July 19, 2023

Sitrep for Jul. 18-19, 2023 (as of 11:00 a.m.)

Strikes on Ukrainian Territory

On the morning of Jul. 19, an explosion at an ammunition depot near the town of Staryi Krym in the southeast of Crimea was reported. Existing video evidence captures both the sight and sound of secondary detonations. Pro-Russian Telegram channels are speculating that the depot was hit with Storm Shadow cruise missiles allegedly launched from the Khmelnytskyi region: e.g. the Grey Zone Telegram channel states this fact rather confidently, although the basis for such confidence remains unclear.

Since the explosion took place at the ammunition depot, it is impossible to extinguish it due to the high risk for firefighters, therefore the exact cause of the fire is unlikely to be discovered in the near future. It should be noted that, in addition to the above-mentioned missiles, objects in Crimea can also be hit with drones.

Ukraine has not taken responsibility for the explosion yet. Earlier reports allegedly by Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine's Ministry of Defense Kyrylo Budanov claiming that the strike was part of an AFU reconnaissance operation were almost immediately refuted: their source turned out to be a fake Budanov Telegram channel.

On the night of Jul. 19, a massive cruise missile attack was launched by the RuAF targeting the city of Odesa and the Odesa region. According to the mayor of Odesa, it has been perhaps the largest attack since Feb. 24, 2022. In addition to 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles (which were also used during yesterday’s attack on Odesa) the RuAF launched Kh-22 and P-800 Oniks cruise missiles, which had not been used for a long time. The Russian Ministry of Defense called yesterday’s attack “a retaliation strike” in response to the explosion on the Crimean bridge.

The primary target of the attack was the port of Odesa, which sustained damage to its grain and oil terminals, storage tanks, as well as loading equipment. Ukrainian air defense operators have released footage from a Virazh-Planshet automated process-control system screen, a device that collects data on all airborne targets.

In a separate incident, an attack on the city of Donetsk has resulted in two people killed, and three others injured. Additionally, strikes in the village of Volodymyrivka, Volnovakha region, claimed the life of another person.

Another attack led to the death of an elderly man in the Kharkiv region.

Frontline Situation Update

Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar has stated that the Russian offensive in the Kupiansk direction has been unsuccessful. This statement casts further doubts on the claim, made yesterday, by Ukraine’s Operational Command East spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi about a substantial concentration of Russian forces on the Lyman-Kupiansk axis.

Military analysts Michael Kofman, Rob Lee, Dmitri Alperovych, Konrad Muzyka, and Franz-Stefan Gady jointly visited frontlines in Ukraine to gain new insights into the ongoing offensive. They spoke to NCOs, officers, a number of brigade commanders (of the national guard and regular army) in the field plus senior intelligence and defense officials in Kyiv. A comprehensive analysis will be published later; here are some general observations:

  • By and large counteroffensive is an infantryman’s fight (squad, platoon and company level) supported by artillery along most of the frontline. That is why, first, progress is measured by yards/meters and not km/miles given reduced mobility, and, second, mechanized formations are rarely deployed due to lack of enablers for maneuver. This includes insufficient quantities of mine-clearing equipment, air defenses, ATGMs etc.
  • Ukrainian forces have still not mastered combined arms operations at scale. Operations are more sequential than synchronized.
  • The AFU by default have switched to a strategy of attrition relying on sequential fires rather than maneuver. This is the reason why cluster munitions are critical to extend current fire rates into the fall: weakening Russian defenses to a degree that enables maneuver.
  • Minefields are a problem as most observers know. They confine maneuver space and slow advances. But much more impactful than the minefields per se on Ukraine’s ability to break through Russian defenses is the AFU’s inability to conduct complex combined arms operations at scale.
  • Lack of a comprehensive combined arms approach at scale makes Ukrainian forces more vulnerable to Russian ATGMs, artillery etc. while advancing. So it's not just about equipment. Additional modern Western weapons and aircraft are needed and will be helpful but not decisive without better integration of fire and maneuver at scale.
  • There is a dearth of artillery barrels that is difficult to address given production rates and delivery timelines.
  • The character of this offensive will only likely change if there is a more systematic approach to breaking through Russian defenses, perhaps paired with or causing a severe degradation of Russian morale, that will lead to a sudden or gradual collapse of Russian defenses. Otherwise, this will remain a bloody attritional fight with reserve units being fed in incrementally in the coming weeks and months.
  • Russians had no need to deploy operational reserves yet to fend off Ukrainian attacks. There is also evidence of reduced impact of HIMARS strikes due to effective Russian countermeasures (the measures are not specified though).
  • Russian forces, even if severely degraded and lacking ammo, are likely capable of delaying, containing or repulsing individual platoon- or company-sized Ukrainian advances unless these attacks are better coordinated and synchronized along the broader frontline. Some Ukrainian assaults were stopped by Russian ATGMs even before reaching the first minefield (we wrote about a similar case of an unsuccessful MRAP attack in the previous sitrep).
  • Quality of Ukrainian officers and NCOs appears excellent and morale remains high. However, there are some force quality issues emerging with less able bodied and older men called up for service now. Soldiers fighting on the frontline are all too aware that lack of progress is often more due to poor tactics, lack of coordination between units, red tape and Soviet style thinking.

