Ukraine Project

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 24, 2023

Prominent voices in the Russian information space are increasingly setting information conditions to prepare for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian Security Council Deputy Head Dmitry Medvedev emphasized on March 24 that the Russian General Staff is aware that Kyiv is preparing for offensive operations and that the Russian General Staff is considering its own decisions and responses to prepare for a Ukrainian offensive. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian actors are disseminating disinformation about plans for a Ukrainian attack towards Belgorod Oblast, in order to draw Russian troops to border areas and allow Ukrainian troops to launch attacks on other sectors of the front, partially echoing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s prior warnings about a Ukrainian push on Belgorod Oblast. Another Russian milblogger warned that Ukrainian forces will likely try to launch a counteroffensive before the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) gains the capacity to increase production and bolster Russian defensive potential. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin similarly claimed on March 23 that he knows of plans for an extensive Ukrainian counteroffensive, as ISW previously reported. The wider Russian spring offensive appears to be culminating, and the Russian information space appears to be responding to the slow-down of Russian operations and potential for Ukraine to regain the initiative with substantial anxiety. Russian military command will need to commit a significant number of forces to the frontline to either prevent culmination or launch renewed offensive operations, and it is unlikely that such forces exist at sufficient scale to do either.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 23, 2023

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has softened his rhetoric towards the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) likely out of fear of completely losing his mercenary force in Bakhmut. Prigozhin emphasized his concerns about a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine during a 23-minute interview on March 23. Prigozhin claimed that Ukraine has 200,000 reserves concentrating to attack along the entire eastern frontline, into Belgorod Oblast, and in Bakhmut. Prigozhin also claimed that the Ukrainians currently have 80,000 troops in Bakhmut, Slovyansk, and Kostyantynivka to counterattack Bakhmut – a claim that former Russian officer Igor Girkin observed was dubious. Prigozhin‘s exaggerated statements about the imminent threat to Russian forces are likely an attempt to secure more supplies and reinforcements from the Russian MoD to save his forces in Bakhmut. Prigozhin made several positive statements about the Russian MoD, even acknowledging that Russian MoD forces are fighting alongside Chechen units in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast. Prigozhin also surprisingly promoted both Russian MoD-controlled volunteer recruitment efforts and recruitment into Wagner, instead of only advertising service with Wagner formations as he has usually done. Prigozhin expressed some generalized criticism of the Russian military bureaucracy – namely the defense industrial base (DIB) - but such criticisms echo the current state propaganda narrative. Prigozhin had been an avid critic of the Russian military command, and the softening of his rhetoric may indicate that he may be attempting to partially appease the Russian MoD to gain supplies or reinforcements for Wagner forces in Bakhmut.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 22, 2023

Russian forces conducted a limited drone and missile strike campaign in Ukraine overnight on March 21-22, indicating that Russian forces continue struggling with precision missile shortages. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted 21 drone strikes targeting residential and infrastructure areas in Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhia, and Odesa oblasts, and Ukrainian forces shot down 16 of the drones. Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces struck two residential high-rise buildings in Zaporizhzhia City, killing at least one civilian and injuring 33. Russian forces conducted more intensive and wider-ranging strikes during the fall 2022 air and missile campaign, suggesting that Russian forces may now be rationing their use of high-precision munitions for these strike campaigns or may simply lack the necessary munitions to sustain strike campaigns at their earlier pace and intensity. Head of the Ukrainian Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that the Russian missile strike threat remains high but that Russian forces would likely only conduct a limited campaign.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 21, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be setting conditions to weaponize the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a method of Russian power projection in advance of Russia’s accession to the rotating UNSC presidency in April. Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya stated during a press conference on March 21 that Russia plans to hold an informal UNSC meeting in early April to discuss the “real situation” of “Ukrainian children taken to Russia.” Nebenzya claimed that Russia planned to hold the meeting before the announcement of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrants for Putin and Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Nebenzya’s announcement, as well as vitriolic denials of the ICC’s accusations by Russian officials, come as Kremlin-appointed occupation officials continue to facilitate the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia under a variety of schemes and guises. Putin additionally made a number of notable comments proclaiming Russia’s commitment to the UN, UNSC, and the UN charter during his press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 21. Taken in tandem, Nebenzya’s and Putin’s comments suggest that Russia continues to use its position on the UNSC as a base of power projection as the UNSC prepares for Russia to take the UNSC presidency in April. By setting information conditions to posture about Russia’s supposed commitment to the UNSC, Putin is positioning himself to continue to weaponize and exploit Russia’s UNSC veto power in the coming months.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 20, 2023

Russian forces made marginal gains in and around Bakhmut amid a reported increase in the tempo of Russian operations around Avdiivka. Russian forces likely made additional gains in southwestern and northern Bakhmut as well as northwest of Bakhmut between Bohdanivka and Khromove as of March 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 19 that Russian troops attacked toward Berdychi (10km northwest of Avdiivka), which indicates that Russian forces likely advanced west of Krasnohorivka (9km north of Avdiivka) and captured Stepove (just west of Krasnohorivka). Russian forces are likely increasing the tempo of operations north of Avdiivka in an effort to set conditions for the encirclement of the settlement and are reportedly employing a greater number of aviation units in the area to support these operations. Avdiivka Mayor Vitaly Barabash told AFP News on March 20 that Russian forces are increasingly using Kh-59, Kh-101, Kh-555, and S-300 missiles in the Avdiivka area. A Ukrainian military spokesperson stated on March 20 that Russian forces have lost about three unspecified companies (likely referring to infantry) in assaults on Avdiivka since March 19. ISW previously reported that this increased tempo of Russian operations in the Avdiivka area has reportedly led to major losses and is likely a misguided effort to pull Ukrainian forces away from other areas of the front. ISW has not observed Russian forces arraying substantial combat power along the outskirts of Donetsk City, and it is unlikely that Russian forces will be able to sustain this temporary increased tempo. ISW assesses that the overall Russian spring offensive is likely approaching culmination, and Russian forces may be intensifying efforts to make even marginal gains before they lose the initiative in Ukraine. It remains possible that Russian advances could prompt Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut and/or Avdiivka although neither appears likely at this time.

