Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | March 27

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
A Ukrainian mortar team near Toretsk, Ukraine, on March 26, 2024. (Wolfgang Schwan via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian mortar team near Toretsk, Ukraine, on March 26, 2024. (Wolfgang Schwan via Getty Images)

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

Executive Summary

  • Ukraine pursued asymmetric options in combat, employing its disruptive capabilities, including drones, against Russian oil and gas facilities.
  • Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) conducted a drone strike against a military base deep inside Russia that hosts highly valuable strategic bombers.
  • The Russian Aerospace Forces quickened their operational tempo as Ukrainian air defenses struggled to intercept incoming projectiles.
  • Ukraine’s Air Force targeted occupied Crimea with Storm Shadow missiles, likely eliminating two Ropucha-class landing vessels from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

1. Battlefield Assessment

No strategic changes shook up the battlefield geometry in Ukraine over the last week. An attritional warfighting tempo still shapes this conflict.

Russia continued its push in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and its efforts to dismantle Ukrainian fortifications along the small but potentially important bridgehead on the Dnipro River at Krynky. Yet Russia’s reduced tempo, lack of additional troop deployments, and reduced number of attacks resulted in limited gains.

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s lack of fortified and layered defensive positions helped Russia attain increasing tactical gains around Avdiivka and Bakhmut in the east and the Robotyne bulge in the south. With a new wave of conscription expected in April, the Kremlin will likely prepare to launch a large-scale offensive in summer 2024. Until then, the Russian military will aim to wear down Ukrainian formations across multiple wide fronts while Moscow wages political warfare to discourage North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states from assisting Kyiv.

Over the past two weeks, Russia increased both the scope and the intensity of its air attacks, launching one of the largest aerial assault waves of 2024. During the night of March 21, Russia targeted Ukraine with a massive missile barrage. The strike package involved Iskander ballistic missiles, probably including North Korean derivatives, and Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles, as well as multiple Kh-101 and Kh-555 air-launched cruise missiles released by Tu-95 strategic bombers. A formidable salvo of Iranian-supplied Shahed loitering munitions accompanied the strikes, creating a formidable challenge for Ukrainian air defense crews.

The Russian Aerospace Forces also struck Kyiv for the first time in over 40 days. These significant air attacks are the Kremlin’s response to Ukraine’s systematic and successful campaign to target Russia’s oil and gas production facilities, arguably the country’s most important economic sector.

In the face of the Russian aerial attack, the interception rates of Ukraine’s air defenses remained worryingly low compared to past engagements. Available information suggests that Ukraine managed to intercept only 37 of the missiles launched at its territory, for an interception rate around 40 percent. Per official reports, air defenses were unable to shoot down any of the 12 Iskander-M missiles, seven Kinzhal missiles, 22 S-300 and S-400 air defense missiles modified for land attack roles, or Kh-22 anti-ship missiles. Ukrainian defenses have always struggled against the Kh-22 anti-ship missile; to date Kyiv has recorded no successful interceptions of the projectile.

This suggests that Ukraine’s current air defense umbrella is ill-suited to protect the country’s cities. More importantly, the nation’s plummeting interceptor arsenal will likely continue to struggle as North Korea and Iran provide Russia with additional weapons. At present, most Ukrainian air and missile defense systems are deployed in the Kyiv region, leaving other parts of the nation vulnerable to aerial attacks.

2. Russia and Ukraine Exchange Fire over High-Value Strategic Locations

Over the last week, Ukraine conducted attacks on carefully selected, highly strategic military and energy facilities within Russia, presenting a glimpse of Kyiv’s asymmetric options in the conflict. According to the United Kingdom’s defense intelligence, Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) struck more than 12 Russian oil refineries, some located deep inside Russian territory around 560 miles from Ukraine.

On the night of March 21, Russia conducted retaliatory strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Evidence suggests that its strikes targeted large power production facilities in Odesa, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia, and caused nationwide power outages. Per local reports, Russia struck over 15 targets in Kharkiv, including power grids and water pumping facilities, leaving the city without power, heating, and water. In Dnipro, Russia employed Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles equipped with decoys to avoid Ukrainian air defenses. These strikes badly damaged critical energy facilities, including the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station, an essential source of electricity for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest nuclear energy facility.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military continues to prey on high-value Russian aircraft. On March 19, the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR) conducted a special drone operation against the Engels-2 airbase, a facility hundreds of miles from the border that hosts nuclear-certified strategic bombers. The attack marked the second known drone strike on the critical installation since the outset of the Russian invasion campaign. While the governor of Russia’s Saratov Oblast reported that local air defense systems intercepted the drones, Ukraine’s GUR did not disclose the impact of the strike. Satellite imagery suggests that the airbase hosted 11 aircraft, including nine strategic bombers, six Tupolev Tu-95s (one out of service), and three Tupolev Tu-160s.

Ukraine launched another series of attacks against occupied Crimea on March 23 and 24, striking multiple critical targets including a rail-side fuel depot and the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s communications center in Sevastopol. In these attacks the Ukrainian military employed a mixed strike package consisting of drones and missiles, including UK-supplied Storm Shadows.

Open-source reports suggest that on March 23, Ukrainian forces also successfully engaged two Russian Ropucha-class landing ships docked in Crimea. Although open-source intelligence has yet to confirm the extent of the platforms’ damage, the Russian Black Sea Fleet undoubtedly faces a logistics crisis as Ukraine picks off its landing vessels one by one.

3. Ukraine’s Robotic Solutions Fail to Yield Expected Results in Land Warfare 

Ukraine’s defense technology industrial base (DTIB) is producing unmanned ground vehicles that are effective, affordable, and easy to use. These vehicles are designed to improve logistics, transport ammunition, and conduct surprise swarming attacks on Russian fortifications.

Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), or land robots, form a main pillar of Ukraine’s robotic warfare efforts. Reports suggest that a government-led rapid technology development initiative called Brave 1 has been so productive on this front that land robots now form an increasing share of the country’s Unmanned Systems Forces (USF). The USF is the realization of Ukraine’s ambitious plan to establish a separate military branch devoted to drone warfare operations in the air, on land, and at sea.

But while Ukrainian drones have proved decisive in air and naval warfare, their performance in ground operations has been rather limited. The country’s muddy terrain hinders the effectiveness of the vehicles, which also have difficulty maneuvering around buildings in urban and semi-urban settings. At present, Ukraine is mostly employing foreign UGVs while encouraging local efforts, a practice it will likely continue until indigenous production is up to snuff.

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