Russian-Ukrainian war: another missile attack on Ukraine and Shoigu defeats Prigozhin

The situation at the front

According to repeated official statements by the Kremlin, the main goals of its so-called special military operation are “the liberation of Donbas, protection of its people, and the creation of conditions that ensure the safety of Russia itself.” To achieve these goals, Russia has concentrated the largest number of its troops in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are the most combat-ready in comparison with the existing groups in other directions of the front. Nevertheless, the Russian military command has been trying for more than a year, but so far has not been able to fulfill the tasks set by the Kremlin. On the contrary, it can be said that in this direction of the front, due to the effective strategic defense operation of the Ukrainian defense forces, the largest destruction of the resources of the Russian army is being carried out.

Thus, recently another defeat of the Russian group took place near Vuhledar, which for some time forced the Russians to abandon their offensive intentions. Important places in terms of the destruction of Russian resources are Mariinka (now destroyed) and Avdiivka. The first city (or rather, what’s left of it) is a symbol of the resilience of the Ukrainian forces: the Russians in this area have not been able to advance since the beginning of the war. The Russians also cannot capture the second city, so they are trying to circumvent it from the flanks.

A special place in the destruction of the resources of the Russian army is Bakhmut. In addition to the fact that this city accounts for the most losses of Russians, it also accounts for the bulk of the equipment that is sent to the combat zone to compensate for losses and restore the combat capability of units. Given the current capabilities of the Russian army to compensate for losses in weapons and equipment, it can compensate not even all, but part of the needs and only for units in the Bakhmut area. Groupings in other directions of the front are forced to be content with the remnants. This only emphasizes the problems that exist today with the supply of the Russian army.

In general, the situation near Bakhmut is quite indicative in the context of how just one city, which has been fought for the ninth month, can influence the situation along the entire front line.

Despite the abovementioned problems, the Russians do not relieve pressure on Bakhmut. Intense fighting is going on in the city and its suburbs. To impede the advance of Russian troops, Ukrainian units destroyed two critical bridges in the Bakhmut area – across the Bakhmutka River in the northeast of the city and along the Khromove-Bakhmut highway to the west of the city.

Despite the difficult situation, the withdrawal of Ukrainian units from the city has not yet taken place. Moreover, on March 6, President Zelensky held a regular meeting of the General Headquarters, at which the situation near Bakhmut was discussed. Generals Zaluzhnyi and Syrskyi spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening Ukrainian positions in the city. General Syrskyi himself, who is responsible for the defense of this direction, having once again visited Bakhmut, said that the importance of holding Bakhmut is constantly growing. “Each day of the defense of the city allows us to gain time for the preparation of reserves and prepare for the upcoming offensive operations. At the same time, in the battles for this fortress, the enemy is losing the most prepared and combat-ready part of his army – the Wagner assault detachments,” he said.

In general, given the abovementioned, we can once again state that the so-called great offensive of Russians, with their colossal human resources and quantitative advantage over the Ukrainian forces in arms and equipment, has been reduced to street battles for individual settlements, during which the resources of the Russian military machine are being actively depleted. Therefore, it is unlikely that any time soon the Russian military command will be able to report to the Kremlin on the fulfillment of its task of reaching the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Another massive missile attack on Ukraine

The news: On the night of March 9 and in the morning, Russia carried out another massive shelling of the territory of Ukraine with missiles and drones. In particular, 81 launches of various missiles were carried out: 28 launches of air-launched Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles, 20 launches of “Kalibr” sea-launched cruise missiles, 6 launches of Kh-22 air-launched cruise missiles, 6 launches of air-launched Kh-47 “Kinzhal” cruise missiles, 8 launches of air-to-surface missiles: 2 – Kh-31P and 6 – Kh-59, 13 launches of S-300 anti-aircraft guided missiles. In addition, there were 8 launches of Shahed-136/131 UAVs.

The Ukrainian Defense Forces destroyed 34 out of 48 Kh-101/Kh-555 and “Kalibr” cruise missiles, as well as 4 Shahed-136/131 UAVs. In addition, as a result of the counteraction organized by the Ukrainian forces, 8 Kh-31P and Kh-59 air-to-surface missiles did not reach their targets.

As a result of the missile attack, civilians were killed; both residential buildings and energy infrastructure facilities were damaged. There was a threatening emergency at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. In some regions and cities, there were problems with the power supply.

What they said: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky called the tactics of Russian troops to shell the civilian population “pathetic.” “The enemy fired 81 missiles, trying to intimidate the Ukrainians again, returning to their pathetic tactics. Occupiers can only terrorize the civilian population. That’s all they can do,” Zelensky said.

For its part, the Russian Defense Ministry said the strikes were in response to what Moscow called a terrorist attack in the Bryansk region last week. “In response to terrorist actions in the Bryansk region, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation delivered a massive retaliatory strike,” the press service of the Ministry said in its statement.

Why it’s important: Firstly, several features revealed by the results of this attack should be noted:

– The Russians continue to improve the tactics of combined strikes in several directions with various means of destruction;

– Despite the obvious presence of a larger ammunition load, the latest missile attack is not more extensive than the average since October 10, 2022. At the same time, this time more unique and expensive missiles were used, which so far cannot be shot down by Ukrainian air defense;

– A large variety of missiles during the latest attack may indicate that in this way the Russians are trying to complicate the work of Ukrainian air defense. Of particular note is the use of 6 X-47M2 “Kinzhal” missiles. During the last shelling, they were used as much as in the whole of 2022. Taking into account the scarcity and uniqueness of these missiles, their use was carried out precisely taking into account the understanding of the problem with the breakthrough of Ukrainian air defense;

– The effectiveness of the Ukrainian air defense continues to be at a fairly high level. It can hit most missiles, even with a massive attack.

