War in Ukraine – weekly update (11.03-17.03.2023)
Despite the Russian assault Ukrainian forces continue to hold Bakhmut. Col. General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that the situation in and around Bakhmut remains difficult, with Russian forces attacking from several directions simultaneously. The commitment to holding Bakhmut has once again been questioned, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin claiming that the city has no strategic value, and its stubborn defence only bleeds Ukrainian forces.[i]US officials have further tried to shift the focus of Ukrainian command from the defence of Bakhmut to a potential spring offensive, that would utilise the newly delivered western equipment to break though Russian lines. US officials believe that the offensive will be launched by May with the target rumoured to be the southern city of Melitopol which acts as a major logistics and supply hub for the Russian armed forces, and more importantly links mainland Russia to the occupied Crimea.[ii] This can certainly be true as many Ukrainian soldiers are now finishing their training in the West and Ukraine, especially with the use of Western equipment. Many of Western key deliveries are also meant to arrive in Ukraine by the end of March, this includes Western Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 tanks, Bradley IFVs, artillery, ammunition and more. Furthermore, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko has stated that the formation of new assault brigades, known as the Offensive Guard, has almost been completed with 28,000 volunteers that will be further reinforced by reservists.[iii] However, Col. Gen Syrskyi claimed that the continued defence and control of Bakhmut is vital for the counteroffensive, which is “not far off”.[iv] The battle for Bakhmut not only buys time for Ukraine to prepare for the counteroffensive but at the same time denies the Russians the chance to continue their offensive operation deeper into Ukraine. If Bakhmut falls, it is possible that Russia will continue to advance towards the city of Slovyansk along the M-03 highway, which mitigates the problems caused by the mud season. If Russian troops continue their advance Ukraine might be forced to commit their reserves early to stop them, which would heavily complicate the potential counteroffensive. Thus, the battle for Bakhmut continues to be the focal point of the war.
Despite the importance of Bakhmut and the commitment of Ukrainian forces to holding it, the situation on the ground is steadily deteriorating. Russian troops continue to make tactical gains within the city itself, with Wagner stating to have captured the key resistance point in the industrial plants located in the northern districts. In the southern and western sectors Ukrainian counter attacks try to keep Russian forces away from the T0504 highway, however the passability of the road is questionable as Russian soldiers continue to hold positions overlooking the road in the city outskirts. The last passable line of communication of Bakhmut, the O0506 road through Khromove, is under continuous fire from Russian mortars, artillery, and ATGMs which makes each trip extremely dangerous. The most significant development however is the Russian assault on villages surrounding Bakhmut from the northwest and along the M-03 highway. There Wagner troops captured the village of Dubovo-Vasylivka, and are now assaulting Orikhovo-Vasilivka and are encroaching on Hryhorivka. While these settlements might seem small and insignificant their capture would allow Russian forces to reach the Siverskyi-Donets-Donbass Canal. This in turn would enlarge the Bakhmut pocket with significant amounts of Ukrainian troops boxed in from three sides by Russian forces and the canal on the fourth side. While the canal has several bridges in the area it would heavily narrow the traffic and subject it to the same treatment as the road through Khromove, with unrelenting artillery barrages raining down on evacuating and reinforcing troops.
The Bakhmut pocket is defended by potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who struggle daily to hold the line and stop the advance of Russian forces. They have done so successfully for the past several months and will continue to do so, however as stated by Col. General Syrskyi himself the situation on the ground is dire. According to another report carried out by the Kyiv Independent the Russians “have tasted victory” and push forward relentlessly with little regard for their own losses.[v] In one interview a Ukrainian soldier rotated out of Bakhmut stated that „When they drive us to Bakhmut, I already know I’m being sent to death,”. Soldiers sent to man the frontlines are apparently lightly armed with only small arms and machine guns. They are met with overwhelming artillery bombardment, constantly shelling Ukrainian positions. The bombardment covers the advance of Russian foot troops who assault Ukrainian positions supported by armoured vehicles and tanks. The apparent lack of anti-armour weapons, artillery ammunition, or friendly armour puts enormous strain on the defenders who are slowly but steadily forced back.[vi] Such equipment deficits seem to be in line with Ukrainian pleas for supplies and US officials’ statements that the battle for Bakhmut has heavily depleted Ukrainian stocks. These conditions lead to high losses for Ukrainian forces, with one soldier stating only “a few” of his 27 comrades have made it out unscathed.[vii]Another infantryman stated that his unit of 8 soldiers had to be withdrawn from Bakhmut the same day they were deployed, due to heavy casualties caused by mortar fire.[viii] The situation on the ground in Bakhmut is so dire that many soldiers refuse to be sent there, while others suffer from stress disorders. With insufficient equipment, overwhelming enemy forces, and hellish conditions, how long can the soldiers of Ukraine hold the line?
