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

  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) repelled Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) assaults north-west of Svatove towards Kupyansk during this reporting period. This included; Hryanykivka (55km northwest of Svatove) and Synkivka (45km northwest of Svatove) in Kharkiv Oblast, and Stelmakhivka (15km northwest of Svatove) in Luhansk Oblast.
  • RFAF have also conducted ground assaults near Kreminna; Bilohorivka (10km south of Kreminna), Zarichne (17km west of Kreminna), and Chervonopopivka (6km north of Kreminna).West of Kreminna has reportedly seen the most shelling, however the UAF have noted that Russian forces have not attempted to occupy towns in this vicinity.
  • A Russian mil-blogger claimed on 19 February that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) comprise the main strike force near Kreminna, an area which has been associated with RFAF 144th Motorised Rifle Division.

Unknown UAF Defender on Svatove-Kreminna line reporting RFAF radio intercepts of impending offensives closer to the one-year anniversary of the invasion. Source: @tweetedtimes

So What?

  • Although continuing from the last reporting period with regards to RFAF shelling west of Kreminna, it is now highly likely that the RFAF has shifted its main effort to the Luhansk Oblast, notably along the Svatove-Kreminna line. It is highly likely that RFAF are applying soviet-era artillery doctrine in the form of flattening areas and destroying all infrastructure. This application of doctrine will force civilians out of populated towns and ensure that UAF defences are denied. The UAF will be forced to prioritise which areas to defend, and conversely, which to cede to Russia. Reports of UAF repelling of ground assaults yet RFAF not occupying ground are initially conflicting, yet it likely represents RFAF reconnaissance in force and raids to identify and destroy specific defensive positions. It is a realistic possibility that there are insufficient armoured troops and equipment to seize and hold territory at this time. Reliable OSINT assessments of RFAF losses suggest 16 tank regiments worth (1,000 losses and 500 captured MBTs), equivalent to half of its pre-war tank fleet. It is almost certain that RFAF will be unable to produce replacements required for the spring offensive. As such it is highly likely that RFAF use of artillery is substituting the lack of MBTs and armour, clearing territories in their entirety before occupying and likely starting the cycle again.
  • In addition to the inability of RFAF to reconstitute armour, a well-trained and experienced fighting force is also highly likely lacking. This possibly indicates why Russian mil-bloggers have commented on the presence of VDV alongside the 144th Motorised Rifle Division (144th MRD). In a similar assessment to that of the last reporting period regarding the 98th Guards Airbourne Division, the 144th MRD were part of the initial stages of the Russian invasion, staging from Belarus in February 2022. However, their losses during the unsuccessful attempt to occupy Kyiv forced them to withdraw back to Russia. The subsequent redeployment to Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022 was equally unsuccessful; reportedly losing 200 MBTs. It is unlikely that VDV forces are replacing the 144th MRD, given their own losses over the last year, yet more likely reinforcing, and possibly still bringing some element of combat experience. Given the nature of the VDV role, it is likely that they conduct reconnaissance of UAF defences and identify suitable areas for penetration after shaping activity and before occupation. It is also possible that VDV units have been deployed similarly in other areas along the Svatove-Kreminna line, in order to identify suitable avenues of approach to punch through UAF defensive lines.

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • Overall, no significant gains have been made by either side since the last reporting period. Wagner and RFAF have made marginal gains yet have still not occupied Bakhmut.
  • Wagner owner, Prigozhin, publicised the lack of artillery rounds being supplied by the Russian MoD. For this reason, Wagner has continued to prioritise the northern and north-eastern areas of Bakhmut; to which the Ukrainian General Staff reported that UAF repelled Russian attacks near Vasyukivka (10km north of Bakhmut), Dubovo-Vasylivka (8km north) Berkhivka and Yahidne (6km north) and Vyimka and Fedorivka (22km northeast and 15km northeast respectively).
  • There has been an increase in activity in vicinity of Ivaniske (5km west of Bakhmut), however UAF defenders continue to repel attacks on the Wager/RFF approach to Chasiv-Yar (10km west of Bakhmut).
  • RFAF continue to suffer significant loses in Vuhledar despite no territorial gains, however there are reports of a TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system present in the area.

Audio clip with English subtitles of Wagner owner, Prigozhin, accusing the Russian MoD of not providing essential supplies such as artillery rounds and shovels, to hasten the destruction of PMCs. Source: @wartranslated

So What?

