Tactical Military

  • Russia conducted a number of missile strikes across Ukraine over the last reporting period, targeting both civilian and industrial infrastructure. Civilians were reported to have been killed in Uman and Dnipro cities following the strike activity. Of note, in Pavlohrad, located east of Dnipro city, social media footage showed a missile strike had caused significant damage to local infrastructure following a number of explosions.
  • Ukrainian officials judge that the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) current missile strike strategy is to force the UAF to accelerate its own counteroffensive. Ukrainian air defence systems successfully intercepted Kh-101 and Kh-55 cruise missiles bound for Kyiv city. Shahed-136 UAS munitions have also been deployed as part of its recent strike activity.
  • The tactical situation in Bakhmut remains largely unchanged since the last report. The RFAF continued to probe Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) defensive lines, without making significant gains, nor cutting off UAF supply lines. The UAF are also reported to have started destroying buildings in western portion of the settlement.
  • On 29 April 2023, the UAF conducted a naval drone attack against an RFAF fuel depot in Sevastopol, Crimea. Up to ten tankers were reported to have been destroyed in this attack; approximately containing 40,000 tonnes of fuel.
  • Sabotage operations continue to be reported in Russian territory. One was conducted in Bryansk region, on 01 May 2023. A train was derailed which was being used to transport fuel and building materials to support RFAF operations. Power lines were also reported to have damaged in a separate attack in Leningrad region.

Footage reported to show smoke emanating from the attack site in Sevastopol, Crimea, on 29 April 2023. Source: @NOELreports

So What?

  • The UAF’s recent attacks into Russian (and Russian-held) territory is likely to draw a significant military response, potentially to coincide with Victory Day on 09 May 2023. Large-scale strikes are highly likely despite such activity causing the RFAF to be depleted of munitions to support offensive activities along its operational axes. In order to cause damage in key urban settlements, the RFAF will likely need to deploy sufficient munitions to evade UAF air defence systems – including the deployment of the Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombing platforms – in order to meet its own expectations. Attacks against logistics areas (such as fuel farms and ammunition storage facilities) are a likely part of shaping activity by the UAF to blunt the reaction to their upcoming spring/summer offensive.
  • There is some reporting to suggest that Shahed-136 drones have also been used to conduct Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD/DEAD) missions – potentially as a precursor to a more deliberate large-scale strike against military and infrastructure targets. This is partially supported by the relative lack of strikes conducted against electrical infrastructure in recent weeks. The UAF are also likely to have to redeploy a number of their mobile air-defence systems in support of tactical manoeuvre in order to prevent Russian air and aviation from disrupting offensive activity – which will likely leave static infrastructure with fewer defences and therefore more vulnerable to long-range strikes.
  • It is a realistic possibility that the UAF are demolishing defensible positions in western Bakhmut in preparation for a deliberate and phased withdrawal. This coincides with reporting of limited UAF offensive activity retaking some industrial areas in the centre of the city from Wagner troops, which may be a delaying action in order to allow other elements of the UAF to break contact and withdraw in good order. Bakhmut has likely been the Main Effort for the RFAF in 2023, but with little territorial gains to show from it. A UAF withdrawal from Bakhmut would almost certainly be shown in the Russian information space as a Russian victory – although western observers will no doubt see it as pyrrhic.

Operational / Strategic Military

  • General Mikhail Mizintsev has been removed as the Deputy Defence Minister after eight months in post. Initial reports of Mizintsev’s departure circulated on social media, which were denied by Russian officials. However, despite this initial denial Mizintsev’s replacement was announced on official Russian channels. Mizintsev was responsible for the RFAF’s military logistics operations. Following confirmation of his departure, Alexei Kuzmenkov – a former National Guard commander – has assumed the role.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin’s (Wagner PMC Head) activities continue to draw scrutiny from international media outlets after an interview which criticised the Russian MoD, claiming that losses in Bakhmut are ‘five times’ higher than necessary due to a lack of artillery ammunition. In this interview, Prigozhin stated that he had sent a letter to Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, asking for this to be addressed. Prigozhin intimated that failing to address his logistics concerns could result in his troops withdraw from key operational axes – notably Bakhmut.
  • The US National Security Council estimates that the RFAF have suffered 100,000 casualties since December 2022, including 20,000 deaths. According to US intelligence officials, Wagner PMC personnel account for half of these losses, including former convicts who had been recruited during a period of Russian mobilisation. Russia strongly refutes the US estimate, claiming it to be a fabrication.
  • NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that the UAF has now received 98% of the military aid promised by NATO allies, including 1550 armoured vehicles, 230 main battle tanks, and ammunition stocks. In addition to the equipment uplift, Stoltenberg also stated that the UAF have received training to be able to support its upcoming offensive operations.

