- Military round-up, latest highlights
- RFAF ‘Phase 2’ of the ‘Special Military Operation’
- Bombardment – What do we mean when we say a city is being bombarded?
- Bias in reporting regarding Ukraine
- Russian Media Coverage
Military round-up and latest hightlights
Russia Announcement – North Axis
Following a series of tactical setbacks, Russian officials announced on 29 Mar 22 that it would scale back its operations in Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts to build mutual trust and set the conditions to achieve a long-term peace deal. This announcement was quickly followed by reports from United States (US) intelligence officials that claimed there was already evidence that Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) were starting to withdraw from Kyiv Oblast in what they assessed to be a “major strategy” shift. However, separate US reporting stated that there was “little confidence at this stage” that RFAF activity marked a significant shift, and all parties should heed Russia’s words with caution.
Post Announcement Reaction
Russia’s announcement generated intense online speculation as to Russia’s future intent, plus evaluating the candour and veracity of its statement. Initially, journalists, military experts and online commentators believed that Russia had been forced to play this hand. Suffering setback after setback over the last month (but certainly in the last 7-days) resulted in Russian officials having to use the peace talks in Istanbul to minimise its reputational damage, whilst giving the impression that it was fully integrated into the peace process.
Subsequently, most social media users (including think-tank experts, citizen journalists, ex-military officials, and open-source analysts) agreed with the more pessimistic view that Russia is looking to redeploy its forces to other axes – notably to the north-east (Izium), east to the Donbass region, and south to support the urban clearance operation in Mariupol, where the RFAF is having greater success. Some commentators added that they believe Russia’s statement amplified the perception that the RFAF is unable to isolate and encircle Kyiv, thus not being able to decapitate the Zelenskyy government. To support this, some commentators noted that Russian messaging on Kyiv had softened, especially with regards to Zelenskyy over the last two weeks. This was suggested to be further evidence of Russia’s “major strategy” shift away from Kyiv, focusing on military objectives it can hold and fit into its long-term Russification strategy.
Either way, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, made a pointed statement on 29 Mar 22 that if Russia believes that it can “only subjugate the eastern part of Ukraine and the southern part of Ukraine can succeed, then once again they are profoundly fooling themselves”.
UAF Counter-attacks – North Axis
As of 29 Mar 22, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have had notable successes on both the western and eastern areas around Kyiv. Irpin, a key battleground since the commencement of the invasion, is now under UAF control. Successful counterattacks, supported by resolute defensive operations have been noted in Bucha, Hostomel, and along the M06 route towards Makariv. Whilst there is likely to have been a local (and western) bias in reporting, indicators suggest that UAF will seek to advance and retake further RFAF-held territory. Similarly, to the east of Kyiv, UAF had successfully repelled multiple RFAF attacks near Brovary and north along the E95 towards Chernihiv, and the H05 towards Sumy. Reporting suggested that RFAF had to withdraw up to 30km after sustaining heavy losses in Lukashi and Luk’yanivka. Critically, the UAF have been able to maintain momentum throughout this reporting period, which has manifested into achieving a succession of short-term military victories.
Northeast, East, and South Axes
Donbass and Kharkiv have been highlighted in this report as locations where RFAF elements previously operating on the North axis are likely to deploy. Further tactical insights on other locations can be derived from the DAILY OSINTSUM products.
Donbass Region + South Coast
The RFAF are reported to be in a regrouping phase before the resumption of offensive operations across the Donbass region. Current RFAF efforts have been focussed on Popasna, Rubizhne, and Sievierodonetsk in Luhansk; whilst air and artillery bombardment has been routinely reported across the line of contact (LOC) in Donetsk. Slovyansk is reported to be a key RFAF objective in the short-term, receiving reinforcements from Sumy region. Whilst the RFAF is building pressure, marginal gains have only been reported and UAF defensive positions have held firm. This axis is likely to be reinforced to push south in the next phase and entrap UAF Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) soldiers near the (LOC).
