May 16, 2024

RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE CAMPAIGN ASSESSMENT, MAY 16, 2024

Institute for the Study of War

May 16, 2024 – ISW Press

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 16, 2024

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

May 16, 2024, 7:55pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on May 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the May 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are stabilizing the situation along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area continues to decrease. Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated on May 16 that Ukrainian forces are partially stabilizing the situation in the Kharkiv direction, and the Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian forces have so far denied Russia’s tactical objectives to penetrate Ukrainian defenses within Vovchansk (northeast of Kharkiv City) and establish a foothold in the area.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian forces have forced Russian forces to significantly decrease the tempo of their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces continue to inflict significant losses on Russian forces in the area.[2] Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration Head Oleh Synehubov stated that Ukrainian forces have stopped Russian forces’ active advance in Kharkiv Oblast and that Ukrainian forces have regained more favorable positions in some unspecified areas.[3] Synehubov added that Russian forces are transferring reserves to the area in an attempt to continue advancing.[4]

Zelensky stressed in an interview with ABC News on May 16 that the situation in the Kharkiv direction is very serious and that Ukrainian forces cannot afford to lose Kharkiv City.[5] Zelensky argued that Russia will not be able to seize Kharkiv City if Ukrainian forces receive two Patriot air defense systems to deploy to the area.[6] Russian fixed-wing aircraft have increasingly targeted Kharkiv City and its environs with glide bombs and various missile strikes in recent weeks to degrade Ukrainian defenses and prompt residents to flee the city.[7] Sufficient air defense coverage in the Kharkiv City area would allow Ukrainian forces to constrain Russian aviation operations, but only if Western countries permitted Ukraine to use the systems to intercept Russian aircraft in Russian airspace, since Russian aircraft can strike Kharkiv City without ever leaving Russian airspace.[8] Russia is leveraging Russian airspace as a sanctuary to strike Kharkiv Oblast due to prohibitions on the use of Western-provided systems to strike targets within Russia.[9]

Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Ihor Klymenko reported that Russian forces have executed civilians and taken civilians captive in Vovchansk. Klymenko stated on May 16 that Russian forces in northern Vovchansk are preventing residents from evacuating and are holding civilians captive in basements in the settlement.[10] Klymenko stated that Russian forces have begun to execute civilians and reported that in one instance Russian forces killed a fleeing civilian who refused to follow Russian commanders’ orders.[11] The detention and summary execution of civilians is a war crime and emblematic of Russian forces‘ behavior in all occupied Ukrainian territories. The United Nations (UN) reported in December 2023 that it had documented at least 142 cases of Russian forces executing Ukrainian civilians.[12] Russian military massacres like the massacres in Bucha and Izyum are a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas, and the Russian military has shown no indication that it has attempted to constrain Russian forces from brutally victimizing Ukrainian civilians and committing other war crimes.[13] For almost the past year and half Russian forces have mainly been gradually advancing near small settlements that have been largely depopulated by the war, and it is notable that relatively rapid Russian tactical advances into a populated settlement were immediately accompanied by the detention and execution of civilians. Russian forces committed blatant war crimes in Bucha and Mariupol in the first months of the full-scale invasion; and over two years of fighting in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s corresponding dehumanization of Ukrainians have likely inured Russian forces to such crimes. Russian attempts to seize major population centers like Kharkiv City do not just threaten Ukraine with operationally significant setbacks but also with war crimes and violations that accompany Russian occupation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely views Russia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as decisive to his effort to further mobilize the Russian economy and defense industry to support a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin arrived in Beijing and met with PRC President Xi Jinping on May 16, and the two leaders signed a series of documents intended to recognize and deepen their bilateral cooperation.[14] Putin and Xi signed a joint statement, several agricultural and ecological agreements, an infrastructure and engineering construction agreement, and several media agreements.[15] Putin and Xi highlighted bilateral trade and economic cooperation throughout their public speeches, and Putin’s delegation included several Russian officials and businessmen likely involved in Putin’s efforts to further mobilize the Russian defense industry, including Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Head Dmitry Shugaev, Russian aluminum company RUSAL founder Oleg Deripaska, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, and Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev.[16] Belousov professed his intention to focus on integrating the Russian military’s economy into the general Russian military economy during a speech on May 14, and Putin announced that Shoigu will work with the Presidential Administration’s Military-Industrial Complex Commission on May 15.[17] The Russian delegation likely aimed to expand cooperation with their Chinese counterparts that will facilitate increased economic ties between Russia and the PRC. The Economist reported on April 29 that Russia’s defense industry has increasingly relied on the PRC to provide dual-use goods, such as semiconductors and navigational equipment, to support arms production.[18] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 1 that PRC exports of dual-use goods to Russia have helped Russia significantly increase its defense production and that 70 percent of Russia’s machine tools and 90 percent of its microelectronics are from the PRC.[19] The PRC has previously signaled concerns that its economic relationship with Russia may place PRC entities under threat of secondary sanctions, and Putin likely intends to head off these concerns as the Russian defense industry grows increasingly reliant on the PRC.[20]

