January 26

Sitrep for Jan. 24-26, 2024 (as of 8:30 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

Contrary to our expectations, the story about the Russian raid through an underground pipe in Avdiivka turned out to be neither made up nor exaggerated. It was, in fact, a large Russian special operation, corroborated by  numerous photos and videos.

It turned out that Russian forces actually managed to find a large diameter underground pipe (likely a collector), which led from the Avdiivka industrial zone to the Tsarska Okhota fortified area directly to the rear of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It was initially flooded, as indicated by a photo of a soldier standing waist-deep in water, and Russian soldiers took a lot of effort to drain and clear it. At the same time, they had to make exits, cutting the pipe in multiple places in order to find a suitable spot to go outside. It is also claimed that Russian forces fired at AFU positions during the operation in order to drown out construction sounds and avoid detection. Thus, Russian special forces managed to take the Ukrainian garrison of the Tsarska Okhota fortified area by surprise, capture it and penetrate further into the residential neighborhood of Avdiivka.

Despite the tactical success of this unique operation, we doubt its strategic significance for the Russian side. Firstly, the only success of the Russian Armed Forces in a long time in the Avdiivka direction became possible due to a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Secondly, further advances toward Avdiivka at the moment seem unlikely to us, since, as the DeepState Ukrainian project notes, the RuAF failed to gain a foothold in the Tsarska Okhota area. Russian forces maintain a presence on the outskirts of the residential neighborhood, but they can only be supplied along a road running through a live fire zone in the Tsarska Okhota area.

In addition, a new record number of airstrikes on the city—more than 80 on Jan. 24 has been noted. As usual in such cases, strikes conducted by both sides led to a noticeable change in the landscape in the southeast of Avdiivka, which is clearly visible when comparing satellite images from Jan. 13 and Jan. 23: the sectors where the most active combat operations are taking place are gradually razed to the ground.

In other sections of the frontline, fighting is ongoing with varying success, but without noticeable advances on either side.

Crash of the Il-76 Aircraft in the Belgorod Region

On Jan. 24, a Russian Aerospace Forces Il-76 strategic airlifter crashed in the Belgorod region. That same day, some of our subscribers sent us the most comprehensive video of the crash that is currently available. Towards the end of the video, a cloud of smoke can be seen lingering in the sky where the aircraft began to descend—indicative of the remnants of an anti-aircraft missile explosion.

Later, the pro-Kremlin daily newspaper Izvestia published footage of what remained of the aircraft on the ground. In the video, the remaining parts of the fuselage appear to be almost entirely peppered with penetration holes left by prefabricated fragments. This unequivocally indicates that the aircraft was shot down.

Based on the geolocation of the video of the aircraft still in flight, suggesting that the Il-76 was flying from west to east away from Belgorod, many commentators have assumed that the aircraft was not flying to Belgorod airport but rather leaving the area. However, before landing, aircraft often circle above their destination, either as part of their final approach or because they are awaiting clearance to land. It is worth noting that some time before the crash, a missile threat alert was issued for the city of Belgorod. Alternatively, the trajectory of the Il-76 might have been dictated by the fact that it had already been severely damaged, and the pilots had lost control of the aircraft.

Later that day, the Ukrainian Pandora’s Box Telegram channel claimed that the registration number of the aircraft was RA-78830, allegedly based on publicly available data. However, our team, along with volunteers, could not find any confirmation of this claim. We speculate that the authors of Pandora’s Box discovered a similar Il-76 near Belgorod, flying towards Russia from Syria or Iran, using FlightRadar24 data.

At the same time, information appeared on the professional forum Aviaforum.ru that the aircraft's registration number was RF-86828. This detail was also reported by Mediazona [independent Russian media outlet], citing a source familiar with the situation. Currently, there is no publicly available information on any of this aircraft’s flights, which is typical for military planes.

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation also released a video from the crash site, on which it is difficult to discern the bodies of the victims. This has surprised many, especially considering that, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, there were approximately 80 people on board the aircraft. Subsequently, a video from the IL-76 crash site was published by a local channel (warning: graphic content). It is worth noting that in such cases, involving the crash of a large aircraft and an extensive high-temperature post-crash fire, most bodies are reduced to small fragments, making them difficult to identify in photos and videos. Another example of this is the crash of the Flydubai Boeing 737 in Rostov-on-Don on March 19, 2016; in the footage from the crash site, similarly, it is practically impossible to distinguish the bodies of the 62 deceased or even parts of the aircraft.