Izium has been the focal point for RFAF offensive activity in the last reporting period, highlighting the importance of the M05 route to the RFAF to link up Kharkiv and Donetsk units. On 25 Mar 22, RFAF officials claim to have gained control of the city. However, subsequent reporting has indicated that clashes are ongoing, including RFAF attacks against Topolske, Kamyanka, and Sukha Kamyanka.
Russia highly likely made a strategic miscalculation regarding Kyiv and the intensity of UAF resistance. RFAF have sustained heavy losses that have derogated at the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) level. Over the period of the conflict this has seriously degraded RFAF capability and the ability to mass combat power for offensive operations on the Northern axis.
Whilst the failure to secure Kyiv is being seen as a ‘tacit admission’ of failure, Russia is now likely switching focus onto the Donbass region and the consolidation of existing territorial gains. This allows Russia to revaluate its aims under the auspices of diplomatic negotiation and enables a pause to reorganise and consider offensive operations with a greater chance of success. Similar consideration appears to have been given in Sumy, where RFAF elements have been reported to have withdrawn to support future Donbass operations.
Russia focusing on more limited operational aims creates additional risk for the UAF. UAF offensive operations increase the risk of overextending and creating defensive gaps which the RFAF may exploit. In Chernihiv, Russian Special Forces elements are already conducting such attacks and it is highly likely that the RFAF will adopt similar tactics in areas conventional troops have withdrawn from. A key aspect of UAF success has been to effectively monitor the RFAF axis of advance and maintaining positions which enable the UAF to act decisively and repel RFAF advances.
It is currently unclear how many RFAF units will redeploy, and it is likely that the UAF will need to enter a military planning phase to evaluate RFAFs likely Courses of Action (CoAs) and adapt accordingly. Two possible RFAF CoAs are covered later in this report. Western leaders have cautioned against taking Russia at its word and this scepticism will remain in the forefront of Ukrainian thinking. Whilst the RFAF ground threat has likely dissipated from Kyiv in the medium term, the invasion will now take on a different trajectory where Russia may be able to gain operational momentum.
Likely initial objective to complete the clearance of Mariupol and consolidate gains before re-orientating north for future offensive operations.
Likely successive objective (and probable RFAF main effort) to isolate ATO forces.
Continued shelling/strikes in major urban centres and UAF defensive locations to reduce morale, increase the logistic/humanitarian burden for Ukraine, and fix defending forces to prevent reinforcement of the LOC in Donbass.
Redistribution of forces and force generation of new BTGs to deploy to the eastern and southern fronts.
Repositioning of aviation to the south and east.
Ongoing political talks to provide breathing room for re-orientation and reconstitution, as well as likely seeking to make a case for a reduction in sanctions.
Possible further attempts to draw Belarussian armed forces into the conflict to reinforce RFAF areas of operation where significant losses have occurred, likely northwest of Kyiv.
Stockpiling of ammunition in vicinity of besieged towns to maintain bombardment.
Ongoing strikes against UAF lethal aid, command and control, ammunition and logistics depots, and massed formations.
Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) ‘Phase 2’ of the Special Military Operation – Secure the Donbass – Possible Courses of Action (CoAs)
President Putin announced the successful completion of ‘Phase 1’ of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine on 25 Mar 22, and this report looks at two possible courses of action for the RFAF in ‘Phase 2’ of the operation – which will purportedly focus on securing the Donbass (encompassing both the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR) and Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (LPR)). The possible reduction in scope of RFAF objectives is almost certainly indicative of a failure to achieve the previous assessed objective to seize regional/administrative capitals and remove the Ukrainian government whilst destroying the combat effectiveness of the UAF. A revised plan for ‘Phase 2’ with more limited objectives is highly likely, with a probable objective of isolating UAF units and forcing the Zelensky government to bow to Russian demands in the diplomatic space.
