War in Ukraine – weekly update (27.05-02.06.2023)

War in Ukraine – weekly update (27.05-02.06.2023)

Bakhmut – Khromove

Despite the supposed withdrawal of Wagner Group troops from the frontlines, Russian forces in the area of Bakhmut continue to launch offensive operations. The Russians are sallying out of Bakhmut into the settlement of Khromove, directly west of the city. The settlement had been previously assaulted from the north, during the siege of Bakhmut, in an effort to cut off Ukrainian supply lines. However, several weeks ago Ukrainian counter attack forced the Russians back and reestablished complete control over Khromove. Now, Russians are attempting to seize the town by a direct attack from Bakhmut itself. It is most probable that the Russian forces seek to capture the town in order to use it as a staging ground for further attack in the region. The capture of Khromove by the Russian would threaten Ukrainian strongholds in the towns of Ivanivske, to the south, and Bohdanivka, to the north, both of which have resisted fierce Russian assaults for the last several months. Furthermore, the capture of these positions would threaten Ukrainian control over the territories in the area south of Hryhorivka and east of the Siverskyi-Donets-Donbas Canal. At the same time however, the Ukrainians are continuing offensive operations on the flanks of Bakhmut in the direction of the E-40 highway to the north, and Klishchiivka to the south. The region of Bakhmut thus, continues to be one of the most embattled parts of the war in Ukraine.

Southern Front

Ukrainian armed forces continue their operations to eliminate key Russian targets along the southern frontline via artillery and missile strikes. Vladimir Rogov, the official charged with the occupied Zaporizhia Oblast stated that Ukrainians have struck the road network in the Oblast, targeting key roads and bridges, most probably in an effort to hamper Russian logistics, supply lines and general defensive efforts.iAdditional strikes have been noted in the area of Melitopol and Mariupol, as well as Kherson Oblast targeting key military targets including military convoys, garrison buildings, and army camps. During the bombardment the Ukrainian also managed to destroy a crucial Russian command vehicle for the S-400 air defence systems. In response Russian forces are continuing to reinforce their position along this frontline, creating further fortifications and defensive positions, as well as transferring additional troops in the area. There are reports of further units being transferred to the southern frontline, including the so called Kadyrovites – specially trained Chechen troops. Furthermore, Russian forces have also begun to relocate their equipment and storage facilities in order to minimise the losses as it seems that the Ukrainians have extensive, if not complete information on their positions and placement. The increasing engagement of both sides along the southern front, coupled with relative quiet along the actual line of contact, leads to the conclusion that both sides might be preparing for extensive operations in the area.

Second raid into Russia

The Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion (also known as Liberty of Russia Legion) have launched another raid into Russian Belgorod Oblast. The target of this attack, according to the available information, is the town of Shebekino located approximately 3.5 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. As before the operation is supported by artillery fire from positions within Ukraine. Several pieces of footage have been circulated via social media, showing destroyed and burning buildings, including a police building in Shebekino – supposedly hit by artillery bombardment. The volunteer formations claim to have engaged Russian forces in the area, successfully destroying a 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm heavy mortar.iiFurthermore, according to claims made by the volunteer groups, their forward troops have engaged Russian forces in the outskirts of Shebekino. The governor of the Bilhorod Oblast claimed that the volunteer formations did not enter the region, and that Russian forces stationed on the border held their positions. This narrative was joined by the statement of the Russian Ministry of Defence that reported that the raiders have been driven back and have suffered 30 men killed in action. The current situation is unclear as pieces of footage have surfaced online showing fighting ongoing in the region.

As mentioned before, in last week’s update the most probable aim of these raids is the dispersion of Russian troops. Such continuous pressure along the border will force Russia to commit additional manpower and resources in order to prevent further incursions, thus limiting Russian military potential along the frontlines in Ukraine itself. While this might not result in significant hampering of Russian priority offensive efforts, like the Bakhmut area, it might lessen the pressure in other less significant areas. This in turn would allow Ukraine to transition troops from these less pressured areas and commit them to key operations. Furthermore, the transition of Russian forces from the frontlines might also result in potential weak spots in the Russian lines, manned by insufficient forces, thus creating openings for Ukrainian offensive operations.

