Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | February 15, 2023

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
BAKHMUT, UKRAINE - JANUARY 29: Monument of soviet tank with Ukrainian flag is seen during winter in Bakhmut, Ukraine on January 29, 2023 (Photo by Marek M. Berezowski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A monument of a Soviet tank with a Ukrainian flag in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on January 29, 2023. (Marek M. Berezowski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

1. A Tale of Two Cities: Vuhledar and Bakhmut epitomize the ongoing conflict’s dynamics.

A careful defense intelligence assessment of Vuhledar and Bakhmut highlights the critical advantages and chronic vulnerabilities of the Russian ground forces.

In Bakhmut, the occupation is advancing slowly but steadily. In Vuhledar, Ukrainian forces have managed to decisively halt the adversary’s push. As Russia readies its early-spring offensive, a thorough military-strategic evaluation of the Bakhmut and Vuhledar clashes offers valuable lessons for Kyiv and its Western allies.

Frustrated Russian military bloggers quickly pointed out the rapid deployment of Ukrainian reserves as the core factor behind the Russian defeat in Vuhledar. The influx of reserve forces, these mil-bloggers explained, quickly stabilized the Ukrainian front, thwarting the Russian armored blitz. Yet other factors played more important roles in Vuhledar. Our open-source intelligence monitoring suggests that Russian combat formations suffered heavy armor losses, revealing their inability to conduct large-scale mechanized offensives. The Ukrainian artillery’s high combat prowess, as well as its potent use of anti-tank mines (including remote anti-armor mines launched by 155mm-class artillery), inflicted heavy casualties on Russian units.

The Russian high command’s force-generation decisions for the Vuhledar campaign also contributed to its failure. The Russian General Staff delegated the offensive predominantly to the Ukrainian naval infantry, in particular the 155th and 40th Marine Brigades. These formations are doctrinally tasked with coastal defense and amphibious landing roles, not combined arms maneuver warfare. Eventually, the Russian marines suffered from mounting losses and became completely combat-inefficient.

In contrast to the progress in Vuhledar, Bakhmut tells a different story. There Ukraine faces grim troubles as Russian combat formations progress slowly but gradually. More importantly, Russian units have begun holding ground and have stabilized the front. The mobilization, despite its flaws, has played a key role in these developments.

The Russian military and Wagner fighters have been pursuing several directions of attack in Bakhmut, threatening Ukraine’s lines of communication. Meanwhile, the Georgian Legion and anti-Kadyrov Chechen battalions have been assisting the Ukrainian resistance. If urban warfare reaches the Bakhmut town center, the situation may become irreversible.

Nevertheless, the loss of Bakhmut would not be the end of the world. First, the Ukrainian military still enjoys defensive depth; its lines of defense remain robust along the Kramatorsk – Slovyansk axis. Second, while the Russian military can achieve a local victory in Bakhmut, its ability to conduct a decisive move, which would demand a zone of attack some 30 kilometers wide between Bakhmut and Siversk, is doubtful. With rising casualties, Bakhmut may prove a Pyrrhic victory for the Kremlin.

2. The F-16 is the right choice for Kyiv.

Ukraine needs advanced Western aircraft to counterbalance the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). This critical requirement is not limited to the current conflict—it underscores Ukraine’s geopolitical transformation from a post-Soviet state into a military power in Europe aligned with NATO standards.

On February 10, the Ukrainian Air Force announced that the country had officially submitted a request for the Netherlands’ retiring F-16 aircraft. In the meantime, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the United Kingdom to secure a deal for the Tranche-1 Eurofighter Typhoons.

While the VKS has fallen short of achieving air superiority over the Ukrainian skies, Russian airpower still enjoys the upper hand against the Ukrainian Air Force. Fieldwork reports suggest that Russian Su-30SM and Su-35S aircraft have outclassed Ukraine’s modest Su-27 and Mig-29 fleet in aerial engagements. This technical gap stems from the Russian platforms’ better sensors edge (N011M Bars and N035 Irbis-E radars with potent look-down / shoot-down capabilities), their R-77-1 beyond-visual-range missiles (as opposed to the medium-range R-27 air-to-air missile in Ukraine’s arsenal), and ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. Together, these factors put pressure on Ukraine’s air deterrent, forcing Ukrainian pilots to fly brief combat sorties at low altitudes.

Some experts have suggested that the Swedish Gripen is the best solution for Ukraine due to the aircraft’s ability to take off from short runways, its Meteor missile certification, its modest ground crew requirements, and its suitability for dispersed basing strategies. While these are valid technical points, geopolitical and political-military considerations dictate a different choice for Ukrainian airpower.

First, there are realpolitik limitations. Any 4th- or 4.5th-generation Western fighter aircraft would be the most advanced and potent weapons system that Ukraine has received to date. The recent debates over main battle tanks have shown that in the absence of active American involvement, continental European nations do not have the adequate political-military capacity to equip Ukraine with game-changing arms. While Sweden has been an active supplier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since the outset of the war, the Swedish government cannot spearhead such an ambitious venture.

