March 18

Sitrep for March 15-18, 2024 (as of 9:30 a.m. UTC+3)

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On March 15, Russian forces launched two consecutive strikes, or double-tap, on Odesa using Iskander short-range ballistic missiles. The first strike hit civilians, while the second targeted arriving first responders. The attack resulted in the deaths of 21 people, including two rescuers and one paramedic, with 75 others sustaining injuries. Photographs from the scene show evidence of prefabricated shrapnel impacts on building walls and an ambulance, suggesting the use of a cluster munition warhead. This attack can be categorized as a war crime, both for the indiscriminate use of weapons leading to civilian deaths and for the deliberate second strike manifestly aimed at inflicting maximum damage on first responders.

Ukrainian Sabotage and Reconnaissance Raids on Russian Soil

As we suspected, the humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of civilians, announced by the “Russian Volunteer Corps,” actually referred to a ceasefire regime, which was indeed implemented by the night of March 15.

The strategic goals of the raids on Russian territory remain unclear. According to the international Russian-language online media outlet Meduza, similar to the raids that took place in 2023, the goals of these incursions is to draw ground forces away from the frontline and towards border regions. A goal that has reportedly been achieved, as forces have been redeployed to repel these attacks. However, we have not seen any evidence of troop movement from the frontline towards the Russia-Ukraine border, nor confirmation that the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been able to exploit this redeployment of troops, which would inevitably weaken Russian forces in any direction of the Ukrainian front.

As far as we can see, a group of troops covering the border is repelling the attacks, and the advancing units are being fired upon by the same artillery and aircraft that are usually used for strikes on the territory of Ukraine, including the city of Kharkiv.

On March 16, the “Russian Volunteer Corps” announced the capture of Russian soldiers. One video shows a Russian serviceman, Aleksey Kolotov, whose identity was confirmed by journalists from the Astra Telegram channel. According to his mother, he is a contract soldier who served in the Belgorod region.

We have no doubt that the “Russian Volunteer Corps,” “Freedom of Russia Legion” and the “Sibir Battalion” conduct their raids in coordination with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. However, we have no information on which Ukrainian unit is actually carrying out strikes on the border areas.

Contrary to what has been stated, we have not seen any of the reported strikes “on military facilities” (except for a drone strike on the Federal Security Service (FSB) administration building in the Belgorod region). Attacks on cities, towns and villages in the border regions of Russia are more reminiscent of retaliations—an attempt to subject these localities to the same suffering that the Russian Army inflicts on Ukrainian populated areas. The use of MLRS in urban areas is more likely to cause chaos and panic among the local population than to achieve military goals. We believe that if there was information about the location of military facilities, the “Russian Volunteer Corps” could minimize civilian casualties by using UAVs against them, however, after the already mentioned drone strike on the FSB administration building on March 13, there were no reports of UAVs in Belgorod until March 16 when a kamikaze drone hit a civilian vehicle near the border with Ukraine, injuring five people.

On March 16, during the strike on Belgorod, rockets hit courtyards, residential buildings and a moving truck killing the driver, the truck then crashed into a city bus. Two people were killed in total, while three were injured. On March 17, a 16-year-old girl was killed and her father was seriously injured when their house was hit. During the second strike, one person was killed and 11 others were injured.

On March 18, as a result of a hit on a home in Nikolskoye, Belgorod region, at least two more people were killed and at least four were injured. After the strike, residents discovered what were allegedly unexploded cluster submunitions. Several more people were injured during another strike on Belgorod. In addition, throughout these days, border areas, especially the Grayvoronsky district, were hit.

Some commentators noted that, on the video of a rocket hitting a residential building courtyard, the moment of explosion resembled the detonation of an explosive device placed under the car. However, comparing frames before and at the moment of impact, the latter shows the blurred contour of a rocket and damage to the car.

We have examined photographs showing fragments of defensive (green) colored rocket projectiles, which are not typical for Soviet and Ukrainian ammunition. Such coloring is characteristic of Serbian ER Grad 2000 rockets and Slovakian JROF HEF missiles, which the AFU can launch from both BM-21 Grad MLRS and RM-70 Vampire MLRS. Despite these impacts, we have not found evidence indicating that the projectiles were intercepted by air defenses.

In our analysis, we agree with the OSINT analyst Def Mon, who considers the loss of military equipment, including items of considerable value, during these attacks as unjustified in the absence of clear military objectives and without significant results achieved.

It is too early to judge whether these events will lead to the redeployment of Russian ground forces to the border, but past experience suggests that such a possibility is unlikely.

Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian territory, particularly on oil infrastructure, continue. On March 16, oil refineries in Syzran and in the Samara region were attacked. On March 17, a group of drones attacked an oil refinery in Slavyansk-on-Kuban in the Krasnodar region, causing multiple explosions and a subsequent fire. One employee of the facility died from a heart attack during the incident.

According to experts, these strikes may not directly influence the course of the war since the targeted plants produce gasoline and diesel fuel in roughly equal proportions. However, diesel fuel is produced in excess, with half of it being exported, which could lead to a shortage of gasoline due to the attacks. Given that frontline equipment mainly consumes diesel fuel, authorities may opt to reduce exports. Nevertheless, the area susceptible to Ukrainian drone strikes has increased by 75,000 square kilometers [29,000 sq mi].

The Telegraph, without specifying its sources, claims that Ukraine may run out of anti-aircraft missiles for air defense systems by the end of March.

On March 17, Russia announced the downing of a Ukrainian helicopter near the village of Lukashivka in the Sumy region, close to the border with Russia. As proof, Russia provided a video of very poor quality. Initially, VGTRK correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny claimed that the helicopter was a UH-60 Black Hawk, then he said it was a Mil Mi-24 and later changed it to a Mil Mi-8.

The Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence provided a video confirming that both Black Hawk helicopters that had been delivered to Ukraine are intact and operational.

On the same day, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that a Ukrainian aircraft-type UAV was discovered and destroyed in the Kupiansk direction by a helicopter crew. However, since UAVs do not have liveries like manned aircraft, it is unclear how the crew determined it was Ukrainian. In addition, the video provided as “proof” shows the helicopter crew firing assault rifles without visibly hitting the target. Therefore, there are reasons to suspect that this video might be staged.

In recent months, we have repeatedly reported on the production and use of modified FAB-1500 air-dropped bombs equipped with Universal Gliding and Correction Modules (UMPKs). On March 16, an unexploded bomb of this type was discovered near the town of Selydove in the Donetsk region.

In the fall of 2023, an attempt was made to divide the remnants of the Wagner Group into two units, with one subordinated to the Russian MoD and the other to Rosgvardia [the Russian National Guard]. The VChK-OGPU Telegram channel, citing sources, reported that the commander of the second group, Anton Elizarov with the call sign "Lotus," was only able to recruit about 200 people before the project was closed by order of the Head of Rosgvardia Viktor Zolotov.

Researchers Ilya Barabanov and Denis Korotkov are releasing a book called "Our Business is Death," which tells the full story of the Wagner Group.

Another OSINT project is shutting down. Rochan Consulting analyst Konrad Muzyka has announced the closure of the Ukraine Conflict Monitor. The reason is understandable: waning public interest in the ongoing war, resulting in a decline in subscribers. According to Muzyka, the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be decided this year.