The battle for Bakhmut continues. In the previous weeks Russian forces have achieved significant gains in and around the city. With the rate of Russian advances and surfacing geolocated footage from within Bakhmut, it is possible to estimate that Russian forces control roughly 90 percent of the city. Ukrainian forces are now mounting a stalwart defence in the western edges of Bakhmut concentrating around Yuvileina street. Amidst the heavy fighting Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin published a video, criticising Russian military leadership, including Defence Minister Shoigu, claiming that they are failing to properly supply their troops, including Wagner fighters.i In the footage Prigozhin showed rows of dead Wagner soldiers, stating that Russian forces are suffering heavy casualties due to insufficient artillery ammunition, claiming that Wagner stocks are 70 percent depleted. Prigozhin also claimed that if the ammunition situation was not addressed Wagner forces would withdraw from Bakhmut. It seems however, that the video was part of a maskirovka as over the next few days Russian forces launched a large coordinated assault supported by heavy artillery bombardment. It is possible that the video was supposed to mask Russian attack plans and potentially catch Ukrainian forces off guard. According to the latest information however, the Russian attack failed to achieve any significant gains. In response Ukrainian forces launched several counterattacks on the flanks of Bakhmut in the Khromove direction, north of Bila Hora and quite probably in the area around Ivanivskie. According to Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Ukrainian forces achieved tactical gains, in some cases pushing Russian forces as much as 2 kilometres back.ii The situation in the city itself remains difficult however, with Russian continuing their advance.
The frontline in the Kupyansk area has been relatively quiet for the last several weeks however, recent reports show that Russian forces in the area have restarted offensive operations. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, Russians have conducted several attacks around Kupyansk including in Masyukivka around 13 km north north-east of the city.iii During the attacks Russians used Iskander short range ballistic missiles to strike the targets within Kupyansk itself. As stated by Russian Western Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Sergey Zybinsky these attacks have been conducted by the 1st Guards Tank Army. The 1st Guards Tank Army can be perceived as an elite force due to its “Guards” status, deeply established history, and access to more modern equipment like the T-90 tanks and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles. The formation has however, suffered quite significant casualties during earlier stages of the war, particularly during the siege of Chernihiv. For the last several months the 1st Army has conducted limited offensive operations, and most probably has by now replenished its losses. Additionally, it is possible that the formation is being reinforced by the new T-14 main battle tanks. The 1st Army’s 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, which is present in Luhansk Oblast according to ISW, was scheduled to the recipient of the first T-14s, and with the reports of the first T-14 engaging in combat operations in Ukraine two weeks ago it is possible that they have finally arrived.iv The concentration and use of valuable assets like the Iskander missiles, the 1st Guards Tank Army, and possibly the T-14 tanks in the Kupyansk area suggests that Russian forces are regarding it as an important target and might be preparing for extended offensive operations.
Other sectors of the frontline
The situation in other parts of the frontline remains relatively unchanged, with both sides conducting routine operations. Worth noting is that the Ukrainian and Russian forces have been intensifying their artillery engagement in the Kherson and Zaporizhia region. Recently Ukrainian forces have also involved their air force conducting several aerial strikes against Russian targets. In the area of Donetsk City, and the previously heavily assaulted Avdiivka, regular engagements between the two sides continue however, with no significant gains or losses.
The May 9th Parade
This year’s Russian annual military 9th May parade saw a noticeable decrease of its grandiosity. The May 9th military parade has always been a showcase of Russia’s military might, with dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles, ballistic missile launchers and hundreds of troops marching through the Red Square in the centre of Moscow. While troop numbers were kept, everyone could notice the distinct lack of armoured vehicles. The parade was headed by a single T-34/85 tank from the Second World War, usually it would be followed by its modern counterparts, but this time it trudged on alone. No modern tanks were present, and with only several BTR armoured personnel carriers, the majority of the parade was composed of Tigr infantry mobility vehicles and similar vehicles. The only noteworthy part of the parade were the 3 Bumerang infantry fighting vehicles – which are the next generation of Russian troop transports. In total only 51 vehicles drove across the Red Square, a stark comparison with the previous years, with 131 vehicles in 2022 and 197 in 2021. Additionally, the quite famous airshow of the Russian Air Force was also cancelled last minute. The lack of vehicles and aircraft is an indication that the majority of Russian military assets are deployed to Ukraine with little to spare for the parade. It is also worth noticing that Russian technological achievements, that is the T-14 main battle tanks or the Kurganets-25 infantry fighting vehicles, were also not present. With the recent reports of the deployment of T-14s to Ukraine, and their absence at the Red Square it is possible that these vehicles will be increasingly present on the frontlines.
