Ukraine Project

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 7, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on August 7. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in the Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that fighting is ongoing south of Bakhmut and that eastern Ukraine has been the epicenter of hostilities in the past week. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged in an interview published on August 6 with Argentine news outlet La Nacion that the tempo of counteroffensive operations is slower than expected and stated that patience is necessary in order for Ukraine to win. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are in the offensive phase of operations and continue to hold the initiative.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 6, 2023

Ukrainian forces struck two key road bridges along critical Russian grounds lines of communication (GLOCs) connecting occupied Crimea and occupied Kherson Oblast on August 6, causing Russian forces to reroute road traffic from shorter eastern routes to longer western routes. Kherson Oblast occupation administration head Vadimir Saldo claimed that Ukrainian forces launched 12 missiles at a road bridge across the Henichesk Strait connecting Henichesk Raion to the Arabat Spit and that Russian air defenses intercepted nine of the missiles. Russian sources amplified images showing significant damage to the bridge and claimed that Ukrainian strikes partially collapsed a section of the bridge. Russian sources amplified footage showing Ukrainian forces striking the Chonhar road bridge along the M-18 (Dzhankoi-Melitopol) highway connecting occupied Crimea with occupied Kherson Oblast and subsequent minor damage to both sides of the bridge. Crimean occupation head Sergei Aksyonov claimed that Ukrainian forces launched two missiles at the bridge and that one missile made it through Russian air defenses and damaged the roadbed of the road bridge. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces used Storm Shadow cruise missiles to conduct both strikes, although ISW has yet to observe confirmation of Russian forces intercepting Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 5, 2023

Ukrainian forces struck a Russian oil tanker on August 4 with a naval drone in the second attack on Russian ships in the Black Sea in two consecutive days. Ukrainian officials issued a notice to mariners that Ukraine may strike vessels near Russia’s Black Sea ports – a measured response to continued Russian strikes against Odesa – Ukraine's main port – since July 17. Ukrainian naval strikes are likely part of a deliberate interdiction campaign aimed at setting favorable conditions for larger counteroffensive operations.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 4, 2023

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of aerial and naval drone strikes against Russian logistics and port infrastructure in occupied Crimea and Krasnodar Krai (a key Russian naval base) on the night of August 3 to 4. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses and electronic warfare units downed up to 13 Ukrainian drones targeting Crimea. Geolocated footage published on August 4 shows Ukrainian drones striking areas near an oil depot in Feodosia, Crimea, although it is unclear whether the drone strikes damaged Russian targets. Geolocated footage published on August 3 and 4 shows Russian forces firing on Ukrainian naval drones near a Russian naval base in Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai, and one of the naval drones striking the Russian Olenegorsky Gornyak Ropucha-class landing ship. The Russian MoD stated that Russian naval artillery fire destroyed two Ukrainian naval drones near the base in Novorossisyk. Geolocated footage posted later on August 4 shows the Olenegorsky Gornyak listing and a Russian support vessel towing the landing ship to the Novorossisyk port. Geolocated footage does not indicate the full extent of the damage to the Olenegorsky Gornyak, and Russian sources claimed that the damage was not critical and that the ship would be operational after an unspecified time of repair. Russian sources claimed that the Russian navy used the landing ship to transport civilian vehicles across the Kerch Strait amidst widespread disruptions to traffic across the Kerch Strait bridge.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 3, 2023

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 3 and reportedly advanced in some areas. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions and Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces continued to advance in the Bakhmut direction. Ukrainian Director of the Department of Planning of the Main Directorate of the National Guard Colonel Mykola Urshalovych stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 650m into Russian defenses along a 1.5km front in the Melitopol direction. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced near Mykilske (27km southwest of Donetsk City) in western Donetsk Oblast. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated on August 3 that the Ukrainian counteroffensive does not have a set deadline or schedule. Danilov added that Russian defensive lines along the front continue to be heavily mined, with some areas having three, four, or five mines per square meter.

How the Ukraine Counteroffensive Can Still Succeed

The situation in Ukraine still favors Kyiv despite the limited progress made in the counteroffensive so far. Ukrainian forces attempted a limited mechanized penetration of prepared Russian defenses in the south in early to mid-June, but failed to break through the Russian lines. They then switched to slower and more careful operations while disrupting Russian rear areas with long-range precision strikes. Ukraine began the next, reportedly main, phase of its counteroffensive on July 26 with a determined drive to penetrate Russian lines in western Zaporizhia Oblast. It’s far too soon to evaluate the outcome of that effort, which is underway as of the time of this writing, but it is vital to manage expectations. Ukrainian forces are fighting now to break through the first line of long-prepared Russian defenses. Several lines lie behind it, stretching for many miles. Ukrainian progress will very likely alternate periods of notable tactical advances with periods, possibly long periods, of pause and some setbacks. Much as we might hope that the road to the Sea of Azov will simply open for Ukrainian forces the odds are high that fighting will remain hard, casualties high, and frustration will be a constant companion. All of which is normal in war.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 2, 2023

