Northeast – Kharkiv and Western Luhansk Area of Operations

  • Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) conducted preparations for counter-offensives north-west of Svatove which included transportation of supplies and mine-laying on bridges crossing the Oskil River in anticipation of future Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) crossing attempts.
  • RFAF attempts to regain ground ceded to the UAF west of Kreminna have continued during this reporting period yet were reportedly unsuccessful. Both sides vie to regain lost territory, notably with skirmishes near Dibrova south-west of Kreminna; however, only marginal gains have been reported.
  • UAF strikes in rear areas of Luhansk Oblast remain extant; HIMARS strikes have been reported on a hospital in Novoaidar (55km east of Kreminna), Alchevsk (38km west of Luhansk City), and Kadiivka (48km west of Luhansk City).
  • There have been no reports of RFAF troop concentrations or formations of combined-armed groupings on the Russian border with Kharkiv Oblast. (NO CHANGE)

Damage because of UAF HIMARS on a hospital in Novoaidar, near Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast. Source: @neonhandrail

So What?

  • Whilst skirmishes have occurred in the western and southern vicinities of Kreminna during this reporting period, it is unlikely that any significant UAF counter-offensive will occur. Similarly, in Svatove there is still unlikely to be a UAF counter-offensive in the short term, with the RFAF having had time to prepare defensive positions. This would allow the UAF to avoid becoming sucked into an attritional clearance like the RFAF face in Bakhmut. (NO CHANGE)
  • Given the likely paucity of HIMARS ammunition and the targeting data required, it is highly likely that the hospital struck in Novoaidar was being used for military purposes and therefore was not under the protection of the Law of Armed Conflict. It is almost certain that the provision of Western weapons is dependent on assurances they will not be used to target protected or civilian objects without any military necessity.
  • Strikes are likely aimed at the erosion of RFAF Command and Control (C2) and to degrade logistics resupply and storage areas, to disrupt preparations for possible future offensive activity.
  • The RFAF main effort is highly likely in the Donetsk Oblast, and any shaping activity to the north of this will likely incur further targeting with strikes. It is likely that RFAF will prioritise control and defence of currently held areas with opportunistic advances, albeit small, and the prevention of UAF shaping for counter-offensives in the medium to long term. (NO CHANGE)
  • Due to a lack of force availability and an already-extensive front line, it is still highly unlikely that the RFAF will launch another axis of attack into Kharkiv Oblast from Belgorod Oblast. (NO CHANGE)

East – Donbas Area of Operations (assessed RFAF Operational Main Effort – seizure and occupation of all of Donetsk Oblast).

  • The previously assessed Russian main effort to clear Donetsk Oblast of Ukrainian Forces has continued, with most offensive operations taking place in this region over the reporting period.
  • Geolocated footage confirmed claims by Prigozhin that Wagner forces operating on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut have also taken the town of Blahodatne (approximately 12km north-east of Bakhmut) on 29 January, having successfully crossed the Bakhmutovka River. However, there is further reporting to indicate that RFAF are taking over in Bakhmut to replace exhausted Wagner forces. Some reporting also indicates VDV presence in the area since mid-January, indicated by the presence of airborne-specific platforms such as the BMD-4M.
  • Chasiv Yar (approximately 15km to the west of Bakhmut) had been identified by military commentators of being a possible means to encircle Bakhmut having taken Klischivka and Andriivka to the south. An advance towards Chasiv Yar would allow Russian forces to cut off Ukrainian forces Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut, which would force UAF to cede the area. However, this had been anticipated by UAF and has not currently been pursued by Russia.
  • Further reporting indicated that RFAF are also conducting offensives 150km south of Bakhmut along the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) in Vuhledar; making incremental gains to occupy the town, having taken the town of Mykilske on 27 January, 10km to the south-east. Whilst these towns are comparatively small in comparison to Bakhmut, there has reportedly been a high attrition rate for RFAF.

Social media speculation regarding the Wagner crossing of the Bakhmutovka River, which was later confirmed. Source: @DenkenHilift3

So What?

