Russo Ukrainian War. Day 301: Zelenskyy visits Bakhmut

 

Daily review

Article by: Zarina Zabrisky

Zelenskyy visits Bakhmut on an unannounced visit. US to allocate USD 44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies. Russia’s December 19 drone attack on Ukraine was the most massive since the outset of the all-out war.

Daily overview — Summary report, December 21

The General Staff’s operational update regarding the Russian invasion as of 18.00 pm, December 21, 2022 is in the dropdown menu below:

Situation in Ukraine. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW. ~

Situation in Ukraine. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW.

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The three-hundred-first (301) day of the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people to a russian military large-scale invasion continues.
During the day, the enemy launched 3 missile strikes and an airstrike on civilian objects in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. In the city of Hulyaipole, russian aviation cynically struck the city hospital. In addition, the enemy launched more than 20 MLRS attacks.
The enemy continues to focus its efforts on conducting offensive actions in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka directions and tries to improve the tactical position in the Kupyansk and Lyman areas.
In the Volyn, Polissya, Siverskyi, and Slobozhanskyi directions, the situation has not changed significantly, and no signs of the formation of offensive groups of the enemy have been detected. Certain units of the armed forces of the republic of belarus and the russian federation continue to be located in the border areas with Ukraine.
Kharkiv Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW. ~

Kharkiv Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW.

At the same time, in the Slobozhanskyi direction, areas of Chervona Zorya, Kozacha Lopan, Vesele, Varvarivka, Starytsa, Vovchansk, Vilcha, Chernyakiv, Chuhunivka and Ambarne settlements of the Kharkiv oblast were subjected to tank, mortar and artillery shelling.
In the Kupyansk direction, fire damage was recorded in the areas of the settlements of Novomlynsk, Kupyansk, Kislivka, Kotlyarivka, Krokhmalne and Berestove in the Kharkiv oblast and Novoselivske and Stelmakhivka in the Luhansk oblast.
In the Lyman direction, the enemy does not stop shelling the areas of Makiivka, Ploshanka, Chervonopivka, and Dibrova in the Luhansk oblast.
Bakhmut. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW. ~

Bakhmut. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW.

In the direction of Bakhmut, the areas of Verkhnokamianske, Spirne, Bilohorivka, Yakovlivka, Soledar, Pidhorodne, Bakhmut, Klishchiivka,
Andriivka, Oleksandro-Shultine, Kurdyumivka, Diliivka, Ozaryanivka, Druzhba, Severnye, Zalizne and New York of the Donetsk oblast were affected by fire.
Donetsk Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW. ~

Donetsk Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW.

In the Avdiyiv direction, the enemy shelled Vodyan, Pervomaiske, Nevelske, Maryinka and Novomykhailivka in Donetsk oblast.
In the direction of Novopavlivsk, the enemy fired tanks and artillery at the areas of Vuhledar, Prechystivka, Novoukrainka, and Velyka Novosilka of the Donetsk oblast.
Kherson-Mykolaiv Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW. ~

Kherson-Mykolaiv Battle Map. December 20, 2022. Source: ISW.

On the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson directions, the settlement of Chervonohryhorivka of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, the suburbs and the city of Kherson, and the city of Ochakiv of the Mykolaiv oblast were shelled by rocket and barrel artillery. There are casualties among civilians in these settlements.
On December 15 and 16 of this year, enemy ammunition depots in the Kadiivka settlement of Luhansk oblast were damaged by fire. The detonation at these warehouses lasted more than 20 hours.
On December 20 of this year, the occupiers gathered at the field airfield in the Kakhovka district of the Kherson oblast suffered fire damage. There were about 30 units of artillery systems of various types, self-propelled guns and anti-aircraft guns, as well as ammunition and fuel and lubricants.
Detailed information on the loss of equipment and personnel is being clarified.
The occupiers organized a field hospital in the village of Novobohdanivka, Zaporizhzhia oblast. In Novotroitske, in the Kherson oblast, the russian invaders rebuilt the local hospital for the treatment of their wounded. Sick local residents were forcibly “discharged”. In this settlement, the occupiers intensified counter-intelligence measures. All this indicates significant losses of the enemy.
During the day, Ukrainian aviation carried out 9 strikes on the areas of concentration of personnel, weapons and military equipment. lso, our defenders shot down an enemy UAV of the “Forpost” type, which costs about 6 million US dollars.
Units of missile forces and artillery of the Defense Forces of Ukraine, at the same time, hit the command post and two areas of concentration of the occupiers’ manpower.

