War in Ukraine – weekly update (20-24.02.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (20-24.02.2023)

Ukraine Frontline Update

In most important frontline news from this week, Ukrainian forces carried out a missile attack against several key Russian targets, including far behind the frontlines such as occupied Mariupol.[i]  The strike against Mariupol is particularly important, as the Russian command believed that the city was too far to be targeted by Ukrainian weapon systems. The city serves as a major logistics hub and garrison for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, including Russian air assets. It is speculated that more advanced HIMARS munitions were used in the attack.

Kreminna – Lyman Area

Russian forces continue offensive operations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv Oblasts however, without any major strategic gains. In the Kremmina area Russian units engage in continuous assaults, attempting to break through Ukrainian defences and push towards Lyman – a relatively small but important logistics hub. The engagements included an organised attack carried out by two Russian tank and infantry companies, which translates to roughly 20 tanks, 20 Armoured Personnel Carriers and/or Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and 200 men. According to Serhij Hajdaj, Ukrainian head of Luhansk administration, Russian forces managed to temporarily pierce Ukrainian defences, but a Ukrainian counterattack forced them to withdraw while suffering some losses to their personnel and heavy vehicles.[ii] On the other hand Russian sources claim that the frontline was successfully pushed by up to 5 kilometres in the Kreminna region. The furthest assessed Russian advance in the area is the town of Torske located around 15 kilometres east of Lyman. Further reports from the area state that Russian 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division is amassing in the area, but has not yet been committed to the fight.[iii] This formation is equipped with higher grade equipment such as T-90 main battle tanks, BMP-3 IFVs, BTR-80 APCs, and Msta-S self-propelled howitzers. The division was also designated as one of the first to receive the brand new T-14 Armata main battle tanks – whether they have been already deployed is currently unknown. The division could pose a significant threat to the challenged Ukrainian battle lines in the Lyman – Kreminna area.

Kupyansk

To the north in Kharkiv Oblast Russian troops struggle to reach Kupyansk and the Oskil River. Kupyansk is a key crossing of the Oskil River and a hub for Ukrainian soldiers fighting to hold ground in the eastern Kharkiv region. The city itself was heavily shelled and targeted by missile strikes in recent days, with administration buildings heavily damaged and people buried under the rubble. The frontline around Kupyansk appears to be holding, at least according to Oleg Sinegubov the Governor of Kharkiv Oblast.[iv] On the other hand, Russian sources claim to have made gains in the area. Verified footage also showcases the deployment of Russian Spetsnaz troops supporting the operations of Russian artillery in the vicinity of Kupyansk.[v] For now, the frontline in this area seems to be stable, though with the deployment of special forces along with Russian advances further to the south the situation could quickly change.

Bakhmut

In the Bakhmut region heavy fighting is continuing. Russian forces intensified their operations in both the northern and southern parts of the city. In the north Russian troops are stated to have reached the Bakhmut metalworks – a fortified position of the Ukrainian army. Additional Russian units are engaged in fighting for the E-40/M-03 highway between Slovyansk and Bakhmut. Russian forces have also begun shelling the city of Slovyansk, a concentration hub for Ukrainian soldiers transitioning to support defensive operations both in Bakhmut and Lyman. In the south intense combat is raging in the vicinity of the Mariupol’ske Cemetery. To the west soldiers of both sides wrestle for control of the vital T0504 highway. The general situation in Bakhmut seems to be slowly deteriorating, however Ukrainian forces are still in control of the city.

Southern Donetsk Oblast – Vuhledar and Avdiivka

In the south there are little changes, fighting continues in several key areas such as Vuhledar and Avdiivka. Russian troops launched several assaults on Vuhledar, but suffered heavy losses and were pushed back by Ukrainian defenders, as stated by Gen Oleksii Hromow. Ukrainian forces manage to hold the local high ground which grants a key advantage during the ongoing battles. In the Avdiivka area, Kremlin forces intensified their operations, and achieved marginal advances, however no significant events transpired. Overall Ukrainian forces continue to hold strong despite constant pressure.

Tensions running high in Transnistria

In an unprecedented development both Ukraine and Russia began massing troops near the borders of Transnistria. This region is home to a sizable detachment of Russian soldiers and its semi-independent government is heavily pro-Russian. In recent weeks President Maia Sandu stated that Russia is preparing to launch a coup d’état in Moldova, hoping to replace the government with pro-Russian puppets.[vi] Since then, several strikes and protests have taken place, destabilising the internal situation further. In response to this, Ukrainian forces have begun massing near the border, hoping to prevent further escalation or at the very least control the potential outbreak. The situation remains tense, with Moscow claiming that Ukraine is trying to conduct false flag operations and invade Moldova. Whether this is a ruse crafted by Russia to draw Ukrainian forces away from the battlefield, or genuine attempt at escalation, it does not bode well for Ukraine, or Europe.

Putin’s Speech and the Defenders of the Fatherland Day

This week marked a period of high activity in the Russian Federation, with Putin’s address to the Parliament, unplanned Duma meeting, and the “celebration” of the Defenders of the Fatherland Day. First of all, Putin’s Tuesday speech was an almost two-hour long declaration of Russian strength, unity, and determination to keep fighting against “western aggression” in Ukraine. The key takeaways were the declarations to strengthen the military-industrial complex, support for soldiers and their families, and the withdrawal from the New Start bilateral nuclear arms control treaty. The withdrawal from the treaty was then ratified by the Duma during the unplanned meeting. It seems the gathering served mainly to achieve this objective.

