Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | March 20

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Ukrainian soldiers of 79th brigade are seen in the frontline city of Vuhledar as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on March 12, 2024. (Photo by Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers of the 79th brigade in the frontline city of Vuhledar, Ukraine, on March 12, 2024. (Photo by Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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

Executive Summary

  • A pro-Ukraine paramilitary group raided the Russian cities of Belgorod and Kursk, with open-source intelligence suggesting that anti-Kremlin Chechen fighters took part in the incursions.
  • Ukraine continued to hit Russian energy facilities, showcasing its deep-strike assets.
  • Russia capitalized on its conventional warfare advantages in the east and south of the theater of conflict.
  • The Kremlin is eyeing foreign fighters to man the ranks of its military.

1. Battlefield Assessment

Russia’s main effort this week revolved around destabilizing Ukraine’s lines of defense along multiple axes of assault. The Kremlin’s strategy involves targeting Ukrainian strongholds in Robotyne in the south, as well as making several pushes in the east: around Avdiivka following the fall of the city last month, in the vicinity of Mariinka, and along the axis from Kupiansk to Lyman.

The Russian military’s efforts in the east comprised some 60 percent of its overall ground assaults this week. Open-source intelligence suggests that the frequency of Russia’s attacks decreased over the last several days following its capture of the much-prized city of Avdiivka. Still, its undeniable advantages in force-on-force and force-to-terrain ratios and artillery balance enabled Moscow to conduct simultaneous offensive combat operations along multiple axes.

For Ukraine, the maintenance of supply routes has become even more critical in an artillery-intensive war. To this end, a Czech-led initiative continued to supplement ongoing military aid from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and European Union member states and boost Ukraine’s stores of ammunition. The initiative promises to provide Kyiv with almost one million shells collected from non-EU nations, offering the Ukrainian military a lifeline as it fights to fend off Russian artillery salvos supported by transfers from North Korea.

On the high seas, Russia continued to face troubles due to Ukrainian naval drones, which have taken roughly 30 percent of Moscow’s Black Sea naval deterrent out of the war. According to United Kingdom Defence Intelligence, Ukraine’s recent attacks on Russian warships prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to appoint a new head of the navy, Admiral Aleksandr Alekseyevich Moiseyev, the former commander of the Northern Fleet and a career submarine officer. But this change of command in Moscow will be unlikely to end the Black Sea Fleet’s difficulties.

2. Russia’s Iskander Ballistic Missiles Pound Odessa, Inflicting a Large Death Toll

Russian missiles and Iranian drones continued to terrorize Ukraine this week. Strikes caused dozens of casualties in some of the country’s largest cities, with Moscow focusing the brunt of its attacks on the strategic port city of Odesa. A strike on March 15, which local reports suggest featured two Iskander-M missiles, killed over 20 people and injured at least 70 in one of the deadliest aerial salvos in weeks.

The bad news for Ukraine and its allies is that Russia will be able to sustain weekly ballistic missile salvos for months to come. As Defense Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR) estimates, Russia produced between 115 and 130 missiles per month by the end of 2023. This includes around 30 Iskander-M ballistic missiles and four Iskander-derived Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles. In addition, evidence suggests that North Korea has already transferred ballistic missiles to Russia, including Pyongyang’s own Iskander variants, the KN-23 and KN-24.

Indeed, Russia has already launched some of these weapons systems at Ukrainian population centers. American officials have publicly acknowledged the presence of North Korean ballistic missiles in the Russian arsenal. Soon, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps could further boost Moscow’s supply with derivatives of its Fateh-110 solid-propellant tactical ballistic missiles.

As the Ukrainian military has been quickly depleting its supplies of Patriot interceptors, Russia’s ballistic missile threat could grow even more dangerous in the months to come. NATO nations should rapidly augment Kyiv’s strategic air and missile capabilities given the urgency of this threat.

3. Ukraine Strikes Critical Oil and Gas Refineries Deep Inside Russia

With ground combat momentum favoring Moscow, Kyiv has resorted to asymmetric strikes on strategic Russian assets and energy facilities. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have been systematically destroying the Kremlin’s oil and gas infrastructure at an increasing rate, with two attacks reported in one day last week.

On March 16, Ukraine struck the largest petrochemical facility in Kaluga. That same night, Ukrainian drones destroyed another refinery and distillation facility in Syzran, hundreds of miles away from the border. The strikes showcased the GUR’s mounting deep-strike capabilities.

Should Ukrainian forces continue to hit Russia’s energy infrastructure with such intensity, Putin’s efforts to prosecute the war may stumble. Business assessments indicate that Ukraine’s recent strikes have deprived Russia of 10 percent of its oil-processing capabilities.

4. Chechen Fighters Join the Raid in Belgorod

The previous edition of this report outlined how temporarily seizing Russian territory was one of the unconventional military options at Ukraine’s disposal. Last week, a paramilitary group acting under Ukrainian direction made incursions into Russia, attacking the cities of Belgorod and Kursk. A group of anti-Kremlin Chechens, fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, joined the war party in Russian border towns.

Recent footage depicts Chechen commander Rustam Azhiev, also known as Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, fighting in the area of combat operations, suggesting that the Chechens are an integral part of Kyiv’s war effort across the border. This is neither al-Shishani’s nor the Chechens’ first appearance on Russian soil; footage from July 2023 shows the commander and his formations taking part in a previous raid in Belgorod.

It remains to be seen if Ukraine can further capitalize on the momentum from these incursions. But make no mistake: such raids, particularly when combined with systematic strikes against Russia’s energy facilities, worry the Kremlin.

5. Russia Looks to Add Manpower with New Foreign Mercenaries

Official Ukrainian reports suggest that Russia is planning to recruit foreign fighters from developing countries to expand its manpower, rather than risking public dissent by announcing multiple waves of mobilization.

This practice is hardly new for Moscow. Since the start of the war, Russia has been actively recruiting foreign troops from countries such as Nepal, Somalia, India, and China to assist in its costly invasion of Ukraine. In October, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported that around 400 foreign mercenaries had arrived in occupied Crimea, most likely to support Russia’s winter offensive.

Extra manpower, if it arrives in large numbers, could provide Russia with help on the frontlines in its fight to break through Ukrainian defenses, potentially shifting the balance of power in its favor. As Russia allegedly prepares for a new counteroffensive in the summer of 2024, it will need more manpower to achieve the battlefield breakthroughs it desires.

While the Russian military has been unable to attract enough foreign fighters to meaningfully alter the situation on the ground, its recent push for fresh personnel remains worth monitoring.

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