February 19, 2023

Absence of reserves hampers Russian offensive in Luhansk

Institute for the Study of War

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, February 19. This report forecasts the unlikelihood of significantly increased Russian offensive operations this winter based on an assessment of Russian forces already committed to active operations compared with Russia’s overall ground forces order of battle.

The major phase of Russian offensive operations in Luhansk Oblast is underway, and Russia likely lacks sufficient uncommitted reserves to dramatically increase the scale or intensity of the offensive this winter. Russian conventional ground forces are generally deploying and fighting in normal doctrinal formations and units rather than in battalion tactical groups or other ad hoc structures. The observed absence of several critical tank units suggests that the Russian military continues to struggle to replace equipment, especially tanks, lost during previous failed offensive operations. Russian forces almost certainly still have some reconstituted mechanized units in reserve, but the commitment of these limited reserves to the Luhansk Oblast frontline is unlikely to change the course of the ongoing offensive dramatically. The Russian offensive will very likely continue for some time and may temporarily gain momentum as the final reserves are committed—if they are—but will very likely culminate well short of its objectives and likely short of achieving operationally significant gains.

The current pattern of commitment in Luhansk Oblast indicates that Russian forces in this area are deploying in doctrinal units and formations from the military-district level down to the brigade/regiment level at least, and likely down to the battalion level as well. Russian forces operating in and near the Luhansk Oblast frontline are drawn almost entirely from the Western Military District (WMD) with a few reinforcements from other force groupings. This disposition suggests that the Russian military command has returned to the traditional military district command-and-control structure wherein all units in a discrete geographical area fall under the area of responsibility of a single military district. Two full WMD divisions (the 144th Motorized Rifle Division and the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division) have each deployed their maneuver regiments in line allowing the division commanders to operate as divisions are designed to do. These regiments have been reconstituted with mobilized personnel, indicating that the Russian command is using mobilized soldiers as replacements in doctrinal structures instead of creating ad hoc formations.

The pattern of Russian deployments in other parts of the theater strongly suggests that most of the available maneuver elements of the other military districts and the Airborne Forces are already committed and thus do not constitute a large reserve that Moscow could suddenly hurl into the fray in Luhansk Oblast or elsewhere. ISW has previously assessed that various elements of the Southern Military District (SMD) are currently engaging in unsuccessful offensive efforts throughout Donetsk Oblast and holding defensive positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast. Elements of the Eastern Military District (EMD) and the 40thand 155th Naval Infantry Brigades have been predominantly fighting near Vuhledar in western Donetsk Oblast and have suffered catastrophic losses over the past weeks. DNR troops are heavily committed along the outskirts of Donetsk City and elsewhere throughout Donetsk Oblast. The Central Military District (CMD), which suffered devastating losses during Ukrainian counteroffensive operations near Lyman in fall 2022, appears to mainly be reinforcing WMD elements in the Kreminna area. VDV elements are scattered throughout the theater, gradually supplementing and increasingly supplanting the Wagner Group in its assaults around Bakhmut and maintaining a presence in southern Ukraine as well as a limited presence in Luhansk Oblast. The commitment of Russian forces throughout Ukraine suggests that the 2nd MRD is the only obvious candidate for a theater reserve unless the missing tank regiments/brigades begin to appear. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) has previously confirmed this assessment with the suggestion that an absolute majority of the Russian military is already committed in Ukraine.

There may well be more Russian elements online in Luhansk Oblast than ISW has observed at this time. Other research organizations have suggested that additional units of the 6th CAA are operating along the Luhansk Oblast line. ISW cannot verify the sources of these other assessments but has no reason to question them. If elements of the 6th CAA or other formations have indeed been committed, then Russian theater reserves available for commitment to subsequent offensive or defensive operations are even smaller. The offensive will likely continue and may briefly increase in intensity if reserve elements such as the 2nd MRD are committed, but these increases in intensity will likely be brief and unable to make operationally significant gains.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on February 19:

  • Member of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence Fedir Venislavskyi stated that Russian forces have already deployed all their combat-ready units to the frontlines in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts as well as parts of Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces will reportedly be able to deploy only 50 Western-provided tanks to frontline areas by April, out of a promised total of 320 tanks.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed that the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 1st Army Corps and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) 2nd Army Corps are official formations in the Russian Armed Forces while denying accusations that it dismissed DNR Military Command spokesperson Eduard Basurin or any other LNR/DNR commander. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the controversy over Basurin’s reported dismissal by publicizing a meeting he had with Basurin in which Prigozhin continued several informational lines of attack against the Russian MoD.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov publicly applauded Prigozhin after likely refusing to join Prigozhin’s renewed campaign against the Russian MoD. Kadyrov also indicated that he may be interested in forming a paramilitary company of his own after completing his government service.
  • The Russian MoD falsely claimed that Ukrainian officials are preparing a radiological false flag attack in order to accuse Russia of violating the Convention on Nuclear Safety ahead of the 11th emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly.
  • Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed that the completed investigation into the October 10, 2022 explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea proves that Ukrainian Special Services planned and conducted a terrorist attack. The attack would have been a legitimate military operation, not a terrorist attack, had Ukraine conducted it.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces crossed the Russian border into Kharkiv Oblast and occupied unspecified border settlements.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces are strengthening frontline positions west and northwest of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces likely secured marginal gains in the northern suburbs of Bakhmut and in the eastern outskirts of the city. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that degraded Wagner Group formations are narrowing the scope of their offensives in the Bakhmut area due to a lack of forces.
  • Russian forces reportedly continued offensive operations along the western outskirts of Donetsk city and around Vuhledar.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces conducted a localized ground attack near Novodanylivka, Zaporizhia Oblast and amplified footage showing Wagner Group fighters arriving in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Crimean occupation parliament head Vladimir Konstantinov stated that Crimean occupation officials nationalized tens of billions of rubles (at least 10 million USD) worth of Ukrainian property and plan to use funds from the sale of the property to support Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that the Commander of Russian 45th Separate Special Purpose Brigade of the Russian Airborne Forces Vadim Pankov was promoted to Major-General.
  • A Russian Lancet drone manufacturer and Kalashnikov Concern subsidiary is reportedly producing drones in a public sauna following disputes over access to its facilities, prompting another Russian drone manufacturers to call for the mass assembly of drones despite the lack availability of proper facilities.
  • Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces are unable to repair modernized S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems near the frontlines due to logistics problems and have to transfer these systems to manufacturing plants in Russia.
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