Other parts of the frontline are much less active than Bakhmut, but offensive operations continue. Russian advances have slowed in the Svatove and Kupyansk regions. On the Kreminna – Lyman line Russian forces continue to attack but not much progress is being made. Some forces have routed to advance southwards from this area towards Siversk, though they are still around 9 kilometres away. Some advances have also been made by Moscow troops towards Siversk from the east, now reaching the settlement of Verkhnokamianske located only 4 kilometres away. Some Russian forces also continue to assault Ukrainian positions around 15 kilometres south of Siversk. The continued operations in this direction pose some threat, however not significant at the moment. This might change if Russian decides to commit the 2nd Motor Rifle Division that is amassed in the area around Kreminna. In the far south Russian forces continue to conduct offensive operations around Vuhledar and Donetsk city, with some gains around Avdiivka. Other areas of the frontline have not experienced any noteworthy changes or events.
Russia gearing up for war production
In a recent visit to an aviation production plant in Ulan-Ude President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia’s defence industry is suffering from a lack of trained personnel. In order to combat this the Federation’s leader announced a number of reforms aimed to attract potential workers and specialists, including housing benefits and increased pay.[ix] At the same time Defence Minister Shoigu visited the Tactical Missile Corporation in Moscow Oblast and stated that the plant had to double its production, even though the factory met its manufacturing goals. Putin has also stated that the Ministry of Industry and Trade has prepared a list of specialties that will be exempt from military service.[x] Thus, Russia is probably aiming to boost its armament production in order to continue the war in Ukraine. This means that Russia will not only be able to produce new arms but will also expand its ability to revitalise its old equipment stocks. Such an increase in available equipment might suggest that Russia aims not only to maintain and supply their forces already engaged in Ukraine, but also potentially equip new units. This might suggest that Russia is preparing for an influx of new recruits who will be equipped and sent to Ukraine. Interestingly the Spring draft of the annual Russian conscription is set to start in April, meaning that soon Russian might be able to mobilise large quantities of new soldiers and equip them with brand new weapons. On the other hand, a senior Russian lawmaker presented a policy draft that would change the age restrictions for the annual conscription – changing it from 18 – 27 to 21 – 30. This would provide Russia with an even greater number of troops quickly, though at the price of reduced conscription for the next 3 years. There is also the option that these preparations are made in order to accommodate the announcement of full mobilisation, which while hardly popular in Russia, would allow for the recruitment of very large quantities of soldiers. Some reports suggested that the possible number for such a large-scale effort could be as high as 400,000 men.[xi] Thus, in the coming weeks Russia will have access to thousands of fresh soldiers with potentially brand-new equipment.
Western deliveries to Ukraine
This week marks a significant step up in the Western deliveries to Ukraine. The Ramstein 10 meeting, this time conducted online, was a great opportunity for Ukraine to present their needs and gather support pledges from the Western coalition. During the meeting Anita Anand the Canadian Minister of National Defence, announced a new package of military aid, which includes 8,000 rounds of the much-needed 155mm artillery ammunition, 12 air defence missiles, as well as 1,800 105mm training rounds for Leopard 1 tanks on which Ukrainian troops are soon to begin training.[xii] The Canadian official also stated that the country’s armed forces began the shipment of 4 more Leopard 2 main battle tanks. Lithuania also committed to sending 155mm artillery ammunition, as well as unspecified vehicles and military rations.[xiii] Denmark announced an aid package, worth 140 million USD, which includes small arms ammunition, heavy machine guns, and anti-air munitions. The Danish Defence Minister Troels Lund Poulsen has also declared that first Leopard 1 tanks will be delivered to Ukraine, ready for use, in May. Furthermore, the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that nine countries pledged to transfer more than 150 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, however no particular countries have been named.[xiv] The Netherlands have also pledged 2 minesweeping ships as part of the next aid package, in order to demine Ukrainian coastal waters.[xv] The first batch of French AMX-10-RC armoured fighting vehicles with anti-armour capabilities has been delivered this week, with the rest to be delivered by the end of March. This week also marks an enormous contribution by Poland, with President Duda declaring that 4 MiG-29 fighter jets will be delivered to Ukraine in the coming days.[xvi] This statement was soon followed by the pledge from Slovakia which decided to pledge its retired fleet of MiG-29, this amounts to 11 additional aircraft though it is not known how many are still operational, the unserviceable jets will be used for spare parts.[xvii] The announced delivery of the first combat aircraft might serve to break the deadlock within the western coalition on providing Ukraine with more of them, as well as the more advanced western counterparts, like the F-16 or the French Mirage. However, John Kirby, a top official at the US National Security Council, has stated that Poland’s actions will not change US policy on supplying Ukraine with combat aircraft.[xviii]Poland will likely deliver more MiGs as soon as the replacement F35s and FA-50s arrive in Poland later this year. Furthermore, Poland has also been contracted to supply Ukraine with a “significant” quantity of Polish made GROT assault rifles.[xix] The military aid delivered to Ukraine now is extremely important as it allows Ukraine to prepare for its Spring counteroffensive. If all goes according to plan Ukraine will be able to equip its reserves, now being trained and prepared for the offensive, with large amounts of modern western made gear, which will prove crucial in the fight against Russia.