Also, the latest missile attack on Ukraine showed an interesting situation with Russia’s missile carriers. On March 9, 10 Tu-95 bombers with 2-3 Kh-101/555 missiles per plane were deployed, instead of 8-16. This confirms the fact that the Russian military command is now trying not to overload the Tu-95s, due to the wear and tear not only of their engines but also of the airframe. Consequently, even with the maximum accumulation of ammunition, the capabilities of the aircraft do not allow the Russians to make more than an average launch of missiles.

It is also obvious that, despite the difficulties in using missile carriers at full capacity due to their obvious wear and tear, the Russian military command has not given up its plans to shell Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

Also, although the Russians experience a certain shortage of certain types of missiles, as evidenced by pauses of two or more weeks between massive shelling, the Russian military industry can still maintain an average production rate of up to 40 Kh-101 missiles and up to 20 “Kalibr” missiles per month.

Shoigu defeats Prigozhin and his Wagner

The news: On March 5, the owner of the Russian Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said that if his troops retreat from Bakhmut, then “the entire front will fall to the Russian borders, and maybe even further.” In his new video, he argues that in this case, the Russian authorities will blame the Wagnerites for the defeat, as their retreat from Bakhmut will cause a “spring effect” and Ukrainian forces will move forward.

“They will say: a group of mercenaries convinced Putin of their necessity (but in fact, we were called), subsequently, a group of mercenaries did not come to an agreement with the leadership of the state and abruptly rebounded. And then the “spring effect” worked: the tense Ukrainian army on the left and right on the flanks and in the center broke into the territory of the “LPR”, swept away Luhansk, swept away Krasnodon, broke into the territory of Russia, the army (Russian – ed.) was forced to stabilize the front and the flanks fell. The Crimea fell next, and there were many other cataclysms,” predicted Prigozhin.

He added that it is Wagner that allegedly is “the cement that does not allow the enemy to break through.” Against this background, Prigozhin was once again indignant that the Russian Ministry of Defense did not provide ammunition and weapons to his mercenaries, and demanded to solve the problem of “shell hunger”, threatening to withdraw his PMC from Bakhmut.

Later, on March 10, the news appeared that the Wagner Group opened mercenary recruitment centers in more than forty Russian cities. These are sports clubs – martial arts clubs, fighting and shooting clubs.

“Despite the colossal resistance of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we will move forward. Despite the spokes that are being put in our wheels at every step, we will overcome this together,” said Prigozhin’s press service.

Why it’s important: It is obvious that the conflict between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group has reached its finish line. Defense Minister Shoigu and his Ministry organized a real “shell hunger” for the Wagnerites. Also, he took under control the recruitment of prisoners for the front, thus depriving Prigozhin’s PMC of the main source of replenishment of human resources. Therefore, Prigozhin is forced to look for other ways to resolve the issue of “cannon fodder” for his Wagner. This explains the opening of Wagner recruitment centers based on sports clubs. It should be noted that in this matter, Prigozhin, as a prominent representative of the criminal world of the 90s, decided to follow a long-proven path: these were the sports clubs where the leaders of organized criminal groups in Russia in the 90s recruited their “soldiers”.

The “ammunition hunger” and the deprivation of Wagner of an important and relatively affordable source of replenishment of human resources is the revenge of Shoigu and Gerasimov on Prigozhin for those public humiliations of the leaders and generals of the Russian armed forces that he allowed himself when the so-called SMO was commanded by general Surovikin, and the Wagner had unlimited access to the resources of the Ministry of Defense. Everything now indicates that Shoigu and his Ministry are seriously engaged in “solving” the issue with Prigozhin and his Wagner.

And this issue is being “resolved” just near Bakhmut, where the combat potential of the Prigozhin’s PMC is being finished off. In fact, after Bakhmut, Wagner will never be the same as before, and the Russian Ministry of Defense is making every effort to ensure it.

It is important to note that based on the fact that Wagner’s “cannon fodder” in the form of prisoners is over, and Prigozhin can no longer recruit new ones, more professional mercenaries, who used to be mainly on the second line, are now forced to participate in the “meat waves” against Ukrainian positions. This is because it is no longer Prigozhin who is in command at the Bakhmut bridgehead, but the commanders of regular units of the Russian army. And now they are driving the Wagnerites to the assaults in the first line, with only one difference: instead of prisoners, the remnants of the Wagner’s professional backbone participate in the assaults. This is confirmed, in particular, by the reports of the Ukrainian military defending in Bakhmut that the professional component among the Wagnerites storming the city has recently changed significantly in terms of quality. According to them, unlike prisoners who did not even have basic combat skills and whom Ukrainian positions were pelt with, now these positions are being pelted with those who have these skills.

In general, the confrontation between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner Group, which results in the actual finishing off of the latter’s resources near Bakhmut, harms the position of Russian troops in this direction and weakens their combat potential. For the Ukrainian forces, such a confrontation between Russian power groups, on the contrary, has positive consequences, since it creates more favorable conditions for their future offensive operations.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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March 2023
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