January 31, 2023

Russia revives Bakhmut offensive with airborne troops

Institute for the Study of War

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The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city. The ISW December 27 forecast that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut was culminating was inaccurate. The Wagner Group offensive culminated, as ISW assessed on January 28, but the Russian command has committed sufficient conventional Russian forces to the effort to reinvigorate it, thus forestalling the overall culmination of the offensive on Bakhmut, which continues. The commander of a Ukrainian unit operating in Bakhmut, Denys Yarolavskyi, confirmed that “super qualified” Russian conventional military troops are now reinforcing Wagner Group private military company (PMC) assault units in an ongoing effort to encircle Bakhmut. Another Ukrainian Bakhmut frontline commander, Volodymyr Nazarenko, also confirmed ISW’s observations that the Russian military command committed Russian airborne troops to the Bakhmut offensive. Russian forces are continuing to conduct offensive operations northeast and southwest of Bakhmut and have secured limited territorial gains since capturing Soledar on January 12.

ISW does not forecast the imminent fall of Bakhmut to Russian forces, although the Ukrainian command may choose to withdraw rather than risk unacceptable losses. It is extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces will be able to conduct a surprise encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut. Yaroslavskyi noted that the Ukrainian military command would conduct a controlled withdrawal of forces from Bakhmut to save Ukrainian soldiers’ lives, likely if the Ukrainian command assesses that the risk of an encirclement of the city is imminent. Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty stated on January 31 that Ukrainian forces are still able to effectively supply units in Bakhmut and noted that the Ukrainian military command has developed several contingency plans to respond to Russian operations around Bakhmut. Cherevaty added that Russian forces are continuing to suffer heavy casualties and noted that Ukraine’s previous defense and subsequent withdrawal from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk over the summer of 2022 exhausted Russian forces and disrupted their plans for an immediate attack on Bakhmut.

Russian officials are again overestimating Russian military capabilities to advance in Donetsk Oblast and in the theater in a short period of time. Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin stated on January 31 that the Russian capture of Bakhmut will allow Russia to advance to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, both approximately 40km northwest of Bakhmut. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin previously claimed that the average pace of Russian advance around Bakhmut was about 100 meters per day, and it took Russian forces eight months to advance from occupied Popasna in Luhansk Oblast and Svitlodarsk to their current positions in the vicinity of Bakhmut (distances of 25km and 22km respectively). Pushilin also claimed that the hypothetical Russian capture of Vuhledar would allow Russian forces to launch offensive operations on Kurakhove, Marinka, and Pokrovsk—despite the inability of Russian forces to capture Marinka since March 17, 2022, when the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) falsely claimed to have seized the settlement. Pushilin had also claimed that Russian forces will seize Avdiivka, but has not provided any explanation of how Russian forces will break through almost nine years’ worth of Ukrainian fortifications around the settlement. Pushilin’s expectations for Russia’s hypothetical seizure of Bakhmut further demonstrate that Russians are continuing to face challenges in accurately assessing the time and space relationship with the account for Russian military capabilities.

Key Takeaways

  • The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city. ISW’s December 27 forecast that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut was culminating was inaccurate.
  • ISW does not forecast the imminent fall of Bakhmut, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces will be able to conduct a surprise encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut.
  • Russian military command is overestimating Russian military capabilities to advance rapidly in Donetsk Oblast and in the theater.
  • Russian conventional forces may be replacing expended Wagner PMC forces by relocating them from Bakhmut to the Zaporizhia Oblast front line.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be attempting to fully supplant Wagner forces near Bakhmut to frame the traditional Russian military command structure as the sole victor around Bakhmut, assuming Russian forces take the city.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to support ISW’s assessment that an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action (MLCOA) and further suggested that Ukrainian forces plan to launch a larger counteroffensive.
  • Prominent Russian milbloggers continue to expose Russian military failures in Ukraine through increasingly public and elevated platforms.
  • Russia continues to weaponize counterterrorism laws to justify domestic repressions.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on January 31.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • Russian forces are unlikely to benefit significantly elsewhere in eastern Ukraine from their localized offensive around Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces are likely prioritizing sabotage and reconnaissance activities over territorial gains in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov acknowledged Russian mobilization failures in an attempt to frame implementation failures and policy violations as resolved.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to use youth engagement and education programs to consolidate social control of occupied territories.
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