The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the commanders of the “central” and “southern” groupings of forces in Ukraine on June 24, confirming previously rumored changes reported on June 21. Spokesperson for the Russian MoD Igor Konashenkov stated on June 24 that Commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Alexander Lapin is in command of the "central” group of forces, which is responsible for operations against Lysychansk (and presumably Severodonetsk). Konashenkov additionally stated that Army General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, commands the ”southern” group of forces and oversaw the encirclement of Hirske and Zolote. The Russian MoD’s announcement confirms ISW’s assessment from June 21 that the Russian high command is reshuffling and restructuring military command in order to better organize operations in Ukraine, though the Russian MoD statement does not state when the changes occurred. The UK MoD confirmed that the Russian command has removed several generals from key operational roles in Ukraine, including Commander of the Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov and Commander of Russia’s Southern Military District Alexander Dvornikov, who was likely was acting as overall theatre commander. The UK MoD noted that command of the Southern Military District will transfer to Surovikin. The Russian MoD’s statement notably only discusses the center and south force groupings (not the Southern Military District as a whole), but Dvornikov has likely been removed from his previous role.
Ukrainian officials ordered a controlled withdrawal of troops from Severodonetsk on June 24. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai announced that Ukrainian forces are withdrawing from “broken positions” in Severodonetsk to prevent further personnel losses and maintain a stronger defense elsewhere. Severodonetsk Regional Military Administration Head Roman Vlasenko stated that several Ukrainian units remain in Severodonetsk as of June 24, but Ukrainian forces will complete the full withdrawal in “a few days.” An unnamed Pentagon official noted that Ukrainian withdrawal from Severodonetsk will allow Ukrainian troops to secure better defensive positions and further wear down Russian manpower and equipment. The Pentagon official noted that Russian forces pushing on Severodonetsk already show signs of “wear and tear” and “debilitating morale,” which will only further slow Russian offensive operations in Donbas. Russian forces have been attempting to seize Severodonetsk since at least March 13, exhausting their forces and equipment over three months.
Ongoing Belarusian mobilization exercises will continue in Gomel Oblast until July 1 but are unlikely to be in preparation for direct Belarusian involvement in the war in Ukraine. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced on June 22 that the Belarusian Armed Forces will conduct a mobilization exercise with the military commissariats of Gomel Oblast to test the readiness of the military reserve from June 22 to July 1. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service warned on June 23 that Belarusian forces may conduct provocations along the border with Ukraine over the backdrop of these exercises, and Belarusian-Russian military cooperation has seemingly intensified. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in Moscow on June 23 to discuss ongoing bilateral military agreements. Belarusian social media users additionally reported that Russian planes transported at least 16 S-400 missiles and one Pantsir system to the Gomel airport on June 21 and 22.
Reinforced Russian air-defense systems in eastern Ukraine are increasingly limiting the effectiveness of Ukrainian drones, undermining a key Ukrainian capability in the war. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch quoted several anonymous Ukrainian officials and military personnel that Ukrainian forces have largely halted the use of Turkish Bayraktar drones, which were used to great effect earlier in the war, due to improvements in Russian air-defense capabilities. Ukrainian officials are reportedly increasingly concerned that US-provided Gray Eagle strike drones will also be shot down by reinforced Russian air defense over the Donbas. Ukrainian forces have reportedly scaled back air operations to 20 to 30 sorties per day and are facing a deficit of available aircraft for active pilots. Russian forces are likely prioritizing deploying air defenses to eastern Ukraine to nullify Ukrainian operations and to protect the artillery systems Russian forces are reliant on to make advances. However, the Ukrainian air force and armed drones remain active elsewhere, inflicting several successful strikes on targets in Kherson Oblast in the last week.
