May 20

Sitrep for May 17-20, 2024 (as of 8 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

The Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region continues. According to our sources, Russia is strengthening the Group of Troops "North," moving armored KAMAZ trucks, and 2S19 Msta-S 152mm self-propelled howitzers to the border, which we have not seen on the frontline for some time. The town of Vovchansk is less than 10 km [6 mi] from the Russian border, meaning any Russian artillery can attack the city directly from Russian territory.

On the eastern flank of the Kharkiv axis, Russian forces have captured the village of Starytsya, southwest of the previously captured Buhruvatka. Judging by the map, there is a crossing across the Siverskyi Donets River in this area, with the town of Vovchansk located on the opposite bank. It is likely that the Russian Armed Forces will try to gain a foothold there in order to be able, as they move towards Vovchansk, to cross the river and attack the flanks of the Ukrainian group in the town.

On May 18, it became known that Russian forces took over the Vovchansk Central District Hospital. On the same day the Armed Forces of Ukraine attacked the hospital, presumably with GLSDB, JDAM air-dropped bombs or AASM Hammer air-launched cruise missiles. The hospital building is located near the town center but on the right bank of the Vovcha River, closer to the border.

Ukrainian forces are also suffering losses on the Kharkiv axis. Videos have surfaced showing Russian Lancet drones attacking Ukrainian artillery, including an M777 towed 155mm howitzer, a 22S2 Bohdana 155mm wheeled self-propelled howitzer and an AHS Krab self-propelled tracked gun-howitzer.

It is worth noting that Russian attacks on the Kharkiv region were previously assumed to be a tactic aimed at diverting Ukrainian forces, particularly elite "emergency" units, from the Bakhmut and Pokrovsk directions in the Donetsk region. In our previous sitrep, we noted a slowdown in combat operations in these areas. However, the transfer of units may take longer than expected, and AFU vulnerabilities in these sectors of the frontline were not yet apparent. In recent days, the RuAF intensified assaults on Chasiv Yar, including mechanized attacks with columns of up to 20 armored vehicles. Despite these efforts, there have been no changes in the frontline. The Kraken special unit of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (GUR), operating in this direction, published a video showing Russian prisoners from the 98th Airborne Division.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have failed to occupy the Kanal neighborhood and cross the Siverskyi Donets-Donbas Canal at the point where it transitions into underground pipes. Had they succeeded, Russian forces would have been able to attack Chasiv Yar from the south as well. Despite this setback, the RuAF have continued striking the town with artillery and glide bombs. The extent of the town's destruction can be assessed from the aforementioned footage of the repelled Russian mechanized attack.

In the Pokrovsk direction, Russian forces have managed to gain almost full control of the village of Netailove. At the same time, they have still failed to completely occupy the territory between Netailove and Umanske, including Yasnobrodivka, which is shielded by water barriers. Although we expected an active continuation of the offensive to capture this area back in late April, progress has been slow. In addition, the RuAF are fighting on the outskirts of Novopokrovske in an attempt to straighten the frontline.

Despite these multiple offensive efforts, the pace of Russian progress across all sectors of the frontline, including the western flank of the Kharkiv direction, remains relatively slow. As Russian forces advance further from the border, securing supply routes becomes increasingly challenging, with Ukrainian strikes on RuAF logistics further impacting the tempo of combat operations.

While it is impossible to ascertain the extent of Russian losses on the Kharkiv axis, the intensity of the fighting appears to be decisively lower than that of the battle of Bakhmut.

We believe that Vovchansk plays a crucial role in the defense of the entire area, while the Vovcha River, running parallel to the Russia-Ukraine border, provides a natural defensive barrier. In an ideal scenario, the northern part of the town and all neighboring villages situated between the border and the river’s right bank would have been evacuated before the start of the Russian offensive, and fortifications built along the river. Similarly, in light of recent reports about Russian units amassing near the Sumy region border, it is now vital for the AFU command to avoid repeating past mistakes. Preparation for a potential offensive in that direction must include evacuating residents of border settlements and constructing defensive structures.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that for the first time since the beginning of the war, no AFU brigade had complained about shortages of artillery shells in the past two months. This statement has drawn sharp criticism from several public Ukrainian figures. Journalist Yurii Butusov has suggested that commanding officers from certain units might be reporting only positive news to the higher-ups. According to his sources, artillery units are currently supplied with 155mm shells only in specific areas, such as the Kharkiv axis. In other sectors of the frontline, these caliber shells are only available in limited quantities, preventing units from fulfilling their assigned fire missions. The situation is even worse with other calibers, with shells for counter-battery fire allocated in very limited numbers.