Assessed Most Likely Course of Action (MLCoA)
The assessed MLCoA has an objective of isolating Ukrainian ATO troops currently located along the western edge of Donetsk in order to reduce UAF combat power and force the surrender or destruction of a significant portion of the UAF. This would set conditions for occupation and consolidation along the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. This is likely intended to link the Donbass with the land-corridor to Crimea along the south coast and would encompass Donetsk, Luhansk and the southern parts of Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, and the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as a limited imposition of the ‘Novorossiya’ concept (see Prevail Insight Fortnightly Report ‘How Ukraine Could Look Post-Conflict – A Possible Course of Action’ dated 18 Mar 22). It is unlikely that Moscow will want to completely withdraw in the vicinity of Kyiv, instead seeking to fix UAF defenders there through fires, whilst blocking to the east to prevent reinforcement of the ATO by UAF units previously engaged near Kyiv. The use of fires to fix defenders would free up some manoeuvre elements to reposition, likely by train and road through Belarus – Belgorod – Rostov-on-Don to support the assessed main effort to isolate the ATO from the Kharkiv and Donetsk/Southern coast axes. It is likely that diplomatic overtures will be maintained throughout the redeployment of troops to portray Russia in a more positive light and provide strategic deception by maintaining the illusion that a diplomatic solution is possible in the short term. Further detail of possible activity before (shaping phase), during (decisive phase) and after (sustaining phase) this operation is provided on the CoA schematic.
Assessed Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCoA)
The most dangerous CoA would likely be an enlarged version of the MLCoA, also encompassing the mobilisation and deployment of Belarussian ground forces northwest of Kyiv originating near Gomel. This would see Belarussian forces maintaining pressure on Kyiv’s defenders through a counter-attack by fires (with RFAF support) whilst seeking to re-take and retain forward bases IVO Hostomel, Irpin and Bucha. Subsequently, forces would continue to probe Kyiv’s defences for weakness to set conditions for a renewed assault, likely during ‘Phase 3’ of the operation. Concurrent to this, bombardment and attempts to find and destroy Ukrainian central government are likely to occur – with the killing of Zelensky and senior advisors as a likely high-priority task. Additionally, RFAF units would be reconstituted and moved through Russia to the southern front – likely alongside increased air and aviation, in order to support a push north along the east bank of the Dnieper River towards Dnipro city. Capture of Dnipro, with link up from the northeast on the axis southwest from Kharkiv would then effectively split Ukraine in two and set conditions for the destruction of the ATO and occupation of the majority of eastern Ukraine’s Russophone population. Russia has greater control of the airspace in the south away from Kyiv, and it is likely that ground manoeuvre would be supported by significant air assets providing Close Air Support (CAS), deep strike and airborne support to the offensive. Precision Guided Munitions would likely be used sparingly against high-value targets, with the majority of air support being conducted using ‘dumb’ munitions in a conventional Soviet style.
Bombardment – What do we mean when we say a city is being bombarded?
Russia is striking targets in Ukraine in two ways (excluding Naval Barrage), this is through artillery and Precision Guided Missiles. Artillery is predominantly used and is employed against large area targets. In recent weeks it has been used against all major cities and towns prior to ground offences. Artillery fire is normally classified as In Direct Fire (IDF) as they don’t use any technical guidance system such as Global Positioning System (GPS), they are instead aimed and fired. Precision Guided Missiles (PGM) are different, most commonly delivered by air and using GPS to ensure they hit their target. Russia uses these to strike key terrain and vital ground. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia is facing a 60% failure rate of PGM. Otherwise, the Ukrainian attacks on logistics have so far been unable to seriously attrit RFAF munitions and Russia will be able to maintain the same level of artillery engagment in the mid-term.
Below is a list of mobile artillery that is used on all axes of the RFAF assault.
A self-propelled mortar must be equipped with its own propulsion system and a mortar as its primary weapon. A self-propelled mortar is deployed in a battery and due to it’s size and weight is used within Airbourne formations.
Self-propelled Howitzer (SPH).
Similar to the self-propelled mortar an SPH can move under its own steam and fires a Howitzer artillery gun as it’s primary weapon. A howitzer is a large ranged weapon between an artillery gun and mortar. SPH are deployed in a battery of 6 with a command vehicle.
Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL).
MRLs can be found in many variants, the most common is the vehicle mounted. The Russian military mount large MRLs onto older, large framed trucks (often Soviet). An MRL is able to fire a significant amount of munitions in a short period and a battery of MRLs can cause significant damage.
