May 15, 2024

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 15, 2024

Institute for the Study of War

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 15, 2024, 7:35pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on May 15. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 16 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast continues to decrease after Russian forces initially seized areas that Ukrainian officials have now confirmed were less defended. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian military officials stated that Ukrainian forces have partially stabilized the situation in northern Kharkiv Oblast bordering Russia.[1] Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated that Russian forces are attempting to make tactical gains near Lukyantsi and Vovchansk to create footholds for future advances, but that Ukrainian counterattacks and artillery and drone strikes are preventing Russian forces from gaining a foothold in these areas.[2] Kharkiv Oblast Administration officials stated on May 15 that constant Russian shelling makes it impossible for Ukrainian forces to establish fortifications within three to five kilometers of the international border in Kharkiv Oblast and that Ukrainian forces constructed the first and second lines of defense about 12 to 13 kilometers and 20 kilometers from the international border, respectively.[3] ISW currently assesses that Russian forces have advanced no more than eight kilometers from the international border in northern Kharkiv Oblast. Russian forces operating in Russia could easily conduct artillery strikes against Ukrainian defensive positions close to the international border, and Western prohibitions on the use of Western-provided weapons systems for strikes against rear Russian areas across the border make potential fixed Ukrainian defensive positions close to the international border vulnerable and possibly indefensible. Russian forces have been able to make tactical advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast since May 10 in areas where Ukrainian forces purposefully did not establish significant defensive lines and currently appear to be prioritizing the creation of a “buffer zone” over a deep penetration into Kharkiv Oblast.[4]

The US Helsinki Commission stated that the US should allow Ukraine to conduct strikes against military targets in Russia’s border areas amid an ongoing Russian offensive operation into Kharkiv Oblast from Russia, although US officials continue to express unwillingness to support such strikes. The US Helsinki Commission stated on May 15 that the US should “not only allow but encourage” Ukrainian forces to strike Russian forces firing and staging in Russia’s border areas as part of Russia’s offensive operations into northern Kharkiv Oblast.[5] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated earlier on May 15 that the US has not “encouraged or enabled” Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory but noted that Ukraine must decide how to conduct this war.[6]Politico reported on May 14, citing two unnamed US officials, that the Biden Administration’s policy prohibiting Ukraine’s use of US-provided weapons to strike Russian territory has not changed.[7] Politico‘s sources stated that US military assistance to Ukraine is “for the defense and not for offensive operations” into Russian territory. A Ukrainian operation to strike systems in Russia that are directly supporting Russia’s offensive ground operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast would be an inherently defensive effort and to characterize such an effort as “offensive” would be inaccurate. ISW recently assessed that US limitations on Ukraine’s ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia’s border areas from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and settlements and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[8] This US policy is severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[9]

Russian President Vladimir Putin emphatically downplayed the threat of Ukrainian counterattacks along the entire frontline, further indicating that he assesses that Ukraine cannot and will not be able to liberate territory seized by Russian forces and that this will allow Russian forces to pursue creeping advances indefinitely. Putin stated on May 15 in a meeting with Russia’s military district commanders that Russian forces are repelling all Ukrainian counterattacks and that Russian forces are constantly improving their positions in all directions in Ukraine.[10] The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably believes” that Russian forces have blunted Ukrainian efforts to retake significant territory and that US and Western support for Ukraine is “finite.”[11] Limited Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast suggest that Putin and the Russian military command may be evaluating the risks, prospects, and timeline of offensive operations based on the assumption that Russian forces will be able to advance in any area of the front and consolidate any gains without having to account for Ukrainian tactical counterattacks or a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive operation in the future.[12]