Spy Network crushed in Poland
This week also witnessed the elimination of a Russian spy network in Poland. Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński stated that security services detained 6 individuals, suspected of collaboration with an FSB agent. The group, according to the Polish official, monitored the supply transports of western military aid to Ukraine, allegedly sending gathered information to Russia.[xx] The group utilised small monitoring devices installed in close proximity to key airports, railways junctions, and relevant highways. Poland also suspects that the destined individuals were preparing for acts of sabotage aiming to cripple the West’s ability to supply Ukraine.[xxi] The group has also carried out significant propaganda activities aimed to sow discord between Poland and Ukraine.[xxii] Poland has put its security services on high alert and increased the protection and security measures around the key infrastructure, especially in south-eastern parts of the country, where the majority of Western aid is transported through.
US drone downed by Russian jet
In an incident over the Black Sea a Russian fighter jet has brought down an American unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone. The US drone was conducting a regular reconnaissance mission that had been carried out by the US in the region since 2014, when the Russian jet intercepted and downed the US aircraft.[xxiii] Russia claimed that the entire situation was an accident, however the US has provided video footage showing a Russian jet flying dangerously close to the American drone and dumping fuel on it.[xxiv] The actions of the Russian pilot resulted in the drone being damaged and plummeting into the Black Sea. The Russian navy quickly scrambled to recover the remains before the US. Russia has also stated that the US should refrain from flying this close to the Russian airspace, despite the fact that the entire incident took place over international waters. Tensions are running high with serious political fallout very much possible. The entire incident might actually push the US to strengthen its support of the Ukrainian cause.
This week marks the continuation of the key battle for Bakhmut. Both sides are pouring more and more resources into the battered city, with soldiers locked in savage trench warfare, while artillery shatters the entire region. Ukrainian troops are bravely holding on, but it seems that the situation keeps getting worse, with Russian troops gaining more ground and encircling more of Ukrainian positions. There is hope however, there is talk of a spring counteroffensive by the Ukrainian forces which, equipped with new Western equipment, including now Polish fighter aircraft, has the chance to break through Russian lines and significantly improve the situation on the front. The question is whether the defenders of Bakhmut can hold the line long enough for that to happen. This week however, also marked increased tensions in the West, with the detainment of Russian spies in Poland and the destruction of a US drone over the Black Sea. These events might further the increasingly hostile relations between the West and Russia, with significant political fallout very much possible. The West should continue to support Ukraine in this hour of need and prepare for dire times ahead.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
[i] Lara Seligman, “‘Ukraine doesn’t have any time to waste’: U.S. races to prepare Kyiv for spring offensive”, Politico, March 15, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/15/dod-ukraine-war-supplies-00087291.
[ii] Lara Seligman, “‘Ukraine doesn’t have any time to waste’: U.S. races to prepare Kyiv for spring offensive”, Politico, March 15, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/15/dod-ukraine-war-supplies-00087291.
[iii] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Interior minister: Ukraine almost done assembling new assault brigades”, The Kyiv Independent, March 11, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/interior-minister-ukraine-almost-done-assembling-new-assault-brigades.
[iv] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Ground Forces Commander: Spring counteroffensive ‘not far off’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 11, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/ground-forces-commander-spring-counteroffensive-not-far-off.
[v] Asami Terajima, “Battle of Bakhmut: Ukrainian soldiers worry Russians begin to ‘taste victory’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 15, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/battle-of-bakhmut-ukrainian-soldiers-worry-russians-begin-to-taste-victory.
