December 20, 2023

Sitrep for Dec. 18-20, 2023 (as of 9 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

The Bakhmut direction remains one of the hottest at the moment due to the Russian authorities' ambition to reach the administrative borders of the Donetsk region. However, this goal is still a distant reality, as the Russian Armed Forces still need to capture Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

The ongoing fighting in this direction is concentrated primarily to the west of the town of Bakhmut, particularly in the area of Ivanivske. A video filmed there shows Russian infantry moving across a field. The soldiers appear to walk calmly, suggesting that they might be occupying abandoned positions in the contested area, as they do not seem to be under enemy fire at the time of filming.

Former Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Hanna Maliar acknowledged the dangerous situation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Bakhmut direction, while she referred to the situation in the Avdiivka direction as "truly threatening."

The RuAF are advancing both north of Avdiivka, particularly in the area of the Avdiivka Coke Plant and in the direction of Stepne, and south of the town, in the areas of Opytne and Vodiane, towards Tonenke and Svitle.

Fighting is ongoing on the left bank of the Dnipro River near the village of Krynky. The Kyiv Independent has published an article on the situation there, similar in tone to the one published in the New York Times that we mentioned in our previous sitrep. On the Zaporizhzhia axis, unsuccessful Russian attacks continue towards Robotyne.

UAV Production

A pro-Russian Telegram channel has published a photo claiming to depict a factory-made shaped-charge drone-released munition, purportedly produced on the order of the Russian Defense Ministry. However, it remains unclear whether this is a new development specifically designed for drones or if the photo shows a warhead intended for a different purpose, which can also be adapted for drone deployment by attaching a tail assembly.

Given the increased significance of drones in the ongoing war, both sides have recognized the need for industrial-scale production. This is especially true for FPV drones, for which volunteer efforts may fall short in meeting demand.

Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Havrylyuk told the BBC that Ukraine plans to address the shortage of artillery shells by focusing on drone production. However, he did not specify the type of drones in question.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced at a press conference that Ukraine aims to produce one million FPV drones next year. Additionally, Serhii Sternenko, a Ukrainian far-right social activist and YouTuber, shared on his Telegram channel that he is collaborating with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine to supply FPV drones to the troops. He also emphasized that in addition to supplying the required number of drones, it is important to implement structural changes and reform the Army's staff schedule.

Conscription, Mobilization and Contract Military Service

In the RuAF, concerns persist regarding the combat readiness of soldiers, especially in terms of their recovery after injuries. A soldier shared his story on his VKontakte social network page. According to him, in June 2023, he signed a contract with a unit of the Russian Railways (RZD) [Russian fully state-owned railway company], promising a monthly payment of 300,000 rubles [$3,320] plus bonuses for being at the front. Initially informed that such contracts were meant to assist RZD in meeting its recruitment targets, he later signed a contract with the Ministry of Defense and was sent to the frontline. Although formally still listed with the RZD until Oct. 2, he obtained the status of contracted serviceman in June. However, after sustaining an injury, he was told that since he was not on the military unit's lists, no compensation would be provided. Despite promises, he received a salary of only 37,000 rubles [$410] in accordance with his contract with the Ministry of Defense. Furthermore, he is not entitled to almost any medical treatment, as his injury was considered minor, obliging him to return to the frontline.

Another story highlighting the treatment of wounded soldiers in the RuAF, depicts a situation where even those who should clearly be demobilized are labeled as conditionally fit for military service. As reported by the Baza Telegram channel, a volunteer fighter from the Akhmat Battalion, who suffered serious shrapnel leg injuries resulting in one leg being amputated and the other severely damaged, was deemed conditionally fit for military service by a military medical board.

