War in Ukraine – weekly update (01.04-07.04.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (01.04-07.04.2023)

Bakhmut front

The first days of April bring with them bleak news. Russian forces now control the majority of the embattled city of Bakhmut. Wagner troops have secured further advances in central Bakhmut. Amidst the fighting Wagner group published a video with the organisation’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, planting a Wagner flag on the ruins of the city administration building, and declaring that “legally” Bakhmut has been captured and is under Russian control.[i] While the footage has been confirmed to be true, Bakhmut is not fully controlled by Russian forces. Ukrainian troops continue to fight for the city, though they have been steadily pushed back west.

Several sources claim that Ukrainian forces have retreated to the western part of the city and set up a defensive line along the railroad, cutting the city from the north to the south. Polish volunteer medic Damian Duda stated that the situation in the city is so dire that even armoured medical evacuation vehicles are not able to retrieve wounded personnel from the frontline, forcing the medics to evacuate wounded on hand stretchers.[ii] If the reports are truthful and the intensity and pace of the Russian attacks persists, Ukrainian forces may be forced to relinquish the city completely in one week’s time.

Additionally, Moscow troops continue offensive operations against the flanks of Ukrainian defences to the west in Ivanivske, without any success however. To the northwest Russians secured further gains near the town of Khromove and now occupy positions within 300 metres and the last remaining ground line of communication out of Bakhmut. Should the Russians manage to breakthrough in this area Ukrainian defenders in the city would be virtually cut off, and forced to travel cross-country, which is extremely difficult given the ever present mud. Further north west Russian forces continue to assault Ukrainian positions in Bohdanivka and Orikhovo-Vasylivka achieving marginal gains. These offensive operations may be launched to either achieve a greater encirclement or Ukrainian forces defending the Bakhmut area or simply to draw Ukrainian forces away from the city proper to facilitate its capture.

The battle for Bakhmut continues to be a major point of operations for both sides, thus underlining its significance. Recent footage has shown a reinforcement column of Ukrainian T-72 main battle tanks and YPR-765 armoured personnel carriers, travelling to the Bakhmut sector.[iii] Russian forces on the other hand, have been observed to utilise increasing numbers of elite VDV troops. Additionally, the VDV were also recently supplied with TOS-1 heavy flamethrower systems capable of launching devastating thermobaric rockets.[iv] The deployment of elite troops and highly valuable assets to the city, along with intensified offensive operations leads to the conclusion that Russian forces strive to capture the city before the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive. This would allow Russians to anchor their defences on the city itself, similarly to the Ukrainians. This would strengthen Russian positions in the area and might draw Ukrainian forces into a costly and prolonged siege. This can be supported by the Ukrainian dedication to hold the city at any cost, and commit further forces to sustain its defence. If Bakhmut holds, Russians will be forced to continue dedicating resources and manpower to the siege, limiting their ability to defend against Ukrainian counter offensives in the area.

Svatove – Kreminna front

Russian forces also intensify operations in the northern sectors of the frontlines in the Kreminna and Svatove sector. Institute for the Study of War has also reported that Elements of the 76th and 98th VDV divisions have been deployed in the area.[v] These forces conduct regular assaults on Ukrainian lines, achieving tactical gains and capturing several villages. The VDV units in the Kreminna area, similarly to the ones in Bakhmut, have been further reinforced by TOS-1 heavy flamethrower systems. These artillery assets grant Russian forces significant advantage when assaulting Ukrainian field fortifications manned by infantry. Additionally, Russian troops in the sector have been deploying more armour elements than their counterparts in other areas of the frontline. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty further stated that these troops are behaving in a more organised and cautious manner.[vi] These reports might suggest that Russian forces are either preparing for major mobile manoeuvre operations in the area in the wake of the upcoming Ukrainian offensive – either in the form of mobile defence or a swift counterattack.

