September 20, 2023

Sitrep for Sept. 18–20, 2023 (as of 11 a.m.)

Frontline Situation Update

Pro-Russian Telegram channels published a video, geolocated near the western outskirts of the village of Verbove showing fighting on the Zaporizhzhia axis. A Russian armored fighting vehicle is seen transporting troops to Ukrainian positions while firing its canon. After disembarking the soldiers, it leaves, and Ukrainian servicemen take positions in forest lines and engage in battle with Russian forces. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have not managed to advance beyond anti-tank ditches and concrete pyramids yet, but heavy fighting continues in this area.

Strikes on Ukrainian and Russian Territory

Over the past few days, Russian forces have continued to attack Ukrainian territory with loitering munitions and cruise missiles.

On the night of Sept. 19, as a result of a strike on a warehouse in Lviv, an employee was killed, and 300 tons of humanitarian aid were destroyed in the ensuing fire. Judging by how firefighters approached the fire, it was definitely not an ammunition storage facility.

Early in the morning of Sept. 20 in Adler, just south of Sochi, a fire broke out in an oil storage facility. According to eyewitnesses, it was preceded by the sound of an explosion, however no sound of a flying drone was reported. It is worth noting that due to the ban imposed on publishing information about drone attacks (with Ministry of Emergency Situations employees compelled to sign confidentiality agreements), visual data has become much less frequent.

The pro-Russian Telegram channel Fighterbomber [associated with the Russian Air and Space Force], which had previously reported on the development of UMPK [Universal Gliding and Correction Module] for use with the FAB-1500 air-dropped bomb, on Sept. 19 stated that “the most epic wonder waffles that cannot be named out loud” were hitting Ukrainian bridges. Since no other recently developed powerful Russian weapons were mentioned, it is logical to assume that Fighterbomber was probably referring to these air-dropped bombs. However, to date there has been no evidence of any strikes on bridges with such powerful ammunition.

A video has emerged showing a Russian strike with a loitering munition known as the Lancet-3M, also referred to as Item 51, on the Ukrainian Dovhyntseve airfield, Dnipropetrovsk region, which is located deep in the rear. The drone struck near a Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter aircraft, or a full-scale mock-up, with the extent of the damage currently unknown.

Russian strikes on AFU military facilities in deep rear areas remain relatively rare and likely occur due to successful reconnaissance drone sorties.

On Sept. 19, as a result of an attack on Donetsk, one person was killed, and two others were wounded.

According to Governor of the Kharkiv region Oleh Synyehubov, on Sept. 19, at least six people were killed as a result of a Russian airstrike on the town of Kupiansk. It is worth noting that it was in the Kupiansk direction that the Russian Armed Forces attempted to advance to clear the Ukrainian bridgehead on the Oskol River.

On Sept. 18, Russian forces attacked the city of Kherson and the Kherson region, resulting in two people dead and one injured. Civilian infrastructure was damaged, and there were no signs of military facilities in the vicinity based on available photographs.

Western Assistance

On Sept. 19, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York before traveling to Washington the next day. This trip, however, unfolded against the backdrop of escalating diplomatic tensions over Ukrainian grain exports to Europe.

Several European countries had previously banned the unloading of Ukrainian grain on their territories, allowing only transit. That ban expired on Sept. 15. Nevertheless, on Sept. 16, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary unilaterally reinstated the ban, prompting Zelenskyy to threaten a “civilized response” to resolve differences. Furthermore, the Polish Minister of Agriculture later stated that should the issue not be resolved, Poland will block Ukraine’s accession to the EU. He justified his stance by reminding that Poland too, when it sought EU membership, had to comply with a host of conditions, and now considered it appropriate to impose certain requirements on Ukraine. Additionally, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia decided to boycott the Brussels coordination platform on Ukrainian grain in response to Kyiv’s threat to lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Subsequently, Ukraine chose to file lawsuits against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia and announced an upcoming ban on the import of select Polish agricultural products.

Meanwhile, the Polish government spokesperson announced that starting from the beginning of next year, Ukrainian refugees would no longer receive government assistance for obtaining work permits, waiving residency requirements, and would be barred from accessing free education and healthcare.

Tensions peaked during Zelenskyy’s visit to New York, where at the UN General Assembly, President of Poland Andrzej Duda advised Ukraine to remember all that Poland had done to help it, including facilitating the transit of Western weapons through Zheshuv, before pursuing lawsuits with the WTO. It also later emerged that the Sept. 19 meeting between Duda and Zelenskyy had been canceled.

