War in Ukraine – weekly update (25.02-03.03.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (25.02-03.03.2023)

Frontline report – Bakhmut focus

The battle for Bakhmut seems to be entering its final stages. Over the last week the Russian forces launched a large coordinated offensive along the entire line of contact in the region. The attack was facilitated by a large-scale bombardment of the entire city and the key towns surrounding it. The Russians used standard shell artillery, rocket artillery, as well as aircraft and even the highly valuable and destructive TOS-1 heavy flamethrower systems which launch salvos of thermobaric rockets. The barrage suppressed and destroyed Ukrainian positions, through which Russian assault groups broke through. At the same time Russian forces launched simultaneous assault along the entire front in Donbass. This was most probably aimed to disperse Ukrainian forces, and stop them from ferrying troops to Bakhmut. At the same time, it also allowed Russian forces to capitalise on the strained Ukrainian lines and achieve some territorial gains, as for example on the Svatove – Kreminna line, where several villages fell into Russian hands. This week marks a very visible step up in the wider Russian offensive, with the Bakhmut as its focal point.

In the direction of south-west and west Kremlin troops continued to besiege Ivanivske and the vital T0504 highway, which served as a major line of Ukrainian communications. This road is now considered unusable to Ukrainian forces, with Russian forces controlling or contesting a significant part of it. Further west Russians began focusing their efforts on reaching Chasiv Yar, a town which serves as an immediate logistics and evacuation hub for Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut. The town boasts a vital railroad through which significant amounts of Ukrainian troops and heavy gear, especially armoured combat vehicles, are transported. The town has come under intense shelling in the past week and is under threat of direct assault, with Russian troops less than 2 kilometres away. If the town is subjected to direct attack the hopes of bringing fresh reinforcements or evacuation of troops from Bakhmut itself would be extremely difficult.

North of Bakhmut the Russian offensive strives to encircle the city, in swift succession capturing the towns of Berkhivka and Yahidne, and reaching the settlements of Bohdanivka and Khromove. Khromove is of particular importance as it holds the last traversable road out of Bakhmut, should it be taken Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut would be virtually cut off. As of now the road is still usable to Ukrainian troops, but is under fire from Russian artillery, and quite possibly in some areas under direct fire of Russian troops. The assault north of Bakhmut also led to a number of important high grounds, where Ukrainian artillery was stationed, being taken by Kremlin forces. This means that only do the defenders have limited artillery capabilities in the area but also that Russian forces could station their own barrage weapons there, thus further threatening the last road out of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces have tried counter attacking in the area with elements of the 17th Tank Brigade driving a wedge into the flank of the Russian advance and the 3rd Assault Brigade (Azov) pushing back from Bakhmut itself. The aim of this attack was to cut off Russian assault detachments and eliminate them via an encircling manoeuvre, however the plan failed due to the deployment of Russian reserves. The counter attack succeeded partially as it stalled the Russian offensive, thus allowing Ukraine the chance to either reinforce the area or conduct an organised withdrawal.

In the city itself Ukrainian forces are hard pressed, with notable Russian gains visible. The defence is headed by the 93rd Mechanised Brigade, with Azov and Border Guards detachments present as well. Several video sources from the battle for Bakhmut have surfaced in recent days, showing the scope and intensity of the fighting. One such footage from the 93rd Brigade shows Ukrainian soldiers engaging Russian forces advancing under cover of an armoured vehicle.[i] Ukrainian soldiers manage to disable the vehicle during an intense gunfight but one of them is wounded and has to be evacuated by several others. Another video shows a Ukrainian serviceman in Bakhmut, talking about the situation of the city’s defenders. He claims that Ukrainian forces may be losing up to 2 companies a day, with battalions being lost each week during the fight for the city (for reference a company numbers around 100 men, and a battalion 600 men).[ii] These numbers seem quite high for a single section of the front, however a recent video released by the official page of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine showing an Associated Press report from a military hospital in Bakhmut seems to show similar estimates. In the report Anatoliy, the chief of the medical service in the area states that his team treats over 60 wounded soldiers a day, almost an entire company of men, and that is excluding personnel that died before reaching the hospital.[iii] These pieces of information show how ferocious the battle for the city is, and the complexity of the situation in the entire region.