Putin likely has made this assumption based on months of gradual grains throughout eastern Ukraine, but this calculus fundamentally misjudges the tactical capabilities that Ukrainian forces will have once US security assistance begins to arrive to the front at scale. The New York Times reported on May 15 that US officials have expressed confidence that the arrival of US security assistance to Ukrainian forces at scale by July 2024 will likely allow Ukrainian forces to reverse many of the tactical gains that Russian forces have achieved in recent weeks.[13] US officials were reportedly hesitant to discuss how US security assistance may facilitate Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2025, however.[14] It is imperative for Ukrainian forces to be able to pursue large-scale counteroffensive operations that liberate Russian-occupied territory as soon as conditions permit, otherwise Putin will likely continue to believe that he can pursue grinding offensive operations indefinitely and force Ukraine into the strategic defense until achieving victory.[15]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly prioritize the further mobilization of the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) while also attempting to assuage possible domestic fears about the negative effects of increased Russian defense spending. Putin met with the commanders of the Russian military districts and with officials involved in the Russian DIB on May 15 and focused both meetings on the need to develop the Russian DIB and economy.[16] Putin appointed Russian Presidential Aide Alexei Dyumin and Minister of Industry and Trade Anton Alikhanov to the supervisory board of state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec and specifically tasked Dyumin with assisting Russian efforts to provide the Russian military with the necessary weapons and equipment.[17] Putin stated that Russia’s “cumulative defense and security spending” in 2024 will be about 8.7 percent (likely referring to defense spending as percentage of GDP), but noted that although this amount is significant, it is much less than Soviet defense spending in the mid-1980s of about 13 percent.[18] Russian business journalists estimated in November 2023 that Russian authorities planned to spend about 39 percent of the 2024 federal budget on defense and law enforcement, and Reuters reported in October 2023 that the 2024 Russian federal budget would allocate 29.4 percent to national defense.[19]  Putin attempted to downplay the negative effects of increased defense spending on civilians’ lives while also claiming that increased defense spending will boost the civilian sector of the economy. Putin stated that even as Russian defense spending grows, the Russian state must fulfill all its social obligations to Russian citizens and develop Russian social spheres, such as education, healthcare, support for veterans, and pensions. Putin claimed that increased Russian defense spending is connected to various civilian production sectors and boosts overall industrial development and job creation. Putin’s continued focus on social spending indicates that Putin remains concerned about Russian domestic opinion and is unwilling to rapidly put the Russian economy on a full wartime footing in a way that generates fundamental economic disruption.

Putin specifically noted that the Russian DIB must increase the quality of Russian weapons. Putin stated that “whoever masters the latest means of armed struggle faster, wins” and called for the Russian defense industry to “double, triple” production and create more effective, accurate, and powerful weapons in order to decrease Russian losses.[20] Putin’s focus on how technology can facilitate victory is likely a response to Ukrainian officials’ recent discussions about how Ukraine needs to innovate technologically in order to beat a numerically superior Russian force.[21] Putin’s emphasis on producing higher quality weapons is likely a direct response to Ukraine’s higher-quality Western weapons and equipment. Ukrainian officials have noted recently that although Russian artillery supplies have greatly outnumbered those of Ukrainian forces, Ukrainian artillery is more precise than Russian artillery.[22] Although Russian forces have been able to exploit under-provisioned Ukrainian forces and make tactically significant advances along several sectors of the front recently, Russian forces have been unable to make operationally significant gains with their numerical manpower and materiel advantages alone.[23] Putin has consistently indicated that he is unwilling to transfer Russia to a full wartime economy, and a Russian DIB on a full wartime footing would likely still suffer from limiting factors, such as continued labor shortages in Russian defense industrial enterprises and the lack of the domestically produced goods required for advanced systems, and would likely not be able to produce the quantity of all types of weapons and equipment required to sustain Russian operations in Ukraine for years.[24]

Putin is likely concerned about the economic and diplomatic implications of decreased Russian arms exports. Putin thanked former Defense Minister and current Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu for reshaping the Russian military in recent years and claimed that no one, including Russia, understood the “modern methods of conducting armed struggle” before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a likely attempt to soften the blow of Shoigu’s de facto demotion. Putin stated that Shoigu will work with the Military-Industrial Complex Commission under the Presidential Administration as well as the Federal Service for Cooperation with Foreign Countries.[25] Putin stated that Russia must ensure its contractual obligations to supply weapons and military equipment to foreign countries but noted that the Russian military’s needs are the first priority. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported in March 2024 that Russia exported major arms to 31 countries in 2019 and only 12 in 2023 with Russian arms exports falling by 53 percent between 2014-2018 and 2019-2023.[26] Putin’s renewed emphasis on arms exports is likely due to concerns about how the continued loss of federal budget revenue from arms exports will affect the Russian government’s ability to sustain or even increase defense spending. Putin’s statement about arms exports also suggests that Putin is concerned with how Russia’s inability to fulfill arms export contracts since the start of the war in Ukraine has negatively affected Russia’s bilateral relations, particularly with non-Western countries with which Russia is trying to curry favor in hopes that these countries will join Russia’s imagined wide coalition opposing the collective West. Russia, for example, reportedly delayed the delivery of air defense systems to India, and Indian government sources have previously stated that India wants to distance itself from Russia because the war in Ukraine has limited Russia’s ability to provide India with munitions.[27]