A dispute among prominent voices in the Russian information space highlights the Kremlin’s sensitivity to Russian reporting about setbacks in Crimea in particular and possibly in Ukraine in general and has further exposed fault lines within the milblogger community. A pro-war milblogger accused other prominent pro-war milbloggers who have been critical of the Russian conduct of the war on August 2 of being “imbeciles” who support “provocative publications” and the “frantic criticism of the [Russian Ministry of Defense]” because the milbloggers posted images reportedly showing the aftermath of recent Ukrainian strikes near Sevastopol and on the Chonhar Bridge, which some sources suggested would irresponsibly spread panic. A notorious Kremlin-backed pro-Russian Ukrainian blogger additionally accused one of the critical milbloggers under attack of stealing crowdsourced collection funds meant for Russian forces. Both these specific critiques drew significant attention from other pro-war Russian commentators, many of whom supported the critical channels being attacked for reporting on the Crimea strikes. One milblogger noted that the crux of the issue lies with the fact that these two channels post pictures of purported Ukrainian strikes on Crimea but emphasized that the original images came from Ukrainian Telegram channels. Another prominent milblogger claimed that the dispute over posting images of strikes in Crimea became so intense that it attracted the attention of the Crimean Federal Security Service (FSB) branch and Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov, likely because these entities are interested in preventing panic in Crimea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 1, 2023

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) accused Ukraine of attempting to attack two Black Sea Fleet patrol boats with unmanned semi-submersibles on August 1. The Russian MoD initially claimed that Ukraine launched three unmanned boats at the “Sergey Kotov” and “Vasily Bykov” Project 22160 large patrol ships in the southwestern part of the Black Sea, about 340km southwest of Sevastopol. The Russian MoD later clarified that the patrol ships were escorting Russian civilian transport ships en route to the Bosphorus Strait via the Black Sea and claimed that the patrol ships detected and destroyed all three semi-submersibles. Russian authorities may be amplifying claims of Ukrainian attacks to frame Ukraine as irresponsibly threatening civilian ships in the Black Sea, thereby setting conditions to further escalate naval activity and consolidate control in the Black Sea, though there is no indication that Ukrainian attacks on Russian military targets have threatened civilian vessels. Geolocated images posted on July 31 show the installation of anti-naval drone barriers in Sevastopol Bay, likely as part of the overall Russian effort to increase naval and defensive posturing in the Black Sea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 31, 2023

The Wagner Group may be supplanting the Russian military as the Belarusian military’s key training partner. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on July 30 that Wagner personnel conducted company-level training with unspecified elements of multiple Belarusian mechanized brigades. The training included tactical maneuver for dismounted infantry and focused on force concealment from enemy UAVs and coordination between companies, platoons, and squads. The training also reportedly featured Belarusian infantry conducting a combined arms assault with tank and artillery support. The Wagner Group’s new role in Belarusian company-level training is notable. The Belarusian military typically conducts such exercises with Russian trainers and relies on Russian planners for any multi-brigade exercises, which ISW has not yet observed Wagner Group participating in. ISW previously observed Wagner personnel training with a Belarusian airborne brigade that historically trains with the Russian 76th Airborne (VDV) Division and forecasted that the Wagner Group may seek to supplant legacy Russian–Belarusian unit relationships.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 30, 2023

The lack of Russian milblogger reaction to a Ukrainian strike on the Chonhar bridge represents a notable inflection in Russian reporting on the war in Ukraine and may suggest that the Kremlin has directed Russian milbloggers to refrain from covering certain topics. The Ukrainian Armed Forces announced on July 29 that Ukrainian forces successfully struck the Chonhar bridge on the M-18 (Dzhankoi-Melitopol) highway between occupied Crimea and occupied Kherson Oblast.[1] ISW has not observed any Russian milblogger discussion about the Ukrainian strike or Russian milbloggers promoting Kherson Oblast occupation administration head Vladimir Saldo’s claim that Russian forces intercepted 12 Ukrainian Strom Shadow cruise missiles targeting the bridge.[2] The only other Russian source to comment on the strikes was a local Russian news Telegram channel, which amplified alleged claims from Russian tourists in the area about the bridge being closed to traffic.[3] Russian milbloggers responded to a Ukrainian strike on the Chonhar bridge on June 22 with widespread outrage and concern, and Russian milbloggers routinely comment on both successful and allegedly unsuccessful Ukrainian strikes on Russian logistics.[4] The Chonhar bridge is a notable bottleneck along a critical Russian ground line of communication (GLOC), and it is highly unlikely that Russian milbloggers would voluntarily ignore a successful or unsuccessful Ukrainian strike on the bridge. ISW has previously assessed that select Russian milbloggers may be shaping their coverage of the war in Ukraine in ways more favorable to Kremlin narratives out of fear of Kremlin punishment following the removal of prominent critical voices in the Russian information space, particularly pro-war critic Igor Girkin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.[5] General fear of Kremlin punishment would not likely result in such near-universal lack of coverage of a dramatic event, however, and it is more likely that a specific Kremlin directive not to cover disruptions to critical GLOCs caused this lack of reporting.