However, it seems that despite the rapidly deteriorating situation in Bakhmut the Ukrainian command is intent on holding the city.  On February 28th Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar stated that Colonel General Oleksadr Syrskyi ordered reinforcements to be sent into the Bakhmut area.[iv] Polish reporter Karolina Baca-Pogorzelska, while on her way out of Bakhmut, has stated that entire columns of men and equipment are being sent into battle.[v] Furthermore, an American volunteer has also indirectly confirmed that his unit is being sent to Bakhmut.[vi] These however are most probably local reserves, with potentially more reinforcements on their way from other parts of Ukraine. It is possible that these new troops will be equipped with western gear. On Monday 27th February, Oleksandr Pavlyuk, the First Deputy of Defence reported that the first battalion of Ukrainian Bradley IFVs had completed training.[vii] Denying Bakhmut to Russian forces could be very profitable for Ukrainians, as the town is a junction of Russian logistics lines in the Donbas, with northern, eastern, and southern routes all coming together in the area. This not only derails Russian plans for further offensive operations in the western direction, but also buys time for more Western heavy weapons to arrive along with trained reserves. If Bakhmut holds, these fresh reinforcements could be used to break Russian forces in the area. Thus, the next few days could be witness to a large-scale reinforcement of the frontlines around Bakhmut, and potential Ukrainian counter offensives, using advanced western gear.

New reports however have put to question the legitimacy of Ukrainian commitment to holding Bakhmut. On the 2nd of March “Magyar’s Birds”, an air reconnaissance unit, received the order to immediately withdraw from Bakhmut to “a new combat zone”.[viii] On the other hand, a member of the 93rd Mechanised Brigade defending Bakhmut stated that his unit is not withdrawing from the city.[ix] At the same time Ukrainian resistance in the eastern part of the city has weakened. On March 3rd numerous reports came in showing the destruction of several bridges in Bakhmut. Most importantly a key bridge in the settlement of Khromove, which serves as the primary and quite possibly only line of communication in and out of Bakhmut, has been destroyed. The loss of this bridge makes the resupply and evacuation of Ukrainian troops out of the city almost impossible, as only foot traffic is possible. Several sources claim that the bridges, including the one in Khromove have been destroyed by withdrawing Ukrainian forces – which would mean that Bakhmut garrison was evacuated and the city is now in Russian hands. However, other sources claim, based on eyewitness accounts, that the Khromove bridge was blown up by a Russian missile.[x] This is quite possible as the road from Bakhmut through Khromove to Chasiv Yar has been under constant attack from Russian forces, mostly artillery but in some cases Russian troops have been close enough for direct fire. It is possible that both points of view hold some truth, with potential Ukrainian withdrawal targeted by Russian strikes.

Understanding all of this it is worth noting that the situation in Bakhmut is chaotic and constantly changing. New reports are coming up every hour, many of them conflicting. It is possible that several narratives are subject to information warfare. What is however possible to be clearly stated is that the Battle for Bakhmut has reached its height with both sides fighting ferociously for every inch of ground. Who will come out victorious remains to be seen.

The Grand Maskirovka

The Russian assault on Bakhmut this week and its successes rested in a significant part on a disinformation campaign carried out by Russia in previous weeks and months. Going backwards, the last few weeks have been filled with debates about Russian ammunition shortages. These have been sparked by several statements from Wagner mercenary group founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin who claimed that his soldiers are experiencing ammunition shortages, especially artillery shells.[xi] This narrative was continued by responses from Russian army officers who stated that this is the case in the entire armed forces. In Vuhledar a Russian officer reported that they have to ration shells in order to accommodate offensive operations, this was also marked by Ukrainian reports that Russian daily shelling has lessened greatly, and that sometimes Russian forces attack without artillery support. This entire narrative was carefully crafted in preparation for this week’s offensive in Bakhmut, where apocalyptic artillery fires raged endlessly, while they were supposedly to be without ammunition.

However, the Grand Maskirovka started even earlier, with the supposed schism between Wagner and standard Russian forces. For months now the Russians have kept up the narrative that distanced Russian army and battlefield successes away from Wagner. With the naming changes, such as not referring to Wagner by its name but rather calling it “volunteer assault detachments”. This was furthered by Prigozhin’s frequent media attacks on the Russian armed forces, their inadequacy and battlefield failures. This narrative culminated during the taking of Soledar by Wagner forces, with Russian media and Putin claiming that the town was seized by elite VDV troops of the Russian armed forces. This was also followed by Russian limitations on Wagner recruitment processes, and the supposed ban on prison recruitment. At this point the majority of western experts believed that Wagner had fallen from grace, and would not play any major roles, as their numbers and combat power diminished. However, with this week’s assault on Bakhmut it was the combination of Wagner highly numerous forces, and elite VDV troops under massed artillery support that broke through Ukrainian defences north of the city, and it is them that are now conducting the encircling manoeuvre. Thus, Russia has once again proved its ability to conduct major information campaigns and profited from it largely.

