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Russo-Ukrainian War. Day 453: Critical situation in Bakhmut

Article by: Zarina Zabrisky

Ukraine maintains control over a small portion of Bakhmut – Ground Forces Commander. Ukrainian forces keep advancing on flanks around Bakhmut. US announces new USD 375 million aid package for Ukraine.

https://twitter.com/EuromaidanPress/status/1660390507799797761

Daily overview — Summary report, May 22

The General Staff’s operational update regarding the Russian invasion as of 18.00 pm, May 22, 2023 is in the dropdown menu below:

Situation in Ukraine. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.

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The four hundred and fifty-third day of large-scale armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine has begun.
On the night of May 22, 2023, Russian invaders attacked military and infrastructure facilities in the city of Dnipro.
The attack was carried out by 16 missiles of various types and 20 strike UAVs of the “Shahed” type.
In general, the enemy released:
– 4 Kh-101/Kh-555 air-launched cruise missiles from Tu-95ms strategic bombers from the Caspian Sea region;
– 5 Kh-22 cruise missiles from Tu-22m3 long-range bombers from different directions – the Sea of Azov and the Kursk region;
– 2 “Iskander-M” ballistic missiles from the temporarily occupied Crimea;
– 5 S-300 anti-aircraft guided missiles from the temporarily occupied territory of the Zaporizhzhia region;
– 20 “Shahed” strike drones from the south and north.
During the night attack on May 22, four Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and 20 Shahed attack drones were destroyed by air defense forces and means.
During the past day, the enemy launched 6 missile and 52 air strikes, carried out 65 attacks from rocket salvo systems. Private residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure were destroyed and damaged. For strikes on the Ukrainian cities of Lyman, Sloviansk and Kostiantynivka, the enemy again used S-300 air defense systems, which are not high-precision weapons. This once again emphasizes the terror tactics of the Russian Federation.
The probability of launching missile and air strikes on the entire territory of Ukraine remains very high.
The enemy continues to concentrate its main efforts on the Kupiansk, Lymansk, Bakhmutsk, Avdiivsk and Marinsk directions. During the past 24 hours, 37 combat clashes took place on the specified areas of the front. Bakhmut and Mariinka are at the epicenter of hostilities.
On the Volyn and Poliske directions, the operational situation has not changed significantly.
Luhansk Battle Map. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.
In the Siverskyi and Slobozhanskyi directions, the enemy continues to maintain a military presence in the areas bordering Ukraine, hostile sabotage and reconnaissance groups operate in some areas of the state border. During the past day, the invaders shelled the settlements of Mykolaivka, Chernihiv region, with mortars and artillery; Progress, Studenok, Bilokopytove, Vovkivka, Volfine, Zapsilya and Mykhailivka in the Sumy region, as well as Udy, Graniv, Zelene, Staritsa, Ohirtseve, Gatyshche, Pletenivka, Vovchansk, Nesterne and Budarky in the Kharkiv region.
In the Kupyan direction, the enemy does not stop trying to improve the tactical position. During the day, he conducted unsuccessful offensive actions in the area of Masyutivka. Kamianka, Kolodyazne, Krasne Pershe, Petro-Ivanivka, Figolivka, Novomlynsk, Zapadne, Monachynivka, Masyutivka, Tabaivka, Berestovka in the Kharkiv region and Stelmakhivka in the Luhansk region came under artillery and mortar attacks.
Donetsk Battle Map. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.
In the Lymansky direction, during the past day, the enemy carried out offensive actions in the direction of Ivano-Daryivka, without success. Airstrikes in the Nevsky district. Makiivka, Nevske and Bilogorivka in the Luhansk region and Torske, Verkhnokamianske and Spirne in the Donetsk region were hit by artillery fire.
Bakhmut Battle Map. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.
In the Bakhmut direction, the enemy continues to conduct offensive actions. Battles for the city of Bakhmut continue. During the past day, the enemy unsuccessfully tried to restore lost positions south of the settlement of Ivanovske. In addition, he led offensive actions in the direction of Hryhorivka, but was unsuccessful. He carried out airstrikes in the Bakhmut and Ivanivsky districts. Vasyukivka, Orikhovo-Vasylivka, Markove, Ivanovske, Stupochki, Bila Gora, Toretsk and New York of the Donetsk region were affected by enemy shelling.
