Previous ISW Coverage from 2023

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 30, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

June 30, 2023, 8:30pm ET 

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on June 30. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the July 1 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the frontline on June 30. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) and Berdyansk (eastern Zaporizhia Oblast) directions.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff added that Ukrainian forces achieved partial success on the Levadne-Pryyutne line on the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and on the Mala-Tokmachka-Ocheretuvate line in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian forces also reportedly consolidated newly reached lines in the Pryvillia-Zalizyanske direction north of Bakhmut and are continuing to exert pressure on Bakhmut’s flanks. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces are confidently advancing on Bakhmut’s flanks and that Russian forces have transferred a large number of troops to the area.[2] Malyar added that Ukrainian forces are advancing with varying degrees of success in southern Ukraine, advancing one kilometer on some days and advancing less on others.[3] Select Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces counterattacked around Kreminna and on the Donetsk City-Avdiivka frontline.[4]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi stated on June 30 that Ukrainian forces continue to advance in eastern and southern Ukraine despite lacking essential resources.[5] Zaluzhnyi said that the Ukrainian forces are still making battlefield gains even if they advance only 500 meters per day. Zaluzhnyi also stated that Ukrainian forces are continuing to use Western-provided armored vehicles and tanks in combat instead of saving them for “parades” when responding to a question about military equipment losses. Zaluzhnyi noted that Ukraine needs aircraft in order to support its counteroffensive efforts, which are hindered by the lack of air superiority.

The Russian information space is reacting disproportionately to the Russian military’s failure to drive a small Ukrainian force from east (left) bank Kherson Oblast. Russian milbloggers have complained for nearly two weeks that Russian forces have failed to push a very small Ukrainian force – reportedly of up to 70 personnel – from their entrenched positions underneath the eastern span of the Antonivsky Bridge.[6] The milbloggers complained that the Russian military command blindly ordered Russian forces to retake the area under a span of the Antonivsky Bridge on the east bank, resulting in significant losses among Russian personnel and armored vehicles due to Ukrainian artillery fire and remotely laid mines.[7] The milbloggers called on Russian forces to conduct “accurate” strikes against both the spans of the bridge on each riverbank to prevent Ukrainian forces from using the bridge’s approach spans as cover against Russian air and artillery fire, which the milbloggers previously criticized as inaccurate and ineffective. Russian forces launched an Iskander ballistic missile strike against the east bank span of the Antonivsky Bridge on June 30, though the extent of the damage is currently unclear.[8] Some milbloggers claimed that the strike damaged enough of the standing bridge span to prevent Ukrainian forces from using it as cover, while other milbloggers complained that the strike only partially damaged the bridge and that Russian infantry has resumed attempts to clear Ukrainian positions elsewhere in the area.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on June 1 that Russian forces are conserving Iskander missiles due to a shortage, underscoring the oddity of Russian forces using one of these missiles against a 70-person light infantry element under the approaches to an already destroyed bridge.[10] Some milbloggers claimed that Russian forces used TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems – a scarce military district-level asset – to strike the Ukrainian positions under the bridge after the Iskander strike.[11] One milblogger complained that the Russian 8th Artillery Regiment (22ndArmy Corps, Black Sea Fleet) does not have enough ammunition to strike the Ukrainian positions.[12] Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded the “guards” honorific to the 8th Artillery Regiment on June 30, which will not help the regiment dislodge the Ukrainian forces.[13]

The severe milblogger response to the Russian military command’s decision making demonstrates that Russian milbloggers have not rallied around the Russian military command in the aftermath of Wagner’s armed rebellion. Some milbloggers claimed that the Ukrainian presence is limited and that there is no significant threat of Ukrainian forces breaking out of their foothold on the east bank.[14] Milbloggers complained that the Russian military command is unnecessarily impaling Russian forces on Ukrainian remotely laid mines and compelling Russian forces to put heavy military equipment in range of Ukrainian artillery fire.[15] One milblogger explicitly blamed Russian “Dnepr” Group of Forces (Kherson Oblast) Commander Colonel General Oleg Makarevich, reportedly headquartered in Rostov-on-Don, for these operations, implying that there is no relevant commander closer to the front line responsible for east bank Kherson Oblast.[16] Wagner Group forces notably surrounded the Russian Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which appears to include the “Dnepr” Grouping headquarters, during its armed rebellion.[17] The rebellion and surrounding of the grouping headquarters notably did not stop Russian milbloggers from criticizing the Russian military command, with one milblogger calling for someone to travel to Rostov to beat up Makarevich.[18] The harsh tone of this Russian information space response is reminiscent of the response to the Russian military command’s failed efforts to take Vuhledar in western Donetsk Oblast in November 2022 and February 2023.[19]

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces and officials are gradually leaving the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) possibly in preparation for an intentional “accident” at the facility. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on June 30 that the Russian contingent at the ZNPP is gradually leaving the facility and that three employees of Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom who managed the facility have recently left for Russian occupied Crimea.[20] The GUR reported that Ukrainian employees at the ZNPP who have signed contracts with Rosatom received instructions that they must evacuate the facility by July 5.[21] The GUR reported that Russian forces are decreasing patrols around the ZNPP itself and in neighboring Enerhodar and that workers at the ZNPP have also received instructions to blame Ukrainian forces in the event of an emergency.[22] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of Russian units leaving the ZNPP or the immediate area as of June 30. GUR Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated on June 30 that Russian forces have prepared for an artificial disaster at the facility.[23] Ukrainian officials in Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts oversaw emergency preparation exercises for a possible “accident“ at the ZNPP on June 29.[24] Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko reported that Ukrainian officials lack the ability to monitor the ZNPP closely enough to become instantly aware of an “accident” at the ZNPP.[25] The president of Ukrainian nuclear energy operator Energoatom, Petro Kotin, stated that the closest radiation censors on the right (west) bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir would alert Ukrainian officials within a few hours of a potential release of radiation at the ZNPP.[26]

Russian forces remain unlikely to cause an intentional “accident” at the ZNPP, and Russia is likely continuing to use the threat of an intentional radiological incident to attempt to constrain Ukrainian counteroffensive actions and Western support for Ukraine ahead of the upcoming NATO summit. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces would not be able to control the consequences of an intentional radiological incident at the ZNPP and that a radiological incident could further degrade Russia’s ability to cement its occupation of southern Ukraine by leaving areas uninhabitable and ungovernable.[27] The likely Russian destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam also adversely impacted Russian forces, however, and possible Russian plans to sabotage the ZNPP cannot be ruled out. Russian forces could conduct several possible radiological man-made incidents at the ZNPP, some more serious than others. Russian forces could discharge irradiated water from the ZNPP into the Kakhovka Reservoir to disrupt a potential Ukrainian crossing of the now largely drained reservoir. Russian forces could also attempt to create a radiological plume to cover a larger area of southern Ukraine, although the reactors are designed to make doing so difficult. The prevailing winds in Zaporizhia Oblast are most often from the north from June 9 to September 3, although forecasted wind directions in the area following the reported July 5 evacuation deadline include days of predominantly easterly winds.[28] A radiation plume from the ZNPP would most certainly affect the Russian forces in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts and possibly in Crimea and would likely impact the Russian forces to a greater degree than the Ukrainian forces given the usual direction of the wind in the area. Russian forces could conduct a man-made “accident” that creates a smaller radiological radius immediately focused on preventing Ukrainian advances near the ZNPP itself. None of these options provide more military benefit for Russian forces than the likely consequences they would create. Ukraine, for its part, would derive no benefits from causing a radiological incident at the ZNPP remotely consonant with the enormous price it would pay in irradiating lands and peoples it seeks to liberate and hindering its own ability to advance in the area, making Russian informational efforts to set conditions for blaming Ukraine for such an incident entirely implausible even if it could do so without physically occupying the plant.

 

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated on June 30 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s previous statements that Russia was preparing an attack at the ZNPP could actually be an indication that Ukrainian officials are preparing an attack on the facility to pull NATO into the war in Ukraine.[29] Zakharova’s preposterous speculations are typical for the Kremlin’s information operations alleging threats to the safety of the ZNPP. The Kremlin has routinely employed threats of nuclear escalation and have warned of largely Russian created threats to the ZNPP in attempts to pressure Ukraine to constrain its military actions and to prevent further Western support for Ukraine.[30] The Kremlin is likely attempting to signal a feigned intent to create a radiological incident at the ZNPP in hopes of creating fears over a Ukrainian crossing of the Kakhovka reservoir in the area so that Russian forces will not have to defend a larger section of the front. The Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail rhetoric has also heavily targeted Western audiences, and the reemergence of escalatory signals and rhetoric around the ZNPP is likely meant in part to shape Western decision-making vis-a-vis Ukraine ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 11.

The Wagner Group is reportedly still actively recruiting personnel within Russia, although it is unclear if new recruits are signing Wagner contracts or military contracts with the MoD. BBC reported that Wagner Group recruitment centers are still open and are continuing to accept recruits in Russia.[31] BBC reported that several recruiters stressed that new members are still signing contracts with the Wagner Group and not with the Russian MoD.[32] One recruiter confirmed that Belarus is now a possible destination for new recruits while other recruiters said that recruits are still being sent to Molkino, a Wagner training center in Krasnodar Krai, “as usual.”[33] Russian military officials have previously used coercive and deceptive means to compel Russian citizens to sign contracts with the MoD, and it is entirely possible that Russian citizens who sign supposed Wagner contracts are actually signing contracts with the MoD.[34] It is also possible that Russian officials have not yet coordinated their intentions for Wagner with the more than 42 Wagner recruitment centers in Russia.[35] Russia citizens may also be signing contracts with Wagner to serve in Wagner operations abroad. ISW previously assessed that the agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to end Wagner’s armed rebellion will very likely eliminate Wagner as the independent actor that it was before the rebellion but that elements of the organization may endure.[36]

The Wagner Group reportedly will operate three large field camps in Belarus. Russian and apparent Belarusian sources reported on June 30 that the Wagner Group in Belarus will operate out of three large field camps, including the previously observed field camp in Asipovichy, Mogilev Oblast.[37] The sources reported that the locations of the other two field camps have not yet been determined but that they will be in western Belarus postured against Poland.[38] The other two unidentified Wagner Group field camps may be located nearby Belarus’ large combined-arms training grounds, such as the Gozhsky Training Ground in Grodno Oblast, the Brest Training Ground near Brest City, or the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground near Baranavichy. Wagner fighters in Belarus would likely need access to such training facilities to serve in the training and advisory role that Russian sources continue to ascribe to them.[39]

An apparent Belarusian milblogger reported that Wagner Group personnel will deploy to Asipovichy, Belarus, soon. An apparent Belarusian source reported on June 29 that the construction for the Asipovichy camp is complete and that Wagner Group personnel will deploy to the camp on an unspecified nearby date.[40] New high resolution satellite imagery collected on June 30 shows that at least 303 tents, each of which can accommodate between 20 – 50 people, have appeared at the formerly abandoned Belarusian military base between June 24 and 30.[41] There is no evidence of heavy equipment at the Asipovichy camp or that the camp is occupied as of June 30.

Assessing the footprint of the Wagner Group in Belarus may help assess the number of Wagner fighters who opt to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). A Russian source stated that it will be possible to estimate how many Wagner Group personnel sign contracts with the Russian MoD by assessing the size of the Wagner Group personnel that go to Belarus (presumably by subtracting the estimated Wagner presence in Belarus from Wagner’s assessed pre-rebellion strength).[42]

A Kremlin-affiliated news outlet reported that the Wagner Group will continue operating in Africa, although the details of its operations remain unclear. Kremlin-affiliated news outlet Vedimosti reported that sources close to the Russian MoD claim that the Wagner Group’s pre-existing projects for “the provision of security services in Africa” are ongoing and that there are no plans to transfer Wagner personnel to other departments.[43] Vedimosti claimed that another source familiar with the Wagner Group’s operations in Mali said that Wagner employees have no reason to fear that a supply disruption will interfere with their current tasks.[44] A Russian milblogger claimed that this is the correct approach and that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion should not affect Russia’s long-term plans in Africa.[45] The Kremlin may allow the Wagner Group to continue operating abroad in some capacity, likely in name only and will be subsumed under the Kremlin’s authority.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin reportedly dissolved his domestic media company Patriot. Russian media outlet Mash reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin dissolved the Patriot Media Holding, the St. Petersburg based media company that Prigozhin founded in 2019.[46] Russian sources claimed that Prigozhin personally announced the dissolution of Patriot Media Holding and laid off all its employees.[47] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger confirmed the report and claimed that according to unconfirmed information the Russian MoD is also dissolving Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg-based company “Concord” and selling its assets.[48] Russian opposition news outlet Vazhnye Istorii reported that Russian state media censor Roskomnadzor blocked access to several of Patriot‘s websites, including RIA FANPolitika SegodnyaEkonomika SegodnyaNarodnye Novosti and others.[49] The future of Prigozhin’s other companies remains unclear but some Russian sources claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration will likely assume control over Prigozhin’s media assets.[50]

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the frontline on June 30.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi stated on June 30 that Ukrainian forces continue to advance in eastern and southern Ukraine despite lacking essential resources.
  • The Russian information space is reacting disproportionately to the Russian military’s failure to drive a small Ukrainian force from east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces and officials are gradually leaving the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) possibly in preparation for an intentional “accident” at the facility.
  • Russian forces remain unlikely to cause an intentional “accident” at the ZNPP, and Russia is likely continuing to use the threat of an intentional radiological incident to attempt to constrain Ukrainian counteroffensive actions and Western support for Ukraine ahead of the upcoming NATO summit.
  • The Wagner Group is reportedly still actively recruiting personnel within Russia, although it is unclear if new recruits are signing Wagner contracts or military contracts with the MoD.
  • The Wagner Group reportedly will operate three large field camps in Belarus and an apparent Belarusian milblogger reported that Wagner Group personnel will deploy to Asipovichy, Belarus, soon.
  • A Kremlin-affiliated news outlet reported that the Wagner Group will continue operating in Africa, although the details of its operations remain unclear.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin reportedly dissolved his domestic media company Patriot.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to engage in battles along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to counterattack and reportedly made some gains in the Bakhmut area.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued to skirmish on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and Ukrainian forces advanced as of June 30.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to improve monetary and educational benefits to servicemen in order to retain loyalty and incentivize military service.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities are attempting to explain away the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

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

June 29, 2023, 7:20pm ET

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

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

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

The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian forces seized the “strategic initiative“ in the Bakhmut direction and are currently conducting a broad offensive in the area.[1] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar similarly stated that Ukrainian forces seized the “operational initiative” in the area and reported that Ukrainian forces advanced 1,200m in the direction of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut) and 1,500m in the direction of Kurdyumivka (13km southwest of Bakhmut).[2] Ukrainian Commander in Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi also stated that Ukrainian forces have the “strategic initiative“ in a phone conversation with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley on June 29.[3]ISW previously assessed that Ukrainian forces had gained the initiative at every level of war across almost the entire front following the Russian capture of Bakhmut on May 21.[4] Ukrainian officials are likely now acknowledging that Ukrainian forces possess the initiative in order to signal that Ukrainian forces intend to leverage it to a greater degree.

Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in at least two other sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 29. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts.[5]The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved partial success along the Rivnopil-Volodyne line (up to 16km southwest of Velyka Novosilka).[6]

The Kremlin may intend to assume formal control over the Wagner Group following its armed rebellion and turn it into a state-owned enterprise, although it is not clear if the Kremlin has committed itself to such a course of action. The Wall Street Journal reported that Russian authorities decided to assume control over Wagner’s activities abroad.[7] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin reportedly flew to Damascus to tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Wagner will no longer operate as an independent organization in Syria and that Wagner personnel reported to the Russian military base in Latakia. Russian Foreign Ministry representatives also reportedly told Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera and Malian leadership that Wagner will continue operations in their respective countries.[8] Putin claimed on June 27 that the Kremlin “fully funds” and “fully supplies” Wagner, and Russian officials may use Wagner’s existing status as a state-financed and -supplied organization to complete its formal nationalization.[9]The nationalization of Wagner would likely aid in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) effort to subsume existing Wagner personnel into the regular Russian Armed Forces through contracts. The nationalization of Wagner would not likely dramatically disrupt its foreign activities, and the Kremlin may be interested in assuming de jure responsibility for Wagner's operations abroad to deprive the group of a remaining source of influence and independent cash flow. ISW has previously assessed that the agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will very likely eliminate Wagner as the independent actor that it is in its current form but could allow elements of the organization to endure.[10] The Kremlin has not indicated that it intends to nationalize Wagner, and it is possible that Putin has yet to determine what course of action to take in subordinating the group more firmly under the Kremlin’s control.

Recent satellite imagery may have detected active construction of a speculated new Wagner Group base in Asipovichy, Belarus. Mid-resolution imagery collected between June 15 and 27 shows new activity at an abandoned Belarusian military base (formerly used by the Belarusian 465th Missile Brigade) 15km northwest of Asipovichy.[11] This activity could be construction for a rumored new Wagner Group base. This site is within 15km of a large Belarusian combined arms training ground — a facility that Wagner Group personnel would need to access to service the Belarusian military in a training and advisory role that Belarusian officials have suggested Wagner will fulfill.[12] Russian opposition outlet Verstka previously reported on June 26 that Belarusian authorities are constructing a base for 8,000 Wagner Group fighters near Asipovichy.[13]Polish Deputy PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski stated that Poland anticipates that around 8,000 Wagner Group fighters will deploy to Belarus.[14] Further study of this area of interest with higher resolution collection instruments may provide additional clarity on the nature of the activity in the area and the size of the force that may be based there.

Wagner Group personnel may deploy elsewhere in Belarus, however. There is nothing particularly unique or interesting about a potential Wagner Group base in Asipovichy. Verstka’s original report indicated that the Wagner Group would have multiple camps in Belarus. Belarus hosts many training grounds and field camps that accommodated 30,000 Russian soldiers in early 2022 — many of which were on the border with Ukraine in Gomel and Brest oblasts.[15] The Wagner Group in Belarus could use some of these facilities as bases as well as or instead of the rumored base in Asipovichy.

Kremlin-affiliated businessmen may be acquiring Prigozhin’s domestic media empire, likely as part of ongoing effort to destroy his reputation in Russia. Russian independent outlet The Bell, citing sources who cooperate with Prigozhin’s companies, reported that the Russian presidential administration will likely have direct control over Prigozhin’s media assets.[16] Sources noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “personal banker” Yuriy Kovalchuk may acquire assets of Prigozhin’s “Patriot” media holding group and the RIA FAN news outlet for his “National Media Group.”[17] The Bell also noted that some Russian Telegram channels claimed that president of the “Herst Shkulev Media” holding group Viktor Shkulev may purchase Prigozhin’s media assets for one ruble with a commitment to retain the media editorial teams for three months and to pay salary arrears to staff. Sources expressed confidence that the Russian Presidential Administration will likely directly control Prigozhin’s media assets regardless of the identity of the future owner of these companies.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to address Army General Sergei Surovikin’s whereabouts on June 29, prompting more speculations in the Russian information space. Peskov could have denied ongoing speculations about Surovikin if there were no investigation of him. Peskov’s refusal suggests that Russian officials may be investigating Surovikin since Russian officials usually refuse to comment on ongoing investigations.[18] Russian news aggregator Baza reported that Surovikin’s daughter, Veronika Surovikina, claimed that Russian authorities did not arrest Surovikin and that he continues to work.[19] Russian sources claimed that Surovikin’s deputy, Colonel General Andrey Yudin, denied claims that Russian officials were holding him and Surovikin at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center in Moscow.[20] A Russian milblogger denied Surovikin’s detention but claimed that the Kremlin is continuing to investigate members of the military leadership with close ties to Prigozhin.[21] Russian opposition news outlet Vazhnye Istorii reported that two of their sources close to the Russian General Staff and Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that Russian authorities questioned Surovikin and released him.[22] It would be logical for Russian officials to question Surovikin or any other military officials with ties to Prigozhin after Wagner’s armed rebellion.

Western observers continue to speculate about the whereabouts of Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov following Wagner’s rebellion, although his lack of public appearance is not necessarily indicative of his current official standing within the Russian military leadership.[23] Gerasimov has previously not appeared in public for long periods of time, particularly between the summer of 2022 and his reemergence in the winter of 2023 in the weeks leading up to his appointment to overall theater commander.[24] These stretches of absence prompted speculations that the Kremlin either had replaced him or intended to replace him as Chief of the General Staff.[25] The Kremlin and the Russian MoD carefully responded to these previous bouts of speculation by routinely affirming Gerasimov’s role as Chief of the General Staff, although they have yet to respond to the most recent round of speculation fueled by Wagner’s armed rebellion.[26] ISW recently assessed that the Kremlin will likely attempt to balance a desire to mitigate widespread disdain for MoD establishment figures like Gerasimov that fueled Wagner’s rebellion with trying to disempower those who may have sympathized with the rebellion.[27] Russian speculations that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky recently assumed Gerasimov’s responsibilities for Russian operations in Ukraine would be in line with this effort, although there continues to be no confirmation that such a transfer of responsibilities has occurred.[28] It is possible that Putin has yet to decide how to fully respond to Wagner’s rebellion, including decisions on a potential overhaul of the Russian military’s command cadre or changes in whom among the military leadership Putin favors. Until the Kremlin’s response to the rebellion becomes clearer Gerasimov’s public absence alone is not an indicator of his position within the Russian military leadership. ISW has previously observed that Gerasimov’s involvement, or lack thereof, in public meetings with Putin indicated the likely degree of favor that Gerasimov has enjoyed with Putin during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine but not his retention or loss of his formal position.[29]

Russian sources claimed that the Kremlin replaced the head of the Kaliningrad Oblast Rosgvardia (National Guard) on June 28. Russian sources reported that Murmansk Oblast Rosgvardia Head Viktor Galiy assumed the position of the Kaliningrad Oblast Rosgvardia head.[30]

Key Takeaways

  • The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian forces seized the “strategic initiative” in the Bakhmut direction and are currently conducting a broad offensive in the area.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in at least two other sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 29.
  • The Kremlin may intend to assume formal control over the Wagner Group following its armed rebellion and turn it into a state-owned enterprise, although it is not clear if the Kremlin has committed itself to such a course of action.
  • Recent satellite imagery may have detected active construction of a speculated new Wagner Group base in Asipovichy, Belarus.
  • Kremlin-affiliated businessmen may be acquiring Prigozhin’s domestic media empire, likely as part of ongoing effort to destroy his reputation in Russia.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to address Army General Sergei Surovikin’s whereabouts on June 29, prompting more speculations in the Russian information space.
  • Western observers continue to speculate about the whereabouts of Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov following Wagner’s rebellion, although his lack of public appearance is not necessarily indicative of his current official standing within the Russian military leadership
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces intensified counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area and reportedly made advances.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
  • Russian forces in early May constructed a dam on the outskirts of Tokmak in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • A Russian BARS (Russian Combat Reserve) affiliated source claimed that Russian forces are moving military equipment to unspecified areas on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • The Crimea-based Atesh partisan group stated that Russian forces are increasing their presence in Armyansk to defend key infrastructure in northern Crimea.
  • Russian Cossack armed formations are reportedly signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as part of a larger formalization effort to integrate irregular forces into MoD structures.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 28, 2023

Click here to read the full report

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

 June 28, 2023, 5:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on June 28. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 29 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Continued reporting about the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion suggests that involved parties may still be negotiating the specifics of the agreement. Independent Belarusian monitoring group The Hajun Project cited flight tracking data on June 27 suggesting that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s jet took off from the Machulishchy airfield in Belarus towards Russia, flew to Moscow, and then immediately took off for St. Petersburg.[1] Former Russian officer and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin claimed that Prigozhin returned to Russia to negotiate with unspecified Russian officials and the Wagner Commander’s Council.[2] ISW cannot independently confirm if Prigozhin did in fact return to Russia, nor the details of the purported visit, but Prigozhin may have returned briefly to work out further details of the deal negotiated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Russian sources continued to speculate on the specifics of this deal on June 28. A Wagner-affiliated Russian milblogger posted an interview with a Belarusian Wagner fighter wherein the fighter claimed that Wagner has opened a “new combat direction” in Belarus and that some Wagner fighters will “work in Russia” while some “work in Belarus.”[3] Russian opposition outlet Meduza, citing a source within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that only 1,000 Wagner fighters went to Belarus with Prigozhin, however.[4] Belarusian opposition channel Belamova additionally claimed that satellite imagery from June 27 shows the construction of a new military object in the Osipovichi raion that was not visible as of June 13, suggesting that the imagery could show the construction of a Wagner training camp in Belarus.[5] It is unclear if construction of the military object appeared before the announcement of the Prigozhin-Lukashenko deal on June 24, and ISW cannot independently confirm if the object is in any way related to Wagner.[6] However, the pervasive speculation surrounding Wagner’s position in Belarus suggests that certain aspects of the deal are still being worked out.

Russian sources speculated that Wagner’s rebellion is already having widespread impacts on the Russian command structure. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Wagner’s rebellion has prompted “large-scale purges” among the command cadre of the Russian armed forces and that the Russian MoD is currently undergoing a “crash test” for loyalty.[7] The milblogger claimed that the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) is conducting a review of the Russian military leadership as well as the individual unit commanders.[8] The milblogger claimed that Russian officials are using the MoD’s “indecisiveness” in suppressing the rebellion and “support for paramilitary companies (PMCs)” as pretexts to remove “objectionable” personnel from their positions. The milblogger notably claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) commander and rumored deputy theater commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky assumed responsibilities as overall theater commander in Ukraine from Chief of the General Staff and current overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov on an unspecified date, but likely after the rebellion. The milblogger emphasized that Gerasimov will retain his post as Chief of the General Staff but will no longer have responsibilities for Russian operations in Ukraine. Another Russian source claimed that an “atmosphere of suspicion has enveloped the General Staff” and that affiliates of Gerasimov are accused of indecision and failure while the affiliates of deputy commander of the joint grouping of forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin are accused of complicity in the rebellion.[9] The sources publishing these speculations have largely been accurate in previous reporting on Russian command changes, although the ongoing disruption to human networks and the severe potential consequences related to Prigozhin’s armed rebellion may affect these sources’ accuracy. ISW cannot confirm any of these speculations about the command changes at this time, but it is evident that the armed rebellion is continuing to have substantial ramifications in the information space.

Russian authorities reportedly arrested Army General Sergei Surovikin on June 28, possibly indicating that the Kremlin intends to purge the MoD of figures viewed as disloyal. Russian opposition source The Moscow Times reported on June 28 that two sources close to the MoD confirmed that the Russian authorities had arrested Surovikin because he chose to side with Prigozhin during the rebellion.[10] The New York Times reported on June 28 that US officials briefed on US intelligence stated that Surovikin had advance knowledge of the rebellion, but that US intelligence is still trying to ascertain if Surovikin directly supported Prigozhin’s effort.[11] It is unclear what transpired that would have forced Surovikin to call on Prigozhin to end the rebellion only several hours after its start, although it is possible that he did so under duress instead of out of support for the Russian military leadership. If Russian authorities did arrest Surovikin then the Kremlin will likely use Surovikin and his affiliates as scapegoats to publicly explain why the Russian military and Russian internal security apparatuses responded poorly to the rebellion and to justify a potential overhaul of the Russian military leadership. ISW has previously reported on Surovikin‘s notable Wagner affiliations and alleged support for Wagner, and Surovikin is a prime candidate for a scapegoat regardless of the actual level of support he gave to the rebellion.[12]

The Kremlin will likely attempt to balance a desire to mitigate the widespread disdain for MoD establishment figures that fueled Wagner’s rebellion while also trying to disempower those who may have sympathized with the rebellion. Segments of the pro-war ultranationalist community and the Russian military have routinely criticized Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for their management of the war in Ukraine, and Prigozhin’s avowed goal of forcibly removing the two generals suggests that the Kremlin may view Gerasimov’s and Shoigu’s unpopularity as a direct threat to Putin’s ability to retain support among key constituencies and the military.[13] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin is likely attempting to signal that Shoigu will maintain his position, but the Kremlin has yet to promote Gerasimov in a similar way in the days following the rebellion.[14] The Kremlin may attempt to placate disdain for the MoD establishment by reducing Gerasimov’s role in operations in Ukraine, although he is highly likely to maintain, at least nominally, the position of overall theater commander and his long-term role as Chief of the General Staff. ISW has previously assessed that Gerasimov’s removal from either position would be too damaging to Putin’s and the MoD’s reputation. Putin could attempt to avoid the fallout from future command changes by increasingly rewarding commanders with responsibility beyond their official positions.[15] Putin is likely further incentivized not to publicly replace Gerasimov out of fears of legitimizing rebellion as a successful means of blackmail. The speculations that Gerasimov’s role is diminishing in Ukraine may suggest that Putin is diverting Gerasimov to another effort instead of completely demoting him. Putin likely values Gerasimov for his loyalty above all else, and he may task Gerasimov with staff changes within the MoD focused on loyalty should the Kremlin decide to overhaul the Russian military leadership.[16]

The Kremlin may have chosen Teplinsky as a de facto overall theater commander because he is reportedly widely popular among the Russian rank-and-file and the Russian ultranationalist community.[17] Teplinsky previously commanded forces alongside Wagner around Bakhmut in the winter of 2023, but it is not immediately clear if Teplinsky supported Wagner more generally as Surovikin reportedly did, and Teplinsky remained silent during the armed rebellion.[18] Teplinsky reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the current military command directly to Putin in late February and assumed a leading military command position in April 2023, becoming one of the most notable anti-Gerasimov commanders aside from Surovikin.[19] Teplinsky is allegedly in charge of sectors of the front where Russian forces are currently defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, and speculations of his de facto appointment to overall theater commander may indicate that the Kremlin sought to reward Teplinsky for overseeing doctrinal Russian defensive operations in these areas of the front or to find a public face for the war effort who can claim credit for showing at least basic military competence to offset or distract from the attention Prigozhin had received for the seizure of Bakhmut.[20] The Kremlin may choose to assign responsibilities for command in Ukraine in such a way that Russian military officials privately recognize that an anti-Gerasimov figure controls the war effort in Ukraine without the Kremlin having to acknowledge that fact publicly. The Kremlin will likely struggle to balance between appeasing discontent with the MoD and purging it of disloyal figures without contradicting its rhetoric and actions. Should it find that balance too hard to strike it may choose to pursue only one of the goals. In that event, the Kremlin will almost certainly choose the effort of purging disloyal figures regardless of continued ire towards the MoD leadership.   

Russian sources claimed that the Kremlin is punishing Russian forces that it perceives to have failed in their response to the rebellion.  Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian pilots who refused to strike the Wagner convoys and Russian border guards who refused to open fire on Wagner are now facing unspecified criminal prosecution.[21] The Kremlin may punish lower-ranking Russian servicemen to create additional scapegoats for their response to the rebellion, although refusal to obey legal and direct orders would be grounds for courts martial in any military, and an order to fire on forces engaged in armed rebellion would very likely be legal. ISW cannot confirm these milblogger claims at this time.

The Russian Duma is considering additional measures to increase control over the information space and promote self-censorship within broad internet communities. First Deputy Chairperson for the State Duma Education Committee Yana Lantratova stated on June 27 that the State Duma will propose to appoint a body “authorized to monitor the activities of bloggers.”[22] Lantratova also stated that Duma deputies will submit an additional bill on the registration of bloggers as “mass media” and that defines the rights and obligations of bloggers.[23] While reporting on this bill does not specify military correspondents or milbloggers, it is likely that milbloggers will fall into the broad category of “bloggers” and will be subject to increased regulation and control by the proposed monitoring body and resultant bill. ISW has previously reported on the efforts of Russian authorities to increase censorship of milbloggers and military commentators.[24] The Duma may have suggested this law using the broad category of “blogger” to avoid drawing specific ire from milbloggers, who largely did not comment on these updates on July 28.

Belarus formally ratified an agreement on the establishment of joint Russian-Belarusian training centers in Belarus on June 28. Belarusian media reported that Belarusian deputies adopted a draft law on the ratification of an agreement between Russia and Belarus on the “establishment and operation of combat training centers for joint training of military personnel” of Belarusian and Russian military personnel.[25] Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin noted that the main tasks of these combat training centers is the “unification of combat training” by Russian and Belarusian forces.[26] ISW previously assessed in April of 2021 that Russia opened such training centers in Belarus to set conditions for further permanent military basing as part of the wider Russian effort to entirely subordinate Belarus under Kremlin control.[27] The agreement on joint training centers was previously signed on March 28, 2023, on the basis of an October 31, 2022, draft treaty law.[28] The ratification of the pre-existing agreement is the next step in the Kremlin’s ongoing campaign to secure the military subordination of Belarus and is not related to the reported deal between Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on Wagner’s exile to Belarus following the June 23-24 armed rebellion.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone conversation with the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Major General Mohammad Bagheri on June 28. Russian media reported that Shoigu and Bagheri discussed issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, regional security, and the wider international situation and announced their intention to deepen bilateral dialogue and develop additional defense contracts.[29] Bagheri is responsible for Iranian military policy and strategic guidance and previously met with Shoigu in Moscow in October 2021.[30] Bagheri's senior role within Iran's security apparatus suggests that he could be discussing arms sales with Shoigu. Iranian officials have previously expressed interest in receiving Russian fighter jets and air defense systems in return for Iran's support for the Russian war effort, though these sales have not yet materialized.[31] ISW and the Critical Threats Project had previously assessed that Iran is seeking to leverage arms sales to generate revenue for the Iranian economy.[32]

Unconfirmed reports claim that Russian military police allegedly detained Wagner Group commanders in Syria.  Saudi Arabian TV channel Al Hadath reportedly stated on June 27 on air that Russian military police detained the head of Wagner’s branch in Suwayda, Syria, and three other “high-ranking” Wagner commanders at the Hmeimim Air Base and visited Wagner offices in Damascus, Hama, and Deir ez Zor.[33] Russian news outlet Kommersant reported that Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin later denied these claims of Wagner personnel arrests in Syria on his Telegram channel.[34] Another Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel also denied the arrests.[35]  ISW is unable to independently verify these claims at this time.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least four sectors of the front. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction, along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia administrative border, and in western Zaporizhia.[36] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks south of Kreminna.[37] Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated in an interview with Financial Times published on June 28 that the “main event” of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has not yet started.[38]

Key Takeaways

  • Continued reporting about the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion suggests that involved parties may still be negotiating the specifics of the agreement.
  • Russian sources speculated that Wagner’s rebellion is already having widespread impacts on the Russian command structure.
  • Russian authorities reportedly arrested Army General Sergei Surovikin on June 28, possibly indicating that the Kremlin intends to purge the MoD of figures viewed as disloyal.
  • The Kremlin will likely attempt to balance a desire to mitigate the widespread disdain for MoD establishment figures that fueled Wagner’s rebellion while also trying to disempower those who may have sympathized with the rebellion.
  • The Russian Duma is considering additional measures to increase control over the information space and promote self-censorship within broad internet communities.
  • Belarus formally ratified an agreement on the establishment of joint Russian-Belarusian training centers in Belarus on June 28.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone conversation with the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Major General Mohammad Bagheri on June 28.
  • Unconfirmed reports claim that Russian military police allegedly detained Wagner Group commanders in Syria.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least four sectors of the front.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted a strike on civilian infrastructure in Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast on the night of June 27.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and conducted limited probing attacks on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River near the Antonivsky Bridge in Kherson Oblast on June 27 and 28.
  • Russian sources reported on continued Russian efforts to clarify terms and conditions for military service.
  • Russian and occupation officials continue efforts to deconflict legal discrepancies as part of the incorporation of occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 27, 2023

Click here to read the full report

George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

June 27, 2023, 8:50 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.

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on June 27. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 28 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to present Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society. Putin implied on June 27 that “the owner of Concord company” (the Concord company is the parent company of Prigozhin’s catering company) lied about the Wagner Group private military company’s (PMC) independence from the Kremlin and the lack of state compensation for Wagner personnel.[1]Putin publicly claimed for the first time since Wagner’s founding that the Kremlin “fully funds” and “fully supplies” the Wagner PMC and claimed that the Kremlin made various payments to Wagner personnel and their families from Russia’s federal budget. Putin added that “the owner of the Concord Company” received 80 billion rubles (about $936 million) between May 2022 and May 2023 for delivering and catering food to the Russian military, and that the Kremlin will investigate whether the company stole anything during its work for the Kremlin. Putin was clearly referring to Prigozhin, who is the owner of the Concord Company Group and previously worked as Putin’s personal caterer, but Putin continues to refuse to say Prigozhin’s name.[2] Putin’s insinuation that the Kremlin will investigate the Concord Company may be preparation to justify the Kremlin’s confiscation of Prigozhin’s assets via corruption charges.

Putin is rhetorically separating Prigozhin from the Wagner PMC and is deliberately depriving Prigozhin of the title of Wagner financier to undermine his role in the Wagner PMC. The Kremlin launched an ongoing domestic information campaign in Russia to forgive Wagner fighters and commanders in an effort to lure Wagner personnel to sign contacts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).[3] The deliberate effort to separate Prigozhin from the Wagner Group is likely intended to set informational conditions so that the Kremlin can accuse Prigozhin of corruption or conspiring with Ukraine or the West and alienate Prigozhin from Wagner personnel whom the Kremlin seeks to retain to fight in Ukraine as part of the regular Russian military.[4] Prigozhin had built his personal brand on criticizing the Russian military command and bureaucrats for corruption and ties to Western countries, and Putin is likely attempting to shatter Prigozhin’s populist appeal by accusing him of the same sins.

Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time. Prigozhin still retains some support within Russian society and the Russian regular forces, and the Kremlin will need to ensure that these groups become disillusioned with Prigozhin to effectively deprive him of his popular support in Russia. Prigozhin campaigned for military command changes by accusing the Russian MoD of mistreating regular Russian military personnel in combat – a message that likely appealed to many servicemen and their families disillusioned with mobilization, casualties, supply shortages, and great loss of life with little to show for it. The Kremlin needs to separate Prigozhin’s cause from his persona, lest an attack on Prigozhin be perceived as a Kremlin attack on his popular narrative and his stated objectives of punishing the criminally incompetent Russian MoD leadership. The Kremlin will likely continue to attack Prigozhin’s character to break Prigozhin’s popular support, discourage Wagner personnel from following him to Belarus, and destroy his financial power.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s account of his mediation between Putin and Prigozhin on June 24-25 in tandem with Putin’s June 26 speech indicates that Putin promised Lukashenko and Prigozhin that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group would have “security guarantees” in Belarus. Lukashenko indicated on June 27 that Putin “promised” both Lukashenko and Prigozhin that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group would enjoy unspecified “security guarantees” in Belarus.[5] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officially dropped charges against Prigozhin on June 27.[6] Lukashenko has thus likely managed to secure a degree of safe haven for Prigozhin in Belarus at this time. This is a change in ISW’s June 26 assessment that the offer of safe haven in Belarus was likely a trap.[7] ISW has altered its assessment based on the pattern created by Putin’s and Lukashenko’s speeches.

It is unclear whether Prigozhin’s safety will survive Putin’s effort to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation, however, especially since the threat of corruption investigations against Prigozhin opens the possibility of new charges against Prigozhin that Putin’s promise presumably does not cover. Putin thus likely decided to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and possibly strip him of his financial resources for offenses technically independent of the armed rebellion while abstaining from punishing Prigozhin directly for the rebellion.

Lukashenko likely seeks to use the Wagner Group in Belarus to buy maneuvering space to balance against the Kremlin campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State. Lukashenko described at length how he inserted himself into the Putin-Prigozhin conflict in a way that - if Lukashenko’s account is true - demonstrates that Lukashenko is a politically savvy actor capable of exercising influence within the upper echelons of Russian politics. Lukashenko described how he managed to broker the deal between Putin and a livid Prigozhin, who refused to answer Putin’s phone calls, by skillfully engaging both parties directly and through Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Russian FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov.[8] Lukashenko’s elaborate account suggests that Lukashenko successfully mediated a crisis within Putin‘s own inner circle that Putin could not.[9] Lukashenko intervened to mediate likely in part to signal to Putin and other senior Kremlin officials that Moscow should not trifle with Lukashenko and that Lukashenko has the ability to operate successfully and independently within Russian politics. Lukashenko’s boasting about his ability to manipulate power brokers within Putin’s innermost circle is humiliating for Putin, whether or not it is true. The fact that Putin has not challenged Lukashenko’s presentation of events and has in fact publicly thanked Lukashenko is even more humiliating.

Lukashenko likely seeks to closely control any Wagner Group forces that move into Belarus. Lukashenko stressed that the Wagner Group will not open recruitment centers in Belarus as it did in Russia but that Belarusians - and presumably other nationals- will be allowed to join the Wagner Group in Belarus.[10] Lukashenko’s description suggests that the Wagner Group will primarily act as a training and advisory partner for the Belarusian military. Lukashenko stated that Wagner forces have more training than the Belarusian military and that the Belarusian military could benefit from the Wagner Group’s extensive combat experience.[11] Lukashenko denied claims that Belarusian authorities have already begun establishing field camps for Wagner Group fighters but said Belarus would create camps if Wagner requested them.[12]

Lukashenko may seek to use the Wagner Group in Belarus to reduce the Belarusian military’s accumulated structural dependency on the Russian military for higher operational functions. Lukashenko may seek to use the Wagner Group to help rebuild lost capability within the Belarusian military that the Belarusian military largely delegated to the Russian Western Military District. The Belarusian military’s dissolution of its unified ground command in 2011 effectively subordinated Belarus’ military to the Western Military District.[13] Belarus has no recent experience in conducting large-scale operations or organizing exercises above the battalion level. Belarus’ main source of knowledge and experience for higher operational activity is from Russian-organized exercises, such as the recurring Zapad, Union Shield, and Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises.[14] The Wagner Group has experience conducting combined arms operations with formations larger than the combat services of the Belarusian military.[15] It is unclear how successful this assessed effort may be, however. The Belarusian military’s operational subordination to the Russian General Staff has been a de facto reality for many years, and reversing such deep institutional linkages will be difficult, if even possible. Russia’s new regime stability crisis may provide novel opportunities for Minsk, nonetheless.

Lukashenko also announced on June 27 that Belarus had received an unspecified number of Russian nuclear weapons on a previous date – a development that Lukashenko may also use to balance against the Kremlin’s campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State. Belarusian opposition railway workers claimed on June 27 that Russian nuclear weapons will be delivered to the base of the 2631st Missile and Air Ammunition Storage Base in Prudok, Vitebsk Oblast.[16] Lukashenko observed on June 27 that nobody has gone to war with a nuclear power and insinuated that Belarus will use nuclear weapons if a hostile state attacks Belarus.[17] This development is more interesting for how Lukashenko may use the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus to posture against Russia than because of any threat nuclear weapons in Belarus pose to NATO or Ukraine. Lukashenko may use the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in tandem with a new Wagner Group presence in Belarus to argue that Belarus has a new capacity to defend itself independent of Russia and that additional Russian basing in Belarus is therefore unnecessary. An indicator of this course of action will be whether Lukashenko allows more Russian military personnel to train at Belarusian training grounds. Ukrainian officials stated that there were approximately 1,000 Russian military personnel in Belarus as of early June 2023 – a sharp decrease from spring 2023 when Ukrainian officials reported that about 9,000-10,000 Russian troops were in Belarus as of March 30.[18] Another indicator would be an explicit promise or rejection of permanent Russian ground forces bases in Belarus.

The ongoing Putin-Lukashenko-Prigozhin powerplay is not yet over and will continue to have short-term and long-term consequences that may benefit Ukraine. Director of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) Viktor Zolotov announced on June 27 that Rosgvardia will receive heavy weapons and tanks.[19] The announcement indicates that the Kremlin is attempting to address regime security issues that transpired during Prigozhin’s armed rebellion on June 24 – such as Russia’s security forces’ inability or unwillingness to repel a mechanized drive on Moscow. The transfer of heavy military equipment to Rosgvardia for internal security will tie up weapons that could otherwise be used in Ukraine. The Russian MoD also announced on June 27 preparations to transfer the Wagner Group’s heavy military equipment to unspecified elements of the Russian Armed Forces.[20] This transfer will deprive Wagner forces of organic heavy mechanized equipment and suggests that the Russian MoD seeks to dissolve previously separate Wagner units, atomize Wagner Group fighters, and integrate them into regular Russian units to minimize the risk of any repeated Wagner-driven mutiny attempts. The announced transfer of Wagner’s equipment to MoD elements also suggests that Wagner forces are unlikely to imminently deploy to reinforce frontlines in Ukraine before undergoing reorganization.

It remains unclear whether the Russian MoD will dissolve Wagner detachments and reassign Wagner personnel to pre-existing regular units. Such a drastic reorganization would be tantamount to the dissolution of the Wagner Group in Ukraine as a distinct organizational entity and would eliminate the unique combat power that the Wagner Group developed for itself in Ukraine. A Russian MoD decision to maintain separate Wagner units within the MoD structure would pose stability risks when subordinating previously independent and overindulged Wagner forces under the MoD highly bureaucratic military command. Separate Wagner forces would likely continue to pose an internal threat to Russia due to their dissatisfaction with the Russian military command – the reason why Wagner forces followed Prigozhin into the armed rebellion in the first place.

The Kremlin campaign to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and possibly dissolve the Wagner Group’s Ukraine force decreases the probability of Putin announcing a new round of reserve mobilization in the near term. The Russian MoD will be preoccupied with subordinating Wagner forces if many of them elect to sign contracts with the MoD. Putin, who is a cautious decisionmaker and has clearly signaled his concern for his regime, is also unlikely to aggravate Russian society with a highly unpopular mobilization announcement on the heels of the armed rebellion. The Kremlin’s response to the aftermath of Prigozhin’s armed rebellion points to more advantageous conditions for Ukraine compared with the pre-June 24 situation.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least four sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 27. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that Ukrainian forces advanced in all active sectors of the front from Donetsk to Zaporizhia oblasts.[21] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks near and south of Kreminna.[22] Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut.[23] Ukrainian General Staff Spokesperson Andriy Kovalev stated that Ukrainian forces conducted successful offensive operations south of Velyka Novosilka near the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts administrative border and south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[24] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks south and southeast of Velyka Novosilka, and one prominent milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces made further gains south of Rivnopil (10km southwest of Velyka Novosilka) after capturing the settlement on June 26.[25] Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counterattacks south of Orikhiv to regain lost positions.[26]

Russian President Vladimir Putin identified the Ukrainian main counteroffensive effort on June 27, possibly signaling his own defensive priority. Putin claimed that Ukraine considers the Orikhiv direction in western Zaporizhia Oblast as “the main direction of attack.”[27] ISW offers no assessment of the accuracy of Putin’s statement or of which sector Ukraine has prioritized or plans to prioritize as the main counteroffensive effort. Putin may have instead identified the sector of the front that he perceives as most critical to hold, however. ISW has observed the most extensive Russian defensive fortifications erected in the western Zaporizhia Oblast south of Orikhiv.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to present Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among Wagner personnel and within Russian society.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s account of his mediation between Putin and Prigozhin on June 24-25 in tandem with Putin’s June 26 speech indicates that Putin promised Lukashenko and Prigozhin that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group would have “security guarantees” in Belarus.
  • Lukashenko likely seeks to use the Wagner Group in Belarus to buy maneuvering space to balance against the Kremlin campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State and likely seeks to closely control any Wagner Group forces that move into Belarus.
  • Lukashenko also announced on June 27 that Belarus had received an unspecified number of Russian nuclear weapons on a previous date – a development that Lukashenko may also use to balance against the Kremlin’s campaign to absorb Belarus via the Union State.
  • The ongoing Putin-Lukashenko-Prigozhin powerplay is not yet over and will continue to have short-term and long-term consequences that may benefit Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin campaign to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and possibly dissolve the Wagner Group’s Ukraine force decreases the probability of Putin announcing a new round of reserve mobilization in the near term.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least four sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 27.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin identified the Ukrainian main counteroffensive effort on June 27, possibly signaling his own defensive priority.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials are signaling that Ukrainian forces are capitalizing on the armed rebellion in Russia and intensifying counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area as of June 27.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts’ administrative border area.
  • Russian milbloggers expressed concern at Ukrainian attempts to advance south of Kherson City.
  • Russian officials expressed varied opinions on the future of private military companies (PMCs) in response to the armed rebellion.
  • The UN reported that Russia has detained hundreds of Ukrainian civilians since the start of the war in Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 26, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

 June 26, 2023, 10pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4pm ET on June 2. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 27 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on June 26 seeking to persuade as many Wagner fighters and leaders as possible to join the Russian military and continue fighting against Ukraine and to cause individuals most loyal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to self-identify. Putin continued to denounce the organizers of the armed rebellion as traitors.[1] Putin thanked Russian society and the Russian security forces for defending Russia’s sovereignty and expressed gratitude to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for brokering negotiations with the perpetrators of the rebellion. Putin did not name Prigozhin specifically, but Putin’s speech leaves little room for any rapprochement with Prigozhin.

Putin stated that Russia’s true enemy is Ukraine and distinguished between the Wagner Group fighters and the armed rebellion’s organizers, presumably Prigozhin and Prigozhin loyalists, and offered Wagner Group fighters three choices. Putin gave the Wagner Group commanders and fighters space to distance themselves from Prigozhin’s armed rebellion, stating that “we know that the overwhelming majority of Wagner Group fighters and commanders are also Russian patriots, devoted to their people and state.”[2] Putin stated that Wagner fighters who seek to continue “serving Russia” can sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or other Russian security services, retire and go home, or go to Belarus (presumably to be with Prigozhin).[3] Putin praised the work of Wagner Group commanders likely in an effort to retain them as the Wagner Group integrates into the MoD. The MoD’s ability to retain as many of Wagner’s current commanders as possible during the integration and subordination process is likely critical to maintaining the Wagner Group’s combat effectiveness and morale.

The Kremlin indicated that Russia aims to retain Wagner forces in order to sustain its operations in Ukraine and other international engagements. Putin could have arrested the Wagner commanders for treason but instead offered to forgive and integrate Wagner forces – which indicates his need for trained and effective manpower. Putin is also likely attempting to finalize the Russian MoD-initiated formalization effort. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reassured his foreign counterparts on June 26 that Wagner will continue operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.[4] Putin’s and Lavrov’s rhetoric supports an ongoing domestic information campaign in Russia to forgive and retain Wagner fighters.[5] Local Russian sources also reported that Wagner employees continue to recruit personnel in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Tyumen.[6]

Some Wagner Group forces may follow Prigozhin to Belarus. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on June 26 that Belarusian authorities are constructing several new camps to house the Wagner Group fighters in Belarus and that the construction of a 24,000 square kilometer base for 8,000 Wagner Group fighters is already underway in Asipovichy, Mogilev Oblast.[7] The location of a Wagner Group base in Asipovichy does not pose an immediate threat against Ukraine; Asipovichy is about 200 kilometers from Belarus’ international border with Ukraine, and the establishment of new Wagner Group bases in Gomel or Brest oblasts on the border with Ukraine would be much more alarming. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may seek to use the Prigozhin and Wagner Group fighters to balance against a longstanding Russian effort to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, though the extent to which Lukashenko can successfully co-opt Prigozhin or refuse a potential Russian extradition demand for Prigozhin or Wagner fighters in Belarus remains unclear. Prigozhin’s personal whereabouts remain unclear as of June 26, though some unconfirmed reports suggest that he is in the “Green City Hotel” in western Minsk City.[8]

Belarus will not offer Prigozhin or Wagner fighters a true haven if the Kremlin pressures Belarus, however. Putin may be presenting Belarus as a haven for Wagner fighters as a trap. The Kremlin will likely regard the Wagner Group personnel who follow Prigozhin to Belarus as traitors whether or not it takes immediate action against them. Putin notably stated in his June 26 speech that Wagner Group fighters are permitted to go to Belarus and that Putin will keep his unspecified “promise” about Wagner fighters who choose to do so.[9] Putin’s acknowledgement that he made a personal promise, presumably that Wagner personnel who went to Belarus would be safe there, was remarkable. The long-term value of that promise, Putin’s speech notwithstanding, is questionable. Wagner Group personnel in Belarus are unlikely to remain safe from Russian extradition orders if Putin reneges and charges them with treason. Lukashenko previously turned over 33 Belarusian-detained Wagner personnel to Moscow after using them as leverage against the Kremlin in 2020, and there is no apparent reason why he would not do so again.[10]

Prigozhin attempted to downplay his armed rebellion on June 26 in his first statement since the rebellion failed, likely in an attempt to shield himself from accusations of attempting a coup against Putin. Prigozhin stated that Wagner forces did not intend to overthrow the government, but instead attempted to raise awareness about the Russian MoD’s efforts to destroy Wagner forces.[11] Prigozhin accused the Russian MoD of first attempting to dissolve the Wagner PMC on July 1 via its formalization order and then of striking Wagner’s rear areas on June 23. Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner PMC sought to demonstratively turn in their military equipment to the Russian Southern Military District (SMD) on June 30 to appease the Russian MoD’s inventorization requirements until the Russian MoD struck a Wagner camp. Prigozhin reiterated that the Wagner PMC decided to stop its advance 200 kilometers south of Moscow because Wagner realized that advancing further would result in casualties among Wagner and Russian security forces. Prigozhin acknowledged that Lukashenko extended his assistance to help the Wagner PMC legally continue operating as Wagner forces and decided to return to their training camps.

Prigozhin’s efforts to convince Putin of his loyalty clearly failed as Putin characterized the armed rebellion as a blackmail attempt and denounced its organizers as traitors following Prigozhin’s statement.[12] Putin stated that Russian society showed that “any blackmail, any attempt to stage domestic turmoil is doomed to fail.” Putin’s use of the word “blackmail” indicates that Putin perceived that Prigozhin was attempting to coerce him into accepting Prigozhin’s demands rather than intending to directly attack the Kremlin. ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin likely sought to blackmail Putin into firing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov rather than intending to stage a coup in Moscow.[13] Both Putin and Prigozhin sought to reject the framing of the rebellion as a coup, with Putin attempting to preserve the image of the solidity of his regime. Putin also stated that “organizers of the armed rebellion” deliberately staged the rebellion and misled Wagner forces into criminal action. Putin emphasized that Russian forces and officials conducted all necessary measures to avoid bloodshed under his “direct orders,” which undermines Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner decided to deescalate the situation. Putin added that the armed rebellion could have benefited Ukraine and the West, and Lavrov earlier announced that Russia is investigating whether Western intelligence were involved in the rebellion.[14] The Kremlin may be setting information conditions to try Prigozhin and his loyal subordinates as traitors conspiring with external enemies, and such criminal charges would force Lukashenko to surrender Prigozhin and Wagner forces regardless of these Lukashenko-brokered negotiations.

The Kremlin is likely attempting to signal that Shoigu will maintain his position for now and that Putin will not give into Prigozhin’s blackmail attempt. The Russian MoD reported that Shoigu visited an unspecified forward command post of the Russian Western Group of Forces in Ukraine on June 26 – his first public appearance since Prigozhin’s drive on Rostov-on-Don and Moscow.[15] The Russian MoD previously identified that the Western Group of Forces operates on the Kupyansk-Svatove line in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts. Shoigu reportedly met with Western Group of Forces commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov and tasked the grouping with preventing Ukrainian advances on the frontline. Shoigu notably did not visit the SMD headquarters in Rostov-on-Don after Wagner’s occupation of the city ended and or otherwise connect with SMD forces in southern Ukraine after the armed rebellion concluded. It is currently unclear if the Kremlin will replace Shoigu and Gerasimov, but it is unlikely that the Kremlin would make such drastic command changes immediately since doing so would seem to be conceding to Prigozhin’s demands. ISW has previously assessed that Putin values loyalty, and Shoigu and Gerasimov have demonstrated their allegiance to Putin.[16]

Russian sources, however, continued to speculate about Russian military command changes following Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Russian milbloggers began a campaign promoting Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin to replace Shoigu as Russian defense minister by amplifying a video in which Dyumin visited a Tula volunteer battalion on June 25.[17] Other milbloggers claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is currently investigating Dyumin’s connection to Prigozhin and Wagner’s reported access to Pantsir missile systems.[18] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger suggested that the Kremlin may reshuffle Head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ Main Combat Training Directorate Lieutenant General Ivan Buvaltsev, and Head of the General Staff’s Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate Colonel General Yevgeny Burdinsky soon.[19] The milblogger claimed that the Kremlin may replace Burdinsky for his inability to account for convicts within “Storm Z” units who were then recruited by other armed formations, and could replace Rudskoy for failing to implement a Kharkiv operational plan – the objectives of which are unknown.

The future of the Wagner Group is unclear, but it will likely not include Yevgeny Prigozhin and may not continue to exist as a distinct or unitary entity. Putin’s appeal to Wagner commanders and servicemen indicates that the Kremlin aims to lure Wagner forces to the Russian MoD, but it is unclear how the Kremlin will organize Wagner into its military structure. The Kremlin may break up Wagner forces operating in Ukraine to reinforce existing military formations, or get Wagner forces to sign up for Russian MoD-affiliated PMCs.[20] The Russian MoD has previously lied to volunteers about keeping their formations together to ensure that recruits sign military contracts, after which the Russian military command dissolved the units.[21] The Kremlin may choose to keep the Wagner entity solely to sustain operations in Africa or the Middle East and break up Wagner’s group of forces in Ukraine. Such scenarios may impact Wagner forces’ morale and combat effectiveness. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner commanders and personnel categorically opposed Wagner’s subordination under the Russian MoD and noted that the Russian military command would misuse experienced Wagner fighters as cannon fodder.[22] Wagner forces, who had previously enjoyed their autonomy, will likely face hostility from Russian military commanders in retaliation for Wagner’s efforts to undermine regular forces. The Telegraph, citing British special services, reported that Russian special forces threatened to harm the families of Wagner commanders during the armed rebellion, which may further trigger tensions and low morale.[23]

Putin’s June 26 speech likely signaled a decisive break between Prigozhin and Putin, and it is likely that the Kremlin will attempt to replace the Wagner leader to distance the PMC from Prigozhin’s betrayal – if the Kremlin decides to keep Wagner as a distinct entity. The Kremlin has not yet made any announcements regarding Wagner’s fate at the time of this publication. Some Russian sources began to mention Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin even though Utkin has remained out of the public eye throughout Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[24] Commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion Alexander Khodakovsky, for example, recalled a time when Utkin saved a Wagner employee from Prigozhin and his henchmen’s beatings.[25]

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced on at least two sectors of the front as of June 26. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces cleared a Russian bridgehead across the Siverskyi-Donets Donbas canal in the Bakhmut direction, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced southwest of Bakhmut.[26] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, other Ukrainian officials, and geolocated footage confirmed that Ukrainian forces captured Rivnopil near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts as of June 26.[27] Russian sources additionally confirmed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblast administrative border area.[28] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks near Robotyne, south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[29] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Valeriy Shershen stated that Ukrainian forces advanced one and a half kilometers in an unspecified area of the Tavriisk (Zaporizhia) direction.[30] Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces have recaptured 130 square kilometers of territory in southern Ukraine since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[31] The UK MoD indicated on June 26 that Russian forces likely lack operational-level reserves that could reinforce against simultaneous Ukrainian threats on multiple areas of the front hundreds of kilometers from each other, chiefly Bakhmut and southern Ukraine.[32]

Russian forces conducted a missile and drone strike on Ukraine on the night of June 25 to 26. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down two of three Russian Kalibr cruise missiles and seven of eight Shahed 131 or 136 drones.[33] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that one missile struck a storage facility in Odesa Oblast.[34] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk reported that strong storms over the Black Sea made it difficult for Ukrainian air defenses to intercept targets.[35]

 

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on June 26 seeking to persuade as many Wagner fighters and leaders as possible to join the Russian military and continue fighting against Ukraine and to cause individuals most loyal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to self-identify.
  • The Kremlin indicated that Russia aims to retain Wagner forces to sustain its operations in Ukraine and other international engagements.
  • Prigozhin attempted to downplay his armed rebellion on June 26 in his first statement since the rebellion failed, likely in an attempt to shield himself from accusations of attempting a coup against Putin.
  • Prigozhin’s efforts to convince Putin of his loyalty clearly failed as Putin characterized the armed rebellion as a blackmail attempt and denounced its organizers as traitors following Prigozhin’s statement.
  • The Kremlin is likely attempting to signal that Shoigu will maintain his position for now and that Putin will not give into Prigozhin’s blackmail attempt.
  • The future of the Wagner Group is unclear, but it will likely not include Yevgeny Prigozhin and may not continue to exist as a distinct or unitary entity.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced on at least two sectors of the front as of June 26.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, and Ukrainian forces reportedly advanced as of June 26.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued to skirmish in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts administrative border area and Ukrainian forces made gains as of June 26.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Geolocated footage confirmed that Ukrainian forces maintain positions near the Antonivsky Bridge in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of June 26.
  • The Russian State Duma passed a law prohibiting private military companies (PMCs) from recruiting prisoners. 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 25, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Mason Clark

June 25, 2023, 5:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on June 25. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian sources speculated on the specifics of the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s June 23-24 armed rebellion, including the possible involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff. Russian opposition outlet Meduza, citing unnamed internal Kremlin sources, reported that Prigozhin initially tried to get in touch with the Russian Presidential Administration midday June 24 as Wagner fighters moved north from Rostov-on-Don towards Moscow, but that Putin refused to speak with Prigozhin.[1] Meduza noted that, once Prigozhin observed the lack of widespread military support for Wagner’s actions and changed his mind on Wagner’s prospects, the Kremlin turned to negotiations involving Lukashenko, Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Office Anton Vaino, and Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov. Vaino and Gryzlov’s possible involvement was not reported on June 24. A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger also questioned whether the deal will hold Wagner or Prigozhin accountable in any way for the deaths of at least 13 Russian airman on June 24.[2] Prigozhin’s whereabouts cannot be verified beyond his departure from Rostov-on-Don late on June 24. Russian outlet RTVI claimed that Prigozhin’s press service told RTVI that Prigozhin “sends his regards” and will answer all questions “when he is on normal communication,” and a prominent Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel shared an AI-generated image of Prigozhin holding a finger to his lips and stating “plans love silence,” a copy of the phrase commonly used in Ukraine about operational security.[3] As ISW noted on June 24, the specifics of the deal are still unclear in the open source beyond speculation and rumor. The fallout of Wagner’s armed rebellion has not yet concluded, and it remains to be seen how the deal will be implemented, if all involved parties will comply fully, how the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) intend to do with Wagner personnel - and if Wagner fighters will cooperate, regardless of Prigozhin’s wishes.

The implications of the Lukashenko-Prigozhin deal for the leadership of the Russian MoD also remain ambiguous. Some Russian sources, including internal Kremlin sources cited by Meduza, suggested that the Kremlin may be considering changes to MoD leadership as part of the deal.[4] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov have not been seen or heard from since before Prigozhin announced the beginning of the armed rebellion on June 23. Some Russian sources suggested that Alexei Dyumin, the current governor of Tula Oblast, former security officer to Putin, and former head of Russia’s Special Operations Forces, may replace Shoigu as the Defense Minister, although ISW cannot confirm these speculations.[5] Any changes to the MoD leadership would notably represent a significant victory for Prigozhin, who justified his armed rebellion by directly accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.[6]

Wagner forces continued to withdraw from positions in Rostov and on the road to Moscow to their bases on June 25, and the Kremlin’s intended structure for leveraging Wagner fighters remains unclear. Geolocated footage published on June 25 shows armed Wagner forces driving south away from Moscow near Voronezh City.[7] Footage published on June 25 purportedly shows Wagner forces returning to training camps in southern Russia.[8] The fact that Wagner is returning to their training camps with military equipment indicates that the Kremlin intends to maintain at least certain elements of Wagner’s manpower rather than seek to immediately demobilize them, although the future of Wagner’s command and organizational structure are unclear. Russian State Duma Defense Committee Head Andrei Kartapolov announced on June 25 that the State Duma is working on a law that would regulate private military companies (PMCs) but emphasized that it is not necessary to ban the Wagner Group as it is “the most combat-ready unit in Russia.”[9] Kartapolov further noted that the future of the Wagner Group is undetermined and emphasized that the personnel of the Wagner Group in Rostov-on-Don were “following orders of their command” and “did nothing reprehensible.”[10] Kartapolov’s efforts to absolve Wagner personnel of responsibility for taking part in an armed rebellion and separate them from Prigozhin may indicate the Russian government’s desire to continue to use Wagner personnel in some capacity, and as ISW assessed on June 24, the Russian leadership could redeploy Wagner to Ukraine or instead commit them to international missions. Russian state-affiliated news outlets reported on June 24 that the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Rozkomnadzor) blocked Prigozhin’s official press service on Russian social media site VKontakte, indicating the Kremlin’s efforts to restrict Prigozhin’s organizational actions.[11]

Further details emerged on the composition of the Wagner units approaching Moscow on June 24, indicating Prigozhin would likely have struggled in an active conflict in Moscow without additional support. Russian sources claimed on June 25 that the first Wagner column that began moving towards Moscow on June 24 consisted of 350 pieces of equipment, including nine tanks, four Tigr infantry fighting vehicles, a Grad MLRS system, and a howitzer.[12] Russian sources claimed that the three other Wagner columns that moved towards Moscow had 375, 100, and 212 pieces of equipment respectively, the majority of which were non-armored trucks, cars, and buses.[13] Russian milbloggers claimed on June 24 that the columns moving towards Moscow were comprised of 4,000 personnel with 40 to 50 pieces of equipment, including MRAPs, T-90M main battle tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, Pantsir air defense systems, and Grad MLRS systems.[14] CNN reported on June 24 that US and Western intelligence officials observed Wagner amassing equipment and ammunition for the rebellion for several weeks, indicating that the columns likely comprised Wagner‘s greatest available strength.[15] ISW cannot confirm the exact composition of the Wagner columns at this time, although current reporting suggests that Prigozhin’s force would have struggled to fully occupy Moscow or conduct prolonged engagements with elements of the Russian Armed Forces, if they deployed. ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin likely sought and failed to win military support for his rebellion, and Wagner’s move on Moscow was likely predicated on the assumption that military support would strengthen the rebellion’s forces and capabilities.[16] Prigozhin may have become more amenable to the alleged negotiations with Lukashenko as these insufficient forces drew nearer to Moscow and that time was running out to garner the necessary military support for a potential armed conflict with the MoD.

The Russian ultranationalist information space fractured on June 25 between those who want to move past the rebellion and those demanding solutions to the internal security flaws that the rebellion had exposed. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger praised all of the parties for bringing the rebellion to an end and avoiding bloodshed, ignoring the fact that Wagner forces killed at least 13 Russian pilots and airmen during the rebellion.[17] Other Russian sources continued to characterize the rebellion as solely Prigozhin’s doing and called on Russian authorities to show clemency towards the Wagner fighters who have fought for Russian interests in Ukraine.[18] A Russian milblogger specifically accused Moscow Oblast officials and the MoD of failing to stop the Wagner advance towards Moscow.[19] The milblogger questioned how the MoD would be able to respond to external incursions if it was unable to stop Wagner’s movement towards Moscow.[20] A former Russian occupation official criticized how the internal Russian structures were slow in publicly addressing the rebellion.[21] Several other Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian elites for failing to publicly support Putin and for fleeing Russia.[22] Another Russian ultranationalist bemoaned that Prigozhin’s rebellion indicated that Russia is one step closer to its final and irrevocable death.[23] A prominent milblogger asked how Russian authorities will punish those involved in the deaths of Russian servicemen, indicating that clemency for the Wagner fighters that participated in the rebellion may become a longstanding grievance for elements of the Russian military and the ultranationalist community.[24]

The ultranationalist Angry Patriots Club held a pre-scheduled event in Moscow on June 25 and espoused longstanding criticisms against Putin and the Russian military leadership, suggesting that the Kremlin will not immediately begin cracking down on antagonistic ultranationalist groups in the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion.[25] The Angry Patriots Club is a pro-war social movement that aims to correct perceived issues in the war-effort in Ukraine so that Russian forces can achieve victory, and the club’s members have used that mission to launch routine scathing criticisms of the MoD, the Kremlin, and Putin himself.[26] The Angry Patriots Club has also notably called for “revolution” if the Kremlin freezes the war in Ukraine or pursues negotiations.[27] Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin spoke at the livestreamed event in Moscow and delivered a set of longstanding theses on what Russia needs to do to win the war in Ukraine.[28] Girkin publicly reiterated that Putin needs to legally transfer certain presidential authorities to other parties if Putin is unwilling to assume control over the war in Ukraine as the supreme Commander-in-Chief.[29] The Angry Patriots Club had promoted the event for several weeks, and Russian officials were likely aware of it to some extent.[30] If the Kremlin intends to use Prigozhin’s rebellion as pretext to start immediately suppressing antagonistic ultranationalists, then this event would have likely been a prime candidate to start that effort. The Kremlin likely risks Prigozhin’s armed rebellion expanding the window of acceptable anti-Kremlin criticism, particularly if the Kremlin does not intend to retaliate further against Prigozhin. The Kremlin’s continued careful response to the armed rebellion will likely prompt other Russian nationalists to test Russian official reactions to more explicitly critical rhetoric.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on June 25. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks around Bakhmut, along the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[31] A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced southwest of Velyka Novosilka, although ISW is unable to confirm this claim.[32] Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated in an interview with Fox News published on June 25 that the main assault of the counteroffensive has not yet started.[33]

Russian forces’ ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine does not appear to have been substantially impacted by Wagner’s June 23-24 armed rebellion. Russian and Ukrainian sources both reported that fighting continued as usual along the entire frontline, with Russian forces conducting a relatively higher number of ground attacks near Bakhmut than over the past few days.[34] Some Russian sources used the armed rebellion as a rhetorical device to preemptively exculpate Russian forces from any Ukrainian gains made on June 24 and 25.[35]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov warned on June 23 that Russia has finished preparations for an attack on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).[36] Budanov stated that Russian forces have mined the ZNPP’s cooling pond and have moved vehicles loaded with explosives to four of the six ZNPP power units.[37] As ISW previously assessed, intentional Russian sabotage of the ZNPP resulting in a radiological catastrophe would potentially be more detrimental to Russian forces on the southern bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir than to Ukrainian forces on the opposite bank.[38] Russia has frequently invoked threatening rhetoric surrounding the ZNPP in order to dissuade potential Ukrainian counterattacks into occupied Zaporizhia Oblast, and Russian forces may be disseminating information about mining of the cooling pond and power units to discourage Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. However, Russia demonstrated a willingness to put its own troops in harm's way after the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP), so ISW cannot rule out the potential that Russian forces may be setting conditions to sabotage the ZNPP.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian sources speculated on the specifics of the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s June 23-24 armed rebellion, including the possible involvement of Putin’s chief of staff.
  • The implications of the Lukashenko-Prigozhin deal for the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) also remain ambiguous.
  • Wagner forces continued to withdraw from positions in Rostov and on the road to Moscow to their bases on June 25, and the Kremlin’s intended structure for leveraging Wagner fighters remains unclear.
  • Further details emerged on the composition of the Wagner units approaching Moscow on June 24, indicating Prigozhin would likely have struggled in an active conflict in Moscow without additional support.
  • The Russian ultranationalist information space fractured on June 25 between those who want to move past the rebellion and those demanding solutions to the internal security flaws that the rebellion exposed.
  • The ultranationalist Angry Patriots Club held a pre-scheduled event in Moscow on June 25 and espoused longstanding criticisms against Putin and the Russian military leadership, suggesting that the Kremlin will not immediately begin cracking down on antagonistic ultranationalist groups in the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front.
  • Russian forces’ ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine does not appear to have been substantially impacted by Wagner’s June 23-24 armed rebellion.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov warned on June 23 that Russia has finished preparations for an attack on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
  • A Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group attempted to cross the international border into Sumy Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Svatove, Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Donetsk and western Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces maintain positions near the Antonivskyi Bridge in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to report that Russia relies on sanctions evasion schemes to acquire foreign components for weapons production.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to weaponize policy regarding children to consolidate social and administrative control of occupied areas.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, and Mason Clark

 June 24, 2023, 10pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4pm ET on June 24. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 25 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. Due to their coverage of an armed rebellion in Russia, many Russian sources did not discuss the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine, and ISW’s coverage of kinetic activity on the frontlines is therefore relatively limited today.

The Kremlin announced late on June 24 that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko negotiated a deal under which Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin will travel to Belarus without facing criminal charges in Russia; some portion of Wagner Group fighters will sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD); and no Wagner personnel will be charged for their involvement in an armed rebellion. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that Russian authorities will drop the criminal case against Prigozhin and that Prigozhin will go to Belarus, thanking Lukashenko for his role in mediating the deal with the “higher goal to avoid bloodshed.”[1] Lukashenko’s press service earlier broke the news about the deal, reporting that Lukashenko negotiated with Prigozhin and claiming that Lukashenko and Putin agreed to undertake “bilateral actions” to resolve the crisis earlier in the day.[2] Lukashenko stressed the importance of avoiding a ”bloody massacre” and ensuring security guarantees for Wagner fighters.[3] Prigozhin released an audio message after the initial Belarusian report, claiming his “march for justice” achieved its goal and that he ordered Wagner forces back to their training grounds to prevent the situation from turning bloody (after Wagner forces already killed over a dozen Russian personnel).[4] Prigozhin notably did not mention Lukashenko‘s involvement or the details of any negotiated deal in his own statement. The specifics of the deal, how and on what timeline it will be implemented, the expected outcomes for each party, and the extent to which all involved parties will follow the agreement, remain unclear at this time.

