December 29, 2023

Sitrep for Dec. 27-29, 2023 (as of 8:45 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update and Year-End Summary

We will use two videos from different axes to illustrate what is happening on the frontline. The first one was recorded near the village of Krynky on the left bank of the Dnipro River. It shows Russian losses incurred during a recent attack, including armored personnel carriers and infantry.

The second video, recorded in the vicinity of Synkivka on the Kharkiv axis, captures the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroying two tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and much of the accompanying infantry in less than a minute. The attack occurred when the Russian vehicles were moving in a column. The leading tank was equipped with a mine roller, but exploded on an anti-tank mine regardless. Shortly afterwards, an ATGM destroyed the trailing infantry fighting vehicle and an artillery shell damaged the infantry fighting vehicle in front of it. What happened next was probably caused by panic. The second tank veered off the cleared path and almost immediately blew up on a mine. The damaged infantry fighting vehicle attempted to go around it and exploded as well. The infantry quickly dismounted the burning vehicles and began to take cover in nearby trenches. A third fighting vehicle filled with infantry came up the path and attempted to go around the tank with the mine roller, hitting one more AT mine. Afterwards, the AFU shelled the remaining infantry with cluster munitions.

These videos clearly demonstrate the scale of Russian losses in areas of the frontline, other than in the Avdiivka and Marinka directions, which are even more troublesome for the Russian Armed Forces. Current events resemble the failed attempt to capture Vuhledar in early 2023, except they are taking place simultaneously in the Avdiivka, Marinka, Novomykhailivka directions, and on the Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson axes. Thus, while we do not believe that RuAF losses reach 200 killed per day in the Avdiivka direction, this level of losses appears entirely possible for all the aforementioned axes combined.

Throughout 2023, both sides have been actively researching and developing various applications for the use of drones in combat. Now, drones are used not only for target identification and engagement, aerial reconnaissance (as seen in the aforementioned video), and grenade dropping, but also for mining. Munitions dropped on the ground do not explode on impact and become landmines instead. The AFU employ PTM-3 anti-tank mines with custom fuses (called “Johnnies”) for that very purpose. These fuses are equipped with a gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer, that activate the mine when it is hit or moved. They can also trigger when armored vehicles, or even soldiers carrying weapons or body armor, pass nearby. Consequently, Ukrainian forces can now mine frequently used paths or tracks, or recently cleared areas that Russian forces consider safe.

Additionally, these custom fuses can be used in booby traps. For example, explosives placed in a radio casing along with a fuse that activates when the enemy, believing it to be a discarded radio, gets close enough to trigger it.

We anticipate that the development of drone technology and new applications will continue actively in the coming year.

Predicting the further development of events on the frontline is currently challenging, as it is largely influenced not only by military strategy but also by political and financial considerations. One prominent example is mobilization: Ukraine is finding it challenging to make plans for a new draft until the issues of supplying and arming newly mobilized forces are resolved. In Russia, guided by political considerations, there is reluctance to conduct a new wave of mobilization before the presidential election in March 2024. In this regard, both Ekaterina Schulmann [a Russian political scientist] and we believe that, if imperative, it is better to visit Russia before the election than after. From a military strategy standpoint, it would be most advantageous for both sides to maintain a complete strategic defense, accumulating forces and preparing for future attacks. The actions of the RuAF, attacking Ukrainian positions and taking heavy losses, run counter to this strategy.

A French analyst, examining all changes on the frontline since Jan. 1, 2023, has compiled an infographic, in which the advancements of the RuAF are marked in red, while the territory liberated by the AFU is marked in black. Neutral zones are not taken into account. It is worth noting that all these changes are very minor and do not hold strategic significance for either side.

Andrii Yusov, representative of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine, has stated that Kyrylo Budanov's [chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate] remarks about the imminent takeover of Crimea were an "informational special operation." He pointed out that Ukrainian special forces did land in Crimea during the summer. However, in our view, this operation was not worth the loss of several special forces’ members. Against the backdrop of this admission, we are wary of the recent statement made by Ukraine's Minister of Defense Rustem Umerov suggesting that something is being prepared in 2024 that will force Russia to permanently leave Crimea.