The crash of the Flydubai Boeing 737 in Rostov-on-Don on March 19, 2016.

Russia undeniably had the technical capability to shoot down this aircraft. Regular incidents of friendly fire have taken place, and on the evening of Jan. 24, a statement from a Russian Aerospace Forces pilot claiming to have evaded two guided anti-aircraft missiles from a Buk-M1 system was published on a pro-Russian Telegram channel.

At the same time, Ukraine also had the technical capability to shoot down the Il-76. For example, on May 13, 2023, the Ukrainian military successfully positioned a Patriot SAM system as close as possible to the Russian border. Within about two hours, they managed to shoot down two Mi-8 helicopters, along with a Su-34 and a Su-35 aircraft over the Bryansk region.

As of now, open-source information does not enable us to determine who shot down the aircraft and whether it was indeed transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war. Although the Russian side has announced the discovery of the aircraft’s black boxes, we are unlikely to learn about the information extracted from them anytime soon.

All other information regarding this incident is based on statements from officials and data obtained from various sources. The Russian side claims that the plane, carrying Ukrainian POWs, was shot down by the AFU, leading the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation to initiate a criminal case under the charge of "Act of terror."

Representatives of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine have confirmed that a scheduled POW exchange was set to take place on Jan. 24. The security of Ukrainian POWs was supposed to be ensured by the Russian side; however, according to their statements, Kyiv was not informed that they would be transported by air in the region, contrary to what had happened on previous occasions.

The General Staff of the AFU has stated that, in order to reduce missile threat coming from Russia, the AFU not only control the airspace but also closely monitor missile launch sites and the logistics of missile deliveries, particularly when military transport aircraft such as Il-76 are used. They have also pledged to continue destroying the vehicles delivering the weapons used to shell the city of Kharkiv.

In addition, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has initiated a criminal case under the charge "Violation of the laws and customs of war," and President Zelenskyy has demanded an international investigation. While Ukrainian officials have not directly confirmed any details, these statements indirectly imply that the Il-76 may have been shot down by the AFU and might have been transporting prisoners of war. Otherwise, the initiation of a criminal case would lack a clear rationale.

Despite the seeming strangeness of transporting POWs by air instead of on the ground, a Ukrainian soldier who returned from Russian captivity before the New Year affirmed that he and other captives were indeed transported to their exchange point from Mordovia [Russia’s constituent republic] by Il-76. Earlier, Olga Romanova, the Executive Director of the Rus’ Sidyashchaya [Russia Behind Bars] civil rights movement, reported the evacuation of colonies in border regions to accommodate POWs.

The Dos’ye Shpiona [Spy Dossier] Telegram channel reported, citing its sources, that on Jan. 24, three planes with POWs were scheduled to land at Belgorod airport. This aligns, firstly, with information indicating that approximately 190 individuals were set to be exchanged that day, and secondly, with reports suggesting that after the crash of the first aircraft, the second one turned around and flew away, as previously indicated by some media outlets.

The statement from the Russian MoD claiming that there were only three guards aboard the downed aircraft, which was carrying 65 POWs, has also sparked discussions. Despite information from a released POW indicating that, in the past, approximately 20 military police personnel were needed to transport 50 POWs by plane, our source stated that the Russian side later significantly relaxed the requirements for guarding prisoners. This change is attributed, firstly, to the fact that they are often transported with bound hands and bags over their heads, and secondly, it is difficult to imagine why Ukrainian soldiers would attack those who are transporting them back home for an exchange.

Additionally, our source has confirmed statements from the Ukrainian side that missiles from S-300 SAM systems are regularly delivered by planes to Belgorod for strikes on Kharkiv. We frequently report on these attacks in our summaries on strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and Russia: on Jan. 23, 10 people were killed as a result of a strike, and on the night of Jan. 25, 3 women and a teenager were injured, with 15 houses and several cars damaged. It is worth noting that on the evening of Jan. 24, information emerged that "loud sounds over Belgorod are related to actions undertaken by the Ministry of Defense against Ukraine."

It is likely that the tragedy may have resulted from either insufficient information exchange or disorganization among various military branches, specifically the air defense and the coordination staff accountable to the GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation]. Given the secretive nature of POW exchanges, similar to other military endeavors, it is possible that air defense operators were not adequately briefed about it.

The MoD may have also presumed that the airspace over Belgorod was adequately secured, leading to the decision not to notify Ukraine about the transportation of prisoners.