Russian Offensive Campaign Update, March 19, 2023

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, March 19. This report discusses growing Russian concern about a prospective Ukrainian counteroffensive near Bakhmut or in southern Ukraine, and Russian efforts to prepare mitigations for these claimed efforts. The tempo of Russian offensive operations across the theater has slowed in recent weeks, suggesting that the Russian spring offensive in Donbas may be nearing culmination. Ukrainian officials have indicated that significant Russian losses near Vuhledar are severely inhibiting Russian forces’ capacity to conduct further offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast. Russian President Vladimir Putin used his first visit to recently-occupied Ukraine to portray himself as an involved wartime leader amid exaggerated responses in the Russian nationalist information space over fears of a possible future Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 18, 2023

Russian forces targeted Ukraine with 16 Shahed-136 drones overnight on March 17-18. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 11 of the 16 drones and noted that it is difficult for Ukrainian mobile fire groups to shoot down drones at night due to the lack of visibility. The drones targeted facilities in Kyiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Lviv oblasts, reportedly including a Ukrainian fuel warehouse in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Russian sources claimed that Russian drone strikes also targeted Kyiv Thermal Power Plant 5, which Russian forces reportedly targeted in a strike campaign on March 9.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 17, 2023

Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Russia from March 20 to 22 likely to discuss sanctions evasion schemes and Chinese interest in mediating a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin stated that Putin and Xi plan to sign unspecified bilateral documents and discuss topical issues in Russia’s and China’s comprehensive partnership. Chinese companies have reportedly sold rifles, drone parts, and equipment to Russian entities that could be used for military purposes, and Western intelligence agencies have stated that Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment to Russia. Xi likely plans to discuss sanctions evasion schemes with Putin and Russian officials to support the sale and provision of Chinese equipment to Russia. ISW previously assessed that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Xi signed a package of 16 agreements on March 1 that may facilitate Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese products through Belarus. Xi also likely aims to promote Chinese efforts aiming to position China as an impartial third-party mediator for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. China released a broad 12-point peace plan for the war in Ukraine on February 24, although it remains unclear what more definitive Chinese proposals for a negotiated settlement to the war would encompass. Xi may seek to parlay his success in mediating the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia into a larger effort to mediate in this war.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 16, 2023

The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) appears to be trying to penetrate the Russian Defense Industrial Base (DIB) in a way that is reminiscent of the KGB’s involvement with the Soviet military establishment. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Center for the Research of Trophy and Prospective Weapons and Military Equipment of the Ukrainian General Staff Andrii Rudyk remarked on March 16 that Ukrainian experts have found FSB markings on many Russian weapons components that Ukrainian forces have destroyed or captured on the battlefield. Rudyk noted that these markings appear not only on equipment such as T-90M tanks, but also on weapons’ microcircuits, and suggested that this means that the FSB conducted an equipment inspection of such weapons and components. Rudyk concluded that this means that the FSB does not trust Russian military leadership and is conducting inspections of Russian equipment accordingly. FSB markings on Russian equipment and weapons components, if confirmed, would have broader implications for the relationship between the FSB, the Russian DIB, and the broader Russian military apparatus. Either FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov has instructed the FSB to conduct these investigations at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Bortnikov has issued this directive independent of Putin. In either case the FSB appears to be directly inserting itself into the inner workings of the Russian DIB, likely penetrating equipment acquisition and inspection processes. The KGB (the FSB’s predecessor) notably penetrated the Red Army and Soviet defense industry in a similar fashion.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 15, 2023

The overall pace of Russian operations in Ukraine appears to have decreased compared to previous weeks. A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavriisk Defense Forces, Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, stated on March 15 that Russian offensive actions have decreased significantly over the last week and noted that daily Russian ground attacks have decreased from 90 to 100 attacks per day to 20 to 29 per day. Dmytrashkivskyi reported that Russian forces have somewhat lost offensive potential due to significant manpower and equipment losses. Dmytrashkivskyi’s statements are consistent with ISW’s general observation regarding the pace of Russian operations along the entire frontline in Ukraine. The Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing culmination, if it has not already culminated, although Russia has committed most elements of at least three divisions to the Svatove-Kreminna line. Russian forces have made only minimal tactical gains along the entire Luhansk Oblast frontline over the last week, and Ukrainian forces have likely recently managed to conduct counterattacks and regain territory in Luhansk Oblast. ISW has been unable to confirm the commitment of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division (1st Guards Tank Army, Western Military District) to the offensive in Luhansk Oblast since certain unspecified elements reportedly deployed to Luhansk Oblast in January--the only large formation assessed to be operational but not yet engaged. It is unclear if the 2nd Motor Rifle Division has already deployed and has not been observed or if it is waiting to deploy to either Luhansk Oblast or other areas of the front. The commitment of two or three of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division’s constituent regiments, however, is unlikely to significantly delay or reverse the culmination of the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast, especially considering that at least five Russian regiments have definitely been fully committed in this area, likely along with several others, but Russian forces have still been unable to make substantial gains.