March 26, 2023

Russian forces make marginal gains in Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, March 26. This report discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to seek complete victory in Ukraine, which he appears confident that he can attain over time. Putin seems to reject the idea increasingly prevalent in Western discourse that the current military realities require or support a negotiated resolution of the conflict. Neither Ukraine nor the West has persuaded him that he must consider accepting any sort of off-ramp or compromise settlement. Putin instead remains focused on achieving his initial war aims through protracted conflict in which he wins either by imposing his will on Ukraine by force or by breaking Ukraine’s will following the West’s abandonment of Kyiv. Multiple successful Ukrainian counter-offensives are almost certainly necessary but not sufficient either to persuade Putin to negotiate on acceptable terms or to create military conditions on the ground favorable enough to Ukraine and the West that continued or renewed Russian attacks pose acceptable threats to Ukraine or NATO.

The outcomes of wars often are, in fact, determined on the battlefield with negotiations that merely ratify military realities. Putin likely has one such example vividly in his mind—World War II in Europe. That war ended only when Allied forces had completely defeated the German military and Soviet troops stood in the wreckage of Berlin. Japan surrendered a few months later after the US had demonstrated what appeared to be the ability to destroy the country completely—and only after the Japanese military had lost the ability to do more than impose casualties on the US in the process of losing. Going further back in history the peaces that ended the three Wars of German Unification, the American Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars also merely ratified realities created by decisive military victories. Even the most recently ended war adhered to this pattern. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed by a decisive Taliban military victory that has ended that conflict (for now) without any formal treaty or accord ratifying this outcome. History offers many counter-examples, to be sure, including the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian conflict and the resolution of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. But it is simply not the case that all wars end in negotiated settlements, particularly if by “negotiated settlements” is meant mutual recognition of the impossibility of achieving desired aims through military force.

Putin initiated the current war and is the key actor who must decide that he cannot achieve his aims by military power and must instead engage in a negotiated resolution of the conflict if the war is to end in this fashion. The war will protract as long as Putin believes that he can impose his will on Ukraine by fighting or by breaking the Ukrainians’ will to fight following their abandonment by the West.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on March 26:

  • Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar called for informational silence regarding a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Russian milbloggers largely amplified and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 25 information operations. One milblogger claimed that the deployment of nuclear weapons does not change Russia’s military situation in Ukraine or need to defend against a future Ukrainian counteroffensive, however.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kreminna line. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Russian and Ukrainian forces fought 10 battles in the Kupyansk-Lyman direction.
  • Russian forces continued attacking Bakhmut and its environs and made marginal gains within the city. Russian sources claimed that Wagner Group forces cleared the AZOM plant in northern Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued attacking along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and made marginal gains within Marinka. Ukrainian intelligence stated that Wagner Group forces may arrive in the Avdiivka direction.
  • Russian forces continued routine fire against areas in Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts. Head of the Ukrainian United Coordination Press Center of the Southern Defense Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces in southern Ukraine lack adequate supplies of missiles and drones.
  • Russian sources reported the formation of the “Uragan” volunteer battalion of the irregular formation 1st “Wolves” Sabotage and Reconnaissance Brigade, which operates in the Avdiivka area.
  • United Russia Secretary Andrey Turchak announced the proposal of a draft law on March 24 that would allow families of employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) who died in the war to be eligible to receive a one-time housing payment.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian occupation authorities in Berdyansk in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast are requiring locals to obtain passes from the occupation administration by April 1 in order to move around occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
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