Combat continues despite declining fortunes for both Russian forces and Ron DeSantis.
A Ukrainian intelligence official supported ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Vadym Skibitsky stated on March 23 that Russian forces have demonstrated in the last year of the war that Russian forces are unable to maintain large-scale, strategic-level offensives on multiple axes of advance. Skibitsky stated that Russian forces failed to achieve the expected quick or significant advances in the Donbas offensive that began in early 2023. Skibitsky stated that Ukrainian forces fixed Russian forces to multiple areas on the front line and that Russian forces in occupied Crimea and Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts are on the defensive. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated on March 21 that Russian forces will try to start another offensive, possibly even on multiple different axes, in the coming weeks.
Russian forces may be shifting their missile strike tactics to focus on Ukrainian military facilities as overall Russian missile strikes decrease, indicating the depletion of Russia’s stocks of high-precision missiles. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Vadym Skibitsky stated that Russian forces may be reorienting their strikes to focus on Ukrainian military facilities and force concentrations while continuing to strike Ukrainian energy infrastructure, as opposed to prioritizing striking energy infrastructure as Russian forces did in fall 2022. Skibitsky said that the GUR assessed that currently only 15 percent of Russia‘s pre-February 24, 2022 high-precision weapons stocks remain. Skibitsky stated that Russia‘s higher-end Kalibr, Kh-101, and Kh-555 cruise missiles comprise less than 10 percent of Russia’s total remaining stocks. Skibitsky stated that Russian forces cannot conduct missile attacks more than twice a month due to the growing need to conserve missiles, in contrast with how Russian forces conducted large air attacks at a higher frequency of about once a week in October 2022. Skibitsky stated that Russia‘s defense industrial base can produce only produce 20 to 30 Kalibr and Kh-101 cruise missiles per month and that Russia‘s production of Iskander ballistic missiles is even lower. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces are depleting their missile arsenal, which may constrain Russian missile strikes frequency and intensity
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin outlined various measures to support Russian military personnel, the Russian defense industrial base (DIB), and Russian independence from the West in an address to the State Duma on March 23. Mishustin claimed that Russia aims to produce over 100 aircraft, likely including military aircraft, with unspecified modifications by 2026. Mishustin also claimed that Russia has made significant progress towards mobilizing the DIB for increased production and implementing social support measures to support Russian military personnel, particularly mobilized personnel, and their families. Mishustin used the bulk of his address to claim that Russia has done well but will improve even further despite needing to implement additional economic, social, political, technological, and diplomatic measures to both counteract the effects of significant Western sanctions and decrease Russian dependence on the West. Mishustin’s speech follows Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s March 22 speech at the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) collegium, and both Mishustin and Shoigu are attempting to portray Russia as capable of maintaining a prolonged war effort at a pace and scope likely beyond Russia’s actual capability, as ISW has previously assessed.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has softened his rhetoric towards the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) likely out of fear of completely losing his mercenary force in Bakhmut.
- Prigozhin denied the Kremlin’s claims that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine and questioned whether there are actually Nazis in Ukraine as the Kremlin constantly claims.
- Bloomberg reported that Prigozhin is preparing to scale back Wagner’s operations in Ukraine after Russian military leadership succeeded in cutting key supplies of personnel and munitions.
- Ukrainian officials supported ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.
- Russian forces may be shifting their missile strike tactics to focus on Ukrainian military facilities as overall Russian missile strikes decrease, indicating the depletion of Russia’s stocks of high-precision missiles.
- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin outlined various measures to support Russian military personnel, the Russian defense industrial base (DIB), and Russian independence from the West in an address to the State Duma.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Rosatom may be working to restore three power lines at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) which would increase Russian control over the ZNPP.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces are continuing to attack Bakhmut City and areas in its vicinity and around Avdiivka.
- Ukrainian forces continue to conduct raids over the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to coerce Russian reservists, conscripts, and other personnel into contract service.
- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that Russia is continuing efforts to integrate newly-occupied Ukraine into Russian institutions and infrastructure.
- Russian forces in Belarus recently redeployed back to Russia ahead of Russia’s spring conscription call-up on April 1.
Symbolic Value – Exhausting Possibilities
Both Ukraine and Russia have a great deal to lose in the Battle of Bakhmut and little to gain. If this sounds a lot like a repeat of war on the Western Front, that is no coincidence. Neither side wants to admit defeat. Nor will they, no matter the outcome. The definition of defeat varies between the two sides. The Russians are the favorites to emerge victorious in the battle. Reports from western intelligence sources state that Russian forces now hold half the city. This has created the expectation that Bakhmut will soon fall to them. Ironically, this puts more pressure on them than it does the Ukrainians. The Russians must capture Bakhmut. They have lost an alarming number of soldiers in the battle.
