War in Ukraine – weekly update (18.03-24.03.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (18.03-24.03.2023)

Frontline Report

The Russian offensive in Bakhmut has slowed down, with a record low of daily combat clashes recorded this week. This does not mean however, that the situation in the city has changed for the better. Russian forces continue to assault Bakhmut from several directions. In the north Wagner troops gradually advance through the metalworks and the industrial district. At the same time from the east Moscow’s soldiers continue to besiege the Ukrainian defensive lines located on the west bank of Bakhmutka river, with several assaults managing to secure small beachheads. These breakthroughs are instantaneously counter attacked by Ukrainians, in many cases successfully, however such operations only increase Ukrainian casualties. The city itself is also under continuous heavy assault from the south, with Russian forces steadily advancing towards the city centre. To the northwest of the city Russian forces continue to assault Ukrainian lines around Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka, in an effort to expand the Bakhmut pocket.[i] This would allow Russian forces to better target Ukrainian ground lines of communication, as well as the logistics and mustering hubs in Chasiv Yar.

The defence of Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka is crucial to the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut, as if they fall the defenders may suffer increased casualties and risk encirclement of a large contingent of forces. The only good news from Bakhmut are the reports of local Ukrainian counter attacks along the T0504 highway from Bakhmut, through Ivanivskie to Chasiv Yar and Konstantynivka – the two key supply and mustering hubs in the region.[ii] This allows Ukrainian forces to more safely travel the T0504 highway, increasing the capability to reinforce and resupply Bakhmut. One key issue here, however, is that Russian forces continue to hold positions directly overlooking the highway in the city itself, which forces Ukrainians to use backroads for several kilometres before reaching the highway itself.

The decreased, although still prominent, activity of Russian troops in and around Bakhmut can suggest several scenarios. First option, Russian forces may have spent the majority of their combat potential in the area, and now continue only limited offensive operations, which would be somewhat in line with reports of high Russian casualties in that sector. Second option, Russians have limited their assaults in an effort to conserve forces in anticipation of a major Ukrainian counter offensive in the region. This could be probable as the Russian information sphere has been abuzz with discussion of an incoming Ukrainian attack. Furthermore, the last three weeks have seen a significant increase of the previously pledged military equipment from the West arriving in Ukraine, thus granting Ukraine additional forces needed for a potential offensive. Additionally, Wagner group leader Prigozhin has also stated that Ukraine has as much as 80,000 troops present in the Bakhmut, Slovyansk, and Kostyantynivka to counterattack Bakhmut, though supposedly Russia still possesses a numerical advantage.[iii] Third option, Russia is conserving its forces around Bakhmut and building up reserves in the area in order to launch a larger offensive operation, such as the one several weeks ago. This attack could potentially target the settlements of Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka and aim to create a massive encirclement of Ukrainian forces. This scenario can be supported by the continuous presence of large amounts of Russian artillery present in the area, including military district level assets such as the TOS heavy flamethrower systems armed with thermobaric warheads, as well as increased numbers of aviation assets.

Another noteworthy section of front this week is Avdiivka, located just north of Dentsk city. Russian forces have launched several larger assaults on and around the settlement in the last several days. Ukrainian command reported that Russian troops suffered heavy casualties including loss of large quantities of armoured vehicles. However, the attackers succeeded in breaching Ukrainian lines north of the town, and captured a part of a key railway that supplied the garrison in Avdiivka itself. The attack also strived to continue the advance further westwards and cut off the last remaining ground line of communication going through Semenivka and Orlivka, however was stopped by a Ukrainian counterattack. Russians continue to escalate their operations in the region in an effort to completely encircle Avdiivka. As of now Russian sources claim that Russia has established fire control over the last remaining supply and evacuation route out of Avdiivka.[iv] The ISW report mentions that the 136th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade may have been sent to the area.[v] If true, Russian forces will be reinforced by more experienced troops with access to better equipment such as T-90 main battle tanks, and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles. If the Russian operations in Avdiivka are successful they have the chance to encircle and defeat a significant number of Ukrainian forces and breakthrough the frontline around Donetsk city.

Other areas of the front are relatively quiet. Ukrainian forces conducted a reconnaissance in force in Zaporozhye Oblast, potentially signalling the target for the rumoured upcoming Ukrainian offensive. Ukraine also launched two major strikes against Russia in Crimea, where drones attacked a naval base as well as a military transport, successfully destroying a shipment of Kalibr missiles.[vi] The frontline from Siversk all the way to Kupyansk remains relatively unchanged, with no noteworthy events. It remains to be seen when and where Russia will decide to commit the amassed 2nd Motorized Rifle Division.

