Russian-Ukrainian war: Bakhmut keeps defending, UAVs attack the Kremlin, and Prigozhin attacks Shoigu

The situation at the front

Today, the Russian army controls most of Bakhmut, and the Ukrainian defense forces control its western part, which makes up about 10% of the city’s development. Heavy street fighting continues in the city. The Russians use heavy flamethrower systems, aircraft, and artillery. They are trying to squeeze through to the crossroads of two roads – the one leading to Khromove and the one that leads to Ivanivske. In the city, these are Yuvileina and Tchaikovskoho streets At this crossroads, the most fierce battles are taking place. Its capture by the Russians will complicate the use of the main supply routes for Ukrainian units. So far, despite the shelling, they continue to operate.

Recently, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published information that 369,000 Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, 25,600 of which are in the Bakhmut area. That is, the Russians concentrated 7% of their troops in Ukraine near Bakhmut. In addition, 65 tanks, 450 armored combat vehicles, 154 guns, and 56 MLRS are involved in this area. To explain how serious this force is, it can be said that they are larger than the armies of some NATO member countries.

Despite this, Ukrainian units continue holding the main lines of defense, especially in multistory buildings and are also counterattacking to regain control over previously abandoned positions. Now the main task of the Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut area is to hold the flanks and continue to weaken the Russian military potential there.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Land Forces, once again emphasized the importance of holding Bakhmut. “We inflict significant losses on the enemy – we destroy their most professional units, weapons, and military equipment,” he said. According to him, the further holding of Bakhmut is important for the Ukrainian defense for several reasons:

– the city is an important point of defense, the maintenance of which ensures the stability of the defense of the group of troops as a whole;

– Bakhmut is a well-placed natural fortress, which is surrounded by rivers and located on the hills, which contributes to defense;

– Bakhmut is part of the Kostiantynivka-Kramatorsk agglomeration, the maintenance of which excludes the enemy from entering the flank and rear of the groups of our troops in the Lysychansk and Donetsk directions.

Even if, despite the colossal losses, the Russians can push the Ukrainian units out of Bakhmut, this will not affect the overall line of defense of the Ukrainian troops. Outside the city, on the commanding heights, new defensive positions that will allow deterring Russian troops have already been established.

Avdiivka remains no less a hot spot than Bakhmut. The Russians in recent days have been trying to break into Severnyi and Nevelskyi. Despite the use of reserves, artillery, and aviation, they have no serious progress. Ukrainian units continue to hold the city. A similar situation is observed in Marinka, which is a reliable point of Ukrainian defense. The city is destroyed, but all attempts by the Russians to move forward come to nothing.

The situation in the Kreminna area is complicated, but the dynamics in this direction have not changed significantly in recent years. There are fights in the forestry around the city and the attempts of Russians to move forward. The weather somewhat slows down the activity of hostilities, however, artillery and aviation continue to be quite active.

Along with deterring the Russians in the above-mentioned directions, the Ukrainian forces are taking steps to prepare for their offensive operation, in particular, they are trying to weaken the enemy’s ability to support their troops with fuel and ammunition as much as possible. Attacks on Novoshakhtinsk, Ilsk, Taman, and Feodosia, which are fuel hubs, as well as on ammunition depots, are aimed at complicating the provision of Russian groups that will advance through these areas. It is likely that in the future the dynamics of such strikes will increase, and they will be carried out simultaneously in several areas so that the Russians could not determine the direction of the main strike during the Ukrainian offensive operation.

Kremlin under attack

The news: On the night of May 3, the Kremlin was attacked by UAVs. The defeat happened twice with a difference of 16 minutes. The first UAV was noticed over the Kremlin at 2.27 am Moscow time. It exploded over the Senate Palace, after which a fire broke out on the roof. The impact of the second UAV occurred at 2:43.

What they said: Twelve hours after the incident, a message was published on the Russian president’s website blaming Ukraine for the incident. “Last night, the Kyiv regime attempted a drone strike against the residence of the President of the Russian Federation at the Kremlin… We view these actions as a planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt targeting the President, carried out ahead of Victory Day and the May 9 Parade, where foreign guests are expected to be present, among others… Russia reserves the right to take countermeasures wherever and whenever it deems appropriate,” the message says.

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied Ukraine carried out an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin. “We are not attacking either Putin or Moscow; we are fighting on our territory, defending our villages and towns. We don’t even have enough weapons to do that… That’s why we didn’t attack Putin; we’ll leave that to the tribunal,” Zelensky said.

Why it’s important: Despite the Kremlin’s accusations against Ukraine, they have never provided any evidence that these were Ukrainian UAVs. Moscow, and even more so the Kremlin, are the most protected places in Russia, so if these were Ukrainian UAVs, as Russian officials claim, then the question arises: how could they easily overcome the layered air defense on the way to Moscow and in the Russian capital itself? The Kremlin’s thesis about the “assassination attempt targeting the President” is rather dubious, because if it had been an assassination attempt, it would not have been carried out in the middle of the night during non-working hours, but during the day when the chance that Putin is in the Kremlin is much higher.