The Wagner Group encircled the Russian Southern Military District (SMD)’s headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and drove to within 330km of Moscow City on June 23 and 24, prior to the announcement of the deal. Wagner forces will reportedly soon begin withdrawing to their bases, and footage reportedly depicts Prigozhin departing Rostov-on-Don. Widely circulated social media footage posted in the early hours of June 24 depicted Wagner forces establishing a cordon around SMD headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and Wagner-affiliated sources later posted footage showing Prigozhin walking around the headquarters with Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev while demanding to see Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.[5] Geolocated footage posted around 1030 Moscow time confirms that Wagner personnel crossed the administrative border of Voronezh Oblast at the Burgaevka checkpoint, where Russian personnel laid down their arms and surrendered to Wagner.[6] Footage posted a few hours later depicted a column of Wagner vehicles and equipment traveling through a checkpoint on the M4 Rostov-on-Don-Voronezh-Moscow highway near the Ikorets River, about 85km south of Voronezh City.[7] Geolocated footage showed a Wagner contingent with two Pantsir-1 air defense systems moving through Buturlinovka, about 135km southeast of Voronezh City.[8] Russian sources claimed that this Wagner convoy split off from the main convoy in order to seize an airbase near Buturlinovka, although ISW has not observed visual confirmation that any Wagner fighters did so.[9] Russian sources posted footage reportedly of Russian Ka-52 helicopters striking claimed Wagner targets on the highway in Voronezh.[10] Wagner forces may have shot down up to three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, one Mi-8 helicopter, one Ka-52 helicopter, one Mi-35 helicopter, one Mi-28 helicopter, and one An-26/Il-28 transport aircraft, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 pilots and airmen - and one of the single deadliest days for the Russian air force of the war in Ukraine to date.[11]

Geolocated footage posted in the early afternoon Moscow time on June 24 showed Wagner troops reaching Lipetsk Oblast and continuing north on the M4 highway towards Moscow.[12] Russian forces began digging up sections of the M4 in Lipetsk Oblast in order to inhibit Wagner’s movement.[13] By nearly 1800 Moscow time, available visual evidence placed Wagner forces in Krasnoe, northern Lipetsk Oblast, about 330km south of Moscow.[14] Russian security forces reportedly began preparing defensive lines on the southern bank of the Oka River in Moscow Oblast, and unverified reports claim that locals spotted Wagner fighters in Kashira, 95km south of Moscow.[15] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of Wagner fighters closer to Moscow than Krasnoe, despite claims they reached Kashira. Kremlin newswire RIA Novosti posted footage following the announcement of the deal on the evening of June 24 depicting columns of Wagner equipment and personnel departing Rostov-on-Don.[16]  ISW has not observed additional visual evidence of Wagner withdrawals as of the time of this publication.

Wagner Group columns on the M4 highway possessed a substantial amount of heavy equipment. Various milbloggers claimed that the Wagner column was comprised of up to 4,000 personnel and between 40 to 50 pieces of equipment, including MRAPs, T-90M main battle tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, Pantsir air defense systems, and Grad MLRS systems.[17] One milblogger remarked that Wagner’s apparent combination of a fast-moving convoy protected by a layered mobile air defense umbrella (comprised of Pantsirs and MANPADs) that effectively defended ground forces from Russian government aircraft was reminiscent of Wagner’s tactics during previous operations in Libya, though the Wagner Group‘s theoretical ability to sustain independent operations in Russia is unclear.[18]

The Kremlin struggled to cohere an effective rapid response to Wagner’s advances, highlighting internal security weaknesses likely due to surprise and the impact of heavy losses in Ukraine. As ISW reported on June 23, Russian authorities mobilized Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) special police (OMON) and special rapid response (SOBR) units in response to Prigozhin’s initial announcement of the armed rebellion.[19] Several Russian milbloggers reported that Rosgvardia columns were activated and were seen in Moscow Oblast and en route to Rostov Oblast.[20] However, ISW has not observed any reports or footage suggesting that Rosgvardia units engaged with Wagner at any point. Rosgvardia’s founding mission is to protect internal threats to the security of the Russian government such as an advance on Moscow, and it is notable that Rosgvardia failed to engage even as Wagner captured critical military assets in Rostov-on-Don and destroyed Russian military aircraft.[21] Some Russian commentators additionally noted that the majority of personnel activated for domestic defense were conscripts and Rosgvardia units, and questioned why Russian authorities decided to mobilize conscripts instead of activating wider and more specialized security forces.[22] Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, also theoretically specialized in domestic security, claimed to have activated in response to Wagner advances but never actually met or engaged Wagner - unsurprisingly, and in line with Kadyrov’s paramount objective of maintaining his own internal security force.[23] The Kremlin’s dedicated internal security organs failed to respond to an independent military force capturing the headquarters of the SMD and advancing on Moscow - and Wagner likely could have reached the outskirts of Moscow if Prigozhin chose to order them to do so.

Russian sources were quick to emphasize that Wagner’s armed rebellion did not impact Russian forces in Ukraine, but Wagner’s actions demonstrated Russia’s lack of reserves in rear areas. The Russian MoD immediately blamed Prigozhin’s armed rebellion for presenting Ukrainian forces with opportunities, claiming that Ukrainian forces began launching assaults in the Bakhmut direction to exploit the internal upheaval.[24] Russian sources widely voiced concerns that the rebellion could disrupt Russian forces’ ability to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensives, but many milbloggers asserted that Russian forces are continuing to repel Ukrainian attacks.[25] A prominent milblogger specifically applauded elements of the SMD serving along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front for continuing necessary work at the front despite the “mess” with the SMD headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.[26] Another prominent milblogger argued that Wagner’s armed rebellion did not disrupt Russian frontline combat or aviation operations.[27] Prigozhin indicated that he did not want to disrupt ongoing Russian operations in Ukraine or impede Russian military aircraft flying out of airfields in Rostov Oblast likely to avoid further criticism of his effort.[28] Prigozhin may have also intended to hold the potential to storm SMD headquarters and disrupt Russian operations in Ukraine as leverage in his conflict with the MoD and demands to Putin, and therefore did not launch attacks on the headquarters or MoD personnel that could have led to severe tactical impacts in Ukraine. However, Prigozhin’s rebellion has illustrated that Russian forces lack reserves in many rear areas and almost certainly will degrade the morale of Russian personnel in Ukraine, knowledge that Ukrainian forces may use to adjust attempts at breaking through Russian defenses.

Putin unsurprisingly elected to back the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and its ongoing efforts to centralize control of Russian irregular forces (including Wagner) over Prigozhin. Prigozhin attempted to justify his armed rebellion by accusing the Russian MoD - namely Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov – of causing irreversible Russian losses on the battlefield and for striking a Wagner base, but notably did not criticize Putin.[29] Prigozhin may have deliberately designed his justification to allow Putin to publicly use Shoigu and Gerasimov as scapegoats for his invasion of Ukraine. Putin, however, denounced Prigozhin (without explicitly naming him) during his televised speech the morning of June 24, indirectly accusing Prigozhin of initiating an armed rebellion and committing treason due to “exorbitant ambitions and personal interests.”[30] Putin’s harsh stance indicated that he remains aligned with the Russian MoD institution - which has consistently proved loyal to him despite numerous military failures and has previously appeared to have Putin's support - and its efforts to formalize Russian irregular units, rather than relying on independent actors like the Wagner Group, as Prigozhin desired.[31]

The Lukashenko-brokered agreement will very likely eliminate Wagner Group as a Prigozhin-led independent actor in its current form, although elements of the organization may endure under existing and new capacities. The Lukashenko-brokered deal notably strips Prigozhin of control of Wagner Group in exchange for dropping criminal charges for rebellion and treason. The deal will, if executed as framed by Peskov, subordinate some portion of the Wagner Group under the Russian MoD, as Defense Minister Shoigu has long desired. However, it is unclear how the Kremlin will define Wagner personnel as having not participated in the rebellion, and Peskov’s announcement does not specify the fate of Wagner personnel who did participate, other than receiving a pardon. These personnel could potentially sign contracts with the MoD on an individual basis; demobilize in Russia (a likely dangerous course of action for Kremlin internal security), travel to Belarus in some capacity, or deploy abroad to support Wagner’s previous main effort of operations in Africa or the Middle East. It is unclear if Wagner forces will willingly cooperate in their integration under the Russian MoD, or if the Russian Armed Forces will willingly serve alongside Wagner Group personnel in the future. Putin’s stance on Shoigu and Gerasimov remains unclear at this time, and Peskov specified that any military reshuffles are exclusively Putin’s prerogative and were ”hardly” discussed during the negotiations.[32]

Prigozhin likely gambled that his only avenue to retain Wagner Group as an independent force was to march against the Russian MoD, likely intending to secure defections in the Russian military but overestimating his own prospects. Prigozhin likely viewed the MoD’s July 1 deadline to formalize control over all irregular formations, including Wagner, as an existential threat to his political (and possibly personal) survival. He likely therefore elected to risk using his forces in a bid to change the MoD’s leadership rather than lose Wagner Group entirely, and as ISW assessed on June 23, his only real hope for lasting success was to secure MoD defections, and he did not do so.[33] Prigozhin almost certainly planned this effort in advance due to the observed coordination and speed of Wagner movements, but ISW cannot confirm this hypothesis from the open source.

Prigozhin’s rebellion further eroded his existing support base in the ultranationalist community, Russian government, and within elements of Wagner Group itself. Prigozhin’s armed rebellion likely further eroded existing support for Wagner by forcing Wagner-affiliated regional authorities and recruitment organizations to denounce Prigozhin‘s effort. Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoyt called on Prigozhin to stop his plans and to prevent an internal conflict.[34] Starovoyt acknowledged that Kursk Oblast previously cooperated with Wagner to train personnel for local militias.[35] ”Union of Donbas Volunteers” Head Alexander Borodai also denounced Wagner’s armed rebellion as a stab in the back against Russia.[36] Prigozhin has likely previously relied on the ”Union of Donbas Volunteers” to access the Russian ultranationalist community’s recruitment pool.[37] Prigozhin also likely angered many Wagner personnel and Wagner-sympathetic ultranationalists by not following through with his attempted march on Moscow. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Wagner prepared for the march on Moscow in advance and intended to provoke the evacuation of top officials and leadership from the city.[38] The milblogger decried that Prigozhin,” a politician with dubious prospects,” destroyed the whole effort.[39] The notable criticism of Prigozhin from a Wagner-affiliated milblogger is likely reflective of widespread discontent among the pro-Wagner information space that previously applauded the rebellion.[40] One prominent Russian milblogger noted that many Russian milbloggers who have supported Wagner in the past ignored the rebellion or made neutral statements about it.[41] The alleged agreement that Prigozhin reached with Lukashenko and the Kremlin is likely to upset Wagner personnel as it represents the end of Prigozhin’s effort to insulate Wagner from subordination to the MoD. It is unclear at this time if Prigozhin secured buy-in from Wagner commanders or rank-and-file personnel before making the alleged agreement, and many Wagner personnel will likely be displeased with the potential of signing contracts with the MoD, demobilizing, or deploying away from Ukraine.

The optics of Belarusian President Lukashenko playing a direct role in halting a military advance on Moscow are humiliating to Putin and may have secured Lukashenko other benefits. The Belarusian Presidential Press Service announced that Putin informed Lukashenko about the unfolding situation in southern Russia the morning of June 24, suggesting Putin approached Lukashenko to resolve the armed rebellion, though the Belarusian government often spins interactions with the Kremlin to its advantage and this framing is unconfirmed.[42] Lukashenko reportedly used his own “existing channels” to clarify the situation on the ground and negotiate with Prigozhin.[43] Lukashenko’s reported access to previously established channels and successful negotiation with Prigozhin likely indicates Lukashenko has unspecified influence over Prigozhin he could leverage to de-escalate the situation.[44] Lukashenko previously used Wagner forces to advance his election campaign after Belarusian authorities arrested 3 Russian citizens who allegedly belonged to the Wagner Group in late July 2020.[45] Lukashenko accused the alleged Wagner operatives of planning to interfere with Belarusian elections despite Wagner forces openly using Belarus as a transit country for their missions in the past.[46] The incident resulted in Lukashenko initiating a call with Putin on August 15, 2020, and releasing 32 Wagner personnel.[47] Lukashenko will likely seek to use the de-escalation of the armed rebellion to advance his goals, such as delaying the formalization of the Russia-Belarus Union State or preventing Putin from using Belarusian forces in Ukraine.

The Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium. The Lukashenko-negotiated deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian MoD. Suggestions that Prigozhin’s rebellion, the Kremlin’s response, and Lukashenko’s mediation were all staged by the Kremlin are absurd. The imagery of Putin appearing on national television to call for the end of an armed rebellion and warning of a repeat of the 1917 revolution – and then requiring mediation from a foreign leader to resolve the rebellion – will have a lasting impact. The rebellion exposed the weakness of the Russian security forces and demonstrated Putin’s inability to use his forces in a timely manner to repel an internal threat and further eroded his monopoly on force. Prigozhin’s rapid drive towards Moscow ridiculed much of the Russian regular forces – and highlighted to any and all security figures, state-owned enterprises, and other key figures in the Russian government that private military forces separate from the central state can achieve impressive results. Wagner’s drive also showcased the degradation of Russia’s military reserves, which are almost entirely committed to fighting in Ukraine, as well as the dangers of reliance on inexperienced conscripts to defend Russia’s borders. The Kremlin struggled to respond quickly in the information space and residents in Rostov-on-Don residents did not oppose Wagner and in some cases greeted them warmly – not inherently demonstrating opposition to Putin but at minimum acceptance of Prigozhin’s actions.[48] Finally, the Kremlin’s apparent surprise at Prigozhin’s move does not reflect well on Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB. Prigozhin consistently escalated his rhetoric against the Russian MoD prior to his armed rebellion and Putin failed to mitigate this risk.[49] We cannot and will not speculate on the concrete impacts of Prigozhin’s rebellion and the Kremlin’s weak response and are not forecasting an imminent collapse of the Russian government, as some have done. Nonetheless, Prigozhin’s rebellion and the resolution of the events of June 23 and 24 - though not necessarily the Prigozhin/Kremlin struggle writ large - will likely substantially damage Putin’s government and the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

Russian forces launched their largest series of missile strikes against Ukraine in recent months on June 24, despite the armed rebellion within Russia. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 40 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from ten strategic Tu-95 bombers from the Caspian Sea, nine Kh-22 cruise missiles from eight strategic 22M3 bombers from the northern direction, and two Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles from the Black Sea as well as two S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and three Shahed-131/136 drones.[50] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 40 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles, two Shahed-131/136 drones, and one Kalibr cruise missile.[51] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces struck residential areas in Kyiv as well as Dnipro City and Kryvyi Rih in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[52] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces struck Ukrainian electronic intelligence centers and aviation equipment at an airfield in Kirovohrad Oblast and fuel storage facilities in Dnipro City.[53] Prigozhin stated earlier in the day that Russian aviation units operating in Ukraine were flying according to their schedules and that Wagner’s control over military infrastructure in Rostov Oblast, including the Rostov airfield, would not disrupt Russian operations.[54] If Prigozhin was able to disrupt operations connected to the large strike series from the SMD headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, he likely refrained from doing so to avoid criticism that he was undermining the Russian war effort.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front and reportedly made advances on June 24. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 24 that Ukrainian forces launched simultaneous assaults and made progress north and southwest of Bakhmut.[55] Malyar also started Ukrainian forces continue to engage in heavy fighting along the Zaporizhia front.[56] Ukrainian Tavrisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi reported on June 23 that Ukrainian forces achieved successes and advances in an unspecified area of the Tavrisk (Zaporizhia) direction.[57] Russian milbloggers claimed that intensified Ukrainian assaults and decreased Russian artillery fire contributed to Ukrainian advances south of Orikhiv during the night of June 23 and on June 24.[58]  The Russian MoD claimed that Ukranian forces also conducted unsuccessful offensive operations in the South Donetsk and Lyman directions.[59] Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky stated on June 24 that Ukrainian forces will likely continue active offensive and defensive operations for the next two to three months.[60]

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin announced late on June 24 that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko negotiated a deal under which Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin will travel to Belarus without facing criminal charges in Russia; some portion of Wagner Group fighters will sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD); and no Wagner personnel will be charged for their involvement in an armed rebellion.
  • The Wagner Group encircled the Russian Southern Military District (SMD)’s headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and drove to within 330km of Moscow City prior to the announcement of the deal. Wagner forces will reportedly begin withdrawing to their bases soon, and footage reportedly depicts Prigozhin departing Rostov-on-Don.
  • The Kremlin struggled to cohere an effective rapid response to Wagner’s advances, highlighting internal security weaknesses likely due to surprise and the impact of heavy losses in Ukraine.
  • Putin unsurprisingly elected to back the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and its ongoing efforts to centralize control of Russian irregular forces (including Wagner) over Prigozhin.
  • The Lukashenko-brokered agreement will very likely eliminate Wagner Group as a Prigozhin-led independent actor in its current form, although elements of the organization may endure under existing and new capacities.
  • Prigozhin likely gambled that his only avenue to retain Wagner Group as an independent force was to march against the Russian MoD, likely intending to secure defections in the Russian military but overestimating his own prospects.
  • The optics of Belarusian President Lukashenko playing a direct role in halting a military advance on Moscow are humiliating to Putin and may have secured Lukashenko other benefits.
  • The Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium. The Lukashenko-negotiated deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian MoD.
  • Russian forces launched their largest series of missile strikes against Ukraine in recent months on June 24, despite the armed rebellion within Russia.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front and reportedly made advances on June 24, and regular fighting continued on other sectors of the line.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 23, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, and Mason Clark

 June 23, 2023, 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.

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

Note: Due to rapidly evolving events, the data cutoff for the portion of this update covering Prigozhin’s actions was 6:00pm ET, while the cutoff for the rest of this product was 3:00pm ET on June 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, but events will likely have developed further between the drafting and publication of this update.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have launched an armed rebellion on June 23 to force a leadership change within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) which is unlikely to succeed. Prigozhin amplified a video from a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel on June 23 which reportedly shows the aftermath of a missile strike on a rear-area Wagner camp and accused the Russian MoD of conducting that strike.[1] ISW cannot independently verify the veracity of the video, and it may have been manufactured for informational purposes. Prigozhin used the video to then justify his most explicit rhetorical escalation against the Russian MoD to date and a call for action against the Russian MoD. Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner Commanders’ Council made the decision to stop “the evil brought by the military leadership” who neglect and destroy the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers.[2] Prigozhin urged the Russian people not to resist, to remain calm, remain in their homes, and warned that Wagner will “deal” with those who destroyed Russian soldiers before returning to the frontlines in Ukraine after restoring justice for all. Prigozhin also notably accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of personally planning an operation to destroy Wagner and claimed that 25,000 Wagner personnel are prepared to act.[3] Prigozhin later posted an audio message qualifying his previous statements and claiming that there is no “coup,” only a “march for justice.”[4]

Early reports following Prigozhin’s statements suggest that Russian internal security forces are activating in response to Prigozhin’s statements and possible Wagner moves, primarily in Moscow and Rostov, and the Kremlin appears opposed to Prigozhin’s actions. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that security measures have been strengthened in Moscow and that Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) special police (OMON) and special rapid response (SOBR) units have been alerted of the situation.[5] Russian sources posted footage reportedly showing military equipment moving through the streets of Moscow.[6] TASS also reported that Russian military personnel and law enforcement have set up military posts and checkpoints near the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and BBC’s Russia Service reported that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) employees and SOBR units have set up roadblocks along the Moscow-Voronezh-Rostov highway.[7] A Russian milblogger also claimed that the “Grom” special forces detachment of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has additionally activated.[8] The FSB and Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee have both opened cases against Prigozhin.[9] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notably stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been informed and is aware of the situation.[10] The emergency activation of the domestic security forces and the Kremlin’s direct response suggest that the Kremlin was very likely not aware of, and is explicitly opposed to, Prigozhin’s actions.

Prigozhin has established the informational conditions for this effort earlier in the day by accusing the Russian MoD and unnamed oligarchs of deceiving Putin and the Russian public in order to launch the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin released an interview in which he stated that the Russian MoD intentionally deceived the Russian public and Putin about an impending Ukrainian offensive with NATO support in 2022 and about the increase in Ukrainian aggression before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[11] Prigozhin asserted that the situation in eastern Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was no different than the previous eight years of hostilities.[12] Prigozhin suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was prepared to negotiate with the Kremlin but that the Russian leadership refused to abandon their maximalist positions.[13] Prigozhin accused the Russian miliary leadership of launching the full-scale invasion for self-promotion and claimed that Shoigu advocated for the invasion in order to achieve a higher rank and state awards.[14] Prigozhin accused Russia’s oligarchs of supporting the invasion of Ukraine for similar reasons of personal benefit. Prigozhin claimed that Russia’s oligarchs wanted the Kremlin to install former Ukrainian politician and Kremlin ally Viktor Medvedchuk as the new Ukrainian president after the removal of the Ukrainian government so that Medvedchuk would divide the assets of occupied Ukrainian territories between the oligarchs.[15] Prigozhin’s rejection of the justifications of the war is not a rejection of the war itself, as he argued that the fighting in Ukraine is a “holy war with those who offend the Russian people.”[16] Prigozhin’s attack on the Kremlin’s justifications of the war is likely meant to legitimize the potential removal of the Russian security and business elite from power without directing calling for an end to Putin’s war.

Prigozhin likely intends to truly conduct an armed rebellion against the Russian MoD, rather than expecting Kremlin support to compel MoD leadership changes or only escalating rhetorically. Prigozhin may have wildly miscalculated and called for an armed rebellion incorrectly thinking that he would have Putin’s backing, considering Putin’s past tenuous relationship with the MoD and Shoigu. This contingency is however extraordinarily unlikely, considering that Putin has recently more firmly aligned himself with the MoD, and the Kremlin’s responses to Prigozhin’s posturing thus far have indicated surprise and a lack of agreement with Prigozhin.[17] Prigozhin’s actions and statements may alternatively be a rhetorical overreach in his ongoing dispute with the MoD and his campaign to retain his wavering influence within the Russian information space following the culmination of Wagner’s Bakhmut effort. However, this contingency is also highly unlikely, as initial indicators of actual Wagner movements are observable and the Kremlin is not responding to Prigozhin’s statements as only rhetoric.

It is therefore most likely that Prigozhin fully intends for Wagner to move against MoD leadership and forcibly remove them from power, more likely against the Southern Military District command in Rostov-on-Don but possibly also against Moscow. ISW is unable to confirm exactly where the bulk of Wagner forces are currently located, but it currently appears more likely that Prigozhin intends for Wagner to move on the MoD assets in Rostov. Following Wagner’s withdrawal from Bakhmut in late May and early June, a large contingent of Wagner forces likely remained in rear areas of Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or else at Wagner’s training facility near Molkino, Krasnodar Krai. Considering the relative proximity of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and Krasnodar Krai to Rostov Oblast, the more likely course of action may be that Prigozhin views the MoD in Rostov as the most viable target of a Wagner armed rebellion. Prigozhin claimed at 0200 local time (1900 EST) that Wagner forces have crossed Russia’s international border into Rostov Oblast and claimed they face no resistance, but ISW has not observed visual confirmed of any Wagner movements as of the time of this publication.[18]

An armed Wagner attack against the Russian military leadership in Rostov-on-Don would have significant impacts on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Rostov-on-Don houses both the headquarters of the SMD, whose 58th Combined Arms Army is currently decisively engaged in defensive operations against Ukrainian counteroffensives in southern Ukraine, and the command center for the Russian Joint Group of Forces in Ukraine as a whole.[19] Rostov-on-Don is therefore a critical command and control membrane for the Russian army, and any threats to the MoD’s presence are likely to have ramifications on some critical aspects of the war effort.

Prigozhin’s apparent start of an armed rebellion is the culmination of his campaign to retain control over his military forces, and he likely views the rebellion as an existential survival effort. Prigozhin’s largely independent control over Wagner forces has been the cornerstone of his campaign to become the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist movement.[20] Prigozhin has long overstepped existing norms within the Russian information space that limit criticism of Russian leadership because he likely believed the Kremlin’s need for Wagner to fight in Ukraine shielded him from punishment.[21] Prigozhin primarily used Wagner’s responsibility for tactical gains in and around Bakhmut to advocate for more influence and responsibility for himself and Wagner, and the effectiveness of this mode of self-promotion has likely declined since Wagner withdrew to rear areas following the capture of Bakhmut on May 21.[22] The MoD recently ordered Wagner personnel to sign MoD contracts in an effort to fully subordinate Wagner to the MoD, and likely did so to seize on the opportunity of Wagner’s weakened relevance to Russian operations in Ukraine.[23]

The MoD’s recent demands that Wagner fully subordinate itself to the MoD would entail Prigozhin losing control of his parallel military structure, and therefore both his main source of influence and his means for avoiding the consequences of his public self-promotion. The MoD reportedly gave Wagner an ultimatum between subordination to the MoD or the recognition of Wagner’s continued operations on the frontlines as illegal.[24] Prigozhin may have attempted to negotiate continued independence for Wagner with his own contract outlining how Wagner and the MoD would coordinate continued Wagner operations, although the MoD outright rejected this possible attempt at negotiation.[25] Prigozhin likely reached a perceived crucial decision point between surrendering his independent armed forces and actively resisting the MoD, and appears to have chosen the latter. The severe consequences that would result from a failed armed rebellion suggest that Prigozhin viewed his alternatives to be just as threatening.

Prigozhin’s likely intention was to gain the allegiance of senior Russian officers and military personnel, but he is unlikely to secure sufficient military support considering that Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin denounced Prigozhin’s call for armed rebellion. Prigozhin explicitly called for the entire Russian military and all of Russia to join Wagner in its effort to remove the Russian military leadership.[26] Prigozhin’s longstanding calls for supplies and ammunition for Wagner indicate that Wagner likely does not have the necessary level of independent access to the materiel required to militarily depose the MoD leadership, and therefore MoD elements with their own supplies will need to support Wagner’s armed rebellion if it has any real chance at lasting success.[27] The desired outcome of Prigozhin’s armed rebellion also relies on senior Russian officers and military personnel recognizing the legitimacy of the supposedly new Russian military command that would follow any attempt at an armed rebellion. Prigozhin likely sought to rally military support for the effort earlier in the day by seizing on longstanding grievances about high Russian losses in Ukraine, accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of sending tens of thousands of Russian personnel unnecessarily to their death and calling on Russia to hold Shoigu and Gerasimov responsible for the claimed deliberate “genocide” of Russian citizens.[28] Prigozhin has likely miscalculated the level of support for Wagner, as one of Wagner’s most high-profile alleged allies, Surovikin, called on Wagner personnel to not follow Prigozhin’s orders.[29] Wagner likely previously relied on its relationship with high-profile allies like Surovikin to retain access to supplies and its responsibility for operations in the Bakhmut area.[30] Surovikin’s rejection represents a major blow to Wagner’s ability to rally elements of the MoD to its cause, and other high-ranking officers with Wagner affiliations and sympathies are less likely to support Wagner given the public statement from a high-profile senior officer like Surovikin.

Even if the Wagner Group can credibly threaten the MoD, Putin is incredibly unlikely to acquiesce to a successful effort by Prigozhin to topple the MoD. Should Wagner be able to tangibly attack the MoD in Rostov, Moscow, or elsewhere, and actually force a change in the military leadership (which is as of this time highly unlikely due to the apparent lack of backing for Wagner amongst senior officers and military personnel), it is unlikely that Putin would accept this at outcome. ISW has not observed any indications that Putin will accept such a change in MoD leadership. The violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power, and Putin would be highly unlikely to accept any armed rebellion even if he supported the figures conducting it. 

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on June 23. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited attacks in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and made marginal gains southwest of Velyka Novosilka.[31] The Ukrainian General Staff additionally reported that Ukrainian forces made gains in western Zaporizhia south of Orikhiv on the Novodanylivka-Robotyne line and southeast of Orikhiv on the Mala Tokmachka-Novofedorivka line.[32] Milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces broke through Russian defenses north of Robotyne and advanced to positions within 1.5km north of the settlement.[33]

Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on June 23, primarily targeting a Ukrainian airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 14 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from strategic aviation over the Caspian Sea, targeting Khmelnystkyi Oblast and the Khmelnystki airfield, and reported that Ukrainian forces shot down all of the missiles.[34] Satellite imagery published on June 22 shows that Russian forces deployed strategic aviation to an airfield near Mozdok, North Ossetia as of May 24, and Radio Liberty reported that Russian strategic bombers that targeted Khmelnystkyi Oblast took off from this airfield.[35]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have launched an armed rebellion on June 23 to force a leadership change within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) which is unlikely to succeed.
  • Early reports following Prigozhin’s statements suggest that Russian internal security forces are activating in response to Prigozhin’s statements and possible Wagner moves, primarily in Moscow and Rostov, and the Kremlin appears opposed to Prigozhin’s actions.
  • Prigozhin set informational conditions for this effort earlier in the day by accusing the Russian MoD and unnamed oligarchs of deceiving Putin and the Russian public in order to launch the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Prigozhin likely intends to truly conduct an armed rebellion against the Russian MoD, rather than expecting Kremlin support to compel MoD leadership changes or only escalating rhetorically.
  • It is therefore most likely that Prigozhin fully intends for Wagner to move against MoD leadership and forcibly remove them from power, more likely against the Southern Military District command in Rostov-on-Don but possibly also against Moscow.
  • An armed Wagner attack against the Russian military leadership in Rostov-on-Don would have significant impacts on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
  • Prigozhin’s apparent start of an armed rebellion is the culmination of his campaign to retain control over his military forces, and he likely views the rebellion as an existential survival effort.
  • Prigozhin’s likely intention was to gain the allegiance of senior Russian officers and military personnel, but he is unlikely to secure sufficient military support considering that Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin denounced Prigozhin’s call for armed rebellion.
  • Even if the Wagner Group can credibly threaten the MoD, Putin is incredibly unlikely to acquiesce to a successful effort by Prigozhin to topple the MoD.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on June 23.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on June 23, primarily targeting a Ukrainian airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks in the Kupyansk area, and Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to skirmish south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian federal subjects and the Wagner Group continue efforts to conceal the true scale of Russian and Wagner losses in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian and occupation administrations continue to disregard the lives of Ukrainian civilians in occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 22, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, and Mason Clark

June 22, 2023, 7:20pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12:30pm ET on June 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 23 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in the Kreminna area in Luhansk Oblast, in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and on the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts.[1] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces in the Kreminna area achieved partial successes and consolidated themselves in new positions.[2] Ukrainian Tavrisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Valeriy Shershen reported that Ukrainian forces advanced up to one kilometer in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts.[3] Shershen added that these Ukrainian advances were tactical measures aimed at improving Ukrainian positions along the front.[4] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces also conducted unsuccessful offensive operations along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City front.[5] Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated on June 21 that Ukrainian forces have liberated eight settlements and over 113 square kilometers of territory since starting counteroffensive operations on June 4.[6]

Senior Kremlin officials continue to publicly address the Ukrainian counteroffensive in a cohesive manner and acknowledge Ukrainian forces will conduct further operations, while continuing to inflate Russian successes. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed at a Russian Security Council meeting on June 22 that Ukrainian forces are regrouping and restaffing to prepare for further offensive operations in a single unspecified direction after “suffering significant losses.”[7] Shoigu claimed that both Russian and Ukrainian forces are preparing for further offensive operations. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev claimed that Russian forces destroyed a heavily exaggerated amount of Ukrainian military equipment, including Western-provided equipment. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that his reporting on Ukrainian gains differs from official reports because Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov lie and exaggerate.[8] Prigozhin claimed on June 13 that Ukrainian forces have likely liberated over 100 square kilometers since the start of the counteroffensive, in stark contrast to the Russian MoD’s continual denial of Ukrainian territorial gains.[9]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will form a “reserve army” by the end of June, form a new army corps, and reinforce key Western Military District (WMD) formations as part of intended force restructuring. Shoigu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia is forming reserves for an unnamed army corps and an unspecified “reserve army” and adding five regiments to the 1st Guard Tank Army and the 20th Guards Combined Arms Army — both part of the WMD.[10] Shoigu noted that the five regiments are already 60 percent staffed and equipped as of June 22. Shoigu’s announcement likely confirms ISW’s previous reports that the Russian military command is forming the 25th Combined Arms Army with recruits from the Russian Far East and is establishing the 40th Army Corps as part of the Southern Military District (SMD).[11] The 20th Combined Arms Army is based on the northeast Ukrainian border and the 1st Guards Tank Army was (prior to February 2022) Russia’s highest quality army, making these formations the logical first recipients of new regiments. Shoigu previously outlined Russian efforts to conduct large-scale military reforms between 2023 and 2026 to optimize Russian Armed Forces for large-scale conventional warfare and expand Russian conventional forces on January 17, though as ISW assessed at the time Russia will struggle to fully staff and equip these large formations using existing force-generation processes.[12]

The Russian MoD likely seeks to mitigate this force-generation challenge at least in part with volunteer formations.[13] Shoigu claimed that Russia recruited 114,000 servicemen for contract service and 52,000 volunteers — noting that 1,336 people sign contracts with the Russian MoD each day and that Russia can form a regiment every 24 hours. This statement is not to be taken literally though since Russian regiments typically contain over 2,000 personnel.[14] Shoigu added that Russia is not committing volunteers because “there is no urgent need” to deploy these forces to the battlefield. ISW previously observed residents of the Russian Far East receiving messages inviting men to join the 25th Combined Arms Army, indicating that the Russian MoD seeks to directly recruit volunteers to staff its formations.[15] Shoigu also ordered Russian volunteer formations on June 10 to sign military contracts with the Russian MoD by July 1, which will also formally provide additional forces to the Russian MoD for its large-scale military reforms.[16] Russia’s previous attempt to form a volunteer-based 3rd Army Corps in summer of 2022 did not establish a combat-effective force, however.[17]

The Russian MoD is unlikely to fully formalize Russian volunteer formations by its stated July 1 deadline. The Russian MoD claimed on June 22 that four additional volunteer formations signed contracts with the MoD and that more than 20 volunteer formations have done so since the MoD began the effort to have all volunteers sign contracts.[18] The MoD previously claimed on June 10 that more than 40 volunteer formations are currently active.[19] The MoD may nominally have all volunteer formations sign contracts before July 1, but the extent of actual command ties is unclear. ISW previously assessed that the MoD’s formalization efforts intend to centralize control over Russian irregular personnel and supplies to respond to Ukraine’s counteroffensive as well as restrict the influence of figures outside of the MoD.[20] It is unclear why a significant portion of volunteer formations have yet to sign contracts with the MoD, although Prigozhin’s criticism that MoD subordination could adversely impact command and control within irregular formations may be reflective of widespread concerns among these irregular Russian forces.[21] The signing of contracts is the first phase of formalizing volunteer formations, and it is unclear if the MoD will be able to quickly, or at all, establish practical and effective control once these formations are de jure subordinated to the MoD, and the scale of implementation will vary between units.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian intelligence indicates that Russian forces are preparing to conduct a possible sabotage attack at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). A Russian-created radiological incident at the ZNPP remains unlikely but not impossible. Zelensky stated that the planned attack would release radiation from the ZNPP, and announced that Ukrainian officials will widely share their intelligence on the planned attack with partners and international organizations in the coming days.[22] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov reported on June 20 that Russian forces had mined additional areas at the ZNPP, including the facility’s cooling pond.[23] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated on June 21 that its representatives have not observed any mines at the cooling pond, although it did acknowledge that Russian forces have mined areas in and around the ZNPP.[24] Russian forces would not be able to control the consequences of an intentional radiological incident at the ZNPP, which could impact their forces more than Ukrainian forces across the Kakhovka Reservoir given conditions at the time of the incident. An intentional radiological incident could also leave many areas in occupied southern Ukraine uninhabitable and ungovernable, further degrading Russia’s ability to cement its occupation of southern Ukraine, and the destruction of the power plant would be a drastic act. Russian forces may be signaling that they are preparing to sabotage the ZNPP in order to dissuade Ukrainian forces from conducting counteroffensive operations in the area. The Kremlin has routinely employed threats of nuclear escalation and warned of (largely Russian imposed) threats to the safety of the ZNPP in an attempt to pressure Ukraine to constrain its military actions and prevent further Western security assistance to Ukraine.[25] However, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam also harmed Russian forces, and possible Russian plans to sabotage the ZNPP cannot be ruled out and should be prepared for by Ukraine and its partners.

Ukrainian forces may be intensifying efforts to strike Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov reported on explosions in Melitopol and Yakymivka in Zaporizhia Oblast and Chonhar in Crimea on June 22.[26] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a Storm Shadow strike on the Chonhar Bridge, along the E105 highway connecting Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast and Crimea.[27] Some Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces also struck a bridge across Lake Syvash.[28] Ukrainian forces may be intensifying their efforts to strike rear areas and vulnerable areas along GLOCs to disrupt Russian supply routes.[29] Widespread Russian milblogger outrage and concern about the strike could indicate that Russian forces may be increasingly concerned over their ability to secure GLOCs in southern Ukraine.[30]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that Western partners have different expectations for Ukraine’s counteroffensive and stated that Ukrainian forces will perform operations as Ukraine sees fit independent of pressure from another country.[31] CNN reported on June 22 that senior US and other Western officials stated the Ukrainian counteroffensive thus far has failed to live up to expectations, but the officials acknowledged that the counteroffensive is still in the early phases and Western states remain hopeful that Ukrainian forces will make significant gains.[32] ISW continues to assesses that the slow pace of current Ukrainian counteroffensive operations is not emblematic of Ukrainian forces’ overall offensive potential and that Ukrainian forces are likely setting conditions for a future main counteroffensive effort which will take time to conduct.[33]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front and reportedly made gains on June 22.
  • Senior Kremlin officials continue to publicly address the Ukrainian counteroffensive in a cohesive manner and acknowledge Ukrainian forces will conduct further operations, while continuing to inflate Russian successes.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will form a “reserve army” by the end of June, form a new army corps, and reinforce key Western Military District (WMD) formations as part of intended force restructuring.
  • The Russian MoD is unlikely to fully formalize Russian volunteer formations by its stated July 1 deadline.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian intelligence indicates that Russian forces are preparing to conduct a possible sabotage attack at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). A Russian-created radiological incident at the ZNPP remains unlikely but not impossible.
  • Ukrainian forces may be intensifying efforts to strike Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in southern Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that Western partners have different expectations for Ukraine’s counteroffensive and stated that Ukrainian forces will perform operations as Ukraine sees fit independent of pressure from another country.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks near the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Bakhmut.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued offensive operations on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are transferring GRU Spetsnaz units to Kursk and Bryansk oblasts to fight Russian partisans.
  • Russian sources claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested a group of saboteurs in occupied Melitopol that allegedly planned the assassination of unnamed Zaporizhia Oblast occupation officials and sabotage against railroads. 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 21, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, and Mason Clark

June 21, 2023, 6:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on June 21. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 22 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on June 21. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 21 that Ukrainian troops had partial success during offensive operations in the Bilohorivka-Shypylivka direction (about 10km south of Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast).[1] A Russian milblogger additionally claimed that Ukrainian forces are counterattacking in the areas south and west of Kreminna.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area on the Vilne Pole-Makarivka line, and Russian milbloggers continued to discuss Ukrainian attacks in this area, particularly south of Velyka Novosilka.[3] Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast, both south and southwest of Orikhiv and that Russian forces are counterattacking to regain lost positions in this direction.[4] Russian sources noted a relatively slower pace of Ukrainian offensive operations in both western Donetsk and western Zaporizhia oblasts compared to the previous days.[5]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the progress of Ukrainian counteroffensives has been slower than expected, likely due to effective Russian defenses. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian counteroffensive progress has been “slower than desired” and will take time.[6] Zelensky noted that Ukrainian advances are not easy because Russian forces have mined 200,000 square kilometers of frontline territory.[7] Russian President Vladimir Putin also addressed ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives and preposterously claimed that Russian forces have destroyed 244 tanks and 679 armored vehicles since these operations began on June 4.[8] Russian forces’ doctrinally sound defense in western Zaporizhia Oblast and prepared defensive positions throughout southern Ukraine are likely slowing Ukrainian advances, as ISW has previously assessed.[9] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian defensive positions in southern Ukraine, dubbed the “Surovikin Line” after former overall theater commander Army General Sergei Surovikin, consist of several defensive zones between lines along dominant elevated positions up to 30km into Russian held territory.[10] The milblogger claimed that the “Surovikin Line” consists of a forward line of defense with several dozen platoon and company strongholds, and a main defensive line roughly 25km back with minefields, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive structures in between, though the extent of these defenses along the entire front line is unclear.[11] These Russian defensive lines are likely arrayed to enable a first echelon of Russian forces, deployed to the forward defensive line, to slow advancing Ukrainian forces while a second echelon of forces deployed closer to the main defensive line launch counterattacks against any Ukrainian breakthroughs, as well as providing prepared fallback positions for frontline Russian units.[12] Localized Ukrainian territorial gains are unlikely to immediately disrupt these Russian defensive lines and localized Ukrainian attempts at rapid breakthroughs are less likely to degrade these lines than a wider concerted operational effort, one which may be focused on degrading Russian defenders and fixing reserves rather than the immediate liberation of territory.

The overall slower than expected pace of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations is not emblematic of Ukraine’s wider offensive potential, and Ukrainian forces are likely successfully setting conditions for a future main effort despite initial setbacks. Ukrainian officials have long signaled that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would be a series of gradual and sequential offensive actions and have more recently offered the observation that currently ongoing operations do not represent the main thrust of Ukraine’s counteroffensive planning.[13] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar emphasized on June 20 that it is not useful to gauge the success of military actions based "solely by kilometers or the number of liberated settlements.”[14] Malyar’s statement echoes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s observation that war is not a ”Hollywood movie” that will deliver immediate and tangible results.[15]

The observation that current Ukrainian operations may have objectives that are not simply territorial is an important one. Ukrainian forces may be conducting several offensive operations across the entire theater in order to gradually attrit Russian forces and set conditions for a future main effort. Losses are inevitable on both sides, but careful operational planning on the Ukrainian side likely seeks to mitigate and balance this reality with the equally important observation that the degradation of Russian manpower is a valuable objective. Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin voiced his concern that Russian forces are suffering major manpower and equipment losses as a result of ongoing Ukrainian attacks, especially in southern Ukraine.[16] The success of Ukrainian counteroffensives should not be judged solely on day-to-day changes in control of terrain, as the wider operational intentions of Ukrainian attacks along the entire frontline may be premised on gradually degrading, exhausting, and expending Russian capabilities in preparation for additional offensive pushes.

Ukrainian defense industry conglomerate “Ukroboronprom” announced on June 20 that Ukraine built and successfully tested a 1,000km-range drone, indicating Ukraine’s intent and ability to target Russian military infrastructure in Russian-occupied territories and Russia with Ukrainian-made drones.[17] Ukroboronprom Spokesperson Nataliya Sad stated that Ukrainian forces successfully used the new Ukrainian-made drone but did not provide information on whether this drone was already used for strikes. Ukroboronprom previously announced its development of the 1,000km range drone in October 2022. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov told The Economist that Ukraine is at war and that drones over the Kremlin show that Russian defenses are “Potemkin villages” - an expression referring to the purported construction of fake settlements by a historical Russian minister to hide the true state of the Empire from the Tsar.[18] While Budanov did not confirm that the Ukrainian forces previously launched drones over the Kremlin on May 3, US intelligence officials previously assessed that the Ukrainian special military or intelligence units are behind a series of covert actions against Russian targets including the May 3 strike.[19] ISW had previously incorrectly assessed the May 3 attack on the Kremlin may have been a Russian false flag.[20] Ukraine’s focus on development of long-range drones alongside US intelligence indicates that Ukraine will likely continue to pursue Russian rear targets with Ukrainian-made drones. International law allows Ukrainian forces to strike legitimate targets even in Russian territory, especially targets from which Russian forces are launching attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.[21]

Russian occupation authorities continue to codify legal mechanisms for forcible deportations from occupied areas of Ukraine. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin signed an order on June 20 that creates a working group to regulate and oversee the creation of “temporary detention facilities for foreign citizens and stateless persons” in occupied Donetsk Oblast and designates these individuals as subject to expulsion or deportation from territory considered to be Russian under Russian law.[22] Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on April 27 that presaged Pushilin’s order by defining those living in occupied areas who refuse to accept Russian passports as “foreign citizens and stateless persons currently residing in the Russian Federation.”[23] The establishment of the new DNR working group essentially sets formal conditions for the DNR government to detain residents of occupied Donetsk Oblast who are classified as “foreign citizens and stateless persons” under the April 27 law and officially designate them as subject to deportation from occupied Donetsk Oblast. The working group will also likely serve as a coercive tool aimed at forcing residents of occupied areas to obtain Russian passports out of fear of arbitrary detention and potential deportation. ISW continues to assess that all lines of effort aimed at codifying and formalizing the deportation of Ukrainians may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as a potential deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on June 21.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the progress of Ukrainian counteroffensives has been slower than expected, likely due to effective Russian defenses.
  • The overall slower than expected pace of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations is not emblematic of Ukraine’s wider offensive potential, and Ukrainian forces are likely successfully setting conditions for a future main effort despite initial setbacks.
  • Ukrainian defense industry conglomerate “Ukroboronprom” announced on June 20 that Ukraine built and successfully tested a 1,000km-range drone, indicating Ukraine’s intent and ability to target Russian military infrastructure in Russian-occupied territories and Russia with Ukrainian-made drones.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to codify legal mechanisms for forcible deportations from occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russan and Ukrainian forces continued to engage in positional battles along the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Bakhmut area and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian military command is reportedly forming a new Azov Naval District as part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
  • The Russian State Duma passed a law in the third reading raising age limits for Russian contract personnel and officer, likely to keep personnel currently due to retire in the force.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to deport children from occupied Luhansk Oblast to Russia under the guise of medical necessity.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 20, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, and Mason Clark

June 20, 2023, 4:15pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on June 20 ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least two sectors of the front on June 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations on the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts and in western Zaporizhia oblast.[1]  The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that units of the Eastern Grouping of Forces repelled four Ukrainian assaults near Orikhiv, Zaporizhia Oblast, and in western Donetsk Oblast.[2] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on June 19 that Russian forces have committed significant forces to stop Ukrainian offensives, making Ukrainian advances difficult.[3] Malyar added that ongoing Ukrainian operations have several tasks that are not solely focused on liberating territory and that Ukrainian forces have yet to start the main phase of counteroffensive operations.[4]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to respond to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations with a relatively high degree of rhetorical coherence, suggesting that the MoD has learned from its past mishandling of the information space during previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu addressed the MoD Collegium on June 20 and began his speech by addressing ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in western Donetsk and Zaporizhia Oblasts.[5] Shoigu claimed that the counteroffensive began on June 4, consistent with ISW’s previous assessment of when the counteroffensive began.[6] Shoigu additionally claimed that Ukrainian troops have launched 263 attacks on Russian positions since June 4 but denied that Ukrainian forces have made gains anywhere in the theater, contrary to publicly available geolocated evidence of Ukrainian advances. The fact that Shoigu addressed the counteroffensive in such a public and relatively even-keeled manner (even while maintaining typical MoD denial of Ukrainian successes) is a notable inflection from the Russian MoD’s failure to prepare a unified response to Ukraine‘s Kharkiv and Kherson Oblast counteroffensives in 2022 and the resulting panic in the Russian information space, indicating the Russian information space has somewhat adapted to and learned from past moments of informational collapse.[7]

Russian forces conducted a missile and drone strike on Ukraine on June 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 35 Shahed-131/136 drones, seven S-300 missiles, and one Iskander-M missile targeting Kyiv Oblast and civilian infrastructure facilities in Zaporizhia Oblast and that Ukrainian forces shot down 32 Shahed drones.[8] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched the Shahed drones from Bryansk Oblast and the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov.[9]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least two sectors of the front on June 20.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to respond to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations with a relatively high degree of rhetorical coherence, suggesting that the MoD has learned from its past mishandling of the information space during previous Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Russian forces conducted a missile and drone strike on Ukraine on June 20.
  • Russian forces continued a slightly intensified pace of ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Kremlin continues to lower the requirements for Russian military service in an effort to increase recruitment.
  • Russia aims to use the annual International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2023” to diversify and expand its defense industrial base (DIB).

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 19, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, and Mason Clark

June 19, 2023, 5:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2pm ET on June 19. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 20 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the frontline and made gains on June 19. A Russian milblogger reported that Ukrainian troops continued attacks northwest, northeast, and southwest of Bakhmut on June 19 claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced near Krasnopolivka (about 12km northeast of Bakhmut).[1] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar additionally announced that over the past week, Ukrainian troops in the Tavrisk (Zaporizhia) direction have advanced up to seven kilometers and liberated 113 square kilometers of territory, including eight settlements in western Donetsk and western Zaporizhia oblasts.[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian troops attacked south of Velyka Novosilka in western Donetsk Oblast.[3] Geolocated footage posted on June 19 confirms that Ukrainian troops liberated Pyatykhatky, about 25km southwest of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[4] Milbloggers also reported fighting south and southwest of Orikhiv over the course of the day on June 19.[5] The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed on June 19 that Russia has likely deployed large portions of the Dnipro Grouping of Forces from the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast to the Zaporizhia and Bakhmut directions to respond to Ukrainian counteroffensive actions over the past 10 days.[6]

Russian forces conducted drone and missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine on June 19. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched four Kalibr cruise missiles and four Shahed-131/136 drones at Ukraine and stated that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed all the drones and missiles.[7] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched the Kalibr cruise missiles from a submarine in the Black Sea and the Shahed drones from the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov.[8]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported that the Chinese government reiterated that it is not providing, and will not provide, lethal assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine. Blinken reported on June 19 that the United States has not seen evidence contradicting Beijing’s claims.[9]Blinken expressed concern that Chinese companies may be providing Russia technology that it can use in the war against Ukraine, however.

US defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin indicated that it is ready to help Ukraine fly and maintain Lockheed’s F-16 fighter jets if NATO states agree to send them to Ukraine.[10]The Financial Times quoted Lockheed Martin Chief Operating Officer (COO) Frank St. John as stating that Lockheed is prepared to build new F-16s; modify existing airframes; and provide F-16 training, equipment, and systems support if NATO agrees to supply Ukraine with F-16s. US and other Western officials have recently signaled an increased willingness to provide Ukraine with F-16s, as ISW has previously reported.[11]

Kremlin-affiliated Russian tech giant Yandex claimed that international sanctions against Russia prevented the company from providing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) with user data in compliance with a Russian security law, resulting in a significant fine. A Moscow court imposed a two million ruble (roughly $23,795) fine against Yandex on June 18 for failing to provide the FSB with unspecified user data for national security reasons.[12]A Yandex representative claimed that Yandex did not intend to break Russian law but that international sanctions prevent Yandex from purchasing, installing, and configuring the foreign hardware and software necessary to comply with the law. A Moscow court previously imposed a 400,000 ruble (roughly $4,759) fine against Yandex for the same violation in 2022.[13] While it is unclear how foreign technology products would help Yandex comply with the Russian law, the situation demonstrates that international sanctions have impacted some aspects of the Russian technology sector and national security apparatus.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the frontline and made gains on June 19.
  • Russian forces conducted drone and missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine on June 19.
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported that the Chinese government reiterated that it is not providing, and will not provide, lethal assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine.
  • US defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin indicated that it is ready to help Ukraine fly and maintain Lockheed’s F-16 fighter jets if NATO states agree to send them to Ukraine.
  • Kremlin-affiliated Russian tech giant Yandex claimed that international sanctions against Russia prevented the company from providing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) with user data in compliance with a Russian security law, resulting in a significant fine.
  • Russian forces made gains in the Kupyansk area and continued ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations while Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Bakhmut.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and made marginal gains.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks on along the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Wagner Group continues efforts to expand its recruitment pool in the wake of significant losses in Ukraine.
  • Russian sources claimed that a car carrying a Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official exploded in Simferopol, occupied Crimea.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, and Mason Clark

June 18, 2023, 6:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2pm ET on June 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessmecnt.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least four sectors of the front on June 18 and made limited territorial gains. Geolocated footage suggests that Ukrainian forces made limited advances within 30km south of Kreminna.[1]Avdiivka City Military Administration Head Vitaliy Barabash reported that Ukrainian forces advanced more than a kilometer north of Avdiivka on the Donetsk City frontline over the past two weeks.[2] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations south, southwest, and southeast of Velyka Novosilka on the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts and made some localized advances.[3] Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and geolocated footage suggests that Ukrainian forces entered the western part of Pyatykhatky (41km southeast of Zaporizhzhia City), southwest of Orikhiv.[4] Ukrainian Tavrisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Valeriy Shershen stated that Russian forces continue to counterattack in western Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts, and that Ukrainian forces have “a lot of work.”[5] Ukrainian Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov reported that Russian forces continue to transfer personnel and heavy military equipment from around Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka in eastern Kherson Oblast to the Zaporizhia Oblast frontline via Melitopol.[6]

Ukrainian forces may be temporarily pausing counteroffensive operations to reevaluate their tactics for future operations. Head of the Estonian Defense Forces Intelligence Center Colonel Margo Grosberg stated on June 16 that he assesses "we won't see an offensive over the next seven days.”[7]The Wall Street Journal similarly reported on June 17 that Ukrainian forces “have mostly paused their advances in recent days” as Ukrainian command reexamines tactics.[8] These reports are consistent with ISW’s recent observations of the scale and approach of localized Ukrainian counterattacks in southern and eastern Ukraine.[9] ISW has previously noted that Ukraine has not yet committed the majority of its available forces to counteroffensive operations and has not yet launched its main effort.[10] Operational pauses are a common feature of major offensive undertakings, and this pause does not signify the end of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Wall Street Journal (WSJ) interview with Russian prisoners of war (POWs) indicates continued significant morale and command issues among frontline Russian units and the continued Russian use of “barrier forces” to shoot retreating soldiers.[11]WSJ amplified the statements of three unidentified Russian POWs who voluntarily surrendered to Ukrainian forces during Ukrainian counteroffensive operations near Velyka Novosilka, on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts. The POWs reported widespread fear of a Ukrainian counteroffensive among Russian forces on the frontlines. The POWs indicated that the Russian military command sees Russian conscripts and penal recruits as expendable, and claimed Russian officers order injured personnel deemed unfit for service back to the front line and use “barrier forces” to prevent penal recruits in “Storm-Z” units from retreating. Barrier forces are specialized units that threaten to shoot their own personnel either to prevent retreats or to force them to attack, and unverified social media footage recently circulated depicting Russian barrier troops shooting retreating Russian forces in Ukraine.[12] The POWs also indicated that Russian forces struggle to supply and staff their units, including struggling to crew tanks and armored vehicles.[13]The POWs expressed concern about returning to Russia in a POW exchange due to Russian laws prohibiting voluntary surrender to the enemy.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Theirry Breton announced on June 18 that the EU is accelerating arms deliveries to Ukraine. Breton referenced a pledge that the EU would supply a million high quality weapons to Ukraine over the coming year and stated that the EU is “going to step up our efforts to deliver arms and ammunition" as “this is a war of high intensity in which [high quality weapons] play a crucial role.”[14]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly supported select Russian milbloggers’ proposal to create a Presidential Administration working group, likely in an effort to integrate prominent milbloggers into the pro-Kremlin information space. The working group would reportedly include members of the Russian presidential administration and aim to coordinate ideas on the war in Ukraine.[15] It is unclear if and how Russian milbloggers will participate in the Presidential Administration working group, however. Putin’s support of a working group to focus on war reporting suggests that Putin intends to continue to publicly engage with pro-Kremlin mobloggers in an attempt to expand his support in the ultranationalist community. The Kremlin has previously coopted prominent Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers by offering them official roles on the Russian Human Rights Council and in the Mobilization Working Group likely in exchange for amplifying pro-Kremlin rhetoric.[16]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least four sectors of the front on June 18 and made limited territorial gains.
  • Ukrainian forces may be temporarily pausing counteroffensive operations to reevaluate their tactics for future operations.
  • Wall Street Journal (WSJ) interview with Russian prisoners of war (POWs) indicates continued significant morale and command issues among frontline Russian units and the continued Russian use of “barrier forces” to shoot retreating soldiers.
  • EU Internal Market Commissioner Theirry Breton announced on June 18 that the EU is accelerating arms deliveries to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly supported select Russian milbloggers’ proposal to create a Presidential Administration working group, likely in an effort to integrate prominent milbloggers into the pro-Kremlin information space.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks north of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces continued to repel Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast
  • Some Russian ultranationalist figures are concerned that the Russian Ministry of Defense’s efforts to formalize volunteer formations will trigger command changes and degrade combat effectiveness.
  • Russian occupation officials are continuing to prioritize medical treatment for Russian military personnel in occupied Mariupol, reportedly significantly increasing the civilian mortality rate in the city.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 17, 2023

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark

June 17, 2023, 6:30 pm ET

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2 pm ET on June 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least four sectors of the front on June 17. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted localized ground attacks west and south of Kreminna.[1] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces continue counteroffensive operations near Bakhmut, and Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces attacked on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut.[2] The Russian MoD and other Russian sources also claimed that Russian forces repelled limited Ukrainian ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.[3] Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations south, southwest, and southeast of Velyka Novosilka near the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.[4] Ukrainian forces also conducted counteroffensive operations southwest and southeast of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[5] Malyar also stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to two kilometers in multiple unspecified directions in southern Ukraine.[6]

A delegation representing seven African states met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on June 17, following a meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky on June 16, to propose a generalized peace plan focused on resuming international trade. The Egyptian prime minister, a Ugadan presidential envoy, and the presidents of South Africa, Zambia, Comoros, the Republic of the Congo, and Senegal previously visited Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 16, and notably had to take shelter during Russian missile strikes targeting Kyiv.[7] South African President Cyril Ramaphosa corrected his spokesperson’s earlier denials that Russian forces did not conduct attacks on Kyiv during the visit and acknowledged that “such activity does not bode well for establishing peace.”[8] Ramaphosa presented a ten-point generalized peace plan on June 16 calling for an end to hostilities and a negotiated peace settlement that would respect sovereignty and establish security guarantees for both Ukraine and Russia.[9] The proposal also calls for securing the movement of grain and fertilizers from both Ukraine and Russia and closer cooperation with African states.[10] Zelensky reiterated that negotiations are only possible after the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine and that Ukraine will not pursue negotiated settlements reminiscent of the Minsk Accords.[11]

Putin stated that the Kremlin welcomes the African states’ “balanced” approach to resolving the war in Ukraine in his meeting with the delegation, but did not comment on the feasibility of Ramaphosa’s suggested peace plan.[12] President of Comoros and current African Union Chairperson Azali Asoumani notably used language similar to the Kremlin’s preferred ”Russian world” rhetoric about the war in Ukraine while meeting with Putin, stating that stability in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the world depends on fraternal relationships between neighboring Slavic “friendly nations.”[13] Asoumani also highlighted that peace in Ukraine is important for addressing international food and energy security.[14] Asoumani’s comments and the peace plan’s inclusion of grain shipment guarantees suggest the states involved in the proposal view resolving the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine as their paramount concern. The delegation likely seeks to balance Ukraine and Russia to maintain longstanding bilateral relationships with Russia without fully tying themselves diplomatically to the Kremlin’s war.

The Kremlin will likely exploit this proposal to promote Russian information operations aiming to slow Western security assistance to Ukraine and has not demonstrated any intent to engage with any peace process meaningfully. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin has routinely signaled a false willingness to negotiate a settlement to the war to prompt Western concessions and dissuade Western officials from sending further support to Ukraine.[15] The Kremlin previously intensified this effort to set conditions for its winter-spring 2023 offensive and is likely reamplifying this information operation in an effort to weaken Western support for Ukraine during counteroffensive operations.[16] The Kremlin also used the equally vague peace plan presented by China in the spring of 2023 to amplify this information operation and has not yet attempted to expound upon the broad suggestions in that plan.[17] The Kremlin instead attempted to use stated Chinese interest in negotiating a settlement to the war in Ukraine to pursue desired closer ties with China.[18] The Kremlin will likely use the outreach by these African states to pursue strengthened bilateral and multilateral engagement.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to signal his disinterest in formally subordinating the Wagner private military company (PMC) to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Prigozhin sarcastically criticized the MoD’s formalization efforts on June 17 after previously portraying himself as compliant with the Russian MoD’s order for volunteer formations to sign formal contracts by July 1 and claimed he attempted to submit a contract to formalize Wagner under the Russian MoD.[19] Prigozhin implied that the Russian MoD will confiscate weapons that volunteer units obtained outside of the Russian MoD’s weapon deliveries and noted that inexperienced Russian commanders with higher military education will replace what he claimed are more combat-effective volunteer commanders.[20] Prigozhin added that formalization will destroy hierarchies within volunteer formations and force volunteers to serve in the military without the Russian MoD respecting military contract deadlines. Prigozhin noted that the Russian MoD will not provide sufficient supplies or weapons for volunteers and will mistreat irregular forces. Prigozhin did not discuss the contents of his claimed formalization contract with the Russian MoD on June 17, but a Wagner-affiliated milblogger suggested that Prigozhin demanded a series of powers and concessions from the Russian military command discussed in the force generation section of this update.[21] Prigozhin’s behavior indicates that he is unlikely to subordinate Wagner forces to the Russian MoD unless such a move would grant him more political power within Russia.

The New York Times (NYT) released a report supporting ISW’s prior assessment that Russian forces most likely destroyed the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam.[22] NYT cited multiple US and Ukrainian engineering experts who examined diagrams of the KHPP dam, imagery of the destroyed dam foundation, footage of the initial breach, and seismic data. The experts determined that the degree of damage to the dam’s internal structures is consistent with an explosion from within the dam’s internal structures rather than from prior damage. NYT also quoted a senior US military official as saying that the US ruled out an external attack, such as from a missile, rocket, or other projectile, as causing the explosion, and that the US believes that Russian forces most likely caused the internal explosion that caused the dam’s collapse. ISW has assessed since the destruction of the KHPP dam on June 6 that the preponderance of available evidence, reasoning, and rhetoric suggests that Russian forces deliberately damaged the dam.[23]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least four sectors of the front.
  • A delegation representing seven African states met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg following a meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky on June 16 to propose a generalized peace plan focused on resuming international trade.
  • The Kremlin will likely exploit this proposal to promote Russian information operations aiming to slow Western security assistance to Ukraine and has not demonstrated any intent to meaningfully engage with any peace process.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to signal his disinterest in formally subordinating the Wagner private military company (PMC) to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • The New York Times (NYT) released a report supporting ISW’s prior assessment that Russian forces most likely destroyed the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, and Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted localized ground attacks west and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces and Ukrainian forces continued limited attacks in the Bakhmut area and on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Vuhledar likely in response to Ukrainian territorial gains in the area on June 16.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces intensified attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to gradually mobilize Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Russian officials are planning several infrastructure projects connecting occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to occupied Crimea, likely to secure new ground lines of communication (GLOCs) for the Russian grouping in southern Ukraine.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 16, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Mason Clark

June 16, 2023, 5:15pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2pm ET on June 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least three sectors of the front on June 16 and reportedly made gains. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that the Ukrainian forces conducted successful counteroffensive operations southwest of Bakhmut near Stupochky (about 12km southwest of Bakhmut); in western Donetsk Oblast near Vuhledar; in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area along the Levadne-Staromaiorske line; and in western Zaporizhia Oblast along the Novodanlylivka-Robotyne line.[1] Geolocated footage posted on June 15 indicates that Ukrainian forces have made marginal gains on the northwestern outskirts of Bakhmut west of Yahidne, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian troops continued counterattacks northwest, west, and southwest of Bakhmut.[2] Russian milbloggers additionally claimed that Ukrainian forces continued attacking Russian positions south of Velyka Novosilka in western Donetsk Oblast, made gains in central Zaporizhia Oblast just south of Hulyaipole, and mounted offensive operations southwest of Orikhiv.[3]

Russian forces targeted Kyiv and Kryvyi Rih with cruise missiles and kamikaze drones on June 15-16. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted five missile strikes with Kh-59, Kh-101, and Kh-555 cruise missiles on June 15 and that Ukrainian forces also shot down two Shahed drones.[4] Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Head Serhiy Lysak reported that Russian missiles had targeted two industrial facilities in Kryvyi Rih on June 15.[5] Ukrainian officials also reported that Ukrainian air defenses intercepted six Russian Kinzhal and six Kaliber missiles that targeted Kyiv Oblast during the day on June 16, coinciding with the visit of several African heads of state in Kyiv.[6]

The heads of state of seven African countries met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 16 in Kyiv as part of joint peace mission. President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, President of Zambia Hakainde Hichilema, President of Comoros Azali Assoumani, President of the Republic of the Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, Prime Minister of Egypt Mostafa Mabdouly, President of Senegal Macky Sall, and a Ugandan representative met with the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv.[7] Russian forces conducted a missile strike on Kyiv during the visit, forcing the African leaders to take shelter in bunkers during their meetings.[8] Some Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces did not conduct missile strikes on Kyiv during the African leaders’ visit, while another absurdly claimed that it was the Ukrainian forces that staged the attack.[9] The African leaders will continue their trip onward to St. Petersburg on June 17 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.[10] ISW will assess this trip in total following readouts from the delegation’s visit to Russia.

The Kremlin claimed Russia has begun transferring tactical nuclear warheads (under Russian control) to Belarus, in line with previously announced plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on June 16 that Russia has moved the first deployment of tactical nuclear warheads to Belarus.[11] Putin stated that Russian forces will deploy the entirety of planned tactical nuclear warheads shipments to Belarus by the end of 2023.[12] ISW previously assessed that the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is part of a longstanding effort to cement Russia’s de facto military control over Belarus and is highly unlikely to presage any Russian escalation.[13]

Select current and former Russian municipal officials signed an open letter calling on the Russian forces to return to the “universally” recognized Russian borders due to the crisis caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam. Municipal officials from Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as Moscow and Leningrad oblasts signed the document, which argued that the destruction of the KHPP dam will affect the ecosystem of the planet, health issues, and the economy for many decades.[14] The letter stated that Putin’s actions since February 24, 2022 have caused unspecified catastrophic events but did not cite continued Russian military operations in Ukraine as a reason for the withdrawal of Russian forces.[15] Non-Kremlin aligned Russian officials may be using public concern about the environmental and humanitarian situation associated with the destruction of the KHPP dam to voice opposition to the war in Ukraine without directly criticizing the war effort itself. The Kremlin has widely set the conditions for crackdowns against anti-war dissent. Russians who hold anti-war sentiments may use the destruction of the KHPP to voice their opposition to the war in a very limited fashion.[16]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive actions on at least three sectors of the front on June 16 and reportedly made gains.
  • Russian forces targeted Kyiv and Kryvyi Rih with cruise missiles and kamikaze drones on June 15-16.
  • The heads of state of seven African countries met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 16 in Kyiv as part of a joint peace mission.
  • The Kremlin claimed Russia has begun transferring tactical nuclear warheads (under Russian control) to Belarus, in line with previously announced plans.
  • Select current and former Russian municipal officials signed an open letter calling on Russian forces to return to “universally” recognized Russian borders due to the crisis caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks in the Vuhledar area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and reportedly made gains in this area.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is attempting to monetarily incentivize the destruction of Ukrainian military equipment, likely to bolster ongoing recruitment efforts.
  • Russian and occupation authorities are attempting to strengthen Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) between Russia and occupied Ukraine.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 15, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Mason Clark

June 15, 2023, 6:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2:30pm ET on June 15. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 16 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and reportedly made gains on June 15. Ukrainian General Staff Spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun reported that Ukrainian forces conducted successful offensive operations north and northwest of Bakhmut.[1] Ukraine’s Tavrisk Group of Forces Press Center reported that Ukrainian forces advanced up to one kilometer in western Donetsk Oblast and are continuing attempts to improve their tactical positions near Vuhledar (30km southwest of Donetsk City).[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian troops unsuccessfully attacked southwest and south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast and claimed that Ukrainian forces are increasing the tempo of counteroffensive operations in the area due to improved weather conditions.[3] Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the Ukrainian General Staff Brigadier General Oleksii Hromov reported that Ukrainian forces have advanced up to 3km near Mala Tokmachka in western Zaporizhia Oblast and up to 7km near Velyka Novosilka in western Donetsk Oblast and have liberated seven settlements in those areas since beginning counteroffensive operations.[4] Advisor to the Ukrainian Presidential Office Mykhailo Podolyak however stated on June 15 that Ukrainian forces have yet to launch counteroffensives “as such” but acknowledged that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive actions, a likely clarification that Ukrainian forces have not yet begun their main effort.[5] ISW assesses that ongoing Ukrainian offensive operations are likely setting conditions for wider Ukrainian counteroffensive objectives that are not immediately clear and therefore represent the initial phase of an ongoing counteroffensive.

Russian milbloggers continue to credit alleged superior Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and defensive doctrine for Russian forces’ successful defenses against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are implementing a “strategic defense” that seeks to attrit advancing Ukrainian forces in extended positional battles along a first line of defense before later launching counterattacks against weakened Ukrainian assault units.[6] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are maintaining doctrinally sound defensive operations in this sector in which a first echelon of forces repels or slows attacking forces before a second echelon of forces counterattacks against any enemy breakthrough.[7] Another prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian EW complexes prevent Ukrainian forces from using precision-guided munitions guided by GPS coordinates and heavily disrupt Ukrainian radio communication.[8] The milblogger specifically claimed that Russian forces use “Murmansk-BN” EW complexes to disrupt sensors on Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance equipment and “Krasukha-4” EW complexes to suppress connections with satellite signals within a radius of 300km.[9] ISW has previously assessed that Russian EW capabilities have been critical in complicating Ukrainian attacks in the Zaporizhia direction, although it is unclear if continued successful Russian EW tactics are a result of superior capacities or improved Russian employment of these systems. ISW has previously noted that initial Ukrainian assaults and Russian defensive operations should not be extrapolated to predict the outcome of all Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[10]

Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine early in the morning of June 15. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that between 00:20 and 04:30 local time on June 15, Russian forces launched four Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from four Tu-95 strategic bombers from over the Caspian Sea and 20 Shahed-typed drones from the northern and southern directions.[11]Ukrainian military sources reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down one of the cruise missiles and all 20 Shaheds.[12] The remaining three cruise missiles struck industrial facilities in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[13] Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the UA Gen Staff Brigadier General Oleksii Hromov notably stated on June 15 that Russian forces have deployed a “Bal” Kh-35 coastal defense system to Bryansk Oblast, which Hromov warned may allow Russian forces to conduct strikes on Ukrainian far-rear areas in Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Poltava, Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv oblasts.[14] Russian forces have long repurposed various missile systems, such as S-300 surface-to-air-missile systems, to strike ground targets and compensate for shortages of precision munitions, which is likely why Russian forces have deployed a coastal defense system to a land-locked oblast.

The Russian military is advancing initial efforts to stand up new corps- and army-level formations to implement Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announced intent to conduct large-scale force restructuring by 2026, though these new formations are not yet staffed and operational. Independent Western open-source intelligence analysts began reporting in mid-May that Russian military authorities are actively recruiting officers and conscripts from Buryatia and Irkutsk to staff the new 25th Combined Arms Army.[15] The army HQ will reportedly be based in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast.[16] ISW also previously reported on June 3 that Russia is forming the 40th Army Corps as part of the Southern Military District and actively trying to staff one of the corps’ motorized rifle battalions.[17] Efforts to construct and staff both the 25th Combined Arms Army and 40th Army Corps are likely part of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) implementation of intended large-scale reforms of Russia’s ground forces to optimize for large-scale conventional warfare.[18] It remains unclear how Russian authorities intend to staff corps- and army-level formations to their doctrinal end strengths considering endemic force-generation challenges faced by the Russian military.[19] These formations may in part be intended to integrate a number of ad hoc volunteer formations that have been created over the course of the war in Ukraine, although Russia’s previous attempt to integrate volunteer battalions in the form of the 3rd Army Corps over the summer of 2022 did not yield particularly positive results.[20]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov deployed Chechen “Akhmat” special forces to border areas in Belgorod Oblast, likely as part of a continued effort to align himself with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Kadyrov claimed on June 15 that the Chechen “Zapad Akhmat” Battalion arrived to the Nekhoteevka and Kozinka border checkpoints in Belgorod Oblast on his orders to protect the border from raids into Russian territory.[21] Kadyrov emphasized that the Akhmat forces will work in tandem with other Russian forces to defend Belgorod Oblast and residents of other border areas. Kadyrov likely aims to posture himself and Chechen forces as cooperating with the MoD, directly contrasting with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, who previously threatened to deploy Wagner forces to Belgorod Oblast without permission from the Russian MoD or the Russian military command.[22] Kadyrov has also taken advantage of the frequent Russian information-space discourse about Belgorod Oblast to posture himself as an effective and cooperative military leader without having to commit all Chechen forces to an attritive offensive or defense effort.

