Russia/Ukraine INTSUM 21MAR22–1; 1700 Eastern/2300 Kyiv
1.) In the larger picture, the situation in Ukraine is rapidly approaching the point of stalemate. Russian forces seem unable to make any significant movements toward objectives like Kyiv, and it seems increasingly likely that they will not be able to do so in the near term. Ukrainian forces continue to put up severe resistance along Russian avenues of approach and attrit Russian logistics in rear areas. In some cases, Ukrainian forces are conducting counter-offensives to good effect, pushing Russian troops out of some areas. We can expect, then, that Russia will use long-range fires against cities, perhaps specifically striking civilian targets. In any case, it seems the period of rapid Russian advances is definitively over, and while Russian forces may attempt such action in the future, they will not likely see much success without substantial changes to their tactics and logistics. This operation is dragging on far longer than any Russian planner had imagined. Per a senior US defense official, “They just weren’t fully prepared for operations of this intensity, for so long, on this many lines of attack.” That much seems obvious now. It appears to me that the best Russia can hope for at this point is to cause enough destruction and civilian casualties that the Ukrainian government grows more willing to accept Russia’s terms. However, the current problem with that goal, from the Russian perspective, is the seemingly high morale of not only Ukrainian forces, but Ukrainian civilians in general. A significant majority of Ukrainians do not believe they will be defeated by Russia, and do not support any ceasefire with the Russians that doesn’t include a full Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. The reason for this overwhelming support is twofold: 1.) The very real successes of the Ukrainian military’s strategy and 2.) The Zelenskyy Administration’s messaging and information operations mastery.
1.a.) While I am not an expert on Ukrainian politics, from what I gather, reviews on Zelenskyy were mixed prior to the invasion. But as it stands now, he may go down in history as one of the best wartime leaders in the modern era. Had he fled in the opening days of the invasion, we’d likely be looking at a very different scenario. From a military perspective, I think that it’s clear that Ukraine learned some lessons between 2014 and today. The Ukrainian military that Russia has faced is dramatically different; better trained, better equipped, and battle-tested from service in the Donbass. Ukrainian combat power remains at about 90% the level it was at the start of the invasion. Exactly how this turns out remains to be seen, but the current situation in Ukraine is a lot different than many analysts might have predicted. People a lot smarter than me will be writing about this for years to come. I look forward to their efforts.
2.) The governor of Sumy Oblast stated last night that there is a reported ammonia leak at a chemical plant which has affected a five kilometer wide area southeast of Sumy. Interestingly, Russian state-affiliated media, such as TASS, and Ministry of Defense have previously claimed that Ukrainian forces had “mined” the Pat Sumykhimprom chemical plant and would sabotage ammonia and chlorine storage facilities should Russian forces enter the town, thus using the plant as an improvised chemical weapons delivery system. A week ago, it was reported that Russian tanks had set up near the ammonia storage facility. We’ve discussed several times assessments that Russia was planning some sort of false flag operation involving chemical munitions, as well as attempting to provide misinformation regarding US-Ukrainian biological weapons facilities. US officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have been warning of these false flag chemical operations for quite some time. It seems these efforts continue, and it is increasingly possible that Russian forces may be inclined to use their own chemical munitions on targets in Ukraine.
3.) The Kh-47 Khinzhal strike on a supposed underground munitions storage facility we discussed in INTSUM 19MAR22 increasingly appears to have been a fiction. The Russian Ministry of Defense released footage of this strike, but subsequent analysis by other outlets suggest that this is unlikely. The Drive has some good commentary on the subject. It seems that the video does show a strike, but not by a Kh-47 and not against a munitions depot. The Russian MoD claims that their Kh-47 strike took place in the far west of Ukraine, near Delyatyn. Instead, geolocation of the video, supported by commercial satellite imagery, suggests that the video shows a strike against a farm in eastern Ukraine, and may have taken place some days ago. There’s been another reported use of the Kh-47 in Kyiv, but that, too, seems unlikely. More likely it was a regular Iskander-M (see below). As we discussed recently, I am skeptical that Russia has many of these weapons available. In fact, Russia’s precision-guided munitions (PGMs) stockpiles are also suspect, and Russian industry doesn’t appear to have the capability to surge and produce more, at least not very quickly. US defense officials state that they’re seeing a substantial number of failures with Russian PGMs, whether they’re not launching, not able to hit their targets, or not detonating.
