on and around the ZNPP than that Ukrainian forces have been.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest and northeast of Slovyansk, northeast and south of Bakhmut, and northwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack in northwestern Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian military assets and ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian federal subjects (regions) are continuing recruitment efforts for volunteer battalions, which are continuing to deploy to training grounds in Russia and to Ukraine.
- Russian occupation administrators are continuing to take measures to mitigate challenges to their authority and facilitate the economic and educational integration of occupied territories into the Russian system.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 24, 6:30 pm ET
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu stated on August 24 that Russian forces are slowing down the overall pace of their offensive operations in Ukraine while reaffirming that Russia’s objectives in the war have not changed. At a meeting with defense ministers from member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Shoigu stated that Russian troops will be slowing down the pace of offensive operations in Ukraine in a conscious effort to minimize civilian casualties. Shoigu also reiterated that operations in Ukraine are going according to plan and that Russian forces will accomplish all their objectives, supporting ISW’s assessment that Russia’s maximalist strategic war aims in Ukraine have not changed. The Russian MoD has previously issued similar statements to account for the pace of operations in Ukraine.
Shoigu‘s statement may also represent an attempt by the Russian MoD to set information conditions to explain and excuse the negligible gains Russian forces have made in Ukraine in the last six weeks. Since Russian forces resumed offensive operations following a pause on July 16 Russian forces have gained about 450.84 km2 (roughly 174 square miles) of new territory, an area around the size of Andorra. Russian forces have lost roughly 45,000 km2 of territory since March 21 (the estimated date of Russian forces’ deepest advance into Ukraine), an area larger than Denmark. As ISW has previously assessed, Russian forces are unable to translate limited tactical gains into wider operational successes, and their offensive operations in eastern Ukraine are culminating. Shoigu’s statement is likely an attempt to explain away these failings.
- Russian forces have lost an area larger than Denmark since the high-water mark of their invasion of Ukraine in mid-March and gained an area the size of Andorra (one percent of what they have lost) in the last 39 days.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reaffirmed that Russia has not changed its maximalist strategic war aims.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southwest and southeast of Izyum, northeast, and south of Bakhmut, and west and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian military assets and ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to face partisan and internal challenges to the administration of occupation agendas.
- Russian proxy leadership is continuing efforts to oversee the legislative and administrative integration of occupied territories into Russian systems.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 23, 8:45 pm ET
Russian government sources confirmed that Russia is bringing Ukrainian children to Russia and having Russian families adopt them. Russian federal subject (region) Krasnodar Krai’s Family and Childhood Administration posted about a program under which Russian authorities transferred over 1,000 children from Mariupol to Tyumen, Irkutsk, Kemerov, and Altay Krai where Russian families have adopted them. The Administration stated that over 300 children are still waiting to “meet their new families” and that citizens who decide to adopt these children will be provided with a one-time bonus by the state. Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) additionally reported that Russian officials transferred 30 Ukrainian children from Khartsyzk, Ilovaysk, and Zuhres in occupied Donetsk Oblast to Nizhny Novgorod under the guise of having the children participate in youth educational-training programs. The forcible transfer of children of one group to another “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group“ is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Russian authorities are deploying security forces to Luhansk Oblast likely in response to waning support for the war and growing unwillingness to fight among Luhansk residents. The LNR Internal Ministry reported on August 23 that LNR Internal Ministry personnel conducted joint patrols with consolidated police detachments from the Internal Ministries of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast in Starobilsk, Shchastya, and Stanystia, occupied Luhansk Oblast. The LNR Internal Ministry also reported on August 22 that Rosgvardia (Russian national guard) units conducted security for Russian Flag Day celebrations in Starobilsk. Ukraine‘s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Rosgvardia elements in Dovzhansk (formerly Sverdlovsk), Luhansk Oblast are not subordinate to the local LNR forces and that Rosgvardia conducted a search of an LNR official in Dovzhansk. The deployment of Russian security forces to police-occupied areas of Luhansk Oblast supports ISW’s previous assessment that LNR residents and possibly militia forces may be unwilling to continue fighting now that they have reached the Luhansk Oblast borders. Recent intensified Russian efforts to forcibly mobilize residents in Luhansk likely exacerbated this disillusionment, and Russian authorities may be increasing Russian security forces’ presence in Luhansk to suppress any internal instability and/or because they are losing confidence in indigenous Luhansk forces.
Russian authorities’ deployment of Rosgvardia elements to security duties in occupied Luhansk Oblast diverts these forces from operations elsewhere in Ukraine, likely contributing to the broader Russian failure to translate limited tactical gains into operational successes. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces had likely exhausted their momentum from territorial gains around Avdiivka and Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast – a very small section of the whole Ukrainian theater – partially due to their inability to allocate sufficient resources to offensive operations. LNR forces’ unwillingness to fight in the war, coupled with Rosgvardia forces’ presence in the rear instead of near the front will likely contribute to continued Russian failures to make significant territorial gains.
Russian officials may have conducted a false flag event in Donetsk City on August 23 to justify attacks against Ukrainian government buildings on August 24, Ukrainian Independence Day. Social media networks in Donetsk City reported that a strike caused damage to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) administrative building, where DNR Head Denis Pushilin works. Pushilin was reportedly absent at the time of the strike. Russian media framed the attack as a direct Ukrainian strike on a DNR government building, potentially to set information conditions for retaliatory strikes against Ukrainian government buildings on Ukrainian Independence Day. Ukrainian government authorities previously warned government workers in Kyiv to work from home the week of August 22 to 26 and cited concerns that Russian forces will target Ukrainian government assets as part of an extended missile and artillery campaign on Independence Day. Russian-backed head of Kherson’s occupation administration Kirill Stremousov also claimed on August 22 that his administration was preparing for Ukrainian provocations on Independence Day, which could have been conditions-setting for a false-flag attack.
Unverifiable sources reported that axis commanders in Ukraine are reporting directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, bypassing both the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov in the chain of command. Independent Russian outlet Vazhnye Istorii or iStories quoted unnamed sources within the Russian General Staff stating that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has lost Putin’s trust after the initial phase of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that failed despite Shoigu’s assurances of a swift victory. The sources claimed that Putin now bypasses Shoigu and interacts directly with Commander of Central Military District Alexander Lapin who oversees the “central” group of forces in Ukraine, and the Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces Sergey Surovikin who commands the “southern” group of forces. ISW cannot independently verify the validity of this report, but if the report is true, it indicates that Putin is also bypassing Gerasimov.
- Russian government sources confirmed that Russian authorities are bringing Ukrainian children to Russia and having Russian families adopt them. The forcible transfer of children from one group to another “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
- Russian authorities are deploying security forces to Luhansk Oblast likely in response to waning support for the war and growing unwillingness to fight among Luhansk residents. This deployment diverts these forces from operations elsewhere in Ukraine, likely contributing to the broader Russian failure to translate limited tactical gains into operational successes.
- Russian officials may have conducted a false flag event in Donetsk City to justify attacks against Ukrainian government buildings on Ukrainian Independence Day.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut, on the northwestern outskirts of Donetsk City, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces made limited gains east of Mykolaiv City and in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian military assets and ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian federal subjects (regions) are continuing to increase one-time enlistment bonuses for recruits, and are likely recruiting personnel with no prior military experience for specialist positions.
- Ukrainian partisan activity continues to disrupt Russian occupation activities.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 22, 6:15 pm ET
Russian occupation officials in Zaporizhia Oblast have obliquely declared the region’s independence from Ukraine by falsely identifying Ukrainian citizens entering the occupied region as temporary asylum seekers. Head of the Zaporizhia Oblast occupation administration Yevheny Balitsky signed an order that designates Ukrainian citizens arriving in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast as temporary asylum seekers based on Russian law. The order requires the registration of Ukrainian and Russian citizens based on their place of residence or place of arrival in the Russian-occupied parts of Zaporizhia Oblast and requires the distribution of temporary identification forms for all “stateless persons.” Ukrainians and Russians may register if they present proof of their temporary asylum application. This decree has various implications under both international law and domestic Russian law. International law states that a refugee is an individual from outside the country (or who is stateless) who is seeking “temporary asylum” in another country to escape persecution. Russian law defines a refugee as a person ”who is outside of his/her country of nationality or habitual residence.” Neither of these statuses properly apply to the majority of people crossing from unoccupied Ukraine into occupied Zaporizhia.
Russian occupation authorities are thus falsely classifying all Ukrainians entering occupied territories in Zaporizhia Oblast as refugees escaping persecution in Ukraine. The order also de facto identifies Ukraine as a separate country from the Zaporizhia Oblast entity, as defined by the occupation authority. By classifying all Ukrainians as refugees, Russian occupation authorities are establishing a new legal category that might have its own restrictions. Russian occupation authorities may use the refugee status to restrict Ukrainians who temporarily return to occupied territories after evacuating from them. The order will likely affect Ukrainian citizens traveling to occupied Kherson Oblast via the checkpoint in Vasylivka, Zaporizhia Oblast, as the order requires the registration of individuals at the point of arrival in the occupied Zaporizhia Oblast, and Vasylivka is the checkpoint serving Kherson as well as Zaporizhia Oblasts.
- Russian-backed occupation authorities in Zaporizhia Oblast have obliquely declared the independence of the occupied areas of the oblast by falsely identifying Ukrainian citizens entering from unoccupied Ukraine as temporary asylum seekers.
- Russian forces conducted localized spoiling attacks southwest and southeast of Izyum.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks southeast of Siversk and northeast and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued attempts to advance from the northern and western outskirts of Donetsk City and conducted limited ground attacks southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces made marginal gains along the Mykolaiv-Kherson line.
- Ukrainian intelligence stated that the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) will start “general mobilization” processes on September 1.
- Prymorsky Krai announced the formation of a new repair and service volunteer battalion.
- Ukrainian partisans continued to conduct attacks against Russian forces in occupied Melitopol.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 20, 9:30 pm ET
Russian forces’ momentum from territorial gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in late July is likely exhausted, and Russian attacks in eastern Ukraine are likely culminating although very small Russian advances will likely continue. Russian forces seized Novoluhanske and the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) southeast of Bakhmut on July 25 and 26, respectively, consolidating Russian control around difficult water features after many weeks of fighting. Russian sources celebrated these gains as a significant military victory without noting that Ukrainian military Ukrainian forces successfully broke contact and withdrew from the area. Russian forces also celebrated the capture of Ukrainian fortifications around the Butivka Coal Mine ventilation shaft southwest of Avdiivka, after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the area on July 30. Russian forces capitalized on these gains to a limited extent and have been attacking toward Bakhmut from the northeast and southeast, and around Avdiivka, but these attacks are now stalling. Russian forces have not made significant territorial gains around Bakhmut or Avdiivka since their advances through Novoluhanske, the power plant, the Butivka Coal Mine, and a few small settlements near those areas.
Russian forces’ failure to capitalize on prior gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka is an example of a more fundamental Russian military problem—the demonstrated inability to translate tactical gains into operational successes. Russian forces have consistently failed to take advantage of tactical breakthroughs to maneuver into Ukrainian rear areas or unhinge significant parts of the Ukrainian defensive lines. They therefore continually give the Ukrainians time to disengage tactically and re-establish defensible positions against which the Russians must then launch new deliberate attacks. This phenomenon helps explain the extremely slow rate of Russian advances in the east and strongly suggests that the Russians will be unable to take much more ground in the coming months unless the situation develops in unforeseen ways. Russian forces will likely remain unable to commit enough resources to any one offensive operation to regain the momentum necessary for significant territorial advances that translate to operational successes. Russian forces will also need to generate and commit additional assault groups, equipment, and morale to resume even these limited territorial advances yielding small tactical gains.
Russian forces likely face issues repairing combat aircraft due to Western sanctions and may be attempting to bypass these sanctions by leveraging Belarusian connections with less severe sanctions. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries signed “urgent” contracts on August 20 to repair and restore Russian military aviation equipment on Belarusian territory reportedly for further use in Ukraine. Western sanctions against Russia have largely banned the transfer of equipment to the state of Russia as a whole, while sanctions against Belarus largely target individual Belarusian entities. Western countries have previously sanctioned Belarusian industrial-military complex entities producing radar systems, automobiles, and repairing tracked vehicles, but it is unclear to what extent the sanctions impacted Belarusian import of aviation repair parts. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces transferred some unspecified air defense equipment to Belarus from Russia on August 21. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces will close certain sections of Russian airspace in the Lipetsk, Voronezh, and Belgorod Oblasts from August 22-25. The Russian-Belarusian agreement may suggest that Russian officials are attempting to circumvent sanctions on Russia, as it may be easier to import repair parts to Belarus than to Russia.
- Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine have likely exhausted the limited momentum they gained at the end of July and are likely culminating. The Russian military has shown a continual inability to translate small tactical gains into operational successes, a failing that will likely prevent Russia from making significant territorial advances in the coming months barring major changes on the battlefield.
- Ukrainian military intelligence reports that Russia and Belarus have reached an “urgent” agreement for Belarus to repair damaged Russian aviation equipment for re-use in Ukraine. This agreement could be part of a Russian effort to use the looser sanctions regime on Belarus to circumvent sectoral sanctions on Russia.
- Russian forces attempted several unsuccessful ground assaults southwest and southeast of Izyum.
- Russian forces launched a ground attack southeast of Siversk and northeast and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces made limited gains west of Donetsk City but did not conduct any ground assaults on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border.
- Russian forces attempted unsuccessful ground assaults southwest of Donetsk City and continued attacking settlements northwest and southwest of Avdiivka.
- Russian forces conducted several assaults on the Kherson-Mykolaiv frontline and made partial advances east of Mykolaiv City.
- Russian forces are likely not training new recruits in discipline, creating an entitled force engaging in disorderly conduct in Russia and illegal conduct in Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities intensified filtration measures and abductions in occupied territories ahead of Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 20, 9:30 pm ET
Russian occupation officials in Crimea reported another drone attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet Headquarters in Sevastopol on August 20. Russian-appointed Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev claimed that Russian forces were unable to shoot down a drone, resulting in the drone hitting the roof of the Black Sea Fleet headquarters. Razvozhaev then retracted his initial statement and claimed that a fleet air defense post shot down the drone, which landed on the roof and caught fire. Social media footage showed a loud explosion and a cloud of smoke around the headquarters, and the drone likely detonated rather than being shot down. Some OSINT accounts have identified the drone as a commercially-available “Skyeye 5000mm Pro UAV.” Ukrainian officials did not claim responsibility for the attack as of the time of this publication. ISW has previously reported that Crimean occupation officials have obliquely accused Ukraine of orchestrating a drone attack on the headquarters on July 31 during Russia’s Navy Day.
Russian occupation officials in Crimea are likely considering strengthening security on the peninsula following the attacks on Russian military infrastructure, and such measures may draw Russian security forces away from the front lines. Razvozhaev stated that all security services in Sevastopol are operating in “high alert” mode and controlling all entrances to the city. Razvozhaev claimed that Sevastopol residents are asking the occupation administration to increase patrols in the city and establish new checkpoints, returning the peninsula to a security posture such as it had after Russia initially seized it in 2014. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have been using all types of security forces, including Rosgvardia, as combat forces and will likely need to divert some of these forces from the front lines and from occupation security duties elsewhere to defend occupied Crimea. Russia’s continued failures to stop attacks against occupied Crimea may also spark public discontent within Russian society. One Russian milblogger criticized Russian forces for not using more electronic warfare (EW) equipment following the first drone attack on July 31. Social media footage already shows many Russians waiting in traffic jams to leave Crimea and go to Russia, which may indicate growing public concern for the effectiveness of Russian security measures.
- Russian occupation officials in Crimea reported another drone attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet Headquarters in Sevastopol and are likely considering strengthening security on the peninsula.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful assaults across the Eastern Axis.
- Russian forces attempted limited, failed assaults north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces failed to advance after several assaults northwest of Kherson City and east of Mykolaiv City.
- Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian ammunition depots and positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts.
- Russian and proxy forces are continuing mobilization efforts, including forced mobilization in occupied territories and advertising campaigns.
- Russian occupation authorities continued coercive measures to force civilian cooperation with the occupation administrations.
- Conditions in occupied territories continued to deteriorate, indicating ineffective governance.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 19, 7:30 pm ET
Recent Ukrainian strikes on Russian military and transportation infrastructure in Crimea and Kherson Oblast are likely reducing Russian confidence in the security of Russian rear areas. Reports from August 18 about Ukrainian strikes are affecting the Russian information space despite the fact that these reports were likely overblown. Available open-source evidence indicates that Ukrainian forces did not conduct a successful kinetic attack against either the Stary Oskol Air Base in Belgorod or Belbek Air Base in Crimea on August 18. Geolocated footage shows that a fire started at a field just south of the Stary Oskol Airfield (rather than at the airfield itself), and satellite imagery shows Russian forces transporting ammunition and military equipment to a forest close to the field. An unspecified Russian Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official reiterated that Russian air defenses near the Kerch Strait Bridge activated against a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) rather than an incoming strike. There is no visual evidence of damage to either air base of as August 19. Geolocated footage shows no explosions or evidence of kinetic activity near the Belbek Air Base overnight on August 18-19, lending credence to claims that footage reportedly showing the explosion is recycled footage misattributed to the Belbek Air Base. As ISW reported on August 18, Russian sources largely reported on and disseminated these false or exaggerated reports, indicating broader Russian panic.
Russian authorities are visibly increasing security measures in Crimea, indicating growing worry among Russian authorities and civilians about the threat of Ukrainian strikes on rear areas previously believed to be secure. Russian authorities installed checkpoints to search Ukrainian cars and identify saboteurs in Sevastopol. Certain Russian milbloggers made dramatic, pessimistic assessments that Ukrainian forces used strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge and Belbek Air Base to conduct reconnaissance on Russian air and missile defense readiness and make assessments for new attacks, particularly the feasibility of a large strike. Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications (UA StratCom) reported on August 19 that Russian forces are not in control of the situation in Crimea as evidenced by the blocking of the Kerch Strait Bridge and activation of air alarms in Sevastopol for the first time since the start of the invasion. UA StratCom warned that Ukrainian forces have not yet struck the Kerch Strait Bridge with full capabilities and that prior Ukrainian strikes on the bridge demonstrate that the bridge is not as safe as the Russians previously believed.
The situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) remained largely unchanged on August 19, despite the Russian Ministry of Defense’s August 18 claims that Ukrainian forces would stage a provocation at the ZNPP on August 19. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces shelled the ZNPP at night on August 18-19 but did not claim that Ukrainian forces launched a large-scale attack on the facility, contrary to Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) statements on August 18. Zaporizhia Oblast Head Oleksandr Starukh emphasized on August 19 that the situation at the ZNPP remains tense but under control.
Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Russian authorities are likely preparing to hold show trials for Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol around August 24, notably coinciding with Ukraine’s Independence Day. The GUR warned that Russian authorities intend to hold a show trial of captured fighters from the Azovstal Steel Plant in the Mariupol Philharmonic Theatre and may use the theatre to stage a false-flag attack on August 24. Mariupol Mayor Advisor Petro Andryushchenko confirmed that the Mariupol occupation administration canceled rehearsal schedules at the theatre in order to accommodate the show trials, which ISW previously reported on August 11. As ISW previously reported, these show trials will likely be orchestrated in order to create the impression for Russian domestic audiences that Russian occupation authorities are taking necessary steps to secure occupied areas as well as attempt to demoralize Ukrainian troops. Russian authorities are likely orienting the trials around Ukraine’s Independence Day in order to set further information conditions to exert law enforcement control of occupied areas.
- Recent Ukrainian strikes on Russian military and transport infrastructure in Crimea and Kherson Oblast are likely reducing Russian confidence in the security of Russian rear areas.
- The situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) remained relatively unchanged on August 19 despite Russian claims that Ukrainian forces would stage a provocation at the plant.
- Russian authorities are likely preparing show trials of Ukrainian defenders of Azovstal on Ukraine’s Independence Day in order to further consolidate occupational control of occupied areas of Ukraine and set conditions to demoralize Ukrainian troops.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks north of Kharkiv City, southwest and southeast of Izyum, east of Siversk, and south and east of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted multiple unsuccessful ground assaults on settlements on the Southern Axis.
- Russia continues to generate regional volunteer units and will likely deploy many of them to Kherson and Ukraine’s south as part of the 3rd Army Corps.
- Russian occupation authorities are strengthening their control of educational infrastructure in occupied areas in preparation for the approaching school year and may be sending Ukrainian children to Russia as part of a broader repopulation campaign.
Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 18, 7pm ET
There were no claimed or assessed Russian territorial gains in Ukraine on August 18, 2022 for the first time since July 6, 2022. Russian and Ukrainian sources did not claim any new territorial gains on August 18. However, Russian forces still conducted limited and unsuccessful ground assaults across the eastern axis on August 18.
Russian sources reported explosions across Crimea—possibly caused by Russian air defenses, Ukrainian reconnaissance, or a Ukrainian attack—the night of August 18. Three local sources told Reuters that at least four explosions struck around Belbek Airbase in Russian-occupied Crimea, near Sevastopol. The Russian-appointed governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, claimed that preliminary information indicated that Russian air defenses shot down a Ukrainian drone and caused no damage. Video of a large explosion that circulated on social media in the immediate aftermath of the reported explosions was from a previous engagement on August 8 and is not from the vicinity of the airbase.
Russian sources also claimed that Russian air defenses shot down a drone near the Kerch Bridge between Crimea and Russia on the night of August 18 as social media footage showed active air defenses in the area. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak had tweeted on August 17 that the Kerch bridge was illegally constructed and ”must be dismantled.” The railway side of the Kerch bridge is an important target for Ukraine to disrupt Russian logistics capabilities into occupied Ukraine. Social media videos also claimed to depict active Russian air defenses at a Russian base in Nova Kakhova in southern Kherson oblast the night of August 18, suggesting a possibly coordinated series of Ukrainian attacks, if there were attacks, or drone overflights.
ISW cannot independently verify whether Russian air defenses shot down a Ukrainian UAV, or whether any UAV was present in Kerch or Belbek. A Russian social media user posted video claiming to be at Belbek on the evening of August 18, showing no apparent evidence of a strike there. Ukrainian forces will likely continue their campaign to strike Russian military targets in Russian-occupied Crimea to degrade Russian logistics capabilities and degrade Russian capabilities to sustain operations on the west bank of the Dnipro River, as ISW previously assessed. However, it is unclear at the time of publication whether the reported explosions are due to Ukrainian attacks or reconnaissance, poor Russian handling of military equipment, successful Russian air defenses, or nervous Russian defenders who are likely steeling themselves for additional attacks in areas that the Russian military had believed until now to be out of the range of Ukrainian forces.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to be setting information conditions to blame Ukrainian forces for future false flag operations at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). The chief of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov, claimed in an August 18 briefing that Ukrainian forces are preparing for a provocation at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and that the provocation is meant to coincide with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ visit to Ukraine. Kirillov accused Ukrainian forces of preparing to stage this provocation in order to blame Russia for causing a nuclear disaster and create a 30km-wide exclusion zone around the NPP. Kirillov’s briefing, which was amplified by the Russian MoD, coincides with reports that Russian authorities told Russian NPP employees to not come in to work tomorrow, August 19. Leaked footage from within the plant shows five Russian trucks very close to one of the reactors at the NPP on an unspecified date, which may indicate the Russian forces are setting conditions to cause a provocation at the plant and to shift the information narrative to blame Ukraine for any kinetic events that occur on the territory of the plant.
- There were no claimed or assessed Russian territorial gains in Ukraine on August 18, 2022 for the first time since July 6, 2022.
- Russian sources reported a series of unidentified and unconfirmed explosions across Crimea on the night of August 18.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense may be setting information conditions to blame Ukraine for a false flag attack at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian forces conducted ground assaults south of Siversk and northeast and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued conducting offensive operations north, west, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted an unsuccessful ground assault on the Zaporizhia axis.
- Ukrainian officials confirmed additional strikes on a Russian military base and warehouse in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin is likely leveraging established Cossack organizations to support Russian force generation efforts.
- Russian occupation officials continued preparations for the long-term integration of occupied territories of Ukraine into Russia.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 17, 8:45 pm ET
Russian military leadership is likely increasingly losing confidence in the security of Crimea following recent Ukrainian strikes on Russian military objects in Crimea. Russian sources reported on August 17 that Vice Admiral Viktor Sokolov had replaced Admiral Igor Osipov as the commander of the Crimean-based Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The Russian information space, however, was evidently eager to maintain a high level of secrecy regarding Sokolov’s appointment due to the claimed threat of “terrorist danger” in Sevastopol. Recent Ukrainian strikes (associated with Ukrainian partisans and Ukrainian Armed Forces) on Russian military assets in Crimea, including the headquarters of the BSF in Sevastopol, have likely placed Russian forces on high alert and led to the restructuring of force composition, logistics, and leadership of the Russian grouping in Crimea in order to mitigate the impact of further strikes. Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate, for example, reported that Russian forces are relocating dozens of fixed and rotary wing aircraft stationed in forward airfields in Crimea to areas deeper in the Crimean Peninsula and in mainland Russia.
Russian leadership and the Russian nationalist information space have become increasingly invested in framing recent Ukrainian strikes on Russian military assets in Crimea as acts of terrorism in order to shift the information narrative away from Russian violations of international law and calls on the West to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Russian sources inaccurately described the strikes on the BSF headquarters, an ammunition depot, and the Saki Airbase as acts of terrorism. The Russian-appointed head of occupied Crimea, Sergey Askenov, claimed on August 17 that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Crimea had neutralized cells of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization (an Islamist fundamentalist political organization that has historically been active in Central Asia and in Crimea amongst the Crimean Tatar community and is banned in Russia) in Dzhankoi and Yalta. Aksenov accused the Ukrainian government of coordinating Hizb ut-Tahrir's operations in Crimea without providing any evidence. Russian officials will likely increasingly link Ukrainian partisan attacks against occupied territories with operations conducted by organizations affiliated with Islamist extremism in an attempt to alienate the Ukrainian partisan movement from the international community and undermine Ukraine’s calls to officially designate Russia as a state-sponsor of terrorism. Attacks against legitimate Russian military targets fall well within the purview of legal use of force and are not acts of terrorism, nor is there any evidence to suggest that Islamist extremists conducted these attacks.
- Russian military leadership is falsely claiming that recent attacks on Russian military objects in Crimea are terrorist attacks to deflect calls to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.
- Russian forces attempted several unsuccessful assaults near the Kharkiv-Donetsk Oblast border in tactically challenging forest areas.
- Russian forces continued to unsuccessfully attack settlements southeast of Siversk.
- Russian forces launched several assaults northeast and south of Bakhmut, and are likely attempting to improve tactical positions near Horlivka.
- Russian forces made limited gains northwest of Donetsk City and near the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast administrative border.
- Russian forces are likely preparing to defend their ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in the Melitopol-Tokmak-Berdyansk triangle by mining settlements on the eastern Zaporizhia Oblast frontline.
- Russian federal subjects are continuing to form new volunteer units and advertise contract service while facing recruitment challenges.
- Russian occupation authorities are struggling to increase control measures in occupied territories amidst increased partisan activity
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 16, 9 pm ET
Russian and Ukrainian sources reported explosions at an airfield and a critical Russian supply nexus in Crimea on August 16. Local reports and videos show a series of explosions at a Russian ammunition depot and a transformer substation in Dzhankoiskyi District and an airfield near Hvardiiske, Crimea. These explosions both caused significant damage to Russian resources and seriously disrupted Russian logistics. Russian forces have used Dzhankoi as a railway hub for transporting troops and equipment to occupied settlements in southern Zaporizhia Oblast, including Melitopol. Russian authorities temporarily suspended passenger rail service from Russia into Crimea following the attack.
Ukrainian forces have not officially claimed responsibility for these explosions. The New York Times reported that an anonymous senior Ukrainian official attributed the explosions in Dzhankoiskyi District to “an elite Ukrainian military unit operating behind enemy lines,” but no Ukrainian official has publicly come forward to claim responsibility. The Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement calling the explosions “a result of sabotage.”
A Ukrainian strike on logistical targets in Crimea, which is the sovereign territory of Ukraine, would not violate Ukrainian commitments to Western partners regarding Ukraine’s use of Western-supplied weapons within Ukrainian territory or stated US policy regarding Ukraine’s right to use force to regain control of all its territory including areas seized by Russia in 2014. There are no indications that Ukrainian forces used US-supplied weapons in recent strikes on Crimea, and it is unlikely that they did since the targets are well beyond the range of the US-provided systems.
Attacks on Russian positions in and around Crimea are likely part of a coherent Ukrainian counter-offensive to regain control of the west bank of the Dnipro River. Russian supply lines from Crimea directly support Russian forces in mainland Ukraine including those in western Kherson Oblast. Ukraine’s targeting of Russian ground lines of communication and logistic and support assets in Crimea is consistent with the Ukrainian counteroffensive effort that has also targeted bridges over the Dnipro River and Russian logistical support elements in occupied Kherson Oblast. The net effects of this campaign will likely be to disrupt the ability of Russian forces to sustain mechanized forces on the west bank of the Dnipro River and to defend them with air and artillery assets on the east bank from Ukrainian counterattacks.
The Kremlin continues efforts to misrepresent its likely maximalist goals in Ukraine. ISW assesses that Russian strategic objectives remain unchanged: changing the regime change in Kyiv and securing territorial control over most of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin omitted mention of territory outside of Donbas while describing the goals of Russia’s war in Ukraine on August 15. Putin closed his preliminary remarks to the Army-2022 forum on August 15 with the claim that Russian and Donbas forces are “doing their duty” to fight for Russia and “liberate” Donbas. Such a limited statement of Russian goals sharply contrasts with previously articulated Russian war goals to “denazify” and “demilitarize” all of Ukraine. Putin‘s relatively limited statement additionally is incompatible with Russian actions to integrate occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts into the Russian Federation.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Eastern Axis but failed to advance northwest of Slovyansk and east of Siversk.
- Russian forces are launching offensive operations around Bakhmut, southwest of Avdiivka, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations in northern and northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukrainian forces in Nikopol are preparing to conduct provocations at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, possibly setting information conditions for further shelling of Nikopol or provocations of its own.
- Chechen units are reportedly relocating to Kherson Oblast to police Russian military deserters.
- Russian forces struggle to recruit soldiers even for safe, prestigious jobs.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 15, 8:00 pm ET
The emotional significance of recent Russian targets in Donetsk Oblast resonates with audiences in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), but not with LNR audiences tired of grueling offensives beyond their claimed borders. Several Ukrainian channels shared a video on August 15 of soldiers from LNR Battalion 2740 refusing to fight for the DNR. The soldiers claim that they celebrated victory on July 3, when LNR forces reached the borders of Luhansk Oblast, and that their work is done. At least one Russian milblogger has criticized the LNR servicemembers for desiring Russian support for their own ”liberation” and then refusing to fight in Donetsk Oblast. ISW cannot independently verify the origin or authenticity of this particular video. Its message reflects a larger trend of diminished LNR investment in and morale to support the Russian war in Ukraine, however. This trend is particularly dangerous to Russian forces seeking to recruit still more new soldiers from Luhansk Oblast to make up for recent losses. Further division within Russian-led forces also threatens to further impede the efficiency of the Russian war effort.
ISW has previously reported that servicemen of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the DNR’s 105th Infantry Regiment complained when the unit was redeployed from Mariupol to Luhansk Oblast in late May. The 113th Regiment of the DNR also published a similar appeal from the Kherson Oblast frontlines in early June. Another serviceman of an unspecified DNR battalion complained that Russian border guards held the unit at the Belgorod Oblast border after the unit fought around Kharkiv City in mid-May to allow Russian units to withdraw first. DNR-based war correspondents have been boasting about the DNR progress around Avdiivka, but such attitudes may sour again if the DNR units are recommitted to another axis.
The forum and army games are not military exercises. The forum is the Kremlin’s premier annual military-industrial complex exposition and generates reliable arms sale revenue, which the Kremlin uses to supplement income lost due to sanctions. The Army Games are a complementary series of competitive military sporting events that the Kremlin uses to demonstrate Russian weapons systems in the field and develop relationships with foreign militaries. This year’s Army Technical Forum will be held from August 15 to August 21 and the Army Games will run from August 13 to August 27.
- A reported video of LNR servicemen refusing to fight in Donetsk Oblast suggests further division among Russian-led forces.
- Russian forces attempted several limited ground assaults northwest of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces conducted multiple offensive operations east and southeast of Siversk and northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued conducting offensive operations northwest, west, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground assault north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to trade accusations of shelling the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- St. Petersburg authorities officially denied summoning local men to military recruitment and enlistment centers for discussions of contract service.
- Russian occupation authorities continued preparations for the integration of occupied territories of Ukraine into Russia.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 14, 9:30 pm ET
Russian and proxy troops in Ukraine are likely operating in roughly six groups of forces oriented on Kharkiv City and northeastern Kharkiv Oblast; along the Izyum-Slovyansk line; the Siversk-Lysychansk area; Bakhmut; the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area; and Southern Ukraine. The Kharkiv City and Siversk-Lysychansk groups are likely built around cores drawn from the Western and Central Military Districts respectively. The Izyum-Slovyansk axis is increasingly manned by recently formed volunteer battalions that likely have very low combat power. Wagner Group private military company (PMC) soldiers are in the lead around Bakhmut, while forces drawn from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) predominate in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area. Troops from the Southern Military District (SMD) likely formed the original core of forces in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts but have been reinforced with troops of the Eastern Military District, Airborne Forces, and Rosgvardia. None of these groupings is homogeneous—elements of various military districts, proxy forces, volunteer units, and other formations are scattered throughout the theater.
These dispositions suggest that Moscow is prioritizing the advance around Bakhmut and, possibly, toward Siversk with its Russian forces while seeking to draw on the enthusiasm of DNR forces to seize ground they have failed to take since 2014 on the Avdiivka axis. The high concentration of volunteer battalions around Izyum and Slovyansk suggests that that area is not a focus of Russian attention and may be vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks. The congeries of forces in and around Kherson Oblast may pose significant challenges to Russian command and control, especially if Ukrainian forces press a counteroffensive there.
- Russian and proxy troops in Ukraine are operating in roughly six force groupings.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks north of Kharkiv City, northwest of Slovyansk, east of Siversk, and made unspecified gains around Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces reportedly struck a Wagner force concentration in Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, inflicting casualties.
- Forty-two states called on Russian forces to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, just two to four hours before another strike hit Enerhodar.
- Ukrainian forces struck the Antonivsky road bridge, likely keeping all three road bridges to and on the right bank of the Dnipro inoperable to heavy equipment.
- Russian military recruitment and enlistment centers continue to face challenges in incentivizing Russians to sign military service contracts.
- Russian occupation authorities continued rubleization measures and civilian data collection in occupied territories to set conditions for annexation referenda.
August 13, 8pm ET
Ukrainian forces are continuing efforts to disrupt Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) that support Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian forces struck the bridge on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) dam again on August 13, reportedly rendering the bridge unusable by heavy vehicles. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command had previously reported on August 10 that the Kakhovka HPP dam bridge was unfit for use. The Kakhovka bridge was the only road bridge Russian forces could use following Ukrainian forces’ successful efforts to put the Antonivsky road bridge out of commission. The UK Defense Ministry has claimed that Russian forces now have no bridges usable to bring heavy equipment or supplies over the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast and must rely mainly on the pontoon ferry they have established near the Antonivsky road bridge. ISW cannot confirm at this time whether Russian forces can use the Antonivsky rail bridge to resupply forces on the right bank of the Dnipro River.
Russian forces cannot support mechanized operations at scale without a reliable GLOC. Bringing ammunition, fuel, and heavy equipment sufficient for offensive or even large-scale defensive operations across pontoon ferries or by air is impractical if not impossible. If Ukrainian forces have disrupted all three bridges and can prevent the Russians from restoring any of them to usability for a protracted period then Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnipro will likely lose the ability to defend themselves against event limited Ukrainian counterattacks.
Indicators of degraded Russian supplies resulting from the disruption of Russian GLOCs over the Dnipro River would include: observed fuel and ammunition shortages among Russian forces in western Kherson Oblast; abandoned Russian vehicles; decreased intensity and, finally, cessation of Russian ground assaults and artillery attacks; possibly increased instances of Russian looting; increased reports from Russian soldiers about supply shortfalls; increased numbers of Russian prisoners of war taken by Ukrainian forces; and an observed absence of new heavy machinery transported to western Kherson. Such indicators could take days or weeks to observe depending on how much Russian forces have been able to stockpile supplies on the west bank of the Dnipro and how successful Ukrainian forces are at finding and destroying those stockpiles while keeping the bridges inoperable.
Ukrainian Mykolaiv Oblast Head Vitaly Kim reported that unspecified Russian military command elements left upper Kherson Oblast and relocated to the left bank of the Dnipro River, suggesting that the Russian military leadership is concerned about being trapped on the wrong side of the river. Ukrainian Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Rostislav Smirnov also stated that Russia has deployed 90% of its air assault forces (presumably 90% of those deployed in Ukraine) to unspecified locations in southern Ukraine to augment Russian defenses or possibly prepare for Russian counteroffensives. It is unclear whether the Russian airborne units Smirnov mentioned are concentrated exclusively in Kherson Oblast or also deployed near Zaporizhia. Elements of the Russian 7th Airborne Division are known to be operating in Kherson Oblast as of at least August 10. The concentration of Russian Airborne Forces in western Kherson Oblast could indicate Russian efforts to use forces to defend against a Ukrainian counteroffensive that they are more likely to be able to exfiltrate by air if they are unable to hold the Ukrainians back or reestablish their GLOCs. Airborne forces are easier to move by aircraft than regular mechanized forces, of course, although the Russians could find it challenging and very risky to try to move forces by air given Ukrainian attacks on airfields in Kherson Oblast and Russian failure to secure air superiority.
Russian forces may be reprioritizing advances in northeastern Donetsk Oblast in order to draw attention from Ukrainian counteroffensive actions in Southern Ukraine. Russian forces had seemingly scaled back offensive actions east of Siversk and conducted sporadic and limited ground attacks while relying heavily on artillery barrages of surrounding settlements since August 6. However, since August 11, Russian forces have increased the number of limited ground attacks in the Siversk area. These attacks, along with continued assaults in the direction of Bakhmut, may constitute an effort to draw Ukrainian materiel and personnel to the Bakhmut-Siversk line in northeastern Donetsk Oblast in order to detract Ukraine’s attention from critical areas in the South, where Ukrainian troops have been conducting effective counterattacks and may be setting conditions to launch a counteroffensive. Russian forces may hope to shift both tactical and rhetorical focus away from the south in order to alleviate pressure on their own operations along the Southern Axis. ISW will continue to monitor the situation around Siversk.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing efforts to disrupt Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) that support Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnipro River.
