Northeast – Kharkiv and Western Luhansk Area of Operations

  • Over the weekend of the 8/9 January 2023, the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) continued to attack Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) positions to the northwest of Svatove near Stelmakhivka. Additional RFAF spoiling attacks were conducted near Makiivka, a site of heavy fighting in recent weeks.
  • Russian Telegram channels have been reporting that they are expecting a large UAF counter-offensive in Luhansk or Zaporizhia Oblasts as winter turns to spring, and on 5 January 2023 Budanov (Head of Ukrainian Military Intelligence, the GUR) stated that the UAF planned a “big push” for March this year.
  • There have been no reports of RFAF troop concentrations or formations of combined-armed groupings on the Russian border with Kharkiv Oblast.
  • The UAF continue to target ammunition storage areas, fuel sites and command posts in Luhansk Oblast in line with their target priority lists – likely as shaping activity for future operations.
  • Further south, the RFAF attacked west from Chervonopopivka (to the north of Kreminna) and Bilohorivka (Luhansk Oblast) to the south. Neither attack was reported to be successful. Some reporting indicates the UAF are fighting in urban areas of Dibrova, to the west southwest of Kreminna.
  • On 8 January 2023 the administration of the so-called ‘Luhansk Peoples’ Republic’ (LPR) stated that unidentified actors had struck a gas pipeline approximately 20km southwest of Luhansk City. The explosion and subsequent disruption reportedly affected 13,000 residents in the area.

Ukrainian General Staff report on Russian offensive actions in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Source: @Militarylandnet

Video footage reportedly showing flames at the damaged gas pipeline in Luhansk Oblast. Source: @visegrad24

So What?

  • The RFAF are likely to continue to attack west from the Svatove-Kreminna line in an effort to prevent UAF from massing for a major offensive, and to create space for the emplacement of reinforcements and the construction of further defences. If successful, the RFAF attacks are also likely to drive the UAF further from the P-66 highway and reduce artillery coverage of the route to allow for a greater influx of supplies and personnel.
  • It is likely that the UAF are using public broadcasts of intent as mis/dis-information to fix RFAF units and preoccupy Russian commanders with defensive preparations rather than offensive action. Prior to any major UAF offensive it is likely there will need to be a concentrated effort to disrupt RFAF resupply and target ammunition storage areas and hinder pre-planned defensive fires.
  • Due to a lack of force availability and an already-extensive front line, it is highly unlikely that the RFAF will launch another axis of attack into Kharkiv Oblast from Belgorod Oblast.
  • UAF probing attacks along the main axis of advance towards Kreminna are likely to be intended to force the RFAF to conduct defensive fires and therefore unmask their artillery pieces – which can subsequently be targeted with counter-battery fire. It remains unlikely that the UAF intend to conduct a frontal assault against Kreminna from the west.
  • It is likely that the explosion southwest of Luhansk city was caused by deliberate sabotage from Ukrainian partisans. Attacks against infrastructure will drive a further wedge between the resident civilian population and their Russian-proxy administrators, as well as force the RFAF/authorities to deploy personnel and equipment to project infrastructure. It is also a realistic possibility that targeting energy infrastructure is being conducted in revenge for Russian long-range strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure, which has left a lot of the country with unreliable or intermittent electricity, internet, water, and heating.

East – Donbas Area of Operations (assessed RFAF Operational Main Effort).

  • The assessed RFAF main effort to clear Donetsk Oblast of Ukrainian forces is ongoing, with most of the resource going into the capture of Soledar and subsequently Bakhmut.
  • Fighting is ongoing in Soledar, to the north-east of Bakhmut, and some reports say that the Russians have cut supply lines into the town from the north and the south/south-west. It is reported that the UAF General Staff have demanded all journalists operating in Soledar leave before the town becomes surrounded/isolated. Russia is reported to be committing a large number of infantry to the clearance operation, and some reports indicate that the initial objective of pro-Russian Wagnerite mercenaries is the capture of the salt mines.
  • Soledar is reportedly defended by the UAF 46th Airmobile Brigade, and elements of Ukrainian Border Guards, SSO (Special Operations Forces) and 17th Tank Brigade. Pro-Russian attackers are predominantly from the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), some of whom were recruited from prisons in Russia to fight in exchange for freedom when the contract is over.
  • Fighting is also ongoing in the industrial area on the eastern approach to Bakhmut and in Opytne to the south of the town. Reports of heavy casualties on both sides appear regularly, and it is likely that the significant commitment of manpower by pro-Russian forces will lead to continued incremental gains in the settlement.
  • Near Avdiivka the RFAF tried unsuccessfully to advance alongside the M-30 highway towards Pervomaiske, and to the north in Vodyane.
  • South-west of Donetsk at Marinka and Pobeida, further RFAF attacks were repelled. Russian offensive operations are ongoing along an approximately 180km front from Svatove in the north to Marinka in the south, with mobilised reinforcements arriving and a concentration of artillery systems to provide Offensive Support.

Footage reportedly geolocated to Soledar showing a United States (US) provided MRAP infantry carrier of the UAF 46th Airmobile Brigade in southern Soledar. Source: @JulianRoepcke

Thermal drone footage reportedly showing UAF Special Operations Forces operating at night near Bakhmut. Source: @SOF_UKR

So What?

