September 26, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine presses offensive in western Zaporizhia

Institute for the Study of War

The tactical situation in Verbove remains unclear as Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast on September 26. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) direction and offensive actions in the Bakhmut direction.[1] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces reached the northern outskirts of Novoprokopivka (13km south of Orikhiv).[2] Russian sources have still not directly addressed a claim from a source reportedly affiliated with the Russian Airborne (VDV) Forces that Ukrainian forces control half of Verbove (18km southeast of Orikhiv) as of September 24.[3] ISW has not observed evidence of such a Ukrainian advance, and the source reporting it has a very small following. It is still noteworthy that other VDV-connected sources have not responded to these claims.

Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) the “Guards” honorific on September 26.[4] The Russian 58th CAA (Southern Military District) has been responsible for the ongoing Russian defense against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine.[5]

Likely degraded elements of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army’s 42nd Motorized Rifle Division are increasingly counterattacking in the Novoprokopivka area, suggesting that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may have degraded relatively more elite Russian Airborne (VDV) elements that were responsible for counterattacking in the area. Elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division’s 70th and 71st Guards Motorized Rifle Regiments have increasingly engaged in limited counterattacks near Novoprokopivka in the past week, and a Russian milblogger claimed that elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division pushed Ukrainian forces from positions near Novoprokopivka on September 25.[6] Elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division’s 70th, 71st, and 291st Motorized Rifle Regiments routinely engaged in combat engagements and counterattacks against Ukrainian forces at the forwardmost Russian defensive positions in the Orikhiv area before withdrawing behind the Russian defensive layer between Verbove and Solodka Balka (20km south of Orikhiv) in mid-to-late August.[7] Russian forces laterally redeployed elements of the more elite 7th and 76th VDV Divisions to the Orikhiv direction in early-to-mid August to counterattack against a widening Ukrainian breach in the area, which may have provided these elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division respite from hostilities.[8] Elements of the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment may have conducted one of the few unit rotations that ISW has observed on this sector of the front, possibly allowing these elements to partially reconstitute.[9]

The 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments’ involvement in counterattacks around Novoprokopivka suggests that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may have significantly degraded the combat capabilities of elements of the 7th and 76th VDV Divisions and that these VDV elements can no longer conduct all counterattacks along the entire Ukrainian breach in the Orikhiv direction. The Russian command may have committed the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments to defending and counterattacking in the Novoprokopivka area to allow VDV elements to prioritize defensive operations on the western and eastern flanks of the Ukrainian salient in the Orikhiv direction.[10] It is also possible that elements of the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments have held positions near Novoprokopivka since withdrawing from positions further north and are now engaging Ukrainian forces because the Ukrainian advance has reached the outskirts of Novoprokopivka. Roughly a month of respite and possible reconstitution are unlikely to offset the significant degradation that elements of the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments suffered while defending earlier in the counteroffensive. Elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) similarly defended to hold forwardmost defensive positions earlier in the counteroffensive, and Ukrainian counteroffensive operations recently reportedly rendered these elements combat ineffective.[11] The Russian command risks rendering the already degraded elements of the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments combat ineffective if they heavily commit these elements to counterattacking the Ukrainian advance near Novoprokopivka.

Elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division are reportedly deployed as far back as Tokmak, continuing to suggest that the Russian command has not manned the multi-echeloned defense in southern Ukraine in depth. Russian sources reported on September 25 and 26 that elements of the 71st Motorized Rifle Regiment’s 3rd Battalion were involved in an altercation with military police from the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment in occupied Tokmak.[12] The presence of elements of the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments in Tokmak suggests that Russian forces have deployed elements of these regiments throughout the multi-echeloned defense between the current frontline and Tokmak. Russian forces, however, appear to be continuing to deploy most of their combat power in western Zaporizhia Oblast to immediate frontline areas.[13] The deployment of the 70th and 71st Motorized Rifle Regiments as far back as Tokmak suggests that elements of the same Russian formations and units defending at forward positions are holding positions, likely in smaller numbers, in subsequent defensive layers. It is possible that unobserved elements of other Russian units and formations hold positions at rear defensive positions, although the current Russian manpower commitment to holding positions on the frontline indicates that this is unlikely.

Key Takeaways

  • The tactical situation in Verbove remains unclear as Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast on September 26.
  • Likely degraded elements of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army’s 42nd Motorized Rifle Division are increasingly counterattacking in the Novoprokopivka area, suggesting that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may have degraded relatively more elite Russian Airborne (VDV) elements that were responsible for counterattacking in the area.
  • Elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division are reportedly deployed as far back as Tokmak, continuing to suggest that the Russian command has not manned the multi-echeloned defense in southern Ukraine in depth.
  • Interethnic tensions appear to be sowing division between elements of the Russian 42nd Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Interethnic tensions may also threaten Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s broader standing within the Russian political sphere amid an ongoing controversy surrounding Kadyrov’s son.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed ongoing Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) efforts to increase Russian Airborne (VDV) Forces’ combat capabilities and add elements similar to those normally found in motorized rifle units to the VDV, likely to better align VDV elements with their current combat roles in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of Shahed-131/136 drone strikes on port and military targets in Ukraine on the night of September 25-26.
  • Russian and Western sources largely claimed that Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) Commander Admiral Viktor Sokolov is alive after the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) posted footage of Sokolov allegedly attending a meeting on September 26, although the situation remains unclear at this time.
  • The Russian MoD has reportedly recruited some former Wagner Group personnel for MoD-affiliated private military companies (PMCs) fighting in Ukraine, while negotiations between the reported Wagner leadership and the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) have allegedly stalled over disagreements concerning Wagner’s independence and cohesion.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and reportedly advanced in some areas on September 26.
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