September 18, 2022

Institute for the Study of War:  Ukraine counter-offensive makes progress in Kherson Oblast

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on irregular volunteer and proxy forces rather than conventional units and formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. ISW has previously reported that Putin has been bypassing the Russian higher military command and Ministry of Defense leadership throughout the summer and especially following the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast.[1] Putin’s souring relationship with the military command and the Russian (MoD) may explain in part the Kremlin’s increasing focus on recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units.

A prominent Russian milblogger reported that Russian forces have “already began the process of forming and staffing the 4th Army Corps, at least on a documentation level.”[2] The report may be true given the recent Russia-wide push for the formation of more regional volunteer units among the Kremlin representatives following the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast.[3] Russian federal subjects had previously begun advertising for contract service in volunteer units around the time of the formation of the 3rd Army Corps.[4] Russian forces are also increasingly recruiting prisoners, involving Cossack units, deploying elements of Russian security services such as the Russian Federal Security Service and Rosgvardia, and covertly mobilizing men from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The continued focus on the formation of irregular units is receiving some criticism from retired Russian officers who are calling for proper conventional divisions rather than volunteer battalions.[5]

The formation of such ad-hoc units will lead to further tensions, inequality, and an overall lack of cohesiveness between forces. Ukrainian and Russian sources have reported instances of Russian Armed Forces refusing to pay veteran benefits, one-time enlistment bonuses, or provide medical treatment to BARS (Russian Combat Army Reserve) servicemen.[6] Some military formations offer financial incentives for every kilometer that the serviceman’s unit advances, an incentive that few soldiers will likely benefit from considering that Russian forces are on the defensive almost everywhere apart from the areas around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, where gains have been slow and very limited.[7] Russian opposition publication Insider reported instances of ethnic discrimination within Chechen units, noting that the Chechen leadership deploys non-Chechens to the frontlines before committing Chechens to the battle.[8] Professional military staff are likely to confront behavioral issues among recruited prisoners, especially considering the likely prevalence of prisoners convicted of violent crimes, narcotics, and rape. The Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR and DNR) have both previously refused to fight for each other’s territory.[9] All these groups have different levels of military training, decentralized command structures, and different perceptions of the war and motivations to fight, which makes conflict and poor unit coordination more probable. The one thing they have in common is wholly inadequate training and preparation for combat.

The formation of irregular, hastily-trained units adds little effective combat power to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Forbes noted that the 3rd Army Corps rushed in to defend Russian positions around Kharkiv Oblast during the counteroffensive but failed to make any difference and “melted away.”[10] The reported arrival of increasing numbers of irregular Russian forces on the battlefield has had little to no impact on Russian operations.

Russian forces are likely attempting to conduct a more deliberate and controlled withdrawal in western Kherson Oblast to avoid the chaotic flight that characterized the collapse of Russian defensive positions in Kharkiv Oblast earlier this month. The Russians have heavily reinforced western Kherson Oblast over the past several months including with airborne units and at least some elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army.[11] These ostensibly more professional and well-trained and equipped units are concentrated in a small area in Kherson Oblast and were prepared for the expected counteroffensive. They appear to be performing significantly better than Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast. The Ukrainians destroyed a number of units of the 1st Guards Tank Army in Kharkiv Oblast, putting them to flight and capturing large amounts of high-quality equipment. The worse performance of professional Russian soldiers in Kharkiv Oblast compared with those in Kherson Oblast may be due to the thinner concentration of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast as well as the fact that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast appeared to surprise the Russian defenders.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is nevertheless making progress, and Russian forces appear to be attempting to slow it and fall back to more defensible positions rather than stop it cold or reverse it. Continuous Ukrainian attacks on Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River to western Kherson Oblast appear to be having increasing effects on Russian supplies on the right bank—recent reports indicate shortages of food and water in Russian-occupied Kherson City and at least a temporary slackening of Russian artillery fire. Poor-quality proxy units have collapsed in some sectors of the Russian front lines, moreover, allowing Ukrainian advances. Ukrainian forces remain likely to regain much if not all of western Kherson Oblast in the coming weeks if they continue to interdict Russian GLOCs and press their advance. Ukrainian gains may continue to be slow if the Russian troops can retain their coherence but could also accelerate significantly if Russian forces begin to break.

A prominent Russian milblogger also claimed that the Russian command issued a “no retreat” order last week for all units serving in Donbas, requiring that Russian forces operating on the axis hold their positions regardless of the unfolding situation in front of them.[12]  This order would be noteworthy in two ways if the report is accurate. First, Donetsk Oblast is the only area in Ukraine in which Russian forces are still attempting offensive operations. There have been sporadic reports of limited Ukrainian counterattacks, but no evidence that Ukraine is preparing a large-scale counteroffensive operation in this area.[13] The order suggests that the Russian military may fear a Ukrainian counteroffensive into the teeth of their last offensive efforts, however. Second, it shows deep mistrust of the combat capabilities of the units receiving the order in contrast with the apparently higher confidence Russian commanders have in the units in western Kherson Oblast, where sensible efforts to conduct a controlled withdrawal appear to prevail. 

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be increasingly relying on irregular, poorly trained ad-hoc volunteer and proxy units rather than attempting to rebuild damaged or destroyed conventional Russian ground forces units.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to consolidate positions on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast despite Russian efforts to contain them.
  • Russian forces in western Kherson Oblast may be attempting to fall back to more defensible positions in a controlled withdrawal to avoid the chaotic retreat that characterized the collapse of Russian defenses in Kharkiv earlier in September.
  • Russian forces suffered devastating losses of manpower and equipment in their fight for eastern Ukraine and especially during the Ukrainian Kharkiv counter-offensive. Multiple Russian armored and mechanized units have likely been effectively destroyed according to assessments released on September 18.
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