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu claimed during an expanded meeting of the MoD Collegium that, thanks to timely assistance on the battlefield, evacuations and advanced medical care, “over 98% of the wounded are discharged after having recovered.” In reality, such figures are hard to attain even for the world’s best armies. However, in the Russian military, this figure could be achieved if the majority of severely wounded soldiers die on the battlefield, and those who survive are transferred to hospitals and, after receiving some medical assistance, are discharged and deemed fit for service, thus falling into the aforementioned 98% rate of recovery. It appears that military medical boards have indeed been tasked with minimizing the number of soldiers discharged from the army, and are sending as many soldiers back to the frontline as possible. The remaining 2% likely include military personnel so severely disabled that it is impossible to send them back to the battlefield. It is claimed that they are consequently transferred to work at draft offices, MoD higher education institutions and other organizations. In his remarks, Shoigu also mentioned that the mortality rate in hospitals is supposedly under 0.5% and is continuing to decrease. This is, however, contradicted by the numerous complaints regularly emanating from Russian soldiers.

Furthermore, Shoigu asserted that this year, 1,500 new and upgraded tanks had been delivered to the armed forces. This number appears to be somewhat exaggerated as most experts agree that the real figure is closer to 1,000.

Additionally, Shoigu dubbed the Russian Army as the “most combat-ready army in the world” and reminded his audience that the current plan aims to reach 1.5 million personnel in the near future. It is worth noting that in early December, Vladimir Putin signed a decree increasing the strength of the RuAF to 1.32 million personnel. According to Shoigu, this latest increase is related to Finland joining NATO, the necessity to augment the number of troops stationed on the Russia-Ukraine border and an increase in the number of personnel in the Leningrad Military District.

If we multiply our estimate of the size of the RuAF on the frontline—550,000 soldiers—by the minimum military salary in the "special military operation" zone, which is 200,000 rubles [$2,210], the expenses just for salaries (excluding "combat" and various additional compensations) will amount to 1.32 billion rubles [$14.59 million] per year. Therefore, despite numerous cases where servicemen do not receive promised payments, budget spendings will still increase should the army be further expanded.

We were trying to analyze the data related to supplies for the frontline units mentioned in Shoigu's speech at the meeting of the Russian MoD. If we divide the mentioned volume of water delivered daily to the frontline by the volume of water in a typical soldier's ration, it turns out that there is enough supply to sustain more than a million people. In reality, much less water is delivered to the front, and some of the money is embezzled. A large number of similar indicators exist only on paper, and attempting to assess the size of Russian forces or losses based on them is not reliable.

Western Assistance

The Financial Times writes that European officials are discussing the possibility, under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, to suspend certain rights, such as the right to vote, from a member state if the said member persistently and seriously breaches the EU's founding values as outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty, namely, respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, though that country’s membership obligations would remain binding. Nevertheless, this decision may be blocked by any other member-state. In all likelihood, Europe is trying to hint to Viktor Orban that member states are prepared to take such drastic steps and start isolating Hungary unless he changes his position.

Voting on Europe’s €50 billion support to Ukraine has been postponed until Feb. 1. Financial difficulties have had repercussions on the frontline. According to Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, the military operation has had to be downsized due to a shortage of ammunition.

The European Union has adopted a 12th package of sanctions against Russia, which includes the possibility of confiscating the financial assets belonging to Russian legal entities and individuals to compensate European companies that were nationalized in Russia, such as Danone, Baltika or Fortum. Additionally, a prohibition on re-exportation has been introduced, and EU companies are now required to incorporate a re-export ban to Russia in their contracts when supplying dual-use goods. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that numerous dual-use goods enter Russia through ports in Morocco and Turkey.

On Dec. 18, Polish truckers resumed their blockade of the largest crossing on the Ukrainian border, the Dorohusk-Yahodyn checkpoint. They promised not to obstruct the passage of vehicles with humanitarian and security-related cargoes and planned to allow one truck to pass per hour.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged existing problems and addressed uncomfortable questions, such as those regarding the counteroffensive, the frontline, and Western aid during his year-end press conference. Specifically, he stated that the military had requested the mobilization of another 450-500 thousand people, to which he proposed to rework the plan to account not only for the enlistment of new military personnel, but also for the demobilization of those who have already served for about two years. The cost of mobilizing such a number of people will be approximately 500 billion hryvnias [around $13 billion]. Additionally, he declared that he would not sign a draft law for the mobilization of women.

Zelenskyy also mentioned that no one knows whether the war will end in 2024, all predictions are only opinions. However, Ukraine's strategy will not change: it aims to return to the borders of 1991.