- Russian forces may be reprioritizing efforts in northeastern Donetsk Oblast in order to draw Ukranian attention away from the Southern Axis.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk, east of Siversk, and south and east of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground assault north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian and Ukrainian authorities accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian authorities are failing to pay Russian reservists and members of volunteer units for service in Ukraine.
- Russian-backed occupation authorities are likely dealing with internal challenges that are complicating efforts to administer occupation regimes and institute restoration projects in decimated areas of Donbas.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 12, 9:00 pm ET
The Kremlin is reportedly attempting to mobilize industry to support prolonged war efforts in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Kremlin initiated the “industrial mobilization” of the defense enterprises in early August, banning some employees and the entire leadership at the Russian state industrial conglomerate company Rostec from taking vacations. The GUR added that the Military-Industrial Commission of the Russian Federation, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is preparing to change the state defense order program by early September to increase expenditures by 600-700 billion rubles (approximately $10 billion). Russian outlet Ura also reported that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu likely visited the Uralvagonzavod factory, the largest tank manufacturer in Russia and the producer of Russia’s T-72 main battle tanks, on August 12. The GUR previously reported that Uralvagonzavod faced financial issues due to Western-enforced sanctions and failure to meet state contract obligations. If true, Shoigu’s visit could suggest that the Kremlin is attempting to restart or expand the operation of the military-industrial complex. ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin has been conducting a crypto-mobilization of the Russian economy by proposing an amendment to the federal laws on Russian Armed Forces supply matters to the Russian State Duma on June 30. The amendment obliges Russian businesses, regardless of ownership, to fulfill Russian military orders and allows the Kremlin to change work conditions for employees. Putin signed the amendment on July 14, which indicates that the Kremlin will continue to introduce more measures to expand the Kremlin’s direct control over the operations of Russia’s military-industrial complex.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks east of Siversk and northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks southwest and northwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces destroyed the last functioning bridge Russian forces used to transport military equipment near the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant.
- Ukrainian officials confirmed additional Ukrainian strikes on Russian ammunition depots and a logistics point in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian regional officials may be misrepresenting percentage fill of newly formed volunteer battalions.
- Ukrainian partisans are likely targeting Russian occupation officials and Ukrainian collaborators who are preparing for the sham annexation referenda to disrupt the Russian annexation of occupied Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 11, 9:00 pm ET
The US State Department called on Russian forces to cease all military activity surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and support the creation of a demilitarized zone amidst new reports of shelling at the ZNPP on August 11. The US State Department also called on Russia to return control of the plant to Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Russian occupation authorities accused each other of shelling the ZNPP on August 11. Ukraine’s nuclear operating enterprise Energoatom reported that Russian shelling damaged the area of the commandant’s office, storage of radiation sources, and the nearby fire station. The fire station is approximately 5km east of the ZNPP. The Ukrainian Strategic Communications Center stated that Russian forces are deliberately staging provocations at the ZNPP and are carrying out dangerous experiments involving power lines to blame Ukrainian forces at the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Russian-appointed Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Administration Head Yevgeniy Balitsky claimed that Ukrainian shelling damaged the ”Kakhovskaya” high-voltage power line, resulting in a fire and a large cloud of smoke seen on social media footage from the city.
Russian officials have previously accused Ukraine of striking positions of crucial significance to Ukrainians – such as the falsely-claimed HIMARS strike on the Olenivka colony in occupied Donetsk Oblast. A CNN investigation concluded that “there is almost no chance that a HIMARS rocket caused the damage to the warehouse where the prisoners were being held.” Russians may be continuing a similar narrative around the ZNPP to discourage further Western support to Ukraine. ISW cannot independently verify the party responsible for the shelling of the ZNPP.
Russia’s 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (64th SGMRB) of the 35th Combined Arms Army (CAA) has likely been destroyed in combat, possibly as part of an intentional Kremlin effort to conceal the war crimes it committed in Kyiv Oblast. Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFEFL) investigative journalist Mark Krutov conducted an investigation into the brigade following its participation in atrocities in Bucha and concluded that after heavy fighting on the Izyum and Slovyansk axes, the brigade has largely ceased to exist. Krutov stated that out of 1,500 soldiers who were in the brigade before the war, 200 to 300 were likely killed. Krutov quoted CNA Russia Studies director Michael Kofman’s estimates that the typical ratio for those killed to those wounded in action is around 1 to 3.5, which would mean that the 64th SGMRB suffered up to 700 to 1,000 wounded in action. It is typical for Russian units that are so severely degraded during combat to be disbanded and survivors reallocated into other combat elements, but Krutov noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot disband the 64th SGMRB without embarrassment. Putin had awarded the brigade the honorary “guards” designation on April 18, following the emergence of evidence that it had committed war crimes in Bucha. The brigade was rushed back into combat in eastern Ukraine after it had completed its withdrawal from around Kyiv without much time to rest, refit, receive replacements, or recover. Speculation at the time ran that the Kremlin was eager to have the brigade destroyed in combat to avoid revelation of its war crimes.
Ukrainian intelligence warned that the Kremlin is setting conditions to launch an informational attack on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an effort to discredit him. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Russian Presidential Administration approved the creation of a new informational task force within the Russian special services responsible for establishing the fake “Zelensky Foundation.” The foundation will feature an unspecified falsified proposal targeting foreign aid organizations and will operate as a ”multi-level marketing” scheme likely focusing on recruitment in European countries. The GUR noted that the main concept behind the foundation is to distribute misinformation in the European media sphere. The GUR noted that as of August 10, Russian special services had created a site for the foundation, prepared social media fake screenshots and comments, and established a network of bloggers to promote the foundation. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar echoed similar concerns that Russia has intensified its information operations by spreading rumors in an effort to create friction between Ukrainian military and political officials.
A collection of complaints sent to the Russian military prosecutor’s office and verified by Bellingcat and the Insider included instances of Russian authorities tricking or coercing conscripts into taking combat positions, limiting the extent of information provided to the families of Russian soldiers, and failing to provide soldiers with basic food or medical care. The archive includes reports that Russian commanders have ordered soldiers to launch assaults with no equipment, refused to allow soldiers to quit or to dismiss them for clearly fileable offensives, and failed to notify soldiers’ relatives of their death. The report also highlighted complaints from residents of occupied Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts that accused Russian forces of looting, trespassing, and firing military equipment from civilian infrastructure.
Ukrainian General Staff Main Operations Deputy Chief Oleksiy Gromov stated that Ukrainian forces were not responsible for explosions at the Zyabrovka airfield near Gomel, Belarus overnight on August 10-11. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MOD) claimed that an inspection run caused an engine fire at the Zyabrovka airfield and that there were no casualties. Senior Advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovkaya Franak Viacorka amplified local reports of at least eight explosions near the Zyabrovka airfield. Social media video footage showed flashes near the airfield.
- The US State Department called on Russian forces to cease all military activity surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) amidst new reports of shelling at the ZNPP.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks east of Siversk and northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks on the north and southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian officials confirmed additional Ukrainian strikes on Russian command posts and ammunition depots along the Southern Axis.
- Russia’s Khabarovsk Krai is forming two new volunteer battalions.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Angela Howard, Layne Philipson, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 10, 8:00 pm ET
Ukrainian officials framed the August 9 attack in Crimea as the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south, suggesting that the Ukrainian military expects intense fighting in August and September that could decide the outcome of the next phase of the war. A Ukrainian official told Politico on August 10 that “you can say this is it” when asked about the start of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vaguely noted on August 10 that the war “began with Crimea and must end with Crimea - with its liberation.”
Russian officials remain confused about the August 9 attack on the Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea, over 225km behind Russian lines, which destroyed at least eight Russian aircraft and multiple buildings. Satellite imagery confirmed reports from Ukraine’s air force that the attack destroyed at least eight Russian aircraft, contradicting Russian claims that the explosions did not damage any aircraft and were not the result of an attack. Russian outlets shared conflicting stories: the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on August 9 that munitions had been detonated at a storage site at the airfield due to negligence, not an attack, and claimed that no aircraft were damaged. Russian milblogger Rybar claimed on August 10 that the explosion was likely not caused by a missile strike and hypothesized that the explosions could be due to negligence and non-compliance with safety regulations or to a small helicopter with a bomb attacking a nearby parking lot. Mixed stories in Russian media and among Russian milbloggers indicate that either officials within the Russian Ministry of Defense have competing theories regarding the attack and are sharing them with the media, or that the Kremlin has failed to coordinate its information operation to deny that Ukraine conducted a successful attack so far behind Russian lines. Russian forces at the airbase likely know by now what happened but may not yet understand how or from exactly where Ukrainian forces conducted the attack.
Ukrainian officials are playing up the evident Russian confusion surrounding the attack to obfuscate Ukraine‘s longer-range capabilities. An anonymous Ukrainian official told the New York Times that the attack was carried out with the help of partisans. Another anonymous Ukrainian official told the Washington Post that Ukrainian special forces caused the explosion, while other Ukrainian officials implicitly referenced the attack but did not overtly take credit for it. ISW still cannot independently assess what caused the explosions at the airfield—satellite imagery depicts multiple craters and scorch marks, but such damage could have been caused by many things--special forces, partisans, or missiles, on-site or from a distance.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian military officials took credit for two long-range missile strikes on an ammunition depot in Novooleksiivka in Henichensk district (north of Crimea) and on the battalion tactical group (BTG) command post of the 217th Guards Airborne Regiment in the Maksyma Horkoho on the southwestern Kherson Oblast coast. The settlements are situated 100km and 170km south of frontlines along the Kherson Oblast administrative border respectively. Ukraine’s claimed attacks demonstrate longer-range missile capabilities but do not demonstrate the range they would have needed to hit the Saki Air Base from along the front lines. Ukrainian forces have various systems that they could have used or modified to hit Russian military infrastructure in Crimea or southern Kherson Oblast.
The Kremlin’s changing plans suggest that occupying forces will likely move up the date of the annexation referenda in occupied Ukraine. The advisor to Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast Civil Military Administration, Serhiy Khlan, claimed on August 10 that occupation forces have stopped discussing September 11 as a date for Russia’s sham referenda on the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories. ISW previously assessed September 11, the date that polling will be held in local and regional elections across the Russian Federation, to be the most likely date for annexation referenda to be held. Khlan noted that Russian occupation forces had referred to September 11 as the date of the sham referenda, “but now the dates are again unclear.” Occupation authorities have taken measures to be able to hold sham referendums at any time—ISW reported on August 3 that Russian forces would offer easily manipulated “online voting” in the Donetsk Oblast referendum and reported on August 7 that occupation forces in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast were planning door-to-door “surveys” of the local population.
The political, military, economic, and other consequences of a prolonged Russian military occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine would be devastating to the long-term viability of the Ukrainian state. The performative drama of annexation will not change the on-the-ground realities created by the brutal Russian occupation. Forced passportization, rubleization, “filtration,” and other “integration” measures already underway in Russian-occupied areas are far more important and damaging to Ukraine than the referenda would be.
Ukrainian nuclear operating enterprise Energoatom Head Petro Kotin suggested that Ukrainian forces interrupt power lines leading to the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) should Russian forces start disconnecting the ZNPP from the Ukrainian power system. Kotin told Reuters on August 9 that Russian forces intend to damage all power lines to the ZNPP and connect the plant to the Russian power grid, effectively stealing the ZNPP from the Ukrainians.
The Embassy of Uzbekistan in Russia cautioned the Uzbek diaspora that any form of participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is punishable by up to 10 years in Uzbek prison, effectively denouncing Russian volunteer recruitment efforts among Central Asian immigrants. The Embassy noted that Uzbek law prohibits all citizens from engaging in mercenary activity and warned Uzbeks to stay clear of any “provocations.” ISW has previously reported that the Chairman of the Society of Central Asian Uzbeks of Perm Krai, Jahongir Jalolov, called on Uzbek nationals living or working in Perm Krai to form a volunteer battalion in Perm Krai to support Russian forces in Ukraine. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan supported Jalolov’s proposal and celebrated the loyalty of the Uzbek diaspora in Russia. The Embassy statement was likely a response to Jalolov’s announcement.
Iran reportedly began training Russian forces on Iranian UAV systems in recent weeks, demonstrating the deepening military cooperation between Iran and Russia. A US official told CNN that “Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers from Iran to Russia,” citing newly declassified US intelligence. Russia launched a satellite on Iran’s behalf on August 9, likely in exchange for the drones and other military equipment and economic collaboration. Iran may leverage new Russo-Iranian aviation deals to transfer UAVs to Russia for use in Ukraine.
Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.
- Russian officials remain confused about the August 9 attack on the Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea, over 225km behind Russian lines, which destroyed at least eight Russian aircraft and multiple buildings.
- The Kremlin’s changing plans suggest that occupying forces are most likely to move up the date of the annexation referenda in occupied Ukraine. Annexation makes it harder to imagine any negotiated settlement to the war on any terms that Ukraine or the West could accept, demonstrating that the Kremlin is fundamentally unserious about ending the war on any terms short of a Ukrainian surrender.
- Iran reportedly began training Russian forces on Iranian UAV systems in recent weeks, demonstrating the deepening military cooperation between Iran and Russia.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks west of Izyum.
- Russian forces continued limited ground assaults northeast and west of Bakhmut and likely made marginal gains in these areas.
- Russian forces made marginal gains northwest of Donetsk City and are continuing attempts to push northwestward from current footholds on the outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces conducted multiple unsuccessful offensives north and northeast of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted an unsuccessful reconnaissance-in-force operation in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Russia’s Oryol Oblast is reportedly forming a volunteer battalion.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Angela Howard, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 9, 7:45 pm ET
The Ukrainian General Staff made no mention of Izyum in its 1800 situational report on August 9, nor did other prominent Ukrainian sources despite Western sources’ claims of an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in this area. This silence represents a noteworthy departure from previous Ukrainian coverage of the Kharkiv-Donetsk axis.
Russian and Ukrainian sources reported a series of large explosions deep within Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast and Crimea on August 9, but Ukrainian officials have not claimed responsibility for them as of the time of this publication. Social media users reported witnessing 12 loud explosions at the Saky airbase in Novofedorivka on the Crimean western coast. Social media footage only showed the large cloud of smoke and the aftermath of the incident. Social media footage also showed a large smoke cloud near Novooleksiivka in Henichensk district, in the vicinity of the Kherson Oblast-Crimean border. Advisor to the Kherson Oblast Administration Serhiy Khlan reported that explosions occurred on the Russian ammunition base but noted that there is no official confirmation of Ukrainian involvement in the incident.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that several aircraft munitions detonated in the storage areas of the Saky airbase due to poor fire protocol, rejecting reports that Ukrainian strikes or sabotage at the military facility caused the explosions. The Russian Defense Ministry added that the incident did not result in any casualties or damage to Russian aviation equipment. The Russian Health Ministry claimed that five civilians were wounded in the incident, however. Social media footage also showed firefighters extinguishing a burning plane, which also contradicts the original Russian Defense Ministry claim. Russian-appointed Head of Crimea Sergey Aksyenov claimed that Russian officials are only evacuating a few residents in homes near the airbase, but social media footage showed long traffic jams approaching the Crimean bridge and the departure of several minibusses, reportedly with evacuees. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan claimed that the incident was a result of sabotage rather than a missile or rocket strike. Russian milbloggers voiced differing opinions regarding the origin of the strike, with some speculating that Ukrainian forces used US-provided long-range army tactical missile systems (ATACMS). Ukrainian forces do not have the ATACMS systems, however.
The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting strikes that caused the damage since such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems, which the Ukrainian sinking of the Moskva had already revealed. ISW does not yet have any basis independently to assess the precise cause of the explosions. The apparent simultaneity of explosions at two distinct facilities likely rules out the official Russian version of accidental fire, but it does not rule out either sabotage or long-range missile strike. Ukraine could have modified its Neptune missiles for land-attack use (as the Russians have done with both anti-shipping and anti-aircraft missiles), but there is no evidence to support this hypothesis at this time.
Russia launched an Iranian satellite into orbit on August 9 that could be used to provide military intelligence on Ukraine. Iranian Space Agency Head Hassan Salariyeh stated that the remote-sensing satellite, Khayyam, has a one-meter camera resolution. Khayyam has already begun broadcasting telemetry data. Iranian officials have denied that another state will have access to satellite feed at any point, but Western intelligence officials have claimed that Russian authorities will maintain access.
Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks to the southeast of Siversk and around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces ground attacks north of Donetsk City and southwest of Donetsk City near the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border.
- Several large explosions hit Russian positions near Sevastopol and north of Crimea, but Russia did not blame Ukraine for them and Ukraine has not taken credit for them.
- Russia launched a surveillance satellite for Iran.
- Western media has reported that a Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway near Izyum, but the Ukrainian General Staff was notably completely silent about the area in its evening report.
- Russian sources suggested that recently-formed volunteer battalions are responsible for much of the Izyum sector.
- Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian forces continued to fire artillery systems from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian officials are continuing to take prominent roles in preparing for the sham referenda in Russian-occupied regions despite Kremlin claims that Russia is not conducting the referenda.
Layne Philipson, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 8, 7:00 pm ET
Western and Ukrainian outlets circulated a report, likely false, of a Russian general allegedly threatening to destroy Europe’s largest nuclear facility, the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), if Russia could not hold the plant. Multiple news outlets shared a screenshot from the Russian social networking site Vkontakte that claimed to cite the Russian head of the Zaporizhia occupation garrison, Major General Valery Vasilev, stating that Russia had mined the Zaporizhzhia NPP and that the plant would be “either Russian land or a scorched desert.” The screenshot appeared to be a news report posted in a Vkontakte group run by Russian outlet Lenta Novosti Zaporizhia. The outlet itself claimed that the screenshot was from a faked group and denied writing the report. The Russian Ministry of Defense condemned the report and screenshot as a “fake” and claimed that Vasilev was in Uzbekistan at the time he was purported to have made the statement to forces at Zaporizhzhia. Regardless of the origin (or existence) of the original post, the reporting is unreliable. It is indirect and does not claim to cite an official statement or a statement made on any official Russian news or government website.
This likely misreporting distracts from the very real risks of Russia’s militarization of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, which may include mining the plant and almost certainly includes the unsafe storage of military armaments near nuclear reactors and nuclear waste storage facilities. Bellingcat geolocated a drone video of the Zaporizhia NPP that was shared by Russian opposition outlet The Insider on August 5. The video depicts Russian military vehicles moving in and around the plant, including military trucks and armored vehicles moving around and into the building containing the first of the plant’s six nuclear reactors. Russian forces have also dug trenches in and around the plant and may have established firing positions. Russian officials claim that Ukraine has repeatedly attacked the plant, while Ukrainian officials claim that Russian forces are attacking Ukrainian positions from within the plant, preventing Ukrainian return fire and essentially using the plant as a nuclear shield. Russian forces have repeatedly shelled the nearby Ukrainian-controlled town of Nikopol, likely from positions in or around the NPP, since July.
ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are likely leveraging the threat of nuclear disaster to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.
- Reporting of a likely falsified Russian statement distracts from the real risks of a Russian-caused nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Russian forces continue to conduct attacks from and store military equipment near the plant’s nuclear reactors, likely to play upon Western fears of a nuclear disaster and degrade Western will to provide additional military support to Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk and northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northwest and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian officials postponed reopening the Antonivskyi Bridge after a Ukrainian strike damaged the bridge and nearby construction equipment.
- Russian forces are deploying less-professional occupation forces and increasing pressure on Ukrainian populations in occupied areas.
By removing in-person voting options and transitioning to house-to-house surveys, Russian occupation authorities are increasing their opportunities to directly intimidate Ukrainian civilians. This effort is unnecessary to rig the vote to the outcome the Kremlin desires but does make any independent oversight of the vote nearly impossible. Occupation authorities may also turn these “surveys” into intelligence gathering operations to weed out Ukrainian opposition in occupied areas. Removing in-person polling stations removes many requirements for bureaucrats to staff those locations. Russian forces have struggled to recruit people into these positions from occupied populations. In-home voting also limits opportunities for partisan attacks on those locations.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 6, 9 pm ET
Russian and Ukrainian forces traded accusations of dangerous shelling at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) on August 6 continuing the exchange of accusations ISW reported on August 5. ISW cannot independently determine which party is responsible for the incident. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the alleged Russian shelling as an "open, brazen crime” and “an act of terror.” He called on the international community to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and to sanction Russia’s nuclear industry.  Both sides claimed that the shelling caused a fire at the hydrogen station at the plant. The Russian-appointed head of the Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Administration, Evgeniy Balitskyi, claimed on August 5 that Ukrainian forces “decided to put the whole of Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe” by shelling the plant. The Ukrainian head of the Zaporizhia Oblast Military Administration, Oleksandr Starukh, claimed on August 6 that Russian forces are trying to “provoke” Ukrainians into shelling the NPP to make the West hesitant to provide weapons to Ukraine.
A Russian opposition outlet reported that Russian forces are storing explosives and ammunition around the nuclear power plant. The Insider reported on August 5 that a source claimed Russian forces mined the turbine room of energy block 1 of the NPP around August 2. A separate source claimed that about 500 Russian soldiers, as well as armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft guns, were stationed within the plant and that Russian forces mined the area around the plant. The second source said that Russian forces “store mines and ammunition in the immediate vicinity of the energy blocks, under trestles, with some of the ammunition stored inside the energy block.” The second source was unsure “whether the energy block has been mined or is simply used for storing explosives.” The Insider reported that Russian forces established Grad rocket batteries near the village of Vodyane, approximately 4 km from the NPP reactors (and approximately 2 km from the spent fuel containment units at the plant). Ukrainian channels and officials had reported in mid-July that Russian forces were firing on Nikopol—the Ukrainian town just across the river from the NPP—from near the nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia NPP. Ukraine’s Southern Military Command has subsequently reported that Russian forces have regularly shelled Nikopol with Grad rockets, damaging 47 houses on August 5 and 6.
ISW previously assessed on August 3 that Russian forces are likely using the NPP to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in an effort to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, while also effectively using the plant as a nuclear shield to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces and equipment.
- A Russian opposition outlet reported that Russian forces are storing explosives and mines in and around Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and may have mined parts of the plant. Russian forces may also be firing rockets at Ukrainian positions from within or near the plant.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk and east and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted a series of ground attacks to attempt to break through Ukrainian defensive lines north, west, and south of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces did not conduct offensive operations in southern Ukraine and continued to undertake defensive measures.
- Ongoing Ukrainian partisan activity and civilian resistance are frustrating Russian occupation forces as Russian occupation authorities continue to prepare for the integration of occupied territories into the Russian Federation following their upcoming sham annexation referenda.
- Russian state media advocated for labor camps, repressions, and shooting of Ukrainian partisans and civilians that refused to cooperate with Russian-appointed officials in occupied Ukrainian territories.
August 4, 9 pm ET
Ukraine is likely seizing the strategic initiative and forcing Russia to reallocate forces and reprioritize efforts in response to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Russian forces are increasingly transferring personnel and equipment to Kherson and western Zaporizhia Oblasts at the expense of their efforts to seize Slovyansk and Siversk, which they appear to have abandoned. Russian forces are also redeploying military equipment – artillery and aviation in particular – to Crimea from elsewhere in Ukraine. Russian forces have previously withdrawn from or suspended offensive operations on Kharkiv City and the southern axis to prioritize capturing Luhansk Oblast, but they did so on their own initiative based on the changing priorities of their commanders. Russian forces in this case appear to be responding to the Ukrainian counteroffensive threat in Kherson Oblast rather than deliberately choosing objectives on which to concentrate their efforts. Even after Ukrainian forces defeated the Russian attempt to seize Kyiv early in the war, the Russians were able to choose freely to concentrate their operations in the east. Ukraine’s preparations for the counteroffensive in Kherson and the initial operations in that counteroffensive combined with the dramatic weakening of Russian forces generally appear to be allowing Ukraine to begin actively shaping the course of the war for the first time.
The seriousness of the dilemma facing the Russian high command likely depends on Ukraine’s ability to sustain significant counteroffensive operations on multiple axes simultaneously. If Ukraine is able to press hard around Izyum as it continues rolling into the counteroffensive in Kherson, then Russian forces will begin confronting very difficult choices. They will likely need to decide either to abandon their westward positions around Izyum in favor of defending their ground lines of communications (GLOCs) further north and east or to commit more personnel and equipment to try to hold the current front line. Such forces would have to come from another axis, however, putting other Russian gains at risk.
Russian forces are likely operating in five to seven strike groups of unclear size around Bakhmut, based on the Ukrainian General Staff descriptions of Russian assaults in the area. Recent Ukrainian General Staff reports have most frequently identified Vershyna, Soledar, Kodema, Bakhmut, and Yakovlvka as the repeated targets of localized concentrated Russian efforts around Bakhmut. The Russian groups attacking these targets are reportedly operating out of the nearby settlements of Pokrovske, Streapivka, Roty, Semihirya, and Vidrozhnnya for now.
Explosions occurred near the Donetsk Drama Theater and Penal Colony #124 in occupied Donetsk City on August 4. Russian media widely publicized the explosions and blamed Ukrainian artillery, but the Ukrainian Office of the President denied any shelling of Donetsk City on August 4. The limited damage visible in the videos Russia has produced as evidence of the Ukrainian attack near the Donetsk Drama Theater appears to be inconsistent with artillery shelling. Russian officials have not provided footage of the reported attack on Penal Colony #124. Russian milbloggers widely published the Russian-provided footage of the aftermath of the explosion near the Donetsk Drama Theater and used the opportunity to harshly criticize Ukrainian forces for alleged strikes on civilian targets. Were the explosions Ukrainian shelling, they would carry further emotional weight with DNR supporters because they occurred during a farewell ceremony for an occupation forces officer KIA on August 3. Russian forces likely hope to use the emotional response of DNR audiences to such claimed Ukrainian attacks to garner support for new offenses in the Avdiivka area and further recruitment campaigns.
- Ukraine is likely seizing the strategic initiative and forcing Russia to reallocate forces and reprioritize efforts in response to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
- Russian forces attempted to advance northwest of Izyum.
- Ukrainian forces conducted a series of localized counterattacks between Izyum and Slovyansk and regained positions in a number of settlements.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian troops continued attempts to advance on Pisky and conducted a limited ground attack southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued to transfer equipment and personnel to northeastern Kherson and western Zaporizhia Oblasts.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan
Russian forces based around the NPP have attacked Ukrainian positions in Nikopol and elsewhere in recent weeks, intentionally putting Ukraine in a difficult position—either Ukraine returns fire, risking international condemnation and a nuclear incident (which Ukrainian forces are unlikely to do), or Ukrainian forces allow Russian forces to continue firing on Ukrainian positions from an effective “safe zone.” Ukrainian Mayor of Enerhodar Dmytro Orlov reported on August 3 that Russian forces launched rockets on Enerhodar from neighboring villages to falsely accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling Enerhodar and endangering the NPP. ISW assessed on July 21 that Russian forces may be storing heavy military equipment in the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Enerhodar to protect it from Ukrainian strikes. Russian forces have also likely staged false flag attacks around Enerhodar since early July, as ISW previously reported.
Russian forces likely set fire to the prison complex holding Ukrainian POWs in occupied Donetsk Oblast but blamed Ukraine for an alleged precision strike using Western-supplied military equipment, likely to deter additional Western military support to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that it has determined that the Wagner Group deliberately set fire to the prison complex on July 28. This report is consistent with the damage observable in Russian-provided video of the site. The GUR reported that Wagner forces "mined” the building with unspecified flammable substances, which led to a rapid spread of fire throughout the building. Russian-provided footage and commercial satellite imagery from the colony showed that the walls of the building were burned but still standing and did not reveal shell craters or other indicators consistent with an artillery strike. ISW previously reported that imagery from the site shows that the attack only damaged one building, did not collapse the walls of that building, and did not leave any shell craters in the vicinity, very strongly suggesting that the destruction of the prison was the result of either a precision strike or an internally planted incendiary or explosive. Russian officials previously claimed that the deaths of the POWs were the result of a Ukrainian HIMARS strike, likely as a component of the ongoing Russian information operation attempting to dissuade the US from continuing to provide Ukraine with HIMARS.
The Kremlin is likely continuing efforts to leverage its relationship with Tehran in order to receive drones for use in Ukraine. Russian state-owned space agency Roscosmos announced on August 3 that Russia will launch a remote-sensing satellite (named “Khayyam”) into orbit on behalf of Iran on August 9. The Kremlin may intend this launch to encourage or repay Tehran for the provision of Iranian drones that would be employed in operations in Ukraine, and possibly other military equipment or support. Iran has a huge ballistic missile arsenal and domestic missile manufacturing capabilities that it could provide to Russia in exchange for economic and military cooperation. Iran has prioritized the development of its military space program in recent years and launched one satellite in April 2020 and one in April 2022. US and Middle Eastern officials stated as early as June 2021 that Russian officials were preparing to send a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellites to Iran, which would expand Tehran’s overall surveillance capabilities in the Middle East and beyond. As ISW reported on August 2, Russian and Iran are likely continuing to facilitate cooperation through recently signed bilateral aviation agreements in order to bolster Russian military capabilities in Ukraine and assist Tehran with sanctions mitigation.
The Russian Defense Ministry has altered the focus of its reporting after the fall of Lysychansk, likely to orient on narratives that resonate positively with milbloggers and war correspondents rather than those that draw criticism from that community. The Russian Defense Ministry has shifted its reporting style to focus on claims of declining Ukrainian morale and successful Russian strikes on Western-provided military equipment, rather than reporting on day-to-day Russian advances on the frontline. Russian forces have made limited gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in recent days, but the Russian Defense Ministry has not claimed territorial gains around the theater since at least the fall of Lysychansk. Milbloggers, war correspondents, and other groups have criticized the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin for exaggerated and inaccurate claims of territorial gains, undermining Moscow’s narratives and credibility. The Defense Ministry apparently flirted with the idea of suppressing or attempting to control the milblogger community, but it seems instead to have opted to adjust its own narratives. The Defense Ministry is now letting milbloggers, war correspondents, and DNR officials cover the situation unfolding in Avdiivka, Pisky, and south of Bakhmut positively without making claims of its own that might draw criticism. Milbloggers released footage from the reported capture of the Butivka Coal Mine ventilation shaft and on the southern outskirts of Pisky, where they celebrated recapturing small segments of years-long contested territory--but the Defense Ministry has made no statement on the subject. Some of the milbloggers such as Maksim Fomin (known under alias Vladelen Tatarzkiy) have previously served within DNR units and include anecdotes about their service in the Donetsk City area prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Such coverage of the war likely aims to boost morale among DNR and Russian fighters. The Kremlin or the Defense Ministry may have decided that the milbloggers and war correspondents are more credible sources for the constituencies it cares most about and realized that its own claims were losing credibility. They may alternatively be focusing on narratives that generate positive resonance within that community.
- Russian forces are likely using Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Enerhodar to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine, attempting to thereby degrade the will of Western powers to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian forces likely set fire to the prison complex holding Ukrainian POWs in occupied Donetsk Oblast but blamed Ukraine for an alleged precision strike using Western-supplied military equipment, likely to increase US hesitancy to continue providing HIMARS to Ukraine.
- Moscow is likely to continue efforts to leverage its relationship with Tehran in order to secure drones for use in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack northwest of Slovyansk and continued efforts to advance on Bakhmut from the northeast, east, and southeast.
- Russian forces are prioritizing frontal assaults on Avdiivka and failed to gain ground in Pisky.
- Russian forces are reportedly forming a strike group to prevent Ukrainian counteroffensives in northern Kherson Oblast or counterattack against them.
- Russian occupation authorities may allow both in-person and online voting in upcoming pseudo-referenda on the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory into Russia, enabling more straightforward Russian vote rigging.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 2, 9 pm ET
Russian forces have likely decided to attack Avdiivka frontally from occupied Donetsk Oblast territory rather than waiting for Ukrainian forces to withdraw from their prepared defensive positions as a result of Russian envelopment operations northeast of the settlement. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Kremlin-sponsored sources have published videos suggesting that Russian forces pushed Ukrainian forces out of their positions around the Butivka Coal Mine ventilation shaft southwest of Avdiivka. Ukrainian forces have held positions around the Butivka Coal Mine ventilation shaft since 2015 and have described the location as the closest Ukrainian position to Donetsk City and a key defensive outpost for Avdiivka. Russian forces have likely captured the Ukrainian position, given the Ukrainian General Staff‘s vague reports of ”partially” successful Russian advances in the area. Russian forces are also continuing assaults on Pisky, west of Avdiivka, and will likely attempt to seize the E50 highway connecting the two settlements. Russian forces had previously attempted to break through Avdiivka’s northeastern outskirts but have not made significant progress in months.
The Russian Defense Ministry is likely trying to assuage distress that Ukraine’s effective use of the US HIMARS is causing Russian military personnel and milbloggers with inaccurate claims of destroying HIMARS launchers. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that Russian forces have destroyed six US-provided HIMARS and other Western-supplied military equipment in Ukraine in a conference call with the Russian Armed Forces leadership on August 2. The Russian Defense Ministry also released a video claiming to have destroyed a building that housed two HIMARS launchers in Kharkiv Oblast on August 1. Ukrainian Southern Command Chief Andriy Kovalchuk said that Russian forces did not destroy any HIMARS, and an unnamed Finnish official called Russian claims ”wishful thinking.” The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) also reported that Russian defense authorities are covering up Russian servicemember casualties by transporting wounded Russians in civilian cars and misreporting the number of casualties caused by Ukrainian HIMARS strikes in the media. Ukrainian HIMARS strikes have prompted many milbloggers and military correspondents to express concern over the effectiveness of air defense systems and the threats to Russian logistics, and these strikes are likely demoralizing Russian servicemen on the ground.
A representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on August 2 that Russia has refused to provide detailed information on which Ukrainian POWs were killed or injured in the July 28 Olenivka prison attack. GUR Representative Andriy Yusov said that Russia has not responded to requests by Ukraine’s Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs for information about casualties from the likely Russian-perpetrated attack on the Russian-controlled prison that killed at least 53 Ukrainian POWs. Yusov said that of casualties that Russia has posted online some were supposed to be in hospitals or being readied for prisoner exchanges and were not supposed to be at the Olenivka prison. Yusov noted that Ukraine cannot confirm the veracity of online casualty lists at this time, however. Ukraine’s Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs urged families of POWs to avoid sharing personal details about themselves or their captured loved ones with individuals or unofficial organizations soliciting those details, warning that sharing information could pose a risk to surviving POWs. Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said that Russia has not responded to requests to return the bodies of killed POWs to Ukraine as of August 2.
Initial and unconfirmed reports from August 2 suggest that Iran may have sent the first batch of UAVs to Russia for field testing. A US-based open-source intelligence (OSINT) Twitter account citing unofficial Iranian sources claimed that Iran sent a batch of UAVs to Russia, along with Iranian pilots and technicians who will train for the use and repair of Russian Su-35 aircraft. While ISW cannot independently confirm this claim, it is consistent with recent reports that Tehran and Moscow are pursuing greater aviation cooperation in order to circumvent international sanctions on Russia and Iran and support Russian operations in Ukraine. If true, this claim suggests that Iran may be receiving Russian Su-35 aircraft in return for the drones, which could have been part of an agreement signed by Moscow and Tehran on July 26. The agreement stipulated that Iran would increase the volume of passenger flights to Russia and additionally repair Russian aircraft. Tehran may seek to use this agreement to facilitate the acquisition of Russian combat aircraft.
A Russian missile strike reportedly damaged a Ukrainian air defense system in Lviv Oblast on August 2. The Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Russian forces launched eight Kh-101 (Kh-555) missiles in the direction of central, southern, and western Ukrainian Oblasts from their positions in the Caspian Sea. The Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Ukrainian air defense forces intercepted seven of the eight missiles.
- Unconfirmed social media reports suggest that Iran may have sent the first batch of drones to Russia and sent pilots and maintenance personnel to train on the Russian Su-35, potentially suggesting that Iran may seek to use recent aviation agreements to facilitate the acquisition of Russian combat aircraft.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccesful offensive operations northeast and northwest of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk and east of Siversk.
- Russian forces made marginal gains southeast of Bakhmut and continued offensive operations to the northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces made incremental advances around Avdiivka and are continuing attempts to push southwest of Avdiivka.
- Russian forces launched two assaults in northern Kherson Oblast and are continuing to redeploy troops to the Southern Axis.
- Russian federal subjects are forming new volunteer battalions in Novosibirsk, Saratov, Ulyanovsk, and Kurgan Oblasts, and are changing time periods for enlistment compensations.
- Ukrainian civilians are continuing to resist the Russian occupation with acts of civil disobedience and partisan sabotage as the Kremlin considers longer-term methods of population control in occupied Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Katherine Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan
August 1, 7pm ET
Russian forces are reportedly continuing to transfer troops from northern Donetsk Oblast to support defensive positions in southern Ukraine and may be halting the Slovyansk campaign for the time being. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) Representative Vadym Skibitsky stated that Russian forces withdrew airborne tactical groups from Donetsk Oblast and redeployed the units to occupied Kherson Oblast territories two weeks ago. Skibitsky added that Russian forces are also redeploying elements of the Eastern Military District (EMD) operating in Slovyansk to southern Ukraine and are transferring a large number of troops to Crimea to prepare to defend occupied Kherson and/or Zaporizhia Oblasts against Ukrainian counteroffensives. The UK Defense Ministry also noted that Russian forces likely identified Zaporizhia Oblast as a vulnerable front in need of reinforcement, and the Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are regrouping in Zaporizhia Oblast. Social media footage has showed Russian forces moving equipment and personnel to both Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts in recent weeks.
The Russian withdrawal of some troops from northern Donetsk Oblast will deprive the Slovyansk effort of necessary combat power, in the same way that Russian forces neglected the Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts fronts during offensive operations in Luhansk Oblast. The withdrawal will likely create an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to launch a counteroffensive on the Izyum axis, just as Russian capture of Luhansk Oblast allowed Ukraine to set conditions for a counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast. The Russian redeployment of troops to Zaporizhia Oblast also suggests that Ukrainian counteroffensives are not confined to Kherson Oblast and will likely take place throughout the southern axis.