Putin also used his meeting with Xi to promote known Kremlin narratives feigning interest in peace negotiations and a diplomatic resolution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin and Xi signed a joint statement on May 16 that alluded to Russia’s support for the PRC’s proposed peace plan and a possible future PRC-led negotiation to end the war in Ukraine.[21] The statement claims that both Russia and the PRC are against any efforts that prolong or further escalate the war and that both countries support a “sustainable settlement” for the “Ukraine crisis.” Xi stated during a joint press conference with Putin that the PRC and Russia both perceive a political settlement as the right way to resolve the situation in Ukraine.[22] ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin will continue to use any calls for peace negotiations to feign interest in negotiations in hopes of undermining Western support for Ukraine and prompting the West to force Ukraine into negotiations with Russia that make concessions on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.[23]

Russian forces are reportedly able to conduct fixed-wing drone reconnaissance deep in the Ukrainian rear due to Ukraine’s lack of air defense interceptors. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported on May 14 that Ukraine has had to husband its diminishing supply of surface-to-air missiles (SAM), which has allowed Russian reconnaissance drones to fly more freely into Ukrainian rear areas, including over Kharkiv City, and optimize Russian forces’ reconnaissance fire complex (RFC).[24] RUSI stated that Ukraine’s decreased air defense interceptor supplies have forced Ukraine to increasingly make difficult decisions between deploying air defense coverage to critical infrastructure in rear areas or to frontline areas, as ISW has repeatedly assessed.[25] RUSI noted that well-provisioned Ukrainian forces were previously able to curtail Russian reconnaissance capabilities for most of the full-scale invasion.[26] Russian forces have been conducting a large-scale air campaign against Kharkiv City as part of their offensive operations in northern Kharkiv City and have been using glide-bomb strikes to enable Russian ground maneuver in Kharkiv Oblast.[27] Russian forces notably used glide-bomb strikes to tactical effect during their seizure of Avdiivka.[28] Ukrainian forces require Western-supplied air defense interceptors in order to destroy Russian reconnaissance drones in both rear and frontline areas at scale and defeat the optimized Russian RFC that is enabling Russian tactical advances along the front.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian defense industrial plant in Tula City on the night of May 15 to 16. Ukrainian intelligence sources told several Ukrainian outlets that Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted successful drone strikes against the “Bazalt” defense industrial plant, which produces weapons and ammunition for the Russian military.[29] Footage published on May 16 purportedly shows the strike in Tula City.[30] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on May 16 that Russian forces downed two Ukrainian drones over Tula Oblast, and Bazalt denied claims that any drones struck its production facilities in Tula City.[31]

Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since March 2024 have likely caused long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure and repeated energy blackouts. Ukraine’s largest private energy operator DTEK reported energy blackouts in Kyiv City and Oblast on May 14 and stated that blackouts occur without warning.[32] Ukrainian energy company Yasno stated that Russian strikes cause Ukrainian energy operators to conduct emergency blackouts in order to balance the power system.[33] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo’s supervisory board member Yuriy Boyko stated that Ukraine may experience power outages that began on May 14 until August or September 2024.[34] The Ukrainian Energy Ministry reported on May 16 that it began receiving emergency electricity from Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.[35] DTEK warned in late March that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage to Ukrainian energy facilities than previous Russian attacks did.[36] Russian forces will likely continue to conduct mass strikes to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure as degraded Ukrainian air defense capabilities persist until US-provided air defense missiles and other Western air defense assets arrive at scale.[37] Long-term damage to Ukraine’s energy grid that generates persisting energy disruptions threatens to constrain Ukrainian efforts to expand its defense industrial base (DIB).[38]

A Russian insider source, who has previously accurately reported on Russian military command changes, claimed that senior Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials are vying for the position of Chief of the General Staff. The insider source claimed on May 14 that unspecified Russian deputy defense ministers and heads of unspecified main directorates in the Russian MoD are likely competing to become Russian Chief of the General Staff, a position that Army General Valery Gerasimov has held since 2012.[39] The insider source claimed that some unspecified actors are prioritizing placing disgraced Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin in the position of Chief of the General Staff, but that there are other considerations for Surovikin to take other roles, and that it is too early to determine whether Gerasimov‘s position as Chief of the General Staff is coming to an end. The insider source claimed that there are three main “centers of power” within the Russian MoD. The “preservation group” reportedly consists of Russian deputy defense ministers Ruslan Tsalikov, Colonel General Viktor Goremykin, and Nikolai Pankov. The “lockout group” reportedly consists of Russian deputy defense ministers Colonel General Alexander Fomin, Army General Pavel Popov, Colonel General Yuriy Sadovenko, Alexey Krivoruchko, and Tatyana Shevtsova — all of whom the insider source claimed will likely resign. The insider source did not expound upon the designations of “preservation group” and “lockout group.” The insider source claimed that the “bastions” in the Russian MoD include Gerasimov and deputy defense ministers Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Lieutenant General Andrei Bulyga. The insider source claimed that Bulyga will likely resign. ISW cannot independently verify any of the insider source’s claims. Several Russian milbloggers and insider sources claimed on May 13 that Tsalikov and Krivoruchko submitted their resignations to former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a week before Putin removed Shoigu as defense minister.[40]