NATO Secretary General’s comments on UAF support, including training and equipment provision. Source: @jensstoltenberg

  • There has been significant coverage of what appears to be a drone attack against the Kremlin overnight on 2/3 May 23 using two munitions. There has been CCTV footage released which appears to show an Unmanned Aerial System explode just above one of the domes of the Kremlin, and official Russian news channels have reported the incident as an attempted assassination of President Putin by Ukraine. The footage is currently unverified.

CCTV footage reportedly showing the impact of a drone on the Kremlin. Source: @sambendett

Media report highlighting US assessment on RFAF losses in 2023. Source: @Newsweek

So What?

  • Mizintsev’s removal is emblematic of the RFAF’s ongoing logistics issues in the conflict. Despite the Russian MoD’s drive to increase its industrial production to meet the needs of the conflict, ground truth reporting continues to show a short-fall which is directly contributing to the RFAF’s rate of attrition and slow rate of advance. Regardless of the change in leadership, the RFAF’s logistics issues are likely to persist. This will continue to impact on RFAF morale, and present further opportunities for Ukraine and its partners to control the media narrative further undermining Russia’s actions to a domestic audience.
  • The Russian MoD’s logistics issues continue to impact its relationship with Wagner PMC. Prigozhin’s messaging has remained consistent throughout; criticism towards Shoigu and the MoD is likely designed to deflect away from the PMC’s publicised losses, attributing blame on external parties. It also gives Prigozhin a potential justification to withdraw its forces from the Ukrainian theatre, back into more economically favourable environments – including Africa – without impacting its own reputation. This is pertinent given the increasing influence of other PMC’s operating in Ukraine. Despite this friction, Prigozhin and Wagner PMC will continue to push offensive operations in Bakhmut in the short-term, likely attempting to achieve a symbolic victory ahead of 09 May 2023.
  • The timing of the US estimate of RFAF losses is designed to achieve maximum effect in the information landscape. Once this figure entered the public domain, to most readers outside of Russia it is treated as fact. This enables the US and its allies to then continue to amplify connecting sub-narratives which have been fundamental to driving down RFAF morale and sowing seeds of concern within Russia itself. This includes the following:
    • The RFAF’s failure to make any strategic gains in Bakhmut over the last 6-months.
    • Further highlight Russia’s poor recruitment, training, and military leadership.
    • Downplay the importance and effectiveness of Wagner PMC.

This ability to influence the information space, both in Russia and the west, is also important to maintaining UAF momentum heading into its counteroffensive. As the operational tempo increases, losses are likely to occur as the UAF encounter fortified RFAF defensive positions.

  • Stoltenberg’s comments paint a positive picture for the upcoming UAF counteroffensive. However, it should be noted that anecdotal reporting has suggested that UAF ammunition stocks are low along some axes. 17th Tank Battalion commanders, operating near Bakhmut, stated that there has been a notable shortage in comparison to 2022 offensive output. BM-21 ‘Grad’ rocket ammunition has been cited as a specific vulnerability, which critical to suppressing and fixing RFAF positions. As a result, commanders will remain vocal in encouraging international partners to increase support ahead of the counteroffensive, especially where UAF elements remain concerned that western support will wane at some stage.
  • There is a lack of verified information about the drone attack against the Kremlin. It is unlikely that the UAF could fly a drone all the way from Ukraine to the Kremlin without it being intercepted, in spite of failures in the Air Defence network previously. Additionally, the Kremlin did not immediately deny the attack took place, nor pose any other reasons it may have occurred. It is a realistic possibility this was a ‘false flag’ attack conducted by Russian security services to set domestic information conditions and galvanise the public against Ukraine. It cannot be ruled out that Russian partisans/dissident groups were behind the attack. It is highly likely Russia will use the attack to justify additional strikes against civilian infrastructure, particularly in Kyiv.

