March 22

Sitrep for March 20-22, 2024 (as of 9 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

Russian forces have advanced north of the village of Tonenke in the Pokrovsk/Avdiivka direction. The Russian Ministry of Defense has announced the complete capture of the village, a claim partially supported by the DeepState project, which shows Tonenke on their map as under nearly full Russian control. However, we have not found other sources confirming this. The same can be said of the nearby village of Orlivka, with only official Russian sources and DeepState indicating it as captured by Russia.

Additionally, the Russian MoD stated that Russian forces have taken control of the Alebastrova railway station east of Klishchiivka, in the Bakhmut direction. As in previous cases, DeepState is the only source confirming this information.

Monitoring changes on the frontline is becoming increasingly important, particularly amid speculations that the Ukrainian raids into Russian territory were meant to distract the Russian Armed Forces in their attempts to make further advances in Ukraine. However, we find that data on Russian progress does not support this thesis, contrary to claims made by the "Freedom of Russia Legion." We do not find that the raids have helped stabilize the frontline. President Volodymyr Zelesnkyy, for example, mentioned an improvement in the situation on the frontline before the raids even began. It is worth noting that in this context, stabilization means a slower rate of progress rather than a complete halt. Additionally, according to the "Freedom of Russia Legion," a new Russian offensive was planned in the lead-up to the "elections" and inauguration. However, we consider this statement to be closer to a rumor than actual information.

Anastasia Kashevarova, a pro-Russian propagandist, reported that additional forces were deployed to counter the sabotage and reconnaissance groups near the Russia-Ukraine border. According to her, this included a section of the Wagner Group led by deceased Andrey "Sedoy" Troshev ("Troshev's guys"), the 2nd Brigade, the Akmat unit and conscripts. These units were not permanently stationed on the frontline, thus, their relocation likely did not weaken the RuAF. Kashevarova's statement suggests that they were moved from the rear areas of the Belgorod region to the border. It is worth noting that the Russian MoD has long established a force dedicated to protecting the border, with some of its members never having previously participated in combat.

We find the Bloomberg article mentioning troop movements from the frontline, citing sources close to the Kremlin, to be untrustworthy.

Interestingly, the Russian MoD began referencing the Belgorod direction in its reports.

When comparing this military operation on Russian territory with previous offensives by the AFU, it becomes even more apparent that attacks on Russia's border regions are practically meaningless. During the summer offensive in 2023, Ukrainian forces aimed to either cut off the land corridor to Crimea or pose a threat to it. The Kharkiv offensive in 2022 led to mobilization in Russia due to the rapid advancement of the AFU. Even if there had been a successful advance on the left bank of the Dnipro River, the AFU could have complicated the supply lines of Russian troops in the Kherson region.

Even if border settlements should be captured, cutting off supply routes in Russia is not feasible due to the extensive length of the border. Additionally, the goal of the attacks was not to seize Belgorod or occupy a significant part of the region. Such an operation would not pose a serious threat to the RuAF but would require significant forces, including the use of Western military equipment, which is unlikely to be approved by allies. At the same time, Russian forces can freely strike any territory taken by their enemy using any means of attack. Consequently, these actions, coupled with violations of the Geneva Conventions, lack military significance.

Strikes on Belgorod are unlikely to complicate the political situation in Russia. As in previous cases, Russian authorities meticulously conceal what is happening and do not allow local residents to express themselves even in comments on federal channels’ social media accounts. Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov’s social media accounts feature numerous negative comments condemning federal authorities, yet these expressions yield no tangible results.

The prospect of compelling the RuAF to stop striking Kharkiv also appears unpromising to us. S-300 SAM systems are likely positioned sufficiently far from the border, and forcing the Russian air defense to use up all of their missiles for the defense of Belgorod seems to us an impossible task. We believe a more effective approach would be to neutralize Russian air defenses along the frontline, compelling the RuAF to redeploy anti-aircraft systems from Belgorod, given that frontline defense is consistently a priority. It is worth noting that Russian forces have continued to attack Kharkiv over the past week.