Military Updates

Shelling by Russian troops. Icelandic Data Analyst. ~

Shelling by Russian troops. Icelandic Data Analyst.

Russia’s Dec 19 drone attack on Ukraine was the most massive since the outset of the all-out war. On 19 December 2022, Russia launched 35 Iranian-made Shahed drones against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, mainly against Kyiv Oblast. 30 of them were downed by Ukraine’s air defense. The remaining drones damaged Ukraine’s energy infrastructure again, causing a blackout for 80% of people in the Kyiv Oblast, with a slightly better situation in Kyiv city.

Explosions reported in the Russian region at the Ukrainian border. In the Russian city of Shebekino, which is not far from the border with Ukraine, there were explosions, Russian Telegram channels report, as cited by Ukrainska Pravda.

Zelenskyy visits the frontline in Bakhmut on an unannounced visit.

According to British Defence Intelligence, (last 48 hours): 

Over the last week, Russian military and Wagner proxy forces have made small advances on the eastern edge of the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut. Russian infantry likely now has a foothold in the eastern industrial areas of the town, and at times has advanced into the residential district of the city. Street fighting is ongoing.

Intense combat has occurred in the Bakhmut sector since June 2022, but the front lines have primarily been in open country around the eastern approaches to the town.

The war has seen little protracted, large-scale fighting in built up areas (FIBUA) since the Russian advances into Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in July 2022. With FIBUA demanding highly trained infantry with excellent junior level leadership, this type of combat is unlikely to favour poorly trained Wagner fighters and the Russian army’s mobilised reservists.

Losses of the Russian army 

Losses of Russian Army. Source: Ukrinform. ~

Losses of Russian Army. Source: Ukrinform.

Humanitarian 

Leading the recitation of the Angelus prayer,  Pope Francis asked thousands of people to join him in St. Peter’s Square to pray for peace in the Caucasus region, in Peru and, of course, in Ukraine.

Environmental

Ukraine and EU start a program to change 50 million old incandescent lamps for LED lamps to save electricity. The program for the free exchange of incandescent lamps for LED lamps is scheduled to begin on 1 January 2023 in Ukraine. It will contribute to the decrease of energy consumption in Ukraine due to the Russian attempts to destroy Ukraine’s energy system with missile attacks. The program was announced by Ukraine’s Minister of Economy Yulia Svyrydenko on TV.

Legal 

US congressmen introduced a resolution calling to expel Russia from the UN Security Council. Congressmen Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, the Co-Chairman and Ranking Member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, introduced a resolution stating that Russia’s presence on the United Nations Security Council “violates the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

Ukraine to prove Russia’s illegal presence in the UN Security Council. The head of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, announced at an online briefing on Tuesday that Ukraine is preparing official steps to prove Russia’s illegal presence in the UN Security Council.

Terror against Crimean Tatars in Russian-occupied Crimea. The Russian FSB has staged new armed searches and effective abductions in occupied Crimea, with the targets members of one Crimean Tatar family. No explanations were provided on 19 December, nor four days earlier when Russian enforcement officers turned up at the home of another Crimean Tatar.  Such tactics are almost certainly aimed at intimidating Crimean Tatars, but may unfortunately also be part of the FSB’s use of torture in fabricating prosecutions in Crimea.

Support

US to allocate USD 44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies. Negotiators in the US Congress unveiled a $1.7 trillion government funding bill. Included in the bill is $44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies, Reuters reports. Another $40.6 billion are to assist communities across the US recovering from natural disasters and other matters.

New Developments 

Deputy head of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service suspended after “explosive” gift to a Polish general. The deputy head of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine was temporarily dismissed. The investigation was opened in Ukraine after a grenade launcher he gifted to his Polish colleague exploded in the cabinet of the head of Polish Police general J. Szymczykowi.

Ukrainian doctors conducted surgery on kidneys using the robot Da Vinci powered by a generator.  Ukrainian doctors conducted surgery on kidneys using the robot Da Vinci for the first time in Ukraine. They had to use a generator because of Russian attacks on the Ukrainian power grid. However, this didn’t have impact on the result. Doctors of St. Nicholas hospital in Lviv successfully treated vascular defect in the kidneys of an 8-year-old girl Maryna, Life Pravda writes.

Two Italian journalists were attacked by Russian forces in the south-Ukrainian Kherson. Two Italian journalists, Claudio Locatelli and Niccolò Celesti, were attacked by Russian forces in the south-Ukrainian Kherson, Italian outlet ANSA reported, referring to the video of journalists.