Donetsk City – Avdiivka front

In the area surrounding Donetsk city, Russian troops continue offensive operations against Ukrainian positions in Avdiivka. According to Ukrainian sources the fighting has reached the settlement of Sieverne roughly 3 kilometres south from Avdiivka’s last remaining ground line of communication in the town of Orlivka.[vii] Additionally, reports have noted Russian advances in Stepove, placing Russian soldiers 3 kilometres to the north east of Orlivka. Thus, the evacuation corridor from Avdiivka, is roughly 6 kilometres wide and under constant assault and shelling from Russian forces. Each day the passage is getting slightly smaller. Furthermore, Russian close proximity to the road, allows them to target Ukrainian supply and evacuation columns, thus dealing heavy casualties to Ukrainian forces and worsening the ability of the city garrison to defend the city. If the Russians forces complete the encirclement, Ukrainian forces in the city would quickly deteriorate and result in significant losses, thus endangering Ukrainian positions across the frontline in southern Donetsk Oblast.

Other areas of the frontline

Other areas of the front are relatively stable. Ukrainian forces continue to conduct reconnaissance missions in Zaporizhia Oblast, and conduct precision missile and artillery strikes against key Russian targets – logistic hubs, supply depots, manpower concentrations. In response Russian forces are continuingly constructing defensive positions and bringing equipment in anticipation of the upcoming Ukrainian offensive.

Russian Homefront

Russia continues to conduct activities across the country in an effort to support its war effort. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu stated that the spring conscription is progressing according to plan, and that the registration of the conscripts has been completed. The swift registration of conscripted personnel will allow them to be sent to training much quicker, which means that they could be deployed much sooner. As per last week’s announcement Andrey Kartapolov, the Chairman of the Russian State Duma Defence Committee conscripts will not be sent to Ukraine “for the time being”.[viii] However, it is possible to notice that in the past Russia found ways to deploy conscripted personnel – either by forcing them to sign up for contractual service or simply going back on their promises of no deployment. Furthermore, this week the Russian State Duma approved the first reading of a bill allowing all Russian personnel, including conscripts, to participate in Russian peacekeeping missions.[ix] If Russia expands the “Special Military Operation” to include a peacekeeping mission, it will allow for the deployment of almost 150,000 additional soldiers to the frontlines of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree establishing a state fund to support military personnel who participate in the war in Ukraine and their families.[x] This is either done to mitigate the public outrage from the deployment of additional personnel to Ukraine, potentially conscripts, as well as promote contractual service in the armed forces in order to boost regular recruitment. This could be also potentially done to lay groundwork for a second mobilisation, which may be needed to reinforce Russian forces after or even during the upcoming spring and summer offensives planned by both sides. It is very possible that the Russian government may be trying to prepare the Russian population for a second wave of mobilisation and is using the current spring conscription as a trial run – which at least according to the official statement is going smoothly.

 

Polish aid to Ukraine

This week marks a significant step up in the deliveries of Western equipment to Ukraine. During the first official state visit since the Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky met with President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other officials to discuss economic cooperation, common security issues, and further military aid. During the meeting Andrzej Duda declared that Poland has delivered additional 4 Mig-29 fighters, bringing the total up to 8, and will in the near future supply a further 6 jets of that type.[xi] Additionally, Duda stated that Poland is considering the donation of more soviet era jets, as soon as replacement Korean FA-50s and American F-35s start arriving.

What is more, during the meeting, with Prime Minister Morawiecki, Poland agreed to produce and deliver 100 Rosomak (Wolverine) wheeled infantry fighting vehicles, as well as 3 company modules of Rak 120mm self propelled mortars, constructed on Rosomak chassis, which with additional command vehicles will amount to another 50 vehicles (of which at least 24 are Raks).[xii] The production of these vehicles will be paid for by funds obtained by Poland and Ukraine from the EU and the US.[xiii] Ukraine will also purchase a number of Polish made Grot assault rifles, and 100 rockets for the Piorun air defence systems. Additionally, Poland and Ukraine signed an agreement for the joint production of 125mm tank ammunition – needed to supply soviet era tanks.[xiv] Polish support will thus provide Ukraine with large quantities of much needed equipment and will continue to do so until the war is won.

