- Within Bakhmut City, Donetsk Oblast, Wagner Forces have made marginal gains in the urban centre, however Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have continued to make territorial gains on the flanks of the town. Geo-located footage being circulated by mil-bloggers has shown yet more evidence of Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) troops withdrawing and/or surrendering as UAF gradually advance and clear trenches demonstrating combined arms warfare. Similarly, the UAF have taken RFAF positions in vicinity of Serebrianka Forest area, Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast.
UAF demonstrating combined arms warfare to tactical success in Orikhovo-Vasylivka (10km north-west of Bakhmut City). Source: @Militarylandnet
- The UAF ability to keep RFAF assets away from Ivanivske (5km south-west of Bakhmut), will highly likely serve to prolong the Russian offensive in Bakhmut. The Main Supply Routes (MSRs) from the west are vital to ensure that UAF are not cut off from supplies which are critical in maintaining the attrition of (for the most part) Wagner forces. Yet more widely, it is highly likely that the initiative has now been taken by the UAF who are applying the training and equipment provided by its allies to conduct localised counter offensives. As previously assessed, it is highly likely that the UAF counter offensive will be a series of localised counter attacks using the panacea of personnel and equipment available when environmental and tactical conditions allow. The UAF are evidently able to seize the initiative under these conditions and exploit RFAF defensive weakness, lack of RFAF preparedness and experience. As in the last reporting period, the UAF have continued to apply pressure to the flanks of Bakhmut, causing inexperienced RFAF troops to withdraw or surrender, creating further pressure on Wagner forces within the city, highly likely contributing to the frustration seen by Wagner-owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin. The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) had attempted to counter the UAF successes with disinformation purporting RFAF success however, Prigozhin was quick to dispel these claims. Once again, these public disputes amid tactical failures for the RFAF allude to the highly likely lack of communication on the battlefield as well as the command and control required to co-ordinate different elements with different abilities and capabilities across a large area. Whilst currently the Russian inability to co-ordinate is most obvious in the ongoing battle within Bakhmut and the surrounding areas (as it remains highly likely the main effort for Russia); this situation is highly likely to be emulated across the frontline as UAF counter attacks gain more traction elsewhere. Russian resistance and defences are likely to be more robust in areas which are under the sole control of Regular Russian Army formations, despite the increasing use of poorly trained ‘mobiks’ to make up for losses to professional soldiers early in the war.
RFAF troops withdrawing in vicinity of Ivanivske (5km south-west of Bakhmut). Repelling of RFAF in the area is critical for UAF to maintain access to supplies along MSRs into Bakhmut. Source: @Militarylandnet
Operational / Strategic Military
- RFAF strike activity continues to be observed across Ukraine, with several strikes reported overnight on the 15 & 16 May 2023. Post-strike reflections indicated that the RFAF utilised a combination of air-launched, sea-launched, and UAS systems to engage its targets. However, according to local officials its air defence systems successfully intercepted all missiles over Kyiv city, including six Kinzhal-47M2 missile systems.
- Leaked US intelligence accessed by The Washington Post has revealed an alleged offer made by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner Group, to disclose Russian troop positions to Ukrainian intelligence in exchange for the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Bakhmut. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly rejected Prigozhin's offer due to a lack of trust. Prigozhin downplayed his reported cooperation, stating that exchanging information is common in warfare and that troop positions are not secretive in modern warfare due to satellite imagery. He also denied the validity of the leaked US intelligence documents.
- Recent RFAF strike activity is demonstrative of its intent to employ a multi-vector attack strategy designed to overwhelm UAF air defence systems, or at least understand them. However, the reported interception of six Kinzhal-47M2 missiles has generated notable online discussion. There are two competing narratives in-play: one, Russia overstated its capabilities; or two, the UAF did not intercept these missiles and are amplifying this narrative to bolster support from Western partners and undermine the Russian defence and technology industries. If the former argument is correct, this is a significant blow to Russia. Throughout the conflict Russian messaging on the Kinzhal-47M2 has centred on the system’s ability to avoid interception and was a fundamental part of its ‘next generation’ weapons capability – which forms an integral part of their current and future nuclear deterrent. These are concerns which were also echoed by US officials in the early stages of the conflict. Therefore, any successful interception will be considered to be a huge boost for the UAF and wider western users of the PATRIOT system. Some experts have commented that the hypersonic moniker was misleading, and pressure will now be on Russia’s nuclear scientists and tacticians to allay fears within the Kremlin. This event, if independently verified, is also an endorsement of the PATRIOT system. Ukrainian officials will likely continue to amplify this reported success to encourage the US to increase its support of this capability. However, this angle will likely not be without some pushback, domestically, within Congress. The PATRIOT system is expensive – reportedly in excess of $1 billion USD – and comes with a significant training burden. The US also considers the PATRIOT system a high-demand asset, with most of its existing batteries deployed in support of US force protection, or to enable its own modernisation cycles. This is a long-term consideration for Zelenskyy. For the latter argument, questions remain within some areas of the media whether the UAF could achieve what it claims to have achieved. The RFAF have also been amplifying its own narrative, claiming that it has successfully destroyed one PATRIOT battery – including meme coverage through its own diplomatic social channels. Consequently, the information landscape remains opaque as both sides seek to influence both domestic and international audiences. In the immediate term, RFAF commanders will now be considering whether to continue to employ a multi-vector attack strategy, at risk of depleting munition stocks with limited operational success. Or the RFAF revises its approach to using more loitering munitions (at a lower cost to the Russian MoD) to potentially defeat UAF radar systems.
