September 1, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: shortage of artillery saps Russian troop morale in Zaporizhia, battalion commander says

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov reported that the Russian military deployed elements of a newly created “reserve army” (the 25th CAA) to enable units currently on the frontline in Luhansk Oblast to laterally redeploy to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Budanov stated on August 31 that the Russian military deployed elements of the newly formed 25th Combined Arms Army (reportedly formed under the Eastern Military District) to replace elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army (Central Military District) in the Kupyansk direction, and that these elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) began a “slow” redeployment to an unspecified area in southern Ukraine.[1] Elements of the 41st CAA’s 35th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade and 90th Tank Division participated in the failed Russian winter 2023 offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast and have continued limited offensive activity along the Svatove-Kreminna line through now.[2] These units are likely degraded and have been operating without brigade and regiment level rotations like many frontline Russian units throughout the theater. ISW previously assessed that a lack of operational reserves would force the Russian command to conduct further lateral redeployments and make tough decisions about what sectors of the front to prioritize.[3] The Russian military command appears to have deployed elements of the newly formed and likely low quality or understrength 25th CAA to Luhansk Oblast to free up the relatively more effective 41st CAA elements for southern Ukraine. Budanov added that elements of the 25th CAA are already participating in hostilities in Luhansk Oblast.[4]

The 25th Combined Arms Army is unlikely to be combat effective at scale given its rushed deployment, ahead of a previously reported intended deployment date of December 2023. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) formed a “reserve army” at the end of June, likely referencing the 25th CAA, which began recruiting personnel from the Russian Far East in mid-May.[5] The 25th CAA will reportedly consist of 30,000 contract personnel in two motorized rifle divisions as well as an unspecified number of tank and artillery battalions, although it is unclear what elements have actually formed to date.[6] Budanov stated that Russian forces formed the 25th CAA as a ”strategic“ reserve and did not intend for the formation to be combat ready before October or November 2023.[7] A Russian administrator in Dalnegorsk, Primorsky Krai posted a recruitment ad for the 25th CAA on June 5 that claimed that the 25th CAA would train personnel from September 1 to December 1 and then deploy to either Zaporizhia or Kherson Oblast – ISW has not independently observed reporting of the October or November date Budanov cited but has no reason to question this statement.[8]Ukrainian Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department Oleksii Hromov stated on July 5 that the 25th CAA would not be combat ready until at least 2024.[9] Budanov noted that the 25th CAA elements that have arrived in Luhansk Oblast are understaffed and lack training, unsurprising due to their accelerated deployment.[10] ISW cannot yet independently verify that elements of the 25th CAA are operating in Luhansk Oblast, and the scale of the 25th CAA’s commitment is unclear from Budanov’s comments. The current size and capabilities of the elements of the 25th CAA deployed to Ukraine five months prematurely are unclear. The formation is likely either severely understaffed and not near the paper strength of two divisions, or is poorly trained much like initial Russian mobilized units in fall 2022, or both.

The Russian command likely views the deployment of a combat ineffective formation to Luhansk Oblast as a tolerable risk given the relatively lower tempo of operations along much of the Luhansk Oblast frontline. The recent lateral redeployment of elements of the 76th Guards Air Assault (VDV) Division from the Kreminna area in Luhansk Oblast to the Robotyne area in western Zaporizhia Oblast in late August further suggests that the Russian military command likely views this sector of the front as relatively safe.[11] Ukrainian forces are conducting limited ground attacks in Luhansk Oblast compared to other areas of the front.

Additional Russian lateral redeployments and the immediate commitment of intended operational reserves suggest that short term reinforcement needs are impeding intended long-term reconstitution efforts. The redeployment of elements of the 41st CAA to southern Ukraine is the third major Russian lateral redeployment since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in June and the second in recent weeks.[12] Russian formations at the division level (and in some areas lower) defending in southern Ukraine have done so without rotation since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and these forces have committed substantial material, manpower, and effort to hold back Ukrainian advances.[13] The second lateral deployment in the span of a few weeks suggests an increasing Russian concern about the stability of Russian defenses in light of Ukrainian advances around Robotyne. The creation of the 25th CAA is likely a part of Shoigu’s long-term objective previously announced in January 2023 to form several new major ground forces formations, and the deployment of elements of the 25th CAA to avoid creating gaps in the Russian defense suggests that the immediate threat of a Ukrainian breakthrough is serious enough to supersede that effort.[14]

Russian “Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky continues to highlight the impact of the lack of Russian counter-battery capabilities on Russian morale in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area. Khodakovsky claimed on September 1 that Russian forces continue to suffer from a lack of counter-battery capabilities in the Novomayorske-Novodonetske-Kermenchyk area (12km to 18km southeast of Velyka Novosilka), where Khodakovsky and the “Vostok” Battalion are reportedly defending.[15] Khodakovsky insinuated that Russian forces are experiencing extreme physical and psychological stress in this area due to constant Ukrainian artillery fire and the Russian inability to return fire.[16] Khodakovsky expressed concerns about whether distressed and exhausted Russian forces will be able to defend against a future Ukrainian offensive in this sector of the front.[17]

Khodakovsky has previously highlighted similar concerns about the Russian defense in this area, although his recent comments are more negative and defeatist in tone.[18] Khodakovsky’s complaints about the lack of counter-battery capabilities in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and concerns about its impacts on Russian morale are not necessarily indicative of a wider phenomenon in the Russian defense. However, Khodakovsky’s comments likely accurately reflect the situation in his limited but important sector of the frontline as well as the situation for often neglected proxy military formations such as Khodakovsky’s Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion. Khodakovsky noted on August 31 that Russian forces cannot lose sight of the daily fight against Ukrainian forces while fantasizing about “burying the enemy in the future.”[19] Khodakovsky may believe that senior Russian commanders have done exactly this by letting the situation deteriorate to the point that Russian forces may be unable to defend against future Ukrainian offensives in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.

Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made some advances on September 1. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations south of Bakhmut, and geolocated footage shows that Ukrainian forces marginally advanced northwest of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut).[20] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved unspecified success in the Novodanylivka-Novopokropivka direction (5km to 13km south of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[21] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks near Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and Verbove (18km southeast of Orikhiv), however.[22] US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated on July 1 that the US has observed notable Ukrainian progress in the “Zaporizhia area” (likely meaning the western Zaporizhia Oblast direction) in the past 72 hours and that Ukrainian forces have achieved some success against the “second line of Russian defenses” in southern Ukraine.[23] Kirby also stated that anonymous US officials’ criticisms of the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive are unhelpful.[24]

Politico confirmed previously-reported numbers of refurbished US Abrams tanks set to arrive in Ukraine by mid-September. Politico confirmed that Ukraine will receive the first 10 of the 31 promised refurbished US Abrams tanks by mid-September following refurbishment in Germany, citing a US Department of Defense official and another source.[25] The US Army Europe and Africa Spokesperson Colonel Martin O’Donnell stated that the US remains committed to delivering the 31 Abrams during an unspecified timeframe in the fall.[26] O’Donnell stated that 200 Ukrainian servicemen recently completed one of the final phases of Abrams training. Ukraine is unlikely to deploy the initial Abrams tanks (two platoons) until the entire brigade set is ready for operations.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov is reportedly visiting multiple African countries as part of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD’s) continued effort to assume control over the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Yevkurov is conducting a tour of various African countries including Burkina Faso and recentlyvisited Libya and Syria in an attempt to replace “private military companies” (PMCs) with Russian MoD-controlled formations.[27] The milblogger also claimed that the Russian MoD is forming a “volunteer corps” to function as an “expeditionary corps” that will include over 20,000 personnel.[28] The “expeditionary corps” may be a reference to the “Rossiyskiy Ekpeditsionniy Korpus” (Russian Expeditionary Corps) PMC that Russian officials are allegedly creating to conduct operations abroad.[29] Bloomberg reported on August 31 that unnamed sources close to the Russian MoD and an unspecified PMC claimed that a Russian MoD-affiliated PMC is positioned to take control of Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic.[30] ISW has continually observed claims since the Wagner rebellion on June 24 that the Russian MoD is attempting to consolidate control over Wagner operations in Africa.[31]

A Russian public opinion poll indicates that there is likely little to no societal discontent around the Wagner Group or its financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, and the true cause of the plane crash will have little impact on both Russian perceptions and the future of the Wagner Group. Independent Russian polling organization Levada Center found that roughly equivalent percentages of Russians believe that either Prigozhin’s death was accidental; Russian authorities intentionally orchestrated Prigozhin’s death; Prigozhin is still alive; or the cause of Prigozhin’s death is difficult to determine.[32] Levada Center polls conducted on June 23 and August 23 found that Russians are almost evenly split between disapproving and approving of Prigozhin’s activities.[33] Public opinion on the death of Prigozhin (very likely a Kremlin-directed assassination) would only impact Kremlin or Ministry of Defense decision making if public opposition reached a far higher threshold, and the Kremlin likely in fact benefits from continued disagreement in Russian society over the circumstances of Prigozhin’s death.

A fringe Russian milblogger arrested on August 31 for allegedly discrediting the Russian military reportedly pled guilty on September 1.[34] Russian state media outlet TASS reported that Andrey Kurshin, administrator of the “Moscow Calling” Telegram channel, pled guilty to charges for knowingly disseminating false information about the Russian military and faces up to 10 years in prison.[35]Russian media outlet Baza claimed that Russian officials charged Kurshin for posts made on September 14 and November 23, 2022 covering Russian shelling of Zaporizhia Oblast and a strike near a dam on the Inhulets River near Kherson City, respectively.[36] Kurshin, via the “Moscow Calling” channel, has actively criticized the Russian military, Ministry of Defense (MoD), and Kremlin throughout the war for poor Russian conduct, and these specific and older posts are unlikely to be the impetus for Kurshin’s arrest. Russian authorities reportedly arrested prominent ultranationalist Igor Girkin based on Telegram posts two months prior to his arrest but reportedly began investigating Girkin on the same day he levied especially harsh critiques against Russian President Vladimir Putin, as ISW has previously reported.[37]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov reported that the Russian military deployed elements of a newly created “reserve army” (the 25th CAA) to enable units currently on the frontline in Luhansk Oblast to laterally redeploy to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
  • The 25th Combined Arms Army is unlikely to be combat effective at scale given its rushed deployment, ahead of a previously reported intended deployment date of December 2023.
  • Additional Russian lateral redeployments and the immediate commitment of intended operational reserves suggest that short term reinforcement needs are impeding intended long-term reconstitution efforts.
  • Russian “Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky continues to highlight the impact of the lack of Russian counter-battery capabilities on Russian morale in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made some advances on September 1.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed gains. 
  • Russian occupation officials announced on September 1 that voting began for the Russian regional elections held in occupied Ukraine and will continue in various forms through September 10. 
  • Russian officials continue efforts to forcibly indoctrinate Ukrainian youth into Russian culture and identity by integrating schools in occupied Ukraine into the Russian educational system.
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