Precision Guided Missiles.
PGM can be fired using a variety of delivery systems, below are Air delivered missiles that have been used against key targets, specifically in Kyiv.
The Kh-555 is a Russian air-launched cruise missile designated the AS-15 Kent-C by NATO. The Kh-555 is used as a long-range standoff weapon. It is carried and launched by bomber aircraft, these include: Tu-160 long-range strategic bomber (12 missiles); Tu-95 strategic bomber (up to 16 missiles) and the Su-34 interdictor (1 missile).
The Kh-101 is a long-range standoff weapon. It is carried and launched by bomber aircraft. The Kh-101 is carried by modernized Tu-160M long-range strategic bombers (12 missiles internally) and Tu-95MSM strategic bombers (6 missiles internally and 8 missiles externally).
Bias in reporting regarding Ukraine
Western coverage is likely honest but suffering several prejudice and bias. Simply put the access of Western media outlets to information from the front line is dependent on a small number of UAF and government officials willing to provide information, the remainder is collected through civilian atmospherics. Limited access aside, these sources of information come with their own bias; a Ukrainian commander talking to a media outlet will want to display a number of things that will permeate all the way to the end reader, such as the dire situation (and need for support), also the steadfastness of their efforts (and how successful they are). The presence of Open Source Intelligence in social media has increased and now includes technical intelligence such as satellite imagery. This allows for a comprehensive level of coverage. Interpretation of all this information often comes without caveat or analytical language which gives levels of certainty, these also demonstrate bias; bias towards the defenders and bias towards possible outcomes such as Ukrainians pushing back Russian forces. These are not all unfounded, but the associated level of hope distorts the reality in some cases.
Russian coverage is harder to assess due to language and access to the full array of Russian sources, nor does the West understand the atmospherics in Russia. That said bias trends have been identified in Russian reporting. Firstly, they cover negotiations to a greater degree than military action. The military activity that is covered does not show the same detail as seen in the majority of Western outlets, but it does keep up to date with the current themes such as the assault on Mariupol. The coverage displays two interesting themes, the use of Donbass Peoples Republic (DPR) officials to provide quotes and continual justification, while signalling evidence of far-right influence in the UAF. The use of DPR quotes is not engineered, there does exist a desire by ethnic Russian Ukrainians to be part of Russia. Lenta.RU have used DPR statements regarding the lack of satisfaction regarding the negotiations to demonstrate the continual engagment required by Russia in Ukraine. Evidence of far-right material is far more likely to be engineered at source than by the media outlet. This does not mean that such material does not exist. In general, the bias in Russian reporting is engineered where as the bias in Western coverage is due to circumstance.
Russian Media Coverage
The new “fake news” legislation passed by Russia’s Parliament enables the justice system to prosecute anti-war protesters and influential critics of the state.
According to NGO Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty the number of websites, media outlets and online news sources (and their accounts on social networks) banned across Russia by Roskomnadzor is currently 32. These include:
- Novaya Gazeta
- 9 TV Channel Israel and Vesti Israel
- Novye Izvestiya
- Estonian newspaper Postimees
- Ust Kut 24
- Belarus-based Euroradio
- Current Time
- Kavkazsky Uzel
- RFE/RL’s Russian Service
Roskomnadzor has ordered Russian media to only publish information provided by official sources. It has also forbidden media outlets from describing the Ukraine conflict as a war or invasion, instead ordering it to be called a “special military operation.”
There are signs of the Kremlin’s hold over the media receding: Independent outlets The Echo of Moscow radio and Dozhd TV went off air after Russian authorities blocked access to their websites, instead of self-censoring; Several high-profile Russian journalists have resigned since the invasion; and the websites of banned Russian media such as Meduza and Mediazona operate from abroad due to restrictions at home.their primary source of news (The Conversation).
Putin cannot control the first “live-streamed war”.
Citizens can still post videos online that are viewed by millions despite the Russian government blocking many social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Russians continue to find ways to share information through virtual private networks and the Tor browser.
Research shows that TV is becoming less popular in Russia – in 2021 37% of Russians used social media as their primary source of news (The Conversation).