March 18, 2023

Russia stages overnight drone attack on Ukraine infrastructure

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces targeted Ukraine with 16 Shahed-136 drones overnight on March 17-18. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 11 of the 16 drones and noted that it is difficult for Ukrainian mobile fire groups to shoot down drones at night due to the lack of visibility. The drones targeted facilities in Kyiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Lviv oblasts, reportedly including a Ukrainian fuel warehouse in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Russian sources claimed that Russian drone strikes also targeted Kyiv Thermal Power Plant 5, which Russian forces reportedly targeted in a strike campaign on March 9.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against anti-war dissent and the misappropriation of military assets within Russia. Putin signed two bills into law on March 18 that significantly increase the fines and jail time for discrediting Russian forces in Ukraine and for selling Russian arms to foreign actors. Russian sources reported that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel detained over 40 people in raids against two Moscow bars for suspicion of financing Ukrainian forces and made patrons participate in pro-war activities on March 17. Russian sources have increasingly reported on FSB detaining Russian civilians under suspicion of financially assisting Ukrainian forces since February 28 after Putin instructed the FSB to intensify counterintelligence measures and crackdown against the spread of pro-Ukrainian ideology. 

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigohzin is likely attempting to set informational conditions to explain the Wagner Group’s culmination around Bakhmut. Prigozhin-affiliated outlet RIA FAN published an interview with Prigozhin on March 17 in which he asserted that Ukrainian forces are preparing to launch counteroffensives in five separate directions: into Belgorod Oblast, in the Kreminna area, in the Bakhmut area, towards Donetsk City, and in Zaporizhia Oblast. Prigozhin stated that Ukrainian forces will launch these operations starting in mid-April and urged Russian forces to prepare for these counteroffensives by preserving ammunition and equipment. Prigozhin likely depicted Ukrainian forces as having enough combat power to launch a massive theater-wide counteroffensive to justify the Wagner Group’s inability to complete an envelopment or encirclement of Bakhmut. Prigozhin stated that Ukrainian forces are preparing to counterattack Wagner’s flanks in the Bakhmut area and that Wagner fighters are preparing for these counterattacks. ISW previously assessed that Wagner fighters are likely conducting opportunistic attacks on easier-to-seize settlements further north and northwest of Bakhmut as their ability to make tactical gains in Bakhmut itself diminishes, and Prigozhin likely seeks to frame these activities as securing flanks in preparation for Ukrainian counteroffensives. A prominent Wagner-affiliated milblogger similarly argued that Wagner fighters are conducting offensive operations northwest of Bakhmut to spoil Ukrainian counterattacks and asserted that Wagner fighters are focused on advancing towards the Siverskyi Donets Canal west of Bakhmut to complete the envelopment of the city. The milblogger likely tried to rationalize the Wagner Group’s failure to envelop Bakhmut by setting the necessary conditions for the envelopment further away and farther out of the Wagner Group’s current operational capabilities. Prigozhin also claimed that Ukrainian forces have at least 19,000 personnel deployed within Bakhmut, likely an attempt to justify Wagner’s lack of progress within the city.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces targeted Ukraine with 16 Shahed-136 drones overnight on March 17-18. 
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his crackdown against anti-war dissent and misappropriation of military assets within Russia. 
  • Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely attempting to set informational conditions for the Wagner Group’s culmination around Bakhmut. 
  • Russian regional authorities may be severing their connections with Prigozhin.
  • Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova reiterated that the Kremlin has not abandoned its maximalist goals in Ukraine.
  • BBC and Russian opposition news outlet Mediazona estimated that Russian forces have suffered at least 35,000 total deaths and 157,000 total casualties.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut and on the outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continue to erect defensive fortifications along ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in and near occupied Crimea.
  • Conventional Russian authorities and the Wagner Group continue to invest significant resources in efforts to involve youth in the war effort and ready them mentally and physically for military service.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue efforts russify Ukrainians in occupied territories.
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