ISW assesses that Russian forces were responsible for the killing of 53 Ukrainian POWs in an explosion at a Russian-controlled prison in Olenivka, Donetsk Oblast on July 28. Two US officials anonymously confirmed to Politico on August 1 that no traces of US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), Ukraine’s most precise artillery system, were found at the prison site. The Kremlin alleges that Ukraine fired HIMARS and precision-guided rockets to kill Ukrainian POWs and deter Ukrainian defectors. Satellite and other imagery from the site indicate that the attack only damaged one building, did not collapse the walls of that building, and did not leave any shell craters in the vicinity, very strongly suggesting that the destruction of the prison was the result of either a precision strike or an internally planted incendiary or explosive. One US official told Politico that “the evidence showed the attack was not conducted by Kyiv.” If Ukraine had used something other than HIMARS to conduct the strike, the attack would almost certainly have left collateral damage around the facility, including craters and other damaged buildings. Given the US assessment that HIMARS were not used in the attack, ISW assesses that Russia was responsible for this attack on Ukrainian POWs in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
- ISW assesses that Russian forces were responsible for the July 28 attack on the Olenivka prison that killed 53 Ukrainian POWs; two anonymous US officials confirmed that there is no evidence that Ukrainian forces used US-provided HIMARS, some of the only munitions Ukraine has that are precise enough to do the kind of limited damage seen in satellite and other imagery, to strike the prison.
- Russian forces are transferring elements of the Eastern Military District (EMD) from the Slovyansk area to support defensive positions along the Southern Axis.
- Russian forces did not conduct any offensive operations north of Slovyansk or around Siversk.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground assaults on settlements south and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian proxy authorities did not claim any territorial gains near Avdiivka as Russian forces launched unsuccessful ground assaults on Avdiivka and Pisky.
- Russian regional officials are reportedly failing to provide promised payments to the “Atal” Volunteer Battalion of the Republic of Chuvashia.
- The Kremlin is likely prioritizing propaganda and sham referenda over the welfare of Ukrainian civilians in occupied Ukrainian territories.
- Russian occupation forces are likely increasing efforts to deter and suppress partisan movements in occupied territories as partisan attacks on Russian officials and Ukrainian collaborators continue.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
Crimean occupation officials obliquely accused Ukraine of orchestrating a drone attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in occupied Sevastopol on July 31, but Ukrainian officials denied responsibility for the attack. Russian Governor of Sevastopol Mihail Razvozhaev claimed that Ukrainians “decided to spoil” Russia’s Navy Day celebrations and noted that a drone exploded in the headquarters’ yard but did not specify whether Ukrainian forces or locals launched the drone. Razvozhaev published images showcasing minor damage to the headquarters building and yard, and social media footage depicted a small cloud of smoke rising from the building. Razvozhaev also claimed that the explosion wounded six people. Russian Crimean Senator Olga Kovitidi later announced that unspecified actors carried out the attack with a makeshift drone from within the territory of Sevastopol. The Ukrainian Naval Forces and Odesa Oblast Military Administration Spokesman Serhiy Bratchuk indirectly suggested that the drone attack was a Russian false flag operation. ISW cannot independently verify the actor responsible for the attack.
The Russian government may be complicating international efforts to discern the nature of an unidentified July 28 kinetic event on the Olenivka penal colony. The Russian Ministry of Defense officially invited experts from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to investigate the attack at the Olenivka prison on July 30. The ICRC stated that it has not received access to the prison as of July 31, however. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereschuk also noted that Russian authorities have not responded to Ukrainian requests to return the bodies of deceased Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs).
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) analyst Oliver Alexander published an examination of satellite imagery from July 27 showing open graves at the Olenivka prison, noting that July 29 satellite imagery appears to show that the same graves have been covered. Investigative journalism group Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins stated that lower resolution satellite imagery indicates ground disturbances after July 18 and prior to July 21, suggesting that the Russians may have planned the incident in advance. ISW will continue to monitor the open source for information on the strike on Olenivka and will provide updates as they appear.
- The Kremlin has not responded to the International Red Cross (ICRC) request to access the Olenivka prison as of July 31, hindering the international investigation efforts.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks southwest and northwest of Izyum, consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces may be setting conditions for advances northwest of the current Izyum-Slovyansk line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk, northeast of Siversk, and to the east and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces made marginal gains in the Avdiivka area and continued ground attacks towards Avdiivka and Pisky.
- Russian authorities began recruiting volunteers for the Nevsky and Ladoga Battalions in Leningrad Oblast, Russia.
- Russian occupation authorities continued to prepare for a referendum in Kherson Oblast and took measures to depict support for Russian control of the occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan
July 30, 9:30 pm ET
Russian forces are likely prioritizing offensive operations toward Bakhmut and around Donetsk City at the expense of efforts to take Siversk and Slovyansk. Russian commanders are likely seeking to exploit recent gains in the Novoluhanske area to pressure Bakhmut from the east. Their efforts around Donetsk City likely aim to push Ukrainian forces out of artillery range of the city. They may also be intended to gain as much ground in Donetsk Oblast as possible before planned referenda in September. Russian offensive operations are very unlikely to take Bakhmut, which is large and well-defended, or to make dramatic gains west of Donetsk City even if they manage to take the towns of Avdiivka and Pisky that have held out against their pressure since the original Russian invasion in 2014. Fighting in these areas will likely intensify, however, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is calling on residents to evacuate.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine produced new evidence regarding the cause or responsibility for the deaths of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) at the Olenivka prison in occupied Donetsk Oblast. Russian officials raised the death toll of the event to 50 and released a list of deceased POWs. Ukrainian officials stated that they are unable to verify the list at this time and called for an international investigation. Maxar has provided post-strike imagery of the damage. ISW is unable to confirm the nature or cause of the incident, although it remains more likely that Russian forces were responsible.
- Russian forces conducted ground assaults around Bakhmut and the environs of Donetsk City as well as southwest of Izyum. One assault east of Bakhmut made limited gains.
- Russian forces did not conduct ground assaults near Siversk again, suggesting that they are deprioritizing operations in that area.
- Satellite imagery showed Russian reinforcements concentrated near the Ukrainian border on the ground line of communication (GLOC) leading toward Izyum.
- Ukrainian forces disrupted a Russian ground assault in Kherson Oblast with preemptive artillery strikes.
- Ukrainian officials claim that damage to the railway bridge across the Dnipro near Kherson renders Russian forces unable to resupply their positions on the west bank of the river by rail.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Phillipson, Katherine Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 29, 8:00 pm ET
A kinetic event killed and wounded scores of Ukrainian POWs in Russian-occupied Olenivka, Donetsk Oblast, on July 28. Ukraine and Russia are blaming each other for the attack and available visual evidence appears to support the Ukrainian claim more than the Russian, but ISW cannot independently assess the nature of the attack or the party responsible for it at this time. The Russian Defense Ministry asserted that Ukrainian forces deliberately struck the Olenivka pre-trial detention center holding Ukrainian POWs including Azov Regiment servicemen using Western-provided HIMARS, killing at least 40 and wounding 75 POWs. Kremlin-sponsored news outlet “RIA Novosti” published videos of the detention center, which showed fire damage but not the sort of damage that a HIMARS strike would likely have caused. RIA Novosti also released footage of HIMARS missile fragments but provided no evidence that the fragments were recovered at Olenivka. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia Leonid Miroshnik claimed that Ukrainian forces struck the pre-detention center to eliminate the evidence of Ukrainian surrenders and prevent POWs from speaking out against the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian General Staff said that Russian forces conducted the attack as a false flag operation to cover up Russian war crimes, disrupt the supply of Western weapons, discredit Ukrainian forces, and stoke social tensions within Ukrainian society. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that a deliberate explosion occurred near the newly-constructed penal colony, to which Russian forces had transferred Ukrainian POWs a few days earlier. The Ukrainian General Staff also noted that Ukrainian analysis of the damage to the building, intercepted phone conversations between Russian servicemen, the lack of reported shelling in Olenivka, and the absence of casualties among Russian personnel serving at the penal colony all point to a Russian deliberate “terrorist act” as the cause of the incident. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) accused Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin of ordering the “terrorist act” without consulting with the Russian Defense Ministry, to conceal the embezzlement of funds allocated for the maintenance of Ukrainian POWs before an official inspection on September 1. The Ukrainian Office of the General Prosecutor reported that the explosion killed at least 40 and wounded 130 Ukrainian POWs.
ISW is unable to assess the nature of the event or the party responsible for it with any confidence at this time. We will update our assessment as more information becomes available.
- A kinetic event killed and wounded scores of Ukrainian POWs in Russian-occupied Donetsk Oblast on July 28. Ukraine and Russia are blaming each other for the attack. Available visual evidence appears to support the Ukrainian claim more than the Russian, but ISW cannot independently assess the nature of the attack or the party responsible for it at this time.
- Ground fighting continued north of Kharkiv City with no significant change in control of terrain.
- Russian forces attempted a limited ground assault in Kherson Oblast and continued conducting combat operations without creating strike groups along occupied lines.
- Russian regional outlets reported the recruitment and establishment of an additional volunteer battalion in the Republic of Buryatia and the formation of a reserve battalion in Novosibirsk.
- Members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party traveled to occupied Ukrainian territories to promote an organization called “We Are Together with Russia,” likely to present the façade of a “grassroots” call for the Russian annexation of occupied Ukraine and to prepare for falsified annexation referenda.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Phillipson, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 28, 7:30 pm ET
The Russian grouping in Donetsk Oblast is likely seeking to capitalize on recent marginal gains southeast of Bakhmut by continuing to attempt to advance in that area. Russian forces may be de-emphasizing attempts to take Siversk in order to concentrate on Bakhmut, but it is too soon to tell. Russian forces continued efforts to advance northward on Bakhmut from recently gained positions around Novoluhanske and the Vuhlehirska Power Plant while pursuing southwestward advances along the T1302 highway from recently captured positions in Berestove. By contrast, Russian forces have been struggling to make concrete gains around Siversk and have not made any confirmed advances toward the city since the capture of the Luhansk Oblast Administrative border in early July. Russian command is likely, therefore, seeking to maintain momentum around Bakhmut, potentially at the expense of continued pressure on Siversk. Russian forces remain unlikely to take Bakhmut itself, despite recent incremental advances in its direction.
Putin replaced Colonel-General Gennady Zhidko as deputy defense minister and head of the Main Military-Political Directorate on July 28. Putin signed a decree appointing Colonel-General Viktor Goremykin to Zhidko’s position and has not publicly announced the appointment of Zhidko to a new position. ISW previously reported that Zhidko would become the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, a report that appears to have been incorrect.
- Russian forces in Donetsk Oblast likely seek to capitalize on recent marginal territorial gains around Bakhmut and may deprioritize efforts to take Siversk.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults northwest of Slovyansk and northeast and southwest of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces may be intensifying offensive operations around Avdiivka to reduce Ukrainian strikes in and around Donetsk City.
- Russian forces may be setting conditions for renewed offensive operations toward Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces attempted a limited ground offensive on the Southern Axis but are likely facing territorial losses in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces are attempting to preserve their ground lines of communication over the Dnipro River connecting Kherson City to rear areas in eastern Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin continued measures to compensate for officer and manpower losses in Ukraine.
- The Kremlin is continuing to institutionalize its occupation administrations in occupied parts of Ukraine to prepare for sham referenda, annexation, and integration into Russia.
- Russian occupation forces are continuing to pressure Ukrainian civilians in occupied areas to use Russian rubles and passports and to attend Russian-run schools, setting conditions for longer-term social control in occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 27, 7:30 pm ET
Russian forces appear able to sustain only two significant offensive operations in Ukraine at this time, one attempting to seize Siversk and the other advancing on Bakhmut. These operations have focused on advances in the Siversk, Donetsk Oblast, direction from Verkhnokamianka and Bilohorivka and in the Bakhmut direction from the areas of Novoluhanske and the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant since the end of the operational pause on July 16. Russian forces have committed enough resources to conduct near-daily ground assaults and to seize territory on these two axes but have been unable to sustain a similar offensive operational tempo or to make similar territorial gains elsewhere in Ukraine. The Russian offensive, therefore, remains likely to culminate before seizing any other major urban areas in Ukraine.
- Russian forces currently appear able to sustain only two significant offensive operations in Ukraine, both in Donetsk Oblast, and the Russian offensive remains likely to culminate before seizing additional significant population centers.
- Ukrainian forces may have launched a localized counterattack southwest of Izyum.
- Russian forces attacked settlements east of Siversk and northeast and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Ground fighting is ongoing north of Kharkiv City.
- Ukrainian forces struck the Antonivskyi Bridge for the third time in ten days on July 27, likely rendering it unusable.
- The Mari El Republic north of Kazan sent two volunteer battalions to train and is forming a third battalion to deploy to Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities are importing Russians to work in occupied territories due to a lack of Ukrainian collaborators.
- Mariupol occupation authorities continue withholding humanitarian aid to force civilians to cooperate with and work for the occupation administration.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 26, 7:15 pm ET
Russian-backed proxy leadership continues to enunciate deadlines for the capture of additional Ukrainian territory, likely to support ongoing preparations for referenda on the annexation of these territories to the Russian Federation. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Deputy Minister of Information Daniil Bezsonov stated on July 25 that the DNR expects to capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast by the end of August. Various Russian and Western sources have previously reported that Russia intends to hold referenda in occupied areas by the first half of September, likely sometime around September 11, which is the unified voting day in the Russian Federation. Proxy leadership and Russian-backed occupation authorities are likely pushing for deadlines for military objectives to support condition setting for expedited annexation objectives, although Russian forces remain unlikely to occupy significant additional territory in Ukraine before the early autumn annexation timeline.
- Russian proxy and occupation leadership is enunciating expedited deadlines for the capture of Ukrainian territory to align with the Kremlin’s efforts to prepare for the annexation of occupied territories into the Russian Federation.
- Russian forces gained marginal ground northeast of Bakhmut and are continuing to fight east and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted a limited attack northwest of Izyum, likely to secure Russian rear areas on the Izyum-Slovyansk line.
- Russian forces conducted limited attacks southwest of Donetsk City near the Zaporizhia Oblast border.
- Russian forces focused on defending occupied lines and conducted a limited ground assault in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian logistics nodes in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin is continuing to constitute regional volunteer battalions for deployment into Ukraine.
- Ukrainian intelligence leaks continue to reveal the Kremlin’s annexation agendas for occupied Ukraine by way of falsified referenda.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 25, 8:00pm ET
Russian forces made marginal territorial gains south of Bakhmut on July 25 but are largely suffering from the same fundamental limitations that previously prevented them from rapidly gaining substantial ground during offensive operations in Luhansk Oblast. Geolocated social media footage from July 25 shows that troops of the Wagner Group Private Military Company (PMC) have advanced into Novoluhanske and Russian and Ukrainian sources noted that Russian forces are taking control of the territory of the Vuhledar Power Plant on the northern edge of Novoluhanske, likely as a result of a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the area.
Russian Telegram channels began reporting on Russian attempts to advance on Novoluhanske as early as May 25, which means that Russian troops have been unsuccessfully attacking this single location for two months. Novoluhanske is neither a large settlement nor is it characterized by particularly challenging terrain, yet Russian forces have impaled themselves on it for weeks.
The capture of Novoluhanske and the Vuhledar Power Plant will not generate an advantageous salient along which Russian troops will be able to advance northwards towards Bakhmut. The Russian campaign to seize the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area benefitted from the fact that they had already created a salient with those two cities near its apex. They were able continually to press on the flanks of Ukrainian defensive positions until they had secured Severodonetsk. They struggled after that to take advantage of the fact that Lysychansk remained at the apex of a salient until they managed to break out from Popasna to the south and drive northward. Siversk is currently the town closest to the apex of the remaining salient, and Russian forces have struggled to advance against it. The Russian seizure of Novoluhanske and the Vuhledar Power Plant, on the other hand, flattens the Ukrainian defensive line rather than perpetuating a salient, thereby limiting the advantage the occupation of those areas gives to the Russian forces.
The operations around Novoluhanske indicate that Russian forces are suffering the same limitations in terms of their ability to effectively use battlefield geometry (such as the creation of effective salients) to their advantage, which is exacerbated by the extreme difficulty Russian forces regularly have capturing small and relatively insignificant bits of terrain over weeks or months of fighting. These limitations will grow as Russian units continually degrade themselves during assaults on small villages. Russian forces are unlikely to be able to effectively leverage the capture of Novoluhanske to take Bakhmut, and the continual tactical and operational limitations they are facing on the battlefield will likely contribute to the culmination of the offensive in Donbas before capturing Bakhmut, Slovyansk, or any other major city in Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces made marginal gains south of Bakhmut but are unlikely to be able to effectively leverage these advances to take full control of Bakhmut itself.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks north of Kharkiv City, east of Siversk, and east of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces are continuing to fortify and strengthen positions in Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts in anticipation of Ukrainian counteroffensives.
- Ukrainian forces are continuing to strike Russian strongholds along the Southern Axis.
- Russian forces continued to withdraw military equipment from storage in Omsk and faced challenges with repairing damaged combat vehicles.
- Russian occupation officials are continuing to set conditions for the annexation of occupied territories to the Russian Federation and to extend administrative control of occupied areas of Ukraine.
July 24, 6:30 pm ET
Ukrainian officials are increasingly acknowledging Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Kherson Oblast. Kherson Oblast Administration Advisor Serhiy Khlan stated on July 24 that Ukrainian forces are undertaking unspecified counteroffensive actions in Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on July 23 that Ukrainian forces are advancing “step by step” in Kherson Oblast. His statement does not make clear whether he is referring to small, ongoing Ukrainian advances in Kherson Oblast or a broader counteroffensive. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported on July 24 that Ukrainian forces are firing on Russian transport facilities in Kherson Oblast to impede maneuverability and logistics support. This activity is consistent with support to an active counteroffensive or conditions-setting for an upcoming counteroffensive. Khlan also said that Ukrainian strikes on Russian-controlled bridges around Kherson City only aim to prevent Russian forces from moving equipment into the city without stopping food and other essential supplies from entering the city.
Alarm in the Russian nationalist information space continues to grow as the pace of Russian operations slows in the face of successful Ukrainian high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) strikes on key Russian logistics and command-and-control nodes. Moscow Calling, a medium-sized Russian Telegram channel with 31,000 subscribers, posted an appraisal of the entirety of Russian operations in Ukraine since February 24. Moscow Calling defined three distinct phases of the war—the first spanning from initial invasion to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv Oblasts and the second spanning between that point and the introduction of Western-provided HIMARS. Moscow Calling notably defined the arrival of HIMARS as a distinct turning point in the war and stated that previously provided Western weapons systems (such as NLAWs, Javelins, Stingers, and Bayraktars) did very little against Russian artillery bombardment (they are not designed or intended to counter artillery attack), but that HIMARS changed everything for Russian capabilities in Ukraine. Moscow Calling strongly insinuated that recent Ukrainian strikes on Russian warehouses, communication hubs, and rear bases are having a devastating and potentially irreversible impact on the development of future Russian offensives.
This post is consistent with previous reports from Western defense officials that Russian troops are being forced to engage in various HIMARS mitigation tactics on the battlefield, including camouflage measures and constantly changing the location of equipment groupings. These mitigation tactics are impeding Russian forces from conducting the massive artillery barrages that they have widely employed over the course of the war, as evidenced by NASA Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) data that shows consistently fewer observed heat anomalies over the frontline in Donbas since the introduction of HIMARS to Ukraine.
[Source: NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System over Donbas, July 15 – July 23 and Esri, Maxar, Earthstar Geographics, and the GIS User Community]
The Kremlin is likely facing mounting (if still very limited) domestic dissent from within ethnic minority enclaves, which are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the Kremlin’s force generation efforts. Vasily Matenov, founder of the “Asians of Russia” organization, stated in early July that he had officially registered the organization in order to advocate for “endangered and small-numbered peoples who are discriminated against by the Russian state.” Matenov emphasized that the preliminary goal of “Asians of Russia” is to stop the war in Ukraine due to devastating statistics on the combat deaths of soldiers from minority groups. Similarly, Advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Gerashchenko cited Ukrainian sources that claim Russian authorities pay triple amounts to families of deceased soldiers from Moscow compared to families of soldiers from the minority-dominant region of Buryatia. As ISW has previously reported, protest groups in ethnic minority enclaves have already formed in Tuva and Buryatia, and these communities will likely continue to protest the Kremlin’s reliance on drawing combat power from peripheral groups of Russian society.
- Ukrainian officials are increasingly acknowledging Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin is facing mounting (if still very limited) domestic dissent from ethnic minorities who are disproportionately bearing the burden of the Russian war in Ukraine.
- Russian forces attempted limited ground assaults northwest of Slovyansk, east of Siversk, and south of Bakhmut on July 24.
- Ukrainian strikes have damaged all three Russian-controlled bridges leading into Kherson City within the past week.
- Russian forces attempted limited ground assaults in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin continued constituting regional volunteer battalions and is leveraging private military companies’ recruitment drives to generate combat power.
- Russian occupation authorities continued setting conditions for annexation referenda in occupied territories and are recruiting Russian civilians for reconstruction efforts.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 23, 6:00 pm ET
Ukrainian forces are likely preparing to launch or have launched a counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast as of July 23, but open-source visibility on the progress and tempo of the counteroffensive will likely be limited and lag behind events. Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Administration Adviser Serhiy Khlan stated on July 23 that Ukrainian forces have seized unspecified settlements in Kherson Oblast but called on Ukrainian civilians to remain silent on the progress of the counteroffensive until Ukrainian authorities release official statements. Foreign Policy National Security Reporter Jack Detsch reported on July 22 that an unspecified senior US defense official stated that Ukrainian forces have recaptured unspecified “portions of Russian-occupied villages” in Kherson over the past week of July 15-22, indicating that Ukrainian forces have made some unspecified territorial advances along frontlines. The area between the front line and Kherson City is rural and primarily composed of small settlements that are less likely to report on force movements and engagements, allowing control-of-terrain in this area to change without evidence appearing in open-source reporting. Russian authorities additionally have no incentive to report on Ukrainian territorial gains. The informational dynamics that allow ISW to report on Russian offensive operations with relatively little lag are thus inverted in this situation. ISW will report on the progress of any Ukrainian counteroffensives to the best of its ability within these constraints.
Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov seemingly confirmed that Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev has replaced Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov as acting commander of Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD). Kadyrov stated that Kuzovlev, to whom he explicitly referred as acting commander of the SMD, visited Chechnya on July 23 in order to inspect Kadyrov’s “Akhmat” battalions. Kuzovlev had previously served as chief of staff of the SMD and commanded the Russian grouping in Syria from November 2020 to February 2021. Kuzovlev’s visit and inspection of Kadyrov’s forces, which comes two days after Kadyrov announced that these battalions will not be immediately deploying into Ukraine, may support other hints that Kadyrov is facing mounting domestic pressure. The anti-Kadyrov Sheikh Mansour battalion reportedly announced an insurgency against Kadyrov’s regime on July 21, and Kadyrov may want to hold the newly formed Akhmat battalions in Chechnya to handle any local unrest.
- Ukrainian forces are likely preparing to launch, or have already launched, a counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast.
- Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov indicated that Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev is the acting commander of the Southern Military District.
- Russian forces conducted limited reconnaissance operations east of Bakhmut and continued limited ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk, east of Siversk, and south of Bakhmut.
- The Kremlin continued to form regional volunteer battalions and likely intends to have 16 such battalions formed by the end of July.
- Russian occupation authorities are continuing to prepare for referenda on the annexation of occupied areas into the Russian Federation and are taking measures to isolate occupied areas from the non-Russian information space.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 22, 6:30 pm ET
The United States announced a new $270 million security package for Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials detailed their procedures for keeping track of Western weapons on July 22. The US package includes an additional four high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), 36,000 artillery ammunition rounds, anti-armor systems, and 580 Phoenix Ghost drones. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov reiterated that the Ukrainian government is employing multiple monitoring mechanisms to keep track of weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Ukraine’s Modern Information and Analytical System of the Main Situational Center (COTA) reportedly allows Ukrainian officials to monitor the status of arms deliveries to Ukrainian frontlines and works in tandem with NATO’s LOGFAS logistics and accounting control system. Danilov’s statement is likely a response to an ongoing Russian information operation that seeks to discount Ukraine as a trustworthy recipient of Western military aid.
- The United States announced an additional $270 million security package for Ukraine.
- Ukrainian officials reiterated that they are employing monitoring mechanisms to track and account for the delivery of Western weapons to Ukrainian frontlines.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks east of Siversk and to the east and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces unsuccessfully attempted to advance northwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces conducted limited positional battles north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted localized ground attacks near the Kherson-Mykolaiv Oblast border.
- Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov announced that the newly-formed Chechen “West-Akhmat” battalion will not be immediately deployed into Ukraine and will stay in Chechnya.
- Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin signed a cooperation agreement with the occupation head of Kharkiv Oblast, indicating that the Kremlin intends to integrate Kharkiv Oblast into the Russian Federation.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 21, 5:00 pm ET
Russian forces conducted a few limited and highly localized ground attacks on July 21. The current Russian operational tempo is not markedly different from what it was during the officially declared operational pause between July 7 and July 16. Russian forces continued to conduct minor attacks throughout that period to the northwest of Slovyansk and around the Siversk and Bakhmut areas without capturing any decisive ground. Since July 16, Russian troops have continued local attacks to the east of Siversk as well as east and south of Bakhmut; they have not made any major territorial gains in these areas as of July 21. The Russian grouping northwest of Slovyansk has in fact conducted fewer ground attacks along the Kharkiv-Donetsk Oblast border than it did during the official operational pause. The lack of successful ground attacks beyond the Slovyansk, Siversk, and Bakhmut areas is consistent with ISW’s assessment that the Russian offensive is likely to culminate without capturing Slovyansk or Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on July 21 that Russian troops have used up to 55-60% of Russia’s pre-war reserve of high-precision missiles. GUR spokesperson Vadym Skibitksy specified that these high-precision missiles include Kh-101, Kh-555, Iskander, and Kalibr systems, which he stated Russian forces have been using less frequently, partially due to the effect of Western sanctions on the availability of needed components for high-precision systems. On the other hand, Ukrainian forces have recently acquired an influx of Western-provided high-precision systems such as high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which they are using to a more decisive effect than the Russians have been achieving with their precision systems. Russian forces will likely continue to employ their reserves of lower-precision Soviet weapons systems, but the decisiveness of these strikes, compared to the impact of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes, is likely to remain limited.
- The current Russian operational tempo is not markedly different from the pace of Russian offensive operations during the official Russian operational pause, and Russian forces are unlikely to be able to take significant ground in the coming weeks.
- Russia has likely used as much as 55-60% of its high-precision weaponry reserve.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to the east of Siversk and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted an unsuccessful ground attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces may be storing equipment in Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant facilities to protect it against Ukrainian strikes.
- Russia’s Murmansk Oblast is reportedly forming a volunteer battalion.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 20, 6:15 pm ET
The current Russian offensive may secure limited additional territorial gains in Donbas northeast of the E40 highway but will likely culminate before seizing major populated areas such as Slovyansk or Bakhmut. Russian forces have not made significant advances towards Slovyansk or along the Siversk-Bakhmut salient in the past few weeks and are continuing to degrade their own offensive combat power in localized fights for small and relatively un-important settlements throughout Donetsk Oblast. Russian troops have notably been attempting to take Siversk since the capture of Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast border on July 3 and have still not reached the city as of July 20. Similarly, Russian troops have failed to launch direct assaults on Bakhmut and have largely impaled themselves on fights for small settlements to its east and south. Efforts to advance on Slovyansk have mostly ground to a halt and have made no meaningful gains for weeks. The renewal of active ground offensives following the brief operational pause has not yet translated into meaningful Russian forward progress, although it is possible that either steady Russian pressure or the completion of Russian efforts to rebuild combat power could generate limited gains in the coming days or weeks.
Russian troops are now struggling to move across relatively sparsely-settled and open terrain. They will encounter terrain much more conducive to the Ukrainian defenders the closer they get to the E40 around Slovyansk and Bakhmut due to the increasing population density and built-up nature of these areas (see map in-line with text). The current Russian offensive in Donbas is therefore highly likely to culminate somewhere along the E40 in the coming weeks.
[Map showing population density in Donbas as of 2020 in comparison with ISW’s assessed control of terrain in Donetsk Oblast as of July 20, 2022. Russian forces will likely face challenges taking control of the darker-grey areas, which represent more densely-populated hromadas and are largely concentrated along the E40 highway between Slovyansk and Bakhmut]
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov articulated expanded geographical aims for Russian operations in Ukraine on July 20, confirming ISW’s long-held assessment that Russia has territorial goals beyond Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Lavrov held an interview with state-owned media outlet RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan wherein he stated that the geography of the “special operation” has changed since March and now includes not just the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, but also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts and a number of other unspecified territories. Lavrov also warned that these goals will expand if the West continues to provide Ukraine with long-range weapons. Lavrov’s calls for maximalist territorial objectives are notably divorced from the slow and grinding reality of recent Russian operations in Ukraine as discussed above. Ukrainian counteroffensive pressure is complicating Russian efforts to consolidate military control of occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, and it is unclear how the Kremlin will generate the offensive combat power needed to take significant new amounts of Ukrainian territory.
The Russian Defense Ministry publicly identified Lieutenant General Andrey Sychevoy as the commander of the Western force grouping in Ukraine on July 20. The Russian force groupings in Ukraine appear to follow the structure of established Russian military districts. Ukraine’s Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) had previously reported that Sychevoy replaced Commander Alexander Zhuravlev as the Western Military District Commander. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu instructed Sychevoy to focus on destroying Ukrainian UAVs operating near the Ukraine-Russia border, indicating that the Western force grouping is likely operating on the Kharkiv City Axis. Russian forces have thus apparently split Kharkiv Oblast into two axes: the Western force grouping operating towards Kharkiv City and the Eastern force grouping operating in the Izyum-Slovyansk direction.
The Russians have identified commanders of the southern, central, and eastern groups of forces, corresponding to their respective military districts and oriented on Bakhmut, the Izyum area, and Siversk respectively. They have notably failed to identify any commander of Russian forces operating in occupied southern Ukraine, however. The Russian commander of forces on the Southern Axis could be the commander of the Russian 7th Guards Mountain Airborne (VDV) Division based in Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai, or of the Black Sea Fleet’s 22nd Army Corps, based in Simferopol, Crimea, respectively, as there is no other obvious military district from which he might be drawn.
Ukrainian troops rescued a cat during clearing operations on Snake Island and evacuated it back to the Ukrainian mainland on July 20. The cat reportedly survived the duration of the Russian occupation of the island.
- The current Russian offensive will likely make marginal territorial gains northeast of the E40 highway in Donetsk before culminating along the E40.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is pursuing expanded territorial gains in Ukraine beyond Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast, confirming ISW’s assessment that the Kremlin seeks to capture territory beyond Donbas.
- Russian forces resumed limited ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk and around the Donetsk City-Avdiivka area.
- Russian forces continued localized ground assaults east of Siversk and made marginal gains northeast of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces conducted the second consecutive high-precision strike against the Antonivskyi Bridge-- a major Russian logistics artery east of Kherson City.
- Russian occupation authorities are likely propagandizing recent Ukrainian high-precision strikes and partisan activity to set conditions for mass deportations of Ukrainian citizens to Russian territory.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Katherine Lawlor, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 19, 7:30 pm ET
Calls among Russian nationalist and pro-war voices for Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand Russia’s war aims, mobilize the state fully for war, and drop the pretext that Russia is not engaged in a war reached a crescendo on July 19. Former Russian militant commander and nationalist milblogger Igor Girkin presented an extensive list of military, economic, and political actions that he argues the Kremlin must take to win the war in Ukraine; first among this list is abandoning the rhetoric of the “special military operation” and defining the official goals of the war in Ukraine. Girkin advocated for expansive territorial aims beyond the Kremlin’s stated ambitions in Donbas, including the reunification of the entire territory of “Novorossiya” (which Girkin maintains includes Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts as well as Kryvyi Rih) with the Russian Federation and the creation of a Malorossiya state (all of Ukraine up to the Polish border), which Girkin claims should be reunified with Russia through the Russia-Belarus Union State. Girkin also called for the Kremlin to shift the Russian economy fully to a war footing and to carry out extensive mobilization measures including forced conscription and the (further) suspension of Russians’ rights. Girkin has often criticized what he views as a lack of ambition and decisive action in the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine through his calls for maximalist objectives and measures to support territorial gains. His newest list of demands adds to the growing discontent within the Russian pro-war nationalist zeitgeist.
While Girkin’s July 19 post is an acerbic critique of the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine, other Russian milbloggers sought to shape a narrative favoring Putin while advancing the same maximalist aims by suggesting that the Kremlin has been purposefully setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine since the war began. Russian milblogger Yuri Kotyenok claimed that Russia has been pursuing the “Syrianization” of the war in Ukraine by never articulating specific deadlines or goals for operations in Ukraine. The explicit invocation of protracted Russian operations in Syria suggests that certain Russian nationalist voices are setting conditions for a long war in a way that saves face for the Kremlin given Russia’s failure to secure its military objectives in Ukraine in the very short period that the Kremlin initially planned.
Putin could simply ignore the milbloggers, although he has shown concern for their positions in the recent past, or he could play off their narratives in several ways. He might wait and see what resonance their calls for full mobilization and broader war aims have within the portions of the Russian population he cares most about. He might hope that their semi-independent calls for more extreme measures could fuel support for an expansion of aims and mobilization that he desires but feels Russians remain unprepared to accept. He may instead reject their calls for grander ambitions and greater sacrifices, thereby presenting himself as the moderate leader refraining from demanding too much from his people.
US officials reported that Russia plans to annex occupied Ukrainian territory as soon as autumn 2022, confirming ISW’s May 2022 assessment. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the Kremlin is beginning to roll out a version of its 2014 “annexation playbook” in Ukraine and is “examining detailed plans” to annex Kherson, Zaporizhia, and all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, citing newly declassified intelligence. Kirby confirmed ISW’s long-running assessment that the Kremlin has installed illegitimate proxy officials, forced use of the ruble, replaced Ukrainian telecommunications and broadcast infrastructure with Russian alternatives, and forced Ukrainians to apply for Russian passports to accomplish basic tasks in occupied territories. As ISW wrote on May 13, Putin’s timeline for annexation is likely contingent on the extent to which he understands the degraded state of the Russian military in Ukraine. He may intend to capture the remainder of Donetsk Oblast before annexing all occupied territories, which would likely force him to postpone annexation. Russia’s degraded forces are unlikely to occupy all of Donetsk Oblast before Russia’s September 11 unified voting day for local and gubernatorial elections across the country, the most likely date for annexation referenda to be held. The Kremlin could also postpone these Russian regional and local elections to limit expressions of domestic dissatisfaction with the Russian invasion of Ukraine—independent Latvia-based Russian language newspaper Meduza reported in May that members of Russia’s Federal Security Service and National Security Council were lobbying to postpone the September 2022 elections.
Putin could leverage nuclear threats to deter a Ukrainian counteroffensive into annexed Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts. After annexation, Putin may state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. Putin may believe that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would restore Russian deterrence after his disastrous invasion shattered Russia's conventional deterrent capabilities, although previous Russian hints at Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons have proven hollow. Ukraine and its Western partners may have a narrowing window of opportunity to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive into occupied Ukrainian territory before the Kremlin annexes that territory.
Russian milbloggers are increasingly openly criticizing the Russian military for failing to address structural problems with Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), highlighting the VDV’s failure to fight the war as it had trained in peacetime, a failing that played no small role in the general Russian failures during the initial invasion. Russian milblogger Military Informant stated that Russian VDV has not adopted force structure and tactics reforms that the Russian military already knew were necessary prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Military Informant stated that lightly armored Russian VDV vehicles (such as BMD and BTR-D) are too heavy to enable effective airborne mobility—especially in contested airspace—and too light to provide sufficient protection in maneuver warfare. Russian milblogger Alexander Sladkov similarly noted that Russian VDV forces‘ structural reliance on a small number of lightly armored fighting vehicles is a liability. Military Informant praised how the Russian VDV previously practiced using light unarmored vehicles for higher mobility in three consecutive years of annual capstone command staff exercises (Tsentr 2019, Kavkaz 2020, and Zapad 2021) but noted that these adaptations did not have time to “take root” before the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The Russian military’s failure to implement lessons learned—or to learn the right lessons—from previous exercises or combat is an ongoing trend that ISW has observed. The most prominent example of this phenomenon was the Russian military’s failure to create a cohesive command and control system for the amalgamation of approximately 120 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) assembled for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine after experiencing successes operating smaller numbers of BTGs in Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria in 2016.
- Calls made by Russian nationalist and pro-war voices for the Kremlin to officially define operations in Ukraine as a war, conduct general mobilization, and pursue expanded territorial goals reached a crescendo on July 19 with some criticizing the Kremlin and others claiming that Putin has been preparing for the “Syrianization” of the war all along.
- The Kremlin will likely attempt to illegally annex occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts into Russia as early as September 11, 2022.
- Russian milbloggers highlighted the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) failure to fight as they had trained—a critique that helps explain the general Russian failures during the initial invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued efforts to resume offensive operations toward Slovyansk from southeast of Izyum and around Barvinkove.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks to the east of Siversk and had partial success in ground attacks to the east of Bakhmut.
- Russian authorities are continuing to leverage unconventional sources of combat power to avoid general mobilization.
