Issue 80, 9-15 May 2022 (Weekly update and free access)

folder_openAnalysis, News, Ukraine Conflict Monitor
The Sunday issue of the monitor is replaced by a weekly summary of events and assessments on the conflict’s trajectory.
General outlook

The last week of 9-15MAY did not bring any significant changes on the battlefields in Ukraine. The current situation favours stalemate in the short term and is increasingly favouring Ukraine in the medium to long term. The political-military leadership in Kyiv realises that Ukraine can only retake territories it has lost since 24FEB through military force. This is what the leadership would consider a victory.

From Moscow’s perspective, the long-stated goal of demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine is long gone. At the very least, the Kremlin needs to capture the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts within their administrative borders to call the operation a victory. However, a rather anaemic performance of Russian units since the second phase of the operation began around 18APR, suggests that this objective is looking increasingly remote.

Consequently, whereas the past week did not bring any significant changes on the battlefield, time is working in Ukraine’s favour. Unless Russia conducts mobilisation (general or partial), its armed forces will not only stall over the next few weeks, but the influx of Western weaponry and Ukrainian personnel will allow Kyiv to start pushing Russian units back along a much broader front.

Although the current size of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is unclear, the most cited estimates give 500,000 for the regular forces and an additional 150,000 for territorial defence. Classically, Russia should be looking at a 3:1 of an attacker to a defender ratio. Indeed, this is more or less the scale of Russian versus Ukrainian losses. On average, Russians lose three times more equipment than Ukrainians, but the latter can rely on a steady and swift influx of weapon systems from NATO (or captured from Russians) and other countries. Of course, the 3:1 ratio can be mitigated by well-developed electronic warfare systems and ISR, higher morale, capable commanders, well developed and sustained logistics and communications lines and the steady influx of reserves into the battlefield. Neither of those things is currently working for Moscow. It is also quite telling that for a country boasting more than one million people in the armed forces and a population of 144 million, Moscow cannot even gather tens of thousands willing to fight in Ukraine.

Conversely, in Ukraine, there have been so many volunteers that the armed forces had to stop taking personnel due to the inability to equip new formations. Yet, Ukraine is probably “going” towards creating a one million army. Will Russia be able to call up 1,800,000 reservists now to face the current Ukrainian forces (3:1 ration) or an additional 1,200,000 million if Kyiv’s forces reach one million in strength? Currently, this looks highly unlikely.

One of the main events of the past week was Ukrainian sustained air operations to target the Russian presence on the Snake Island. The presence on the Snake Island can threaten NATO’s forces operating in neighbouring countries. For one, it is located some 30 km from Romania. Secondly, the US logistics base in Constanța and the Mihail Kogălniceanu airbase are around 170 km from the island. Russian deployments of area denial/anti-access capabilities to the area could potentially hinder the movement of NATO assets in the theatre. A loss of the cruiser Moskva on 14APR, was probably one of the major contributing factors allowing Ukraine to operate TB2s near the island or even employ Su-27s in a ground attack mission. It is also quite telling that after more than 70 days of conflict, the Ukrainian Air Force is still operational and capable.

Russian positions on the island are unsustainable. Short-range air defences, such as Strela-10M and ZU-23, can be easily attacked by strike-capable UAVs. An attempt to deliver a more capable OSA AD system also failed when a Ukrainian UAV targeted a Project 11770 Serna-class landing craft. Russia would need to deploy a long-range air defence system to the island, such as Buk or S-300/400 or place a surface combatant with capable air defence systems near it. Neither option looks currently viable.

Izyum axis

After a few weeks of intense fighting, Russian forces could not break Ukrainian defences south and southeast of Izyum. Consequently, these forces did not attain their immediate tactical objectives of reaching Barvinkove and Slovyansk.

This inability to move forward probably forced the Russian command to move part of its forces from the Izyum axis to Severodonetsk in the hope of taking the city and fully capturing the Luhansk Oblast. At some point, around 20-25 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) were deployed around Izyum, but Russia never employed the bulk of this force at once. Instead, it chose to send them to battle piecemeal so that it would always have some units in reserve. The consequence of this choice was that Russia could never achieve the preponderance of firepower and superiority in numbers sufficient for breaking defensive lines.

Ukrainian capitalised on these weaknesses and started their counteroffensive, which recaptured territories northwest of the city. Russian formations around Izyum are now only probably tasked with ensuring that Ukrainians do not take the city and do not conduct an encirclement operation to the Oskil River.

Russian operations around Izyum failed.