In the Avdiivka direction, the enemy carried out unsuccessful offensive actions in the direction of Avdiivka and Pervomaisky. During the day, he carried out an airstrike in the Avdiivka area. Novokalynove, Berdychi, Stepove, Avdiivka, Severne, Pervomaiske, Karlivka and Nevelske of the Donetsk region came under enemy artillery fire.
In the Marinka direction, units of the defense forces continue to repulse enemy attacks in the Marinka area. The enemy carried out airstrikes near it and in the Novomykhailivka area. At the same time, Georgiyivka, Pobyeda and Novomykhailivka of the Donetsk region came under enemy shelling.
The enemy did not conduct offensive operations in the Shakhtarsky direction. At the same time, he used aviation for strikes near Vodyanyi, Vugledar, Prechistivka, Zolotaya Niva, and Velika Novosilka. He carried out artillery shelling of Vodyane and Vugledar settlements.
Zaporizhzhia Battle Map. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.
The enemy is defending in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson directions. It does not stop destroying the infrastructure of settlements that are next to the line of combat. During the past day, airstrikes were carried out on Novodanilivka and Stepovoy in the Zaporizhzhia region and Stanislav and Kizomys in the Kherson region, and also shelled the settlements of Vremivka, Burlatske, Novosilka, Zelene Pole, Novopil in the Donetsk region; Olhivske, Gulyaipole, Zaliznychne, Gulyaipilske, Biloghirya, Mala Tokmachka, Mali Shcherbaki and Kamianske in the Zaporizhzhia region and Kherson, Mykhailivka, Kozatske, Burgunka, Tyaginka, Molodizhne and Kizomys in the Kherson region.
Kherson-Mykolaiv Battle Map. May 21, 2023. Source: ISW.
Against the background of significant losses of manpower, the Russian military leadership accepted the decision to reduce to 10 days the training period for personnel from among the convicts whose base camp is deployed in the Starobil district of the Luhansk region. Earlier, about 1,000 people were brought to the said camp from places of deprivation of liberty on the territory of Russia. The training was then planned to be carried out for four weeks.
Over the past day, the Air Force of the Defense Forces carried out 14 strikes on areas where the enemy’s personnel and military equipment are concentrated, as well as 7 strikes on its anti-aircraft missile systems.
3 enemy reconnaissance UAVs of various types, as well as 5 attack UAVs, were destroyed.
Units of missile forces and artillery hit 5 personnel concentration areas, 2 ammunition depots, 3 artillery units in firing positions, 2 control points, an electronic warfare station, an anti-aircraft missile complex and another important enemy target.
In total, last day, our defenders eliminated 720 Russian invaders, destroyed 2 tanks, 9 armored fighting vehicles and 20 artillery systems. In addition, the enemy lost one rocket salvo system, 1 Su-35 aircraft, 8 BpLA operational-tactical level, 14 vehicles and two units of special equipment.

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Military Updates

President Biden considers sending F-16s to Ukraine, Sullivan says. Although the US will support a joint international effort to train Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter jets, there is still no final decision on whether any of those jets will be sent directly from the US to Ukraine, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on 21 May 2023, Politico reported.

Russia distracts Ukrainian air defense with wooden drones. Russia started using wooden drones in northeastern Ukraine to distract air defenses, the Ukrainian monitoring group Militarnyi reported. The Joint Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine showed one of the captured wooden drones on 4 May 2023. In early May, the Ukrainian air defense took down a Russian wooden drone close to the Russo-Ukrainian border in Sumy Oblast, northeastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces keep advancing on flanks around Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces continue to press ahead and gain ground on the flanks of Bakhmut (Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine), the Third Separate Assault Brigade of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported in its official Telegram account. Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from most of their positions in Bakhmut but press ahead on the city’s flanks. The second assault battalion of the Third Separate Assault Brigade broke through the Russian defense lines 1,730 meters long and advanced 700 meters deep inside the Russian-controlled territory around Bakhmut.

Ukraine will not use F-16s to strike Russian territory, