Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 29, 2023
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 29, 2023
Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan
March 29, 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 maps that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on March 29 to review strategic and long-term cooperation agreements that will likely intensify Russia and Iran’s bilateral security relationship. Abdollahian stated that Russian and Iranian officials are in the final stage of signing a cooperation agreement. Lavrov promoted Iran’s “Hormoz Peace Plan” for security in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and stated that the Kremlin demands an immediate return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Abdollahian and Lavrov likely discussed continued Russian efforts to procure Iranian weapon systems for use in Ukraine and a finalized agreement for Russia to provide Iran with Su-35 attack aircraft. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on March 29 that Iranian Pouya Air Transport resumed regular flights between Tehran and Moscow on March 13 likely to support weapons transfers. The Ukrainian Resistance Center also reported that Iranian officials are planning to deliver Shahed-131 drones to Wagner Group personnel and that Wagner personnel have started training to operate the drones, although ISW has not observed confirmation that Wagner Group personnel have used Iranian-made drones in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that Russia is relying on Iran for military and technological support in Ukraine and that some Iranian personnel are likely in Ukraine directly supporting Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Iran is likely attempting to solidify a bilateral security relationship with Russia in which the two are more equal partners and will likely increase weapons transfers to Russia in pursuit of this goal.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the recent story of the sentencing of a Tula Oblast father for his 12-year-old daughter’s antiwar drawing to promote the Wagner Group’s reputation and ameliorate his own personal image. Prigozhin’s press service posted a letter on March 28 signed by Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, and Wagner-affiliated director of the “Liga” veteran's organization Andrey Troshev addressed to Tula Oblast prosecutor Alexander Gritsaenko stating that the signatories consider Gritsaenko’s issuance of a two-year prison sentence to Aleksey Moskalev unfair. Moskalev was charged with “discrediting the armed forces” after his 12-year-old daughter Masha drew an antiwar picture with a Ukrainian flag in her school art class in April 2022. Masha was taken into state custody and now lives in a juvenile shelter, and Moskalev fled house arrest the night before his sentencing and was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia. Prigozhin’s letter suggests that Tula Oblast check the legality of Gritsaenko’s sentencing and recommends that Wagner-affiliated lawyers participate in the case on Moskalev’s side, noting that it is tragic that both Masha and children of dead Wagner fighters end up in orphanages. Prigozhin’s response to Moskalev’s sentencing is particularly ironic considering that Prigozhin was initially one of the biggest and loudest supporters of the law on punishing those who ”discredit” Russian forces. It is therefore likely that Prigozhin seized on the discourse surrounding Moskalev to further his own reputation and advocate for the Wagner Group, especially by choosing to highlight the plight of orphans of Wagner fighters who die in Ukraine. Prigozhin may seek to maintain his own domestic relevance by continuing to closely involve himself in such developing stories, especially by affiliating his newest campaign for relevance with Utkin and Troshev—two well-established and notorious Wagner-affiliated personalities. The letter attempts to portray Wagner's leadership as a united front against elements of the Russian bureaucracy.
Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s demonstrative response to an attack on a police station in Chechnya suggests that he may be concerned about the stability of his authoritarian rule. Kadyrov claimed that Chechen authorities killed two unidentified men attempting to conduct an attack in Gudermes, Chechnya on the night of March 28, and Russian sources amplified footage purporting to show the two men shooting at a local police department. Kadyrov’s Special Forces University is in Gudermes, although it is not clear if the attack was connected to the facility. Kadyrov published footage of himself, his 15-year-old son, and an entourage of Chechen officials and security personnel visiting the scene of the attack and inspecting the mangled bodies of the assailants. Kadyrov likely meant this demonstrative inspection of the bodies to enhance his strongman image and signal to Chechens that any form of internal resistance to his rule will be eliminated. The fact that Kadyrov’s response to the attack was so immediate and heavy-handed suggests that he is concerned about the potential for internal resistance within Chechnya to undermine his authoritarian rule of the autonomous republic. Kadyrov recently meet with President Vladimir Putin on March 13 to promote Chechnya’s relevance in the Russian political and military sphere, and ISW assessed that Putin may seize upon Kadyrov‘s fears about falling out of favor with Putin to pressure Kadyrov into increasing the role of Chechen fighters in combat operations in Ukraine. Kadyrov likely sees any sign of internal instability in Chechnya as a threat to Putin’s continued favor.