Western states may provide F-16 fighter aircraft and additional Leopard tanks to Ukraine in the coming months. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on June 15 that Ukrainian pilots are already training on F-16 aircraft, allowing Western states to provide F-16s to Ukraine on an unspecified timeline.[23] The first of two chambers of the Swiss National Council voted on June 14 to decommission 25 Leopard-2 tanks and send the tanks back to Germany, which would then export the tanks to Ukraine.[24]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and reportedly made gains on June 15.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to credit alleged superior Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and defensive doctrine for Russian forces’ successful defenses against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine early in the morning of June 15.
  • The Russian military is advancing initial efforts to stand up new corps- and army-level formations to implement Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announced intent to conduct large-scale force restructuring by 2026, though these new formations are not yet staffed and operational.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov deployed Chechen “Akhmat” special forces to border areas in Belgorod Oblast, likely as part of a continued effort to align himself with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Western states may provide F-16 fighter aircraft and additional Leopard tanks to Ukraine in the coming months.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Bakhmut, and Russian forces have gained territory as of June 15.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces reportedly continued limited ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are beginning to decommission specialized company-size assault units and transferring their personnel to volunteer formations.
  • Ukrainian partisans reportedly sabotaged a railway in occupied Melitopol, though ISW has observed no visual confirmation or Russian corroboration of the attack.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 14, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, and Mason Clark

June 14, 2023, 7pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on June 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and made gains on June 14. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 14 that Ukrainian troops have advanced between 200 to 500 meters in unspecified sectors of the Bakhmut front and 300 to 350 meters in unspecified parts of the Zaporizhia direction.[1] Russian milbloggers reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing counterattacks on the northwestern, northeastern, and southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut.[2] Ukrainian and Russian sources additionally reported that fighting continued in western Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Makarivka (directly south of Velyka Novosilka), and in western Zaporizhia Oblast south of Orikhiv.[3] Russian milbloggers speculated that heavy rain and poor weather in southern Ukraine may have decreased the tempo of Ukrainian attacks, but Malyar emphasized that weather conditions do not always have an impact of Ukrainian offensive actions.[4] Ukrainian Tavrisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Valery Shershen noted that Ukrainian forces in the Tavrisk (Zaporizhia) direction are prioritizing strikes on Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems, and ISW has previously assessed that Russian EW capabilities have been critical in complicating Ukrainian attacks on this sector of the front.[5] US Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh affirmed the United States’ commitment to partially replacing Ukrainian losses of the US-provided equipment used in counteroffensive operations but noted that there may not be a one-for-one replacement ratio.[6]

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces struck a division of the 20th Combined Arms Army (Western Military District) near Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast while they were waiting for the commander of the 20th CAA to give a speech, prompting typical discontent among milbloggers about Russian commanders. ISW has observed both of the 20th CAA’s divisions, the 144th and 3rd Motorized Rifle Divisions, operating in the Kreminna area for the past several months and could not confirm which division was struck by the Ukrainian forces.[7] Russian sources claimed that the division waited two hours in one location while waiting for 20th Combined Arms Army Commander Major General Sukhrab Akhmedov to arrive and deliver a speech before the division conducted offensive operations.[8]One milblogger suggested that the reported Ukrainian HIMARS strike killed around 100 Russian personnel and wounded another 100, although ISW has not observed any visual confirmation of the strike or its aftermath.[9]

Milbloggers rightfully criticized the poor decision to concentrate a large number of Russian forces within range of Ukrainian fire for such a long time and used the situation to reiterate longstanding critiques of ineffective Russian command.[10] The outrage is reminiscent of previous instances of notable irresponsible Russian military actions resulting in dramatic losses, particularly the December 31, 2022, Ukrainian strike on a large Russian force concentration in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast.[11] Russian milbloggers previously urged for Russian officials to hold the Russian military leadership accountable for the Makiivka strike, and milbloggers have routinely attempted to place the blame for large scale Russian military failures on individual commanders.[12] Milbloggers complained that Akhmedov and similar commanders continue to occupy key positions instead of being held accountable, a longstanding complaint that is indicative of widespread disdain for the traditional Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) establishment.[13] One milblogger even called for the responsible commanders to be shot in front of their formations, whether they are colonel or generals.[14]

Russian sources disseminated conflicting reports about the condition of Russian Duma Deputy and Commander of the Chechen Rosgvardia branch, Adam Delimkhanov, on June 14. ISW has not observed any visual evidence to confirm or deny the contradictory claims about Delimkhanov’s condition. Some Russian sources claimed on June 14 that Delimkhanov was dead or wounded, and some claimed a Ukrainian strike killed or wounded him in an unspecified location.[15] Other Russian sources including Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmat Special Forces Commander Major General Apti Alaudinov, and Russian Duma Deputy Andrey Kartopolov later claimed that Delimkhanov was alive and unharmed.[16] Kadyrov published a video on June 14 of himself with Delimkhanov on an unspecified date after rumors began circulating about Delimkhanov’s condition.[17] Kadyrov then claimed that Ukrainian media was circulating reports of Delimkhanov’s death (ignoring that many of the reports originated from Russian sources) as part of an information operation, but did not elaborate on the intent of the supposed information operation.[18]

Russian forces conducted missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on June 14. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched six Kh-22 cruise missiles, four Kalibr cruise missiles, and 10 Shahed 131/136 drones and noted that Ukrainian forces destroyed three Kh-22 missiles and nine Shaheds.[19] Ukrainian General Staff Spokesperson Andriy Kovalev reported that Russian forces targeted infrastructure facilities in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kirovohrad, and Odesa oblasts.[20]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and made gains on June 14.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces struck a division of the 20th Combined Arms Army (Western Military District) near Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast while they were waiting for the commander of the 20th CAA to give a speech, prompting typical discontent among milbloggers about Russian commanders.
  • Russian sources disseminated conflicting reports about the condition of Russian Duma Deputy and Commander of the Chechen Rosgvardia branch, Adam Delimkhanov, on June 14. ISW has not observed any visual evidence to confirm or deny the contradictory claims about Delimkhanov’s condition.
  • Russian forces conducted missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on June 14.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Kupyansk direction and south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued ground attacks in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and reportedly made gains in this area as of June 14.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast on June 14.
  • Satellite imagery suggests that Russian helicopters defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine are likely deployed to an airfield in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • A Russian State Duma bill aimed at raising the conscription age suggests that the Kremlin may be aiming to shield specific generations from the demographic and social impacts of the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue efforts to consolidate economic control of occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 13, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Mason Clark

 June 13, 2023, 8:35pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2:30 pm ET on June 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and made further limited territorial gains on June 13. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces advanced by 250 meters northeast of Bakhmut and by 200 meters south of Bakhmut.[1] Malyar also reported that Ukrainian forces advanced 500-1,000m in the past 24 hours around the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts, liberating around three square kilometers of territory in the area.[2] Ukrainian General Staff Spokesperson Andriy Kovalev reported that Ukrainian forces have liberated over 100 square kilometers of territory since beginning counteroffensive operations.[3] Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on June 13 that he assesses that Ukrainian forces have likely liberated more than 100 square kilometers.[4] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued ground assaults southwest of Orikhiv and south of Hulyaipole in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of June 12 to 13.[5] Russian sources widely reported that the tempo of Ukrainian operations in the Orikhiv area has declined in recent days.[6]Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Environmental Safety Department and Mine Action representative Major Vladyslav Dudar reported on June 13 that Russian forces are regularly destroying small dams in localized areas of southern Ukraine to disrupt Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[7]

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with 18 prominent Russian milbloggers and war correspondents to discuss the progress of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on June 13.[8] Putin largely met with milbloggers closely associated with the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and other state-owned outlets, notably excluding milbloggers who have been more critical of Putin’s war effort.[9] Putin addressed several key milblogger concerns relating to the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian objectives in Ukraine, Russian mobilization and the possibility of imposing martial law, the formalization of private military companies (PMCs), and hostile incursions into Belgorod Oblast.

Putin discussed the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and signaled that he believes Russia can outlast Western military support for Ukraine. Putin stated that Russian objectives have not fundamentally changed, reiterating boilerplate rhetoric and false narratives accusing Ukraine and NATO of initiating the war.[10] Putin added that the West can push Ukraine into negotiations with Russia by stopping the supplies of military aid to Ukraine.[11] Putin noted that Ukrainian forces launched a ”massive” counteroffensive on June 4 and noted that Ukrainian forces attacked in southwestern Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts, claiming they suffered significant losses. Putin claimed that Ukraine has lost 160 tanks and claimed that 30 percent of Ukraine’s casualties are killed in action, whereas Russian forces have lost only 54 tanks. Putin may be attempting to systematically amplify and misrepresent Ukrainian losses of Western military equipment to portray Ukraine’s counteroffensive as failed and discourage the West from continuing to support Ukraine. Former Russian officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin observed that Putin’s comments indicate that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to misinform him about the true situation on the battlefield.[12]

Putin indicated that he is unwilling to announce a second wave of mobilization or declare martial law, despite maintaining his maximalist objectives in Ukraine. Putin acknowledged that some Russian “public figures” are discussing the urgent need for mobilization but noted that there “is currently no need today” for mobilization. Putin boasted about Russian contract service recruitment efforts using rhetoric consistent with ISW’s previous assessments that Putin is disinterested in announcing another mobilization wave and is instead prioritizing volunteer recruitment.[13] Putin also downplayed milbloggers’ concern over the Kremlin’s decision to not declare full-scale martial law throughout Russia, stating that Russia needs to expand its law enforcement rather than declare martial law. ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who is hesitant to upset Russian society by ordering another mobilization wave or establishing martial law throughout Russia, indicating that Putin has not yet decided to fully commit to fighting a total war. Putin’s statements likely aim to reassure his constituencies that he does not intend to expand the “special military operation” further.

Putin aimed to assuage widespread discontent in the Russian information space about limited cross border raids by pro-Ukraine forces into Belgorod Oblast, drone strikes across Russia, and border security in general. Putin stated that Russian forces do not plan to divert forces from other sectors of the frontline in Ukraine to Belgorod and other border oblasts in response to border incursions and drone strikes on Russian territory.[14] Putin stated that Russian leadership is considering creating a buffer zone within Ukraine to prevent Ukrainian forces from reaching Russian territory, but caveated the suggestion by saying that Russian officials will not immediately create a buffer zone and will examine how the situation develops.[15] Russian officials have previously responded to limited tactical activity in Belgorod Oblast and other border oblasts by calling for a Russian offensive to push Ukrainian forces away from the international border with Russia in Kharkiv Oblast.[16] Putin’s comments indicate that the Kremlin does not intend to react to cross-border operations in an effort to preserve forces for combat in Ukraine, despite growing discontent within Russia prompted by the raids. Putin also confirmed that Russian conscripts are serving in Belgorod Oblast and that Colonel General Alexander Lapin commanded conscripts to repel the pro-Ukrainian all-Russian limited raids in Belgorod Oblast. Russian forces are likely deploying conscripts to serve in border oblasts due to a lack of reserves and an unwillingness to transfer forces away from the frontline elsewhere in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that limited raids and border shelling in Belgorod Oblast have become a notable focal point for criticism against the Russian military leadership, and Putin is likely attempting to address critiques that he has ignored the situation there in order to insulate himself from further criticism.[17] 

Putin discussed the importance of formalizing volunteer formations, supporting the Russian MoD’s measures to centralize its control over operations in Ukraine. Putin claimed that all volunteer formations serving in Ukraine must sign military contracts with the Russian MoD to “bring everything in line with common sense, established practice, and the law” and to ensure that individual volunteers can legally receive state social benefits.[18] Putin emphasized that the Russian government cannot provide social guarantees to volunteer structures without signed contracts.[19] Putin’s emphasis on the legality of volunteer formations suggests that Putin may be intending to either assert direct control over or set conditions to ban state assistance to select private military organizations (PMCs) such as the Wagner Group, which are technically illegal under the Russian law.

Putin is likely continuing to publicly engage with, and platform select pro-Kremlin milbloggers to further leverage the community to expand his support among Russian ultranationalists. Putin previously held a closed-door meeting with milbloggers on June 17, 2022, to defuse growing discontent about Russian setbacks in Ukraine, and has occasionally interacted with the pro-Kremlin milblogger community since.[20] ISW previously assessed that the milblogger community rose to prominence likely as a direct result of the Kremlin’s failure to establish an effective social media presence as well as its general failure to prepare the Russian public for a serious and protracted war.[21] The Kremlin has protected Russian milbloggers from criticism and calls for censorship and has rewarded select milbloggers with official positions to co-opt their audience and gain access to their close ties to prominent nationalist and pro-war groups.[22] Putin’s highly publicized meeting with the milbloggers is reflective of the Kremlin’s promotion of this group in the previous year and suggests that Putin intends to further elevate their standing. Putin is likely setting information conditions to prevent potential lines of attack against the Kremlin in the event of Russian failure. Putin may also be increasingly aware that committed pro-war figures are his key constituency as he calls on the Russian public to prepare for a protracted war in Ukraine. The Kremlin is likely aware that key pro-war figures will be crucial to rallying the rest of society to that effort, and Putin’s engagement with these milbloggers may suggest that the Kremlin will increasingly rely on the wider ultranationalist community to maintain support for the war effort.                             

Russian sources claimed that a Ukrainian missile strike killed Chief of Staff of the 35th Combined Arms Army (Eastern Military District) Major General Sergei Goryachev in Zaporizhia Oblast.[23] ISW has observed other elements of the Eastern Military District including elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army and 5th Combined Arms Army operating in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[24] Goryachev’s reported death in Zaporizhia Oblast could suggest that Russian forces have dedicated elements of the 35th Combined Arms Army to operations in Zaporizhia Oblast and that some Russian senior military command officials continue to operate close to the frontline and remain exposed to accurate Ukrainian strikes.[25]

Russian forces conducted missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on June 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 16 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles and four Shahed 131/136 drones that targeted infrastructure facilities in Kharkiv Oblast and residential buildings in Kryvyi Rih.[26] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed 11 Kh101/555 missiles and one Shahed drone.[27]

Russian authorities continue to express increasing concern over information related to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB). The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly arrested two defense sector employees for allegedly collaborating with Ukraine and Germany.[28] A Russian milblogger claimed that the FSB arrested an engineer at the end of May who worked in the defense industry and collaborated with the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR).[29] Russian opposition news outlet SOTA reported that the FSB arrested a former employee of a defense enterprise for allegedly providing information to Germany about the Russian defense industry.[30] ISW has previously reported on Russian authorities arresting individuals with reported access to DIB-related information.[31]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three directions and made further limited territorial gains on June 13.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met with 18 prominent Russian milbloggers and war correspondents to discuss the progress of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on June 13.
  • Putin discussed the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and signaled that he believes Russia can outlast Western military support for Ukraine.
  • Putin indicated that he is unwilling to announce a second wave of mobilization or declare martial law, despite maintaining his maximalist objectives in Ukraine.
  • Putin aimed to assuage widespread discontent in the Russian information space about limited cross-border raids by pro-Ukraine forces into Belgorod Oblast, drone strikes across Russia, and border security in general.
  • Putin discussed the importance of formalizing volunteer formations, supporting the Russian MoD’s measures to centralize its control over operations in Ukraine.
  • Putin is likely continuing to publicly engage with, and platform select pro-Kremlin milbloggers to further leverage the community to expand his support among Russian ultranationalists.
  • Russian sources claimed that a Ukrainian missile strike killed Chief of Staff of the 35th Combined Arms Army (Eastern Military District) Major General Sergei Goryachev in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on June 13.
  • Russian authorities continue to express increasing concern over information related to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks on the Kreminna frontline but did not conduct offensive operations on the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to advance on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks, while Russian forces launched counterattacks in the vicinity of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and are transferring additional forces from east (left) bank Kherson Oblast to reinforce the direction.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the Russian military has recruited 150,000 contract servicemembers as well as over 6,000 volunteers since January 2023.
  • Russian occupation officials in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast are reportedly continuing evacuation efforts, although are likely continuing to deny services to some residents in flooded areas.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 12, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Mason Clark

 June 12, 2023, 5:20pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on June 12. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 13 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front and made territorial gains on June 12. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on June 12 that Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Tavrisk (Zaporizhia) directions have advanced 6.5km and retaken 90 square kilometers of territory over the past week.[1] Malyar added that Ukrainian forces liberated one settlement in western Zaporizhia Oblast and six settlements in eastern Zaporizhia and western Donetsk oblasts in the same period. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian troops continued counterattacks on the flanks of Bakhmut and advanced 250 to 700 meters in unspecified areas on the outskirts of the city.[2] Russian sources noted that Ukrainian forces continued counterattacks on Russian positions southwest, north and northwest of Bakhmut, particularly near Berkhivka (3km northwest of Bakhmut).[3] Geolocated footage posted on June 12 additionally indicates that Ukrainian forces have made limited advances in western Donetsk Oblast south of Velyka Novosilka.[4] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces are trying to counterattack in this area and that fighting continued in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area over the course of June 12.[5] Russian milbloggers additionally reported Ukrainian combat activity in western Zaporizhia Oblast near Orikhiv, but noted that the intensity of attacks on this sector has decreased somewhat.[6]

Russian forces reportedly launched a counterattack on June 12 in western Donetsk Oblast following Ukrainian tactical gains near the Vremivka salient on June 11. Russian sources reported that elements of the Russian 127th Motorized Rifle Division (5th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) launched a large counterattack against Ukrainian forces in the Vremivka salient on June 12.[7] Russian forces have made no confirmed territorial gains in these counterattacks as of this publication, though some Russian sources reported that Russian forces recaptured Makarivka (5km south of Velyka Novosilka).[8] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces still control Makarivka as of June 12.[9] A Russian source reported that fighting in the Vremivka salient as ongoing and that the results of the battle are unclear.[10] Ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin claimed that, if true, these reports confirm the success of Russian flexible defense tactics in the area and that the Russian military command cares more about wearing down Ukrainian forces than regaining territory.[11] Girkin claimed that the typical defense of Russian forces is to retreat to rear areas to draw Ukrainian infantry out from Ukrainian air defense and electronic warfare coverage. Girkin claimed that Russian forces then attack the area with tank and air defense support in order to prevent the Ukrainian forces from deploying air defense elements forward to newly gained areas.

Russian milbloggers claimed that poor weather conditions grounded Russian aircraft, impeding Russian defenses against Ukrainian attacks near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces managed to make tactical gains on June 11 due to heavy rain and fog preventing Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and army aviation (rotary wing aircraft) from striking Ukrainian force concentrations.[12] Russian sources reported that Russian VKS and army aviation resumed intense airstrikes against Ukrainian forces on June 12 after the rain cleared.[13] Girkin claimed that the weather will play an important role in determining the outcome of operations in this sector in the coming days.[14]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on June 11 that he had received an order from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to subordinate his forces to Russian military command.[15] Prigozhin published a claimed segment of the letter from the Russian MoD, which instructs Wagner and other Russian volunteer military formations to inform the Joint Staff of Russian Grouping of Forces about their numbers of forces, reserves, and the supplies they have received from the Russian MoD by June 15.[16] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously announced on June 10 that Russian volunteer personnel must sign contracts directly with the Russian MoD by July 1.[17] Prigozhin later claimed that Wagner is receiving 2.5 times more recruits after the recent “provocative announcements about the need to terminate the existence of Wagner private military company [PMC],” stating that Russian volunteers are joining Wagner to avoid signing contracts with the Russian MoD.[18] Prigozhin accused the Russian MoD of using this formalization effort to harm Wagner amidst the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives.[19]

The Russian MoD formalization efforts are likely intended to centralize control of Russian irregular personnel and supplies to respond to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as well as restrict Prigozhin's independence. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Shoigu’s new decree legalizes the destruction of PMCs and that the Russian MoD will use this decree to stop providing Wagner forces with ammunition, medical assistance, and military equipment.[20] A member of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee (and an avid critic of Wagner) Viktor Sobolev claimed that the Russian MoD will not permit volunteers to participate in hostilities without signing a military contract with the Russian MoD, which may make it illegal for Wagner forces to operate on the frontlines.[21] Russian milbloggers implied that the order may allow the Russian MoD to retain contract servicemen longer on the frontlines, as they claim the Russian MoD is less likely to abide by contract periods than PMCs like Wagner.[22] One prominent milblogger claimed that the timing of Shoigu’s announcement is strange given that Ukrainian forces just launched a counteroffensive, and another noted that the Russian MoD is prioritizing bureaucratically eliminating Wagner instead of focusing on the counteroffensive.[23] The Russian military command similarly ordered formalization of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR and LNR) militias in January and February ahead of the Russian winter offensive.[24] Shoigu and the Russian military command may be leverage possibly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russian forces successfully conducted some defensive operations in southern Ukraine to pursue formalization of Russian irregular forces that they likely originally planned in winter 2023. Prigozhin’s operations on the Bakhmut frontline in winter and spring 2023 and the Russian MoD’s lack of decisive victories in Donbas may have limited the Russian MoD’s ability to pursue its desired formalization of Russian forces. The move is likely militarily sound and in part unrelated to the dispute with Prigozhin, as a formal accounting and direct control of Russia’s array of irregular formations will likely enable the Russian military command to redeploy forces as needed.

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues efforts to rhetorically align himself with the Russian MoD and further distancing himself from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Kadyrov reported on June 12 that several Chechen commanders, including Akhmat Special Forces Commander Major General Apti Alaudinov, met with Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Alexei Kim to sign a military contract with the Russian MoD that will grant Akhmat forces the same legal status, rights, and benefits as official MoD personnel.[25] Kadyrov emphasized the importance of this contract for the effectiveness of Akhmat troops and claimed that Chechen fighters have been instrumental in supporting Russian operations in Ukraine.[26] Kadyrov’s public display of agreement with the Russian MoD further aligns him and Akhmat troops with the official Russian military apparatus while further distancing Kadyrov from Prigozhin, who notably is pushing back on the MoD contracts as a direct attack on the Wagner Group.[27] Kadyrov will likely continue efforts to curry favor with the MoD as he tries to increase the prominence of Chechen troops.

Key Takeaways 

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front on June 12.
  • Russian forces reportedly launched a counterattack on June 12 following Ukrainian tactical gains near the Vremivka salient in western Donetsk Oblast on June 11.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that poor weather conditions grounded Russian aircraft, impeding Russian defenses against Ukrainian attacks near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on June 11 that he had received an order from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to subordinate his forces under the Russian military command.
  • The Russian MoD formalization efforts are likely intended to centralize control of Russian irregular personnel and supplies to respond to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as well as restrict Prigozhin's independence.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues efforts to rhetorically align himself with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and further distancing himself from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and made gains as of June 12.
  • Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces conducted limited counteroffensive operations southwest of Orikhiv.
  • Social media video footage circulated on June 12 reportedly shows Russian barrier troops shooting Russian forces that abandoned their positions somewhere in Ukraine.
  • Russia continues to strengthen the legal regime in occupied areas of Ukraine under martial law.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 11, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Mason Clark

 June 11, 2023, 6:40pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on June 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three areas of the front and made territorial gains on June 10 and 11. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut area, and Russian sources reported continued Ukrainian ground attacks on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks.[1] Geolocated footage and Russian sources indicated that Ukrainian forces liberated multiple settlements during continued ground attacks south, southwest, and southeast of Velyka Novosilka in western Donetsk Oblast.[2] Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces continued to attack southwest of Orikhiv in Zaporizhia Oblast, and Ukrainian forces made gains in this area.[3]

Ukrainian forces made visually verified advances in western Donetsk Oblast and western Zaporizhia Oblast, which Russian sources confirmed but sought to downplay. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces advanced 300 to 1,500 meters in southern Ukraine.[4] Malyar and other Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces made gains south of Velyka Novosilka between June 10 and 11, including liberating Makarivka, Neskuchne, Blahodatne, Storozheve, and Novodarivka.[5] Some Russian sources reported that battles are ongoing in “grey zone” or contested areas or that Ukrainian forces are operating in areas that Russian forces did not fully occupy before Ukrainian attacks in southern Ukraine.[6] Russian sources are likely referring to Ukrainian territorial advances through Russian defenses as capturing ”grey zones” in order to downplay Ukrainian gains and omit reporting on Ukrainian forces breaking through defensive lines. Ukrainian forces liberated several towns, but claims of a Ukrainian “breakthrough” are premature at this time.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Russian forces are transferring their most combat-capable units from the Kherson direction to the Bakhmut and Zaporizhia directions. Malyar stated on June 11 that Russian forces are transferring elements of the 49th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District) and unspecified naval infantry and airborne forces elements from the Kherson direction in connection with the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam.[7] Malyar noted that Russian forces likely blew the KHPP dam in order to shorten their defensive lines in Kherson Oblast as part of the response to the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Flooding downriver of the KHPP has drained the Kakhovka Reservoir, resulting in landmasses emerging from the water. It is unclear how these terrain changes will affect maneuver warfare in southern Ukraine at this time.[8] If the terrain changes from flooding in the Dnipro River do not foreclose any possible Ukrainian river crossings in coming weeks and months, Russian forces may struggle to defend Kherson Oblast with remaining or then-available units if and when Ukrainian forces choose to conduct offensive operations across the river, assuming they have the ability to do so.

Russian forces conducted a limited series of drone strikes targeting eastern Ukrainian border areas overnight on June 10 to 11. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down six Russian Shahed drones that targeted border areas in Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts overnight.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian forces are working to produce more high-precision, long-range ballistic missiles and stated that Ukraine’s stock of Western air defense systems is currently insufficient to replace its stock of Soviet air defense systems.[10]

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin characterized the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) plan to formalize volunteer formations by July 1 as an attack on him and his forces. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on June 10 that all volunteer formations must sign military contracts with the Russian MoD by July 1.[11] Prigozhin defensively claimed that Wagner private military company’s (PMC) servicemen will not sign contracts with the Russian MoD in his media response to Shoigu’s announcement.[12] Prigozhin proceeded to criticize Shoigu and the structure of the Russian Armed Forces and specified that Wagner is entirely subordinate to the interests of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s mention of Putin as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief closely mirrors the language Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov used in his accusation on June 9 that Prigozhin is being insubordinate to Putin.[13] Prigozhin also noted that Wagner approves its actions with the Russian military command via Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin.

Some members of Russia’s veteran community indicated Shoigu’s statement is not intended to target Wagner. A member of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee (and former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army) Viktor Sobolev stated that Shoigu’s order excludes Wagner.[14] Sobolev is an avid critic of Wagner and claimed that Wagner personnel are mercenaries, not volunteers.[15] Former Russian officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin supported the order and stated that cohesive armies win wars rather than separate detachments or private military companies (PMCs).[16] A Wagner-affiliated milblogger contrarily (baselessly) claimed that Wagner is not a PMC and that a secret decree legalized Wagner’s existence in Russia.[17] The milblogger also claimed that Shoigu and the Russian MoD are Girkin’s patrons who are using Girkin to prevent Prigozhin from assuming more authority and reshuffling leadership in the Russian MoD.

Russia and Ukraine conducted a near one-for-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange on June 11.  The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukraine returned 94 Russian POWs of unspecified ranks to Russia.[18] Ukrainian Presidental Office Head Andriy Yermak reported that Russia returned two Ukrainian officers and 93 privates and sergeants to Ukraine.[19]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three areas of the front and made territorial gains on June 10 and 11.
  • Ukrainian forces made visually verified advances in western Donetsk Oblast and western Zaporizhia Oblast, which Russian sources confirmed but sought to downplay.
  • Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Russian forces are transferring their most combat-capable units from the Kherson direction to the Bakhmut and Zaporizhia directions.
  • Russian forces conducted a limited series of drone strikes targeting eastern Ukrainian border areas overnight on June 10 to 11.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin characterized the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) plan to formalize volunteer formations by July 1 as an attack on him and his forces.
  • Russia and Ukraine conducted a near one-for-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continued limited ground attacks around Bakhmut and on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces made gains near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and in western Zaporizhia Oblast as of June 10.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that rain along the Zaporizhia Oblast front may slow Ukrainian operations in the coming days.
  • The Republic of Chechnya reportedly formed two new regiments – Akhmat-Russia and Akhmat-Chechnya – equipped with commercially-available Chinese armored equipment.
  • Saboteurs, reportedly including Ukrainian partisans, conducted two discrete improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against railways in occupied Kherson Oblast and Crimea.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 10, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Mason Clark

 June 10, 2023, 6:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on June 10. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 11 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least four areas of the front on June 10. Russian sources reported Ukrainian activity in Luhansk Oblast near Bilohorivka.[1] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty noted that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 1,400m in unspecified areas of the Bakhmut front, and Russian milbloggers reported Ukrainian advances northwest and northeast of Bakhmut.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops conducted localized attacks in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, particularly in the Velyka Novosilka area.[3] Geolocated footage posted on June 10 additionally indicates that Ukrainian forces in western Zaporizhia Oblast made localized gains during counterattacks southwest and southeast of Orikhiv, and Russian milbloggers continued to claim that Russian forces in this area are successfully defending against attempted Ukrainian advances.[4]

Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are continuing to defend against Ukrainian attacks in accord with sound tactical defensive doctrine. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian defensive operations in southern Ukraine are relying on three main components: early detection and destruction of Ukrainian assault formations, massive use of anti-tank weapons, and mining of territories near Russian defensive positions.[5] The milblogger claimed that minefields have a twofold effect by initially damaging Ukrainian armored vehicles when they attempt to breakthrough the minefield and then again when they retreat from the area.[6] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces responded to the start of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast following established Russian doctrine, which calls for a first echelon of troops to repel or slow attacking forces with minefields, fortifications, and strongpoints, and a second echelon of forces to counterattack against any enemy breakthrough.[7] Russian reporting of Ukrainian assaults in southern Ukraine in recent days suggests a pattern in which Ukrainian forces conduct limited breakthroughs and temporarily occupy new positions before Russian forces later recapture or push Ukrainian forces out of those positions.[8] This tactical pattern indicates that Russian forces have likely maintained doctrinally sound defensive operations in southern Ukraine, though as ISW previously reported, defending units of the 58th CAA are likely some of the most effective Russian units currently deployed in Ukraine.[9]

Russian milbloggers continue to highlight reported superior Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities as key to disrupting Ukrainian attacks. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian EW units are disrupting Ukrainian communications as well as aviation units and alleged that some Ukrainian mechanized groups were not prepared to fight without communications or with suppressed GPS.[10] Another milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces attempted their own “electronic counter measures” against Russian reconnaissance and control capabilities in areas where there are Ukrainian assaults but that these attempts were unsuccessful.[11] Russian forces have reportedly successfully improved their EW use throughout the invasion of Ukraine.[12]

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces have tactical advantages in conducting assaults at night due to Western-provided equipment with superior night optics systems. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces are launching assaults at night because Western-provided equipment provides Ukrainian forces with “excellent” night vision optics.[13] Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov also claimed that night assaults allow Ukrainian forces to more effectively use Western-provided equipment.[14] Russian sources have widely claimed that Ukrainian forces have started or intensified assaults at night in recent days, and Ukrainian forces may be increasingly leveraging the advantages provided by Western systems.[15]

Russian sources continue to highlight the role of scarce military district-level Russian TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems against Ukrainian attacks, though Ukrainian forces destroyed at least two of these key systems in recent days. Geolocated footage published on June 8 and 9 confirms that Ukrainian forces have used Western precision munitions (reportedly the Paladin 155mm artillery system) to destroy at least two Russian TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems – highly destructive but scarce artillery assets controlled at the Russian military district level – in western and eastern Zaporizhia Oblast during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[16] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) highlighted the role of Russian thermobaric artillery systems in striking Ukrainian positions on the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline.[17] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian thermobaric artillery units have consistently fired on Ukrainian forces on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border and in western Zaporizhia Oblast for the past several days and characterized the units as essential to repelling Ukrainian frontal assaults.[18] Russian forces’ apparent reliance on specific artillery assets is noteworthy, as precision Ukrainian strikes on these systems could potentially complicate Russian defensive capabilities and Russian forces are unlikely to possess enough TOS-1A systems to provide the same level of fire support all along the front line.

Ukrainian forces are currently attempting an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority – and these initial assaults should not be extrapolated to predict all Ukrainian operations. Ukrainian forces are unsurprisingly taking casualties in initial attacks against some of the best-prepared Russian forces in Ukraine. However, initial attacks – and particularly selected footage that Russian sources are intentionally disseminating and highlighting – are not representative of all Ukrainian operations. The Russian military remains dangerous and Ukrainian forces certainly face a hard fight, but Ukraine has not yet committed the vast majority of its counteroffensive forces and Russian defenses are not uniformly strong along all sectors of the front line.

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov established a clear rhetorical line between criticizing the Russian MoD and criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in a statement on June 9. Kadyrov published a post to Telegram on June 9 outlining the details of a private phone call that occurred between Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in late May after Kadyrov and Prigozhin reportedly reached an agreement for Chechen forces to replace Wagner in Bakhmut.[19] The interactions between Kadyrov and Prigozhin rapidly deteriorated in subsequent days, but Prigozhin claimed that he personally called Kadyrov on June 1 to resolve their dispute.[20] Kadyrov claimed on June 9 that he genuinely believed he was doing his best to help Prigozhin by offering for Chechen troops to replace Wagner fighters but that Prigozhin’s tone towards Kadyrov and the Chechen troops changed suddenly, and Kadyrov felt as though he had to personally mitigate.[21] Kadyrov also noted that he himself has occasionally criticized the Russian MoD but rhetorically drew a line against criticizing Putin directly, claiming he has always understood that Putin’s position as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces means that Putin has the best understanding of battlefield realities.[22] Kadyrov then criticized Wagner for being a weak and ineffective force when faced with the same operational restraints as Chechen forces in previous phases of the war.[23] Kadyrov’s message likely sought to signal his loyalty to Putin and portray Prigozhin as further at odds with the overall Russian military leadership.

Russian forces targeted a Ukrainian operational airfield during another missile and drone strike on Ukraine on the night of June 9 to 10. Ukrainian Air Force Command reported on June 10 that Russian forces launched eight ground-based missiles of various types and 35 Shahed-type drones at Ukraine from the northern and southern directions and hit an operational airfield in Poltava Oblast with Iskander ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and Iranian-made drones.[24] Poltava Oblast Head Dmytro Lunin noted that the strike damaged airfield infrastructure and other unspecified equipment.[25] Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) spokesperson Eduard Basurin praised the strike for “finally” targeting Ukrainian airfields.[26] ISW recently assessed that Russia is conducting a new air campaign to target Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities, and Russian sources will likely use reporting of such strikes to frame the current air campaign as proactive and effective over the backdrop of Ukrainian counterattacks throughout the theater.[27]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least four areas of the front on June 10.
  • Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are continuing to defend against Ukrainian attacks in accord with sound tactical defensive doctrine.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to highlight reported superior Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities as key to disrupting Ukrainian attacks.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces have tactical advantages in conducting assaults at night due to Western-provided equipment with superior night optics systems.
  • Russian sources continue to highlight the role of scarce military district-level Russian TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems in defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, though Ukrainian forces destroyed at least two of these key systems in recent days.
  • Ukrainian forces are currently attempting an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority – and these initial assaults should not be extrapolated to predict all Ukrainian operations.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov established a clear rhetorical line between criticizing the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Russian forces targeted a Ukrainian operational airfield during another missile and drone strike on Ukraine on the night of June 9 to 10.
  • Russian forces made marginal advances northeast of Kupyansk and continued ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces both continued ground attacks in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and have made marginal gains in the area as of June 10.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on June 10 that it plans to formalize the organization of volunteer formations.
  • Russia is further consolidating a centralized media apparatus in occupied areas.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 9, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Annika Ganzeveld, and Mason Clark

June 9, 2023, 7:50 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.

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

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

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in least four areas of the front on June 9. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces repelled limited and localized Ukrainian ground attacks in the Kreminna area.[1] Ukrainian officials stated on June 9 that Ukrainian forces advanced 1.2 kilometers in continued offensive operations near Bakhmut on June 8.[2] Ukrainian forces continued limited counteroffensive operations in western Donetsk Oblast near the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border on June 9, and made tactical gains in the area.[3] Ukrainian forces also continued ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast overnight from June 8 to 9 and during the day on June 9, and a Russian source suggested that Ukrainian forces made incremental gains during the attacks.[4]

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on June 9 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive recently began and noted that Ukrainian forces still have offensive potential, a departure from previous Kremlin efforts to downplay Ukrainian counteroffensives.[5] Putin stated that fighting has been ongoing for five days and claimed that Ukrainian forces “did not reach their aims in any area of combat” after committing “strategic reserves.”[6] Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces suffered significant losses and attributed Russian successes to superior Russian military equipment and personnel. Putin added that the Russian military command is “realistically” assessing the current situation and “will proceed from these realities.” Putin’s discussion of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is a notable departure from his previous distanced approach to discussing battlefield realities and may indicate that the Kremlin is learning from its previous failed approach to rhetorically downplay successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in 2022. ISW previously reported on May 2 that the Kremlin reportedly adopted a new information policy directing officials to not downplay the prospects of a Ukrainian counteroffensive and focus on the Russian fight against Western-provided weapon systems.[7]

Contrarily, much of the Russian information space prematurely claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed after Russian forces damaged more Western-provided Ukrainian military equipment on June 9. Battlefield footage shows damaged or destroyed Western-provided infantry fighting vehicles and tanks in western Zaporizhia Oblast, though the number of Ukrainian vehicles several Russian sources claimed Russian forces destroyed are highly inflated.[8] Ukrainian forces previously lost military equipment in the same location on June 8.[9] Some prominent Russian ultranationalists claimed that damaged or destroyed Western-provided equipment indicated that Ukrainian forces failed to launch a large-scale counteroffensive.[10] Russian nationalists are widely celebrating the 58th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District), despite Russian forces only executing basic defensive operations that should not be so unusual as to deserve wide praise. One Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian offensive activity is in the decline, while a retired Russian general expressed gratitude to elements of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army and proclaimed these elements as heroes despite battles continuing along different frontlines.[11] Another Russian milblogger claimed that a counteroffensive can only last up to 10 to 15 days, implying that Ukrainian counteroffensive will soon culminate.[12] However, other ultranationalists warned that Ukrainian forces have not yet carried out the main offensive and noted that Russian forces are reinforcing the second echelon in anticipation of Ukrainian breakthroughs.[13] A Wagner-affiliated milblogger condemned the excessive enthusiasm around the destruction of Ukrainian military equipment, noting that Western kit is not “some kind of magic.”[14] Many Russian ultranationalists appear to be overcorrecting for their previous fears of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[15]

Ukrainian officials directly acknowledged that Ukrainian forces expect to suffer equipment losses during counteroffensive operations. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 9 that losses are expected during combat operations and that “military equipment that cannot be destroyed” has yet to be invented.[16] Malyar added that Russian sources are heavily amplifying footage of Ukrainian equipment losses for informational effects.[17] The Economist reported that Ukrainian forces are using critical Western equipment in areas of the frontline where Ukrainian forces have recently suffered equipment losses.[18] ISW previously assessed that Ukrainian forces appear to have committed only a portion of their available reserves for current counteroffensive operations, and that the existing reports of damaged Western-provided equipment are not a definitive measure of current Ukrainian combat power.[19] Available footage of Ukrainian equipment losses additionally indicates that many of these armored vehicles have been rendered immobile, but not outright destroyed, and are likely recoverable by Ukrainian forces.[20] The footage also suggests that the Ukrainian crews of these armored vehicles, who are far more valuable than the vehicles themselves and can remount new or repaired vehicles, likely survived and withdrew once the vehicles became immobilized.[21]

The Russian command structure responsible for areas of southern Ukraine is unclear and likely overlapping. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) published a video statement on June 8 from the commander of the Russian grouping in the Zaporizhia operational direction, Colonel General Alexander Romanchuk, wherein he reported details about Ukrainian assaults in southern Ukraine.[22] Romanchuk is reportedly the Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District (SMD), although his level of responsibility for southern Ukraine remains unclear.[23] A Russian colonel previously claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinksy also played a decisive role in commanding Russian forces that repelled recent Ukrainian assaults in southern Ukraine.[24] Teplinsky is rumored to be deputy theater commander and responsible for the Zaporizhia, Kherson, and southern Donetsk operational directions.[25] It is unclear if Romanchuk would report to Teplinsky or SMD Commander Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev. The Russian MoD also claimed that overall theater commander and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov took command of Russian operations in southern Ukraine on June 5.[26] The command relations between these four officers — Romanchuk, Teplinsky, Kuzovlev, and Gerasimov — who have all been described as primarily responsible for Russian forces in this area are unclear.

Russian forces carried out missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on the night of June 8 to 9. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 16 Shahed-131/136 drones and six Kh-101/55 cruise missiles fired from two Tu-95 aircraft over the Caspian Sea and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 Shahed drones and four Kh-101/55 missiles.[27] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces launched eight missile strikes against residential buildings in Zhytomyr Oblast.[28] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat reported that current Russian missile strikes aim to distract Ukrainian air defense systems, while Russian missile strikes in May mainly targeted Kyiv.[29]

Several independent sources reported additional evidence that an internal explosion likely destroyed the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam on June 6. Norwegian seismic monitoring center NORSAR reported that seismic data indicates that an explosion occurred on June 6 at 2:54am local time, about the same time as the collapse of the KHPP dam.[30] NORSAR seismologist Volker Oye stated that seismic data indicated a pulse of energy that was “typical of an explosion.”[31] Seismic data cannot locate the energy pulse of the explosion to a more exact location than within 20 to 30km of the KHPP, however.[32] Oye stated that it would be an “unusual coincidence” if something other than an explosion caused the energy pulse.[33] The New York Times reported that an unnamed senior White House official stated that US spy satellites equipped with infrared sensors detected an explosion at the KHPP dam before it collapsed.[34] The Wall Street Journal reported that multiple engineers and munition experts assessed that an explosive blast likely detonated at a specific point or multiple points of weakness, which destroyed the KHPP dam.[35] ISW previously reported that engineering and munitions experts that the New York Times interviewed believe that a deliberate explosion caused the KHPP dam’s collapse.[36] The preponderance of evidence suggests that a deliberate explosion damaged the KHPP dam. ISW continues to assess that the balance of evidence, reasoning, and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam.[37]

The White House revealed on June 9 that Iran is helping Russia build a drone manufacturing factory in Yelabuga, Republic of Tatarstan, Russia, underscoring the growing military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow despite Western sanctions.[38] National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated on June 9 that the drone factory — which the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2023 could produce at least 6,000 Iranian Shahed-136 drones — could be operational by early 2024.[39] Kirby previously announced on May 15 that Russia is seeking to purchase new drones from Iran after expending most of its Iranian drone supply.[40] A factory producing Iranian drones in Russia would support Russia’s war effort against Ukraine. Russia could provide Iran with advanced military equipment that would modernize Iran’s air force, such as Su-35 fighter jets, attack helicopters, radars, and YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft, in return for helping construct the factory. Officials of an unspecified US ally previously stated that Iranian officials travelled to Yelabuga in January 2023 to discuss the construction of a new drone manufacturing facility in the city, reporting the same claim the facility could produce 6,000 or more drones in the coming years.[41]

Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov discussed increasing Russian-Chinese military cooperation with Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department Chief of Staff Liu Zhenli on June 9. Gerasimov emphasized the importance of joint military exercises within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting (SMOA Plus) format.[42] Gerasimov also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed that Russian–Chinese strategic cooperation is at “the highest level.”[43]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in least four areas of the front on June 9, making further gains around Bakhmut and in Western Donetsk.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on June 9 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive recently began and noted that Ukrainian forces still have offensive potential, a departure from previous Kremlin efforts to downplay Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Contrarily, much of the Russian information space prematurely claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed after Russian forces damaged more Western-provided Ukrainian military equipment on June 9.
  • Ukrainian officials directly acknowledged that Ukrainian forces expect to suffer equipment losses during counteroffensive operations.
  • The Russian command structure responsible for areas of southern Ukraine is unclear and likely overlapping.
  • Russian forces carried out missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on the night of June 8 to 9.
  • Several independent sources reported additional evidence that an internal explosion likely destroyed the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam on June 6.
  • The White House revealed on June 9 that Iran is helping Russia build a drone manufacturing factory in Yelabuga, Republic of Tatarstan, Russia, underscoring the growing military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow despite Western sanctions.
  • Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov discussed increasing Russian-Chinese military cooperation with Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department Chief of Staff Liu Zhenli on June 9.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited and localized ground attacks south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russia continues to evade international sanctions and has reportedly restored access to key Western microchips and electronics that Russia needs to produce military equipment.
  • A Ukrainian report states that Russian authorities may be preparing evacuations from northern Crimea.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on June 9 that Russia will begin deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in July 2023, and this is not an escalation from Putin’s prior nuclear weapons rhetoric.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 8, 2023

Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov,
Mason Clark, and Fredrick W. Kagan

Click here to read the full report

Ukraine has conducted counteroffensive operations with differential outcomes in at least three sectors of the front as part of wider counteroffensive efforts that have been unfolding since Sunday, June 4. Ukrainian officials signaled that Ukrainian forces have transitioned from defensive to offensive operations in the Bakhmut sector and are making gains of between 200 meters and nearly two kilometers on the flanks of the city.[1] Ukrainian forces have made tactical gains during limited localized counterattacks in western Donetsk Oblast near the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border since June 4.[2] Ukrainian forces additionally conducted an attack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of June 7 to 8 but do not appear to have made gains as part of this attack as of the time of this publication.

Ukrainian forces conducted a limited but still significant attack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of June 7 to 8. Russian forces apparently defended against this attack in a doctrinally sound manner and had reportedly regained their initial positions as of June 8. Russian sources began reporting late at night on June 7 that elements of Ukrainian brigades that have recently been equipped with Western kit launched an attack southwest of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[3] Several Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces attacked along the Mala Tokmachka-Polohy line with the aim of breaking through the Russian defensive line between Robotyne and Verbove (both about 15km southeast of Orikhiv).[4] Russian sources acknowledged that Ukrainian forces broke through the first line of defense in this area, held by elements of the 291st and 70th Motorized Rifle Regiments (42nd Motorized Rifle Division, 58th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) and the 22nd and 45th Separate Guards Special Purpose (GRU) Brigades, but reported that these Russian elements succeeded in counterattacking and eventually pushing Ukrainian forces back to their original positions.[5] Available geolocated combat footage suggests that limited Ukrainian forces crossed the N08 Polohy-Voskresenka highway, but Russian sourcing indicates that Russian forces likely pushed Ukrainians back in the Orikhiv direction towards the frontline and regained the lost positions.[6]

Ukrainian forces also reportedly lost Western-provided vehicles on June 8.[7] Losses are inevitable during any military undertaking. Ukrainian forces will suffer losses, including of both Western and Soviet equipment, during any offensive operations. Western equipment is not impervious to damage any more than the equipment that the Ukrainians have been using and losing since February 2022. The loss of equipment — including Western equipment — early on in the counteroffensive is not an indicator of the future progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. It is important not to exaggerate the impact of initial losses of Western or any other equipment, particularly in penetration battles against prepared defensive positions.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) responded to the Ukrainian attack with an uncharacteristic degree of coherency and praised Southern Military District elements for repelling the attack and regaining lost positions. The Russian MoD published a video statement by the commander of the Russian grouping in the Zaporizhia direction, Colonel General Alexander Romanchuk, wherein Romanchuk reported that Ukrainian forces started attacking around 0200 local time June 8 and that Russian forces, particularly those of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division, succeeded in repelling the attack.[8] Romanchuk claimed that Ukrainian forces telegraphed the ground attack with extensive artillery preparation of the battlefield.[9] The Russian MoD also released a statement by 58th Combined Arms Army Commander Major General Ivan Popov, who credited elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army with effectively laying mines to impede Ukrainian advances.[10] The overall Russian response to the attack, both among various milbloggers and the Russian MoD, was notably coherent and relatively consistent with the available visual evidence, which may suggest that Russian forces were not surprised and reacted in a controlled and militarily sound manner. As ISW has previously assessed, the Russian information space reacts with a high degree of chaos and incoherence when taken by surprise by battlefield developments that do not allow the propaganda apparatus to develop a clear line.[11] By contrast, the Russian responses to this attack suggest that Russian forces defended in the way that they had prepared to, thus giving Russian sources a rhetorical line to coalesce around.

Russian sources provided explanations for claimed Russian successes during the June 8 attacks, praising Russian forces’ effective use of electronic warfare (EW) systems, air support, and landmines against Ukrainian forces. Multiple Russian sources reported that Russian EW severely interfered with Ukrainian command and control signals, GPS-enabled devices, UAV controls.[12] Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces had insufficient air defense in the Orikhiv sector, that Russian forces operated with an “unprecedented” amount of rotary wing air support, and that Russian aviation was able to return to a high level of activity after not actively engaging in combat operations since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.[13] Continuous Russian missile and drone attacks against Kyiv and critical Ukrainian infrastructure may have fixed Ukraine’s more advanced air defense systems away from the frontline, although ISW cannot assess which systems would be effective against the kinds of air support missions Russian aircraft were flying. ISW’s previous assessments that Russian air and missile attacks were not setting conditions to defend against the Ukrainian counter-offensive may thus have been inaccurate. Russian sources also praised at length their claimed defensive success using layered field fortifications and landmines, with Major General Popov stating that Russian minefields played a “very important role” in defeating the initial Ukrainian advance in the early hours of June 8.[14] CNN additionally reported that an anonymous US official said that Russian landmines degraded Ukrainian armored vehicles.[15]

Russian forces appear to have executed their formal tactical defensive doctrine in response to the Ukrainian attacks southwest of Orikhiv. Russian doctrine for a defending motorized rifle battalion calls for a first echelon of troops to repel or slow attacking forces with minefields, fortifications, and strongpoints, with a second echelon of forces counterattacking against an enemy breakthrough.[16] Russian forces apparently operated in this fashion in this sector – Ukrainian forces penetrated the initial defensive lines; Russian forces pulled back to a second line of fortifications; and Russian reserves subsequently counterattacked to retake the initial line of defenses.[17] This maneuver is a regular feature of defensive operations and has been executed by both Ukrainian and Russian forces throughout the war. Early control of terrain changes day to day should thus not be misconstrued as the overall result of a wider attack.

Ukrainian attacks in western Zaporizhia on June 8 do not represent the full extent of Ukrainian capabilities in the current counteroffensive. Ukraine previously demonstrated the ability to conduct a coordinated and effective offensive operation using multiple mechanized brigades as early as September 2022 during the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast. Ukrainian forces possessed this capability – in terms of both available forces and the capacity to coordinate complex attacks – before the provision of Western kit for offensive brigades and additional training from NATO partners. Ukraine’s counteroffensive will likely consist of many undertakings of varied size, including more localized attacks as observed in this sector on June 8, and the smaller efforts do not represent the maximum capacity of Ukrainian numbers or effectiveness. Ukraine reportedly formed 12 dedicated counteroffensive brigades, nine equipped with Western kit and three with existing equipment, and these units will almost certainly be joined by experienced Ukrainian units already online.[18] Ukraine appears to have committed only a portion of the large reserve of forces available for counteroffensive operations, and observers should avoid counting down reported Ukrainian brigades committed or reportedly damaged Western kit as the measure of the remaining effective combat power of Ukrainian forces.

It is additionally noteworthy that the Russian Southern Military District Forces deployed in this particular area are likely to be a higher quality force grouping than Russia has elsewhere in theater, and their defensive performance is unlikely to be reflective of defensive capabilities of Russian groupings elsewhere on the front. Elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army have been deployed in a doctrinally consistent manner to the Orikhiv area and have been conducting defensive preparations in this sector of the front for several months.[19] The 291st and 70th Motorized Rifle Regiments in particular have reportedly gained experience in defending against limited Ukrainian reconnaissance-in-force efforts this area over the past months and have had time to commit to and prepare for defensive operations and familiarize themselves with the terrain.[20] The 58th Combined Arms Army elements in this sector, therefore, are likely generally fresher and more experienced than elements in other areas of the front. The Russian defense of this sector should not be taken as indicative of overall Russian defensive capabilities as Ukraine continues counteroffensive operations. Russian forces defending in other sectors have indeed performed much more poorly. Ukraine, having recently regained the battlefield initiative across the theater, will be able to choose exactly where in to continue attacking based on observed defensive capabilities of various Russian groupings along the frontline among other factors.

Russian forces and occupation authorities continue to exacerbate the humanitarian ramifications of the flooding resulting from the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam break. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on June 8 that Russian forces are hiding amongst civilians who are evacuating from flooded settlements on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River and that occupation authorities are housing evacuated residents in boarding houses and recreation centers where Russian troops and equipment are located.[21] Several Ukrainian and Western sources additionally reported that Russian troops shelled a flooded evacuation site in Kherson City, killing one civilian and injuring nine.[22] Russian occupation authorities claimed that Ukrainian forces shelled evacuation efforts on the east bank but did not provide visual evidence commensurate with these allegations.[23]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly postponed his annual press conference from June 2023 until November or December 2023.[24] Russian news outlet Kommersant claimed on June 8, citing sources within the Kremlin, that Putin is postponing his annual “Direct Line” live journalistic forum until the Russian military situation is more stable, which the sources characterized as likely in November or December. Kommersant’s source reportedly stated that these dates are preliminary, and that Putin aims to hold the “Direct Line” before the March 2024 presidential elections.[25] ISW has previously assessed that Putin would likely hold the “Direct Line” in early June 2023 after Russian forces captured Bakhmut, and pushing back the forum indicates that the Kremlin may perceive the capture Bakhmut as an insufficient informational victory to compensate for the overall unstable Russian military situation in Ukraine.[26] Delaying the “Direct Line” forum further illustrates Putin’s decline from a seemingly involved and strong leader to one more often portrayed as minutely involved in small infrastructure projects, as ISW has previously noted.[27]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukraine has conducted counteroffensive operations with differential outcomes in at least three sectors of the front as part of wider counteroffensive efforts that have been unfolding since Sunday, June 4.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a limited but still significant attack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of June 7 to 8. Russian forces apparently defended against this attack in a doctrinally sound manner and had reportedly regained their initial positions as of June 8.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) responded to the Ukrainian attack with an uncharacteristic degree of coherency and praised Southern Military District elements for repelling the attack and regaining lost positions.
  • Russian sources provided explanations for claimed Russian successes during the June 8 attacks, praising Russian forces’ effective use of electronic warfare (EW) systems, air support, and landmines against Ukrainian forces.
  • Russian forces appear to have executed their formal tactical defensive doctrine in response to the Ukrainian attacks southwest of Orikhiv.
  • Ukrainian attacks in western Zaporizhia on June 8 do not represent the full extent of Ukrainian capabilities in the current counteroffensive.
  • It is additionally noteworthy that the Russian Southern Military District Forces deployed in this particular area are likely to be a higher quality force grouping than Russia has elsewhere in theater, and their defensive performance is unlikely to be reflective of defensive capabilities of Russian groupings elsewhere on the front.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities continue to exacerbate the humanitarian ramifications of the flooding resulting from the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam break.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly postponed his annual press conference from June 2023 until November or December 2023.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove line and around Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces made limited gains around Bakhmut, and Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • The Russian MoD continues to posture itself as a firm authority over the defense industrial base (DIB) through emphasizing its ability to transport new equipment to the front.
  • Russian occupation authorities are reportedly resorting to punitive measures against civilian populations in occupied Ukraine due to Russian occupation authorities’ decreasing influence over civilians.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 7, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 7, 2023, 8:45 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.

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on June 7. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 8 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine. Near-infrared (NIR) imagery captured at 0400 am ET on June 7 indicates that the flooding is heavily disrupting Russian prepared defensive positions on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River – especially affecting Russian first-line positions in Hola Prystan and Oleshky. Various sources reported that Oleshky, Hola Prystan, Kozacha Laheri, and Dnipryany are almost entirely flooded with water levels rising to the height of a one-story buildings in some areas.[1] The Ukrainian headquarters established to remediate the consequences of the dam’s destruction reported that as of June 7 29 settlements are partially or fully flooded, 19 of which are located on the Ukrainian-controlled territory and 10 on Russian occupied territories.[2] Russian sources published footage indicating that water had begun receding in Nova Kakhovka and had dropped by 30cm.[3] Russian sources also claimed that water levels decreased by three to four meters in some areas from a high of 10 meters.[4] Water levels in nearby Mykolaiv City reportedly increased by 70cm as of June 7.[5] Flooding will likely worsen and further change the geography in Kherson Oblast over the next 72 hours.

The destruction of the KHPP dam is affecting Russian military positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. The flooding has destroyed many Russian first line field fortifications that the Russian military intended to use to defend against Ukrainian attacks. Rapid flooding has likely forced Russian personnel and military equipment in Russian main concentration points in Oleshky and Hola Prystan to withdraw. Russian forces had previously used these positions to shell Kherson City and other settlements on the west (right bank) of Kherson. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces relocated their personnel and military equipment from five to 15 kilometers from the flood zone, which places Russian forces out of artillery range of some settlements on the west (right bank) of the Dnipro River they had been attacking.[6] The flood also destroyed Russian minefields along the coast, with footage showing mines exploding in the flood water.[7] Kherson Oblast Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo, however, claimed that the destruction of the KHPP is beneficial to the Russian defenses because it will complicate Ukrainian advances across the river.[8] Saldo’s assessment of the situation ignores the loss of Russia’s first line of prepared fortifications. The amount of Russian heavy equipment lost in the first 24 hours of flooding is also unclear. 

Ukrainian officials continued to accuse Russian forces of destroying the KHPP dam out of fear that Ukrainian forces would land on the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Andriy Yusov stated that only Russian forces could have detonated the dam given its structural and engineering features and noted that Russians are “very happy that the islands, on which [Ukrainian forces] were allegedly based, were flooded.”[9] Humenyuk states that Russian forces did not consider the consequences before destroying the dam and were too concerned over a Ukrainian counteroffensive.[10] The Ukrainian General Staff similarly claimed that Russian forces detonated internal structures of the KHPP to damage the dam and thereby prevent the advance of Ukrainian forces.[11] Russian milbloggers had expressed concern about claimed Ukrainian river crossings onto the east bank the day before the destruction of the KHPP dam and on numerous occasions in the past. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that there were active engagements between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Dachi area on the east bank of the Dnipro River (11km southwest of Kherson City) and on the contested islands near Kherson City as of June 5.[12] The milblogger claimed that the number of Ukrainian speedboats also increased in the Dnipro Delta as of June 5. Another milblogger speculated that Ukrainian forces were attempting to establish a bridgehead by seizing the KHPP dam.[13] ISW offers no assessment of whether the Ukrainians were attempting to cross the river or for what purpose they might have sought to do so. The clear concern in the Russian military information space, however, shows that the fear of such a crossing and belief that it was either underway or imminent was present in the minds of Russians closely following the war shortly before the dam was destroyed.

The New York Times (NYT) reported that engineering and munitions experts believe that a deliberate explosion was the likely cause of KHPP dam’s collapse on June 6.[14] NYT reported that a blast within an enclosed space would cause the most damage, whereas external detonations – such as by targeted missile or artillery strikes – would only exert a fraction of the force necessary to breach the dam. The NYT quoted the experts as acknowledging that the KHPP sustained damage from military operations prior to the collapse but questioning whether this prior damage alone was sufficient to collapse the dam. NYT reported that the dam was first breached in its middle, close to the KHPP on the Russian-held east (left) riverbank, and that more of the dam collapsed throughout the day, a pattern that one expert characterized as inconsistent with the dam failing due to prior damage.

Russian forces and occupation authorities are responding to the flooding in Kherson Oblast with a great degree of disorganization and thereby exacerbating harm to the civilian population of occupied areas. Kherson Oblast Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo claimed that Russian authorities have evacuated about 1,500 people from flooded areas and established 48 temporary accommodations in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to house them.[15] Saldo also claimed that the Kherson Occupation Administration is “almost mandatorily” sending children living in flooded areas to “recreation camps” located deeper in Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast and in occupied Crimea.[16] Saldo‘s reports of proactive efforts on the part of occupation authorities do not cohere with reports by Ukrainian officials and anecdotal evidence from the occupied east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast, however. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian military personnel near Kozachi Laheri (30km southwest of the KHPP on the Russian-occupied east bank of the Dnipro River) purposefully prevented civilian populations from fleeing the area despite flooding.[17] Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Administration Advisor Serhiy Khlan stated that residents of east bank settlements are waiting on their roofs with no food or water for the occupation administration to provide aid and evacuate them, while Russian soldiers abandoned their positions and fled.[18] Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported that civilians in Russian-occupied Oleshky (53km southwest of KHPP) have waited for almost two days on roofs for volunteers and Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations employees to arrive after which they helped civilians evacuate to dry areas of Oleshky, but that Russian forces did not permit civilians to evacuate outside of Oleshky.[19] Russian forces’ and occupation authorities’ varied responses and slow reaction time indicate that they were unprepared to deal with civilian evacuations. Civilian accounts about the lack of evacuations in Belgorod Oblast in response to the pro-Ukrainian all-Russian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russian Legion‘s (LSR) raids suggest a similar pattern of Russian authorities struggling to coordinate evacuations even on their own territory.[20]

Select Wagner Group-affiliated Russian senior military officers continue to posture as effective commanders to appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by capitalizing on high-profile military events. A Russian milblogger published a long interview with Russian Colonel “K. Zalessky” in which Zalessky claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky played a decisive role in Russian forces’ ability to defend against the ongoing Ukrainian localized counterattacks near Velyka Novosilka, Donetsk Oblast.[21] Zalessky confirmed prior claims that Teplinsky became an overall theater deputy commander responsible for southern Ukraine as of April 1 and praised Teplinsky for being intimately involved in Russian defensive preparations west of Vuhledar and throughout the south.[22] The interview notably portrays the Russian defense against these localized Ukrainian attacks as a significant undertaking, contrasting with some Russian milblogger claims that these Ukrainian operations constitute a reconnaissance-in-force and were not part of a main counteroffensive effort.[23]

The pro-Teplinsky interview is likely part of an information operation aimed at undermining the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Zalessky claimed that Teplinsky praised the commanders of the 5th Combined Arms Army and 36th Combined Arms Army (both of the Eastern Military District) for their defensive efforts in the Velyka Novosilka area but claimed that not all of the Russian military command displayed similar bravery.[24] Zalessky claimed that Teplinsky personally arrayed Russian formations across their defensive lines, inspected battalions, and trained personnel, echoing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s June 6 criticisms that MoD officials need to visit the front lines.[25] The interview was published almost immediately after the MoD claimed that Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov took command of Russian operations in the south on June 5, and after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu characterized the defense as an MoD success on June 6.[26] Shoigu notably also praised elements of the 5th and 36th Combined Arms armies but failed to visit them on the frontlines as Teplinsky reportedly did.[27] Teplinsky notably had to use a Russian milblogger to claim credit for repelling claimed Ukrainian attacks in eastern Zaporizhia and western Donetsk oblasts. The MoD has previously blocked Wagner-affiliated commanders from being featured on official platforms.[28] It is noteworthy that Russian commanders and senior military leaders appear to prioritize public posing in the midst of ongoing significant military operations and major catastrophes.

Wagner-affiliated commanders’ reactive public relations campaigns may not be sufficient to deflect from battlefield realities. Though some large milbloggers amplified the Teplinsky interview on June 7, the broader Russian information space remained saturated with tactical claims of Ukrainian counterattacks near Velyka Novosilka and with the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam disaster.[29]

Key Takeaways 

  • The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian officials continued to accuse Russian forces of destroying the KHPP dam out of fear that Ukrainian forces would land on the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • The New York Times (NYT) reported that engineering and munitions experts believe that a deliberate explosion was the likely cause of KHPP dam’s collapse on June 6.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities are responding to the flooding in Kherson Oblast with a great degree of disorganization and thereby exacerbating harm to the civilian population of occupied areas.
  • Select Wagner Group-affiliated Russian senior military officers continue to posture as effective commanders to appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by capitalizing on high-profile military events.
  • The pro-Teplinsky interview is likely part of an information operation aimed at undermining the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Wagner-affiliated commanders’ reactive public relations campaigns may not be sufficient to deflect from battlefield realities.
  • Russian and Ukrainian officials each accused the other state of damaging an ammonia pipeline that runs through Kharkiv Oblast and causing an ammonia leak.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks around Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction as of June 7.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts on June 7.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly engaged in skirmishes in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian authorities continue to restrict international travel for those eligible for military service.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to establish patronage programs between Russian regions and occupied territories in order to integrate occupied territories into Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 6, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 6, 2023, 8:30 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.

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on June 6. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 7 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Damage to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam in the early hours of June 6 caused massive flooding of the Dnipro River delta, river wetlands, estuaries, and shoreline settlements in Kherson Oblast. Russian and Ukrainian sources began reporting loud noises resembling explosions emanating from the KHPP (across the Dnipro River in the Nova Kakhovka area about 55km northeast of Kherson City) between 0200 and 0230 local time on June 6, followed by reports of rushing water and an overall increase in the water level of the Dnipro.[1] Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast Administration announced the evacuation of several raions (districts) of the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast as of 0730 local time and reported that the Tyahinka, Odradokamianka, Beryslav, Ivanivka, Mykilske, Tokarivka, Ponyativka, Bilozerka, and Ostriv areas had been partially or completely flooded.[2] Russian Kherson Oblast occupation officials announced the evacuation of the Nova Kakhovka, Hola Prystan, and Oleshky raions.[3] Ukrainian officials noted that over 80 settlements are within the flood zone in Kherson Oblast.[4] General Director of Ukraine’s hydroelectric power plant regulator Ukrhydroenergo Ihor Syrota said that water is draining from the Kakhovka Reservoir at a rate of 15-20cm an hour, which Syrota stated means that the reservoir will be entirely dry in the next four days.[5] A researcher at the Ukrainian Department of Water Bioresources at the Kherson Oblast Agrarian and Economic University, Yevhen Korzhov, noted that the rate of water discharge from the dam may lead to flooding as far downstream as Kizomys, about 120km southwest from the KHPP.[6] A Russian milblogger claimed that the water level in Nova Kakhovka, immediately adjacent to the KHPP, reached as high as 11m.[7] Various Russian sources additionally highlighted footage showing that several east (left) bank settlements, including Oleshky, Korsunka, and Dnipryany, are entirely or nearly entirely underwater.[8]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ukrainian officials stated that the drop in the water level at the Kakhovka Reservoir should not affect the safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). IAEA Director Rafael Grossi reported that the drop in the water level at the Kakhovka Reservoir poses “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant” and that IAEA personnel at the ZNPP are closely monitoring the situation.[9] Grossi stated that the ZNPP is pumping water into its cooling channels and related systems, and that the large cooling pond next to the ZNPP will be ”sufficient to provide water for cooling for some months.”[10] Ukrainian nuclear energy operator Energoatom’s President Petro Kotin stated that the fall in the water level at the Kakhovka Reservoir does not directly impact the water level in the ZNPP cooling pond and noted that the ZNPP pool basins are still at the same water level.[11] Ukrainian Chief Inspector for Nuclear and Radiation Safety Oleh Korikov stated that the decrease in water level at the Kakhovka Reservoir will not affect the condition of the ZNPP provided that ZNPP personnel implement established safety measures.[12]

Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces intentionally destroyed the KHPP dam and suggested that the Russian military did not prepare for subsequent flooding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian intelligence indicates that Russian forces conducted an intentional premediated explosion at the dam but did so in a “chaotic” manner that allowed Russian military equipment to be flooded downstream.[13] Zelensky added that the only way to destroy the dam is through mining and emphasized that Russian forces have now occupied the dam for over a year.[14] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that Russian forces mined the dam shortly after its capture early in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and later planted additional mines on the locks and supports of the dam in April 2022.[15] Ukhrhydroenergo stated that Russian forces destroyed the KHPP dam by detonating an explosive within the KHPP engine room.[16] The Ukrainian Resistance Center amplified reporting from the Crimean-based Ukrainian Atesh partisan movement alleging that the Russian 1st Battalion of the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade (49thCombined Arms Army, Southern Military District) was responsible for the detonation at the KHPP dam.[17] Other Ukrainian officials accused Russia of intentionally destroying the dam out of concerns about potential Ukrainian advances and counterattacks.[18] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are having to evacuate their forces on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River because subsequent flooding has disproportionately impacted the Russian-occupied bank of the river.[19] Footage published on June 6 purports to show Russian forces withdrawing from flooded positions, suggesting that these forces were not prepared for the flooding that resulted from the destruction of the KHPP dam.[20]

Russian officials accused Ukrainian forces of destroying the KHPP dam and used the allegations to bolster ongoing efforts to portray Ukrainian assaults elsewhere in Ukraine as immediate failures. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Ukrainian forces conducted a sabotage attack at the KHPP dam because “Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals” in large-scale offensive operations.[21] This explanation is implausible because Ukrainian forces have not yet conducted large-scale offensive operations. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Ukrainian forces intend to send forces from the Kherson direction to support ”failing” offensive operations elsewhere and thus destroyed the dam to disrupt Russian forces‘ ability to take advantage of weakened Ukrainian defenses on the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast.[22] This explanation is also implausible because the limited Russian forces on the east (left) bank of the river pose no meaningful threat to the west (right) bank that would require extensive Ukrainian forces to defend against. Russian officials appear to be increasingly trying to immediately characterize Ukrainian offensive efforts as failures and have likely decided to use their accusations against Ukraine concerning the KHPP dam to bolster this informational effort. Shoigu also claimed on June 6 that Russian forces - specifically elements of the Eastern Military District’s (EMD) 433rd Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 127th Motorized Rifle Division (5th Combined Arms Army), the 37th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (36th Combined Arms Army), and the 60th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army) - repelled Ukrainian offensives in five different directions in the last three days.[23] Shoigu preposterously claimed that Russian forces have killed and wounded 3,175 Ukrainian servicemembers and destroyed 205 armored combat vehicles and 52 tanks in the previous three days of fighting in Ukraine.[24] Russian sources have previously attempted to paint Ukrainian counteroffensive actions as immediate failures and Russian sources are likely attempting to do the same with what they view as the start of the announced Ukrainian counteroffensive.[25]

ISW has not yet observed clear evidence of what transpired at the KHPP on June 6 and is therefore unable to offer an independent assessment of responsibility at the time of this publication. White House spokesperson John Kirby noted that the US still cannot say conclusively what caused the destruction of the dam but is assessing reports that “the blast was caused by Russia.”[26] NBC additionally reported that the US has intelligence indicating Russia’s responsibility for the dam’s destruction but is currently working to declassify relevant information.[27] Various European officials made statements indicating that they believe Russia is involved and underlining the resulting humanitarian impacts of the flooding.[28]

Statements by US and European officials are generally consistent with ISW’s October 2022 forecast that the Russians have a greater and clearer interest in flooding the lower Dnipro despite the damage to their own prepared defensive positions and forces than the Ukrainians.[29] ISW previously assessed on October 21, 2022, that Ukraine has no material interest in blowing the dam and pointed out that 80 settlements would risk flooding.[30] Ukrainian officials confirmed on June 6, 2023, that 80 settlements risk flooding as a result of the damage.[31] ISW further assessed that by contrast, Russia may use the flooding to widen the Dnipro River and complicate Ukrainian counteroffensive attempts across the already-challenging water feature.[32] Russian sources have expressed intense and explicit concern over the possibility that Ukraine has been preparing to cross the river and counterattack into east bank Kherson Oblast.[33] Available footage from June 6, corroborated by claims made by Russian milbloggers, suggests that the flooding washed away Ukrainian positions near the Dnipro shoreline and forced Ukrainian formations to evacuate while under Russian artillery fire.[34]

Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Russian formations and positions on the east bank may have been caught off guard and threatened by the flooding due to the topography of the area, some Ukrainian officials suggested that this was a result of the chaotic handling of the intentional detonation of the dam by Russian forces.[35] Some Russian sources indicated that the damage to the dam could threaten the water supply to occupied Crimea, but ISW previously noted that Crimea survived without water from the Dnipro River in the years between Russia‘s initial illegal annexation in 2014 and when water access was restored following the 2022 full-scale invasion.[36] There is also the possibility, of course, that pre-existing structural damage to the dam eventually caused breakage and flooding, as some sources have additionally suggested, although reports of noises like explosions are not necessarily consistent with this notion.[37] ISW cannot offer a definitive assessment of responsibility for the June 6 incident at this time but finds that the balance of evidence, reasoning, and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam.

Ukrainian officials offered assurances that the damage to the dam and subsequent flooding will not impede Ukrainian counteroffensive preparations. Zelensky emphasized that the “detonation of the dam did not affect Ukraine’s ability to de-occupy its own territories.”[38] Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev noted that the Ukrainian command has already taken into account Russia’s propensity for ”insidious actions” and that as a result any potential planned counteroffensive actions will not be impacted in areas where there is flooding.[39] It is additionally noteworthy that the areas of the theater that are impacted by the flooding (those within a 120km flood radius between Nova Kakhovka and Kizomys) are geographically very far removed from areas of the frontline where ISW has observed recent combat activity in the past few days.[40] The flooding of the lower Dnipro will not likely have any impact on the areas that have seen active fighting recently.

Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike across Ukraine on the night of June 5-6. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 35 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from six Tu-95 bombers over the Caspian Sea and that Ukrainian air defense shot down all 35 missiles.[41] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces targeted Kharkiv City with S-300 surface-to-air missiles.[42] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk noted that the fact that Russia only launched Kh-101/555-type missiles and returned all sea-based Kalibr missile carriers to their base points before the strike may suggest that Russia is running out of Kalibrs to launch.[43] Humenyuk’s comments are consistent with periodic Ukrainian tallies of the numbers of Kalibrs remaining and Russia’s capacity to produce them. [44] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian aerospace forces conducted the strike with long-range air-launched missiles against Ukrainian ”decision-making centers” and struck all intended targets.[45] The UK MoD reported on June 5 that Russian forces have recently heavily relied on Iranian drones to try to attrit Ukrainian air defense missile capabilities, but the fact that Ukraine is still managing to employ air defense systems against cruise missiles to such high effect suggests that these Russian efforts have been largely unsuccessful.[46]

Russian sources claimed that the pro-Ukrainian all-Russian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russian Legion (LSR) are gone from a border settlement in Belgorod Oblast as of June 6. Russian sources published footage of Russian forces stating that they are in control of Novaya Tavolzhanka (a small village about 3km from the Kharkiv-Belgorod Oblast border) and that RDK and LSR elements are no longer present in the settlement.[47] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that a senior Russian officer of the Belgorod Operational Group, Colonel Andrey Stesev, was killed in action in Novaya Tavolzhanka overnight on June 4-5.[48] The Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) claimed on June 6 that its forces killed Stesev.[49]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to directly threaten the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Russian military command if they do not fulfill his demands for a larger independent army and political influence in Russia. Prigozhin threatened on June 5 that Wagner forces will “go to Belgorod” without explicit permission from the Russian MoD if the Russian military command does not “liberate” Belgorod Oblast border areas from various all-Russian pro-Ukrainian groups operating on Russian soil and improve the situation in Shebekino (a settlement 6km from the international border).[50] Prigozhin presented letters that he reportedly received from Shebekino residents who complained that the Russian military is neglecting their safety and called on Wagner to defend them. Prigozhin also sarcastically stated that the Russian MoD might be considering “using a nuclear weapon on their own territory” when discussing the Russian military command’s unwillingness to defend Belgorod Oblast as part of his attempt to exaggerate the Russian MoD’s disinterest in defending its own citizens. Prigozhin’s comments about such nuclear use, like much of his heavier sarcasm, were not meant to be taken literally. Prigozhin also reiterated that he had requested 200,000 troops and ammunition to seize Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and this demand may be reflective of his efforts to blackmail the Kremlin into giving Wagner forces additional resources and expanding its influence over the Russian MoD. Prigozhin also noted that Russia will not be able to fix its long-standing military incompetency at this time without executing Russian military officials responsible for military failures in Ukraine – and noted that failure to do so might upset Russian society.

Key Takeaways

  • Damage to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam in the early hours of June 6 caused massive flooding of the Dnipro River delta, river wetlands, estuaries, and shoreline settlements in Kherson Oblast.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ukrainian officials stated that the drop in the water level at the Kakhovka Reservoir should not affect the safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces intentionally destroyed the KHPP dam and suggested that the Russian military did not prepare for subsequent flooding.
  • Russian officials accused Ukrainian forces of destroying the KHPP dam and used the allegations to bolster ongoing efforts to portray Ukrainian assaults elsewhere in Ukraine as immediate failures.
  • ISW has not yet observed clear evidence of what transpired at the KHPP on June 6 and is therefore unable to offer an independent assessment of responsibility at the time of this publication.
  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike across Ukraine on the night of June 5-6.
  • Russian sources claimed that the pro-Ukrainian all-Russian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russian Legion (LSR) are gone from a border settlement in Belgorod Oblast as of June 6.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to directly threaten the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Russian military command if they do not fulfill his demands for a larger independent army and political influence in Russia.
  • Ukrainian officials offered assurances that the damage to the dam and subsequent flooding will not impede Ukrainian counteroffensive preparations.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks north and southwest of Bakhmut, and Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks in southwestern Donetsk and in eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that the Russian 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade is part of the irregular 6th Division.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue efforts to use infrastructure projects to integrate occupied territories into Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 5, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 5, 2023, 8pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2pm ET on June 5. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 6 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian and Ukrainian officials are signaling the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. ISW offers no assessment of these signals at this time. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on June 5 that Ukrainian forces conducted a “large-scale offensive” across five sectors of the frontline in southwestern Donetsk Oblast on June 4.[1] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled all Ukrainian attacks and assigned Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to oversee the southwestern Donetsk frontline.[2] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar noted on June 5 that Ukrainian forces are “transferring to offensive actions” in some unspecified areas of the front.[3] Malyar added that Russian sources are actively spreading information about the Ukrainian counteroffensive to deflect attention from Russian losses in the Bakhmut direction. The Russian MoD’s claims that Russian forces immediately repelled Ukrainian counteroffensives are consistent with previous false Russian claims made during past counteroffensives. Ukrainian forces are likely making limited gains despite Russian denials. ISW will not attempt to assess at this time whether or not these gains are part of broader counter-offensive operations. ISW observed an increase in combat activity in different sectors of the frontline but will not speculate about the intent, weight, or focus of Ukrainian counteroffensives operations.[4] A successful counteroffensive operation may take days, weeks, or even months before its outcome becomes fully clear, during which time Russian sources may falsely claim to have defeated it.

Ukrainian forces made limited advances north and southwest of Bakhmut on June 5. Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations on the eastern front in the Bakhmut area and advanced 200 to 1,600 meters in the direction of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11km northwest of Bakhmut), and 100 to 700 meters near Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) and Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut).[5] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reported that mechanized Ukrainian forces also advanced from 300 meters to one kilometer in the direction of Zaliznyanske (13km north of Bakhmut) and Bohdanivka (8km northwest of Bakhmut).[6] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut direction for “moving forward” in their areas of responsibility on June 5.[7] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Ukrainian forces captured an unspecified part of Berkhivka (6km north of Bakhmut) and criticized the Russian military command for previously withdrawing Russian forces from the Berkhivksy Reservoir on May 12 to protect their positions in the settlement.[8] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian assaults in the direction of Soledar (12km northeast of Bakhmut), likely referring to the wider area north and northeast of Bakhmut.[9] One milblogger claimed that Russian forces fought Ukrainian forces near Rozdolivka (19km northeast of Bakhmut).[10] Another milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces also attacked Russian positions in an unspecified location in the Siversk (31km northeast of Bakhmut) area.[11] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces repelled a Ukrainian assault near Mayorsk (21km southwest of Bakhmut) and north of Horlivka (26km south of Bakhmut).[12] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of Ukrainian advances in the Bakhmut associated with these limited offensives on June 5.

The pro-Ukrainian all-Russian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) claimed that it continues to operate in a Russian border settlement in Belgorod Oblast as of June 5. Geolocated footage published on June 5 shows the RDK personnel operating in Novaya Tavolzhanka (a small settlement about 3km from the Kharkiv-Belgorod Oblast border).[13] The Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), which conducted a raid into Belgorod Oblast with the RDK, published footage purportedly showing LSR forces striking Russian tanks and armored vehicles near the Shebekino checkpoint, about 7km northeast of Novaya Tavolzhanka.[14] The Russian MoD claimed on June 5 that Russian forces and the Russian Border Guard Service repelled two attacks near Novaya Tavolzhanka on June 4, but did not respond to the RDK’s claim that RDK personnel still operate in the settlement.[15]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that Chechen forces are ready to defend against raids in Belgorod Oblast, likely in part to keep his forces out of combat in Ukraine. Kadyrov claimed on June 5 that he has 70,000 Chechen servicemen serving in unspecified formations in the Russian military who could defend against the raids into Belgorod Oblast due to their extensive anti-terrorism training.[16] Kadyrov notably stated that the Russian “Commander-in-Chief” – implying Russian President Vladimir Putin – “knows better,” but that Kadyrov wanted to “remind” everyone that Chechen units could have dealt with ”terrorists who invaded Belgorod Oblast.” Kadyrov’s suggestion for Chechen forces to operate in Belgorod Oblast follows Putin‘s order deploying Chechen units to areas along the Donetsk frontline on May 31.[17] Kadyrov’s rhetorical shift towards suggesting that Chechen forces get involved in Belgorod Oblast may suggest a desire to preserve his forces from engaging in combat in more challenging sectors of the front.[18] ISW previously assessed that Kadyrov appeared to have been conserving forces and did not deploy forces to participate in large-scale offensive operations since summer 2022.[19] Kadyrov previously claimed on May 26 that 7,000 Chechen servicemen are operating in Ukraine.[20] If Kadyrov’s claims are close to accurate, only about 10 percent of available Chechen forces are serving in Ukraine, but his statements are impossible to verify.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet is attempting to mitigate complications with logistical support in occupied Crimea by shifting resources to mainland Russia. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk reported on June 5 that Russian forces are transferring the Black Sea Fleet’s logistics centers from Sevastopol, occupied Crimea, to Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai.[21] Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are moving the logistics centers because of widespread logistical and ammunition provision issues in occupied Crimea.[22] Humenyuk noted that Russian amphibious ships are continuing to maneuver in the Black Sea and enter Sevastopol, but that the overall center of gravity of the Black Sea Fleet appears to be shifting towards Novorossiysk.[23] Recent strikes on Russian concentration areas, logistics hubs, and transportation assets in southern Ukraine may be causing increased anxiety over the security of the Black Sea Fleet, and the move to Krasnodar Krai is likely in part reflective of this fact.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing efforts to exacerbate the divide between the Wagner Group and the Russian MoD. Prigozhin’s press service published a video on June 4 showing a Wagner fighter interrogating a Russian soldier who identified himself as Lieutenant Colonel Roman Venevitin of the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (3rd Army Corps).[24] Venevitin admitted on camera that he ordered his unit to fire on a Wagner vehicle while intoxicated due to his own “personal animosity” towards Wagner.[25] Venevitin appeared to have sustained facial injuries during the time of his capture by Wagner.[26] Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner personnel engaged in a small skirmish with Russian MoD personnel in Semihirya (15km southeast of Bakhmut) on May 17 after the MoD personnel fired on Wagner fighters when they tried to stop the MoD personnel from laying mines in Wagner’s rear.[27] As ISW has previously assessed, Prigozhin continues to inject such anti-MoD narratives into the Russian information space in order to retain his status in the information space following the culmination of Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive and Wagner’s withdrawal from combat in Ukraine.[28] The suggestion that units operating under the Russian MoD are actively firing on Wagner while intoxicated strengthens Prigozhin’s argument that the Russian MoD is a combat-ineffective and somewhat nefarious force.

Russian milbloggers responded to the video of Lieutenant Colonel Venevitin with concern, indicating that several prominent pro-war voices are becoming increasingly concerned over the ramifications of the Wagner-MoD divide. One prominent milblogger called for Venevitin to be tried by the military prosecutor’s office, which would be normal practice in such cases, but noted that the Wagner-MoD conflict “continues to be unhealthy.”[29] Another milblogger who claimed to have personally spoken to Wagner commanders accused both Wagner and MoD units of not knowing what they are fighting for and all of trying to outcompete each other to be “heroes.”[30] Former Russian officer and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin noted that the video of Venevitin is another step towards “troubles” regardless of the circumstances of the incident and that Prigozhin is provoking an open war between units ostensibly on the same side of the war.[31] As Prigozhin continues his efforts to maintain informational relevance his rhetorical charades will likely further deepen the divide between the MoD and Wagner, thus hindering the overall combat-effectiveness of both forces and additionally generating increasing discontent in the information space that used to back him.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian and Ukrainian officials are signaling the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited successful offensives north and southwest of Bakhmut.
  • The pro-Ukrainian all-Russian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) claimed that it continues to operate in a Russian border settlement in Belgorod Oblast as of June 5.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that Chechen forces are ready to defend against raids in Belgorod Oblast, likely partially in order to keep his forces out of combat in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Black Sea Fleet is attempting to mitigate complications with logistical support in occupied Crimea by shifting resources to mainland Russia.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing efforts to exacerbate the divide between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Russian milbloggers responded to the video of Lieutenant Colonel Venevitin with concern, indicating that several prominent pro-war voices are becoming increasingly concerned over the ramifications of the Wagner-MoD divide.
  • Russian forces reportedly conducted unsuccessful reconnaissance-in-force operations northeast of Kharkiv City and continued limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts and made further limited tactical gains.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to target rear Russian positions throughout southern Ukraine.
  • Iran has allegedly signed contracts with Russia for about $1.74 million in ammunition for Russia to use in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian sources and Belarusian sources indicated that Belarus has been involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 4, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros,
and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 4, 2023, 6pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on June 4. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 5 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) conducted another limited raid into Belgorod Oblast on June 4 and are reportedly continuing to operate in a Russian border settlement. Geolocated footage published on June 4 shows LSR and RDK personnel advancing towards Novaya Tavolzhanka (3.5km from the Ukrainian border).[1] Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov confirmed that there was fighting within Novaya Tavolzhanka, although the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that units of the Western Military District and the Russian Border Guard Service struck a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group near the settlement, forcing them to withdraw.[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that a sabotage and reconnaissance group of 20 personnel entered Novaya Tavolzhanka without armored vehicles.[3] Wall Street Journal Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Yarsoslav Trofimov reported that the pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters remain in Novaya Tavolzhanka as of 1700 (Moscow Standard Time).[4]

Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov responded to a RDK and LSR demand to negotiate for the exchange of captured Russian prisoners of war (POWs). The LSR and RDK addressed a video to Gladkov purporting to show RDK and LSR fighters with two Russian POWs whom they said they captured near Novaya Tavolzhanka. The RDK and LSR demanded that Gladkov arrive at the temple in Novaya Tavolzhanka by 1700 (Moscow Standard Time) to negotiate for the release of the POWs.[5] Gladkov stated that he was ready to meet with the RDK and LSR fighters at the Shebekino checkpoint to negotiate the exchange of the POWs.[6] Gladkov later reportedly refused to meet with the RDK and LSR fighters because he believed that the Russian POWs were already dead.[7] The RDK and LSR released a subsequent video showing themselves with 12 Russian POWs, criticizing Gladkov for lacking courage, and stating that they would send the POWs to Ukraine.[8]

The dissonant Russian responses to and reporting about the limited raid in Belgorod Oblast continue to suggest that the Russian leadership has not yet decided how to react to these limited cross-border raids. The contradictory reporting from official Russian sources about the situation in Belgorod Oblast and Gladkov’s apparent personal decision to respond to the RDK and LSR suggests that the MoD and Gladkov are not coordinating their responses to the raids. ISW has previously reported that Russian officials have disproportionately responded to the limited raids into Russian territory in an effort to assuage growing Russian anxiety about the war in Ukraine while also supporting ongoing information operations that aim to present the war as existential to Russia.[9] Russian responses have primarily centered on informational effects, and there is no indication that the Russian leadership has set a wider policy for preventing further limited raids into Russian border oblasts. It is also not clear if Russian authorities are orchestrating the evacuation response to this activity. An RDK fighter claimed on June 4 that Belgorod Oblast authorities have not organized the announced evacuation measures in the Shebekino area and that Russian citizens have largely fled of their own accord, leaving many settlements in a semi-abandoned state.[10] Gladkov claimed that 4,000 residents from the area are currently staying at temporary accommodation centers in connection with evacuation efforts, however.[11] Ukrainian Advisor to the Internal Affairs Minister Anton Herashchenko stated on June 4 that the RDK and LSR activity has prompted Russian leaders to divert significant forces to stop border incursions, although ISW has not observed confirmation that Russian forces have done so.

The limited raids and border shelling in Belgorod Oblast are increasingly becoming the current focal point for criticism against the Russian military leadership. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to use the situation in Belgorod Oblast to criticize the MoD on June 3 and 4, specifically calling out the lack of response from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Colonel General Alexander Lapin, and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valeriy Gerasimov.[12] Prigozhin offered to negotiate the release of POWs held by the RDK and LSR if Russian authorities failed to do so, and responded to criticism of his offer by sarcastically stating that Russia has a problem with people who have “balls.”[13] Other ultranationalist milbloggers responded to the latest raid by criticizing Gladkov for being willing to negotiate with the RDK and LSR, and Russian authorities for failing to consistently inform the public about the situation in Belgorod Oblast.[14] A prominent milblogger used the raid in Belgorod Oblast to criticize the MoD for not funding Belgorod territorial defense volunteer formations and for not considering the volunteers as actual combatants.[15] Former Russian officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin argued that the Kremlin cannot do anything about the situation in Belgorod Oblast without engaging in a costly diversion of resources that would likely end in an attritional operation reminiscent of Bakhmut.[16]

Russian forces again targeted Ukraine with Iranian-made drones and cruise missiles on June 4, marking the fourth consecutive day of strikes across Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched five Shahed-136/131 drones from Bryansk Oblast and six Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from six strategic Tu-95 bombers in the Caspian Sea in the early morning of June 4.[17] Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down three Shahed drones and four cruise missiles. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that two Russian missiles struck an active Ukrainian airfield near Kropyvnytskyi in Kirovohrad Oblast.[18] Ihnat added that two Shahed drones struck unspecified infrastructure in Sumy Oblast.[19] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all drones and missiles that targeted Kyiv.[20]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on June 4 that Ukrainian forces may have regained positions in southwestern Bakhmut, supporting repeated Ukrainian reports that the Ukrainian forces maintain positions on the southwestern outskirts of the city. Prigozhin claimed that some unspecified reports suggest that Ukrainian forces established observation posts in the southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut.[21] Prigozhin recommended that the Russian forces in Bakhmut take action if these reports are true. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar and other Ukrainian officials have continuously reported that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in the southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut since May 20, when Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces seized the entirety of the city.[22]

Key Takeaways

  • Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) conducted another limited raid into Belgorod Oblast on June 4 and are reportedly continuing to operate in a Russian border settlement.
  • Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov responded to a RDK and LSR demand to negotiate for the exchange of captured Russian prisoners of war (POWs).
  • The dissonant Russian responses to and reporting about the limited raid in Belgorod Oblast continue to suggest that the Russian leadership has not yet decided how to react to these limited cross-border raids.
  • The limited raids and border shelling in Belgorod Oblast are increasingly becoming the current focal point for criticism against the Russian military leadership.
  • Russian forces again targeted Ukraine with Iranian-made drones and cruise missiles on June 4 making it the fourth consecutive day of strikes across Ukraine.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on June 4 that Ukrainian forces may have regained positions in southwestern Bakhmut, supporting repeated Ukrainian reports that Ukrainian forces maintain positions on the southwestern outskirts of the city.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces both claimed to have made limited territorial gains on the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks around Bakhmut and Marinka.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted local ground attacks and reportedly made limited tactical gains in western Donetsk Oblast and eastern Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) submitted a draft government decree that will no longer require an individual’s presence at an enlistment office for military registration.
  • Russian officials continue to use rest and rehabilitation schemes to deport Ukrainian children from occupied territories to Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 3, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 3, 2023, 4:30 pm ET

Ukrainian officials continue to signal that Ukrainian forces are prepared to start counteroffensive operations. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in a June 3 interview with the Wall Street Journal that Ukraine is ready to launch a counteroffensive.[1] Zelensky stated that Ukraine “would like to have certain things, but … can’t wait for months” to start counteroffensive operations.[2] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 3 that “military plans love silence” and that she will “discuss something else” in the meantime, likely acknowledging that Ukrainian officials have started to more strictly enforce a regime of informational silence about operations in preparation for upcoming counteroffensives.[3] Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihor Klymenko stated on June 3 that Ukraine has formed all nine brigades of the “Offensive Guard” and that these formations are ready to take part in hostilities at Zelensky’s and Ukrainian Commander in Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi’s orders.[4]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin escalated his feud with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), likely hoping to draw criticism back to the Russian military leadership and downplay his ongoing conflict with Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov. Prigozhin alleged on June 2 that representatives of the MoD placed anti-tank mines and other explosive devices along routes that Wagner forces were using to withdraw from Bakhmut.[5] Prigozhin asserted that these charges were placed in rear areas with no Ukrainian activity and that the MoD likely meant for Wagner forces to detonate the explosives in order to give Wagner a “public flogging.”[6] Prigozhin also further responded to a concerted attack that Chechen commanders launched against him on June 1 and stated on June 3 that he and Kadyrov settled the conflict.[7] Prigozhin claimed that he called Kadyrov on June 1 and the two agreed to let the “whole story” about the conflict dissipate.[8] Prigozhin suggested that a group in the Kremlin may have started the conflict between Kadyrov’s forces and Wagner and insinuated that the Kremlin often plays ”dangerous games” that could destabilize interethnic relations within Russia.[9] Kadyrov has yet to publicly address the conflict between Chechen forces and Wagner.

Prigozhin has not yet responded to Kadyrov or the Chechen commanders who started the attack in an antagonistic manner typical of his usual approach to responding to critiques.[10] The claimed private phone call between Prigozhin and Kadyrov would suggest that Prigozhin is concerned that this typical public response might further antagonize Kadyrov and Chechen commanders and that Prigozhin is concerned about having another prominent silovik figure like Kadyrov aligned against him. Prigozhin likely accused the MoD of trying to kill Wagner forces and the Kremlin of creating the conflict with the Chechen commanders to quickly reorient Russian discussion back to his usual targets of ire, the Russian military and political leadership. Prigozhin is also likely aiming to rally pro-war ultranationalist groups, specifically Kadyrov and Chechen commanders, to join him in criticizing those targets as he has done before.

Prigozhin’s flamboyant allegations are also likely an attempt to retain his heightened initiative within the Russian information space following the capture of Bakhmut. Prigozhin has consistently shaped discussions within the Russian information space leading up to the capture of Bakhmut and following the end of Wagner’s effort in the city by engaging in a near-daily series of public outbursts and demonstrative actions.[11] Prigozhin has used his heightened profile following the capture of Bakhmut to intensify his attacks against the Russian military establishment and elites and bolster his attempt to solidify himself as the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist community.[12] The concerted attack from Chechen commanders represents the first instance since the capture of Bakhmut that Prigozhin has not been the one to initiate larger conversations about himself and the Wagner Group within the Russian information space. Prigozhin’s desire to retain Kadyrov as a potential ally has likely constrained Prigozhin’s regular approach to shaping the Russian information space. Prigozhin has routinely used Wagner’s claimed responsibility for tactical gains to legitimize his pursuit of influence and his criticism of others, and he is likely also concerned that he may soon lose his current ability to dominate discussions about himself and Wagner as Wagner Group forces withdraw to rear areas to replenish and reconstitute.[13] Prigozhin’s dramatic accusation against the MoD aims to remove any constraints resulting from his conflict with Kadyrov, shift the conversation back to criticizing his opponents in the MoD, and allow Prigozhin to continue determining how he and Wagner are portrayed.

Prigozhin seized on general Russian discontent with security on the Belgorod Oblast border to threaten that Wagner Group forces may operate in Russian territory without approval from the Russian military command.[14] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner will not wait for an invitation or permission from the MoD to defend Belgorod Oblast if the MoD does not curb security threats to the region. Prigozhin justified his threat of insubordination by claiming that Wagner aims to protect the Russian people, implying that Wagner will assume the role of border defender that the MoD should already occupy. Prigozhin's threats capitalize on complaints from other prominent information space voices that Russian authorities have not done enough to protect border areas from the impacts of the war and reflect Prigozhin‘s current loss of informational initiative.[15]

Prigozhin’s threats also indicate that he may aim for Wagner forces to assume primary or sole responsibility for an axis in the Ukrainian theater now that Wagner forces have withdrawn from that role in the Bakhmut area. Prigozhin may see the Belgorod-Ukraine border as an easy enough front line to defend as the raids into Russia have thus far occurred on an extremely limited scale. Deploying Wagner forces to the Belgorod border would allow Prigozhin to maintain his position as a commander of frontline forces without the grueling demands of conducting human wave-style frontal assaults against a heavily fortified Ukrainian city. Prigozhin’s apparent threat to undertake military operations, even defensive ones, on Russian territory without the permission of the Russian MoD is astonishing if it is anything other than flamboyant rhetoric. It implies that Prigozhin regards himself as able to use large military forces loyal to him at his own discretion and beyond the control of the actual Russian military. Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to have tremendous confidence in Prigozhin’s personal loyalty to himself to be at all comfortable with such a situation.

A Russian Duma Deputy stated during a public forum on June 1 that Russia has failed to accomplish any of its articulated goals for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. First Duma Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Affairs Konstantin Zatulin emphasized that of Russia’s officially declared goals at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine — “denazification, demilitarization, the neutrality of Ukraine, and the protection of the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”—none have actually been met.[16] Zatulin further noted that as the war has worn on, these goals have ceased to hold actual meaning and suggested that Russian forces should have been more aggressive in efforts to push Ukrainian forces back from the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Zatulin’s critical observations are noteworthy considering that he is a contributor to the Kremlin-affiliated Valdai Discussion Club, which famously upholds views complementary to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the official Kremlin propaganda line.[17] Zatulin’s apparent views of the war represent an absolute minority within the Russian domestic political environment, as self-censorship and general information space repressions are commonplace. However, such statements coming from a relatively mainstream and well-platformed official suggest that a small subset of the predominant pro-war Russian political faction may feel somewhat empowered to voice discontent and advocate for escalated goals as the war continues.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian officials continue to signal that Ukrainian forces are prepared to start counteroffensive operations.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin escalated his feud with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), likely hoping to draw criticism back to the Russian military leadership and downplay his ongoing conflict with Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov. Prigozhin’s flamboyant allegations are also likely an attempt to retain his heightened initiative within the Russian information space following the capture of Bakhmut.
  • Prigozhin seized on general Russian discontent with security on the Belgorod Oblast border to threaten that Wagner Group forces may operate in Russian territory without approval from the Russian military command.
  • A Russian Duma Deputy stated during a public forum on June 1 that Russia has failed to accomplish any of its articulated goals for the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line and northwest and south of Kreminna.
  • Regular Russian forces have likely largely relieved Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut amid a low offensive tempo in the area as of June 3.
  • Russian forces focused offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line near Marinka.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to establish defensive positions in Kherson Oblast.
  • The Russian military leadership is attempting to create and staff new military formations.
  • Likely Ukrainian partisans assassinated a Russian collaborator in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 2, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Layne Philipson, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 2, 2023, 6pm ET

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

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

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

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to respond disproportionately to limited raids into Russian territory, likely to project confidence and competence in the MoD’s ability to respond to perceived threats. The Russian MoD issued a second update about the June 1 Shebekino, Belgorod Oblast border raid, largely fixating on the timeliness and scope of the Russian response to the raid.[1] The MoD claimed that additional Russian Western Military District (WMD) elements reinforced the border area within an hour of the start of the raid and conducted heavy air, artillery, and flamethrower strikes against the raiding units and their reserves. The MoD claimed that over 135 people and 35 vehicles in total conducted the raids and that various Russian defensive efforts - including small arms fire and mines - repelled the raids. The MoD later celebrated the commander of an unspecified motorized rifle battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Nikitin, for leading the defensive effort, likely to preempt attempts to attribute the “victory” achieved by Belgorod border defense on Russian Colonel General Alexander Lapin as the information space did during the May 23 raid.[2] The Russian MoD’s fixation on portraying Russian forces and the Russian military command as capable defenders of Russia likely reflects internal and broader information space anxiety over the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive as well as any reverberating informational impacts from any failures to defend against Ukrainian counterattacks.

Select Russian milbloggers continue to use the situation in Belgorod Oblast to criticize Russian leadership while others downplayed the recent raids. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger stated that the Russian MoD is not treating Belgorod Oblast like Russian territory and claimed that it is only adding to the list of settlements affected by Ukrainian shelling.[3] A milblogger called on Russian forces to destroy increasingly well-equipped Ukrainian forces at their deployment points along the border and not to lie in their reports about the situation in the area.[4] Some milbloggers stated that Russian forces have responded well to the raids, which they claim are merely “terrorist attacks” aimed at creating a psychological impact as opposed to securing concrete territorial goals.[5] A prominent Russian milblogger absurdly claimed that Ukrainian forces have concluded that it is too risky to start the counteroffensive now after observing Russia’s responses to recent probing efforts.[6] The raids, any Ukrainian probing efforts, and Russian responses in the past few weeks have all been on an extremely small scale compared with the announced forces Ukraine is reportedly preparing for the counter-offensive.  The Russian hyperfocus on minor tactical engagements highlights Russian nervousness and insecurity about the forthcoming counteroffensive.

Russian forces conducted another series of strikes against Ukraine using cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones on the night of June 1-2. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 15 Kh-101/555 missiles at Kyiv City from Tu-95 aircraft over the Caspian Sea and that Ukrainian air defense destroyed all 15 missiles.[7]  The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukrainian forces shot down all 21 Shahed 131/136 drones that Russian forces launched at Kyiv from southern Ukraine.[8] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russian forces are attempting to attack in atypical patterns and at unexpected times to deceive Ukrainian air defense, but that newly supplied air defense systems nonetheless allow Ukrainian forces to shoot down all Russian missiles flying along a ballistic trajectory.[9] Ukrainian Southern Forces Joint Press Center Head Nataliya Humenyuk stated on June 2 that Ukrainian air defenses shot down a Russian drone over Mykolaiv Oblast during the June 1 to 2 overnight strikes.[10]

Head of the Russian Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff Colonel General Yevgeny Burdinsky announced that the Russian military will form two new military districts and other new formations by the end of 2023. The Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD’s) “Military Commissariats of Russia” journal published an article by Burdinsky in its June 2023 edition in which he stated that it is necessary for Russian forces to create the Moscow and Leningrad military districts and organize and staff new combined arms and air armies, army corps, the Azov naval regional formation, five divisions, and 26 brigades in 2023.[11] Burdinsky emphasized that the main organizational task for the MoD remains contract service recruitment and the implementation of conscription, however.[12] Burdinsky did not expound upon how the Russian military plans to generate the necessary personnel and equipment required to form these new formations and it is unclear if Burdinsky’s statements were meant to represent a formal MoD deadline for the creation of the new formations.

Budinsky's statements likely aim to reintroduce and reamplify Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s standing proposals to significantly expand the Russian military. Shoigu delivered a series of public proposals at the MoD’s Collegium on December 21, 2022 aimed at significantly increasing the size of the Russian military which included the reestablishment of the Moscow and Leningrad military districts as well as the formation of a new army corps.[13] Shoigu proposed that the Russian Armed Forces increase its strength to 1.5 million servicemen, including 695,000 contract servicemen, but did not specify a timeline for any of his proposals.[14] Shoigu also proposed an increase in the age of conscription, a measure that Russian officials have decided to implement in a phased manner over the course of three years instead of by the end of the year.[15] The creation of two military districts and these formations is a significant undertaking, and the Russian MoD’s current force generation efforts do not signal that the MoD intends to generate the necessary number of personnel to fulfill these tasks by the end of 2023.

Both a Kremlin-affiliated milblogger and Igor Girkin, an ardent nationalist milblogger who is increasingly critical of the Kremlin, questioned where the MoD plans to acquire the personnel and equipment from to create these new formations. [16] Girkin stated that 26 brigades would require 80,000 personnel, a figure roughly correct if brigades were formed at full staff with 3,000 personnel per brigade.[17] Girkin added that five divisions would require another 40,000 personnel and argued that the MoD would have to conduct another mobilization wave to generate the roughly 120,000 required personnel.[18] ISW has previously assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely hesitant to launch another mobilization wave and that the MoD’s current hybrid force generation effort of contract service recruitment and crypto mobilization is aimed at avoiding such a mobilization wave.[19] The Russian MoD is highly unlikely to institute any of Shoigu's long-term force restructuring and expansion proposals by the end of 2023 with the possible exception of re-establishing the Moscow and Leningrad military districts.

Russian sources appear to be reorienting the debate about the attribution of responsibility for small-scale tactical gains in the Bakhmut area to an ongoing offensive operation to capture Marinka, a small, almost leveled settlement where Russian forces have struggled to advance since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A prominent Russian milblogger stated that there are disputes within the Russian information space over who took more control of Marinka even though Russian forces have not yet fully captured the settlement.[20] A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed the elements of the 150th and 20th  Motorized Rifle Divisions (8th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) are primarily responsible for the gains around Marinka.[21] The milblogger claimed that the DNR‘s 100th Brigade, Sparta Battalion, and the ”Kaskad” and ”Rusich” Operational Tactical Combat Formations deserve responsibility for gains around Marinka as well.[22]

These discussions about responsibility coincide with the reported arrival of Chechen forces to assume responsibility of the Donetsk front and complete the capture of Marinka and other settlements in the area.[23] These discussions are likely aimed at undermining Kadyrov’s ability to use any subsequent tactical gains to elevate his standing and reintroduce his paramilitary forces as a main irregular offensive force following the culmination of Wagner forces and their withdrawal from the frontlines.[24] Many irregular formations, primarily DNR forces, have served on the Donetsk front and may be resentful of Kadyrov’s attempt to assume responsibility for any success following months of attritional offensives.[25] This discussion around Marinka also coincides with a concerted attack from Chechen commanders against Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has generated debates between Chechen and Wagner commanders about which forces have been more successful fighting in Ukraine.[26] Prigozhin routinely emphasized Wagner’s responsibility for tactical gains around Bakhmut throughout the offensive to capture the city to advocate for more supplies for Wagner and increased influence.[27] Other irregular forces may be trying to replicate this informational campaign in Marinka and elsewhere in Ukraine and are likely competing amongst each other for envisioned favor from the Kremlin. The capture of Bakhmut, despite offering no operational advantages, did allow the Kremlin to present a Russian victory, if only temporarily, to the Russian public. The capture of Marinka, a settlement with a pre-war population of 10,000 people and with no tactical or operational significance, would likely present marginal informational benefit to the Kremlin at most. Russian forces have advanced less than 2km from 2014-controlled territory around Marinka since the start of the full-scale invasion, suggesting that this entire conversation is premature.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on June 2 that calls for a ceasefire are unacceptable because they will freeze the current lines in place and enable Putin to consolidate control of occupied areas and prepare for future attacks on Ukraine.[28] Blinken noted that the war is a strategic failure for Russia and Russia is worse off militarily, economically, and geopolitically than before the start of its full-scale invasion – all contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s broader strategic aims. Blinken noted that the war undermined many of Putin’s broader goals, including to divide NATO, foster a partnership with China, and strengthen the Russian military. Blinken stated that Russian forces in Ukraine suffered 100,000 killed and wounded “in a meat grinder of its own making” just within the past six months. Blinken stated that Putin believes he can outlast Ukraine and its supporters but reiterated that NATO remains committed to supporting Ukraine, as “Ukraine will never be Russia.”

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to respond disproportionately to limited raids into Russian territory, likely to project confidence and competence in the MoD’s ability to respond to perceived threats.
  • Select Russian milbloggers continue to use the situation in Belgorod Oblast to criticize Russian leadership while others downplayed the recent raids.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of strikes against Ukraine using cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones on the night of June 1-2.
  • Head of the Russian Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff Colonel General Yevgeny Burdinsky announced that the Russian military will form two new military districts and other new formations by the end of 2023. Budinsky's statements likely aim to reintroduce and reamplify Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s standing proposals to significantly expand the Russian military.
  • Russian sources appear to be reorienting the debate about the attribution of responsibility for small-scale tactical gains in the Bakhmut area to an ongoing offensive operation to capture Marinka, a small, almost leveled settlement where Russian sources have struggled to advance since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These discussions about responsibility coincide with the reported arrival of Chechen forces to assume responsibility of the Donetsk front and complete the capture of Marinka and other settlements in the area.
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on June 2 that calls for a ceasefire are unacceptable because they will freeze the current lines in place and enable Putin to consolidate control of occupied areas and prepare for future attacks on Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in the Kupyansk and Kreminna directions.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Marinka.
  • A Russian source claimed that Ukrainian forces made territorial gains during limited counterattacks in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukraine struck the port area in occupied Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast, with Storm Shadow missiles.
  • Ukrainian sources continue to report that Russian cadets from higher military academies are deploying to areas near the Ukrainian border within Russia.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to forcibly transport Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 1, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Fredrick W. Kagan

June 1, 2023, 5:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on June 1. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 2 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted another series of missile strikes on Ukraine overnight on May 31 to June 1 and during the day on June 1. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 10 Iskander ballistic missiles targeting Kyiv City from Bryansk Oblast, which borders Ukraine, in the morning on June 1, and that Ukrainian air defense destroyed all 10 missiles.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces launched two S-300 missiles targeting critical infrastructure in Kharkiv City during the day on June 1.[2] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukraine cannot strike launch points of Russian Iskander missiles in Russia as Ukraine is under obligations not to strike Russian territory with Western-provided weapons.[3] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces began a new limited air campaign in recent months to degrade Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities, but that the Russian prioritization of Kyiv is likely further limiting the campaign’s ability to meaningfully constrain potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.[4]

Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) reportedly conducted another raid into Belgorod Oblast on June 1. Geolocated footage published on June 1 shows alleged LSR personnel operating near Novaya Tavolzhanka (3.5km from the Russian-Ukrainian border) and LSR and RDK personnel striking Russian positions near the settlement as well as Shebekino, Belgorod Oblast (7km from the Russian-Ukrainian border).[5] The RDK stated that the ”second phase” of its operations has begun and published footage purporting to show RDK personnel engaging in combat on the outskirts of Shebekino.[6] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian Border Guard Service and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers thwarted two motorized infantry companies reinforced with tanks that attempted to ”invade” Russian territory near Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka.[7] Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov stated that ”there were no enemies on the territory of Belgorod Oblast” during the attempted raids, although geolocated footage shows alleged LSR personnel operating on Russian territory.[8]

A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that 20 Russian border guards and 20 conscripts as well as Russian aviation and artillery units repelled the RDK and LRS personnel that attempted to conduct a raid near Shebekino.[9] Other Russian milbloggers claimed that the formations that conducted the raids near Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka were roughly the size of a company and had tanks as well as other armored fighting vehicles, although one prominent milblogger claimed that the group that tried to enter near the Shebekino checkpoint was only comprised of 10 people.[10] The reported company size elements conducting these operations indicate that these operations in Belgorod Oblast are doctrinally raids. Raids, according to US Army doctrine, are small scale assault operations involving swift entry into hostile territory to secure information, disrupt hostile forces, or destroy installations.[11] Raids end with a planned withdrawal from a narrowly defined target area and do not seek to establish long-term control over territory. The RDK and LRS have not seriously attempted to control territory in Belgorod Oblast, either on June 1 or during their May 22 raid, despite their avowed goal to capture Russian territory.[12]

Russian officials and milbloggers’ responses to the limited raid in Belgorod Oblast are indicative of a continued heightened anxiety within the Russian information space regarding the war in Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on June 1 that Russian President Vladimir Putin constantly receives information about the situation in Belgorod Oblast, and that Putin awarded Shebekinsky Raion Head Vladimir Zhdanov the Order of Courage for his response to the situation along the border.[13] Gladkov announced that Russian officials in Belgorod Oblast evacuated 200 children to Penza Oblast and plan to evacuate another 600 children to Kaluga and Yaroslavl oblasts on June 3.[14] BBC’s Russia Service reported on June 1 that Gladkov agreed with authorities of several Russian regions to accept 1,200 Belgorod residents during evacuations.[15] These evacuations, Putin’s reported attentiveness, and the MoD’s characterization of the raid as an attempt to ”invade” Russian territory suggests that the Kremlin is trying to use these limited raids to support ongoing information operations that seek to portray the war in Ukraine as existential and garner domestic support for a protracted war.[16]

Select Russian milbloggers used the situation in Belgorod Oblast to criticize the Russian leadership while others argued that the limited raids are precursors for Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin argued that increased activity within Russia is a result of Russian forces wasting reserves in the fall of 2022, Russian officials failing to transition the economy to a war footing, and the Kremlin’s decision not to introduce martial law.[17] Girkin argued that these failures caused Ukraine to understand Russia’s relative weaknesses and suggested that they emboldened Ukrainian forces to conduct operations within Russia itself.[18] Girkin also argued that the Kremlin will likely respond to the alleged Ukrainian operations within Russia too late and that the Russian public’s support for the Russian leadership will wane by then.[19] Another milblogger criticized Putin directly for pretending that everything is fine in Shebekino.[20] Other milbloggers argued that the raids in Belgorod Oblast are a Ukrainian effort to divert Russian forces away from important sectors of the front in Ukraine to border regions ahead of potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[21]

Chechen commanders and officials launched a concerted attack on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 1 in a likely attempt to undermine Prigozhin. Chechen member of the Russian State Duma Adam Delimkhanov responded to Prigozhin’s May 31 statement in which Prigozhin noted that he is unaware Chechen units’ new positions in Ukraine and that Chechen forces will fight for select settlements, rather than the entirety of the Donetsk Oblast.[22] Prigozhin’s original statement appeared relatively neutral compared with his more inflammatory statements and did not directly criticize Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov or his forces. Delimkhanov informally addressed Prigozhin as “Zhenya” (a nickname for Yevgeny) and urged him to select a date on which they could meet to clarify what Chechen ”Akhmat” forces are doing on the frontlines.[23] Delimkhanov also called on Prigozhin to stop ”screaming” about Wagner’s shortages of military supplies and exposing Russian military failures to the world, and claimed that Prigozhin had already established himself as a “blogger” who is triggering Russian society to question his military capabilities. Delimkhanov stated that Wagner received more military equipment “than anyone else” from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and still suffered significant casualties.

Akhmat Special Forces (Spetsnaz) Commander Major General Apty Alaudinov echoed Delimkhanov’s statements, noting that he only respected Wagner personnel and not Prigozhin, despite Kadyrov’s personal fondness for Prigozhin.[24] Alaudinov stated that Wagner received tanks, planes, helicopters, and a 50,000-person army that the Akhmat forces did not receive. Alaudinov reiterated that Akhmat Spetsnaz is part of the Russian MoD and claimed that many former Wagner fighter had joined the Chechen armed formation. Chairman of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov said that Prigozhin does not need to know the details of Chechen operations and stated that Prigozhin would have been killed for his critiques of the Russian military during World War II.[25] Daudov also indirectly implied that Kadyrov and Putin are the ones making decisions while Prigozhin overestimated his powers by trying to establish himself as the face of the war.[26]

Prigozhin responded to the attacks claiming that he will continue to voice his opinions until the Russian MoD officials are punished for their mistakes in planning the invasion of Ukraine.”[27] Prigozhin stated that his statements were not “reprehensible” and attached two videos from his latest press conference to eliminate “ambiguity” surrounding his claims. In one video, Prigozhin stated that the Russian security forces will “die instead of convicts” on the frontlines when responding to a question about Kadyrov’s proposal to send qualified security forces to fight in Ukraine. Prigozhin added that “nothing bad will happen” if half of the security forces leave to fight in the war.[28] The other video showed Prigozhin agreeing with Kadyrov’s proposal to declare martial law across Russia and stating that Russia will not finish the war in 2023.[29] Prigozhin also amplified a response from an unnamed Wagner commander to Daudov, who stated that Wagner is the best private military company (PMC) in the world and that Wagner had never received military supplies from Chechnya.[30] The Wagner commander also claimed that the Wagner forces perceived Daudov’s attack as a personal slight and questioned Daudov’s audacity in referring to Prigozhin as “Zhenya.”

Chechen attacks on Prigozhin’s character may be a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit and undermine Prigozhin as his forces withdraw from the frontlines. The attacks notably occurred on June 1, which is both the day Prigozhin claimed Wagner would withdraw from the frontlines and his birthday. Prigozhin had previously complained that Russian state media outlets are banning mention of Prigozhin and Wagner forces.[31] Prigozhin may be finding himself in a more vulnerable position than when the Kremlin relied on his forces to capture Bakhmut, and has likely been attempting to remain relevant in the information space by conducting press conferences across Russia.[32] Igor Girkin speculated that Kadyrov has likely calculated the value in maintaining Prigozhin as an ally and concluded that Prigozhin cannot offer him any significant benefits.[33] Girkin also speculated that Kadyrov is not interested in a total collapse of the current military and political system that benefits him and his army, and so is distancing himself from Prigozhin who is attacking it.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted another series of missile strikes on Ukraine overnight on May 31 to June 1 and during the day on June 1.
  • Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) reportedly conducted another raid into Belgorod Oblast on June 1.
  • Russian officials and milbloggers’ responses to the limited raid in Belgorod Oblast are indicative of a continued heightened anxiety within the Russian information space regarding the war in Ukraine.
  • Chechen commanders and officials launched a concerted attack on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 1 in a likely attempt to undermine Prigozhin’s appeal.
  • Prigozhin responded to the attacks claiming that he will continue to voice his opinions until Russian MoD officials are punished for their mistakes in planning the invasion of Ukraine
  • Chechen attacks on Prigozhin’s character may be a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit and undermine Prigozhin as his forces withdraw from the frontlines.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and northwest of Svatove.
  • The tempo of Russian and Ukrainian offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction remains low as of June 1, and Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks along the southern axis.
  • The Russian State Duma rejected a draft law that would have granted mobilization exemptions to candidates and doctors of the science.
  • Russian occupation authorities announced that regional elections in occupied territories will take place on September 10.
  • Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin announced on May 31 that Ukraine is investigating over 2,900 crimes against children committed by Russian forces.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 31, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Fredrick W. Kagan

May 31, 2023, 7:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on May 31. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the June 1 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian military command has likely ordered Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces to begin offensive operations in Ukraine following the withdrawal of Wagner Group forces from Bakhmut. Kadyrov claimed on May 31 that Chechen forces received a new order and assumed responsibility over the Donetsk Oblast frontline.[1] Kadyrov claimed that Chechen units need to start “active combat activities” and “liberate a series of settlements.” Kadyrov added that Chechen “Akhmat” Special Forces (Spetsnaz) and the “Sever-Akhmat” Special Purpose Regiment transferred to the Marinka direction southwest of Donetsk City. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) also claimed that assault detachments of the 5th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 1st Army Corps and Akhmat Spetsnaz conducted offensive operations in the Marinka direction.[2] Kadyrov noted that the Russian military command ordered Russian, Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard), and Chechen Akhmat forces to begin offensive actions along the front line in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts as well.[3] Kadyrov claimed that these units have already begun tactical preparations for these offensive actions and claimed that “Akhmat” units’ offensive operations began before Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive. ISW has observed no indications of Chechen offensive operations in Zaporizhia or Kherson as of this writing.

The claimed return of Chechen forces to offensive operations would break Kadyrovites from a nearly yearlong hiatus from participating in high-intensity combat operations. Chechen forces have been largely operating in the rear after participating in the battles for Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk - with the exception of some offensive activities around Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast.[4] ISW also observed Kadyrov’s forces operating as a police force in the rear in southern Ukraine and performing localized reconnaissance-in-force operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.[5] Kadyrov also claimed that 3,300 personnel of the “Sever-Akhmat” Regiment were in Chechnya as of May 8, and ISW assessed that Kadyrov may have been conserving his forces instead sending them to the frontlines.[6] Chechen units’ limited participation on the frontlines alongside Kadyrov’s heavy emphasis on recruitment may suggest that Kadyrov is hesitant to commit his forces to grinding offensive operations in Ukraine despite his ultranationalist narratives.[7]

The Kremlin may be attempting to reintroduce Kadyrovites as the main offensive force following the culmination of Wagner forces and their withdrawal from the frontlines. ISW had previously assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been attempting to pressure Kadyrov into increasing the role of Chechen fighters in combat operations since at least Putin's public meeting with Kadyrov on March 13.[8] Kadyrov also claimed on May 20 to have met with Putin in Pyatigorsk, Stavropol Krai, around the time of Wagner Group’s claimed victory in Bakhmut.[9] The Kremlin did not publish a readout from this meeting, and Kadyrov claimed that he boasted to Putin that there are seven Chechen regiments and four battalions operating in Ukraine.[10] Kadyrov later clarified on May 26 that there are 7,000 Chechen personnel in Ukraine.[11] The Russian MoD’s mention of “Akhmat” operations in the Marinka direction a day prior to Wagner’s initial claimed withdrawal date on June 1 indicates that Putin may have coerced Kadyrov into assuming an offensive role in the war to compensate for Wagner’s likely culmination.[12] The Kremlin may perceive Chechen units as an untapped assault force that can restore Russia’s ability to sustain simultaneous offensive efforts on multiple axes of advance. If Kadyrov’s claims that he has 7,000 troops in Ukraine are close to accurate his forces will not be able to mount multiple significant offensive operations successfully.

The Kremlin may also be attempting to sever Kadyrov’s relationship with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and re-emphasize federal authority over Chechen forces. Prigozhin responded on May 31 to reports of Chechen forces transferring to occupied Donetsk Oblast, stating that he is confident that Kadyrov’s forces will be successful in capturing some settlements in the region but emphasized that Kadyrov was not tasked with capturing the entirety of Donetsk Oblast.[13] Prigozhin also noted that he is not aware of Chechen units’ new positions as this information is secret. Kadyrov participated in Prigozhin’s blackmail attempt in early May aimed at coercing the Russian MoD to allocate additional military supplies to Wagner in Bakhmut.[14] Kadyrov claimed that his forces would relieve Wagner forces on May 6 and even directly asked Putin to authorize the transfer of Chechen forces from other directions to Bakhmut.[15] Putin may have perceived Kadyrov’s behavior as a threat to his control given that Kadyrov and Prigozhin had conducted a successful joint information campaign in early October 2022 to facilitate military command changes.[16] Putin or the Russian military command may have ordered Kadyrov to increase the presence of his units on the battlefield in retaliation for Kadyrov’s blackmail attempt.

The official Russian responses to recent attacks against Russia remain likely insufficient to satisfy the Russian ultranationalist information space’s desire for escalation in the war. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov called on Russian forces on May 29 to capture Kharkiv City and Kharkiv Oblast to create a barrier between Belgorod Oblast and Ukraine.[17] Gladkov later announced on May 31 the evacuation of children from the border areas of Shebekino and Grayvoron raions — including 300 children relocated to Voronezh Oblast — in response to the “deteriorating” border situation.[18] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Gladkov’s statements on May 29, igniting some ire in the Russian information space.[19] Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin criticized Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for their reluctance to address attacks against Russian territory.[20] Russian milbloggers have complained about the lack of Russian military escalation to secure border areas in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts since at least September 2022, often criticizing the Kremlin for underreacting to attacks against Russian territory and failing to fully dedicate itself to the war effort.[21] The evacuations and Peskov’s comments are largely consistent with Putin’s unwillingness and inability to meaningfully escalate the war short of full-scale general and economic mobilization, as ISW has previously assessed.[22]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian military command has likely ordered Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces to begin offensive operations in Ukraine following the withdrawal of Wagner Group forces from Bakhmut.
  • The claimed return of Chechen forces to offensive operations would break Kadyrovites from a nearly yearlong hiatus from participating in high-intensity combat operations.
  • The Kremlin may be attempting to reintroduce Kadyrovites as the main offensive force following the culmination of Wagner forces and their withdrawal from the front lines.
  • The Kremlin may also be attempting to sever Kadyrov’s relationship with Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and re-emphasize federal authority over Chechen forces.
  • The official Russian responses to recent attacks against Russia remain likely insufficient to satisfy the Russian ultranationalist information space’s desire for escalation in the war.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks northwest of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continue to concentrate in southern Ukraine.
  • The Russian State Duma appears to be considering measures to legalize the military recruitment of current or formerly incarcerated Russian men.
  • Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lyubinets announced that Ukraine has a new avenue to repatriate Ukrainian children abducted to Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 30, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Fredrick W. Kagan

May 30, 2023, 8pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 30. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 31 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russia claimed that Ukraine conducted a series of drone strikes against Moscow on May 30 as Russia again targeted Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed drones. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) accused Ukraine of attacking Moscow with eight drones on the morning of May 30, and claimed that Russian forces shot down five of the drones and suppressed three drones with electronic warfare systems.[1] Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyev, however, claimed that Ukraine launched 32 drones of which some targeted the prestigious neighborhood of Rublyovka in Moscow Oblast.[2] A Russian independent outlet claimed that the drone strikes predominantly targeted areas near Russian President Vladimir Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo and other elite neighborhoods in Moscow Oblast.[3] Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin stated that several buildings in Moscow suffered minor damage, and Russian sources amplified footage of a minor explosion in the Novaya Moskva neighborhood.[4] A Russian milblogger claimed that drones flying over Moscow resembled Ukrainian attack drones.[5] Geolocated footage shows Russian forces shooting down drones identified as Ukrainian by OSINT accounts in several different areas of Moscow and Moscow Oblast.[6] Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak denied that Ukraine was directly involved in the drone strike but forecasted that there could be an increase in such attacks in the future.[7]

Russian forces conducted another Shahed 131 and 136 drone strike against Kyiv overnight on May 29 to May 30. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 29 of 31 Russian Shahed 131 and 136 drones that targeted Kyiv.[8] Senior Russian officials claimed that Russian forces struck high profile targets in Kyiv during recent strikes, likely to appear successful in retaliation for the recent Belgorod Oblast incursion.[9] Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that Russian forces struck a Patriot air defense system in recent days.[10] Ukrainian Air Forces Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat denied Shoigu’s claim, however.[11] Russian milbloggers’ recent complaints about the perceived lack of Russian escalation in response to the Belgorod border raid and Moscow drone strikes do not give Russian forces credit for the unprecedented scale of their air campaign against Kyiv. Many milbloggers, including high-profile voices like former Russian officer Igor Girkin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin have frequently and recently complained about the lack of full scale general and economic mobilization in Russia, the only feasible measure likely to satisfy the broader information space outcry.[12]

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to downplay the drone attack on Moscow to avoid exposing the limited options he has to retaliate against Ukraine. Putin claimed that Russian forces struck the Ukrainian military intelligence headquarters “two [to] three days ago” and claimed that the Russian Armed Forces continue to respond to Ukraine’s “war against Donbas” by striking Ukrainian military infrastructure.[13] Putin insinuated that the drone strike on Moscow was Kyiv’s response to Russian strikes, and the Russian MoD conveniently claimed on May 30 that Russian forces carried out “a group of strikes with long-range high-precision air-launched weapons at main decision-making centers” in Ukraine.[14] The Russian MoD did not claim that it had struck the Ukrainian military intelligence headquarters recently and there is no available confirmation of Putin’s claim.[15] Putin stated that Ukraine is trying to provoke a response and make Russia “mirror” its actions. Putin’s emphasis on past and ongoing missile strikes is likely an attempt to signal that Russia is already actively retaliating and does not need to respond to further Ukrainian provocations. Putin has consistently retaliated against genuine and purported Ukrainian actions by ordering massive missile and drone campaigns, likely due to Russian forces’ inability to achieve any decisive effects on the battlefield.[16]

Putin additionally pushed numerous Kremlin boilerplate narratives aimed at maintaining domestic support for the Russian war effort and villainizing the West. Putin also noted that, while the Moscow air defense systems “worked normally,” Russia still needs to “work” on improving these systems – a notable attempt to preempt criticism from Russian ultra-nationalists who have been criticizing Russia’s ineffective air defense systems in Moscow and along the Russian border regions with Ukraine.[17] Putin also accused Ukraine of threatening to destabilize the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and using “dirty devices” – both default Russian false narratives that the Kremlin uses during Russian military failures.[18]

The drone attack on Moscow generated varied responses from the Russian information space. Moscow Duma Deputy Andrey Medvedev claimed that the Ukrainian forces hurriedly executed the drone attack as part of an information operation with negligible kinetic effects.[19] Some Russian milbloggers used the drone attacks to criticize the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts in April 2022.[20] Igor Girkin used the strikes against Rublyovka to criticize Russian elites who he claimed have “never thought about the country and never will” and will not respond to Ukrainian attacks in Moscow, Belgorod Oblast, or Russian-occupied Ukraine.[21] Girkin also mocked Putin for continuing to assert that the war is a “special military operation,” despite drone attacks on the Russian capital.[22] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin reprimanded the Russian MoD and called on Russian officials to actually defend Russia instead of “sitting quietly.”[23] Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov threatened the European countries, claiming that, if they continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, they will not have the weapons needed to defend themselves when Russia “knocks on their doors.”[24]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is likely attempting to conceal the high Russian losses in Ukraine by artificially inflating Ukrainian casualties in the war. Defense Minister Shoigu claimed on May 30 that Russian forces had destroyed an absurdly high number of Western-provided Ukrainian weapons, including long range missiles, in the past month.[25] Shoigu celebrated claimed successes and training efforts, including by awarding Russian formations and bragging about the upcoming summer military exercises. A Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger criticized Shoigu, implying that Shoigu’s statements are so unrealistic that they appear to be fake to readers.[26] Dutch open-source group Oryx reported on May 29 that it confirmed that Russia has lost over 2,000 tanks and 2,366 infantry fighting vehicles (including over 850 BMPs) since the war began.[27]

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell stated that Russia will not enter negotiations while trying to win the war, supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian statements expressing willingness to negotiate are part of an ongoing information operation intending to weaken Western willingness to aid Ukraine.[28] Reuters reported on May 29 that Borrell said that Russia has repeatedly signaled that it would not end the war until it achieved its military goals and that it has over 300,000 personnel in Ukraine — twice as many as when the invasion started.[29]

Key Takeaways

  • Russia claimed that Ukraine conducted a series of drone strikes against Moscow on May 30 as Russia again targeted Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed drones.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to downplay the drone attack on Moscow to avoid exposing the limited options he has to retaliate against Ukraine.
  • The drone attack on Moscow generated varied responses from the Russian information space.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is likely attempting to conceal the high Russian losses in Ukraine by artificially inflating Ukrainian casualties in the war.
  • EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell stated that Russia will not enter negotiations while trying to win the war.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and northwest of Svatove, and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted a ground attack south of Kreminna.
  • The tempo of Russian and Ukrainian offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction remains low as of May 30.
  • Russian forces made marginal advances amid continued ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks along the southern axis.
  • Russian officials are establishing domestic veteran support programs which likely aim to advertise the perks of military service in Russia.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of providing pediatric healthcare.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, Karolina Hird, and Fredrick W. Kagan

May 29, 2023, 6:15pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1pm ET on May 29. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 30 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment

Russian forces conducted another series of strikes against Ukraine with cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones overnight on May 28 to 29 and during the day on May 29. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 40 Kh-101/Kh-555 air-based cruise missiles and 38 Shahed-131/136 drones on the night of May 28 to 29 and 11 Iskander-M/K missiles during the day on May 29.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed in all 36 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles, 30 Shahed drones, and all 11 Iskander missiles.[2] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces intercepted all 11 Iskander missiles, and 40 cruise missiles and Shahed drones that targeted Kyiv City and Kyiv Oblast.[3] Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian forces also intercepted missiles and drones near the cities of Lviv, Mykolaiv, and Odesa, and that Russian forces struck port infrastructure in Odesa City and a military infrastructure facility in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.[4] Russian forces launched a relatively higher number of missiles than in recent series of strikes following the largest Russian series of Shahed strikes since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on May 28.[5] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces began a new limited air campaign in recent months to degrade Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities, but that the Russian prioritization of targeting Kyiv is likely further limiting the campaign’s ability to meaningfully constrain potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.[6]

Russia deployed more S-400 air defense systems (probably at least a battery) to Belarus on May 28. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense released video on May 28 showing a train with S-400 systems deploying to an unspecified area in Belarus.[7] Independent Belarusian monitoring organization The Hajun Project reported that the train with S-400s arrived at the 25th Missile Arsenal near Stoubtsi (about 60 km southwest of Minsk).[8] It is unclear whether these S-400s will enter service near Stoubtsi or deploy further to a different location. These systems will likely enter service with the Belarusian military but under Russian operational control. Russia’s and Belarus’ Joint Regional Air Defense System (established in 2009 and operational in 2016) effectively subordinates Belarus’ air defense assets to the Russian Western Military District.[9] Belarusian officials confirmed that Russian-provided S-400 in Belarus became operational and deployed on combat duty on December 25, 2022.[10] ISW forecasted in 2020 that Russia would deploy S-400s to Belarus.[11]

Former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev confirmed that he is now operating as deputy commander of the Wagner Group. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger published an interview on May 29 in which Mizintsev confirmed previous claims that he assumed the position.[12] Mizintsev stated that he has maintained good relations with Wagner for the previous 10 years, further substantiating reports that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin used close connections with Mizintsev to secure resources for Wagner while Mizintsev was in the Russian MoD.[13] Mizintsev claimed to be in Bakhmut overseeing the ongoing relief-in-place operation and claimed that Wagner is conducting an organized withdrawal.[14] Mizintsev praised the Wagner commanders and advocated that Wagner’s structure and management become a model for the total war that Russia needs to be fighting.[15] Mizintsev declined to comment about feuds between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner but highlighted that the Russian military has struggled with ammunition provisions and conducting a large-scale mobilization of the Russian nation to win in Ukraine.[16] ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin likely appointed Mizintsev as Wagner deputy commander in an effort to retain Wagner’s access to supplies, and Prigozhin has since promoted Mizintsev as his preferred replacement for Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.[17] Mizintsev’s publicized confirmation of his position and adulation of Wagner is likely part of Prigozhin’s wider effort to advocate for more influence following the capture of Bakhmut.[18]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s May 27 accusation that Prigozhin could stage a military coup against the Kremlin by arguing that Wagner lacks the personnel needed to start a coup. Prigozhin stated on May 29 that there are different types of coups across the globe – including a “chaotic military coup” in Sudan – which take too long and result in major conflicts.[19] Prigozhin argued that Wagner does not have a large enough army required to carry out a coup and claimed that Wagner has good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin vaguely implied that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu could stage a coup as he has access to the Russian Special Forces. Prigozhin added that while some individuals in Russia are expecting a revolution Wagner is only advocating for select corrections to the Russian system. Prigozhin’s response to Girkin notably follows his response to a media inquiry in which he hypothesizes about who could have authorized the reported ban on mentions of Wagner on the Russian state media, and even considered Putin.[20] Prigozhin then stated that there is an effort in Russia to avoid recognizing the legitimate heroes of this war and that “the officials-bureaucrats who run the Russian state today must remain the heroes and they are the only ones who can be thanked.” He added that “if they aren’t thanked, then they say, ‘Fine, heck with it, praise the president,’” implying that Putin is receiving unearned praise and thanks because of the unwillingness of Russian bureaucrats to honor those who truly deserve it. Prigozhin has dramatically increased the number of direct references to Putin since May 9 – after he indirectly criticized Putin during the Victory Day holiday.[21]

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning denied a Wall Street Journal report that Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui urged European officials to end the conflict in Ukraine before it escalates.[22] Mao claimed that European officials acknowledged China’s “positive role in promoting peace talks” and appreciated China’s “calling for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”[23] Mao claimed that the war in Ukraine is “now at a critical juncture” and that China continues to attempt to work with all parties to resolve the “crisis.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that European officials did not confirm reports that Li urged them attempt to end the war or consider recognizing Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine as Russian territory.[24] Kuleba also stated that Ukraine will continue to engage with China on the basis of three principles: mutual respect for territorial integrity, no proposals of territorial concessions, and no suggestions of freezing the conflict.

Russian authorities continue to forcefully integrate dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast into the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) demonstrating the integral connection of the ROC with the Russian state. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov claimed that the Russian Bishop of Bronnitsky, Luka, held the first liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Berdyansk Cathedral, which the Russian Orthodox Church had taken control over on May 16.[25] Rogov claimed that Russian Orthodox Church Head Patriarch Kirill appointed Bishop of Bronnitsky Luka as head of the Berdyansk and Prymorsk dioceses of the ROC. The Berdyansk and Prymorsk dioceses were previously part of the Russian-affiliated UOC MP, and their forced integration with the ROC emphasizes the close relationship between the ROC and the Russian state.[26]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces conducted another series of strikes against Ukraine with cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones overnight on May 28 to 29 and during the day on May 29.
  • Russia deployed more S-400 air defense systems (probably at least a battery) to Belarus on May 28.
  • Former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev confirmed that he is now operating as deputy commander of the Wagner Group.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s May 27 accusation that Prigozhin could stage a military coup against the Kremlin by arguing that Wagner lacks the personnel needed to start a coup.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning denied a Wall Street Journal report that Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui urged European officials to end the conflict in Ukraine before it escalates.
  • Russian authorities continue to forcefully integrate dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast into the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) demonstrating the integral connection of the ROC with the Russian state.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • The tempo of Russian offensive operations in and around Bakhmut remains notably low.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front, particularly focusing on Marinka.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast and are expanding fortifications in Mariupol.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled limited Ukrainian reconnaissance in force operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian military command appears to be introducing doctrinal organization to some of its irregular formations.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on May 29 that will further strengthen the martial law regime in occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely not hospitalized as of May 29.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 28, 2023

Click here to read the full report

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

May 28, 2023, 3pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on May 28. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 29 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted the largest Shahed drone strike against Ukraine since the start of the war overnight on May 27-28. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 59 Shahed-131/136 drones, of which Ukrainian forces shot down 58.[1] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat characterized this strike as the largest drone strike since the start of the war and stated that Russian forces chiefly targeted Kyiv.[2] Zhytomyr Oblast Head Vitaliy Bunechko reported that Russian drones struck an unspecified infrastructure facility in the oblast.[3] The Russian allocation of aerial munitions to targeting Kyiv rather than prioritizing infrastructure or military facilities continues to constrain this limited Russian air campaign’s ability to meaningfully degrade Ukrainian offensive capabilities for the upcoming counteroffensive, as ISW has previously assessed.[4]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that the Russian relief in place operation in Bakhmut may continue past his initial June 1 deadline and last until June 5. Prigozhin stated on May 28 that Wagner’s withdrawal from the city may take a few more days because Wagner is not able to transfer all equipment in good condition by June 1.[5] Prigozhin stated that Wagner forces intend to fully withdraw from Bakhmut to rear field camps by June 5.[6] The Washington Post reported on May 28 that Ukrainian personnel in the Bakhmut area have observed Wagner forces leaving Bakhmut City itself and regular Russian personnel taking responsibility for Wagner’s previous positions in the city.[7] The Ukrainian personnel reportedly stated that they cannot confirm that regular Russian forces are replacing Wagner throughout Bakhmut City, however.[8] Russian sources amplified footage on May 27 and 28 purporting to show elements of the ”Nevsky” volunteer battalion and the irregular 1st ”Wolves” Sabotage and Reconnaissance Brigade operating on the flanks in the Bakhmut area.[9] ISW has previously assessed that the “Wolves” Sabotage and Reconnaissance Brigade was operating in the Avdiivka area, further suggesting that Russian forces may be transferring irregular forces and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) elements from around Avdiivka to the Bakhmut area.[10] ISW previously assessed that the Russian transfer of these elements to Bakhmut may decrease the tempo of Russian offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.[11]

The tempo of Russian operations around Bakhmut remains notably low. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 28 that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations near Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11km northwest of Bakhmut), west of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut), and in the direction of Ivanivske (6k west of Bakhmut).[12] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reported on May 28 that only one combat clash occurred near Bakhmut City in the past 24 hours.[13] Geolocated footage published on May 28 indicates that Russian forces made marginal gains west of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut).[14] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces are counterattacking west of Klishchiivka but that Ukrainian forces maintain their current positions in the area.[15] A Russian source claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counterattacks near Orikhovo-Vasylivka on May 27, where Russian sources claimed Ukrainian forces advanced up to one kilometer on May 26.[16] Ukrainian personnel in the Bakhmut area reportedly expressed optimism that the decreased tempo of Russian operations around Bakhmut may facilitate further limited and localized Ukrainian counterattacks.[17] ISW previously assessed that the decreased tempo of Russian offensive operations in the Bakhmut area and the ongoing relief in place operation are likely providing Ukrainian forces in the area the initiative to launch a new round of operations around the city if they so choose.[18]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have again indirectly undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority and regime. Prigozhin responded to a journalist’s question about Russian state media banning any discussions about Wagner forces, stating that unnamed Russian bureaucrats will only benefit from such censorship in the near term of one to three months before the Russian people will push back and start hating the bureaucrats.[19] Prigozhin stated that Russian officials would have been able to enjoy their historic ability to censor Russian society if Russia had not started the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin then gave advice to an unnamed official: “If you are starting a war, please have character, will, and steel balls - and only then you will be able to achieve something.” Prigozhin implied that accomplishing real achievements would let the official avoid lying about the construction of new buildings, metro stations, and bridges in an effort to look good. Prigozhin notably shifted the discussion from talking about unnamed Russian officials to directly addressing a single man. Prigozhin’s comments are likely targeted at Putin whom the Russian state media has routinely portrayed as a leader minutely involved with small infrastructure projects and the lives of ordinary Russian people. Putin used to host annual hours-long “Direct Line” press conferences with constituents in which he often responded to inquiries that are best suited for local governments, for example.[20]

Prigozhin may be attacking Putin for failing to give Prigozhin some promised reward for seizing Bakhmut. Prigozhin’s previous attack on Putin’s character occurred on May 9 – a symbolic holiday that Putin may have wanted to use to portray Russia’s claimed victory in Bakhmut as an achievement equivalent to Soviet Union’s drive on Berlin in 1945.[21] Kremlin state media compared the seizure of Bakhmut city to the Soviet victory in Berlin on May 21, which likely indicates that the Kremlin was preparing to associate the victory in Bakhmut with Victory Day.[22] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner had effectively captured Bakhmut by May 10 and cleared the city by May 20, and attempted to blame the delay in Wagner’s capture of the city on the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD’s) withholding of ammunition.[23] Prigozhin also claimed that his ”Bakhmut meatgrinder” offensive operation killed half of the Ukrainian army, a statement that Russian ultranationalist Igor Girkin declared to be false.[24] Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner opened a springboard for further offensive operations in Donbas and sarcastically noted that Russian regular forces subordinated under the Russian MoD will be able to reach the Dnipro River, capture the territories of the four annexed regions, and capture Ukrainian strongholds west and north of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin’s jabs at Putin and the Russian MoD - in combination with his bragging about Wagner’s accomplishments – may suggest that Prigozhin is frustrated that he did not receive some promised compensation for his victory in the Battle for Bakhmut. The Russian MoD may have deliberately sabotaged Prigozhin days or weeks prior to May 9th to prevent Wagner from capturing the remaining few blocks in western Bakhmut before Victory Day, as Prigozhin suggests. Putin may have deliberately overlooked such MoD sabotage efforts to avoid having to fulfill whatever promise Prigozhin thinks Putin had made to him. Prigozhin has previously stated that if he was given 200,000 personnel, Wagner would have made further great advances on the frontlines.[25] Prigozhin’s May 28 statement and his previous behavior may indicate that he had envisioned expanding Wagner at the expense of Russian conventional forces or replacing Russian military officials with Wagner-affiliated personnel.[26] ISW previously assessed that Putin is a risk averse actor who is concerned over the health of his regime and thus unlikely to fully satisfy Prigozhin’s radical demands.[27]

The Wagner Group held a reportedly illegal pro-Wagner rally in Yekaterinburg on May 28 despite the reported banning of the rally by Yekaterinburg authorities. Approximately 100 to 150 cars of Wagner personnel and supporters held a procession from Yekaterinburg to a cemetery in Berezovsky, Sverdlovsk Oblast, where the supporters laid flowers at a Wagner monument.[28] Some Russian opposition sources claimed that local authorities explicitly banned Wagner from holding the rally and that Wagner held the rally in direct defiance of the ban.[29] Footage shows luxury cars participating in the procession, suggesting that some local elites may be supporting Wagner.[30] Sverdlovsk Oblast is a notable Russian defense industrial base (DIB) hub, and Russian authorities recently conducted several prominent arrests there of individuals including Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich on charges of espionage.[31] Gershkovich notably traveled to Yekaterinburg to report on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s criticisms of the Yekaterinburg History Museum Director Igor Pushkarev.[32] Prigozhin has also notably feuded with Russian regional officials over allowing dead Wagner personnel to receive burials equivalent to those of regular Russian military personnel.[33]

Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov criticized former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin on May 27. Solovyov accused Girkin of discrediting the Russian military and stated that Russian authorities should have already imprisoned Girkin.[34] Solovyov complained that authorities have prosecuted other Russian milbloggers for discrediting the Russian military but have not touched Girkin. Girkin responded on May 28, noting that Solovyov is criticizing him despite his extensive military experience. Girkin highlighted that Solovyov has not criticized Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin despite Prigozhin’s criminal record and control over a “mercenary army.”[35] Rumors of an investigation into Girkin for discrediting the Russian military previously gained prominence in mid-April, during which Prigozhin may have tried to pressure Girkin and his patronage networks as part of an ongoing feud to compete for influence and patronage.[36]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted the largest Shahed drone strike against Ukraine since the start of the war overnight on May 27-28.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that the Russian relief in place operation in Bakhmut may continue past his initial June 1 deadline and last until June 5.
  • The tempo of Russian operations around Bakhmut remains notably low.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have again indirectly undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority and regime.
  • Prigozhin may be attacking Putin for failing to give Prigozhin some promised reward for seizing Bakhmut.
  • The Wagner Group held a reportedly illegal pro-Wagner rally in Yekaterinburg on May 28 despite the reported banning of the rally by Yekaterinburg authorities.
  • Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov criticized former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin on May 27.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces conducted limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
  • Russian forces continued to fire on areas in Southern Ukraine.
  • The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) asserted that Russia is now demanding that Russian citizens make additional sacrifices to support the war effort.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to forcibly deport Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of summer camps. 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 27, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Fredrick W. Kagan

May 27, 2023, 6:30pm ET

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

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

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

Wagner Group mercenaries appear to be withdrawing from Bakhmut city to reconstitute and regroup in the rear as Russian offensive operations decrease in and around the city. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian offensive operations had dramatically decreased to two skirmishes in the Bakhmut direction, and Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar attributed this decrease to the Russian relief-in-place and regrouping of forces in the area.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 27 that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations west of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut) and in the direction of Predtechyne (15km southwest of Bakhmut).[2] Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces hold dominant elevated positions north and south of Bakhmut and that Ukrainian forces stopped combat operations on May 26 and 27 to fulfill other unspecified tasks.[3] Malyar also stated that Ukrainian forces continue to control positions in the southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut City.[4] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces are not conducting active operations aimed at regaining positions in Bakhmut City itself despite the possible continuation of localized Ukrainian counterattacks northwest and southwest of the city.[5]

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated that Wagner mercenaries are withdrawing from the city of Bakhmut and are “regrouping to another three locations.”[6] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin reiterated that Wagner forces continued to withdraw from Bakhmut city on May 27.[7] Prigozhin’s statements are likely true given the decrease in Russian offensive capabilities around Bakhmut and Ukrainian statements regarding the situation in Bakhmut.

The Russian military command may be transferring Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) forces to relieve Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut city. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed that the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) forces have likely entered Bakhmut city as of May 24 and begun clearing operations.[8] ISW previously observed elements of the 132nd Separate Guard Motorized Rifle Brigade of the DNR’s 1st Army Corps operating in the Bakhmut direction after previously fighting in the Avdiivka area.[9] It is unclear at this time if elements of the 132nd Brigade are operating inside of the city, but DNR Head Denis Pushilin previously raised the DNR flag in Bakhmut - which likely indicates that the DNR forces are assuming control over Bakhmut.[10] Pushilin also indicated that DNR elements were clearing the city as of May 23.[11]

The Russian transfer of DNR elements to Bakhmut may decrease the tempo of Russian offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line. ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command has heavily committed a variety of DNR elements to the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.[12] Russian attacks around Avdiivka-Donetsk City area appear to have been decreasing in recent days, which may be connected to the transfer of DNR forces to Bakhmut. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 27 that Russian forces conducted 13 combat operations in eastern Ukraine, of which seven attacks were in the Marinka area (about 19km west from Donetsk City).[13] The Ukrainian General Staff previously reported that Russian forces attacked 20 times in Marinka alone on the day Wagner forces declared victory over Bakhmut on May 20.[14] The Russian offensives around Avdiivka have been steadily decreasing since at least April 8 after the Russian military command attempted to intensify offensive operations near the settlement in mid-March, and the transfer of DNR units to Bakhmut may further slow Russian efforts on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.[15] The Russian military command may be transferring DNR units operating in the well-defended Avdiivka-Donetsk City area to avoid making other directions vulnerable or to ensure quick reinforcements for Bakhmut city.

The Russian military command appears to be reinforcing Bakhmut’s flanks with regular formations, however. The UK MoD assessed that elements of the 31st Brigade of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) have likely transferred from the Svatove-Kreminna line to reinforce Bakhmut’s flanks in recent weeks.[16] Ukrainian military officials previously reported that Russian forces are transferring unspecified VDV, motorized rifle, and special forces units to the Bakhmut direction after successful Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut‘s flanks.[17] ISW also observed Cossack units operating in Soledar, although these units likely were previously operating in the area.[18]

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of planning a coup against the current Russian leadership. Girkin openly accused Prigozhin of planning to conduct a coup amid the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive and of continuously violating Russian censorship laws against the discreditation of the Russian army and military command.[19] Girkin warned of “mutiny” if Prigozhin is “allowed” to lead the Wagner Group. Girkin noted that Prigozhin ordered for the Wagner forces to withdraw to the Wagner bases deep inside of Russia on the eve of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. He also claimed that Wagner personnel had never taken oaths promising not to engage in combat against Russia or its military.[20] Prigozhin stated on May 27 that Wagner will decide later on if it will fight in Ukraine or in another country, which indicates that Prigozhin retains the ability to command his own army outside of the formal Russian military command structure.[21] Girkin also recently criticized the Russian military command for failing to address Prigozhin’s open and vulgar conflict with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), even warning that Prigozhin will “devour” the Russian military officials who “bet” in his favor as he seeks to increase his political power.[22] A member of Girkin’s Angry Patriots Club claimed that the conflict between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Prigozhin is developing into a conflict between the Russian military and Wagner forces but that Putin is not paying attention.[23] Girkin’s and his associates’ criticisms are largely consistent with Prigozhin’s continued prioritization of his own personal aims over those of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the broader operational situation near Bakhmut.[24] Prigozhin’s decision to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut and, apparently, from active combat on the eve of the Ukrainian counter-offensive is strategically questionable.

