“The Ukrainian Armed Forces retain the initiative and will likely continue to do so as winter approaches. Russian forces in the north are reeling, but may be able to establish new defensive lines before conditions become more challenging. Here is an assessment of what the situation in East Ukraine may look like over the next month.”

Introduction

This assessment will focus on how the military situation in eastern Ukraine may develop over the next month to late October 2022. The report focuses on the tactical and operational level, and strategic/political/economic issues are not detailed to maintain focus and brevity. There are however several consistent assumptions, detailed below, which apply in order to form a baseline and give context. It is worth noting that for Operational Security (OPSEC) reasons, reporting on Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) intent and capability is scant. UAF assessed actions are based on the assumption that they will seek to regain as much territory from the Russian invaders prior to the onset of winter and will seek to liberate major population centres.


Executive Summary

Across the entirety of the front, it is likely that the UAF maintain the initiative, and most Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) activity will highly likely be reactive in nature. RFAF will likely be constantly moving forces to face the threat posed by UAF manoeuvre. UAF probing attacks, with well-placed second echelons ready to exploit success and the penetration of Russian lines, are likely to create too many dispersed problems for the Russian centralised control structure to cope with. The RFAF are almost certain to continue to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure such as power and water supplies (exemplified by attacks against electrical substations, and the attempted destruction of the dam in Kryvyi Rih) in order to create military advantage and create terror among the Ukrainian population.

Newly recruited soldiers in the RFAF and Donetsk Peoples’ Republic/Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (DPR/LPR) forces are unlikely to be well equipped or motivated, with some reporting indicating coercive recruiting measures, amnesties for prisoners recruited into Private Military Companies, and a reduction in the physical/mental requirements to volunteer for the ‘special military operation’. This low morale, combined with significant issues among upper echelons of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and a lack of training, are all likely to compound existing logistics and tactical difficulties to create conditions where it is impossible to switch to the offensive again before winter sets in.

Additional capabilities for Ukraine, such as ATACMs long-range missiles, would enable further targeting of Russian reserves and ammunition/supplies deeper into Russian controlled territory. This capability could be used to target such areas as Troitske in the north, and Novooleksiivka on the north-eastern edge of Crimea to significantly disrupt Russian primary logistics nodes. This would force the dispersal of ammunition, supplies, and troops further from the front lines, which will have a knock-on effect on the RFAF ability to mass fires and combat power for offensive operations and counter-attacks.

Rapid movement by the UAF is likely to be restricted to metalled roads, and as the number of population centres increases then the pace of liberation is almost certain to slow; with incremental gains looking to create an advantageous territorial position prior to both sides digging in and consolidating over the winter. The West has predominantly supplied the UAF with combat equipment, and there has been little reported donation of Combat support equipment – specifically engineering mobility assets such as bridges and pontoons to cover the vast number of rivers and tributaries in eastern Ukraine. This is likely to canalize UAF elements along major highways and could provide targeting opportunities for Russian fires and ambush.

Tactical pauses in the immediate term are likely to be required to allow the Ukrainian forces to consolidate gains, clear any stay-behind forces, and to allow logistics to catch up with combat units. Ukrainian partisan and Special Operations Forces (SOF) activity behind the Russian lines is likely to continue to aid in accurate time-sensitive targeting of Russian troop movements and logistics nodes, as well as sew fear among occupation authorities and forces.

Ukrainian probing attacks and offensive action is likely to continue along almost the entirety of the front, testing for Russian weaknesses and looking for opportunities to penetrate the multiple lines of the Russian area defence. The UAF is unlikely to have sufficient mobile reserves to exploit all opportunities; however, they will force Russians to react and could potentially create opportunities in more advantageous (and better resourced) areas of the front.

Russia is likely to maintain and increase recruitment efforts at home, and still has a large quantity of older equipment available to restore and deploy, so the overall war is likely to be protracted and continue well into 2023.


