- Despite the Russian declaration of the complete occupation of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, on 20 May 2023, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have still been engaged in kinetic activity on the western edge of the urban centre (albeit with less intensity than previously observed), as well as on the flanks where UAF have continued localised counterattacks over the past two reporting periods – possibly with the intent of threatening encirclement of Russian units in the town centre. Reporting has also indicated that Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) troop numbers have been increasing, whilst Wagner-owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, stated on the morning of 25 May 2023, that his forces were withdrawing out of Bakhmut. Prigozhin also stated he had lost 20,000 troops as a result of the operation, either through death or injury, however, estimates vary when combined with RFAF losses, assessed to total approximately 100,000 wounded and killed across all pro-Russian forces.
- Kinetic activity on the outskirts of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, has resumed during this reporting period and in the vicinity of Marinka, which had seemingly been paused previously. Ground forces on both sides have published footage of captured persons, and reports of artillery bombardments and unguided aerial rockets targeting Avdiivka’s urban areas have been observed.
Wagner Forces speaking with Wagner-owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, on their withdrawal from Bakhmut as RFAF gradually provide relief. Source: @Gerashenko_en
- Although President Putin congratulated Wagner on their “successful” completion of the operation in Bakhmut, the continuation of kinetic activity highly likely indicates that UAF are still willing to fight Russian Forces in order to maintain the high rates of attrition. The context of the Russian announcement and highly likely information operation remains important; the UAF have been consciously ceding ground to Wagner forces and their supporting conventional RFAF units for some months now, with the operation within Bakhmut enduring for the last nine months. The RFAF are still highly likely to be engaged in kinetic activity, pushing west for months to come, yet also bolstering defensive lines against likely UAF counterattacks. It is highly likely that RFAF will attempt to continue in the direction of Khromove (3km west of Bakhmut), Ivanivske (5km west of Bakhmut), and subsequently Chasiv Yar (10km west of Bakhmut), highly likely handrailing the Main Supply Routes (MSRs) which have continued to be essential for the UAF. Given that Wagner are reportedly beginning to withdraw, any further progress by RFAF is almost certainly to be slower than Wagner’s, with associated elevated levels of attrition. It is highly likely that Wagner, the more capable fighting force compared to conscripted and mobilised RFAF, is being relieved now that a symbolic Russian victory has been claimed. There has been no public declaration at this time regarding the next phase of operations for Wagner, however, it is highly likely that in the build-up to the anticipated UAF counteroffensive, Wagner forces will be reconstituting and resting, awaiting orders, and possibly being placed in reserve to respond to localised UAF counterattacks. Previously, Wagner forces have been seen to surge towards Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast in late February 2023, this type of activity will likely be seen again unless a specific Area of Operations (AoO) is designated again.
- It is highly likely that the tactical pauses seen along the Avdiivka-Donetsk line during the last reporting period was related to the Bakhmut offensive being the Russian main effort in order to declare the offensive as successful, requiring the disproportionate allocation of RFAF indirect fires. Likely similar to the Russian perception of Bakhmut being crucial to control of the entire Donetsk Oblast, Avdiivka has been heavily targeted. Avdiivka sits on an area of high ground within two intersecting MSRs to the south-east, and the T-0504 to the north transiting north-east towards Chasiv Yar. Logistically, occupation of Avdiivka is highly likely to be beneficial, however, previous battles in 2014 and 2017 suggest that it likely has symbolic importance too. Currently, there is no indication that the Avdiivka urban area or the Avdiivka-Donetsk Line is a Russian main effort. It is likely that a Bakhmut-esque method of encirclement (if intended, and not simply the exploitation of the open, flat surrounding areas) will be equally as incremental, however, it is also likely that RFAF are not in a position to become entrenched in another battle of attrition. Instead, it is likely that RFAF are applying enough kinetic pressure to ensure that UAF whilst still technically defending Avdiivka, is unable to fully operate within the urban area.
Geo-located imagery of two Russian T-80 tanks destroyed west of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. Source: @NOELreports
Operational / Strategic Military
- The recent incursion into Belgorod Oblast by elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) has prompted various reactions from local and federal Russian authorities. In response, they declared a counterterrorism operation aimed at ensuring the safety of residents in the region. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed to have successfully repelled the raid, forcing the "saboteurs" out of Belgorod Oblast. However, within the Russian information space, there has been a mixture of panic, internal divisions, and confusion among milbloggers and commentators. While the counterterrorism operation has ‘officially’ concluded, efforts are still underway to clear the affected areas.
