Russian progress has been slow but steady. Recently two clear priorities have emerged, Kyiv and Mariupol. The majority of OSINT reporting received thus far demonstrates a western pro-Ukraine bias. This bias has repercussions for the onlooker and can, on occasion, produce an overly favourably assessment of Ukrainian defence. That said, this week has seen a trend in reporting which suggests Ukrainian defence forces are not just holding up RFAF in Kyiv but posturing for a successful removal of their forces from north-eastern Kyiv. There are in fact murmurings the Russia may give up on Kyiv to focus on other strategic goals such as Mariupol. The situation however is far more complex, from which multiple courses of action may occur.
Please read the Prevail Daily OSINT summary to understand the regular changes in the Front Line of Enemy Troops (FLET). As it stands RFAF have continued a phase of heavy bombardment to soften targets whilst deepening their positions where needed. The logistics supply to their forward elements has been heavily targeted by Ukrainian defenders but the current effect of this is not assessed to be decisive. Far more important is Ukrainian ability to hold positions on the FLET for a protracted period. In Kyiv an enduring siege is expected, the level of attrition will be high and to tolerate this RFAF are currently preparing their positions and supplies. In Mariupol RFAF have a favourable situation, they have flanked their opposition (including on the maritime flank) and have force ratios that mean a siege is unlikely to endure as long as Kyiv, thus preparations required are less impactful on overarching operational plans.
In the wake of the Russian MoD announcement on 25 Mar 22 that the first phase of the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine was complete, and focus would now shift to securing the Donbass, it is understood that military operations in the country will endure. The political situation is also likely to have degraded following US President Biden’s speech in Poland – in which he (apparently unscripted) said "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power" in reference to President Putin of Russia. This confrontational approach will almost certainly provide excellent propaganda opportunities for Putin with his allies and domestic audience – likely a chance to showcase that the US and West are seeking regime change in Moscow. It is a realistic possibility this will resonate with allied nations such as Belarus and possibly China. It is also likely that this statement by Biden will make a diplomatic solution even harder to find than it was previously and does not bode well for a short-term resolution to the conflict.
The current military situation to the east of Kyiv appears to have reached a stalemate at this time. There has been no significant RFAF progress towards taking Skybyn or Brovary, despite limited offensive activity over the last 48hrs. RFAF have been forced to withdraw approximately 15-20km from their former front line near Skybyn and are now over 30km east of Kyiv city centre. It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF are currently unable to counterattack as forces have likely been diverted from this axis (originating In the Vicinity Of (IVO) Sumy) to protect extended resupply lines.
On 23 Mar 22 Russian forces in the Irpin-Bucha-Hostomel area were surrounded by a Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) counterattack. The encirclement of the Russians has not been confirmed by any official sources, although the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has reported that offensive action was taken in the area. As of 26 Mar 22, fighting is still ongoing in Irpin and Hostomel, and there have been no reported territorial changes for either side.
Despite limited access to confirmatory reporting, it is believed that between 3 and 5 RFAF Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) are based around Hostomel airport – which appears to be the central logistics and organisational node for the push into Kyiv. For the desired 3:1 ratio for a deliberate attack (raising to 5:1 for defenders in urban areas in prepared positions), the UAF would require between 9 and 25 BTGs (or 1-3 Corps) to recapture the area and clear it of RFAF defenders. Should the Ukrainians wish to merely encircle and isolate the RFAF, it would likely require them to link up forces, likely roughly along the M07 Highway between Irpin and Borodyanka, a distance of approximately 22km. This would then create an approximately 400km2 ‘pocket’ of RFAF personnel and equipment.
Whilst the RFAF appear to have stalled around Kyiv they are taking on a defensive footing – laying minefields and constructing defensive earthworks and counter-mobility obstacles, it is highly likely that the battle for Kyiv will endure for some weeks yet. There is some anecdotal reporting to indicate that life in Kyiv is beginning to ‘normalise’ and internally displaced persons are returning from Lviv, however this is likely to be premature and dangerous. Ukrainian defenders have damaged infrastructure to cause flooding to the north of Kyiv on the west bank of the Dnieper River IVO Demydiv. The flooded area severely restricts access to northern Kyiv, Vyshorod and the ‘Kyiv Hydro-electric Power Plant 409 MW’ for RFAF and secures the northern flank of UAF. In spite of the Russian announcement on 24 Mar 22 that the ‘first stage of the operation is complete’, and that the focus will now be on Donetsk and Luhansk – there is no indication of Russian forces withdrawing or ceasing combat operations along the northern axes onto Kyiv.
Mariupol remains under siege, and Russian forces are conducting their assault into the city with slow but steady progress and fighting is now ongoing in the city centre and the Azovstal Iron and Steel works.
