August 17, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russian battalion commander calls for ‘freezing’ the war in Ukraine at current frontlines

Institute for the Study of War

“Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine along the current frontlines, reintroducing a narrative that had been largely dormant since Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Khodakovsky stated that Russia will not be able to topple Ukraine militarily in the near term and that Russian forces are unlikely to easily occupy additional Ukrainian cities, echoing comments Prigozhin had made in April 2023. Khodakovsky concluded that Russia will likely have to come to a “truce” and that Russia may enter a phase “of neither peace nor war” with Ukraine. Khodakovsky suggested that Ukraine would be sufficiently weakened in this state of frozen conflict and that Russia would be able to exert more influence over Ukraine in such a situation than it currently can during the ”Special Military Operation.” Prigozhin’s April 14 essay suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine to set conditions for a future victory without negotiations. Russian sources have periodically claimed that a Kremlin faction is interested in freezing the war along the current frontlines for similar reasons as well as over concerns about domestic political stability and the economic fallout from the war. Discussion of this narrative has waned with Prigozhin’s relative silence following Wagner’s June 24 rebellion and the arrest of ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin, who routinely called on the Kremlin to resist the faction that aims to freeze the war. Khodakovsky may be reintroducing the narrative into the Russian information space on behalf of the faction allegedly interested in freezing the war, although Khodakovsky likely has limited influence on the Russian leadership itself. ISW continues to assess that a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine and protraction of the war will only benefit Russia by allowing Russian forces to reconstitute and letting Russia wear down Western support for Ukraine.

Khodakovsky commands forces defending in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and his comments about freezing the war follow the Ukrainian liberation of Urozhaine on August 16, suggesting that recent Ukrainian advances may be significantly weakening confidence in the Russian defense along the wider front in southern Ukraine. Khodakovsky has previously highlighted concerns about the Russian defense in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, specifically relating to poor Russian counterbattery capabilities, heavy Russian losses, exhausted Russian forces, and a lack of reserves. Khodakovsky previously called for an operational pause on August 13 so that Russian forces could accumulate resources for a new operation. Khodakovsky’s escalation from calling for an operational pause to suggesting that Russia freeze the conflict is likely associated with his firsthand experience of recent tactically significant Ukrainian advances and the degradation of defending Russian forces in Urozhaine.

Recent Ukrainian advances near small settlements in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast are likely tactically significant because of the structure of Russian defensive lines. Ukrainian Colonel Petro Chernyk stated on August 15 that the three-echeloned Russian defensive line in southern Ukraine is comprised of a first line of minefields stretching several kilometers deep; a second line with artillery, equipment, and personnel concentrations; and a third line of rear positions meant to preserve resources. Recent Ukrainian advances north and northeast of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia may allow Ukrainian forces to begin operating in the areas past the densest minefields. If the areas around the second Russian line of defense are less heavily mined, then they would likely be more conducive to more rapid Ukrainian gains. ISW has no ability to assess the density or depth of Russian minefields, however.

Key Takeaways: 

  • “Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine along the current frontlines, reintroducing a narrative that had been largely dormant since Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion.
  • Khodakovsky commands forces defending in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and his comments about freezing the war follow the Ukrainian liberation of Urozhaine on August 16, suggesting that recent Ukrainian advances may be significantly weakening confidence in the Russian defense along the wider front in southern Ukraine.
  • Recent Ukrainian advances near small settlements in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast are likely tactically significant because of the structure of Russian defensive lines.
  • Russian forces have dedicated significant effort, resources, and personnel to hold settlements such as Robotyne and Urozhaine, and recent Ukrainian advances in these areas are therefore likely reflective of a wider degradation of defending Russian forces.
  • Russian efforts to ramp up the domestic production of Iranian Shahed-136/-131 drones indicates that Russia aims to develop the long-term capability to conduct large strike series in Ukraine.
  • Russian reports about the state of the Chonhar Bridge in occupied Kherson Oblast indicate that Ukrainian strikes disrupted a major Russian ground line of communication (GLOC) to Crimea for 11 days.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area on August 17 and advanced in certain areas.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 17 and advanced near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
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