3.a.) A Russian Iskander-M struck an abandoned shopping mall in Kyiv, making quite a large explosion. It really isn’t clear to me what Russia intends in terms of their artillery and missile fire other than, evidently, to reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble in an attempt to force a cease-fire on their terms. There was one source that said that he saw casualties in military fatigues at this mall, but that cannot be confirmed. Another seems to show what look to be Ukrainian military vehicles parked at the mall. At this point, I think Russian fires are supposed to act mostly as terror weapons. Russian forces do not seem to have good targeting data, the possibility of there being Ukrainian military at an abandoned mall notwithstanding, likely as a result of Ukrainian dispersion of forces into smaller units. Russian forces also appear to have very poor battle damage assessment (BDA) capabilities, which would require some collection asset to get eyes on targets struck. While yes, the Russians have hit viable military targets, much of their firepower into Ukrainian cities seems to be directed at random civilian targets like hospitals, nursing homes, and malls, not to mention the many residential buildings they’ve destroyed. This may, however, reflect bias in the reporting, so keep that in mind. Personally, I do not report on Ukrainian losses in terms of material and equipment, nor do many OSINT collectors, so we may well have an incomplete picture of Russian accuracy in terms of long-range fires such as cruise missiles and artillery. The aforementioned senior US defense official, however, believes the Russian use of long-range fires is “a near desperate attempt to gain some momentum.” Again, this is likely also intended to get the Zelenskyy government to soften its stance on Russia’s “cease-fire terms,” which according to Zelenskyy are currently unacceptable. In fact, he stated:
“We have an ultimatum from Russia with points in it. It says, “Follow it and then we will end the war.” Ukraine cannot fulfill the ultimatum.”
Analyst’s Comment: Zelenskyy’s stance is justified by virtue of the current situation, discussed above. Russia has no leverage that would induce a capitulation. Global perception is almost wholly against Russian aggression, Western powers are flooding Ukraine with financial and material support, Ukrainian morale remains exceedingly high, and Ukrainian forces continue to inflict significant damage on the Russian war machine. While I’d not go so far as to suggest that Ukraine is winning the war at this point, it certainly isn’t losing. More specifically, Russia isn’t winning either, by any measure. End Comment.
3.b.) To illustrate the point, the skies over Kyiv are not permissive environments for Russian aviation assets. The night sky was lit up with air defense artillery (ADA) and, perhaps, a few surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). I can imagine that Russian pilots are none-too-thrilled to still be facing persistent Ukrainian IADS three weeks into the war. Not only did they believe the war would be over and Ukraine would surrender in a few days, there was probably an expectation that Ukrainian air defenses would be weakened or non-existent. While the Russian air force has reportedly conducted ~300 sorties in the last two days, most air activity appears to be Russian pilots making very brief forays into Ukrainian territory before scooting back across the border.
4.) Yesterday, I saw a video of supposed Kadyrov Chechens in action. The video, which was undated, showed them behind some trucks, firing various weapons off to the right. It was decidedly amateurish in appearance. They’d hop out from behind a truck and fire RPGs and one-shot missiles off into the distance. There were no tactics involved that I could see. There was no return fire, either, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what they were actually engaging. Worse still, there was no effort by those firing to prevent their friends from being hit by back-blast from any of the ordnance they shot off. You cannot shoot RPGs with your friends standing directly behind you. Well, at least you shouldn’t. It all seemed very “Insha Allah” to me. “If god wills it.” Some reports have suggested that they left to go back to Chechnya on 13 March, but I don’t know one way or the other. Still, while anecdotal, the skill shown by these supposedly vaunted warriors leaves a lot to be desired. I suspect that they, along with many of the foreign fighters Russia is trying to recruit to come to fight in Ukraine, are largely only good for indiscriminately killing civilians, lack sound small-unit tactics, and would be decimated in the face of trained opposition without substantial supporting arms.
4.b.) The Wagner Group is in the news once again. Ukraine’s Intelligence Directorate reports via the Jerusalem Post that elements of this group arrived in Ukraine on Sunday intending to hunt down and assassinate key Ukrainian military and political officials. Previously reported attempts, specifically those against Zelenskyy, were claimed to have been met with failure and the destruction of the units tasked, with the help of rogue elements of Russia’s FSB, who allegedly fed Ukraine information on the presence of these groups. I can’t confirm the presence of elements of the Wagner Group tasked with assassination efforts against Zelenskyy and others, nor can I confirm information about rogue FSB operatives, but both are certainly possible. Especially considering the recently reported arrests of various Russian officials within certain groups and organizations. In any case, Zelenskyy’s incapacitation would undoubtedly be a blow to the Ukrainian effort.
5.) There are reports of Russian warships shelling, or attempting to shell, Odessa. A video shows what appears to be Ukrainian artillery fire targeting Russian observation vessels, though it’s hard to discern. Ukraine has already successfully struck a Russian warship using land-based rockets. The amphibious landing ships continue to lurk in the area. An amphibious landing IVO Odessa would likely be met with some serious resistance.
