July 22, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine about to step up its counteroffensive

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast area) and Melitopol directions (western Zaporizhia Oblast). The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces repelled 14 Ukrainian attacks south of Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast, and in the Bakhmut area. The Ukrainian General Staff did not publish a situation report about its counteroffensive operations on July 22.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may soon increase in tempo and that the delay in counteroffensive operations was in part due to limited materiel. Zelensky stated at the Aspen Security Forum on July 21 that Ukrainian forces had plans to launch counteroffensive operations in the spring but that a lack of munitions and military equipment, such as mine-clearing equipment, and continued Ukrainian training abroad necessitated a delay. Zelensky noted that the delay in Ukrainian counteroffensive operations allowed Russian forces to establish minefields and multiple defensive lines. ISW assessed in January 2023 that the provision of Western weapons and materiel to Ukraine has been essential to Ukraine’s previous ability to conduct successful counteroffensive operations and that delays between Western pledges to send higher-end Western systems to Ukraine and the arrival of those systems likely hinder Ukraine’s ability to initiate and sustain large-scale counteroffensive operations. Zelensky stated that counteroffensive operations may soon increase in tempo due to ongoing mine-clearing operations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on July 21 at the Aspen Security Forum that it is too early to draw conclusions about Ukrainian counteroffensive operations and that Ukraine will likely “make a profound difference” on the battlefield as Kyiv commits all of the forces that Ukraine prepared for the counteroffensive.

Further details about former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s arrest for extremism continue to suggest a shifting balance of power among Kremlin factions and a notable factionalism within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), in which Girkin had served. ISW has consistently assessed that Girkin likely had the backing of an unknown silovik, possibly within the FSB since Girkin was a former FSB officer and consistently used passports under fictitious names that he received from the FSB. Russian sources, including the Angry Patriots Club, amplified a document from Girkin’s lawyer, Alexander Molokhov, on July 22 purporting to show that FSB investigators initiated the criminal case against Girkin on July 18 and that the Moscow Department of the FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order and Combating Terrorism (SZKSBT) provided the materials for the case. Girkin previously suggested that the head of the SZKSBT’s Department for the Protection of the Constitutional Order (UZKS), Lieutenant General Aleksey Zhalo, censored Girkin’s July 9 speaking engagement at a bookstore in St. Petersburg. Zhalo and Girkin have had a longstanding feud after Girkin publicly criticized Zhalo for the arrest of ultranationalist figures in 2018 and for failing to combat the Ukrainian Azov Regiment’s recruitment measures.

The involvement of the SZKSBT in Girkin’s case may be indicative of this personal struggle, although it may also suggest a degree of factionalism within the FSB itself. The alleged document also states that the FSB’s Center for Criminalistics (TsST) formally assessed on July 17 that Girkin’s May 25, 2022 Telegram posts, likely referencing comments he made criticizing a lack of payments to Russian personnel, constituted a crime. The TsST and SZKSBT may have approved the initiation of Girkin’s criminal case because FSB leadership decided to stop protecting Girkin as he increasingly became more adversarial towards the Kremlin. It is also possible that the two FSB entities acted on longstanding desires to arrest Girkin after a potential shift in the balance of power in the Kremlin to the FSB’s detriment. FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov reportedly secured security guarantees for Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in negotiations to end Wagner’s June 24 rebellion and may have lost what appeared to be the Kremlin’s increasing backing for the FSB. Girkin himself recently claimed that Prigozhin’s rebellion shifted the balance of power within the Kremlin to favor factions hostile to the FSB and other Russian security organs. Russian authorities’ recent initiation of criminal cases against other prominent Telegram administrators and ultranationalist figures with connections to the FSB and Russian security services suggests that select Russian officials may be trying to undermine the reputation of these security structures in the wake of a potential shift in the influence of Kremlin factions.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 22.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may soon increase in tempo and that the delay in counteroffensive operations was in part due to limited materiel.
  • Ukrainian officials stated on July 22 that Ukraine’s interdiction campaign against Russian military targets in rear areas is successfully degrading Russian logistics and counterbattery capabilities, likely contributing to an asymmetrical attrition gradient in Ukraine’s favor.
  • Ukrainian forces struck a Russian oil depot and ammunition depot in Crimea as part of this Ukrainian pressure campaign.
  • Russian strikes against Ukrainian shipping and agricultural infrastructure in southern Ukraine may be subsiding or entering a temporary lull.
  • Further details about former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s arrest for extremism continues to suggest a shifting balance of power among Kremlin factions and a notable factionalism within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), in which Girkin had served.
  • Girkin’s affiliates have launched a public effort to cast Girkin as an embattled figure in opposition to Russian leadership.
  • Girkin’s arrest has not generated widespread outrage in the Russian ultranationalist community as some previous cases have, suggesting an increasing fragmentation within the information space.
  • Girkin’s arrest is likely not an indicator of a wider effort to censor the Russian ultranationalist community, but rather an attempt to excise a specific segment of the community that is vocally hostile to the Kremlin.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line and in the Bakhmut area but did not make gains.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations in the Kupyansk and Bakhmut areas and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and made claimed advances in the Kupyansk area.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make advances.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area but did not make any confirmed or claimed advances.
  • Prominent Russian Federation Council members opposed a bill aimed at increasing the upper age limit for the conscription age while maintaining the lower limit of 18.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to relocate Ukrainian children in occupied Ukraine to Russia.
  • The Wagner Group’s footprint in Belarus is likely expanding.
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