Ukraine Project

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 24, 2023

The Wagner Group will likely no longer exist as a quasi-independent parallel military structure following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov on August 23. The death of Wagner’s central leadership disrupts Wagner’s ability to reverse the effects of the Kremlin’s and the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) campaign to weaken, subsume, and destroy the organization following the June 24 armed rebellion. The Russian MoD has reportedly established private military companies (PMCs) that have been recruiting current and former Wagner personnel to assume control over Wagner’s operations abroad. Russian sources claimed that the Kremlin refused to pay the Belarusian government for Wagner’s deployment to Belarus and that financial issues were already leading to reduced payments that were causing Wagner fighters to resign. Satellite imagery from August 1 and 23 shows that Wagner had dismantled almost a third of the tents at its camp in Tsel, Asipovichy, Belarus in the previous month, suggesting that the effort to weaken Wagner may have resulted in a notable flight of Wagner personnel from the contingent in Belarus. Some milbloggers denied claims that Wagner fighters are dismantling their camp in Tsel, however. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on August 23 that an unspecified number of Wagner personnel at camps in Belarus began preparations to return to Russia following Prigozhin’s death. The central Wagner leadership had brought Wagner to the height of its independence during the offensive to capture Bakhmut and was attempting to retain some semblance of that independence in the aftermath of Wagner’s rebellion. The elimination of this central leadership likely ends any remaining means Wagner had to operate independently of the Russian MoD. It remains unclear whether the Kremlin intends for Wagner to completely dissipate or intends to reconstitute it as a much smaller organization completely subordinate to the Russian MoD. A third option—restoring Wagner as a quasi-independent organization under a new commander loyal to the Kremlin—is possible but unlikely.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 23, 2023

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and founder Dmitry Utkin reportedly died after Russian forces shot down an aircraft transporting senior Wagner commanders over Tver Oblast. The Russian Federal Aviation Agency (Rosaviatsiya) reported on August 23 that all the passengers – Yevgeny Prigozhin, Dmitry Utkin, Sergei Propustin, Yevgeny Makaryan, Alexander Totmin, Valery Chekalov, Nikolai Matyuseev – died in the crash along with all three crew members. Russian opposition outlet Dossier reported that Chekalov, who is under US sanctions for transferring munitions to Russia and has acted on behalf of Prigozhin, oversaw Wagner transport logistics and “civilian” projects abroad. A Russian insider source claimed that Chekalov also served as head of Wagner’s security services, though another source refuted this claim. Dossier also reported that several other passengers joined Wagner between 2015 and 2017 and fought in Syria, although their current positions are unclear. Russian sources amplified footage apparently showing a Russian missile striking an aircraft carrying Prigozhin, Utkin, and other Wagner commanders and the wreckage of the aircraft. An insider source claimed that two S-300 missiles shot down the aircraft. Flight tracking data for an Embraer Legacy 600 jet (registration number RA-02795) registered to the Wagner Group stopped after 6:11pm Moscow time while over Tver Oblast. Russian sources claimed that a second Wagner Group-owned Embraer jet (registration number RA-02748) departed Moscow but turned around and landed at Ostafyevo airport in Moscow around the time of the strike. Flight tracking data showed that this second aircraft arrived in St Petersburg at 6:27pm and flew back to Moscow 20 minutes later arriving at 8:02pm, however.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 22, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued to make advances in and around Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast as of August 22 amid indications that Russian forces likely have a limited presence in the settlement. Geolocated footage published on August 21 and 22 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced in southeastern Robotyne and east of the settlement near Novopokrovka (13km southeast of Orikhiv). The Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade published a video on August 22 showing its personnel successfully evacuating civilians from Robotyne while accompanied by Ukrainian journalists. The 47th Mechanized Brigade stated that its personnel broke through multi-echelon Russian defensive lines near Robotyne and have entered the settlement. The evacuations and the presence of Ukrainian journalists suggests that areas of Robotyne may be relatively secure due to diminished Russian positions in the settlement itself and the nearby area. Russian maximalist claims that Ukrainian forces only maintain positions on the very northern outskirts of the settlement are likely false given the footage and reporting from the 47th Brigade. Most Russian milbloggers continue to acknowledge that Ukrainian forces hold positions in much of northern Robotyne and that Russian forces likely control at most positions on the southern outskirts of the settlement at this time.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 21, 2023

Ukrainian forces made tactically significant gains in and east of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 20-21 while continuing counteroffensive operations on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border and in eastern Ukraine. Geolocated footage published on August 20 and August 21 indicates that Ukrainian forces reached the central part of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and broke through some Russian defenses south of Mala Tokmachka (9km southeast of Orikhiv). Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces succeeded in the direction southeast of Robotyne and south of Mala Tokmachka, and that Russian forces unsuccessfully counterattacked east of Robotyne. Malyar and Russian sources stated that fighting is ongoing in Robotyne. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces captured some positions in a part of the Russian forward defensive lines after intensifying attacks on the Robotyne-Verbove (21km southeast of Orikhiv) line. Some Russian sources reported that Russian forces retreated from some positions near Verbove as part of their elastic defense, likely in response to a Ukrainian advance south of Mala Tokmachka. ISW previously assessed that Ukrainian attacks on Robotyne are tactically significant because a Ukrainian advance in the area may allow Ukrainian forces to begin operating past the densest Russian minefields. Ukrainian advances across fields in this area likely confirm this assessment. Persistent Ukrainian advances in the Robotyne area also likely aim to degrade Russian forces that have committed significant effort, resources, and personnel to hold positions around Robotyne.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 19, 2023