5.a.) Ukrainian General Staff states that a Belarusian offensive is expected in two days in the Volyn region, which is in northwest Ukraine. Reports are that President Putin continues to try to pressure Belarusian President Lukashenko into pushing Belarusian troops into northwest Ukraine. However, the US is not seeing any indication of Belarusian troop movements to prepare for such a thing. With the amount of ISR over Poland and other NATO nations, I would be utterly shocked if the US missed Belarusian preparations to invade northwest Ukraine.
Analyst’s Comment: It appears unlikely that a Russian amphibious operation IVO Odessa will take place at the moment. It is also unlikely that Belarusian forces will enter Ukraine in the northwest. More likely, these two things are feints and information operations, respectively. Essentially, Russian maskirovka designed to force Ukraine to pay attention to those two region and, possibly, deploy forces there. Right now, it certainly doesn’t look like Lukashenko has any appetite for the death of Belarusian soldiers in Ukraine. Belarus has some history of what we can call “civil disobedience.” End Comment.
6.) Russian forces occupying Kherson opened fire on a group of protesters. There are reportedly casualties. In the video, one explosion can be seen, and significant small arms fire heard. Perhaps this was in response to an alleged Russian collaborator being killed in Kherson yesterday. Pavel Slobodchikov, the man killed, reportedly helped create an occupation administration in Kherson. We’ve previously discussed the likelihood of insurgent activity springing up in Russian controlled/occupied cities. Protests and civil disobedience will continue, and clashes between those protesters and Russian forces will grow in regularity. Russia has never taken a soft hand with dissent.
7.) Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid that is favorable to the regime, “leaked” Russian Ministry of Defense casualty figures a short time ago. The Russian MoD hasn’t released any “official” numbers since 02 March. The story, which was reported as a refutation of Ukraine’s claims about Russian casualties, was posted briefly on the tabloid’s website but has since been removed. It stated in full:
“The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation refutes the information of the Ukrainian General Staff about the alleged large-scale losses of the RF Armed Forces in Ukraine. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, during the special operation in Ukraine, the Russian Armed Forces lost 9,861 people killed, 16,153 people were injured.”
Analyst’s Comment: These “leaks” are interesting, and it’s hard to make much sense of them. This could be closer to the actual number of Russian casualties, though they could be higher. If this is a legitimate leak from the Russian MoD, the number would not likely be lower. The leak could have been calculated, an effort to gauge reaction, and/or to gird Russians to a higher number. It seems strange, however, to think that some random employee at the Komsomolskya Pravda pulled the numbers out of a hat, and I strongly doubt the leak was some sort of accident. I’ve posted things to webpages before, and I’ve never accidently/unintentionally undermined my own position. Not even while drunk. It’s possible that someone THOUGHT they were allowed to release these figures. But it seems more likely that they’re a bit closer to the truth of the matter and were released - a soft leak - in order to slowly prepare Russians for the true magnitude of Russian losses in Ukraine. As I’ve stated in the past, the losses Russia is suffering in Ukraine cannot be hidden from the Russian people forever. Every death, and every wounded soldier, has someone, somewhere, that cares for him. People grieve, and people talk. Official numbers may never be wholly truthful in a system like Russia’s, but the picture will become clearer. That said, if ~9,800 Russian troops have been killed, I think that the number of wounded is higher than that reported. Regardless, these casualties are substantial if true. At this rate, Russia is looking at 2,500 KIA per week. End Comment.
7.a.) The Deputy Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Captain 1st Rank Andrey Paliy, was reportedly killed in Mariupol. He may have been with Russian marines at the time. His rank is equivalent to a colonel in NATO armies, or a…captain…in naval forces, and it is one step below reaching the vaunted heights of admiralship.
8.) Kherson airbase, the one recently targeted to good effect by Ukrainian artillery, seems to have been largely abandoned as a military airfield. Recent imagery shows no military aircraft.
9.) A video shows a Russian BMD armored fighting vehicle pulling up to the gas pumps at a gas station and then proceeding to loot the station. The CCTV video is sped up, so it’s evocative of Benny Hill. Troops loot during war, but not usually to this degree, at least not when they’re adequately supplied.
10.) President Biden stated a short time ago that the US has “evolving intelligence” that Russia is planning some manner of cyberattack against US interests, though specifically what is unknown. He is asking the private sector to beef up its cyberdefenses with haste. There’s some concern about whether or not a cyberattack would trigger NATO’s Article 5. I suppose that it would depend on what was targeted. A random business? Not likely. Something that shuts down a large swath of critical infrastructure? Possibly.
10.a.) The US Ambassador to Russia was summoned to Moscow so that he could be given a “note of protest” and told that diplomatic ties between the two nations were on the verge of being severed. This is probably in relation to the wording Biden recently used to describe Putin.
Updates may be more sporadic as information slows or becomes unavailable due to circumstances. I will be sure to post when appropriate, but won’t waste anyone’s time by just filling space. More to follow as needed. Thanks for reading.