Assumptions

The following assumptions have been made across all the presented Courses of Action (CoAs):

  1. Vladimir Putin will retain his position as President of the Russian Federation.
  2. There will be no major internal dissent in the Russian Federation resulting in instability.
  3. Russia will not conduct full mobilisation.
  4. China will not invade eastern Russia.
  5. Current levels of western support and materiel provision are maintained, but no additional capabilities (such as ATACMS long-range missiles) are introduced.
  6. All current western sanctions remain in place.
  7. Weather follows seasonal norms - temperatures between 19 and 2 degrees centigrade, average rainfall at approximately 30mm/day, mostly cloudy, and between 10 and 11 hours of daylight for the month of October. No freak conditions/flash floods are factors in these scenarios.
  8. Russia will not use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This action is assessed to be highly unlikely due to the possible repercussions of nuclear weapon use (from both Russian allies and western nations) and the lack of appropriate targets (Ukrainian forces are too dispersed).

Northern (Kharkiv) AO

  • Over the next month it is likely that the UAF will seek to exploit previous gains and freedom of manoeuvre to pursue retreating RFAF elements east. 
  • It is unlikely that the RFAF will have sufficient forces nor co-ordination to fully secure a defensive line (Number 1 in the above graphic) running from the Russian border south along the P66 through Svatove and past the western side of Severodonetsk/Lysychansk, marked as a dotted red line above. (Point 1)
  • Troitske is an important rail and road nexus, which is reportedly being used to mass RFAF equipment for use in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Interdiction of resupplies either by threatening a ground assault or getting within conventional artillery range of Troitske would allow the UAF to disrupt and interdict resupply/reinforcement efforts and would support offensive action further south. 
  • If the UAF manage to rapidly isolate and seize Svatove, then there is easy access to Bilokurakyne or Starobilsk to the east which are on the main logistical route from Belgorod Oblast, Russia to Luhansk Oblast. Additionally, the capture of Svatove permits access to Rubizhne and the northern approach to Severodonetsk. 
  • An advance towards Bilokurakyne or Starobilsk as well as Rubizhne is likely to generate a fear of isolation among RFAF units defending Severodonetsk. Combined with their low morale this may cause another rout. (Point 2)
  • It is likely that the RFAF will be forced to withdraw to the natural barrier along the Aidar River, which runs to the west of the H21 highway. The withdrawal may create sufficient space for the RFAF to dig in a new defensive line, which has shorter resupply routes from Russia. 
  • It is also likely that the UAF will seek to interdict logistic resupply at major railheads in northern Donetsk, in the vicinity of Radakove and Debaltseve in support of operations. (Point 3)
  • Due to the proximity to the Russian border and its Surface-to-Air missile network, it is unlikely that the UAF troops will have a significant amount of air support. 

Central-Northern (Donetsk) AO

  • It is likely that the majority of offensive manoeuvres will be conducted by the UAF in the northern part of the AO; the front line at Donetsk has been established fairly permanently since 2015.
  • In this AO there are some elements of the RFAF who fled Kharkiv Oblast and the UAF counterattack.
  • It is likely that the UAF will seek to block RFAF attempts to seize Bakhmut, whilst also fixing forces in Donetsk to enable operations further north. (Points 1&2)
  • Russian forces may seek to conduct counterattacks to penetrate Ukrainian lines and threaten the southern approach to Slovyansk, forcing the UAF to react and reposition forces from their advance to hold the Russian attack. It is however unlikely that the RFAF has sufficient combat power available, particularly after the abandonment of a significant amount of heavy equipment during the rout from Kharkiv Oblast.
  • It is likely that logistics and force concentrations will be interdicted using precision strikes on major railheads. (Point 3)
  • Morale among the RFAF and local militias of the DPR/LPR is highly likely to be low which may lead to desertions and refusal to follow orders should the Ukrainians maintain the initiative.
  • Wagner Group mercenaries are likely to be used as ‘shock troops’ once the local militiamen have been used to identify and degrade Ukrainian positions – breeding further resentment among the local population.
  • It is a realistic possibility that metalled roads will become clogged with civilian traffic fleeing the UAF offensive, which will further hamper Russian resupply efforts.

