Sitrep for May 19–22 (as of 09:30 a.m.)
The Situation on the Frontline
The main news of recent days was the announcement of the complete capture of Bakhmut made by Yevgeny Prigozhin [Russian oligarch, confidant of Vladimir Putin and the owner of the Wagner Group] on May 20 in his new video, filmed against the backdrop of the railway station (recording video on the freshly captured western outskirts of the town could be too dangerous). In addition, he announced that the Wagner Group would no longer carry out offensive operations (even taking into account the problems that the RuAF are experiencing on the flanks of Bakhmut), but, having prepared fortifications and transferred positions in the town to the Russian Ministry of Defense by May 25, would gradually withdraw from Bakhmut for reformation, re-equipment and rest. Later, Prigozhin clarified that not a single mercenary of the Wagner Group would have remained in Bakhmut by Jun. 1.
We are skeptical about the statement about the withdrawal of the Wagner Group from Bakhmut, as the Russian Ministry of Defense hardly has any alternative to replace it with (except for mobilized soldiers, who are unlikely to be able to resist the Ukrainian counteroffensive). Such actions of Prigozhin are attributed to his unwillingness to be responsible for a possible failure in the Bakhmut direction during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
On the evening of May 20, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the capture of Bakhmut, and later Vladimir Putin congratulated the Wagner Group and the Ministry of Defense on this event saying that all those who managed to distinguish themselves would be presented with state awards. It is almost the first time when the president has recognized that the Wagner Group performs combat missions on the frontline.
The Ukrainian side denies the capture of Bakhmut. According to Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Maliar, Ukrainian soldiers continue to control industrial facilities and the single-family residential neighborhood in the area of the MiG-17 aircraft monument (i.e. where the monument used to be). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated the same, saying that Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut are carrying out a very important mission (for security reasons, the location is not specified). Commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi also mentioned that there are still Ukrainian soldiers on the western outskirts of the town and furthermore noted that the AFU is approaching the tactical encirclement of Bakhmut. On May 21, the 3rd Assault Brigade of the AFU reported advancing near Bakhmut in the area of the Siverskyi Donets — Donbas Canal in a section 1,700 meters in length and 700 meters in depth.
On May 20, Pyotr Verzilov [Russian activist and a founder of the Mediazona independent Russian media outlet] published a video of urban combat in Bakhmut. We assume that it was uploaded several days after the recording to avoid drawing Russian artillery fire onto Ukrainian positions.
Julian Röpcke, a Bild columnist, discovered videos showing Russian flags being raised on the western outskirts of Bakhmut, leading him to conclude that the town had been captured. But it should be noted that the presence of a flag in a particular area does not always indicate full control by those who raised it.
There have been no videos confirming the complete capture of Bakhmut by the Wagner Group, i.e., footage filmed on the western outskirts of the town demonstrating that fighting is no longer taking place. However, there are also no videos filmed within the town limits by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Therefore, we cannot definitively confirm or refute Prigozhin's statement.
The capture of Bakhmut itself doesn't affect the frontline, since the Bakhmut direction makes up a small part of it. The roads to Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka run from the town. After the complete capture of Bakhmut, the difficult situation on the flanks near the town will prevent the Russians from freely advancing west.
Ukrainian forces attacked Russian-occupied Berdiansk using four Storm Shadow cruise missiles and two decoys. According to reports, an airport was targeted, but there is no confirmation or information on the scale of destruction at this time.
As a result of Russian attacks on the Kherson, Donetsk and Kharkiv regions five civilians were killed and at least four civilians were wounded. In Beryslav, Kherson region, a residential building was hit in an airstrike. In the Zaporizhzhia region, nine civilians were injured as a result of attacks.
Journalists from Mediazona and BBC News Russian, in collaboration with volunteers and based on open sources, have been able to confirm the deaths of 23,286 individuals who fought on the Russian side. The most significant group among the deceased (over four thousand individuals) remains convicts recruited into the Wagner Group.
The relatives of draftees from Russia's constituent Republic of Khakassia, the Altai and the Kemerovo regions recorded a video. According to them, the men were "bought out" by the 60th Veterany [Veterans] Separate Motorized Rifle Battalion at 25,000 rubles [USD 310] per fighter. They were brought to the "DPR" and sent to storm Ukrainian positions in the Bakhmut direction, where they were killed en masse.
Deliveries of Western Military Equipment
During the G7 summit, US President Biden announced that the United States will allow other countries to transfer F-16 fighters to Ukraine and will also commence training Ukrainian pilots. Previously, it was reported that retraining on the F-16 fighter jets would take about four months, so it can be estimated that these aircraft could be deployed by the AFU as early as fall 2023.
Biden stated that he received guarantees from President Zelenskyy that F-16 fighter aircraft would be used for strikes only within the territory of Ukraine. When commenting on the Russian Foreign Ministry's statement that the delivery of F-16s poses a colossal risk, he joked that it indeed carries risks, but for Russia.
Jake Sullivan, United States National Security advisor to President Joe Biden, noted that the United States does not limit Ukrainian forces in using US weapons to strike targets in Crimea, since the entire Western world does not recognize Crimea as part of the Russian territory.
Italian media report that Italy may have secretly delivered a shipment of B1 Centauro wheeled tank destroyers to Ukraine.
The United States announced additional security assistance to Ukraine valued at up to $375 million. It will include:
- Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
- 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds;
- Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles;
- Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems;
- Laser-guided rocket system munitions;
- Demolition munitions;
- Armored bridging systems;
- Armored medical treatment vehicles;
- Trucks and trailers to transport heavy equipment;
- Logistics support equipment;
- Thermal imagery systems;
- Spare parts and other field equipment.