Russia rousing the war effort

Russian mobilisation and war production efforts continue this week with the declaration by Defence Minister Shoigu to increase the number of air defence troops and provide with better equipment. The official stated that the Russian Aerospace Forces priority for 2023 is the creation of new air defence detachments as well as the modernisation of the Moscow air defence system.[vii] These new units are to be equipped with more advanced equipment such as the S-350 missile systems. This seems to be connected with Shoigu’s last week visit to the Tactical Missile Corporation, which specialises in missile production, including anti-air missile systems. This statement could have also been sparked by the recent decisions in the West to provide Ukraine with combat aircraft. Furthermore, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, has declared that Russia will produce as much as 1500 tanks this year, as well as other weapons and equipment to continue the war in Ukraine.[viii] However, at the same time, several reports surfaced showing Russia taking out ancient T-54 and/or T-55 tanks out of storage and transporting them west. If these tanks will be used in combat in Ukraine it would mean that Russia is not able to produce enough new tanks and/or have run out of reserves of its main battle tanks that can be quickly refurbished for use in combat. It is also possible that while Russia has the capacity to replace its losses, it might struggle with the influx of new soldiers that will arrive after the spring conscription cycle – up to 400,000 men. Additionally, Wagner leader Prigozhin stated that he aims to recruit 30,000 men by mid-May.[ix] Ukrainian intelligence also suggests that Russia is currently recruiting around 20,000 men per month.[x] It is possible that the transfer of old weapons, such as the T-55 tanks will be needed to equip the large numbers of mobilised troops, while better modern equipment will be sent to elite units.

The most important news this week however, regarding Russian commitment to the war was the official visit of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The visit gave rise to many speculations about Chinese status on the war in Ukraine and whether China will openly support Russia in its invasion. Previously Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that China is providing Russia with non-lethal military aid and may soon supply lethal equipment.[xi] It seems however, that the visit culminated only in formal declarations of mutual friendship and cooperation.[xii] Xi Jinping also presented a plan to end the Ukrainian crisis, though this largely resembled the Chinese address in the UN several weeks ago – which was staunchly rejected due to no actual solutions being present. It is possible however, due to the scale and length of the visit, that several agreements have been made behind closed doors away from the “prying eyes of the West”. The next few weeks will show the capabilities of Russian mobilisation and its war industry as it struggles to amass new forces for its Spring offensive, and whether China has helped along the way.

Western deliveries to Ukraine

The delivery of western equipment to Ukraine continues. North Macedonia has joined Poland and Slovakia and pledged to deliver 4 Su-25 aircraft to Ukraine and is also considering the transfer of 12 Mi-24 attack helicopters.[xiii] It is worth noting however, that the Su-25 are in a very degraded condition, meaning that they will either have to be repaired or salvaged for parts. In the meantime, 4 of the pledged Slovakian MiG-29s have arrived in Ukraine. German Defence Minister Pistorius has also stated that the delivery of the first batch of 40 Marder IFVs is in progress and that the vehicles will soon arrive in Ukraine.[xiv] They will be joined by 8 Leopard 2 main battle tanks that are being delivered to Ukraine by Norway this week.[xv] Moreover, Finland has approved the delivery of 3 additional Leopard 2 minesweeping armoured vehicles – these might arrive in Ukraine quickly as Ukraine already possesses western trained vehicle crews. Six Spanish Leopards will be delivered to Ukraine by the end of the month, as their Ukrainian crews are scheduled to finish training this week.

The US has also declared that in order to speed up the delivery Ukraine will be given older, but readily available, M1A1 models as these can be delivered to Ukraine by autumn.[xvi] While it is still a long time away, such a delivery could actually be very beneficial as Ukraine will need to reinforce its armoured forces after the rumoured spring offensives that will be launched by both sides. Poland might also increase its commitment to the Ukrainian cause very soon as the first Korean K2 Black Panther tanks have arrived in Poland and US made Abrams will also be delivered very soon.[xvii] This surplus of vehicles could allow Poland to donate more of its Soviet era tanks to Ukraine. Furthermore, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida announced, during his visit to Poland this week, that Poland will be treated as a recipient of development assistance, despite the country no longer qualifying as a developing state, due to the strain on the country caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[xviii] Poland will therefore be targeted by an increased number of development projects. These benefits could allow Poland to increase its support of Ukraine, as new funds reinvigorate its economy.