  • It is highly unlikely that the Russian high command will abandon the main effort to take Bakhmut regardless of losses. Casualties are likely weighted heavily towards ill-trained Wagner mercenaries, who are unlikely to be given much consideration by either Wagner leadership or the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD).
  • Wagner head Prigozhin has likely prioritised the capture of the salt mines as a step towards greater economic rewards in the future – likely wanting business deals with the new controllers of the mines should the area be captured and pacified in the future. Prigozhin will also want to demonstrate success in the face of RFAF failure and press for amendments to Russian law in order to get his company (and to a lesser extent subordinates) recognised for its service in the war in Ukraine. Another reason may be more optimistic – Prigozhin wants the rights to claim ownership of the profitable salt mines in the area after the conflict is over. This however relies on Russian forces taking, and subsequently holding the area.
  • It is a realistic possibility that the situation in Soledar will become untenable for the UAF and they may be forced to withdraw in order to preserve combat power and deprive the RFAF of an opportunity for a significant information operation should large numbers of UAF personnel be forced to surrender.
  • Russia is likely expending a significant amount of artillery ammunition supporting offensives along the 180km front. It is highly likely that ammunition consumption rates outstrip RFAF resupply – however this problem is also likely to affect Ukrainian defenders and reduce their ability to launch effective counter-battery and defensive fires.

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

  • There have been no reported territorial changes along the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) in Kherson or Zaporizhia Oblasts.
  • Whilst the Ukrainians have stated they are still operating on the Kinburn Spit/Peninsula, Operational Security (OPSEC) prevents clarity of reporting. Some pro-Russian reporting indicates that the RFAF are fighting on Potemkin Island in the Dnipro Delta.
  • There is reporting to indicate that both the RFAF and UAF have small groups of forces operating in the various islands within the Dnipro Delta and are both vying for territorial control and calling for fires against enemy positions across the river.
  • The UAF continue to target logistics nodes and troop concentrations alongside Command and Control (C2) nodes within occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts. (No change).
  • Russia continues with defensive preparations along major Ground Line of Communication (GLoCs) in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, as well as the northern approaches to occupied Crimea. This includes emplacement of anti-tank obstacles such as dragon’s teeth, and the digging of trenches. (No change).

Image purported to show Russian Servicemen on Potemkin Island in the Dnipro on 9 January 2023. Image in unverified and not geolocated. Source: @Roberto05246129

Report covering the ongoing RFAF shelling in Kherson Oblast. Source: @EuromaidanPress

So What?

  • It is highly unlikely that either the UAF or RFAF will conduct an opposed river crossing in Kherson to secure more territory in the short to medium term.
  • Shelling in Kherson is likely to decrease as ammunition and weapon systems are sent to support the RFAF main effort in Donetsk Oblast and for the defence of Luhansk.
  • It is highly likely that Ukrainian partisans and SOF will continue to disrupt Russian movements, ammunition stores, troops concentrations and defensive positions through sabotage or calls-for-fire. It is likely that these groups also assist with the targeting of long-range strikes (predominantly using HIMARS) against RFAF high-value targets. Assassinations of occupation officials are also likely to continue.

What Next? (The week ahead)

It is highly unlikely that the RFAF will be able to build combined-arms groupings and open another axis in Kharkiv Oblast within the next seven days and beyond. Russia is currently focussed on reinforcing current defensive lines and conducting spoiling attacks in northern/western Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts. It is likely that the UAF will continue to resist Russian reconnaissance in force whilst probing defences and simultaneously conducting shaping operations; targeting troop concentrations and ammunition dumps, as well as degrading RFAF artillery to gain (localised) fire superiority. UAF artillerymen are also highly likely to continue to allocate artillery manoeuvre areas which are within range of the P-66 highway north of Svatove to disrupt Russian reinforcement and resupply.

It is a realistic possibility that the UAF may be forced to withdraw from Soledar and concentrate defences in Bakhmut in the short term. It is unlikely that the UAF will be able to deploy sufficient reinforcements nor complete regular unit rotations for the forces defending Soledar, and it is a realistic possibility the defence will become untenable within the next seven days. Bakhmut is unlikely to fall in the same timeframe; however, it is a realistic possibility that the RFAF will clear further buildings to the east of the city – possibly becoming bogged down again as they approach the Bakhmutovka River along the T-1302 highway. The main offensive activity (small squads/platoons advancing building-to-building with artillery support) is highly likely to be predominantly conducted by Wagner PMC forces – and any victories in this area are likely to be amplified and propagandized by Prigozhin.

Ukrainian strikes against Russian troop concentration areas are likely to continue, as and when the opportunities present themselves. Any successful attacks are likely to provoke Russian ‘retaliation’ strikes, which are likely to be publicised as far more successful than they are in reality. The pro-Ukrainian information space observed is likely to continue to play down casualty figures and difficult situations to maintain morale and international support.

Russia is likely to continue to move units and ammunition out of Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblast to prioritise activity near Donetsk (in Bakhmut, Soledar, and Avdiivka). Defensive preparations (such as engineering work and forcible recruitment of Local Nationals) are likely to continue in these regions, despite partisan activity and being a subordinate effort for the RFAF. Ukrainian partisans are almost certain to continue assassination, intelligence gathering, and targeting activity in occupied areas.

Aftermath of Russian attacks in Kharkiv