May 25, 2023

Sitrep for May 24–25 (as of 01:00 р.m.)

The Russian Defense Ministry reported that a Russian warship was attacked by three USVs in the Black Sea, 140 km northeast of the Bosphorus. A video of the explosion of one USV hit by the ship's guns has been published. Some Telegram channels incorrectly quoted the Ministry of Defense, claiming that the incident took place almost in the Bosphorus, however, we recall that (according to the Montreux Convention on the Status of the Straits) the strait is closed to Russian warships.

There was a video filmed by the 3rd Assault Brigade of the AFU showing pro-Russian soldiers (two people dragging a wounded comrade) crossing the Siverskyi Donets — Donbas Canal, which has become so shallow that it can be forded. However, it is still a challenge for mechanized units to cross it due to the rather high banks.

Prigozhin's Interview

Yevgeny Prigozhin [Russian oligarch, confidant of Vladimir Putin, and the owner of the Wagner Group] has published an interview in which he presents himself as kind of a "patriotic truth-teller," keeps criticizing the Russian Ministry of Defense for limiting the ammo supply to the Wagner Group, and concludes that at this moment, the Wagner Group is very nearly the best army in the world.

Prigozhin says that he recruited 50,000 convicts, of which about 20% have been killed in combat. Besides that, nearly the same number of mercenaries who weren't convicts have been killed in the battle of Bakhmut. Based on this data, we can conclude that the Wagner Group has lost a total of about 20,000 people killed in action (recall, a few years ago, the entire Wagner Group was 2,000–3,000 strong). The Ukrainian Army, according to Prigozhin, has lost around 50,000 KIA in Bakhmut, which is 3–3,2 times more than the losses among the mercenaries. If that's the case, the losses of the group amount to about 16,000 killed.

We do not conduct independent combat losses estimations amongst mercenaries, however, journalists and volunteers from Mediazona [independent Russian media outlet] and BBC News Russian have counted around 4,000 killed convicts using obituaries.

If we apply our methodology for calculating the total number of deaths to this data, then we would have 4,000 known names, 4,000 buried but unaccounted for, and around 2,000 missing (very likely killed but not evacuated from the battlefield) which would amount to a total of no less than 10,000 people. We acknowledge, however, that the actual number might be much higher since, in our view, it is not entirely appropriate to apply the methodology we developed for counting Russian Armed Forces losses to the Wagner Group.

Olga Romanova, Executive Director of the Rus’ Sidyashchaya [Russia Behind Bars] civil rights movement, in an answer to CIT, said that convict recruitment figures mentioned by Yevgeny Prigozhin (50,000 people) are entirely realistic. Furthermore, over the past two months the Russian Ministry of Defense has removed an additional 10,000 convicts from penal colonies. She has also noted that there still are quite a few people in Russian prisons eager to join the Wagner Group.

In his interview, Prigozhin touched upon the topic of corruption among high-ranking Russian officials and criticized the lifestyle of their children and spoke particularly harshly about Sergei Shoigu's [Russian Defense Minister] son-in-law. However, he avoided discussing Putin and his family, whose lifestyle does not significantly differ from that of other members of the Russian elite.

He also announced once again the imminent withdrawal of mercenaries from Bakhmut. On May 25, the press service of Prigozhin published a video announcing the start of the withdrawal of Wagner Group units from the town.

According to Prigozhin, the purpose of the “Bakhmut meat grinder” was to distract the Ukrainian Army as much as possible, giving the Russian Army time to conduct "partial" mobilization and prepare the personnel for combat. However, now Prigozhin expects the failures of mobilized units and states that due to this some of Wagner Group’s forces will have to remain in the Bakhmut direction.

Prigozhin sees two options for further developments, optimistic and pessimistic. The optimistic one is to fix the status quo, i.e. hold the captured territories, waiting for the Western support of Ukraine to decrease and for negotiations to begin. The pessimistic option means successful advances of well-equipped and trained Ukrainian units, which would be quite capable of reaching the borders as they were before the current full-scale invasion.

Also, Prigozhin has hinted that, in case the Armed Forces of Russia fail to hold Bakhmut, families of those killed (due to the lack of ammunition, in his opinion) may rally outside the Ministry of Defense building in Moscow, posing questions to Minister Shoigu. Prigozhin keeps attributing the capture of Bakhmut solely to the Wagner Group. This is in contradiction with a number of obituaries for paratroopers killed in the Bakhmut direction, including one dated May 2023 (note that a major contribution to the capture of Bakhmut was made by the threat of operational encirclement created owing to the advancements on the flanks). We also recall that such a progress in that direction would not have happened if Russian paratroopers hadn’t arrived outside Soledar in January.

