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

  • Fighting has continued in the western outskirts of Kreminna, where Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) reportedly suffer heavy losses, notably in the Serebrianska forest area (10km south-west of Kreminna). There continue to be RFAF ground attacks north-west of Svatove; they are limited in scope and currently unsuccessful. Overall, the Ukrainian General Staff continue to brief the concentration and increase of intensity of the RFAF main effort along the Luhansk Oblast Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET). Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) reported an uplift of 200 RFAF personnel from Rostov Oblast and an increase in equipment (no further details known). However, there was no distinguishable increase in kinetic activity over the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.
  • There is a growing body of anecdotal reporting indicating that RFAF units in the Luhansk Oblast front are adapting their fighting doctrine. RFAF are reportedly transitioning from larger structures to smaller, more agile assault units that rely heavily on customizable artillery support to specific mission requirements.

Footage of an RFAF T90M striking an anti-Tank mine in the Serebrianska forest area, near Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast. Source: @MWspecter

So What?

  • The lack of any significant activity over the anniversary period is highly likely due to the insufficient resource available to the RFAF at this stage in the conflict. As assessed in the last reporting period; it is highly likely that RFAF are applying soviet-era artillery doctrine in the form of flattening areas and destroying all defensible structures with artillery. However, as widely discussed in Western media, the RFAF are suffering from logistic constraints and rationing of ammunition, notably artillery rounds, which are not reconstituted quickly enough. This has led to reportedly unserviceable Soviet-era ammunition being pushed forward to the RFAF frontlines. Coupled with the lack of Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and armour, which again cannot be reconstituted, it has amounted to a continuation of gruelling artillery and ground-assault follow-ups which are unable to be sustained. This goes some way towards explaining the daily UAF reports of repelled ground assaults and no clear occupation of new territory, leading to an almost-static FLET.
  • This stagnation has highly likely led to the RFAF adaptation of fighting doctrine. The lack of armoured manoeuvre elements, as well as serviceable and plentiful ammunition stocks which highly likely previously compensated for inexperienced and poorly trained personnel has forced another significant change within the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) during an all-consuming conflict. Previous analysis of Russian MoD restructuring volunteer militias into conventional forces will now likely also have to adapt their fighting doctrine to fit the situation and logistic availability. Tactically, infantry will likely be harder to target than the previously seen RFAF armoured columns, and harder to counter when smaller troop-sized assaulting units are conducting multiple reconnaissance-in-force operations, exhausting UAF units in defence. However, it is likely that RFAF lack of experience and possibly willingness leads to continued attrition of personnel, and further stagnation, as has been seen in this reporting period. The use of the limited attached armour in a direct fire-support role is highly likely to be indicative of equipment shortages – MBTs are harder to replace than mobilised soldiers. The adaption of tactics at a low level likely highlights that RFAF units have been operating independently on the ground at company command level, rather than directed by higher Command and Control elements. It is possible that RFAF integration on the frontline with volunteer militias, and mercenaries such as Wagner Group with experience in other theatres such as Syria, has led to the adaptation of doctrine.

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • RFAF and Wagner gains in Bakhmut continue to be incremental and still concentrated to the north and north-east. The town of Yahidne, 6km directly to the north of Bakhmut was reportedly occupied by Wagner; however, this is still disputed with a UAF counteroffensives along the M-03 highway reportedly ongoing. Similarly, Ivanivske (5km west of Bakhmut) has seen incremental gains by RFAF and Wagner forces.
  • The UAF still continue to successfully defend Vuhledar; Ukrainian defenders and geo-located footage show RFAF have still not changed their tactics, with columns of MBTs and armoured vehicles being shown destroyed in minefields. However there has reportedly been an increase in RFAF conducting assaults without armoured support and even some instances of armoured personnel carriers driving infantry to the frontline for dismounted assaults and then withdrawing.
  • The previously eliminated 155th Naval Infantry Brigade has reportedly merged with the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade, and reports suggested an unspecified number of forces from Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast have been transferred by bus to Vuhledar to bolster personnel. An RFAF Prisoner of War spoke of the 155th having been through almost 7,000 personnel since the start of the conflict, an increase of previous reports. Morale and willingness to participate in the conflict is reported to be so low that the Russian MoD deployed a Rosgvardia special rapid response unit / riot control force to ensure personnel fight.

Recent UAV footage of destroyed RFAF armoured vehicles encountering minefields and Precision Guided Weapons on the outskirts of Vuhledar. Source: @Azovsouth

So What?

