August 21, 2023

Institue for the Study of War: Ukrainian forces advance into Robotyne in western Zaporizhia

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces made tactically significant gains in and east of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 20-21 while continuing counteroffensive operations on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border and in eastern Ukraine. Geolocated footage published on August 20 and August 21 indicates that Ukrainian forces reached the central part of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and broke through some Russian defenses south of Mala Tokmachka (9km southeast of Orikhiv). Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces succeeded in the direction southeast of Robotyne and south of Mala Tokmachka, and that Russian forces unsuccessfully counterattacked east of Robotyne. Malyar and Russian sources stated that fighting is ongoing in Robotyne. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces captured some positions in a part of the Russian forward defensive lines after intensifying attacks on the Robotyne-Verbove (21km southeast of Orikhiv) line. Some Russian sources reported that Russian forces retreated from some positions near Verbove as part of their elastic defense, likely in response to a Ukrainian advance south of Mala Tokmachka. ISW previously assessed that Ukrainian attacks on Robotyne are tactically significant because a Ukrainian advance in the area may allow Ukrainian forces to begin operating past the densest Russian minefields. Ukrainian advances across fields in this area likely confirm this assessment. Persistent Ukrainian advances in the Robotyne area also likely aim to degrade Russian forces that have committed significant effort, resources, and personnel to hold positions around Robotyne.

Ukrainian forces also reportedly advanced in the Bakhmut and Kreminna directions over the past week and continue counteroffensive operations south and southeast of Velyka Novosilka in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts. Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces recaptured three square kilometers around Bakhmut over the past week and 43 square kilometers in total since Wagner Group forces captured Bakhmut in May 2023. Ukrainian Severodonetsk City Administration Head Andriy Vlasenko reported that Ukrainian forces achieved some unspecified successes south of Kreminna while conducting active mobile defenses in the area.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to re-establish Wagner in Africa, and some Russian sources are portraying this reported effort as necessary for Wagner’s survival. A Wagner-affiliated source claimed that Wagner representatives and possibly Prigozhin himself arrived in Mali on August 19 possibly to discuss the regional security situation or cooperation with Niger. Another prominent Wagner-affiliated source published footage of Prigozhin on August 21 in which Prigozhin claims to be in Africa and claims that Wagner is increasing its presence in Africa. A Russian insider source claimed that Prigozhin began a media campaign to portray Nigeriens as begging for Wagner’s intervention in order to help Wagner secure a contract with Niger and thereby save Wagner. The source claimed that Wagner has struggled with significant personnel and financial issues from funding cuts following the June 24 rebellion and the recent claimed (but unconfirmed) withdrawal from Belarus. Wagner likely has thousands of personnel to dedicate to operations in Africa if Wagner is able to both secure a contract and deploy personnel from Russia and Belarus, actions that Prigozhin may see as Wagner’s final option to maintain its independence from the Russian MoD.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces made tactically significant gains in and east of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 20-21 while continuing counteroffensive operations on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border and in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to indicate that Russian forces lack equipment and suffer from low morale along the entire frontline.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is creating new military formations possibly to allow more combat effective units currently defending in Kherson Oblast to redeploy to more critical sectors of the front.
  • Russian insider sources indicated that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov may have decisively won Russian President Vladimir’s Putin favor following the June 24 Wagner Group rebellion.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to re-establish Wagner in Africa, and some Russian sources are portraying this reported effort as necessary for Wagner’s survival.
  • Some Russian sources are likely running an information operation to exaggerate the degree to which Wagner is struggling to survive, possibly in support of the Russian MoD effort to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and the whole Wagner Group.
  • Russian sources made and walked back claims about significant Russian advances in the Kupyansk direction amid continued offensive actions on August 21.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and advanced near Bakhmut.
  • The Russian government continues to introduce mandatory nationalistic and militaristic courses into high school curriculum to promote military service among Russian youth.
  • Belarusian authorities reportedly exposed forcibly deported Ukrainian children to pro-Kremlin propaganda in Belarus.
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