War in Ukraine – weekly update (08.04-14.04.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (08.04-14.04.2023)

Bakhmut

Russian forces continue offensive operations in and around Bakhmut. In the city itself Ukrainian forces have been pushed back to the railway located in the western sector. It seems that the Ukrainian defenders prepared a comprehensive defensive line along the train tracks, with several major strongpoints anchoring it, most notably the large train station “Bakhmut 2”.[i] While last week Russian troops maintained a very quick pace of advance, they only managed to secure limited advances this week. The majority of combat clashes took place along the railway, especially the “Bakhmut 2” station. Despite the heroic Ukrainian defence Wagner troops managed to break through Ukrainian lines and seize the train station. The capture of this vital strongpoint might endanger neighbouring Ukrainian positions and allow Russian forces to overcome this supposed last stand and capture the city in its entirety.

Ukrainian troops have resorted to a scorched earth tactic – drawing Russian soldiers in to occupy deserted buildings and positions, and then demolishing them with pre planted explosives.[ii] To the south Russian troops seized several buildings, granting them direct oversight of the road to Ivanivske, which in recent weeks was partially passable albeit under heavy Russian fire. To the north-west Russian forces achieved marginal advances towards Khromove, further endangering the last remaining ground line of communication and potentially working up to the encirclement or at the very least extensive harassment of the last remaining Ukrainian forces in the city. Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut are now facing an extremely difficult situation, as the ferocity of Russian attacks further increases with the deployment of elite VDV troops and modern T-90 tanks it is highly possible that the city will fall very soon.[iii]

Donetsk city area

Russian forces continue offensive operations in the Donetsk city area. Both Ukrainian and Russian sources state that heavy fighting is ongoing in Marinka.[iv] In recent days Russia has deployed additional forces to the area. Ukrainian officials have also stated that Moscow troops attacked Sieverne, roughly 3 kilometres south from Avdiivka’s last remaining ground line of communication in the town of Orlivka, but did not manage to enter the town. Additionally Ukrainian reports mentioned that their forces repelled the Russian attack near Berdychi, north-west of Avdiivka thus, suggesting that Russian forces either captured or bypassed the town of Stepove and its defenders.[v] This suggests that Russian troops now hold positions around 2,5 kilometres north of Orlivka. The attack could also suggest that Russian forces might attempt to cut Ukrainian lines of communication in Semenivka rather than Orlivka. This might be more probable due to the quicker pace of Russian advances north of Avdiivka. The situation in Avdiivka and Marinka remains extremely difficult.

Other areas of the frontline

Ukrainian forces continue to conduct reconnaissance in Zaporizhia Oblast, and conduct precision missile and artillery strikes against key Russian targets. According to the UK Ministry of Defense report on April 12 Russia’s forces have created a three layer defensive line across 120km of Zaporizhia Oblast.[vi] These defences include trench systems, weapon emplacements, protected tank firing positions, as well as dragon teeth tank traps and minefields. The scale of Russian preparation in the area, including additional manpower allocation, suggests that Russia expects this area to be the primary target of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Other areas of the frontline witnessed little to no significant changes.

Russian Homefront

Russia continues to conduct activities across the country in an effort to support its war effort. In an effort to facilitate conscription, mobilisation, and recruitment efforts the Russian Federation Council approved a law creating a digital register of men eligible for military service.[vii] The law utilises several existing registers and government sources to create a coherent list of potential draftees. This also allows Russian services to distribute draft notices electronically via a specialised government service for Russian citizens. This allows for a swifter notification of future servicemen, and allows Russia to target draft dodgers. Whereas previously the draft notice had to be delivered in a physical copy and was law binding from the moment it was received (opened by) the citizen, now the notice is considered law binding since the moment it is sent to the individual electronically. This means that potential draftees that could not be reached before, for example those who currently outside Russia borders, or simply hiding from the draft, are now accessible for draft.

Furthermore, the new law also imposes additional punishments on draft dodgers, meaning called up citizens who do not present themselves to their military commissions within 20 days of receiving the notice – again counted from the day the notice is sent to the draftees electronically. The punishments include prohibition from travelling abroad, invalidation of driving licences, prohibition from registering small businesses, and prohibition from purchasing real estate.[viii]

The new law will greatly expand Russia’s ability to conscript servicemen, resulting in swifter, more organised, and more successful mobilisation of manpower. The passed legislation will be implemented before the autumn conscription cycle, and potentially will serve to facilitate a second wave of mobilisation needed to replenish Russian forces, after the intense fighting bound to begin with the upcoming Ukrainian offensive.[ix]

Russia is also exploring alternative options for the funding and organisation of manpower. Nilov Oleg Anatolievich, an official of the Russian State Duma has proposed a bill that would establish a new military tax between 2-3% of each citizen’s income.[x] This would allow Russia to counteract the growing budget shortage, and more effectively support the armed forces, both in terms of equipment, reinforcement, and soldier pay. However, the bill might also result in public outrage among the Russian population, already heavily taxed and affected by the war and the rising demands of the war effort. In the meantime, amidst funding and personnel shortages, the Kremlin has turned to state owned companies and private entities to fund volunteer battalions. Gazprom has been funding volunteer recruitment in the occupied Donetsk Oblast offering a salary of 400,000 roubles (roughly $4,900) per month. Additionally, Russian copper magnate Igor Altushkin has been the primary founder of volunteer Urals Battalion, apparently supplying the unit with the entirety, or at the very least the majority, of their equipment.[xi]

Russian “Beasts”

A video surfaced this week, showing harrowing uncensored footage of an execution of a Ukrainian prisoner of war by Russian soldiers. In the footage Russian soldier, believed to be a member Wagner private military group, tortures and executes a Ukrainian soldier by decapitating him whilst he is still alive.[xii] The footage has been widely shared across various social media platforms, sparking outrage from the general public in Ukraine and the West. President Volodymyr Zelensky commented on the harrowing execution footage calling Russian soldiers “beasts”, stating that all Russian war criminals will be persecuted and punished accordingly.[xiii] Zelensky additionally called on world leaders to react to the footage. In Russia the video also achieved widespread reach in the social media sphere, however  there it was received with popular applause.

