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

  • During this reporting period, Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) were reportedly repelled by Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) along all localised offensives along the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET). However, Ukrainian mil-bloggers have speculated that the town of Hrianykivka (17km north-east of Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast) is now contested.

Geolocated images of a likely UAF withdrawal around Dvorichna. Source: @NOELreports

So What?

  • During the last reporting period Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk Oblast military-civil administration noted relative stability along the Svatove-Kreminna line. It is likely that this still continues along the entirety of the FLET (comparatively) regardless of the RFAF speculated gains in Hrianykivka, Kharkiv Oblast. It should be noted that the town to the east, Dvorichne, was taken by RFAF in late January, and since then Russian forces have only progressed by 2km. It is highly likely that the shelling of Kupiansk during the last reporting period precipitated the RFAF advance into Hrianykivka, however given the pattern of marginal gains, it is unlikely that an advance of 17km will occur in the short term. Hrianykivka, and the next town 3km to the west, Dvorichna, separated by the Oskil River, are highly likely strategically important for RFAF due to their location on the P79 Ground line of Communication (GLoC) which runs south to Kupiansk.The P79 also remains on the west bank for 45km, to Senkove, therefore its occupation by RFAF would remove the requirement for a contested wide wet gap crossing, facilitating an easier advance into the rest of Kharkiv Oblast.

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • During this reporting period UAF defenders have continued to hold in Bakhmut after having previously ceded territory east of the Bakhmutova River, with reinforcements continuing to attrit RFAF.
  • An increase in kinetic activity along the FLET to the north of Bakhmut has been seen in the vicinities of; Dubovo-Vasylivka (15km north); Orikhovo-Vasylivka (12km north-west) and Hryhorivka (10km north-west). UAF continued to repel RFAF attacks west of Bakhmut near Ivanivske (5km west) and Chasiv Yar (10km west).
  • The Ukrainian General staff reported air strikes on Slovyansk on 12 March, damaging railway lines and electrical infrastructure.

Media outlets reporting on the air strikes on Slovyansk, Donetsk Oblast on 12 March. Source: @Belsat_Eng

So What?

  • Compared to previous assessments of a Wagner/RFAF encirclement, then a change in tactics to a turning operation, current assessments of the FLET around Bakhmut show a stagnated south. UAF reinforcements have prevented RFAF advancement to Ivanivske, and to some extent pushed them back. Although the GLoC between Bakhmut, Ivanivske, and Chasiv Yar has been under Russian fire control intermittently for the past few weeks, it is likely that UAF defenders can withstand the ebb and flow of access given the use of minor, yet boggy roads further to the north. Should the GLoC be cut off completely, this will highly likely be a decision point to initiate a full withdrawal, rather than the fighting withdrawal, which is still likely ongoing on the west bank of the Bakhmutova River – albeit slowly.
  • On the FLET north of Bakhmut, kinetic activity had been observed during the last reporting period which indicated a likely UAF reinforcement. However, during this reporting period, this area has been reported as the only notable RFAF territorial gain. It should be remembered, however, there have been no advances greater than 5km in the last ten days. The increase in RFAF activity to the north of Bakhmut indicates that RFAF are likely handrailing the M-03 north-west towards Slovyansk and have the intent to advance onto the next objective regardless of the offensive culminating in Bakhmut. However, as previously assessed, Wagner/RFAF reaching the Bakhmutova River is highly likely considered a success by RFAF, as demonstrated by the Russian mil-bloggers declaring it so. As such, this was a likely decision point to advance to Slovyansk, with air strikes highly likely seeking to set conditions for a ground offensive.
  • It is likely that further airstrikes will be seen in Slovyansk, targeting Critical National Infrastructure and GLoCs to deny UAF logistic nodes and prevent a well-supplied defence as has been seen in Bakhmut. Yet it is also likely air strikes will be used against Kramatorsk, to conceal future intent and ensuring UAF must react rather than prepare. However, it is likely in vain, due to the slow progression and occupation seen consistently elsewhere, UAF defenders will highly likely have enough intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to anticipate RFAF operational movements.

