November 20, 2023

Sitrep for Nov. 17-20, 2023 (as of 9 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

Polish military analyst Konrad Muzyka shared his impressions on the current state of the war after his trip to Ukraine on a Twitter thread. (Previously, we covered the thread of military analyst Franz-Stefan Gady, who took part in the same trip as Muzyka). Here are the main takeaways:

  • Muzyka notes that General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, uses the term "stalemate" in his essay to emphasize the end of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. He identifies September as the peak of this counteroffensive, when the AFU managed to breach the Russian defense lines around the village of Verbove. Muzyka anticipates minimal changes in the frontline until next spring, foreseeing potential ongoing smaller-scale attacks, such as squad or platoon assaults.
  • The intentional use of "stalemate" by Zaluzhnyi remains uncertain, but such a characterization holds significant political implications. Ukraine presently receives less ammunition compared to the summer, impacting the intensity of combat. Erratic ammunition supplies complicate strategic planning.
  • Zelenskyy's perspective suggests that a stalemate could prompt a freezing of the front and a withdrawal of Western military aid. This, according to Muzyka, explains the reaction of the President of Ukraine to Zaluzhnyi’s essay.
  • The analyst anticipates Ukraine shifting toward a defensive stance, emphasizing the expansion of fortifications. This strategic move aims to relieve units currently engaged in frontline maintenance, allowing them to recuperate.
  • Prospects for Ukraine in 2024 appear challenging, considering depleting Western equipment and ammunition stocks. Drones may partially offset that trend—an increase in drone production to hundreds of thousands of units yearly is projected for the coming year. To reclaim occupied territories, Ukraine must execute combined operations, leveraging aerial assaults (potentially using drones) and ground attacks (employing tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) supported by artillery. However, according to Muzyka, the AFU face significant challenges in amassing sufficient equipment (excluding drones), with contract deliveries reaching their peak approximately six months ago.
  • The complexity of combat operations is compounded by continuous round-the-clock surveillance of the frontline by both sides. For example, on one occasion when Russians tried to attack Ukrainian positions, they were hit with mortar fire 30 seconds after detection, and 3 minutes later with cluster munitions. The same thing happens when Ukrainians attack.

In our assessment, Muzyka's analyses occasionally lean towards excessive pessimism, something we observed in his commentary on the potential developments in Belarus last year. While Europe is indeed facing a depletion of its military hardware stocks, the same cannot be said for the United States. We anticipate further deliveries of Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, Stryker armored personnel carriers and possibly Abrams tanks—of which, as Zelenskyy pointed out, too few have been delivered thus far. Nevertheless, domestic political struggles in the US pose supply challenges, hindering budget approvals and the allocation of military aid to allies. This vital support remains absent in the new interim budget, but renewed efforts to coordinate a military aid package are expected by the end of November.

We share Muzyka's perspective on a pause in the offensive, considering the onset of the muddy season as a pivotal factor. Our anticipation does not foresee substantial changes on the frontline until the arrival of spring.

Initial optimism for the Ukrainian offensive was influenced by hopes for timely deliveries of western military equipment and ammunition. However, unforeseen substantial delays emerged by the end of 2022, complicating these forecasts. The inherently nonlinear nature of war makes accurate predictions exceedingly challenging.

Western Assistance

The US has promised to allocate approximately $500 million to strengthen the resilience of Ukraine's energy system. These funds are aimed mainly at meeting urgent needs, including the purchase of new transformers and recovery efforts after new Russian strikes on energy infrastructure.

Lithuania has delivered a new batch of aid to Ukraine, including generators, dry rations for soldiers and other items needed during the cold season.

Kajsa Ollongren, the Minister of Defense of the Netherlands, announced the allocation of an additional €2 billion of military aid to Ukraine. This is part of a broader package which will also include €102 million for reconstruction and humanitarian aid and which can be increased depending on Ukraine’s needs. In total, since the start of the full-scale invasion, the Netherlands has allocated €7.5 billion in aid to Ukraine.

The Great Escape

According to pro-Russian milblogger Kirill Fyodorov, Russian Ka-52 helicopter pilot Aleksey Voevoda, known for his Telegram channel, befriended a Ukrainian fighter pilot several years ago and maintained contact with him. Before his defection, the pilot held a senior position in the AFU as a flight commander. Some sources suggest that he had sided with Russia since the beginning of the full-scale invasion and was purportedly assisting the RuAF. Initial attempts to exfiltrate him took place seven months ago, with plans involving him crossing the Dnipro River on a rubber boat and rendezvousing with Special Operations Forces soldiers. Voevoda apparently negotiated his exit with the administrator of the Reverse Side of the Medal Telegram channel, also known by his Wagner Group call sign "Fidel." However, the operation failed for unknown reasons.

Sometime later, Voevoda contacted Fyodorov to organize another exfiltration attempt. Ultimately, in the early hours of Nov. 18, Voevoda claimed the operation was successful. Running with the wording of his post, "our guy made it across," many media outlets started reporting that an AFU pilot flew into Russian territory on a combat aircraft, with some writing that he had flown on a Kamov Ka-52 (Hokum B) attack helicopter, one the AFU does not possess. However, neither Voevoda nor Fyodorov ever said that the pilot had crossed the border with an aircraft.

