August 18, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: U.S. intelligence doubts Ukrainian gains in counteroffensive, but other experts say it’s too soon to judge

Institute for the Study of War

The Washington Post reported on August 17 that the US intelligence community has assessed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach Melitopol in western Zaporizhia Oblast and will not achieve its principal objective of severing the Russian land bridge to Crimea. The unverified intelligence assessment reportedly states that effective Russian defensive operations and dense minefields have constrained Ukrainian advances and will continue to do so.[1] Anonymous US officials reportedly stated that Ukrainian forces will advance to within several miles of Melitopol but not further.[2] A Ukrainian advance to within a few miles of Melitopol would bring the critical road and rail connections on which Russia relies to supply its forces within range of Ukrainian artillery systems, severely compromising Russia’s ability to continue to use them for that purpose. It is unclear from published reports why US intelligence analysts have reportedly concluded that seizing Melitopol is the only way Ukraine can sever the Russian land bridge. ISW has, in fact, assessed that Ukraine has many options for severing critical Russian ground lines of communication along the northern Sea of Azov coast of which the seizure of Melitopol is only one.[3] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notably offered a diverging opinion from the alleged intelligence assessment on August 15, stating that the prospects for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to make significant “strategic gains” will remain unclear for at least a month or longer.[4]

It is premature to make assessments about the overall success of ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations occurring along several lines of advance toward several different apparent objectives. ISW has consistently assessed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will be a protracted, non-linear series of operations, which will likely continue to occur in phases of differing tempos.[5] The Ukrainian counteroffensive is not a discrete set of scheduled operations, and current counteroffensive operations are likely setting more favorable conditions for larger significant operations.[6] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations are significantly degrading defending Russian forces and that the overall degradation of the Russian defensive line creates opportunities for any Ukrainian breakthrough to be potentially operationally significant.[7]

Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 18 and have reportedly advanced further near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut, Berdyansk (Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area), and the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions.[8] Geolocated footage published on August 17 and 18 indicate that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in northeastern Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv), from which Russian sources had previously claimed that Russian forces had expelled Ukrainian forces.[9] The footage confirms that recent Ukrainian advances in the Robotyne area have likely been tactically significant, and ISW previously assessed that such advances are likely reflective of a significant degradation of the Russian forces defending the area.[10] Russian milbloggers claimed on August 18 that Ukrainian forces control northern Robotyne and conducted assaults in unspecified areas south and southeast of the settlement after Russian forces “temporarily withdrew” from Robotyne itself, suggesting that Ukrainian forces have made further advances in the area.[11] The relative speed of these alleged Ukrainian advances suggests that the areas north of the settlement may have been heavily more mined than areas into which Ukrainian forces are currently trying to advance.[12] Geolocated footage published on August 18 also indicates that Ukrainian forces made marginal gains south of Urozhaine in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.[13]

The Kremlin has intensified its effort to increase its long-term control over the Russian information space, threatening the credibility of Russian sources that inform the wider Western coverage of battlefield realities in Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) held the “Arms and Society: Mental Security Strategy” psychological operations conference as part of the ongoing Army-2023 forum on August 17.[14] The conference included discussions about the historical, ideological, geopolitical, informational, and psychological aspects of the “special military operation” and “informational and ideological concepts” to combat the “information policy of unfriendly countries.” The conference featured prominent voices in the Russian information space, including politicians, political voices, journalists, and prominent Russian ultranationalist milblogger Yevgeny Poddubny, signaling the MoD’s likely effort to consolidate control over pro-war voices and messaging.[15] Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor announced on August 18 that the Russian State Duma will consider legislation in the fall that would criminalize the publishing of information on Russian military asset locations, Ukrainian strike locations, and strike aftermaths.[16] This effort immediately follows recent similar Crimean occupation and Russian Federal Council efforts, and the Russian information space largely did not react to these prior efforts.[17] A prominent Russian milblogger dryly commented on Roskomnadzor’s August 18 announcement that Russian authorities finally cracked down against military censorship after a year and a half of war.[18] Another Russian milblogger claimed that implementing these censorship measures will drive Russians to stop following Russian information space voices and listen to pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western channels instead.[19]

The Russian ultranationalist community has widely considered Russian milbloggers to be the last remaining credible voice on the war in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s effort to censor and control their reporting may eliminate that trust. The Kremlin’s effort to control moblogger content, therefore, threatens to undermine the Kremlin’s other effort to leverage select Russian milbloggers’ connections to the wider ultranationalist community.[20] Kremlin control over milblogger content would replace tactical and operational reporting on the war in Ukraine with unchallenged Kremlin narratives and make accurate coverage of battlefield realities more challenging.[21]