The Defenders of the Fatherland Day was a grandiose performance at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with a staggering 200,000 participants, at least according to Russian press. The celebration served again mainly to showcase Russian strength and commitment to the war in Ukraine, as well as provide a narrative of righteous cause by tearful declarations of the freed and reduced citizens of Mariupol, again according to Russian media. President Putin also declared words of support to Russian soldiers and promised to boost arms production to better equip the defenders of the Motherland.[vii] While these performances may mean in the West they serve sufficiently well in the gathering of popular support in Russia.

Admiral Kuznetsov – a Russian show of strength

A similar performance could also be observed in the far north shipyards of Murmansk, where the only Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had finally left the drydock. The ship is the pride of the Russian navy and a symbol of Russian maritime strength, its symbolic launch on the Defenders of the Fatherland Day also probably aimed to spark nationalistic zeal and support for the ongoing war effort, while at the same time showing the west Russian commitment to the war. However, Admiral Kuznetsov is not yet fully combat ready, with final repairs scheduled for 2024. This week in Russia was a showcase and declaration of continued aggression against Ukraine, these events could be the foundations of a further escalation of the war, such as for example the beginning of a new major offensive or the second wave of mobilisation.

China strengthening relations with Russia

This week also witnessed the escalation of China’s role in the ongoing crisis. US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken stated that China is preparing to provide Russia with offensive military equipment, and it already provides non-lethal equipment.[viii] Wang Yi, Chinese top diplomat travelled to Moscow where he met with both Lavrov and Putin and declared hopes of greater cooperation between the two countries, with plans for new agreements. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is also preparing to visit Moscow, a further showcase of strengthening Chinese – Russian relations.[ix] According to Alexander Lukashenko, Xi Jinping will also declare a statement on the war in Ukraine, with the Belarusian President claiming that his words will be very influential, which could mean a formal declaration of support for the Russian operation in Ukraine. Furthermore, China presented a plan for the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis to the UN, which calls for an immediate end to hostilities and an end of Western support for Ukraine but offers little real solutions to be applied. It is possible that the resolution is a form of false-hearted diplomacy, aimed to show the public that West wishes to continue the war in Ukraine instead of resolving, thus ”forcing” China to grant aid to Russia. All in all, China’s involvement in the war in Ukraine is increasing and is increasingly problematic.

Biden’s visit

This week was overshadowed by Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv, where the US President met with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky in a show of support and cooperation with the government and people of Ukraine. Biden’s trip was an enormous feat of special services of at least three countries, working in secrecy to facilitate the president’s safe, speedy, and most importantly secret transport to Kyiv. This endeavour, starting with a disinformation operation in Washington, utilisation of an alternate plane, secret landing in Poland, and swift transition into a specialised train to Ukraine’s capital, was a colossal success. The vital show of support for Ukraine and more importantly a defiant message to Russia was a key stepping stone in furthering and strengthening of the western coalition. The following visit to Polish capital Warsaw, was the continuation of those goals, with grand speeches and coalition gatherings serving to strengthen and unite western cooperation and the support for Ukraine. In the end Biden’s words and presence, both in Warsaw and Kyiv, served to successfully deflect Putin’s attacks on western integrity and determination.

Conclusions

This week marks the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The past twelve months have been a story of an uphill battle and a defiant struggle of Ukrainian armed forces and the entire Ukrainian population. From the opening days and fears of Russian onslaught to the brave counter offensives that liberated occupied land Ukrainian soldiers have given a grand account of their courage, strength, and determination.

Today Ukraine faces yet another battle. With Russian forces intensifying operations along the entire front in the Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk Oblasts and managing to temporarily break through Ukrainian lines in Lyman – Kreminna sector Ukrainian soldiers face very high odds. With Putin’s address declaring a commitment to the war, and shows of popular support from the Russian population, and possible Chinese support for the war, Ukraine will have to prepare for a long haul.

This week however, also proved that Ukrainian soldiers are capable of defeating their enemy, with the shattering of Russian formation near Vuhledar, the counter attacks in Lyman – Kreminna area that stabilised the frontline, and the unyielding defiance in the fortress city of Bakhmut. With Biden’s visit to Kyiv and Warsaw, and continued pledges of support Ukrainian forces have a very real chance of defeating their enemies and ending the war. This week showed that the war continues, that the enemy forces are amassing their forces and gathering momentum, but it also showed that with enough will, determination, and continued support from the western coalition Ukraine can prevail.

Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst in Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations

[i] Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine Hits Russian Positions Deep Behind Enemy Lines”, The New York Times, February 22, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/22/world/europe/ukraine-mariupol.html.

[ii] RMF24, “Rosjanie na pewien czas przełamali obronę w obwodzie ługańskim [RELACJA]”, RMF24, February 22, 2023, https://www.rmf24.pl/raporty/raport-wojna-z-rosja/na-zywo/news-rosjanie-na-pewien-czas-przelamali-obrone-w-obwodzie-lugansk,nId,6613222#crp_state=1.

[iii] Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan, RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE CAMPAIGN ASSESSMENT, FEBRUARY 22, 2023”, Press ISW, February 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-february-22-2023.

[iv] Oleg Sinegubov, Telegram, February 23, 2023, https://t.me/synegubov/5606.

[v] OBTF „Cascade”, Telegram, https://t.me/obtf_kaskad/1736.

[vi] Wilhelmine Preussen, “Russia is planning coup in Moldova, says President Maia Sandu”, Politico, February 13, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/moldova-president-maia-sandu-russia-attack/.

[vii] “Concert Glory to Defenders of the Fatherland”, Kremlin, February 22, 2023, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/70574.

[viii] 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.

[ix] Juby Babu, „China’s Xi preparing to visit Moscow for summit with Putin –WSJ”, Reuters,February 21, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-xi-preparing-visit-moscow-summit-with-putin-wsj-2023-02-21/.