May 12, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine forces advance further in Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

May 12, 2023

Ukrainian forces have made gains northwest of Bakhmut in localized counterattacks as of May 12. Geolocated footage posted on May 12 shows Russian forces fleeing Ukrainian artillery fire on the southern bank of the Berkhivske Reservoir, about 4km northwest of Bakhmut. This footage visually confirms claims made by a number of Russian milbloggers that Ukrainian forces made gains northwest of Bakhmut in the area between Bohdanivka and Berkhivka. One Russian milblogger claimed that elements of the 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) lost their positions in the area between Hryhorivka and Dubovo-Vasylivka (about 6km northwest of Bakhmut). Several Russian sources warned that Ukrainian forces may be attempting to encircle the Wagner Group within Bakhmut. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Priogozhin emphasized that Ukrainian forces are approaching Berkhivka and claimed that Ukraine now holds positions within 500m of Bakhmut’s northwestern city limits. Russian milbloggers additionally reported that Ukrainian troops are counterattacking towards Khromove (3km west of Bakhmut), Bohdanivka (6km northwest of Bakhmut), and Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut). One Russian milblogger claimed that the situation southwest of Bakhmut near Mayorsk has stabilized following Ukrainian attacks on positions of the 1st Donetsk People’s Republic Army Corps. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rejected claims made by other Russian sources regarding Ukrainian advances and claimed instead that elements of the 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (Luhansk People’s Republic) and 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) repelled all attacks in the Berkhivka area ”taking into account the favorable conditions of the Berkhivske Reservoir.”

Russian milbloggers and other prominent voices in the pro-war information space continue to respond to recent Ukrainian counterattacks with varying degrees of caution and anxiety. Many milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian activity around Bakhmut marks the official beginning of the anticipated spring counteroffensive and speculated about where Ukraine’s main effort will take place. Several prominent Russian voices, however, urged caution and restraint in responding to the counteroffensive, suggesting that some milbloggers are advocating for the application of certain lessons they took from the information space meltdown during Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives. Some milbloggers warned that reports about Ukrainian success could be a deliberate Ukrainian attempt to sow panic. Another milblogger warned against accepting all reports that Ukrainian activities are “psychological operations” at face value and voiced concern about Russian propaganda responses to the counterattacks. One milblogger suggested that credible reports of Ukrainian counterattacks do not mean that “everything is on fire,” cautioning the audience against falling into despair. The milblogger remarked that telling the truth about Ukrainian operations does not amount to ”sowing panic.” The overall Russian information space response appears to be focused on the idea of avoiding spreading panic.

Ukrainian and American officials stated that Ukrainian forces have not yet started the planned counteroffensive. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on May 12 that Ukrainian forces are still conducting defensive operations, which sometimes include counterattacks and other unspecified active actions. A senior US military official and a senior Western official stated on May 12 that Ukrainian forces have started conducting “shaping” operations in advance of the counteroffensive. Western reporting on this subject notably contradicts Russian sources, many of which have claimed the counteroffensive is officially underway.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces have made gains northwest of Bakhmut in localized counterattacks as of May 12.
  • Russian milbloggers and other prominent voices in the pro-war information space continue to respond to recent Ukrainian counterattacks with varying degrees of caution and anxiety.
  • Ukrainian and American officials stated that Ukrainian forces have not yet started the planned counteroffensive.
  • Senior Russian officials proposed a series of domestic repression and censorship measures during the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum on May 11.
  • Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” held a press conference on May 12 to discuss its discontent with the current Russian conduct of the war in Ukraine.
  • U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused South Africa of loading a Russian ship with ammunition and weapons in December 2022, contradicting its proclaimed neutral stance on the war in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) attempted to distract from and assuage information space paranoia over a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive on the Kharkiv-Luhansk front.
  • Russian forces continue limited ground attacks in and around Bakhmut.
  • Russian sources continue to speculate about potential Ukrainian counteroffensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continue to recruit convicts and establish volunteer battalions as a part of crypto-mobilization efforts.
  • Senior Russian officials are claiming that they are taking active measures to return displaced and illegally deported Ukrainian civilians, including Ukrainian children, to occupied Ukraine.
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