Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 29
Frederick W. Kagan, George Barros, and Kateryna Stepanenko
March 29, 5:00 ET
The Russians have not yet abandoned their attacks on Kyiv, claims by Russian Defense Ministry officials notwithstanding. Russian forces continued fighting to hold their forwardmost positions on the eastern and western Kyiv outskirts even as badly damaged units withdrew to Russia from elsewhere on the Kyiv and Chernihiv axes. The Russian high command has likely concluded that it cannot seize Kyiv and may not be able to move artillery closer to the center of the city. It may have decided to stop its previous practices of forcing units that have already taken devastating losses to continue hopeless offensive operations and of feeding individual battalion tactical groups into the battle as they become available rather than concentrating them to achieve decisive effects. Russian officials are likely casting these decisions driven by military realities as overtures demonstrating Russia’s willingness to engage in serious ceasefire or peace negotiations, possibly to conceal the fact that they have accepted the failure of their efforts on the Kyiv axis.
Russia continues to reinforce its efforts in Ukraine’s northeast likely attempting to link its positions southeast of Kharkiv and Izyum with its forces in Luhansk Oblast. The Russians have reportedly redirected forces from the Chernihiv-Kharkiv axis to the Izyum-Slovyansk axis, most likely reassigning reinforcements rather than redeploying units already committed to fighting. Russian forces in the Izyum-Slovyansk area continue fighting to hold and expand their penetration to the southeast.
The Russian advance in Mariupol continues to gain ground, and Russian forces have likely bisected or even trisected the city. Pockets of Ukrainian defenders continue to hold out in Mariupol, likely in several areas, but the Russians will likely complete the conquest of the city within days. Russian forces have likely taken significant casualties in the tough urban fighting in Mariupol, making it difficult to evaluate how much combat power the Russians will be able to harvest from Mariupol to use for further advances north and west.
Russian operations in southeastern Ukraine have left large portions of Donetsk Oblast under Ukrainian control. Securing the boundaries of Donetsk Oblast along with the entirety of Luhansk Oblast will likely require a major offensive operation. Much of the area of Donetsk Oblast outside Russian control is flat and sparsely populated—terrain similar to that on which Russian forces elsewhere have been able to advance rapidly, at least earlier in the war. Russian offensive operations in similar terrain more recently have struggled, however. It is too soon to tell how feasible the Russian conquest of all of Donetsk and Luhansk will be for the Russian military in its current state.
- We now assess that Russian forces have given up on encircling or seizing Kyiv at this time. Russian forces continue to fight to hold their current front-line trace near the city, however, remaining dug into positions to the east, northwest, and west. Russian forces withdrawing from the area around Kyiv appear to be moving north from behind the front line to positions in Belarus.
- Russia is directing some reserves to the effort to connect gains southeast of Kharkiv and Izyum with its front line in Luhansk.
- Ukrainian forces continue to defend in likely isolated pockets in Mariupol. The city will likely fall to the Russians within days.
- A Russian offensive operation to take the rest of unoccupied Donetsk Oblast would be a significant undertaking. It remains unclear if Russia can harvest enough combat power from Mariupol after securing the city or divert reinforcements from elsewhere on a large enough scale to complete it.
Russia reportedly continues to struggle in its efforts to generate new combat power and replenish equipment. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 29 that Russian troops are drawing equipment out of long-term storage in Boguchar, Voronezh Oblast, but that 40% of that equipment is inoperable. The General Staff also reported that Russian efforts to generate reinforcements from the Pacific Fleet could not produce even a single battalion because of refusals to fight. We have no independent confirmation of these assessments, but Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu‘s March 29 statement that Russia would not deploy conscripts to “hot spots” corroborates assessments of Russian soldiers’ unwillingness to enter the war. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on March 28 that the Wagner Group is deploying forces, including senior leaders, to eastern Ukraine to make up for heavy Russian combat losses.
We do not report in detail on the deliberate Russian targeting of civilian infrastructure and attacks on unarmed civilians, which are war crimes, because those activities are well-covered in Western media and do not directly affect the military operations we are assessing and forecasting. We will continue to evaluate and report on the effects of these criminal activities on the Ukrainian military and population and specifically on combat in Ukrainian urban areas. We utterly condemn these Russian violations of the laws of armed conflict, Geneva Conventions, and humanity even though we do not describe them in these reports.