Southern (Zhaporizhia Oblast) AO

  • UAF are likely to seek to attack RFAF lines to the southeast of Zaporizhia City in supporting efforts to the offensive in Kherson Oblast outlined below. (Point 1)
  • A successful UAF attack into Tomak would disrupt Russian reinforcement/resupply from Rostov Oblast and put Ukrainian forces in a position to threaten Melitopol.
  • It is likely that Russian activity in this AO will be predominantly reactive, with the UAF retaining the initiative in the short term. RFAF are likely to target troop movements in Zaporizhia.
  • It is unlikely the UAF has the combat power massed to properly exploit any penetration due to the unexpected success in the northern AO and the attrition battle ongoing in Kherson Oblast.
  • Continued probing attacks along the front will obfuscate the main axis of advance and create problems for the centralised Russian command.
  • RFAF will seek to retain key urban areas along resupply/rail routes and major road junctions to maintain freedom of movement and to redeploy forces as needed in response to UAF probing attacks. (Point 2)
  • Melitopol is a key city on the land bridge through southern Ukraine to Crimea and severing this supply route would significantly degrade the Russian ability to defend Crimea and provide for the population. (Point 3)
  • Progress by the UAF is likely to be slower than witnessed in Kharkiv Oblast in September, with a need to maintain balance and not overstretch resupply by over-extending along too many axes concurrently.
  • The UAF will maintain strikes against transport routes, bridges, and concentrations of Russian equipment, in addition to command and control centres on the left bank of the Dnipro.
  • It is likely that Russia will retain control of Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) due to the limited avenues of approach and the need of the UAF to exercise restraint when attacking their own critical national infrastructure. Attacking and seizing Vasylivka is a likely first stage in setting conditions for a subsequent advance towards Enerhodar/ZNPP.

South-Western (Kherson) AO

  • The displacement of RFAF from the right bank of the Dnipro is highly likely to be the main effort of Ukrainian offensive action theatre-wide prior to the onset of winter. The operation has already begun, with advances on three axes, with the likely main effort being the drive across the Inhulets River towards Nova Kakhova (Point 1), which if successful will isolate (Point 2) many Russian troops to the northeast, which may subsequently be defeated in detail due to a lack of evacuation options and resupply. UAF has consistently destroyed temporary river crossing points as well as conducting deliberate and persistent targeting of permanent bridges at Nova Kakhova and Kherson (the Antonivsky Bridge).
  • The RFAF is likely to seek to position additional Air Defences at key transport hubs, which are likely to be heavily targeted by the UAF seeking to interdict reinforcements and resupply from both Crimea and Rostov Oblast to the east. (Point 3)
  • The RFAF will also likely aim to move additional bridging and ferry assets towards the Dnipro near Kherson in order to keep troops on the right bank resupplied.
  • There are a significant number of RFAF professional troops (including VDV units, Spetznaz, and regular infantry) which were repositioned into Kherson Oblast in late August, and if the resupply of these forces is successful then there is potential for a counterattack to push the UAF back across the Inhulets and to block the advance along the M14 into Kherson.
  • UAF multiple axes of attack are likely intended to break the Russian defensive perimeter into small, isolated positions lacking in mutual support, which can then be degraded with artillery before assault and destruction.
  • The UAF may wish to leave some light watercraft operable in order to encourage Russian troops to flee across the river, abandoning all heavy equipment and ammunition – which can subsequently be used by the UAF to resupply and re-equip forces. UAF would then be ready to transition to the defence as the rains come and the temperature drops resulting in manoeuvre operations becoming more challenging.


Soldier in war-torn Ukraine street Photo/Алесь Усцінаў