War in Ukraine – weekly update (25.03-31.03.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (25.03-31.03.2023)

Frontline Report

The last days of March bring with them further changes to the frontlines of Ukraine. The battle of Bakhmut continues, with Russian forces now controlling the vast majority of the city. Wagner group forces have successfully captured the AZOM complex in the north and are now clearing the remnants of Ukrainian defenders from the industrial sector. Wagner troops have intensified their operation in the south areas of the city, achieving significant gains and advancing very close to the city centre. Ukrainian soldiers have been recorded engaging in firefights for Bakhmut’s central market and the Palace of Culture, both located in the city centre itself.[i] At the same time Russian forces have secured several additional crossings across the Bakhmutka river and are now heavily assaulting Ukrainian positions from the east. ISW assesses that Russian forces now control roughly 65% of the city, though that number might be higher.[ii] Russians continue offensive operations against Ukrainian lines to the west of the city along the T0504 highway. Similarly, Moscow troops assault Ukrainian positions in Khromove, Bohdanivka, Orikhovo-Vasylivka, to the city’s northwest. The more rapid Russian advances in the recent days might suggest that Ukrainian forces are facing extreme difficulties in reinforcing their forces in Bakhmut. This might be caused by the continuous strain exerted on Ukrainian lines on the flanks of the city, protecting the last functional ground lines of communication. The very close proximity of Russian troops to those key roads might suggest that Ukrainian forces are incapable of continuing their defensive operations in the city. It is possible that the continued shelling and targeting of Ukrainian supply and evacuations lines to Bakhmut has severely attrited Ukrainian forces in the area. The Russians might strive to utilise this situation to crush the remaining resistance in the city and break Ukrainian lines. This scenario might be supported by ISW assessment that additional conventional (non-Wagner) forces have been deployed in and around Bakhmut.

Russian forces continue offensive operations in and around Avdiivka. Russian forces have been confirmed to have advanced forward, north of Vodiane towards Orlivka – the last remaining ground line of communication for Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka. The invaders have also secured further gains northeast of Avdiivka, closing in on the city itself. Vitalii Barabash, head of the Avdiivka city military administration has declared that journalists and volunteers and all other civilian personnel are now prohibited from entering the city due to the worsening situation.[iii] Ukrainian military spokesperson Oleksii Dmytrashkivskyi additionally stated that Russia’s recent advances on the city’s flanks could turn it into a second Bakhmut.[iv] Russian forces may strive to achieve similar results as in Bakhmut, hoping to attrit Ukrainian forces in the city, by shelling the last remaining supply and evacuation route, and then assault the weakened Ukrainian positions. The simultaneous assault on both Bakhmut and Avdiivka, puts the Ukrainian armed forces under heavy strain. If the cities were to fall simultaneously, Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk Oblast could be heavily crippled.

On the other hand, Ukrainian forces continue to conduct reconnaissance missions in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Several Ukrainian units carried out reconnaissance in force against Russian lines in the region, probing their defences. Some losses have been sustained during these operations, including armoured and mobility vehicles. Ukrainian forces also conducted artillery and HIMARS strikes against key Russian targets in the area, including logistics hubs, railway junctions, storage facilities, and even some critical targets in the city of Melitopol.[v] Such extensive actions, along with the use of highly valuable assets like the HIMARS, might suggest that Ukraine is preparing to launch their spring counteroffensive in this area. Additionally, Defence Minister Reznikov stated that Ukraine is preparing to conduct the mentioned counter offensive sometime in April or May.[vi] He also stated that the newly delivered western gear could be used during this operation, naming in particular the just arrived Leopard 2 main battle tanks. In response Russian forces have escalated construction of defensive positions along the frontline in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and in key areas around Crimea. Furthermore, it seems that Russians are pulling additional resources towards their positions in southern Ukraine, with large supply convoys being spotted transporting additional equipment.

Other areas of the front are relatively quiet. The frontline from Kreminna all the way to Kupyansk remains relatively unchanged, with no noteworthy events. Russian forces achieved small gains around Siviersk, with marginal advances in the south-east around Berestove and in the northeast around Bilohorivka.

