August 13, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russian Navy fires on civilian vessel in Black Sea, forces inspection

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on August 13 and reportedly advanced in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in the Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions and achieved partial success near Robotyne (western Zaporizhia Oblast, 13km south of Orikhiv). Several Russian sources claimed on August 12 that Russian forces withdrew from Urozhaine (in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast area), although many Russian sources refuted those claims on August 13 and claimed instead that Russian forces still occupy the southern part of Urozhaine, that fighting is ongoing, and that areas of Urozhaine are contested. ISW has not observed confirmation that Russian forces have completely withdrawn from Urozhaine and Russian forces likely currently maintain positions in at least the southern part of the settlement.

The Russian information space is seizing on Ukrainian gains in Urozhaine (in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area) to highlight poor Russian morale and command challenges in the area. A Russian milblogger complained on August 12 that the Russian 37th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (36th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) failed to dedicate tank units to support its infantry in Urozhaine and prematurely withdrew from Urozhaine on August 10, claiming they lacked reinforcements when in reality the unit’s personnel were drunk in the rear areas. The milblogger complained that the entire 36th Combined Arms Army (CAA) is unwilling to defend the settlement while the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Kaskad” Operational Tactical Combat Formation and the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade (Pacific Fleet) defend Urozhaine. These complaints generated a multitude of responses in the Russian information space, including attempts to deescalate tensions between the implicated Russian formations, doubling down on complaints against the 37th Brigade and 36th CAA, and accusing the initial milblogger who reported a Russian withdrawal from Urozhaine of attempting to inflate the reputation of other defending units at the expense of the 36th CAA’s reputation. One milblogger blamed the current situation on the front on the Russian military command’s removal of Major General Ivan Popov as commander of the 58th CAA in early July 2023. The milbloggers notably targeted their complaints at the personnel of these units rather than the unit or theater commanders, suggesting that Popov’s removal and other rumored command purges may have removed mid-level Russian military commanders as a readily available scapegoat for Russian military failures. Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the “Vostok” battalion defending near Urozhaine, referenced Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky as saying that Russia cannot win in defense, and Khodakovsky complained that Russia expended its resources too early in the war and now needs to pause to accumulate resources for a new operation, indicating recognition that the Russian elastic defense in this area has its limitations. Teplinsky is reportedly responsible for planning the Russian defense of the Velyka Novosilka area.

A Russian warship forcibly stopped and searched a civilian cargo ship en route to the Izmail port in Odesa Oblast, likely as part of a Kremlin effort to curtail maritime traffic to Ukrainian ports without committing naval assets to fully enforce a blockade. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that the Russian Vasily Bykov patrol ship forcibly stopped and searched a dry cargo ship sailing under the flag of Palau after it did not respond to the Vasily Bykov’s demand for inspection. The Russian MoD stated that the Russian forces conducted small arms warning fire near the civilian ship before a Ka-29 helicopter landed on the vessel with a group of Russian personnel. The Russian MoD claimed that the Russian personnel conducted an inspection and then allowed the civilian vessel to continue along its route to the Izmail port.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on August 13 and reportedly advanced in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • ISW has not observed confirmation that Russian forces have completely withdrawn from Urozhaine and Russian forces likely currently maintain positions in at least the southern part of the settlement.
  • The Russian information space is seizing on Ukrainian gains in Urozhaine (in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area) to highlight poor Russian morale and command challenges in the area.
  • A Russian warship forcibly stopped and searched a civilian cargo ship en route to the Izmail port in Odesa Oblast, likely as part of a Kremlin effort to curtail maritime traffic to Ukrainian ports without committing naval assets to fully enforce a blockade.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line and attempted to regain lost positions near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and reportedly advanced in some areas.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line, near Kreminna, near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and reportedly advanced in several areas.
  • The Wagner Group is likely downsizing and reconfiguring to adapt to financial pressure following the June 24 Wagner rebellion.
  • Ukrainian partisans claimed to have attacked a Russian military base in occupied Mariupol on August 13.
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