Northeast – Kharkiv and Western Luhansk Area of Operations (assessed RFAF Operational Main Effort)

  • Since the last reporting period, it is now confirmed that Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have withdrawn to the west bank of the Oskil River in the vicinity of Hrianykivka (17km north-east of Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast) which was previously contested.
  • Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) reportedly made only marginal gains of <10km in the vicinity of the Kreminna area, towards Makiivka (22km north-west of Kreminna). Elsewhere in the vicinity of Kreminna, UAF continued to repel RFAF assaults near Dibrova (9km south-west), Bilohorivka (14km south), Verkhnokamyanske (20km south), and Spirne (25km south).

UAF targeting of RFAF ammunition stores in the vicinity of Kupiansk, likely of the east bank of the Oskil River, Kharkiv Oblast. Source: @EuromaidanPress

So What?

  • Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) mapping tools have not shown any change to the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) with regard to Hrianykivka. It is therefore likely that UAF defenders had pulled back to the west bank of the Oskil River in order to prioritise the defence of Dvorichna during the last reporting period. The UAF defence of Dvorichna will highly likely prevent RFAF from obtaining an operational advantage due to its location on the P79 Ground line of Communication (GLoC) which runs 17km south to Kupiansk. From which preventing a contested wide gap crossing for another 45km south to Senkove. Therefore, it is highly likely that UAF were willing to cede Hrianykivka to prioritise Dvorichna. It is highly likely though, that RFAF ground offensives will continue to be slow, as already seen with the 2km advance from Dvorichne east of Hryanykivka since late January. In the meantime, it is highly likely that Dvorichna will continue to be shelled with mortars and other indirect fire systems from the east bank of the Oskil River, and from RFAF artillery assets further in-depth to the east, as will Kupyansk.
  • Despite assessments of the RFAF main effort being the northeast, there have been no concentrated offensives which have ended in the complete occupation of the Western Luhansk Oblast. Neither has the January 2023 momentum (from the partial mobilisation in September 2022) been maintained. It is highly likely that UAF defenders have successfully anticipated the RFAF most likely course of action; multiple fronts to increase pressure and probe weaker defended sections. Whilst there have been RFAF territorial gains in the Luhansk Oblast, they have highly likely culminated with little to no operational or strategic effect. A multitude of assessments can be given as to why, yet it is likely that the predominant distraction from this main effort lies with the ongoing offensive in Bakhmut, and the struggling occupation of Vuhledar. Despite RFAF intent to sideline the offensives in Bakhmut and Vuhledar as part of a wider strategic goal, it has drawn resources (both human and materiel) away from the Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts. As a result, it is highly likely this paucity of concentrated forces has been exploited by UAF. The RFAF would benefit better politically from allowing their own resources to be depleted, rather than admitting defeats; evidenced in the reported redeployment of the reserve element of the 98th Guards Airbourne Division reconstituting the (several times) destroyed 155th Naval Infantry Brigade in Vuhledar. This attrition, however, has likely set the conditions for a UAF counter-offensive in the Luhansk Oblast; conditions which will be favourable when coupled with the imminent NATO/EU allied provision of lethal aid.

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • Continuing from the last reporting period, the UAF conducted localised counter-offensives south of Bakhmut and Ivanivske, pushing the RFAF south and denying Russian fire-control of the T0504. RFAF have continued offensives north-west of Bakhmut, in the vicinity of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (12km north-west), and Hryhorivka (12km north-west).
  • There has been a marginal gain in territory around Avdiivka (55km south of Bakhmut) by RFAF, and shelling has increased during this reporting period.

Media reports suggesting the city of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, is surrounded are likely premature. Source: @KyivIndependent

So What?