New US aid package

This week the US also announced a brand new aid package to Ukraine worth $2.6 billion. 500 million is pledged in the form of ammunition and equipment from U.S. military stockpiles.[xv] This includes, among many other things, ammunition for the Patriot and HIMARS systems, as well as the much needed 155mm and 105mm artillery shells, NATO standard tank ammunition, TOW missiles, and 400 grenade launchers.[xvi] The further 2.1 billion will be used to purchase additional equipment and munitions, including those compatible with soviet or post-soviet designed equipment, like the 122mm Grad rockets, or 122mm artillery shells. These funds will also be used to purchase roughly 3,600 small arms, and more than 23 million rounds of small arms ammunition.[xvii] The massive aid package aims to sustain the needs of the Ukrainian army over the long term, targeting especially the reported ammunition shortages. During the announcement of the state package US Secretary of State Antony Blinken additionally declared that “Russia alone could end its war today. Until Russia does, the United States and our allies and partners will stand united with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”, thus cementing US support for Ukraine until the very end of the war.[xviii]

“Leaked” US documents on the war in Ukraine

Several pages of a supposedly top secret US documents on the war in Ukraine have been leaked. The documents provide detailed analysis and overview of the situation in Ukraine on March 1st, 2023, including casualty counts, troop positions, and the development, training and aid for the armed forces of Ukraine.[xix] The Pentagon is currently investigating the source of the leak and is trying to stop it from spreading further. The document has spread mostly through Telegram and Twitter social media platforms. Additionally, in some instances the same pages from the document, shared by different sources, provide different or contradictory information. One such example is the supposed casualty counts, with one version stating that Ukraine suffered as much as 71,500 killed in action, with Russia losing only up to 17,500 men, the other version claims only 17,500 killed in action for Ukraine and up to 43,500 for Russia.[xx] Such discrepancies point to the idea that the documents were in some instances tampered with and modified.

From the accounts that are not contradictory it is possible to see the organisation and development of Ukrainian armed forces. This part of the document shows that the recent Western military aid to Ukraine and training of Ukrainian personnel has been organised to create 9 new brigades equipped solely with western delivered equipment. For example, the 33rd Brigade will consist of 14 German Leopard 2A6, 4 Canadian Leopard 2A4, 14 Polish Leopard 2A4, 90 US MaxxPro MRAP armoured fighting vehicles, and 12 US M119 105mm howitzers.[xxi] As of the documents supposed creation date of March 1st the progress of development of these brigades was rather low, however now almost a month later the vast majority of the described training and equipment deliveries were publicly confirmed to be completed. Thus, it is possible to state, basing on the document that Ukraine now has access to additional 9 combat brigades, which translates to 250 main battle tanks, 860 IFVs/APCs, 147 artillery systems (howitzers and self propelled guns), which are also supposed to be reinforced by 570 Up-Armoured HMMWVs (Humvees).[xxii]

According to the document these reinforcements are meant to be used in the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, which, again according to the document, is supposed to begin sometime in April. While this leaked document is a gold mine of data, and can very much be true, it is possible that it was produced as part of a (dis)information campaign. The very high estimates, in some cases, of Ukrainian loses compared to Russian ones, could suggest that the document was produced, or at the very least tampered with, by pro-Russian agents. This could have been done to sow dissent and discord amongst Ukraine and its Western allies or cripple the public support for Ukraine and its armed forces. Other option is that the document was produced by the US as part of a disinformation campaign against Russia. This could be supported by Pentagon’s very open approach to the leak, and public statements which more or less confirmed the origin of the document, as well as the very public, and very unsuccessful, campaign to stop the spreading of the leak. The is also the chance that the document is genuine, and provides detailed, though at this point somewhat dated data on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Conclusion

This week Russia has intensified operations in Bakhmut, most probably hoping to capture the city before the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, with a similar scenario developing in Avdiivka. It is possible that Russia hopes to capture the cities in order to deal significant casualties to Ukrainian forces, and use the urban areas as strongpoints to defend against the Ukrainian offensive. At the same Russia has been reinforcing and refitting its VDV units, used as mobile and heavily armed assault formations, potentially hoping to use them to counterstrike Ukrainian forces during or after their offensive. At the same time Ukraine’s Western allies, namely Poland and the US, have pledged to deliver large quantities of new equipment and continue to supply Ukrainian forces with much needed ammunition. The scale of combined Western-Ukrainian preparations, including the ones described in the leaked US document, is massive, which points to the idea that the next few weeks of war will be extremely crucial.

Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[i] “Russia’s flag hoisted over Artyomovsk, city technically captured — Wagner PMC founder”, TASS Russian News Agency, April 3, 2023, https://tass.com/defense/1598263.