Ukrainian officials denied Western reporting that suggested that a Chinese diplomat expressed interest in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine amidst the likely renewal of Russia’s information campaign surrounding negotiations. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on May 27 that he contacted his European counterparts who recently met with Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui and that they denied that Li had expressed interest in a ceasefire that would see Russia retain control of occupied territories, as a May 26 Wall Street Journal report suggested.[25] Li Hui visited Moscow on May 26 reportedly to discuss a negotiated settlement to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a visit that the Kremlin likely used to attempt to renew a recurring information operation falsely claiming that Russia is open to serious negotiations.[26] The Kremlin previously intensified this information operation in December 2022 to attempt to delay the provision of Western tanks and other advanced military equipment to Ukraine in order to set conditions for Russia’s 2023 winter-spring offensive.[27] The Kremlin is likely reintroducing the information operation intending to weaken Western willingness to send critical security assistance to Ukraine ahead of potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

The Kremlin has established a pattern in this information operation in which some Russian officials express feigned interest in negotiations while other Russian officials simultaneously reiterate Putin’s maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine.[28] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin stated on May 26 that the conditions for a ”comprehensive, just and lasting peace” in Ukraine include the cessation of hostilities by Ukrainian forces, the end of Western security assistance to Ukraine, the Ukrainian return to a “neutral non-aligned status,” the explicit Ukrainian refusal to join NATO and the EU, and the recognition of Russia’s annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine.[29] Galuzin’s reiteration of Russia’s maximalist objectives coincide with Putin’s alleged expression of Russian interest in negotiations during a phone call with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva on May 26.[30]

Key Takeaways 

  • Wagner Group mercenaries appear to be withdrawing from Bakhmut city to reconstitute and regroup in the rear as Russian offensive operations decrease in and around the city.
  • The Russian military command may be transferring Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) forces to relieve Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut city.
  • The Russian transfer of DNR elements to Bakhmut may decrease the tempo of Russian offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • The Russian military command appears to be reinforcing Bakhmut’s flanks with regular formations, however.
  • Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of planning a coup against the current Russian leadership.
  • Ukrainian officials denied Western reporting that suggested that a Chinese diplomat expressed interest in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine amidst the likely renewal of Russia’s information campaign surrounding negotiations.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to launch unsuccessful offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike rear logistics nodes in southern Zaporizhia oblast.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) warned on May 26 that Russian forces are preparing to conduct large scale provocations to create radiological danger at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • The Russian Ministry of Justice registered the civil society group “Council of Mothers of Wives” as a foreign agent on May 26, likely to curb resistance to ongoing and future Russian force generation efforts.
  • Russian authorities are escalating efforts to portray Russia as a safe guardian of Ukrainian children.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 26, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark

May 26, 2023, 6:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 1:30pm ET on May 26. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 27 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces continue to hand over positions in Bakhmut to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and withdraw from the city. Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on May 26 that the MoD is fulfilling its agreement by actively deploying regular Russian units to Wagner-held positions in Bakhmut city.[1] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner is conducting an organized withdrawal from Bakhmut and reiterated that the Russian MoD will fully control the city and its surrounding areas by June 1.[2] A Russian milblogger published footage of Prigozhin visiting Russian rear positions where Wagner forces are allegedly withdrawing to.[3] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of regular Russian forces taking up Wagner positions in Bakhmut itself or that Wagner is leaving the city. ISW has recently observed footage purporting to show elements of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 123rd Brigade, likely previously deployed near Siversk, operating in the Bakhmut area, and DNR forces may be replacing Wagner formations.[4]

Ukrainian sources claim that Wagner forces are still present in Bakhmut and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations around the city continues to decrease. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that regular Russian units have replaced Wagner units in Bakhmut’s suburbs, likely referring to areas on the flanks around Bakhmut.[5] Malyar claimed that Ukrainian forces still control positions on the southwestern outskirts of the city and that Wagner forces are still present in Bakhmut city itself.[6] Ukrainian sources continue to report that the tempo of Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut has declined since the claimed Russian capture of the city.[7] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations near Bakhmut and in the direction of Predtechyne (15km southwest of Bakhmut) on May 26.[8]

Continued successful limited Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks may complicate the Russian relief in place operation in Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted successful counterattacks near Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11km northwest of Bakhmut) and Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut).[9] A prominent milblogger claimed that Ukrainian counterattacks near Orikhovo-Vasylivka caused elements of the “Veterany” private military company (PMC) to retreat up to a kilometer from their previously held positions in the area.[10] Milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces captured elevated positions along the E40 (Bakhmut to Slovyansk) highway near Orikhovo-Vasylivka and that fighting is ongoing in the area.[11] A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced towards Klishchiivka and crossed the Siverskyi Donets Canal, possibly threatening to encircle the settlement and force Russian forces to retreat towards the east.[12] Geolocated footage published on May 24 and 25 indicates that Russian forces likely regained limited positions west of Klishchiivka, however.[13] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces may struggle to conduct a relief in place of Wagner forces in Bakhmut, and successful limited and localized Ukrainian counterattacks will likely complicate their ability to do so.[14] The decreased tempo of Russian offensive operations in the Bakhmut area and the reported ongoing relief in place operation are likely further providing Ukrainian forces in the area the initiative to launch a new phase of operations around the city if they so choose.[15]

Russian forces conducted a large-scale missile and drone strike across Ukraine on May 25 and 26. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched ten Kh-101/555 air-based cruise missiles at Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts and launched eight S-300/400 anti-aircraft guided missiles at Dnipro City.[16] Russian forces also reportedly launched 31 Shahed-131/136 drones from the southern and northern directions on the night of May 25 to 26. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed all ten Kh-101/555 missiles and 23 Shahed-131/136 drones.[17] The Kyiv Oblast Military Administration Head Ruslan Kravchenko stated that Russian forces have conducted 13 missile attacks on Kyiv Oblast since beginning of May.[18] Ukrainian sources reported that the Russian forces struck a civilian hospital and residential buildings in Dnipro in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[19]

The Kremlin is likely reviving its information campaign to coerce the West into forcing Ukraine to accept concessions and negotiate on terms favorable to Russia. The Kremlin claimed on May 26 that Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “the openness of the Russian side to dialogue on the political and diplomatic track, which is still blocked by Kyiv and its Western sponsors” in a phone call with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.[20] Putin’s statement does not indicate that Russia is interested in pursuing negotiations with Ukraine, and the Kremlin has not established any serious grounds for negotiations nor abandoned its maximalist goals to force the Ukrainian government to capitulate. The Kremlin is likely attempting to intensify its false claims about its readiness to negotiate with Ukraine amidst the arrival of the Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui in Moscow on May 26 to discuss a negotiated settlement to Russia’s war in Ukraine.[21] The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Li previously urged European officials to end the conflict in Ukraine before it escalates during his visit to European states in the past week.[22] The WSJ also reported that a (likely European, but unspecified) diplomat who spoke to Li explained that freezing the conflict was not beneficial to international interests and that Europe would not withdraw its support for Ukraine. The WSJ also reported that another (likely European, but unspecified) diplomat claimed that China’s main interests are ensuring Russian victory and ensuring that Russia does not use nuclear weapons. The claimed interaction likely indicates that China may be attempting to push the West to influence Ukraine into accepting a ceasefire. The Kremlin is likely amplifying its false interests in negotiations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to discourage continued Western aid to Ukraine. ISW has previously reported on Russia’s peace negotiation information operations to deter Western support for Ukraine.[23]

The Wagner Group reportedly exchanged 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) for an unspecified number of Russian POWs on May 25, suggesting that Wagner may have conducted the exchange independently of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin published footage on May 25 showing Wagner forces conducting the exchange of Ukrainian POWs and Russian POWs.[24] Separate geolocated footage published on May 25 indicates that the exchange occurred near Bakhmut.[25] Ukrainian sources reported on May 25 that Ukraine received 98 soldiers and eight officers in the exchange.[26] Russian sources did not specify the number of returned Russian personnel but claimed that some were from the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet and unspecified Chechen Akhmat formations.[27] ISW previously reported that Wagner has purportedly conducted a prisoner exchange without the Russian MoD’s involvement.[28]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces continue to hand over positions in Bakhmut to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and withdraw from the city.
  • Ukrainian sources claim that Wagner forces are still present in Bakhmut and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations around the city continues to decrease.
  • Continued successful limited Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks may complicate the Russian relief in place operation in Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces conducted a large-scale missile and drone strike across Ukraine on May 25 and 26.
  • The Kremlin is likely reviving its information campaign to coerce the West into forcing Ukraine to accept concessions and negotiate on terms favorable to Russia.
  • The Wagner Group reportedly exchanged 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) for an unspecified number of Russian POWs on May 25, suggesting that Wagner may have conducted the exchange independently of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front.
  • Russian forces continued to target Ukrainian positions in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian officials are continuing to form new volunteer formations to defend Russian regions that border Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation officials continuing attempts to erase Ukrainian cultural heritage by looting Ukrainian artifacts.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 25, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark

May 25, 2023, 5pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on May 25. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on May 25 that the Wagner Group began handing over its positions in Bakhmut to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and claimed Wagner will entirely withdraw from the city on June 1. Footage posted on May 25 shows Prigozhin speaking with Wagner fighters in Bakhmut and announcing that Wagner began handing over their positions to the Russian MoD and withdrawing to rear areas of the city.[1] Prigozhin reminded some of the fighters that Wagner will withdraw from the city entirely and reconstitute, rest, and train following June 1.[2] Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner plans to leave behind ammunition and provisions for regular Russian troops if necessary and sardonically showed two Wagner fighters who he claimed he will leave behind for the Russian MoD.[3] ISW has previously reported that Prigozhin announced that Wagner would hand over its positions to the MoD starting on May 25 and withdraw from Bakhmut by June 1, but it remains unclear if Wagner will be able to withdraw the entirety of its contingent by June 1 and if Russian MoD troops will execute a successful relief in place.[4]

Russia and Belarus signed agreements formally advancing preparations to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as part of a longstanding effort to cement Russia’s de facto military control over Belarus, though Russia has not yet deployed nuclear weapons to Belarus and their possible deployment is highly unlikely to presage any Russian escalation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin signed documents on the deployment of Russian non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons to Belarusian territory during a meeting of defense ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Minsk, Belarus on May 25.[5] Shoigu emphasized that Russia would retain control of the tactical nuclear weapons in the event of their deployment to Belarus and claimed that Belarusian aircraft are now capable of carrying nuclear weapons.[6] Russian President Vladimir Putin previously announced on March 25 that Russia would deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by July 1, likely to renew tired information operations about the potential for nuclear escalation over the war in Ukraine.[7] Russia has long fielded nuclear weapons that are able to strike any target that tactical nuclear weapons launched from Belarus could also hit, and ISW continues to assess that Putin is extraordinarily unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere.[8] Shoigu also announced that Russian forces will deploy additional military contingents to Belarus to develop military infrastructure, expand joint combat training, and conduct reconnaissance activities near the borders of the Union State.[9] The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus requires both significant military infrastructure and Russian command and control over elements of the Belarusian Armed Forces. The Kremlin likely intends to use these requirements to further subordinate the Belarusian security sphere under Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union member states and several other post-Soviet heads of state at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Moscow on May 25, likely to expand sanctions evasion opportunities. Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov attended the meeting alongside leaders of non-Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member states, including Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.[10] Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Secretary General Zhang Min also attended the meeting.[11] Putin, Pashinyan, and Tokayev all called on further development of the EAEU’s relationship with third-party countries, including the negotiation of free trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, and Iran.[12] Tokayev highlighted efforts to create new international transport routes to China, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.[13] Tokayev also offered to help Russia launch the 2873km Chelyabinsk-Bolshak-Iran high speed freight railway, a project similar to the recent agreement between Russia and Iran to build a segment of the North-South corridor railway project between Rasht and Astara in order to strengthen Russo-Iranian military-economic cooperation.[14] Putin also called for the EAEU to create technological alliances with third-party countries, likely aimed at securing critical components that Russia is struggling to produce or acquire itself.[15]

The Kremlin is likely attempting to convince EAEU member states and other post-Soviet countries to aid in the Kremlin’s ongoing sanctions evasion schemes with China, Iran, and others by facilitating the logistics of those schemes.[16] Putin called for an increase in the number of new joint ventures under the common trademark ”made in the EAEU,” a measure likely aimed at rebranding Russian products as being EAEU products to avoid Western sanctions on exports.[17] Lukashenko and Tokayev both specifically called for the creation of a full-fledged Economic Union with a functioning common market, and Lukashenko claimed that EAEU representatives are discussing the creation of a common market for gas, oil, and petroleum products.[18] Belarus and Kazakhstan are likely both heavily involved in helping Russia evade sanctions, and the Kremlin is likely seeking to expand and formalize those relationships with the wider EAEU.[19] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin appears to be leveraging its dominance in the CSTO to court member states to procure dual-use technologies that Russia cannot directly purchase due to Western sanctions, and it appears that the Kremlin is attempting to similarly leverage its role in the EAEU.[20]

Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that Russian officials have created seven territorial defense battalions in Belgorod Oblast as of May 24, likely in order to posture his personal engagement in the defense of Russian border areas following the May 22 all-Russian pro-Ukrainian raid into Belgorod Oblast.[21] Gladkov stated that the seven battalions comprise 3,000 people in total, noting that they are already combat-ready units.[22] Gladkov previously announced the creation of several territorial defense battalions in December 2022, and has likely re-upped discussion of them in response to increased anxiety in border areas following the May 22 raid.[23] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on May 24 that these battalions have a strong presence but are severely hindered by an inadequate weapons supply.[24] The milblogger claimed that United Russia Secretary General Andrey Turchak had urged President Putin to address the legal issues associated with providing weapons to the battalions a month ago.[25] These battalions, if left unfunded and unequipped, are very unlikely to have a substantial positive effect on the security of Russian border areas, however. The publicization of these formations is also likely meant to support ongoing Russian information operations that aim to generate support for a protracted war by portraying Ukraine as existentially threatening Russia.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin held a meeting with representatives of Russian oblasts bordering Ukraine to discuss fortifying border areas on May 24. Prigozhin proposed the creation of additional trenches, dugouts, and fire support along the Russia-Ukraine border, arguing that these structures can provide significant protection against possible military threats.[26] Prigozhin also emphasized the need to strengthen the presence of Russian forces along the border, expand the armament of border guards, and retrain them from using machine guns to grenade launchers.[27] Prigozhin stated that the May 22 raid of Belgorod Oblast by all-Russian pro-Ukrainian forces exposes how Russia lacks the rapid reaction forces needed to protect its borders against military threats.[28] Prigozhin stated that a general mobilization of the Russian population is inevitable, emphasizing the fact that Russian leadership can no longer snap its fingers to fix manpower shortcomings.[29] Prigozhin stated that a general mobilization should begin now in order to provide the people with the necessary training, a process that typically takes at least a minimum of four to six months.[30]

Wagner and Russian forces have notably engaged in previous efforts to fortify border areas, and the recent Belgorod Oblast raid exposed major shortcomings in these efforts. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported on March 9 that Russian authorities spent 10 billion rubles (about $132 million) to construct the “Zasechnaya Line” of fortifications along Belgorod Oblast’s border with Ukraine.[31] Prigozhin announced the construction of a set of fortifications called the “Wagner Line” throughout Luhansk, Donetsk, and Belgorod oblasts in October 2022, and directly criticized the Russian bureaucracy for not supporting the construction of the line.[32] New calls to fortify Russian regions along the Russia-Ukraine border will likely have little substantial effect, with Russian and Wagner forces misallocating manpower that would be better suited supporting active offensive operations (or defenses in occupied Ukraine itself) by manning these fortifications. Existing fortifications and defensive preparations did little to thwart the limited May 22 raid into Belgorod. Prigozhin is likely taking advantage of information space anxieties surrounding this reality following the raid to build out his own domestic influence.

Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov claimed on May 25 that he was fired as a result of his May 23 interview with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Dolgov published a post to his Telegram channel alleging that he was fired from his position with Russian propaganda platform Telega Online “because of an interview with Prigozhin” and refuted claims that he had previous plans to leave.[33] Prigozhin used his interview with Dolgov to highlight the massive scale of losses suffered by the Wagner Group during the Battle of Bakhmut, mount scathing critiques against Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, attack the families of Russian elites, and vaguely threaten violence against the broader Russian military establishment.[34] Dolgov complained that he is being personally punished for Prigozhin’s replies because Russian authorities cannot do anything about Prigozhin himself and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin would disagree with his firing.[35] Dolgov’s firing may be part of a larger informational campaign pushed by Russian authorities that is aimed at quietly disenfranchising Prigozhin in an attempt to counterbalance Prigozhin’s ever-growing platform, which continues to deprive Russian military officials of informational oxygen.

Russia conducted another massive Shahed-131/136 drone strike across Ukraine on the night of May 24 to 25. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 36 Shahed-131/136 drones at Ukraine from the northern and southern directions and that Ukraine shot down all 36 of the drones.[36] Russian milbloggers claimed that some of the drones reached their intended targets through rear areas of Ukraine, including Kyiv Oblast.[37] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command noted on May 25 that Ukraine has destroyed 357 Shahed-type drones since Russia began using them in 2022.[38] The White House reported on May 15 that Russia has purchased over 400 drones (primarily Shaheds) from Iran since August 2022.[39] The suggestion that Ukraine has shot down 357 Shahed drones since August 2022 is likely inflated—Ukrainian officials may sometimes count drone crashes due to user error or technical malfunction as official shoot downs, so the actual number is likely to be somewhat lower.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued attempts to portray Russia as an effective international mediator by mediating negotiations between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Kremlin newswire RIA Novosti reported on May 25 that Pashinyan stated that Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on a mutual recognition of territorial integrity.[40] Aliyev noted that Armenia and Azerbaijan could reach a peace agreement now that Armenia recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Pashinyan qualified that statement on May 22 and emphasized that Armenia would recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan on the condition that Azerbaijan ensures the security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian residents.[41] Russian media reported that Putin noted the importance of the agreement and facilitated bilateral talks with Pashinyan and Aliyev before holding a trilateral meeting.[42] European Council President Charles Michel has also held talks to normalize Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and Putin is likely seeking to act as a diplomatic counter-balance to the European involvement in Eurasian affairs.[43]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on May 25 that the Wagner Group began handing over its positions in Bakhmut to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and claimed Wagner will entirely withdraw from the city on June 1. It remains unclear if Wagner will be able to withdraw the entirety of its contingent by June 1 and if Russian MoD troops will execute a successful relief in place.
  • Russia and Belarus signed agreements formally advancing preparations to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as part of a longstanding effort to cement Russia’s de facto military control over Belarus, though Russia has not yet deployed nuclear weapons to Belarus and their possible deployment is highly unlikely to presage any Russian escalation.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union member states and several other post-Soviet heads of state at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Moscow on May 25, likely to expand sanctions evasion opportunities.
  • Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that Russian officials have created seven territorial defense battalions in Belgorod Oblast as of May 24, likely in order to posture his engagement in the defense of Russian border areas following the May 22 all-Russian pro-Ukrainian raid into Belgorod Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin held a meeting with representatives of Russian oblasts bordering Ukraine to discuss fortifying border areas on May 24.
  • Wagner and Russian forces have notably engaged in previous efforts to fortify border areas, and the recent Belgorod Oblast raid exposed major shortcomings in these efforts.
  • Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov claimed on May 25 that he was fired as a result of his May 23 interview with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.
  • Russia conducted another massive Shahed-131/136 drone strike across Ukraine on the night of May 24 to 25.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued attempts to portray Russia as an effective international mediator by mediating negotiations between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks around Bakhmut as Wagner Group forces reportedly began their withdrawal from frontline areas the city.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces shot down six drones over Crimea.
  • Russian forces are reportedly continuing to recruit personnel with various diseases.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to announce partnerships with various local Russian officials to improve the standard of living in occupied territories.

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 24, 2023, 5:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4 pm ET on May 24. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 25 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Discussions regarding reported Russian losses in Bakhmut have saturated the pro-war information space and are drowning out any remaining positive informational effect resulting from the city’s capture. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed during an interview with Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov on May 23 that Wagner lost 10,000 convict recruits and 10,000 full-time professional Wagner fighters killed in action over the course of the Battle for Bakhmut.[1] Prigozhin specifically noted that Wagner had recruited 50,000 prisoners, 20 percent of whom (10,000) died in fighting for Bakhmut.[2] Russian milbloggers immediately seized on the reported losses, thereby shifting the overall Russian conversation away from discussions of the significance of the capture of Bakhmut and towards amplifying speculation surrounding the reported losses. The nationalist pro-war faction, exemplified by the views of former Russian officer Igor Girkin, commented on the massive scale of the reported losses and speculated that real losses may be much higher. Russian politician Viktor Alksnis simply remarked that the Soviet Army lost far fewer soldiers (15,051) in nine years in Afghanistan.[3] Girkin stated that he believes that Wagner’s actual losses could be more than 1.5 times higher than Prigozhin’s claims and pointed out that of the 50,000 recruits Wagner received from prisons, 10,000 died in action and 26,000 reportedly received pardons and returned to Russia, leaving 14,000 prison recruits unaccounted for.[4] Girkin suggested that a large portion of these 14,000 unaccounted-for prison recruits may have also been killed in action and claimed that Wagner has likely suffered more than 40,000 killed in action.[5] Girkin suggested that Prigozhin “keep [his] mouth shut” and stop talking about “wild losses for a very insignificant result.”[6] Another Russian milblogger, by contrast, praised Prigozhin for being open about the scale of losses and stated that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would have hidden such figures.[7]

The overall Russian information space response to the capture of Bakhmut has fixated on attributing responsibility for its capture and speculating on the associated costs of the operation, thus depriving the Russian MoD of the oxygen necessary to positively frame the city’s capture. As ISW reported on May 22 factions within the pro-war information space immediately began arguing over whether Wagner or regular Russian units and commanders should receive medals and commendations for operations in Bakhmut.[8] Prigozhin’s claims about Wagner’s losses in Bakhmut have similarly become a distinct point of tension in the information space and have come to define the predominant discourse about Russia’s entire campaign in Bakhmut. In shifting the conversation towards claimed Wagner losses, Prigozhin has largely succeeded in further depriving the Russian MoD of the opportunity to claim informational victory over Bakhmut and will likely continue to define and lead conversations on Bakhmut going forward but at the cost of highlighting the huge losses his own forces suffered for a negligible gain.

Prigozhin is likely using his heightened profile following the capture of Bakhmut to intensify his attacks against the Russian military establishment and elites. Prigozhin stated in his May 23 interview with Dolgov that the Russian military leadership has so far failed to achieve the main objectives of the war in Ukraine.[9] Prigozhin blamed his usual targets, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, for being the main problem within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and for blocking support and supplies to Wagner.[10] Prigozhin also criticized Shoigu’s son-in-law and daughter for being the stereotypical children of Russian elite whose life experience is in dramatic opposition to those fighting in Ukraine.[11] Prigozhin warned that the Russian elite is fostering a situation that could end up like the revolution of 1917, in which soldiers and their loved ones stood up against the Russian government.[12] Prigozhin threatened that the Russian public may become violent towards the Russian elite, referencing mobs with pitchforks and alluding to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a string of politically motivated mob assassinations in France in 1572.[13] Prigozhin’s somewhat subtle and purposefully obscure threats of violence represent an inflection in his longstanding feuds with the Russian military establishment and select elite figures.

Prigozhin is also using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Prigozhin reiterated that the Wagner Group is the best army in the world and argued that the conventional Russian army is second to Wagner.[14] Prigozhin claimed that 6,000 Wagner personnel can each manage his own company worth of personnel and that Wagner could therefore command a force of 600,000 personnel, roughly twice the estimated number of Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine.[15] Prigozhin suggested that he has previously asked for 200,000 personnel to command in Ukraine and argued that if he had such a force then Wagner could advance from 50 to 150km in different directions.[16] Prigozhin claimed that he did not receive this force because of fears that such a force would allow him to dictate terms and theoretically “come to Moscow in tanks.”[17] Prigozhin also advocated for Russian Deputy-Minister-of-Defense-for-Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizinstev to replace Shoigu as Defense Minister and for former overall theater commander and alleged Wagner ally Army General Sergey Surovikin to replace Gerasimov as Chief of the General Staff.[18]

Prigozhin is also likely doubling down on his attempts to establish himself as a Russian totalitarian figure who could achieve military victory in Ukraine. Prigozhin called for complete martial law, several subsequent waves of mobilization, and wide-scale economic mobilization of Russian industry to save Russia.[19] Prigozhin also suggested that Russia should become a totalitarian regime akin to North Korea and close all borders for a certain number of years to achieve victory in Ukraine. Prigozhin has routinely crafted an image to resonate with a constituency interested in the ideology of Russia’s national superiority, Soviet brutalist strength, and Stalinist totalitarian control.[20] Prigozhin is likely advocating for incredibly radical policy approaches to the war in Ukraine to contrast himself with Putin’s relatively risk-averse decision-making approach to the war.[21] ISW has previously assessed that Prigozhin harbors serious political ambitions and intends to cement himself as the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist community.[22] The capture of Bakhmut has likely emboldened Prigozhin to pursue those ambitions in a more explicit manner regardless of the internal upheaval that it may cause or the danger it may place him in with the Kremlin.

The Kremlin continues efforts to portray Russia as having significant diplomatic partnerships. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to attendees of the 11th International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues in Moscow on May 24 to deliver boilerplate rhetoric accusing the West of generating global instability and calling on Asian, African, and Latin American states to form a multipolar world order.[23] Putin later attended the Eurasian Economic Forum in Moscow alongside Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, and Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan.[24] Putin also met with Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (the Serbian political entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Dodik demonstratively supported the Russian narrative about the war in Ukraine by stating that Russia was forced to launch the “special military operation” and that the war is a clash against the West.[25] The Kremlin has previously leveraged energy and military cooperation with Republika Srpska to attempt to spread Russian influence in the Balkans, although Russian influence with its other notable partner in the region, Serbia, appears to be waning.[26] The Kremlin has used previous international forums and meetings with heads of state to portray Russia as having robust international partnerships and to advocate for the formation of a potential anti-Western coalition.[27] Putin most notably tried and failed to secure a no-limits bilateral partnership with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late March and align China with Russia in Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West.[28] The nominal support of several post-Soviet states and the explicit support of a small constituent entity is likely far less than what the Kremlin is hoping to achieve with this wider diplomatic effort.

Russian sources continued to respond to the limited all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) raid into Belgorod Oblast. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium meeting that Western Military District Border Guards expelled all pro-Ukrainian forces from Belgorod Oblast, killing 70 personnel and destroying an unspecified number of vehicles and armored vehicles.[29] Some milbloggers criticized the ineffectiveness of the Russian border guards and questioned why they would allow the RDK and LSR to break through to Russian territory and mine the border areas over the course of two days.[30] Other milbloggers criticized Russian forces for not maintaining “normal communication and interactions” with border guards, which created difficulties in repelling RDK and LSR forces.[31] One milblogger praised Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov and claimed that he rose to the occasion during the raid by solving problems that civilian officials usually do not have to solve.[32] Gladkov, however, said that he has “more questions for the MoD” and that lessons needed to be learned from the mistakes in Belgorod Oblast.[33] Another milblogger criticized Belgorod Oblast civilian authorities for allowing civilians to live one kilometer away from the “front line” and questioned why authorities chose not to relocate civilians until after the situation improved.[34]

The New York Times reported on May 24 that unnamed US officials said that the US intelligence community assesses with low confidence that unknown Ukrainian elements with unknown connections to Ukraine’s leadership were responsible for the May 3 drone attacks on the Kremlin.[35] ISW had previously assessed that the attack was a Russian false flag operation on May 3.[36]  ISW has no additional information about this incident.

Key Takeaways

  • Discussions regarding reported Russian losses in Bakhmut have saturated the pro-war information space and are drowning out any remaining positive informational effect resulting from the city’s capture.
  • The overall Russian information space response to the capture of Bakhmut has fixated on attributing responsibility for its capture and speculating on the associated costs of the operation, thus depriving the Russian MoD of the oxygen necessary to positively frame the city’s capture.
  • Prigozhin is likely using his heightened profile following the capture of Bakhmut to intensify his attacks against the Russian military establishment and elites. Prigozhin is also using the perception that Wagner is responsible for the capture of Bakhmut to advocate for a preposterous level of influence over the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to portray Russia as having significant diplomatic partnerships.
  • Russian sources continued to respond to the limited all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) raid into Belgorod Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks on the outskirts of Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continue to target Ukrainian positions in southern Ukraine with FAB-500 aerial bombs.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on May 24 that more than 120,000 Russian personnel have undergone training since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • The Russian Federation Council approved a law on holding elections in territories under martial law on.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 23, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

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

May 23, 2023, 8:00pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4pm ET on May 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian authorities ended the “counterterrorism” operation in Belgorod Oblast and claimed to have defeated the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) in the region on May 23. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Western Military District (WMD) Border Guards units defeated the raid and expelled all “saboteurs” from Belgorod Oblast.[1] Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that the “counterterrorism” operation had ended but called on civilians who evacuated to wait before returning to the border settlements.[2] Russian authorities later announced on May 23 that authorities evacuated 100 civilians from nine border settlements in Belgorod Oblast on May 22 after Gladkov originally denied conducting formal evacuations.[3] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not hold an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council to discuss the Belgorod raid but will instead discuss the situation during the Security Council’s planned May 26 meeting, likely in an effort to project confidence about Russian handling of the situation.[4]

Russian forces likely pushed the RDK and LSR forces at least to the Kozinka border settlement and possibly out of Russian territory as of May 23. Kozinka is located approximately 76km southeast of Sumy City. Russian sources amplified footage of Russian forces firing on RDK and LSR vehicle positions near the Kozinka border checkpoint overnight and claimed that Russian forces recaptured Kozinka and its border checkpoint in the morning.[5] Geolocated footage from Russian state media shows damaged and destroyed vehicles at the checkpoint.[6] Some Russian sources claimed that RDK and LSR forces entrenched themselves in the Kozinka church but that preliminary reports suggest Russian forces may have ousted the Ukrainian forces by the evening.[7] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces began clearing operations in Kozinka and Glotovo (immediately east of Kozinka) on May 23.[8] Geolocated footage posted on May 23 shows the aftermath of shelling Gora Podol (about 6km northwest of Kozinka) and Russian infantry conducting patrols between Grayvoron (about 7km northwest of Kozinka) and Gora Podol, suggesting that RDK and LSR personnel no longer hold or never held positions in the settlement.[9] It is unclear whether the RDK and LSR captured any villages on May 22 or May 23, however. The LSR claimed that LSR and RDK personnel continued to operate in Belgorod Oblast on May 23, however.[10]

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted raids across the Kharkiv-Belgorod border on May 23, but ISW has observed no confirmation that these raids occurred. Some Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian and Ukraine-affiliated formations – including Azov Regiment, Kraken Regiment, Territorial Defense, and regular Ukrainian forces – and RDK personnel attempted additional raids near Gorkovsky, Bogun-Gorodok, and Tsapovka, and managed to cross the border south of Shchetinovka.[11] Other Russian sources denied claims that sabotage groups crossed the Kharkiv-Belgorod border.[12]Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces accumulated reserves less than 10 kilometers from the Kharkiv-Belgorod border and expressed fear about the threat of further raids.[13] One milblogger claimed that the Azov Regiment, Kraken Regiment, Territorial Defense, and regular Ukrainian forces all took part in a raid in Bryansk Oblast on May 22, but ISW has still not observed confirmation of this claimed raid.[14]

The Russian information space largely hyperfixated on speculated goals for the raids and on the conduct of the Russian response. Some Russian milbloggers amplified claims that a drone struck the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Belgorod City and speculated that Ukrainian forces aimed to attack the FSB and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in the raid.[15] Russian sources also amplified a photograph of Colonel General Alexander Lapin posing with a captured vehicle and claimed that Lapin led the counterterrorism operation alongside elements of the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division (20th Guards Combined Arms Army, Western Military District).[16] Many Russian sources praised Lapin for organizing Russian forces to conduct coherent counterterrorism operations after the Russian Border Service failed to repel the raids.[17] Some sources criticized the decision to give Lapin command and noted Lapin’s prior military failures such as the disastrous Siverskyi Donets river crossing near Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast in May 2022.[18] Lapin has notably returned to commanding Russian operations in eastern Ukraine after suffering intense criticism for commanding the operations to take Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, and Lapin has not received much praise in the information space since the campaign to undermine him led to Lapin’s dismissal in November 2022.[19] The openness of Russian milbloggers to praise Lapin for commanding the defense against an extremely small and limited border incursion suggests that at least some milblogger factions are amenable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tendency to rotate old and disgraced commanders.[20]  The Russian reaction to the raid in the information space and in the reported military activities appears to be a highly disproportionate response to a very small and localized undertaking. Russian forces should not have required significant reinforcements—or the involvement of a colonel general—to repulse a raid conducted by reportedly 13 armored vehicles.[21]

Ukrainian officials stated that the pace of fighting in the Bakhmut direction has decreased amid continued limited Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks on May 23. The Ukrainian General Staff did not report fighting in Bakhmut City in its 1800 situational report for the first time since December 2022, suggesting that Wagner Group forces may have made further advances within the city. The General Staff also reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive actions near Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut).[22] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that combat operations have decreased in and around Bakhmut and reiterated that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in a fortified area near the MiG-17 monument in western Bakhmut.[23]  A milblogger amplified video footage purportedly showing Wagner forces near the MiG-17 monument and claimed that there are no Ukrainian forces in the area, however.[24] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian forces advanced 200 to 400 meters along the flanks of Bakhmut and still control a number of buildings and fortifications in southwestern Bakhmut.[25] A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced near Yahidne (1km northwest of Bakhmut) and that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Hryhorivka (8km northwest of Bakhmut) and Ivanivske (immediately west of Bakhmut).[26] Another milblogger denied reports that Ukrainian forces made gains during counterattacks northwest and southwest of Bakhmut and assessed that a Russian offensive from Bakhmut toward Ivanivske or Bohdanivka remains unlikely.[27]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian authorities ended the “counterterrorism” operation in Belgorod Oblast and claimed to have defeated the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) in the region on May 23.
  • Russian forces likely pushed the RDK and LSR forces at least to the Kozinka border settlement and possibly out of Russian territory as of May 23.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted raids across the Kharkiv-Belgorod border on May 23, but ISW has observed no confirmation that these raids occurred.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that the pace of fighting in the Bakhmut direction has decreased amid continued limited Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks on May 23.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations in southern Ukraine ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Pardoned Wagner Group convicts continue to commit crimes in Russia after finishing their military contracts with Wagner.
  • Zaporizhia Oblast occupation officials announced the start of preliminary voting for the ruling United Russia party.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2023
 

Click here to read the full report.

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

May 22, 2023, 8:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 4pm ET on May 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 23 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) conducted a raid into Belgorod Oblast on May 22. Russian sources began reporting on the morning of May 22 that a detachment of the RDK and LSR consisting of two tanks, an armored personnel carrier, and nine other armored vehicles crossed the international border and captured Kozinka, a settlement in the Grayvoron region of Belgorod Oblast within 600 meters of the border with Sumy Oblast.[1] Several Russian sources claimed that the grouping then captured the settlements of Glotovo and Gora Podol (3km and 5km from the border, respectively), although some milbloggers disputed claims that the attack completely captured Glotovo or Gora Podol, instead reporting that RDK forces only got to the Glotovo House of Culture.[2] ISW has not yet observed geolocated confirmation that the RDK or LSR reached Glotovo or Gora Podol. Geolocated footage posted on May 22 does confirm that the RDK struck a border post near Kozinka before crossing the border with at least one tank.[3] The RDK also posted footage reportedly showing the body of a Russian border guard in a border station, likely from the border crossing near Kozinka.[4] Russian milbloggers later claimed that Russian troops retook control of all three settlements.[5]  Some Russian sources additionally reported that Russian forces repelled pro-Ukrainian sabotage groups near Dronovka, about 22km northwest of Kozinka.[6] The RDK additionally posted footage reportedly outside two settlements near the border area in Bryansk Oblast, but the nature of this incursion is unclear and ISW has not observed additional evidence or discourse surrounding actions in Bryansk Oblast on May 22.[7]

Ukrainian officials noted that they are aware of the attack but denied any direct involvement by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov noted that the RDK and LSR are comprised exclusively of Russian citizens and reported that the groups launched an operation in Belgorod Oblast to “liberate these territories...from the so-called Putin regime” and create a “security zone” by the border to protect Ukrainian civilians from further Russian shelling.[8] Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Ukraine is observing and studying the situation but “has no direct relation to it,” noting that armed anti-regime Russian partisan movements are inevitable against the backdrop of the war.[9]

The raid prompted a slate of responses from local and federal Russian officials. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced on May 22 the start of a counterterrorism operation regime in order to “ensure the safety of citizens in Belgorod Oblast.”[10] While some social media users posted footage claiming to show an official evacuation from the Grayvoron region, the Belgorod Oblast Ministry of Emergency Situations reported that it never announced an evacuation and suggested that some individuals may be leaving of their own accord.[11] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), Federal Security Service (FSB), and Border Service reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin on an “attempt by Ukrainian saboteurs to break into Belgorod Oblast.”[12] Peskov also accused Ukraine of staging the incident in order to distract from the situation in Bakhmut.[13] A Russian milblogger additionally claimed that the Russian military leadership decided to deploy the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army, Central Military District) to the Belgorod Oblast border area in order to counter the attack.[14]

The Russian information space responded with a similar degree of panic, factionalism, and incoherency as it tends to display when it experiences significant informational shocks. Some milbloggers fixated on the fact that the RDK and LSR are comprised of mostly Russians and labeled them traitors to Russia, baselessly accusing them of working under the GUR.[15] Several milbloggers additionally speculated that the attack was a purposeful information operation intended to distract from the recent Russian capture of Bakhmut and to instill panic in the Russian information space in advance of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.[16] Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist milblogger Igor Girkin remarked that he has long warned that such cross-border raids may be part of a wider Ukrainian counteroffensive strategy.[17] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin took advantage of the incident to accuse the Russian government and its bureaucratic inertia of contributing to the attack and criticized the Russian MoD for being unable to strengthen Russian borders and defend Russia.[18] The first observed line of Russian defensive fortifications notably runs 2km in from of Gora Podol, and the suggestion that RDK forces managed to penetrate the defensive line emphasizes the weakness of such fortifications at least when not fully manned by well-prepared and well-equipped soldiers. While the majority of milbloggers responded with relatively varied concern, anxiety, and anger, the information space did not coalesce around one coherent response, which indicates first and foremost that the attack took Russian commentators by surprise.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces will withdraw from the entire frontline in Ukraine after June 1 in order to reconstitute and train for about two months. Prigozhin claimed on May 21 – one day after he declared victory in Bakhmut City – that Wagner forces will give Russian conventional forces control of Bakhmut on May 25 and completely withdraw from the entire frontline by June 1 to rest and reconstitute over a two-month period.[19] Prigozhin also claimed that any reports of Wagner assault operations during that two-month period are fake unless he says otherwise. ISW previously assessed that Wagner forces are unlikely to continue fighting beyond Bakhmut due to severe depletion and the culmination of their offensive capabilities.[20] The two-month reconstitution period Prigozhin has announced could have Wagner forces sitting out key parts of the Ukrainian counter-offensive depending on when and how it begins.

Ukrainian officials stated that limited fighting continued in and around Bakhmut on May 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that fighting continues in Bakhmut and that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground attacks near Hryhorivka (8km northwest of Bakhmut) and south of Ivanivske (immediately west of Bakhmut).[21] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reiterated that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in a fortified area in western Bakhmut and that fighting for heights north and south of Bakhmut continues.[22] Geolocated footage published on May 21 shows that Wagner forces advanced towards the T0504 entrance to southwestern Bakhmut.[23] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that fighting is ongoing just west of Bakhmut near Khromove as of May 21.[24] Another milblogger claimed on May 22 that Russian forces attempted a limited ground attack south of Bakhmut near Bila Hora.[25] Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin, Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, and other Russian sources claimed that Russian forces began clearing and demining operations on the western outskirts of Bakhmut.[26]

The Russian informational response to the capture of Bakhmut has thus far focused on competing for responsibility for the victory rather than discussing the resulting military situation. Prominent Russian milbloggers amplified a document allegedly from the Russian MoD that would grant state awards for the capture of Bakhmut to Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Alexey Kim, MoD deputies Tatyana Shevtsova and Ruslan Tsalikov, and Ksenia Shoigu, the daughter of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu  – notably omitting Wagner Group personnel and its affiliates, such as Prigozhin and Army General Sergey Surovikin.[27] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that DNR Head Pushilin announced the creation of a specific award commemorating the Battle of Bakhmut but complained that Russia should not hand out the medal to those who did not actually fight in Bakhmut.[28] Prigozhin complained that Russia has not issued state awards to dead Wagner fighters for the Bakhmut effort, and that the MoD had never even awarded Wagner fighters medals commemorating the capture of Palmyra, Syria.[29] Russian milbloggers amplified footage showing a Wagner commander awarding personnel with Wagner’s own internal award commemorating Bakhmut, likely attempting to beat the Russian MoD in solidifying its claims in the capture of Bakhmut.[30] A Russian milblogger affiliated with the nationalist, pro-war Angry Patriots Club criticized Prigozhin for claiming sole responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut, claiming that conventional Russian forces defended Bakhmut’s flanks and that the 137th Airborne (VDV) Regiment (106th Guards Airborne Division, Western Military District) has supported Wagner forces since the early part of the Bakhmut effort.[31]

The hyperfocus on claiming victory in Bakhmut distracts from the precarious Russian military situation in and around Bakhmut, underscoring the weight of Prigozhin’s influence in the information space. The Russian military situation in Bakhmut is particularly vulnerable as the Russian offensive effort in the area has likely culminated, granting Ukrainian forces the opportunity to launch further counterattacks on Bakhmut’s already-weakened flanks.[32] Wagner’s withdrawal in contact will also likely result in the Russian MoD manning defensive lines with poorly trained and provisioned conventional units similar to those that retreated from their positions while defending against Ukrainian counterattacks earlier in May.[33] The Russian information space is largely ignoring these vulnerabilities, however. Girkin complained that the Russian focus on capturing Bakhmut was a “strategic failure” that resulted in an “unnecessary and Pyrrhic” victory.[34] Girkin criticized Prigozhin, Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov for prolonging the effort to take Bakhmut and distracting from preparations to defend against a coming Ukrainian counteroffensive.[35]

Russian forces launched another large-scale drone and missile strike against Ukrainian infrastructure on the night of May 21-22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 22 that Russian forces launched 21 Shahed drones at Ukraine and 21 missiles at Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia cities and Kharkiv Oblast, including four Kh-101/555 air-launched cruise missiles, five Kh-22 cruise missiles, two Iskander-M ballistic missiles, five S-300 missiles, and four other unspecified missiles.[36] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down all of the Kh-101/555 missiles and Shahed drones. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russian forces may have lost the desire to strike Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts from the northern direction with guided aerial bombs due to the downing of two Russian Mi-8 helicopters, one Su-34 aircraft, and one Su-35 aircraft in Bryansk Oblast on May 13.[37] 

Key Takeaways

  • Elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russian Legion (LSR) conducted a raid into Belgorod Oblast on May 22.
  • Ukrainian officials noted that they are aware of the attack but denied any direct involvement by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The raid prompted a slate of responses from local and federal Russian officials.
  • The Russian information space responded with a similar degree of panic, factionalism, and incoherency as it tends to display when it experiences significant informational shocks.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces will withdraw from the entire frontline in Ukraine after June 1 in order to reconstitute and train for about two months.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that limited fighting continued in and around Bakhmut on May 22.
  • The Russian informational response to the capture of Bakhmut has thus far focused on competing for responsibility for the victory rather than discussing the resulting military situation. The hyperfocus on claiming victory in Bakhmut distracts from the precarious Russian military situation in and around Bakhmut, underscoring the weight of Prigozhin’s influence in the information space.
  • Russian forces launched another large-scale drone and missile strike against Ukrainian infrastructure on the night of May 21-22.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Kupyansk direction.
  • Russian forces made marginal gains in the Avdiivka area and did not conduct any confirmed or claimed ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant reportedly lost power for the seventh time since the beginning of the war.
  • The Russian military is reportedly lowering the length of training for convicts in order to compensate for heavy losses.
  • Russian occupation authorities announced that preliminary voting for the ruling United Russia Party has commenced in occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 21, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 21, 2023, 6:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12:30pm ET on May 21. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 22 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces control an “insignificant” part of southwestern Bakhmut City around the T0504 highway — a tacit acknowledgement that Russian forces have secured the rest of western and northwestern Bakhmut, if not all of it.[1] These officials’ statements indicate that Ukrainian forces withdrew from the remaining areas in Bakhmut except those adjacent to the two highways into the city. Geolocated footage published on May 21 showed Wagner forces raising Russian and Wagner flags over a residential building in westernmost Bakhmut.[2] The Wagner Group’s likely capture of the last remaining small area of western Bakhmut does not impact ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks north or south of Bakhmut, nor does it impact Ukrainian control over the ground lines of communications (GLOCs) around Bakhmut that exhausted Wagner forces would need to reach in order to conduct further offensive operations. Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions. ISW has observed artillery units of the 132nd Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (which was previously observed in the Avdiivka area) operating in the Bakhmut direction.[3]

Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces lost part of the dominant heights around Bakhmut and noted that sustained Ukrainian advances could lead to a tactical encirclement of Wagner forces in Bakhmut.[4] The Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade stated on May 20 that the brigade’s counterattacks have expanded the Ukrainian salient in the Bakhmut area to 1,750 meters wide by 700 meters deep in an unspecified area.[5] Geolocated footage showed the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade striking unspecified Russian forces south of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut), and engaging with the Russian 200th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 14th Army Corps (Northern Fleet) northeast of Bohdanivka (5km northwest of Bakhmut).[6] Russian conventional forces such as the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade are unsuccessfully attempting to regain lost positions and respond to Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks, actions that are consistent with ISW’s assessment that Ukrainian forces regained the tactical initiative around Bakhmut.[7] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian conventional forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations south of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), in the direction of Hryhorivka (about 6km northwest of Bakhmut), and in the direction of Bila Hora (12km southwest of Bakhmut), and Russian milbloggers also noted the failed Russian assaults on Bakhmut’s flanks.[8]

ISW previously forecasted that Wagner offensive operations would likely culminate after months of attritional urban combat, and it is unlikely that Wagner will continue fighting beyond Bakhmut at its current depleted state. ISW assessed that Wagner forces were nearing culmination when they decided to fight though Bakhmut City. Wagner forces were enabled to continue offensive operations past that culmination point as Russian regular forces took responsibility for Bakhmut’s flanks, allowing Wagner to concentrate on the urban fight. Wagner forces began showing signs that they would be unable to pursue offensive operations beyond Bakhmut City from at least late December 2022.[9] A Russian milblogger claimed on May 21 that Wagner forces have not directly attacked Khromove and Ivanivske — settlements immediately west and southwest of Bakhmut — since capturing Bakhmut.”[10] Commander of the Vostok Battalion Alexander Khodakovsky stated that, “driven in [their] head by the inertia of the offensive, [Russian forces] did not want to promptly recognize the depletion of [Russian] offensive potential and did not take care to set up necessary defenses” in captured areas.[11] Former Russian officer Igor Girkin stated that all Russian forces are now exhausted after decisively committing to win an unnecessary battle for Bakhmut and claimed that exhausted Wagner mercenaries stopped immediately at the outskirts of Bakhmut “as they crawled” to the city’s administrative border.[12] Russian regular forces situated on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks are also unlikely to push west towards Kostyantynivka or north towards Slovyansk amid Ukrainian counterattacks in the Bakhmut area any time soon. Russian conventional forces will be even more unlikely to pursue offensive operations if Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin delivers on his stated intent to withdraw Wagner personnel from Bakhmut City on May 25.[13] It is currently unclear if Prigozhin will actually withdraw his forces from Bakhmut, but some milbloggers are speculating that Prigozhin will commit Wagner to a different “critical” frontline at the end of the month.[14] Russian forces faced a similar culmination following highly attritional infantry attacks in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in June–July 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Wagner Group and the Russian military on May 21 for capturing Bakhmut.[15] Putin directly attributed the capture of the city to Wagner mercenaries, while noting that Russian regular forces provided “necessary support and flank protection” for the Battle of Bakhmut. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) similarly announced that Russia captured Bakhmut because of Wagner assaults in the city and aviation and artillery support from the Russian Southern Grouping of Forces.[16] Putin and the MoD likely directly acknowledged Wagner’s responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut to avoid a repetition of the backlash that followed their immediate failure to do so when Wagner captured Soledar on January 12.[17] Putin’s acknowledgement of Wagner’s role in Bakhmut is the first time that he himself has directly credited Wagner with a battlefield victory. Putin likely took this step because Prigozhin has thoroughly established Wagner’s responsibility for operations in Bakhmut within the Russian information space. Putin and the MoD likely sought to mitigate Prigozhin’s ability to claim sole responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut by emphasizing that regular Russian forces aided in the effort.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin predictably claimed the victory over Bakhmut City entirely for himself and his forces. Prigozhin stated on May 21 that “it is a total lie” that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) helped Wagner capture the city and said that no one from the Russian MoD was in Bakhmut.[18] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner practically received no help from the Russian military except from former overall theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin and Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizinstev.[19] Prigozhin claimed that that the 305th Artillery Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) helped Wagner after being subordinated to Wagner’s command. Prigozhin also acknowledged that the 57th Motorized Infantry Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) played a ”satisfactory” role in controlling one of the flanks around Bakhmut.[20] Prigozhin argued that the Russian command will attempt to claim the victory over Bakhmut when Wagner transfers the city to regular Russian forces and stated that the situation will be similar to how the MoD took much of Wagner’s alleged credit for capturing Palmyra, Syria, in 2016.[21]

Prigozhin is likely attempting to solidify Wagner as solely responsible for Bakhmut’s capture before the Kremlin and the MoD can craft a response. Russian sources widely congratulated Wagner for the capture of Bakhmut and accepted Prigozhin’s May 20 claim — rather than Putin’s statement — as the official announcement of the city’s capture.[22] Russian sources also amplified footage of Wagner forces placing a Wagner Group flag — not a Russian flag — at the highest point in Bakhmut, likely an intentional snub of the MoD.[23] Prigozhin will likely use Wagner’s perceived responsibility for Bakhmut’s alleged capture to advocate for more supplies, responsibilities, and privileges for Wagner as he did following Wagner’s involvement in the capture of Popasna in May 2022.[24] Prigozhin will also likely use Wagner’s role in the alleged capture of Bakhmut to intensify his efforts to establish himself as the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist community.

Russian reactions to the claimed capture of Bakhmut illustrate an increasingly growing divide between the Kremlin’s domestic presentation of the war and the ultranationalist milblogger community’s coverage of Russian operations in Ukraine. Russian state television portrayed the alleged capture of Bakhmut as a seminal historic event and claimed that the city’s capture would facilitate Russian operations to capture Slovyansk (41km northwest of Bakhmut) and Kramatorsk (35km northwest of Bakhmut) and even Dnipro City (roughly 215km west of Bakhmut).[25] The Kremlin likely attempted to oversell the significance of the capture of Bakhmut as a historical victory due to the continued lack of tactical success in Ukraine, with one Russian state media outlet outrageously commenting that Wagner personnel in Bakhmut must feel like “their grandfathers in Berlin.”[26]

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers celebrated the alleged capture of Bakhmut but emphasized that “Bakhmut is not Berlin” and that the capture of the city would be simply another step in ongoing difficult operations to achieve Russian objectives in Ukraine.[27] Russian milbloggers responded to the alleged capture of Bakhmut by discussing more immediate possible Russian operations to capture Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut), Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), and Chasiv Yar (12km west of Bakhmut).[28] Other prominent Russian milbloggers responded to the capture of Bakhmut by focusing on possible imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations instead of possible future Russian offensive operations.[29] Russian milbloggers shifted to more conservative expectations of Russian operations as the attritional offensive to capture Bakhmut continued from winter into spring of 2023, and they have largely abandoned their previous high expectations that the capture of Bakhmut would lead to a collapse of Ukrainian lines in the area and Russian advances up to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.[30] Russian milbloggers’ more realistic views about both Russian capabilities in Ukraine and the relevance of the Bakhmut offensive highlight the divergence between two very different segments of the pro-war Russian information space: the more optimistic presentation of the war offered by the Kremlin and the more informed presentation of the war offered by milbloggers. These growing differences will likely continue to undermine the Kremlin’s ability to shape the Russian information space.

US President Joe Biden stated on May 21 that the US will train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including F-16s, to augment Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the long term. Biden stated that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave him a “flat assurance” that Ukrainian forces will not use Western-provided F-16s to strike Russian territory.[31] Biden reiterated that Ukraine will not use F-16s in its anticipated counteroffensive and framed the provision of F-16s as part of a longer-term effort to augment Ukraine’s defensive capabilities as Ukraine’s operational needs evolve.[32] Biden expanded on this argument, stating that the US did not pledge to send Ukraine tanks earlier because Ukraine did not need tanks earlier.[33] ISW has assessed that the need to send Ukraine Western tanks, including M1s, became apparent in June 2022.[34]

ISW previously assessed in January 2023 that delays in the provision to Ukraine of Western long-range fires systems, advanced air defense systems, and tanks have limited Ukraine’s ability to take advantage of opportunities for larger counter-offensive operations presented by flaws and failures in Russian military operations.[35] The inevitable delay between the pledge to send such systems and the Ukrainians’ ability to use them calls for the provision of such systems at the earliest indications that they will be required, not when the situation becomes dire.[36] Had Western leaders started setting conditions for Ukraine to use Western tanks in June 2022, when the first clear indicators appeared that Western tanks would be needed, Ukrainian forces would have been able to start using them in November or December. The continual delays in providing Western materiel when it became apparent that it is or will soon be needed have thus contributed to the protraction of the conflict.[37]

Former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement opened a St. Petersburg chapter with an inaugural event on May 21. The event’s speakers discussed their dissatisfaction with the way elements of Russia’s "military-political elite” are not trying to decisively defeat Ukraine and instead are focusing efforts on maintaining current Russian gains in Ukraine and holding negotiations with the West.[38] They also discussed how the Club of Angry Patriots is creating an “alternative center of power” that should help achieve the final destruction of the Ukrainian state and the further mobilization of the Russian nation to that end.[39] Speakers also discussed how the Russian elite that formed against the backdrop of the 1990s period of privatization and "the post-Soviet catastrophe” has “rotted.”[40]

The opening of the club in St. Petersburg is likely a continuation of Igor Girkin’s political feud with Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group opened its first official national headquarters in St. Petersburg in November 2022.[41] The Angry Patriots Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of supporting efforts to freeze the war in Ukraine in April 2023.[42] Girkin launched the “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement as a new effort in April 2023 likely aimed at protecting the influence of the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin.[43]

Key Takeaways:

  • Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts.
  • ISW previously forecasted that Wagner offensive operations would likely culminate after months of attritional urban combat, and it is unlikely that Wagner will continue fighting beyond Bakhmut at its current depleted state.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Wagner Group and the Russian military on May 21 for capturing Bakhmut.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin predictably claimed the victory over Bakhmut City entirely for himself and his forces
  • Russian reactions to the claimed capture of Bakhmut illustrate an increasingly growing divide between the Kremlin’s domestic presentation of the war and the ultranationalist milblogger community’s coverage of Russian operations in Ukraine.
  • US President Joe Biden stated on May 21 that the US will train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including F-16s, to augment Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the long term.
  • Former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement opened a St. Petersburg chapter with an inaugural event on May 21.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations on the Donetsk City-Avdiivka frontline but have not made any verifiable territorial gains.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a deep strike against a Russian headquarters at an airfield in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast, with a Storm Shadow missile.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that seven regiments and four battalions from Chechnya are operating in Ukraine as of May 20.
  • Russian occupation authorities are reportedly intensifying filtration measures in occupied Ukraine to find Ukrainian partisans.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 20, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

 Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 20, 2023, 5:45pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on May 20. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin declared victory in Bakhmut City on May 20 and announced his intent to withdraw from the city on May 25.[1] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner Group forces completely captured Bakhmut City on May 20, seizing the last multi-story apartment building in southwestern Bakhmut near the MiG-17 monument. Prigozhin announced that Wagner forces will establish defensive positions before transferring responsibility for the city to Russian conventional forces on May 25. Prigozhin effectively stated that Wagner forces will conduct an operational pause by resting and restoring combat power at field training camps in unspecified areas, presumably far from the frontline. ISW has not observed geolocated footage confirming Prigozhin’s claims as of this publication. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are still fighting in a small section of southwest Bakhmut as of May 20. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces continue to hold positions near the MiG-17 monument as of May 20.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not commented on Prigozhin’s claims as of this publication.

Prigozhin’s claimed victory over the remaining areas in Bakhmut is purely symbolic even if true. The last few urban blocks of eastern Bakhmut that Prigozhin claimed that Wagner Group forces captured are not tactically or operationally significant. Their capture does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations or any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.

Ukrainian forces continue pressuring Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks. Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that fighting is ongoing on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks in the directions of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), Stupochky (13km southwest of Bakhmut), and Bila Hora (12km southwest of Bakhmut).[3] Ukrainian forces reported on May 19 that they have recaptured approximately four square kilometers of additional territory near Bakhmut, and Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continue conducting localized attacks near Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut).[4] Prigozhin’s claimed capture of the remaining blocks in Bakhmut is not strategically significant as it will not allow exhausted Wagner or conventional Russian forces to establish a meaningful springboard for further offensive operations. Ukrainian ongoing counterattacks north, west, and southwest of Bakhmut will complicate any further Russian advances beyond Bakhmut in the near term. Prigozhin’s withdrawal announcement, whether Wagner withdraws from the city or not, indicates that Prigozhin does not intend to continue an offensive effort to push directly west of Bakhmut.

Wagner forces are unlikely to successfully conduct a controlled withdrawal from Bakhmut while in contact with Ukrainian forces within five days without disrupting the Russian MoD’s efforts to prepare for planned Ukrainian counteroffensives. Wagner forces are unlikely to establish adequate defenses or consolidate recent gains in Bakhmut sufficient to forestall Ukrainian counterattacks by May 25 even if Prigozhin’s announcement of Wagner’s withdrawal is true. Ukrainian forces are still in Khromove and Ivanivske and are engaging Russian forces in and near Bakhmut. Ukrainian artillery can still target Russian forces in and around Bakhmut. Withdrawal in contact with the enemy is an exceedingly difficult task that the Wagner Group’s forces are unlikely to perform well within Prigozhin’s five-day time frame. Conducting a relief-in-place while in contact is also an extremely challenging maneuver that Russian forces would likely struggle to conduct even if the Russian MoD agrees to undertake it. Wagner units have shown poor coordination with Russian conventional forces, other irregular formations subordinated to the Russian MoD, and the Russian military command—factors that would hinder a smooth relief-in-place operation.[5] The Russian military command is unlikely to generate sufficient forces to relieve Wagner in Bakhmut and hold its flanks within the window Prigozhin has announced without redeploying Russian forces from other areas. Prigozhin’s statement of his intent to withdraw could be a crude attempt to mislead Ukrainian forces into conducting a counterattack through Bakhmut City.

Russian conventional forces likely will still need to transfer additional forces to the Bakhmut direction even if Wagner mercenaries remain in Bakhmut. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Russian forces continue to transfer airborne, motorized rifle, and special forces elements to reinforce the Bakhmut flanks even as Wagner forces remain in Bakhmut City.[6] The UK MoD also reported that the Russian military command likely redeployed several battalions in the last few days to reinforce Bakhmut despite only having few uncommitted combat units and that this redeployment suggests a substantial commitment to the Bakhmut effort by the Russian leadership.[7] These additional forces could in principle be meant to participate in the relief-in-place of Wagner forces that Prigozhin has just announced, reducing but not eliminating some of the challenges considered above, but it is more likely that they are intended to secure Bakhmut’s threatened flanks.

Russian forces targeted Kyiv Oblast with Iranian-made Shahed drones on the night of May 19 to 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 18 Shahed-136/131 drones at Kyiv Oblast, and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 18 of the drones.[8] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed two Russian Shahed drones in eastern Ukraine.[9] Russian forces have targeted Kyiv heavily in the past month, likely to produce informational affects with both Russian and Ukrainian audiences. This hyperfocus on targeting Kyiv is at odds with the new limited Russian air campaign’s other target: alleged Ukrainian rear logistics.[10] These conflicting target sets likely further limit the campaign’s ability to degrade Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities in the near term.[11]

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated on May 20 that the United States may agree to transfer modern combat aircraft to Ukraine, including the F-16, on the condition that Ukraine does not use them to strike Russian territory. Sullivan stated the war in Ukraine has “evolved” and that F-16 fourth-generation fighter aircraft have now become “part of that mix” of weapons that Ukraine will need as part of a “future force to be able to deter and defend against Russian aggression as we go forward.”[12] Sullivan stated that any F-16s given to Ukraine – like other Western weapons provided to Ukraine – will be provided under the condition that they do not strike Russian territory.[13] Sullivan also stated that training Ukrainian pilots to use F-16s is the “obvious first step” and that the next steps are to “determine how to do the actual provision of planes.”[14] US President Joe Biden informed G7 leaders on May 19 that Washington will support a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and other fourth generation aircraft but did not pledge that the US will send Ukraine the F-16s.[15]

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Russian sources are falsely alleging that high-ranking Ukrainian military commanders have recently died, likely to demoralize the Ukrainian forces and to portray Russian forces as constraining Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities. Malyar stated that these information operations allege that Russian strikes have recently killed Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces Commander General Ihor Tantsyura, Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, and Ukrainian Commander in Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.[16] Prigozhin also amplified the information operation alleging that Zaluzhnyi might be dead on May 20.[17] These information operations are particularly absurd given that Zaluzhnyi spoke with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley on May 19 and that Syrskyi appeared on Ukrainian television on May 16.[18] Ukrainian officials have denied previous Russian claims that a May 10 strike on a Ukrainian command post in the Bakhmut area killed several high-ranking Ukrainian military officials and that Wagner forces killed Tantsyura while he was en route to Bakhmut on May 2.[19] ISW has previously assessed that Russian ultranationalists are increasingly seeking to frame any Russian operations as delaying potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.[20]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin declared victory in Bakhmut City on May 20 and announced his intent to withdraw from the city on May 25.
  • Prigozhin’s claimed victory over the remaining areas in Bakhmut is purely symbolic even if true.
  • Ukrainian forces continue pressuring Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks.
  • Wagner forces are unlikely to successfully conduct a controlled withdrawal from Bakhmut while in contact with Ukrainian forces within five days without disrupting the Russian MoD’s efforts to prepare for planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Russian conventional forces likely will still need to transfer additional forces to the Bakhmut direction even if Wagner mercenaries remain in Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces targeted Kyiv Oblast with Iranian-made Shahed drones on the night of May 19 to 20.
  • US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated on May 20 that the United States may agree to transfer modern combat aircraft to Ukraine, including the F-16, on the condition that Ukraine does not use them to strike Russian territory.
  • Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Russian sources are falsely alleging that high-ranking Ukrainian military commanders have recently died, likely to demoralize Ukrainian forces and to portray Russian forces as constraining Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Kreminna area.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • The Washington Post reported on May 19 that a Ukrainian commander stated that Ukrainian Special Operations forces conduct raids in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast but that Ukrainian forces do not hold stable positions there.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is incorporating mobilized and conscripted personnel into its own “Veterany” private military company (PMC), leading to discrimination and conflict.
  • A Lithuanian official publicly accused Russia of attempting to hold international children hostage in occupied Crimea as “human shields” against a future Ukrainian counteroffensive.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 19, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark

May 19, 2023, 7:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 19. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 20 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

A Ukrainian official stated that Russian forces have concentrated most of their available reserves to the Bakhmut area and slowed Ukrainian counterattacks in the past 24 hours. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 19 that Russian forces concentrated most of their reserves in the Bakhmut direction, which has slowed the rate of Ukrainian advances.[1] Malyar also stated that Ukrainian forces continue to counterattack on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut and advanced 500 meters on one flank and 1,000 meters on the other.[2] Some Russian milbloggers celebrated the slowed Ukrainian rate of advance and claimed that the Ukrainian forces are unable to sustain prolonged localized counterattacks around Bakhmut.[3] Russian forces on Bakhmut’s flanks likely remain weak, however; Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to criticize the Russian 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps) on May 19 for retreating from defensive lines southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut).[4] Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut have notably likely eliminated the threat of a Russian encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut and forced Russian troops to allocate scarce military resources to defend against a limited and localized offensive effort, as Ukrainian command likely intended.

Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine on the night of May 18 to 19. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russia launched six Kalibr cruise missiles and 22 Shahed-131/136 drones at Ukraine from the direction of the Black Sea.[5] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 16 drones and three Kalibr missiles, despite the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s claim that Russian forces struck all intended targets.[6] Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Head Serhii Lysak reported explosions near Kryvyi Rih following Russian strikes in the area.[7] Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky noted that the recent uptick in Russian drone and missile strikes, as well as artillery strikes along the entire frontline, are meant to disrupt Ukrainian counteroffensive plans and preparations.[8] ISW previously assessed on May 14 that the recent increase in Russian strikes on Ukrainian rear areas is likely part of a new air campaign premised on degrading Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities in the near term.[9] Skibitsky additionally noted that Russia can only produce 25 Kalibr cruise missiles, 35 Kh-101s, two Kinzhals, and 5 ballistic 9M723 Iskander-Ms per month.[10] Considering that Russian forces have launched missile strikes at rear areas of Ukraine on a near daily-basis thus far in May, it is likely that they are rapidly expending their stocks of precision munitions, potentially at a rate that exceeds production capabilities.

President Joe Biden reportedly informed G7 leaders on May 19 that Washington will support a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and other fourth generation aircraft. This decision marks a sharp turn in US policy vis a vis fourth generation aircraft in Ukraine and follows Biden’s meetings with various G7 leaders in Hiroshima, Japan on May 19. Yahoo News relatedly reported on May 18 that Ukrainian pilots outperformed standard Pentagon expectations for F-16 training time in a flight simulator and would be able to operate F-16s in only four months as opposed to the anticipated 18 months, citing an internal US Air Force assessment.[11]

The Kremlin reportedly spent 3.1 trillion rubles (approximately $38.7 billion) in an undisclosed section of the Russian budget in 2023, likely to fund the war and maintain occupied territories in Ukraine. Independent Russian news outlet The Bell reported that the Russian Ministry of Finance released data on May 16 on budget expenditures since the start of 2023 amounting to a total of 11.9 trillion rubles ($148.5 billion) with only 8.8 trillion rubles ($109.8 billion) accounted for in Russia’s public budget, leaving 3.1 trillion rubles – over a quarter of Russia’s expenditures – unaccounted for.[12] The Bell reported that most undisclosed budget items account for defense, national security, and law enforcement, and that some may fall onto social and other expenditures in occupied Ukraine. The Bell also reported that the unspecified spending is higher than in the same time period in previous years. ISW continues to assess that the Russian economy will struggle to meet the needs of the large-scale war that the Russian military is fighting in Ukraine and to sustain its occupation of Ukrainian territories.[13]

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that he will run for reelection as a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party for the first time, prompting criticism from select Russian ultranationalists. Russian “Civil Solidarity” movement head Georgy Fedorov argued on May 19 that Sobyanin’s United Russia candidacy suggests that “all political processes in Russia are now only possible in the pre-existing political party system,” that Russia is set to experience “great turbulence,” and that Russia’s “non-systemic opposition has been crushed.”[14] Former Russian officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin amplified Georgy’s statements and sarcastically called United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves,” a well-known slogan used by Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.[15] Sobyanin has held the post of Moscow Mayor nominally as an independent since 2010, although his United Russia candidacy is likely simply a public formalization of his longstanding relationship with United Russia, as Sobyanin has been a member of the party since 2001. United Russia likely seeks to buttress its own popularity (which stands around 45% in Moscow) with that of Sobyanin, who has polled at 74%.[16] These select ultranationalists likely responded to Sobyanin’s announcement to critique what they view as United Russia’s attempt to monopolize support amongst the Russian ultranationalist constituency and were likely not genuinely reacting to the loss of an independent figure. The Kremlin may additionally have publicly linked Sobyanin to United Russia to remove a nominally independent figure, regardless of his actual independence. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin will likely attempt to solidify United Russia as the definitive pro-war party during elections in 2023 and 2024, and Russian ultranationalist communities with their own political ambitions may increasingly seek to undercut these efforts.[17]

A Ukrainian source reported that elements of two spetsnaz brigades of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) have deployed to border areas of Kursk Oblast in order to conduct counter-sabotage activities and provocations. The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated on May 19 that the 3rd and 22nd Guards Special Purpose brigades have deployed to Tyotkino, Kursk Oblast to prevent cross-border Ukrainian partisan activities, carry out cross-border provocations, and raise the morale of Russian forces.[18] ISW has previously assessed that such Russian deployments to border areas are likely an attempt to fix a portion of Ukrainian forces to border regions and disperse them from critical frontline areas.[19] Elements of the 3rd Guards Special Purpose Brigade have been previously reported near the Kreminna area of Luhansk Oblast, while elements of the 22nd Guards Special Purpose Brigade were reportedly active in the Orikhiv area in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[20] It is unclear why Russian leadership may have made the decision to remove such elements from active sectors of the frontline to Russian rear areas, and it may be possible that these units suffered previous losses in recent operations and have been withdrawn and redeployed in order to rest and refit. The deployment of these units to border areas is unlikely to have the desired informational or operational effects.

Key Takeaways

  • A Ukrainian official stated that Russian forces have concentrated most of their available reserves to the Bakhmut area and slowed Ukrainian counterattacks in the past 24 hours.
  • Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut have notably likely eliminated the threat of a Russian encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut and forced Russian troops to allocate scarce military resources to defend against a limited and localized offensive effort, as Ukrainian command likely intended.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine on the night of May 18 to 19.
  • President Joe Biden reportedly informed G7 leaders on May 19 that Washington will support a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and other fourth generation aircraft.
  • The Kremlin reportedly spent 3.1 trillion rubles (approximately $38.7 billion) in an undisclosed section of the Russian budget in 2023, likely to on fund the war and maintain occupied territories in Ukraine.
  • Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that he will run for reelection as a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party for the first time, prompting criticism from select Russian ultranationalists.
  • A Ukrainian source reported that elements of two brigades of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) have deployed to border areas of Kursk Oblast in order to conduct counter-sabotage activities and provocations.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian troops continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in the Bakhmut area and slightly increased their tempo of ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces are preparing defenses by flooding fields in Russian occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev claimed that the Russian military has recruited 117,400 contract personnel in volunteer formations since January 1, 2023.
  • The Russian State Duma adopted the final reading of a draft law authorizing regional elections under martial law.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 18, 2023, 7:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces have seized the tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations on May 18. These operations are a continuation of the localized counter-attacks Ukrainian forces have been conducting for some days and do not reflect the start of a major new operation. Multiple Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces drove through the Russian defensive lines south and southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut) from the northwest.[1] The milbloggers also claimed that Russian forces retreated from positions north of Sakko i Vantsetti (15km north of Bakhmut) to positions south of the settlement, but that Ukrainian forces have not yet entered the settlement. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Russian forces yielded 570 meters of territory north of Bakhmut, which is consistent with Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar’s statement that Ukrainian forces had advanced 500 meters north of Bakhmut and 1,000 meters south of Bakhmut.[2] Ukrainian Eastern Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 1,700 meters in the past day, and the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade stated that the brigade’s counterattacks expanded the Ukrainian salient in the Bakhmut area to 2,000 meters wide by 700 meters deep.[3]

Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces have seized the battlefield initiative in the Bakhmut area. Cherevaty stated on May 18 that Ukrainian forces regained the battlefield initiative and are forcing Russian forces to respond to Ukrainian actions, including by transferring Russian Airborne (VDV) elements to Bakhmut’s flanks to defend against the Ukrainian advances.[4] Malyar stated that Russian forces have deployed most of their reserves to the Bakhmut area, very likely to the detriment of other areas of the frontline.[5] ISW recently assessed that the Russian military command is reallocating military assets to the Bakhmut area in order to augment Wagner’s offensive capabilities and to gain a tactical victory ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.[6] The limited nature of Wagner’s offensive operations in Bakhmut compared to the localized Ukrainian counterattacks underscores the loss of Russian initiative in the area. Russian milbloggers claimed that Wagner forces began assaulting one of the final Ukrainian fortified areas in western Bakhmut.[7] Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official and prominent Russian information space voice Vladimir Rogov claimed that Wagner forces cut the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar road in western Bakhmut on May 17, although ISW is unable to confirm this claim.[8] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces advanced 260 meters in Bakhmut and that Ukrainian forces only control 1.28 square kilometers of the city.[9] One milblogger optimistically claimed that Wagner forces increased their pace of advance following Russian ammunition deliveries to Wagner, though Prigozhin’s claimed daily rate of advance has remained largely consistent.[10]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted on May 18 that Wagner mercenaries are unable to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut due to the loss of stable flanks north and south of Bakhmut. Prigozhin accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of losing advantageous positions after MoD-subordinated units retreated from their positions on Bakhmut’s flanks necessary for an encirclement.[11] Prigozhin and Wagner sources have long indicated Wagner’s intent to encircle Bakhmut and trap Ukrainian forces but proved unable to do so after the Ukrainian military command decided to defend the city. ISW had previously assessed that Russian forces were unlikely to encircle Bakhmut after Wagner forces made several rapid breakthroughs north, south, and east of the city in winter-spring 2023.[12] Prigozhin likely anticipated that Ukrainian forces would entirely withdraw from Bakhmut out of fear of imminent encirclement and even offered to allow President Volodymyr Zelensky to withdraw Ukrainian forces from the city on March 3.[13] The Ukrainian defensive operation, however, prioritized the defense of the Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) west of Bakhmut, which forced Wagner forces into urban warfare and grinding directly through the city itself. Prigozhin’s admission further supports Ukrainian officials’ statements that Wagner is losing the initiative on the battlefield.

Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated milbloggers are blaming Russian conventional forces for military failures in and around Bakhmut. Prigozhin directly appealed to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to hold Sakko i Vantsetti for at least few more days.[14] Prigozhin also blamed Gerasimov for the retreats of Russian conventional forces from Bakhmut‘s flanks.[15] A prominent Wagner-affiliated milblogger stated on May 18 that Russian forces lack the organization, fire support, coordination, and training necessary to defend the Bakhmut’s flanks.[16] The milblogger complained that Russian forces allow Ukrainian forces to “drive a BMP [infantry fighting vehicle] for 15 minutes” into the Russian rear without destroying it, with the Ukrainian assault lasting only 16 minutes.[17] The milblogger claimed that Russian forces would not be able to drive an infantry fighting vehicle into the Ukrainian rear without Ukrainian forces destroying it.[18] The milblogger also claimed that Russian airborne forces attempted to occupy territory in the “grey zone” and Ukrainian forces immediately interdicted their efforts with artillery fire, making it impossible for Russian forces to move and gain a foothold in the targeted location.[19] A non-Wagner-affiliated milblogger noted the lack of coordination between Wagner and conventional Russian forces and claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) needs ”competent command and control” to strengthen interactions between Russian forces and Wagner fighters for operations after Bakhmut.[20]

Prigozhin’s efforts to blame the Russian military for failures around Bakhmut are causing some ultranationalists to accuse him of using the Battle for Bakhmut to satisfy his personal ambitions. Russian serviceman and prominent ultranationalist Andrey Morozov (known under the alias Murz) criticized a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel for wrongfully attributing successful artillery fire of the 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 2nd Army Corps to Wagner mercenaries.[21] Morozov argued that Prigozhin’s claims that Russian conventional forces are abandoning the flanks is another part of Prigozhin’s narratives aimed at saving his forces at the expense of other units that deployed to reinforce Wagner forces. Morozov accused Prigozhin of improving his financial standing at the expense of the war while setting up reinforcement units for failure and claimed that elements of 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade nearly all died when attempting to secure the flanks southwest of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka. Morozov also claimed that Prigozhin is blaming conventional units in order to promote himself. ISW assessed on May 17 that Russian strongmen (siloviki) are attempting to discredit Prigozhin by accusing him of attempting to use victory in Bakhmut to further his political aspirations in Russia.[22] Morozov’s criticism is notable as it may indicate a shift in ultranationalists’ perception of Prigozhin.

Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike across Ukraine on the night of May 17 to 18, targeting Kyiv for the ninth time since the beginning of May.[23] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched 22 Kh-101/555 air-launched cruise missiles, six Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles from Black Sea vessels, and two Iskander-K ground-launched cruise missiles at Kyiv, Odesa, and Mykolaiv cities.[24] Ukrainian Commander in Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed 29 cruise missiles, two Shahed-136/131 drones, and two reconnaissance drones.[25] Russian forces are likely attempting to use reconnaissance drones after launching missile strikes to locate Patriot air defense systems.

The Kremlin continues to strengthen domestic repression measures likely to encourage self-censorship and prepare Russian society for a prolonged war. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 17 amending the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Regulations to expand the responsibility and reach of the FSB.[26] The amendment explicitly states that the FSB is responsible for state security issues within its powers, strengthens the FSB and its director’s powers in matters of information security. This allows the FSB head to determine the conditions for FSB personnel combining FSB work and military service. These amendments are likely part of a prolonged effort to expand the FSB’s domestic power, and ISW has previously reported on the FSB expanding its powers and involvement in the war in Ukraine.[27] Russian opposition news outlet Meduza reported on May 18 that Russian authorities conducted mass searches of residences of individuals allegedly associated with the Congress of People’s Deputies and former Russian State Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev under the accusation of spreading false information about the Russian military.[28] Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on May 18 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Russian State Duma deputies are preparing a bill to punish “Russophobia” with fines of 100,000 to 300,000 rubles (about $1,250 to $3,730), and up to five years in prison, or service in a forced labor colony.[29] ISW previously reported on Russian efforts to criminalize “Russophobia” as another method of domestic repression and censorship.[30]

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO may discuss the possible provision of Western fighter jets to Ukraine at the June Defense Ministers meeting.[31] Stoltenberg told German outlet Der Spiegel on May 18 that NATO members are “constantly discussing whether modern Western fighters are needed in both Europe and Ukraine,” adding that the provision of fighter jets to Ukraine will also require ammunition, spare parts, and “round-the-clock" aircraft maintenance.[32]

Key Takeaways 

  • Ukrainian forces have seized the tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations on May 18.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces have seized the battlefield initiative in the Bakhmut area.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted on May 18 that Wagner mercenaries are unable to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut due to the loss of stable flanks north and south of Bakhmut.
  • Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated milbloggers are blaming Russian conventional forces for military failures in and around Bakhmut.
  • Prigozhin’s efforts to blame the Russian military for failures around Bakhmut are causing some ultranationalists to accuse him of using the Battle for Bakhmut to satisfy his personal ambitions.
  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike across Ukraine on the night of May 17 to 18, targeting Kyiv for the ninth time since the beginning of May.
  • The Kremlin continues to strengthen domestic repression measures likely to encourage self-censorship and prepare Russian society for a prolonged war.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO may discuss the possible provision of Western fighter jets to Ukraine at the June Defense Ministers meeting.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Unknown actors, possibly Ukrainian partisans, attacked a Russian rail line in Crimea.
  • The Russian Supreme Court ruled on May 18 that Russian military personnel who voluntarily surrender on the battlefield will be prosecuted under treason charges.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to announce patronage programs with Russian federal subjects to support infrastructure projects in occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 17, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 17, 2023, 7pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023. We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022.

Russian and Ukrainian officials acknowledged continued limited Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut on May 17. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces are advancing in unspecified areas on Bakhmut’s flanks.[1] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 500 meters in the Bakhmut direction in the past day and continue to attack Russian flanks.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) made marginal advances but acknowledged continued Ukrainian counterattacks against Bakhmut’s flanks near Bohdanivka (5km northwest of Bakhmut) and Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut).[3] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied the MoD’s claim of territorial gains, however, and criticized the MoD for falsely portraying a retreat as capturing new positions.[4]One prominent milblogger complained that Russian forces must now react to Ukrainian actions, implying that Russian forces are losing the initiative in the Bakhmut area despite the limited nature of Ukrainian counterattacks in the area.[5]

Ukrainian officials reported that terrain features constrain Ukrainian offensive operations across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian Southern Forces Joint Press Center Head Nataliya Humenyuk acknowledged that the width of the Dnipro River hinders Ukrainian territorial advances in Kherson Oblast and called for the information space to “forget” about Ukrainian offensive activities in the Kherson direction.[6] Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) Colonel Roman Kostenko stated on May 14 that the Ukrainian forces pushed Russian forces back from the islands close to Kherson City and stated that the islands have poor terrain, no trenches, limited shelter, and that the ground is always wet.[7]

US officials reported that a Patriot air defense system is operational after Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian missile strikes on Kyiv destroyed the system on May 16. CNN cited three US officials as stating that a Patriot air defense system is still operational despite the Russian MoD claims that a Kinzhal missile destroyed it.[8] An unidentified US defense official had previously told CNN that the Patriot system likely suffered damage, but three officials specified that the system suffered minimal damage that does not impede its operations.[9] Officials did not specify if Russian missiles or debris caused the damage.

The Kremlin reportedly accused three hypersonic missile scientists of treason. Employees of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mathematics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science published an open letter on May 15 in defense of three of their scientists — Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk, and Valery Zvegintsev — whom Russian authorities reportedly arrested in the past year under suspicion of committing “high treason.”[10] The open letter also noted that these arrests deter the younger generation from pursuing careers in science, which contributes to a decrease in the quality of scientific research. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Kremlin was aware of the open letter and that Russian security services are involved.[11]

Select Russian strongmen (siloviki) are likely attempting to signal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin that he must cease his political ambitions in Russia. Prigozhin responded to a media inquiry on May 17 about several allegations from Russian Telegram channels — which are reportedly affiliated with the Russian Presidential Administration and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) — about Prigozhin’s political aspirations in Russia.[12] These channels claimed that Prigozhin is using the battle for Bakhmut and war in Ukraine to become a political figure in Russia rather than actually fighting for Russia’s interests.[13] The journalist directly asked Prigozhin if he thinks that Russian siloviki are trying to signal to him via these Telegram channels.[14] Prigozhin confirmed that he had an interaction with an unnamed Russian senior official “recently” who had accused Prigozhin of deliberately acting in his own self-interest.[15] Prigozhin emphasized that this official was not Russian President Vladimir Putin but indirectly implied that these sentiments are widespread in the Russian Presidential Administration — noting that the Telegram posts reflect the collective opinion of the bureaucratic community.

The Russian siloviki may be intimidating Russian officials affiliated with Prigozhin to discourage their cooperation with Wagner. One of the Telegram channels mentioned in the media inquiry noted that Prigozhin is losing contact with Chairperson of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin and had a fight with First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko who originally supported his initiatives.[16] Volodin, for example, reportedly stopped pushing Wagner’s agendas to avoid a conflict with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The channel observed that a member of the Russian Communist Party, Viktor Sobolev, originally supported a bill that favored Wagner only to later denounce Wagner as an “illegal armed formation” on May 15.[17] The channel noted that Prigozhin still has contact with Putin’s administration via Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office Anton Vaino and noted that Prigozhin’s fate lies entirely in Putin’s hands. Shoigu is reportedly unsuccessfully attempting to convince Putin to eliminate Prigozhin due to Prigozhin’s failure to secure battlefield victories — which likely indicates that Prigozhin’s bloody efforts to capture Bakhmut are in fact an attempt to compete with Shoigu for self-preservation.

The siloviki appear to be unsuccessful in their attempts to scare Prigozhin into obedience. Prigozhin stated that he is ready to take on the “bureaucrats” and accused them of attempting to gain more authority while using Wagner to fight the war. Prigozhin also accused unnamed officials of being apathetic about Russian deaths on the frontlines and sarcastically stated that the future Russian defense minister has been in Bakhmut for over a week when responding to a question asking if Shoigu had accepted his invitation to visit the Bakhmut frontline.[18] Prigozhin had been recently publicizing his cooperation with former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, and it is possible that Prigozhin may be attempting to promote Mizintsev as a replacement for Shoigu.[19] Prigozhin is likely aware that Putin is not entirely convinced of Shoigu’s ability to win the war and may be hopeful that a decisive victory in Bakhmut would give him the leverage to replace Shoigu with Wagner-affiliated officials. Both Prigozhin and Shoigu likely perceive this feud as an existential matter.

Russian authorities continue to crack down against domestic anti-war dissent in an effort to strengthen domestic repressions and prepare Russian society for a long-term war effort. BBC’s Russia service reported on May 17, citing anonymous interlocutors, that the Russian General Prosecutor’s office and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) conducted an unscheduled inspection at the European University in St. Petersburg as part of counterterror and counter-extremism measures.[20] BBC noted that the investigators investigated the dissertation topics and personal files of undergraduate and graduate students as well as the publications and classes of faculty in at least four departments: anthropology, history, sociology, and political science. BBC stated that the investigation affected several dozen faculty members and hundreds of students. BBC reported that Russian authorities have been conducting similar inspections at three other Moscow universities since 2021. One of the interlocutors stated that Russian authorities regularly conduct these inspections, resulting in faculty and curricula changes.

The Astrakhan Oblast “A Just Russia” party faction voted out faction head and former Russian State Duma Deputy Oleg Shein on May 16 after Shein resigned from the post on April 18.[21] Shein cited disagreements with federal “A Just Russia” faction co-leader Sergey Mironov — who is notably connected with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin — for the Astrakhan faction’s vote and claimed that the party forced him out of his role due to his anti-war sentiment.[22] Shein later quipped that the faction had not yet ”invented” the reason for his ousting.[23]

Russian authorities are likely forcefully integrating Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) dioceses in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast as part of a wider religious persecution campaign in occupied Ukraine. Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill and the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced the adoption of the Berdyansk and Prymorsk UOC dioceses into the ROC on May 16.[24] [25] The ROC claimed that Berdyansk and Prymorsk dioceses, clergy, and parishioners voted to join the ROC after UOC leadership “abandoned” the dioceses.[26] [27] ISW has previously reported on Russia’s religious oppression occupied Ukraine, including the detention or assassinations of at least 29 Ukrainian clergy or religious leaders since the start of the war.[28] [29]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian and Ukrainian officials acknowledged continued limited Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut on May 17.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that terrain features constrain Ukrainian offensive operations across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • US officials reported that a Patriot air defense system is operational after Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian missile strikes on Kyiv destroyed the system on May 16.
  • The Kremlin reportedly accused three hypersonic missile scientists of treason.
  • Select Russian strongmen (siloviki) are likely attempting to signal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin that he must cease his political ambitions in Russia.
  • The Russian siloviki may be intimidating Russian officials affiliated with Prigozhin to discourage their cooperation with Wagner but appear to be unsuccessful in their attempts to scare Prigozhin into obedience.
  • Russian authorities continue to crack down against domestic anti-war dissent in an effort to strengthen domestic repressions and prepare Russian society for a long-term war effort.
  • Russian authorities are likely forcefully integrating Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) dioceses in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast as part of a wider religious persecution campaign in occupied Ukraine.
  • Russian and Ukrainian officials acknowledged continued limited Ukrainian counterattacks near Bakhmut on May 17.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to make incremental gains in Bakhmut and conducted limited ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued to target west (right) bank Kherson Oblast and islands at the Dnipro River delta out of fear of planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • The Kremlin continues crypto-mobilization efforts by recruiting regional volunteer battalions and criminals.
  • The Russian State Duma adopted amendments to the martial law on May 16 that authorize the forced and controlled movement of citizens from territories under the martial law to the territories without marital law.
  • Russian ultranationalists are speculating about the fate of Belarus’ independence in case of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s severe illness or death.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 16, 2023

Click here to read the full report here

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 16, 2023, 5:30pm ET

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

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023.  We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022.

Russian forces have likely committed to reinforcing their tactical offensive effort in the Bakhmut area despite Ukraine’s apparent focus on limited and localized counterattacks. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin claimed on May 16 that Russian forces have strengthened their forces in the Bakhmut area to stabilize the situation, and a prominent Russian milblogger claimed that four unspecified Russian battalions have deployed to the flanks around Bakhmut to prevent Ukrainian breakthroughs.[1] Russian claims about Russian reinforcements are consistent with Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar’s May 15 statement that Russian forces are deploying additional airborne (VDV) forces to defend Bakhmut’s flanks, presumably from other areas of the front.[2] Russian forces have continued to make marginal gains within Bakhmut itself as of May 16, and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to claim that Russian forces around Bakhmut are focused on repelling Ukrainian counterattacks.[3] The Russian MoD claimed on May 16 that elements of the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps) repelled 10 Ukrainian counterattacks near Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut).[4]

Ukrainian military officials continue to indicate that Ukraine is pursuing much more limited operations in the Bakhmut area than Russian forces, who appear to be committed to Bakhmut as a renewed main effort. Malyar stated on May 16 that while Ukrainian forces have liberated roughly 20 square kilometers of territory in recent days, Russian forces are continuing to make marginal gains within Bakhmut.[5] Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces are continuing to use the concept of “active defense” in conducting counterattacks in unspecified areas near Bakhmut.[6] Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reiterated that the main objective of the Ukrainian defensive operation in the Bakhmut area is to exhaust Russian forces in the area.[7] ISW has geolocated footage published on May 16 of Ukrainian positions in southwestern Bakhmut that suggests that Ukrainian forces have recently made limited gains in the city itself.[8] Geolocated footage published on May 16 indicates that Ukrainian forces made marginal gains east of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11km northwest of Bakhmut), although ISW has not observed any further Ukrainian gains around Bakhmut as of May 16.[9]

The reported Russian reinforcements to the Bakhmut area suggest that Russian forces are continuing to concentrate offensive capabilities there despite an assessed wider effort to reprioritize operations to prepare for potential Ukrainian counteroffensives. Russian forces have also recently transferred elements of the 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Division (20th Guards Combined Arms Army, Western Military District) to an unspecified area north of Bakhmut, likely from positions along the Svatove-Kupyansk line.[10] The movement of Russian forces from other sectors of the front to the Bakhmut area is likely a response to persisting Russian concerns about the stability of frontlines in the area amid Wagner Group’s continued degradation in the offensive to capture Bakhmut.[11] These concerns were likely more pronounced in recent days that saw limited Ukrainian gains around Bakhmut and may have prompted further Russian concentration on the tactical offensive effort in the area. The reinforcements are also likely meant to enhance Wagner’s ability to capture the remainder of Bakhmut rapidly and present a Russian tactical victory before possible setbacks during a Ukrainian counteroffensive operation. ISW assesses that the Russian military command likely decided to reprioritize operations and sustainment efforts in recent weeks to prepare for potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, although the continued concentration on Bakhmut may suggest that immediate tactical concerns could be undermining the larger effort.[12]

Russia conducted another large-scale drone and missile strike on the night of May 15 to 16. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces launched six Kh-47 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles from six MiG-31K aircraft at Kyiv, as well as nine Kalibr cruise missiles and 10 land-based S-400 and Iskander-M missiles at other rear areas of Ukraine.[13] Ukrainian air defense shot down all missiles, including all six Kinzhals (repeatedly touted by Russian forces as unstoppable) and nine total drones, including six Shahed-131/136s.[14] It is unclear which systems Ukrainian forces used to shoot down the Kinzhals, but Ukrainian officials previously attributed the defeat of a Kinzhal missile to US-provided Patriot air defense system on May 4.[15] Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev noted that the missile strike on Kyiv is the eighth in the month of May alone.[16] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) notably claimed that one of the Kinzhals struck a Patriot air defense system in Kyiv.[17] An unidentified US defense official told CNN that the Patriot system has likely suffered damage but has not been destroyed and that the US is still assessing the extent of the damage.[18]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to downplay his reported cooperation with Ukrainian intelligence on May 15. Prigozhin responded to a media inquiry about leaked US intelligence report published in The Washington Post that revealed that he attempted to disclose positions of Russian conventional forces to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Ukraine’s withdrawal from Bakhmut.[19] Prigozhin stated that ”in any war exchanges are made, and this is not a secret for the warring parties” in an attempt to downplay his reported connections with the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR).[20] Prigozhin argued that information about troop positions is ”not secretive at all” in modern warfare due to the use of satellite imagery. Prigozhin also paradoxically attempted to deny the validity of the leaked US intelligence documents, claiming that a junior US officer would have not had access to such secret documents. GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that Ukraine will not comment on the leaked document.[21]

The Wagner Group’s continued glorification and normalization of violence is evident in a widely circulated video purportedly showing a killed American volunteer in Bakhmut. A Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram channel posted footage on May 16 of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev showing the documents and body of an American volunteer serving with the Ukrainian military.[22] Prigozhin claimed that he would give the body to US authorities because he likely died a worthy death in war.[23] Prigozhin’s video emphasizes Wagner’s continual promotion of brutality and glorification of war, as the video appeared to showcase Wagner gloating over the death of an American and amplified the graphic nature of his death. ISW previously reported on Wagner’s promotion of violence through the use of widely-shared graphic video footage.[24] A US State Department spokesperson stated that the State Department is ”aware of the reports” and ”seeking additional information.”[25]

Russia and Iran continue efforts to strengthen bilateral military-economic cooperation. Iranian state-run news agency IRNA reported on May 16 that Iranian Ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali announced that Russia and Iran will sign an agreement on the construction of the Rasht-Astara railway line during Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak’s visit to Tehran on May 16 and 17.[26] This agreement will reportedly advance the completion of Iran’s North-South corridor project by completing a 162km link between the Iranian cities of Rasht and Astara and will create a connection between St. Petersburg and the Persian Gulf.[27] The completion of this sector has been a long-standing Iranian line of effort, partially aimed at strengthening Iran‘s domestic economy and facilitating sanctions evasion efforts. Both Russia and Iran are taking additional steps to further bilateral military cooperation. The White House reported on May 15 that Russia seeks to buy additional drones from Iran after having used most of the 400 Iranian drones purchased since August 2022 in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.[28] Iranian media also reported on May 13 that Iran will receive its first shipment of Russian Su-35 multi-role fighter aircraft in the coming week.[29] Moscow will likely continue to pursue mutually beneficial military-economic programs in order to ensure continued Iranian material support for Russian operations in Ukraine.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) proposed a draft regulatory act that would allow FSB officers to conduct searches without a court order, likely to support the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to strengthen domestic repression. The draft regulatory legal act would allow FSB officers to conduct operational search activities not associated with an ongoing criminal case without a court order in instances “that are urgent and may lead to the commission of a serious ...crime.”[30] FSB officers would also be allowed to conduct searches without court orders in connection with ”events or actions that pose a threat to the state, military, economic, information, or environmental security of Russia.”[31] ISW has previously assessed that the FSB appears to be currently conducting an overhaul of domestic security organs, and the new regulatory act is likely meant to augment these efforts.[32] The Kremlin has recently supported laws strengthening punishments for trespassing at facilities run by certain federal bodies, for the misappropriation of Russian military assets, and for the discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine to expand pretexts for the arrests of Russian citizens and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor.[33] The FSB’s involvement in ongoing overhauls and the increasingly broad regulations to conduct searches suggest that the Kremlin is preparing for the FSB to be the internal security organ that would conduct a wider domestic crackdown.

Russian forces reportedly shut down another Ukrainian evangelical Christian church in Mariupol likely as part of a wider systematic religious persecution campaign in occupied Ukraine. Ukrainian Mariupol Mayoral Advisor Petro Andryushchenko reported that Russian forces seized the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church of the Holy Trinity in Mariupol and are using the church to house 10 to 30 Russian servicemen.[34] ISW reported on April 9 that Protestants suffered two-thirds of all of the reported religious repression events in occupied Mariupol.[35] ISW identified that Russian occupation officials most commonly persecute members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Protestants, particularly evangelical Baptists.[36]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces have likely committed to reinforcing their tactical offensive effort in the Bakhmut area despite Ukraine’s apparent focus on limited and localized counterattacks.
  • The reported Russian reinforcements to the Bakhmut area suggest that Russian forces are continuing to concentrate offensive capabilities there despite an assessed wider effort to reprioritize operations to prepare for potential Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Russia conducted another large-scale drone and missile strike on the night of May 15 to 16.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to downplay his reported cooperation with Ukrainian intelligence on May 15.
  • The Wagner Group’s continued glorification and normalization of violence is evident in a widely circulated video purportedly showing a killed American volunteer in Bakhmut.
  • Russia and Iran continue efforts to strengthen bilateral military-economic cooperation.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) proposed a draft regulatory act that would allow FSB officers to conduct searches without a court order, likely to support the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to strengthen domestic repression.
  • Russian forces reportedly shut down another Ukrainian evangelical Christian church in Mariupol likely as part of a systematic religious persecution campaign in occupied Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are reportedly deploying additional manpower and equipment from Belarus to reinforce their positions in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued unsuccessful offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kremmina line.
  • Russian forces have made marginal gains within Bakhmut as of May 16 and continued limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces are continuing to panic about maintaining their positions in the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast ahead of anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • The Kremlin continues to pass legislation that provides benefits to participants of the war and their families in order to incentivize military service.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to consolidate the economic subordination of occupied areas of Ukraine into the Russian economy.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 15, 2023

 

Read the full report here

 

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 15, 2023, 6:35pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023. We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022.

 

Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin offered to disclose the locations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Bakhmut.[1] The Washington Post reported on May 15 that Prigozhin offered the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) information about Russian troop positions in exchange for a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut, and two Ukrainian unnamed officials confirmed that Prigozhin had spoken to GUR officials on numerous occasions. GUR officials reportedly rejected Prigozhin’s offer because they did not trust Prigozhin, and some documents indicate that Kyiv suspects that the Kremlin is aware of Prigozhin’s communication with Ukrainian intelligence. The Washington Post reported that Prigozhin urged Ukrainian officials to attack Russian forces and revealed the problems that the Russian forces are facing with morale and ammunition stocks. The Washington Post published an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 13 about GUR Chief Major General Kyrylo Budanov’s interactions with Prigozhin and his operatives in Africa in which Zelensky did not confirm Ukraine’s contacts with Prigozhin.[2]

 

The reports of Prigozhin’s offers to cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence triggered a mixed response within Russia. Prigozhin originally responded to Zelensky’s interview on May 14, sarcastically stating that he can “confirm this information” because Wagner “has nothing to hide from foreign special services” and that he and Budanov are “still in Africa.”[3] Prigozhin’s later accused The Washington Post of spreading fake information and claimed that unnamed figures warned him about the efforts to discredit him using fake information.[4] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations on May 15 and stated that, although he cannot comment on the information, it “looks like yet another hoax.”[5] Russian milbloggers – including one of Prigozhin’s enemies, former Russian officer Igor Girkin – claimed that they do not believe that Prigozhin would cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence.[6] State Duma Parliamentarian Viktor Sobolev warned that mobilized servicemen who decide to join the ranks of Wagner private military company (PMC) will face 10 to 15 years in prison because Wagner is an illegal armed formation within Russia.[7] It is unclear if Sobolev’s comments were made in response to the allegations, since Sobolev is an avid critic of Prigozhin and the Wagner forces.[8]

 

Prigozhin’s reported efforts to cooperate with Ukrainian intelligence would have been part of his feud with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rather than an attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin. ISW assessed on March 12 that Prigozhin is competing with the Russian MoD for Putin’s favor but had unintentionally alarmed Putin with his military-political ambitions.[9] Prigozhin’s reported outreach to Ukranian intelligence would likely have been part of an effort to win Putin’s favor, in fact, by facilitating a rapid Wagner victory in Bakhmut while harming Russian conventional forces behind the scenes. Prigozhin recently retracted his May 9 comments that indirectly mocked Putin, further indicating that Prigozhin is aware of his dependance on Putin and does not mean to antagonize him.[10]

 

The allegations are unlikely to cause the Kremlin to remove Prigozhin in the near term but can contribute to efforts to discredit Prigozhin. The Kremlin likely suspects or is aware of Prigozhin’s reported communications with Ukrainian intelligence and likely was not blindsided by The Washington Post report or the leaked US intelligence documents. Russian officials had reportedly threatened Prigozhin with treason if he were to act on his attempt to blackmail the MoD into providing him more ammunition by threatening to withdraw from Bakhmut. The Kremlin is likely preparing mechanisms to discredit Prigozhin as a traitor.[11] Unnamed Kremlin sources revealed that the Russian Presidential Administration is preparing an information operation to publicly discredit Prigozhin but noted that the Kremlin is unlikely to threaten Prigozhin while Wagner forces are on the frontlines.[12] Prigozhin commands the Wagner forces in Donbas, and his removal would disrupt the Russian lines in Bakhmut – a risk that Putin is unlikely to take. The Kremlin is also unable easily to publicly remove and replace Prigozhin as the de facto head of Wagner because Wagner is an independent company and Prigozhin holds no official position in the Russian government. Removing Prigozhin from his control of Wagner would ironically require asserting direct Kremlin control of the mercenary group from which Putin has been at pains to maintain formal distance.

 

Ukrainian officials acknowledged limited Ukrainian battlefield successes during recent localized counterattacks in and around Bakhmut. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 15 that the Ukrainian forces made unspecified advances in and around Bakhmut in the past several days. Malyar added that Russian forces are deploying airborne (VDV) forces to defend Bakhmut’s flanks, presumably from other areas of the front.[13] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi characterized the localized Ukrainian counterattacks as the first successes in Ukraine’s overall defense of Bakhmut and noted that this operation must be perceived as only a partial success.[14] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated on May 14 that Ukrainian forces advanced 150-600 meters in various directions in the Bakhmut area and that Russian forces continue efforts to complete the capture of Bakhmut and defend the occupied territories.[15]

 

Russian milbloggers uniformly attacked a proposal for “military censorship,” further indicating that the community is highly motivated to defend its privileged position within the Russian information space. State Duma Deputy Viktor Sobolev proposed on May 15 that military correspondents’ reports about the situation in Ukraine should be subject to “military censorship” and that the lack of censorship has led to the spread of false information and panic.[16] Russian milbloggers widely criticized Sobolev for the supposed illegality and impracticality of the proposal, arguing that "military censorship” would be incongruous with Russia’s need to fill the information space with pro-Russian sources against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.[17] State Duma Deputy Oleg Matveychev amplified an article by Russian political scientist Pavel Danilin on May 14 accusing the Russian milbloggers of promoting panicky false stories about Russian retreats and problems with the Russian MoD.[18] Danilin suggested that the milbloggers‘ actions constitute acts of high treason and stated that “during the Great Patriotic War, those who [sowed] panic … were put against the wall.”[19] Russian milblogger and Human Rights Council member Alexander “Sasha” Kots refuted Danilin's points and launched a series of critiques against Matveychev that other milbloggers amplified.[20] Russian milbloggers in both instances highlighted their alleged achievements and the importance of the “patriotic segment of Telegram” in bringing attention to acute problems and moving Russia closer to victory.[21]

 

Select Russian officials have previously called for the censorship of Telegram and the milbloggers, although ISW assesses that Putin is unlikely to approve such a measure because the Kremlin is attempting to use the wider ultranationalist community’s established networks to recruit volunteers and generate social support for the war.[22] The rapid and unified response from milbloggers suggests that the community perceives itself as a unitary civil society entity, one interested in defending its increasingly singular privilege in being able to criticize the conduct of the Russian war in Ukraine despite its internal factions and disagreements.

 

The Russian MoD claimed that it intercepted a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile for the first time on May 15.[23] The MoD made this claim on the third day of four days of claimed Ukrainian Storm Shadow strikes against the Russian military assets in Luhansk City, roughly 80-100 kilometers behind the frontline.[24] A Russian milblogger expressed concern that Ukraine’s use of the missile can severely impact the situation on the frontlines because the only way Russian forces can counter the Storm Shadows is to destroy the aircraft carrying the missiles.[25]

 

The Kremlin has reportedly banned high-ranking officials from resigning during the war in Ukraine, likely in an attempt to maintain stability within domestic security organs, government bodies, and the Russian military command. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Isotrii (iStories) reported on May 15 that a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and sources close to an unnamed regional governor and the presidential administration stated that the Kremlin threatened civil servants in security organs and government bodies with criminal prosecution for trying to defy the ban.[26] The Kremlin reportedly instituted the ban because many officials wanted to leave their positions after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, although iStories’ sources emphasized that the informal and illegal nature of the ban may allow for exceptions.[27] The Kremlin may be attempting to stop Russian officials from resigning in protest to advance their own objectives. ISW previously reported that former Central Military District (CMD) commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin and Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky reportedly resigned due to intense public criticism and in protest of conditions at the front, respectively.[28] Teplinsky likely used the fallout from his resignation to advocate for a leading military command position in Ukraine, a scenario that the Kremlin may attempt to avoid in the future by applying the reported ban more broadly.[29]

 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on May 14 and 15 confirming the provision of more Western military aid. The Ukrainian and French governments issued a joint statement on May 15 announcing that France will train and equip “several” Ukrainian battalions with “tens” of armored vehicles and light tanks, including the AMX-10RC.[30] The joint statement reiterated that the French government would continue providing political, financial, humanitarian, and military aid to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” The UK government confirmed on May 15 that Sunak will announce another round of military aid to Ukraine, including the provision of unspecified long-range attack drones with ranges of over 200 kilometers, and will deliver them to Ukraine over the coming months.[31] Sunak announced that the UK will begin developing a program to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets and will begin training an initial cohort of pilots over the summer.

 

Key Takeaways 

 

  • Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin offered to disclose the locations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian officials acknowledged limited Ukrainian battlefield successes during recent localized counterattacks in and around Bakhmut.
  • Russian milbloggers uniformly attacked a proposal for “military censorship,” further indicating that the community is highly motivated to defend its privileged position within the Russian information space.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that it intercepted a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile for the first time on May 15.
  • The Kremlin has reportedly banned high-ranking officials from resigning during the war in Ukraine, likely in an attempt to maintain stability within domestic security organs, government bodies, and the Russian military command.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on May 14 and 15 confirming the provision of more Western military aid.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces captured Masyutivka, Kharkiv Oblast and established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Oskil River, but ISW has observed no visual confirmation of these claims.
  • Russian forces continued to launch ground assaults in and around Bakhmut and conducted limited offensive operations near Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that approximately 152,000 Russian military personnel in southern Ukraine continue defensive efforts ahead of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to take advantage of migrant labor and incentivize foreigners into contract military service.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to set conditions to forcibly relocate Ukrainians from occupied territories to Russia.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko received a briefing from Belarusian generals on May 15 following recent speculation about his possible illness or death.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 14, 2023

 

Read the full report here

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 14, 2023, 3pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 12pm ET on May 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

 

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023.  We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022.

 

Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of May 13 to 14. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces launched an unspecified number of drones of varying models at Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces destroyed 25, including 18 Shahed 131/136s.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Russian forces launched 23 Shahed-136/131 drones in total.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces launched an unspecified number of Kalibr missiles from the Black Sea as well as an unspecified number of Kh-101/555/55 cruise missiles, and that Ukrainian forces shot down three Kh-101/555/55 missiles.[3] Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces struck civilian infrastructure in Ternopil and Mykolaiv cities as well as Kharkiv City and Zolochiv in Kharkiv Oblast with S-300 missiles.[4] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces struck a Ukrainian ammunition depot in Khmelnytskyi City and Ukrainian military facilities and deployment areas near Ternopil and Petropavlivka, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[5]

 

Increasingly regular series of Russian drone and missile strikes are likely a part of a new Russian air campaign in Ukraine aimed at degrading Ukrainian abilities to conduct counteroffensive offensive operations in the near term. Russian forces have conducted at least 10 series of strikes throughout Ukraine, particularly in rear areas, since April 19.[6] Russian forces have used significantly fewer high precision missiles in these latest series of strikes in comparison to their failed campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure from the fall of 2022 through the winter of 2023. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces likely expended a significant proportion of their precision missiles in the previous air campaign, and the current Russian air campaign may be using far fewer of these missiles in an effort to conserve the limited remaining stocks.[7] Russian forces have instead relied heavily on launching large numbers of Iranian-made Shahed drones to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses, although Ukrainian forces have been more effective in shooting down Russian precision systems than during the previous Russian air campaign.[8] The new Russian air campaign appears to be focused on Kyiv and alleged Ukrainian military industrial and logistics facilities in deep rear areas. The more limited air campaign has so far been more regular than the previous wider Russian campaign against critical infrastructure, and ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces may be attempting to conduct almost daily series of strikes to portray themselves as successfully constraining potential upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[9] The alleged targets and limited nature of this campaign indicates that Russian forces are immediately concerned with current Ukrainian capabilities to launch counteroffensive operations, although the diminished effectiveness of these strikes are likely not significantly constraining Ukrainian capabilities writ large.

 

Ukrainian forces continued counterattacking around Bakhmut on May 14. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces captured over 10 Russian positions on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut over the course of the day on May 14.[10] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian troops attacked towards Berkhivka, Klishchiivka, and Kurdiumivka and took up new unspecified positions near the settlements and additionally advanced towards Yahidne from the direction of Bohdanivka.[11] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Ukrainian forces did not conduct any attacks on the night of May 13 to 14, however.[12] ISW has not observed visual confirmation of new Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty emphasized on May 14 that Ukraine’s main goal in Bakhmut is to destroy Russian concentration areas and encircle the city, not to conduct frontal assaults.[13] Cherevaty noted that Ukrainian forces have recently advanced up to 300m in some areas, and Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces are advancing in two directions in the suburbs of Bakhmut.[14]  

 

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is attempting to distract from recent Ukrainian successes near Bakhmut by praising Russian defensive efforts against the Ukrainian counterattacks. The Russian MoD praised the defensive efforts of the Russian 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps) south of Ivanivske, 200th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) east of Bohdanivka, and the 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Division (20th Guards Combined Arms Army, Western Military District) in an unspecified area on the Soledar-Bakhmut line.[15] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled all Ukrainian counterattacks and that the 4th Brigade Commander Colonel Vyacheslav Makarov and Deputy Commander for the likely 2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps of Political-Military Work Colonel Yevgeny Brovko died while leading their respective defense efforts.[16] The Russian MoD noted that it presented combat medals and state awards to defending Russian personnel at their combat positions, and later posted footage of Russian military leadership presenting over 120 personnel with various awards, including “For Courage,” “For Military Distinction,” and “For Military Valor.”[17] The Russian MoD likely seeks to assuage information space criticism of the MoD’s failure to acknowledge Ukrainian battlefield successes in a timely manner without actually acknowledging the degree of these successes, which is consistent with recent Kremlin guidance to not downplay Ukrainian military successes.[18] The MoD also notably highlighted the efforts of its regular forces over those of irregular forces, including Wagner Group forces operating in Bakhmut. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin criticized reports on May 14 that Russian Airborne (VDV) forces are helping Wagner forces, instead claiming that VDV forces are failing to support Wagner’s offensive operations, defending captured positions, or recapturing positions recently lost to Ukrainian forces.[19]

 

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” is continuing efforts to expand its presence and influence public discourse. The Club of Angry Patriots announced on May 14 that it is forming regional branches and called on experienced politicians, public opinion leaders, and heads of Russian organizations to participate.[20] The Club of Angry Patriots also stated that it will hold a news conference in Moscow on an unspecified date in June, during which it will address how Russia can win the war in Ukraine.[21]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of May 13 to 14.
  • Increasingly regular series of Russian drone and missile strikes are likely a part of a new Russian air campaign in Ukraine aimed at degrading Ukrainian abilities to conduct counteroffensive offensive operations in the near term.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counterattacking around Bakhmut on May 14.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is attempting to distract from recent Ukrainian successes near Bakhmut by praising Russian defensive efforts against the Ukrainian counterattacks.
  • Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” is continuing efforts to expand its presence and influence public discourse.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Russian forces have not made additional confirmed gains in or around Bakhmut and continued limited offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued to fire on areas west of Hulyaipole in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continue efforts to replenish manpower losses using prisoners.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to prepare for the September 2023 elections in occupied territories.

 


 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 13, 2023

 

Read the full report here

 

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 13, 2023, 5:45pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3pm ET on May 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

 

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023. We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022.

 

Ukrainian forces continue to counterattack in the Bakhmut area amid unconfirmed claims of further marginal Ukrainian gains southwest of the city as of May 13. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces established new positions on the outskirts of Kurdyumivka (14km southwest of Bakhmut) and pushed Russian forces behind the Siversky Donets-Donbas canal in the area.[1] The milblogger also claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced towards Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut) from the direction of Predtechyne (16km southwest of Bakhmut). ISW has not observed visual confirmation of these additional Ukrainian gains southwest of Bakhmut or elsewhere in the wider Bakhmut area as of May 13. Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on May 13 that Ukrainian forces are advancing in unspecified areas of the front, and the Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces are currently conducting active operations in the Bakhmut area.[2] Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated on May 13 that Ukrainian forces liberated 17.3 square kilometers of territory in the Bakhmut direction over three days of counterattacks.[3] ISW has assessed as of May 13 that the Ukrainian forces have liberated 16.85 square kilometers in the Bakhmut area during recent counterattacks. Russian sources amplified footage purporting to show the aftermath of a recent Ukrainian counterattack on Russian positions near Mayorsk (20km southwest of Bakhmut) and claimed that the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 3rd Brigade of the 1st Army Corps repelled the assaults.[4] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that recent successful limited Ukrainian counterattacks north of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut) degraded Russian forces’ ability to interdict the O0506 highway between Khromove and Chasiv Yar (13km west of Bakhmut), a significant ground line of communication (GLOC) for Ukrainian forces operating in Bakhmut itself.[5] The milblogger claimed that Russian retreats in response to recent Ukrainian counterattacks have occurred in relatively small areas of the frontline but warned that these “regroupings” could become more significant if Russian forces fail to stabilize the frontline.[6] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on May 12 that talks of tactical Russian withdrawals are nonsense as Russian forces continue to outright abandon positions in unspecified locations.[7]

 

Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 12 to 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that shot down 18 of the 22 Shahed-131/136 drones that Russian forces launched from the northern and southern directions.[8] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that drones struck an infrastructure facility in Khmelnytsky Oblast.[9] Footage published on May 13 purportedly shows the aftermath of the strike in Khmelnytsky Oblast.[10]

 

Russian media reported that two Russian Mi-8 helicopters, a Su-34 bomber, and an Su-35 fighter crashed in Bryansk Oblast on May 13, which some Russian sources claimed was caused by Ukrainian air defenses. Geolocated footage shows the aftermath of crashes near Surestskii Muravei and Klintsy, about 50km from the Ukrainian border.[11] Russian milbloggers speculated that all four aircraft crashed as the result of a coordinated Ukrainian strike using air defense systems pulled to the border area of Chernihiv Oblast.[12] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not yet responded to the incident at the time of publication. Ukrainian officials have similarly refrained from commenting on the incidents. However, several Russian milbloggers seized on the incident to criticize aspects of how the Russian aerospace forces conduct air operations and to accuse the leadership responsible for these aircraft of gross negligence and incompetence. Milbloggers warned about Ukrainian capabilities and called for harsh retaliation against Ukraine. Some milbloggers questioned why the two Mi-8 helicopters were flying so close to the border in the first place and called for aerospace commanders to take better steps to move such assets further into the rear.[13] Moscow Duma Deputy Andrey Medvedev warned that Ukrainian counteroffensive actions will not manifest only in mechanized warfare, suggesting that Russian authorities should prepare for further strikes on such aviation assets as part of a wider Ukrainian counteroffensive strategy.[14] Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Deputy Information Minister Daniil Bezsonov accused the Russian aerospace command of “tyranny” and “fraud.”[15]

 

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces struck rear Russian areas in Luhansk Oblast with British Storm Shadow cruise missiles on May 12 and 13, prompting heightened Russian anxiety about potential Ukrainian abilities to target Russian logistics. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 13 that Ukrainian aircraft struck industrial facilities in occupied Luhansk City with a Storm Shadow cruise missile on May 12.[16] Geolocated footage published on May 13 shows the aftermath of Ukrainian strikes on Yuvileyne (7km west of Luhansk City) on May 13, and Russian sources widely claimed that Ukrainian forces also used Storm Shadow cruise missiles in the subsequent strike.[17] A Russian milblogger claimed that a Storm Shadow cruise missile would have caused more damage, however, and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Internal Ministry claimed that Ukrainian forces used “Hrim-2” missiles to conduct the May 12 strike.[18] United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed on May 12 that the UK is supplying Ukraine with the missiles but did not specify when or even if Ukraine received them.[19] ISW has not observed visual confirmation that Ukrainian forces have used Storm Shadow cruise missiles to strike Russian positions in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers claimed that the strike illustrates that Ukrainian forces may be able to target airfields and rear deployment and logistics centers in areas previously considered to be completely safe.[20] A prominent Russian milblogger compared the alleged use of the cruise missiles to the summer of 2022 when Ukrainian forces began using HIMARS rockets to target Russian logistics in Kherson Oblast and argued that the Russian information space is similarly attempting to downplay the impact that such systems may have.[21]

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on conducting the war in Ukraine in the style of the “Great Patriotic Special Military Operation” has opened the door for several hardline actors to advocate for the institutionalization of increasingly Stalinist domestic policies. Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin proposed on May 13 that, in light of the requirements for “economic security in a war,” Russia should take the path of “nationalization of the main sectors” of the economy.[22] A prominent Russian milblogger responded to Bastrykin’s statement and noted that whole-scale nationalization has transcended the rhetoric of the Communist Party and is now being advocated for by one of the largest Russian law enforcement agencies.[23] The milblogger remarked that the Russian elites appear to be increasingly using Bolshevik and Stalinist practices to organize Russian society for war in the absence of other successful historical analogues for wartime economic structuring.[24] ISW has previously assessed that Putin is invested in constructing false historical parallels between the war in Ukraine with the Soviet Great Patriotic War.[25] The emulation of these conditions on the highest levels of Russian government will likely continue to have domestic implications as the war continues and opens the door for increased normalization of Soviet and Stalinist practices in all branches of government.

 

Former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergey Avakyants reportedly received an appointment to lead a new Russian force generation organization called “Voin” (“Warrior”), which reportedly replaced Russia’s legacy Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF). One Russian source claimed on May 13 that the “Voin” organization, which will provide combat training and education to Russians between 14 and 35 years old, has “completely replaced” DOSAAF, which had been active in recruitment efforts.[26] ISW previously reported that the same Russian milblogger claimed that Avakyants will be forming a new “organization” which could cooperate with DOSAAF.[27] It is unclear what DOSAAF’s current status is if this milblogger’s report is accurate. It is also unclear if DOSAAF was disbanded and reformed into “Voin” or if “Voin” had subsumed DOSAAF’s organization into a new vertically integrated organization under Avakyants’ and the Russian Ministry of Defense‘s (MoD’s) control. This report, if accurate, could indicate a Kremlin effort to subordinate DOSAAF — a nominally non-governmental organization — under the MoD. DOSAAF, a Soviet-era youth movement for promoting military skills, has likely supported Russian forces and Wagner Group recruitment and youth education aimed at Russifying youth in occupied Ukraine.[28]

 

Belarusian President Lukashenko was reportedly hospitalized at a presidential hospital in Minsk on May 13. Independent Belarusian monitors reported that Lukashenko was hospitalized in Minsk around 19:00 local time on May 13 but that Lukashenko’s motorcade had left the hospital by around 21:00.[29] The status of Lukashenko’s health condition remains unclear. Lukashenko has not been seen in public nor has his office updated his weekly schedule with any events since his visit to Moscow on May 9.[30] Lukashenko did not deliver his traditional Victory Day address in Minsk, Belarus, on May 9 although it is not clear why.[31]

 

Key Takeaways 

 

  • Ukrainian forces continue to counterattack in the Bakhmut area amid unconfirmed claims of further marginal Ukrainian gains southwest of the city as of May 13.
  • Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 12 to 13.
  •  Russian media reported that two Russian Mi-8 helicopters, an Su-34 bomber, and an Su-35 fighter crashed in Bryansk Oblast on May 13, which some Russian sources claimed was caused by Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces struck rear Russian areas in Luhansk Oblast with British Storm Shadow cruise missiles on May 12 and 13, prompting heightened Russian anxiety about potential Ukrainian abilities to target Russian logistics.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on conducting the war in Ukraine in the style of the “Great Patriotic Special Military Operation” has opened the door for several hardline actors to advocate for the institutionalization of increasingly Stalinist domestic policies.
  • Former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergey Avakyants reportedly received an appointment to lead a new Russian force generation organization called “Voin” (“Warrior”), which reportedly replaced Russia’s legacy Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF).
  • Belarusian President Lukashenko was reportedly hospitalized at a presidential hospital in Minsk on May 13.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and northwest of Svatove.
  • Russian forces made marginal gains within Bakhmut and continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front.
  • Russian forces targeted Ukrainian positions in southern Ukraine west of Hulyaipole.
  • Russian forces are reportedly replenishing units with mobilized personnel.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of “rest and relaxation” schemes.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 12, 2023

 

Read the full report here

 

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

May 12, 2023, 6:15pm ET

 

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

 

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

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 3:00 pm ET on May 12. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 13 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

 

Important Note: ISW has reindexed its map layer for reported Ukrainian counteroffensives on May 12, 2023.  We removed reported Ukrainian counteroffensive coded before May 1, 2023, in order to delineate more clearly new Ukrainian territorial gains from gains secured in previous Ukrainian counteroffensives. ISW retained a few reported Ukrainian counteroffensives polygons from before May 1, 2023, specifically on the Dnipro River Delta south of Kherson Oblast, to preserve context in that complex area of operations. May 1, 2023, is an arbitrary date and does not mark the beginning or end of any assessed Ukrainian or Russian effort. ISW has reindexed its map layers before and similarly removed old reported Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts following the conclusion of the Battle of Kyiv in April 2022. 

 

Ukrainian forces have made gains northwest of Bakhmut in localized counterattacks as of May 12. Geolocated footage posted on May 12 shows Russian forces fleeing Ukrainian artillery fire on the southern bank of the Berkhivske Reservoir, about 4km northwest of Bakhmut.[1] This footage visually confirms claims made by a number of Russian milbloggers that Ukrainian forces made gains northwest of Bakhmut in the area between Bohdanivka and Berkhivka.[2] One Russian milblogger claimed that elements of the 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) lost their positions in the area between Hryhorivka and Dubovo-Vasylivka (about 6km northwest of Bakhmut).[3] Several Russian sources warned that Ukrainian forces may be attempting to encircle the Wagner Group within Bakhmut.[4] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Priogozhin emphasized that Ukrainian forces are approaching Berkhivka and claimed that Ukraine now holds positions within 500m of Bakhmut’s northwestern city limits.[5] Russian milbloggers additionally reported that Ukrainian troops are counterattacking towards Khromove (3km west of Bakhmut), Bohdanivka (6km northwest of Bakhmut), and Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut).[6] One Russian milblogger claimed that the situation southwest of Bakhmut near Mayorsk has stabilized following Ukrainian attacks on positions of the 1st Donetsk People’s Republic Army Corps.[7] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rejected claims made by other Russian sources regarding Ukrainian advances and claimed instead that elements of the 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (Luhansk People’s Republic) and 200th  Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) repelled all attacks in the Berkhivka area ”taking into account the favorable conditions of the Berkhivske Reservoir.”[8]

 

Russian milbloggers and other prominent voices in the pro-war information space continue to respond to recent Ukrainian counterattacks with varying degrees of caution and anxiety. Many milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian activity around Bakhmut marks the official beginning of the anticipated spring counteroffensive and speculated about where Ukraine’s main effort will take place.[9] Several prominent Russian voices, however, urged caution and restraint in responding to the counteroffensive, suggesting that some milbloggers are advocating for the application of certain lessons they took from the information space meltdown during Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives. Some milbloggers warned that reports about Ukrainian success could be a deliberate Ukrainian attempt to sow panic.[10] Another milblogger warned against accepting all reports that Ukrainian activities are “psychological operations” at face value and voiced concern about Russian propaganda responses to the counterattacks.[11] One milblogger suggested that credible reports of Ukrainian counterattacks do not mean that “everything is on fire,” cautioning the audience against falling into despair.[12] The milblogger remarked that telling the truth about Ukrainian operations does not amount to ”sowing panic.”[13] The overall Russian information space response appears to be focused on the idea of avoiding spreading panic.

 

Ukrainian and American officials stated that Ukrainian forces have not yet started the planned counteroffensive. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 12 that Ukrainian forces are still conducting defensive operations, which sometimes include counterattacks and other unspecified active actions.[14] A senior US military official and a senior Western official stated on May 12 that Ukrainian forces have started conducting “shaping” operations in advance of the counteroffensive.[15] Western reporting on this subject notably contradicts Russian sources, many of which have claimed the counteroffensive is officially underway.

 

Senior Russian officials proposed a series of domestic repression and censorship measures during the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum on May 11. The theme of the forum centered on the criminalization of “Russophobia,” a measure that Russian Human Rights Council Chairperson Valery Fadeev proposed and Deputy Minister of Justice Andrey Loginov and Russian Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova supported.[16] Moskalkova defined Russophobia as a “misanthropic ideology,” and a State Duma deputy claimed that the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for Russian officials for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children to Russia is an example of “Russophobia.”[17] Deputy Minister of Justice Oleg Sviridenko announced an expansion of the law against ”foreign agents” to include a section penalizing ”third parties” for aiding foreign agents in violating Russian law.[18] Russian Investigative Committee Chairperson Alexander Bastrykin asked Russian Constitutional Court Chairperson Valery Zorkin to look into ways of establishing an unspecified state ideology in the Russian Constitution, which Bastrykin claimed would require the Duma to adopt a new constitution rather than pass an amendment.[19] Russian Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko supported Bastrykin’s proposal, but Zorkin noted that the current constitution contains a set of values that can ”allow civil society to connect.”[20] Senior Russian officials’ introduction of such proposals indicates that the Kremlin may be gauging the information space reaction to increased repression measures and setting conditions for long-term strengthening of these measures.

 

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” held a press conference on May 12 to discuss its discontent with the current Russian conduct of the war in Ukraine. Former self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev emphasized that the goal of the “special military operation” should be the “elimination of Ukrainian statehood,” and “Another Russia” political party coordinator Mikhail Aksel accused Russian authorities of not taking the steps needed to realize the goals of the war.[21] Girkin himself reiterated his belief that the Russian military in its current state cannot achieve decisive battlefield results and criticized the inaction of Russian leadership.[22] As ISW has previously assessed, the Club of Angry Patriots is using its platform to launch specific critiques at the inner circles of Russian leadership while protecting a pro-war faction within the Kremlin.[23] The public format of this press conference is additionally noteworthy--Girkin and other members of the club typically use their individual Telegram channels to propagate their talking points, and a public press conference suggests that they have had some success in reaching broader audiences, potentially as domestic pro-war factions are increasingly discontent with the way Russia has been fighting the war thus far. The Club of Angry Patriots notably held the press conference during a period of high information space agitation about a future Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may inflame some factions’ criticisms of senior Russian leadership for poor performance in the war.

 

U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused South Africa of loading a Russian ship with ammunition and weapons in December 2022, contradicting its proclaimed neutral stance on the war in Ukraine.[24] Brigety stated on May 11 that a sanctioned Russian vessel containing weapons departed the Simon’s Town naval base in Cape Town on December 9, 2022, and arrived in Novorossiysk on February 22, 2023.[25] White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated on May 12 that these reports are a “serious issue” as the US has consistently and strongly urged other countries not to supply weapons to Russia.[26] South African officials stated that there is no evidence to support US accusations and summoned Brigety on May 12 after criticizing his statements.[27]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian forces have made gains northwest of Bakhmut in localized counterattacks as of May 12.
  • Russian milbloggers and other prominent voices in the pro-war information space continue to respond to recent Ukrainian counterattacks with varying degrees of caution and anxiety.
  • Ukrainian and American officials stated that Ukrainian forces have not yet started the planned counteroffensive.
  • Senior Russian officials proposed a series of domestic repression and censorship measures during the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum on May 11.
  • Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” held a press conference on May 12 to discuss its discontent with the current Russian conduct of the war in Ukraine.
  • U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused South Africa of loading a Russian ship with ammunition and weapons in December 2022, contradicting its proclaimed neutral stance on the war in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) attempted to distract from and assuage information space paranoia over a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive on the Kharkiv-Luhansk front.
  • Russian forces continue limited ground attacks in and around Bakhmut.
  • Russian sources continue to speculate about potential Ukrainian counteroffensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continue to recruit convicts and establish volunteer battalions as a part of crypto-mobilization efforts.
  • Senior Russian officials are claiming that they are taking active measures to return displaced and illegally deported Ukrainian civilians, including Ukrainian children, to occupied Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 11, 2023

 

Read the full report here.

 

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 11, 2023, 8pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Note: The data cutoff for this product was 2:00 pm ET on May 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

 

Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localized counterattacks near Bakhmut, prompting responses from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Russian forces retreated up to two kilometers behind Russian lines in unspecified sectors of the Bakhmut front.[1] Syrskyi’s confirmation of Ukrainian gains prompted a response from Prigozhin, who claimed that Ukrainian forces have started the counteroffensive and recaptured three kilometers of ground in and around Bakhmut.[2] The Russian MoD acknowledged the Ukrainian counterattacks uncharacteristically quickly, claiming that Russian forces repelled eight ground attacks and three reconnaissance-in-force efforts in the Donetsk direction but denied reports that Ukrainian forces broke through the Russian defensive lines.[3] Prigozhin’s and the MoD’s responses are reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives and indicate increased concern among Wagner and Russian MoD leadership as well as reflecting Kremlin guidance to avoid downplaying Ukrainian successes.[4]

 

The deployment of low-quality Russian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut suggests that the Russian MoD has largely abandoned the aim of encircling a significant number of Ukrainian forces there. The Russian MoD likely began a broader deprioritization of the Bakhmut effort by January 2023 when the MoD cut off Wagner Group penal recruitment efforts, which likely prompted Prigozhin to ramp up the Soledar-Bakhmut effort in January and publicly complain about the lack of MoD support for his efforts starting in February 2023.[5] The Russian MoD briefly allocated more resources to the Bakhmut front line in March and April by sending T-90 tanks and Russian Airborne (VDV) forces to the Bakhmut area and assigning mobilized reservists to Wagner, however.[6] Prigozhin claimed on April 24 that the Russian MoD only deployed irregular and degraded units to hold Bakhmut’s flanks, and the inability of these units to fulfill even this limited mission indicates that Russian flanks in Bakhmut and other similarly-manned areas of the front are likely vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks.[7] The MoD’s allocation of forces combined with changes in the geometry of the battlespace also suggests that the danger of a Russian encirclement of significant Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut may have passed. Wagner forces will likely continue conducting frontal assaults in Bakhmut, which would allow Ukrainian forces to conduct organized withdrawals from threatened areas in a shallower partial envelopment rather than facing encirclement on a large scale.

 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine needs more time to launch a counteroffensive because it is waiting for the delivery of promised military aid. Zelensky told the BBC that some of the expected military equipment has not arrived in Ukraine and that, although Ukrainian forces are ready for the counteroffensive, Ukraine would suffer too many casualties.[8] Zelensky also stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is important to prevent Russia from freezing the war.

 

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov contradicted the pre-war Kremlin justifications for the war by asserting that the Russian “special military operation” began as “a conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” He said that Russia has “partially” achieved the goals of “protecting” people in Donbas,[9] but added that Russia is still far from fully achieving these goals. He said that it was ”hard to believe” at the beginning of the war that NATO, the United States, and European countries would ”intervene in this conflict.” ISW previously reported that the Kremlin has begun to shift its domestic narratives to claim that Russia is fighting only against NATO in an effort to set informational conditions for potential Russian military failures during the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.[10] Peskov’s statement is consistent with the new Russian narrative but contradicts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements prior to the February 24, 2022 invasion. Putin stated on February 21, 2022, that Russia is ”not fighting the Ukrainian people” and claimed that Ukraine had become a hostage of its ”Western masters.”[11] The Russian pre-war justification for the invasion relied heavily on portraying a NATO threat to Russia supposedly emanating from Ukraine.[12]

 

Unnamed Kremlin sources claimed that Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent rhetoric is “seriously disturbing the top leadership” of Russia. Two Kremlin sources told Russian opposition outlet Meduza that the Kremlin saw Prigozhin’s attempts to blackmail the Russian MoD on May 5 as a “serious threat” and that Prigozhin is not acting in the Kremlin’s interests.[13] One interlocutor stated that Prigozhin is committed to claiming Bakhmut as a personal victory in order to have influence over the Russian MoD. The Kremlin reportedly expressed further concerns over Prigozhin’s May 9 mockery of the “happy grandfather” figure who is responsible for future Russian generations.[14] ISW assessed on May 9 that Prigozhin was likely referring to Putin, and a Kremlin source claims that Prigozhin’s statement was a direct allusion to Putin. The second interlocutor claimed that Prigozhin’s rhetoric cannot be interpreted as a “direct attack” on Putin, however. Prigozhin attempted on May 10 to downplay his original statements, claiming that the “happy grandfather” did not refer to Putin.[15] The sources noted that Prigozhin’s escalating behavior is likely a result of his inability to meet an unspecified deadline for the capture of Bakhmut. One source claimed that Prigozhin is blaming conventional units in order to avoid accepting responsibility for failing to follow through on his “personal promise” to capture Bakhmut.

 

The interlocutors noted that Prigozhin may have crossed the Kremlin’s “red lines” and may alienate his supporters within the Russian inner circle. Prigozhin reportedly is losing contact with one of his patrons, Russian billionaire and Putin’s “personal banker” Yuriy Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk was reportedly one of the leading voices supporting the full-scale invasion of Ukraine after developing a strong relationship with Putin during the Covid-19 pandemic.[16] The sources noted that Russian propagandists received a directive to discredit Prigozhin as a traitor if he continues to critique the Kremlin – an effort that has previously failed.[17] The sources assessed that Prigozhin is not at risk while Wagner is still on the frontline, which allows Prigozhin to have contact with Putin.

 

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied official Ukrainian and US reports that a Patriot missile defense system shot down a Kinzhal missile on the night of May 4.[18] Kremlin newswire TASS reported on May 11 that a “high-ranking source in the Russian MoD” denied reports that Ukraine intercepted a Kinzhal missile. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk had reported that Ukrainian forces used the Patriot system to shoot down a Kinzhal missile in the air over Kyiv Oblast at night on May 4.[19] The Russian MoD denied this report only after the US Department of Defense confirmed on May 9 that a Patriot air defense system had shot down a Russian Kinzhal missile.[20]

 

Russian occupation authorities seized the cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Simferopol as oppression of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church continues in Russian-occupied Crimea. The Commissioner of the Crimean Eparchy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Kliment of Simferopol, and Crimean journalist Andriy Shchekun reported on May 11 that representatives of the Russian State Property Fund of the Republic of Crimea and other occupation authorities broke down the doors of the church and began stealing the property of the cathedral.[21] ISW has previously reported on Russia’s religious repression throughout occupied Ukraine.[22]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localized counterattacks near Bakhmut, prompting responses from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • The deployment of low-quality Russian forces on the flanks around Bakhmut suggests that the Russian MoD has largely abandoned the aim of encircling a significant number of Ukrainian forces there.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine needs more time to launch a counteroffensive because it is waiting for the delivery of promised military aid.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov contradicted the pre-war Kremlin justifications for the war by asserting that the Russian “special military operation” began as “a conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”
  • Unnamed Kremlin sources claimed that Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent rhetoric is “seriously disturbing the top leadership” of Russia.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied Ukrainian and US reports that a Patriot missile defense system shot down a Kinzhal missile on the night of May 4.
  • Russian occupation authorities seized the cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Simferopol as oppression of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church continues in Russian-occupied Crimea.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly continued to conduct localized counterattacks around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces targeted Ukrainian positions west of Hulyaipole and in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russia needs to produce over 29 million shells per year to satisfy Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demands for Wagner to use 80,000 shells per day – 13 times more than Russia’s pre-invasion annual production rate.
  • Russian officials continue to threaten and seek to manipulate international humanitarian efforts by threatening to dissolve the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is set to expire on May 18.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 10, 2023

 

Read the full report here.

 

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

 

May 10, 2023, 4pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Pervasive issues with Russian combat capability, exacerbated by continued attritional assaults in the Bakhmut area, are likely considerably constraining the ability of Russian forces in this area to defend against localized Ukrainian counterattacks. The 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade itself is emblematic of many of the endemic force generation issues constantly faced by the Russian military. ISW reported on August 7, 2022, that the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade was forming in Orenburg Oblast as part of the 3rd Army Corps, a new formation created in 2022 and largely comprised of volunteer battalions.[7] Forbes reported in September of 2022 that the 3rd Army Corps deployed to Kharkiv Oblast and that the Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensive largely destroyed the corps’ constituent elements, likely including the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade.[8] Ukrainian media suggested that the surviving elements of the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade may have redeployed to Mykolaiv Oblast following the Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensive, where they once against suffered losses during Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive in October 2022.[9] ISW cannot confirm where the 72nd Brigade deployed to following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River, but it is highly likely that whatever elements of the 72nd Brigade that deployed to the Bakhmut area more recently are not operating at anywhere near full strength. The Russian military command’s apparent commitment of elements of a formation that has suffered two successive defeats to the Bakhmut axis alongside already attrited Wagner elements likely offer Ukrainian forces opportunities to exploit with limited counterattacks. A Russian milblogger, citing a Wagner commander active in the Bakhmut area, additionally reported that the alleged withdrawal of the 72nd Brigade was the result of severe miscommunication between command of the 72nd Brigade and the Wagner Group.[10] Issues with the ad hoc commitment of various depleted force groupings to the Bakhmut axis, alongside apparent command and control failures, are likely preventing Russian forces in the area from conducting sound defensive operations.

 

Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck a command center where high-ranking Ukrainian military commanders and officials were located, likely to support an ongoing effort to frame Russian operations as constraining Ukrainian capabilities to launch a counteroffensive. Russian milbloggers claimed on May 10 that Russian forces struck the command post near Chasiv Yar (12km west of Bakhmut), killing Ukrainian Chief Advisor to the Directorate for Domestic and Humanitarian Policy Alexei Titarenko.[11] Russian milbloggers speculated that the strike may have killed other high-ranking Ukrainian commanders and officials and stated that the strike has prompted completely unsubstantiated rumors, which Ukrainian officials have explicitly denied, that it killed Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Valery Zaluzhnyi.[12] Milbloggers acknowledged that the strike likely did not kill Zaluzhnyi but argued that it may be affecting his decisions to attend certain events.[13] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that all the Ukrainian commanders in question are alive and that claims about the killing of Ukrainian commanders are a part of a Russian information operation aimed at degrading Ukrainian morale.[14] ISW assessed that Russian ultranationalists recently claimed that Russian forces struck a vehicle carrying Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces Commander General Ihor Tantsyura to frame Russian operations as limiting Ukrainian abilities to conduct counterattacks in the Bakhmut area.[15] Russian sources have also largely framed increasingly routine series of Russian air and missile strikes as similarly constraining potential upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[16] There is no evidence to support these Russian claims.

 

The US Department of Defense (DoD) confirmed on May 9 that Ukrainian forces successfully used the Patriot missile defense system to shoot down a Russian missile for the first time.[17] Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk had reported that Ukrainian forces used the Patriot system to shoot down a missile in the air over Kyiv Oblast at night on May 4.[18] The Biden administration also announced a new $1.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on May 9.[19] The package includes additional air defense systems, 155-mm artillery rounds, and equipment to integrate Ukrainian air defense systems with Western-supplied equipment.[20]

 

Key Takeaways 

 

  • Ukrainian forces conducted successful limited counterattacks around Bakhmut on May 9.
  • Pervasive issues with Russian combat capabilities, exacerbated by continued attritional assaults in the Bakhmut area, are likely considerably constraining the ability of Russian forces in this area to defend against localized Ukrainian counterattacks.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck a command center where Ukrainian military commanders and officials were located, likely to support an ongoing effort to frame Russian operations as constraining Ukrainian capabilities to launch a counteroffensive.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) confirmed that Ukrainian forces successfully shot down a Russian missile using the Patriot missile defense system. The Biden administration also announced a new $1.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in the Kupyansk and Kreminna areas.
  • Russian and Wagner Group forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut on May 10, despite Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s previous threat that Wagner would withdraw from the area at midnight.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front.
  • Russian forces conducted airstrikes on Ukrainian positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an annual decree calling up citizens from reserves for military training.
  • Russian occupation authorities are continuing the removal of Ukrainian residents from their homes in occupied areas under the guise of humanitarian evacuations.

     

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 9, 2023

 

Read the full report here.

 

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, and Mason Clark

 

May 9, 2023, 7:15pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to use his Victory Day address to make any significant rhetorical changes and reiterated existing narratives, preparing for a protracted war and framing Russia as successfully resisting the entire West. Putin stated in his annual address marking the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany on May 9 that “a real war has been unleashed against Russia” and that Russia has repelled international terrorism and will continue to “defend” residents in Donbas.[1] Putin has previously claimed the West is waging a global “war” against Russia.”[2] Putin has previously referred to the Russian military campaign in Ukraine as a ”war” but this rhetoric, whether an intentional acknowledgement of the scale of the fighting or not, has not corresponded with any changes in the Kremlin’s approach to the “special military operation.”[3] Putin similarly declined to use recent notable events such as his annual New Year’s Eve address or his February 2023 address to the Federal Assembly to offer any concrete vision on how to reverse the Russian military’s setbacks in Ukraine or reframe the war.[4] Putin has instead used these events to reinforce long-standing rhetorical lines aimed at preparing the Russian public for a protracted war in Ukraine by evoking the memory of World War Two without calling on Russian society to support full mobilization.[5]

 

Putin additionally attempted to use Victory Day celebrations to rally Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) partners, many of which have sought to reduce their reliance on the Kremlin since February 2022. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev joined Putin at the Moscow Victory Day parade in Red Square.[6] Putin emphasized the importance of CIS leaders attending the event and repeated boilerplate Kremlin rhetoric that Russia is pursuing a multi-polar world order.[7] Putin’s latest efforts to rally CIS countries was muted by the reluctance of several Central Asian leaders initially expressed towards attending the Victory Day event, and Lukashenko did not join the rest of the leaders at an earlier wreath laying ceremony.[8] Lukashenko also did not deliver his traditional Victory Day address in Minsk, Belarus, although it is not immediately clear why.[9] Other non-Western states have largely rebuffed the Kremlin’s attempts to coalesce a potential anti-Western coalition, most notably China through its increasing rhetorical distancing from Russia.[10] ISW has previously assessed that the degradation of Russian military power in Ukraine has likely made this Russian effort even less attractive to other states.[11]The Victory Day events showcased far less military equipment than usual (including only a single World War Two–era T-34/85 and no modern tanks, which Russia badly needs in Ukraine) and demonstrated the further degradation of the Russian military, despite the Kremlin’s attempts in previous weeks to downplay Victory Day by downsizing parades and outright canceling events.[12]

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized the Victory Day holiday as an opportunity to mock Putin and question his judgement. Prigozhin referred to a “happy grandfather” figure who “thinks that he is good” during a discussion of ammunition shortages and Russia’s future prospects in Ukraine.[13]Prigozhin then rhetorically asked what Russia and future generations should do and how Russia can win if the “grandfather” turns out to be a “complete asshole.” Prigozhin also noted that unnamed figures (likely referring to Putin and the senior Russian MoD figures) should stop showing off on Red Square. Prigozhin is likely referring to Putin, who is often referred to as “grandfather” (or more specifically
“Bunkernyi ded” or “bunker grandfather”), and Prigozhin has previously attacked other senior Russian officials and officers by name — but has not done so against Putin. Prigozhin has previously attempted to upstage Putin’s authority through similar rhetorical stunts.[14] Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin may — if the Kremlin does not respond to Prigozhin’s thinly veiled criticism of Putin on Victory Day — further erode the norm in Putin’s system in which individual actors can jockey for position and influence (and drop in and out of Putin’s favor) but cannot directly criticize Putin.

 

Prigozhin announced that Wagner forces will not withdraw from Bakhmut by his previously stated deadline of May 10, despite the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) failing to provide Wagner with additional shells. Prigozhin stated on May 9 that Wagner will continue to fight for Bakhmut and will continue to uphold its demands in the next few days.[15] Prigozhin stated that Wagner did not receive the total ammunition the Russian MoD allegedly promised it in a May 7 order, and claimed Wagner only received 10 percent of the requested ammunition on May 8. Prigozhin added that the Russian MoD order threatened Wagner with treason if Prigozhin withdrew his forces from Bakhmut, likely one of the reasons why Prigozhin is not following through on his May 5 threat to withdraw from Bakhmut if the Russian MoD failed to fully supply Wagner with ammunition by May 10, a threat he dropped on May 7.[16] Prigozhin also noted that he has not been able to contact deputy theater commander in Ukraine and intermediary between the Russian MoD and Wagner, Army General Sergey Surovikin.

 

Prigozhin’s failure to follow through on his May 5 withdrawal threat indicates his cognizance of his dependence on the Russian MoD. Prigozhin attempted to blackmail the Russian MoD into reprioritizing the Bakhmut offensive so he could independently claim victory in the city at the expense of the Russian military’s likely preparations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.[17] Prigozhin criticized officials in charge of allocating ammunition of pointlessly conserving shells and allowing Russian servicemen to die in battle, though the Russian MoD is likely (smartly) conserving limited ammunition to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive.[18] Prigozhin likely expected the Russian MoD to entirely cave to his demands at the risk of abandoning their own objectives for regular Russian forces but likely realized he cannot follow through with his ultimatum at this time. Prigozhin also likely anticipated that Surovikin would be able to coerce the Russian MoD into satisfying Wagner demands; but his inability to reach Surovikin, if true, indicates that Prigozhin does not have as much leverage within the Russian MoD as he imagined.

 

Prigozhin continued to blame high casualties and the slow pace of advances in Bakhmut on other Russian irregular formations to frame Wagner as the only competent force operating in the area. Prigozhin accused the 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 3rd Army Corps of abandoning a strategic position in Bakhmut which resulted in 500 Wagner casualties on May 9.[19] Prigozhin accused the Russian MoD (which he nicknamed “the Russian Ministry of Drama”) of focusing on internal conflicts instead of fighting, which he claimed leads forces to “run away.” Prigozhin also criticized the Russian “Potok” battalion — which is affiliated with Russian state energy company Gazprom — for fleeing. Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels previously accused “Potok” of abandoning Wagner’s flanks in Bakhmut, and ISW assessed that Prigozhin launched a campaign to undermine Russian state-affiliated private military companies (PMCs).[20]

 

Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of May 8 to 9. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 9 that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 8 Kalibr cruise missiles and 15 of the 17 Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles that Russian forces launched.[21] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that three S-300 missiles struck civilian infrastructure in Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka in Donetsk Oblast.[22] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces conducted a concentrated strike on Ukrainian temporary deployment points and ammunition depots, successfully striking all targets.[23] The continuation of Russian missile strikes at a smaller scale than the daily strikes during the failed Russian campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure likely indicates that Russian forces are more focused on sustaining a regular series of missile strikes than the actual effectiveness of the strikes.[24]Russian forces may be attempting to conduct an almost daily series of missile strikes in order to portray themselves as constraining potential upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, although the diminished effectiveness of the strikes is likely not significantly constraining Ukrainian actions.

