Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | February 22

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Participants drill shooting positions at a combat training day hosted by a local paramilitary civil formation called TSEL on February 22, 2023, in Lviv, Ukraine. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Participants drill shooting positions at a combat training day hosted by a local paramilitary civil formation called TSEL on February 22, 2023, in Lviv, Ukraine. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.

1. The Proliferation of Russian Private Military Companies.

As Wagner transforms into a major threat to the West, Russia is becoming fertile ground for hired guns. According to the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate, Russia’s majority state-owned energy giant Gazprom is set to establish its own private military company. Similarly, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is showing interest in the mercenary business. These potential developments pose a major challenge to the United States and its allies. 

Gazprom would constitute the largest problem because it enjoys far more financial resources than either the Wagner Group or Kadyrov. More importantly, being a majority state-owned entity, Gazprom’s political capital in Moscow would be incomparably stronger than any mercenary grouping in and around the Russian Federation. Finally, should Gazprom blend energy and hybrid warfare, it would turn into a potential menace, unlike anything the West has faced up until now. Although Gazprom is suffering from significant revenue losses—export revenue may fall 50 percent in 2023—its 2022 revenues could still be as much as $80 billion due to high energy prices. If Gazprom devoted just a small portion of its earnings and political backing to the international gray and black arms markets, it could outfit a highly capable arsenal and mercenary force recruited from all corners of the world.

In a recent post on his Telegram channel praising Wagner, Kadyrov foreshadowed that he, too, is planning to invest in private armies like “his dear brother Prighozin” of the Wagner Group. Should Kadyrov’s plans come to fruition, two things are almost certain: his private army’s core would be composed of veterans of Chechen Special Forces and the Chechen Rosgvardya (National Guard), and his right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov, would lead the operation. Delimkhanov is a ruthless actor who targets Chechen dissidents abroad and serves as Kadyrov’s long-arm in Russia’s Praetorian Guard, the Rosgvardya. Through his proxy Delimkhanov, Kadyrov could turn his private military command into a global network of Chechen hit squads. Such an effort could also attract mercenaries from the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, as well as from the Middle East and Africa.  

Russian private military companies would constitute the latest in a series of asymmetric threats to NATO. Because establishing private military companies is not legal in the Russian Federation, these companies operate outside of Russia’s legal framework. The rise of armed warlords with ambitious political agendas would make Russia even more dangerous and unpredictable than it already is today. Some developing nations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, might opt for delegating their national security to such Russian shadow armies, spreading their pernicious influence. 

2. Russia Prepares for Ukraine’s Counteroffensive.

The Russian military is currently undertaking a large-scale offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. At present, the Russian chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, is pushing his units to their limit and suffering high casualties in the process. Indeed, Russia is incurring huge casualties in return for slow and modest advances in Bakhmut and driving elite units into kill-boxes consisting of minefields and intensive artillery salvos near Vuhledar. 

At the same time, however, Russia is also preparing for Ukraine’s counterpunch. Moscow is aware that the West’s provision of main battle tanks will dramatically improve Ukraine’s maneuver-warfare capabilities once they arrive on the battlefield. A Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely follow the ongoing Russian offensive sometime between late spring and early summer of 2023. The real danger for Russia is that it gets caught on the wrong foot when that counteroffensive occurs. 

Open-source satellite imagery intelligence suggests that the Russians are cementing their lines of defense along several axes in the south and east. New fortifications are visible in the vicinity of Zaporizhizhia as well as across the key routes leading to the Crimean Peninsula, highlighting where the Russians anticipate the Ukrainian counteroffensive to take place. 

One noteworthy development is the reinforcement of Berdyansk Airport with additional trenches and defensive fortifications. While the airport has been hit before, Berdyansk is some 130 kilometers (80 miles) away from the Ukrainian buildup in the Zaporizhizhia Oblast. These fortified positions are telltale indicators of Russia’s worst-case scenario. In September 2022, Ukraine managed to penetrate deep into the adversary’s lines of defense, pushing Russian units some 70 kilometers (43 miles) back. In Zaporizhizhia, the Russian General Staff is worried about a repeat occurrence.   

In the east, Russian concentrations across the Svatove-Kreminna line suggest a similar dynamic. The Russian high command has deployed a massive buildup 50 kilometers long, layered with trenches, fortifications, and revetments. Principal combat formations from Western and Central Military Districts, detachments from the Airborne Forces (VDV), and paramilitary units from Donetsk and Luhansk are operating in this area.  