  • Although the Russian main effort continues in the east, it continues slowly with multiple fronts and at a high cost against UAF defended areas such as Bakhmut and Vuhledar. Since the last reporting period, repeated attempts to cross the Bakhmutovka River have now been successful, yet at a great cost for Wagner forces. Wagner forces replacement with conventional forces is highly likely dual-purposed; firstly, fresh troops will consolidate gains and make fresh advances, secondly, replacement of Wagner with ‘competent’ conventional forces of the RFAF pushes the current trend of bringing Prigozhin to heel.
  • Additionally, whilst the pro-Russian forces have crossed the river at Blahodatne, the UAF maintain defensive positions on the high ground above the town and have likely established a series of strongpoints in the area. It is likely that these will be difficult for Wagner/RFAF to overcome. The high ground likely covers the T-0503 road on the northern approach to Bakhmut, and a spur and re-entrant are likely to canalize Russian forces as they seek to advance on Bakhmut.
  • It is likely that the fighting in Bakhmut and its complexity has prevented or delayed the likely RFAF offensive north-east of Klishchivka and Andriivka towards Chasiv Yar. It is likely that the RFAF will have to channel more forces to the front if they wish to launch concurrent attacks. It is however possible that should the offensive east to west continue to be slow through Bakhmut, RFAF will look to apply pressure on Chasiv Yar to hasten fatigue and attrition of UAF combat effectiveness and force the redeployment of UAF defenders.
  • The occupation of Vuhledar will likely allow for Russian observation and therefore fire-control of the ground to the north which is reportedly flat and open towards Kurakhove. Located on MSR N15 which runs from the south of Donetsk toward the west, an advance towards Kurakhove by RFAF would highly likely allow for further control of GLoCs west of Donetsk, further enabling the Russian main effort of occupying the Donestsk Oblast in its entirety. A penetration of the defensive line at Vuhledar could enable the RFAF to turn the defences at Vodyane and prevent lateral movement of UAF units sent to repel further assaults on Marinka.
  • The potential for further RFAF Freedom of Movement (FoM) towards the west is likely worth the losses when assessed through a long-term perspective. Any MSRs in working order are highly likely to be of significant value given the relatively mild winter and its effect on the terrain when transiting cross-country.

South – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Black Sea Coast Area of Operations

  • During this reporting period there have still been no significant ground offensives by either the UAF or RFAF. Although there have been anecdotal reports by the Russian Ministry of defence (MoD) of section-sized attempts by the RFAF to improve tactical positions in various locations across Zaporizhzhia Oblast, these have not been corroborated.
  • A continuation of shelling, notably with the RFAF using incendiary munitions, has been seen in Beryslav, Kherson Oblast and Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
  • The UAF continued to target Russian logistics lines in rear areas of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, most notably a UAF HIMARS strike against a rail bridge in Svitlodolynske on the T0401 Melitopol-Tokmak highway. A Russian mil-blogger claimed that the strike killed workers who had been repairing the damage on the bridge from prior Ukrainian strikes and that the rail bridge supplies Russian forces closer to the front line. 
  • Both Russian and Ukrainian forces continue to raid and harass each other whilst vying for control of islands and islets in the Dnipro Delta. There has been no reporting to indicate an increase in the number of Russian troops operating in and on the river, and there has been no reporting to indicate preparations for a contested river crossing by either side.

RFAF press provides Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) of UAF HIMARS strike against a bridge used for Russian logistics in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Source: @Militarylandnet

So What?

  • Likely reasons for the RFAF use of incendiary munitions are two-fold; firstly, a lack of (or reprioritisation) of conventional high explosive munitions for both tube and rocket artillery on this axis, and secondly, because there is currently no intent to follow up the shelling with manoeuvre forces to take and hold ground.
  • The shelling is highly likely targeting both civilian areas and UAF concentrations whilst also allowing RFAF to continue defensive preparations and conduct reconnaissance-in-force to probe for weaknesses in the UAF line. (NO CHANGE)
  • As such the UAF are almost certainly continuing to use this time to ensure their own defences despite frequent bombardment activity. Similarly, reconnaissance-in-force, long-range strikes against high-value targets (using HIMARS), and sabotage activity in the short to medium term are likely shaping future offensives in the medium to long term. (NO CHANGE)

What Next (Next 7 Days)?

It is almost certain that the main effort for both the RFAF and UAF will be in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, especially since the Bakhmutovka River was successfully crossed by Wagner forces and its replacement with RFAF allows for GLoCs and fresh troops. It is likely that the RFAF territorial gains in Bakhmut will continue to be incremental. Previous assessments of UAF defensive preparations are extant; it is likely that the RFAF will encounter ambushes, pre-planned fires, and mines/IEDs among the ruins as they progress further into Bakhmut, providing time and space for an orderly retrograde and preventing the RFAF from exploiting the success at pace. If conventional RFAF units completely replace Wagner forces in Bakhmut, it is a realistic possibility that the Wagner forces will be re-tasked to Klischivka and attack towards Chasiv Yar to encircle Bakhmut and force the UAF into a withdrawal. This would start to confirm a possible new trend of using Wagner to penetrate areas of complex urban terrain, thus saving RFAF from rapidly losing the combat power required for subsequent manoeuvre in more open terrain. This course of action is highly likely anticipated by the UAF, but they may not have sufficient resources to counter this possible tactic.

Whilst the current RFAF main effort is in Donetsk Oblast, it continues to be highly unlikely that new concurrent RFAF offensives will take place elsewhere on the FLET. Instead, consolidation of previous gains and disruption of UAF shaping of counter-offensives will highly likely continue with shelling and repelling of UAF localised advances. Similarly, whilst UAF conduct the same activity against the RFAF, it is highly likely that both sides are anticipating the main effort to change in the short to medium term, regardless of the outcome in Bakhmut.

It is unlikely that there will be any significant change on the ground in Kherson or Zaporizhia Oblasts within the next week. It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF will conduct reconnaissance in force to probe the UAF defensive line and identify concentrations of troops as well as artillery firing points/manoeuvre areas. (NO CHANGE)

Destruction in towns of Donetsk Oblast due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war