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to use his Victory Day address to make any significant rhetorical changes and reiterated existing narratives, preparing for a protracted war and framing Russia as successfully resisting the entire West.
  • Putin additionally attempted to use Victory Day celebrations to rally Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) partners, many of which have sought to reduce their reliance on the Kremlin since February 2022.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely seized the Victory Day holiday as an opportunity to mock Putin and question his judgement in one of his most direct challenges of Putin to date.
  • Prigozhin announced that Wagner forces will not withdraw from Bakhmut by the previously stated deadline of May 10 despite the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) failing to resolve the claimed “shell hunger.”
  • Prigozhin’s failure to abide by the withdrawal threat he made on May 5 indicates that he is cognizant of his dependence on the Russian MoD.
  • Prigozhin continued to blame high casualties and the slow pace of advance in Bakhmut on other Russian irregular formations to frame Wagner as the only competent force operating in the area.
  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of May 8 to 9.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to make marginal gains within Bakhmut and continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka–Donetsk front.
  • Russian forces targeted Ukrainian positions west of Hulyaipole and in Kherson Oblast.
  • Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov opened a new military camp for the “Sever Akhmat” Special Purpose Regiment in the Republic of Chechnya.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to deport civilians deeper into Russian-occupied territory.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 8, 2023

 

Click Here for the full report

 

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 8, 2023, 4:30pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile and drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 7 to 8. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 8 that Russian forces launched 16 missiles at Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa oblasts, and that Ukrainian forces shot down all 35 launched Shahed drones.[1] Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 36 Russian drones targeting Kyiv out of a 60 total launched against Ukraine, however.[2]  Klitschko did not specify how many total drones Ukrainian forces shot down elsewhere in Ukraine. Klitschko’s report is more likely accurate as it was posted nearly four hours after the initial round of Ukrainian reporting on the Shahed strike. The Ukrainian Red Cross stated that one Russian missile destroyed an entire Red Cross warehouse in Odesa Oblast.[3] Russian milbloggers celebrated claims that Russian forces intensified strikes against Kyiv, with one milblogger claiming that Russian forces conducted the largest strike campaign against Kyiv since the start of the war.[4] Russian sources are likely overcompensating for ineffectiveness of the drone strikes by playing up the size and scale of the effort.

 

Senior Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces may be preparing to conduct counteroffensive operations in May or June. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on May 7 that Ukrainian forces are preparing for “new events” in May or June 2023.[5] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov stated in a May 8 interview that the timing and location of a Ukrainian counteroffensive is not significant because Russian forces and leadership will panic regardless, but that he would not be surprised if “something,” possibly alluding to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, occurred in May or June.[6] The Ukrainian Defense Forces Military Media Center stated that Russian forces continue to transfer military equipment, ammunition, and supplies to Ukraine to prepare for a defensive operation against a Ukrainian counteroffensive push.[7]

 

Russian-occupied Transnistria asked Russia to increase its peacekeeping contingent in the region, likely to support the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Moldova. A Transnistrian occupation representative to Moscow, Leonid Manakov, asked Russia to increase the number of peacekeepers in Transnistria due to claims of increasing security and terrorist risks.[8] Manakov proposed that Transnistria increase the number of peacekeepers by involving the Russians living in Transnistria in the peacekeeping operations. Manakov’s statement follows reports of Moldovan prosecutors detaining and cracking down on the members of the pro-Russian ”Shor” party in mid-April and May.[9] Chisinau detained 27 protestors from the ”Shor” party on May 7.[10] Kremlin’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov did not comment on Manakov’s proposals.[11] White House officials warned in March that individuals linked with Russian intelligence were planning to stage protests against the Moldovan government in order to install a pro-Russian administration. Manakov’s statements are likely a continuation of the Kremlin’s effort to destabilize Moldova.[12] Russia remains unlikely to deploy additional forces to Transnistria given its ongoing need for forces in Ukraine.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to use the Moscow Victory Day parade to show Russia’s continued influence in Central Asia. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon are reportedly attending the Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9.[13] Kremlin-affiliated news outlet Vedemosti reported Japarov’s visit to Moscow for Victory Day on April 23, while Russian media reported Tokayev’s, Mirziyoyev’s, and Rakhmon’s visits on May 8, only one day before the Victory Day parade in Moscow.[14] Russian independent news outlet SOTA reported that Rakhmon’s press service initially announced that Rakhmon would celebrate in Dushanbe, but later stated that Rakhmon had arrived in Moscow for Victory Day.[15] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Putin also invited Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov but he did not confirm his attendance.[16] No foreign leader attended Moscow Victory Day in 2022, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan did not hold Victory Day parades in 2022 with some citing health risks from the coronavirus pandemic.[17] The late announcement of Central Asian leaders’ attendance likely indicates their reticence to show direct and public support of the war despite Kremlin efforts to project power. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan reportedly also flew to Moscow to attend the Victory Day parade.[18]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile and drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 7 to 8.
  • Senior Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces may be preparing to conduct counteroffensive operations in May or June.
  • Russian-occupied Transnistria called on Russia to increase its peacekeepers in the region likely to support the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Moldova.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to use the Victory Day parade to show Russia’s continued influence in Central Asia.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces have made marginal advances within Bakhmut as of May 8 amid reports of intensified Wagner Group forces offensive operations and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities have reportedly escalated their campaign targeting ethnic minorities for contract service in the Russian military.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 7, 2023

Click Here for the full report

 

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 7, 2023, 6:25pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov may have compelled the Russian theater commander in Ukraine, Army General Valery Gerasimov, to resume artillery ammunition distribution to the Wagner forces in Bakhmut despite Gerasimov’s desired de-prioritization of that effort. Prigozhin announced on May 7 that he had obtained a document from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) that promised to supply Wagner forces with the ammunition and weapons necessary to maintain offensive operations in Bakhmut.[1] Prigozhin has not published the official document and ISW cannot verify Prigozhin’s claims at this time. The Russian MoD likely has not fundamentally changed its intention of deprioritizing offensive operations and conserving munitions across the theater, as ISW has recently assessed. Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely effectively blackmailed the Russian MoD into allocating resources to Wagner forces in Bakhmut by threatening to pull Kadyrov’s Chechen forces from other parts of the theater to relieve Wagner forces in Bakhmut.[2] Prigozhin also claimed that the MoD gave Wagner complete freedom of operations in Bakhmut and appointed Army General Sergey Surovikin as an intermediary between the MoD and Wagner, actions that would indicate that Gerasimov and possibly Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu lack the ability to command Prigozhin and Kadyrov as subordinates but must instead negotiate with them as peers.[3] This assessment assumes that Prigozhin’s claims that the MoD was withholding shells but has now agreed to supply them are true—the MoD has made no official statements regarding those claims—and Ukrainian officials report that they have not observed a decline in Wagner shelling during this period (see below).[4]

 

Kadyrov’s threats to transfer his forces to Bakhmut may have blackmailed the Russian military command into allocating ammunition to Wagner mercenaries. Kadyrov published a letter on May 6 asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to order Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Director of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvadia) Viktor Zolotov to authorize the transfer of Chechen “Akhmat” units from “other directions” to assume Wagner’s positions in the Bakhmut direction.[5] Kadyrov’s letter to Putin bypassed the Russian chain of command, and the withdrawal of Chechen forces from other parts of the theater likely posed a risk to Russian defensive lines, a risk that Gerasimov and Shoigu, or Putin, appear to have been unwilling to take. ISW previously observed Akhmat units operating in the Bilohorivka area on the Svatove-Kreminna line and in Zaporizhia Oblast, and their withdrawal from those positions might undermine Russia’s defensive preparations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.[6] Shoigu and Gerasimov, who have been consistently loyal to Putin’s orders, may alternatively have decided to allocate ammunition to Wagner at Putin’s direction. Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s apparently successful joint blackmail efforts further indicate that Gerasimov does not actually control all the Russian forces in Ukraine, despite being the nominal theater commander. Gerasimov likely attempted to assume control over all Russian irregular forces over the winter of 2023 but had failed in that endeavor even before losing favor with Putin in the spring.[7]

 

Kadyrov likely supported Wagner’s blackmail efforts against the Russian military command in order to reestablish his position within the circle of power in the Kremlin. Kadyrov had previously held an influential position within Putin's close circle until apparently losing favor recently, likely because his forces played a limited role in active combat operations in Ukraine throughout the late fall of 2022 and winter of 2023.[8] Putin belittled Kadyrov during their meeting on March 13 where Kadyrov appeared visibly nervous when reporting on the Chechen fighters’ role in Ukraine.[9] Kadyrov likely saw Prigozhin’s threats to withdraw from Bakhmut as an opportunity to play up the effectiveness of his forces against the backdrop of Gerasimov‘s and Shoigu’s failures to deliver decisive victories during the winter-spring offensive.

 

Gerasimov's apparent need to negotiate with subordinate commanders and those commanders’ ability to force his hand suggests that chain of command problems are having a significant impact on the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations. The position of overall theater commander should in principle allow Gerasimov to command any Russian unit or ground forces commander in Ukraine, even those in charge of irregular formations such as Wagner and Akhmat. Prigozhin and Kadyrov appear to be able to largely make independent decisions concerning their forces, however, a phenomenon that appears to have become more pronounced the longer these forces have had de facto control over certain sectors of the frontline. Wagner and the Russian MoD appeared to have recently reached an agreement about the delineation of responsibilities between conventional and irregular forces. The Russian military command deployed Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) to defend the flanks around Bakhmut around when Wagner began advancing in the city itself, for example.[10] ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command had likely recently decided to reprioritize efforts and resource allocation to prepare to receive potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations but did not set conditions to appease Prigozhin or offset Wagner’s likely degradation in the Bakhmut area.[11] The subsequent upheaval over the de-prioritization of Bakhmut and the Russian military command's reversal on supplying Wagner is likely to undermine this theater-wide effort.

 

These events raise questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign. The Russian military command appears to be increasingly delegating responsibilities for different sectors of the front in Ukraine to various Russian commanders while the power of the theater commander continues to wane.[12] Gerasimov’s degraded abilities to control his commanders will likely further limit the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent operations involving different areas of responsibility. ISW has previously assessed that factional dynamics within the Russian military are shaping decision-making to an unusual degree, and the increasing erosion of the Russian chain of command is likely caught in a self-reinforcing feedback loop with the Russian military’s growing factionalism.[13] ISW assesses that Putin is unlikely to remove Gerasimov as overall theater commander for reputational reasons, and therefore Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s public undermining of Gerasimov may have lasting impacts on the power of the overall theater commander’s position.[14] Putin may seek to reward commanders he favors with responsibility beyond their official positions instead of outright appointing them to higher positions.[15] The Russian military is highly unlikely to solve these chain of command issues in the near term, and these problems will likely influence how Russian forces on different axes respond to potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

 

Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s ability to significantly influence the Russian military command decisions relies on Putin’s willingness to appease them and his reliance on their forces, both of which will likely degrade after further blackmail efforts. Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov retain likely differing amounts of favor and personal contact with Putin despite their individual tensions with the Russian military command.[16] The decision to blackmail and subsequently humiliate the Russian military command may have expended a fair amount of Prigozhin‘s and Kadyrov’s political capital to influence operational and strategic-level military decision-making. Such high-profile blackmailing is likely not a feasible long-term strategy for Prigozhin and Kadyrov given their reliance on Putin’s favor to bend the MoD to their demands. Prigozhin has already lost favor with Putin in recent months, with recent events appearing to demonstrate that he needed Kadyrov’s own capital to successfully blackmail the Russian military command into additional ammunition provision. Putin notably avoids firing members of his inner circle, however, instead rotating them into and out of favor, influence, and resources.[17] Prigozhin and Kadyrov are unlikely to generate such extreme effects again without damaging their relationships with Putin.

 

Prigozhin’s continued fight to complete the capture of Bakhmut contradicts his consistent narrative that capturing Bakhmut lacks strategic value. Prigozhin released a 41-point letter on May 6 (prior to his announcement about the provision of additional ammunition) criticizing the Russian MoD for intentionally refusing to support Wagner in Bakhmut.[18] Prigozhin claimed that he and Surovikin organized “Operation Bakhmut Meatgrinder” in October 2022 to provoke Kyiv into throwing Ukrainian forces into Bakhmut en masse.[19] Prigozhin reiterated that Wagner’s main task in Bakhmut has always been to exhaust Ukrainian forces in a meat-grinder, and not to capture the settlement.[20] Prigozhin claimed that completing the capture of Bakhmut is not operationally significant, rejecting Shoigu’s March 7 claim that taking Bakhmut would open the way for further Russian offensive efforts in Donbas, a narrative that Prigozhin has consistently maintained since November 2022.[21] Prigozhin’s long-standing claims that Bakhmut is not of strategic importance contradict his demand that the Russian MoD provides Wagner with the necessary ammunition to allow it to complete the capture of Bakhmut, suggesting that Prigozhin continues to prioritize his own personal aims over those of the Russian military command and the good of the overall Russian war effort.[22]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov may have compelled the Russian theater commander in Ukraine, Army General Valery Gerasimov, to resume artillery ammunition distribution to Wagner forces in Bakhmut despite Gerasimov’s desired de-prioritization of that effort.
  • Kadyrov’s threats to transfer his forces to Bakhmut may have blackmailed the Russian military command into allocating ammunition to Wagner mercenaries.
  • Kadyrov likely supported Wagner’s blackmail efforts against the Russian military command to reestablish his position within the circle of power of the Kremlin.
  • Gerasimov's apparent need to negotiate with subordinate commanders and those commanders’ ability to force his hand suggests that chain of command problems are significantly impacting the Russian military's ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations.
  • These events raise questions about Russia’s ability to coordinate a coherent theater-wide defensive campaign.
  • Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s ability to significantly influence Russian military command decisions relies on Putin’s willingness to appease them and his reliance on their forces – both of which will likely degrade after further blackmail efforts.
  • Prigozhin’s continued fight to complete the capture of Bakhmut contradicts his consistent narrative that capturing Bakhmut lacks strategic value.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made some territorial gains in Bakhmut as of May 7 and continued limited offensive operations on the Avdiivka-Donetsk front.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces launched up to 23 drones at Crimea on the night of May 6 to 7.
  • Russian federal subjects are continuing to recruit and form regional armed formations and volunteer battalions.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to plan and carry out forced evacuations from Zaporizhia Oblast.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 6, 2023

 

Click Here for the full report

 

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Mason Clark

 

May 6, 2023, 4:30pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov stated their intent on May 6 for Chechen “Akhmat” troops to replace Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut on May 10. Prigozhin published a letter to Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu on May 6 declaring that Wagner will hand over its positions to Akhmat units at exactly midnight on May 10, when Prigozhin claims Wagner will have entirely run out of combat potential.[1] Prigozhin expressed his confidence that Akhmat forces can capture the remaining 2.5 square kilometers of Bakhmut that remain under Ukrainian control.[2] Kadyrov responded to Prigozhin by stating he has addressed a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin signaling his readiness to take Bakhmut and claimed that Chechen units are already working on a strategy with the Russian MoD for the Chechens to take over Wagner‘s positions.[3]

 

Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely aim to frame the Russian MoD and regular Russian troops as ineffective and set conditions to blame the MoD for any Russian setbacks in the Bakhmut area. Prigozhin’s decision to hand responsibility for Bakhmut over to the forces of a fellow silovik deliberately excludes the conventional Russian airborne (VDV) troops already operating on Wagner’s northern and southern flanks around Bakhmut, framing the battle of Bakhmut strictly as a Wagner – and now Akhmat – concern. This decision reflects Prigozhin’s ongoing distrust of the Russian military command, and postures himself as independent from the Russian military establishment and allows him to save face if Wagner forces cannot capture Bakhmut and avoiding a repeat of the capture of Soledar – where the Russian MoD took credit for what Prigozhin claimed was a Wagner success.[4] Kadyrov, in turn, could benefit from the positive reputational effect of entering such a high-profile operation with the backing of Prigozhin’s personal notoriety. Kadyrov recently met with several high-ranking Russian officials in Russia, likely to ameliorate his own reputation within Russian political circles.[5] The switch from Wagner to Akhmat troops may also set conditions to blame the Russian MoD for future failures down the line  — if Akhmat forces experience similar difficulties to Wagner and are unable to completely capture Bakhmut, Prigozhin and Kadyrov may feasibly blame the MoD for failing to adequately support their efforts. Alternatively, if the Russian MoD prevents Akhmat forces from relieving Wagner (as it is unclear if Prigozhin and Kadyrov can execute this maneuver without any Russian MoD support as they claim), the two siloviki and their allies will likely brandish the hypothetical that if only the Russian MoD had supported the maneuver, Chechen forces would have captured Bakhmut quickly.

 

While the potential deployment of Akhmat troops to Bakhmut could increase Russian combat power to some degree, the claims made by Prigozhin and Kadyrov are greatly exaggerated. Akhmat forces have deployed throughout Ukraine, mostly in the Bilohorivka area in Luhansk Oblast and in scattered areas in the south, over the course of 2023 but have not been majorly committed to decisive offensive operations.[6] The Chechen forces that would deploy to Bakhmut are therefore likely substantially fresher and less degraded than Wagner forces which have remained on the front for months. However, Kadyrov’s suggestion that Akhmat will be able to rapidly advance in and occupy Bakhmut in “a matter of hours” is typical Kadyrov braggadocio and ignores the tactical situation on the ground in Bakhmut.[7] Additionally, Prigozhin’s suggestion that Wagner will lose its combat potential at exactly midnight on May 10 is a rhetorical point selected to avoid withdrawing before Victory Day on May 9 - fighting forces do not precipitously exhaust all their combat capabilities in one discrete instant. 

 

The Russian MoD has yet to respond to Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s coordinated posturing about Bakhmut and may have been caught flatfooted by Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s statements. ISW assesses that the Russian military is likely reprioritizing logistics and sustainment processes to transition to defensive operations in most areas of the theater ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, and Prigozhin’s focus on Bakhmut may be at odds with changing Russian MoD priorities.[8] Russian forces likely do not have reserves they could commit to Bakhmut should Wagner’s ability to sustain operations in the city completely collapse, as Prigozhin is claiming.[9] The Russian MoD continues to claim that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are defending the flanks around Bakhmut, and ISW has not observed VDV elements directly contributing to Wagner’s offensive within the city itself.[10] The Russian military likely intends for these VDV elements to stabilize the wider Bakhmut salient given Wagner’s increasingly degraded combat effectiveness in the area, and Russian forces are unlikely to commit these elements to a final phase of attritional fighting in Bakhmut ahead of expected Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[11] The capture of the last remaining section of Bakhmut offers no wider operational benefits and would only provide limited informational benefits for the Kremlin. The MoD’s silence is likely reflective of a conscious decision to not offset Wagner’s degradation or placate Prigozhin’s expected anger, although the lack of response is allowing Prigozhin more maneuver space to shape the overall reaction to the de-prioritization of the Bakhmut offensive.

 

At least one individual with claimed but unconfirmed affiliation to the Ukrainian government attempted to assassinate Russian “A Just Russia” State Duma party co-leader and prominent nationalist voice Zakhar Prilepin on May 6. The attackers targeted Prelipin with an improvised explosive device (IED) on or near Prilepin’s car in Pionerskoye, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, killing Prilepin’s driver and severely injuring Prilepin.[12] The Russian Investigative Committee announced it is investigating the attack as a terrorist attack and stated Russian security forces arrested Oleksandr Permyakov, who Russian state-affiliated media claimed conducted the attack on the orders of Ukrainian Special Services (SBU).[13] Russian news aggregator Channel 112 claimed that Russian authorities detained a second unspecified attacker in a nearby forest area, but Russian authorities have not corroborated this report.[14] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Ukraine and the West of orchestrating the attack, though Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that it is too early to know the attackers and orchestrators.[15] The Atesh Ukrainian-Tatar resistance movement claimed indirect responsibility for the attack, though Ukrainian and Russian officials have not corroborated this claim.[16] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly fostered ties with ”A Just Russia” party leadership, though it is uncertain if the attack against Prilepin is related to Prigozhin.[17]

 

Many prominent Russian nationalist information space voices expressed anger at another attack against a prominent pro-war voice in Russia itself and connected the attack to the assassinations of Darya Dugina and Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky).[18] Many milbloggers blamed Ukraine and Western states for orchestrating the attack and called on Russia to increase law enforcement measures.[19] Some milbloggers called on Russia to provide personal security for prominent milbloggers or to re-establish the Soviet-era SMERSH counterintelligence umbrella to combat enemy penetration attempts.[20]

 

CNN reported that Russian electronic warfare (EW) jamming has limited the effectiveness of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes in recent months.[21] CNN cited five US, UK, and Ukrainian sources as saying that US and Ukrainian forces have had to adapt workarounds to counter “evolving” Russian EW jamming efforts, and that Russian forces have subsequently developed countermeasures to those workarounds.[22] US officials stated that destroying Russian EW systems is a high priority in maintaining the battlefield effectiveness of HIMARS.[23] ISW is unable to confirm this report, but Russian forces retain at least some ability to adapt to battlefield conditions despite significant degradation.

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov stated their intent on May 6 for Chechen “Akhmat” troops to replace Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut on May 10.
  • Prigozhin and Kadyrov likely aim to frame the Russian MoD and regular Russian troops as ineffective and set conditions to blame the MoD for any Russian setbacks in the Bakhmut area.
  • While the potential deployment of Akhmat troops to Bakhmut could increase Russian combat power to some degree, the claims made by Prigozhin and Kadyrov are greatly exaggerated.
  • The Russian MoD has yet to respond to Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s coordinated posturing about Bakhmut and may have been caught flatfooted by Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s statements.
  • At least one individual with claimed but unconfirmed affiliation to the Ukrainian government attempted to assassinate Russian “A Just Russia” State Duma party co-leader and prominent nationalist voice Zakhar Prilepin on May 6.
  • CNN reported that Russian electronic warfare (EW) jamming has limited the effectiveness of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes in recent months.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk and in the Kreminna area.
  • Russian forces continued to make marginal gains within Bakhmut and Ukrainian forces likely conducted a successful limited counterattack southwest of Avdiivka.
  • Russian occupation officials claimed that Ukrainian forces targeted Crimea with Hrim-2 short-range ballistic missiles.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that Russian authorities are continuing various measures to forcibly mobilize residents of occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to plan for mass forced evacuations in Zaporizhia Oblast.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 5, 2023 

Click here to read the full report.

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

May 5, 2023, 6pm ET

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

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

 

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to have deprioritized the Bakhmut offensive in favor of preparing to defend against an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, putting the Wagner Group and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in a potentially difficult position. Prigozhin released a series of videos on May 4 and 5 announcing that Wagner will withdraw from Bakhmut on May 10 unless Wagner receives necessary supplies and launched particularly acerbic and emotional attacks against Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and the Russian MoD establishment writ large.[1] Prigozhin’s palpable desperation in the videos, one of which shows the corpses of recently deceased Wagner fighters, marks a significant rhetorical inflection in his continued pleas for increased Russian MoD support for Wagner in Bakhmut. His visible and visceral anger suggests that the Russian MoD has likely deprioritized Bakhmut and shifted operational focus elsewhere in the theater in ways that may seriously compromise Wagner’s ability to operate effectively. Wagner has not ceased efforts to completely capture Bakhmut despite reduced access to ammunition and other necessary supplies, however. Prigozhin has shown no willingness to switch to the defensive within the city.

 

Wagner’s continued persistence within Bakhmut is incongruent with the overall slow-down in the pace of Russian offensive operations elsewhere in Ukraine as conventional Russian forces appear to be largely shifting focus to prepare to receive the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.[2] Aside from very limited and localized attacks in the Kreminna area and near Donetsk City, Russian forces have largely ceased offensive operations throughout the theater, likely signifying a transition to the defensive.[3] It would be an operationally sound decision for the Russian MoD to begin withholding and stockpiling ammunition and supplies in order to prepare for any Ukrainian counteroffensive actions, and Prigozhin’s desperate statements indicate that the Russian MoD is likely doing so. ISW has recently reported that Prigozhin began appealing to the Russian MoD to provide Wagner with necessary ammunition once again after a brief period during which it seemed that relations between Prigozhin and Russian military leadership had improved.[4] Prigozhin’s renewed anger reached its peak in the May 4 video of Prigozhin essentially screaming at Gerasimov and Shoigu and accusing them of the deaths of Wagner fighters.[5]

 

The losses suffered by Wagner in Bakhmut, alongside the likely de-prioritization of the Bakhmut effort by the Russian MoD, may leave Prigozhin and Wagner in a particularly bad spot. It is not immediately clear whether Prigozhin actually intends to withdraw from Bakhmut on May 10 or whether he made the announcement in a last-ditch attempt to secure MoD support. If Wagner does withdraw, then it will likely need Russian MoD equipment to protect and facilitate the retrograde. The Russian military lacks the reserves needed to man positions Wagner might abandon in Bakhmut, moreover. The massive losses suffered by Wagner in Bakhmut for the sake of tactical gains, as well as the overall shift of the Russian military towards a more cautious posture preparing for defensive operations, appears to be offering Ukrainian forces opportunities for fruitful counterattacks in various areas of the front. Ukrainian forces appear to be seizing some of these opportunities, as noted below, but ISW does not assess that these counterattacks are necessarily part of the anticipated counteroffensive. NB: ISW uses the term “counterattack” to describe tactical actions by Ukrainian forces to make limited gains in local areas. It uses the term “counteroffensive” to describe operational-level undertakings composed of many distinct tactical actions intended to achieve operationally or strategically significant gains. ISW has so far observed reporting only of Ukrainian counterattacks.

 

Recently dismissed former Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev is reportedly serving as deputy commander of the Wagner Group, likely as part of Wagner’s campaign to retain access to Russian military supplies. A Wagner-affiliated Russian milblogger published footage on May 4 and 5 purporting to show Mizintsev acting as Wagner deputy commander and discussing logistical and tactical issues with Wagner fighters in the Bakhmut area.[6] Prigozhin publicly offered the command position to Mizintsev following his dismissal on April 27, and Prigozhin claimed on May 5 that Mizintsev in his capacity as head of logistics supplied Wagner with low quality ammunition.[7] Prigozhin may have appointed Mizintsev as Wagner deputy commander in an effort to leverage Mizintsev‘s understanding of and relationships within the Russian military’s logistics apparatus to retain access to ammunition and supplies amid an apparent reprioritization away from Wagner’s area of responsibility. Mizintsev was reportedly dismissed after Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Mikhail Teplinsky, a likely anti-Gerasimov figure, conducted readiness checks that revealed that the Russian Northern Fleet lacked supplies, possibly indicating that Mizintsev fell out of favor with both factions within the MoD and joined Wagner to retain a command role in Ukraine.[8] The changes likely occurring within the Russian military’s logistics apparatus associated with the reprioritization of supplies for defensive operations will likely impede Mizintsev‘s presumed efforts to retain Wagner’s access to supplies.

 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered newly-appointed Deputy Minister for Logistics Alexei Kuzmenkov to control the supply of weapons and equipment to Russian forces in Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on May 5 that Shoigu gave Kuzmenkov the order during an inspection of forces and military equipment in the Southern Military District.[9] The Russian MoD reported that Kuzmenkov presented Shoigu with new tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and other equipment and claimed that Russian military-industrial enterprises have repaired equipment at a rate faster than that of equipment losses. Shoigu likely met with Kuzmenkov to accelerate the conservation and reprioritization of logistics and sustainment processes ahead of expected upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Shoigu’s meeting with the new head for logistics amid Wagner’s attempt to retain access to the Russian military’s logistics apparatus further suggests that Wagner will struggle to maintain its current level of provisions from the MoD.

 

Russian occupation authorities announced the forced removal of 70,000 civilians in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to areas deeper in the Russian-occupied rear under the guise of evacuations. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation Head Yevgeny Balitsky and Deputy Head Andriy Kozenko announced on May 5 that Russian authorities will conduct a partial evacuation of 70,000 Ukrainian civilians of vulnerable populations, including families with children, the disabled, and the elderly, from 18 settlements along the southern bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir and along Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) roughly 20-40 kilometers from the front line.[10] Kozenko claimed that authorities have already begun evacuating civilians from the Polohy Raion to Berdyansk.[11] The locations of these settlements so far from the current front lines suggest that Russian forces plan to conduct a controlled, fighting withdrawal from their current positions to a prepared line of defense rather than trying to hold the current line of contact in the event of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kherson Oblast occupation authorities had similarly used the guise of evacuation to justify the forced relocation of Ukrainians from the frontlines in Kherson Oblast during Ukraine’s counteroffensive in October and November 2022, citing threats of Ukrainian strikes and frontline hostilities.[12] These Russian preparations do not necessarily indicate that Ukrainian forces will attack in or prioritize this area. Russian and occupation authorities will likely capitalize on growing Russian fear over a prospective Ukrainian counteroffensive to justify further mass relocations of Ukrainian civilians. 

 

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) proposed a draft bill aimed at appealing to growing anti-migrant sentiments in Russia and supporting the Russian military’s efforts to recruit migrants. The MVD submitted a draft bill on May 5 that would allow employers to deprive migrant employees of their work permits and create expanded administrative supervision over the residence of foreign citizens in Russia.[13] The draft bill states that the administrative supervision regime is aimed at establishing the whereabouts of foreign citizens illegally staying in Russia, although a Russian source claimed that the measure will allow Russian officials and police to freely enter the homes of migrants.[14] The MVD added an explanatory note to the bill in which it argued that ”illegal migration is closely related to such negative phenomena as terrorism, extremism, human trafficking, [and] drug trafficking.”[15] The reasoning offered for the bill is similar to Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin’s recent accusation that migrants destabilize Russia by importing terrorism and extremist ideologies.[16] The bill is reflective of growing domestic ramifications from the wide acceptance of the Kremlin’s ”Russification” ideology, which ISW previously assessed is increasingly manifesting itself in how Russian authorities and ultranationalists negatively portray ethnic minorities and migrants in Russia.[17] Russian officials also disproportionally focus recruitment efforts on migrant communities, and the bill could set conditions for Russian officials to leverage jeopardized migration statuses to coerce migrants into signing contracts with the Russian military.[18]

 

Russian Human Rights Council head Valery Fadeev reportedly stated that Russian authorities should regulate Telegram channels similarly to how Russia censors state-controlled media. Kremlin newswire TASS reported on May 5 that Fadeev called for Russian authorities to “analyze the activities of Telegram channels” to consider introducing legislation to regulate Telegram.[19] Russian First Deputy Chairman of the Civic Chamber on Media and Mass Communication Alexander Malkevich supported the regulation of Telegram channels claiming that traditional forms of media and “new media” should be on an equal footing because ”new media” has "only rights and no obligations." Fadeev’s support of Telegram censorship is also notable because prominent Russian milblogger Alexander Kots also serves on the Russian Human Rights Council. ISW has previously reported on efforts on the part of Russian authorities to stimulate self-censorship in the information space.[20]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to have deprioritized the Bakhmut offensive in favor of preparing to defend against an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, putting the Wagner Group and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in a potentially difficult position.
  • Wagner’s continued persistence within Bakhmut is incongruent with the overall slow-down in the pace of Russian operations elsewhere in Ukraine as conventional Russian forces appear to largely be shifting focus to prepare to receive the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Recently dismissed former Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev is reportedly serving as deputy commander of the Wagner Group, likely as part of Wagner’s campaign to retain access to Russian military supplies.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered newly-appointed Deputy Minister for Logistics Alexei Kuzmenkov to control the supply of weapons and equipment to Russian forces in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities announced the forced removal of 70,000 civilians in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast to areas deeper in the Russian-occupied rear under the guise of evacuations.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) proposed a draft bill aimed at appealing to growing anti-migrant sentiments in Russia and supporting the Russian military’s efforts to recruit migrants.
  • Russian Human Rights Council head Valery Fadeev reportedly stated that Russian authorities should regulate Telegram channels similarly to how Russia censors state-controlled media.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna and Avdiivka and made marginal gains within Bakhmut.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Bakhmut.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed it prevented a Ukrainian assassination attempt against an occupation deputy of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on May 5.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues his own personal force generation efforts aimed at securing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue measures to strengthen social control of occupied territories.

 


 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 4, 2023

 

Click here to read the full report.

 

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

 

May 4, 2023, 5:30pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Russia conducted another Shahed-131/136 strike against Ukraine on May 4. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 24 Shahed-131/136s at Ukraine from the direction of Bryansk Oblast and the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov and that Ukrainian air defense destroyed 18 of the drones above northern, central, and southern regions of Ukraine.[1] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command noted that Russian forces launched 15 of the Shaheds at Odesa Oblast, 3 of which struck an educational institution.[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that the drones struck military facilities throughout Ukraine.[3] The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that Russian forces attacked Kyiv overnight with Shaheds and unidentified missiles for the third time in the last four days, noting that Kyiv has not experienced such a high intensity of air attacks since the beginning of 2023.[4]

 

Russian sources continued to respond to the May 3 drone strike on the Kremlin. The Russian Investigative Committee announced that it opened a criminal case “on the fact of a terrorist attack in connection with an attempt to strike the Kremlin” and further amplified the claim that Kyiv is to blame for the strike.[5] Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly hold a Security Council meeting to discuss the incident on May 5.[6] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev called for the “physical elimination” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in retaliation for the strike.[7] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov baselessly claimed that the US is behind the attack.[8] Several Russian authorities, including the heads of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Leningrad, and Pskov oblasts introduced bans on drone launches and flights.[9] State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein sent an appeal to the Russian Ministry of Transport and Federal Air Transport Agency to introduce a total temporary moratorium on drone use due to the increased threat of drones associated with the “special military operation.”[10] Russian media aggregator Baza, citing unidentified internal sources, claimed that residents of Moscow suburbs noticed the drones flying at very low altitudes well in advance of the moment of contact with the Kremlin Senate Palace building on May 3 but that authorities ignored their reports as “drone hysteria.”[11] Another Russian source amplified this report and noted that if it is true, it demonstrates how impenetrable the Russian bureaucratic apparatus is.[12] The milblogger praised the Kremlin’s response as being thoughtful and logical and dismissed other voices in the information space for being irrational and hysterical.[13]

 

Russian officials are likely using the May 3 drone strike on the Kremlin to expand cancellations of parades for the May 9 Victory Day holiday. Russian sources reported that Russian officials have canceled May 9 parades in 21 cities in Russia and occupied Crimea either without offering official justification or citing security reasons.[14] Russian officials in several cities claimed that they were canceling May 9 events and parades out of concern for participants of the “special military operation.”[15] ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin will use the May 3 strike to cancel May 9 events and augment its informational effort to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia.[16] The Kremlin likely hopes to limit typical May 9 events to conceal the degradation of the Russian military because such events demonstratively showcase advanced Russian military equipment, much of which is either critical to Russian operations in Ukraine or has been destroyed in 14 months of attritional fighting.[17] The Kremlin also likely hopes to curb May 9 events out of fears that celebrations honoring deceased servicemembers could become a potential source of domestic backlash for Russia’s high casualty figures in Ukraine. Russian officials have canceled immortal regiment memorial events in recent weeks likely for such reasons.[18]

 

The Kremlin is reportedly continuing its overhaul of domestic security organs. Russian media aggregator Baza reported that Russian authorities expanded prior mass investigations into the Moscow Central District Internal Affairs Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to other district MVD directorates in Moscow.[19] Baza reported that Russian authorities detained the Bibirevo Raion’s deputy chief of police on allegations of leaking information as well as two other employees at unspecified MVD departments.[20] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the MVD Security Service reportedly started mass checks of MVD departments in Moscow due to the “leakage of data from Russian security forces at the request of Ukrainian citizens.”[21] The Kremlin appears to be also overhauling elements of the Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) amid a series of recent arrests and dismissals of prominent Rosgvardia officials.[22] The Kremlin likely intends to use these investigations and arrests to oust officials who have fallen out of favor and to consolidate control of internal security organs.[23] ISW has previously assessed that Russian authorities may use a series of new laws expanding punishments for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces, the misappropriation of military assets, and trespassing at facilities operated by security organs to support these efforts.[24]

 

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that Russian forces are likely unable to conduct a “significant offensive” in 2023 due to munitions and manpower shortages regardless of the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[25] Haines testified on May 4 to the Senate Armed Services Committee that it will be increasingly challenging for Russia to sustain “even modest offensive operations” if the Kremlin does not initiate mandatory mobilization or obtain third-party ammunition supplies in addition to existing deliveries from Iran and other unspecified countries. Haines stated that Putin has “probably” reduced his short-term goals in Ukraine to consolidate control over occupied territories and is unlikely to consider negotiations with Ukraine. Haines’ statements support and expand on ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.[26]

 

Russia and India reportedly suspended efforts to trade in rupees. Reuters reported on May 4 that Russia and India suspended months of negotiations because Moscow does not want to accumulate over $40 billion in rupees by the end of 2023. Russia reportedly views rupees as not convertible.[27] An unnamed Indian government official stated Russia would prefer to settle bilateral trade with India in Chinese yuan or another currency and that Russia is increasingly trading in United Arab Emirate dirhams. The suspended negotiations likely concern India’s payment to Russia for spare parts and two S-400 air defense systems.[28]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russia conducted another Shahed-131/136 strike against Ukraine on May 4.
  • Russian officials are likely using the May 3 drone strike on the Kremlin to expand cancellations of parades for the May 9 Victory Day holiday.
  • The Kremlin is reportedly continuing its overhaul of domestic security organs.
  • US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that Russian forces are likely unable to conduct a “significant offensive” in 2023 due to munitions and manpower shortages regardless of the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Russia and India reportedly suspended efforts to trade in rupees.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made territorial gains south of Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces likely conducted a limited counterattack southwest of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Kremlin is attempting to increase the production quotas of military supplies despite reportedly lacking the necessary manpower.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to announce new security measures in an effort to prevent partisan attacks in occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 3, 2023

 

Click Here for the full report

 

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

 

May 3, 2023, 5:30pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Russia accused Ukraine of conducting a drone strike against the Kremlin on May 3. Social media footage circulated on May 3 shows a drone detonating near a flagpole on top of the Kremlin Senate Palace building in Moscow as two unidentified people climbed up the dome of the building.[1] The Kremlin accused Ukraine of orchestrating “a planned terrorist attack” with the intent of assassinating Russian President Vladimir Putin and clarified that Putin was not at the Kremlin at the time of the attack and was therefore unharmed.[2] Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, stressed that Ukraine did not conduct the attack.[3]

 

Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization. Several indicators suggest that the strike was internally conducted and purposefully staged. Russian authorities have recently taken steps to increase Russian domestic air defense capabilities, including within Moscow itself, and it is therefore extremely unlikely that two drones could have penetrated multiple layers of air defense and detonated or been shot down just over the heart of the Kremlin in a way that provided spectacular imagery caught nicely on camera. Geolocated imagery from January 2023 shows that Russian authorities have been placing Pantsir air defense systems near Moscow to create air defense circles around the city.[4] A strike that avoided detection and destruction by such air defense assets and succeeded in hitting as high-profile of a target as the Kremlin Senate Palace would be a significant embarrassment for Russia. The Kremlin’s immediate, coherent, and coordinated response to the incident suggests that the attack was internally prepared in such a way that its intended political effects outweigh its embarrassment. The Kremlin immediately accused Ukraine of conducting a terror attack, and Russian official responses coalesced rapidly around this accusation.[5] If the drone attack had not been internally staged it would have been a surprise event. It is very likely that the official Russian response would initially have been much more disorganized as Russian officials scrambled to generate a coherent narrative and offset the rhetorical implications of a clear informational embarrassment. The Kremlin has notably failed to generate a timely and coherent informational response to other military humiliations not of its own making, including the falls of Balakliya and Kherson City in September and November 2022.[6]

 

The rapid and coherent presentation of an official Russian narrative around the strike suggests that Russia staged this incident in close proximity to the May 9th Victory Day holiday in order to frame the war as existential to its domestic audience. The Kremlin may use the strike to justify either canceling or further limiting May 9th celebrations, actions that would likely augment the information effort framing the war in Ukraine as directly threatening Russian observance of revered historical events. ISW has previously assessed that Russia is employing an array of measures to frame the war in Ukraine as existential to Russia’s domestic audience and to prepare for wider societal mobilization.[7]

 

Some Russian nationalist milbloggers seized on the Kremlin drone strike to call for Russian escalation in the war despite the fact that Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so. Many pro-war milbloggers, including ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin, criticized the Kremlin for allowing Ukraine to cross multiple Russian “red lines” with no adequate retaliation and called for Russia to escalate in response, including by targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian decision-makers.[8] This sect of milbloggers emphasized their own embarrassment at the Kremlin strike, comparing it to the humiliation of a single German civilian pilot landing a small aircraft near the Kremlin in 1987.[9] Other Russian milbloggers, including those with close Kremlin affiliations, criticized the high degree of outcry in the Russian information space.[10] These milbloggers largely advocated against retaliatory military escalation on the grounds that this strike does not change the operational or strategic situation in the war, instead calling for a cautious response while acknowledging the sting of embarrassment over the strike.[11] This messaging from pro-Kremlin milbloggers could support the assessment that the purpose of this false-flag attack was to justify increased mobilization measures rather than any sort of escalation.

 

The Kremlin may be planning to conduct other false flag operations and increase disinformation ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to increase domestic support for the war. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on May 2 that Russian forces in Bryansk and Kursk oblasts received Ukrainian uniforms in order to conduct a false flag operation in border areas.[12] The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on May 3 that Russian forces may simulate a hostage taking and noted that “Storm” detachments of the Russian 13th Guards Tank Regiment (4th Guards Tank Division) and 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment (2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division) of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District arrived in Ivanivske in Kursk Oblast and Yamnoye in Bryansk Oblast.[13] The 13th Guards Tank Regiment suffered massive losses early in the war in Chernihiv Oblast and in fall of 2022 during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast.[14] This report that elements of the 13th Guards Tank Regiment are in Bryansk or Kursk Oblast suggests that the regiment is not in Ukraine and is unready to return to battle. Russian milbloggers amplified a claim from state-run media outlet RT that Ukrainian forces are preparing a provocation against Transnistria and will attempt to enter Transnistria between May 9 and 15.[15] The Kremlin has previously attempted to portray Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia’s territorial integrity and to warn of supposed Ukrainian provocations to be conducted in Moldova.[16]

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin baselessly claimed on May 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has already begun, likely in order to exploit information space anxieties and call for increased Russian military support for Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive. In an audio recording posted on May 3, Prigozhin says that he believes that Ukraine has already begun its counteroffensive and cited an increase in Ukrainian activity “along the perimeter” of the Bakhmut front.[17] Prigozhin also claimed that Wagner’s flanks, currently held by conventional Russian airborne (VDV) troops, are “not in the best way” and stated that he will not speculate on how reliable they are to maintain “politeness.”[18] Prigozhin’s comment on the state of the flanks is likely a thinly-veiled criticism of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and its ability to help Wagner hold Bakhmut and suggests that Prigozhin is blaming the MoD for being unable to hold off Ukrainian localized counterattacks in Bakhmut. Prigozhin concluded that he anticipates a more “active phase” of counteroffensive actions to begin in the next few days.[19] Prigozhin is likely using this claim to benefit from continued concerns in the Russian information space regarding a Ukrainian counteroffensive and to lobby for increased support for Wagner amid continued pleas for the Russian MoD to provide Wagner more ammunition for its offensive on Bakhmut.[20] ISW has observed no additional evidence to support Prigozhin’s claims and does not assess that a Ukrainian counter-offensive has begun around Bakhmut.

 

Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike against Ukraine on the night of May 2 to 3. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 3 that Russian forces attacked Ukrainian territory from Bryansk Oblast and the southeast coast of the Sea of Azov with 26 Iranian-made Shahed-131/136 drones and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 21 of the 26 drones.[21] The Kyiv Oblast Military Administration stated that Russian forces attacked Kyiv Oblast for the third time in six consecutive days.[22] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Shahed drones also targeted Kirovohrad and Mykolaiv oblasts.[23]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russia accused Ukraine of conducting a drone strike against the Kremlin.
  • Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.
  • The rapid and coherent presentation of an official Russian narrative around the strike suggests that Russia staged this attack in close proximity to the May 9th Victory Day holiday in order to frame the war as existential to its domestic audience.
  • Some Russian nationalist milbloggers seized on the Kremlin drone strike to call for Russian escalation in the war despite the fact that Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so.
  • The Kremlin may be planning to conduct other false flag operations and to increase disinformation ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to increase domestic support for the war.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin baselessly claimed on May 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has already begun, likely in order to exploit information space anxieties and call for increased Russian military support for Wagner’s Bakhmut offensive.
  • Russian forces conducted a Shahed-131/136 drone strike on the night of May 2 to 3.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to make gains in and around Bakhmut and continued to conduct ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces conducted heavy air and artillery strikes against west (right) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian officials continue to incentivize military service by providing social benefits to families of participants in the war.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a “terrorist” attack against three Crimean officials.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 2, 2023

 

Click Here for the full report

 

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark

 

May 2, 2023, 7:00 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.

 

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

 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is increasing its production of precision missiles for use against Ukraine. Shoigu highlighted the state-owned Tactical Missiles Corporation as a model defense enterprise, stating that is successfully beginning mass production of missiles and will develop plans to double its current production output in the near term.[1] Shoigu’s focus on precision missile production aligns with a shift in Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s rhetoric focusing on Russia‘s use of precision missiles to strike military infrastructure targets in Ukrainian rear areas, likely aiming to similarly appear proactive and demonstrative positive Russian actions amid growing concerns in the Russian information space about a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.[2]

 

Shoigu likely seeks to deflect intensifying accusations that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) cannot provide sufficient ammunition to Russian forces. Shoigu stated that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) increased its production pace and output volumes, and claimed that Russian forces have received enough ammunition to date in 2023 to inflict extensive damage on Ukrainian forces.[3] ISW previously reported that the Russian military command is reshuffling the leadership of command organs associated with logistics and force generation efforts after commanders that oppose Gerasimov and the core of the Russian MoD partially regained Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor in late March.[4] Russian milbloggers also began naming specific Russian MoD officials in their accusations of poor supply provisions to Russian forces in this period.[5] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to claim that the Russian MoD is deliberately setting Wagner mercenaries up for failure in Bakhmut by refusing to provide their requested number of shells, which his commanders claim is leading to high casualties and slow progress on the battlefield.[6] A Wagner serviceman also claimed that he delivered 39 boxes with complaints from Wagner servicemen about lack of ammunition to the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee on May 2.[7]

 

Russian reactions to a claimed strike against a vehicle carrying Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces Commander Major General Ihor Tantsyura suggest Russian ultranationalists seek to frame any Russian operations as delaying potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on May 2 that Wagner forces struck a Ukrainian armored vehicle carrying Tantsyura enroute to Bakhmut, and published a video purporting to show the strike.[8] Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces Spokesperson Denys Zelinskyi denied Prigozhin’s claim and stated that “everyone is alive and well.”[9] Prigozhin responded that Wagner will continue to operate in the area.[10] Milbloggers widely circulated Prigozhin’s claims and framed the strike as an informational victory.[11] A prominent milblogger claimed that Tantsyura received an order to transfer reserves to Bakhmut and prepare Ukrainian forces to conduct counterattacks in the area, likely to frame the Russian strike as an operationally significant event which delayed potential upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.[12] Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian strike on Pavlohrad on May 1 impacted a critical Ukrainian logistics and accumulation hub and similarly suggested that the strike would delay Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[13]

 

The Kremlin reportedly distributed a new manual instructing Russian state media on how to cover an upcoming potential Ukrainian counteroffensive that, if real, indicates the Kremlin is setting informational conditions both for an effective Russian defense and to mitigate shocks in the Russian information space from Ukrainian successes. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on May 2 that it attained the manual, which reportedly instructs Russian state media to “not lower the expectations of the announced Ukrainian counteroffensive” Or claim that Ukraine is not ready to conduct a counteroffensive – instead treating the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive as a given[14] The manual instead reportedly stresses that Russian media should focus on Western security assistance and support for Ukraine.[15] Meduza reported that sources close to the Russian presidential administration stated that the coverage aims to allow the Kremlin to announce a military victory in the event of an unsuccessful Ukrainian counteroffensive and establish justifications for a successful counteroffensive by claiming that Russian losses will be understandable because “the entire West has concentrated huge efforts on the front.”[16] The alleged document suggests the Kremlin is preparing for – if not expecting – Ukrainian successes and is planning to mitigate demoralization in the Russian information space. This is an important Russian adaptation from previous Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv, which produced dramatic shocks and demoralization in both the Russian military and the Russian information space that the Kremlin likely seeks to mitigate[17] 

 

UN member states, including key Russian partners like China, India, and Brazil, voted to adopt a resolution on April 26 acknowledging Russia as the aggressor in the war in Ukraine.[18] The resolution preamble states that the UN aims to more closely align with the Council of Europe amid “unprecedented challenges now facing Europe following the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and against Georgia prior to that.” This resolution is reportedly the first such resolution in which China recognized Russia as the aggressor in the war in Ukraine.[19] Voting in favor of this resolution by itself does not likely reflect the broader opinion of Russian allies towards Russia, however.

 

Correction: ISW reported on May 1 that US officials assessed that Russian forces have suffered 100,000 casualties – 80,000 wounded and 20,000 dead– in fighting for Bakhmut since January 2023 based on statements from National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.[20] National Security Council deputy spokesperson Sean Savett later clarified on May 1 that the figures account for Russian casualties throughout Ukraine since January 2023.[21]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is increasing its production of precision missiles for use against Ukraine.
  • Shoigu likely seeks to deflect intensifying accusations that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) cannot provide sufficient ammunition to Russian forces.
  • Russian reactions to a claimed strike against Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces Commander Major General Ihor Tantsyura suggest Russian ultranationalists are attempting to frame any Russian operations as delaying potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.
  • The Kremlin reportedly distributed a new manual instructing Russian state media on how to cover an upcoming potential Ukrainian counteroffensive that, if real, indicates the Kremlin is setting informational conditions both for an effective Russian defense and to mitigate shocks in the Russian information space from Ukrainian successes.
  • UN member states, including key Russian partners like China, India, and Brazil, voted to adopt a resolution on April 26 that acknowledges Russia as the aggressor of the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces made marginal gains near Bakhmut but did not advance within the city itself.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front, and Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted limited and local counterattacks in the Avdiivka area.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to operate on and around islands in the Dnipro River delta in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian government officials are continuing to introduce new social benefits to veterans and their families to incentivize further military recruitment efforts in Russia.
  • Likely Ukrainian partisans targeted an unspecified Zaporizhia Oblast occupation Ministry of Internal Affairs deputy head in Melitopol.

 

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 1, 2023

 

Click Here to read the full report

 

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

 

May 1, 2023, 5pm ET

 

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

 

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

 

Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike against Ukraine on the night of April 30 to May 1. Ukrainian sources reported that nine Tu-95 and two Tu-160 strategic bombers took off from Murmansk Oblast and near the Caspian Sea and launched 18 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles at Ukraine.[1] Ukrainian air defense shot down 15 of the missiles.[2] Geolocated footage from Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, shows that one of the missiles struck the Pavlohrad Chemical Plant and caused a massive explosion on impact.[3] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 1 that the strikes targeted Ukrainian military-industrial objects and successfully disrupted the production of military resources.[4] The Russian MoD has recently shifted its rhetoric and is actively describing strike campaigns, likely in an effort to portray a proactive approach to growing concerns in the Russian information space regarding a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian milbloggers claimed that the missiles struck Ukrainian air defense systems and a transportation hub in Pavlohrad.[5] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that the fact that both the Tu-95 and Tu-160s carried far fewer missiles than their maximum load suggests that Russia continues to struggle with adequate production of such munitions.[6]

 

The White House assessed on May 1 that Russian forces have suffered 100,000 causalities—80,000 wounded and 20,000 killed—in fighting for Bakhmut since January 2023.[7] US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced that half of the 20,000 killed in action were Wagner Group fighters. Kirby also assessed that Russia’s offensive on Bakhmut has failed.[8]

 

Ukrainian officials continue to signal Ukraine’s readiness for potential counteroffensive operations. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on May 1 that Ukraine is “reaching the finish line” in terms of when it will be ready to launch counteroffensive actions.[9] Reznikov noted that the ratio of available ammunition still does not favor Ukraine but stated that Russian capabilities continue to be limited.[10] Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov emphasized on April 30 that the main goal of the Ukrainian counteroffensive remains the liberation of all Ukrainian territory and stated that he hopes Ukraine will be able to improve its positions along the entire frontline in order to effectively threaten Russian logistics in occupied Crimea and Donbas.[11]

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely using his rehabilitated standing with Russian leadership to amplify his self-promotion efforts and his longstanding issues with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russian sources began circulating an alleged letter from the MoD to Prigozhin on April 30 responding to Prigozhin's Apil 29 interview wherein he threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut if the Russian military fails to provide more ammunition to Wagner.[12] The letter, dated April 23, lists all the artillery ammunition and equipment that the Russian MoD provides to Wagner.[13] A Russian official may have released the letter to stop Prigozhin from using the issue of artillery shortages to criticize the MoD as he has done in the past.[14] Prigozhin responded by stating that the figures provided by the unverified document are still not sufficient for what Wagner needs to complete its assigned tasks.[15] Prigozhin then claimed on May 1 that Wagner is in possession of large stocks of weapons it captured from Ukrainian forces during the seizure of Soledar in January 2023, and Prigozhin rhetorically boasted that he has enough arms to support a million-strong army.[16] Prigozhin suggested that he would offer to exchange these stocks of weapons for the resources that Wagner requires.[17] Prigozhin will likely continue to rely on his existing informational lines of attack to promote himself and seek further privileges from the Russian military as he retains a rehabilitated standing with Russian leadership.[18]

 

The Russian MoD confirmed on April 30 the replacement of Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev with Colonel General Aleksey Kuzmenkov. The MoD provided no justification for the replacement nor did it specify whether Mizintsev has a new role. Russian milbloggers began speculating about the replacement of Mizintsev with Kuzmenkov, who was then Deputy Head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), on April 27.[19] Regular changes to the Russian military command have resulted in increasingly factionalized Russian military and disorganized command structures that degrade Russia’s military capability, as ISW has recently assessed.[20]

 

The Russian MoD opposition faction is likely attempting to remove select MoD officials by publicly criticizing their war efforts. Russian milbloggers complained that Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-bek Yevkurov visited the Kherson direction months ago and did not fulfill his promise to allocate 140 to 150 boats to Russian forces to defend the islands in the Dnipro River Delta.[21] One milblogger claimed that the lack of watercraft prompted Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo to order his administration in mid-April to start commandeering civilian boats for Russian military use.[22] Milbloggers’ criticism of Yevkurov follows the dismissal of the Russian Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev on April 27.[23] Mizintsev was reportedly dismissed after Commander of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces and Wagner affiliate Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky’s inspection of the Northern Fleet troops revealed significant issues with supply provisions.[24] Teplinsky reportedly assumed command of Russian forces in southern Ukraine in mid-April and may be using his new appointment to remove Russian MoD officials with the justification that they are failing to adequately supply troops. ISW assessed on April 30 that Teplinsky likely gained Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor in late March, and the milbloggers’ criticisms against Yevkurov is likely an ongoing effort to weaken or remove a group of Russian military commanders and officials who are loyal to Russian Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov.[25]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike against Ukraine on the night of April 30 to May 1.
  • The White House assessed on May 1 that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut has failed.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to signal Ukraine’s readiness for potential counteroffensive operations.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely using his rehabilitated standing with Russian leadership to amplify his self-promotion efforts and his longstanding issues with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • The Russian MoD confirmed the replacement of Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev with Colonel General Aleksey Kuzmenkov.
  • The Russian MoD opposition faction is likely attempting to remove select MoD officials by publicly criticizing their war efforts.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks along the Svatove-Kremmina line.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Wagner Group and other Russian forces are struggling to maintain their pace of offensive operations in Bakhmut.
  • Russian sources continue to claim that Ukrainian forces are conducting raids across the Dnipro River.
  • The recent increased prevalence of Russian private military companies (PMCs) operating in Ukraine may be necessitating certain changes in the overall command structure.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue efforts to integrate occupied territories into the Russian socio-economic system.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 30, 2023 

 

Click here to read the full report

 

ISW is publishing a special edition campaign assessment today, April 30. This report details changes in the Russian military command since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine without a clear and doctrinal command structure and his reluctance to appoint an overall theater commander have had lasting effects on the structure of the Russian command in Ukraine. Putin’s regular command changes have led to an increasingly factionalized Russian military and disorganized command structures that are degrading the Russian military’s ability to conduct a cohesive campaign in Ukraine. Factions are not a phenomenon particular to the Russian military, although their current dynamics within the Russian military are shaping decision making to an unusual degree. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin have been deliberately vague about most of these command changes. ISW’s timeline of the changes is based on official Russian statements as well as analysis of unconfirmed claims and reports from Russian, Ukrainian, and Western sources. The exact dates of command changes are based on the first reporting of a change and may not correspond with the formal date on which a change occurred. These command changes were likely not discrete events resulting from decisions made suddenly but were instead drawn-out bureaucratic affairs.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to appoint an overall theater commander for his invasion of Ukraine has had cascading effects on the Russian military including fueling intense factionalization, disorganizing command structures, and feeding unattainable expectations. Western officials reported in April 2022 that Russia had not have a single military commander of its forces in Ukraine since the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022. Putin likely sought to present himself as the commander-in-chief and the mastermind of the successful invasion of Ukraine. Captured Russian military plans revealed that the Kremlin expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv in mere days, and Putin had likely wanted to declare this speedy invasion a personal geopolitical victory. Putin may have been reluctant to appoint a commander for this invasion to avoid crediting a military commander with the military victory in Ukraine – a dynamic similar to the one between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov during World War II. Stalin had limited and outdated wartime experience and was reportedly jealous of Zhukov’s military exploits and fame. Putin has no military experience, which may have further contributed to his decision not to appoint a commander for his invasion who could have upstaged him by claiming credit for the expected dramatic victory.

 

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on April 30:

 

  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces did not conduct offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on April 30. Ukrainian National Guard Spokesperson Rulan Muzychuk stated that Russian forces are using more artillery but conducting fewer assaults in the Kupyansk and Lyman directions than in Bakhmut and Marinka.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line on April 30. Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reported that Ukrainian forces continue to have access to logistics routes to Bakhmut.
  • A Russian source suggested on April 30 that Russian forces will likely conduct their own offensive in southern Ukraine if the potential Ukrainian counteroffensive fails.The Russian source cited the fact that top Russian officials and law enforcement are discussing possible candidates to lead various districts in Zaporizhia Oblast which are currently under Ukrainian control as further evidence of Russian plans to move in the southern direction.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov reported that Russia is seeking to take control of numerous Russian paramilitary groups and is trying to create a new structure that would subordinate private military companies (PMCs) to the Russian General Staff.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that Russia is forming new brigades of the airborne forces (VDV), elite units that have conducted joint operations with Wagner forces in Bakhmut.

 

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Angela Howard, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 29, 4:25 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.

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

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut if the Russian military command fails to provide more ammunition to the Wagner mercenaries. Prigozhin stated in an interview with a Kremlin-affiliated milblogger on April 29 that the Wagner mercenaries will continue to fight in Bakhmut but will need to “withdraw in an organized manner or stay and die” if the situation does immediately not improve.[1] Prigozhin stated that Wagner needs about 80,000 shells per day — its previous shell allowance prior to apparent Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) efforts to reduce Wagner’s influence. Prigozhin added that Wagner is only receiving 800 of the 4,000 shells per day that it is currently requesting. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner and Deputy Commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin developed a plan to “grind” the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut that deprived Ukraine of its initiative on the battlefield. Prigozhin’s mention of Surovikin is likely an attempt to publicly affiliate with Surovikin as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor is shifting away from Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s network.[2] Prigozhin is likely attempting to regain access to more ammunition as Putin is once again reshuffling the Russian military leadership in a way that may favor Prigozhin.

 

Prigozhin also continued his efforts to convince the Kremlin to go over to the defensive in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive could take place before May 15 but that the Russian military is not rushing to prepare to repel attacks.[3] Prigozhin’s threat to withdraw from Bakhmut may also indicate that Prigozhin fears that the Russian positions in Bakhmut’s rear are vulnerable to counterattacks.

 

Prigozhin offered a position as First Deputy Commander of Wagner forces to former Russian Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who was reportedly dismissed from his position on April 27.[4] Prigozhin claimed on April 29 that the Wagner commanders’ council decided to offer Mizintsev a position as deputy commander under Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin.[5] Prigozhin also stated in the interview that Mizintsev was operating on the frontlines and was fired for his intractability.[6] Russian milbloggers previously claimed that Mizintsev’s dismissal could have resulted from the Russian Northern Fleet’s lack of supplies revealed by Wagner-affiliated Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces Mikhail Teplinsky’s readiness checks.[7] Mizintsev’s affiliation with Wagner is unclear at this time. It is possible that his firing was an attempt to improve military supplies to the forces within or affiliated with Teplinsky’s command — such as Wagner forces. Prigozhin has previously mockingly offered command positions to figures he dislikes, such as former Russian officer Igor Girkin, and Prigozhin’s offer may have been an attempt to humiliate Mizintsev.[8] Unconfirmed Russian sources claimed that Teplinsky assumed the position of deputy commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, and Mizintsev’s dismissal, if it occurred, suggests that Teplinsky has sway with Putin that allows him to shape decisions about command changes.[9]

 

Ukrainian forces likely attacked an oil storage facility in Sevastopol reportedly with a wave of Mugin-5 UAVs on April 29. Footage posted on April 29 shows a large fire at an oil storage facility at Kozacha Bay on April 29.[10] Occupation governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev stated on April 29 that a Ukrainian UAV struck an oil tank near Kozacha Bay and caused a fire over 1,000 square meters in extent.[11] A prominent Russian milblogger based in Sevastopol reported that two Ukrainian UAVs destroyed four fuel tanks.[12] Another Russian military blogger reported that at least 10 Ukrainian Mugin-5 drones conducted the attack from Shkolny Airfield in Odesa and that a combination of electronic warfare, small arms, and Pantsir-S1 air defense systems downed most of the UAVs upon approach to their target.[13] Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov stated the attack did not result in any casualties.[14] Ukraine has not formally taken credit for the attack. A Ukrainian intelligence official claimed the attack destroyed 10 oil tanks with a total capacity of 40,000 tons of fuel and that the fuel destroyed was intended for use in the Black Sea Fleet.[15] This official also insinuated the attack was retribution for the Russian missile strike against Uman on April 28.[16] Some social media users noted that the Black Sea Fleet’s main fuel depot is in a different location on the east end of Sevastopol Bay.[17] Razvozhaev claimed that the fire will not affect the supply of fuel in Sevastopol as the destroyed reserves were not used to fuel gas stations.[18] Some milbloggers argued that this attack highlights the effectiveness of using low-cost drones for swarm attacks and underscores the need for Russian forces to saturate the Crimean air space with more air defense systems.[19]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut if the Russian military command fails to provide more ammunition to Wagner mercenaries.
  • Prigozhin also continued his efforts to convince the Kremlin to go over to the defensive in eastern Ukraine.
  • Prigozhin offered the position of First Deputy Commander of Wagner forces, possibly sarcastically, to former Russian Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev who was reportedly dismissed from his position on April 27.
  • Ukrainian forces attacked an oil storage facility in Sevastopol reportedly with a wave of Mugin-5 UAVs on April 29.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces made limited gains in Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces conducted a sea-based missile strike against the command post of the Ukrainian Kherson Group of Forces. Ukrainian officials have so far not confirmed this claim.
  • The Russian MoD continues to pursue measures to expedite the conscription process and increase the difficulty of evading summonses.
  • Russian occupation authorities and border area officials have expanded security measures and filtration efforts likely in anticipation of increased Ukrainian partisan activity in support of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 28, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 28, 5pm ET 

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

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

 

Russian forces launched a series of missile strikes against rear areas of Ukraine on the night of April 27. Ukrainian military sources confirmed that Russian forces launched 23 Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles from Tu-95 aircraft over the Caspian Sea and struck civilian infrastructure in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast; Dnipro City; and Ukrainka, Kyiv Oblast.[1] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian air defense shot down 21 of 23 missiles and two UAVs.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged the strike and claimed that the Russian aerospace forces conducted a coordinated missile strike against Ukrainian reserve deployment points and struck all intended targets.[3] Geolocated footage shows large-scale damage to a residential building in Uman, with the death toll reaching 20 civilians, including children, as of 1700 local time on April 28.[4]

 

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the appointment of Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov as the new commander of the Baltic Fleet on April 28 following the transfer of former Baltic Fleet Commander Admiral Viktor Liina to the Pacific Fleet. Russian state media reported that the Russian MoD introduced Vorobyov as the new Baltic Fleet commander thereby confirming that Liina replaced Admiral Sergei Avakyants as Pacific Fleet command.[5] ISW had previously reported that Liina may have been replacing Avakyants because of Pacific Fleet failures exposed during recent combat readiness exercises, and Russian officials claimed that Avakyants was moved to a new position as head of Russian military sports training and patriotic education centers after aging out of military service.[6] Vorobyov has previously served as Chief of Staff and First Deputy Commander of both the Baltic and Northern Fleets.[7]

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on April 27 codifying conditions for the further large-scale deportation to Russia of residents of occupied areas of Ukraine. Putin signed a decree entitled “On the Peculiarities of the Legal Status of Certain Categories of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Russian Federation” that defines those who are living in Russian-occupied territories who have declared their desire to retain their current citizenship and refuse to accept Russian passports as “foreign citizens and stateless persons currently residing in the Russian Federation.”[8] The decree holds that such individuals may continue to reside in occupied territories until July 1, 2024, suggesting that these individuals may be subject to deportation following this date.[9] This decree codifies coercive methods to encourage residents of occupied areas to receive Russian passports and also sets conditions for the deportation of Ukrainians who do not agree to become Russian citizens. Russian authorities are also continuing other efforts to deport Ukrainians, particularly children, to Russia under various schemes.[10] ISW continues to assess that all lines of effort aimed at deporting Ukrainians to Russia may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as a potential deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign.

 

Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu promoted the Kremlin’s efforts to form a potential anti-Western coalition during a meeting of the defense ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states in New Delhi, India. Shoigu stated on April 28 that the SCO meeting occurred against the backdrop of the establishment of a new multipolar world order, which the collective West is actively opposing.[11] Shoigu argued that the US and its allies are provoking conflicts with Russia and China and that the West is attempting to defeat Russia and threaten China through the war in Ukraine.[12] Shoigu invited SCO member states to participate in the 11th Moscow Conference of International Security and called on the SCO to develop a framework for exchanging military information, cooperation in joint military exercises, and the development of partnerships between the SCO and Russian-favored multilateral organizations such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).[13]

 

The Kremlin has previously identified multilateral organizations without significant Western participation as its preferred bodies for international decision making and will likely continue to use such bodies to promote Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West.[14] ISW assessed that Putin tried to use Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow from March 20 to 22 to promote the idea of an anti-Western Russian-Chinese-based geopolitical bloc, but that Xi rebuffed Putin’s rhetorical overtures.[15] The Kremlin is likely aware that the attractiveness of such a bloc lies more with China’s economic and political power than with Russia's increasingly isolated economy and degraded military capacity, which is why it likely chose the Chinese-favored SCO to promote the idea of a potential anti-Western coalition. The Kremlin is also likely attempting to secure through multilateral engagement with China desired benefits of a Chinese-Russian bilateral relationship that Putin was unable to obtain in his meeting with Xi. The Kremlin’s attempts to use the SCO to support these efforts are unlikely to be more successful than its previous efforts to rally the rest of the world against the West and convince China that Russia is a reliable and equal security partner.

 

Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow defrocked a Russian Orthodox Church protodeacon who did not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian Orthodox Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev posted an order dated April 28 defrocking him for “anti-church activities” signed by Patriarch Kirill.[16] The Russian Orthodox Church had previously defrocked Kuraev in December 2020, but Patriarch Kirill imposed a moratorium on the execution of this decision to give Kuraev time to "rethink his position."[17] Kuraev reportedly does not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the invasion.[18] Russian authorities fined Kuraev 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian military in August 2022 after Kuraev wrote a blog post about the current war in Ukraine.[19] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty additionally reported that Kuraev has criticized the Russian Orthodox Church’s structures and Patriarch Kirill, accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of being distant from its parishioners, bureaucratic, and inert.[20] Kuraev’s defrocking supports ISW’s assessment that the Russian Orthodox Church is not an independent religious organization but rather an extension of the Russian state and an instrument of Russian state power.[21] Russian forces in Ukraine have reportedly gone out of their way to punish individual Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine who were not fully cooperative with Russian military forces.[22]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian forces launched a series of missile strikes against rear areas of Ukraine on the night of April 27.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the appointment of Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov as the new commander of the Baltic Fleet following the transfer of former Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Liina to the Pacific Fleet.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree codifying conditions for the further large-scale deportation of residents of occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
  • Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu promoted the Kremlin’s efforts to form a potential anti-Western coalition during a meeting of the defense ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states in New Delhi, India.
  • Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow defrocked a Russian Orthodox Church protodeacon who did not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Kreminna and have made an incremental advance northwest of Kreminna as of April 28.
  • Russian forces are increasing pressure against the T0504 Kostyantynivka-Chasiv Yar-Bakhmut highway.
  • Russian forces continued routine indirect fire and defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin tasked Russian officials with developing Russia’s domestic drone industry likely as part of the Kremlin’s effort to gradually mobilize Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to announce patronage programs with Russian federal subjects.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 27, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 27, 3:30pm ET

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

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

 

The Russian military command appears to be reshuffling the leadership of command organs associated with force generation, sustainment, and logistics. Several prominent Russian milbloggers claimed on April 27 that Colonel General Aleksey Kuzmenkov, Deputy Head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), has replaced Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev as Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Federation for Logistics.[1] A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Mizintsev’s dismissal may be a result of a combat readiness check of troops of the Northern Fleet carried out by former commander of the airborne (VDV) forces and Wagner affiliate Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who was recently re-appointed to an unspecified command role in Ukraine.[2] The milblogger claimed that Teplinsky’s inspection revealed that troops in certain places of the front were not receiving necessary weapons.[3] The Wagner Group has experienced significant issues with dealing with the Russian logistics enterprise, and Teplinsky’s reported role in identifying issues with supply may portend a renewed focus of Russian sustainment organs on providing Wagner with necessary logistical support, as Teplinsky’s affiliations with Wagner are well-established.[4] ISW previously reported on September 24, 2022, that Mizinstev replaced Army General Dmitry Bulgakov as Head of Logistics and that Mizintsev previously was the head of the Russian National Defense Control Center and oversaw command of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (8th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) during Russian operations in Mariupol in spring 2022.[5] Russian milbloggers additionally reported that former Head of the 8th Directorate of the Russian General Staff (State Secret Protection) Yuri Kuznetsov will become Head of the Main Directorate of Personnel of the Russian Ministry of Defense and that Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the Russian General Staff will replace General Oleg Gorshenin as Head of the National Defense Control Center.[6] Official Russian sources have not yet confirmed these changes.

 

The three command organs that are reportedly receiving new leadership as part of this reshuffle are noteworthy because they are associated with managing aspects of Russian force generation, troop sustainment, and logistical oversight. The Russian National Defense Control Center is the body responsible for coordinating the actions of the Russian Armed Forces and is essentially the nerve center of the entire Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Alongside the coordination actions of the National Defense and Control Center, the organs responsible for personnel and logistical oversight facilitate critical troops sustainment functions. The Russian General Staff may be scrambling to enact these changes as fear over a Ukrainian counteroffensive mounts in the Russian information space. These changes also suggest that existing commanders in charge of these functions failed to properly facilitate Russia’s winter offensive, which has largely culminated without making substantial gains. However, these changes are unlikely to effectively set conditions for Russian forces to respond to a Ukrainian counteroffensive in a timely manner. These changes may be part of a wider effort to reform and formalize the Russian Armed Forces over the long term.

 

Western officials expressed confidence in Ukraine’s ability to conduct a successful counteroffensive. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on April 27 that NATO has trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian brigades, emphasizing that Ukrainian forces are in a “strong” position to retake captured territory in their upcoming counteroffensive.[7] Stoltenberg also stated that NATO and its partners have delivered over 98 percent of promised combat vehicles to Ukraine, totaling over 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks, and other unspecified equipment.[8] US European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Christopher Cavoli stated that the US has been working closely with Ukrainian forces to develop a counteroffensive plan, including developing techniques to surprise Russian forces.[9]

 

Russian forces are reportedly using new tactics to complicate Ukrainian air defenses’ ability to detect Russian missiles. Russian forces conducted four Kalibr missile strikes on Mykolaiv City on April 27, and Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces directed the missiles using different terrain features, different heights of launches, and multiple trajectory changes to complicate their detection by Ukrainian air defenses.[10] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged that Russian forces conducted a sea-based, long-range, high precision missile strike on April 27, following its recent notable silence about Russian missile and air strikes as part of its broader missile campaign in Ukraine.[11] ISW previously assessed that Russia‘s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine‘s unified energy infrastructure definitively failed and that Russian forces appear to have abandoned the effort.[12] Russian forces maintain the capability to renew their missile campaign if they desire, and Russian forces may employ these tactics in order to conserve their stocks of high precision missiles in the event of a renewed missile campaign.

 

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have launched a renewed campaign for national attention. Kadyrov publicized that he met with several prominent Russian officials – including Russian National Guard Federal Service Director Viktor Zolotov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Presidential Administration Head Anton Vaino, and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov – on April 26. Kadyrov claimed that he discussed topics including relations between Russian regions and the federal government with Bortnikov and that Bortnikov thanked him personally for the stable situation in Chechnya.[13] Kadyrov also continues to draw heavily on Chechen soldiers’ role in Ukraine to bolster his own image. Kadyrov claimed on April 26 that Chechen Akhmat-1 Special Purposes Mobile Unit (OMON) security officers with extensive combat experience departed to replace their comrades in Ukraine.[14]

 

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani in New Delhi, India on April 27.[15] Belarus’s ongoing efforts to build relationships with countries that have either supported or not condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine likely aim to build a coalition of non-Western countries and deepen pathways to help Russia evade Western sanctions, on which ISW has previously reported.[16] The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that Khrenin and Li discussed the status of an “all-weather” comprehensive strategic partnership between Belarus and China as well as prospects for cooperation in military and general spheres.[17] The Belarusian MoD’s mention of an “all-weather” partnership closely mirrors Russian efforts to frame the Sino-Russian relationship as a “no limits” partnership despite existent Chinese reservations. The Belarusian MoD stated that Khrenin and Ashtiani noted the existence of “significant potential and prospects” to strengthen military contracts and increase practical cooperation.[18]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian military command appears to be reshuffling the leadership of command organs associated with force generation, sustainment, and logistics.
  • The three command organs that are reportedly receiving new leadership as part of this reshuffle are noteworthy because they are associated with managing aspects of Russian force generation, troop sustainment, and logistical oversight.
  • Western officials expressed confidence in Ukraine’s ability to conduct a successful counteroffensive.
  • Russian forces are reportedly using new tactics to complicate Ukrainian air defenses’ ability to detect Russian missiles.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have launched a renewed campaign for national attention.
  • Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani in New Delhi, India on April 27.
  • Russian forces conducted defensive operations in the Kupyansk direction and limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces did not make any confirmed gains in or around Bakhmut but may be transferring additional reserves to the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces are further militarizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to defend against possible Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
  • The Washington Post reported that leaked US intelligence documents state that Russian military leaders aim to enlist 815,000 soldiers while balancing concerns about critical labor shortages.
  • Ukrainian partisans conducted three separate attacks in occupied territories on April 26-27.