As noted, Western heavy armor transfers remain one of the underlying reasons behind the Russian General Staff’s apprehensions. At the time of writing, Ukrainian crews are receiving intensified training to operate the German-manufactured Leopard-2, the British Challenger-2, and American Abrams main battle tanks, as well as MarderBradley, and Stryker infantry fighting vehicles. Basic tank crew training takes between three to six weeks. The Ukrainian personnel, however, train 12 hours daily instead of the standard eight-hour interval, and six times a week instead of the standard five. Furthermore, open-source intelligence evidence suggests that Turkey has transferred a large number of Kirpi (Hedgehog) mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles to Ukraine. Together, these assets would suffice to establish a highly potent armored capability for Kyiv. 

While conducting maneuver warfare at the brigade level would take months, even with accelerated training, the Ukrainian military could field its Western-equipped armored and mechanized battalions by mid-spring. 

3. Putin Threatens the West with Nuclear War. Again.

President Vladimir Putin has announced Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control deal between Washington and Moscow. Putin’s goal is to leverage nuclear arms control to limit Western military support to Ukraine. In the process, he is sacrificing Russia’s reliability as a long-term arms control partner. 

Putin’s move comes in the wake of Russia’s systematic violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and its departure from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), manifesting an unreliable record. In his speech announcing the suspension, Putin even groundlessly accused Ukraine of running a clandestine program to produce tactical nuclear weapons. It was no coincidence that the move was timed to align with President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine.

Russia has resorted to nuclear brinksmanship since the outset of the war in an attempt to slow Western military assistance and exacerbate divergences between NATO capitals. Ukraine’s sensational breakthroughs—such as the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva, the hit on the strategic bomber base Engels, and the attack on the Crimean Bridge—have not sparked nuclear weapons retaliation from Moscow. Thus, the West should not respond to Putin’s suspension of the New START Treaty by self-deterring. Instead, it simply underscores Moscow’s unreliability as an arms control partner.

4. Russia Elevates New Generals.

As during the Soviet days, the Kremlin is scapegoating and sacrificing high-ranking generals once again. In contemporary Russia, anyone and everyone—save Vladimir Putin—can be held responsible for the failures of the Ukraine campaign. Even once-celebrated warriors like General Alexander Zhuravlyov (former commander of the Western Military District) and Alexander Dvornikov (former commander of the Southern Military District and former overall commander of the invasion) have fallen from grace. 

Recently, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu named new commanders of Russia’s military districts: General Andrey Mordvichev was appointed as the commander of the Central Military District; General Yevgeny Nikiforov became the commander of the Western Military District; General Sergey Kuzovlev assumed the command of the Southern Military District; and General Rustam Muradov was appointed commander of the Eastern Military District. The appointments represent the next generation of the Russian high command. Both General Muradov and General Mordvichev are in their late-40s, while General Kuzovlev and General Nikiforov are in their mid-50s. 

There is more than a generational rejuvenation behind the recent appointments. In the Russian “game of thrones,” an incumbent gerontocracy, especially Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff Gerasimov, reigns over the armed forces. They have not hidden their uneasiness with younger and more popular figures, such as the Aerospace Forces Commander General Sergei Surovikin and the Airborne Forces Commander General Mikhail Teplinksy. It will be important to watch how these appointments shape the factional infighting within the Russian military establishment. 

5. New Russian Robots Join the Fray.

Recent intelligence from the battleground has shown two types of combat unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) being tested by Russian servicemen. First, there are small, remote-controlled platforms equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and anti-tank missiles. There is no standardization in the design and operations of these assets, and they are rather experimental, DIY products. Still, the onboard explosives pose a danger to Ukrainian personnel should they capture the vehicles for technical examination. 

The second, more ambitious type is the Marker anti-tank UGV. Codeveloped by Russia’s military research agency (the Foundation for Advanced Research Projects) and leading Russian robotic systems-maker Android Technologies, Marker is a multi-mission platform, carrying loitering munitions, anti-tank missiles, and guns. The former director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, considers the Marker project his opportunity to climb back into a position of power. Rogozin’s great expectations rest on the prospects of Marker UGVs scoring some successful kills on Western main battle tanks in Ukraine. 

The Russian military has already dispatched UGVs to Ukraine. The Uran-6 mine-clearing vehicle, for example, is actively taking part in combat operations. Nevertheless, putting UGVs in tank-hunting roles would introduce a new element to the battlefield. Unlike unmanned aerial systems, robotic land warfare systems face more complicated challenges, ranging from command-control issues in urban environments to weapons stabilization in kinetic strike roles. A few years ago, the combat deployment of yet another Russian UGV, Uran-9, could not meet expectations in Syria. Thus, the Marker might have an uphill battle to fight in Ukraine to build a reputable combat record. It will be tested soon enough. 

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