Conclusions

This week marked a shift in Russian offensive operations. The offensive on Bakhmut has stalled, with lesser commitment of forces and a reduced number of combat clashes. At the same time several major assaults have been launched on Avdiivka in an effort to encircle Ukrainian defenders, which were partly successful. Simultaneously Russian officials have been rousing the war industry in preparation for the Spring conscription. It is very possible that Russia hopes to achieve somewhat significant gains around Donetsk city and draw Ukrainian reserves into the area distracting them, in order to launch a new offensive into Bakhmut using fresh soldiers. If the Ukrainian counter offensive is to come, it should arrive soon and capitalise on weakened enemy positions before the Russian onslaught begins anew.

[i] Riley Bailey et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 22, 2023”, Press ISW, March 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-22-2023.

[ii] Nicholas Cecil, “Ukraine counterattacks near Bakhmut as Putin’s army ‘losing momentum’, says UK”, The Evening Standard, March 22, 2023, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/ukraine-war-latest-news-vladimir-putin-bakhmut-counterattack-british-b1069047.html.

[iii] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., ”Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 23, 2023”, Press ISW, March 23, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-23-2023.

[iv] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., ”Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 23, 2023”, Press ISW, March 23, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-23-2023.

[v] Riley Bailey et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 22, 2023”, Press ISW, March 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-22-2023.

[vi] Veronika Melkozerova, “Russian cruise missiles destroyed in drone attack on Crimea, Ukraine says”, Politico, March 21, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-drone-attack-crimea-war-russia-missile-destroyed/.

[vii] Riley Bailey et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 22, 2023”, Press ISW, March 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-22-2023.

[viii] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia’s security chief blasts West, dangles nuclear threats”, The Washington Post, March 23, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/03/23/medvedev-nuclear-putin-arrest-warrant-germany-ukraine/90808726-c974-11ed-9cc5-a58a4f6d84cd_story.html.

[ix] Mark Trevelyan, “Russia’s private Wagner army targets 30,000 new recruits by mid-May”, Reuters, March 18, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/russias-private-wagner-army-targets-30000-new-recruits-by-mid-may-group-founder-2023-03-18/.

[x] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 21, 2023”, Press ISW, March 21, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-21-2023.

[xi] Samuel Horti and James Landale, “Ukraine war: Blinken says China might give weapons to Russia”, BBC News, February 20, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64695042.

[xii] Simone McCarthy and Rob Picheta, “China’s Xi stresses close ties with ‘dear friend’ Putin during his first visit to Russia since Ukraine invasion”, CNN, March 20, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/20/europe/xi-putin-china-russia-visit-monday-intl-hnk/index.html.

[xiii] Igor Bozinovski, ”Ukraine conflict: North Macedonia confirms transfer of Su-25s to Ukraine, Mi-24 attack helicopters may follow”, Janes, March 20, 2023, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/defence/latest/ukraine-conflict-north-macedonia-confirms-transfer-of-su-25s-to-ukraine-mi-24-attack-helicopters-may-follow.

[xiv] Euromaidan Press, “German Marder IFVs are on the way to Ukraine – Defense Minister Pistorius”, Euromaidan Press, March 20, 2023, https://euromaidanpress.com/2023/03/20/german-marder-ifvs-are-on-the-way-to-ukraine-defense-minister-pistorius/.

[xv] Staff Writer with AFP, “Norway Army Says Delivered Eight Tanks to Ukraine”, The Defence Post, March 21, 2023, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2023/03/21/norway-delivered-tanks-ukraine/.

[xvi] Oren Liebermann and Kevin Liptak, “US to accelerate delivery of tanks to Ukraine”, CNN, March 21, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/21/politics/us-abram-tanks-accelerate-ukraine/index.html.

[xvii] TVP World, “More Korean K2 tanks, K9 howitzers have arrived in Poland: Def Min”, TVP World, March 22, 2023, https://tvpworld.com/68638071/more-korean-k2-tanks-k9-howitzers-have-arrived-in-poland-def-min.

[xviii] TVN24, “Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida in Warsaw: we’re strengthening relations with our strategic partner Poland”, TVN24 News In English, March 22, 2023, https://tvn24.pl/tvn24-news-in-english/poland-and-japan-strengthen-ties-as-japans-pm-visits-warsaw-6855892.