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

  • Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) reportedly continue to be repelled in Hryanykivka and Synkivka, in the vicinity of Kupiansk. Along the Svatove-Kreminna line, Ukrainian Armed Forces continue to repel RFAF in the vicinity of Makiivka (22km north-west of Kreminna), Dibrova (9km south-west), Bilohorivka (14km south), and Spirne (25km south).

Damage to buildings as a result of shelling in Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Source: @Lyla_lilas

So What?

  • Building from the last reporting period, in the vicinity of Hryanykivka, UAF defenders have continued to prevent the RFAF from crossing the Oskil River. It is likely that this resistance has caused RFAF to attempt to advance towards the Oskil River via Synkivka, 10km to the south. Concurrently, RFAF have continued to shell Kupiansk and Dvorichna. 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. It is likely that should there be an increase of offensive activity, it will occur in along the Dvorichna-Kupiansk line as RFAF seeks to obtain the advantage to enable logistic support for further its aims in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblasts. However, it is also likely the RFAF is concerned that UAF control of the P79 GLoC will enable UAF logistic nodes for counter-offensives, therefore it is likely an operational aim to at least be within fire-control distance. Overall however, Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) mapping tools have not shown any change to the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) greater than 5km during this reporting period. It is likely that whilst skirmishes are ongoing, offensives in the north-east are for the most part culminating, as assessed in the last reporting period. The culmination is likely to allow for the establishment of defences, ahead of the UAF counter offensives which have been widely speculated in both Western and Russian media.

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • The RFAF offensive in Avdiivka has continued with heavy shelling, and some tactical gains being made from the east, albeit limited. Ukrainian intelligence sources have publicly commented on the presence of Wagner in the area, and obituaries of high-profile Wagner mercenaries fighting in Avdiivka have been reportedly seen on Russian social media.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff have noted that RFAF gains within Bakhmut city has slowed considerably during this reporting period. However, there have been marginal gains by the RFAF from the south of Bakhmut, pressing north. Overall, the situation remains the same since the last reporting period.

Under reportedly, almost constant shelling by RFAF, evacuations of vulnerable people in Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, are ongoing. Source: @IvlevYorke

So What?

  • Although the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) in Avdiivka has mostly been stationary until the last reporting period, RFAF offensives have been ongoing. As previously reported however, the increase in shelling and kinetic activity is unlikely to indicate that Avdiivka will be ceded by UAF to Russia in the short to medium term. Elements of the Donetsk People’s Republic ((DPR) recently brought under the RFAF chain of command have reportedly been involved in the offensive in Avdiivka, and it is likely that Wagner elements have been redeployed from Bakhmut to provide assistance. The DPR are a volunteer force, and it is unlikely that it has had sufficient training (or possibly the ability, due to exhaustion) at all levels to occupy the town. Hence, it is likely that experienced Wagner elements have redeployed to reinvigorate the offensive, and possibly to impart tactical experience after significant amounts gained fighting in and around Bakhmut. This is likely a reason why tactical gains have been made in recent weeks. It is also possible that after public disputes between Wagner-owner, Prigozhin, and the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), an agreement or truce has been made between the two.
  • As kinetic activity reportedly slows in Bakhmut, it is likely that RFAF are culminating and looking to consolidate its gains. Whilst there are indications of Wagner forces likely fighting in Avdiivka, this has likely had an impact on the combat effectiveness of the remaining Russian forces in Bakhmut. Wagner have been leading the offensive in Bakhmut for approximately eight months. It is likely that Wagner forces who have survived in this offensive for this long have an accumulated understanding and experience, which has likely not been transferred to remaining Wagner and conventional RFAF; evidenced through the lack of tactical gains. However, given the (likely premature) Russian mil-blogger declarations of success in Bakhmut and the progression of RFAF toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, this is likely a natural culmination for Russia as it slowly pursues new offensives. This culmination will highly likely allow for a consolidation period, involving the establishment of defensive positions ahead of the anticipated UAF counter-offensive.