Putin’s speech during the parade is another noteworthy moment. The now classic narration aimed to bolster the national spirit and rouse patriotic fervour was very present. It might be used to secure the support of the Russian population for the continued war in Ukraine. However, the key points during Putin’s speech were the statements that the world was now at a “turning point” and that a “real war” was waged against Russia.v The Kremlin, and Putin especially, have been very wary of using the term war while discussing topics revolving around the war in Ukraine, with the term “Special Military Operation” being coined just for this issue. The mention of war from Putin himself suggests a shift in the Kremlin’s approach, especially when one takes into account last week’s drone attack on the Kremlin itself. Russia was swift in accusing Ukraine of the attack, however as noticed in last week’s report it is possible that the attack was orchestrated by Russia.vi The attack, inconsequential of responsibility, can serve Russia as a basis for a formal declaration of war on Ukraine. Thus, coupled with Putin’s mention of a “real war” the Kremlin might be creating groundwork for the declaration of war, which in turn would allow Russia to significantly increase its mobilisation and war effort. The Kremlin might also be delaying the declaration in order to complete the gathering of soldiers conscripted as part of the annual Spring Draft, as to avoid issues with mobilised men who are more likely to show up for obligatory military service with Russia, than open conscription for the frontlines. Additionally, the formal declaration of war could draw Belarus into the conflict, especially after the increased Russian influence resulting from the transfer of missiles and aircraft capable of using nuclear warheads, and the planned transfer of nuclear weapons.
The Russian Homefront
While the Kremlin might be preparing for open war, Russian military industry is failing to maintain production. Verstka, an independent Russian media, has conducted an investigation on the Russian military industry, managing to interview workers at Uralvagonzavod in Nizhny Tagil, which is Russia’s largest manufacturer of armoured vehicles, including main battle tanks like the Russian army’s workhorse the T-72, the modern T-90, and even the brand new T-14.vii Uralvagonzavod has shifted to a three shift operating schedule, meaning that the factories are now working around the clock in an effort to boost Russian war production.
Additionally, the manufacturer has begun campaigning to attract workers, offering “from 100,000 rubles” (roughly 1,300 USD) to experienced metalworkers. It turns out however, that these very attractive salaries are somewhat misleading. According to an interviewed worker Alexei Voronin, whose name was altered for safety reasons, “The salary that is being advertised is for more than 300 hours per month at a rate of 174,000 rubles”.viii This translates to at the very least, 10 hour work days, 7 days a week, 30 days a month. Furthermore, this “deal” is available only to local workers, with significant experience. The “real wages” according to the workers are 40,000 rubles (roughly 522 USD) per month for a normal working schedule (presumably 8 hour shifts, five days a week). Additionally, all workers are coerced into donating to military fundraisers in order to support the ongoing war effort, according to Vertska the workers of the Uralvagonzavod have “donated” as much as 60 million rubles (roughly 783,600 USD).
At the same time the defence industry is suffering a worker shortage, most probably caused by the difficult working conditions, long working hours, and the low pay. In turn the worker shortage is affecting the ability of the manufactures to meet the production quotas set out by the demands of the Russian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence. In the words of a worker from the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant “we are simply not able to take on any additional volume, there are not enough people, engineers, testers”.ix His words are supported by statements of a worker from the Strela plant in Orenburg
“A large number of orders were expected, but they are not. The number of shifts has not been increased, salaries are definitely not growing. There is a large shortage of personnel, because in principle there were not enough of them, and when the war began, many quit, ”.x This worker additionally points to the war as another cause of the worker shortage, also claiming that despite the increased demand for military equipment the factories do not increase production. It is possible that manufacturers are aware of the worker shortages and production limits of their plants, and therefore do not strive to increase production. Another option is that the industry is lacking sufficient resources to increase production. According to Verstka’s investigation Strela’s production of missiles is unable to increase due to reliance on Western components.xi Apparently, Moscow was able to secure a somewhat steady supply of these components through third countries despite the imposed sanctions however, not enough to significantly boost production. The Russian military industry is therefore managing to maintain production but is not able to increase it, in order to match the rising needs of the Russian Armed Forces using up equipment in Ukraine at a record speed.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, Russia is facing unprecedented difficulties. For the first time in its heavily Soviet influenced history, Russia is struggling to find manpower. Both on the battlefield of Ukraine and in the vast factory complexes in the Urals Russia is suffering from the lack of men. The lack of skilled workers is hampering war production, possibly causing equipment shortages for the Armed Forces. At the same time on the frontlines, Russians lack the manpower necessary to break through Ukrainian lines. In the wake of the drone attack on the Kremlin, and the May 9th victory parade Putin speaks of a “real war” being waged against Russia. Russia’s moment of weakness might soon turn into a cry to war.