After the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile strikes on the airfields of Luhansk and Berdiansk in October 2023, helicopters were relocated to a safer distance from the frontline. Belgorod Airport, a pivotal logistics hub, faces uncertainty regarding the impact of this incident on its operations. It is possible that air traffic will be rerouted to Voronezh, with subsequent logistics conducted over land.

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On Jan. 24, Ukrainian forces launched an attack using HIMARS MLRS on a training ground in the city of Ilovaisk, Donetsk region, where future drone pilots were undergoing training. According to the VChK-OGPU Telegram channel, the strike resulted in 24 people killed and 4 injured. Pro-Russian military correspondent Romanov accused the head of the Judgment Day project course of distributing the coordinates of the training ground through a Telegram bot to unfamiliar individuals without any verification, thereby exposing its location.

Ukrainian journalist Yurii Butusov reported that two drone pilots from the AFU 74th Reconnaissance Battalion were sent to assault a position as infantry without proper training and fire support, resulting in their deaths in combat. This has sparked a discussion about the need for accountability for commanders making decisions to carry out such reckless attacks. The discussion also highlights the lack of weapons for fire support, particularly machine guns, leading to a high number of casualties among soldiers during assaults. Thanks to public outcry, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the AFU, left a comment under Butusov's Facebook post, giving hope that Ukraine's military leadership will strive to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.

Conscription, Mobilization and Contract Military Service

BBC News Russian investigated the fate of convicts enlisted in the RuAF. In 2023, the Ministry of Defense began recruiting convicts into Storm-Z units under conditions similar to those offered by the Wagner Group previously: a presidential pardon would be granted, and those who survived after six months of combat would be discharged. Towards the end of 2023, reports mentioned the existence of Storm-V units, leading to speculation about the name's meaning, especially as these units were deployed in areas under the responsibility of both the Western and Central Military Districts. The letter "V" typically designated the Group of Troops "East." Through their investigation, journalists discovered that a shift occurred around August 2023. Since then, recruited convicts are "released conditionally" under a law passed in June 2023. In contrast to probation, where parole is granted by a court under specific conditions, convicts now petition their penal colony leadership and regional draft office directly. This new legal norm applies to convicts who were previously ineligible for enlistment. Notably, Ilya Belostotsky, one of the directors of Yeralash [a Russian children's comedy TV show] convicted of child molestation, left for war despite his past crimes. Such convicts sign a one-year contract and become regular contract soldiers within the RuAF. They receive personal identification numbers, which are registered in MoD databases, and are entitled to compensation and benefits, while their contracts, in line with the decree on mobilization, renew automatically until the end of the "special military operation." Individuals can only hope for full exoneration and expungement of their criminal records if they receive state awards or are discharged on grounds that permit leaving the RuAF during wartime or a period of mobilization. These grounds include the end of the war, health deterioration or reaching the age limit.

In response, Russian authorities may have addressed complaints from the relatives of mobilized soldiers, who are indignant that ex-convicts return home with medals while their loved ones' contracts remain open-ended. Additionally, there is a concern regarding the rise in crimes committed by pardoned ex-convicts returning from the war.

Convicts are often deployed to the most intense combat zones, and tracking their deaths is challenging, as not all sentences are available in the database of judicial cases. In reports by Mediazona and BBC News Russian, their branch of military service is often listed as "No data," and the rate of such fatalities is increasing rapidly.

Western Assistance

During an online Ramstein format meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced plans to provide the AFU with six Sea King helicopters. A year ago, the UK delivered similar helicopters to Ukraine.

As difficulties persist regarding Germany providing Ukraine with Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missiles, discussions are underway about a so-called circular exchange scheme. Citing sources in Berlin, the German newspaper Handelsblatt reports that the UK has expressed interest in buying Taurus missiles from Germany to enable the provision of more Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine.

Canadian Defense Minister Bill Blair has announced that Canada is providing Ukraine with 10 multirole boats from Zodiac Hurricane Technologies, with an estimated value of approximately $20 million.

The Chief of the General Staff of Great Britain, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has announced that Britain can no longer rely on a small professional army and, instead, should "train and equip a citizen army" ready to fight a war on land in the future. The government has decisively ruled out a switch to mandatory military service. Nonetheless, there is a pressing need to train reserve forces and establish a structure within the army to facilitate rapid mobilization, arming and deployment of a substantial number of troops. However, this initiative presents significant challenges.

A professional army by itself does not offer a sizable reserve pool. Individuals who have not completed mandatory military service, having only participated in brief training courses, are not equipped to form an effective combat force. Creating a substantial reserve would require the introduction of regular conscription alongside ongoing military training.