February 7

Sitrep for Feb. 5-7, 2024 (as of 8:30 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

While the frontline remains largely unchanged, it is interesting to examine recent developments in certain areas of the front in light of the expectations set in 2023. In the Kupiansk (Kharkiv) direction, where significant Russian forces were reportedly concentrated, combat operations persist near the village of Synkivka. Yet, over the past few weeks, the Russian Armed Forces have failed to achieve any noticeable progress. Their inability to capture even a small village like Synkivka suggests an insufficient number of armored vehicles and personnel in that segment of the front.

In the Avdiivka direction, Ukrainian forces are facing a gradually deteriorating situation. Russian forces are attempting to gain a foothold near the railway bridge in the northern part of Avdiivka and are now within one kilometer [0.6 mi] of key positions held by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, located near a building that once housed the Brevno [Log] restaurant. One of the two remaining supply routes for Avdiivka runs through this area. Should Russian forces succeed in severing this connection, Ukrainian forces would find themselves in an even more dire situation, likely forcing Ukrainian command to consider withdrawing from the town and organizing rearguard actions.

Based on the map, which indicates two main roads from Avdiivka and the line of contact, there appears to be very little terrain left for Russian forces to pass through to traverse to reach the second path in the south of the town—literally a couple of forest lines. Consequently, the situation in this direction does indeed become critical, and its further development will depend solely on the actions of the Ukrainian command: whether reinforcements will be dispatched for stabilization and counterattacks or a decision to withdraw from the town will be made. Additionally, the situation with ammunition for the defenders remains unclear at the moment. Theoretically, it is possible to drive through the fields to the town, but the onset of the muddy season, expected to begin in the coming days, will significantly complicate this.

On Feb. 6, there was a report stating that the Khorne Group, a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle unit that had been engaged in combat in Avdiivka for an extended period, withdrew from the town. While FPV drone operators may operate from a distance from the frontline, their relocation to other positions suggests that their presence in the town is no longer deemed sufficiently safe. It is challenging to believe that the withdrawal occurred solely as part of a rotation; however, it is premature to assert that the entire AFU group is withdrawing. Nevertheless, it can be surmised that should such a decision be made, the task of drone operators would be to provide cover for the retreat of the remaining forces from these new positions.

It is also premature to talk about a pocket forming in Avdiivka, as claimed by pro-Russian sources. The term "pocket" implies nearly complete encirclement of the town and the enemy's ability to control the last remaining road, preferably within the range of small arms fire. The current situation can be described as a semi-encirclement at best, and even that is a stretch. It is worth noting that the last time a real pocket was observed was in 2015 in the town of Debaltseve.

On the night of Feb. 6, Russian forces hit the village of Zolochiv in the Kharkiv region with S-300 air-defense system missiles. This attack resulted in the destruction of a three-story hotel building, the death of an infant, and injuries to his mother and two other women.

Contrary to assumptions that downing of the Il-76 aircraft will complicate the RuAF logistics, their strikes on the Kharkiv region continued. It is worth noting that Belgorod serves as an important logistics hub for the delivery of S-300 missiles. Following the incident with the downed aircraft, rumors appeared of an alleged decision to temporarily suspend the use of the Belgorod airport, with the redirection of missile deliveries to the Voronezh airport.

The intelligence services of Georgia have detained certain saboteurs who allegedly attempted to transport explosives into Russia, reportedly through Armenia, with the intention of carrying out an act of terror in Voronezh. This incident bears similarities to the actions of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at the end of 2022 regarding the explosion on the Crimean Bridge. However, in this case, the amount of explosives, disguised as car batteries and allegedly transported from Odesa through Bulgaria and Turkey, was only 17 kg (although some sources report 14 kg). It appears unusual that such a complex scheme was organized for transporting such a small cargo, which could have potentially been smuggled directly across the Russian-Ukrainian border.

The Kyiv Post, a Ukrainian media outlet, citing its sources in the intelligence services, has published footage purportedly showing the capture of Wagner Group mercenaries by the Special Forces of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine. The video depicts fighters, apparently from Ukrainian special forces, showcasing a vehicle riddled with bullet holes, containing the body of an individual in military uniform bearing a Wagner Group badge. Additionally, the footage includes interrogation scenes featuring four captives, one of whom identifies himself as a mercenary from the Wagner Group, claiming to have arrived from the Central African Republic. According to his testimony, the mercenaries, numbering 100 individuals, were en route to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum with the intent to overthrow the government.

Previously, this media outlet had already published videos of drone strikes, allegedly of Ukrainian origin, targeting Sudanese groups cooperating with the Wagner Group, and even strikes against Wagner Group mercenaries themselves. However, none of these posts have been officially commented on.

The latest operation by Ukrainian special forces in Sudan, targeting the Wagner Group, appears somewhat contradictory. Firstly, in our view, it would seem more logical if such an operation were accompanied by an official statement regarding the tracking down of militants involved in various war crimes on Ukrainian territory. However, there is currently no evidence that the militants killed or captured in Sudan had ever participated in the war in Ukraine. Secondly, in one of his recent interviews, Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, stated that it is inconceivable to consider continuing combat operations without additional mobilization, as all those willing to go to the frontline are already fighting as part of the AFU. In this context, the actions of the Main Directorate of Intelligence on the African continent seem out of place.