  • As per previous assessments, UAF reinforcements have prevented RFAF advancement to Ivanivske, and continue to push them back, enough to maintain the T0504 GLoC between Bakhmut, Ivanivske, and Chasiv Yar. Ensuring this GLoC is not under constant RFAF fire control will perpetuate the defence of Bakhmut beyond previous expectations. Should the GLoC be cut off completely, this will highly likely be a decision point to initiate a full withdrawal. It is possible though that as RFAF continue pressure on the advance towards Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, UAF may be forced to cede Bakhmut regardless of a continuing defence in order to reconstitute depleted forces and begin counter-offensives elsewhere. However, it is also equally possible that in light of future possible counter-offensives, Bakhmut is held to draw in and attrit RFAF as is currently occurring. This would likely have an effect on Russian strategic decision-making on how to allocate forces and materiel elsewhere on the FLET.
  • Whilst the UAF defence of Bakhmut has been ongoing, there has concurrently been a comparatively low-level, yet similar RFAF attempt at encirclement ongoing in Avdiivka. It is likely though, that whilst media reports this week speculate that Avdiivka is about to be ceded to the RFAF due to an increase in shelling, this is premature. It is likely that the RFAF do not want a repeat of Bakhmut, which will draw forces and materiel into another battle of attrition in a location which is likely well-defended and resupplied by the UAF. This would highly likely distract the RFAF again from the wider operational effort of occupying the entire Donetsk Oblast. Instead, it is likely that RFAF are avoiding Avdiivka entirely, yet using heavy shelling bombardments to fix UAF in place, making redeployment of forces outside of the city dangerous and degrading UAF in their defensive positions without the use of human waves as seen in Bakhmut.

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

  • The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported an explosion at Dzankoy in Russian-occupied Crimea on 20 March. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) reportedly struck a train in Dzhankoy. It was reported that the struck train had been carrying Russian ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles.

Geo-located footage of the explosion of Kalibr missiles as a result of being struck by a UAV. Source: @Osinttechnical

So What?

  • Although the UAF did not claim responsibility for the strike, OSINT outlets have speculated from footage of the incident that the UAV was a type used previously by Ukraine (no further details known). Regardless, it will likely have a detrimental effect on RFAF ability to conduct missile strikes on targets within Ukraine by the Black Sea Fleet, as previously seen in late 2022 against Ukrainian Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). It is highly likely that the Kalibr missiles had been at Dzankoy as this is a critical rail junction between the Kerch Strait bridge, and Sevastopol. Although the rail section of the Kerch Strait Bridge is still under repair, it is possible the missiles had travelled by road or had already been pre-positioned in Crimea. Either way, assets of the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) Black Sea Fleet is located at Sevastopol and are known to have previously launched Kalibr missiles from frigates and submarines based there. Although the number of missiles destroyed as a result of the explosion are not known, given the struggling Russian Defence Industrial Base and the inability of Russia to reconstitute its war stock rapidly enough, this will highly likely impact Russian effect on targets within the rest of Ukraine. The use of missile strikes to support Russian information operations has been recently seen with the airstrikes in early-March 2023 as a “retaliation” for attacks in Russia, this loss will highly likely cause Russia to be more selective in the targeting process due to the limited number of missiles it likely has left, including its Iskander and Kinzhal missiles. It will also highly likely influence how the RFAF transport and store its prestige weapons within proximity to Ukrainian targeting, highly likely resorting to storage well within Russian Federation borders.

OSINT mapping of the railways in the Crimea, showing the rail Junction at Dzhankoy where the Kalibr missiles were struck. Source: @Osinttechnical

What Next (Next 7 Days)?

It is likely that the lack of overall territorial gains for the RFAF is a result of the Russian ‘Spring Offensive’ losing momentum due to the large geographical breadth of operational commitments, which prevents massing forces to achieve a decisive effect (and denies the ability to exploit any tactical successes). It has likely over-committed its under-supplied forces, who lack the moral fighting component against a Ukrainian force which has been content to sit out the winter and spring thaw in the defence. This has likely led to Russian apprehension as to which axis to prioritise to avoid further instances of heavy attrition seen recently in Bakhmut and Vuhledar, resulting in criticism from Russian commentators who risk the continued support of the Russian populace. Yet also, this likely apprehension is awaiting indicators of UAF counter-offensives which are supported with NATO/EU supplied materiel. Therefore, RFAF are likely to remain in a position where forces can be redeployed at short notice. This does however likely indicate a lack of Russian planning at command level, and an inability to anticipate UAF intent through thorough intelligence collection and analysis. It is likely that RFAF TTPs are still based on Soviet-era concepts of occupying towns and GLoCs, responsible for the slow, incremental gains seen throughout the conflict so far. It is highly likely that as the thaw continues in the next two to four weeks, and UAF counter-offensive plans become more visible, Russia will be forced into a reactionary position, likely increasing the rate of attrition as it finds itself on the defence in a weakened state, possibly lacking the agility to respond in a timely manner to Ukrainian actions.

DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - MARCH 21: Ukrainian soldiers firing artillery in the direction of Bakhmut