This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine is holding its tactical gains in Verbove, while the Russian Ministry of Defense prepares to conscript 130,000 servicemen.
Russian drone and missile warfare efforts are attacking Ukraine’s electrical grid in advance of the upcoming winter.
Wagner stands at a crossroads in its search for new leadership, and a split is possible between members who are joining the Russian National Guard and volunteers who are contracted by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At a critical time for Wagner, the future of its financial operations in Africa and the Middle East remains uncertain.
1. Battlefield Update
This week’s fighting in Ukraine wrought minimal changes in battlefield geometry. In the south, the Ukrainian Armed Forces continued offensive operations along the Orikhiv axis, while the Russian military attempted counterattacks along the Velyka Novosilka axis.
Ukraine’s tactical gains in Verbove remain intact. While the coming months will bring wet and muddy ground that reduces heavy-armor maneuverability, Ukraine’s military should be able to continue its small-unit tactics. Nonetheless, its failure to capitalize on the breach of the first lines of defense in Verbove by staging a follow-on incursion—as the doctrinal practice of armored warfare in offensive combat operations would dictate—is disconcerting. Ukraine’s inability to muster for a decisive thrust stems from its difficulties with force generation. As previous editions of this report have noted, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has required it to dispatch its elite mechanized brigades to the south, while pushing the entire 10th Corps to its limits.
Still, if Ukrainian forces can combine enough gradual gains to reach the gates of Russian-occupied Tokmak in the coming months, Kyiv could find itself in a prime position to attempt a reloaded offensive in Spring 2024. Open-source intelligence suggests that the Ukrainian military’s 47th Mechanized Brigade is fighting in the south, a promising indicator of successful force regeneration efforts.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to combat deploy elite airborne troops in its southern defensive efforts. As of October 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense has officially commenced the fall conscription season. With its latest round of drafting, it aims to add some 130,000 servicemen from around the country.
Our defense intelligence monitoring efforts have not noted any strategic-grade changes on the Kharkiv or Bakhmut fronts.
2. Russia Attacks Ukraine’s Energy Grid Ahead of the War’s Second Winter
As the war in Ukraine draws closer to its second bitterly cold winter, Russia has once again begun large-scale attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, in particular on the country’s electrical grid. On September 21, the Russian military launched missile salvos against energy facilities across a wide swath of Ukraine. The attacks caused partial blackouts in Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, Rivne, Zhytomyr, and Kharkiv oblasts. Ukraine’s state energy operator, Ukrenergo, noted that the incident marked the largest strike on the country’s energy infrastructure over the previous six months.
According to the Ukrainian Air Force, Russia’s strike package consisted of 43 Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles, possibly fired from Tu-95 strategic bomber aircraft. Ukrainian air defenses intercepted 36 of these hostile weapons. Russia followed its initial air strike with salvos of S-300 missiles modified to conduct land-attack missions, which struck the electrical grid in the Kharkiv area.
For Ukrainians, these strikes evoke harsh memories of the winter of 2022, when Russian attacks on energy infrastructure led to serious disruptions to daily life, hampering more than 60 percent of the nation’s electricity-generation capacity. Nuclear power plants account for the largest share of Ukraine’s energy; Russia’s high-profile capture of the Ukrainian plant at Zaporizhzhia alone caused a 44 percent decline in the nation’s nuclear power generation. As of April 2023, the overall operating cost of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure exceeded $10 billion. Therefore, Russia’s policy of deliberately targeting that infrastructure will saddle Kyiv with an immense postwar reconstruction challenge.
Russia’s attacks have also had an indirect military impact beyond the immediate destruction they have caused. The attacks have forced many of Ukraine’s air defense units, especially its maneuver short-range air defense assets, to protect civilian population centers rather than accompany Ukraine’s mechanized combat formations in the southern counteroffensive. This has kept Ukraine’s heavy armor dangerously exposed to Russian tactical aviation, as numerous open-source defense intelligence reports have documented.
3. After Putin Reportedly Endorses Its New Leader, Wagner Still Faces the Prospect of a Split
News stories this week suggested that Vladimir Putin has reportedly endorsed Colonel Andrei Troshev to lead the Russian shadow army Wagner. Russian state television broadcasted Putin’s meeting with Troshev, in which the two men allegedly discussed how to utilize Wagner’s volunteer personnel in Ukraine.
The meeting also featured Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Yevkurov has been a notable figure in the Kremlin’s machinations involving Wagner. He was one of the high-rank Russian generals who met with former Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin during the shadow army’s failed mutiny in June 2023. At the time, videos filmed by Wagner personnel in the Southern Military District’s main command post recorded Yevkurov listening to Prigozhin’s boastful tales of downing three Russian aircraft.
Following Wagner’s botched revolt, Yevkurov was dispatched to Syria to dismantle the organization’s operations in the Levant in coordination with the Syrian security apparatus. The general likely played a kingmaker role in choosing who would succeed Prigozhin.
After Prigozhin’s death, a special edition of Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Reportoffered a three-person shortlist for his likely successor, concluding that the armed network would carry on despite its founder’s absence. Colonel Troshev, one of the three men on that shortlist, is a highly decorated officer who cut his teeth in the notorious OMON and SOBR internal security units. The colonel holds two Orders of the Red Star for his efforts during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and also took part in the Russian capture of Palmyra, Syria, in 2016.
One reported vulnerability of Wagner’s likely new chief is his suspected troubles with alcohol abuse, which have, on occasion, allegedly placed him in the hospital. Yet Troshev is a founding figure of Wagner and one of the primary fighters of the Syrian campaign who would likely command the loyalty of the lower ranks. Interestingly, Troshev is sanctioned by the European Union and the British, but not by the United States. If and when he assumes command of Wagner, that will likely change.
Regardless of who assumes nominal control of Moscow’s shadow army, Wagner’s organizational structure is far from settled. Three additional men—Putin’s former bodyguard and sparring partner, General Viktor Zolotov; Yevgeny Prigozhin’s son, Pavel Prigozhin; and a young Wagner fighter, Anton Elizarov—bear watching.
Various Russian Telegram channels have recently reported that Russia’s powerful praetorian guard, the Rosgvardiya—commanded by Zolotov—is preparing to absorb some Wagner units into its command structure. According to these sources, the Wagner point man for this project is Anton Elizarov. In his early 40s, Elizarov represents the next generation of Wagner fighters. Originally hailing from the ranks of the Russian airborne troops (VDV), Elizarov has seen action with Wagner in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine, where he participated in the fight for Soledar. Then there is Pavel Prigozhin, Yevgeny’s 25-year-old son, who on his father’s death inherited a portfolio worth millions of dollars. While some claim that Pavel supports incorporating some Wagner forces into Rosgvardiya, others speculate that he harbors ambitions to assume the mantle of leadership from his father.
A split of Wagner between volunteer units under the command of Andrei Troshev and a Rosgvardya formation under the command of Anton Elizarov is within the realm of possibility. Both these men know that they are maneuvering behind the scenes for control of an illicit economic network worth billions of dollars. Moving forward, monitoring Wagner-affiliated companies in Africa and the Middle East will be just as informative as tracking Wagner’s troop movements in Ukraine.