Political

  • The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, met with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, at a National Security Council meeting in New York. One key issue discussed in this reported meeting was the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is set to expire on 18 May 2023. As a result, Ukrainian officials have become increasingly vocal on this issue in the last reporting period. Officials remain sceptical over whether Russia will extend the agreement beyond this date. Russia, at the time of reporting, stated that negotiations are ongoing but emphasises that its own agricultural needs must be addressed in order for the next phase of this agreement to proceed.

Comments from Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, ahead of the proposed Black Sea Grain Initiative meeting in Istanbul on 05 May 2023. Source: @anadoluagency

So What?

  • The combination of RFAF losses, UAF attacks in-depth across Crimea, and the threat of the UAF counteroffensive means that Russia will likely attempt to leverage the Black Sea Grain Initiative to maintain a degree of influence in political engagements. Russia is likely cognisant to the fact that the UN (notably the US) will not agree to Russia’s demands to facilitate Russian agricultural banks back into the SWIFT banking system. However, this is unlikely to dissuade Russia from continuing politicking in this manner. It understands the importance of this deal in driving down global food prices, and preventing shortages of these commodities in developing economies. Russia is also concerned that the UAF are exploiting movement corridors to conduct clandestine military activities in Crimea – a move which Russia would likely use to disconnect itself from renewing the initiative. It is the only diplomatic lever Russia has at its disposal at this time. The proposed meeting on 05 May 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey, is the next key date in this matter. However, there is a possibility that this meeting will not go ahead. Current indicators suggest any extension could be subject to negotiations until the 11th hour.

What Next?

The tactical picture is expected to remain largely extant in the next reporting period.

UAF probing activity is to be expected along the southern axis, where testing and understanding RFAF defensive obstacles/engineering works, response times, and fortified positions will continue to be observed. Reports of UAF reconnaissance patrols in Russian-held territory are also expected in support of this shaping activity ahead of a larger-scale counteroffensive once the terrain is more conducive to enable manoeuvre operations.

As Russia prepares for the inevitable counteroffensive, further strike activity is expected. Reporting from the last 7-days shows that the RFAF are likely to continue to target (in principal) industrial infrastructure, but it is probable that there will also be an increase in civilian casualties. In the build-up to Victory Day on 09 May 2023, Kyiv, Dnipro and other major population centres are highly likely to be the RFAF’s main targets.

The situation in Bakhmut is likely to remain confused – with Operational Security (and public rhetoric) overshadowing a possible UAF withdrawal. This withdrawal could be a ‘come on’ to lure RFAF elements into taking an already destroyed city and becoming prey to pre-planned fires and demolitions – fixing the force in place and allowing the UAF to reconstitute and rehabilitate – possibly in order to become an operational reserve for UAF offensive activity. The defence of Bakhmut has likely fulfilled its symbolic and practical purpose of dragging increasing numbers of Russian forces into a strategically insignificant area at great cost in men, materiel, and ammunition. The UAF are likely however to remain flexible and capable of conducting spoiling attacks or holding the defensive line should it become operationally necessary, or should an opportunity arise to create another dilemma for the Russian Ground Forces Commander.

RFAF logistics issues, well documented, will persist over the medium term and will likely fuel further negative statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, will remain Prigozhin’s main target for this criticism. Shoigu – following the replacement of his direct subordinate – will be under increasing pressure to allay domestic concerns over the slow rate of military industrialisation.

Consequently, Russia is likely to continue to use the Black Sea Grain Initiative as a lever of influence and potentially stymie the upcoming UAF counteroffensive.

UAF serviceman conducts training in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Photo credit: Peter Masters Photography