A Reuters investigation of a document trove found in an abandoned Russian command post in Balakliya, Kharkiv Oblast, supports ISW’s longstanding assessments about the poor condition of Russian forces. ISW has long assessed that the conventional Russian military in Ukraine is severely degraded and has largely lost offensive capabilities since the summer of 2022, that Russian strategic commanders have been micromanaging operational commanders' decisions on tactical matters, and that Russian morale is very low. Reuters’ investigation found that Russian units near Balakliya were severely understrength, with a combat battalion at 19.6-percent strength and a reserve unit at 23-percent strength. The investigation found that poor morale, bad logistics, and overbearing commanders contributed to Russian forces’ poor performance. The report found that the Russian Western Military District explicitly forbade a subordinate from withdrawing from an untenable position in the small village of Hrakove (which has an area of less than three square kilometers). Ukrainian forces defeated Russian forces in Balakiya and routed Russian forces in eastern Kharkiv Oblast around September 8-10.
The Kremlin intensified its information operation to accuse Ukraine of preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb for a second day in a row on October 24. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov separately called his counterparts from the United Kingdom and United States about the “situation connected with Ukraine’s possible use of a dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material that is not a nuclear weapon) on October 24. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made similar calls with his counterparts from the United Stated, United Kingdom, France, and Turkey on October 23. The Chief of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Forces, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, gave a lengthy briefing accusing Ukraine of planning a dirty bomb false-flag provocation to accuse Russia of detonating a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine on October 24. Russian military bloggers are amplifying this information operation. ISW assesses the Kremlin is unlikely to be preparing an imminent false-flag dirty bomb attack.
Russian forces continued to withdraw from western Kherson Oblast while preparing to conduct delaying actions that will likely be only partially effective. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces have completely abandoned their positions in Charivne and Chkalove (both approximately 33km northwest of Nova Kakhovka), and Russian officers and medics have reportedly evacuated from Beryslav. The Ukrainian General Staff added that Russian forces are also removing patients from the Kakhovka Hospital on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, likely to free up hospital beds for Russian military casualties that may result from the withdrawal across the river. The Ukrainian General Staff noted that some Russian elements are preparing Kherson City for urban combat, while other servicemembers continue to flee the city via the ferry operating in the vicinity of the Antonivsky Bridge. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on October 22 that Russian forces completed construction of a barge bridge alongside the damaged bridge and forecasted that the barge bridge would become a critical crossing point for Russian forces as Ukrainian forces advance toward Kherson City. A large part of the Kherson City population has also reportedly left the city.
The Russian withdrawal from western Kherson Oblast has begun. Russian forces likely intend to continue that withdrawal over the next several weeks but may struggle to withdraw in good order if Ukrainian forces choose to attack. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated on October 21 that Russian forces are “quite actively” transferring ammunition, military equipment, and some unspecified units from the Dnipro River’s west bank to the east bank via ferries. The Southern Operational Command added that Russian forces deployed 2,000 mobilized men to hold the frontlines and are continuing to shell Ukrainian positions, likely in an effort to cover their withdrawal. Ukrainian military officials reported that the Russian occupation administration is preparing the evacuation of imported Russian specialists, Ukrainian collaborators, and Kherson’s banking system. Russian occupation administration in Beryslav and humanitarian facilities in Kherson City also reportedly ceased operations.
Russia is likely continuing to prepare for a false flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on October 20 that Russian forces mined the dam of the Kakhovka HPP and noted that the HPP holds over 18 million cubic meters of water, which would cause massive and rapid flooding of settlements along the Dnipro River, including Kherson City. Zelensky emphasized that the flooding would impact hundreds of thousands of people. Russian sources, however, continued to accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling the Kakhovka HPP and have widely circulated graphics depicting the flood path in the event of a dam breach. As ISW reported on October 19, Russian sources are likely setting information conditions for Russian forces to blow the dam after they withdraw from western Kherson Oblast and accuse Ukrainian forces of flooding the Dnipro River and surrounding settlements, partially in an attempt to cover their retreat further into eastern Kherson Oblast. Continued Russian preparation for a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka HPP is also likely meant to distract from reports of Russian losses in Kherson Oblast.
Russian authorities are likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian retreats and significant territorial losses in Kherson Oblast. Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin reported during an appearance on Russian television that the Russian military leadership has to make “difficult decisions” regarding Kherson Oblast and accused Ukraine of planning to strike civilian and residential infrastructure in Kherson Oblast. Kherson Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo relatedly noted that his administration is evacuating the west bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of a “large-scale” Ukrainian offensive. Surovikin‘s and Saldo’s statements are likely attempts to set information conditions for a full Russian retreat across the Dnipro River, which would cede Kherson City and other significant territory in Kherson Oblast to advancing Ukrainian troops. Russian military leaders have evidently learned from previous informational and operational failures during the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast and are therefore likely attempting to mitigate the informational and operational consequences of failing to defend against another successful Ukrainian advance.
Russian forces continued to target critical Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with air, missile, and drone strikes on October 18. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 19 missile strikes and 68 air strikes against over 10 areas, including Kyiv, Zhytomyr City, Kharkiv City, Dnipro City, Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia City, Mykolaiv City, Odesa City, and other areas in Donetsk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv Oblasts. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces targeted unspecified areas with 43 kamikaze drones, 38 of which Ukrainian forces shot down. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces continued to strike Ukrainian infrastructure and military command facilities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on October 18 that Russian strikes between October 10 and October 18 destroyed 30% of Ukrainian power stations in a likely attempt to demoralize Ukrainian civilians that is unlikely to succeed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is consolidating his power projection system around those willing to pursue his unchanged maximalist goals in Ukraine. He is increasingly spotlighting and relying on a smaller cadre of highly devoted followers in his power circles and a silent majority in the Russian population who will simply comply.
Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against residential areas and critical infrastructure throughout Ukraine on October 17. Russian troops struck Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia City, and areas in Vinnytsia, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv Oblasts and launched nine missile strikes and 39 air strikes on October 17. Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat noted that Russian forces launched 43 drones from southern Ukraine, 37 of which Ukrainian troops destroyed and the majority of which were Iranian Shahed-136 drones. Five Shahed-136 drones struck infrastructure in the Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv, including the UkrEnergo (Ukrainian electricity transmission system operator) building.
This campaign assessment special edition focuses on the specific parts of Ukrainian territory currently under Russian occupation that are important for the long-term viability of an independent Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are currently conducting a counteroffensive push in Kherson Oblast as of October 16. We will update our maps after information about the new front lines unambiguously enters the open-source environment.