Ukrainian military microblogger Tatarigami had previously drawn attention to these issues.

Regarding equipment losses, it is important to note that the Oryx project is collecting data across the entire frontline, where the nature of combat varies significantly from one sector to another. For instance, the AFU is on the offensive (active phase) on the South Donetsk (Zaporizhzhia) axis, whilst the Donetsk or Lyman-Kupiansk axes are primarily seeing positional warfare. Therefore, it is our view that drawing conclusions based on aggregated losses from across the entire front may not be entirely accurate.

When analyzing the losses of military equipment, we looked at the data of another analyst who gathered it specifically for the Zaporizhzhia axis, where the Ukrainian offensive is ongoing. According to his data, the total equipment losses on this section of the front are:

  • Over the period of Jun. 1 to 16—97 units for Ukraine and 54 for Russia;
  • From the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive to Jun. 30—151 for Ukraine and 129 for Russia;
  • Jul. 1 to 14—193 for Ukraine and 183 for Russia.

These figures look normal, as the attacking side always suffers higher losses than the defending side. Furthermore, it is important to consider the specific equipment types lost, as in the Donetsk region, for example, many Russian UAZ SGR aka Bukhanka off-road vans are being destroyed by loitering munitions.

As estimated by the Belarusian Hajun monitoring project, the number of Wagner Group mercenaries currently in Belarus is 2 to 2.5 thousand. We still do not know what they are going to do there.

In its Telegram channel, the Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group Rusich [an openly neo-Nazi Russian volunteer unit] claims that former Wagner Group mercenaries, who have signed contracts with the Ministry of Defense, are allegedly being sent to the most dangerous areas on forward positions where they are quickly killed. Perhaps, Russian commanders consider them traitors and intend to avenge the killing of RuAF pilots that the rebels got away with. We cannot independently verify whether such a practice actually takes place or how widespread it is, but the mere existence of such rumors will have an impact on the Wagner Group.

A new video from the Crimean bridge has surfaced. As expected, an asphalt ramp has been constructed at the junction of the two offset bridge spans, where a protruding step had formed, and traffic has been resumed in reverse mode on this lane. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Development Marat Khusnullin estimated the cost of repairing the bridge at 1-1.3 billion rubles [around $11.00-14.00 million].

A Bayraktar TB2 UAV crashed and burned down on the Kinburn Spit. Some pro-Russian Telegram channels claim that it was shot down by the RuAF, but there is no evidence to support this, and the circumstances of the drone's fall are currently unknown. Photo evidence shows that the drone was carrying Baykar manufactured ammunition.

The US will soon announce $1.3 billion in military aid for Ukraine as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. According to Reuters, it will include L3Harris' Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment (VAMPIRE), Phoenix Ghost and Switchblade loitering munitions. Additionally, Ukraine will get a significant number of counter-drone systems made by Australia's DroneShield Ltd along with radars, sensors and analysis systems.

Of all the Western equipment and weaponry, the F-16 fighter aircraft will likely take the longest to arrive. However, so far, we have not seen any reports indicating that the training of Ukrainian pilots had begun. According to Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba the first F-16s operated by Ukrainian pilots could appear in the Ukrainian sky by April 2024. The Abrams tanks, on which Ukrainian soldiers are currently training in Germany, were brought only for training purposes; different machines will be supplied to Ukraine subsequently, but the exact delivery dates have not yet been announced. Judging by President Biden’s comment that Ukraine already has long-range weapons, deliveries of Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB) and ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles should not be expected soon.

The main problems of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the moment are related to a shortage of ammunition, as its rate of production is significantly lower than the speed with which Ukraine consumes it. It is also necessary to supply more armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles as these types of vehicles are most frequently lost in positional warfare and mechanized convoy assaults.