Russian Homefront

Russia continues to conduct activities across the country in an effort to support its war effort. Defence Minister Shoigu visited a shell production plant in Chelyabinsk and Kirov oblasts on March 28 and claimed that Russian ammunition production has increased significantly over the past year, promising that production will increase several times for certain unspecified artillery products by the end of the year.[vii] The military industrial complex also continues to combat the shortage of skilled labour needed to increase the war production. Russian factories now look to use convict labourers to work in some less complicated areas, and train the original workers to tackle the more complex projects. Such an extensive reeducation programme might allow Russia to boost factory outputs, but it might also run the risk of lower quality or defective products. Additionally, several new transports of Russian equipment have been spotted, including refurbished T-80 main battle tanks, factory new (or refurbished) BRDM-2 amphibious armoured scout cars, and old MT-12 100mm anti-tank guns.[viii] The introduction of the older towed anti tank guns, might suggest that Russian forces are expecting to face large quantities of Ukrainian armoured vehicles and that they might not have enough ATGMs to equip their soldiers, or they simply wish to further boost their anti armour capabilities. The decision to deploy these is probably sparked by Russian anticipation of the upcoming Ukrainian offensive, and the recent deliveries of Western tanks and other armoured vehicles. The deployment of additional T-80 tanks and BRDM-2 on the other hand, might suggest that Russian forces are preparing for a more mobiles style of warfare, either in response to Ukrainian offensive or potentially a preparation for a Russian offensive. These new additions might also serve to equip the soon to arrive reinforcements in the form of spring conscripts and other recruits.

Russia continues to ramp up its recruitment and mobilisation efforts. Putin announced the scope of the spring conscription cycle. In the period between April 1st and July 15th Russia will draft 147,000 men, aged 18 – 27, into the military for their 12-month mandatory military service.[ix] Andrey Kartapolov, the Chairman of the Russian State Duma Defence Committee stated on March 30 that “for the time being” new conscripts will not be sent to the “new Russian regions”, meaning of course the occupied Ukrainian land. However, in the past Russia often went back on its promises and deployed conscripted soldiers to the frontlines, despite previous assurances.  Additionally, for some time now Russia has been trying to coerce reserve and conscription personnel into signing up for contract military service. Coincidently, Russia’s Defence Ministry aims to start a new recruitment campaign on April 1, striving to recruit as much as 400,000 men.[x] It is possible that Russia will strive to force or convince the new conscripts to sign for contract service, thus allowing for their deployment into Ukraine.  It is thus extremely possible, that the majority if not entirety of the 147,000 spring conscripts will end up fighting on the battlefield of Ukraine very soon.

Russia also conducted anti-corruption operations, among targeted individuals were several high ranking officials from Rosgvardia, who were detained and prosecuted. The anti-corruption operations have been conducted mostly against individuals whose actions disrupted or otherwise hindered the capabilities of Russia’s armed forces. One such example is the arrest of Colonel Sergey Volkov, who was charged with abuse of authority as he approved the purchase of low quality radar systems meant to protect the Crimean bridge from drone attacks, despite the fact that testing proved them incapable of doing so.[xi] The strikes against corruption might result in the improvement of decision making cadres and their ability to better equip Russia’s armed forces.

Western deliveries to Ukraine

The delivery of western equipment to Ukraine continues. The last days of March brought with them the arrival of Western tanks to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence published a series of photos and videos showcasing the newest arrivals. Most of them starred Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov posing, presenting, and in some cases driving the new equipment, which included 14 British Challenger tanks,  40 German Marder infantry fighting vehicles, at least 90 American Stryker armoured personnel carriers, and 37 American Cougar Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Vehicles.[xii] German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius also confirmed the delivery of 18 Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks.[xiii] The Portuguese Defence Ministry also declared that 3 of their pledged Leopard tanks have also made landfall in Ukraine.[xiv] In addition to the already delivered Polish Leopard 2A4s, this brings the total number of modern Western tanks in Ukraine to 49. In NATO standards a single tank company consists of 14 tanks, though Ukrainian doctrine prior to the Russian invasion utilised only 13 tanks per company. Assuming the adoption of NATO standards (due to the western training of Ukrainian personnel) Ukraine can now deploy just over three tank companies, with one Leopard 2A4s, one with Leopard 2A6s, one with Challenger 2s, and an additional 7 tank, which might be distributed into a single tank platoon and the formation headquarters. Additionally, Croatia has stated that the delivery of 14 Mi-8 helicopters to Ukraine will be completed very soon. Mi-8 are usually used as transport helicopters but can be fitted with weapons.