Russian forces launched a missile strike during the day on August 19 targeting Chernihiv City center after carrying out a series of Shahed drone strikes overnight. Russian forces struck Taras Shevchenko Theater in Chernihiv City, killing seven people and injuring 117. Chernihiv Oblast Administration Head Vyacheslav Chaus reported that Russian forces “probably” launched a “ballistic missile” at the theater, and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces used an Iskander-M ballistic missile during the strike. The theater reportedly hosted a drone exposition called “Lyuti Ptashky” (Angry Birds), which had previously occurred in other Ukrainian cities. The event organizer, Maria Berlinska, stated that organizers only shared the location of the event with individuals who registered and were screened before attending the event. The event reportedly ended shortly after an air raid warning, and organizers advised people to hide in a shelter. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Russian forces are targeting public events to emotionally affect Ukrainians and noted that Russian forces have previously struck public events even without prior public announcements of such events. Many Russian milbloggers originally claimed that Russian forces targeted a Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building, before most indicated that Russian forces struck the drone exhibition.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 18, 2023

The Washington Post reported on August 17 that the US intelligence community has assessed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach Melitopol in western Zaporizhia Oblast and will not achieve its principal objective of severing the Russian land bridge to Crimea. The unverified intelligence assessment reportedly states that effective Russian defensive operations and dense minefields have constrained Ukrainian advances and will continue to do so. Anonymous US officials reportedly stated that Ukrainian forces will advance to within several miles of Melitopol but not further. A Ukrainian advance to within a few miles of Melitopol would bring the critical road and rail connections on which Russia relies to supply its forces within range of Ukrainian artillery systems, severely compromising Russia’s ability to continue to use them for that purpose. It is unclear from published reports why US intelligence analysts have reportedly concluded that seizing Melitopol is the only way Ukraine can sever the Russian land bridge. ISW has, in fact, assessed that Ukraine has many options for severing critical Russian ground lines of communication along the northern Sea of Azov coast of which the seizure of Melitopol is only one. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notably offered a diverging opinion from the alleged intelligence assessment on August 15, stating that the prospects for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to make significant “strategic gains” will remain unclear for at least a month or longer.

Iran Update, August 17, 2023

Syrians demonstrated against worsening economic conditions and the Syrian regime’s mismanagement of the economy across the country. Syrian President Bashar al Assad removed fuel subsidies, raised salaries, and adjusted bus prices to counter the devaluation of the Syrian pound on August 15. The Syrian pound has devalued by over 80 percent since May 2023, which has exacerbated an economic crisis for Syrian civilians. The rising cost of living also has driven discontent in eastern Syria.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 17, 2023

“Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine along the current frontlines, reintroducing a narrative that had been largely dormant since Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Khodakovsky stated that Russia will not be able to topple Ukraine militarily in the near term and that Russian forces are unlikely to easily occupy additional Ukrainian cities, echoing comments Prigozhin had made in April 2023. Khodakovsky concluded that Russia will likely have to come to a “truce” and that Russia may enter a phase “of neither peace nor war” with Ukraine. Khodakovsky suggested that Ukraine would be sufficiently weakened in this state of frozen conflict and that Russia would be able to exert more influence over Ukraine in such a situation than it currently can during the ”Special Military Operation.” Prigozhin’s April 14 essay suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine to set conditions for a future victory without negotiations. Russian sources have periodically claimed that a Kremlin faction is interested in freezing the war along the current frontlines for similar reasons as well as over concerns about domestic political stability and the economic fallout from the war. Discussion of this narrative has waned with Prigozhin’s relative silence following Wagner’s June 24 rebellion and the arrest of ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin, who routinely called on the Kremlin to resist the faction that aims to freeze the war.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 16, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 16 and advanced in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border, including liberating the village of Urozhaine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut, Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area), and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. Geolocated footage published on August 16 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced northeast of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast and have likely made wider gains in the surrounding areas given weeks of consistent Ukrainian activity in the forested areas northeast of the settlement. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces liberated Urozhaine (9km south of Velyka Novosilka) in the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area, and the Ukrainian 35th Marine Brigade published footage of their personnel raising the Ukrainian flag in the center of the settlement. Ukrainian reporting on the liberation of Urozhaine is in line with previous statements by Ukrainian officials about the liberation of other settlements in the area and recent reports by Russian forces that Russian units in the area were withdrawing. Russian claims about Ukrainian assaults further south and east of the limits of the settlement further indicate that Ukrainian forces likely control the majority of the settlement.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 15, 2023

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 15 and reportedly advanced in Luhansk Oblast and western Zaporizhia Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut, Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast), and Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. Coordinates published by a Russian milblogger on August 15 indicate that Ukrainian forces have advanced south of Dibrova (7km southwest of Kreminna). Geolocated footage posted on August 14 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced into Robotyne, and further Russian and Ukrainian reporting published on August 15 suggests that Ukrainian forces have committed additional counteroffensive brigades to the western Zaporizhia oblast area. Ukrainian Colonel Petro Chernyk stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is advancing slowly in southern Ukraine because Ukrainian forces must overcome a three-echeloned Russian defensive line. Chernyk stated that the Russian line of defense includes a first line of minefields stretching several kilometers wide; a second line with artillery, equipment, and personnel concentrations; and a third line of rear positions meant to preserve resources. Chernyk noted that Ukrainian counterbattery measures are especially important in order to prevent Russian artillery from targeting Ukrainian mine-clearing equipment. Chernyk’s statements are in line with ISW’s previous assessments that Russia’s doctrinally sound elastic defense is slowing Ukrainian forces’ advances in southern Ukraine.