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

  • Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) are reported to have conducted localised attacks on Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) positions north-east of Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Media outlets had reported the evacuation of vulnerable citizens due to an increase in shelling with 152mm artillery. Whilst there has been RFAF shelling and ineffective attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line, the situation is currently stable according to Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk Oblast military-civil administration.
  • During the last reporting period, there had been indications that RFAF were adapting their Tactics Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) from larger structures to smaller, more agile assault units near Kreminna. However, Ukrainian officials noted that RFAF had reverted to using heavy equipment such as BMPT ‘Terminators’ due to the small assault groups being ineffective.

Serhii Haidai, Ukrainian Luhansk head of the military-civil administration in Luhansk Oblast gives an update on 7 March 2023 regarding the current stability of the Oblast. Source: @NOELreports

So What?

  • Although the scale of the shelling and the risk it causes to civilians living in Kupiansk is significant enough for evacuations to begin, it is unlikely to be an indicator of an imminent offensive by RFAF. Notably, evacuations are for those who are vulnerable, and it is highly likely they are unable to get into hard cover timely enough which could create an additional burden on medical facilities. It is also likely that lessons have been learnt, most recently from Bakhmut where citizens stubbornly remain, yet become an obstacle for the UAF, which is later exploited by RFAF. Overall, shelling along the Svatove-Kreminna line has increased in recent weeks which indicated the change in RFAF main effort from the Donetsk to the western Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts. RFAF highly likely continue to be stretched along this line, resulting in a lack of RFAF in depth to support or exploit successful offensives, highly likely leading to Serhii Haidai’s reports of the relative stability currently seen. Some pro-Ukrainian mil-bloggers reported rumours of RFAF being moved from the Luhansk Oblast to the Bakhmut front, whilst this currently cannot be corroborated, it does add weight to the assessment of RFAF inability to gain territory and a possible renewed effort to break the stalemate.
  • It was assessed in the previous reporting period that RFAF attempts to modify TTPs in urban areas to smaller assault-sized groupings would likely resort back to Soviet-era doctrine; it was however unexpected to be seen this soon. Dismounted troops are more agile and able to conduct reconnaissance and probing; they are also harder to target. It is possible that this reversion has occurred due to the pressures in Bakhmut (if rumours of redeployment are correct), and/or the lack of training and inexperience of reconstituted historically elite forces such as 98th Guards Airbourne (VDV). The VDV is known to be supported by BMPT Terminators, which is doctrinally used in urban areas and has been seen in geo-located footage in use in the Serebrianska forest area on the outskirts of Kreminna. It likely signifies that the VDV are enhancing their own direct fires, due to a lack of mutually supporting artillery assets and the complexity of terrain and sightlines in wooded terrain. Although it possibly also signifies a shift in the priorities of the RFAF, as BMPTs are rare and ‘prestigious’ pieces of equipment. Whilst this highlights that dismounted forces lack training, it also likely indicates RFAF command structures have not conducted proper intelligence preparation for the battlefield and subsequent planning. As such, forces are inadequately prepared and equipped. Coupled with the continually discussed lack of armour and slow logistics, perceived changes in TTPs are likely the result of ad-hoc methods which are repeatedly executed to varying degrees of effect, yet ultimately result in not occupying new territory.

A Russian BMPT Terminator in its non-doctrinal use in vicinity of Kreminna (likely Serebrianska forest area), by reported VDV units in mid-February. Source: @Bodbe6

East – Donbas Area of Operations

  • Although there has still been no formal announcement of a withdrawal from Bakhmut, Ukrainian mil-bloggers are announcing that Ukrainian defenders have withdrawn from the east bank of the Bakhmutova River.
  • The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has speculated a change of tactic in the Wagner forces fighting in the north and north-east of Bakhmut, the concentration of Wagner there has led to the assessment of a turning movement, rather than a full encirclement.
  • In Vuhledar, the recently merged and reconstituted 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades have reportedly refused to fight, leading to a pause in operations. Since mid-February, RFAF has not only failed to capture the Vuhledar, but has reportedly lost over 130 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) in the process. As a result, RFAF troops have reportedly mutinied following orders to continue their reportedly “suicidal” wave tactics through Vuhledar’s heavily mine-laden crossing point.

Social media footage of the muddied logistic nodes used by UAF defenders in Bakhmut, metalled roads are now under fire-control of Russian forces. Source: @StepanGronk

So What?

