May 21, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine damages a Russian small missile ship in Sevastopol, Crimea

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin continues to time its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West as part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign to influence Western decision-makers. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 21 that missile elements of the Southern Military District (SMD) began the first stage of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons exercises. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian Aerospace Forces will also exercise with Iskander ballistic missiles and Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles. The Russian MoD announced the preparations for these exercises on May 6. A prominent Kremlin-awarded milblogger explicitly tied Russian tactical nuclear weapons exercises to Kremlin efforts to influence Western decision-making — particularly targeting the recent discussions about the restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia — echoing ISW’s assessment that Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons tests are part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign that often uses nuclear saber-rattling to influence Western decision-makers to engage in self-deterrence. Reflexive control is a key element of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit — it is a tactic that relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated to the New York Times (NYT) on May 20 that Russia currently enjoys a sanctuary in Russian territory from which Russian forces can conduct missile and glide bomb strikes against Ukraine and launch offensive operations with forces amassed in the international border area, as is the case with the ongoing limited Russian offensive in northern Kharkiv Oblast. ISW continues to assess that US and Western policies limiting Ukraine’s ability to strike military targets in Russia are severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast or any area along the international border where Russian forces may choose to conduct offensive operations in the future.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that the limited Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is achieving its goal of drawing attention away from intense Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky stated in an interview with Reuters published on May 20 that the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast is now stable but that “no one” is paying attention to the wave of Russian offensive operations in Donbas in the Chasiv Yar (Bakhmut), Pokrovsk (Avdiivka), and Kurakhove (west of Donetsk City) directions. Zelensky stated that the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast has been stable for about a week, which is consistent with the slowing pace of Russian advances in the Lyptsi (north of Kharkiv City) and Vovchansk directions following the initial few days of relatively rapid tactical advances. Russian forces recently intensified their efforts to seize the operationally-significant town of Chasiv Yar west of Bakhmut as the tempo of operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast decreased, highlighting how the northern Kharkiv Oblast effort aims to draw and fix Ukrainian forces and create opportunities for Russian forces elsewhere in the theater. As ISW has consistently reported, Russian forces’ most immediate prospect for operationally-significant gains remains the Chasiv Yar direction, as seizing Chasiv Yar would enable Russian forces to set conditions to attack part of a “fortress belt” of cities forming the backbone of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast defenses, and Russian forces likely seek to exploit unfavorable situations for Ukrainian forces defending near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka before US military assistance arrives at the frontlines at scale. The Ukrainian General Staff has reported for the past week that Russian forces maintain a higher tempo of offensive operations in the Avdiivka direction even as the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast has stabilized.

The Russian military command reportedly initially planned that Russian forces would quickly make significant advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, but the limited force grouping deployed to the area suggests that the Russian military command likely changed these plans in the lead up to offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast. The Economist reported on May 20 that it viewed Russian military plans from an unspecified date about a planned Russian offensive in the Kharkiv City and Vovchansk directions. The Russian plans reportedly called for Russian forces to advance to Borshchova (about 20 kilometers northeast of Kharkiv City and about 16 kilometers from the international border) within 72 hours in order to place Russian forces within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City. The Russian plans also reportedly called for Russian forces to advance to Pechenihy (south of Vovchansk and about 50 kilometers from the international border) in an unspecified time frame. The Russian offensive was reportedly initially planned to begin May 15 to 16, and the Economist stated that it is unknown why Russian forces pushed forward their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast to May 10 instead. ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced a maximum of about 10 kilometers deep in the Kharkiv City direction and a maximum of about seven kilometers deep in the Vovchansk direction since May 10. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi reported on May 2 that Russian forces had concentrated about 35,000 personnel in the international border area and planned to concentrate a total of 50,000 to 70,000 personnel. Russian forces reportedly launched offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast when the Northern Grouping of Forces was understrength and have only committed a limited amount of combat power to the area thus far.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin continues to time its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West as part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign to influence Western decision-makers.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that the limited Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is achieving its goal of drawing attention away from intense Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • The Russian military command reportedly initially planned that Russian forces would quickly make significant advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, but the limited force grouping deployed to the area suggests that the Russian military command likely changed these plans in the lead up to offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian authorities recently arrested the former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA), Major General Ivan Popov, on fraud charges.
  • The Kremlin is likely using the pattern of recent arrests of high-ranking officials on corruption charges in the Russian MoD to conceal the real reasons for Popov’s punishment almost 10 months after his conflict with the Russian military command and subsequent dismissal from his command position.
  • Satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian forces likely damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) Tsyklon small missile ship in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on May 19.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Vovchansk, Kreminna, Chasiv Yar, and Donetsk City.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that frequent Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian vehicles that lack electronic warfare (EW) systems along the frontline have created an “urgent” shortage of off-road vehicles.
  • Russian authorities continue to illegally and forcibly deport Ukrainian citizens, including children, to Russia and to forcibly remove Ukrainian citizens deeper into occupied Ukraine.

For full report: 

https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-21-2024 

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