Russian forces are engaged in four primary efforts at this time:
- Main effort—Kyiv (comprised of three subordinate supporting efforts);
- Supporting effort 1—Kharkiv;
- Supporting effort 1a—Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts;
- Supporting effort 2—Mariupol; and
- Supporting effort 3—Kherson and advances northward and westward.
Main effort—Kyiv axis: Russian operations on the Kyiv axis were aimed at encircling the city from the northwest, west, and east. It is unclear if forces on this axis have been given a new mission and, if so, what it might be.
Russian forces have likely abandoned efforts to encircle or seize Kyiv at this time, although they continue to fight to hold their current front lines on both banks of the Dnipro River. Multiple Ukrainian and Western reports indicate that some Russian forces are pulling back from the Kyiv axis. Belarussian media showed videos of Russian forces moving back into Belarus from Ukraine on March 28 and March 29. Russian forces continue to defend their current front-line trace, however, according to the Ukrainian General Staff and additional reporting below. The Russians reportedly continued to bring artillery and missiles, including Iskander systems, toward the Ukrainian border in Belarus, presumably for use in the Kyiv and Chernihiv region.
Subordinate main effort along the west bank of the Dnipro
Russian forces are actively resisting Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Irpin and Hostomel areas and continued to shell Makariv and Irpin on March 29. Russian troops remain dug in in the Bucha and Nemishyev areas just northwest of Irpin. Russian artillery and rockets continue to fire at Ukrainian positions at many locations north and west of the capital.
Subordinate supporting effort—Chernihiv and Sumy axis
The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 29 that Russian forces are attempting to hold their current positions in and around Brovary on the east bank of the Dnipro River. Russian forces remained in likely isolated or encircled positions around Bashyrivka, roughly 58 kilometers from Kyiv, on March 29, and at Kalytyanske and Velyka Dymerka, roughly 48 and 31 kilometers east of Kyiv respectively.
Russian forces continued their encirclement and bombardment of Chernihiv city on March 29.
The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 29 that elements of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army that had been concentrated in Russia near Sumy were diverted to “different directions”—presumably toward the southeast. Another Ukrainian source noted that elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army were reinforcing Russian positions around Kamyanka, roughly 130 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv and close to the city of Izyum, which the Russians bypassed. It is not clear if these are the same forces.
Russian forces may be preparing to take up a defensive position along the Snov River east of Chernihiv, as they have destroyed bridges in a number of towns along that river according to the March 28 Ukrainian General Staff report. This activity combined with the reported reallocation of reserve units from the Sumy area could indicate preparations to separate the lines of advance from Kharkiv east toward Kyiv from the axis driving south through Chernihiv toward the capital.
Supporting Effort #1—Kharkiv:
Russian forces do not appear to have conducted significant operations in or immediately around Kharkiv in the last 24 hours.
Supporting Effort #1a—Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts:
Russia reinforced its efforts to take Slovyansk, roughly 160 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv, with elements of the 20th Combined Arms Army in addition to the elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army reportedly diverted from near Sumy. Fighting along the road from near Izyum toward Slovyansk continued on March 29.
Supporting Effort #2—Mariupol:
Russian forces continued to make steady but likely painful progress in seizing the city of Mariupol on March 29. Fighting has been intense, with Donetsk People’s Republic leaders claiming that Russian forces have made significant advances and the Ukrainian General Staff claiming that Ukrainian forces continue to maintain a coherent defense. Mariupol will likely fall within days.
Supporting Effort #3—Kherson and advances northward and westwards:
There were no reported significant changes in the situation in the Kherson or Zaporizhiya regions in the last 24 hours.
Immediate items to watch
- Russian forces will likely capture Mariupol or force the city to capitulate within the coming days;
- Russian reinforcements may enable a renewed Russian offensive through Slovyansk to link up with Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast;
- Russian withdrawals from near Kyiv and Chernihiv will become significant if Russian troops begin to pull back from front-line positions around either city.
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