March 21, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russia pressures Ukrainian forces in absence of western arms resupply

Institute for the Study of War

Russian offensive tactics will likely increasingly pressure Ukrainian defenses as long as delays in Western security assistance persist. Russian forces are generally relying on their manpower and materiel superiority to conduct a relatively consistent tempo of assaults against Ukrainian positions along the frontline in hopes of wearing down Ukrainian defenders and setting conditions for exploiting Ukrainian vulnerabilities. Russian forces are also expanding their use of tactical aviation, drones, and electronic warfare (EW) systems in Ukraine to prepare for and support these assaults while reportedly conducting artillery fire exceeding Ukrainian artillery fire by a ratio of up to ten to one. Russian forces have significantly increased guided and unguided glide-bomb strikes against rear and frontline Ukrainian positions in 2024, notably employing mass glide-bomb strikes to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February. Russian and Ukrainian forces have heavily integrated drones into their reconnaissance-fire complexes (RFC) along the frontline, and Russian forces rely on drones both before and during assaults. A Ukrainian commander stated on March 20 that Russian forces in the Bakhmut direction currently operate first-person view (FPV) drones at night after Russian artillery units conduct indirect fire during the day, suggesting that Russian forces continue to experiment with tactical drones and may be deconflicting artillery and drone strikes temporally. Russian forces are widely employing EW systems throughout the front to disrupt Ukraine’s own drones and are reportedly increasingly equipping armored vehicles with EW systems to minimize the threat that Ukrainian drones pose to mechanized assaults. Russian artillery advantages allow Russian forces to provide extensive artillery preparation and coverage for Russian assaults and are likely allowing Russian forces to systematically degrade Ukrainian fortifications.

Ukrainian military observer Tatarigami stated on March 20 that Russian forces conduct offensive operations near Bilohorivka (south of Kreminna) and in many other sectors of the front according to the following sequence: Russian forces first conduct reconnaissance with drones, strike Ukrainian forces with glide bombs, conduct artillery preparations, advance with small squad- to company-sized infantry or lightly mechanized groups, attack Ukrainian positions from 50 to 150 meters away with FPV drone support, and then, if successful, seize positions and quickly fortify them. Tatarigami added that once Russian forces sufficiently degrade the Ukrainian defense in an area, Russian forces will then commit larger, company-sized assault groups to exploit vulnerabilities. Tatarigami’s observations are consistent with ISW’s observations of the general chronology of the majority of current Russian assaults along the front. Russian forces do routinely change the size of assault groups and the amount of equipment they use in assaults, however, likely to test Ukrainian responses and exploit tactical opportunities in specific sectors of the front.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian military command appears to be forming reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations in Ukraine, but these reserves are unlikely to be able to function as cohesive large-scale penetration or exploitation formations this year.
  • Russian offensive tactics will likely increasingly pressure Ukrainian defenses as long as delays in Western security assistance persist.
  • Russian forces conducted a larger series of missile strikes targeting Kyiv City on the night of March 20 to 21.
  • NATO Military Committee Chairperson Admiral Rob Bauer stated that neither Ukraine nor NATO prompted Russia to invade Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces’ adaptations and innovations have in part changed modern warfare.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on March 21 that Vice Admiral Konstantin Kabantsov became acting Commander of the Russian Northern Fleet.
  • Bloomberg reported on March 20 that an unspecified source close to the Kremlin stated that the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian incursions into Belgorod Oblast are forcing the Russian military to divert forces from the frontline to Belgorod Oblast, although ISW has not observed such claims.
  • US sanctions continue to influence the financial sector in post-Soviet countries, as two banks in Kazakhstan recently banned the use of Russia’s “Mir” national payment system to prevent secondary sanctions.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 21.
  • Russian officials continue to highlight the work of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) in supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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