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

  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that RFAF conducted ‘False Flag’ shelling on occupants of the Russian-occupied town of Oleshky, Kherson Oblast. Routine shelling was also reported west of Hulyaipole and Kherson city, Kherson Oblast; Dnipro and Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast; Ochakiv, Mykolaiv oblast; and Zaporizhzhia city, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
  • Satellite imagery published by Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) imagery analysts show RFAF fortification developments north of Chystopillia, Zaporizhzhia Oblast between December 2022 and March 2023.
  • The UAF Southern Operational Command reported that the UAF struck three RFAF ammunition warehouses, air defences, and four manpower and equipment concentration areas on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro in Kherson Oblast.

Geolocated animation of RFAF fortifications north of Chrystopillia between December 2022 and March 2023. Source: @bradyafr

So What?

  • It is likely that ‘False Flag’ attacks such as this occur regularly and not all are reported by the media. It is likely that rumour and speculation abound with regard to perpetrators of localised mortar attacks, especially in areas which have seen conflict and are suffering from a lack of infrastructure such as mobile communications. People within Russian occupied areas are therefore unable to corroborate or report incidents accurately from a first-hand perspective. Although low-level with regards to complexity when compared with recent probable ‘False Flag’ events, it shows the breadth of Russian information operations and the intent for them to be integrated and conducted at the tactical level. Its effect in this instance is highly likely to reduce confidence in the UAF and to permit RFAF more freedom and authority in the area from locals looking to the RFAF for stability. This is unlikely to be the outcome, as it likely highlights the RFAF inability to provide security, and regardless of the occupants’ Russian sympathies, the insecurity is caused by the RFAF presence. It is possible that the shelling was conducted in order to convince occupants to leave entirely, which would possibly be of benefit to the RFAF in order to fortify the area and exploit its close proximity to the Dnipro River. This would likely be required should a UAF counter-offensive occur from the west bank.
  • Chrystophillia lies 15km to the north of Tokmak, which sits astride a convergence of the T0408, T0401, and P37 GLoCs which link Tokmak with Orikhiv (35km north), Vasylivka (40km north-west), Melitopol (50km south-west), and Berdyansk (97km south-east) situated by the Sea of Azov. OSINT mapping tools indicate there is an airfield, although it has not been used previously by civilian airlines, it is possible the runway is suitable for military aircraft. The fortifications at Chrystophillia perpetuate the assessment that RFAF are highly likely preparing defences for a UAF counter-offensive in the south. The ground in the vicinity of Chrystophillia is flat open fields with good lines of sight, it is likely that RFAF are preparing for UAF MBTs donated by Western allies which would likely be used in this terrain once cross-country mobility improves in the warmer weather in the next 2-4 weeks.

Ukrainian media outlets publish details given by the Ukrainian General Staff regarding the ‘False Flag’ shelling of Oleshky, Kherson Oblast. Source: @pravda_eng

What next (next 7 days)?

  • It is highly likely that the next seven days will see another stagnated FLET in the north, with the predominant activity still occurring in and around Bakhmut, and no offensive activity in the south. As RFAF begin the advance to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, it is likely that further airstrikes will continue to make up for the lack of momentum and the ability to penetrate UAF defences. Whilst the snow and ice thaws, this will likely continue for the next two to four weeks until the weather improves, allowing for more efficient cross-country mobility on both sides. However, it will not make up for RFAF lack of morale, equipment, and inability to conduct manoeuvre warfare. This reporting period has continued to see the Russian attempt to control the narrative with regards to success in Bakhmut and the ‘False Flag’ shelling in Kherson Oblast, and this type of activity will highly likely continue. Information operations are an important facet of Russian doctrine, and are likely intended to gain/maintain popular support in occupied areas, which is highly likely viewed as more important than military success at this time.
DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - MARCH 12: Ukrainian soldiers continue their preparations on a tank as military mobility continues within the Russian-Ukrainian war