The Azov Battalion was formed in 2014 as a paramilitary organisation to fight rebels in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and was one of the first units to capture Mariupol in Jun 14. The Battalion was absorbed into the official Ukrainian Armed Forces in Nov 14 and became a ‘Special Purpose Regiment’ of approximately 900 personnel. The unit undoubtedly had Nazi/far-right connections and was famed for fighting with Nazi symbology painted onto helmets and equipment. In Mar 15 the US withdrew an offer to train the Regiment after its association with Nazism became more well known. Despite attempts in Aug 15 to ‘purge’ white supremacists from the ranks, there are still indications of individuals and sub-units exhibiting far-right traits and symbology – and this is likely to be a significant factor in Putin’s justification for the ‘Special Military Operation’ to ‘De-Nazify’ Ukraine. Azov are reportedly headquartered in Urzuf, a coastal town between Mariupol and Berdyansk, and are likely to have relocated east into Mariupol as the Crimea-based RFAF advanced east along the coast. Urzuf and Berdyansk are now almost certainly under RFAF control, having been seized by forces from the Crimea in the early stages of the campaign. Chechen Special Forces (SF) have reportedly been using their experience and expertise to act as ‘shock troops’ to conduct urban clearances in Mariupol and are now likely engaged in fighting against Azov. Azov soldiers in Mariupol are reportedly using extreme tactics to target Chechen forces.
On 11 Mar 22, Russian forces declared that after 10 days of operations in the area, they had completed the encirclement of Mariupol and destroyed bridges accessing the city. Since late Feb 22 Mariupol has been under bombardment by RFAF and the humanitarian situation in the city has steadily degraded. RFAF elements from Crimea approached along the coast from the west, and Russian-Led Separatist Forces (RLSF) and RFAF units from southern Donetsk Oblast conducted the approach from the East. During the siege there has also been fighting further north in order to increase Russian depth and prevent infiltration of supplies, aid, and reinforcements. The UAF have so far rejected demands for surrender which were offered by Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev on 20 Mar 22, which were summarily rejected by the Ukrainian Government. There have been several reports of Russian forces not allowing the evacuation of civilians from the city, nor the entry of humanitarian relief convoys. There has been some limited civilian evacuation from the city since it was encircled, however this has been small-scale and insufficient to relieve the critical situation.
If RFAF elements northwest of Kyiv were to become surrounded, then Russia would seek to increase the frequency of air-strikes against UAF forces, as they establish limited control of the airspace. The isolation of RFAF elements to the northwest of Kyiv may also cause the Kremlin to put further pressure on Belarus to commit troops to the war further west in Ukraine to draw the counter-attacking forces away from the potential encirclement – possibly south from Stolin towards Sarny and Rivne along the P05 highway.
As it stands Russia is unlikely to be able to complete the encirclement of the Kyiv with current forces, however, they may have stalled but are a long way from being defeated comprehensively. In spite of the RFAF being well equipped with amphibious troop transports (BTRs, BMPs and MTLBs) these are unlikely to be able to successfully cross flooded areas due to mud and obstacles that likely litter the flooded area. Additionally, there is vulnerability associated with equipping snorkels for fording but identifying such equipment would act as a combat indicator for UAF. It is highly unlikely that RFAF will seek to bring engineers or bridging equipment to seek alternative crossing means whilst the threat of UAF indirect fires exists. It should also be noted that the flooding is likely to have some negative impact on UAF counterattacks intended to isolate the RFAF by preventing their advance north along the west bank of the Dnieper and west to cut RFAF Ground Lines of Communication (GLoC).
It is almost certain that any neo-Nazi/far-right items captured in Mariupol will be propagandised by the Russians in order to legitimise their actions to both domestic and international audiences. It is a realistic possibility that ‘proxy-media’ or pro-Russian accounts will significantly amplify any evidence found in an attempt to gain the front-foot on Information Operations – something Russia has performed surprisingly poorly at thus far.
Russia is unlikely to allow more humanitarian aid into Mariupol, nor to allow evacuation of civilians as this would almost certainly prolong the siege. Russia is highly likely to be using old-fashioned siege tactics in order to force the capitulation of defenders and secure the city without significant damage to the port – which is infrastructure of economic and military significance to both sides of the conflict. Russia is currently fighting street-to-street and is reportedly entering the city centre (ASAT 25 Mar 22), with Russian forces from the east reaching the Azovstal Iron and Steel works, and forces from the west reaching the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. It is highly likely that the two elements will seek to join-up in the town centre to improve communication, co-ordination, and resupply, whilst providing mutual support. Once the units have joined, it is likely that clearance in detail will begin, probably seeking to secure the southern half of the city, and the port area before pressing north to eliminate remaining resistance. It is a realistic possibility that Mariupol will be seized within the next week – however resistance elements are highly likely to remain in Mariupol conducting asymmetric/insurgency-style attacks against Russian occupiers indefinitely, or until destruction.