Ukraine Project

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 3, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 3 and reportedly advanced in some areas. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions and Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces continued to advance in the Bakhmut direction. Ukrainian Director of the Department of Planning of the Main Directorate of the National Guard Colonel Mykola Urshalovych stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 650m into Russian defenses along a 1.5km front in the Melitopol direction. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced near Mykilske (27km southwest of Donetsk City) in western Donetsk Oblast. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated on August 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive does not have a set deadline or schedule. Danilov added that Russian defensive lines along the front continue to be heavily mined, with some areas having three, four, or five mines per square meter.

How the Ukraine Counteroffensive Can Still Succeed

The situation in Ukraine still favors Kyiv despite the limited progress made in the counteroffensive so far. Ukrainian forces attempted a limited mechanized penetration of prepared Russian defenses in the south in early to mid-June, but failed to break through the Russian lines. They then switched to slower and more careful operations while disrupting Russian rear areas with long-range precision strikes. Ukraine began the next, reportedly main, phase of its counteroffensive on July 26 with a determined drive to penetrate Russian lines in western Zaporizhia Oblast. It’s far too soon to evaluate the outcome of that effort, which is underway as of the time of this writing, but it is vital to manage expectations. Ukrainian forces are fighting now to break through the first line of long-prepared Russian defenses. Several lines lie behind it, stretching for many miles. Ukrainian progress will very likely alternate periods of notable tactical advances with periods, possibly long periods, of pause and some setbacks. Much as we might hope that the road to the Sea of Azov will simply open for Ukrainian forces the odds are high that fighting will remain hard, casualties high, and frustration will be a constant companion. All of which is normal in war.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 2, 2023

A dispute among prominent voices in the Russian information space highlights the Kremlin’s sensitivity to Russian reporting about setbacks in Crimea in particular and possibly in Ukraine in general and has further exposed fault lines within the milblogger community. A pro-war milblogger accused other prominent pro-war milbloggers who have been critical of the Russian conduct of the war on August 2 of being “imbeciles” who support “provocative publications” and the “frantic criticism of the [Russian Ministry of Defense]” because the milbloggers posted images reportedly showing the aftermath of recent Ukrainian strikes near Sevastopol and on the Chonhar Bridge, which some sources suggested would irresponsibly spread panic. A notorious Kremlin-backed pro-Russian Ukrainian blogger additionally accused one of the critical milbloggers under attack of stealing crowdsourced collection funds meant for Russian forces. Both these specific critiques drew significant attention from other pro-war Russian commentators, many of whom supported the critical channels being attacked for reporting on the Crimea strikes. One milblogger noted that the crux of the issue lies with the fact that these two channels post pictures of purported Ukrainian strikes on Crimea but emphasized that the original images came from Ukrainian Telegram channels. Another prominent milblogger claimed that the dispute over posting images of strikes in Crimea became so intense that it attracted the attention of the Crimean Federal Security Service (FSB) branch and Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov, likely because these entities are interested in preventing panic in Crimea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 1, 2023

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) accused Ukraine of attempting to attack two Black Sea Fleet patrol boats with unmanned semi-submersibles on August 1. The Russian MoD initially claimed that Ukraine launched three unmanned boats at the “Sergey Kotov” and “Vasily Bykov” Project 22160 large patrol ships in the southwestern part of the Black Sea, about 340km southwest of Sevastopol. The Russian MoD later clarified that the patrol ships were escorting Russian civilian transport ships en route to the Bosphorus Strait via the Black Sea and claimed that the patrol ships detected and destroyed all three semi-submersibles. Russian authorities may be amplifying claims of Ukrainian attacks to frame Ukraine as irresponsibly threatening civilian ships in the Black Sea, thereby setting conditions to further escalate naval activity and consolidate control in the Black Sea, though there is no indication that Ukrainian attacks on Russian military targets have threatened civilian vessels. Geolocated images posted on July 31 show the installation of anti-naval drone barriers in Sevastopol Bay, likely as part of the overall Russian effort to increase naval and defensive posturing in the Black Sea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 31, 2023

The Wagner Group may be supplanting the Russian military as the Belarusian military’s key training partner. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on July 30 that Wagner personnel conducted company-level training with unspecified elements of multiple Belarusian mechanized brigades. The training included tactical maneuver for dismounted infantry and focused on force concealment from enemy UAVs and coordination between companies, platoons, and squads. The training also reportedly featured Belarusian infantry conducting a combined arms assault with tank and artillery support. The Wagner Group’s new role in Belarusian company-level training is notable. The Belarusian military typically conducts such exercises with Russian trainers and relies on Russian planners for any multi-brigade exercises, which ISW has not yet observed Wagner Group participating in. ISW previously observed Wagner personnel training with a Belarusian airborne brigade that historically trains with the Russian 76th Airborne (VDV) Division and forecasted that the Wagner Group may seek to supplant legacy Russian–Belarusian unit relationships.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 30, 2023