[ii] Damian Duda, Twitter, April 7, 2023, https://twitter.com/DamianDuda17/status/1644226415909322753.

[iii] АЗОВ South, Twitter, April 4, https://twitter.com/Azovsouth/status/1643218528823123969.

[iv] “Russian paratroopers get heavy flamethrowers for first time for Ukraine op — top brass”, TASS Russian News Agency, April 3, 2023, https://tass.com/politics/1598349.

[v] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 3, 2023”, Press ISW, April 3, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-3-2023.

[vi] Olga Vikarchuk, “На Куп’янсько-Лиманському напрямку наші захисники знищили два танки Т-72, дві БМП і склад боєприпасів — Сергій Череватий”, Army Inform, April 4, 2023, https://armyinform.com.ua/2023/04/04/na-kupyansko-lymanskomu-napryamku-nashi-zahysnyky-znyshhyly-dva-tanky-t-72-dvi-bmp-i-sklad-boyeprypasiv-sergij-cherevatyj/.

[vii] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 3, 2023”, Press ISW, April 3, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-3-2023.

[viii] “В Госдуме заявили, что срочников не будут направлять на службу в новые регионы”, TASS Russian News Agency, March 30, 2023, https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/17405487.

[ix] Maria Lisitsyna, “Дума одобрила идею разрешить набирать срочников в миротворцы”, RBC, April 4, 2023, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/04/04/2023/642c02889a794748e738ab99?from=from_main_4.

[x] President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, “Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 03.04.2023 № 232 „О создании Государственного фонда поддержки участников специальной военной операции „Защитники Отечества””, Chancellery of the President of the Russian Federation, April 3, 2023, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202304030001.

[xi] “MiG-i-29 dla Ukrainy. Ważne słowa prezydenta Andrzeja Dudy [WIDEO]”, TVP Info, April 5, 2023, https://www.tvp.info/68986917/wojna-rosji-na-ukrainie-prezydent-andrzej-duda-o-mysliwcach-mig-29-dla-ukrainy.

[xii] “Rosomaki, Raki, Pioruny i Groty. Ile uzbrojenia Ukraina kupuje w Polsce?”, TVP Info, April 5, 2023, https://www.tvp.info/68995634/rosomaki-raki-pioruny-i-groty-ile-uzbrojenia-ukraina-kupuje-w-polsce.

[xiii] “Polska z nowoczesną technologią wojskową. Sprzedamy 100 Rosomaków Ukrainie”, Kancelaria Premiera Rady Ministrów, April 1, 2023, https://www.gov.pl/web/premier/polska-z-nowoczesna-technologia-wojskowa-sprzedamy-100-rosomakow-ukrainie.

[xiv] “Rosomaki, Raki, Pioruny i Groty. Ile uzbrojenia Ukraina kupuje w Polsce?”, TVP Info, April 5, 2023, https://www.tvp.info/68995634/rosomaki-raki-pioruny-i-groty-ile-uzbrojenia-ukraina-kupuje-w-polsce.

[xv] Helene Cooper and John Ismay, “A new $2.6 billion package of U.S. military aid to Ukraine includes $500 million for immediate supplies.”, The New York Times, April 4, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/04/us/politics/us-ukraine-military-aid.html.

[xvi] Oleksii Reznikov, Twitter, April 4, 2023, https://twitter.com/oleksiireznikov/status/1643364827933417475.

[xvii] Oleksii Reznikov, Twitter, April 4, 2023, https://twitter.com/oleksiireznikov/status/1643364827933417475.

[xviii] Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, “Additional U.S. Security Assistance for Ukraine”, US Department of State, April 4, 2023, https://www.state.gov/additional-u-s-security-assistance-for-ukraine/.

[xix] Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, ”Ukraine War Plans Leak Prompts Pentagon Investigation”, The New York Times, April 6, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/06/us/politics/ukraine-war-plan-russia.html.

[xx] Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, ”Ukraine War Plans Leak Prompts Pentagon Investigation”, The New York Times, April 6, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/06/us/politics/ukraine-war-plan-russia.html.

[xxi] Clash Report, Twitter, April 7, 2023, https://twitter.com/clashreport/status/1644231000027742208.

[xxii] Clash Report, Twitter, April 7, 2023, https://twitter.com/clashreport/status/1644231000027742208.