Kremlin and Georgian officials promoted established Kremlin information operations alleging that the West is orchestrating protests against Georgia’s “foreign agent” law in order to overthrow the Georgian government. Several officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party alleged that Iceland, Lithuania, and Estonia are taking “hostile” steps and trying to overthrow the Georgian government after the Icelandic, Lithuanian, and Estonian foreign ministers visited protests in Tbilisi against the “foreign agents” law on May 15.[41] Russian Federation Council Vice Speaker Konstantin Kosachev similarly claimed that the West is orchestrating protests in Georgia in order to overthrow the Georgian government and that the Georgian “foreign agents” law is necessary to protect Georgia from “externally sponsored coups.”[42] Kosachev reiterated longstanding Kremlin narratives about the US government’s alleged involvement in Ukrainian protests in 2013–2014. ISW assessed on May 15 that Kremlin and Georgian officials would increasingly allege that the West is attempting to interfere in Georgian affairs, and ISW has recently observed how Georgian Dream and Georgian security officials have intensified their use of established Kremlin information operation and are increasing their rhetorical alignment with Russia against the West.[43] Georgian Dream actors likely intend to purposefully derail long-term Georgian efforts for European integration, which play into continued Russian hybrid operations to divide, destabilize, and weaken Georgia.[44]

Turkey and Russia are reportedly exploiting European Union (EU) sanctions regulations to export Russian oil to the EU, allowing Russia to continue to receive significant oil revenues to fund its war effort in Ukraine. Politico reported on May 15 that the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the Center for the Study of Democracy, and Politico‘s independent reporting indicate that Turkey is likely disguising the origin of Russian oil in order to exploit EU sanctions regulations that allow “blended” oil containing certain proportions of Russian oil that have undergone “substantial transformation” to enter the EU.[45] Politico stated that Russian oil imports to the Turkish ports of Ceyhan, Marmara Ereglisi, and Mersin significantly increased between February 2023 and February 2024 while these three ports’ oil exports to the EU also significantly increased — “strongly” indicating that Turkey is “repackaging” large amounts of Russian oil. Politico stated that not all of the Turkish ports are “substantially transforming” Russian oil into entirely new products — as required by EU sanctions regulations — and that Turkey is “rebranding” the oil with a Turkish “certificate of origin.” Politico reported that this scheme likely has generated up to three billion euros (about $3.2 billion) of revenue for Russia between February 2023 and February 2024 from these three ports alone.

Russia reportedly launched a satellite as part of its program to develop a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in the weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of Russian preparations for a future confrontation with NATO. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on May 16 that US officials stated that Russian launched a satellite in space as part of its nuclear anti-satellite weapon development program on February 5, 2022 — 19 days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[46] US officials reportedly stated that the satellite Russia launched does not contain a nuclear weapon but contains components of the new weapon system that Russia is developing to destroy hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit, particularly in areas where there are many US government and commercial satellites, including SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces are stabilizing the situation along the northern border in Kharkiv Oblast and that the tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area continues to decrease.
  • Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Ihor Klymenko reported that Russian forces have executed civilians and taken civilians captive in Vovchansk.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin likely views Russia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as decisive to his effort to further mobilize the Russian economy and defense industry to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin also used his meeting with Xi to promote known Kremlin narratives feigning interest in peace negotiations and a diplomatic resolution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are reportedly able to conduct fixed-wing drone reconnaissance deep in the Ukrainian rear due to Ukraine’s lack of air defense interceptors.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against a Russian defense industrial plant in Tula City on the night of May 15 to 16.
  • Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since March 2024 have likely caused long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure and repeated energy blackouts.
  • A Russian insider source, who has previously accurately reported on Russian military command changes, claimed that senior Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials are vying for the position of Chief of the General Staff.
  • Kremlin and Georgian officials promoted established Kremlin information operations alleging that the West is orchestrating protests against Georgia’s “foreign agent” law in order to overthrow the Georgian government.
  • Turkey and Russia are reportedly exploiting European Union (EU) sanctions regulations to export Russian oil to the EU, allowing Russia to continue to receive significant oil revenues to fund its war effort in Ukraine.
  • Russia reportedly launched a satellite as part of its program to develop a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in the weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of Russian preparations for a future confrontation with NATO.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Lyptsi, Vovchansk, Kupyansk and Donetsk City.
  • Several Russian opposition media outlets reported on May 16 that Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Kartapolov rejected a bill that would grant deferment from mobilization to certain Russian civilians, likely to support ongoing and future crypto-mobilization efforts.
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