Conclusions

This week Russian forces have achieved notable tactical gains in Bakhmut and around Avdiivka. The situation of Ukrainian defenders in both cities is gradually deteriorating, with the soldiers facing continuous Russian assaults. Should the two cities fall Ukrainian forces will be dealt a heavy blow, and heavily destabilise the situation on the Donbas front. Hope comes in the form of the newest deliveries of heavy Western equipment, meant to be used in the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, slated to begin in April. This operation has a chance to push back the Russian onslaught and liberate large swathes of occupied territory. However, should the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka fall, the offensive might be derailed or forced to repel the resurgent advance of Russian forces.

[i] Karolina Hird, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 28, 2023”, Press ISW, March 28, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-28-2023.

[ii] Karolina Hird, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 28, 2023”, Press ISW, March 28, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-28-2023.

[iii] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Avdiivka closed for volunteers and press as situation deteriorates”, The Kyiv Independent, March 27, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/avdiivka-closed-for-volunteers-as-press-as-situation-deteriorates/.

[iv] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Avdiivka closed for volunteers and press as situation deteriorates”, The Kyiv Independent, March 27, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/avdiivka-closed-for-volunteers-as-press-as-situation-deteriorates/.

[v] Sarah Dean, “Residents of Melitopol were woken up by powerful blasts, local media says”, CNN, March 29, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-03-29-23/h_86c0fb1436648dd8bc4966e3ee0fc686.

[vi] Thaisa Semenova, “Ukraine war latest: Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive planned in several areas, says Reznikov“, The Kyiv Independent, March 29, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/ukraine-war-latest-kyivs-spring-counteroffensive-planned-in-several-areas-says-reznikov/.

[vii] TASS, “Russian defense chief visits ammo production facilities in Chelyabinsk, Kirov Regions”, TASS Russian News Agency, March 28, 2023, https://tass.com/defense/1595513?utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=google.com&utm_referrer=google.com.

[viii] TOGA, Twitter, March 29, 2023, https://twitter.com/Jano14Toga/status/1641071888720863232. Artur Micek, Twitter, March 30, 2023, https://twitter.com/Artur_Micek/status/1641506546390642689.

NOËL, Twitter, March 31, 2023, https://twitter.com/NOELreports/status/1641697283510091776.

[ix] President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, ”Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of March 30, 2023 No. 220 „On the conscription in April – July 2023 of citizens of the Russian Federation for military service and on the dismissal from military service of citizens undergoing military service on conscription””, Chancellery of the President of the Russian Federation, March 30, 2023, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202303300022?index=0&rangeSize=1.

[x] The Kyiv Independent news desk, ” UK Defense Ministry: Russia 'highly unlikely’ to call up 400,000 volunteers, may force men to join army”, The Kyiv Independent, March 30, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/uk-defense-ministry-russia-highly-unikely-to-call-up-400-000-volunteers-may-force-men-to-join-army/.

[xi] TASS, “Суд арестовал главу отдела морского управления Росгвардии Волкова”, TASS Russian News Agency, March 29, 2023, https://tass.ru/proisshestviya/17399317.

[xii] Howard Altman, “Ukraine Situation Report: Challenger Tanks, Stryker Armored Vehicles Arrive In Country”, The War Zone, March 27, 2023, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ukraine-situation-report-challenger-tanks-stryker-armored-vehicles-arrive-in-country.

[xiii] Adam Durbin, “Ukraine war: Germany sends much-awaited Leopard tanks”, BBC News, March 28, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65095126.

[xiv] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Portugal delivers Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine”, The Kyiv Independent, March 28, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/portugal-delivers-leopard-2-tanks-to-ukraine/.