Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 20
Katherine Lawlor, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 20, 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.
Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27. The Kremlin will use the falsified results of these sham referenda to illegally annex all Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and is likely to declare unoccupied parts of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts to be part of Russia as well.
The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely hopes to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war to “defend” newly claimed Russian territory. Putin and his advisors have apparently realized that current Russian forces are insufficient to conquer Ukraine and that efforts to build large forces quickly through voluntary mobilization are culminating short of the Russian military’s force requirements. Putin is therefore likely setting legal and informational conditions to improve Russian force generation without resorting to expanded conscription by changing the balance of carrots and sticks the Kremlin has been using to spur voluntary recruitment.
Putin may believe that he can appeal to Russian ethnonationalism and the defense of purportedly “Russian peoples” and claimed Russian land to generate additional volunteer forces. He may seek to rely on enhanced rhetoric in part because the Kremlin cannot afford the service incentives, like bonuses and employment benefits, that it has already promised Russian recruits. But Putin is also adding new and harsher punishments in an effort to contain the risk of the collapse of Russian military units fighting in Ukraine and draft-dodging within Russia. The Kremlin rushed the passage of a new law through the State Duma on September 20, circumventing normal parliamentary procedures. This law codifies dramatically increased penalties for desertion, refusing conscription orders, and insubordination. It also criminalizes voluntary surrender and makes surrender a crime punishable by ten years in prison. The law notably does not order full-scale mobilization or broader conscription or make any preparations for such activities.
ISW has observed no evidence that the Kremlin is imminently intending to change its conscription practices. The Kremlin’s new law is about strengthening the Kremlin’s coercive volunteerism, or what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called “self-mobilization.”
The Kremlin is taking steps to directly increase force generation through continued voluntary self-mobilization and an expansion of its legal authority to deploy Russian conscripts already with the force to fight in Ukraine.
- Putin’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory will broaden the domestic legal definition of “Russian” territory under Russian law, enabling the Russian military to legally and openly deploy conscripts already in the Russian military to fight in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian leadership has already deployed undertrained conscripts to Ukraine in direct violation of Russian law and faced domestic backlash. Russia’s semi-annual conscription cycle usually generates around 130,000 conscripts twice per year. The next cycle runs from October 1 to December 31. Russian law generally requires that conscripts receive at least four months of training prior to deployment overseas, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that conscripts will be deployed to Ukraine. Annexation could provide him a legal loophole allowing for the overt deployment of conscripts to fight.
- Russian-appointed occupation officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts announced the formation of “volunteer” units to fight with the Russian military against Ukraine. Russian forces will likely coerce or physically force at least some Ukrainian men in occupied areas to fight in these units, as they have done in the territories of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).
- The Russian State Duma separately passed new incentives for foreign nationals to fight in Russia’s military to obtain Russian citizenship and will likely increase overseas recruitment accordingly. That new law, which deputies also rushed through normal procedures on September 20, allows foreign nationals to gain Russian citizenship by signing a contract and serving in the Russian military for one year. Russian law previously required three years of service to apply for citizenship.
- Putin’s appeals to nationalism may generate small increases in volunteer recruitment from within Russia and parts of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. However, forces generated from such volunteers, if they manifest, will be small and poorly trained. Most eager and able-bodied Russian men and Ukrainian collaborators have likely already volunteered in one of the earlier recruitment phases.
- Local Russian administrators will continue to attempt to form volunteer units, with decreasing effect, as ISW has previously reported and mapped.
- Russian forces and the Wagner Private Military Company are also directly recruiting from Russian prisons, as ISW has previously reported. These troops will be undisciplined and unlikely to meaningfully increase Russian combat power.