Russian authorities arrested Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) naval department head Colonel Sergey Volkov for corruption-related charges. The 235th Garrison Military Court in Moscow arrested Volkov on March 29 for abuse of authority charges in connection with the sale of low-quality radar systems at heavily inflated prices, and an official investigation reportedly found that his actions amounted to damages of 395.5 million rubles (roughly $5 million). The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Rosgvardia recently launched a criminal case against the Deputy Commander of the Rosgvardia’s Central District, Major General Vadim Dragomiretsky, on March 20 for corruption-related charges. The recent criminal proceedings against two Rosgvardia commanders may suggest that Russian authorities are conducting a sweeping corruption probe within Rosgvardia. The criminal proceedings are notable because commanders of conventional Russian forces have not been fired, let alone arrested, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the same rate or in such high-profile circumstances as the Rosgvardia cases. It is highly unlikely that corruption in the Rosgvardia is more pronounced than it is in the Russian Armed Forces. The Rosgvardia notably includes elements responsible for Russia’s domestic regime security. Putin likely pays very close attention to the reliability and loyalty of some Rosgvardia personnel, apart from concerns he may have about corruption in that organization.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on March 27 that Ukrainian forces may be planning to launch a counteroffensive in April or May depending on weather conditions. In an interview with Estonian news outlet ERR, Reznikov stated that the Ukrainian General Staff might decide to use recently received Leopard 2 tanks in a possible spring counterattack. Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 tanks arrived in Ukraine on March 27, and US officials announced the acceleration of the deployment of Abrams tanks and Patriot missile systems to Ukraine on March 21. The arrival of equipment in Ukraine likely sets conditions for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, although a delay is likely between the arrival of new equipment and Ukraine’s ability to use it in a counteroffensive.
- Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on March 29 to review strategic and long-term cooperation agreements that will likely intensify Russia and Iran’s bilateral security relationship.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the recent story of the sentencing of a Tula Oblast father for his 12-year-old daughter’s antiwar drawing to promote the Wagner Group’s reputation and ameliorate his own personal image.
- Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s demonstrative response to an attack on a police station in Chechnya suggests that he may be concerned about the stability of his authoritarian rule.
- Russian authorities arrested Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) naval department head Colonel Sergey Volkov for corruption-related charges.
- Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on March 27 that Ukrainian forces may be planning to launch a counteroffensive in April or May depending on weather conditions.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) for the second time.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to implement measures to integrate occupied territories into the Russian administrative and legal system.
- The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that planned activities are ongoing to call up those liable for military service for military training and to retrain reserve servicemen in military registration specialties.
We do not report in detail on Russian 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 Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine (comprised of two subordinate main efforts)
- Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1—Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and encircle northern Donetsk Oblast
- Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2—Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
- Russian Supporting Effort—Southern Axis
- Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
- Activities in Russian-occupied Areas
Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine
Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1— Luhansk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and continue offensive operations into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and northern Donetsk Oblast)
Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on March 29. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground attacks near Krokhmalne (20km northwest of Svatove), Novoselivske (14km northwest of Svatove), Stelmakhivka (12km northwest of Svatove), Bilohorivka (10km south of Kreminna), Verkhnokamianske (18km south of Kreminna), Vymika (27km southwest of Kreminna), and Berestove (30km south of Kreminna). Geolocated footage published on March 26 shows elements of the Russian 6th Combined Arms Army (Western Military District) striking Ukrainian positions northeast of Kupyansk. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated on March 28 that Russian forces continue to use ”classic army tactics” with a considerable number of armored vehicles in the Kupyansk-Lyman direction. A Russian milblogger posted footage on March 28 purportedly showing the 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade operating near the Siverskyi Donets River south of Kreminna. Another milblogger claimed that Russian forces continue to advance in the forests around Kreminna. Ukrainian Luhansk Oblast Military Administration reported on March 29 that Russian forces are concentrating their main efforts on offensive operations in the Lyman direction and that Russian forces attempted to storm Bilohorivka. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces regained lost positions and made unspecified advances near Bilohorivka. The milblogger also claimed that Russian forces pushed through Ukrainian defenses near Torske (14km west of Kreminna) and unsuccessfully attacked Ukrainian positions near Terny, Nevske, and Makiivka, all 17 to 21km northwest of Kreminna. ISW has not observed visual confirmation that supports a Ukrainian advance near Bilohorivka or a Russian advance near Torske.
