War in Ukraine – weekly update (22.04-28.04.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (22.04-28.04.2023)

Bakhmut

The battle for Bakhmut continues. According to the most recent information Russian forces have broken through the Ukrainian defensive lines along the railway. The Russians have also advanced from the north of the city, thus endangering a number of Ukrainian positions with encirclement. These gains means that the Russian forces cannot be taken as separate approach vectors, one from the north and one from the east, but rather as a single cumulative front. The situation is extremely difficult with additional VDV forces being committed to the fight to overwhelm the struggling Ukrainian line.

Simultaneously heavy fighting is taking place to the northwest of the city, along the road through Khromove, nicknamed by Ukrainian troops as the “Road of Life”.  For the last several weeks this road has been the primary supply and evacuation route for Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut. Russian forces have continuously struggled to sever it in order to hamper the defensive operations within the city itself, conducting heavy shelling and ferocious assaults to achieve that goal. This week a number of reports surfaced, stating that Russians have finally taken control of the “Road of Life”. Ukrainian forces have launched a number of heroic counter attacks, in some cases successfully driving the Russians back. However, in the end it seems that the road is no longer passable thus, consigning Ukrainian defenders to rely on a small number of minor roads, most of them made out of dirt, or cross country travel to maintain communication with Bakhmut.

Kherson

Ukrainian forces have seized at least 1 bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river in the Kherson region. The size and the purpose of the bridgehead is debatable, according to ISW Ukrainian troops have established positions north of Oleshky, advancing to the outskirts of the town.[i] This places the Ukrainian bridgehead around the destroyed Antonivsky bridge. It is possible that these actions by the Ukrainian advance party are to secure a position for an upcoming offensive operation in the area. This would allow further Ukrainian forces to conduct an amphibious assault across the Dnieper, with limited opposition from Russian troops. Additionally Ukrainian forces have conducted a large number of artillery and missile strikes conducted in the area, targeting key Russian positions as well as engaging in counter battery fire. The intensification of fire on this previously “deserted” part of the front further suggests its prioritisation by Ukraine, especially taking into account Ukrainian shortages of artillery ammunition.

The position near Antonivksy bridge suggests the Ukrainians might aim to create a temporary crossing based on the bridge itself. This could be in the form of a pontoon bridge, which utilises the existing structure to anchor and stabilise itself or Ukrainians might use armoured vehicle-launched bridges to temporarily repair the damaged Antonivsky bridge. Ukraine has received a number of river crossing engineering vehicles in the last few months. Starting with 16 German 16 Brückenlegepanzer Biber Bridge Layers in December 2022. However, a new batch will be arriving in Ukraine soon with an unspecified number of American M60 Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges, Dutch M3 Amphibious Bridging Vehicles, and French Motorised Floating Bridges.[ii] The large influx of these types of vehicles into the armed forces of Ukraine suggests that they are preparing for a major water crossing operation. Along the current frontline the only major water obstacle is the Dnieper.

In addition to this Russian sources and officials have been discussing the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson region, claiming that Ukraine has amassed a significant force in the area. Furthermore, Russian forces are stretched thin in the area of Kherson, with the current focus of the Russian command being on the frontlines around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and along the defence line in Zaporizhia. Russian news and social media sources have been struggling to present a more positive view on the situation on the left bank of the Dnieper, claiming that there are no Ukrainian forces present in the area, despite many accounts of the opposite. The apparent panic among Russian sources suggests that the developing situation in Kherson might be more serious than previously anticipated.

Other Areas of the Frontline

Russian forces have captured a heavily contested gas pumping infrastructure in the vicinity of the town of Spirne. While the significance of this is debatable, it shows that Russia continues smaller offensive operations along the entire frontline in addition to the major hotzones like Bakhmut. The frontlines around Avdiivka have been stabilised, though it is still very difficult, with no significant changes reported, suggesting that Russians have either used up a significant portion of their assets in the area or are preparing for future operations. In Zaporizhia Ukrainian forces have continued their now routine artillery and missile strikes on key Russian targets. This extended shelling campaign might suggest that Ukrainian forces are laying groundwork for a possible offensive operation in the area, or hope to draw the Russian attention away from other sections of the frontline. All is quiet on the other parts of the front.