The Associated Press has published an article on how the AFU prepared its operation to establish a bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro using the 73rd Naval Center of Special Operations. The information was derived from an interview with a Ukrainian serviceman with the callsign Skif. While this article serves well for boosting morale, from an analytical perspective, it raises some questions. For instance, it suggests that before the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, there was a need to prove the ability to hold territory on the left bank. The proof in question was the flag photo op, during which special forces crossed the Dnipro on boats to place a Ukrainian flag on the left bank. However, in our opinion, it demonstrates the AFU's ability to conduct sabotage rather than to establish a bridgehead. It is worth noting that the RuAF withdrew from the right bank of the Dnipro before the Antonivskyi Bridge and the Kakhovka Dam were destroyed, indicating high risks for the grouping on the right bank. Despite Skif’s assertion, it is rather hard to believe that the decision was based solely on the success of the flag photo op.

As we have repeatedly stated, supporting infantry transferred to the left bank across the Dnipro is impossible, just as conducting an offensive with infantry alone against an enemy equipped with armored vehicles. Likewise, while we initially dismissed rumors about the Ukrainian operation aiming to liberate the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Budanov admitted that it had indeed been carried out, a development that, in our opinion, goes against common sense.

Skif further stated that when the Special Operations Forces were ready to begin their operation to cross the Dnipro and establish a bridgehead on the left bank, the Russians blew up the dam. After the water washed away both Ukrainian and Russian positions, a race began: who could first seize the islands at the mouth of the river. The assertion that the dam's destruction prevented the Dnipro fording appears perplexing to us. Before the dam's destruction, it was no easier to cross the river, given the fortified and mine-covered trenches Russian troops had installed on the lower left bank. To cross and supply the group, a new bridge was needed, and constructing one during the war was impossible. A pontoon crossing across the Dnipro cannot serve as the only supply route, as it would be instantly destroyed by artillery fire.

Unfortunately, the article is solely based on the statements of Ukrainian commanders, and we did not discover any interesting new facts within it.

Looking back at the various Ukrainian special operations, it is worth noting the wide range of outcomes they engendered, including some ambiguous ones like Enerhodar, Krynky and the flag photo op in Crimea. However, there were also extremely successful ones, such as the strike on the Novocherkassk large landing ship. This strike triggered baseless rumors of F-16 fighter aircraft in Ukraine, denied by the AFU Air Force Command Spokesman Yurii Ihnat. Speculations also arose regarding Ukraine receiving not only the export version of Storm Shadow missiles with a range of up to 250 km but also the original version with a range of 550 km, though these seem dubious. Indeed, the distance from Feodosia to the nearest Ukrainian-controlled territory in the Kherson region exceeds 250 km. However, for such a crucial operation, Ukrainian pilots could have flown at a very low altitude over the Black Sea to avoid radar detection and launch missiles from the south of Sevastopol.

This is not the first time Russian warships have been sunk. This year, for the first time in modern history, Russia lost a submarine as a result of combat operations.

Additionally, several generals and senior officers of the RuAF were killed when headquarters were struck. Even though ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles were supplied rather late, they demonstrated their power during strikes on airfields in the cities of Berdiansk and Luhansk, where a significant number of military aircraft were destroyed, leading Russia to relocate their helicopter fleet as a result.

According to The Financial Times, to provide economic assistance to Ukraine despite the Hungarian veto, the European Union is planning to use an alternative scheme first invented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU will borrow €20 billion under financial guarantees provided by individual European countries. The matter will be discussed in a special summit on Feb. 1, 2024.

On Dec. 28, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a report titled “Army in Numbers, 2023,” which states that over 650 thousand contract soldiers are serving in the armed forces. This number exceeds by 119 thousand the plan announced on Dec. 21, 2022, by Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who aimed to increase the number of contact soldiers to 521 thousand in 2023. The reported number in 2020, the last one before the full-scale invasion, was over 405 thousand.

Also on Dec. 28, Dmitry Medvedev [Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council] stated that 500 thousand people had signed military contracts since the beginning of the year. We do not understand how adding this number to approximately 400 thousand results in 650 thousand instead of nearly a million. The authorities provide no explanation on how these estimates relate to each other. As usual, various figures voiced by officials are inconsistent, and it is probably useless trying to analyze them.