The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces maintain their presence in the Kursk and Belgorod Oblast border areas. Russian forces likely maintain their presence in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts in an attempt to keep Ukrainian forces from deploying to other parts of the frontline.
Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2—Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)
Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut on March 29. Geolocated footage published on March 28 and 29 indicates that Russian forces advanced in southern and southwestern Bakhmut. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Khromove (2km west of Bakhmut) and advanced in northern parts of Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers claimed on March 28 and 29 that Wagner Group fighters advanced further in the southern part of Bakhmut. A Russian milblogger claimed on March 28 that Wagner fighters are intensifying their offensives within Bakhmut itself because conventional Russian forces strengthened Russian positions north and south of the city to defend against potential Ukrainian counterattacks, supporting ISW‘s assessment that conventional Russian elements are likely increasingly supporting Wagner operations in this area. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported that Russian forces are continuing to conduct assaults on Bakhmut at a reduced tempo in comparison to recent weeks. Russian milbloggers claimed that Wagner fighters advanced near Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) on March 29 and that Ukrainian forces continued attempts to push Russian forces back from the T0504 highway as of March 28. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations within 11km northwest of Bakhmut near Orikhovo-Vasylivka and Bohdanivka and within 16km southwest of Bakhmut near Ivanivske, Predtechyne, and Ozarianivka. The Ukrainian General Staff acknowledged that Russian forces conducted partially successful assaults on Bakhmut but did not specify the details of those assaults. ISW assessed that Wagner Group forces likely occupied the AZOM industrial complex in northern Bakhmut and made additional gains in the city on March 28.
Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline on March 29. Geolocated footage published on March 29 indicates that Russian forces likely advanced north of Vodyane (8km southwest of Avdiivka) and in Vesele (7km northeast of Avdiivka). Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made unspecified gains in Pervomaiske (11km southwest of Avdiivka) and continued offensive operations near Nevelske (15km southwest of Avdiivka). Russian milbloggers amplified footage on March 28 purporting to show the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 5th Brigade of the 1st Army Corps operating near Marinka (27km southwest of Avdiivka). The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations near Avdiivka itself; within 14km north of Avdiivka near Novokalynove, Krasnohorivka, and Stepove; and within 27km southwest of Avdiivka near Sieverne, Pervomaiske, and Marinka.
Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast on March 29. Russian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Aleksandr Gordeev claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted two reconnaissance-in-force operations in unspecified areas in western Donetsk Oblast.Former Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) minister Vitaly Kisleyov amplified footage on March 29 of a servicemember of the 14th Separate Guards Special Purpose Brigade of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU) near Vuhledar (30km southwest of Donetsk City).
Supporting Effort—Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)
Ukrainian forces continued striking Russian positions and concentration areas in southern Ukraine on March 29. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a HIMARS strike against an electrical substation at a railway depot in occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast. Geolocated footage posted on March 29 shows smoke rising near the railway depot in Melitopol following the strike. Geolocated footage posted on March 28 additionally shows Ukrainian forces striking Russian positions near Oleshky, east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast. Russian sources reported that Russian air defense shot down a Ukrainian drone over Simferopol, occupied Crimea on March 29.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) for the second time on March 29. Grossi reportedly spent several hours at the ZNPP and to observe how the situation at the plant has changed since his first visit, talk to nuclear engineers at the plant, and act as a guarantor for IAEA personnel rotation. Grossi told reporters that ”it is obvious that military activity is increasing in this whole region” and called for the observance of every possible measure to safeguard the ZNPP.
Russian forces continue efforts to fortify positions in occupied Crimea. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 29 that Russian troops are building trenches and fortifications in the Armiansk and Dzhankoi regions of Crimea and that Russian forces are using civilians to build some of the defenses.
Russian forces otherwise conducted routine shelling in Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhia oblasts on March 29. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command noted that Russian forces dropped guided aerial bombs on Beryslav, Kherson Oblast, from a Su-35 aircraft.
Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)
The Russia defense industrial base (DIB) continues efforts to expand its production capabilities. Russian outlet Kommersant reported on March 29 that the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service is offering to provide convict labor to Russian defense industrial conglomerate Rostec for the manufacture and supply of certain low-skill products. Rostec reportedly has sent the proposal to Rostec leadership for consideration. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) previously assessed that the Russian DIB is increasingly using prison labor to meet war-time manufacturing demand. While convict labor is unlikely to be used to produce very technical defense products, convicts will likely be used in the production of certain lower-quality and more basic items, therefore freeing up more labor capacity for more technical products that are sorely needed for the war effort.
The Wagner Group is continuing to push domestic recruitment efforts. A Wagner-affiliated recruitment advertisement Telegram channel claimed on March 28 that Wagner recruitment centers are already operating in most Russian regions and that Wagner uses mobile recruitment centers to reach even the smallest rural towns and communities. Russian media reported that Wagner has also run recruitment advertisements on local TV channels in Rostov, Tyumen and Novosibirsk oblasts and Krasnodar Krai over the last few weeks.
Russian regions continue recruitment efforts for contract servicemen. Siberia-based outlet Tayga.info reported that the Iskitim, Novosibirsk Oblast military department claimed that over 50 people came to a mobile registration point for contract servicemen in one day and that the local government in Tomsk is independently advertising contract service. Russian outlet ASTRA similarly reported on March 28 that local officials in Moscow Oblast have also begun advertising contract service. The Kremlin previously reportedly tasked the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) with recruiting 400,000 contract servicemen starting on April 1, and that the Russian MoD likely delegated this task down to Russian federal subjects, which now appear to be preparing for the April 1 date with the aforementioned advertising campaigns.
Activity in Russian-occupied Areas (Russian objective: consolidate administrative control of annexed areas; forcibly integrate Ukrainian civilians into Russian sociocultural, economic, military, and governance systems)
Russian occupation authorities continue to implement measures to integrate occupied territories into the Russian administrative and legal system. The Ukrainian Luhansk Oblast Military Administration reported on March 29 that the “Prosecutors of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR)” will recruit Russians to serve as prosecutors instead of locals, noting that Russians are exempt from passing the exams otherwise necessary for the post. A Russian source posted an official LNR decree on March 29 on the abolition of formal LNR state authorities in connection with further integration into the Russian legal system.
Russian occupation authorities continue to promote increased integration into the Russian economy. The Kherson Oblast occupation administration noted on March 29 that participants in the Free Economic Zone (FEZ) established in occupied Kherson Oblast will be exempt from paying specific regional taxes. Kherson Oblast occupation authorities also claimed that the FEZ will lead to a reduction in insurance premium rates to 7.6%. The Kherson Oblast occupation administration also amplified the Russian Federal Tax Service's claim on March 29 that those businesses and enterprises that complete state registration will not be required to pay state duty taxes, emphasizing that the rule will only be valid until December 31, 2023.
Russian occupation authorities continue efforts to eradicate Ukrainian culture and history by replacing Ukrainian landmarks with Russian monuments. The Kherson Oblast occupation administration amplified Kherson Oblast occupation chairperson Andrey Alekseenko’s order on March 29 to create monuments commemorating the Great Patriotic War (World War II) in occupied Kherson Oblast. Alekseenko ordered that all monuments be erected by May 9 (the date of the Moscow Victory Day Parade) and claimed that heads of districts and ministries, youth and social movements, every enterprise, and every school will take part in constructing the monuments.
Significant activity in Belarus (ISW assesses that a Russian or Belarusian attack into northern Ukraine in early 2023 is extraordinarily unlikely and has thus restructured this section of the update. It will no longer include counter-indicators for such an offensive.)
ISW will continue to report daily observed Russian and Belarusian military activity in Belarus, but these are not indicators that Russian and Belarusian forces are preparing for an imminent attack on Ukraine from Belarus. ISW will revise this text and its assessment if it observes any unambiguous indicators that Russia or Belarus is preparing to attack northern Ukraine.
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on March 29 that planned activities are ongoing to call up those liable for military service for military training and to retrain reserve servicemen in military registration specialties.
The Belarusian MoD additionally reported on March 29 that Belarusian Chief of Missile Forces and Artillery, Colonel Ruslan Chekhov, is overseeing a bilateral exercise with artillery brigades to train aerial reconnaissance and counterbattery fire in difficult weather conditions.
Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.
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