[vi] Asami Terajima, “Battle of Bakhmut: Ukrainian soldiers worry Russians begin to ‘taste victory’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 15, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/battle-of-bakhmut-ukrainian-soldiers-worry-russians-begin-to-taste-victory.
[vii] Asami Terajima, “Battle of Bakhmut: Ukrainian soldiers worry Russians begin to ‘taste victory’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 15, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/battle-of-bakhmut-ukrainian-soldiers-worry-russians-begin-to-taste-victory.
[viii] Asami Terajima, “Battle of Bakhmut: Ukrainian soldiers worry Russians begin to ‘taste victory’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 15, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/battle-of-bakhmut-ukrainian-soldiers-worry-russians-begin-to-taste-victory.
[ix] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 14, 2023”, Press ISW, March 14, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-14-2023.
[x] Karolina Hird et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 14, 2023”, Press ISW, March 14, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-14-2023.
[xi] Sofiya Doig, “Ukraine war latest: Russia ramps up mobilization, Ukraine receives ‘optimistic’ news following Ramstein meeting”, The Kyiv Independent, March 16, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukraine-war-latest-as-russia-looks-to-ramp-up-mobilization-ukraine-receives-optimistic-news-following-ramstein-10.
[xii] Anita Anand, Twitter, March 15, 2023, https://twitter.com/AnitaAnandMP/status/1636070194043924483?cxt=HHwWhsC9-YrLvrQtAAAA.
[xiii] Arvydas Anušauskas, Twitter, March 16, 2023, https://twitter.com/a_anusauskas/status/1636260141539422210?cxt=HHwWhMCzib77lLUtAAAA.
[xiv] Sofiya Doig, “Ukraine war latest: Russia ramps up mobilization, Ukraine receives ‘optimistic’ news following Ramstein meeting”, The Kyiv Independent, March 16, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukraine-war-latest-as-russia-looks-to-ramp-up-mobilization-ukraine-receives-optimistic-news-following-ramstein-10.
[xv] Reuters, “Netherlands to give Ukraine minesweepers, drone radars – Defence ministry”, Reuters, March 14, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/netherlands-give-ukraine-minesweepers-drone-radars-defence-ministry-2023-03-14/.
[xvi] Artur Bartkiewicz, “Duda: Cztery samoloty MiG-29 przekażemy Ukrainie w najbliższych dniach”, Rzeczpospolita, March 16, 2023, https://www.rp.pl/dyplomacja/art38136671-duda-cztery-samoloty-mig-29-przekazemy-ukrainie-w-najblizszych-dniach.
[xvii] Robert Muller, ” Slovakia sends MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine – PM ”, Reuters, March 17, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/slovak-government-send-mig-29-fighter-jets-ukraine-pm-2023-03-17/.
[xviii] Antonia Mortensen et al., “Poland becomes first to pledge fighter jets to Ukraine”, CNN, March 16, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/16/europe/poland-fighter-jets-ukraine-intl/index.html.
[xix] Wojciech Kamiński, “Błaszczak: Ukraińcy zamówili kolejną partię karabinków Grot”, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, March 16, 2023, https://www.gazetaprawna.pl/wiadomosci/kraj/artykuly/8681784,mon-mariusz-blaszczak-ukraincy-karabinki-grot.html.
[xx] Krzysztof Zasada, “Groźna siatka szpiegów Rosji rozbita! Sensacyjne doniesienia RMF FM”, RMF 24, March 15, 2023, https://www.rmf24.pl/regiony/rzeszow/news-grozna-siatka-szpiegow-rosji-rozbita-sensacyjne-doniesienia-,nId,6656628#crp_state=1.
[xxi] Antonia Mortensen et al., “Poland becomes first to pledge fighter jets to Ukraine”, CNN, March 16, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/16/europe/poland-fighter-jets-ukraine-intl/index.html.
[xxii] Alan Charlish and Marek Strzelecki, “Poland breaks up Russian spy network, says minister”, Reuters, March 16, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/poland-breaks-up-spy-network-says-defence-minister-2023-03-16/.
[xxiii] Rob Picheta, “A spat between the US and Russia over a downed drone is escalating. Here’s what you need to know”, CNN, March 16, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/15/europe/reaper-drone-russia-us-ukraine-explainer-intl/index.html.
[xxiv] Rob Picheta, “A spat between the US and Russia over a downed drone is escalating. Here’s what you need to know”, CNN, March 16, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/15/europe/reaper-drone-russia-us-ukraine-explainer-intl/index.html.