Putin likely hopes that increasing self-mobilization, and cracking down on unwilling Russian forces, will enable him to take the rest of Donetsk and defend Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts. He is mistaken. Putin has neither the time nor the resources needed to generate effective combat power. But Putin will likely wait to see if these efforts are successful before either escalating further or blaming his loss on a scapegoat. His most likely scapegoat is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Reports that Shoigu would accompany Putin while Putin gave a speech announced and then postponed on September 20 suggest that Putin intended to make Shoigu the face of the current effort.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely also intends to deter Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensives by annexing occupied Ukrainian territory and framing Ukrainian attempts to liberate occupied territory as attacks on Russia. Russian officials and propagandists such as Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev issued vague warnings on September 20 that “the infringement of Russian territory is a crime; committing this crime permits using all means of self-defense.” Russian officials are demonstrably panicked over Ukrainian advances, as ISW assessed on September 19. The Kremlin likely intends these vague warnings to exacerbate Ukrainian and global fears of nuclear escalation. However, Putin has already declined to enforce any territory-specific redlines in response to Ukrainian attacks on Russian-annexed Crimea, occupied territory he has controlled for eight years and declares to be Russian.
Ukrainian and Western leaders responded to reports of the impending referenda with renewed declarations of commitment to restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on September 20 that “sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything ... Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 20 that “[sham referendums] will only further worsen the situation, and therefore we need to provide more support to Ukraine.” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on September 20 that the United States “will never recognize this territory as anything other than a part of Ukraine” and will continue to provide “historic support” to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz emphasized on September 19 that “Ukraine has every right to defend the sovereignty and integrity of its own territory and its own democracy.” French President Emmanuel Macron called the sham referenda a “parody” and a “provocation.”
- Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27.
- The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely intends to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war ostensibly to defend newly-claimed Russian territory.
- Ukrainian forces continued disrupting ongoing Russian efforts to reestablish ground lines of communications (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian forces are likely targeting Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts to threaten Ukrainian positions along the Siverskyi Donets River.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on September 20.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 20 and continued routine artillery strikes throughout Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian forces continue to degrade their force generation capabilities by cannibalizing training elements to fight in combat formations in Ukraine.
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.
- Ukrainian Counteroffensives—Southern and Eastern Ukraine
- Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine (comprised of one subordinate and two supporting efforts);
- Russian Subordinate Main Effort—Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
- Russian Supporting Effort—Southern Axis
- Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
- Activities in Russian-occupied Areas
Ukrainian Counteroffensives (Ukrainian efforts to liberate Russian-occupied territories)
Eastern Ukraine: (Vovchansk-Kupyansk-Izyum-Lyman Line)
Ukrainian forces likely continued offensive operations along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line on September 20. An unnamed senior US defense official stated that Ukrainian and Russian forces are engaged in artillery duels near Lyman. Several Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops are attacking Lyman from the northwest (around the Sviatohirsk-Yarova area) and south (along the Shchurove-Dibrova line). A Russian milblogger stated that Ukrainian troops attempted to attack Drobysheve, about 5km northwest of Lyman. Geolocated combat footage confirms Russian and Ukrainian claims that Ukrainian troops have taken control of Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast (about 30km southeast of Lyman). Russian sources also continue to indicate that Ukrainian troops are likely conducting offensive operations across the Oskil River with the intention of penetrating Russian rear areas in occupied Luhansk Oblast.
Russian forces are likely targeting Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblasts to threaten Ukrainian positions along the Siverskyi Donets River. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attempted to destroy a dam over the Pechenizske Reservoir (35km due east of Kharkiv City). The Ukrainian General Staff statement is likely corroborated by social media footage that shows an explosion and a large smoke plume after impact following a reported Russian strike on a dam across the Siverskyi Donets River east of Kharkiv City. The Pechenizske Reservoir is just upstream of the Siverskyi Donets River, along which Ukrainian troops have likely established pontoon bridges and other alternative river crossings on the Tetianivka-Pryshyb-Lyman-Yampil line. Russian forces likely sought to target this dam to flood the Siverskyi Donets River and isolate Ukrainian troops who have crossed the river south of Lyman from established positions on the right bank as well as to prevent additional Ukrainian troops from crossing to attack Russian positions on the left bank.
Southern Ukraine: (Kherson Oblast)
Ukrainian forces continued efforts to interdict Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kherson Oblast on September 19 and 20 as Russian troops continue attempts to reconstitute their GLOCs. Ukrainian officials reported multiple Ukrainian air and artillery strikes against Russian manpower and equipment concentration in the Berislav, Henichesk, Kakhovsk, and Kherson districts among other areas, as well as on bridges and pontoon and barge crossings. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Ukrainian artillery strikes disrupted Russian attempts to establish alternative crossing sites across the Dnipro River around Nova Kakhovka and Kozatske (both 60km east of Kherson City) and that one of the strikes hit a Russian barge loaded with weapons, equipment, and personnel. Social media imagery analysis confirms that the Russians have been trying to establish an alternative crossing point near the Kakhovka Dam from at least September 2 through September 18.