It is reported that the General Staff of the Russian Federation has decided to withdraw from the frontline and disband the Kaskad military unit. Some commentators express outrage, claiming that it is supposedly one of the most combat-ready units. Initially, the Kaskad military unit existed as a unit within the “DPR” People’s Militia. FPV drones’ operators were included in its ranks even before they were used in the Russian Army, which is why the unit was stationed several kilometers away from the frontline, not directly on the line of contact. This is why various members of parliament, wanting to showcase their participation in the "special military operation," visited this relatively safe "parade" unit. It is difficult for us to imagine that there are actually 9,000 servicemen in the unit, as claimed by the pro-Russian war correspondent Romanov; rather, it is likely in the hundreds. According to one version, the withdrawal may be related to bureaucratic aspects. The Kaskad unit is transforming into a structure that will be subordinated not to the Regional Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs but to another law enforcement agency. However, according to a BBC investigation, the Kaskad unit is part of BARS [Special Combat Army Reserve], subordinated to the Russian MoD.

Even before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the military police and military traffic control units always found reasons to reprimand soldiers: they were punished for incorrectly wearing their uniforms, a lack of necessary documents, etc. This continues now: in addition to detaining drunk drivers, they confiscate smartphones, depriving soldiers of communication with their families, arrest personal or volunteer transport because it is not registered with a military unit, and issue violations for not undergoing timely vehicle inspection.

In the village of Kamenka near Vyborg, the military police tried to take soldiers to the frontline. One of them, who had been wounded and was awaiting the medical evaluation board’s decision on fitness for further military service, faced a challenging situation. Despite a serious fracture and the fact that he had difficulty moving normally, military police attempted to drag him to the train heading to the "special military operation" zone. Fortunately, other soldiers filming the incident managed to stop the man’s departure. Similar incidents are also reported to have occurred in mid-December.

Three Ukrainian prisoners of war were executed in the Zaporizhzhia region between the villages of Verbove and Robotyne, as shown in this video. It is obvious from this footage that they posed no threat, and what was recorded in the video constitutes a war crime. The General Prosecutor's Office of Ukraine has opened a criminal case on the violation of the laws and customs of war. Russian paratroopers from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division are assumed to have committed this crime. We can confirm that this division has been present on the Zaporizhzhia axis since at least the summer of 2023, with information about killed, captured and missing soldiers from the 234th and 237th Airborne Assault Regiments belonging to this division.

Two weeks ago, there was a similar incident with a video in which the Ukrainian side claimed to have filmed the execution of Ukrainian PoWs on the Zaporizhzhia axis. Paratroopers from the 234th Airborne Assault Regiment were also suspected in that incident. However, we did not report on it due to the poor quality of the video, as we were unable to confirm that such an execution had indeed taken place there.

It is worth noting that paratroopers were mainly responsible for the executions of civilians in Bucha.

The USA has announced the final military aid package to Ukraine this year, which is worth $250 million. It will include:

  • Additional munitions for NASAMS;
  • Stinger anti-aircraft missiles;
  • Air defense system components;
  • Additional ammunition for HIMARS;
  • 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds;
  • Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided missiles;
  • Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems;
  • More than 15 million rounds of small arms ammunition;
  • Demolition munitions for obstacle clearing;
  • Spare parts, medical equipment, maintenance and other ancillary equipment.

It seems that the main outcome of the year is that the war has acquired a protracted trench character, which may last for years. Similar stalemates have occurred in previous wars. During the First World War, the stalemate lasted from late 1914 to 1918. Quite often, these situations have been resolved by the appearance of new technologies. Nowadays, the most promising way forward seems to be drones and counter-drone measures.

Like many Ukrainian officials, we anticipate that the coming year will be challenging and will not involve major changes on the frontline. It is expected that F-16 fighter aircraft and ammunition for them will be delivered. However, details such as the type of ammunition, their use, or their impact on the frontline are not known. It is worth noting that unfortunately, there is hardly any remedy that would instantly change the course of the war and lead to Ukraine’s victory.