May 18, 2023
Ukrainian forces have seized the tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations on May 18. These operations are a continuation of the localized counter-attacks Ukrainian forces have been conducting for some days and do not reflect the start of a major new operation. Multiple Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces drove through the Russian defensive lines south and southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut) from the northwest. The milbloggers also claimed that Russian forces retreated from positions north of Sakko i Vantsetti (15km north of Bakhmut) to positions south of the settlement, but that Ukrainian forces have not yet entered the settlement. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Russian forces yielded 570 meters of territory north of Bakhmut, which is consistent with Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar’s statement that Ukrainian forces had advanced 500 meters north of Bakhmut and 1,000 meters south of Bakhmut. Ukrainian Eastern Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Ukrainian forces advanced up to 1,700 meters in the past day, and the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade stated that the brigade’s counterattacks expanded the Ukrainian salient in the Bakhmut area to 2,000 meters wide by 700 meters deep.
Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces have seized the battlefield initiative in the Bakhmut area. Cherevaty stated on May 18 that Ukrainian forces regained the battlefield initiative and are forcing Russian forces to respond to Ukrainian actions, including by transferring Russian Airborne (VDV) elements to Bakhmut’s flanks to defend against the Ukrainian advances. Malyar stated that Russian forces have deployed most of their reserves to the Bakhmut area, very likely to the detriment of other areas of the frontline. ISW recently assessed that the Russian military command is reallocating military assets to the Bakhmut area in order to augment Wagner’s offensive capabilities and to gain a tactical victory ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The limited nature of Wagner’s offensive operations in Bakhmut compared to the localized Ukrainian counterattacks underscores the loss of Russian initiative in the area. Russian milbloggers claimed that Wagner forces began assaulting one of the final Ukrainian fortified areas in western Bakhmut. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official and prominent Russian information space voice Vladimir Rogov claimed that Wagner forces cut the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar road in western Bakhmut on May 17, although ISW is unable to confirm this claim. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces advanced 260 meters in Bakhmut and that Ukrainian forces only control 1.28 square kilometers of the city. One milblogger optimistically claimed that Wagner forces increased their pace of advance following Russian ammunition deliveries to Wagner, though Prigozhin’s claimed daily rate of advance has remained largely consistent.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted on May 18 that Wagner mercenaries are unable to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut due to the loss of stable flanks north and south of Bakhmut. Prigozhin accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of losing advantageous positions after MoD-subordinated units retreated from their positions on Bakhmut’s flanks necessary for an encirclement. Prigozhin and Wagner sources have long indicated Wagner’s intent to encircle Bakhmut and trap Ukrainian forces but proved unable to do so after the Ukrainian military command decided to defend the city. ISW had previously assessed that Russian forces were unlikely to encircle Bakhmut after Wagner forces made several rapid breakthroughs north, south, and east of the city in winter-spring 2023. Prigozhin likely anticipated that Ukrainian forces would entirely withdraw from Bakhmut out of fear of imminent encirclement and even offered to allow President Volodymyr Zelensky to withdraw Ukrainian forces from the city on March 3. The Ukrainian defensive operation, however, prioritized the defense of the Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) west of Bakhmut, which forced Wagner forces into urban warfare and grinding directly through the city itself. Prigozhin’s admission further supports Ukrainian officials’ statements that Wagner is losing the initiative on the battlefield.
- Ukrainian forces have seized the tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations on May 18.
- Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces have seized the battlefield initiative in the Bakhmut area.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted on May 18 that Wagner mercenaries are unable to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut due to the loss of stable flanks north and south of Bakhmut.
- Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated milbloggers are blaming Russian conventional forces for military failures in and around Bakhmut.
- Prigozhin’s efforts to blame the Russian military for failures around Bakhmut are causing some ultranationalists to accuse him of using the Battle for Bakhmut to satisfy his personal ambitions.
- Russian forces conducted another large-scale missile strike across Ukraine on the night of May 17 to 18, targeting Kyiv for the ninth time since the beginning of May.
- The Kremlin continues to strengthen domestic repression measures likely to encourage self-censorship and prepare Russian society for a prolonged war.
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO may discuss the possible provision of Western fighter jets to Ukraine at the June Defense Ministers meeting.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Unknown actors, possibly Ukrainian partisans, attacked a Russian rail line in Crimea.
- The Russian Supreme Court ruled on May 18 that Russian military personnel who voluntarily surrender on the battlefield will be prosecuted under treason charges.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to announce patronage programs with Russian federal subjects to support infrastructure projects in occupied territories.