Drone attacks on Moscow

Moscow has been attacked by kamikaze drones. The drones targeted residential areas rather than military targets or key infrastructure like power plants or transport networks.iiiAmong the targets was President Vladimir Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo as well as other elite neighbourhoods in Moscow Oblast. According to Moscow’s mayor Siergiej Sobianin, several residential buildings were damaged in the attack, with an explosion being recorded in the Novaya Moskva neighbourhood. However, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the anti air defences successfully destroyed or disabled all eight drones used in the attack. The Ministry was also swift to accuse Ukraine of the attack. According to ISW the drones used in the attack were identified as Ukrainian, however Zelensky’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak denied any Ukrainian involvement in the attack, though also stated that such attacks might happen again in the future.iv

The objective of the drone attack is unknown. It is possible that Ukrainian launched the attack to pressure Russian war commitment as well as force the Russian air defence forces to further stretch, by transitioning additional assets from Ukraine to protect Moscow. It is also possible that the attack was targeting President Putin specifically in a bid to eliminate the Russian leader, and force the Russians to withdraw from the war. On the other hand it is also possible that the attacks were staged by the Kremlin in an effort to boost war support among the Russian populace, by presenting Ukraine as a direct threat to Russian way of life and safety of the Russian citizens. As Russia seeks to replace losses suffered during the siege of Bakhmut and might be preparing for a next round of mobilisation, such popular support would be vital.

Russian Homefront

The Russian State Duma is now considering a bill allowing Russian armed forces to recruit incarcerated and convicted citizens. This would allow the Russian military to draft soldiers currently serving sentences in prison facilities during times of war or martial law, as well as allow the armed forces to conduct voluntary service recruitment in prisons.vCurrently imprisoned individuals, who sign up for voluntary service would be pardoned upon completing their military contract. If passed this bill would allow the armed forces to significantly boost its recruitment numbers, similarly to Wagner Group before. Such a step is most probably the result of heavy losses during the war, mostly due to the siege of Bakhmut and the withdrawal of Wagner forces from the front. One thing worth noticing is the part of the bill that states that drafting from prisons would be allowed during times of war or martial law. It seems that Russia might be continuing its preparations for a formal declaration of war on Ukraine, which could result in mass mobilisation.

Furthermore, Russia has continued the narrative of promoting and praising military service. Russian officials are establishing domestic veteran support programmes. The first branch of these programmes is the “Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation”, which began operations on June 1st, with over 3,000 coordinators ready to help veterans apply for social benefits.viSocial benefits for veterans are quite extensive in Russia, and are often used to encourage Russian citizens into military service. The creation of programmes that facilitate the social benefits to veterans, and maybe even expand on them might be quite effective in boosting recruitment numbers for Russian armed forces. Additionally, such programmes might be very effective at managing and minimising social outrage in the event of mass mobilisation, by promoting benefits of military service.

Western support for Ukraine

The West continues to support Ukraine. Germany announced another military aid package with 64 tracked all-terrain Bandvagn 206 armoured transports, and 66 unspecified armoured personnel carriers – most probably Fuchs vehicles.viiAdditionally, the first batch of Leopard 1 main battle tanks will be delivered to Ukraine very soon, as previous announcement noted early June as the scheduled arrival date, with Rheinmetall working tirelessly to restore the vehicles. Their arrival in Ukraine might be very close as one of the elements of the new German aid package is the supply of tank ammunition for the Leopard 1 tanks. However, the continued support for Ukraine has been to a certain extent questioned by the French President Emmanuel Macron, who stated that if the upcoming Ukrainian counter offensive does not go to plan, then there would have to be an assessment of the nature of future European support for Ukraine.viiiMacron also stated that Ukraine will have to negotiate with Putin, or the leadership of Russia, when the time comes. While Macron’s words remain vague, they might suggest a change in the western support for Ukraine, especially if the upcoming Ukrainian offensive fails to deliver results.

Conclusion

The war in Ukraine continues and both sides are ramping up preparations for a period of increased operations in the late spring and summer. With Wagner Group troops withdrawing from Bakhmut both the Russian and Ukrainian forces conduct offensive operations in an effort to break through each other’s lines. At the same time Russian is increasingly preparing for and facilitating recruitment and mobilisation processes, while laying groundwork for a potential escalation in the form of mass mobilisation or even declaration of war. As both sides prepare it seems that the upcoming Ukrainian offensive might be the make or break of the war, not only on the battlefield but also in the political sphere and western support of Ukraine.

Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation

i Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 30, 2023”, Press ISW, May 30, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-30-2023.

iii Thomas Spencer, Olga Robinson, and Jake Horton, “Moscow drone attack: What we know about the strikes”, BBC News, May 31, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65753825.

iv Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 30, 2023”, Press ISW, May 30, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-30-2023.

v “В Госдуму внесли законопроект, который позволит осужденным заключать контракт на военную службу в период мобилизации и военного положения”, Novaya Gazeta, May 31, 2023, https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/05/31/v-gosdumu-vnesli-zakonoproekt-kotoryi-pozvolit-osuzhdennym-zakliuchat-kontrakt-na-voennuiu-sluzhbu-v-period-mobilizatsii-i-voennogo-polozheniia-news.

vi Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 30, 2023”, Press ISW, May 30, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-30-2023.

vii “Military support for Ukraine”, Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, May 31, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/military-support-ukraine-2054992.

viii Patrick Wintour, “West may have to negotiate with Putin as well as pursue war crimes trial, Macron says”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/31/macron-to-call-for-european-strategic-awakening-after-ukraine-invasion.