“Very high” risk of Russian invasion in 2023 – Moldova’s Head of ISS. European Pravda reports that the head of the Information and Security Service of Moldova (ISS), Alexandru Mustiata, believes that Russia may invade Moldova in 2023, but this will depend on the events in Ukraine.

Assessment 

  1. On the war. 

The Institute for the Study of War has made the following assessment as of  December 20, 2022:

Intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus is degrading Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s maneuver room to avoid making concessions to the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long game to reestablish suzerainty over Belarus is making progress separate and apart from Putin’s efforts to get Belarus more actively involved in his invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenko confirmed that Russia “gave” Belarus an unspecified number of S-400 air defense systems during his meeting with Putin in Minsk on December 19, confirming ISW’s 2021 forecast that Russian-made S-400 systems would begin operating in Belarus.[1] Lukashenko had previously rejected S-400 systems operating in Belarus in 2020.[2] Lukashenko is likely delaying acceding to Putin’s larger demands – such as committing Belarusian forces to join the invasion against Ukraine – by making smaller concessions that he has stonewalled for years.

Russian military personnel will likely operate the Belarus-based S-400 systems. Russian personnel may operate the S-400 systems from the so-called joint Russian-Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense Forces training center in Grodno, Belarus – a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus that the Kremlin established in the spring of 2021.[3]

ISW continues to observe indicators consistent with the most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a renewed Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.[4] Ukrainian military officials continue to warn about a growing Russian threat from Belarus. Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Serhiy Nayev stated on December 20 that Russian elements in Belarus have military potential “currently sufficient” to create an unspecified threat to Ukraine and that these elements can conduct unspecified “tactical actions.”[5] Nayev’s statement marks an inflection in Ukrainian officials’ characterization of the growing Russian forces in Belarus; previous Ukrainian descriptions of Russian forces in Belarus did not ascribe to them tactically significant capacities.[6] Independent Belarusian sources continue to report growing Russian mechanized forces in Belarus.[7] About 30 Russian T-80 tanks were reportedly deployed to Belarus around December 20.[8]

These indicators support the MDCOA forecast, but that course of action remains unlikely at this time. A Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus is not very likely imminent. Nayev reiterated that Ukraine’s defense is prepared to defend northern Ukraine.[9] The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated that it has not observed Russian forces forming strike groups in Belarus as of December 20.[10] ISW will continue to monitor the situation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s frontline visit to Bakhmut on the 300th day of war is undermining an ongoing Kremlin information operation intended to present Russian President Vladimir Putin as an involved war leader. Zelensky made a surprise visit to Ukrainian troops serving on the intense Bakhmut front on December 20 and presented awards.[11] In contrast, Putin held a senior-level award ceremony where he celebrated Russian occupation and Kremlin officials such as proxy leaders from occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, and Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov among other state officials.[12] ISW has previously assessed that Putin has intensified his efforts to extricate himself and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) from persistent criticism by making public appearances relating to various undertakings aimed at improving the Russian war effort. This award ceremony further indicates Putin‘s fixation with presenting himself as an involved wartime leader.[13] Putin likely seeks to deflect blame for Russian military failures in Ukraine by maintaining a façade that paints Putin in a positive light but absolves him of responsibility for the war.

Putin’s decision to award members of his circle who have not even been directly involved in fighting in contrast with Zelensky’s visit near the front lines in Bakhmut sparked some criticism among Russian nationalist voices. A former Russian militant commander and critical voice in the Russian information space, Igor Girkin, noted that Putin is awarding “his heroes in the Kremlin” but not Russian and proxy servicemen who are engaged in combat on the frontlines.[14] Other milbloggers speculated that the Kremlin made a secretive political decision for a Russian ceasefire, allowing Zelensky to walk around Bakhmut.[15] Another milblogger reiterated that Putin had not visited the occupied territories and stated that Russian forces would not be able to effectively conduct a precision strike in time against Zelensky.[16]Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut upstaged Putin’s efforts to establish himself as a wartime commander-in-chief and turned Putin’s own information operation into an embarrassment even within parts of the pro-war Russian information space.

Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin further undermined Putin, possibly inadvertently, within the Russian information space by attempting to boost his standing against the backdrop of Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut. Prigozhin published a series of videos claiming he arrived at the frontlines near Bakhmut to speak to Zelensky regarding the control of territories in the area.[17] Prigozhin’s “offers” to negotiate with Zelensky are neither serious nor authoritative, since he does not hold any official position in Russia. Prigozhin, however, continues to pose as a prominent political and military figure in Russia. Such farcical comments are likely a response to Zelensky‘s repeated offers to negotiate directly with Putin after Russia withdraws its forces from Ukraine. Prigozhin’s appearance on the frontline further weakens Putin’s presentation of himself as a wartime leader, since Putin has not even visited Russian-occupied territories, let alone gone anywhere near the front lines. Social media users additionally exposed that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu did not actually visit the frontlines on December 17 – as he claimed – by geolocating the videos the Russian MoD posted of Shoigu‘s trip in Armyansk, Crimea.[18] While Prigozhin did not directly criticize Putin for his inability to directly address Zelensky or arrive on the frontlines, his and Zelensky’s visits to the frontlines threaten to make Putin’s posing as a wartime commander in chief humiliating rather than effective.