No matter whether these soldiers were prisoners turned cannon fodder or raw recruits thrown into a meat grinder, the price paid in casualties has been so high that for Russia not to capture the entirety of Bakhmut would be tantamount to defeat. The battle is a losing situation for the Russians even if they “win.” Failure to capture Bakhmut is unthinkable, but a victory does little to change the overall strategic situation. The Russians are in a trap of their own making. The best outcome of the battle for them has less to do with capturing Bakhmut and more to do with how much damage they can inflict on Ukrainian forces. That Bakhmut has become a battle of attrition is in the Russian’s favor. That is if they do not exhaust their own forces in the process.
As for Ukrainian forces, Bakhmut has as much symbolic as it does strategic value. Holding out for as long as possible is a way of showing the Ukrainian people that their military forces will not give up so much as an inch without a fight. They are making it as difficult as possible for the Russians to capture the city. This provides a boost to morale on the home front. The message is clear, Russian aggression will be resisted no matter the cost. While that is inspiring, it is also risky. The Ukrainians are losing some of their best soldiers in the fighting. They are also expending massive amounts of artillery that could hamper their efforts in a coming offensive. Ukrainian forces must be careful not to get so caught up in holding Bakhmut that they lose sight of their overall strategic objective, which is to expel Russian forces from their territory.
Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1— Luhansk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and continue offensive operations into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and northern Donetsk Oblast)
Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line on March 23. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground attacks near Synkivka (8km northeast of Kupyansk), Makiivka (22km northwest of Kreminna), Bilohorivka (10km south of Kreminna), and Verkhnokamianske (21km south of Kreminna). The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Russian forces likely aim to capture Kupyansk, expand their security zone westward, and integrate the Oskil River into their defensive lines. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian forces have destroyed many pieces of new Russian equipment in the past several weeks as Russian forces use more conventional forces and armored vehicles in the Lyman and Kupyansk directions. Geolocated footage published on March 23 indicates a limited Russian advance southeast of Bilohorivka. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations near Terny (17km west of Kreminna), Makiivka, and Bilohorivka but advanced toward the Siverskyi Donets River in the Serebrianska forest area (10km south of Kreminna) Another milblogger amplified footage purportedly showing the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division operating near Kreminna. Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov published footage claiming that Akhmat Special Forces Commander and 2nd Luhansk People’s Republic Army Corps Deputy Commander Apti Alaudinov captured a Ukrainian prisoner of war near Bilohorivka.
Russian forces continue building fortifications in the border areas of Bryansk and Kursk oblasts. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces continue to engineer terrain in Bryansk and Kursk oblasts and conduct unspecified demonstrative actions in Belgorod Oblast in an attempt to prevent the transfer of Ukrainian forces to other areas of the frontline.
Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2—Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)
Russian forces continued attacking Bakhmut City and its environs on March 23. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Wagner Group elements remain the main Russian force operating in the Bakhmut direction and that they have not yet lost their offensive capabilities. Syrskyi noted that while Wagner forces still have a numerical advantage on the frontline Ukrainian forces continue to exhaust the mercenaries, which will enable Ukrainian forces to pursue unspecified future offensive operations. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Russian and Ukrainian forces made contact 35 times on the entire Bakhmut frontline, 29 of which occurred in the city or its immediate vicinity. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that there are constant positional battles in Bakhmut and that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian assaults northwest of Bakhmut in Oleksandro-Shultyne and Bohdanivka; northeast of Bakhmut in Vasyukivka; and south of Bakhmut in Predtechyne. Russian sources also claimed that Russian forces have completely cleared the industrial zone in northern Bakhmut and are continuing to fight in central and southern Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers claimed that fighting is ongoing southwest of Bakhmut in Ivanivske and that Wagner mercenaries are attacking Krohmalne just northwest of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage posted on March 22 showed Ukrainian forces engaging nearby Russian forces on the western bank of the Bakhmutka River with small arms, which likely indicates that some Russians have forded the river.
Supporting Effort—Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)
The Ukrainian General Staff reported that all Russian units deployed to Nova Kakhovka left the city as of March 22. The phrasing of the Ukrainian General Staff report explicitly mentions that Russian forces “left“ and does not lend itself to an interpretation of a Russian rotation, as some observers have suggested. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces remained in the city. ISW has not observed visual confirmation that supports either claim. ISW currently assesses that the Russian military still likely controls Nova Kakhovka.
Regardless of Russia’s intent, three things can be learned from this incident. First, this might have been a deliberate effort by Russia to distract from the fact that its air force has underperformed in the war to date. Second, it suggests that unmanned platforms may change escalation calculus, with states willing to engage in riskier behavior around unmanned vehicles than manned aircraft. Third, it demonstrates that large UAVs that served the United States well in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be survivable enough for large-scale combat operations against a near-peer adversary.