The Kremlin recently replaced the commander of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces and may be in the process of radically reshuffling the command structure of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a possible purge of senior officers blamed for failures in Ukraine. Several Russian outlets confirmed that the current Chief of Staff of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Mikhail Teplinsky, will replace the current Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov. Ukrainian sources previously reported on June 17 that the Kremlin fired Serdyukov for poor performance during the invasion and high casualties among paratroopers, but ISW could not confirm this reporting at the time. Several sources are additionally reporting contradictory claims about replacements for the current Southern Military District Commander—and overall commander of the Russian invasion of Ukraine–Army General Alexander Dvornikov:
Ukrainian officials are emphasizing that the coming week will be decisive for Russian efforts to take control of Severodonetsk. Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Russian leadership has set June 26 as the deadline for Russian forces to reach the Luhansk Oblast administrative border, which will likely result in intensified efforts to take full control of Severodonetsk and move westward towards the Oblast border. Head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration Serhiy Haidai reported that Russian forces control all of Severodonetsk except for the industrial zone as of June 20, which is the first explicit Ukrainian confirmation that Russian forces control all of Severodonetsk with the exception of the Azot plant. Russian forces will likely continue efforts to clear the Azot plant and complete encirclement operations south of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk by driving up the T1302 Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway.
The UK Ministry of Defense assesses that the Kremlin’s continued framing of its invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than a war is actively hindering Russian force generation capabilities. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on June 19 that Russian authorities are struggling to find legal means to punish military dissenters and those who refuse to mobilize because the classification of the conflict in Ukraine as a “special military operation” precludes legal punitive measures that could be employed during a formal war. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin’s framing of the war as a “special operation” is compounding consistent issues with poor perceptions of Russian military leadership among Russian nationalists, problems with paying troops, lack of available forces, and unclear objectives among Russian forces. The Kremlin is continuing to attempt to fight a major and grinding war in Ukraine with forces assembled for what the Kremlin incorrectly assumed would be a short invasion against token Ukrainian resistance. The Kremlin continues to struggle to correct this fundamental flaw in its “special military operation.”
Russian forces made marginal gains on the outskirts of Severodonetsk on June 18 but have largely stalled along other axes of advance. Russian troops are likely facing mounting losses and troop and equipment degradation that will complicate attempts to renew offensive operations on other critical locations as the slow battle for Severodonetsk continues. As ISW previously assessed, Russian forces will likely be able to seize Severodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces in this small area. Other Russian operations in eastern Ukraine—such as efforts to capture Slovyansk and advance east of Bakhmut—have made little progress in the past two weeks. Russian forces are continuing to fight to push Ukrainian troops away from occupied frontiers north of Kharkiv City and along the Southern Axis, but have not made significant gains in doing so, thus leaving them vulnerable to Ukrainian counteroffensive and partisan pressure.
Russian forces are continuing to deploy additional forces to support offensive operations in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area, and Ukrainian defenses remain strong. Ukrainian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Oleksandr Motuzyanyk reported that Russian forces are transferring tanks, armored personnel carriers, engineering equipment, and vehicles from Svatove, along the Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Luhansk Oblast, to Starobilsk, just 40 km east of Severodonetsk. Social media users reported that Russian forces are likely redeploying equipment from northern Kharkiv Oblast to Donbas and published footage of Russian heavy artillery arriving by rail in Stary Osokol, Belgorod Oblast on June 17. UK Chief of Defense Tony Radakin stated that Russian forces are “diminishing” in power by committing large quantities of personnel and equipment for incremental gains in one area. The Russian military has concentrated the vast majority of its available combat power to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk at the expense of other axes of advance and is suffering heavy casualties to do so.
The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Romania committed to Ukrainian officials that the West would not demand any concessions from Ukraine to appease Russia and will support Ukraine to the end of the war during a visit to Kyiv on June 16. French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France, Germany, Italy, and Romania are “are doing everything so that Ukraine alone can decide its fate.” Macron added that Ukraine “must be able to win” and pledged to provide six more self-propelled howitzers. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Germany will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, and weapons assistance for “Ukraine’s war of independence.” Macron, Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis additionally vowed to back Ukraine’s bid to become an official candidate for European Union membership. Sustained Western military support to Ukraine will be essential to enable Ukrainian forces to liberate Russian-occupied territory.