On the other hand, what is the benefit to Ukraine from such UAV strikes, other than demonstrating its capabilities to carry out such actions and the imperfection of Russian air defense (which has already been demonstrated so many times)? There is also no military sense for Ukraine in carrying out such an attack.

The experts of the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW) also doubt that it could be Ukrainian UAVs. In their opinion, this is more of a Russian staging. They emphasize that Russia has recently taken measures to strengthen its internal air defense, including in Moscow itself. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that two UAVs could break through the numerous air defense circles and explode or be shot down directly over the “heart” of the Kremlin in such a way that spectacular footage could be obtained. The ISW experts also believe that if such a Ukrainian attack took place, it would be a great shame for Russia.

At the same time, the consistent and large-scale presentation of the official Russian narrative about the UAV attack may indicate that the Russians themselves staged this incident on the eve of Victory Day to once again present the war against Ukraine to Russian society as existential.

 The Kremlin sees that against the background of the stalling of its “SMO”, its support in Russian society continues to decline. The motivation of Russian citizens to become part of the Russian army and the war against Ukraine is also decreasing. Increasingly, the question is being asked: “What is it all for?” To increase the level of support for its actions in Ukraine and mobilize the population around itself, the Kremlin continues trying to thrust on Russian society the opinion that it was not him but the West who unleashed the war, that Russia is only defending, and that this war, like the World War II, is patriotic for her. Therefore, according to the Kremlin’s plan, just like eighty years ago, Russians in the face of an external threat should rally around him and give “everything for the front, everything for the victory.”

Another round of Prigozhin vs Shoigu confrontation

The news: In recent days, there has been another media activity by the owner of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. On May 5, he recorded a video message to the Russian military leadership against the background of the corpses of the Wagner mercenaries. In it, he stated that the shortage of ammunition reaches 70%, and criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. “We’re 70 percent short on ammo. Shoigu, Gerasimov, where’s the f*****g ammo? … You think that if you have depots with shells, then you are entitled to them. There are elementary calculations: if you give the norm of ammunition, there are five times fewer of them [the dead]. They came here as volunteers and are dying so you can sit like fat cats in your luxury offices. Keep this in mind,” Prigozhin said.

Later, he published another video message in which he stated that on May 10, due to lack of ammunition, he would withdraw the Wagner from Bakhmut. “I declare on behalf of the Wagner fighters, on behalf of the Wagner command, that on May 10 we are obliged to transfer positions in the settlement of Bakhmut to units of the Defense Ministry and withdraw the remains of Wagner to logistics camps to lick our wounds. I’m withdrawing Wagner PMC units because, without ammunition, they are doomed to senseless death,” said Prigozhin, adding that Wagner had fallen “out of favor with envious near-military bureaucrats.”

Shoigu’s response to Prigozhin’s accusations and ultimatums was his demonstrative visit to the military depot in the Southern Military District, where he “inspected the readiness of military equipment and weapons” that are being sent to the units involved in the war against Ukraine. With this visit, the Russian Ministry of Defense tried to show that Prigozhin’s accusations are groundless and that the Russian military grouping operating in Ukraine is being provided with everything necessary.

Why it’s important: As for Prigozhin’s words about shell hunger, they are only partly true. The daily consumption of ammunition among the Russians is indeed strikingly less than a few months ago, but Bakhmut is the sector of the front that is most saturated with fire activity. Artillery strikes by the Russians on Bakhmut are carried out with fairly high intensity. As noted in the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Wagner Group is running out of mercenaries, but not shells.

As for Prigozhin’s words about the withdrawal of the Wagner troops from Bakhmut, this, on the one hand, could be an information curtain under which the Russians want to realize some kind of their plan in this area. The fact that simultaneously with Prigozhin’s statement, the Russians, on the contrary, are trying to accumulate a certain force to still squeeze through the defense of Bakhmut until May 9, was confirmed by the Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine.

On the other hand, Prigozhin’s regular attack on the Ministry of Defense is a continuation of the confrontation between the two competing structures, signs of which have been observed more than once. By demonstrating a large number of corpses of Wagner mercenaries, Prigozhin is trying to draw a wide response, the purpose of which is not so much to increase the supply of ammunition, but to publicly shift the responsibility for the failures near Bakhmut to his competitors represented by the Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin understands that he did not fulfill the promise he made to Putin about capturing Bakhmut. Although he laid down thousands of lives of Russians there. At the same time, the Russian army did not solve the problem of Bakhmut either. Therefore, the most comfortable option for him is to leave Bakhmut, shifting responsibility to Shoigu and Gerasimov, and focus on maintaining his influence in Africa, where he is also not doing well.

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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May 2023
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