Saboteurs Breakthrough into the Belgorod Region

An English-speaking commentator (calling himself a former tow truck operator) came up with an attempt to refute the reliability of photographs showing the stuck HMMWVs supposedly belonging to the Russian Volunteer Corps. In his opinion, the wheels of the vehicles are too clean, allegedly evidencing that the vehicles were delivered to the positions by truck. In our opinion, such appearance is quite plausible in dry weather conditions: as the rear wheels are stuck at the bottom of a trench, the front wheels are hanging in the air and rotate freely, thereby cleaning themselves.

Novaya Gazeta Europe [independent Russian newspaper] interviewed an anonymous participant of the raid, who admitted that the two lost HMMWVs belonged to the Russian Volunteer Corps. According to him, the log planking over trenches did not withstand the weight of the armored vehicles.

In our opinion, the most convincing evidence that these were actually Russian Volunteer Corps vehicles is the fact that the first photos of the lost MaxxPro MRAP vehicles, HMMWVs, and trucks with Russian Volunteer Corps markings appeared mere hours after the first news of the breakthrough. It was simply impossible to deliver vehicles received as trophies on the frontline to Grayvoron covertly and quickly. For example, a local resident filmed the evacuation of the captured MaxxPro with a Ural truck.

At a press conference with Ukrainian media, the Russian Volunteer Corps stated that the vehicles shown by the Russian Defense Ministry did not belong to the Corps but were probably obtained somewhere in Bakhmut. Spokesman for the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry Andriy Chernyak also decided to present the case this way: he allegedly does not know where the Ukrainian saboteurs got the US military vehicles, which were used to attack the Belgorod region. According to him, all delivered Western vehicles and ammunition are tracked by the Ukrainian side and Western partners down to a cartridge.

However, in the Telegram channel of the Russian Volunteer Corps, videos with Western vehicles were published, and the denial of this obvious fact puts Ukrainian officials in a ridiculous position. In our opinion, the Pentagon understood that the Corps was controlled by the AFU (and therefore received the vehicles) but turned a blind eye to it.

On the one hand, the West is displeased with the violation of the agreement not to use Western military vehicles on Russian territory. On the other hand, if we believe the claim that the Russian Volunteer Corps is not under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, officials are puzzled as to the basis on which Ukraine handed over Western equipment to this unit.

Our team believes that Western countries should not be concerned about the possibility of escalation due to the use of Western weapons against military targets on Russian territory. Most likely, this will only be followed by more empty threats.

Vyacheslav Gladkov, Governor of the Belgorod region, stated that the issue of arming self-defense units needs to be resolved within the legal framework. According to him, seven battalions with a total strength of almost 3,000 people have been training since November 2022, and they are already combat-ready and equipped. However, the question of arming them in accordance with existing legislation has not yet been resolved. It is worth reminding that these self-defense units are trained by Wagner Group mercenaries, who, despite the lack of a contract with the Ministry of Defense, are allowed to carry weapons.

A FAB-500 air-dropped bomb was found near the village of Kalinino in the Belgorod region (23 km from the Ukrainian border). These bombs are used in conjunction with the UMPK [Universal Gliding and Correction Module]. It is currently unknown whether this bomb had such a module attached to it and how long ago it was dropped.

The first 20 Ukrainian pilots will begin training on F-16 fighter aircraft in the United Kingdom. Norway will also participate in their training.

Pentagon Press Secretary Patrick Ryder announced that "approximately next week" Ukrainians would begin training on M1A1 Abrams tanks, 31 of which arrived in Germany in early May (earlier, we reported on this delivery).

The US State Department approved the sale of NASAMS air defense systems and related equipment to Ukraine for a total amount of $285 million. Several of these systems were already delivered to Ukraine near the end of 2022, and reportedly, they have proven effective in countering attacks by the Russian Armed Forces.

On May 25, another Ramstein format meeting is scheduled to take place. The discussions will focus on air defense systems, training Ukrainian pilots in operating F-16 fighter aircraft as well as on potential delivery of these aircraft.