The lack of Russian milblogger reaction to a Ukrainian strike on the Chonhar bridge represents a notable inflection in Russian reporting on the war in Ukraine and may suggest that the Kremlin has directed Russian milbloggers to refrain from covering certain topics. The Ukrainian Armed Forces announced on July 29 that Ukrainian forces successfully struck the Chonhar bridge on the M-18 (Dzhankoi-Melitopol) highway between occupied Crimea and occupied Kherson Oblast.[1] ISW has not observed any Russian milblogger discussion about the Ukrainian strike or Russian milbloggers promoting Kherson Oblast occupation administration head Vladimir Saldo’s claim that Russian forces intercepted 12 Ukrainian Strom Shadow cruise missiles targeting the bridge.[2] The only other Russian source to comment on the strikes was a local Russian news Telegram channel, which amplified alleged claims from Russian tourists in the area about the bridge being closed to traffic.[3] Russian milbloggers responded to a Ukrainian strike on the Chonhar bridge on June 22 with widespread outrage and concern, and Russian milbloggers routinely comment on both successful and allegedly unsuccessful Ukrainian strikes on Russian logistics.[4] The Chonhar bridge is a notable bottleneck along a critical Russian ground line of communication (GLOC), and it is highly unlikely that Russian milbloggers would voluntarily ignore a successful or unsuccessful Ukrainian strike on the bridge. ISW has previously assessed that select Russian milbloggers may be shaping their coverage of the war in Ukraine in ways more favorable to Kremlin narratives out of fear of Kremlin punishment following the removal of prominent critical voices in the Russian information space, particularly pro-war critic Igor Girkin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.[5] General fear of Kremlin punishment would not likely result in such near-universal lack of coverage of a dramatic event, however, and it is more likely that a specific Kremlin directive not to cover disruptions to critical GLOCs caused this lack of reporting.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 29, 2023

Segments of the Russian pro-war ultranationalist information space appear to be coalescing around the Kremlin’s narrative effort to portray the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure, increasingly overstating Ukrainian losses and writing less about Russia's losses and challenges than they had been. Prominent Russian milbloggers have been increasingly presenting Ukrainian counteroffensive operations inaccurately as a series of failed Ukrainian assaults along the entire line of contact. Russian milbloggers widely amplified footage on July 29 claiming that it showed a single Russian tank defeating an entire Ukrainian company with armored vehicles as if the event had occurred recently, but the footage is actually from June 7 and shows Russian artillery units striking the Ukrainian column. Russian sources have previously recirculated old footage to support claims that Ukrainian forces are suffering significant armored vehicle losses, and the amplification of the footage on July 29 indicates that Russian sources are deliberately amplifying old footage to support the Kremlin narrative. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed that Ukrainian forces lost 39 armored vehicles in a few days of fighting in western Zaporizhia Oblast, a notable inflection in his exaggeration of Ukrainian losses during the Ukrainian counteroffensive. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin is likely shifting its policy about the coverage of the war to downplay the possibilities of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and to promote itself as an effective manager of the war effort. Russian milbloggers continue to report on localized Ukrainian advances and some issues with Russian defensive operations, but the pro-war Russian information space’s wider operational framing of the Ukrainian counteroffensive aligns with the likely shift in the Kremlin’s portrayal of the counteroffensive.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 28, 2023

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front and reportedly advanced near Bakhmut on July 28. Ukrainian military officials stated that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, and Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on July 27 that Ukrainian forces continued advancing south of Bakhmut. A Russian milblogger claimed on July 28 that Ukrainian forces advanced near Kurdyumivka and Andriivka. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border near Staromayorske (9km south of Velyka Novosilka) and Urozhaine (9km south of Velyka Novosilka), and some milbloggers acknowledged that Ukrainian forces captured Staromayorske on July 27. A Ukrainian source claimed that Ukrainian forces have advanced to within 10-12 kilometers of the main Russian defensive line in the Berdyansk direction. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks near Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv), Verbove (17km southeast of Orikhiv), and Pyatykhatky (25km southwest of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian “Vostok” Battalion Commander Alexander Khodakovsky stated that Ukrainian forces can conduct strikes against the full depth of defending Russian forces and that these strikes are killing Russian commanders and degrading Russian command and control. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the 247th Guards Air Assault (VDV) Regiment (7th VDV Division) refused to go to combat near Staromayorske due to heavy Russian losses and Ukrainian battlefield victories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment July 27, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 27 and made gains in some areas, although Ukrainian forces appear not to have continued significant mechanized assaults south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted footage on July 27 showing that Ukrainian forces liberated Staromayorske (9km south of Velyka Novosilka) in western Donetsk Oblast following heavy fighting in the area. Geolocated footage published on July 26 indicates that Ukrainian forces also made marginal advances north of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut). Geolocated footage published on July 26 suggests that Ukrainian forces made additional advances east of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) during offensive operations on July 26. Ukrainian Director of the Department of Application Planning at the Main Command of the National Guard Mykola Urshalovych stated on July 27 that Ukrainian forces achieved tactical victories in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) direction. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued assaults at a lower tempo and with far less manpower near Robotyne on July 27 after Ukrainian forces launched an intense mechanized frontal assault that broke through Russian defensive positions northeast of the settlement on July 26. Geolocated footage published on July 27 suggests that Ukrainian forces may be operating in areas well forward of where ISW assesses Ukrainian advances to be as a result of ISW’s intentionally conservative assessments about control of terrain (covered in more detail in Southern Axis text).

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 26, 2023

Ukrainian forces launched a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation in western Zaporizhia Oblast on July 26 and appear to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions south of Orikhiv. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and several prominent milbloggers, claimed that Ukrainian forces launched an intense frontal assault towards Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and broke through Russian defensive positions northeast of the settlement. Geolocated footage indicates that Ukrainian forces likely advanced to within 2.5km directly east of Robotyne during the attack before Russian forces employed standard doctrinal elastic defense tactics and pushed Ukrainian troops back somewhat, although not all the way back to their starting positions.