 


 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 26, 2023

Click here for the full report

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
April 26, 5pm ET

 

Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on April 26 that Russia is trying to change the ethnic composition of Ukraine by actively conducting a large-scale resettlement of people mainly from poorer and remote regions of Russia into Ukraine.[1] Malyar noted that the most intensive efforts are ongoing in occupied Luhansk Oblast and remarked that Russia is also deporting Ukrainians and forcibly resettling them in Russia.[2] ISW previously reported on specific instances of Russian authorities overseeing the depopulation and repopulation of areas of occupied Ukraine, particularly in occupied Kherson Oblast over the course of 2022. Ukrainian sources remarked in October 2022 that Russian authorities in then-occupied parts of Kherson Oblast deported large groups of Ukrainian residents to Russia under the guise of humanitarian evacuations and then repopulated their homes with Russian soldiers.[3] Russia may hope to import Russians to fill depopulated areas of Ukraine in order to further integrate occupied areas into Russian socially, administratively, politically, and economically, thereby complicating conditions for the reintegration of these territories into Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that such depopulation and repopulation campaigns may amount to a deliberate ethnic cleansing effort and apparent violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[4]

 

Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut. A video appeal addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin by personnel of the “Potok” PMC (reportedly one of three volunteer detachments from Russian-state owned energy company Gazprom) claims that Gazprom officials told members of “Potok” that they would be signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) but then forced personnel to sign contracts with PMC “Redut.”[5] One Potok soldier claimed that Gazprom created two other units — “Fakel” and “Plamya,” which were attached to the Russian MoD.[6] A Russian milblogger claimed that ”Potok“ is not a PMC, but a BARS (Combat Reserve) unit, however.[7] The ”Potok” personnel also reported poor treatment by Wagner fighters who threatened to shoot ”Potok” personnel if they withdrew from the line of contact. A Wagner fighter claimed in an interview published on April 26 that ”Potok” fighters abandoned Wagner’s flanks at night.[8] A Russian milblogger claimed that “Potok” fighters abandoned their positions in Bakhmut due to a lack of ammunition.[9] ISW previously assessed that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely views the proliferation of PMCs around Bakhmut as competition, and it appears that the increased prevalence of other PMCs around Bakhmut may be causing substantial friction.[10]

 

The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression. The Russian Federation Council approved three bills on April 26 which would allow for the deprivation of Russian citizenship for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces and for actions that threaten national security, allow for life sentences for high treason, and allow for five-year sentences for those who promote the decisions of international organizations in which Russia does not participate.[11] ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin has supported laws strengthening punishments for trespassing at facilities run by certain federal bodies, misappropriation of Russian military assets, and discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine to expand pretexts for the arrests of Russian citizens and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor.[12] The Kremlin is likely setting numerous conditions for domestic crackdowns to give Russian officials to have carte blanche in prosecuting anyone perceived to be against Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s war in Ukraine. The harsh punishments stipulated by these laws likely aim to promote widespread self-censorship amongst the Russian population. ISW has also assessed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs, and Russian authorities may use these new laws to support these efforts.[13]

 

Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remarked on April 26 that as soon as weather conditions improve in Bakhmut, Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive, which may coincide with Russia’s May 9 Victory Day holiday (the commemoration of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945).[14] A prominent Russian milblogger insinuated that Ukraine may be planning counteroffensive actions in order to ruin May 9 celebrations on Russia.[15] The invocations of May 9 suggest that the Russian information space continues to place symbolic importance on dates associated with Russia’s Great Patriotic War, which continues to shape discourse on the prospects of the war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a press conference in New York on April 25 that discussions about the potential for negotiations after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive are ”schizophrenic.”[16] Increasingly despondent and panicked rhetoric emanating from prominent information space figures suggests that the Russian information space has not yet settled on a line about how to address significant and growing concerns about the near future.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Xi’s statement made China’s position on Ukrainian independence clear, rejecting Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s April 22 statements that post-Soviet states lack a basis for sovereignty.[17] Both Ukrainian and Chinese government readouts of the call mentioned a possible role China could play in negotiating nuclear issues.[18] Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova expressed broad agreement with China’s peace plan and blamed Ukraine for rejecting it.[19] The tepid Russian response to Zelensky and Xi’s call is likely further evidence of Russia’s displeasure at China's unwillingness to establish a no-limits bilateral partnership. It is not clear that Chinese actions match Chinese rhetoric, however. According to US government statements and investigative journalism reports, China may be providing non-lethal military assistance to Russia.[20]

 

The Kremlin is likely attempting to reassure Armenia that it is a reliable partner despite the fact that the war in Ukraine is limiting Russia’s ability to play a larger role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 26 in which they reportedly discussed the development of the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh.[21] The brief Kremlin read out for the conversation called for strict compliance with the agreements made by Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani leaders considering the increasing tensions in the Lachin corridor.[22] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 26 that Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lentsov is the new commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh and will oversee operations at the 30 observation posts that Russian forces operate in the area.[23] The Russian MoD likely announced the appointment to signal to Armenia a commitment to meet Russia peacekeeping responsibilities and to augment Putin’s effort to reassure Pashinyan.

 

The Kremlin may attempt to use conscripts to maintain peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh and preserve relations with Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states. ISW previously assessed that Russia’s redeployment of elements of its peacekeeping force from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine is likely eroding Russia’s influence with Armenia.[24] Pashinyan accused Russian peacekeeping forces of not meeting their obligations in December 2022 and stated on March 16, 2023, that Armenia should appeal to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if Russia is unable to uphold the November 9, 2020, ceasefire agreement.[25] The Kremlin efforts are likely failing to convince Armenia that it will uphold its obligations under the ceasefire agreement, and Russia’s potential inability to do so may severely degrade Russia’s standing with other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states. The Russian State Duma approved on April 4 the first draft of a bill that would allow all Russian personnel, including conscripts, to participate in Russian peacekeeping operations, likely in an effort to send conscripts to sustain the peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh.[26] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated on April 24 that the Kremlin made a decision to replace the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh with a contingent of conscripts, although ISW has not observed visual confirmation of Russian conscripts serving in Nagorno-Karabakh.[27]

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians.
  • Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut.
  • The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression.
  • Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, stating that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • The Kremlin is likely attempting to reassure Armenia that it is a reliable partner despite the fact that the war in Ukraine is limiting Russia’s ability to play a larger role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Kremlin may attempt to use conscripts to maintain peacekeeping operations in Nagorno Karabakh and preserve relations with Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces did not conduct any offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces made gains within Bakhmut and north of Avdiivka.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to argue amongst themselves about Ukrainian activity along the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian authorities have started sending military registration summonses that include threats of “restrictive measures.”
  • Russian sources claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) prevented an attempted attack in Crimea.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 25, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

 Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan
April 25, 7pm ET

Senior US and EU officials assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin would remain unwilling to negotiate in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive. The New York Times (NYT) reported on April 24 that a senior European official stated that the chances of Putin “backing down” in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive are “less than zero.”[1] The official stated that Putin would likely mobilize more soldiers to fight in Ukraine. US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander said that there is “very little evidence” to suggest that Putin would alter his strategic goal of subjugating Ukraine “politically, if not fully militarily.” US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby told Voice of America on April 25 that the US is increasing security assistance to Ukraine because the US expects that Russia will attempt to go on the offensive as the weather improves.[2]

 

A Ukrainian military official claimed on April 25 that Ukrainian forces are achieving “impressive results” in counter-battery combat against Russian forces on the Russian-occupied eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River.[3] Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Southern Operational Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Ukrainian forces hit and destroyed Russian artillery systems, tanks, armored vehicles, and air defense systems. Humenyuk added that Ukrainian forces are working to clear the frontline on the east bank in a “counter-battery mode.” Humenyuk added that Russian forces are evacuating civilians from the Dnipro River bank area to move in Russian units, which is simplifying Ukrainian operations.

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied ISW’s April 22 assessment about limited improvements in Wagner’s relations with the Russian military command ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive. ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command may have partially repaired its strained relationship with Prigozhin to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt offensive operations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.[4] ISW had also observed a dramatic change in the nature of Prigozhin’s public interactions with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin as early as beginning of April.[5] Prigozhin stated that ISW’s assessment is a “fake,” noting that he would not “exchange ammunition for [his] guys even for friendship with God.”[6]

 

Prigozhin’s continued instance on his distaste for the Russian military leadership contradicts the change in Prigozhin’s rhetoric as well as the sudden influx of artillery ammunition after months of reported shell hunger in Bakhmut.[7] Russian independent outlet Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) also reported that Prigozhin’s companies earned a record amount of income in 2022 from their contracts with the Russian MoD despite his feud with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.[8] Prigozhin has repeatedly acknowledged cooperation with troops subordinated to the Russian MoD and is receiving mobilized personnel to reinforce his flanks. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that his eldest son fought in the war with Wagner, which ISW assessed to be an information operation to mend the relationship and possibly increase or demonstrate Prigozhin’s loyalty to the Kremlin.[9] All these factors indicate that Prigozhin – despite his claimed independence and pride – needs to retain the favor and support of the Kremlin and the Russian MoD to sustain his operations.

 

Russian ultranationalists are continuing to advocate for the Kremlin to adopt Stalinist repression measures. Russian State Duma Parliamentarian Andrey Gurulyov – a prominent Russian ultranationalist figure within the ruling United Russia Party – stated that Russia needs to reintroduce the concept of the “enemy of the people.”[10] This concept designated all the late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s opposition figures as the enemies of society. Gurulyov frequently shares extreme opinions on Russian state television but the rhetoric among the ultranationalists is increasingly emphasizing the need for the targeting and elimination of Russia’s internal enemies. Former Russian officer Igor Girkin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin often echo similar calls to prosecute Russian officials who are hoping to end the war via negotiations with the West. Such attitudes indicate that the ultranationalist communities are expecting Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand repression and fully commit to the war.

 

The Kremlin continues to avoid adopting overtly repressive measures likely out of concern for the stability of Putin’s regime. The Russian government withdrew a bill from the Russian State Duma that would have increased taxes from 13 to 30 percent for Russians who have fled the country.[11] Russian ultranationalists have repeatedly called on the Kremlin to nationalize property belonging to Russians who had “betrayed” the country by fleeing, but the Kremlin appears to remain hesitant to introduce such unpopular measures. Unnamed sources told Russian independent outlet Verska that the Russian presidential administration does not support the return of capital punishments in Russia – another issue that recently reemerged in Russian policy discussions.[12] The Kremlin could use the threat of the death penalty to scare Russians into supporting the war effort (or remaining passively resistant to it), but Putin likely remains hesitant to destroy his image as a diplomatic and tolerant tsar. ISW previously assessed that Putin relies on controlling the information space to safeguard his regime much more than the kind of massive oppression apparatus of the Soviet Union and that Putin has never rebuilt an internal repression apparatus equivalent to the KGB, Interior Ministry forces, and the Red Army.[13]

 

Russian civil rights groups OVD-Info, Memorial, and Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars) issued a legal challenge to the Russian censorship law against discrediting the Russian military on April 25. OVD-Info announced that its lawyers filed 10 of 20 planned complaints against the law to the Russian Constitutional Court in hopes that the court will rule the law unconstitutional.[14] The complaints centered around individual cases of alleged discreditation, including one case wherein authorities fined a man 50,000 rubles (about $612) for holding a sign calling for peace.[15] A fringe group of at least 20, mostly smaller, pro-war Russian milbloggers amplified a call for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws on April 11 following the prosecution of a Russian medic for telling battlefield truths.[16] OVD-Info and other human rights organizations are most likely to face prosecution under Russian censorship laws. The Russian government is unlikely to repeal or strike down these laws without direction from the Kremlin, but challenges like OVD-Info's demonstrate continued resistance to domestic censorship and repression.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Senior US and EU officials assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin would remain unwilling to negotiate in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • A Ukrainian military official claimed on April 25 that Ukrainian forces are achieving “impressive results” in counter-battery combat against Russian forces on the Russian-occupied eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied ISW’s April 22 assessment about limited improvements in Wagner’s relations with the Russian military command ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Russian ultranationalists continue to advocate for the Kremlin to adopt Stalinist repression measures.
  • The Kremlin continues to avoid adopting overtly repressive measures likely out of concern for the stability of Putin’s regime.
  • Russian civil rights groups OVD-Info, Memorial, and Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars) issued a legal challenge to the Russian censorship law against discrediting the Russian military on April 25.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kremmina line.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
  • Russian milbloggers continued to issue vehement denials that Ukrainian forces established sustained positions on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is attempting to financially incentivize Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, offering them compensation equivalent to that of Russian volunteers.
  • The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Ukrainian partisans detonated a Russian military checkpoint near Oleshky.

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 24, 7pm ET

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

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

 

Russian milbloggers speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered additional military command changes on April 20. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Putin signed a decree on April 20 about a series of military command changes and formally dismissed Commander of the Eastern Military District Colonel General Rustam Muradov.[1] The milblogger noted that Muradov’s dismissal likely resulted from his disastrous offensive on Vuhledar that resulted in many casualties among Russian personnel and the loss of much military equipment. The milblogger added that the decree also forced Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov — who reportedly commanded Russian forces in Ukraine in April 2022 — to retire. The milblogger claimed that Putin forced former commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov into retirement alongside other unnamed commanders as well. The milblogger claimed that the Kremlin is now relying on newly reappointed Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky to achieve decisive results.

 

These reports about command changes and dismissals follow the Kremlin’s reported dismissal of Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergei Avakyants on April 19.[2] A Russian milblogger claimed that Avakyants was not fired as a result of poor performance during military drills in the Pacific, but that he will be forming a new “organization” under the rumored control of the “gas sector.”[3] It is unclear if this was an intentionally vague reference to the reports about Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom‘s formation of a private security company. The milblogger noted that he is not sure if the organization will cooperate with the Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF) or the Young Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya). ISW previously reported that Russian state gas companies — namely Gazprom — are forming new military formations and that DOSAAF has been proactive in Russian military recruitment efforts.[4]

 

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched an information operation to undermine the credibility of Russian state-affiliated private military groups (PMCs). Prigozhin claimed to visit the positions of “Potok” and the “Alexander Nevsky” units - which Prigozhin characterized as “micro-PMCs” - and harshly criticized the poor condition of these units on April 24.[5] The Potok battalion is reportedly one of three volunteer detachments of the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom and is analogous to the Russian State Combat Reserve (BARS).[6]The Potok battalion is reportedly subordinated to the Russian Ministry of Defense PMC Redut.[7] Prigozhin claimed that these units are supposed to cover Wagner‘s flanks and asked how these units can conduct combat operations if they lack the proper supplies and weapons. Prigozhin also criticized the general proliferation of such PMCs, which likely suggests that Prigozhin views these new entities as Wagner’s competition.

 

Wagner-affiliated sources claimed on April 24 that Wagner forces tasked Potok with defending unspecified newly captured positions to allow Wagner to regroup, but that Potok abandoned these positions and allowed Ukrainian forces to recapture the area.[8] Alleged personnel of the Potok unit posted a video message on April 24, blaming the leadership of Gazprom and PMC Redut for failing to provide Potok with proper weapons and supplies as well as blaming Wagner for forbidding the Potok personnel from leaving their positions.[9] Some milbloggers — including Wagner-affiliated milbloggers — criticized the Potok unit for blaming leadership and instead attributed their poor combat performance to their status as volunteers.[10] The milbloggers’ and Prigozhin’s reports indicate that Wagner has authority over Russian MoD-owned entities, which in turn indicates that Prigozhin has regained some favor with the Kremlin.

 

Kremlin authorities proposed equalizing pay between mobilized personnel and volunteers likely in an attempt to incentivize military service. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with United Russia Secretary Andrey Turchak on April 24 to discuss initiatives to provide benefits to Russian military personnel. Putin expressed support for Turchak’s proposal to equalize the salary of “all participants” of the war in Ukraine.[11] Turchak claimed that mobilized personnel currently receive 195,000 rubles (about $2,400) monthly no matter where they serve, whereas contract soldiers receive the same amount only when serving on the frontlines. Turchak claimed that contract soldiers serving in the rear are receiving salaries “several times less” than those received by soldiers in the same role on the front line. Turchak also proposed to implement other social benefits including: setting an admission quota at Russian universities for veterans, for those awarded Hero of Russia of three Orders of Courage, and for children of participants in the war; reducing or canceling the commission fees for withdrawing or transferring money; and extending or canceling loans for parents, spouses, and children of veterans in the event of death or severe disability. ISW previously reported on conflicts between different groups of Russian servicemen regarding unequal payments and social benefits, and the Kremlin is likely attempting to appear to resolve these discrepancies to encourage enlistment.[12]

 

The Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee detained a former Wagner Group commander who told Russian human rights organization Gulagu.net about Wagner’s murder of children and other civilians in Bakhmut. Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin reported on April 24 that the Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee arrested Wagner commander Azamat Uldarov, who detailed Wagner’s practice of killing children in Bakhmut and the group’s treatment of prisoners of war on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s orders (which Prigozhin denied).[13] Osechkin stated that four other Wagner mercenaries accompanied the Investigate Committee and threatened Uldarov with death for his testimony against Prigozhin.[14] Wagner’s cooperation with local investigative authorities indicates that Wagner and Prigozhin are able to influence certain local authorities and security organs. This anecdote further suggests that Wagner is deeply invested in encouraging participation in atrocities in order to build social cohesion among the group and indicates that Wagner uses the threat of retribution to discourage dissenting voices that expose Prigozhin to discredit the wider group.[15]

 

Ukrainian forces likely conducted a naval drone attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) base in Sevastopol in the early morning of April 24. Geolocated footage shows a likely Ukrainian naval drone detonating in the port of Sevastopol reportedly around 3:30am on April 24.[16] The extent of damage from the strike is unclear. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on April 24 that Ukrainian forces attempted to attack the BSF base in Sevastopol with three unmanned surface vehicles and claimed that Russian forces destroyed all three vehicles.[17] Russian occupation governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev reported that of the two of the three unmanned surface vehicles entered Striletskyi Bay and that one of them detonated on its own, damaging four residential buildings.[18] Razvozhaev reported that the attack did not damage any military infrastructure.[19] Ukrainian forces have likely targeted the Russian BSF before: the Ukrainian forces likely attacked a Grigorovich-class frigate of the BSF near Sevastopol with unmanned surface vehicles on October 29, 2022.[20]

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York City on April 24 to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).[21] Lavrov led a session on April 24 entitled “maintenance of international peace and security” and was met with widespread condemnation by other members of the session.[22] ISW has previously assessed that Russia uses its position at the UNSC as a method of power projection and forecasted that Russia would likely exploit its one-month UNSC presidency to amplify Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine.[23]

 

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 24 that Russian ships are ferrying Iranian ammunition across the Caspian Sea to resupply Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.[24] The WSJ, citing unnamed Middle Eastern officials, stated that cargo ships have carried over 300,000 artillery shells and a million ammunition rounds from Iran to Russia via the Caspian Sea over the past six months. The unnamed officials reportedly said that the last known shipment left Iran for Astrakhan in early March and carried 1,000 containers with 2,000 artillery shells. The WSJ noted that the Iranian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has a contract with Russian state-owned joint stock company Rosobronexport for the sale of 74,000 artillery shells at a price of $1.7 million. A prominent Russian milblogger responded to the report and claimed that he has not yet seen the arrival of this ammunition on the front despite continued Russian–Iranian defense cooperation.[25]

 

Krasnoyarsk Krai deputy Konstantin Senchenko resigned on April 24 following the resignation of Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss on April 20. Senchenko reportedly left Russia over a year ago and actively criticized the war, earning himself a fine in January for “discrediting the army.”[26] Uss reportedly resigned following an offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin to work on the federal level.[27] Senchenko’s and Uss’s resignations may signal discontent with Kremlin leadership on more regional levels of Russian government.

 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian milbloggers speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered additional military command changes on April 20.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched an information operation to undermine the credibility of Russian state-affiliated private military groups (PMCs).
  • Kremlin authorities proposed equalizing pay between mobilized personnel and volunteers, likely in an attempt to incentivize military service.
  • Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee detained a former Wagner Group commander who told Russian human rights organization Gulagu.net about Wagner’s murder of children and other civilians in Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian forces likely conducted a naval drone attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) base in Sevastopol in the early morning of April 24.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York City on April 24 to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
  • The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 24 that Russian ships are ferrying Iranian ammunition across the Caspian Sea to resupply Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
  • Krasnoyarsk Krai deputy Konstantin Senchenko resigned on April 24 following the resignation of Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss on April 20.
  • Ukrainian forces have made marginal gains south of Kreminna as of April 24 and continue to target Russian logistics nodes in rear areas of Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
  • Some Russian sources denied claims from other Russian milbloggers that Ukrainian forces established enduring positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • The Kremlin continues crypto-mobilization efforts likely in an attempt to avoid a second wave of formal mobilization.
  • The Wagner Group may be attempting to fill law enforcement roles in occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 23, 2023

Click here to read for the full report

Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 23, 8:15pm ET

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

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

 

ISW is publishing a special edition campaign assessment today, April 23. This report outlines the current Russian order of battle (ORBAT) in Ukraine, assesses the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russian force groupings along the front, and discusses major factors that may complicate Russian defensive operations in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

 

This report is based on a number of assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities that ISW does not, as a matter of policy, attempt to assess or report on. It assumes, in particular, that Ukraine will be able to conduct a coordinated multi-brigade mechanized offensive operation making full use of the reported nine brigades being prepared for that operation. That task is daunting and larger than any offensive effort Ukraine has hitherto attempted (four Ukrainian brigades were reportedly used in the Kharkiv counter-offensive, for example). It also assumes that Ukraine will have integrated enough tanks and armored personnel carriers of various sorts into its units to support extended mechanized maneuver, that Ukrainian mechanized units will have sufficient ammunition of all sorts including artillery, and that Ukraine will be able to conduct long-range precision strikes with HIMARS and other similar systems integrated with and supporting maneuver operations as it has done before. It further assumes that Ukrainian forces will have the mine-clearing and bridging capabilities needed to move relatively rapidly through prepared defensive positions. ISW sees no reason to question any of these assumptions given the intensity with which Ukraine has reportedly been preparing for this operation and the time it has taken to do so, as well as the equipment reportedly delivered to Ukrainian forces by Western countries. If any significant number of these assumptions prove invalid, however, then some of the assessments and observations below will also be invalid, and the Russians’ prospects for holding their lines will be better than presented below. ISW offers no assessment of or evidence for these assumptions, and thus offers no specific forecast for the nature, scale, location, duration, or outcome of the upcoming Ukrainian counter-offensive. Ukraine has attractive options for offensive operations all along the line, and ISW does not assess that the information presented in this report or any observations ISW has made below lead obviously to the conclusion that Ukrainian forces will attack in one area or another.

 

Russian forces in Ukraine are operating in decentralized and largely degraded formations throughout the theater, and the current pattern of deployment suggests that most available units are already online and engaged in either offensive or defensive operations. ISW assesses that Russian forces are currently operating along seven axes: Kupyansk; Luhansk Oblast; Bakhmut; Avdiivka-Donetsk City; western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia; western Zaporizhia; and Kherson Oblast. Russian forces are pursuing active offensive operations on at least five of these axes (Kupyansk, Luhansk, Bakhmut, Avdiivka-Donetsk City, and western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia) and predominantly pursuing defensive operations on the western Zaporizhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast axes. The forces currently committed to both offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine are both regular (doctrinally consistent based on Russian pre-war units) and irregular (non-standard and non-doctrinal) forces, and it is highly likely that the majority of Russian elements throughout Ukraine are substantially below full strength due to losses taken during previous phases of the war. This report will discuss “elements” of certain units and formations deployed to certain areas, but it should not be assumed that any of these units or formations are operating at full strength.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023

Click here to read for the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan
April 22, 9pm ET

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

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

Russian milbloggers have provided enough geolocated footage and textual reports to confirm that Ukrainian forces have established positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of April 22 though not at what scale or with what intentions. Geolocated footage published by a Russian milblogger on April 22 shows that Ukrainian forces have established positions on the Dnipro River bank north of Oleshky (7km southwest of Kherson City) and advanced up to the northern outskirts of the settlement on the E97 highway, as well as west of Dachi (10km south of Kherson City).[1] This footage also indicates that Russian forces may not control islands in the Kinka and Chaika rivers less than half a kilometer north of the geolocated Ukrainian positions near the Antonivsky Bridge. Russian milbloggers claimed on April 20 and 22 that Ukrainian forces have maintained positions in east bank Kherson Oblast for weeks, established stable supply lines to these positions, and regularly conduct sorties in the area—all indicating a lack of Russian control over the area.[2] Another milblogger’s battle map claimed that Russian forces do not control some Dnipro River delta islands southwest of Kherson City as of April 22, suggesting possible Ukrainian advances on these islands.[3] Some milbloggers complained that the slow rate of Russian artillery fire due to the over-centralization of the Russian military command allowed Ukrainian forces to land on the east bank.[4] Russian forces may be prioritizing maintaining defenses in urban areas such as Oleshky and Nova Kakhovka, leaving the islands in the Dnipro River delta unmanned. The extent and intent of these Ukrainian positions remain unclear, as does Ukraine’s ability and willingness to maintain sustained positions in this area. ISW is recoding territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River to Ukrainian-held only now because this is the first time ISW has observed reliable geolocated imagery of Ukrainian positions on the east bank along with multi-sourced Russian reports of an enduring Ukrainian presence there.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely attempting to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to go over to the defensive ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Prigozhin argued on April 21 that Russia needs to “anchor itself in such a way that it is only possible to tear out [Russian forces from their positions] with the claws of the opponent.”[5] Prigozhin’s comment followed a discussion of the Ramstein meeting results, Western commitments to train more Ukrainian personnel and continuous military support for Ukraine. Prigozhin also noted that Ukraine will try to “tear” Russian forces apart and that Russia needs to resist such attacks. Prigozhin has been increasingly alarmist in his recent rhetoric and has made similar statements about the uncertain future of Russian offensive operations in Donbas.[6] Prigozhin’s calls for strengthening Russian defenses in occupied territories and frequent discussions of the prospects of Ukrainian counteroffensives are notable as they indicate that he is trying to amplify the discussion in the Russian domestic information space. Russia, however, continues to conduct offensive operations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Prigozhin is also advocating for Russia to focus on holding the current frontlines rather than seeking more gains so that Russian forces can regain their combat effectiveness for later offensive operations. Prigozhin is not arguing for Russia to end the war and negotiate with Ukraine and the West as some Russian and Western sources reported, as ISW previously observed, but is instead condemning the faction within the Kremlin that is hoping to end the war in negotiations.[7] Prigozhin is actually arguing that Russia needs to meet the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive at full strength and try to hold the current frontlines without ending the war or entering into peace negotiations.[8] He argues that a pause after the Ukrainian attack culminates would allow Russia to regain combat power and build nationalist support within the Russian society for renewing the fight even in the event of a defeat.[9] Prigozhin is also attempting to redefine and undermine some of Putin’s key maximalist goals in Ukraine—namely the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine—likely to minimize the informational impact that might result from going over to the defensive and abandoning efforts to gain more ground now.[10] Russian far-right paramilitary formation Rusich (Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group), which facilitates recruitment of Russian ultranationalist and irregular forces, echoed Prigozhin’s rejection of the “denazification” and “demilitarization” goals.[11] Rusich noted that Russia is fighting Ukraine to avenge Donbas, for living space, and for combat experience—rather than fighting claimed Ukrainian “fascism” and “Nazism.” By reframing Putin’s goals, Prigozhin and some factions within the ultranationalist community may be attempting to condition the Russian domestic information space for the prospect of frozen frontlines, potentially near the initial lines of February 23, 2022.

The Russian military command is likely attempting to convince Putin to turn to defensive operations as well—but may be unable to bluntly deliver this message to Putin. Some ultranationalist figures argued that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled efforts to recruit 400,000 contract servicemen to ensure that Russia has enough military personnel to defend existing frontlines and to efficiently freeze the current frontlines in Ukraine.[12] The Russian military command is also reportedly transferring conscripts to hold Russian lines in Crimea and may be planning to prepare other resources to ensure that Russia can retain some lines once the potential Ukrainian counteroffensive culminates.[13] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov are likely sensible to the threat of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but are likely continuing to send contract servicemen to reinforce senseless offensive operations at Putin’s insistence.[14] Kremlin sources previously revealed that Putin favors loyalty over competence, and this sentiment likely prevents Shoigu and Gerasimov from focusing on setting optimal conditions for an efficient defense by refusing to expend Russian elite units in grinding attritional battles for marginal gains.[15] ISW previously observed that Shoigu and Gerasimov were likely unable to convince Putin to conduct mobilization in May 2022—despite the fact that Russia needed such a measure to reconstitute forces necessary to maintain offensive operations in Ukraine.[16]

The Russian military command may have partially repaired its strained relationship with Prigozhin to persuade Putin to halt offensive operations via the Russian information space. ISW has observed a sudden improvement in Prigozhin’s relations with the Russian MoD and the Kremlin since early April. The Russian MoD, for example, began to directly acknowledge Wagner forces in its daily situational reports and provided Wagner with ammunition and mobilized personnel as reinforcements in early April 2023.[17] Prigozhin and Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers amplified claims that Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s son Nikolai Peskov is reportedly serving with Wagner in Ukraine—likely an information operation to publicly mend the relationship and possibly elevate Prigozhin’s loyalty to the Kremlin.[18] Prigozhin had previously been able to impact Putin’s decision-making by engineering the appointment of Wagner-affiliated commanders and the dismissal of inept military officials and breaking through Putin’s close circle with his critiques of the progress of the war.[19] A Russian political expert observed that different Kremlin officials have historically voiced their plans and projects publicly to convince Putin to implement changes, and it is likely that Prigozhin follows the same model of influence.[20] The Russian military command and select Kremlin officials who are advocating for Putin to freeze the war may have reapproached Prigozhin to influence Putin one more time.

Putin’s continued insistence on Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine suggests that the group that wants to freeze the war along the current front lines has not fully persuaded Putin. Russian forces are continuing attritional offensives to capture Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka in Donetsk Oblast as well as limited offensive operations in Luhansk and western Donetsk Oblast, despite increasing Russian fears about the threat of a potential imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive.[21] The Russian winter offensive failed to achieve the Kremlin’s ambitious goals of seizing the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast administrative borders by March 31, but it appears that Russian forces have not subsequently deemphasized their operational focus on tactical gains, no matter how marginal and costly those gains are.[22] Russian forces suffered significant manpower and equipment losses during the winter offensive campaign that are currently constraining their abilities to maintain offensive operations along more than one axis and that will likely limit the Russian military’s ability to respond to possible Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[23] Russian forces have not responded to these constraints by prioritizing one axis or by conducting an operational pause along any axis that would allow Russian forces to replenish and reconstitute for a decisive defensive effort. Russia forces are continuing to deploy contract servicemen and remaining combat-effective units to support offensive operations in eastern Ukraine instead of conserving this critical pool of combat power to respond to a Ukrainian counter-offensive.[24] Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka offer no significant operational benefits to Russian forces, and any marginal tactical gains along any axis are unlikely to improve the Russian military’s ability to defend against a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Putin may be hesitant to commit to a ceasefire due to the influence of select unknown pro-war figures or out of concern for the implications for his regime’s stability. The insistence on tactical gains suggests that the pro-war camp advocating for maintaining offensives at any cost is likely still influencing Putin’s decision-making for the war. A possible shift to preparing for defensive operations ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely indicate that Putin had finally rejected the pro-war camp’s views in favor of the more pragmatic group’s. The possible success of the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive could determine the outcome of this struggle for influence over Putin’s decisions.

Russian occupation authorities are continuing to oppress Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine, likely in an effort to suppress Ukrainian religious institutions beyond Moscow’s control. Head of the Ukrainian Berdyansk City Military Administration Viktoria Halitsina reported on April 22 that Russian forces seized the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in occupied Berdyansk.[25] Halitsina stated that Russian propagandists accused the clergy of hiding weapons and collaborating with Ukrainian forces because of their previous service as chaplains for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2015. ISW has also reported on two other instances of Russian occupation authorities persecuting Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine.[26] ISW has previously reported on Russian authorities’ weaponization of religion in occupied territories as part of an ongoing cultural genocide.[27]

Russian authorities continue to arrest personnel associated with the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) likely to justify crackdowns and further conceal DIB activities. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on April 22 that it arrested the deputy head of the testing laboratory at the Promtekhnologiya weapons plant in Moscow on suspicion of treason.[28] The FSB did not provide additional details about the alleged treasonous act. The Promtekhnologiya plant participates in the development and modernization of high-tech weapons. The Promtekhnologiya plant claimed that it had not employed the arrested employee since March 2021.[29] ISW has reported on other recent arrests that are part of an ongoing crackdown using the pretext of threats to Russia’s DIB.[30]

A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 21 with two FAB-500 bombs, one of which likely malfunctioned. Russian authorities announced on April 22 the presence of a second, undetonated bomb that landed in Belgorod.[31] Belgorod authorities evacuated 3,000 civilians from the city while sappers extracted and later detonated the bomb.[32] Russian authorities have so far provided no further explanation as to the cause of the accidental bombing. The Russian fighter bomber either intended to drop the bombs on a different target and one bomb failed to detonate, or the fighter bomber did not arm the bombs to drop them, and one bomb improperly detonated. 

Key Takeaways

  • Russian milbloggers have provided enough geolocated footage and textual reports to confirm that Ukrainian forces have established positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of April 22 though not at what scale or with what intentions.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely attempting to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to go over to the defensive ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • The Russian military command is likely attempting to convince Putin to turn to defensive operations as well—but is unable to bluntly deliver this message to Putin.
  • The continued insistence on Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine suggests that the group that wants to freeze the war along the current front lines has not fully persuaded Putin of its views.
  • Russian occupation authorities are continuing to oppress Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine, likely in an effort to suppress Ukrainian religious institutions beyond the Kremlin’s control.
  • A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 21 with two FAB-500 bombs, one of which likely malfunctioned.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line and near Siversk.
  • Russian forces continued to advance around Bakhmut on April 22, although Russian forces have not completed a turning movement around the city.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front and conducted a limited ground attack in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian authorities have made headway in their attempts to compel international recognition of Russian ownership over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Continued Russian efforts to block evacuations of wounded soldiers, likely to prevent soldiers from leaving the combat zone, have contributed to the deaths of some Russian soldiers.
  • Russian occupation officials are expanding patronage networks in occupied territories.

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 21, 2023

Click here to read for the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan
April 21, 7:45 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.

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

Russian forces used a new delivery of Shahed drones to strike Ukraine for the third consecutive day, targeting Kyiv for the first time in 25 days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 26 drones on April 20, of which Ukrainian forces shot down 21 and 12 drones on April 21, of which Ukrainian forces shot down eight.[1] Russian forces targeted Kyiv, Odesa, Poltava, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv oblasts overnight on April 19 to 20 and 20 to 21.[2] The Kyiv City Military Administration reported no damage from the strikes in Kyiv.[3] Head of the Ukrainian Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated on April 20 that Russian forces waited until a new shipment of Shahed drones arrived to use them for further strikes and noted that Russian use of missiles has also decreased.[4]

Commander of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina reportedly assumed command of the Russian Pacific Fleet on April 21 following the completion of Russian drills in the Pacific on April 20. Kremlin newswire TASS, citing an unnamed source, reported that Liina replaced Admiral Sergei Avakyants who had commanded the Russian Pacific Fleet since 2012.[5] Unofficial reports of Liina’s appointments coincide with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) announcement that the Pacific Fleet and elements of the Russian Aerospace Forces completed drills in the Pacific under the supervision of Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov.[6] The Russian MoD may have named Yevmenov as the supervisor for these drills following milblogger and nationalist discourse about Avakyants’ abrupt termination amidst the combat readiness checks.[7] ISW previously assessed that Avakyants’ dismissal may have been a result of his inability to recreate pre-war, large scale Pacific Fleet combat readiness checks due to the Pacific Fleet’s significant combat losses in Ukraine.[8]

A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 20. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 20 that a Russian Su-34 bomber accidentally dropped a bomb while flying over Belgorod City.[9] The explosion left a crater with a 20-meter (65-foot) radius in the southern part of the city and injured three civilians.[10] The cause of the accidental bombing remains unclear, as does the reason for flying an armed bomber over a populated city. Russian milbloggers did not react to the bombing with the same vitriolic anger they often use with Russian battlefield failures. One milblogger compared the accidental bombing to the Su-34 crash in Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai, in October 2022, claiming that Belgorod residents should be thankful that the bomb did not hit a residential building.[11] Another milblogger expressed appreciation for the MoD taking responsibility for the accident and characterized the act as an atypical sign of health in the MoD.[12] A Rossiya-1 broadcaster, speaking about the event, stated that “modern military equipment allows Russian units to eliminate extremists in the special operation zone from a minimal distance”-- likely an error that indicates confusion in Russian state media on how to frame the accident in the information space.[13]

The Angry Patriots Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of supporting efforts to freeze the war in Ukraine. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin and his Angry Patriots Club posed 40 direct questions addressed towards the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Russian military command about Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, foreign affairs, and domestic power struggles.[14] Girkin asked why Russian authorities are not arresting Prigozhin for his “direct calls” to freeze the war at the current frontlines, which Girkin characterized as calls to “violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”[15] Girkin notably mentioned Prigozhin when asking who was responsible for Russian withdrawal from Kherson Oblast – an operation overseen by Wagner-affiliated former Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine at that time Army General Sergey Surovikin.[16] Girkin and Prigozhin have a long-standing feud – likely as a result of competition for patronage – and Girkin’s accusations against Prigozhin may be an attempt to discredit his rival.[17]

This accusation may also indicate that Prigozhin has found a patron – possibly affiliated with the Russian MoD – who supports the temporary freeze of the war in Ukraine for political reasons. The Angry Patriots Club previously amplified a forecast that miscontextualized Prigozhin’s April 14 essay as a call to end the war in Ukraine, stating that Prigozhin’s essay was the start of a political campaign to move to the defense of new territories and freeze the war.[18] The forecast noted that the Russian MoD and Russian private military companies (PMCs) are already recruiting contract servicemen to defend occupied positions, while Russian propagandists are entertaining news about the counteroffensive to possibly present a major victory to Russians if Ukrainians are unsuccessful.[19] The forecast argues that Russia would freeze the war for 2024 for political reasons such as the presidential elections if Russia is successful in repelling Ukrainian counteroffensives. Prigozhin’s essay notably called on Russia to commit to a decisive battle in Ukraine or embrace a temporary defeat that would allow Russia to set conditions for a future victory without negotiations.[20] It is possible that Girkin and his patrons are fearful that Prigozhin has joined the political faction that is urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the war on current lines following planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.[21]

Prigozhin publicly restored his cooperation with the Russian MoD and seemingly regained some Kremlin-allocated privileges at the start of April after a months-long feud with the Russian military command.[22] The Russian MoD and the Russian military command could be interested in freezing the war to reconstitute Russian forces. ISW previously assessed that the Russian MoD had likely advised Putin early on about measures such as mobilization that could have changed the course of the war earlier, and the Russian MoD had previously ordered a short-lived operational pause over the summer of 2022, for example.[23] Prigozhin’s recent cooperation with the Russian MoD indicates that he may have reached an agreement with the Russian military command – possibly offering to advocate to Putin for a temporary ceasefire to regain the ability to grow his forces and expand his political standing ahead of Russian gubernatorial and presidential elections. Prigozhin had also been criticizing Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine and offering grim forecasts about Russia’s need for years-long grinding attacks to capture Donbas, which are likely part of the ceasefire narrative.[24]

A temporary ceasefire in Ukraine and protraction of the war will only benefit Russia by allowing it to reconstitute its forces and wear down Western support for Ukraine. Russia will use occupied territories in Ukraine as a springboard for future offensive operations after it restores its combat capabilities. Russia is continuing to weaponize information operations in the West to discourage military aid provisions, and such efforts will only intensify if Russia is able to establish a strong defensive line with contract servicemen and conscripts that will slow Ukrainian advances.[25]

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law aimed at supporting the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to set conditions for domestic crackdowns and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor. Putin signed a bill on April 14 increasing administrative liabilities for unauthorized entry into critical energy infrastructure facilities and facilities operated or protected by Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard), the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Russian penitentiary system, the federal executive body for mobilization, and the Russian Armed Forces.[26] The Kremlin likely intends to use these increased punishments to obscure the activities of Russian military and security organs while also expanding these entities' ability to oust officials and crack down on Russian citizens under accusations of trespassing. Putin recently signed bills expanding legal punishments for the discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine and for the misappropriation of Russian military assets, and Russian security organs have increasingly used these laws as pretexts for the arrest of Russian citizens.[27] ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin may be using the pretext of threats to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) to justify crackdowns, and the new law likely aims to broaden the guises under which Russian authorities justify internal repressions.[28]  ISW previously assessed that the FSB appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs, which the new law may further augment.[29]

 Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces used a new delivery of Shahed drones to strike Ukraine for the third consecutive day, targeting Kyiv for the first time in 25 days.
  • Commander of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina reportedly assumed command of the Russian Pacific Fleet following the completion of Russian drills in the Pacific.
  • A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 20.
  • The Angry Patriots Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of supporting efforts to freeze the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law aimed at supporting the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to set conditions for domestic crackdowns and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to advance in and around Bakhmut, although Russian forces have not completed a turning movement around the city.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front and conducted a limited ground attack in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces have established positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian federal subjects are forming new cross-regional volunteer formations to support the ongoing force generation campaigns.
  • Russian authorities are expanding the logistics capabilities and security measures on the Arabat Spit likely to prepare for a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 20, 2023

Click here to read for the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, and Mason Clark
April 20, 6pm ET

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

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

The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet on April 19 amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev announced on April 19 the “appointment” of Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergei Avakyants to the headquarters overseeing Russia’s military sports training and patriotic education centers, a clear demotion for one of the seniormost commanding officers in the Russian Navy.[1] It is unclear why a Kremlin official initially announced Avakyants’ reappointment instead of the Ministry of Defense. The Russian Pacific Fleet reported on April 20 that Avankyants is changing position due to his reaching the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) age limit for military service (65 years).[2] However, Russian state media outlet TASS reported that its sources claimed that Avakyants’ demotion was not due to his old age.[3] Several Russian general officers – including current Russian theater commander in Ukraine and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov – have served in the Russian armed forces beyond turning 65. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a surprise readiness check of the Pacific Fleet on April 14 that is still ongoing as of April 20.[4] Russian state wire TASS reported on April 20 that two sources close to the Russian Pacific Fleet’s management stated that current Commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina may take command of the Pacific Fleet and that Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov may command the Baltic Fleet.[5]

The Kremlin clearly demoted Avakyants from a senior operational commander to a military bureaucrat overseeing programmatic work, despite Russian officials’ framing of the shift as a new “appointment.” Avakyants’ demotion may be connected to the poor performance of Pacific Fleet naval infantry (such as the 155th and 40th naval infantry brigades) around Vuhledar since early 2023. Avakyants alternatively may have failed in some manner to conduct large-scale drills in the Pacific. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin linked Avakyants’ dismissal to the Pacific Fleet drills and sarcastically questioned if someone could conduct drills within the Russian MoD, likely advocating for the dismissal of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.[6] Another milblogger welcomed Avakyants’ dismissal, stating that Russia needs to appoint younger commanders like Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov.[7]

A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s ineffective use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces in Ukraine. The milblogger argued on April 20 that Russian forces are relying on VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units to conduct ground attacks in Ukraine due to a lack of high-quality infantry, despite VDV and Spetsnaz units not initially being prepared for conducting combined arms operations.[8] The milblogger argued that VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units need to carry out their intended purposes and not serve as the Russian military’s elite infantry and assault groups in Ukraine.[9] The milblogger particularly criticized Spetsnaz units for not conducting enough sabotage and targeting operations and VDV units for being too large and requiring expensive specialized equipment that is not useful in the current tactical realities in Ukraine.[10] The milblogger asserted that the Russian military will not be able to normalize command, management, and planning for major operations until it establishes clear roles for VDV, naval infantry, and Spetsnaz units.[11] The milblogger additionally admitted that the Russian military has in practice formed light infantry units without transports for some time, despite the Russian military’s doctrinal focus on ”motorized rifle” (mechanized infantry) units. ISW previously assessed that Russia’s most elite forces – VDV and Spetsnaz – are diluting their combat effectiveness and doctrinal specialties with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high casualties sustained in Ukraine.[12] The milblogger’s criticism of the use of these elite forces further suggests that these units’ reputation as Russia’s elite fighting force in Ukraine is questionable.

The Russian State Duma adopted a law on April 20 that grants members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s (DNR and LNR) Militias veterans' status and could apply to select PMC or other irregular personnel but fails to explicitly address the status of PMC groups as legal entities.[13] The law (adopted in its third reading) provides veteran status to members of the DNR and LNR Militias who have fought since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, as well as to personnel who served in unspecified organizations which “contribute to the tasks of the Russian Armed Forces” in Ukraine. This framing will likely allow the Kremlin to provide veteran status to select PMC personnel without recognizing the legality of PMCs like the Wagner Group, for which Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has long campaigned.[14]  Prigozhin focused on the lack of recognition of the Wagner Group, though this law would have been an unusual way for the Kremlin to legally recognize Wagner. Prigozhin griped that unnamed Russian entities seek to “forever remove [Wagner] from the history of Russia.”[15] Prigozhin claimed that he is happy for the DNR and LNR militiamen and that he is okay not receiving recognition until authorities eventually punish the individuals who stole Wagner’s recognition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint on the Ukrainian-Russian border during a meeting with government officials on April 19.[16] Putin claimed that he personally traveled through the Gukovo checkpoint, which connects Rostov and Luhansk oblasts, when returning from his recent trip to occupied Luhansk and Kherson oblasts.[17] Putin stated that poor road conditions at the checkpoint caused a civilian backup and forced trucks delivering perishable goods to wait for hours before passing through, causing shipment delays and price increases in occupied territories.[18] Putin added that some trucks must bypass the checkpoint entirely as the roads are too narrow and practically nonexistent.[19] Putin called on Russian special services and law enforcement to increase the number of inspection complexes and employees at checkpoints and ordered Russian officials to improve roads around checkpoints and establish routes from Rostov-on-Don to Luhansk Oblast.[20]

Putin’s orders indicate that Russia intends to maintain customs checkpoints with the illegally annexed eastern regions out of security concerns. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers complained that Russian checkpoints at the international customs line significantly slowed down Russian deliveries of ammunition to the frontlines in Donetsk Oblast.[21] The Kremlin’s failure to implement meaningful integration policies and secure occupied Ukraine is likely undermining Russia’s ability to provision forces on the front line, as ISW has previously assessed.[22] Putin is likely attempting to remedy the delays by expanding staffing to speed up inspections at the checkpoints and is not entertaining the possibility of removing these obstructions. Russia previously intensified security measures and inspections around the Kerch Strait Bridge, the Kremlin likely continues to use these checkpoints for similar security reasons.[23] The Kremlin may also use these checkpoints to prevent the mass movement of men from occupied Ukraine escaping forced mobilization, to stop Russian mobilized personnel from fleeing to Russia, and to maintain Russian filtration measures. The existence of these checkpoints further highlights that Russian officials do not view the residents of occupied Ukraine as Russian nationals and are governing as the occupying power they are, despite ongoing claims the illegally annexed territories are part of Russia.

Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss announced his resignation on April 20, reportedly in response to an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to work at the federal level.[24] The reason for Uss’ promotion is currently unclear but may be part of Putin’s efforts to strengthen control over regional officials.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet Sergei Avakyants amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. It is unclear if the Kremlin demoted Avakyants due to his poor performance in the ongoing rills or for other reasons.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces as frontline infantry in Ukraine.
  • The Russian State Duma adopted a law granting members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias veterans' status which could possibly cover PMC personnel but does not formally recognize PMC formations.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint during a meeting with government officials, indicating continued Russian challenges integrating illegally annexed Ukrainian territory.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Kreminna area.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued reconnaissance activity northwest of Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk frontline, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine out of concern for a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • The Kremlin may be eliminating or deprioritizing formal force structures controlled by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and permitting private military companies (PMCs) to absorb their soldiers.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to target Ukrainian youth to consolidate societal control of occupied territories.

 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 19, 2023

Click here to read for the full report

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 19, 5pm ET

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

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

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs. Russian state-controlled outlet TASS reported on April 19 that the FSB and the Main Directorate of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have been conducting mass checks at the Moscow Central District Internal Affairs Directorate and several Moscow district police offices for the past several weeks due to “the leakage of data from Russian security forces at the request of Ukrainian citizens.”[1] Another Russian source noted that the FSB and MVD have already detained police officers as part of this investigation.[2] Russian outlets reported that the suspected police officers leaked personal data on Russian security forces to external individuals, some of whom are Ukrainian citizens.[3] The reported FSB and MVD raids on the Moscow police departments are occurring against the backdrop of a series of arrests and dismissals of prominent members of Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) leadership.[4] The Kremlin may be pushing for such arrests and investigations in order to conduct an overhaul of the domestic security apparatus to oust officials who have fallen out of Kremlin favor and consolidate further control internal security organs.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on April 19 that Ukrainian forces are already conducting some counteroffensive actions. Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces will never preemptively announce when the counteroffensive starts and reiterated that Ukrainian forces aim to liberate all Ukrainian territory.[5] Malyar also reported that Russian forces are concentrating on offensives in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka directions and that Russian forces have concentrated weapons, equipment, and all professional units – including Wagner Group forces, Spetsnaz, and airborne forces (VDV) – around Bakhmut.[6] Malyar noted that Ukrainian counteroffensive actions will be both offensive and defensive in nature given the complex nature of the battlefield.

Russian forces continue to use Shahed drones and other lower-precision systems to offset the degradation of Russia’s precision munition supply. Russian forces launched 12 Shahed-131/136 drones at southern Ukraine from the Sea of Azov on the night of April 18 to 19, 10 of which Ukrainian air defense shot down.[7] Ukrainian United Coordination Press Center of the Southern Defense Forces Head Nataliya Humenyuk noted on April 19 that the Shahed strike was a deliberate attempt to find and destroy Ukrainian air defense systems.[8] Russian milbloggers have recently discussed the importance of targeting Ukrainian air defense capabilities in advance of any potential Ukrainian counteroffensives, and the Shahed strikes were likely intended in part to set conditions to do so.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuri Ihnat noted that Russia has used almost all of its strategic missile stockpile since September 11, 2022, and that Ukrainian forces have shot down 750 of the total 850 missiles that Russian forces have launched at Ukrainian during this period.[10] Ihnat noted that Russian forces have switched to cheaper and shorter-range options such as guided aerial bombs and have removed Kh-50 type missiles from storage for restoration.[11] Ihnat was likely referring to Kh-55 Soviet-era air launched cruise missiles, as Russia is slated to begin production on newer Kh-50 cruise missiles in summer 2023.[12] Russia may be removing Kh-55 cruise missiles from storage to refit them for future strikes on Ukraine.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs.
  • Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on April 19 that Ukrainian forces are already conducting some counteroffensive actions.
  • Russian forces continue to use Shahed drones and other lower-precision systems to offset the degradation of Russia’s precision munition supply.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk frontline, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian officials continue to prepare to send electronic summonses and establish a digital registry for those eligible for military service.
  • A State Duma deputy proposed a bill that would expand contract conditions for the OMON and SOBR units of Rosgvardia and set conditions for the mobilization of Rosgvardia reservists.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue efforts to further integrate occupied territories into the Russian economic system.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
April 18, 8 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.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts. The Kremlin announced on April 18 that Putin visited the headquarters of the Russian Dnepr Group of Forces in Kherson Oblast and the Vostok National Guard headquarters in occupied Luhansk Oblast.[1] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that Putin visited occupied territories on April 17. Putin, however, stated that Orthodox Easter holiday is “coming up” in one of the videos, which suggests that his visit occurred prior to April 16.[2] The Kremlin later edited the video to exclude Putin’s statement about the then-upcoming East holiday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Avdiivka frontline on April 18, and it is possible the Kremlin deliberately released footage of Putin’s visit to overshadow Zelensky’s visit in the information space.[3] ISW reported on Russian milbloggers criticizing Russian officials for failing to visit the frontlines like Zelensky, and Putin had previously visited occupied Mariupol on March 19 to improve his appearance as a wartime leader.[4] Russian occupation officials and milbloggers celebrated Putin’s visit and claimed that he boosted the morale of Russian servicemen preparing to repel Ukrainian counteroffensives.[5] Geolocated footage shows that Putin visited Arabat Spit in southwestern Kherson Oblast - at least 130km from the nearest frontline.[6]

Putin’s visit likely also intended to publicly identify potential scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives. Putin received briefings from Commander of Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, Commander of the Dnepr Group of Forces Colonel General Oleg Makarevich, and other unnamed military commanders regarding the situation along the Kherson and Zaporizhia frontlines.[7] Putin also met with Colonel General Alexander Lapin and other unnamed top-ranking officers to discuss the situation on the Luhansk frontline. Putin likely deliberately singled out Teplinsky and Makarevich as commanders responsible for southern Ukraine, and Lapin as a commander overseeing the Luhansk direction. Putin, Kremlin sources, and milbloggers have been increasingly discussing the prospects for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and it is likely that the Kremlin is preparing the domestic information space for either military failures or the defeat of the counteroffensive threat.[8]

Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger observed that the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu did not attend Putin’s meetings in occupied Ukraine.[9] The milblogger claimed that Teplinsky and Lapin – both of whom had reportedly been placed on a leave – returned to the Russian military command likely against the wishes of Gerasimov and Shoigu. Russian sources previously claimed that the Kremlin replaced Wagner-affiliated Teplinsky with Makarevich as the VDV commander on January 13, likely after the Russian MoD and Gerasimov regained Putin’s favor in the lead up of Russia’s unsuccessful winter-spring offensive operation in Donbas.[10] The meeting confirms previous Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s hints at Teplinsky’s reappointment.[11] ISW previously assessed that Teplinsky’s confirmed reappointment suggests that the Kremlin is likely seeking to work with Wagner to achieve a decisive victory in Bakhmut.[12] The confirmation may further indicate that Prigozhin has at least partly regained Putin’s favor by overriding Gerasimov and Shoigu’s efforts to eliminate Wagner in Bakhmut.[13]

Putin may be attempting to balance Wagner’s influence by reappointing Lapin to command the Luhansk sector of the frontline. The Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Lapin assumed the role of the commander of the Vostok National Guard formation and noted that the Putin-Lapin meeting confirms Lapin’s return to the frontlines.[14] Prigozhin and Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov had led a successful campaign to remove Lapin from his position as the commander of the “center” group of Russian forces, likely due to personal conflicts during the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk and Luhansk offensive operations in the summer of 2022.[15] The milblogger speculated that Putin reappointed Lapin to reinforce command in the area or to help Putin avoid conflicts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Select members of the “Club of Angry Patriots” are advocating for a revolution in Russia if the Kremlin freezes the war or pursues peace negotiations with Ukraine and the West. Self-proclaimed former “People’s Governor of Donetsk Oblast” Pavel Gubarev defined the “Club of Angry Patriots” as a “potentially revolutionary power” that will prevent “betrayal” if the government decides to freeze the current frontlines in Ukraine.[16] Gubarev also noted that Russia cannot win the war without a revolution – either from within the government or in society – because oligarchs, agents, ethnic mafias, and nationalist separatists will not allow for the reformation of social-economic institutions to support the war effort. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin noted that Gubarev’s opinion does not represent the collective vision on the “Club of Angry Patriots” and noted that any revolution begins with a “coup from the top” over which he and other members of the group have no control over since they do not have connections to the Kremlin.[17]

The official “Club of Angry Patriots” Telegram account amplified a forecast regarding possible political changes within the Kremlin as a result of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may represent the group’s concerns over the progress of the war.[18] The group amplified a post from the leader of the Russian “Civil Solidarity” movement Georgiy Fedorov, who stated that the political situation in Russia largely depends on frontline realities. Fedorov assessed that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent statements about the end of the “special military operation” is the start of the campaign to freeze the war in Ukraine.

Fedorov stated that if Russians are able to defeat Ukrainian counteroffensives over the summer, then Russian President Vladimir Putin may freeze the war to avoid calling up mobilization ahead of the 2024 presidential election cycle. Fedorov claimed that Russia would likely present a suppressed Ukrainian counteroffensive as a victory and is likely intensifying volunteer recruitment efforts to generate enough contract servicemen to hold existing frontlines. Fedorov claimed that the Kremlin will continue to intensify censorship and repressions and will not replace officials in the Kremlin or within the military command under the conditions of unsuccessful counteroffensive operations. Fedorov stated that if Ukrainians are successful, then political situation within the Kremlin will lead to a deeper conflict between different parties for influence and the Kremlin will conduct personnel changes. Fedorov claimed that despite potential mobilization and disruption in society and the Kremlin, Putin’s system is capable of eliminating all threats “associated with the interception of power.” Fedorov noted that the most unlikely scenario is the imminent dissolution of Putin’s power system, but noted that different financial, regional, and industrial figures may be preparing for such an outcome.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met to discuss unspecified strategic partnership and military cooperation in Moscow on April 18. Shoigu claimed that mutual Russian-Chinese efforts aim to stabilize and reduce conflict and that each state significantly values deepening military cooperation.[19] Shoigu also claimed that Russia and China can deepen their partnership by firmly supporting each other on national security issues. Li stated that his first visit to Russia as Defense Minister demonstrates the determination to strengthen cooperation between the Russian military and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.[20] Shoigu’s and Li’s remarks largely echoed Li’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on April 16.[21]

The Kremlin continued efforts to portray Russia as a respected international partner by meeting with China against the backdrop of the G7 meeting in Japan on April 18. The G7 communique condemned Russian nuclear blackmail rhetoric, Russia’s possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, destabilizing Wagner Group activities in Africa, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine, Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty, and Iran’s provision of combat UAVs to Russia.[22] The Russian Ministry of Defense published footage of two Russian strategic bombers flying in international airspace over the Bering and Okhotsk Seas as part of the Pacific Fleet’s ongoing readiness check.[23] ISW previously assessed that the Pacific Fleet’s ongoing readiness checks are likely meant to posture that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific ahead of the G7 meeting.[24]

Russian authorities detained Russian public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov, an associate of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in Yekaterinburg on April 18. Russian news outlet Kommersant reported on April 18 that Russian authorities detained Shirshikov and charged him with justifying terrorism possibly for his social media posts about prominent Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) assassination.[25] Shirshikov spoke to Gershkovich shortly before Gershkovich’s arrest and was one of the first people to report Gershkovich as missing.[26] Shirshikov previously stated that Gershkovich had traveled to Yekaterinburg to report on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s criticisms of Yekaterinburg History Museum Director Igor Pushkarev and locals’ opinions on the war.[27]

The Russian State Duma approved a series of possibly unconstitutional amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 18 aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship and repressing the Russian public. The Russian State Duma approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that increase the maximum prison sentence for high treason from 20 years to life and authorize the revocation of Russian citizenship for discrediting the Russian military and participating in designated undesirable nongovernmental organizations.[28] The amendment also stipulates that a Russian citizen may not renounce their citizenship if the citizen has an outstanding duty to the state, such as mobilization.[29] These measures appear to violate the Russian Constitution, as Article 6 states that a Russian citizen may not be deprived of their citizenship or of the right to change citizenship status.[30] The State Duma also approved an amendment that criminalizes advising international organizations in which Russia does not belong or foreign states bodies.[31] Russian opposition media outlet OVD-Info states that this amendment would criminalize facilitating international war crimes investigations.[32] International Humanitarian Law, to which Russia is a party, stipulates that states have a duty to investigate and prosecute war crimes.[33]

The Russian Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters announced the cancellation of the annual Immortal Regiment Victory Day march, likely in an effort to reduce public discussion of deaths in the current conflict. Russian State Duma Member Deputy and Co-Chair of the Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters Elena Tsunaeva announced the cancellation of the march, which memorializes Russian war dead, on April 18, for unspecified security reasons.[34]  Tsunaeva stated that citizens can instead submit photos of relatives to a centralized online database to participate in a ”virtual procession,” which Russian authorities will likely use to hide the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Tsunaeva also invited people to share pictures of their deceased family members online, on clothes, and on cars.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts.
  • Putin’s visit likely intended to publicly identify scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle.
  • Select members of the “Club of Angry Patriots” are advocating for a revolution in Russia if the Kremlin freezes the war or pursue peace negotiations with Ukraine and the West.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met to discuss on strategic partnership and military cooperation in Moscow on April 18.
  • The Russian State Duma approved a series of amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 18 aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship and repressing the Russian public.
  • Russian authorities detained Russian public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov, an associate of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in Yekaterinburg on April 18.
  • The Russian Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters announced the cancelation of the annual Immortal Regiment Victory Day march, likely in an effort to reduce public discussion of war dead.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to make gains in Bakhmut and conducted ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to integrate proxy formations with conventional Russian forces.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian civilians to Russia under healthcare and rehabilitation schemes.
  • Belarus may begin economically supporting Russian-occupied Donetsk Oblast with a patronage system.

 

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 17, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 17, 6pm ET

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

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

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. Wagner forces appear to be receiving reinforcements, ammunition, and political recognition – which is a stark deviation from the Kremlin’s previous efforts to expend Wagner forces and Prigozhin in Bakhmut since at least January 2023.[1] Wagner-affiliated sources announced on April 17 that Wagner is training up to three motorized rifle brigades of mobilized personnel to reinforce Wagner‘s flanks in Bakhmut.[2] Prigozhin also confirmed that Russian airborne forces (VDV) are operating alongside Wagner and indicated that Wagner is actively receiving artillery shells.[3] Prigozhin advocated for Wagner to receive more artillery shells, which indicates that Prigozhin has reestablished his supply of ammunition from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). The Russian State Duma will also consider amendments to the Russian law on veterans’ rights to grant veteran status to private military companies (PMCs) and volunteers.[4] Prigozhin had been routinely advocating for Wagner personnel to be recognized as participants of the ”special military operation” in Ukraine, and the adoption of this bill would signify that Prigozhin’s position in the Kremlin inner circle has improved.

The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition.[5] The New York Times, citing leaked Pentagon documents, reported that Putin personally attempted to resolve the feud between Wagner and the Russian MoD by holding a meeting between Shoigu and Prigozhin on February 22.[6] Putin could be turning back to Prigozhin after experiencing another disappointment with Russian conventional forces, which did not capture Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts frontlines before the April 1 date that Putin had reportedly set for them.[7] Putin is reportedly once again reappointing select Wagner-affiliated commanders such as VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, which if true, suggests that he is prioritizing a decisive victory at least in Bakhmut in the near term.[8] Putin likely needs an immediate victory in Bakhmut ahead of Victory Day on May 9 or the rumored ”Direct Line” press conference he is preparing to hold in June to assert his authority among domestic audiences.[9]

Putin’s improving relations with Wagner may also be a symptom of his hesitance to increase mobilization and signal a return to crypto mobilization. Putin increased the annual conscription quota from 134,000 conscripts to 147,000 men for the spring 2023 cycle, and likely is experiencing shortages of trainers to prepare conscripts, remaining mobilized personnel, and volunteers.[10] The Kremlin may be hoping to use Wagner trainers to prepare its mobilized forces. ISW had previously reported that the Kremlin outsourced recruitment of personnel to nationalist groups and is currently carrying out large-scale volunteer recruitment campaigns.[11] Wagner is currently recruiting across Russia, and it is possible that the Kremlin may still see Wagner as a feasible source of combat power.

An interview with two former Wagner Group fighters on their treatment of Ukrainian children and other civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) further highlights how Wagner has institutionalized systematic brutality as part of its fundamental modus operandi. Russian human rights organization Gulagu.net released a video interview on April 17 with two former convicts who finished their contracts with Wagner and returned to Russia.[12] One Wagner fighter, Azamat Yaldarov, admitted that Prigozhin ordered his unit to kill children while taking control of Soledar, and that he buried 18 children that he killed in Krasnodar Krai and Saratov and Kirov oblasts.[13] Yaldarov emphasized that Prigozhin gave the order for Wagner fighters to ”eliminate” everyone in Soledar, and that Yaldarov was specifically ordered to kill children. Another Wagner fighter and commander of a reconnaissance unit, Aleksey Savich, told the interviewer that he fired on his own men for disobedience and that he personally witnessed the executions of 80 Wagner fighters for refusing to follow orders. Savich claimed that Wagner command gave the order to kill all civilians in Bakhmut aged 15 and older, and that his unit killed 23 civilians, 10 of whom were unarmed teenagers. Savich recounted other instances from operations in Bakhmut and Soledar in which he murdered children as young as five years old and other civilians. Savich also claimed that Prigozhin has a personal preference for recording videos of the execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The extremely graphic atrocities described by Yaldarov and Savich underscore a slate of recent reports of Wagner’s systematic use of brutality as a method of waging war.[14] Prigozhin and Wagner’s command may actively encourage active engagement in atrocities in an attempt to build social cohesion and reputation within Wagner units. This type of engrained violence is likely to have escalating domestic impacts on Russian domestic society, especially as Wagner fighters complete their contracts and return to their homes. Russian society will have to increasingly work to handle the normalized brutality committed by its forces as they reintegrate into the domestic sphere, which will likely have generational domestic societal ramifications.

The Gulagu.net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization. Yaldarov claimed that he was the commander of Wagner’s 5th Assault Detachment and that he trained with a special unit that specifically taught him to kill.[15] Yaldarov stated that the higher Wagner command gave his unit the order to place a flag on likely the Bakhmut administrative building and that he was not allowed to leave Bakhmut until after its capture. Considering the fact that Yaldarov gave the interview from his home in Russia because he was released from his contract, his anecdote about the administrative building may suggest that Wagner considered the capture of the administrative building and the central Bakhmut area to be threshold for announcing the capture of the city. The apparent return of Putin’s favor to Prigozhin may have resulted in part from Prigozhin’s ability to claim the capture of Bakhmut — his objective — while the Russian MoD’s conventional forces failed to achieve any of their objectives. Yaldarov’s account of Prigozhin’s orders for Wagner troops to massacre civilians and everyone they came across in Soledar in early January additionally indicates that Prigozhin pushed for the quick capture of the settlement and ordered his fighters to take it essentially at any cost. Both Yaldarov and Savich emphasize the way that the Wagner command demands brutal treatment of Wagner dissenters within the ranks and the operational reliance on attritional assaults carried out by convict recruits.

The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza's criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.[16] The 25-year sentence is the longest and harshest for an opposition activist to date.[17] Kara-Murza's sentencing comes as the Kremlin has continued to intensify domestic repression of dissenting voices through escalated legislative manipulations.[18] The Russian State Duma previously approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 13 that will introduce life sentences for high treason and increase prison sentences for terrorist activity.[19] Kara-Murza's high-profile case and sentencing are emblematic of the wider trend in Russia towards total and codified authoritarianism.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Li stated that he had arrived in Moscow to implement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agreement with Putin from late March and claimed that Russian-Chinese relations “have already entered a new era.”[20] Li noted that China is prepared to work with Russia to “strengthen strategic communication between the two militaries, strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, and make new contributions to safeguarding regional and global security for peace.”[21] Official Russian and Chinese readouts did not include any mentions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s intent to promote peace talks in Ukraine and continuation of cooperation which Xi and Putin agreed upon previously.[22] ISW previously assessed that Putin was unable to secure a no-limits bilateral partnership with China during Xi’s visit to Moscow, and it is likely that the meeting between Li and Putin did not further expand the scope of Russian-Chinese cooperation.

Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit. Putin stated that the Russian military is prioritizing the war in Ukraine but continues to develop the Russian Pacific Fleet during his meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on April 17.[23] Shoigu stated that recent Russian combat readiness drills involved 25,000 military personnel, 167 warships and support vessels, and 89 planes and helicopters. Shoigu stated that Russian forces are currently conducting maneuver exercises and are moving to the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk. Shoigu claimed that the final drills will begin on April 18, a day before Li’s departure from Russia. ISW assessed on April 14 that the Russian Pacific Fleet‘s combat readiness checks are likely meant to signal to China that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific, especially ahead of the G7 meeting in Japan between May 19 and May 21.[24]

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.” The “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto on April 17 on its newly created Telegram channel, which emphasizes protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin instead of efforts to win the war in Ukraine.[25] The manifesto claims that unspecified actors who remain in power in Russia have transferred their money and allegiance to the West and may be preparing for a coup and the ”dismemberment” of the Russia Federation. The manifesto likens the Kremlin‘s pro-war and anti-war factions to the fight between the Reds and Whites in the Russian Civil War following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The manifesto also claims that Russia is currently fighting the war in a mediocre way and is unable to defeat Ukraine in its current state. ISW previously assessed that Girkin and the “Club of Angry Patriots” may be attempting to advance the political goals of unnamed figures in Russian power structures who want to influence Putin’s decision making through public discourse.[26]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition.
  • An interview with two former Wagner Group fighters on their treatment of Ukrainian children and other civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) further highlights how Wagner has institutionalized systematic brutality as part of its fundamental modus operandi.
  • The Gulagu.net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization.
  • The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza's criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.
  • Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit.
  • Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.”
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces have made further gains in Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin’s transition to electronic summonses distribution is continuing to complicate Russian conscription procedures.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to discuss the provision of Russian passports in occupied areas of Ukraine.
 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 16, 2023

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan


April 16, 2:30pm ET

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

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

The Russian military command appears to be increasingly shifting responsibility for offensive operations in Ukraine to the Russian Airborne troops (VDV). The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on April 16 that it is highly likely that VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky has returned to a “major” but unspecified role in Ukraine after reports that the Russian MoD replaced him on January 13.[1] UK MoD noted that Teplinsky’s return to command in Ukraine will not be limited to just VDV units, but that it is also likely that Teplinsky will try to promote the VDV’s traditional role as an elite force.[2] ISW previously assessed on April 1 that milblogger speculation that the Russian MoD recalled Teplinsky from ”leave“ suggests that Russia may be preparing to reshuffle senior commanders following the failed winter offensive and in preparation for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.[3] The UK MoD’s apparent confirmation of Teplinsky’s reappointment to a senior command position supports ISW’s assessment, and additionally suggests that the Russian military command is likely seeking to place an increased emphasis on the role of VDV elements in Russian offensive operations. VDV units are actively engaged along critical sectors of the front in Luhansk Oblast and near Bakhmut and have recently received TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems, further indicating that the Russian military command may seek to elevate the VDV to greater operational prominence.[4]

News of Teplinsky’s reappointment suggests that the Russian MoD is seeking to work more closely with the Wagner Group in order to complete the capture of Bakhmut, despite obvious tensions between Prigozhin and the traditional MoD establishment. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seemingly confirmed Teplinsky’s Wagner affiliations in a public show of support for Teplinsky following Teplinsky’s reported dismissal over a disagreement with Chief of the Russian General Staff and overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov in January.[5] Teplinsky became embroiled in the rising tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD establishment (represented by Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) as the Russian MoD appeared to be actively trying to cut the Wagner Group off from artillery shell supply and otherwise interfere with Wagner’s ability to operate around Bakhmut.[6] Over the past few weeks, however, it appears that the Russian military command has been working more closely with Wagner, likely in an effort to expedite the capture of Bakhmut. The Russian MoD and Prigozhin publicly acknowledged on April 11 that VDV elements are engaged in the Bakhmut area and holding Wagner’s flanks north and south of Bakhmut while Wagner pursues the main offensive effort in the city itself.[7] ISW has recently observed that elements of the 106th VDV division are operating in the Bakhmut area.[8] Prigozhin has also scaled down his explicit rhetorical attacks on the MoD in recent days. Russian milbloggers have reported that Wagner forces are operating T-90 tanks within Bakhmut, suggesting that Russian leadership has allocated more modern assets to Wagner in their efforts to take the city.[9] Teplinsky’s reappointment is therefore likely also an attempt by the Russian MoD to posture itself better to work with Wagner to finish the task of taking Bakhmut.

Teplinsky remains highly unlikely to restore the VDV to its prior status as an elite force due to widespread losses to the most elite Russian units. VDV units suffered extraordinarily high losses in the early phases of the war in 2022, and a prominent milblogger claimed on Russian state television on January 31 that VDV forces lost 40 to 50 percent of their personnel between the start of the war and September 2022.[10] BBC Russia Service confirmed the deaths of 1,669 VDV personnel as of April 14, 2023.[11] Widespread losses to previously elite units that are now being restaffed with poorly trained mobilized personnel are likely to have long-term impacts on the combat effectiveness of these units, and the replacement of a single commander is highly unlikely to be able to solve such pervasive damage.[12]

Russian milbloggers seized on an opportunity to denigrate St. Petersburg Mayor Alexander Beglov in a manner that indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s anti-Beglov campaign has permeated the Russian ultra-nationalist information space. Russian milbloggers criticized Beglov for standing in front of a Ukrainian flag at a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly in St. Petersburg on April 13.[13] The milblogger-amplified image shows Beglov standing on the left side of the podium as another official speaks, and the angle of the image shows Beglov standing directly in front of the Ukrainian flag—a perspective likely not indicative of Beglov’s actual location relative to the flag.[14] The milbloggers claimed that a “high-ranking Russian official” such as Beglov should not stand in front of the Ukrainian flag, with one even claiming that the act was analogous to a Leningrad City head standing in front of the flag of Nazi Germany during World War II.[15] The milbloggers also criticized Beglov for standing in front of the flag just a few weeks after the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky) in St. Petersburg.[16] Prigozhin himself claimed that the Russian “deep state” is responsible for the flag’s presence, implying that Beglov is part of this deep state.[17] Other milbloggers claimed that the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag at the meeting suggests that Russia has failed to put itself on a wartime footing.[18]  One milblogger claimed that CIS protocol required the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag but noted the strangeness of the protocol given the current conflict.[19] Ukraine ended its affiliation with the CIS in 2018 and has never been a full CIS member state.[20]

Russian officials may have included the Ukrainian flag in an attempt to convey the fact that the Kremlin does not recognize Ukraine’s withdrawal from the CIS and refusal to conform to Kremlin-controlled international structures, falsely anticipating that the Russ