December 15, 2023

Sitrep for Dec. 13-15, 2023 (as of 8:30 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

Throughout this week, the Russian Armed Forces have persisted in launching human waves against Ukrainian positions along the Avdiivka, Bakhmut and Kherson axes. Recent reports and videos have also surfaced from the Kupiansk direction in the eastern Kharkiv region, where an offensive has been launched towards Synkivka. The capture of this village would open the route to Kupiansk, a crucial logistics hub for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

On the left bank of the Dnipro, Russian forces continue their efforts to clear the Ukrainian bridgehead near the village of Krynky. Ukrainian military observer Kostiantyn Mashovets notes that these attempts, conducted by units of the 104th Air Assault Division, are facing significant resistance primarily due to minefields. Although these forces are not the elite troops that the Russian Airborne Troops were before 2022, Mashovets emphasizes that units reinforced by mobilized soldiers throughout 2023 have undergone substantial training. This training has empowered them to execute swift aggressive attacks, where armored vehicles rapidly deploy infantry as close as possible to AFU positions, followed by a quick withdrawal of the vehicles. In addition to considerable casualties among troops, the RuAF continue to incur significant losses of armored vehicles in these attacks due to AFU FPV drones and minefields.

According to Frontelligence Insight team, led by Ukrainian military analyst Tatarigami, the capture of the town of Marinka by the RuAF is now a matter of time. This development could pave the way for further advances toward the towns of Kurakhove and Vuhledar. If successful in pushing the AFU out of Vuhledar, Russia would gain the ability to restore the railroad line connecting Donetsk and Mariupol via Volnovakha, something we previously reported on.

Additionally, reports are emerging that Russian forces have resumed offensive operations on the Zaporizhzhia axis towards Vuhledar and near Robotyne. The objective appears to be the recapture of positions liberated by the AFU during the summer offensive.

The current situation on the frontline more closely resembles the January 2023 battle for Vuhledar  than the Bakhmut meat grinder. However, a crucial difference this winter are "hot" spots along the frontline, where the RuAF launch simultaneous attacks. This means that Russian infantry and armored vehicles are constantly engaging Ukrainian defensive lines. Various videos confirm this, such as one from the Avdiivka direction, revealing nearly a hundred bodies of Russian soldiers, presumably killed at different times.

While Russia is indeed achieving some success in these offensives, the AFU, in our view, is using the right tactics given the challenging circumstances, including funding, disruptions in the supply of ammunition and armored vehicles, and a shortage of personnel. This tactic involves a deliberate retreat to the nearest prepared positions when facing significant pressure. Consequently, the RuAF have captured relatively small patches of territory, paling in significance compared to their substantial losses in manpower and equipment. There is a prevailing sense that the Russian command may not fully acknowledge these losses, especially in light of the claim that over 400,000 new contract soldiers supposedly joined the RuAF.

On Dec. 14, Vladimir Putin held his end-of-year press conference, this year combined with his annual Direct Line phone-in. He stated that out of 300,000 mobilized soldiers in the combat zone, 244,000 are currently present on the frontline, while another 41,000 were discharged, citing reasons such as reaching the maximum age limit and health issues. The remaining 15,000 are likely on leave, wounded or undergoing additional training. However, according to Mediazona [independent Russian media outlet] and BBC News Russian, the confirmed death toll of 4,580 mobilized soldiers suggests, by our calculations, that the actual number of casualties could be around 12,000 draftees.

Putin further disclosed that the overall number of Russian troops on the frontline is 617,000. This implies that 373,000 soldiers on the frontline are draftees, suggesting they are either those who have been fighting since the beginning of the full-scale invasion or "volunteer fighters." Putin reported recruiting 486,000 "volunteer fighters" this year, although not all have been deployed to the frontline. If at least 243,000 "volunteer fighters" are already at the front, then about 130,000 soldiers remain from the “old” armed forces, who have been fighting since the very beginning of the invasion—a scenario that appears plausible.

Despite the data on mobilized soldiers aligning with the real state of affairs, the information on freshly recruited "volunteer fighters" clearly does not. The majority of "volunteer fighters" were already on the frontline at the time of signing their contracts, implying they could have been counted twice. Firstly, the count of "volunteer fighters" includes mobilized soldiers who were persuaded or compelled to sign contracts. Secondly, the number of contract soldiers could include separatists from the "DPR" and the "LPR" and members of "volunteer" units, including the Wagner Group. Thirdly, regular Russian soldiers who signed new contracts, which became open-ended after the mobilization started, could be counted as newly recruited.