Ukrainian Operational Command South Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk challenged Russian claims that Russian authorities have adequately repaired the Chonhar bridge after a Ukrainian strike on August 6. Humenyuk stated on August 18 that Russian officials continue repairs on the Chonhar and Henichesk bridges and that Russian officials are struggling with repairs due to a lack of suitable specialists willing to travel to dangerous areas.[22] Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are attempting to use alternative pontoon crossings at the Chonhar and Henichesk bridges to transport large loads of materiel because the bridges are currently unable to support large loads.[23] Humenyuk also stated that Russian military logistics continue to rely on the M-17 (Armyansk-Oleshky) route through the Armyansk checkpoint.[24] Humenyuk’s statement that Russian forces continue to use an alternative pontoon crossing at the Chonhar Bridge for heavy loads indicates that Russian authorities likely opted for quick, short-term repairs at the bridge instead of more time-consuming, long-term repairs. Russian authorities have likely chosen to prioritize partially reopening critical ground lines of communications (GLOCs) over fully repairing bridges supporting critical military and civilian transport.

The Russian MoD accused Ukrainian forces of targeting Russian ships in the Black Sea with an unmanned naval drone overnight on August 17 to 18. The Russian MoD claimed that the Russian Pytlivy and Vasily Bykov patrol ships destroyed the Ukrainian drone before it hit a Russian vessel in the southwestern part of the Black Sea (approximately 237km southwest of Sevastopol).[25] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that the Pytlivy and Vasily Bykov patrol ships were accompanying a tanker from the Mediterranean Sea and speculated that a drone may have targeted the tanker.[26] The milblogger speculated that Ukrainian forces may have launched the drone from the civilian container ship Joseph Schulte, as the Joseph Schulte was allegedly traveling through the Bosphorus Strait at the same time as the attempted strike.[27] The milblogger conceded that the location of the drone’s launch remains unclear, however. ISW previously reported on August 16 that the Joseph Schulte was the first civilian vessel to travel through a Ukrainian-created temporary corridor for civilian vessels in the Black Sea.[28] The milblogger’s suggestion that Ukrainian forces may have launched the naval drone from a civilian ship is likely an attempt to justify further Russian escalation in aggressive Black Sea posturing and set informational conditions to justify future Russian strikes on civilian ships traveling through the Black Sea.

Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) Director Viktor Zolotov is allegedly attempting to remove Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu from his post. Russian lawyer Kirill Kachur, who was charged by the Russian Investigative Committee in absentia for embezzlement and bribery in 2022 and claims to have insider knowledge about internal Kremlin politics, alleged that Zolotov hoped to replace Shoigu with “one of his former subordinates and former adjutants to Vladimir Putin” as Defense Minister – possibly referring to current Tula Governor Alexei Dyumin, who previously worked in the Presidential Security Service as Putin’s bodyguard and adjutant and as Zolotov’s deputy.[29] The source claimed that the recent bill allowing Rosgvardia to receive heavy military equipment was the Kremlin’s compensation to Zolotov for rebuffing his effort to remove Shoigu.[30] Another Russian insider source had claimed on August 3 that Dyumin is also attempting to remove Shoigu as Defense Minister.[31]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reiterated boilerplate rhetoric intended to weaken international support for Ukraine at the Second “International Anti-Fascist Congress” in Minsk, Belarus. Shoigu stated that the Congress will focus on uniting international efforts to eradicate Nazi ideology and insinuated that Western elites and the Ukrainian government promote neo-fascist ideology.[32] Shoigu claimed that representatives of more than 30 countries are attending the congress.[33]

Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) reportedly attempted to use civilians to sabotage weapons shipments to Ukraine in Poland. The Washington Post reported that the GRU attempted to recruit civilians in Poland to commit sabotage operations, including the derailment of trains on a railway through which more than 80 percent of military equipment delivered through Poland to Ukraine flows.[34] The GRU also reportedly recruited civilians to post pro-Russia propaganda fliers in public spaces, hide tracking devices in military cargo, scout Polish seaports, and place cameras along railways.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Washington Post reported on August 17 that the US intelligence community has assessed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach Melitopol in western Zaporizhia Oblast and will not achieve its principal objective of severing the Russian land bridge to Crimea.
  • It is premature to make assessments about the overall success of ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations occurring along several lines of advance toward several different apparent objectives.
  • Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 18 and have reportedly advanced further near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Kremlin has intensified its effort to increase its long-term control over the Russian information space, threatening the credibility of Russian sources that inform the wider Western coverage of battlefield realities in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Operational Command South Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk challenged Russian claims that Russian authorities have adequately repaired the Chonhar bridge after a Ukrainian strike on August 6.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Aviivdka-Donetsk City line, and in the eastern Donetsk-western Zaporizhia border area on August 18 and advanced in some areas.
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