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

  • During the early morning of 22 March, it was reported Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USV) conducted an attack against the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) Black Sea Fleet (BSF) at the port of Sevastopol, Crimea. Explosions were heard and fire seen, however the RFAF reported there had been no damage to its vessels. The UAF have neither confirmed nor denied their involvement in the attack.

Footage of UAVs and Russian air defence in vicinity of a silhouetted RFAF Naval vessel. An explosion can be seen near the vessel. Source: @Kanal13AZ

So what?

  • In the hours of darkness preceding the attack against the RFAF Black Sea Fleet, RFAF had launched 21 UAVs to conduct strikes throughout Ukraine, of which 16 has been shot down by Ukrainian air defence. It is likely that this had been a retaliation for the UAF UAV strike on a Russian freight train on the 20 March. The freight train was reported to have been carrying Russian ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles at the Dzankoy rail interchange in Russian-occupied Crimea. Although the attacks appear as a tit-for-tat, it is likely only the case for Russia, whilst this focus on Crimea for the UAF is likely shaping activity for a counter-offensive. Russia stated that UAVs were intercepted by air defence and shot down, yet footage on social media purports to show a fire in close proximity to a silhouetted likely Russian Naval vessel, after an explosion being seen on the waterline near the harbour boom – this was denied by Russia.
  • Ukraine has previously been successful against Black Sea Fleet targets in the use of explosive laden USVs. RFN ship Admiral Makarov frigate was struck by a Ukrainian USV on 29 Oct 2022. In this instance, it is likely the UAF used UAVs as a method of deception to allow for the USV to pass into the port undetected during the period of darkness and conduct the strike. It is likely that the Ukrainian high value target in this attack would be a vessel which is capable of launching the ‘Kalibr’ missiles which were destroyed on 20 March, as this would affect the RFAF ability to conduct strikes within Ukraine outside of Russian-occupied areas, namely retaliatory strikes. Russia will highly likely continue to retaliate with disregard for tangible effect on the battlefield for UAF deliberate targeting of RFAF assets. Although UAF destruction is likely the desired effect against its targets, it is likely that any form of damage will be regarded as a success by UAF. Damage will still highly likely reduce RFAF Naval combat effectiveness through repairs and the logistic constraints of finding replacements, withstanding a gap in capability, and requiring further assets to ensure UAF are not successful in any regard in future attempts.

Historical footage of a UAF USV conducting a strike against the RFAF Navy Admiral Makarov on 29 Oct 2022. Source: @bayraktar_1love

What Next (Next 7 Days)?

Overall, this reporting period has been largely similar to the last, with the exception of likely UAF shaping activity in the south. This likely shaping activity is however a small change in what has been the status quo since the start of the Russian ‘Spring Offensive’ in early January 2023. Although there has previously been assessment of RFAF over committing its under supplied forces, it is likely that a culmination and an attempt to consolidate (however short) seeks to rectify this to ensure that its defences do not suffer as seen previously in Autumn 2022, when UAF successfully reclaimed swathes of territory. It is possible that the culmination and slowing of operations after no significant operational successes suggest that RFAF are anticipating a UAF counter-offensive which emulates that of Autumn 2022 and are seeking to prevent that by being adequately prepared. There is likely more of an RFAF imperative to ensure adequate defences especially as Western/NATO allies donations of equipment and hardware such as Main Battle Tanks start to arrive. However, it is possible that the redeployment of Wagner forces to Avdiivka to hasten success and avoid a drawn-out battle of attrition like Bakhmut, indicates that lessons have not been learnt. If Avdiivka replaces Bakhmut and Russian forces do decide to encircle again, rather than bypass or hold the FLET as it is, it would likely disrupt Russia’s consolidation period of establishing comprehensive positions of defence with forces in the reserve, who likely require significant resting and reconstituting from the offensives of the last three months. Consistency along the FLET is unlikely to be seen, suggesting yet again that competent planning and use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets have been used to understand the wider picture.