March 25, 2023

Russian forces make modest gains around Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the predictable next information operation to discourage Ukrainian resistance and disrupt Western support for Ukraine as Russian offensives culminate and Ukraine prepares to launch counter-offensives in an interview with a state-owned Russian news channel on March 25.[1]

Putin claimed that the West cannot sustain weapons provisions to Ukraine and exaggerated Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defense industrial base (DIB) to create the false impression that further Ukrainian resistance and Western support to Ukraine is futile. Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces expend up to 5,000 shells a day, while the United States produces an average of 14,000–15,000 shells a month. Putin alleged that planned Western defense production increases will not match Russian planned increases. Putin announced that Russia will build over 1,600 new tanks by the end of 2023 and that Russia will have more than three times the number of tanks as Ukraine at that time.[2] Putin likely seized the opportunity to advance this narrative based on The Financial Times’s March 19 report that European arms manufacturers are “hobbled” by an explosives shortage.[3] Putin argued that continued Western weapons provisions to Ukraine are merely an attempt to prolong the war.[4]

Putin compared the state of the Russian wartime DIB with current Western military industrial outputs, stating that the West would need to make significant sacrifices to civilian projects to increase military production to support war in Ukraine. Putin added that unlike the West, Russia does not need excessive militarization of the economy to expand its DIB capabilities. These claims are not supportable. The US GDP alone is 10 times the size of Russia’s. Germany, the UK, and France together have economies nearly five times the size of Russia’s.[5] The US and its allies certainly must make choices when considering spending the large sums required to support Ukraine, but the choices they face are nothing like as hard as those confronting Russia. The balance of overall available resources and industrial capacity is decisively weighted toward the West. Russian military industrial potential is, in fact, hopelessly outmatched by Western military industrial potential. Putin’s messaging is intended to persuade the West to commit less of that potential to supporting Ukraine by convincing the West, falsely, that it cannot match Russia. Russia must move to a full war footing to sustain its current military operations—something Putin has been very reluctant to do. The West does not need to shift to a wartime footing to continue to support Ukraine if it chooses to do so.

Putin’s stated goals for Russian tank production in 2023 and comparisons with Ukrainian tank stocks also disregard Russia’s limited industrial capacity to produce more advanced tanks rapidly and ignore Russian tank losses on the battlefield. Russia’s sole tank production factory, UralVagonZavod, reportedly produces 20 tanks a month.[6] It would take over six years to meet Putin’s goal at that rate. UralVagonZavod is unlikely to expand production of modern tanks such as the T-90 rapidly enough to meet these targets in nine months due to international sanctions and shortages of skilled labor.[7] The Kremlin will thus likely continue to pull archaic tanks from storage and may attempt to refurbish some older tanks to meet the stated quota. A Kremlin pundit stated on a live broadcast on March 25 that Russia would pull old T-34 tanks from storage and monuments if needed for the war effort while attempting to justify Russia’s recent deployments of the T-54 and T-55 tanks to the frontlines.[8] These tanks are not comparable to modern Abrams, Challenger, or Leopard tanks, or even to T-72s, in either armament or armor protection.

Even Putin’s announced (and unrealistic) production targets are actually close to the minimum level required to replace Russian battlefield losses. Russia has reportedly been losing 150 tanks per month and so would need to produce 1,350 tanks in the next nine months merely to remain at current levels.[9]

Putin’s observations also ignore the fact that the West has been providing Ukraine with smaller numbers of technologically advanced systems in part to offset the requirement to send masses of ammunition and equipment. Western militaries have historically held lower stocks of conventional artillery rounds, for example, because they rely on precision long-range fires such as the HIMARS systems the US has provided Ukraine. The Ukrainian military and its Western backers can confidently expect that loss rates in tank duels between M1s, Leopards, and Challengers, on the one hand, and T-55s, T-62s, or even T-72s, on the other, will be far from one-to-one. The US military, after all, has repeatedly demonstrated the relative effectiveness of M1s and T-72s on the battlefields of Iraq.

Putin’s comments are an information operation designed to revive the aura of Soviet-era military industry and massed forces. They do not reflect current Russian realities or the balance of economic power or military industrial capacity between Russia and the collective West.

Putin advanced another information operation by announcing that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by July 1 and renewed tired information operations about the potential for nuclear escalation. Putin implied that the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to send munitions containing depleted uranium – uranium that is significantly less radioactive than natural uranium – to Ukraine triggered his decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus for fear of nuclear escalation. Putin rejected Western statements that such munitions are safe to use and do not contain radioactive components. Putin insisted that the projectile core releases “radiation dust” and may sicken Ukrainian citizens and damage Ukraine’s environment.[10] Western anti-tank munitions commonly contain depleted uranium, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes is “very suitable for military uses.”[11] Such munitions cannot be used to create either nuclear or radiological weapons.[12] Putin’s argument is false-to-fact, and even some domestic audiences likely realize it. A prominent Russian milblogger on March 25 challenged Putin’s argument and stated that it the Western provision of depleted uranium rounds is not a ”real problem.”[13] Putin’s concern for the well-being of the environment in Ukraine, furthermore, appears somewhat misplaced considering the massive damage Russian forces have inflicted on Ukraine’s agricultural lands, to say nothing of Ukraine’s cities and people. If Putin really is so concerned about the future of Ukraine’s ecology he could best serve it by withdrawing from Ukraine and allowing Ukraine and the rest of the world to begin repairing the damage the Russian invasion has caused.