  • Even though there has been increased pressure to the north and north-east of Bakhmut, there are highly likely insufficient territorial gains from the south-west into Ivanivske to allow a Russian encirclement of the city, or to cut the UAF logistic route from Chasiv Yar. It is likely that conditions for a deliberate withdrawal are currently being set by UAF defenders, with a fighting withdrawal already initiated, indicated by the destruction of bridges within the city. The UAF concession of the east side of the city, demarcated by the river is not unexpected, and is in line with previous assessments - as is its measure of perceived Russian success. It was previously assessed that Wagner forces would announce that Bakhmut was occupied once Ukrainian defenders had ceded the eastern side – hence the confusing signals in the media from Russian sources. Although Western military analysts and commentators have discussed the lack of strategic significance of a victory in Bakhmut for both sides, it has highly likely moved from military to political with both sides now reportedly reinforcing with elite forces. It is possible that the UAF main effort in the short term has switched from defending Bakhmut, into counteroffensives in Berkhivka and Yahidne to the north of Bakhmut, given the stagnation of the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) in recent days. If this is the case, UAF are likely exploiting the widely discussed lack of ammunition and troops felt by Wagner and conventional forces, adding to the Russian attrition by applying yet more pressure.
  • A turning movement would likely entail a push south through the city to force UAF defenders to abandon defensive positions and reorientate to the new threat. Whilst this is a change in tactic, it's unlikely to be game changing, given the slow rate of RFAF territorial gains and the high attrition rate, this change in tactic is unlikely to force a withdrawal any quicker. In the meantime, UAF defenders are highly likely conducting concurrent activity such as seeding of mines/improvised explosive devices, to prevent Russian forces from exploiting success at pace. Although Ukrainian military officials would rather withdraw than allow their forces to become encircled, it is likely they will try to delay a withdrawal for as long as possible and fix Russian forces in Bakhmut and continue to degrade RFAF combat power. The reasons for this are two-fold, the mild daytime temperatures have made cross country movement very challenging due to the thawing snow and ice, therefore road moves are the only way out of the city. Metalled Main Supply Routes (MSRs) however are for the most part under RFAF fire control. However, this is likely being exploited by UAF - a continued delay in the Russian occupation of Bakhmut will highly likely have timeline implications for the next phase of the Russian offensive targeting Kramatorsk and Slovyansk - ensuring there is no tactical pause or a consolidation period due to political pressures to make up for the lack of gains over the last seven months in Bakhmut.
  • The ongoing RFAF offensive in Vuhledar demonstrates the RFAFs continued willingness to sustain heavy losses to advance its occupation of the area. This is highly likely due to the strategic importance of Vuhledar, which provides observation and fire-control towards Kurakhove, access to transiting west, and protection to the continued occupation of the Crimea. The recent reported refusal of the 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades to fight had been indicated in the last reporting period with reports of the Rosgvardia ensuring a consistency of operations. The reported mutiny indicates a breakdown in morale and discipline at both troop and command level, on a significant enough scale that cannot be rectified by Rosgvardia and may have forced the visit by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (who insisted Vuhledar be captured at any cost). It remains to be seen how the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) intends to overcome this issue, information operations will likely only last in the short term, and President Putin will highly likely grow impatient, leading to Shoigu falling out of favour, and subsequently commanders of the Eastern Military District. This would likely lead to their replacement, adding to the discontent. It is crucial to monitor any changes in TTPs that Russia may undertake in Vuhledar as it will likely reflect the RFAF's future intentions in other areas across the wider conflict should the same occur. 

An article by the Kyiv Post regarding the refusal of RFAF to fight in Vuhledar. @Source: KyivPos

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

  • There are no reported changes – previous assessments remain extant.

What next (next 7 days?)

As assessed in the last reporting period, this week has seen much of the same tactical stagnation, with neither side able to gain the initiative or create offensive momentum; RFAF in Luhansk Oblast have been unable to balance logistic constraints and lack of well-trained personnel, with the changes to doctrine being short-lived and reverting to human and armoured waves. With little command and control to co-ordinate offensives and secure hard-won territorial gains, it is likely that Russian information operations will have to fill the gap left by a lack of operational success. It is possible that the mutiny in Vuhledar will continue in the short term (two to four weeks), likely only being resolved with brutal forms of discipline, yet its implications are likely to be wide reaching for the entire RFAF. It is beginning to be evidenced that RFAF troops’ belief in the conflict is possibly slipping on an institutional scale, exacerbated by high attrition rates, lack of equipment, and incompetent planning. This decline in morale is fuelled by critical Russian nationalist mil-bloggers who grow increasingly difficult to control. It is a situation which is likely to be exploited by UAF, especially if the continued defence of Bakhmut remains tenable in the short to medium term. It remains to be evidenced in the coming days if rumours of RFAF are being redeployed from Luhansk Oblast to the Bakhmut front are true. If so, UAF are likely to increase reconnaissance-in-force along the Svatove-Kreminna line to identify where RFAF dispositions have been left weakened as a result, and thus possibly begin setting condition for counter-offensives. As such, it is highly likely in the UAFs interest to ensure the situation in Bakhmut remains as is into the next reporting period; drawing in and attritting RFAF and elite Wagner forces who are highly likely forced into obtaining victory at any cost at the political level.