According to "Fidel," the pilot’s family was first moved to Russia, with the pilot transported sometime later. It is possible that the pilot left Ukraine via Turkey, before flying to Russia on a commercial flight. Fyodorov and Voevoda reportedly plan to interview the pilot after he is debriefed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which may provide more evidence as to the veracity of this operation.

Despite the fact that the hijacked aircraft story is evidently fake, we believe it reasonably plausible that a senior Ukrainian air force officer may have defected to the Russian side.

Following Finland's closure of four border checkpoints near Saint Petersburg due to the suspected Russian transport of migrants from third countries (the complete closure may take place on the night of Nov. 22), Norway has expressed readiness to do the same with its border checkpoints in the event of a deteriorating situation.

Simultaneously, Estonia installed anti-tank structures, concrete pyramids, on the bridge between Narva and Ivangorod. However, the effectiveness of these measures is questionable, as they may not impede pedestrian migrants. We believe that redirecting these pyramids to Ukraine to fortify the contact line would be considerably more beneficial.

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On Nov. 18, the RuAF attacked energy infrastructure facilities in the Odesa region using Shahed-136 (Geran-2) loitering munitions, causing blackouts, with one worker of a facility injured. An oil depot was also hit, with no casualties.

On Nov. 17, the village of Zolotarivka in the occupied part of the Donetsk region was hit by a Tochka missile, no casualties were reported. On Nov. 19, near the village of Rovenki, Belgorod region, Russian air defenses shot down a Tochka-U missile. This is notable, since the Tochka and Tochka-U missiles have not been used for quite a long time. There is speculation that the AFU were able to restore missiles that were previously considered beyond repair.

On Nov. 18, footage emerged depicting a fire at a military hospital located in the town of Valuyki, Belgorod region. However, the exact nature of the fire remains unclear. As of now, there have been no subsequent reports, eyewitness testimonies or official statements from either the governor or the Russian MoD regarding the incident.

Furthermore, the MoD has once again acknowledged the RuAF are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Their official Telegram channel released footage showing a drone dropping ammunition on Ukrainian servicemen who were in the process of evacuating a wounded soldier. The caption accurately reflects the content of the video.

A video of a Russian TOR-M2 surface-to-air missile system on the Zaporizhzhia axis, taken several months ago, has been published. While its radar was on, it did not prevent a Ukrainian Shark drone from filming, and did nothing to protect it from being hit, as claimed, by an American Switchblade 600 loitering munition (neither the drone nor the moment of impact is seen on the video, however the vehicle is later seen engulfed in smoke).

A video of a strike on a Russian Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery system near the village of Chaplynka in the Kherson region has also emerged

These recordings confirm the claims of some pro-Kremlin bloggers that Russian electronic warfare, despite certain successes, still cannot cope with Ukrainian drones (we wrote about this in a previous sitrep).

Russian forces provided their "answer" to the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile with cluster munition warheads. A video has been published, allegedly showing the use of RBK-500 cluster bombs with ShOAB-0.5 submunitions. The bombs were almost certainly equipped with Universal Gliding and Correction Modules (UMPKs), as the video was geolocated near the village of Staromaiorske and Russian aircraft could have hardly reached the Ukrainian rear without fear of being hit by air defenses. It is worth noting that despite the tactical similarity of these weapons, the flight range of UMPK glide bombs is 40–60 km, which is markedly inferior to the range of ATACMS with cluster munition warheads which is 165 km.

RBK-500 air-dropped cluster bombs were last used in this war in the Odesa region on March 3 to 4, 2022—then a modification with PTAB-1M high explosive anti-tank submunitions was used.

Photos of Chinese all-terrain vehicles on the frontline in the area of Krynky, Kherson region, have emerged. Pro-Russian military correspondent Romanov reports that their purchase price is 450 thousand rubles. A report from Putin's visit to the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don on Nov. 12 shows a presentation of these ATVs. According to the info-stand description, one vehicle in the basic configuration costs 1.58 million rubles while the price of a vehicle with add-ons is 2.1 million rubles. At the moment, 537 units have been delivered and another 1,590 are planned to be purchased, meaning that a total of about 2 billion rubles could be embezzled.

The rally of relatives of mobilized soldiers in Moscow, as expected, was not approved, while the event of mobilized soldiers’ families in Novosibirsk, during negotiations between the organizers and the authorities, turned into a closed gathering. Press, except for the Vesti TV channel and the regional OTS TV channel, was not allowed at the event; relatives were searched by the police at the entrance of the premises. Witnesses reported that women were intimidated and unwilling to communicate with unaccredited journalists.

Mikhail Zvinchuk, the author of the pro-Russian Telegram channel Rybar, was awarded the Medal of the Order "For Merit to the Fatherland," second grade, for his contribution in information warfare.