Ukraine – China Relations

This week marked a key increase in the relations between Ukraine and China. Firstly, Lu Shaye, the Chinese Ambassador to France in an interview with a French news station questioned the legitimacy of post soviet States, like Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, stating that they “don’t have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialise their status as sovereign countries.”[iii] The ambassador additionally questioned whether Crimea belongs to Ukraine stating that it was Russian. Such declarations sparked unanimous outrage among Western nations, with Ukraine and Baltic states responding quite harshly to the words of the Chinese official. Just days later the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning rebuked Lu Shaye’s statements, calling them personal opinions of the ambassador, not indicative of the policy and views of China. The spokeswoman also reiterated that Beijing respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries and upheld the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, and stated that all post soviet states have a legitimate status.

The declarations were also followed by a lengthy phone conversation between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which  Zelensky appointed a Ukrainian Ambassador to China, with both sides hoping to develop further bilateral relations.[iv] The rapid actions by the Chinese government towards Ukraine following Lu Shaye’s fiasco suggests that China might be hoping to maintain friendly relations with the West, and that it does not support the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. However, the past reports of Chinese non-lethal military aid to Russia, as well as widely speculated rumours, supported by the statements of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claiming that China might be considering providing lethal aid, might suggest quite the opposite. It is possible that Lu Shaye’s statements are the actual policy of China, that was unintentionally revealed to the West, and was hurriedly covered up. China has been maintaining extremely friendly relations with Russia, organising a number of official visits, including Xi Jinpings, and more recently Defence Minister Li Shangfu’s. It is thus possible that China supports Russia in a covert manner, while at the same time trying to maintain friendly relations with the West, and especially Europe, potentially hoping for a rift in US – Europe relations.

Russian Homefront

Russia continues to conduct activities across the country in an effort to support its war effort. However, Moscow has been struggling to achieve sufficient recruitment of military personnel. Several programmes for volunteer detachments, often sponsored by non-state sources like the Urals Battalion funded by the copper magnate Igor Altushkin, have been employed with varying degrees of success.[v] Additionally, university students, normally exempt from conscription and military service, have started receiving summonses from their local military recruitment offices, with threats stating that the failure to turn up will result in civil and legal punishments. It is possible that the purpose of these call ups is not simply registration for the obligatory military service, but that it might also serve to pressure or coerce the students into signing military service contracts. Even if that is the case the effectiveness of these efforts could be minimal, as Russia continuously struggles to equip its soldiers with necessary gear, which has been confirmed even by the Russian State Duma Parliamentarian Stanislav Naumov.[vi]

Russian sources have claimed that the brand new T-14 Armata 4th generation main battle tanks have been deployed to Ukraine. The T-14 have reportedly taken part in combat exercises in Ukraine, and more importantly have been used to shell Ukrainian positions.[vii] These vehicles are supposed to be equipped with cutting edge technology, with protective measures supposedly capable of fending off even the most advanced weaponry available to the Ukrainians, like the Javelin ATGM. However, some sources claim that Russian commanders have been reluctant to employ the T-14s due to lack of combat experience and supposed technical difficulties in operation of the vehicle. The move to deploy the new tanks may suggest that these difficulties have been resolved, while the reported combat exercises might have convinced Russian commanders to trust their ability. However, the more probable scenario is that these vehicles have been deployed firstly for propaganda purposes, to boost the morale of troops, especially in the face of high tank losses during the conflict, and secondly to fill the growing equipment shortages caused, again, by high losses. Regardless of the reason for the supposed deployment, the number of available T-14s is very low, with some sources stating that only several dozen are ready for combat, though it is possible that since the invasion and the rousing of the Russian war industry more of these tanks have been produced.

Western Support for Ukraine

The deliveries of western equipment continue. Ukrainian Minister of Defence Reznikov confirmed that all 19 pledge Danish CAESAR self-propelled howitzers have been delivered to Ukraine and employed in combat operations. Additionally, Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal stated that the Skynex air defence system, armed with a 35mm autocannon has arrived in Ukraine.[viii] The Rheinmetall made Skynex is particularly effective against drones, which have seen an increase in activity both in the skies above Ukrainian cities and over the frontlines. Furthermore, Slovenian  news station 24UR has stated that Slovenia has delivered 20 Valuk armoured fighting vehicles.[ix] Several pieces of footage have also surfaced showing pledged Spanish Leopard 2 tanks in transit – these will most probably arrive in Ukraine in a matter of days. In a summary of western military aid for Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that in preparation for the Ukrainian counteroffensive the West has collectively delivered over 1550 armoured vehicles and 230 main battle tanks.[x] The sum of transferred equipment is equivalent to 9 fully equipped brigades.