Video purportedly showing members of the RDK in Glotovo, Belgorod Oblast. Source: @sentdefender
- This incident has raised concerns about the effectiveness of Russian defensive fortifications and the potential for further raids or Ukrainian counteroffensives. It also underscores the need for Russia to now consider the defence of its 2,295km land border with Ukraine, alongside its focused offensive efforts in Bakhmut. Throughout the conflict, NATO has consistently emphasised that Ukraine should refrain from initiating attacks or using NATO equipment to engage Russian forces on Russian soil. This insistence is likely grounded in the principles of collective defence, stability, and a diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict. NATO likely aims to prevent further escalation and promote a peaceful resolution while supporting Ukraine's defence efforts. However, use of ‘Russian’ proxies aligned with the UAF circumvents these NATO-imposed limitations.
- It can be argued that this stance has unintentionally allowed Russian forces to focus their efforts on offensive operations across a more limited AoO. By restricting Ukraine's ability to directly confront Russian forces within Russia's borders, NATO's position may have provided Russia with a strategic advantage. An advantage that allowed Russian forces to concentrate their resources and attention on offensive actions instead of allocating significant resources to defend their territory.
- Moreover, the incursion has revealed internal divisions and dissenting voices within Russia. Pro-Ukrainian volunteer groups, predominantly composed of Russian citizens, have triggered a range of reactions in the Russian information space. These reactions include accusations of treason and speculation about their motivations, highlighting the fragmented nature of public sentiment and the challenges faced by Russian authorities in maintaining a unified narrative. Such divisions' existence emphasises the situation's complexity and the difficulties Russia may encounter in effectively responding to the ongoing conflict.
- On 24 May 2023, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, whilst in attendance at an event in Brussels, ruled out Ukraine joining NATO whilst the conflict with Russia was still ongoing.
NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at an event held by the think-tank, German Marshall Fund, in Brussels. Source: @gmfus
- Noting that there were different views within the alliance on the speed with which Ukraine should become a member, Stoltenberg likely made this statement ahead of the NATO summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July 2023. Although Ukrainian President, Volodymir Zelensky requested in September 2023 fast-tracked membership, and Stoltenberg visited Kyiv in April 2023, it was highly likely symbolic and shows future intent. It is highly likely that overt NATO support to Ukraine will continue, with a view to Ukrainian membership in the future. However, immediate membership is likely to be given precedence to Sweden (with Finland’s membership expedited, joining in April 2023), as a country which also neighbours Russia, yet not engaged in conflict. Given that NATO allies have still not admitted Sweden, again, due to disagreements within the alliance, and whose membership is now not likely until spring 2024, it will still likely be some time yet before Ukraine does the same.
- Ukraine’s membership in NATO within the current state of the conflict would highly likely intensify the conflict within Ukraine, possibly to geode NATO allies and/or Europe into a conflict it does not want. Yet it would also likely have political and strategic implications amongst countries other than Russia, who perceive global dominance to lie with the West or Western military blocs. China stated in point two of its proposed 12 Point Peace Plan, no further expansion of military blocs. Whilst this plan has not in any way been supported by President Zelensky, it highly likely shows sentiment. Regardless of Ukraine’s membership, NATO has likely operated and will continue to operate within the bounds it feels necessary to ensure that Ukraine has multi-faceted support.
The declaration of Russian success in Bakhmut has likely been overshadowed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s publication of losses, leading to research and further speculation by milbloggers of Russian losses as a whole, and the suspicion that the Kremlin would never release official numbers. Bakhmut is the first “victory” for Russia in approximately a year, and has been hard won, with a high cost, likely for little gain. It is possible that wherever Wagner forces are committed next within Ukraine, the assumption amongst Wagner forces would be the commencing of another Bakhmut-esque battle of attrition, with Wagner likely having manifested a niche of Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA). However, the Belgorod incursion, an unmanned boat attack against the Russian intelligence collection vessel, Ivan Khurs, in the Black Sea, has demonstrated that Russia faces a multi-dimensional threat. It is also possible that these threats away from the frontline have not been considered when looking at the ease with which RDK and LSR crossed the border into Russia. This likely period of reconsolidating for Wagner and the emergence of new threats at sea and within Russia’s own border will also require a period of Russia reassessing likely UAF courses of action and mitigating against thinly spread RFAF across the battlespace.