Our team has long been aware of the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in Sudan. In 2019, they were possibly involved in suppressing anti-government protests there. Currently, among the warring factions in Sudan, there is no "good" side; the country is under a military dictatorship, against which the Rapid Support Forces [paramilitary forces, primarily composed of Janjaweed militias] are fighting. Details of this civil war can be found, for example, in last year's material from BBC. Against this backdrop, news of an allegedly impromptu meeting between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Sudan's leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in September 2023, where Zelenskyy thanked al-Burhan for consistent support of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, has surprised our team.

In our view, given the issue of AFU personnel shortage, the operation to capture Wagner Group mercenaries in Sudan appears as ambiguous as the operations in Crimea in August and October 2023, during which at least two elite Ukrainian special forces fighters were killed. Both operations in Crimea, in our opinion, were somewhat of PR stunts and were carried out solely for the sake of being able to claim that "the Main Intelligence Directorate went into Crimea." In this regard, they unfavorably contrast with the very successful and well-thought-out operations of the Main Directorate of Intelligence involving strikes by unmanned surface vessels against the Black Sea Fleet.

President Zelenskyy announced the creation of a separate branch within the AFU—the Unmanned Systems Forces. This decision will undoubtedly lead to a series of bureaucratic actions related to the need to create official schedules and appoint individuals to relevant positions. Given the widespread use of UAVs, it is necessary to determine which agency will account for them, which military department will oversee their development, and which branch of the armed forces will accept drones from various manufacturers, among other considerations. We hope that the establishment of the Unmanned Systems Forces will protect drone operators from being sent on assault missions as infantry.

Photos and videos of various Western military vehicles allegedly being transferred to Ukraine are surfacing, including Leopard 2A6 tanks in the city of Łódź (Poland) and an Abrams tank "in the Avdiivka direction." However, the video features the M1A2 SEPv2 version of the tank, not the M1A1SA one received by Ukraine. Caution is advised when interpreting such claims, particularly in the context of the largest NATO exercises that commenced in January. These exercises, taking place along the eastern border of the European Union until the end of May, imply that much of the spotted military equipment may not be destined for Ukraine but rather used in these exercises.

The Greek Kathimerini newspaper reports that the US is discussing with Greece the sale of a total of 75,000 artillery shells from the Hellenic Armed Forces’ stockpile. The purchase, estimated at $47 million, is expected to include 50,000 105mm shells, 20,000 155mm shells and 5,000 203mm shells.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has released a video showing a Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber releasing an air-dropped bomb equipped with a Universal Gliding and Correction Module (UMPK) while executing a toss bombing maneuver at high altitude. This method of deploying glide bombs is what likely enables them to reach their maximum range, which we estimate to be between 50 and 60 kilometers [31-37 mi], as previous videos of their deployment similarly featured aircraft flying at high altitudes. However, the higher the altitude, the greater the risk for an aircraft to be detected and shot down by an anti-aircraft missile system, something that has been evidenced by recent losses sustained by the Russian Air Force in Ukraine.

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin visited a contract military service recruitment facility in Moscow. According to the Ostorozhno, Moskva [Beware, Moscow] Telegram channel, Shoigu was informed that over 20,000 people had signed contracts at this facility in 2023, though this figure has not been confirmed in the Ministry of Defense's post about this visit.

Extrapolating the mentioned number to Russia's entire population—by dividing 20,000 by 13 million (the population of Moscow) and then multiplying by 143 million (the total population of Russia)—suggests that 220,000 people were recruited last year. This number represents almost half of the planned 415,000 and slightly exceeds our November estimate. At the same time, it is important to note that Moscow likely stands out from other regions with its higher recruitment numbers because, although Moscow does not offer a sign-up bonus upon contract signing, regional authorities provide contract soldiers with a monthly supplement of 50,000 rubles [$550]. Additionally, many state-owned enterprises offer extra salary payments to those who have signed contracts with the MoD. Moreover, Moscow has launched advertising campaigns aimed at recruiting volunteer fighters from neighboring regions.

The Ministry of Defense has proposed amendments to the existing Order, which outlines the procedure and conditions for the secondment of RuAF military personnel. If approved, these amendments would authorize conscripts to be assigned to long-term missions, ranging from 30 days up to 1 year, to "assist military authorities and military units in resolving crises and containing armed conflicts during peacetime." While legal experts do not anticipate these amendments leading to conscripts being deployed directly to combat zones, as President Putin and the Presidential Administration consider it politically risky, the legislation does allow for such a possibility.

The National Research University Higher School of Economics is to establish the Institute of World Military Economics and Strategy on the basis of the Faculty of World Economics and Politics. The Institute will be headed by retired Admiral Sergei Avakyants, who commanded the Pacific Fleet until April 2023. The Admiral allegedly was removed from his position as commander of the Pacific Fleet due to a failure in the Vuhledar direction in the winter of 2022, where the marines suffered significant losses.

According to recent reports, the son of a Ukraine war veteran Dmitry Zh. has been expelled from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology for poor academic progress. The young man was admitted to the said Institute in the summer of 2023 after he had scored 127 points at his school graduation exams with the standard entry requirement of 290 points. Nevertheless, he still retains the privilege to reapply for an unlimited number of times.