Severodonetsk axis

The focus on Severodonetsk did not bring immediate results. Rubizhne was only captured on 12MAY. Russian units tried to cross the Siverski Donetsk River around Bilohorivka to attack the Ukrainian rear near Lysychansk. However, this operation was thwarted by Ukrainian artillery fires, which destroyed more than 70 Russian vehicles, or the equivalent of one reinforced BTG.

To the south, Russians captured Popasna on 8MAY. A part of the force that took the city moved north of Oleksandropillia. This combined with the now failed attempt at a river crossing near Bilohorivka, indicated that Moscow hoped to cut off Ukrainians around Severodonetsk.

Even if this goal is achieved over the coming weeks, It would still take Russia weeks to capture Severodonetsk. Russian units fought for Popasna, a city five times smaller than Severodonetsk, for more than a month. The same goes for Rubizhne. There are no indications that Russia’s performance in urban warfare will improve to ensure the battle for the city will be short-lived. Moscow also does not have the appropriate manpower and equipment levels to take the city swiftly.

Kharkiv axis

Russian redeployments to Izyum and Severodonetsk left Russian positions severely weakened north of Kharkiv. According to various Ukrainian sources, Russians had only around 3-5 BTGs in the area. These were composed of units with already significantly degraded combat potential, such as elements of the 6th Combined Arms Army from the Western Military District or the 200th Motor Rifle Brigade from the Northern Military District.

Within a few days, Ukrainians reached the border regions. Securing the entire border between Oleksandrivka and Starytsya is within reach. Through its artillery means, Kyiv’s forces will be able to strike Russian positions near Belgorod, its logistics centres, restoration bases and concentration areas. Concurrently, Ukrainians will be able to hit Russian logistics lines coming through Vovenchansk, thus degrading Russian ability to supply its units around Izyum from Belgorod.

Donetsk axis

Russian operations around Donetsk develop in two directions. The northern direction seeks to capture Novosilivka and Niu-York.

In the Western direction, Russian and proxy forces move towards Mar’inka.

Since the start of the war, Russian progress around Donetsk has been minimal, and we do not expect the situation there to change over the coming week.

Kherson and Zaporozhia axes

The situation in these areas is stabilised. Russian units focus on artillery fires, but they don’t have enough resources to break Ukrainian defences.

North of Kherson, Russia is establishing a buffer zone around the city. Reaching Mykolaiv is beyond their current reach. The main line of defence is rested on the Dnieper River.

It has been rumoured that Russia may annex Kherson without resorting to so-called “popular referendums”. Given that Russian operations are stalling across the entire battlefield, such development is probable as it would formalise Russian presence in these areas.

Outlook for the week of 16-22 May

In assessing the probability or likelihood of certain events, we will be using a set of terms followed by the US Intelligence Community.

Almost no chance Very unlikely Unlikely Roughly even chance Likely Very likely Almost certain(ly)
Remote Highly improbable Improbable (improbably) Roughly even odds Probable

(Probably)

Highly probable Nearly certain
0-5% 5-20% 20-45% 45-55% 55-80% 80-95% 95-99%

 

Ukrainian units are likely to reach the border with Russia north of Kharkiv over the coming week. They will probably secure the area between Udy and Ternova, where the bulk of Ukrainian forces is now concentrated. Whether it will be able to secure the entire border will be contingent on Russia’s responses to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. We are expecting Russian artillery to engage Ukrainian units on the other side of the border. It is highly unlikely that Ukrainians will conduct operations on Russian territory, although Ukrainian artillery fires on targets in Russia are probable.

Near Izyum, Russian forces are unlikely to move forward. Their combat potential is now probably exhausted, which is further compounded by the redeployment of some troops to eastern sectors. Consequently, Russian units south of Izyum will try to keep their defensive lines and hold back Ukrainian counterdrives west and north of the city.

There are roughly even odds that Russian forces will take Lyman, although it is unlikely that they will reach Sloviansk.

Attacks on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk will continue. Russia will persist in attacking the Ukranian rear in this area, but without crossing the Siverski Donetsk River, Russian attempts to envelop defenders will not materialise. Consequently, the attackers will probably attempt another river crossing next week.

In the short term, Russian ability to move its forces across the river will also impact its ability to encircle Ukrainian units near Severodonetsk using forces pushing from Popasna. We, however, assess that such a development is presently unlikely. This assessment stems from an apparent lack of fresh reserves, the current trajectory of Russian losses, and their inability to break Ukrainian defences.

Ukrainian forces have been rumoured to conduct a counteroffensive near Zaporizhia, but this remains unconfirmed.

In other axes, the frontline will likely remain mostly static. Some tactical successes are possible for both sides.

Tags: Analysis, News, Ukraine Conflict Monitor

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