Ukrainian milblogger Tatarigami has confirmed that the situation with artillery ammunition remains difficult, with the Russian side still having an advantage in the number of shells fired daily. Additionally, he continues to criticize AFU Commander-in-Chief, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, particularly for engaging in "micromanagement" at the brigade level which he believes is detrimental to achieving strategic objectives.

The French newspaper Le Monde interviewed soldiers from five AFU brigades stationed in the Donbas. According to them, neither the ammunition purchased under the "Czech initiative" nor the weapons from the new US aid package have reached frontline units, and they continue to experience ammunition and equipment shortages.

Judging by statements from Ukrainian authorities, their expectations of developments on the frontline appear to vary. Not long ago, Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials predicted a second wave of mobilization in Russia and a large-scale offensive in June. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Mykhailo Podolyak, Advisor to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, stated that in "two to three weeks," Russia's dominance on the frontline would end and the situation would begin to stabilize.

In recent weeks, both sides have repeatedly reported downing enemy aircraft, without evidence, consequently, their reports did not make it into our sitreps. However, on May 18, the official account of the AFU 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade published an obituary for Ukrainian pilot Lieutenant Colonel Denys Vasyliuk, confirming one of the incidents. The date of his death is not specified; it simply says "recently," but hypothetically, it could be related to the downing of a Ukrainian Sukhoi aircraft on May 11, which was announced by Pro-Russian blogger and Russian Aerospace Forces pilot Aleksey Voyevoda the next day.

Ukrainian forces launched a missile strike on the port of Sevastopol on the night of May 19. Initially, it was claimed that the Project 266M Akvamarin (NATO Natya class) Kovrovets minesweeper had been destroyed. Later information clarified that it was the nearby Project 22800 Karakurt (NATO Karakurt class) Tsiklon corvette that had been sunk. We currently await photo, video and satellite confirmations. According to the Dos’ye Shpiona [Spy Dossier] Telegram channel, 6 servicemen of the Black Sea Fleet were killed and another 11 were injured as a result of the strike and the destruction of the Tsiklon. The sinking of the Tsiklon was also reported by the Astra Telegram channel, citing its sources. According to satellite images, a building near Kuryna quay was also damaged as a result of the strike. As we mentioned in the previous sitrep, the entire territory of Crimea is now within the range of Ukrainian missiles.

An obituary appeared for the commander of an air defense unit, Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Kulakov, who was killed in a missile strike on May 13 at Mount Ai-Petri in Crimea.

Since the beginning of the year, we, like other experts, have repeatedly stated that neither side has sufficient resources for large-scale engagements or massive offensive operations under current conditions. Therefore, we assume that this year, the emphasis will be on long-range strikes. It is now evident that in addition to drone attacks, Ukraine can now also successfully strike with ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles. Presumably, at least until the end of the summer, we will continue to observe ongoing mass attacks using UAVs. These attacks are likely to be carried out in waves, as sufficient numbers of drones are accumulated.

It is important to understand that even successful strikes do not guarantee the destruction of a target. An example of this is the strike on the oil depot in Novorossiysk on May 17: a massive fire was captured on video, but satellite images showed that only one tank was damaged as a result of this strike.

In the past five days, the Ukrainian Air Force reported it had repelled all Russian aerial attacks with drones, which might be due to the fact that the RuAF only used Shahed-131/136 UAVs and no missiles in these attacks.

Recent videos tend to confirm that Russian "turtle-tanks" equipped with make-shift slat armor and electronic warfare systems, are being successfully targeted by FPV drones with self-guiding capabilities.

Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has published an opinion piece suggesting that unless the current situation with Western support of Ukraine improves, later this year, Russia might capture Kharkiv, and next year, Odesa. Although his economic analysis is based on accurate assumptions and makes sense militarily, his conclusions appear somewhat far-fetched. The RuAF are experiencing major personnel problems, while at the same time, Russian authorities currently have no plans to launch a second wave of mobilization. Even if they did, this would not resolve the issue of the lack of military equipment. No matter how efficient a manager newly-appointed Defense Minister Andrey Belousov might be, he will not be able to significantly increase the production rate of military equipment in such a short time. Therefore, this year Russia will not be able to capture Kharkiv, nor seize Odesa in the foreseeable future.