- Russian occupation authorities are escalating law enforcement measures to protect administrative control of occupied areas.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 18, 5:30 pm ET
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s July 18 meeting with the commander of the Eastern group of forces Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov supports ISW’s assessment that Moscow will not prioritize an attack to seize Slovyansk in this stage of the operation but will instead focus on seizing Siversk and Bakhmut. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on July 18 that Shoigu inspected the Eastern group and directed Muradov to prioritize the destruction of Ukrainian long-range missiles and artillery systems. This is the first time ISW has observed explicit mention of the Eastern force grouping operating in Ukraine in this phase of the war. The Russian MoD previously reported that the Central and Southern force groups took part in the capture of Luhansk Oblast under the leadership of Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin and Army General Sergey Surovikin. The Eastern group of forces is likely comprised of elements of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD), which have been active along the Izyum axis in Kharkiv Oblast. It is still unclear whether Muradov also directly controls operations around Kharkiv City. Muradov’s forces are operating in the Izyum-Slovyansk direction ostensibly with the objective of eventually seizing Slovyansk itself, and it is noteworthy that Shoigu did not direct Muradov to prioritize taking ground along this axis at this time. Muradov holds a lower rank than both Lapin and Surovikin, suggesting that the Kremlin considers the Izyum-Slovyansk area to be a lower priority than capturing territory in Donetsk Oblast as part of the wider Donbas campaign. The Kremlin likely is focusing military resources and high-rank leadership on localized and discrete gains around Siversk and Bakhmut, despite Shoigu’s earlier calls for the intensification of operations along all axes of advance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely effort to shield ethnic Russians from high levels of mobilization may trigger resistance in some of the ethnic enclaves that seem to be disproportionately bearing the burden of war. Russian Telegram channel Rybar released a report on July 18 about the Novaya Tuva movement- an anti-war organization comprised of activists from the Tuvan ethnic minority enclave. Rybar accused the Novaya Tuva movement of disseminating anti-war propaganda and inciting ethnic discord within the Russian Federation. This report is noteworthy in the context of the recent increase in the formation of regionally-based volunteer battalions through Russia, many of which fall along distinct ethnic lines. ISW and others have previously noted the prevalence of non-ethnic Russian battalions fighting in Ukraine, which include troops from Chechnya, South Ossetia, Tuva, Tartarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and others. These indicators suggest that Putin may be unwilling to conduct general mobilization in part due to a reluctance to mobilize large numbers of ethnic Russians. Rybar’s post as well as previous reporting on a "Free Buryatia” anti-war group bring to the fore the risk that Putin’s apparent desire to have non-Russians bear the brunt of the war at this stage could create domestic tension in these regions.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense’s meeting with the leadership of the Eastern grouping of forces in Ukraine suggests that the Kremlin will not focus on seizing Slovyansk at this stage of the campaign but will instead prioritize attempting to seize Siversk and Bakhmut.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely effort to put the burden of supporting operations in Ukraine on ethnic minorities to avoid conducting a general mobilization of ethnic Russians may be sparking resistance in ethnic enclaves in Russia.
- Russian forces conducted a series of ground attacks east of Siversk and south of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces intensified efforts to advance on Avdiivka and conducted limited ground assaults along the Donetsk City-Avdiivka frontline.
- Russian authorities are continuing to integrate occupied areas into the Russian trade economy.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 17, 5:00 pm ET
Russian forces are continuing a measured return from the operational pause and conducted limited ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on July 17. As ISW has previously noted, the end of the Russian operational pause is unlikely to create a massive new wave of ground assaults across multiple axes of advance despite Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s public order for exactly that. Russian troops are prioritizing advances around Siversk and Bakhmut while maintaining defensive positions north of Kharkiv City and along the Southern Axis. Russian forces continued to set conditions for resumed offensives toward Slovyansk, shelled settlements along the Izyum-Slovyansk salient, and otherwise conducted artillery, missile, and air strikes throughout Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense notably did not claim any new territorial gains on July 17. ISW continues to forecast that the end of the operational pause will be characterized by a fluctuating and staggered resumption of ground offensives.
- Russian forces continued a measured return from the operational pause and did not make any confirmed territorial gains on July 17.
- Russian forces continued limited ground assaults around Siversk, Bakhmut, and Donetsk City and otherwise fired at civilian and military infrastructure throughout the Donbas.
- Russian forces focused on defensive operations north of Kharkiv City and along the Southern Axis.
- The Kremlin may be setting long-term conditions for force generation efforts in anticipation of protracted hostilities in Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities are likely using the threat of partisan activities to justify harsher societal controls in occupied areas.
Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 16, 6 pm ET
The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the Russian operational pause has concluded on July 16, confirming ISW’s July 15 assessment. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered Southern Group Commander General of the Army Sergey Surovikin and Central Group Commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin to increase offensive operations on all axes on July 16, but the tempo of the resuming Russian offensive will likely fluctuate or stutter over the coming days. Russian forces conducted fewer ground assaults on all axes on July 16 than on July 15, but maintained increased artillery and missile strikes on July 16.
Shoigu indicated that Surovikin and Lapin will both continue to command forces on the Eastern Axis even though a force concentration and effort of this size should only require a single, very senior overall commander. Surovikin should in principle be in overall command because he outranks Lapin. Shoigu has not even named Surovikin as the head of Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) despite the likely ousting of SMD Commander General of the Army Alexander Dvornikov and despite Surovikin’s experience commanding the Southern Grouping in Ukraine. Lapin, in contrast, has been and remains commander of the Central Military District. The Kremlin‘s failure to use the operational pause to reorganize the Russian military command structure in Ukraine and its decision to instead retain an ad-hoc command structure is very odd. The apparent dual command of two very senior generals over operations in a very small area may hinder Russian operations going forward.
Ukrainian HIMARS strikes against Russian ammunition depots, logistics elements, and command and control are likely degrading Russian artillery campaigns. Ukrainian officials confirmed that American-supplied HIMARS arrived in Ukraine on June 23. Ukrainian operators have been using the HIMARS to strike multiple Russian targets – notably ammunition depots – since June 25. The destruction of these ammunition depots has likely degraded Russian forces’ ability to sustain high volumes of artillery fire along front lines. Detected heat anomalies from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) remotely sensed data decreased significantly in Donbas starting around July 10.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the cessation of the operational pause, confirming ISW’s July 15 assessment that Russian forces are likely resuming ground attacks along multiple axes of advance. The cessation of the operational pause is unlikely to lead to a massive increase in ground attacks across Ukraine but will rather likely be characterized by continued limited ground assaults focused on the Slovyansk-Siversk-Bakhmut salient.
- The Kremlin may have ordered Russian forces to take control of the entirety of Kharkiv Oblast, despite the extraordinary low likelihood of Russian success in such an effort.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults around Siversk and Bakhmut and otherwise fired on Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure across Eastern Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities likely are responding to the perceived threat of Ukrainian partisan activities by strengthening administrative regimes in occupied areas.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 15, 7:25 pm ET
Russian forces are likely emerging from their operational pause as of July 15. Russian forces carried out a series of limited ground assaults northwest of Slovyansk, southeast of Siversk, along the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway, southeast of Bakhmut, and southwest of Donetsk City. These assaults may indicate that Russian forces are attempting to resume their offensive operations in Donbas. The assaults are still small-scale and were largely unsuccessful. If the operational pause is truly over, the Russians will likely continue and expand such assaults in the coming 72 hours. The Russians might instead alternate briefer pauses with strengthening attacks over a number of days before moving into a full-scale offensive operation. A 10-day-long operational pause is insufficient to fully regenerate Russian forces for large-scale offensive operations. The Russian military seems to feel continuous pressure to resume and continue offensive operations before it can reasonably have rebuilt sufficient combat power to achieve decisive effects at a reasonable cost to itself, however. The resuming Russian offensive may therefore fluctuate or even stall for some time.
Ukrainian HIMARS strikes have likely killed or wounded four Russian 106th Airborne Division deputy commanders. Russian news outlets reported the deaths of 106th Division’s deputy commanders Colonel Sergey Kuzminov, Colonel Andrey Vasiliev, and Colonel Maxim Kudrin, seemingly confirming Ukrainian claims that HIMARS strikes on Shaktarsk on July 9 killed or wounded a significant portion of the 106th's leadership. Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications claimed on July 12 that one unspecified 106th Airborne Division deputy commander remains in critical condition.
- Russian forces are likely emerging from their operational pause, launching ground assaults north of Slovyansk, southeast of Siversk, around Bakhmut, and southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued to defend occupied positions in the Kharkiv City direction to prevent Ukrainian forces from advancing toward the Russian border in Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian forces continued their systematic attacks on civilian infrastructure targeting residential infrastructure, recreational facilities, and educational institutions in Mykolaiv City on July 15.
- Chelyabinsk Oblast officials announced the completion of a volunteer battalion on July 15.
- Russian occupation authorities continued to institute new societal control measures in occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 14, 8:00 pm ET
Russia’s operational pause largely continued, with limited Russian ground assaults along the Slovyansk-Siversk-Bakhmut salient. Russian forces continued heavy shelling, missile attacks, and airstrikes all along the front line. The Russians will likely launch a larger-scale and more determined offensive along the Slovyansk-Siversk-Bakhmut line soon, but there are no indications yet of how soon that attack will begin or exactly where it will focus.
The Russian missile strike on Vinnytsia on July 14 was part of a systematic Russian campaign of attacks on residential areas of cities in Ukraine. Ukrainian President’s Office Deputy Head Kyrylo Tymoshenko reported that Russian forces launched Kalibr missiles from a submarine at the Vinnytsia city center. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that the strike resulted in at least 22 civilian deaths, about 100 injured, and 39 missing people. Russian forces also launched missiles at a hotel, educational facilities, a shopping center, and transport infrastructure in Mykolaiv city.
- Russia continued its campaign of systematic attacks on residential areas in Ukrainian cities with strikes on Vinnytsia, Kharkiv City, and Mykolaiv City.
- Russian forces continued efforts to advance on Siversk but their progress is unclear.
- Russian troops conducted limited ground assaults around Bakhmut and Slovyansk but made no gains.
- Chechen Leader Ramazan Kadyrov claimed that one of the four new battalions he has been forming deployed to Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 13, 7:30 pm ET
The Kremlin likely ordered Russian “federal subjects” (regions) to form volunteer battalions to participate in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, instead of declaring partial or full mobilization in Russia. Russian war correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin stated that Russia has begun a “volunteer mobilization,” where every region must generate at least one volunteer battalion. The term “volunteer mobilization” likely implies that the Kremlin ordered the 85 “federal subjects” (regions, including occupied Sevastopol and Crimea) to recruit and financially incentivize volunteers to form new battalions, rather than referring to literal mobilization relying on conscription or the compulsory activation of all reservists in Russia. Russian outlets reported that regional officials recruit men up to 50 years old (or 60 for separate military specialties) for six-month contracts and offer salaries averaging 220,000 to 350,000 rubles per month (approximately $3,750 to $6,000). Separate regions offer an immediate enlistment bonus that averages 200,000 rubles (approximately $3,400) issued from the region‘s budget and social benefits for the servicemen and their families. Russian media has already confirmed the creation or deployment of volunteer battalions in Kursk, Primorskyi Krai, Republic of Bashkortostan, Chuvashia Republic, Chechnya, Republic of Tatarstan, Moscow City, Perm, Nizhny Novgorod, and Orenburg Oblasts in late June and early July. Tyumen Oblast officials announced the formation of volunteer units (not specifically a battalion) on July 7.
Volunteer battalions could generate around 34,000 new servicemen by the end of August if each federal subject produces at least one military unit of 400 men. Some Russian reports and documentation suggest that the Kremlin seeks to recruit an estimated 400 soldiers per battalion, who will receive a month of training before deploying to Ukraine. The number of men may vary as some federal subjects such as Republic of Tatarstan and Chechnya are establishing two and four volunteer battalions, respectively. It is possible that some federal subjects may delay or not participate in the establishment of the battalions, with officials in Volgograd reportedly remaining silent on the formation of the new units. Newly formed battalions are currently departing to training grounds and will likely complete their month-long training by end of August but they will not be combat ready in such a short time period.
Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian military on July 12 for sourcing Iranian UAVs to improve artillery targeting in Ukraine while failing to address the command issues that more severely limit the effectiveness of Russian artillery. Russian Telegram channel Rybar claimed on July 12 that Russian requests and approval for artillery fire pass through a convoluted chain of command, resulting in a delay of several hours to several days between Russian ground forces requesting artillery fire, Russian targeting, and conducting the actual strikes. Rybar claimed that Russian forces in Syria reduced the time between targeting and striking to under an hour. Rybar claimed that while the Russian need for more UAVs is clear and that Iranian UAVs helped achieve a target-to-fire time of 40 minutes in Syrian training grounds additional UAVs do not solve the problems of overcentralized Russian command and overreliance on artillery in Ukraine. Russian milblogger Voyennyi Osvedomitel’ claimed that Russian forces had faced the same overcentralized command during the First Chechen War, wherein the inability of Russian ground forces to request artillery support without going through a chain of command inhibited responses to enemy offensive actions. Milblogger Yuzhnyi Veter claimed that Ukrainian artillery forces’ target-to-response time is under 40 seconds.
- The Kremlin likely ordered Russian “federal subjects” (regions) to form volunteer battalions to deploy to Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted failed ground assaults north of Slovyansk and around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued air and artillery strikes around Siversk and west of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued targeting Ukrainian rail lines on the Eastern Axis.
- Russian forces attempted limited and unsuccessful ground assaults north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces prioritized defensive operations on the Southern Axis as Ukrainian forces continued targeting ammunition depots.
- Russian occupation authorities are increasing financial incentives for civilians working in occupied Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities may be setting conditions to forcibly relocate Ukrainian children in occupied territories to Crimea.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 12, 8:10 pm ET
Russian forces remain in a theater-wide operational pause in Ukraine. Russian forces continue to regroup, rest, refit, and reconstitute; bombard critical areas to set conditions for future ground offensives; and conduct limited probing attacks. The Russian Ministry of Defense did not claim any new territorial control on July 12. ISW has previously noted that an operational pause does not mean a cessation of attacks. Current Russian offensive actions are likely meant to prepare for future offensives, the timing of which remains unclear.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reported on July 11 that Iran will provide Russia with “up to several hundred UAVs” on an expedited timeline. Sullivan did not specify the kinds of drones Iran will be supplying. AEI’s Critical Threats Project has provided a quick summary of the basic kinds and capabilities of Iranian drones. Sullivan noted that Iran will also provide weapons-capable UAVs and train Russian forces to use Iranian drones as early as July. Russian milbloggers and war correspondents have long criticized the Kremlin for ineffective aerial reconnaissance and artillery fire correction measures due to the lack of UAVs. Former Russian military commander and milblogger Igor Girkin stated that Ukrainian forces have successfully defended the Donetsk Oblast frontline due to the advantage of Ukrainian UAV capabilities in the area. Russian milblogger Andrey Morozov (also known as Boytsevoi Kot Murz) blamed Russian state media for grossly misrepresenting the availability of Russian UAVs and their ability to support accurate artillery fire. Russian frontline correspondent Alexander Sladkov also complained that Russian forces can build more drones but have not done so.
- The Kremlin is reportedly sourcing Iranian UAVs likely to improve Russian aerial reconnaissance and indirect fire accuracy in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted limited and unsuccessful ground assaults north of Slovyansk and east of Siversk.
- Russian forces continued air and artillery strikes around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
- Russian forces conducted multiple unsuccessful ground assaults north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces likely conducted a false-flag attack on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in occupied Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian strikes killed multiple Russian officers in Kherson City on July 10.
- Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian ammunition depots on the Southern Axis.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 11, 7:10 pm ET
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely continuing to grant Russian forces access to Belarusian airspace to demonstrate at least nominal support to Russian President Vladimir Putin without risking direct military involvement of Belarusian Armed Forces in operations in Ukraine. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the Ukrainian General Staff Oleksiy Gromov previously reported on July 7 that the Belarusian government transferred use of the Pribytki airfield in Gomel Oblast to Russia. Independent Belarusian monitoring organization The Hajun Project similarly reported on July 11 that a Russian Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft flew into Belarusian airspace for the first time since April 4. The Hajun Project noted that the Belarusian government introduced new airspace restrictions along the border with Ukraine where the AWACS aircraft patrolled between July 10 and 11. Taken together, these data points likely indicate that Lukashenko is attempting to provide support to Putin's war in Ukraine short of direct Belarusian military intervention in an effort to respond to the pressure Putin is likely putting on him. As ISW has previously assessed, the likelihood of direct Belarusian involvement in the war in Ukraine remains low due to the effect that might have on the stability and even survival of Lukashenko’s regime.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely continuing to allow Russia access to Belarusian airspace to indicate support to Russian President Vladimir Putin without risking the consequences of direct Belarusian military involvement in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted limited and unsuccessful ground assaults northwest of Slovyansk and west of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued air and artillery strikes around Siversk and Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted localized ground assaults northwest of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces continued to focus on defensive operations along the entire Southern Axis.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 10, 8:30 pm ET
Russian forces are in the midst of a theater-wide operational pause in Ukraine. This operational pause has been largely characterized by Russian troops regrouping to rest, refit, and reconstitute; heavy artillery fire in critical areas to set conditions for future ground advances; and limited probing attacks to identify Ukrainian weakness and structure appropriate tactical responses. As ISW has previously noted, an operational pause does not mean a complete cessation of hostilities, rather that ongoing hostilities are more preparative in nature.
Russian milblogger Rybar provided more evidence of tensions between the Russian military command and Russian war correspondents. Russian war correspondents include journalists operating at the frontlines and Russian milbloggers commentating on information available in the open-source (and likely also drawn from friends in the military). Rybar noted that Russian military commanders responsible for wartime information operations are attempting to silence Russian milbloggers and war correspondents to conceal the Russian military’s blunders during the invasion of Ukraine. Rybar noted that Russian military commanders remain shaped by negative experiences during the Chechnya wars when war correspondents exposed problems at the frontline to the Kremlin and embarrassed Russian officers.
Rybar stated that the Russian Defense Ministry and possibly actors within the presidential administration are actively attempting to silence unofficial coverage of the Russian war in Ukraine. Rybar expressed support for a Telegram article by Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Deputy Information Minister (and milblogger) Daniil Bezsonov that criticized the Kremlin's apparent effort to promote self-censorship among war correspondents. Rybar noted that Adviser to the Russian Defense Minister Andrey Ilnitsky called for such self-censorship on May 26 and had encouraged Russian war correspondents to report on the war only from an ideological standpoint without getting into operational details. Rybar speculated that the presidential administration or other Russian officials ordered Ilnitsky to promote censorship among war correspondents who publish frontline updates in real-time.
Rybar noted that the relationship between the Russian military command and war correspondents particularly soured after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with war correspondents during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17. Rybar claimed that two prominent war correspondents told Putin about the “mess” at the frontlines during the closed-door meeting, effectively bypassing the Russian Defense Ministry in presenting their negative views directly to the commander in chief. The event Rybar is describing likely occurred: Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced on June 12 that Putin would hold a largely closed-door meeting with Russian war correspondents, and Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan confirmed that Putin had a “candid” and long conversation with frontline journalists after the event. Rybar noted that Russian Defense Ministry began to identify war correspondents as a “threat” after this engagement whereas previously it had perceived them as a “poorly controlled problem.”
Putin likely held the June 17 meeting to defuse milblogger discontent, which had become evident and dramatic after the disastrous failed river crossing attempt at Bilohorivka in mid-May. If that was his aim, he failed to win them over, as the milbloggers have remained staunchly critical of the way the Russian high command is waging the war ever since. But Putin may also have obtained a more unvarnished view of what is occurring on the frontlines than he was getting from the chain of command.
The Russian information space would change significantly if the Ministry of Defense cracked down on the milbloggers and stopped them from operational reporting. ISW uses milbloggers and Russian war correspondents as sources of Russian claims on a daily basis, so the elimination of regular milblogger operational reporting would affect ISW’s approach to coverage. We will continue to observe and report on milblogger and war correspondent behavior and will flag significant changes in the Russian information space as we observe them.
Russian milbloggers are increasingly criticizing Russian strategy and military leadership by seizing upon recent successful Ukrainian strikes against Russian rear areas. Russian milblogger Voennyi Osvedomitel’ underlined the threat posed by Western-provided high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) and stated that HIMARS will complicate Russian logistics in a Telegram post on July 9. Voennyi Osvedomitel’ cautioned that Russian air defense may be increasingly insufficient against Ukrainian strikes and called on Russian forces to improve coordination between intelligence and aviation in order to identify and target Western-provided weapons systems. Another milblogger with a small following, Nam Pishut iz Yaniny, complained that Russian military leadership is proving unable to defend against Western weapons being used against Russian positions. Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist who previously commanded militants during operations in Donbas in 2014, discussed recent Ukrainian strikes against Russian rear areas and criticized Russian troops for not targeting Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) along which HIMARS and other Western weapons are delivered. Girkin suggested that the ongoing operational pause is exposing easily-exploitable Russian vulnerabilities and called for Russian troops to start fighting in full force again. Girkin and other milbloggers are likely to continue voicing their discontent with Russian military leadership as Ukrainian capabilities are strengthened by Western weaponry and equipment.
- Russian forces are conducting a theater-wide operational pause in Ukraine and engaging in operations to set conditions for future offensives.
- Russian forces conducted limited probing operations northwest of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces are likely intensifying artillery and missile strikes west of Bakhmut in order to isolate the city from critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs).
- Russian forces conducted a limited and unsuccessful ground attack north of Donetsk City.
- Russian military leadership continues to form ad hoc volunteer units and private military company combat organizations partly comprised of older men and criminals to support operations in Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 9, 6:15 pm ET
Russian-backed occupation authorities in Kharkiv Oblast stated that Kharkiv Oblast is an “inalienable part of Russian land,” indicating that the Kremlin likely intends to annex part or all of Kharkiv Oblast. The Russian occupation government in Kharkiv Oblast unveiled a new flag for the occupation regime in Kharkiv Oblast containing the Russian imperial double-headed eagle and symbols from the 18th century Kharkiv coat of arms. The Russian occupation government stated that the imagery in the flag is a “symbol of the historical roots of Kharkiv Oblast as an inalienable part of Russian land,” indicating that the Kremlin seeks to annex portions of Kharkiv Oblast to Russia and likely seeks to capture all of Kharkiv Oblast if it can. The Kharkiv Oblast occupation government’s speed in establishing a civilian administration on July 6 and introducing martial law in occupied Kharkiv Oblast on July 8 further indicates that the Kremlin is aggressively pursuing the legitimization and consolidation of the Kharkiv Oblast occupation administration’s power to support this broader territorial aim. The Kharkiv Oblast occupation government’s explicit use of Imperial Russian imagery and rhetoric pointing clearly at annexation, rather than using imagery and rhetoric supporting the establishment of a “people’s republic,” reinforces ISW’s prior assessment that the Kremlin has broader territorial aims than capturing Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts or even holding southern Ukraine.
The Kremlin has likely used a leaked letter from mothers demanding the ban of journalist activity on the frontlines to promote self-censorship among pro-Russian milbloggers and war correspondents. Russian opposition outlet Meduza released a letter from mothers of an Astrakhan-based platoon that blamed Kremlin-sponsored Izvestia war correspondent Valentin Trushnin for reporting the details of Russian positions in a way that led to the deaths of their sons. Meduza removed the letter from its website on July 8. First Deputy of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Information Minister and milblogger Daniil Bezsonov reported noticing suggestions from unspecified “faceless experts” to censor his posts regarding Russian war efforts. Bezsonov noted that Russian war correspondents received necessary accreditations from the Kremlin and follow protocol when reporting from the frontline to refrain from exposing Russian positions. Bezsonov also argued that Russian war correspondents took the initiative to keep Russians updated on the situation on the front line from the first days of the war, while Russian “big bosses” failed to launch an information campaign to counter claimed Ukrainian information warfare. Several Russian milbloggers shared Bezsonov’s remarks, with proxy serviceman Maksim Fomin stating that Russian Defense Ministry briefings are not sufficient to replace combat footage.
The Kremlin faces challenges directly censoring pro-Russian milbloggers and war correspondents but will likely continue to look for opportunities to promote self-censorship. Moscow has not demonstrated the ability to compel Telegram to delete or control the content of channels, and so would likely have to threaten individual milbloggers with legal or extra-legal action to stop them from publishing on that platform. Russia could prevent war correspondents publishing in regular media outlets from writing stories or deprive them of access to the front lines. But both the milbloggers and the war correspondents are explicitly pro-war and patriotic, often ultra-nationalist, with large followings likely concentrated among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key supporters. Threatening or suppressing them directly could backfire if Putin’s motivation in doing so is to stop them from undermining support for the war or questioning authority. Actions such as the use of this leaked and possibly faked letter to stoke self-censorship or induce pressure from the readers of these blogs and articles toward self-censorship may be an effort to achieve the Kremlin’s desired effects without the risk of having them backfire.
- Russian forces continued to launch unsuccessful assaults northwest of Slovyansk and conducted offensive operations east of Siversk from the Lysychansk area.
- Russian forces continued localized attacks northwest of Kharkiv City, likely in an effort to defend Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in the area.
- Russian forces continue to face personnel and equipment shortages, relying on old armored personnel carriers and launching new recruitment campaigns.
- Russian forces continued to set conditions for the annexation of Donbas, Kharkiv Oblast, and southern Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
July 8, 7:00 pm ET
Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai stated that Russian forces are not conducting an operational pause as of July 8 and are continuing to shell settlements and deploy additional tank units to Donbas. Haidai’s statement likely reflects confusion about the meaning of the expression “operational pause” and how such a “pause” actually manifests on the ground in a war. US military doctrine considers the role of operational pauses in warfighting and campaigning in some detail. It notes that “Normally, operational pauses are planned to regenerate combat power or augment sustainment and forces for the next phase.” It observes that “The primary drawback to operational pauses is the risk of forfeiting strategic or operational initiative.” It therefore recommends that “If pauses are necessary, the [commander] can alternate pauses among components to ensure continuous pressure on the enemy or adversary through offensive actions by some components while other components pause.” Soviet military theory regarded operational pauses in a similar fashion—sometimes necessary, but always dangerous.
The Russian military command, which announced an operational pause on July 7, has apparently recognized the need for a pause given the state of Russian forces at this point in the campaign. The Russian troops that have completed the seizure of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk are clearly in need of regenerating combat power and building up supporting capabilities, including supply, before launching another large-scale offensive operation. Numerous reports from various sources show that they are engaged in both activities. They have naturally and necessarily ceased efforts to conduct large-scale offensive operations in this sector while they reorganized, reinforce, and resupply their tired troops—in other words, they are in an operational pause in this sector.
Recognizing the danger of allowing the Ukrainians to seize the initiative and go over to an offensive of their own, however, Russian forces continue to conduct more-limited offensive operations in this sector and elsewhere along the front line. Those operations involve smaller Russian forces than had been involved in the attacks on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk pursuing more limited and localized objectives with less determination and willingness to take casualties compared with their behavior during the fights for the two cities. When the Russian military command has determined that it has adequately prepared for a renewed major offensive operation, it will likely resume larger-scale ground offensives with more troops and a greater determination than it is currently showing. The transition out of the operational pause may be gradual and difficult to discern at once, just as the transition into it appeared gradual. Skillful campaign design aims to achieve precisely such an effect in order to persuade the enemy that no pause is contemplated or underway, or that it will be too short to be of benefit to the enemy, and thereby convince the enemy that it does not have the opportunity to seize the initiative and go over to a counter-offensive of its own. Russian campaign design, inadequate as it has generally been, is nevertheless good enough to manifest this basic principle of operational art.
Russian milbloggers are continuing to show rhetorical opposition to the Kremlin by faulting the Russian Defense Ministry for making Russian logistics vulnerable to the Ukrainian strikes via US-provided HIMARS rocket systems. Russian milbloggers are notably criticizing the Russian military command instead of expressing patriotic hatred toward Western suppliers of HIMARS as one would have expected of the ultra-nationalist, pro-war Telegram channels. Former Russian military commander Igor Girkin, an outspoken Russian nationalist who commanded militants during the Donbas war in 2014, stated that personnel of the Russian Defense Ministry’s logistics department should be tried for failing to disperse and camouflage ammunition depots. Russian milbloggers Starshe Eddy and Russian officer Aleksey Suronkin echoed similar concerns over the effectiveness of HIMARS, calling on Russian forces to adapt to new threats and strike back against Ukrainian forces. The continued trend of patriotic and pro-war Russian milbloggers blaming the Kremlin by default for setbacks and problems in the war may begin to create in effect a loyal opposition that could ultimately erode confidence in the milbloggers’ significant audience in Russia’s ability to win.
- Russian forces continued to conduct limited offensive operations north of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces continued attempting to advance toward Siversk from Lysychansk but did not make any confirmed territorial gains.
- Russian forces launched assaults on Dementiivka to disrupt Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) along the T2117 highway.
- Russian forces continued to launch assaults on settlements along the Kherson-Mykolaiv and Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border to regain lost positions.
- Russian Federation Council approved a bill committing the Kremlin to paying veteran benefits to civilians involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities continued to set conditions for the annexation of Donbas and southern Ukraine.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 7, 5:45 pm ET
Russian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov announced on July 7 that Russian forces in Ukraine are pausing to rest and regain their combat capabilities, confirming ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have initiated an operational pause. Konashenkov did not specify the intended length of Russian forces’ operational pause. As ISW previously assessed, Russian forces have not ceased active hostilities during this operational pause and are unlikely to do so. Russian forces still conducted limited ground offensives and air, artillery, and missile strikes across all axes on July 7. Russian forces will likely continue to confine themselves to small-scale offensive actions as they rebuild forces and set conditions for a more significant offensive in the coming weeks or months.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that Russian forces are conducting an operational pause to rest and reconstitute.
- Russian forces continued efforts to advance toward Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and may be setting conditions to advance from the southeast of Barvinkove—either toward Slovyansk or toward Kramatorsk.
- Russian forces made marginal gains to the southeast of Siversk and continued offensive operations west of the Lysychansk area.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to the south and east of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted a limited and unsuccessful attack north of Kharkiv City.
- Ukrainian partisans are likely continuing to target Russian-controlled railways around Melitopol.
- Russian oblasts are continuing to create their own ad hoc volunteer units to compensate for personnel losses in Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 6, 6:00 pm ET
There were no claimed or assessed Russian territorial gains in Ukraine on July 6 for the first time in 133 days of war, supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have largely initiated an operational pause. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed territorial gains every day from the start of the war but has not claimed any new territory or ground force movements since completing the encirclement of Lysychansk on July 3. However, Russian forces still conducted limited and unsuccessful ground assaults across all axes on July 6. Such attempts are consistent with a Russian operational pause, which does not imply or require the complete cessation of active hostilities. It means, in this case, that Russian forces will likely confine themselves to relatively small-scale offensive actions as they attempt to set conditions for more significant offensive operations and rebuild the combat power needed to attempt those more ambitious undertakings.
The Kremlin continued to set conditions for the crypto-mobilization of the Russian economy in anticipation of protracted operations in Ukraine. The Russian State Duma adopted the third and final reading of a law introduced by the cabinet of ministers on June 30 that will allow the Russian government to oversee and regulate labor relations in Russian enterprises (both state and privately-owned). This law, as ISW has previously reported, will allow government officials to recall workers from personal vacations, reschedule time off without employee consent, and require employees to work weekends, holidays, and nights. These measures allow the Kremlin to take much more direct control of most aspects of the Russian economy, including suspending rights and protections some workers would normally have. The law must still be sent to the Federation Council before it reaches Russian President Vladimir Putin and is officially published, but the Kremlin is likely seeking to use the law to leverage domestic labor to maximize economic output and prepare for protracted operations in Ukraine. Russia’s largest lead production plant reportedly stopped production on July 6 due to the almost-total halt of Russian metallurgical exports, and the Kremlin will likely continue to take measures to codify economic mobilization to offset or mitigate the effects of sanctions and the war on essential industries.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense has not claimed any territorial gains since July 3, supporting the assessment that Russian forces are conducting an operational pause while still engaging in limited ground attacks to set conditions for more significant offensive operations.
- The Kremlin continues to prepare for a protracted war by setting conditions for crypto-mobilization of the economy and largely initiating an operational pause in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted offensive operations northwest and east of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces continued efforts to push westward toward Siversk from the Luhansk-Donetsk oblast border.
- Russian forces continued attempts to advance toward Bakhmut from the south.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground assaults in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces may be setting conditions for a counteroffensive toward Kherson City.
- Russian forces may be forming a new military unit in Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 5, 7:30 pm ET
Russia’s stated objectives in its invasion of Ukraine remain regime change in Kyiv and the truncation of the sovereignty of any Ukrainian state that survives the Russian attack despite Russian military setbacks and rhetoric hinting at a reduction in war aims following those defeats. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev stated on July 5 that the Russian military operation in Ukraine will continue until Russia achieves its goals of protecting civilians from “genocide,” “denazifying” and demilitarizing Ukraine, and obliging Ukraine to be permanently neutral between Russia and NATO—almost exactly restating the goals Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in his February 24 speech justifying the war. Putin had stated that the operation aimed to protect civilians from humiliation and genocide, demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, and prosecute genocidal perpetrators. Patrushev’s explicit restatement of Putin‘s initial objectives, nearly five months later, strongly indicates that the Kremlin does not consider recent Russian gains in Luhansk Oblast sufficient to accomplish the initial goals of the "special operation,” supporting ISW’s ongoing assessment that the Kremlin has significant territorial aspirations beyond the Donbas. Patrushev’s statement suggests that Russian military leadership will continue to push for advances outside Donetsk and Luhansk blasts and that the Kremlin is preparing for a protracted war with the intention of taking much larger portions of Ukraine.
Patrushev’s statement is noteworthy because of its timing and his position as a close confidante of Putin. Patrushev is very unlikely to stray far from Putin’s position in his public comments given his relationship with Putin and his role in the Kremlin. His restatement of virtually the same maximalist objectives that Putin laid out before the invasion even as Russian forces seemed to be closing in on the more limited objectives of securing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—which Putin and other Russian leaders had hinted were their new aims following their defeats around Kyiv—strongly suggests that those hints did not reflect any actual change in Kremlin policy. Patrushev’s statement significantly increases the burden on those who suggest that some compromise ceasefire or even peace based on limited additional Russian territorial gains is possible, even if it were acceptable to Ukraine or desirable for the West (neither of which is the case).
Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist and former commander of militants in the 2014 war in Donbas, responded to Patrushev’s statements and continued expressing his general disillusionment with the Kremlin’s official line on operations in Ukraine. Girkin said that the intended goals of “denazification” and “de-militarization” will only be possible with the total defeat of the Ukrainian military and the surrender of the Ukrainian government. Girkin noted that Russian victory is premised on the capture of "Novorossiya”—a notional territory that encompasses eight Ukrainian oblasts, including the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and much of eastern and southern Ukraine. Girkin also claimed that the capture of “Novorossiya” is the bare minimum and that Russian goals will be realized through the total capture of “Malorossiya,” which is an invocation of the Russian imperial concept for almost all Ukrainian territory. Girkin is once again pushing back on the Kremlin line, which he views as insufficient in securing Russian objectives in Ukraine. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia Rodion Miroshnik similarly suggested that the Kremlin has not yet met its goals in Ukraine, despite reaching the borders of his claimed oblast, and stated that LNR authorities are still not confident in the security of the LNR. Girkin and Miroshnik’s statements, taken together, indicate that Russian nationalists continue to push for further territorial gains and, at least in Girkin’s case, full-scale regime change and the incorporation of most of Ukraine into Russia. Patrushev’s statement suggests that Kremlin thinking may not be that far removed from these extremist nationalist ambitions.
- Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev restated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial objectives for operations in Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin retains maximalist objectives including regime change and territorial expansion far beyond the Donbas.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations northwest and east of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces are attempting to advance west of the Lysychansk area toward Siversk.
- Russian forces are likely attempting to gain access to village roads southeast of Bakhmut in order to advance on the city from the south.
- Ukrainian forces conducted a limited counterattack southwest of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued limited and unsuccessful assaults in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
- Russian authorities are conducting escalated conscription measures in occupied territories to compensate for continuing manpower losses.
- Russian authorities are continuing to consolidate administrative control of occupied areas of Ukraine, likely to set conditions for the direct annexation of these territories to the Russian Federation.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 4, 7:00 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the Russian seizure of Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast border and appeared to direct the Russian military to conduct an operational pause. Putin met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on July 4 to discuss recent Russian gains in Luhansk Oblast and presented Colonel General Alexander Lapin and Major General Esedulla Abachev with the “Hero of Russia” award for their leadership during the Lysychansk operation. Putin and Shoigu presented the capture of Lysychansk and Luhansk Oblast as a major victory for Russian forces in Ukraine. Putin also stated that the Russian units that participated in the battle for Lysychansk should rest to increase their combat capabilities. Putin‘s public comment was likely meant to signal his concern for the welfare of his troops in the face of periodic complaints in Russia about the treatment of Russian soldiers. His comment was also likely accurate—Russian troops that fought through Severodonetsk and Lysychansk very likely do need a significant period in which to rest and refit before resuming large-scale offensive operations. It is not clear, however, that the Russian military will accept the risks of a long enough operational pause to allow these likely exhausted forces to regain their strength.
Former Russian military commander Igor Girkin, an ardent Russian nationalist who commanded militants during the 2014 war in Donbas, posted a scathing critique of the Kremlin’s handling of the war on his Telegram channel and questioned the significance of the seizure of Lysychansk. He suggested that Russian forces had paid too high a price for a limited gain. In a series of Telegram posts published prior to Putin’s meeting with Shoigu on July 4, Girkin complained that Russian forces have failed to meet the announced goals of the “second stage of the special operation” (the operations in eastern Ukraine following Russia’s retreat from Kyiv) to his nearly 400,000 subscribers. Girkin noted that the Ukrainian defense of Lysychansk was deliberately designed to inflict maximum damage on Russian troops and burn through Russian manpower and equipment. He strongly suggested that accepting battle on the Ukrainians‘ terms was a significant misstep by the Russian leadership. Girkin stated (before Putin’s remarks were made public) that Russian troops need time to rest and replenish in order to recover their offensive potential and noted that the lack of individual soldier replacements and unit rotations is severely degrading morale. He warned, however, that taking time to reconstitute offensive capability would allow Ukrainian troops to seize the initiative and further threaten Russian gains. Girkin additionally claimed that Russian forces have limited prospects of advancing elsewhere in Ukraine due to Ukrainian personnel and equipment superiority.
Girkin’s critique is a noteworthy example of the way Russian milbloggers and military enthusiasts have become disillusioned with the Kremlin’s handling and execution of operations in Ukraine, particularly after the dramatic failed river crossing attempt at Bilohorivka in early May. Girkin’s statements directly undermine the Kremlin’s efforts to frame Lysychansk as a significant victory or turning point and show that the disillusionment amongst ultra-nationalist elements in the Russian information space continues to run deep. Girkin’s assessment of Russian military failures notably aligns with much of ISW’s (and other Western agencies’ and experts’) analysis, suggesting that he and some other milbloggers continue to make and publish assessments of the situation and forecasts independent of the Kremlin line. Girkin likely hopes to use his status as a prominent former participant in the war in Donbas in 2014 to persuade Putin to take certain measures to secure Russian success in a war that Girkin still thinks is justified and necessary—specifically mobilizing the Russian population for war on a much larger scale. Girkin, along with other members of the Russian nationalist milblogger space, will likely continue to offer critiques of the Kremlin’s line on operations in Ukraine to advocate for general mobilization and more competent Russian military leadership.