Second, Ukraine is a country with a very large airspace currently engaged in a high-tempo, prolonged conflict. Even after the war, Kyiv will remain neighbors with a hostile Russia and Belarus. Thus, the Ukrainian Air Force needs a combat-proven, sustainable solution. The Gripen lacks a meaningful combat record, while the F-16 enjoys a reliable legacy in aerial warfighting and defense deals. Although combat record and weapons market portfolio may not be the most important selection criteria for a country with less on the line, Ukraine has no room for experimental decisions.

Last, the transformation of Ukrainian airpower from Soviet-Russian systems into platforms aligned with NATO standards would be one of the most significant weapons market shifts of the post-Cold War era. Current trends suggest that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and F-16 Block 70/72 Viper variant are fast dominating the Euro-Atlantic weapons markets, overtaking principal European options such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, and SAAB Gripen. When the dust settles, Ukraine will operate one of the largest and most combat-capable armed forces on the continent. Given the narrow market share of the SAAB Gripen, the Swedish solution is not the best option for Ukraine. The F-16, however, can pave the ground for a modernized F-16 Viper fleet and even for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the coming years.

Having modernized through the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) program, the Netherlands’ F-16s, while old compared to the latest variants of the baseline, still enjoy highly capable weapons-systems certifications, including AMRAAM beyond-visual-range missiles, GBU-10, -12, and -24 laser-guided bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). The Dutch aircraft are also compatible with the Small Diameter Bomb and can carry Sniper and Litening targeting pods. While the Netherlands alone can offer some 28 aircraft to Ukraine, the US can assemble a coalition of the willing to transfer additional platforms, spare parts, simulators, and munitions, and to supply pilot and crew training.

3. Russian missiles and Iranian drones continue to pound Ukraine.

On February 10, Russia launched one of its most intense missile salvos of the conflict thus far. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the strike package included more than 70 cruise missiles (including Kalibr missiles launched from naval platforms), S-300 missiles modified for land-attack roles, and Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions.

While Ukraine’s air defenses intercepted the bulk of the attack, the strike package still penetrated Ukrainian defenses and inflicted heavy damage on the country’s critical infrastructure. The southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia alone was hit by 17 missiles overnight.

4. Iran is building a drone plant in Russia, and it is more dangerous than you think.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Moscow and Tehran are establishing a joint military factory in Russia. The facility will be capable of producing thousands of Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 (Geran-1 and Geran-2) loitering munitions per year. Between September 2022 and January 2023, Ukraine’s air defenses intercepted some 500 Iran-made loitering munitions. Thus, the establishment of co-production capacity on Russian soil would mark an unprecedented boost to Russo–Iranian joint drone warfare activity at NATO’s doorstep.

And the plant in question might be the tip of the iceberg. General Abdollah Mehrabi’s visit to Russia as the head of the Iranian delegation to inspect the possible drone plant site suggests that more collaboration may be in the offing.

Mehrabi, an expert in missile and unmanned systems engines, replaced Hassan Mogadham, the father of Iran’s ballistic missile program, when the latter was killed in 2011. Before assuming his present post, Mehrabi served as the head of the Imam Hossein University Aerospace Department, where he focused on rocket propulsion and aerodynamics. At present, Mehrabi wears many hats. He is a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and is head of the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization, the de facto research and development node of Iran’s critical military capabilities. He is also the co-owner of Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar Company (Mado Company), which specializes in manufacturing drone components, reverse-engineering Western engines for Iranian unmanned systems, and running dual-use technology market transactions for Iran’s disruptive military capabilities.

Mehrabi’s involvement suggests that Iran’s investment in Russia’s technological and industrial base is probably more complicated than simply transferring cheap loitering munitions to Moscow. In fact, recent news stories have reported that Tehran has already boosted the Russian military’s drone warfare arsenal with its advanced systems, including Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 drones. The latter, manufactured from the reverse-engineering of an American RQ-170 Sentinel drone, violated Israeli airspace in 2018 and served as a highlight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation to the Munich Security Conference that year.

5. Russian unmanned naval systems attacked Ukraine.

On February 10, 2023, the Russian Navy targeted the strategic Zatoka Bridge in Odesa with unmanned surface vessels.

The Zatoka Bridge is Odesa’s sole land connection to the Romania – Moldova axis, marking a critical gateway for logistical support coming from Eastern Europe. While Ukraine has employed large-scale maritime drone operations before, the incident marks the first time that the Russian Navy has demonstrated such a capability.

Notably, Iran has previously equipped its Yemeni proxy, the Houthi militia, with unmanned boats. In 2017, the Houthis used these naval assets to strike a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea. While it would necessitate further open-source intelligence work to decisively confirm Iranian involvement in Russia’s unmanned maritime systems, Tehran’s involvement in the Zatoka Bridge strike cannot be ruled out.

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