Polish armament industry and Western deliveries to Ukraine

This week marks an important moment in the Polish armaments industry. The Polish Minister of Defence has signed an agreement with Huta Stalowa Wola for the production of 1400 brand new “Borsuk” IFVs.[xii] These vehicles will replace the ageing fleet of Soviet era BMPs currently in use in the Polish armed forces. While this is important news for Poland it is also a good sign for Ukraine, as the phased-out vehicles could be sent to Ukraine. The Polish BMP-1s, while quite old, will still be very useful to Ukraine, as can be seen by Minister Reznikov recent pleas for more infantry vehicles to be sent. This isn’t the only good news for Ukraine this week, as the first batch of Polish Leopard 2A4 tanks have arrived with trained crews to Ukraine. Only 4 tanks have arrived so far, a single platoon, with the rest meant to swiftly follow in the first half of March.[xiii] Furthermore, as already mentioned American Bradleys have also made it to Ukraine, with some already crewed by trained Ukrainian personnel. More western equipment will soon follow, with the first batch of 40 Marder IFV to be delivered in March, with 14 French AMX-10 RC armoured vehicles reportedly already on the way.[xiv] The next few weeks will probably witness western equipment in combat, with hopes that it can stimmy the tide of rising Russian offensive.

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] Moto LIFE, “На пекельному перехресті у Бахмуті. Реальні боі”, YouTube, February 26, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxqDXIs3TbI.

[ii] Michał Nowak, Twitter, March 1, 2023, https://twitter.com/nowakkmichal/status/1631039508719304707?cxt=HHwWhoC8vdTyzqItAAAA.

[iii] Defense of Ukraine, Twitter, March 3, 2023, https://twitter.com/DefenceU/status/1631542420776300544?cxt=HHwWgMDRpf_Ls6QtAAAA.

[iv] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Ukraine’s military: Additional troops to be sent to Bakhmut”, The Kyiv Independent, February 28, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/ukraines-military-additional-troops-to-be-sent-to-bakhmut.

[v] Karolina Baca-Pogorzelska, Twitter, March 1, 2023, https://twitter.com/BacaPogorzelska/status/1630915094182764549.

[vi] James Vasquez, Twitter, February 28, 2023, https://twitter.com/jmvasquez1974/status/1630593610008899585?cxt=HHwWgsDRmfiPhKEtAAAA.

[vii] PAP, “Szef wywiadu Ukrainy: najbliższe trzy miesiące na froncie bedą bardzo aktywne. Określą dalszy przebieg wojny”, PAP, February 28, 2023, https://www.pap.pl/aktualnosci/news%2C1542173%2Cszef-wywiadu-ukrainy-najblizsze-trzy-miesiace-na-froncie-beda-bardzo.

[viii] Clash Report, Twitter, March 3rd 2023, https://mobile.twitter.com/clashreport/status/1631547147022639105.

[ix] твій друг Стус, Twitter, March 3, 2023, https://twitter.com/slovyanskasil/status/1631605398896537601.

[x] Seb Shukla and Alex Marquardt, “Vital supply bridge to Ukraine’s Bakhmut blown up overnight by Russian forces”, CNN, March 3, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-03-3-23?tab=all.

[xi] Paul Kirby, “Russian Wagner chief Prigozhin blames ammunition shortage for high deaths”, BBC News, February 22, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64731945.

[xii] Paweł Wroński, “MON kupuje borsuki. „Największy kontrakt polskiej zbrojeniówki od 50 lat””, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 28, 2023, https://wyborcza.pl/7,75398,29512228,mon-kupuje-borsuki-najwiekszy-kontrakt-polskiej-zbrojeniowki.html.

[xiii] Adrian Kowarzyk, “Dworczyk: Po przeszkoleniu załóg kolejne leopardy trafią na Ukrainę”, PAP, February 26, 2023, https://www.pap.pl/aktualnosci/news%2C1542043%2Cdworczyk-po-przeszkoleniu-zalog-kolejne-leopardy-trafia-na-ukraine.html.

[xiv] Mil.In.UA, „Ukraine to receive Marder infantry fighting vehicles by the end of March”, Mil.In.UA, January 13, 2023, https://mil.in.ua/en/news/ukraine-to-receive-marder-infantry-fighting-vehicles-by-the-end-of-march/.

Army Recognition, ”France sends to Ukraine a first batch of 14 AMX-10RC anti-tank armored vehicles“, Army Recognition, February 15, 2023,