Ukrainian forces are increasingly targeting Russian military infrastructure with indirect fire and US-provided HIMARS systems deep in occupied territory. Ukrainian forces reportedly struck Russian ammunition depots in Dibrivne, Kharkiv Oblast, (close to the frontline) on July 4 and Snizhne, Donetsk Oblast, (approximately 75 km from the frontlines) overnight on July 3-4 following a strike on one of four Russian ammunition depots in Melitopol on July 3. The Ukrainian General Staff also published a video on July 4 of a Ukrainian HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system) operating in an unspecified area of Zaporizhia Oblast. The increased ability of Ukrainian forces to target critical Russian military facilities with Western-provided HIMARS demonstrates how Western military aid provides Ukraine with new and necessary military capabilities.
- Russian leadership may be setting conditions for an operational pause following the seizure of Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast boundary.
- Russian forces are consolidating territorial and administrative control over Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to the east of Bakhmut to prepare for advances on Bakhmut and Siversk.
- Russian forces continued limited and unsuccessful assaults north of Kharkiv City.
- Ukrainian partisan activity is targeting Russian railway lines around Melitopol and Tokmak.
- Russian leadership may be setting conditions for the conscription of Ukrainian citizens living in occupied territories.
Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
July 3, 7:45 pm ET
Russian forces have likely secured the Luhansk Oblast border, although pockets of Ukrainian resistance may remain in and around Lysychansk. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that Russian forces have captured Luhansk Oblast on July 3, after seizing Lysychansk and settlements on the Luhansk Oblast administrative border. The Ukrainian General Staff also announced that Ukrainian forces withdrew from Lysychansk to avoid personnel losses. Russian forces have likely not fully cleared Lysychansk and Luhansk Oblast as of July 3, despite Shoigu’s announcement. The Russian Defense Ministry stated that Russian forces are still fighting within Lysychansk to defeat remaining encircled Ukrainian forces, but the Ukrainian withdrawal means that Russian forces will almost certainly complete their clearing operations relatively quickly.
Russian forces will likely next advance on Siversk, though they could launch more significant attacks on Bakhmut or Slovyansk instead or at the same time. Ukrainian forces will likely continue their fighting withdrawal toward the E40 highway that runs from Slovyansk through Bakhmut toward Debaltseve. It is unclear whether they will choose to defend around Siversk at this time.
Two very senior Russian commanders are reportedly responsible for the tactical activities around Lysychansk. Commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin and Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces Army General Sergey Suvorikin (who also commands Russia’s “southern” group of troops in Ukraine) have been responsible for securing Lysychansk and the area to the west of it respectively. The involvement of two such senior officers in the same undertaking in a small part of the front is remarkable and likely indicates the significance that Russian President Vladimir Putin has attributed to securing Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast border as well as his lack of confidence in more junior officers to do the job.
Ukrainian forces likely used US-provided HIMARS rocket artillery systems to strike a Russian ammunition depot at the Melitopol airfield on July 3. Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov reported that Ukrainian forces launched two strikes on one of the four Russian depots in Melitopol. Russian Telegram channel Rybar released footage of a large cloud of smoke over the city, and Russian-appointed Melitopol Governor Yevhen Balytskyi falsely claimed that Ukrainian forces aimed to strike residential buildings, but instead hit areas around the airfield.
The Kremlin likely seeks to expand Russian state control over private Russian companies that support elements of Russia’s military industrial base. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on July 3 that the Russian government’s inability to pay Russian firms supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine is degrading Russia’s ability to repair damaged vehicles. The GUR reported that the directors of Russian military vehicle repair centers are not accepting new Russian equipment for repair because the Russian military has not paid these centers for previous work. Recently proposed Russian legislation suggests that Kremlin leadership shares GUR’s assessment. Russian legislators in the Russian State Duma submitted a bill on June 30 that would empower the Kremlin to introduce “special measures in the economic sphere” enabling the Russian government to force private Russian companies to provide supplies for Russian military operations. The bill prohibits Russian businesses from refusing to fulfil Russian government procurement orders connected to Russian military operations.
- Russian forces seized the remaining territory between Lysychansk and Luhansk Oblast’s administrative borders on July 3.
- Russian forces launched assaults northeast of Bakhmut and north of Slovyansk but did not secure new territorial gains.
- Russian forces conducted extensive artillery attacks in the western part of the Southern Axis likely to disrupt Ukrainian counteroffensives.
- The Kremlin continued to set conditions for potential Russian annexation of proxy republics.
- Ukrainian partisans reportedly derailed a Russian armored train carrying ammunition near Melitopol on July 2.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
July 2, 6:45 pm ET
Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2. Geolocated footage showed Russian forces casually walking around northern and southeastern neighborhoods in Lysychansk in a way that suggests that there are few or no remaining Ukrainian forces in the city as of July 2. Ukrainian military officials did not publicly announce a troop withdrawal but neither did they report on defensive battles around Lysychansk. Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Vadym Denysenko vaguely noted that Russian forces have a “high probability” of capturing Lysychansk but that they will have a difficult time advancing in Donetsk Oblast past Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Ukrainian National Guard Spokesperson Ruslan Muzychuk rejected reports of Russian forces seizing and encircling Lysychansk, but these denials are likely outdated or erroneous. The Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia, Rodion Miroshnik, had previously claimed that Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from Lysychansk on June 28. ISW will continue to monitor the situation.
Russian forces will likely establish control over the remaining territory of Luhansk Oblast in coming days and will likely then prioritize drives on Ukrainian positions in Siversk before turning to Slovyansk and Bakhmut. A Ukrainian withdrawal to Siversk would allow Ukrainian forces reduce the risk of immediate encirclement, but Ukrainian forces may continue a fighting withdrawal to a line near the E40 highway from Slovyansk to Bakhmut.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov inspected Russian troop groupings in Ukraine on July 2. The Russian MoD posted a slideshow of images that reportedly prove that Gerasimov still holds his position as Chief of General Staff and that he had recently been in Ukraine, but notably did not include any video footage of Gerasimov’s purported inspection of Russian troops. This post was likely a response to recent speculation that Gerasimov had been removed from his post as part of the Kremlin’s purge of high-level Russian military leadership due to Russian failures in Ukraine. The Russian MoD amplified a claim that Ukrainian media has been lying about Gerasimov’s removal and stated that Gerasimov is still serving as the Chief of the General Staff. The hasty presentation of a slideshow that does not clearly demonstrate that Gerasimov was recently performing his duties in Ukraine suggests that the Russian leadership is sensitive to rumors of a purge of senior Russian officers or possibly to the impression that the senior most officers are absent or uninvolved in the conflict. The Kremlin likely also seeks to retain or rebuild trust in Russian military leadership against the backdrop of major organizational restructuring, failures, and high casualties, as ISW has previously reported.
- Russian forces entered Lysychansk and advanced within the city on July 2.
- Russian forces are conducting offensive operations southwest of Lysychansk likely to push westward towards Siversk and complete the capture of the entirety of Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued unsuccessful ground assaults north of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces conducted limited attacks southwest of Donetsk City but did not make any confirmed gains.
- Ukrainian troops are likely planning to threaten Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) throughout Kharkiv Oblast using Western-supplied weapons.
- Ukrainian counterattacks and partisan activity continue to force Russian troops to prioritize defensive operations along the Southern Axis.
- Proxy leadership may be setting conditions for the direct annexation of proxy republics by the Russian Federation.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
July 1, 6:45pm ET
The Kremlin is likely setting conditions for crypto-mobilization of the Russian economy in preparation for a protracted war in Ukraine. The Kremlin proposed an amendment to federal laws on Russian Armed Forces supply matters to the Russian State Duma on June 30, that would introduce “special measures in the economic sphere” obliging Russian businesses (regardless of ownership) to supply Russian special military and counterterrorist operations. The amendment would prohibit Russian businesses from refusing to accept state orders for special military operations and allow the Kremlin to change employee contracts and work conditions, such as forcing workers to work during the night or federal holidays. The Kremlin noted in the amendment’s description that the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine exposed supply shortages, specifically materials needed to repair military equipment, and stated that Russian officials need to “concentrate their efforts in certain sectors of the economy." Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely mobilizing the Russian economy and industry to sustain the ongoing war effort, but has not yet taken parallel measures to mobilize Russian manpower on a large scale.
Russian authorities are likely taking measures to integrate the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) directly into the Russian energy system, contradicting previous Russian statements that the Zaporizhzhia NPP would sell electricity to Ukraine. Olga Kosharna, an independent expert on nuclear energy, stated on June 30 that Russia’s Rosatom (Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation) employees have been taking measures at the Zaporizhzhia NPP to potentially divert its energy to the Russian energy grid. Kosharna added that Russian forces have been working in Chonhard (southern Kherson Oblast) to repair the main energy transmission line that runs into Crimea, which Ukrainian forces had destroyed in 2015 following Russia’s seizure of the transmission line after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Representatives of Ukraine’s Ukrenergo electricity transmission operator had stated as recently as late May that it would be physically impossible for Russia to divert Ukrainian electricity to Russia following the destruction of those transmission lines. Russian forces are likely seeking to ensure physical access to transmission lines in order to support the direct flow of Ukrainian energy into Russia, which may explain some of the military activities observed in recent weeks in the Russian-occupied portions of Zaporizhia Oblast.
Russian authorities had indicated on May 18 that while the Zaporizhzhia NPP would work for Russia, it would continue to sell energy to Ukraine, as ISW reported. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Russian authorities are taking measures to integrate Ukrainian economic assets directly into the Russian economy. Reports that Russian forces may be preparing a false flag provocation at the Zaporizhzhia NPP could be part of this Russian effort--Moscow might use such a false flag attack to accuse Ukrainian authorities of mismanaging nuclear assets and justify taking full control of them and their output.
- Russian forces continued efforts to encircle Lysychansk and conducted offensive operations to the south and southwest of the city.
- Russian forces have likely not yet reached the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway on the ground but are denying Ukrainian forces use of it by continuing artillery and airstrikes against remaining Ukrainian positions along the road.
- Russian forces focused on regrouping and improving their tactical positions north of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground assaults in northern Kharkiv Oblast and continued shelling Ukrainian positions north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces conducted artillery and missile strikes along the Southern Axis.
- Russian authorities continue efforts to expand the pool of recruits available to fight in Ukraine.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan, and Grace Mappes
June 30, 7:25pm ET
Russian forces retreated from the Snake Island on June 30 following a Ukrainian missile and artillery campaign. The Russian Defense Ministry spun the retreat as “a step of goodwill.” The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the Kremlin does not interfere with United Nations (UN) efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor for agricultural export from Ukraine but did not acknowledge the Ukrainian artillery and missile campaign that had actually caused the retreat. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command had announced elements of that campaign on June 21. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that Russian forces defeated all Ukrainian drone and missile attacks leading up to their retreat despite considerable evidence to the contrary. The Russian defeat on the Snake Island will alleviate some pressure off the Ukrainian coast by removing Russian air defense and anti-shipping missile systems from the island. The retreat itself will not end the sea blockade, however, as Russian forces have access to land-based anti-ship systems in Crimea and western Kherson Oblast that can still target Ukrainian cargo as well as the use of the remaining ships of the Black Sea Fleet.
Russian milbloggers overwhelmingly defended the Russian decision to withdraw troops and equipment from the island, claiming that Russian forces are prioritizing the “liberation of Donbas.” Some said that Russian forces do not have enough capacity to destroy Ukrainian coastal troops and others claimed that Russian forces will be more successful striking Ukrainians when they attempt to deploy their own troops to the island. Milbloggers have previously criticized the Russian military command for failing to retreat to save equipment and manpower and are likely content with the Russian retreat from the Snake Island. Milbloggers, following the Kremlin line, did not acknowledge the role Ukrainian strikes against the island played in compelling Russian forces to retreat.
Russian authorities continue to galvanize the support of proxy actors in order to support force generation efforts. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced on June 29 that another Akhmat special battalion, the Vostok (east)-Akhmat battalion, has been successfully formed and will shortly move to its point of permanent deployment and begin active service. As ISW reported on June 28, Kadyrov stated he intends to form four new Akhmat special operations battalions and announced the formation of the Zapad (west)-Akhmat battalion early this week.
- Russian troops made limited gains within the Lysychansk Oil Refinery and around Lysychansk.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to the south and east of Bakhmut and to the north of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces continued efforts to regain control of settlements north of Kharkiv City.
- Ukrainian counteroffensives continue to force Russian troops on the Southern Axis to prioritize defensive operations.
- Russian occupation authorities took measures to ensure further economic and financial integration of occupied areas into the Russian system.
Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 29, 6 pm ET
The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on June 28 that the Kremlin is setting conditions to annex areas of Kherson and Zaporizhia into the Russian Federation under the template of the pre-1917 “Tavriia Gubernia.” The Tavriia (or Tauride) Gubernia was a historical province of the Russian Empire. Under the Tavriia Gubernia scenario, the left bank of Kherson Oblast and part of Zaporizhia Oblast would be directly annexed to the Russian Federation, likely as a single unit. The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated that Russian authorities are preparing for a pseudo-referendum to set conditions for the annexation of the Tavriia Gubernia (as opposed to proxy “people‘s republics“). The Russians are also requiring Ukrainian citizens in southern Ukraine to open bank accounts with Russian state-owned Promsvyazbank. Head of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast Administration Hennadiy Lahuta reported that Russian forces have locked down civilian traffic in northern Kherson Oblast and are not allowing anyone to enter or exit occupied territory, which may be an additional attempt to control the civilian population in preparation for annexation measures.
Ukrainian sources warned on June 29 that Russian forces may be planning a false flag provocation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) to accuse Ukrainian authorities of mishandling nuclear facilities. Ukrainian nuclear operating enterprise Energoatom stated that Russian occupation authorities are planning to throw unsafe objects into the cooling system at the NPP in order to compromise the plant’s cooling mechanisms. Mayor of Enerhodar Dmytro Orlov added that Russian troops have been kidnapping and torturing employees of the NPP to coerce confessions that employees dropped weapons into the cooling systems to sabotage the plant and blame Ukrainian authorities for paying inadequate attention to the management of the NPP. Russian troops have previously demonstrated irresponsible and dangerous behavior in and around nuclear power plants, firing on nuclear facilities at the Zaporizhzhia NPP in early March and digging into radioactive soil in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.
- Ukrainian sources reported that Russian authorities may be preparing to annex areas of southern Ukraine as the “Tavriia Gubernia” and that Russian authorities are setting conditions for annexation through preparing referenda in occupied areas.
- Russian forces may be planning a false flag provocation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Lysychansk.
- Russian forces made marginal gains east of Bakhmut along the E40 highway and may seek to prepare for a direct offensive on Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to advance on Slovyansk from the northwest near the Kharkiv-Donetsk Oblast border.
- Russian forces are continuing to engage in offensive operations north of Kharkiv City, indicating that the Kremlin has territorial ambitions beyond the Donbas that will continue to attrit manpower and equipment, potentially at the cost of offensive power on more critical axes of advance.
- Russian forces continued to reinforce their defensive presence along the Southern Axis.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan, George Barros, Mason Clark, and Grace Mappes
June 28, 7:45 pm ET
Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a fighting withdrawal that may include pulling back from Lysychansk and Luhansk Oblast in the near future and which probably aims to force the Russian offensive to culminate prematurely. The Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia Rodion Miroshnik and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces began a large-scale withdrawal from Lysychansk towards Siversk, Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk on June 28. Although ISW cannot confirm independently Miroshnik’s claims of an ongoing withdrawal, Ukrainian forces may continue the fighting withdrawal that began in Severodonetsk to Ukrainian strongholds around Siversk, Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk. The staunch but limited Ukrainian defense of Severodonetsk imposed high costs on the Russians despite new Russian tactics intended to limit Russian casualties. Kyiv could continue this approach until the Russian attack culminates or Ukrainian forces reach more defensible positions along a straighter line dotted with fortified cities and towns.
The pace and outcome of the next phase of the current campaign may depend in part on Russia’s ability to recoup combat power from the forces that participated in the Battle of Severodonetsk. The remaining Russian forces in Severodonetsk will need to cross the Siverskyi Donets River into Lysychansk from Severodonetsk or its surrounding settlements to participate further in the Russian offensive. This movement could require some time since the Russians destroyed the three main bridges across the river near the city. Miroshnik claimed that Russian forces have already crossed the Siverskyi Donets River from Kreminna and are building bridgeheads for further attacks on Lysychansk from the north. ISW cannot independently verify Miroshnik’s claims. If they are true, and Russian forces threaten to complete the cauldron by pushing from the north and southwest of Lysychansk, then Ukrainian forces will likely abandon Lysychansk as well and conduct a fighting withdrawal to more defensible positions. Russian forces that have engaged in continuous offensive operations in Severodonetsk will also require some time to restore combat capabilities before participating in an assault on northern or northeastern Lysychansk. An unnamed Pentagon official stated that Russian forces continue to endure significant losses in fights for small territorial gains, and Russian groups that fought in Severodonetsk likely lost personnel and equipment. The locations and strength of the Russian troops that seized Severodonetsk remain unclear at this time, however. A notable acceleration of Russian attacks from the south of Lysychansk or from across the Siverskyi Donetsk River would likely indicate that the Russians have completed a redeployment of forces from Severodonetsk. ISW has not yet observed such indicators.
Ukraine’s Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) reported that the Kremlin replaced Western Military District (WMD) Commander Alexander Zhuravlev with the former commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Andrey Sychevoy. CIT added that WMD Chief of Staff Aleksey Zavizion was relieved. ISW cannot independently verify these reports and will continue to monitor the situation for further corroboration.
Russian forces continue to look for additional reserves to replenish personnel losses in Ukraine, but these reserves are unlikely to initiate rotations or provide combat-ready manpower. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he will form four new battalions “with an impressive number of personnel” on June 26. Kadyrov also announced that Chechen forces formed a West-Akhmat battalion “in the shortest possible” time and claimed that the unit would deploy to a well-equipped base in Chechnya. Chechen forces will likely deploy the newly-created battalion to the frontline without sufficient training. Social media users also released footage of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) rounding up “volunteers” in Donetsk City as part of the recruitment campaign on June 28. Wives of servicemen of the Russian 5th Guards Separate Tank Brigade issued a video plea for the immediate rotation of their husbands back home, noting that their husbands had left their permanent bases of deployment in January 2022 for “exercises in Belarus.” The video indicates that the Russian military command has expressed its intentions for unit rotations.
- Russian forces continued to launch assault operations south and southwest of Lysychansk. The Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) officials claimed that Ukrainian forces had begun to withdraw from the city, but ISW cannot confirm these claims.
- Russian forces launched unsuccessful offensive operations north of Slovyansk and conducted spoiling attacks on settlements west of Izyum, likely to disrupt Ukrainian counteroffensives.
- Russian forces failed to advance along the Kharkiv City-Belgorod highway and continued to undertake measures to hinder Ukrainian advances towards the international border or Izyum.
- Ukrainian forces continued to launch counteroffensives north of Kherson City and reportedly liberated two settlements.
- Russian forces continued to transfer military equipment and personnel east of Melitopol.
- Russian occupation authorities are maintaining unsuccessful efforts to introduce ruble salary payments and set conditions to inflate electoral numbers in a future referendum.
June 27, 4:45pm ET
A Russian missile strike hit a shopping mall in a residential area of Kremenchuk, Poltava Oblast on June 27, likely killing many civilians. Ukrainian sources stated that over 1,000 civilians were inside the mall at the time of the strike, and officials are still clarifying the number of casualties. The Kremenchuk strike follows a wider intensification of Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian targets in recent days. Advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs Vadym Denisenko stated on June 26 that Russian forces have begun a campaign of massive and largely indiscriminate missile strikes against Ukrainian cities, which echoes statements made by an unnamed US defense official on June 27 that Russian forces are increasingly relying on artillery and missile strikes to advance operations in Ukraine. As Russian forces continue to burn through their supply of high-precision weaponry, such attacks that cause substantial collateral civilian damage will likely escalate.
Russian military authorities continue to seek ways to replenish their increasingly exhausted force capabilities without announcing general mobilization. An unnamed senior US defense official stated on June 27 that Russian forces are likely running low on senior military leaders and are relying more heavily on retired officers and reserves to replace officer casualties. The UK Ministry of Defense similarly reported that Russian forces will likely rely heavily on reserve echelons, namely the Combat Army Reserve (BARS) and Human Mobilization Resource, in order to galvanize volunteer support and fill out the third battalion tactical group (BTG) within regular (and depleted) brigades. As ISW has previously assessed, such reserves are unlikely to provide Russian forces with meaningful regeneration of force capabilities.
- Russian forces struck a shopping mall in Kremenchuk as part of a recent escalation in strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure and cities.
- Russian forces made incremental advances southwest of Lysychansk near the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway but have not entirely severed Ukrainian lines of communication into Bakhmut.
- Russian forces made measured advances during offensive operations to the east of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces repelled Russian offensives north of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces made limited and localized attacks along contested frontlines around Kharkiv City but did not make any advances on June 27.
- Ukrainian counteroffensives along the Southern Axis continue to force Russian troops to prioritize defensive operations along the line of contact.
- Russian occupation authorities are taking steps to strengthen economic control of occupied territories and force Ukrainian civilians to switch to the ruble.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and Grace Mappes
June 26, 4:30pm ET
Russian forces conducted a massive missile strike against the Schevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv on June 26, likely to coincide with the ongoing summit of G7 leaders. This is the first such major strike on Kyiv since late April and is likely a direct response to Western leaders discussing aid to Ukraine at the ongoing G7 summit, much like the previous strikes on April 29 during UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ visit to Kyiv. Ukrainian government sources reported that Russian forces targeted infrastructure in the Shevchenkivskyi district using X101 missiles fired from Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers over the Caspian Sea and noted the Russian attack was an attempt to “show off” their capabilities. Open-source Twitter account GeoConfirmed stated that the strikes targeted the general vicinity of the Artem State Joint-Stock Holding Company, a manufacturer of air-to-air missiles, automated air-guided missile training and maintenance systems, anti-tank guided missiles, and aircraft equipment. GeoConfirmed noted that Russian forces likely fired the missiles from the maximum possible range, which would have interfered with GPS and radar correlation and resulted in the strike hitting civilian infrastructure, and additionally hypothesized some of the missiles may have been fired from Russian-occupied southern Ukraine. Russian forces likely targeted the Artem Plant as a means of posturing against Western military aid to Ukraine during the G7 summit and inflicted additional secondary damage to residential infrastructure.
The Kremlin continues to manipulate Russian legislation to carry out “covert mobilization” to support operations in Ukraine without conducting full mobilization. The Russian State Duma announced plans to review an amendment to the law on military service on June 28 that would allow military officials to offer contracts to young men immediately upon “coming of age” or graduating high school, thus circumventing the need to complete military service as conscripts. Head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Kyrylo Budanov stated on June 25 that the Kremlin is carrying out “covert mobilization” and that due to continuous Russian mobilization efforts, Ukrainian forces cannot wait for the Russians to exhaust their offensive potential before launching counteroffensives. Budanov remarked that the Kremlin has already committed 330,000 personnel to the war, which constitutes over a third of the entirety of the Russian Armed Forces, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin will face substantial domestic and social opposition if he increases this number by carrying out general (as opposed to covert) mobilization, as ISW has previously assessed.
Colonel-General Genady Zhidko, current director of Russia’s Military-Political Directorate, is likely in overall command of Russian forces in Ukraine. Zhidko sat next to and conferred with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during an inspection of Russian ground forces in Ukraine on June 26, though Zhidko’s nameplate was notably blurred out by the Russian Ministry of Defense and his position has not been officially confirmed, unlike the commanders of Russia's two force groupings in Ukraine that ISW reported on June 26. Conflict Intelligence Team previously reported on May 26 that Zhidko replaced Commander of the Southern Military District Alexander Dvornikov as overall commander in Ukraine, though ISW could not independently verify this change at the time. Reports on June 21 of Dvornikov’s dismissal and Zhidko’s prominent place in Shoigu’s June 26 visit likely confirm this change.
- Russian forces conducted a missile strike against Kyiv for the first time since April 29, likely to coincide with the ongoing G7 leadership summit.
- Russian Colonel-General Gennday Zhidko has likely taken over the role of theatre commander of operations in Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued attacks against the southern outskirts of Lysychansk and consolidated control of Severodonetsk and surrounding settlements.
- Russian forces are conducting operations to the east of Bakhmut to maintain control of the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground assaults to the northwest of Slovyansk.
- Russian forces intensified artillery strikes against Ukrainian positions along the Southern Axis.
- Russian occupation authorities are escalating measures to stem Ukrainian partisan activity in occupied areas through increased filtration measures and the abduction of civilians.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 25, 5:00 pm ET
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the commanders of the “central” and “southern” groupings of forces in Ukraine on June 24, confirming previously rumored changes reported on June 21. Spokesperson for the Russian MoD Igor Konashenkov stated on June 24 that Commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Alexander Lapin is in command of the "central” group of forces, which is responsible for operations against Lysychansk (and presumably Severodonetsk). Konashenkov additionally stated that Army General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, commands the ”southern” group of forces and oversaw the encirclement of Hirske and Zolote. The Russian MoD’s announcement confirms ISW’s assessment from June 21 that the Russian high command is reshuffling and restructuring military command in order to better organize operations in Ukraine, though the Russian MoD statement does not state when the changes occurred. The UK MoD confirmed that the Russian command has removed several generals from key operational roles in Ukraine, including Commander of the Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov and Commander of Russia’s Southern Military District Alexander Dvornikov, who was likely was acting as overall theatre commander. The UK MoD noted that command of the Southern Military District will transfer to Surovikin. The Russian MoD’s statement notably only discusses the center and south force groupings (not the Southern Military District as a whole), but Dvornikov has likely been removed from his previous role.
Russian forces conducted an abnormally large series of missile strikes against Ukrainian rear areas on June 25. The Ukrainian Airforce Command reported that Russian forces fired over 50 ground-, air-, and sea-based missiles at Ukraine and targeted areas in Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Khmelmytskyi, Chernihiv, Lviv, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that six Russian Tu-22M3 bombers departed from the Shaykova airbase in Belarus and launched 12 Kh-22 cruise missiles at land targets in Kyiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv Oblasts, which is the first such launch from Belarus. The Ukrainian Airforce Command noted that Russian forces used sea-based Kalibr missiles against targets in western Ukraine, X-22 and ground-based Iskander and Tochka-U missiles against targets in northern Ukraine, and ONYX missiles and Bastion complexes against targets in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian air defense reportedly shot down many of the missiles, which were likely intended to target critical support infrastructure in areas of Ukraine where there is no direct combat.
Ukrainian intelligence assessed that the Kremlin is continuing covert partial mobilization efforts in support of what it increasingly recognizes as a war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky stated that the Kremlin recognizes it is waging a war of attrition and is conducting secretive partial mobilization efforts while additionally mobilizing the BARS (Combat Army Reserve of the Country) system and other constant-readiness elements. Skibitsky noted that 105 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) are taking part in the war in Ukraine and that Russian reserve capabilities could increase this number to anywhere between 150 and 160 BTGs but did not specify a timeframe for this mobilization. Skibitsky reiterated that the Kremlin’s main goal is to secure control of the entire Donbas and that its secondary priority is consolidation of its control of Kherson Oblast by September 11, when the Kremlin seeks to hold referenda to directly annex territories or create quasi-state “People’s Republics.” The Kremlin intends to conduct a protracted conflict in Ukraine and is seeking to advance mobilization efforts to support long-term military and political goals in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) firmly stated that Belarusian involvement in the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia remains highly unlikely. GUR representative Vadym Skibitsky stated that Belarusian forces will not attack Ukraine without the support of Russian troops, of which there are approximately 1,500 in Belarus. Skibitsky noted that Belarus has seven BTGs on a rotating basis near the border with Ukraine and that the formation of a Russian-Belarusian joint shock group would take three to four weeks, with two to three weeks needed to simply deploy sufficient Russian forces into Belarus. The GUR’s statement reaffirms ISW’s previous assessments that, while recent Belarusian actions along the Ukrainian border are threatening and likely intended to fix Ukrainian forces in place with the threat of Belarusian action, they are highly unlikely to preempt actual involvement in the war.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the leadership of its central and southern groups of forces fighting Ukraine has changed, confirming ISW’s previous assessment that the Russian high command is restructuring the leadership of operations in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian intelligence officials emphasized that Belarus remains highly unlikely to join the war in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian sources confirmed that Russian forces have taken full control of Severodonetsk and are fighting within Lysychansk.
- Russian forces made measured gains to the north and southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued unsuccessful attempts to advance southeast of Izyum toward Slovyansk.
- Russian forces continued positional battles north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces attempted to strengthen their defensive lines and recapture lost positions on the Southern Axis.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 24, 7:15 pm ET
Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai announced that Ukrainian forces are withdrawing from “broken positions” in Severodonetsk to prevent further personnel losses and maintain a stronger defense elsewhere. Severodonetsk Regional Military Administration Head Roman Vlasenko stated that several Ukrainian units remain in Severodonetsk as of June 24, but Ukrainian forces will complete the full withdrawal in “a few days.” An unnamed Pentagon official noted that Ukrainian withdrawal from Severodonetsk will allow Ukrainian troops to secure better defensive positions and further wear down Russian manpower and equipment. The Pentagon official noted that Russian forces pushing on Severodonetsk already show signs of “wear and tear” and “debilitating morale,” which will only further slow Russian offensive operations in Donbas. Russian forces have been attempting to seize Severodonetsk since at least March 13, exhausting their forces and equipment over three months.
Ukrainian forces will occupy higher ground in Lysychansk, which may allow them to repel Russian attacks for some time if the Russians are unable to encircle or isolate them. Russian forces in Severodonetsk will also need to complete river crossings from the east, which will require additional time and effort. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Head Leonid Pasechnik claimed that Russian forces will completely encircle Lysychansk in the next two or three days after fully interdicting Ukrainian ground lines of communications (GLOCs). Russian forces have successfully secured access to Ukrainian GLOCs along the Hirske-Lysychansk highway by breaking through Hirske on June 24, but Russian forces will need to cut Ukrainian logistics routes from Bakhmut and Siversk to fully isolate Lysychansk. Russian forces are likely to face challenges completing a larger encirclement around Lysychansk due to a failed river crossing in Bilohorivka, northwest of Lysychansk, in early May. Ukrainian forces will likely conduct a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk if Russian forces threaten Ukrainian strongholds in the area.
The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Russian sabotage groups and mercenaries arrived in Mozyr, Belarus, to detonate apartment buildings and civilian infrastructure around the city. The GUR noted that Russian saboteurs will follow a pattern similar to apartment bombings in Chechnya in the early 2000s. Ukrainian officials have previously reported on possible false-flag attacks in Belarus throughout the past four months.
Russian outlet Baza reported two incidents where unknown attackers threw Molotov Cocktails at military recruitment offices in Belgorod City and Perm on June 24. Baza also reported that Belgorod Oblast Police started a search for four contract servicemen—one sergeant and three ordinary soldiers–who have deserted their military unit stationed in Belgorod Oblast.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and Grace Mappes
June 23, 6:15 pm ET
While Belarus and Russia retain close military cooperation and the ongoing Belarusian exercises are likely intended in part to threaten Ukraine, Belarus remains unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia. As ISW has previously assessed, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko likely cannot afford the domestic consequences of involving his limited military assets in a costly foreign war. Unsupported Belarusian forces are additionally highly unlikely to be effective, and Russia lacks the reserves necessary to conduct another offensive toward Kyiv. These exercises are undoubtedly intended to posture and threaten Ukrainian border areas but are unlikely to preempt actual involvement in hostilities.
Russian forces have made substantial gains in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area over the last several days and Ukrainian troops continue to suffer high casualties, but Ukrainian forces have fundamentally accomplished their objective in the battle by slowing down and degrading Russian forces. Head of the Luhansk Oblast Administration Serhiy Haidai stated on June 23 that Ukrainian troops may have to retreat to avoid encirclement in Lysychansk, which indicates that Ukrainian authorities are setting conditions to prepare for the ultimate loss of both Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. As ISW has previously assessed, however, the loss of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk will not represent a major turning point in the war. Ukrainian troops have succeeded for weeks in drawing substantial quantities of Russian personnel, weapons, and equipment into the area and have likely degraded Russian forces' overall capabilities while preventing Russian forces from focusing on more advantageous axes of advance. Russian offensive operations will likely stall in the coming weeks, whether or not Russian forces capture the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, likely granting Ukrainian forces the opportunity to launch prudent counteroffensives. The Kremlin’s ideological fixation on the capture of Severodonetsk, much like the earlier siege of Azovstal, will likely be to the ultimate detriment of Russian capabilities in future advances in Ukraine. The loss of Severodonetsk is a loss for Ukraine in the sense that any terrain captured by Russian forces is a loss—but the battle of Severodonetsk will not be a decisive Russian victory.
- Belarusian forces are conducting mobilization exercises along the Ukrainian border but are unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine due to their low capabilities and the adverse domestic implications of military involvement on behalf of Russia.
- Russian forces have likely reached the southern outskirts of Lysychansk and are reinforcing their grouping around Severodonetsk to complete the capture of both Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. These gains remain unlikely to provide Russian forces with a decisive edge in further operations in Ukraine and have further degraded Russian capabilities.
- Russian forces are continuing efforts to encircle the Ukrainian grouping in Hirske and Zolote and are likely moving to take control of these settlements.
- Russian forces have likely successfully interdicted Ukrainian lines of communication along the T1302 highway and are using recent gains along the highway to reinforce assaults on Lysychansk.
- Russian forces amassed equipment and continued building defensive capabilities along the Southern Axis.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 22, 5:45 pm ET
Reinforced Russian air-defense systems in eastern Ukraine are increasingly limiting the effectiveness of Ukrainian drones, undermining a key Ukrainian capability in the war. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch quoted several anonymous Ukrainian officials and military personnel that Ukrainian forces have largely halted the use of Turkish Bayraktar drones, which were used to great effect earlier in the war, due to improvements in Russian air-defense capabilities. Ukrainian officials are reportedly increasingly concerned that US-provided Gray Eagle strike drones will also be shot down by reinforced Russian air defense over the Donbas. Ukrainian forces have reportedly scaled back air operations to 20 to 30 sorties per day and are facing a deficit of available aircraft for active pilots. Russian forces are likely prioritizing deploying air defenses to eastern Ukraine to nullify Ukrainian operations and to protect the artillery systems Russian forces are reliant on to make advances. However, the Ukrainian air force and armed drones remain active elsewhere, inflicting several successful strikes on targets in Kherson Oblast in the last week.
Members of the Russian military community continue to comment on the shortcomings of Russian force generation capabilities, which are having tangible impacts on the morale and discipline of Russians fighting in Ukraine. Russian milblogger Yuri Kotyenok claimed that Russian troops lack the numbers and strength for success in combat in Ukraine. Kotyenok accused Russian leadership of deploying new and under-trained recruits and called for replenishment of forces with well-trained recruits with ground infantry experience—though the Russian military is unlikely to be able to quickly generate such a force, as ISW has previously assessed. Despite growing calls for increased recruitment from nationalist figures, Russian leadership continues to carry out coercive partial mobilization efforts that are only producing limited numbers of replacements while negatively impacting the morale and discipline of forcibly mobilized personnel. Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) claimed that Russian authorities in Luhansk are arranging gas leaks in apartment buildings to force men who are hiding from mobilization into the streets. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) additionally reported that Russian soldiers in occupied Tokmak, Zaporizhia Oblast, are appealing to local Ukrainian doctors to issue them certificates alleging medical inability to continue military service.
Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike (likely with a loitering munition, though this cannot be confirmed) on a Russian oil refinery in Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov Oblast, on June 22. Russian Telegram channel Voenyi Osvedomitel claimed that the strike, which targeted Russian infrastructure within 15 km of the Ukrainian border, originated from Donetsk Oblast. Ukrainian forces have not targeted Russian infrastructure for several weeks, and this strike is likely an attempt to disrupt Russian logistics and fuel supply to Russian operations in eastern Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued to make gains to the south of Lysychansk and will likely reach the city in the coming days, although they are unlikely to quickly capture the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations towards Slovyansk and made minor advances.
- Russian forces intensified efforts to interdict Ukrainian lines of communication along the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway in order to support Russian operations towards Lysychansk.
- Russian forces focused on defensive operations along the Southern Axis and may have made marginal gains within Mykolaiv Oblast.
- Russian authorities are continuing measures to facilitate the economic integration of occupied areas.
Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 21, 7:45 pm ET
The Kremlin recently replaced the commander of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces and may be in the process of radically reshuffling the command structure of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a possible purge of senior officers blamed for failures in Ukraine. Several Russian outlets confirmed that the current Chief of Staff of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Mikhail Teplinsky, will replace the current Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov. Ukrainian sources previously reported on June 17 that the Kremlin fired Serdyukov for poor performance during the invasion and high casualties among paratroopers, but ISW could not confirm this reporting at the time. Several sources are additionally reporting contradictory claims about replacements for the current Southern Military District Commander—and overall commander of the Russian invasion of Ukraine–Army General Alexander Dvornikov:
- Russian reserve officer Oleg Marzoev claimed on June 21 that Russian military officials will soon appoint General of the Army Sergey Surovikin, the current commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, as commander of the Southern Military District (SMD), effectively replacing current SMD Commander Alexander Dvornikov.
- Investigative journalism group Bellingcat previously reported on June 17 that Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to replace Dvornikov as the commander of the invasion of Ukraine following Dvornikov’s excessive drinking and lack of trust among Russian forces.
- Ukraine’s Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) reported on June 19 that Putin replaced Dvornikov as the commander of the Ukrainian operation with Colonel-General Gennady Zhidko, the head of the Military-Political Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces.
- An unofficial but widely followed Russian Airborne Troops social media page claimed that Dvornikov has been promoted and that Serdyukov will take his position within the SMD. This claim is highly unlikely to be true given that pro-Kremlin sources announced Serdyukov’s retirement.
