August 20, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine continues strikes into Russian deep rear areas

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front and advanced near Robotyne. Geolocated footage published on August 19 and 20 shows that Ukrainian forces recently advanced east of Robotyne. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) and Berdyansk directions (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area). A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces continue to face issues with counterbattery capabilities on all sectors of the front, but particularly in the Zaporizhia direction. The milblogger also claimed that Russian units are facing officer shortages due to manpower losses and that privates command some Russian companies, which should have a junior officer in command.

Ukrainian strikes against Russian deep rear areas are generating discontent in the Russian information space and sparking criticism of the Russian military command, as Ukraine likely intends. Some Russian milbloggers expressed anger at recent Ukrainian strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge and called for Russian forces to target the families, homes, and other properties of Ukrainian decision makers to deter further Ukrainian strikes against Russian deep rear areas. The milbloggers referenced prior Soviet and Russian retaliatory strategies in Lebanon and in the northern Caucasus, and one milblogger claimed that it is easy for Russian officials to disregard the need for retaliation because Ukrainian strikes do not directly impact their livelihoods. Former Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia Rodion Miroshnik claimed on August 20 that strikes against Moscow are becoming normalized following three consecutive days of alleged Ukrainian strikes against the city and called on Russian forces to make retaliatory strikes “personally painful” for decisionmakers who ordered the Moscow strikes. A Russian insider source claimed that Russian air defenses did not activate to defend against an overnight strike against a Kursk City rail station on August 19 to 20, highlighting a frequent milblogger complaint that Russian forces fail to defend against strikes on Russian territory. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed that the Russian leadership has likely been pressuring the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) command to improve Russian air defense coverage in western Russia, suggesting that both the higher Russian leadership and the ultranationalist information space are placing pressure on the Russian military command in response to the strikes.

Ukrainian strikes on Russian rear areas are demonstrably degrading the morale of Russian forces in Ukraine, which could threaten the stability of Russian defenses on multiple critical areas of the front. Russian frontline units, particularly in southern Ukraine, have frequently struggled with degraded morale following Ukrainian strikes on rear areas. Morale issues can quickly intensify and spread among Russian frontline units if one unit under pressure breaks, which could spread panic and significantly reduce the combat effectiveness of other Russian forces. A broken Russian frontline unit would threaten the integrity of other frontline defenses, and such a break in the Russian frontline would provide a vulnerability that Ukrainian forces could exploit. Russian forces also likely lack the necessary reserves to rotate out or quickly replace a broken unit, as ISW has previously assessed, making the preservation of morale in frontline units imperative. Morale issues pertaining to the Russian defense against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations are only relevant if Ukrainian forces can degrade Russian morale to the breaking point and take advantage of it; these morale issues will not matter if Russian forces do not break under this pressure. There is no way to predict if, when, or where a Russian unit might break under sustained pressure, but Ukrainian forces are setting conditions to increase the likelihood of such a development.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front and advanced near Robotyne.
  • Ukrainian strikes against Russian deep rear areas are generating discontent in the Russian information space and sparking criticism of the Russian military command, as Ukraine likely intends.
  • Ukrainian strikes on Russian rear areas are demonstrably degrading the morale of Russian forces in Ukraine, which could threaten the stability of Russian defenses.
  • The Netherlands and Denmark confirmed that they will transfer F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine but did not specify when.
  • Russian officials have reportedly drafted a plan to conduct a decade-long ethnic cleansing campaign in occupied Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Wagner Group commanders accused two high-ranking Wagner representatives of betraying Wagner, possibly representing a growing fracture within the Wagner leadership and suggesting that the Kremlin’s and Russian MoD’s efforts to disband Wagner are partially succeeding.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Kupyansk, Kreminna, Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast on August 20 and marginally advanced near Bakhmut. 
  • Wagner Group fighters continue to commit violent crimes after returning to Russia.
  • Russian officials continue to forcibly transport mothers and children from occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia under the guise of medical retreats.
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