We believe that last year Russia was able to recruit about 150,000 new contract soldiers, which includes conscripts who were persuaded or compelled to sign contracts. If we add the 300,000 soldiers mobilized at the end of last year and the initial group of 250,000 (we estimated it at 200,000, but adding mobilized troops from the "LPR/DPR," as mentioned by Putin, 250,000 is possible), we get a total of 700,000 soldiers.

According to the latest data published by Mediazona, the confirmed death toll of the Russian side is just over 38,000. Thus, according to our calculations, a conservative estimate of casualties would be 100,000 killed and 300,000 wounded (with 30,000-60,000 of the wounded being irreplaceable losses). Consequently, the current strength of Russian forces in Ukraine may be about 550,000 troops.

The data mentioned by Putin regarding the number of mobilized soldiers and volunteer fighters, as well as the total number of military personnel on the front, leave ample room for interpretation. We do not agree with some publications that claim Putin acknowledged Russian losses by mentioning all these figures, as they come from different sources and do not align well with each other.

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On the night of Dec. 15, Ukrainian forces hit a concrete plant in occupied Mariupol, resulting in a fire on its premises. Ukrainian sources claimed that Russian soldiers were stationed there, but as of now, the information remains unconfirmed. Our team will remain vigilant for any obituaries that could be linked to this strike.

On Dec. 14, Russian forces launched missile attacks on Kyiv and the Starokostiantyniv air base, Khmelnytskyi region. In Kyiv, one Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic aero-ballistic air-to-surface missile is claimed to have been intercepted. We discussed the attack with military analyst Kirill Mikhailov, who suggested that Russia may be attempting to deplete Ukrainian reserves of MIM-104 Patriot SAM system PAC-3 anti-aircraft missiles. These missiles are capable of intercepting 9K723 Iskander ballistic missiles and Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.

According to a pro-Russian Telegram channel, the attack on Starokostiantyniv allegedly targeted a bunker with NATO officers.

Pro-Russian blogger Rostislav Mokrenko criticized the former intelligence chief of the Ground Forces, who, during a talk show hosted by Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, spoke about the "East Prussian tactics" of the RuAF and claimed that Ukraine is relying on foreign mercenaries in its fight.

Western Assistance

Germany has handed over to Ukraine a second Patriot air defense system along with a batch of missiles. This new package also includes the following:

  • 9 Bandvagn 206 (BV206) tracked all-terrain vehicles;
  • 7,390 155mm artillery rounds;
  • 3 mobile, remote controlled and protected mine clearing systems;
  • 14 drone detection systems;
  • 8 Mercedes-Benz Zetros trucks and 8 Zetros tankers;
  • 4 semi-trailers for MAN HX81 truck tractor trains;
  • 4 other vehicles (trucks, minibuses or all-terrain vehicles);
  • More than 47,000 40mm rounds.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced a delay in the start of the Christmas recess for the Upper House. The Senate is set to debate a $6 billion Ukraine assistance bill next week.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, in a briefing, emphasized that the American people will continue to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom against tyranny, highlighting its significance for American society. However, Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson has indicated that the House may recess before adopting the bill on US-Mexican border security. Consequently, if aid packages for both Ukraine and Israel are adopted by the Senate, the House would need to reconvene to debate the bills.

According to Bloomberg, the US Department of Defense has found a workaround to send military aid to Ukraine in case the Congress fails to vote before the year's end. This mechanism allows the military to reduce their weapons stocks without  Congress covering the cost, with the expectation that the funds will be reimbursed later.

The European Council has decided to open European Union membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Additionally, EU leaders have granted Georgia the EU candidate status.

Following his return from the US, Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an unannounced visit to Norway, where he met with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and participated in the Nordic-Ukrainian Summit in Oslo. The summit, attended by the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, resulted in the announcement of a joint aid package for Ukraine over the next five years, amounting to nearly $7 billion.

Prime Minister Støre further disclosed plans for an upcoming aid package, including air defense equipment, humanitarian aid and ammunition supplies.

Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen stated that the parliament will discuss a $1 billion aid package, comprising tanks, ammunition, drones and additional support.

The Swedish government announced its largest non-military aid package to Ukraine, totaling approximately $130 million. This package will include equipment to support Ukraine’s energy and civilian infrastructure during the winter.

We continue to accept questions for our live question-and-answers session on Dec. 29 through our bot or email.