ISW cannot independently verify these reports and will continue to monitor the situation for corroboration. However, if these varied reports are all accurate, former Aerospace Forces Commander Surovikin has replaced Dvornikov (who may have been forced to retire) as commander of the Southern Military District, but Zhidko has been appointed commander of Russian operations in Ukraine, despite not directly commanding Russian combat troops in his permanent role. Zhidko currently directs the body of the Russian Ministry of Defense responsible for maintaining morale and ideological control within the Russian military, rather than commanding a military district. As ISW previously reported, Southern Military District Commander Dvornikov was the natural choice to command Russia’s operations in Ukraine following Russia’s loss in the Battle of Kyiv, as the majority of Russian offensive operations are occurring within the Southern Military District’s area of responsibility. The appointment of a separate commander over the Southern Military District, and the replacement of the commander of the SMD in the middle of major combat operations, is a drastic step that would speak to severe crises within the Russian high command, and possibly a purge by the Kremlin. Such drastic rotations within the Russian military, if true, are not actions taken by a force on the verge of a major success and indicate ongoing dysfunction in the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.
Russian forces are successfully advancing toward Lysychansk from the south rather than making an opposed river crossing from Severodonetsk, threatening Ukrainian defenses in the area. ISW previously forecasted that Russian forces would seek to attack toward Lysychansk from the south to negate the defensive advantage that the Siverskyi Donets River would grant Ukrainian defenders opposing a direct assault from Severodonetsk. Russian forces appear to be securing such an advance and will likely attack the outskirts of Lysychansk within the coming week. This Russian advance is a clear setback for Ukrainian defenses in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, but Russian forces will likely require further protracted battles with Ukrainian forces similar to the block-by-block fighting seen in Mariupol and Severodonetsk in order to capture Lysychansk.
The Kremlin is failing to deter the family members of sailors that survived the sinking of the Moskva from issuing an appeal against the deployment of surviving conscripts to the war in Ukraine as of June 20. Russian opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta published an appeal from the parents of the surviving 49 conscript crewmembers of the Moskva, demanding that the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Sevastopol, the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers, and the Human Rights Commissioner immediately terminate the crewmembers’ deployment. The appeal states that Russian commanders did not send the surviving conscripts home from their deployment following the sinking of Moskva and that they will be recommitted to hostilities on June 30. The appeal noted that the survivors refuse to participate in further assignments due to psychological distress and are currently stationed on the old ship Ladnyi, which the appeal claims is unfit for combat. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) previously reported that Russian forces have threatened the families of Moskva sailors with criminal prosecution and nullification of any financial benefits to prevent them from speaking out against Russian operations.
Russian forces continue to face force generation challenges and are committing unprepared contract servicemen to the invasion of Ukraine. The BBC’s Russian service reported on June 20 that new Russian recruits receive only 3 to 7 days of training before being sent to “the most active sectors of the front.” The BBC also reported that volunteers within the conventional Russian military, Rosgvardia units, and Wagner Group mercenaries have become Russia’s main assault force, as opposed to full conventional military units. ISW has previously assessed that Russian units in eastern Ukraine are suffering from poor complements of infantry, slowing their ability to seize urban terrain. The Russian military is offering substantial financial incentives to secure additional recruits with increasing disregard for their age, health, criminal records, and other established service qualifications. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on June 21 that Russian Airborne (VDV) units are forced to recruit reserve officers for short-term three-month contracts due to significant officer losses, and the BBC reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense is offering to pay off the loans and debts of volunteers to entice recruits.
- The Kremlin recently replaced the commander of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces and may have fired the commander of the Southern Military District and appointed a new overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, indicating ongoing dysfunction in the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.
- Russian forces conducted several successful advances in settlements southeast of Severodonetsk on June 21 and may be able to threaten Lysychansk in the coming days while avoiding a difficult opposed crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River.
- Russian forces continued to launch assaults on settlements along the T1302 Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway to interdict Ukrainian ground lines of communications (GLOCs).
- Russian operations along the Izyum-Slovyansk axis are increasingly stalled as Russian forces prioritize operations around Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces likely recaptured the eastern bank of the Inhulets River from the Ukrainian bridgehead situated near the Kherson-Mykolaiv Oblast border.
- Ukrainian forces reportedly struck Russian positions on Snake Island in the Black Sea, likely to destroy Russian fortifications and equipment on the island, but ISW cannot confirm competing Ukrainian and Russian claims of the results of the attack.
- Russian occupation authorities are continuing to face challenges recruiting local collaborators and are likely relying on Russian government personnel to consolidate their societal control of occupied Ukrainian territories.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan
June 20, 5:30 pm ET
Ukrainian officials are emphasizing that the coming week will be decisive for Russian efforts to take control of Severodonetsk. Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Russian leadership has set June 26 as the deadline for Russian forces to reach the Luhansk Oblast administrative border, which will likely result in intensified efforts to take full control of Severodonetsk and move westward towards the Oblast border. Head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration Serhiy Haidai reported that Russian forces control all of Severodonetsk except for the industrial zone as of June 20, which is the first explicit Ukrainian confirmation that Russian forces control all of Severodonetsk with the exception of the Azot plant. Russian forces will likely continue efforts to clear the Azot plant and complete encirclement operations south of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk by driving up the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway.
Russian authorities likely seek to leverage the consequences of Russia’s blockade on Ukrainian grain exports in order to cajole the West into weakening its sanctions. Head of state-owned propaganda outlet RT Margarita Simonyan stated on June 20 that the famine caused by Russia’s blockade on grain exports will force the rest of the world to lift sanctions in order to curb further effects of global famine. Simonyan’s statement is especially salient considering a report by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office that Ukraine had generated 12% of global wheat and barley exports and that Russia’s blockade has trapped over 20 million tons of grain in storage.
The UK Ministry of Defense claimed on June 20 that consistent failures of the Russian air force have significantly contributed to Russia’s limited success in Ukraine. The UK MoD emphasized that the Russian air force has continually underperformed and been largely risk-averse, failing to establish air superiority or give Russian forces a decisive advantage in Ukraine. The report additionally claimed that training procedures for air force personnel are scripted and designed to impress senior officials but do not adequately prepare personnel for the challenges of active air combat.
- Ukrainian sources stated that the coming week will be decisive for Russian forces to complete the capture of Severodonetsk and that Russian forces will focus troops and equipment on the area.
- Ukrainian sources confirmed that Russian forces control all of Severodonetsk with the exception of the Azot industrial zone, where fights are ongoing.
- Russian sources are likely setting information conditions to justify slow and unsuccessful advances towards Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman.
- Russian forces are likely intensifying operations to interdict Ukrainian lines of communication along the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway in order to support escalating operations in Severodonetsk-Lysychansk.
- Russian forces continued to focus on resisting further Ukrainian advances north of Kharkiv City towards the international border.
- Russian forces are continuing defensive operations along the Southern Axis.
- Ukrainian partisan activity is continuing to complicate efforts by Russian occupation authorities to consolidate control of occupied areas.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark
June 19, 5:30 pm ET
The UK Ministry of Defense assesses that the Kremlin’s continued framing of its invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than a war is actively hindering Russian force generation capabilities. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on June 19 that Russian authorities are struggling to find legal means to punish military dissenters and those who refuse to mobilize because the classification of the conflict in Ukraine as a “special military operation” precludes legal punitive measures that could be employed during a formal war. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin’s framing of the war as a “special operation” is compounding consistent issues with poor perceptions of Russian military leadership among Russian nationalists, problems with paying troops, lack of available forces, and unclear objectives among Russian forces. The Kremlin is continuing to attempt to fight a major and grinding war in Ukraine with forces assembled for what the Kremlin incorrectly assumed would be a short invasion against token Ukrainian resistance. The Kremlin continues to struggle to correct this fundamental flaw in its “special military operation.”
Russian authorities likely seek to use war crimes trials against captured Ukrainian servicemen, particularly troops that defended Mariupol, to advance its narratives around the war. Russian sources reported that the authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) plan to hold war crimes tribunals until the end of August 2022 and that at least one of these tribunals will be held in Mariupol. These tribunals will reportedly be judged in accordance with DNR legislation (which notably allows capital punishment, unlike Russian law) and be modeled on the Nuremberg format for war crimes trials. The trials are a sham attempt to try lawful prisoners of war as war criminals and support the Kremlin’s false framing of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a ”de-Nazification” operation. Despite the fact that DNR authorities plan to try Ukrainian servicemen in the DNR, a source in Russian law enforcement told state-owned media outlet TASS that the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment and the commander of the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade will both be transferred to Russia for investigation and trial. Russian authorities will likely use these trials to strengthen legal controls of occupied areas and further demoralize Ukrainian defenders by setting a harsh legal precedent during preliminary tribunals, as well as advancing the Kremlin’s false narrative of invading Ukraine to “de-Nazify” it.
- Concentrated Russian artillery power paired with likely understrength infantry units remains insufficient to enable Russian advances within Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces continued to prepare to advance on Slovyansk from southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman.
- Russian forces are focusing on strengthening defensive positions along the Southern Axis due to recent successful Ukrainian counterattacks along the Kherson-Mykolaiv Oblast border.
- Successful Ukrainian counterattacks in the Zaporizhia area are forcing Russian forces to rush reinforcements to this weakened sector of the front line.
- Russian forces are likely conducting false-flag artillery attacks against Russian-held territory to dissuade Ukrainian sentiment and encourage the mobilization of proxy forces.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 18, 3:30 pm ET
Russian forces made marginal gains on the outskirts of Severodonetsk on June 18 but have largely stalled along other axes of advance. Russian troops are likely facing mounting losses and troop and equipment degradation that will complicate attempts to renew offensive operations on other critical locations as the slow battle for Severodonetsk continues. As ISW previously assessed, Russian forces will likely be able to seize Severodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces in this small area. Other Russian operations in eastern Ukraine—such as efforts to capture Slovyansk and advance east of Bakhmut—have made little progress in the past two weeks. Russian forces are continuing to fight to push Ukrainian troops away from occupied frontiers north of Kharkiv City and along the Southern Axis, but have not made significant gains in doing so, thus leaving them vulnerable to Ukrainian counteroffensive and partisan pressure.
The Russian military continues to face challenges with the morale and discipline of its troops in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate released what it reported were intercepted phone calls on June 17 and 18 in which Russian soldiers complained about frontline conditions, poor equipment, and overall lack of personnel. One soldier claimed that units have been largely drained of personnel and that certain battalion tactical groups (BTGs) have only 10 to 15 troops remaining in service.
- Russian forces secured minor gains on the outskirts of Severodonetsk and likely advanced into Metolkine, but Russian operations remain slow.
- Russian forces continued efforts to interdict Ukrainian lines of communication along the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway and conducted ground and artillery strikes along the highway.
- Russian forces seek to push Ukrainian forces out of artillery range of railway lines around Kharkiv City used to supply Russian offensive operations toward Slovyansk.
- Russian forces did not take any confirmed actions along the Southern Axis and continue to face partisan pressure in occupied areas of southern Ukraine.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 17, 7:00 pm ET
Russian forces are continuing to deploy additional forces to support offensive operations in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, and Ukrainian defenses remain strong. Ukrainian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Oleksandr Motuzyanyk reported that Russian forces are transferring tanks, armored personnel carriers, engineering equipment, and vehicles from Svatove, along the Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Luhansk Oblast, to Starobilsk, just 40 km east of Severodonetsk. Social media users reported that Russian forces are likely redeploying equipment from northern Kharkiv Oblast to Donbas and published footage of Russian heavy artillery arriving by rail in Stary Osokol, Belgorod Oblast on June 17. UK Chief of Defense Tony Radakin stated that Russian forces are “diminishing” in power by committing large quantities of personnel and equipment for incremental gains in one area. The Russian military has concentrated the vast majority of its available combat power to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk at the expense of other axes of advance and is suffering heavy casualties to do so.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russian forces will attack Ukrainian positions near Donetsk City but reiterated that the new tactic will require additional time during his address at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17. Putin stated that Russian forces will stop what he claimed is Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk City by attacking Ukrainian fortifications from the rear. Putin may have amplified reports of shelling of civilian areas of Donetsk City, which Ukrainian officials have denied, to discourage Western officials from supplying weapons to Ukraine. Putin also declared that Russian forces will fully complete the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and noted that Russian and proxy forces will intensify counter-battery combat. Putin urged Russian forces to refrain from entirely destroying cities that they aim to “liberate," ignoring the destruction Russian forces have inflicted on Ukrainian cities and the artillery-heavy tactics Russian forces are currently employing in Severodonetsk.”
Unconfirmed Ukrainian sources report that the Kremlin fired the Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, due to mass casualties among Russian paratroopers. Odesa Oblast Military-Civil Administration Spokesperson Serhiy Bratchuk reported that the Kremlin appointed the current chief of staff of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Mikhail Teplinsky, as Serdyukov’s replacement and named the Deputy Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Lieutenant General Anatoly Kontsevoi, as the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Airborne Forces. ISW cannot independently confirm these claims or Serdyukov’s exact role in the invasion of Ukraine, but they, if true, would indicate that Serdyukov is being held responsible for the poor performance of and high casualties among Russian VDV units, particularly in early operations around Kyiv. Continued dismissals and possible internal purges of senior Russian officers will likely further degrade poor Russian command and control capabilities and the confidence of Russian officers.
- Russian forces continued to launch unsuccessful ground assaults against Severodonetsk and its southeastern outskirts on June 17.
- Russian forces continued efforts to sever Ukrainian lines of communication to Lysychansk, both from the north toward Slovyansk and in the south near Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a counteroffensive northwest of Izyum intended to draw Russian forces away from offensive operations toward Slovyansk and disrupt Russian supply lines and are making minor gains.
- Ukrainian forces and aviation continued to strike Russian logistics and fortifications in occupied settlements along the Southern Axis, with localized fighting ongoing.
- Russian forces continued to regroup and transfer personnel within Zaporizhia Oblast to maintain defensive positions along the frontline.
- Russian President Putin reaffirmed his commitment to “completing” the Russian operation in Ukraine but acknowledged that unspecified new Russian tactics (which are likely simply explanations for poor Russian performance) will take time.
- Unconfirmed Ukrainian sources reported that the Kremlin fired the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, due to poor performance.
June 16, 7:00 pm ET
The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Romania committed to Ukrainian officials that the West would not demand any concessions from Ukraine to appease Russia and will support Ukraine to the end of the war during a visit to Kyiv on June 16. French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France, Germany, Italy, and Romania are “are doing everything so that Ukraine alone can decide its fate.” Macron added that Ukraine “must be able to win” and pledged to provide six more self-propelled howitzers. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Germany will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, and weapons assistance for “Ukraine’s war of independence.” Macron, Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis additionally vowed to back Ukraine’s bid to become an official candidate for European Union membership. Sustained Western military support to Ukraine will be essential to enable Ukrainian forces to liberate Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian defense officials explicitly requested Western heavy artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles, and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) ahead of a protracted war. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Denys Sharapov and Land Force Command Logistics Commander Volodymyr Karpenko stated that Ukrainian forces need hundreds of artillery systems, including infantry fighting vehicles and tanks, as Ukrainian forces have suffered 30% to 50% equipment losses in active combat. Sharapov and Karpenko noted that Ukrainian forces need Predator drones and loitering munitions to accurately strike Russian forces. Sharapov and Karpenko also asked for long-range precision weapons such as MLRS to defend the entire 2,500 km frontline in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces have already committed about 330,000 servicemen to their invasion of Ukraine without conducting partial or full-scale mobilization in Russia. Ukrainian General Staff Main Operations Deputy Chief Oleksiy Gromov stated that Russian forces grouped 150,000 servicemen into battalion tactical groups (BTGs) and other formations and involved additional 70,000 troops from air and sea elements, with the remaining personnel staffing non-combat support units. Gromov noted that Russian forces committed more than 80,000 servicemen of the mobilized reserve, up to 7,000 reservists of the Russian Combat Army Reserve (BARS-2021), up to 18,000 members of the Russian National Guard (Rosguardia), and up to 8,000 troops from private military companies. Gromov did not specify if Ukrainian officials included information about forcibly mobilized servicemen in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) in these numbers. Gromov noted that the Kremlin may still increase the number of Russian military personnel in Ukraine by executing covert or full mobilization. Gromov noted that while it is unknown if the Kremlin will declare mobilization, Russian forces will still need time to execute the deployment and training of the new personnel whether or not the Kremlin announces full mobilization.
- Russian forces continued to launch ground assaults on Severodonetsk and settlements along the Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Lysychansk. Ukrainian military intelligence reported that Russian forces are no longer operating as concrete battalion tactical groups (BTGs), as ISW previously assessed.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations northwest of Slovyansk, while Ukrainian forces reportedly resumed preparations for counteroffensives west of Izyum.
- Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in clashes north and northeast of Kharkiv City, though no significant territory changed hands.
- Russian forces continued to fortify fallback positions in northwestern Kherson Oblast, likely in anticipation of Ukrainian counteroffensives in the region.
- Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin continued to discuss and sign patronage agreements with Russian regional officials.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and Grace Mappes
June 15, 6pm ET
Western officials announced additional military aid for Ukraine on June 15. US President Joe Biden pledged $1 billion worth of military aid, including coastal defense weapons, advanced rocket systems, artillery, and ammunition to support Ukrainian operations. NATO members additionally announced they will additionally continue to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons and long-range systems and plan to agree on a new assistance package after consultations with Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. This newest round of military aid will be invaluable to support Ukrainian operations, especially in the face of increasingly protracted and artillery-heavy fighting against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, though Ukraine will require further sustained support.
- Russian forces launched ground assaults in Severodonetsk and settlements in its vicinity but have not taken full control over the city as of June 15.
- Russian forces launched largely unsuccessful offensive operations around the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway in an effort to cut Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Lysychansk.
- Russian forces continued efforts to advance along the E40 highway to Slovyansk and southeast of Izyum.
- Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to fight in northeastern settlements around Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces continued to fortify fallback positions in Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, while undertaking defensive measures to strengthen Russian presence in the Black Sea.
- The Kremlin and proxy republics continue to pursue ad hoc annexation policies in occupied territories.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 14, 5:00 pm ET
The Belarusian Armed Forces began a command-staff exercise focused on testing command and control capabilities on June 14. However, Belarus remains unlikely to join the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia. Head of Logistics for the Belarusian Armed Forces Major General Andrei Burdyko announced that the exercise will involve military authorities, unspecified military units, and logistics organizations and is intended to improve the coherency of command-and-control and logistics support to increase the overall level of training and practical skills of personnel in a “dynamically changing environment.” Despite the launch of this exercise, Belarus remains unlikely to join the war in Ukraine due to the threat of domestic unrest that President Alexander Lukashenko faces if he involves already-limited Belarusian military assets in combat. Any Belarusian entrance into the war would also likely provoke further crippling sanctions on Belarus. Any unsupported Belarusian attack against northern Ukraine would likely be highly ineffective, and the quality of Belarusian troops remains low. ISW will continue to monitor Belarusian movements but does not forecast a Belarusian entrance into the war at this time.
Russian authorities may be accelerating plans to annex occupied areas of Ukraine and are arranging political and administrative contingencies for control of annexed territories. Russian military correspondent Sasha Kots posted an image of a map that was displayed at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum depicting a proposed scheme for the “administrative-territorial” division of Ukraine following the war on a three-to-five-year transition scale. The proposed scheme divides Ukrainian oblasts into Russian “territorial districts" and suggests the manner in which Russian authorities hope to incorporate Ukrainian territory directly into Russia. Advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol Petro Andryushchenko additionally outlined a series of indicators that he claimed suggest that Russian authorities are planning to annex occupied Donetsk Oblast as soon as September 1, 2022. Andryushchenko stated that the leadership of occupied Donetsk has entirely passed from authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to Russian officials and that Russian educational authorities are already referring to Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson as regions of Russia. Andryushchenko additionally stated that the financial and legal systems in occupied Donetsk have already transitioned to Russian systems. Despite the apparent lack of a Kremlin-backed mandate concerning the condition of occupied areas, Russian authorities are likely pushing to expedite a comprehensive annexation process in order to consolidate control over Ukrainian territories and integrate them into Russia’s political and economic environment. However, the Kremlin retains several options in occupied Ukrainian territory and is not bound to any single annexation plan.
The Russian military leadership continues to expand its pool of eligible recruits by manipulating service requirements. Russian milblogger Yuri Kotyenok suggested that Russian authorities are preparing to increase the age limit for military service from 40 to 49 and to drop the existing requirement for past military service to serve in tank and motorized infantry units. If true, the shift demonstrates the Kremlin's increasing desperation for recruits to fill frontline units, regardless of their poor skills. Kotyenok echoed calls made by other milbloggers to reduce the health requirements for those serving in rear and support roles. Kotyenok additionally noted that while Russian recruits must have clean criminal records to serve, private military companies such as the Wagner Group will allow those with “mild misdemeanors” into service and that many of these low-level offenders have been mobilized into combat with Wagner in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russian military leadership will likely continue efforts to expand the pool of eligible recruits, even at the cost of high-quality military personnel.
- Russian military authorities are pursuing options to increase the available pool of eligible recruits to account for continued personnel losses in Ukraine.
- Russian forces are continuing to fight for control of the Azot industrial plant and have destroyed all bridges between Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, likely to isolate the remaining Ukrainian defenders within the city from critical lines of communication.
- Russian forces continue to prepare for offensive operations southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman toward Slovyansk.
- Russian forces are continuing offensive operations to the east of Bakhmut near the T1302 highway to cut Ukrainian lines of communication to Severodonetsk-Lysychansk.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to push Ukrainian troops away from frontlines northeast of Kharkiv City.
- Ukrainian counterattacks have forced Russian troops on the Southern Axis to take up and strengthen defensive positions.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 13, 7:30pm ET
Kremlin-sponsored outlet Izvestia published and quickly removed an appeal by the First Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergey Kirelenko for Russia to rebuild the Donbas on June 12 and blamed hackers for what they (likely falsely) claimed was a “fake publication.” Izvestia likely intended to save the article for a later date to set informational conditions for Russian annexation of Donbas. Kirelenko’s appeal stated that Russia will restore the Donbas regardless of high costs or if doing so lowers the standard of living in Russia. Izvestia blamed unknown hackers for publishing a “fake article,” but it is possible that hackers instead released an article Izvestia had prepared to publish at a later date. The Kremlin previously published and removed an article prematurely celebrating a Russian victory over Ukraine in late February and discussing the capture of Ukraine in past tense in anticipation of Ukraine’s capitulation during the first Russian-Ukrainian negotiations in Belarus. Unnamed Kremlin officials previously identified Kirelenko as the future head of a new Russian federal district, which would encompass Donbas, and occupied settlements in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts.
Russia continues to deploy insufficiently prepared volunteer and reserve forces to reinforce its ongoing operations. Kremlin-sponsored outlet Izvestia released footage showing Russian artillery reservists undergoing training with old D-20 howitzers reportedly within 10 days of their deployment to Ukraine. The reservists focused on learning how to operate hand-held weapons, despite being reportedly only days away from deploying. Social media footage also showed Russian forces transporting Russian volunteer and reserve units with T-80BV tanks (a variant produced in 1985, as opposed to the modernized T-80 BVM operated by the 1st Guards Tank Army) and BMP-1 armored personnel carriers (which have largely been phased out in favor of the BMP-2) to Belgorod Oblast on June 9. Additional social media footage showed Russian forces transporting T-80BV tanks removed from storage in Moscow Oblast on June 9.
- Russian forces pushed Ukrainian defenders from the center of Severodonetsk and reportedly destroyed the remaining bridge from Severodonetsk to Lysychansk on June 13, but Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are not encircled in the city.
- Russian forces carried out unsuccessful ground assaults in an attempt to sever Ukrainian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) near Popasna and Bakhmut.
- Russian forces launched unsuccessful offensive operations southeast of Izyum and north of Slovyansk, and are likely setting conditions for an assault on Siversk and northwestern Ukrainian GLOCs to Lysychansk.
- Russian forces are likely conducting a limited offensive directly northeast of Kharkiv City in a likely attempt to push Ukrainian forces out of artillery range of Russian rear areas and secured some successes.
- Russian and Ukrainian forces are engaging in ongoing fighting for Davydiv Brid in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
- Russian occupation authorities likely staged terrorist activity in Melitopol and Berdyansk for Russia Day on June 12.
Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, George Barros, and Grace Mappes
June 12, 6:30 pm ET
Russian forces continue to struggle with generating additional combat-capable units. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on June 12 that Russian forces have been trying to produce more combat units by preparing to deploy third battalion tactical groups (BTGs) from some units over the last few weeks. The UK MoD noted that Russian brigades and regiments normally can generate two BTGs, but doing so leaves the parent units largely hollow shells. The UK MOD concluded that these third BTGs will likely be understaffed and rely on recruits and mobilized reservists. Their deployment will likely adversely impact the capacity of their parent units to regenerate their combat power for quite some time. BTGs generated in this fashion will not have the combat power of regular BTGs. It will be important not to overestimate Russian reserves produced in this way by counting these third BTGs as if they were normal BTGs.
Pro-Russian sources are continuing to spread disinformation to sow anxiety and resentment among the Ukrainian population. Russian Telegram channels reportedly began spreading a fake mobilization order on June 12 that they falsely attributed to the Ukrainian General Staff. The fake order called for the mobilization of all eligible Ukrainian women to report for duty by “June 31” (sic).
- Russian forces continued ground assaults in Severodonetsk and blew up bridges that connect Severodonetsk to Lysychansk across the Siverskyi Donets River in a likely attempt to cut Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) that run from Bakhmut to Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces made incremental gains to the southeast of Izyum and will likely continue attempts to advance on Slovyansk from the northwest.
- Russian forces continued efforts to push Ukrainian troops back from contested frontlines northeast of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces focused on maintaining defensive lines along the Southern Axis.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 11, 6:00 pm ET
Ukrainian intelligence assesses that the Russian military is extending its planning to fight a longer war, though Russian force generation and reserves likely remain poor. Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky stated the GUR received confirmed information that Russian forces have extended their war planning for the next 120 days, extending to October 2022. Skibitsky said that Russian forces will adjust the plan depending on their successes in Donbas and noted that the Russian General Staff is modifying their invasion plans almost every month. Skibitsky’s statement likely indicates the Kremlin has, at a minimum, acknowledged it cannot achieve its objectives in Ukraine quickly and is further adjusting its military objectives in an attempt to correct the initial deficiencies in the invasion of Ukraine. Skibitsky also claimed that Russian forces have an additional 40 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in reserve, after having already deployed 103 BTGs to Ukraine. This report is highly unlikely to mean Russian forces retain 40 full-strength and effective BTGs in Russia. At most, these “BTGs” are likely small collections of personnel cobbled together from other units. The Russian military is additionally unlikely to be holding such a significant portion of its force in reserve due to continuing manpower shortages in existing frontline units.
Ukrainian officials continued to increase their requests for Western offensive and defensive equipment, particularly regarding capabilities necessary to combat Russian artillery superiority. Head of the Ukrainian Northern Operational Command Dmytro Krasilnikov reported that Ukrainian forces are experiencing a shortage in long-range artillery systems, while Russian artillery continues to overpower Ukrainian infantry. Ukrainian Advisor to Cabinet of Ministers Oleksandr Danylyuk stated that Russian forces adopted a new unspecified strategy that allows them to make more careful maneuvers. Danylyuk added that Russian forces have more resources than Ukraine, which would prove advantageous in a protracted conflict. Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said that Ukrainian defenders need long-range artillery and air defense systems to strike against advancing Russian troops in Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainian forces will need consistent Western support, particularly regarding artillery systems, as Russian numbers and resources take their toll on Ukrainian forces in increasingly positional warfare.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground offensives within the Severodonetsk area, but Ukrainian defenders retain control of the industrial area of the city as of June 11.
- Russian forces likely resumed efforts to cut the T1303 Hirske-Lysyschansk highway and launched failed assaults on settlements along the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychank highway.
- Russian forces continued assaults on settlements southwest and southeast of Izyum in an effort to resume drives on Slovyansk.
- Ukrainian forces likely resumed counteroffensives northwest of Kherson City on June 11, south of their previous operations.
- Russian occupation officials distributed the first batch of Russian passports in Kherson City and Melitopol.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark
June 10, 4:00 pm ET
Ukrainian officials are increasing the urgency of their requests for more-sophisticated Western-provided weapons systems amid reports of growing Russian artillery superiority. Several Western media outlets reported in the last 48 hours that Ukrainian military and government officials are increasingly highlighting the fact that Ukrainian troops are trapped in an “artillery war” on critical frontlines and are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of artillery systems. Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky stated that Russian troops possess 10 to 15 artillery pieces to every one Ukrainian artillery piece and that Ukrainian forces have almost completely exhausted their artillery ammunition. Considering the current prevalence of protracted positional battles, especially in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, Ukrainian forces urgently need fresh supplies of artillery systems. As Ukrainian forces use the last of their stocks of Soviet-era weapon systems and munitions, they will require consistent Western support to transition to new supply chains of ammunition and key artillery systems. Effective artillery will be increasingly decisive in the largely static fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russian military authorities continue to struggle with force generation and are facing the consequences of aggressive forced mobilization efforts. Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) claimed they captured a new group of Russian prisoners of war who reportedly were recruited through a private military company and told they were going to be providing security services but were instead sent to the frontline in Luhansk. The Ukrainian General Staff similarly reported that units comprised of forcibly mobilized personnel are refusing to participate in combat in the Donbas due to high losses. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) cited intercepted phone calls and claimed that Russian soldiers are refusing to fight and are being threatened with prosecution—despite their lack of equipment and weapons within their units. Such reports are consistent with previous reports that Russian forced mobilization efforts are self-destructive and may result in mounting discontent and declining morale and discipline.
- Ukrainian officials are increasing the urgency of their requests for Western weapons systems due to Russia’s artillery superiority.
- Russian forces are continuing ground assaults within Severodonetsk but have yet to secure full control of the city as of June 10.
- Russian forces are preparing to renew offensive operations toward Slovyansk and made minor gains to the north of the city.
- Russian forces are continuing efforts to cut the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway and conducting assaults on settlements near the highway.
- Russian troops reportedly took control of the Kinburn Spit in the northern Black Sea, which will allow them to exert further control of the Black Sea coast.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark
June 9, 6:45 pm ET
The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on June 9 that Russian forces are mining Kherson Oblast with mines from the 1950s to defend against recent Ukrainian counterattacks in northwestern Kherson Oblast. The GUR stated that Russian forces moved these mines from Russia’s Rostov Oblast to the Kherson area despite the fact the mines were meant to be destroyed. The GUR claimed that some of the mines detonated during the transportation processes and killed Russian sappers from the 49th Combined Arms Army. The GUR’s report is consistent with previous statements that Russian forces are moving old and obsolete equipment to Ukraine to make up for equipment losses, including deploying T-62 tanks to the Melitopol area and pulling MLRS and 152mm howitzers from storage in Irkutsk, Siberia.
The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Russian officials in Luhansk Oblast have had to reduce their mobilization efforts due to widespread protests against aggressive mobilization efforts that have taken a toll on the labor market in Luhansk. Attacks on Russian military recruitment offices are additionally continuing. An unidentified assailant threw a Molotov cocktail at the military commissariat in Vladivostok, which is the eighteenth such reported attack on Russian territory since the beginning of the war. As Russian officials escalate mobilization efforts over the background of continued losses in Ukraine, they will continue to run the risk of instigating public dissent and pushback against such recruitment practices.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 8, 6:30 pm ET
Russian forces are escalating the use of psychological and information operations to damage the morale of Ukrainian soldiers. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on June 8 that Russian forces are sending threatening messages to the personal devices of Ukrainian servicemen calling on them to betray their service oaths, lay down their arms, surrender, or defect to Russia. The GUR reported that Russian forces are sending messages on a variety of platforms including SMS, Telegram, Viber, Signal, and WhatsApp and that the messages use location information to threaten to harm Ukrainian soldiers or their family members. Ukrainian military expert Dmytro Snegirov additionally noted that Russian propagandists are conducting informational and psychological campaigns to spoil the morale of Ukrainian troops by disseminating information that the battle for Severodonetsk will become the “next Mariupol.” These information and psychological attacks likely seek to lower the morale of Ukrainian servicemen as operations on multiple axes of advance continue to generate high causalities on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides.
Russian military commanders continue to face force generation challenges. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that Russian military enlistment offices in Crimea are falsifying the results of mandatory medical exams administered during the summer conscription period to maximize the number of recruits. Russian police also arrested a man who threw a molotov cocktail and set fire to a local Crimean administration building in protest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, likely indicating growing discontent with Russian war efforts in Crimea. ISW has previously reported that forced mobilization in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) is exacerbating social tensions and sparking protests in Donbas. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that unspecified elements of the 106th and 76th Guards Airborne Assault Divisions refused to participate in combat in Luhansk Oblast and returned to Russia. The 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division previously participated in assaults on Kyiv, Izyum, and Popasna, which has likely led to the demoralization of troops.
- Russian forces continued assaults against Ukrainian positions in Severodonetsk. Russian forces simultaneously seek to outflank Ukrainian positions in the region to avoid the necessity of making an opposed crossing of the Siversky Donets river.
- Russian forces are continuing operations around Sviatohirsk and west of Lyman to link up with operations southeast of Izyum and drive on Slovyansk.
- Russian forces are intensifying their operations in northwestern Kherson Oblast in response to recent Ukrainian counterattacks.
- Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are focusing ground and artillery attacks near the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border and likely are seeking to strengthen control of the highway between Vasylivka-Orikhiv and Huliapole to support operations in northeast Zaporizhia.
- Russian-backed occupation authorities are attempting to set conditions for the political integration of occupied areas into the Russian Federation but are likely acting independently and in an incoherent manner due to the lack of a unifying occupation authority.
- Russian forces intensified psychological and information operations to degrade Ukrainian morale.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 7, 6:45 pm ET
Russian forces continued offensive operations in several locations in eastern Ukraine but did not secure any confirmed gains in ground assaults on June 7. Russian forces have likely captured most of Severodonetsk, but ISW cannot confirm the exact control of terrain within the city. Russian forces additionally redeployed troops east of Bakhmut to renew offensives to secure access to highways northeast of Bakhmut and threaten Ukrainian lines of communication. Russian troops north of Slovyansk will likely seek to advance toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk from positions north of the city. Russian forces on the Southern Axis are reportedly redeploying away from Zaporizhia Oblast toward Kherson Oblast, likely in order to support Russian defensive positions that have been threatened by Ukrainian counterattacks along the Mykolaiv-Kherson Oblast border south of Davydiv Brid.
Members of the Russian military community are accusing Ukrainian forces of escalating artillery attacks on Russian rear areas in a likely attempt to dissuade further Western support to the Ukrainian military. Former FSB agent Igor Girkin (also known as Strelkov) accused Ukrainian troops of perpetrating “terrorist attacks” against residential areas of Donetsk City, Horlivka, and Makiivka. A Russian source additionally accused Ukrainian forces of firing on Shyroka Balka, Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian social media users denied the claims and stated that they are likely false-flag attempts to spoil Western opinion of the Ukrainian military and halt military aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The Kremlin’s efforts to censor information about deceased military personnel and ongoing forced mobilization within the DNR and LNR are reportedly exacerbating domestic tensions and opposition to the war in Russia. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Kremlin assigned lawyers and psychologists to convince families of personnel of the sunken cruiser Moskva to refrain from disclosing any information regarding the deaths of their relatives in an effort to crush rising social tensions in Russia. The GUR stated that the Kremlin is threatening to nullify financial compensation to the families of Moskva crew members if they publicly discuss the sinking of the cruiser, resulting in some relatives refusing to meet with Black Sesa Fleet commanders in Sevastopol in protest. Ukrainian media sources separately reported that the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) altered mobilization protocols and is now promising compensation for wounded and deceased personnel due to DNR servicemen rioting at the frontlines.
Domestic Russian complaints about the maltreatment and lack of preparation among Russian combat forces are likely prompting the Kremlin to take rhetorical steps to curb discontent. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu stated that new conscripts during the summer training period will be trained with specific attention to lessons learned so far in Ukraine during a meeting with the National Defense Management Center (NDCC) (the supreme command center of the Russian Armed Forces and Defense Ministry) on June 7. Shoigu added that summer conscripts will learn battlefield first aid, likely responding to criticisms by members of the Russian military community of poor tactics and lack of first aid acumen among Russian soldiers. However, the Russian military is unlikely to properly train and equip Russian conscripts rushed to the front as replacements and likely primarily seeks to mollify public discontent. Former DNR Security Minister and milblogger Alexander Khodakovsky claimed that he asked the DNR military command to move exhausted and demoralized proxy conscripts to auxiliary tasks away from the line of contact but to no avail.
- Russian forces have likely established control over the majority of the residential sector of Severodonetsk and conducted assaults against Ukrainian positions in the industrial zone in the past 24 hours. The operational environment within the city remains fluid.
- Russian forces continued efforts to advance on Slovyansk southeast from the Izyum area and west from Lyman, attempting to break through Ukrainian defenses that have halted most direct frontal assaults from Izyum.
- Russian forces are likely attempting to reinforce their operations in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area from both the Toshkivka-Ustynivka area in the south and Kupyansk from the northwest.
- Russian forces began withdrawing troops from positions in Zaporizhia Oblast, likely either to rotate damaged units into rear areas or to reinforce Russian defenses in northwestern Kherson Oblast, though ISW cannot currently confirm the destination of these forces.
- Russian forces failed to regain advanced positions on the western (now Ukrainian-occupied) bank of the Ihulets River on June 7.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian forces restored transit connections between newly occupied cities and Crimea.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to face challenges suppressing Ukrainian resistance and finding partisan supporters despite increasingly draconian occupation measures and attempts to bribe Ukrainian civilians.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 6, 7:15 pm ET
The nature of urban combat in Severodonetsk is likely obfuscating reports of control of terrain within the city, though Russian forces likely retain control over much of the city. Head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration Serhiy Haidai claimed on June 5 that Ukrainian forces managed to retake large parts of Severodonetsk and push Russian forces to the outskirts of the city during successful urban counterattacks. Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov, however, denied Haidai’s claims on June 5 and claimed that Ukrainian forces only control the Azot industrial sector of Severodonetsk. Haidai amended his claims on June 6 and reported that the situation in Severodonetsk has deteriorated significantly, adding that Ukrainian forces were indeed fighting within the Azot industrial site on June 6. The reason for Haidai and Butusov’s conflicting reports is unclear, and heavy urban fighting is ongoing in the city.