The Kremlin’s efforts to improve the reputation of the Russian MoD may have prompted Prigozhin to double down on his efforts to legalize Wagner in Russia. Russian state media outlet RT – likely affiliated with Wagner – published a 10-minute report on Wagner describing Prigozhin’s establishment of the paramilitary organization as an attempt to support “Russian interests” and defend the “Russian world.”[19] Such a portrayal suggests that Prigozhin is trying to rid Wagner of the mercenary stigma and instead re-introduce the group as a legitimate military formation in Russia that supports Russian national interests. RT also introduced prominent Kremlin officials like the Chairman of the Fair Russia – For Truth Party Sergey Mirnonov who criticized the Russian government for not seizing the initiative to recognize Wagner troops’ ”heroism” in Ukraine or granting Wagner official status under Russian law. Private military companies such as Wagner are notably illegal in Russia.  The RT report also supported a long-standing ISW assessment that Prigozhin is strategically growing his influence on the Russian internet, noting that the newly-opened Wagner Center in St. Petersburg is a working space for “patriotic” media outlets and bloggers to resist the information war against Russia. Prigozhin will likely continue his efforts to establish himself and his Wagner Group in Russia by promoting himself on Telegram and Wagner-affiliated media, which may further diminish the Kremlin’s attempts to minimize criticism of its defense leadership.

The Kremlin will likely continue efforts to portray Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as effective leaders of the war in Ukraine when Putin holds the Russian MoD board meeting on December 21. The Kremlin press service announced on December 20 that Putin will hold an expanded version of the Russian MoD board meeting on December 21, which will reportedly include a summary of the activities of the Russian Armed Forces in 2022 and a setting of tasks for the Russian military in 2023.[20] The Kremlin press service announced that Russian Defense Minister Shoigu will deliver the main report on the progress of the “special military operation” in Ukraine at the meeting.[21] The Kremlin press service stated that the commanders of military districts and services of the Russian Armed Forces, the heads of central military authorities, and representatives of federal executive bodies will attend the expanded meeting.[22] The Kremlin press service also stated that 15,000 Russian military officials will attend the meeting via video conference.[23]  Putin is likely holding a larger-than-usual Russian MoD board meeting to present the Russian military as an organized and formidable fighting force and to demonstrate that his control over that force remains unquestioned despite its pronounced military failures in its invasion of Ukraine. Shoigu will likely deliver a main report on the war in Ukraine that minimizes the Russian MoD’s responsibility for failures at the front and offers an optimistic forecast for what Russian forces will be able to achieve operationally in Ukraine in 2023. The Kremlin will likely publicize aspects of the event to augment the Kremlin’s continuing efforts to present Putin and the Russian MoD as competent managers of the war in Ukraine and to shield Putin and the Russian MoD from the criticism of the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.[24] The event shows that Putin is taking increasing pains to surround himself with military uniforms, possibly hoping to evoke recollections of Joseph Stalin engaging with the Soviet STAVKA during World War II and to separate himself from the famous pictures of Putin separated by a very long table from Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian pressure against Belarus is degrading Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s maneuver room to avoid making concessions to the Kremlin.
  • ISW continues to observe indicators consistent with the least likely but most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a renewed Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut undermines an ongoing Kremlin information operation to present Russian President Vladimir Putin as an involved war leader.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin undercut Putin’s efforts to portray himself as a wartime leader within the Russian information space, possibly inadvertently.
  • The Kremlin’s efforts to improve the reputation of the Russian MoD may have prompted Prigozhin to increase his efforts to legalize Wagner Group in Russia.
  • The Kremlin will likely continue efforts to portray Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as effective leaders when Putin holds an expanded annual Russian MoD board meeting on December 21.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
  • Russian forces are expanding defensive fortifications on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • A Kremlin official deflected questioning surrounding a Moscow Oblast military recruitment officer’s December 17 claim that Russian authorities will extend the service period for conscript soldiers.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Russian security services intensify their efforts to counter pro-Ukrainian partisan activity.

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