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On the night of March 21, Russian forces launched a massive missile attack on Kyiv, comparable in scale to a previous attack approximately a month ago. Reports indicate that 13 civilians, including a 13-year-old girl, were injured, and several apartment buildings, educational institutions and cars were damaged. According to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, the attack involved the launch of two Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles or Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, along with 29 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles. The Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed the use of Kh-47M2 Kinzhals.

According to Ruslan Kravchenko, the head of the Kyiv region State Administration, in the Kyiv region, four people were injured, at least 69 homes and 5 apartment buildings, 2 educational institutions, a medical laboratory, several cars and garden sheds were damaged.

On the morning of March 22, Russian forces launched multiple attacks on the Ukrainian power grid. According to Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko, this was the largest attack on Ukraine's energy infrastructure in recent times, and the head of Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, stated that it had been the largest since the invasion began.

As a result of the attack:

  • more than 15 strikes targeted energy facilities in the Kharkiv region, the city of Kharkiv was almost completely left without electricity;
  • in the city of Kryvyi Rih of the Dnipropetrovsk region, due to a combined drone and missile attack, critical infrastructure facilities were damaged;
  • in the Sumy region, as a result of attacks on power grid facilities, emergency shutdown schedules were introduced;
  • in the Zaporizhzhia region, missile attacks destroyed 7 residential buildings and damaged another 35, as well as the 750 kV Dneprovskaya overhead line connecting the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant with the power grid. Zaporizhzhia NPP is reported to be "on the verge of blackout." Towards the evening the power line was restored;
  • two strikes targeted the Dnipro HPP: HPP-1 and HPP-2, the dam and the power station main generator were seriously damaged, and a fire started at the station. Another missile hit a trolley bus carrying workers; the number of victims is still unknown.

At the time of this sitrep, complete details on the scale of the damage have not yet been gathered.

Putin's comment on the shelling of the Belgorod region on March 20, stating "We can respond in kind," could be retrospectively seen as an implicit threat. The massive Russian strikes on March 22 might indeed be the implementation of this threat, or possibly in retaliation for strikes on Russian oil refineries.

Additionally, strikes on Kyiv could serve the purpose of compelling the AFU to use missiles from expensive air defense systems such as the Patriot, IRIS-T and SAMP/T, thereby reducing the number available for use against Russian aircraft on the frontline.

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu recently inspected ammunition factories in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Photos taken during the visit show FAB-3000 bombs previously unused by Russian Aerospace Forces. The report does not mention whether these bombs will be used with a Universal Gliding and Correction Module (UMPK), but many pro-Russian bloggers have speculated that a corresponding modification of the UMPK would be developed for such a bomb. This hypothesis seems quite reasonable, as the use of free-falling bombs on the frontline is impossible due to Ukrainian air defense, and producing them solely for storage appears illogical. It is unknown whether these air-dropped bombs can be used with Sukhoi Su-34 strike aircraft, or if their dimensions require deployment from long-range bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-22M3, which currently launch Kh-22 (Kh-32) missiles. Furthermore, the intended targets for such large air-dropped bombs are unclear, while they could be suitable for destroying bridges, they appear excessively powerful for strikes against Ukrainian positions.

Western Assistance

The transfer of profits generated from the frozen Russian assets to Ukraine is still under debate. According to a high-ranking European diplomat, who preferred to stay anonymous, most EU countries favor using the confiscated means for the procurement of armaments and ammunition, although Hungary and Austria disagree. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer says that for his country, as a neutral state, it is unacceptable to use the money on weapons and ammunition, although it would be sensible to use it for rebuilding Ukraine.

Kajsa Ollongren, the Dutch Minister of Defense, says that the Netherlands will allocate €350 million for Ukraine, with €150 million to be spent on air-to-surface missiles for the F-16 aircraft and €200 million on state-of-the-art drones. It is not quite clear why she mentions only air-to-surface missiles and not air-to-air ones which Ukraine desperately needs to make up for the shortage of air defense. It is also noteworthy that the F-16 version to be supplied to Ukraine is quite old and their ground surveillance radars are well suited for detecting missiles over the territories controlled by the AFU and will not be so efficient in identifying Russian aircraft far beyond the frontline.

Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal says that the first shipment of ammunition obtained as part of the Czech initiative is to arrive in Ukraine as early as April. It has also been recently reported that the delivery of the US $300 million aid package for Ukraine that was announced earlier has already begun.

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton says that Ukraine has purchased 350,000 155 mm artillery rounds and nearly half of the 1 million rounds promised to Ukraine are to be delivered by the end of March.

Based on the above, there is an impression that the shortage of ammunition in the AFU should decrease in the near future, despite the absence of official statements to that effect. We believe that the resumption of ammunition supplies has contributed to stabilizing the frontline. Additionally, Shmyhal stated that mobilizing an additional 500 thousand people in the AFU is currently unnecessary due to ongoing rotation and new ammunition supplies. We believe that additional recruitment will still be necessary, but not on such a scale.

Conscription, Mobilization and Contract Military Service

During an expanded meeting of the MoD Collegium, Shoigu has announced plans to form two combined arms armies and 30 military formations, including 14 divisions and 16 brigades, by the end of the year. It is worth noting that in October 2024 Shoigu reported that an army corps, 7 divisions, 19 brigades, 49 regiments and a flotilla had already been formed. In 2024, the MoD plans to increase RuAF personnel by 170 thousand people.

For comparison, in 2023, the size of the army had already been increased by 137 thousand personnel. By the end of 2023, Shoigu reported the formation of 2 combined arms armies. However, we suspect there might be an error in his statement, as our observations indicate that only the 25th Combined Arms Army has been formed, alongside the 40th Army Corps. Additionally, according to Shoigu's statement, 50 units and military formations were created last year (4 divisions, 18 brigades and 28 regiments). This information is largely confirmed by the data we have collected. Apparently, among these new formations, units previously associated with the "DPR" and "LPR" People's Militias are also included. However, it is worth noting that after the deployment of these newly formed units to the frontline, numerous complaints from soldiers about units not being fully staffed have arisen. This suggests that the expansion of the authorized strength may have been planned based on the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev's regular statements containing unrealistic data on the number of new contract soldiers, rather than on actual numbers.

According to our estimates, fulfilling the plans announced by Shoigu for 2024 will require at least 200,000 military personnel. However, our current assessment indicates that the RuAF will only manage to recruit about 100,000 volunteer fighters this year, with a significant portion allocated to replenish losses in combat units. Despite the impossibility of achieving the desired goals without a new round of mobilization, we do not interpret the announced plans as a direct precursor to such action. It appears that the generals are instead basing their projections on Medvedev's unrealistic statements. Furthermore, regional authorities have reportedly already received new plans for recruiting contract soldiers. Thus, it is possible that by the end of the year, the goals will be achieved on paper, although the actual number of new units will be significantly lower than stated.

Some Telegram channels have reported the issuance of mobilization orders. However, as we have explained on multiple occasions, parts of the reserves receive such orders every year, and this has been a standard practice even before the war began. Consequently, the issuance of these orders does not necessarily signal the imminent start of a new mobilization wave. Additionally, with only nine days remaining until the spring conscription, executing a new wave of mobilization alongside regular conscription would present considerable challenges, and there has been no indication that the latter will be delayed.

We contend that the Russian authorities will only opt for a comprehensive second wave of mobilization if a critical shortage of contract soldiers leads to significant failures on the frontline.

In the Krasnoyarsk region, two corrective colonies are going to be closed. According to regional human rights ombudsman Mark Denisov, this "optimization" is due to the recruitment of convicts for the war. He did not rule out the possibility that other penitentiary facilities might also be shut down but expressed confidence that they would need to be reopened after the war concludes at a greater expense.

In the Vladimir region, a 19-year-old "volunteer fighter" of the "special military operation" together with two teenagers have abducted and assaulted a 17-year-old acquaintance. Local residents reported that the teenager was discovered in a serious condition in the trunk of a car and is currently hospitalized.