Ukrainian naval forces are challenging Russian dominance over the northwestern part of the Black Sea and claimed to be preventing Russian warships from operating close to the shoreline. The Ukrainian Navy reported on June 6 that they had succeeded in pushing a grouping of the Russian Black Sea Fleet more than 100 km away from the Ukrainian coast but did not specify a timeframe for this statement. The report additionally stated that Russian naval forces have subsequently had to change their tactics in the Black Sea and are relying more heavily on Bal and Bastion coastal defense systems in occupied Kherson and Crimea rather than seaborne air defenses. The UK Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces have been strengthening their air defense assets on Snake Island, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reported that Russian forces deployed additional S-300 air defense battalions to Crimea. Taken together, these reports suggest that Ukrainian naval pressure and anti-ship missiles—likely including those provided by the UK and other states—have forced the Russian grouping in the northwestern Black Sea to rely more on coastal and air defense as they are pushed away from the Ukrainian shoreline. Ukraine will likely attempt to leverage these successes to alleviate the economic pressure of the Russian blockade on Ukraine’s ports and seek additional economic support from the west, including possibly opening up new routes for international aid to Ukraine.
- Russian forces likely retain control over most of Severodonetsk as of June 6, though the exact situation in the city remains unclear. Control of terrain is likely changing hands frequently.
- Russian forces in the Izyum area did not make any confirmed advances, while forces advancing west from Lyman secured minor gains.
- Russian forces continued unsuccessful attempts to sever Ukrainian lines of communication northeast of Bakhmut.
- Limited and localized Ukrainian counterattacks on June 5 forced Russian troops to focus on holding defensive lines north of Kharkiv City on June 6.
- Russian occupation authorities are advancing efforts to issue Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens and cement their control over occupied territories.
- The Ukrainian Navy claimed to have pushed the Russian Black Sea Fleet more than 100 km from the Ukrainian coast, likely to reduce the pressure of the Russian blockade on Ukraine’s southern ports.
June 6, 5:15 pm ET
Ukrainian forces continued to conduct limited and localized but successful counterattacks against Russian positions throughout Ukraine on June 5, including retaking large areas of Severodonetsk—the city in Luhansk Oblast the Kremlin has concentrated the majority of its forces on capturing. A Russian Telegram channel claimed that Ukrainian troops launched a counterattack north of Kharkiv City, indicating that Ukrainian forces continue to pressure Russian defensive lines near the Russian border. Ukrainian forces are likely seeking to leverage the continued Russian focus on Severodonetsk to conduct counterattacks on other axes of advance. Even as Russian forces continue to pour equipment and troops into the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, Ukrainian forces have conducted a successful counterattack in Severodonetsk in the last 48 hours and pushed Russian troops back to the eastern outskirts of the city and out of southern settlements. Ukrainian counteroffensive pressure will likely continue to draw the attention of Russian forces to Luhansk Oblast and therefore leave vulnerabilities in Russian defensive efforts in Kharkiv Oblast and along the Southern Axis. The ability of Ukrainian forces to successfully counterattack in Severodonetsk, the Kremlin’s current priority area of operations, further indicates the declining combat power of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces reportedly killed Russian Major General Roman Kutuzov on June 5. Russian Telegram channels reported that Kutuzov was killed near Mykolaivka, Luhansk Oblast (near Popasna) on June 5. Kutuzov likely commanded the Donetsk People’s Republic’s 1st Army Corps at the time of his death, though ISW cannot confirm his exact position. Some sources reported that Kutuzov commanded the 5th Combined Arms Army (CAA) at the time of his death, but we assess this is likely incorrect—Kutuzov served as acting commander of the 5th CAA from 2017 to 2019, and Major General Alexei Vladimirovich Podilov currently commands the 5th CAA. High-level Russian commanders have taken remarkably high losses during combat in Ukraine, and will likely continue to do so as the Russian command continues to deploy military leadership directly to the frontline. Kutuzov’s death has not yet been confirmed but would be at least the seventh death of a general in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
Russian forces conducted their first missile strike against Kyiv in over a month on June 5. Advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Vadym Denysenko stated that Russian forces fired five X-22 cruise missiles from a Tu-95 aircraft at Kyiv from the direction of the Caspian Sea that hit the Darnytsia Rail Car Repair Plant on the outskirts of Kyiv. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that this strike targeted T-72 tanks supplied to Ukraine by other Eastern European countries, but images of the target area confirm that the missiles hit the Darnytsia plant. It is unclear if Russian forces intended to strike foreign-provided Ukrainian tanks and missed, or if the Kremlin is attempting to obfuscate its intended target. This attack on Kyiv likely indicates that Russian forces are continuing to target Ukrainian infrastructure in non-critical areas of Ukraine in order to disrupt Ukrainian logistics as Russian forces take considerable losses in Donbas.
Russian military bloggers continued to reckon with overarching struggles in Russian force generation on June 5. Russian milblogger Alexander Khodakovsky accused “screamers in the guise of patriots” of hypocritically calling for general mobilization while at the same time discrediting the Russian military leadership and driving away those who would voluntarily take up arms for Russia. Khodakovsky blamed the pervasive public discourse on general mobilization for making people overthink and subsequently become less willing to enter military service, thereby forcing Russian military command closer to actually needing to announce general mobilization. Khodakovsky suggested that this discourse is setting Russia up for a long war in Ukraine and that Russian authorities have been positioned to take the blame for losses. Russian war journalist Alexander Sladkov claimed that the Russian grouping in Ukraine is an ”exclusively professional army” not staffed by conscripts, while simultaneously calling for the removal of health requirements for rear and combat specialties in order to mobilize those who should be medically disqualified. These and other comments by Russian military specialists indicate the Russian military community is increasingly aware of issues in sustaining mobilization efforts and different actors are seeking to apportion blame as Russian operations continue to stall.
- Ukrainian counterattacks in Severodonetsk recaptured large parts of the city and forced Russian troops out of the southern suburbs of the city.
- Russian forces continued efforts to converge on Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman but remain unlikely to make notable advances around Slovyansk due to their continued prioritization of Severodonetsk.
- Ukrainian troops reportedly conducted limited and localized counterattacks north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces continued to hold their defensive lines and fire at Ukrainian positions along the Southern Axis.
- Ukrainian forces likely killed Russian Major General Roman Kutuzov near Popasna.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 4, 6:00 pm ET
Ukrainian forces are successfully slowing down Russian operations to encircle Ukrainian positions in Luhansk Oblast as well as Russian frontal assaults in Severodonetsk through prudent and effective local counterattacks in Severodonetsk and their defense of the western Siverskyi Donets riverbank. Ukrainian officials reported on June 3 that Ukrainian defenders pushed back against Russian advances in Severodonetsk and are actively hindering Russian advances on Lysychansk from the southwest. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai disagreed with the UK Defense Ministry forecast on June 3 that Russian forces will seize the remaining 10% of the oblast in the next two weeks, claiming that Ukrainian forces have enough reinforcements and equipment to conduct further counterattacks and defend their positions. Haidai noted that Russian forces wrongfully believe in their own successes, enabling Ukrainian defenders to inflict high losses against unsuspecting Chechen units. Pro-Russian milblogger Voenkor Kotyenok Z claimed that Russian forces are unlikely to break through Ukrainian defenses in Lysychansk from Severodonetsk (through continued frontal assaults and an opposed crossing of the Siverskyi Donetsk River) and will likely need to complete the drive from Popasna if they hope to capture Lysychansk. Voenkor Kotyenok Z claimed that Ukrainian forces could prevent Russian river crossings from Severodonetsk and highlighted that Russian forces have not yet secured access to two key highways to Lysychansk.
The Ukrainian government and military are furthermore discussing the battle of Severodonetsk in increasingly confident terms and are likely successfully blunting the Russian military’s major commitment of reserves to the grinding battle for the city. While Russian forces may still be able to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk and Ukrainian forces are likely more degraded than Haidai’s statements imply, Ukrainian defenses remain strong in this pivotal theater. The Russian military has concentrated all of its available resources on this single battle to make only modest gains. The Ukrainian military contrarily retains the flexibility and confidence to not only conduct localized counterattacks elsewhere in Ukraine (such as north of Kherson) but conduct effective counterattacks into the teeth of Russian assaults in Severodonetsk that reportedly retook 20% of the city in the last 24 hours. The Ukrainian government’s confidence in directly stating its forces can hold Severodonetsk for more than two weeks and willingness to conduct local counterattacks, rather than strictly remaining on the defensive, is a marked shift from Ukrainian statements as recently as May 28 that Ukrainian forces might withdraw from Severodonetsk to avoid encirclement.
Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reiterated on June 3 that Russia will continue its “special military operation” in Ukraine until Russia achieves all of its objectives. Peskov noted that Russia has already “liberated” many settlements since the start of the operation. Kremlin officials have begun steadily returning to their original claims about the successes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in contrast to previous statements in late May explaining the slow pace of the war. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also claimed on June 3 that Russian forces are adopting new unspecified tasks to accelerate the progress of the war. The Kremlin is likely setting conditions to announce some sort of victory in eastern Ukraine while preparing for a protracted war. The Kremlin has not abandoned its maximalist political goals for Ukraine even though it has been forced to revise downward its immediate military objectives.
- Ukrainian forces conducted successful local counterattacks in Severodonetsk and Russian progress in direct assaults on the city and wider operations to encircle it remain slow. Ukrainian defenses in eastern Ukraine remain effective.
- Russian forces launched a series of unsuccessful offensive operations southwest of Izyum and in the Lyman area.
- Russian forces continued to defend previously occupied positions around Kharkiv City and launched missile and artillery strikes against Ukrainian defenders.
- Russian forces did not attempt to launch assaults on settlements in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblast but continued to fire at Ukrainian positions throughout southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin faces rising partisan activity in southern Ukraine despite Russian efforts to restrict movement and telecommunications access.
- Ukrainian officials are continuing negotiations for a prisoner exchange of the captured Mariupol defenders.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 3, 7:30 pm ET
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that Russian forces will “accelerate” the “special military operation” in Ukraine in a meeting with Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov on June 3, though Russian forces are unlikely to be able to do so. Kadyrov said that Shoigu has “identified new tasks” that will improve the effectiveness of Russian offensive maneuvers and improve Russian tactics. Kadyrov did not specify which tasks Russian forces will undertake to speed up their pace. Shoigu previously claimed on May 24 that Russian forces were making slow progress in eastern Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties. In a retrospective on the 100th day of the war, the UK Defense Ministry stated that Russian forces will likely establish control over Luhansk Oblast in the next two weeks, though only at significant further cost. The UK Defense Ministry further noted that Russian forces on all other axes have gone over to defensive operations to concentrate all available forces in Severodonetsk, and stated Russia will need to commit sizable investment of manpower and equipment—that it will be unable to generate quickly, if at all—to advance beyond Luhansk Oblast.
A Russian milblogger published a lengthy message on June 3 claiming that nearly the entire 35th Combined Arms Army has been destroyed in Izyum due to incompetent Russian commanders. A Russian milblogger under the pseudonym Boytsovyi Kot Murz said that Russian commanders did not account for combat challenges in the Izyum woods, leading to significant losses in the 64th and 38th Separate Guard Motor Rifle Brigades, which he reported now have less than 100 servicemen in total. Boytsovyi Kot Murz claimed that Russian commanders failed to provide necessary equipment to units fighting in wooded terrain and did not repair Russian heavy artillery in a timely manner. Russian forces also reportedly lacked effective communication with command centers and relied on messengers due to the shortage of encrypted phones. Boytsovyi Kot Murz noted that the lack of communications between Russian units and commanders allowed Ukrainian forces to strike Russian advanced positions with drones. Russian private military company servicemen from Wagner also refused to participate in combat, leading to a significant lack of advances on the Izyum axis. While ISW cannot independently confirm these reports, they are consistent with previous reports of Russian operations and high casualties on the Izyum axis.
Russian and proxy forces reportedly have not sufficiently prepared frontline units with medical supplies, leading to abysmal medical care. Boytsovyi Kot Murz criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for failing to prepare medical equipment and field hospitals for wounded servicemen. Russian commanders reportedly failed to learn lessons from the lack of medical equipment during the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015 and are repeating similar mistakes. Boytsovyi Kot Murz claimed that Russian forces do not provide frontline troops with high pressure bandages and other supplies necessary to address limb injuries in time. Boytsovyi Kot Murz compared expired and underprepared Russian first aid kits to higher quality Ukrainian supplies and claimed that Russian forces do not have volunteer support that could address the shortages in military equipment. Boytsovyi Kot Murz noted that only Russian infantry, that he claimed has been defeated, had necessary medical training—while newly recruited reservists are incapable of providing first aid. Boytsovyi Kot Murz said that Russian medics are conducting an unnecessary number of limb amputations due to the lack medical equipment provided by the Russian Defense Ministry. These claims are consistent with past reports of poor Russian medical care in frontline units, and these conditions are likely a major contributing factor to Russian demoralization and the growing refusal of servicemen to return to frontline units.
Ukrainian forces report that Russian electronic warfare (EW) units are increasingly threatening Ukrainian air reconnaissance in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces are increasingly jamming all possible signals and hindering Ukrainian drone operations. The Ukrainian General Staff has previously reported that Russian forces intensified EW operations in Donbas, likely in an effort to obstruct Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance and drone strikes on Russian units.
- Russian forces conducted unsuccessful assaults southeast and southwest of Izyum and west of Lyman but remain unlikely to secure major advances towards Slovyansk.
- Russian forces made minor gains in the eastern part of Severodonetsk, but Ukrainian forces continues to launch localized counterattacks in Severodonetsk and its outskirts.
- Russian forces did not attempt to launch assaults on Avdiivka.
- Russian forces failed to regain lost positions in northeastern Kherson Oblast and continued to defend previously occupied positions.
- Russian occupation authorities began issuing Russian passports in Kherson City and Melitopol, though they continue to face challenges establishing societal control over occupied territories and ending Ukrainian partisan actions.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Mason Clark, and George Barros
June 2, 6:15pm ET
Russian forces continued to make incremental, grinding, and costly progress in eastern Ukraine on June 2. Russian troops continued operations to capture Severodonetsk and further operations to capture Lysychansk. Russian military leadership will likely use the capture of these two cities to claim they have “liberated” all of Luhansk Oblast before turning to Donetsk Oblast but Russian forces are unlikely to have the forces necessary to take substantial territory in Donetsk Oblast after suffering further losses around Severodonetsk. Russian forces are evidently limited by terrain in the Donbas and will continue to face challenges crossing the Siverskyi Donets River to complete the encirclement of Severodonetsk-Lysychansk and make further advances westward of Lyman towards Slovyansk via Raihorodok.
Russian military leadership continues to experience complications with sufficient force generation and maintaining the morale of mobilized personnel. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) 1st Army Corps, under Russia’s 8th Combined Arms Army, is conducting forced mobilization in occupied areas of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forced mobilization is highly unlikely to generate meaningful combat power and will exacerbate low morale and poor discipline in Russian and proxy units. The 113th Regiment of the DNR posted a video appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 2 wherein forcibly-mobilized soldiers complain they have spent the entire war on the frontline in Kherson without food or medicine, and that mobilization committees did not conduct requisite medical screenings and admitted individuals whose medical conditions should have disqualified them from service. Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate additionally released an intercepted phone conversation wherein DNR soldiers similarly complained that physically unfit individuals were forced into service and that mobilized units are experiencing mass drunkenness and general disorder. Russian forces are additionally struggling to successfully rotate servicemen in and out of combat. Spokesperson for the Odesa Military Administration Maksym Marchenko stated that 30 to 40% of Russian personnel that rotated out of Ukraine refused to return, forcing Russian commanders to send unprepared and unmotivated units back into combat. This is consistent with complaints made by DNR servicemen that rotation practices are contributing to poor morale and dissatisfaction within units that have been forcibly mobilized.
Russian occupation authorities continue to face challenges establishing permanent societal control in newly occupied Ukrainian territories. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Russian occupational administrations “are [only] created on paper” and are incapable of controlling local populations, enforcing the use of the Russian ruble, or conducting bureaucratic processes. The Ukrainian Resistance Center noted that Ukrainian civilians welcome partisan activity that systematically sabotages Russian occupation rule.
- Russian operations to advance on Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman continue to make little progress and are unlikely to do so in the coming days, as Russian forces continue to prioritize Severodonetsk at the expense of other axes of advance.
- Russian forces continued assaults against Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in order to claim full control of Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces made incremental advances around Avdiivka.
- Ukrainian counteroffensives in northwestern Kherson Oblast pushed Russian forces to the eastern bank of the Inhulets River and will likely continue to disrupt Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) along the T2207 highway.
- The Kremlin continued to pursue inconsistent occupational measures in southern Ukraine, indicating both widespread Ukrainian resistance and likely Kremlin indecision on how to integrate occupied territory.
Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan
June 1, 5:30pm ET
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast has gotten the attention of Russian forces in the area, and the Russians are scrambling to secure the vital ground line of communication (GLOC) the Ukrainians have threatened. Ukrainian forces carried out a series of organized counterattacks targeting settlements on the eastern bank of the Ihulets River that are very close to a key highway supporting Russian forces further north. The Russians have responded by destroying the bridges the Ukrainians used in one of those counterattacks and other bridges across the river in an effort to hold their line against anticipated continued Ukrainian counter-offensive operations. Ukrainian forces are likely still close enough to the highway to disrupt its use as a main supply route, potentially undermining the Russians’ ability to hold against Ukrainian counter-offensives from the north.
Russian milbloggers are expressing growing alarm about the threat of Ukrainian counteroffensives in the areas Russian forces have deprioritized while concentrating on Severodonetsk. Russian milbloggers have increasingly focused on tracking the rate of Ukrainian counterattacks in late May. Pro-Russian Telegram channel “Dmitriyev” (over 100,000 followers) reported that Ukrainian forces are fully capable of inflicting ”painful and cutting blows” on Russian GLOCs in Kherson, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhia Oblasts by July-August due to lack of adequate Russian defensive forces in the areas. Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and milblogger Igor Girkin claimed that Ukrainian forces “will grope for weakness” in Russian defenses in Kherson Oblast. Russian milbloggers are effectively criticizing the Russian military command for endangering Russian territorial gains across other axes by prioritizing the Donbas offensive operation so heavily.
Russian authorities are likely anticipating Ukrainian partisan pressure in Luhansk Oblast. The Main Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate (GUR) announced on June 1 the launch of the “Luhansk partisan” project to galvanize resistance to Russian attempts to consolidate control of Luhansk Oblast. A Russian Telegram channel reported that the Russian Internal Ministry is sending a special detachment of its employees on “leave” to the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), which is a likely attempt to reinforce Russian administrative presence in the LNR in the face of growing internal and partisan discontent. The Ukrainian General Staff additionally stated that Russian forces moved a battalion tactical group (BTG) to Kupyansk, a Russian-controlled city in eastern Kharkiv Oblast along the P07 highway within 30 kilometers of the Luhansk Oblast administrative border. Kupyansk is far from the front lines and in no apparent danger of imminent Ukrainian conventional attack. Taken together, the reported deployment of Internal Ministry employees and a BTG suggest that Russian forces are anticipating partisan resistance against their attempts to gain control of Luhansk Oblast.
Russian forces continue to undermine the economic viability of areas they are attempting to capture. Russian forces reportedly hit the “Azot” fertilizer production plant in Severodonetsk on May 31 and caused the dissemination of toxic nitric acid smoke. The production plant was an economically-significant resource for Severodonetsk and the Luhansk region and it would have been prudent for Russian forces to maintain and take control of the plant’s production capabilities. Russian forces similarly destroyed the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, which had considerable industrial significance for Ukraine and could have been economically exploited by Russian occupiers if they had not destroyed it. While the Azot plant in Severodonetsk was less productive on whole than Azovstal, its destruction is part of the systemic failure of Russian forces to take effective control of the economic and industrial capabilities of occupied territory. Russian forces will likely continue to destroy productive infrastructure and continually undermine the economic benefits they could have hoped to gain from occupied territories.
- Russian forces reportedly made incremental advances north of Slovyansk but likely have not yet been able to take control of the road into Slovyansk.
- Russian forces are attempting to advance towards Lysychansk from the south and west in order to avoid having to fight across the Siverskyi Donets River from Severodonetsk but are having limited successes so far.
- Russian troops made incremental gains north of Avdiivka.
- Russian troops reportedly destroyed Ukrainian-built bridges over the Inhulets River near Davydiv Brid in response to Ukrainian counteroffensive pressure.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
May 31, 5:45pm ET
Moscow’s concentration on seizing Severodonetsk and Donbas generally continues to create vulnerabilities for Russia in Ukraine’s vital Kherson Oblast, where Ukrainian counter-offensives continue. Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River. If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgment in Kherson when fighting stops it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend itself against future Russian attack. This strategic calculus should in principle lead Russia to allocate sufficient combat power to hold Kherson. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen instead to concentrate all the forces and resources that can be scraped together in a desperate and bloody push to seize areas of eastern Ukraine that will give him largely symbolic gains. Continuing successful Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson indicate that Ukraine’s commanders recognize these realities and are taking advantage of the vulnerabilities that Putin’s decisions have created.
The Ukrainian leadership has apparently wisely avoided matching Putin’s mistaken prioritization. Kyiv could have committed more reserves and resources to the defense of Severodonetsk, and its failure to do so has drawn criticism. Ukrainian forces are now apparently withdrawing from Severodonetsk rather than fighting to the end—a factor that has allowed the Russians to move into the city relatively rapidly after beginning their full-scale assault. Both the decision to avoid committing more resources to saving Severodonetsk and the decision to withdraw from it were strategically sound, however painful. Ukraine must husband its more limited resources and focus on regaining critical terrain rather than on defending ground whose control will not determine the outcome of the war or the conditions for the renewal of war.
Sound Ukrainian prioritization of counter-offensive and defensive operations pushed the Russians almost out of artillery range of Kharkiv City and have stopped the Russian advances from Izyum—both of which are more important accomplishments than the defense of Severodonetsk. Ukraine’s leadership has had to make incredibly difficult choices in this war and has generally made the right ones, at least at the level of strategic prioritization and in the pace, scale, and ambitiousness of its counter-offensives. That is why Ukraine still has a good chance to stop and then reverse the gains Russia is currently making.
Russian forces are likely attempting to exploit Belarusian equipment reserves to compensate for heavy material losses in Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 31 that Belarusian forces are moving tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from storage facilities in Belarus to Russia to replenish combat losses. This report corroborates previous reporting that Russian forces have largely exhausted their own reserves and indicates that the Kremlin is still leveraging its influence over Belarus in order to use Belarusian equipment.
Some pro-Russian milbloggers began to capture the frustrating realities of limited warfare, which may further intensify societal tensions in Russia. Pro-Russian political figure and self-proclaimed “People’s Governor of Donetsk Oblast” Pavel Gubarev said that the limited mobilization of Russians for war has divided Russian society into two groups: a small proportion that is involved in the war and the “peacetime Russians” who distance themselves from the war effort and are inconvenienced by foreign sanctions. Gubarev blamed the “peacetime Russians” for failing to start collecting donations for Russian equipment, while criticizing the Kremlin for increasing propaganda about Russian successes during the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Gubarev also blamed the “peacetime Russians” for slowing down rotation rates due to fear of conscription. Guberev noted that mass mobilization could resolve the divide in society but opined that Russian commanders will not order such a mobilization to avoid mass casualties of unprepared conscripts as occurred, he notes, in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).
Gubarev is accurately capturing a phenomenon that is normal in a limited war that nevertheless generates high casualties. Resentment by those fighting such a war and their families against those who are untouched by the horrors of combat can grow even in an all-volunteer professional military, as Western countries experienced during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is likely to be even more pronounced in Russia, whose military relies so heavily on conscripts and involuntarily-recalled reservists. This resentment can erode morale and will to fight as well as the propensity to volunteer for military service.
Russian citizens continued to conduct a series of attacks on Russian military recruitment centers in late May, likely in protest of covert mobilization. Russian Telegram channel Baza reported that the Russian Federal Security Service arrested a former Moscow artist and opposition figure, Ilya Farber, for Molotov Cocktail attacks on military recruitment centers in Udmurtia in the Urals on May 21. A Russian court had previously sentenced Farber to an eight-year prison sentence for a bribery case. The case gained Farber significant support from Russian opposition leaders. Farber admitted to committing arson in court on May 30. Baza also reported two more attacks on recruitment centers in Simferopol and Tula Oblast on May 28 and May 31, respectively.
- Russian forces are increasingly focused on advancing on Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman.
- Russian forces are making gains within and around Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces are likely hoping to advance on Lysychansk from Toshkivka in order to avoid having to fight across the Severskyi Donets River from Severodonetsk.
- The Russian grouping in Kherson Oblast is likely feeling the pressure of the limited Ukrainian counteroffensive in northwestern Kherson Oblast, especially as much of the Russian operational focus is currently on the capture of Severodonetsk.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
May 30, 3:30pm ET
Mounting casualties among Russian junior officers will likely further degrade Russian capabilities and lead to further morale breakdowns. The UK Ministry of Defense stated on May 30 that Russian forces have suffered devastating losses amongst mid and junior ranking officers. The UK MoD reported that battalion and brigade level officers continue to deploy forwards and into harm's way—rather than commanding from rear areas and delegating to lower-ranking officers—due to senior Russian officers holding them to an “uncompromising level of responsibility” for their units. The British Defense Ministry further reported that junior officers are in charge of low-level tactical operations due to a lack of professionalism and modernization within the Russian Armed Forces and that the continued losses of these junior officers will complicate command and control efforts, particularly in Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) cobbled together from the survivors of multiple other units. ISW previously assessed that continued demoralization and poor command and control among Russian forces could present Ukrainian forces opportunities to conduct prudent counteroffensives, particularly as the Russian military continues to pour resources into the battle of Severodonetsk at the cost of other lines of effort.
Domestic dissent within Russian military circles, claiming that the Kremlin is not doing enough to win the war, continues to grow. Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin (also known as Strelkov) condemned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements about the priority of the “special operation” in Ukraine being the liberation of the Donbas. Girkin claimed that the Kremlin has forgone the ideological underpinnings of the conflict by focusing the conflict on the Donbas, rather than the entirety of Ukraine. Girkin complained that Kremlin officials are no longer questioning the legitimacy of the existence of Ukraine and that the concepts of “denazification” and “demilitarization” have been forgotten. Girkin accused the Kremlin of appeasement policies and stated that the threat of defeat continues to grow.
Girkin’s dissent is emblematic of continued shifts within circles of Russian military enthusiasts and ex-servicemen. As ISW has previously reported, the Kremlin has repeatedly revised its objectives for the war in Ukraine downwards due to battlefield failures. The Kremlin is increasingly facing discontent not from Russians opposed to the war as a whole, but military and nationalist figures angry at Russian losses and frustrated with shifting Kremlin framing of the war. Russian officials are increasingly unable to employ the same ideological justifications for the invasion in the face of clear setbacks, and a lack of concrete military gains within Ukraine will continue to foment domestic dissatisfaction with the war.
- Russian forces continued to incrementally capture areas of Severodonetsk but have not yet fully encircled the city.
- Russian forces focused on regrouping near Izyum to renew offensives towards Slovyansk and Barvinkove and conducted only minor, unsuccessful, attacks. Russian forces are making incremental advances towards Slovyansk and seek to assault the city itself in the coming weeks, but are unlikely to achieve decisive gains.
- Russian forces in Kharkiv continue to focus efforts on preventing a Ukrainian counteroffensive from reaching the international border between Kharkiv and Belgorod, and Ukrainian forces have not conducted any significant operations in the area in recent days.
- The limited Ukrainian counterattack in northern Kherson Oblast did not take any further ground in the last 48 hours but has disrupted Russian operations. Russian forces launched several unsuccessful attacks against the Ukrainian bridgehead on the east bank of the Inhulets River.
- Mounting casualties among Russian junior officers will further degrade Russian morale and command and control capabilities.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
May 29, 5:30 pm ET
New reports confirmed that Ukrainian forces conducted a successful limited counterattack near the Kherson-Mykolaiv oblast border on May 28, forcing Russian forces onto the defensive. This Ukrainian counterattack is likely intended to disrupt Russian efforts to establish strong defensive positions along the Southern Axis. While the Ukrainian counterattack does not appear likely to retake substantial territory in the near term, it will likely disrupt Russian operations and potentially force Russia to deploy reinforcements to the Kherson region, which is predominantly held by sub-standard units. Ukrainian counterattacks may additionally slow Russian efforts to consolidate administrative control of occupied southern Ukraine.
Russian forces continued to assault Severodonetsk on May 29 but did not make any confirmed advances; Russian progress in intense urban combat will likely be slow. The Russian campaign in eastern Ukraine—which previously aimed to capture the entirety of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts—is now focused almost entirely on Severodonetsk. Russian troops are unlikely to be able to conduct multiple simultaneous operations and will likely further deprioritize advances southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman in favor of concentrating available forces on Severodonetsk in the coming days.
- Russian forces continued attempts to take full control of Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces continued offensives southeast of Izyum but did not make any confirmed advances toward Slovyansk.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations to cut Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) northeast of Bakhmut and appear unlikely to attempt to directly assault the city.
- The Ukrainian counteroffensive in northwestern Kherson Oblast has forced Russian troops to take up defensive positions and will likely disrupt Russian efforts to effectively dig in and consolidate control of occupied areas along the Southern Axis.
Frederick W. Kagan, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros
May 28, 7:30pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting unspeakable suffering on Ukrainians and demanding horrible sacrifices of his own people in an effort to seize a city that does not merit the cost, even for him.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that aimed to seize and occupy the entire country has become a desperate and bloody offensive to capture a single city in the east while defending important but limited gains in the south and east. Ukraine has twice forced Putin to define down his military objectives. Ukraine defeated Russia in the Battle of Kyiv, forcing Putin to reduce his subsequent military objectives to seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine stopped him from achieving that aim as well, forcing him to focus on completing the seizure of Luhansk Oblast alone. Putin is now hurling men and munitions at the last remaining major population center in that oblast, Severodonetsk, as if taking it would win the war for the Kremlin. He is wrong. When the Battle of Severodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counteroffensives to push Russian forces back.
Russian forces are assaulting Severdonetsk even though they have not yet encircled it. They are making territorial gains and may succeed in taking the city and areas further west. The Ukrainian military is facing the most serious challenge it has encountered since the isolation of the Azovstal Plant in Mariupol and may well suffer a significant tactical defeat in the coming days if Severodonetsk falls, although such an outcome is by no means certain, and the Russian attacks may well stall again.
The Russians are paying a price for their current tactical success that is out of proportion to any real operational or strategic benefit they can hope to receive. Severodonetsk itself is important at this stage in the war primarily because it is the last significant population center in Luhansk Oblast that the Russians do not control. Seizing it will let Moscow declare that it has secured Luhansk Oblast fully but will give Russia no other significant military or economic benefit. This is especially true because Russian forces are destroying the city as they assault it and will control its rubble if they capture it. Taking Severodonetsk can open a Russian ground line of communication (GLOC) to support operations to the west, but the Russians have failed to secure much more advantageous GLOCs from Izyum partly because they have concentrated so much on Severodonetsk.
The Russians continue to make extremely limited progress in their efforts to gain control of the unoccupied areas of Donetsk Oblast, meanwhile. Russian troops have struggled to penetrate the pre-February 24 line of contact for weeks, while Russian offensive operations from Izyum to the south remain largely stalled. The seizure of Severodonetsk could only assist in the conquest of the rest of Donetsk Oblast if it gave the Russians momentum on which to build successive operations, but the Battle of Severdonetsk will most likely preclude continued large-scale Russian offensive operations.
Russian progress around Severdonetsk results largely from the fact that Moscow has concentrated forces, equipment, and materiel drawn from all other axes on this one objective. Russian troops have been unable to make progress on any other axes for weeks and have largely not even tried to do so. Ukrainian defenders have inflicted fearful casualties on the Russian attackers around Severodonetsk even so. Moscow will not be able to recoup large amounts of effective combat power even if it seizes Severdonetsk, because it is expending that combat power frivolously on taking the city.
Ukrainian forces are also suffering serious losses in the Battle of Severodonetsk, as are Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. The Russians have concentrated a much higher proportion of their available offensive combat power to take Severodonetsk than the Ukrainians, however, shaping the attrition gradient generally in Kyiv’s favor. The Ukrainians continue to receive supplies and materiel from their allies as well, however slow and limited that flow may be. The Russians, in contrast, continue to manifest clear signs that they are burning through their available reserves of manpower and materiel with no reason to expect relief in the coming months.
Evidence of eroding military professionalism in the Russian officer corps is mounting. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Russian commanders are attempting to preserve military equipment by forbidding drivers from evacuating wounded servicemen or providing supplies to units that have advanced too far. Refusing to risk equipment to evacuate wounded personnel on the battlefield—other than in extraordinary circumstances—is a remarkable violation of core principles of military professionalism. Such behavior can have serious impacts on morale and the willingness of soldiers to fight and risk getting injured beyond their own defensive lines. ISW cannot independently confirm the GUR’s report, but commentary by Russian milbloggers offers some circumstantial support for it. Russian milblogger Alexander Zhychkovskiy criticized the Russian military command’s disregard for reservists on the deprioritized Zaporizhia Oblast front. Zhychkovskiy reported that Russian commanders trapped lightly-equipped infantry units in areas of intense Ukrainian artillery fire without significant artillery support and did not rotate other units through those areas to relieve them. Zhychkovskiy noted that Russian commanders are responsible for high losses and cases of insanity among servicemen. Another milblogger, Alexander Khodarkovsky, said that Russian commanders are not sending reinforcements in a timely matter, preventing Russian forces from resting between ground assaults.
Waning professionalism among Russia’s officers could present Ukrainian forces with opportunities. Russian morale, already low, may drop further if such behavior is widespread and continues. If Russian troops stuck on secondary axes lose their will to fight as the Battle for Severdonetsk consumes much of the available Russian offensive combat power, Ukraine may have a chance to launch significant counteroffensives with good prospects for success. That prospect is uncertain, and Ukraine may not have the ability to take advantage of an opportunity even if it presents itself, but the current pattern of Russian operations is generating serious vulnerabilities that Kyiv will likely attempt to exploit.
- Russian forces pressed the ground assault on Severodonetsk and its environs, making limited gains.
- Russian forces in Kharkiv continue to focus efforts on preventing a Ukrainian counteroffensive from reaching the international border between Kharkiv and Belgorod.
- Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive near the Kherson-Mykolaiv oblast border approximately 70 km to the northeast of Kherson City that may have crossed the Inhulets River.
- Russia’s use of stored T-62 tanks in the southern axis indicates Russia’s continued materiel and force generation problems.
- Ukrainian partisan activity continues to impose costs on Russian occupation forces in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
Kateryna Stepanenko and Mason Clark
May 27, 7:30pm ET
Russian forces began direct assaults on Severodonetsk on May 27 despite not yet having fully encircled the town. Russian forces have performed poorly in operations in built-up urban terrain throughout the war to date and are unlikely to be able to advance rapidly in Severodonetsk itself. Russian forces continue to make steady and incremental gains around the city but have not yet encircled the Ukrainian defenders. Ukrainian forces continue to maintain defenses across eastern Ukraine and have slowed most Russian lines of advance. Russian forces will likely continue to make incremental advances and may succeed in encircling Severodonetsk in the coming days, but Russian operations around Izyum remain stalled and Russian forces will likely be unable to increase the pace of their advances.
- Russian forces began direct assaults on built-up areas of Severodonetsk without having fully encircled the city and will likely struggle to take ground in the city itself.
- Russian forces in Lyman appear to be dividing their efforts—attacking both southwest to support stalled forces in Izyum and southeast to advance on Siversk; they will likely struggle to accomplish either objective in the coming days.
- Russian forces in Popasna seek to advance north to support the encirclement of Severodonestk rather than advancing west toward Bakhmut.
- Positions northeast of Kharkiv City remain largely static, with no major attacks by either Russian or Ukrainian forces.
- Russian forces continue to fortify their defensive positions along the southern axis and advance efforts to integrate the Kherson region into Russian economic and political structures.
Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
May 26, 6:30pm ET
Russian forces have made steady, incremental gains in heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine in the past several days, though Ukrainian defenses remain effective overall. Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that the fighting is currently at its "maximum intensity” compared to previous Russian assaults and will likely continue to escalate. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry Oleksandr Motuzyanyk characterized Russian gains as “temporary success” and stated that Ukrainian forces are using a maneuver defense to put pressure on Russian advances in key areas. Russian forces have now taken control of over 95% of Luhansk Oblast and will likely continue efforts to complete the capture of Severodonetsk in the coming days. Russian forces have made several gains in the past week, but their offensive operations remain slow. Russian forces are heavily degraded and will struggle to replace further losses.
- Russian forces unsuccessfully attempted to advance southeast of Izyum near the Kharkiv-Donetsk Oblast border.
- Russian forces continued steady advances around Severodonetsk and likely seek to completely encircle the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area in the coming days.
- Russian forces continued to make persistent advances south and west of Popasna toward Bakhmut, but the Russian pace of advance will likely slow as they approach the town itself.
- Russian forces in occupied areas of the Southern Axis are reportedly preparing a “third line of defense” to consolidate long-term control over the region and in preparation to repel likely future Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
May 25, 7:15 pm ET
Some pro-Russian milbloggers on Telegram continued to criticize the Kremlin for appalling treatment of forcefully mobilized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) servicemen–contradicting Russian information campaigns about progress of the Russian special military operation. Former Russian Federal Security Service officer Igor Girkin (also known by the alias Igor Strelkov) amplified a critique to his 360,000 followers from a smaller milblogger discussing a video wherein a DNR battalion appealed to DNR Head Denis Pushilin about maltreatment of forcefully mobilized forces. The milblogger blamed Russian leadership, not Pushilin, for beginning the invasion with insufficient reserves and unprepared, forcefully mobilized forces. The milblogger added that Russia did not provide the soldiers of its proxy republics with new weapons, despite claiming that Ukrainian forces prepared to attack occupied Donbas areas for a year prior to Russian invasion. The milblogger also claimed that the Kremlin failed to mobilize and adequately prepare the next batch of reserves, while Ukrainian forces are successfully preparing their troops for counteroffensives. Girkin also criticized the Kremlin for failing to pay the DNR battalion for three months. Some milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces staged the video, but the video still gathered attention of pro-Russian Telegram users.
The incident highlights a continuing shift in the Russian-language milblogger information space regardless of the video’s authenticity. Milbloggers would likely have either attacked or dismissed such a video loudly and in near-unison earlier in the war, when they all generally focused on presenting optimistic pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives. The response to this video in the Russian-language milblogger space demonstrates the strong resonance anti-Kremlin narratives can now have. It is impossible to know what effect this change in this information space might have on general perceptions of the war in Russia, but it is one of the most visible and noteworthy inflections in the attitudes of previously strongly pro-Kremlin ostensibly independent Russian voices speaking to Russians that we have yet seen.