Ukrainian official sources maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground attacks in Kherson Oblast, and Russian sources offered unusually limited coverage of activities in this area on September 20. Pro-Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces went over to the defensive around Posad-Pokrovske (30km northwest of Kherson City) and on the Oleksandrivka front (35km west of Kherson City) after unsuccessful attempts to advance. Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces prepared to conduct offensive operations in the Olhyne-Myrolyubivka area (just south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border) around Arkhanhelske and Lyubymivka, but ISW has no independent confirmation of any of these reports. Ukraine’s Operational Command South reported that Russian forces attempted a platoon-sized attack in the direction of Davydiv Brid—Bilohirka (along the Kherson-Mykolaiv Oblast border near the Inhulets River) but were turned back by Ukrainian artillery.
Pro-Russian sources continue to obsess about a possible Ukrainian operation against the Kinburn Spit in Kherson Oblast, although no evidence has been presented that any such operation was undertaken or planned. Russian forces continue to attack Ochakiv, however, possibly in response to the supposed Ukrainian operation on the Kinburn Spit, and a pro-Russian outlet claimed that Russian forces have recently destroyed the Ukrainian headquarters responsible for “Kinburn Spit” operations.
Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine
Russian Subordinate Main Effort—Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)
Russian forces conducted ground attacks throughout Donetsk Oblast on September 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian troops repelled attempted Russian advances south of Bakhmut around Kurdyumivka (13km southwest of Bakhmut), Mykolaivka Druha (12km south of Bakhmut), Zaitseve (8km southeast of Bakhmut), and Mayorsk (20km southwest of Bakhmut). A Russian milblogger claimed that the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Army Corps (troops of the Donetsk People’s Republic) took control of Zaitseve, although ISW cannot independently verify this claim. Russian forces additionally conducted ground attacks northeast of Bakhmut near Vesele (18km northeast of Bakhmut) and in Soledar (10km northeast of Bakhmut).
Russian troops continued ground attacks along the northwestern and southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City and attempted to advance around the Pervomaiske-Nevelske area and in Marinka. The Ukrainian General Staff also noted that Russian troops attempted a limited ground attack near Novomykhailivka, 25km southwest of Donetsk City. Russian forces continued routine air and artillery strikes along the line of contact around Bakhmut, the Adviivka-Donetsk City area, western Donetsk Oblast, and eastern Zaporizhia Oblast.
Supporting Effort-Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)
Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 20 and continued routine artillery strikes throughout Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian sources continued to accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and surrounding infrastructure in Enerhodar. Russian forces continued missile and artillery strikes throughout Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk Oblasts and targeted infrastructure in the port city of Ochakiv.
Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)
Russian forces continue to degrade their force generation capabilities by cannibalizing training elements to fight in combat formations in Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the Russian military is forming four new infantry battalions at the base of the Russian 36th Motorized Rifle Brigade (29th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) in Borzya in Zabaykalsky Krai and that the Russian military is pulling faculty from the Russian Far Eastern Higher Combined Arms Command School to serve as officers in these battalions. The Russian military‘s continued stripping of Russian training units and service academies of personnel will further impede its ability to train new conscripts and replacements.
Russia continues to drain its forces deployed on bases outside Russia since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the Russian military-political leadership decided to withdraw unspecified elements of the Russian 217th Airborne Assault Regiment (98th Airborne Division) from the Syrian Arab Republic and prepare them for deployment to Ukraine.
The Kremlin continues mobilizing Ukrainian citizens in occupied southern Ukraine. The Russian-appointed occupation head of occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast Evgeny Balitsky announced plans to form a Zaporizhzhia volunteer battalion of 240 personnel on September 20. The formation of irregular, hastily-trained units adds little effective combat power to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
Activity in Russian-occupied Areas (Russian objective: consolidate administrative control of occupied areas; set conditions for potential annexation into the Russian Federation or some other future political arrangement of Moscow’s choosing)
See the topline text.
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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