- The probability of immediate changes resulting from the allegations of Prigozhin collaborating with the GUR is low. The Kremlin is unlikely to remove Prigozhin in the near term, as his removal would disrupt the Wagner forces in Donbas and jeopardise Russian lines in Bakhmut. Moreover, the unique operational autonomy of the Wagner Group, which exists as a separate entity detached from the established trappings of the Russian government and MoD, introduces a complex web of circumstances. Removing Prigozhin from his leadership role would likely necessitate the direct imposition of Kremlin control over Wagner – something that the Kremlin demonstrably has no appetite for.
- While the Kremlin has overtly dismissed the allegations as nothing more than a fabrication, it remains a realistic possibility that this revelation could be exploited as an opportune moment to undermine Prigozhin's credibility (possibly by Shoigu and the Russian MoD), branding him as a turncoat and traitor. Such a strategy would likely progressively erode his power and influence over time. This strategy would align with the recent warning voiced by State Duma Parliamentarian Viktor Sobolev, cautioning that individuals who choose to join the ranks of the Wagner private military company (PMC) could face a severe sentence of 10 to 15 years imprisonment, as Wagner is deemed an unlawful armed formation within the boundaries of Russia. Nevertheless, the intricate interplay of multifaceted dynamics and the imperative for the Russian government to uphold a formal distance from the Wagner Group create an air of uncertainty surrounding the ultimate outcome.
The Washington Post reported on leaked US intelligence that Wagner-owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, would share RFAF dispositions in Ukraine. Source: @washingtonpost
- On 17 May 2023, Russian and Iranian Transport Ministers signed a bilateral agreement on the joint construction of the Rasht-Astara Railway. Forming a section of the ship, rail, road transport corridor from India, Iran, Azerbaijan, and to Russia, known as the International North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC); its construction has been purported to rival the Suez Canal. Rasht, Iran, and Astara, on the border of Iran and Azerbaijan will be a 170km section of rail which will handrail the western side of the Caspian Sea. Its construction is reported to take four years at a cost of 1.6 billion USD.
Russian and Iranian Transport ministers sign a bilateral agreement on the joint construction of the Rasht-Astara Railway. Source: @Iranobserver01
- Given the time required for construction, it is highly unlikely that this will have an immediate economic effect for countries which rely on the INSTC. What is notable about the agreement however is its timing. Russia and Iran have been fostering a deepened relationship since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, with Russia seeking to maintain allies and establish economic channels amid western sanctions. Also, there has been a continued narrative amongst Russia and its allies on the shifting of power away from the West. This narrative is highly likely being made manifest on a joint construction project which purports to rival existing transport corridors. Domestically for Russia, this narrative and agreement is likely intended to place it in a position of strength, being able to tangibly demonstrate its independence from the West. There is a likely element of futureproofing for Russia in this project, regardless of the outcome in Ukraine, Russia will likely be suffering the consequences of Western sanctions for years to come. Therefore, joint construction will highly likely mean joint ownership for Russia, likely taking influence from China and the Belt and Road Initiative which has seen China retain ownership of its own construction projects abroad, knowing that host nations are unlikely to repay loan agreements. It should be considered that given China has courted both Russia and Iran separately and has not publicly been involved in the Russia/Iran relationship of late. It remains a possibility that China has had some involvement in the project, this would possibly be in the form of discreetly funding the Russian financial contribution, given its considerable constraints of the conflict in Ukraine.
The Russian airstrikes seen in Kyiv this reporting period, public disputes between the Kremlin and Prigozhin, and the UAFs territorial gains around Bakhmut highly likely indicate ongoing infighting, disunity and frustration that is highly unlikely to be resolved soon. Be it tactical or strategic, the Russian MoD’s inability to communicate constructively and cohere a plan continues to have catastrophic consequences for the Special Military Operation (SMO). These frustrations continue to be seen in the renewed intensity of long-range strikes conducted against Ukraine, likely aimed at Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (DEAD) to support future disruptive efforts targeting ammunition storage, troop concentrations and Command and Control (C2) nodes ahead of UAF offensive activity. At the intelligence cut off for this article, reports have been emerging of an open letter by scientists after the arrest of three Russian hyper-sonic missile scientists for treason in the past ten months. Regardless of their guilt, the timing of the letter (a form of quiet protest) and the widely ridiculed failure of Kinzhal missiles during this reporting period cannot be ignored. It is highly likely that the Russian State is entering a new period of paranoia, comparable to that seen in the Soviet era. This is paranoia is likely to ebb and flow publicly, with the UAF highly likely seizing the initiative, and emerging from its defensive posture to make territorial gains, coupled with the success of PATRIOT. Overall, however, with public disputes among leaders and evidence of RFAF desertion and surrendering from the frontline, this is almost certainly an undesirable position existentially for Russia amid the beginning of a UAF counter offensive.