Today’s statement by DNR Militia Head Eduard Basurin explaining that Russian forces would focus on creating “smaller cauldrons” rather than on a single large encirclement is likely in part a response to a critique that surfaced both in the milblogger space and in the Russian Duma that Russian forces had failed to form and reduce “cauldrons” of the sort they used in 2014. Basurin’s statement, along with other changes in the ways in which Russian officials have spoken about cauldrons and Russian operations in the east following those critiques suggest that the Russian and proxy leadership is sensitive to shifts in this information space.
Russian forces are increasingly facing a deficiency in high-precision weaponry. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that due to an increasing lack of high-precision weapons Russian forces are seeking other methods of striking critical infrastructure and have intensified the use of aircraft to support offensives. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) noted that up to 60% of Russia’s high-precision stockpile has already been exhausted, which is consistent with previous reports by Western defense officials that Russian forces have been increasingly relying on “dumb bombs” because they are facing challenges replenishing their supplies of precision munitions in part due to sanctions targeting Russia’s defense-industrial production. A lack of high-precision weapons will likely result in an increase in indiscriminate attacks on critical and civilian infrastructure.
The Kremlin is attempting to expand the pool of Russian passport-holders in occupied areas. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 25 that will simplify the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport within Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts. This renewed campaign of so-called ”mass passportization” is occurring in occupied territories and likely represents an effort to set conditions for some sort of post-conflict political arrangement (the precise form of which Putin prefers remains unclear) through manipulating access to Russian citizenship. Occupation authorities may additionally attempt to exploit this new decree to carry out covert mobilization in occupied areas, as having a Russian passport would make conscription-eligible residents of occupied territories subject to forced military service.
The Kremlin and Russian military commanders are introducing new regulations aimed at addressing the diminishing level of combat-ready reserves. The Russian State Duma and the Russian Federation Council passed a bill raising the maximum age for voluntary enlistment into the Russian military from 40 to 50. Russian Telegram channels also reported that Russian leadership forced operational officers and commanders of the Russian Border Guards of southern Russian regions including Rostov Oblast and occupied Crimea to indefinitely cancel all summer vacations--a rather unsurprising step in light of the military situation in principle, but an indication of the next source of manpower to which Putin will apparently turn. Russian Border Guards will reportedly deploy to training grounds for unspecified exercises in late May. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces are forming new reserve units within the Southern Military District.
- Russian forces prioritized advances east and west of Popasna in order to cut Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) southwest of Severodonetsk and complete encirclement efforts in Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces have likely entered Lyman and may use this foothold to coordinate with advances southeast of Izyum to launch an offensive on Siversk.
- Russian forces may start the Battle of Severodonetsk prior to completely cutting off Ukrainian GLOCs southwest and northwest of Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces struck Zaporizhzhia City in an attempt to disrupt a key logistics hub for Ukrainian forces operating in the east.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Mason Clark
May 24, 7:00 pm ET
Russian forces have likely abandoned efforts to complete a single large encirclement of Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine and are instead attempting to secure smaller encirclements—enabling them to make incremental measured gains. Russian forces are likely attempting to achieve several simultaneous encirclements of small pockets of Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts: the broader Severodonetsk area (including Rubizhne and Lysychansk), Bakhmut-Lysychansk, around Zolote (just northeast of Popasna), and around Ukrainian fortifications in Avdiivka. Russian forces have begun steadily advancing efforts in these different encirclements daily but have not achieved any major “breakthroughs” or made major progress towards their stated objectives of securing the Donetsk Oblast borders or seizing all of Donbas. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai reported that Ukrainian forces only controlled approximately 10 percent of Luhansk Oblast as of May 15 (compared to 30 percent prior to the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022). Russian forces have secured more terrain in the past week than efforts earlier in May. However, they have done so by reducing the scope of their objectives—largely abandoning operations around Izyum and concentrating on key frontline towns: Russian performance remains poor.
Russian forces will additionally likely face protracted urban combat if they successfully encircle Severodonetsk (as well as in other large towns like Bakhmut), which Russian forces have struggled with throughout the war. Russian forces are committing a significant number of their troops, artillery, and aircraft to defeat Ukrainian defenders in Luhansk Oblast and are likely pulling necessary resources from the Izyum axis, defensive positions around Kharkiv City, Donetsk City, and the Zaporizhia area. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai has previously compared Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast to the previous defenders of Mariupol, which aimed to wear out Russian forces and prevent further offensive operations. The UK Defense Ministry also noted that a Russian victory over Severodonetsk will only worsen Russian logistical issues and extend Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs). Russian forces are making greater advances in the past week than throughout the rest of May—but these advances remain slow, confined to smaller objectives than the Kremlin intended, and face continued Ukrainian defenses; they do not constitute a major breakthrough.
Senior Kremlin officials are increasingly openly admitting that the Russian offensive in Ukraine is moving slower than anticipated and are grasping for explanations to justify the slow pace. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that Russian operations in Ukraine are progressing slowly because Russian forces want to afford civilians the opportunity to evacuate, though Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian civilians throughout the war and repeatedly denied Ukrainian attempts to negotiate humanitarian evacuation corridors. Shoigu’s statement is notably his first admission that Russian forces are behind schedule and is the first official statement on the pace of the war since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated that the operation was “dragging” on May 4. Russian milbloggers are criticizing Shoigu’s claimed consideration for civilians and claimed that Soviet troops would not have cared if “Nazi” civilians evacuated, part of the growing Russian nationalist reaction that the Kremlin is not doing enough to win the war in Ukraine. Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergey Naryshkin stated that the ultimate goal of the Russian offensive is to ensure “Nazism” is “100% eradicated, or it will rear its head in a few years, and in an even uglier form.” Naryshkin and Shoigu’s statements indicate that Russian officials are likely setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine in order to justify slower and more measured advances than initially anticipated.
Forcefully mobilized servicemen from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics continued to protest the Russian and proxy military command. Servicemen of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 105th Infantry Regiment from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) recorded a video appeal to DNR Head Denis Pushilin wherein they claimed they were mobilized on February 23 and that they have been forced to actively participate in hostilities despite their lack of military experience. The battalion stated that they served on the frontlines in Mariupol and have been redeployed to the territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) with only 60% of their original personnel and are now dealing with severe morale issues and physical exhaustion. The battalion notably claimed that the servicemen did not go through routine medical inspection prior to service and that many are suffering from chronic illnesses that should have rendered them ineligible for service. The video appeal is consistent with numerous reports from Ukrainian and Western sources that proxy forces are largely forcibly mobilized, poorly trained, and suffering from declining morale, but is notable due to the willingness of the DNR servicemen to publicly express their discontent.
- Russian forces have likely abandoned efforts to encircle large Ukrainian formations in eastern Ukraine and are instead attempting to secure smaller encirclements and focus on Severodonetsk.
- This change in the Russian approach is enabling gradual advances—but at the cost of abandoning several intended lines of advance and abandoning the Kremlin’s intended deep encirclement of Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
- Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a controlled withdrawal southwest of Popasna near Bakhmut to protect Ukrainian supply lines against Russian offensives in the southeast of Bakhmut.
- Russian occupation authorities in Mariupol announced that they will hold war crimes trials against Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol in a likely effort to strengthen judicial control of the city and support false Kremlin narratives of Ukrainian crimes.
- Russian forces are attempting to retake Ternova in northern Kharkiv Oblast and seek to stabilize defensive positions near the Russian border against the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian forces are forming reserves and deploying S-400 missile systems in northwest Crimea to reinforce the southern axis.
- Several DNR servicemen openly released a video appeal to DNR leader Denis Pushilin stating they have been forced into combat operations without proper support, indicating increasing demoralization among Russian and proxy forces.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Mason Clark, and George Barros
May 23, 6:00 pm ET
Russian nationalist figures are increasingly criticizing the failures of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and are calling for further mobilization that the Kremlin likely remains unwilling and unable to pursue in the short term. The All-Russian Officers Assembly, an independent pro-Russian veterans’ association that seeks to reform Russian military strategy, called for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin to declare war on Ukraine and introduce partial mobilization in Russia on May 19. The Assembly said that Russia’s “special military operation” failed to achieve its goals in three months, especially after the failed Siverskyi Donets River crossings. ISW previously assessed that the destruction of nearly an entire Russian battalion tactical group (BTG) during a failed river crossing on May 11 shocked Russian military observers and prompted them to question Russian competence. The Assembly’s appeal called on Putin to recognize that Russian forces are no longer only “denazifying” Ukraine but are fighting a war for Russia’s historic territories and existence in the world order. The officers demanded that the Kremlin mobilize all regions bordering NATO countries (including Ukraine), form territorial defense squads, extend standard military service terms from one year to two, and form new supreme wartime administrations over Russia, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), and newly occupied Ukrainian settlements. The officers also demanded the death penalty for deserters.
The Assembly’s letter may be a leading indicator of elements of the Russian government and society setting informational conditions to declare partial mobilization. However, the Kremlin has so far declined to take this step likely due to concerns over domestic backlash and flaws in Russia’s mobilization systems. The All-Russian Officers Assembly called on Putin to recognize the independence of the DNR and LNR three weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, setting conditions for the Russian “special military operation.” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced on May 20 that Russia will form 12 new Western Military District units (of unspecified echelon) before the end of the year in response to NATO expansion. Russian forces may intend to man these units with newly mobilized personnel, as it is unclear how else the Kremlin could generate the manpower for new units. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces are withdrawing old T-62 tanks from storage to form new BTGs. Russia is likely continuing to exhaust its remaining combat-ready reserves to maintain the momentum of the Battle of Severodonetsk, rather than prioritizing preparations for new reinforcements. ISW previously assessed that Russian mobilization is unlikely to generate combat-ready force due to hasty training.
More Russians supportive of the Kremlin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are beginning to criticize the Kremlin openly. Russian milbloggers claimed that the Kremlin will not honor the Officers Assembly appeal, indicating an intensifying negative perception of the Russian leadership among Russians supportive of the war in Ukraine. Kaliningrad Oblast Governor Anton Alikhanov publicly stated that the Russian war in Ukraine has disrupted transport routes and construction schedules in the region, a rare admission of the economic cost of the war from a Russian government official. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian military personnel are increasingly complaining about the ineffectiveness of offensive operations against Ukrainian troops.
Unidentified assailants continued attacks against military recruitment offices in Russia on May 23, indicating growing discontent with conscription. A Russian Telegram channel reported that an unknown attacker threw a Molotov cocktail at the military recruitment office in the Udmurtia region, which follows a May 19 incident wherein a Russian conscript shot at a recruitment office in Zheleznogorsk-Ilimsky (Irkutsk Oblast) with a pneumatic device. The Ukrainian General Staff previously reported that 12 total attacks on recruitment offices have happened since the beginning of the war, with five happening in the past few weeks alone. These attacks may represent growing domestic discontent with conscription and recruitment practices.
The UK Ministry of Defense reported that Russia has suffered a similar death toll within the first three months of the invasion of Ukraine as was experienced by the Soviet Union over the course of nine years in Afghanistan. The British Ministry of Defense stated that a combination of poor low-level tactics, poor air defense, lack of operational flexibility, and poor command methods have resulted in repeated mistakes and failures, which are continuing to be evident in Donbas. The report noted that the Russian public is sensitive to high casualty numbers, and assessed that as casualties suffered in Ukraine grow and become harder to conceal, public dissatisfaction will increase.
- Russian nationalist figures (including veterans and military commentators) are increasingly criticizing the failures of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and are calling for further mobilization that the Kremlin likely remains unwilling and unable to pursue in the short term.
- Russian forces around Izyum increased their tempo of air and artillery strikes and likely intend to attempt to resume stalled offensive operations in the coming days.
- Russian operations to encircle Severodonetsk made minor gains in the past 24 hours, driving north through Zolote. Fighting is ongoing in Lyman (north of Severodonetsk) as Russian forces attempt to cut off Ukrainian supply lines
- Russian forces will likely make further minor gains west of Popasna in the near future but are unlikely to be able to quickly seize Bakhmut.
- The Ukrainian counteroffensive northeast of Kharkiv continues to threaten Russian positions and is forcing Russia to pull units from ongoing offensive operations in eastern Ukraine to shore up their defensive positions near Vovchansk.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Mason Clark
May 22, 4:00 pm ET
Russian forces made only minimal gains in eastern Ukraine on May 22. New reporting confirmed that Russian troops previously recaptured Rubizhne in northern Kharkiv Oblast, on May 19. Russian forces are likely committing additional reinforcements to hold their positions on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in northern Kharkiv—rather than withdrawing across the river to use it as a defensive position—to prevent any further Ukrainian advances to the north or the east that could threaten Russian lines of communication to the Izyum axis. Ukrainian sources additionally confirmed previous Russian-claimed advances around Popasna, and Russian forces likely seek to open a new line of advance north from Popasna to complete the encirclement of Severodonetsk while simultaneously driving west toward Bakhmut, though Russian forces are unlikely to be able to fully resource both lines of advance simultaneously.
- Ukrainian sources confirmed that Russian forces have secured local advances to the north and west of Popasna since at least May 20. Russian forces likely seek to push further west toward Bakhmut and north to support the encirclement of Severodonetsk but remain unlikely to achieve rapid advances.
- Russian forces will likely attempt to hold positions west of the Siverskyi Donets River against Ukrainian attacks (rather than retreating across the river) to prevent further Ukrainian advances from threatening Russian lines of communication to Izyum.
- Russian occupying forces continued filtration and deportation procedures in and around Mariupol.
- Russian forces are likely preparing to resume offensives on the southern axis.
Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Mason Clark
May 21, 5:30 pm ET
Russian forces intensified efforts to encircle and capture Severodonetsk on May 21 and will likely continue to do so in the coming days as efforts on other axes of advance, including Izyum, remain largely stalled. Russian troops in Luhansk Oblast will likely move to capitalize on recent gains made in the Rubizhne-Severodonetsk-Luhansk-Popasna arc to encircle and besiege Severodonetsk—the final Ukrainian strongpoint in Luhansk Oblast. Russian milbloggers are hypothesizing on the success of Russian tactics in the area and have dubbed it the Battle of Severodonetsk—emphasizing that this is the preliminary line of effort in the Donbas theatre.
- Russian forces are conducting operations to cut off Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) between Severodonetsk and Lysychansk across the Severskyi Donetsk River.
- The information space in Mariupol will likely become increasingly restricted in the coming weeks as Russian forces shift focus from completing the capture of the Azovstal Steel Plant to consolidating occupational control of the city.
- Russian troops are likely reinforcing their grouping around Kharkiv City to prevent further Ukrainian advances toward the international border.
- Russian forces may be assembling forces in certain areas of Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts to initiate further offensive operations on the southern axis.
Karolina Hird, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
May 20, 5:30 ET
Russian forces are focusing on digging in and reinforcing defensive positions in Kharkiv and along the Southern Axis in preparation for Ukrainian counteroffensives, while the majority of active offensive operations remain confined to Izyum-Donetsk City arc and especially the Popasna-Severodonetsk area. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are creating secondary defensive lines on the Southern Axis, indicating that the Russian grouping in this area may be preparing for a major Ukrainian counter-offensive and a protracted conflict. Russian forces reportedly are holding defensive positions north of Kharkiv City following the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive since May 5 and have conducted limited spoiling attacks either to give Russian forces time to complete their redeployment back to Russia in good order or to allow reinforcements to arrive to defend territory in Kharkiv Oblast. Significant Russian offensive operations are confined to the area of Severodonetsk. Russian troops have made marginal gains to the north, west, and south of the city, especially around Popasna, in order to attempt to take control of Severodonetsk.
- Russian forces may have made marginal gains to the north, west, and south of Popasna in order to continue their offensive on Severodonetsk from the south.
- Russian sources may be overstating the number of Ukrainian defenders who have been evacuated from Azovstal to either maximize the number of Russian prisoners of war who may be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers or to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they have been locked into a months-long siege against only “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers.
- Russian troops reportedly regained certain positions taken by the Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces are likely preparing for a major Ukrainian counteroffensive and protracted conflict on the Southern Axis.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
May 19, 5:30 pm ET
Ukrainian military officials reported that some Russian troops withdrawn from the Kharkiv City axis have redeployed to western Donetsk Oblast on May 19. The Ukrainian General Staff said that 260 servicemen withdrawn from the Kharkiv City axis arrived to replace the significant combat losses that the 107th Motorized Rifle Battalion has taken approximately 20 km southwest of Donetsk City. The Ukrainian Military Directorate (GUR) intercepted a Russian serviceman’s call suggesting that some of the 400 servicemen from the Kharkiv City axis who had arrived elsewhere in Donbas were shocked by the intensity of the fighting there compared with what they had experienced in Kharkiv Oblast.
Russian forces are continuing to suffer shortages of reserve manpower, causing the Russian military command to consolidate depleted battalion tactical groups (BTGs). An unnamed US defense official reported that Russian forces still have 106 BTGs operating in Ukraine but had to disband and combine some to compensate for losses. Ukrainian General Staff Main Operations Deputy Chief Oleksiy Gromov reported that Russian forces are combining units of the Pacific and Northern Fleets at the permanent locations of the 40th Separate Marine Brigade and the 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, respectively. Gromov added that Russian forces are training servicemen in Krasnodar Krai to replenish units of the 49th Combined Arms Army and are trying to restore combat power of Russian units withdrawn from the battlefront in occupied Crimea.
Unknown Russian perpetrators conducted a series of Molotov cocktail attacks on Russian military commissariats throughout the country in May, likely in protest of covert mobilization. Russian media and local Telegram channels reported deliberate acts of arson against military commissariats in three Moscow Oblast settlements—Omsk, Volgograd, Ryazan Oblast, and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District—between May 4 and May 18. Ukrainian General Staff Main Operations Deputy Chief Oleksiy Gromov said that there were at least 12 cases of deliberate arson against military commissariats in total and five last week. Russian officials caught two 16-year-olds in the act in one Moscow Oblast settlement, which suggests that Russian citizens are likely responsible for the attacks on military commissariats.
- Russian forces are intensifying operations to advance north and west of Popasna in preparation for an offensive toward Severodonetsk.
- Russian and proxy authorities in Mariupol are struggling to establish coherent administrative control of the city.
- Russian forces reportedly attempted to regain control of the settlements they lost during the Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces are bolstering their naval presence around Snake Island to fortify their grouping on the island.
Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin stated that DNR authorities are planning to level Azovstal after completing its capture. Azovstal was a major element of Mariupol’s economy before the war because of its unique function as a full-cycle metallurgical complex, the 10,000 jobs associated with production at the plant, the billions of dollars of foreign exchange earnings and taxes it generated, and its production output of 7,000 tons of steel, 6 million tons of iron, and 4.5 million tons of rolled metal, according to the Mariupol City Council. Pushilin stated that the DNR intends to rebuild Mariupol to be a “resort city,” while admitting that 60% of the structures in Mariupol have been destroyed to the point where they cannot be rebuilt. The announced plan to turn Mariupol into a center of tourism and leisure following the complete destruction of a major center of economic activity in Mariupol, is indicative of the damage that Russian troops have inflicted on themselves through the destruction of Mariupol. Russia does not need another resort town on the Black Sea. It does need the kind of hard currency that a plant like Azovstal had generated. This announcement epitomizes the kind of Pyrrhic victories Russian forces have won in Ukraine, to the extent that they have won victories at all.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin announced that he will allocate maximum integration assistance for Zaporizhia Oblast to work in a “friendly Russian family” during his visit to Melitopol on May 18. Khusnullin added that the Zaporihia Nuclear Power Plant will exclusively work for Russia and will sell electricity to Ukraine. This statement is a clear Russian recognition that there will be an independent Ukraine at the end of this war and that Russia seeks to restore its energy leverage over Ukraine and possibly the West more broadly that has been reduced by sanctions and efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy. It also reinforces the urgency of helping Ukraine regain control of Enerhodar City and the rest of its occupied territory to forestall this renewed economic thralldom. ISW previously reported that Russian forces started digging trenches and blocking highways to Enerhodar City. The Zaporizhia Oblast Military Administration reported that Russian occupation authorities continued to prepare for a referendum in Enerhodar City on May 18.
The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that relatives of the forcefully mobilized LNR servicemen demanded an immediate return of their family members from combat in Luhansk City and Rovenky approximately 50 kilometers west of Russian border. The GUR noted that perceptions of war and resentment of mobilization in LNR worsened because of the high casualties Russian forces have suffered and the fact that Russian authorities are reportedly evading payments to the families of wounded and killed servicemen. Mariupol Mayor’s Advisor Petro Andryushenko had previously reported that a protest against mobilization had occurred in Donetsk City on May 16.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
May 17, 7:00 pm ET
Mariupol defenders trapped in the Azovstal Steel Plant likely surrendered after Ukrainian officials negotiated evacuation measures with the Kremlin. Russian forces began evacuating wounded Ukrainian forces to Russian-occupied settlements in Donetsk Oblast on May 16 after the Russian Defense Ministry proposed the agreement earlier in the day. Ukrainian officials said that they will seek to return the Mariupol defenders to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange and continue to undertake appropriate measures to rescue all Ukrainian servicemen from Azovstal.
The Kremlin might have agreed to the conditional surrender of the Azovstal defenders to accelerate Russia’s ability to declare Mariupol fully under its control. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Russian Defense Ministry’s Department of Information and Mass Communications is hastily preparing a press tour of foreign journalists through occupied territories of Ukraine between May 18 and May 21. The Kremlin also could have agreed to such a deal to secure a victory in order to deflect criticism on social media of the failed Russian Siverskyi Donets River crossings and the overall slow pace of the invasion.
The Kremlin might refuse to exchange the Mariupol defenders. Some Russian State Duma members are petitioning to pass laws that would prohibit prisoner exchanges for individuals accused of “Nazism.” Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin claimed that the Mariupol defenders must be charged with war crimes and cannot be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. The Kremlin may ignore the Russian State Duma’s concerns or use them to sabotage negotiations with Ukraine.
The surrender agreement generated some outrage and confusion on pro-Russian social media, rather than the celebration of the full capitulation of Mariupol that the Kremlin likely expected—possibly undermining Russian information operations. Some Russian Telegram channels ridiculed the Russian Defense Ministry for negotiating with Ukrainian “terrorists” and “Nazis.” Some bloggers criticized the Donetsk People’s Republic for organizing the evacuation proceedings and blamed negotiating authorities for creating conditions for Ukrainian martyrdom. Several Russian bloggers also called for the imprisonment or murder of surrendered Ukrainian servicemen. Russian audiences are likely dissatisfied with the surrender agreement because they expected Russian forces to destroy Ukrainian defenders at Azovstal. The Kremlin has created large amounts of propaganda that portrayed successful Russian assaults on Azovstal without clearly setting conditions for surrender negotiations. Some Russians may find it difficult to reconcile the triumphant messaging with the abrupt negotiations leading to a negotiated surrender.
Russian forces have intensified artillery fire on Ukrainian border settlements in Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts over the past few weeks. The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command reported that Russian forces shelled the border between Sumy Oblast and Russia over 70 times on May 17. Sumy Oblast Administration Head Dmytro Zhyvytskyi said that Russian saboteurs unsuccessfully attempted to break through the Ukrainian border on May 17.
- The Ukrainian military command ordered the remaining defenders of Azovstal to surrender, likely conditionally, in hopes of returning them to Ukraine as part of yet-to-be-negotiated prisoner exchanges.
- The announcement of the likely conditional surrender generated outrage in the Russian information space and demands in the Russian Duma for laws prohibiting exchanging the surrendered defenders of Azovstal.
- Russian forces continued to make limited advances in Donbas, primarily focused on setting conditions for the Battle of Severodonetsk.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
May 16, 6:00 pm ET
Russian forces conducted limited and largely unsuccessful ground offensives along the front line in Ukraine on May 16. The Russian grouping around Kharkiv City is notably trying to hold the border and prevent Ukrainian troops from advancing further north. This activity is different from previous Russian withdrawals from around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy earlier in the war when the Russians pulled completely back to Russian territory. Russian troops may seek to retain positions in Ukraine and continue artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions in order to prevent Ukrainian forces from getting into tube or rocket-artillery range of the outskirts of Belgorod, a major city in Russia and a key hub of the Russian military effort. The Russians might alternatively hope to conduct a counter-counter-offensive to push back south toward Kharkiv, although such an effort is highly unlikely to succeed.
Russian military bloggers continued to post analysis that is skeptical of Russian efforts and increasingly in-line with Western assessments of Russian military failures in Ukraine. One such blogger, Igor Strelkov, claimed that the Russian offensive to take Donbas has ultimately failed and that “not a single large settlement “has been liberated. Strelkov even noted that the capture of Rubizhne is relatively insignificant because it happened before the new offensive in Donbas had begun. Strelkov stated that Russian forces are unlikely to liberate Donbas by the summer and that Ukrainian troops will hold their positions around Donetsk City. Strelkov notably claimed that Russian failures thus far have not surprised him because the intent of Russian command has been so evident throughout the operation that Ukrainian troops are aware of exactly how to best respond and warns that Russian troops are fighting to the point of exhaustion under “rules proposed by the enemy.” The continued disenchantment of pro-Russian milbloggers with the Russian war effort may fuel dissatisfaction in Russia itself, especially if Moscow continues to press recruitment and conscription efforts that send poorly-trained cannon-fodder to the front lines.
Over 260 Mariupol defenders evacuated from the Azovstal Steel Plant to Russian occupied settlements in Donetsk Oblast on May 16. Ukrainian and Russian authorities negotiated evacuation for wounded Ukrainian servicemen via humanitarian corridors. Ukrainian officials previously called for the evacuation of 60 medics and critically wounded servicemen on May 13. The Kremlin may extend humanitarian corridors for remaining Ukrainian defenders in an effort to fully control Mariupol.
Frictions between Russian occupation administrations and pro-Russian collaborators is growing in occupied areas of Ukraine. The Zaporizhia Oblast Military Administration reported that Russian forces are having serious conflicts with collaborators due to interpersonal power conflicts. A well-known collaborator in Zaporizhia accused the Russian-installed governor of the area of stealing his 10,000 ruble compensation. Advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol Petro Andryshchenko additionally claimed that relatives of those mobilized into the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) are holding a mass protest against mobilization in Donetsk City. While ISW cannot independently verify these claims, such discontent amongst occupation elements suggests a general lack of planning by Russian authorities in occupied areas, now compounded by increasingly evident Russian losses.
- Russian and Ukrainian authorities negotiated the evacuation of 264 wounded Ukrainian servicemen from the Azovstal Steel Plant on May 16.
- Ukrainian forces reached the Russian border north of Kharkiv City.
- Russian forces continued unsuccessful ground operations in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and did not make any confirmed advances on May 16.
- Russian forces continued to fortify their positions in Zaporizhia Oblast.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros
May 15, 6:30 pm ET
Russian forces have likely abandoned the objective of completing a large-scale encirclement of Ukrainian units from Donetsk City to Izyum in favor of completing the seizure of Luhansk Oblast. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai said that the Russian military command likely understands that it will not be able to seize Donetsk Oblast but believes that it has the capacity to reach the administrative borders of Luhansk Oblast. His observations are generally consistent with our analysis. The Russian military command will likely prioritize the Battle of Severodonetsk going forward, with some efforts dedicated to disrupting Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in eastern Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces are continuing a coordinated effort to seize Severodonetsk from the north and the south, which would result in a shallower encirclement of Ukrainian troops than originally expected. The failed Russian attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River near Kreminna may shift Russian encirclement operations further east, closer to Severodonetsk via Rubizhne, rather than conducting a wider encirclement along multiple axes. Russian forces have also likely been scaling down advances to Slovyansk from Izyum, possibly due to the slow pace of the offensive operation there.
Russian forces have likely run out of combat-ready reservists, forcing the Russian military command to amalgamate soldiers from many different elements, including private military companies and proxy militias, into ostensibly regular army units and naval infantry. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that approximately 2,500 Russian reservists are training in Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov oblasts to reinforce Russian offensive operations in Ukraine. That number of reservists is unlikely to generate enough force to replenish Russian units that have reportedly lost up to 20 percent of staffing in some areas—to say nothing of the battalion tactical group that was largely destroyed recently while attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate stated that Russian forces are conducting covert mobilization and creating new units with newly mobilized personnel who likely have insufficient training to be effective and little motivation to fight. Russian forces also deployed new conscripts from occupied settlements in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to maintain an offensive around Kharkiv City, likely due to the lack of Russian reserves.
Russian private military companies are reportedly forming combined units with airborne elements due to significant losses in manpower. Denaturing elite airborne units with mercenaries is shocking, and would be the clearest indication yet that Russia has exhausted its available combat-ready manpower reserves. The Russian 810th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade is reportedly receiving personnel from other Black Sea Fleet units, including navy ship crewmembers. Newly formed or regrouped units are unlikely to be effective in combat.
Russian forces are likely fortifying occupied settlements in southern Ukraine, indicating that the Russians are seeking to establish permanent control in the region. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces began digging trenches and building concrete revetments in unspecified areas of Mykolaiv and Kherson Oblast, near Melitopol, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian forces will likely prioritize winning the Battle of Severodonetsk over reaching the administrative borders of Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces did not advance in the Slovyansk direction due to unsuccessful offensive operations in the Izyum area. Ukrainian aviation continues to operate north and east of Izyum.
- Russian forces continued to launch artillery, air, and naval assaults on the Azovstal Steel Plant, but Mariupol defenders maintained their positions.
- Russian forces are fortifying occupied settlements along the southern axis, indicative of Russian objectives for permanent control of the area.
May 14, 7:00 pm ET
The Ukrainian destruction of significant elements of a Russian motorized rifle brigade that tried to cross a pontoon bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River on May 11 has shocked prominent Russian milbloggers. Those bloggers have begun commenting on the incompetence of the Russian military to their hundreds of thousands of followers. The attempted river crossing showed a stunning lack of tactical sense as satellite images show (destroyed) Russian vehicles tightly bunched up at both ends of the (destroyed) bridge, clearly allowing Ukrainian artillerymen to kill hundreds and destroy scores of vehicles with concentrated strikes. The milbloggers who have hitherto been cheering on the Russian military criticized Russian armed forces leadership for failing to learn from experience in the war. They also expressed the concern that the constant pushing of Russia’s propaganda lines was making it hard for them to understand what was actually going on.
The effects of this change in tone and discourse by these milbloggers are uncertain but could be potent. People living under tightly censored regimes often trust individuals who seem to be independent of but generally aligned with the government more than the government line (even more than do citizens of democratic societies). The commentary by these widely read milbloggers may fuel burgeoning doubts in Russia about Russia’s prospects in this war and the competence of Russia’s military leaders (at least).
The destruction of the motorized rifle elements may also severely disrupt Russian efforts to isolate Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the north. Russian troops made no attempts to advance in that area in the last 24 hours.
Russian forces continued operations to set conditions for the Battle of Severodonetsk from the south, however, advancing on the town of Zolote, roughly 30 km south of Severodonetsk. Russian troops likely seek to secure the highway north from Zolote to Severodonetsk for their advance, but they may also seek to cut the last highway linking Severodonetsk with the rest of Ukraine via Bakhmut. They could try to strike northwest across the country from their current positions to cut that highway closer to Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. The Russians are extremely unlikely to be able to take Bakhmut but they may be able to cut or render unusable the highway from Bakhmut to Severodonetsk if they can advance far enough along either of these possible routes.
Ukrainian forces will likely conduct counteroffensive operations to dislodge the Russians from around Izyum, according to Ukrainian officials. We have previously noted that Russian artillery fire directed to the west from around Izyum was more likely intended to disrupt such a counter-offensive than to set conditions for a Russian attack.
Russian forces continued their withdrawal from Kharkiv Oblast but will likely seek to hold a line east of Vovchansk to secure the ground line of communication (GLOC) running from Belgorod through Vovchansk to Izyum. The terrain in this area generally favors the defender, and the Russians have other GLOCs with which to supply Izyum, so the Ukrainians may not try to advance much farther to the east at this time.
Ukrainian defenders continued to fight in the Azovstal Plant in Mariupol despite horrific conditions and continued Russian attacks. The Ukrainian defense of Azovstal is still tying down Russian combat forces and inflicting casualties.
- Catastrophic Russian losses in a failed river crossing and the military incompetence displayed in that crossing have shaken the confidence of some prominent Russian milbloggers.
- Russian forces continue shaping operations for the Battle of Severodonetsk from the south even though those losses have at least temporarily disrupted their efforts from the north.
- Ukrainian forces announced that they will conduct a counteroffensive around Izyum.
- Russian forces continued to withdraw from northern Kharkiv Oblast, but will likely seek to hold a line defending their ground lines of communication from Belgorod via Vovchansk to Izyum.
May 13, 2022
Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly into the Russian Federation in the coming months. He will likely then state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to those newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. Putin may believe that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would restore Russian deterrence after his disastrous invasion shattered Russia's conventional deterrent capabilities.
Putin’s timeline for annexation is likely contingent on the extent to which he understands the degraded state of the Russian military in Ukraine. The Russian military has not yet achieved Putin’s stated territorial objectives of securing all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and is unlikely to do so. If Putin understands his military weakness, he will likely rush annexation and introduce the nuclear deterrent quickly in an attempt to retain control of the Ukrainian territory that Russia currently occupies. If Putin believes that Russian forces are capable of additional advances, he will likely delay the annexation in hopes of covering more territory with it. In that case, his poor leadership and Ukrainian counteroffensives could drive the Russian military toward a state of collapse. Putin could also attempt to maintain Russian attacks while mobilizing additional forces. He might delay announcing annexation for far longer in this case, waiting until reinforcements could arrive to gain more territory to annex.
Ukraine and its Western partners likely have a narrow window of opportunity to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive into occupied Ukrainian territory before the Kremlin annexes that territory. Ukraine and the West must also develop a coherent plan for responding to any annexation and to the threat of nuclear attack that might follow it. The political and ethical consequences of a longstanding Russian occupation of southeastern Ukraine would be devastating to the long-term viability of the Ukrainian state. Vital Ukrainian and Western national interests require urgent Western support for an immediate Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan
May 13, 7:00 pm ET
The Russian military has likely decided to withdraw fully from its positions around Kharkiv City in the face of Ukrainian counteroffensives and the limited availability of reinforcements. Russian units have generally not attempted to hold ground against counterattacking Ukrainian forces over the past several days, with a few exceptions. Reports from Western officials and a video from an officer of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) indicate that Moscow is focused on conducting an orderly withdrawal and prioritizing getting Russians back home before allowing proxy forces to enter Russia rather than trying to hold its positions near the city.
Ukraine thus appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv. Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv. Ukrainian forces will likely attempt to disrupt at least the westernmost of the ground lines of communication (GLOCs) between Belgorod and Russian forces concentrated around Izyum, although Russia is using several GLOCs, including some further away from current Ukrainian positions than any Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely to reach soon. The terrain east of current Ukrainian positions may also favor the Russians attempting to defend their GLOCs, as large water features canalize movement and create chokepoints that the Ukrainians would have to breakthrough.
Russian troops continued efforts to advance all along the periphery of the Izyum-Donetsk city salient but made little progress. Russian forces attempted a ground offensive from Izyum that made no progress. We had previously hypothesized that Russia might give up on attempts to advance from Izyum, but the Russians have either not made such a decision or have not fully committed to it yet. Small-scale and unsuccessful attacks on the southern end of the salient near Donetsk City continued but made no real progress.
The main Russian effort continues to be the attempt to encircle Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the north and from the south. Russian troops attacking from Popasna to the north made no significant progress in the last 24 hours. Russian forces coming north-to-south have failed to cross the Siverskyi Donets River and taken devastating losses in their attempts. The Russians may not have enough additional fresh combat power to offset those losses and continue the offensive on a large enough scale to complete the encirclement, although they will likely continue to try to do so.
The Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol continue to fight despite the odds, although Russian attackers appear to have penetrated into the Azovstal facility.
- Ukraine has likely won the Battle of Kharkiv. Russian forces continued to withdraw from the northern settlements around Kharkiv City. Ukrainian forces will likely attempt to disrupt Russian ground lines of communication to Izyum.
- Ukrainian forces have likely disrupted the Russian attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in force, undermining Russian efforts to mass troops in northern Donbas and complete the encirclement of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
- Russian forces have likely secured the highway near the western entrance to the Azovstal Steel Plant but fighting for the facility continues.
- Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are likely attempting to reach artillery range outside Zaporizhia City.
- Ukrainian forces are reportedly attempting to regain control of Snake Island off the Romanian coast or at least disrupt Russia’s ability to use it.
Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan
May 12, 6:45 ET
Russian forces may be abandoning efforts at a wide encirclement of Ukrainian troops along the Izyum-Slovyansk-Debaltseve line in favor of shallower encirclements of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Russian forces likely control almost all of Rubizhne as of May 12 and have likely seized the town of Voevodivka, north of Severdonetsk. They will likely launch a ground offensive on or around Severodonetsk in the coming days. The relative success of Russian operations in this area combined with their failure to advance from Izyum and the notable decline in the energy of that attempted advance suggest that they may be giving up on the Izyum axis. Reports that Russian forces in Popasna are advancing north, toward Severodonetsk-Lysychansk, rather than east toward the Slovyansk-Debaltseve highway, support this hypothesis.
It is unclear if Russian forces can encircle, let alone capture, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk even if they focus their efforts on that much-reduced objective. Russian offensives have bogged down every time they hit a built-up area throughout this war, and these areas are unlikely to be different. Continued and expanding reports of demoralization and refusals to fight among Russian units suggest that the effective combat power of Russian troops in the east continues to be low and may drop further. If the Russians abandon efforts to advance from Izyum, moreover, Ukrainian forces would be able to concentrate their efforts on defending Severodonetsk-Lysychansk or, in the worst case, breaking a Russian encirclement before those settlements fall.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kharkiv is also forcing the Russian command to make hard choices, as it was likely intended to do. The UK Ministry of Defense reports that Russian forces pulled back from Kharkiv have been sent toward Rubizhne and Severodonetsk but at the cost of ceding ground in Kharkiv from which the Russians had been shelling the city. The counteroffensive is also forcing Russian units still near the city to focus their bombardment on the attacking Ukrainian troops rather than continuing their attacks on the city itself. The Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv is starting to look very similar to the counteroffensive that ultimately drove Russian troops away from Kyiv and out of western Ukraine entirely, although it is too soon to