  • It is highly unlikely that Wagner mercenaries have been left completely without artillery assets on the Bakhmut front. Wagner are reinforced by conventional RFAF units, who will highly likely have organic artillery assets. It is more likely however that the very public dispute between Wagner owner, Prigozhin, and the Russian MoD, Wagner must now rely on RFAF artillery support. This is likely a Russian MoD means of bringing Wagner under control rather than allowing a Private Military Company (PMC) to operate separate to that of RFAF command and control. It is highly likely that Prigozhin has inflated the impact this has had and sought to blame the Russian MoD for an increase in Wagner fighter KIAs. It is possible that Wagner’s change in circumstance has affected progress in vicinity of Bakhmut, as the means to obtain fires from outside of established chains of command will delay supporting fires, adding friction and preventing timely artillery support where needed. As such this lends weight to the assessment that Wagner forces are prioritising the north and northwest of the city to take control of the M-03 MSR running north-west towards Slovyansk from Bakhmut, to encircle Bakhmut from the north whilst holding the Forward line of Enemy Troops (FLET) to the west outside of Ivaniske.
  • Given the increase of RFAF shelling against UAF positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk Oblast and the now likely RFAF main effort for the spring offensive, it is also likely that Wagner’s lack of direct access to artillery rounds is a logistic conservation effort. Conservation of ammunition and its prioritisation elsewhere suggests that there are likely issues in RFAF logistic nodes; likely as a result of UAF targeting. It is also possible though that the Bakhmut offensive is being allowed to fail, or more likely cause a delayed success so as not to detract from the concentration of RFAF conventional forces and new offensive activity which would likely commence around the 24 February. Ensuring Wagner mercenaries are not successful over the one-year anniversary period reduces influence from Prigozhin and the embarrassment he can leverage over the Russian MoD publicly.
  • Geo-located footage has shown RFAF TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems being destroyed by UAF over the last week. There have also been Russian State media reports from Ukraine on its use within the conflict. The RFAF technically class this weapon as a flame-thrower due to its effect, rather than artillery, and is designed for use against bunkers, trenches, and other fortifications or dug in positions; with a range between 600m and 9km. As a form of Multi-Launch Rocket System (MLRS), it is able to suppress a large area in a short space of time, and its tracked form of mobility makes it ideal for its current use. Reportedly, there are few of these in Ukraine (exact numbers are unknown) and it is likely regarded as a prestige weapon. As such, its use highlights the high priority of Vuhledar for RFAF, considering the loss of the majority of 155th Naval Infantry Brigade’s combat power during the last reporting period. It is likely that Russian State media has reported on its use to ensure information operations on RFAF activity in Vuhledar remain favourable. However, as previously seen in Kherson Oblast with the destruction of two Russian Tor M2DTs in early February 2023, its promotion could possibly allow for its targeting, by giving away sensitive information of its location.

TOS-1A Thermobaric Artillery System in recent use against the UAF in Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast. Source: @am_misfit

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

  • RFAF are continuing to reinforce defensive positions in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast; local media outlets reported RFAF are preparing to defend the Melitopol area which includes underground tunnels and bunkers. In the village of Novonikolayevka, southern Donetsk Oblast, RFAF have reportedly been burying shipping containers to create bunkers. Similarly, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has seen an increased level of RFAF fortification with 600 personnel and mounted machine-gun positions established.
  • RFAF conducted a localised offensive near Novodanylivka, Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian forces continued to shell settlements on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River and Okachiv in Mykolaiv Oblast.
  • UAF are continuing to repel RFAF sabotage and reconnaissance groups in the Dnipro River delta. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported on 18 February that UAF destroyed a Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group that attempted to land on an unspecified island in the delta using a civilian boat. UAF also reportedly conducted 70 fire missions striking Russian positions and equipment on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.

Wagner mercenaries at a bus station in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Geo-located footage reported 43 buses of personnel arriving in the area. Source: @NOELreports

So What?

  • The increased level of RFAF defences and fortifications in the Zaporizhzhia and southern Donetsk Oblasts suggest that RFAF are expecting a UAF counter offensive. Underground bunkers are highly likely a defence to withstand UAF HIMARs and GLSDB precision munitions which would likely precede any counter offensive. It is also highly likely that such a level of engineering required for the burying of shipping containers and pre-existing underground tunnels are testament to the level of importance of Zaporizhzhia Oblast to Russia. Such preparations likely signify the Russian mindset of a long and gruelling defence. It is likely that defence of the region is strategically more important to Russia than further significant offensives; therefore, it is highly likely that no offensives will commence (other than previously seen localised skirmishes) whilst the Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts remain the RFAF main effort.
  • RFAF fortifications of the ZNPP highlight its importance strategically, as it’s militarisation will increase pressure on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in negotiations concerning the creation of a safety zone around the ZNPP. If this were to occur it would likely prompt the IAEA to concede on formally recognising Russia’s control of the plant, and thus de facto; the region. Additionally, control of energy is traditionally a Russian State means of income, and a method to negotiate provision of energy dependant on recipients’ capitulation to Russian conditions. This type of Russian-State seizure activity has been seen continuously, particularly with regards to property.

What Next (Next 7 Days)?

The tangible shift in main effort from the Donetsk Oblast and its occupation in its entirety, to the Luhansk Oblast and the push west into Kharkiv Oblast can be clearly seen during this reporting period. Although there has been a build-up of RFAF, increased shelling and anecdotal reporting from UAF defenders regarding RFAF offensives around the one-year anniversary; it is highly likely to be a continuation of that already seen, possibly an increase such as that seen west of Kreminna. Overall, however, it is likely to be unspectacular, given the RFAF lack of combat power and poorly trained mobilised personnel. The UK MoD assessment that 97% of Russia’s entire combat power is now in Ukraine suggests that there are few additional forces available should offensives in Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts descend into more battles of attrition. Although RFAF in the south are not currently the same operational tempo, the defence required in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts is vast and strategically important. It is therefore unlikely that troops would be made available, as a reduction would possibly encourage a UAF counter offensive in the south.

Although no longer the main effort, the RFAF/Wagner attempt to encircle Bakhmut and the surrounding towns is almost certain to continue, albeit slowly. It is likely that despite the Wagner/RFAF prioritisation of the north and north-eastern areas of Bakhmut, they are severely disrupted by UAF artillery located on the high ground to the west. However, it is highly likely that UAF are reinforcing the next defensive line to the north and west towards Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. It is still likely that Russian occupation of Bakhmut up to the Bakhmutovka river will occur, however it is possible that this will still not be seen within the next 7 days. It is possible though that a victory is still declared regardless by the Russian MoD in order to save face and to mark the 24 February anniversary. Similarly, a win is likely to be declared around Vuhledar, with possible highlighting of the effectiveness of the TOS-1A to demonstrate RFAF capability after the loss of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade.

DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17: Ukrainian soldiers patrol amid Russia-Ukraine war in Bakhmut, Donetsk