The Kremlin confirmed the appointments of the newly formed Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) and other military district commanders on May 15. Putin met with the Russian military district commanders and senior Russian defense officials on May 15 thereby confirming that former Russian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin became LMD commander and former Southern Military District (SMD) Colonel General Sergei Kuzovlev became MMD commander.[28] The Kremlin meeting also confirmed that Lieutenant General Alexander Sanchik replaced Colonel General Sergei Kuzmenko as acting Eastern Military District (EMD) commander, that Colonel General Gennady Anashkin replaced Kuzovlev as acting Southern Military District (SMD) commander, and that Colonel General Andrey Mordvichev will remain Central Military District (CMD) commander.[29] A Russian insider source, who has routinely been accurate about past Russian military command changes, correctly reported on these command changes in early May.[30] ISW has routinely observed that Putin regularly rotates officials and military commanders in and out of favor with the aim of incentivizing different factions to strive to accomplish his objectives and continues to assess that the Kremlin may have decided to change the leadership of the military districts in preparation for its expected summer offensive effort, which is forecasted to begin in late May or in June.[31]

Russian sources speculated that the May 13 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov is only the beginning of a wider effort to root out corruption within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). A Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed on May 15 that Kuznetsov’s detention and the April 24 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on charges of accepting bribes prompted rumors that Russian authorities may arrest other unspecified corrupt officials serving in the Russian MoD’s Main Operational-Mobilization Directorate, Main Directorate of Combat Training, and other high-level directorates.[32] The milblogger noted that bribery schemes have been incredibly common and pervasive in Russia over the last 15 years and that Russian authorities may limit their efforts to corruption cases that have caused tangible issues with Russian forces’ combat effectiveness or operational security. Several Russian milbloggers lamented the pervasiveness of corruption and ineptitude among the Russian high command, and one Russian milblogger called on the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Investigative Committee to “shake out” all of the corrupt officials within the Russian MoD.[33]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15 that the US will provide a two billion dollar “defense enterprise fund” to Ukraine.[34] Blinken stated that the fund has three components: assisting Ukraine in acquiring needed weapons, investing in Ukraine’s defense industrial base (DIB), and helping Ukraine purchase military equipment and weapons from the US and other countries.

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly struck a Russian fuel depot in Rostov Oblast on the night of May 14 to 15.[35] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported that its sources stated that GUR attacked a fuel depot in Proletarsky Raion, Rostov Oblast with drones and that a fire broke out at the facility.[36] Suspilne’s sources added that Russian forces used the fuel depot for military purposes.[37] Rostov Oblast Governor Vasyl Golubev stated that two Ukrainian drones caused explosions at the facility but denied that there was a fire at the facility.[38]

The Kremlin continues to add European officials to Russia’s wanted list as part of Russia’s efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign NATO member states. Russian opposition outlet Mediazona published an updated review of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ (MVD) wanted list on May 15 and noted that the Russian MVD added several dozen more Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Czech, and Polish officials to the wanted list since February 2024.[39] Mediazona reported that there are currently 88 Latvian and 66 Lithuanian politicians from various government levels; five Polish mayors; an unspecified number of former and current council members of several Czech municipalities; and four current and former Estonian officials, including current Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Minister of Internal Affairs Lauri Laanemets, on Russia’s wanted list. Mediazona noted that the Russian MVD also recently added and removed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, as ISW previously reported.[40] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin’s efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian law in sovereign European states are intended to set information conditions justifying possible future Russian aggression against NATO.[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • The tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast continues to decrease after Russian forces initially seized areas that Ukrainian officials have now confirmed were less defended.
  • The US Helsinki Commission stated that the US should allow Ukraine to conduct strikes against military targets in Russia’s border areas amid an ongoing Russian offensive operation into Kharkiv Oblast from Russia, although US officials continue to express unwillingness to support such strikes.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly prioritize the further mobilization of the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) while also attempting to assuage possible domestic fears about the negative effects of increased Russian defense spending.
  • Putin specifically noted that the Russian DIB must increase the quality of Russian weapons.
  • Putin is likely concerned about the economic and diplomatic implications of decreased Russian arms exports.
  • The Kremlin confirmed the appointments of the newly formed Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) and other military district commanders on May 15.
  • Russian sources speculated that the May 13 detention of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov is only the beginning of a wider effort to root out corruption within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15 that the US will provide a two billion dollar “defense enterprise fund” to Ukraine.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly struck a Russian fuel depot in Rostov Oblast on the night of May 14 to 15.
  • The Kremlin continues to add European officials to Russia’s wanted list as part of Russia’s efforts to assert the jurisdiction of Russian federal law over sovereign NATO member states.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances in northern Kharkiv Oblast, near Siversk, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Lytyvyenko assessed on May 15 that Russian forces will have enough tanks and armored fighting vehicles for the next year and half of fighting in Ukraine at their current operational tempo.
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