Another Ramstein format meeting is being held in Germany. As Zelenskyy and Biden are expected to meet, rumors have intensified again that the issue of supplying ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles may finally be resolved. This is important not only in itself, but also because the United States supplying these long-range missiles is considered to be a condition for Germany to supply Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missiles. The US are unlikely to be able to give enough ATACMS missiles, so these weapons will be in short supply, but the very threat that they might be used will affect Russian logistics.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said that at the moment, Ukraine needs air defense systems more than long-range missiles. This is technically true, but it is important to remember that Ukraine needs everything across the board.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has announced an upcoming military aid package for Ukraine worth €400 million, which will include, among other things, winter clothing and generators. (The UNIAN Ukrainian news portal has published an unofficial list, but we could not confirm it with English-language sources).

It is worth noting that last winter, Turkey promised to supply Ukraine with floating power plants, but we have not yet heard about their arrival.

Last week Ukraine refused to accept ten Leopard 1A5 tanks from Germany because the vehicles’ technical status was unsatisfactory. Ukraine does not have enough trained engineering personnel or sufficient quantities of spare parts to service such tanks within the country.

Rustem Umerov has been appointed Ukraine’s new Defense Minister, and as a result, all the deputies of the head of the Ministry of Defense have had to resign, including Hanna Maliar. The new Minister is expected to bring his own team.

China has introduced a two-year restriction period on the export of spare parts for drones, including those designed for civilian use. In particular, this includes motors for certain types of unmanned aerial vehicles, some operational loads, radio equipment and civilian counter-UAV technologies. Such restrictions mostly refer to UAVs weighing over 4 kg and they have already caused disruptions in the supply of some spare parts.

A video has emerged in which Russian military police solicit bribes from Russian soldiers who travel with unfastened seat belts. Such practices used to be widespread before the war and it is not surprising that they continue to flourish.

Investigation of the Tragedy in Kostiantynivka

The New York Times have published the results of an investigation in which they concluded that it was a Ukrainian Buk SAM system missile that hit the market in Kostiantynivka on Sept. 6. The NYT investigators confirmed our argument about the missile’s trajectory coming from the northwest, as seen in the video published by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as from the streak-like blast pattern left by the prefabricated fragments on buildings and on the ground, and the crater left by falling missile components. Explosives experts confirmed that the holes left on the surrounding buildings and on the ground have the same size and non-elongated shapes, indicating that they were not part of a continuous rod warhead.

It is worth noting that on the basis of these arguments, our team concluded that the most plausible scenario was the accidental hit of an AGM-88 HARM missile. Supporting this version were instances of similar missiles hitting civilian infrastructure in Donetsk and the city of Horlivka, the age of the missiles, and the complexities associated with launching them from Ukrainian military aircraft. The explanation involving the Buk missile seemed significantly less likely for us because these missiles are programmed to self-destruct when they lose their target (it is given fire directions by a ground tracking illuminator). If it did not self-destruct, we would have expected to see a crater from the impact on the ground, as is often the case with S-300 SAM system strikes on ground targets, which is what the Ukrainian side asserts happened here. In reality, however, an airburst at an extremely low altitude is what likely took place; self-destruction at such low heights seems practically impossible.

However, NYT journalists working at the missile strike location also had access to additional evidence, including photographs and remnants of the actual prefabricated fragments (which were found to be of two types), reports of anti-aircraft missile launches, and even an audio recording of one such launch. They also found distinctive traces of SAM systems deployments in fields near Druzhkivka, and satellite images helped date these deployments. Furthermore, two independent explosives ordnance disposal experts concluded that the available fragments and damage at the impact site most closely matched the 9M38 missile from the Buk SAM system.

We believe that this missile was targeting a Russian UAV. Manned aircraft do not venture this far beyond the frontline, but incidents involving UAVs are occasionally observed.

Several facts indicate that it was a Ukrainian, rather than a Russian, Buk SAM system. Firstly, the distance from Kostiantynivka to the frontline is approximately 20 km. If we add the typical distance from medium-range SAM systems to the frontline, about 10 km, it approaches  the 9M38 missile’s maximum range. Secondly, anti-aircraft-guided missiles do not maneuver in the air; their fuel capacity is only sufficient for minor course adjustments.

Due to the convergence of mutually supporting pieces of evidence, the New York Times version appears to be the most persuasive to us, despite our inability to independently verify specific facts.

Another indirect yet compelling piece of evidence for us is that in response to this article, representatives of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) are not presenting photographs of debris that would prove the official Ukrainian version of a Russian S-300 missile hit. Instead, they appear to be resorting to personal attacks, accusing the investigators of promoting pro-Kremlin narratives.

Additionally, it is worth noting that Ryan MсВeth, whose research many had compared to ours, has acknowledged his error and shared a link to the New York Times investigation.