The purpose of the released video remains unclear. It is possible that it is part of an informational campaign aimed to cripple Ukrainian morale, maybe in order to facilitate the capture of Bakhmut by Wagner forces. Several similar pieces of footage have been published by Wagner or Wagner affiliated sources, including photos of heads mounted on spikes in Bakhmut itself by members of the Wagner group. This “campaign” may backfire however, as it could lead to Ukrainian soldiers refusing to surrender, choosing to fight to the end rather than be subjected to such inhuman treatment. Additionally, the harrowing footage might mobilise the West, especially its general population, to further support Ukraine.

Western aid to Ukraine

The deliveries of Western aid to Ukraine continue. This week marked significant pledges made by the Danish Ministry of Defence stating that Ukraine will receive 19 CAESAR 155mm howitzers in the next 30 days.[xiv] Additionally Denmark’s Acting Defense Minister, Troels Lund Poulsen declared that the first refurbished Leopard 1 tank will arrive in Ukraine before summer, with the aim to deliver up to 100 vehicles in the next 6 months. Germany has also announced another aid package promising reconnaissance drones, armoured engineering vehicles, mobile antenna systems, over 80,000 pieces of 40mm ammunition, and 60 Zetros tracks that could be used to transport personnel and equipment.[xv]

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also stated that his country will deliver 21,000 assault rifles, 38 machine guns, and 2.4 million rounds of ammunition (most probably for small arms).[xvi] Additionally US and South Korea reached an agreement to transfer half a million 155mm shells to the US in order to free up US made ammo for transfer to Ukraine.[xvii] Poland has also asked Germany for the permission to reexport ex-German Mig-29s, which was swiftly approved by German officials.[xviii] This means that additional 5 Mig-29 fighters could soon be delivered in the hands of Ukrainian pilots. These deliveries could be crucial in equipping and maintaining Ukrainian units during the upcoming offensive.

Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[i] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 12, 2023”, Press ISW, April 12, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-12-2023.

[ii] Dmitri, Twitter, April 13, 2023, https://twitter.com/wartranslated/status/1646491733742477313.

[iii] Rob Lee, Twitter, April 13, 2023, https://twitter.com/RALee85/status/1646561533646733318?cxt=HHwWjICwnba_4dktAAAA.

[iv] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 13, 2023”, Press ISW, April 13, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-13-2023.

[v] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 10, 2023”, Press ISW, April 10, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-10-2023.

[vi] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “UK Defense Ministry: Russia completes 120-km defense line in Zaporizhzhia Oblast”, The Kyiv Independent, April 12, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/uk-defense-ministry-russia-completes-120-km-defense-line-in-zaporizhzhia-oblast/.

[vii] “Bill on electronic military summonses seeks to streamline enlistment system — Kremlin”, TASS Russian News Agency, April 12, 2023, https://tass.com/politics/1603091.

[viii] Pjotr Sauer, “Russia rushes through law to tighten military conscription”, The Guardian, April 12, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/12/russia-military-conscription-law-kremlin.

[ix] “Шадаев заявил, что реестр воинского учета могут запустить не раньше осеннего призыва”, TASS Russian News Agency, April 12, 2023, https://tass.ru/politika/17503149.

[x] Арсений Рогозянский, “Депутат Нилов предложил ввести военный налог в размере 3% от доходов на нужды армии”, GazetaRu, April 12, 2023, https://www.gazeta.ru/social/news/2023/04/12/20196745.shtml.

[xi] “Russian Copper Billionaire Bankrolling Military Unit Fighting in Ukraine”, The Moscow Times, April 5, 2023, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/04/04/russian-copper-billionaire-bankrolling-military-unit-fighting-in-ukraine-a80702.

[xii]  Vasco Cotovio et al., “Zelensky slams ‘beasts’ who purportedly beheaded Ukrainian soldiers after video emerges”, CNN, April 12, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/04/11/europe/beheading-videos-ukraine-intl-hnk-ml/index.html.

[xiii] Володимир Зеленський, Twitter, April 12, 2023, https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1646067913932132352?cxt=HHwWgMC-4fyCgdgtAAAA.

[xiv]  Steve Brown, “Denmark to Transfer 100 Leopard-1 Tanks to Ukraine Before Summer”, The Kyiv Post, April 11, 2023, https://www.kyivpost.com/post/15674.

[xv] “Military support for Ukraine”, Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, April 6, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/military-support-ukraine-2054992.

[xvi] Ismail Shakil and Steve Scherer, “Canada vows more military aid for Ukraine as PM’s website hacked”, Reuters, April 11, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/canada-pledges-fresh-military-aid-ukraine-sanctions-russia-2023-04-11/.

[xvii] “South Korea to lend artillery shells to U.S.: report”, TVP World, April 12, 2023, https://tvpworld.com/69118311/south-korea-to-lend-artillery-shells-to-us-report.

[xviii] Sabine Siebold et al., “Germany allows Poland to export old fighter jets to Ukraine”, Reuters, April 13, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/poland-asks-germany-approve-export-old-fighter-jets-ukraine-berlin-2023-04-13/.