Ukrainian forces continued offensive actions near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on September 20. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations and inflicted significant losses on Russian manpower and equipment in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) direction. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive actions in the Bakhmut direction and are consolidating in newly secured lines. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed that Ukrainian forces secured positions in Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut) and Andriivka (10km southwest of Bakhmut) and that Russian redeployments of airborne (VDV) forces from Bakhmut to the Zaporizhia direction have weakened Russian defenses around Bakhmut. ISW had previously observed elements of the 83rd Separate Air Assault Brigade operating in Zaporizhia, although it is unclear how large a proportion of that unit was redeployed from Bakhmut. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Ilya Yevlash stated that Ukrainian forces are preparing defensive positions before Russian forces renew their assaults in the Kupyansk-Lyman direction.
Wagner is vacating its positions in Syria to comply with a Russian Ministry of Defense ultimatum. Iran may assume control of some of the positions to secure military assets and expand its economic operations.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad will travel to China for a “Syrian-Chinese summit” on September 21, very likely to pursue bilateral economic ties.
Pro-regime forces fired at and injured three protesters at the Baath party headquarters in Suwayda City on September 13. The attack is the first well-documented instance of pro-regime forces using violence against protesters in Suwayda since the protests erupted in mid-August 2023. The protesters and community leaders blamed both the Baath party and Iranian-backed militias for the crackdown, but the location of fire indicates the shooters were Baath party guards.
Iran is expanding its military infrastructure in eastern Syria as part of its effort to secure a permanent presence there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force plans to build up its Soleimani base near Mayadin into the largest Iranian military base abroad, according to local Syrian reporting. This project supports the Iranian effort to become the dominant power in Deir ez Zor Province in eastern Syria. This project ultimately furthers the long-standing Iranian effort to transform Syria into a platform from which Iran can project military strength and facilitate the transfer of arms and military equipment to its so-called “Axis of Resistance.”
The Russian government quickly signaled on September 19 that Russian peacekeeping forces would not intervene in Azerbaijan’s military operation into Nagorno-Karabakh, despite Russia’s previous security ties to Armenia. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that Azerbaijani forces began a military operation into Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Russian military is in contact with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials “at the highest level.” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova issued a general statement calling on “all sides” to stop the bloodshed, claimed that the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh continues to fulfil its assigned tasks, and cited the trilateral Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani agreements signed in 2020 and 2022 as a path toward peace. Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Kartapolov stated that the Russian peacekeeping contingent does not have the right to use weapons unless directly threatened. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that the Russian peacekeeping contingent lacks any protocols on the use of force or rules of engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh, and instead operates on the basis of the November 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh peace agreement.
Ukraine’s liberation of Klishchiivka and Andriivka south of Bakhmut may have degraded the Russian defense in the area south of Bakhmut and could have rendered combat ineffective in as many as three Russian brigades according to Ukrainian military officials. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on September 18 that Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut) and Andriivka (10km southwest of Bakhmut) were important elements of the Russian Bakhmut-Horlivka defensive line that Ukrainian forces “breached.” Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Ilya Yevlash stated on September 17 that Ukraine’s liberation of Klishchiivka will allow Ukrainian forces to control Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) supplying the Russian force grouping in the Bakhmut area — likely referring to Ukrainian forces’ ability to establish fire control over the T0513 Bakhmut-Horlivka highway. ISW is currently unable independently to evaluate the strength and extent of the Russian defensive fortifications in the Bakhmut area, although Russian forces have likely fortified their defense lines near Bakhmut less heavily than they did in southern Ukraine. Russian forces south of Bakhmut are also likely battle-weary from the recent efforts to hold Klishchiivka and Andriivka, and the Ukrainian capture of two settlements defending a key Russian GLOC supporting Bakhmut indicates that these forces will likely struggle to replenish their combat strength and defend against any further Ukrainian offensive activity south of Bakhmut. There are no immediate indications that the liberation of Klishchiivka and Andriivka will portend a higher rate of Ukrainian advance south of Bakhmut, however, and the Russian defense of positions west of the T0513 will likely continue to present challenges for Ukrainian forces in the area.
The IRGC deployed forces to the Iran-Iraq border, likely to coerce the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government to stop threats from anti-Iran opposition groups in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
Iran could also use the recent deployments to conduct attacks against Iraqi Kurdistan should coercion fail.
Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani threatened on September 16 to retaliate against the United States for its decision to unload seized Iranian oil from the Suez Rajan tanker.
Ukrainian forces liberated Klishchiivka, south of Bakhmut, on September 17 and continued successful offensive operations elsewhere in the Bakhmut direction. Geolocated footage posted on September 17 shows Ukrainian forces holding up flags in Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut). Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Ilya Yevlash later confirmed that Ukraine has liberated Klishchiivka, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade, 5th Assault Brigade, 95th Air Assault Brigade, and National Police “Lyut” Assault Brigade for their role in liberating the settlement. Further geolocated footage posted on September 16 shows that Ukrainian forces have captured positions east of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (10km northwest of Bakhmut). The liberation of Klishchiivka, as well as continued Ukrainian tactical gains northwest of Bakhmut, are tactical gains of strategic significance because they are allowing Ukrainian forces to fix a considerable portion of Russian airborne (VDV) elements in the Bakhmut area, as ISW’s Daniel Mealie discusses in the September 17, 2023 special edition.
Key Takeaway: Ukrainian forces are celebrating the liberation of two small towns south of Bakhmut, but Ukraine’s entire effort first to defend and now to conduct counter-offensive operations around Bakhmut has been the subject of much unwarranted criticism. Ukraine's defensive and counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area since summer 2022 are an operationally sound undertaking that has fixed a large amount of Russian combat power that would otherwise have been available to reinforce Russian defenses in southern Ukraine. Elements of two of Russia’s four Airborne (VDV) divisions and three of Russia’s four VDV separate brigades are currently defending the Bakhmut area. This significant Ukrainian achievement has helped prevent Russia from creating a large mobile VDV operational reserve that could have been used to stop the main Ukrainian counteroffensive effort in Zaporizhia Oblast. Continued large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts around Bakhmut are necessary to keep Russian forces fixed in that area, as the likely recent redeployment of a detachment of one VDV separate brigade from near Bakhmut to southern Ukraine shows how eager the Russians are to recoup the combat power that the Ukrainian counteroffensive around Bakhmut is fixing there.
Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction on September 16 and continued to make gains in the area. Geolocated footage posted on September 15 confirms that Ukrainian forces have advanced south of Rozdolivka (about 13km northeast of Bakhmut) and in northern Klishchiivka (about 6km southwest of Bakhmut). Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar noted that fighting is ongoing near Klishchiivka and Kurdyumivka (12km southwest of Bakhmut) and stated that Ukrainian forces continue to be successful in the Klishchiivka area. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky posted footage of Ukrainian personnel in Andriivka (8km southwest of Bakhmut) following the Ukrainian liberation of the settlement on September 14.