  • The switch of the RFAF main effort from the Donetsk to the Luhansk has seen a likely reduction in Russian intent to occupy Bakhmut in its entirety. Wagner and RFAF forces are making gains toward the Bakhmutova river, and notably, is seemingly the only front where Russian forces have made any significant gains during this reporting period. It is likely that Russian forces are keeping UAF defenders concentrated on Bakhmut whilst seeking to push northeast along the M-03 Main Supply Route (MSR) to Slovyansk. Russian control along this MSR will enable an offensive from the south to the north up towards Kreminna, assisting in the completion of the main effort in the Luhansk Oblast. Additionally, a Russian occupation of Yahidne will enable fire-control of the MSR running from the centre of Bakhmut west towards Khromove (although this possibly is already the case), which runs adjacent to the MSR through Ivanivske. Complete denial of MSRs west out of Bakhmut highly likely deny the UAF defenders within Bakhmut the freedom to manoeuvre and resupply – if the RFAF successfully cut the MSRs out of the city the UAF defence will become untenable, and a withdrawal may be required. Complicating UAF logistic nodes negates the need for Wagner / RFAF to occupy Bakhmut completely. Conversely, it is likely that as the attrition of both supplies and personnel also continue for Russian forces in Bakhmut, UAF defenders will likely continue to hold into the next reporting period.
  • The dire situation for RFAF in Vuhledar almost certainly reflects the high attrition rate of personnel and armour experienced over the past two months and currently highlights the importance of Vuhledar to Russian command. Whilst the occupation of Vuhledar by RFAF was previously assessed as important due to the flat, open ground towards Kurakhove, allowing Russian observation and fire-control to the north, and would provide access to RFAF transiting west. This is likely to become less of a priority against ensuring that UAF do not have an opportunity to gain the initiative and conduct counteroffensives. UAF penetration towards the Black Sea coast would highly likely put Russian occupation of the Crimea at risk, and therefore the Russian MoD is willing to sustain heavy losses among previously elite units; with inexperienced personnel advancing in human waves to exhaust UAF ammunition and keep them fixed in defence. This is also likely why there has been no break in doctrine in this area to the extent seen in the Luhansk Oblast, as those within the 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigade have neither the experience or the morale to make rapid changes in Tactics Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) – as evidenced by the presence of the Rosgvardia as ‘security forces’ – who answer only to the Kremlin.
  • Although geolocated footage from the last reporting period showed Wagner forces at a bus station at Melitopol, there is currently no reporting to suggest that it is the same personnel which have been transported from Melitopol to Vuhledar. Given the social media and public profile of Wagner Group and its participation in the conflict, a lack of online evidence suggests it is unlikely that Wagner are present there. Similarly, given the situation in Vuhledar and the proclivity of Wagner Group to claim success over RFAF forces, it is unlikely that the Russian MoD would allow for Wagner Group (namely Wagner-owner, Prigozhin) to claim victory in what continues to be an embarrassing situation for the Russian MoD.

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

  • The continued RFAF defensive activity perpetuates the assessment that RFAF are anticipating a UAF counteroffensive in the south in the coming months. The importance of the continued Russian occupation of the Crimea is highlighted by bringing in engineers from Central Russia. Whilst there are no specific details on what the engineers have been brought in to do, last reporting period discussed the Russian mindset of a long and gruelling defence. It is likely to involve permanent structures to withstand bombardments which will almost certainly precede UAF ground-assaults, and as such, requires technical specialists unlikely found in the RFAF. It is possible that the engineers have been recruited from outside of metropolitan Russian cities, due to it being a form of forced mobilisation.
  • RFAF sabotage and reconnaissance groups are consistently active in the Dnipro River Delta, as seen in the last reporting period; RFAF activity amongst the islands on a civilian boat observed by UAF. As such it is highly likely to deter UAF probing activity in preparation for a possible counter offensive. The use of mines on these islands are likely to deter their use by UAF as future staging locations. Mine clearance operations in this area would serve as a possible indicator of an intent to stage raids across the river from the islands.

What Next (Next 7 Days)?

Although there had been wide speculation in the media regarding the one-year anniversary of the invasion and Russia’s Spring Offensive, there had been no significant change in activity from a Russian perspective. Therefore, it is highly likely that Russian hyperbole regarding the invasion of Ukraine was done specifically for the purposes of perpetuating a narrative with the Russian population, namely that of the existential threat to the Russian Federation from NATO / ‘The West’. A narrative which likely gives President Putin, the Russian MoD, and RFAF more time to compensate for the tactical stagnation which has been apparent these past few weeks. It is therefore likely that the next week will be much the same across the fronts for the RFAF, least they risk another descent into Bakhmut-esque wars of attrition in urban areas across multiple axis. The UAF are highly likely continuing to draw the RFAF into places of their choosing, such as Avdviika, which are well-defended and fortified, and ceding ground slowly whilst the UAF await much-needed MBTs and other armoured vehicles from the West. It remains to be seen if over the next few weeks, RFAF in Luhansk Oblast are able to balance the logistic constraints and lack of well-trained personnel, with the changes to doctrine and integration of volunteer militias, such as the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, or if it will revert back into the human and armoured waves still seen in Vuhledar.

DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 27: Ukrainian armoured fighting vehicle moves on a street amid Russia-Ukraine war