The announcement of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is irrelevant to the risk of escalation to nuclear war, which remains extremely low. Putin is attempting to exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Russia has long fielded nuclear-capable weapons able to strike any target that tactical nuclear weapons based in Belarus could hit. ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break Western resolve.[14] The Financial Times further reported on March 24 that EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell stated that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Russia reduced the chance that Russia forces would use nuclear weapons because Xi made it “very, very clear” to Putin that he should not deploy nuclear weapons.[15]

Putin has likely sought to deploy Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus since before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and has likely chosen this moment to do so in order to serve the immediate information operation he is now conducting. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko offered to host Russia nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory on November 30, 2021, and Belarus removed the constitutional clause enshrining Belarus’ neutral status in a referendum in February 2022.[16] ISW forecasted in January and February 2022 that Putin might seek to deploy tactical or strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus as part of a broader effort to deepen Russian control over Belarus.[17] Putin likely refrained from deploying the weapons to Belarus at the start of the 2022 invasion in order to preserve the option to deploy them as part of a future Russian information operation to manipulate the West.

Putin likely chose to push these narratives now in hopes of diminishing Ukrainian morale and Western aid to diminish the effectiveness of a rumored pending Ukrainian counteroffensive. Many prominent Russian milbloggers and officials warned that Ukrainian forces will likely attempt a major counteroffensive soon.[18] Putin’s actions suggest that he agrees and that he fears the potential success of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Putin and senior Kremlin officials have previously leveraged narratives around Russian heightened nuclear readiness, false flag warnings, and vague statements about negative battlefield developments claiming that Russia is entitled to use nuclear weapons to defend itself in Ukraine in order to deter further Western support for or military aid to Ukraine.[19] ISW has previously reported on Putin’s escalation of nuclear rhetoric in September and October 2022 followed by a de-escalation in early November 2022 before the Russian loss of Kherson City and west (right) bank Kherson Oblast and assessed that the Kremlin might leverage further nuclear escalation rhetoric to coerce Western states to negotiate with Russia and halt further military aid to Ukraine.[20] ISW assesses that Putin’s March 25 announcement is part of this effort and continues to assess that Russia is very unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Ukrainian and Western officials offered various views of the state of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut on March 25, but all are consistent with the assessment that the Russian effort around Bakhmut is likely culminating. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed on March 25 that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut is stalling and that Russian forces may shift their focus to the Avdiivka and Svatove-Kreminna areas.[21] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty cautioned that the recent decrease in reported Russian ground assaults near Bakhmut needs further analysis. Cherevaty also stated that unspecified Russian conventional forces are reinforcing Wagner Group forces, suggesting that Russian conventional forces are intervening to prevent the Wagner offensive from culminating prematurely.[22] Cherevaty noted that Russian forces conducted 18 ground attacks near Bakhmut on March 25 but recently conducted 40–50 attacks a day in the area, suggesting that exhausted Wagner forces are unable to sustain their prior tempo of operations alone but may increase their tempo to earlier levels with assistance from Russian conventional forces.[23] Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander in Chief General Valery Zaluzhny stated that the Bakhmut situation is stabilizing.[24] These statements are not mutually exclusive, however, and the Russian effort against Bakhmut is likely culminating. Russian forces may continue to attack Bakhmut frequently and aggressively even if the offensive has culminated with little to no success, as ISW has previously assessed, as culmination does not mean the absence of fighting.[25] Russian attacks in and around Bakhmut may resume at high levels without generating significant new gains if conventional Russian forces do, in fact, enter the fray. The commitment of conventional reserves could even prevent the attack from culminating and generate operationally significant advances or persuade Ukrainian forces to withdraw, although ISW regards those eventualities as unlikely at this time.

Russian forces do not have the degree of fire control over Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and likely other areas of the front that Russian milbloggers claim, further undermining the Russian effort to take Bakhmut. Recent footage shows that Ukrainian forces remain able to drive on the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut-Khromove roads despite Russian artillery targeting the Ukrainian vehicles.[26] Russian milbloggers likely based their fire control claims on Russian artillery system ranges, but even Russian ground advances close to these GLOCs have failed to prevent Ukrainian vehicles from using them at least on a small scale. Geolocated footage posted on March 25 shows that Wagner Group forces have crossed the T0504 but remain unable to establish sustained positions that would cut the GLOC.[27]

Key Takeaways

  •  Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the predictable next information operation to discourage Ukrainian resistance and disrupt Western support for Ukraine as Russian offensives culminate and Ukraine prepares to launch counter-offensives in an interview with a state-owned Russian news channel on March 25.
  • Putin pushed the false narrative that the West cannot sustain weapons provision to Ukraine due to limited Western production and hyperbolized Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defense industrial base (DIB).
  •  Putin advanced another information operation by announcing that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by July 1 and renewed tired information operations about the potential for nuclear escalation.
  • Russian conventional forces may intervene in Wagner Group’s offensive around Bakhmut to prevent the offensive from culminating prematurely.
  • Russian forces do not have the degree of fire control over Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and likely other areas of the front that Russian milbloggers claim.
  • Russian forces conducted limited attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and gained limited ground in the city.
  • Russian forces reportedly conducted a mass rotation of forces in Nova Kakhovka on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin accused Russian authorities on March 25 of rewriting history to cut out Wagner by forcing state-controlled media outlet RT to cut some coverage of the Wagner Group.
  • The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on March 24 that Moscow elites are competing for funding to “restore” occupied territories and really plan to use the projects to further their own interests.
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