This week marks also a significant step in the cooperation between Poland, Ukraine, and Germany with the declaration of maintenance and repair centres for Ukrainian armoured vehicles.[xi] Starting in May Poland will begin servicing Western donated Leopard 2 tanks in cooperation with the German Rheinmetall. The introduction of a new repair plant will allow Ukrainian Leopards to be swiftly and efficiently repaired and returned to combat operations. In addition to this, earlier in April, Poland declared that it will also service Ukrainian soviet descended tanks, with a special focus on maintaining the fleet of Ukrainian primary main battle tanks – the T-64.[xii] This cooperation will greatly increase the ability for Ukrainian forces to maintain their tank fleet, as previously this relied on a small number of local plants which were heavily targeted and damaged by Russian strikes. The ability to efficiently repair damaged tanks, coupled with the deliveries of new vehicles from the West will allow Ukrainian armoured forces to match their Russian opponents.

[i] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023”, Press ISW, April 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-22-2023.

[ii] Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, “Answering The Call: Heavy Weaponry Supplied To Ukraine”, Oryx, accessed April 28, 2023, https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/04/answering-call-heavy-weaponry-supplied.html.

[iii] Simone McCarthy, “Chinese ambassador sparks European outrage over suggestion former Soviet states don’t exist”, CNN, April 25, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/04/24/china/china-ambassador-lu-shaye-baltic-soviet-states-europe-intl-hnk/index.html.

[iv] Володимир Зеленський, Twitter, April 26, 2023, https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1651184756623802368.

[v] “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.

[vi] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023”, Press ISW, April 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-22-2023.

[vii] “Russia’s new T-14 Armata battle tank debuts in Ukraine – RIA”, Reuters, April, 25, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-new-t-14-armata-battle-tank-debuts-ukraine-ria-2023-04-25/.

[viii] “Ukraine received Skynex air defense systems”, Militarnyi, April 26, 2023, https://mil.in.ua/en/news/ukraine-received-skynex-air-defense-systems/.

[ix] Jure Tepina, “Slovenski Valuki na ukrajinsko fronto”, 24UR, April 26, 2023, https://www.24ur.com/novice/tujina/slovenski-valuki-na-ukrajinsko-fronto.html.

[x] “Allies have sent almost all promised combat vehicles to Ukraine, NATO chief says”, Reuters, April 27, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/allies-have-delivered-almost-all-promised-combat-vehicles-ukraine-nato-chief-2023-04-27/.

[xi] “Leopard service hub to be set up in Poland”, The First News, April 21, 2023, https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/leopard-service-hub-to-be-set-up-in-poland-37995.

[xii] “Ukraine, Poland to jointly repair T-64 tanks”, The Kyiv Independent, April 8, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/ukraine-poland-to-jointly-repair-t64-tanks/.

[1] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023”, Press ISW, April 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-22-2023.

[1] Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, “Answering The Call: Heavy Weaponry Supplied To Ukraine”, Oryx, accessed April 28, 2023, https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/04/answering-call-heavy-weaponry-supplied.html.

[1] Simone McCarthy, “Chinese ambassador sparks European outrage over suggestion former Soviet states don’t exist”, CNN, April 25, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/04/24/china/china-ambassador-lu-shaye-baltic-soviet-states-europe-intl-hnk/index.html.

[1] Володимир Зеленський, Twitter, April 26, 2023, https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1651184756623802368.

[1] “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.

[1] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023”, Press ISW, April 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-22-2023.

[1] “Russia’s new T-14 Armata battle tank debuts in Ukraine – RIA”, Reuters, April, 25, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-new-t-14-armata-battle-tank-debuts-ukraine-ria-2023-04-25/.

[1] “Ukraine received Skynex air defense systems”, Militarnyi, April 26, 2023, https://mil.in.ua/en/news/ukraine-received-skynex-air-defense-systems/.

[1] Jure Tepina, “Slovenski Valuki na ukrajinsko fronto”, 24UR, April 26, 2023, https://www.24ur.com/novice/tujina/slovenski-valuki-na-ukrajinsko-fronto.html.

[1] “Allies have sent almost all promised combat vehicles to Ukraine, NATO chief says”, Reuters, April 27, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/allies-have-delivered-almost-all-promised-combat-vehicles-ukraine-nato-chief-2023-04-27/.

[1] “Leopard service hub to be set up in Poland”, The First News, April 21, 2023, https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/leopard-service-hub-to-be-set-up-in-poland-37995.

[1] “Ukraine, Poland to jointly repair T-64 tanks”, The Kyiv Independent, April 8, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/ukraine-poland-to-jointly-repair-t64-tanks/.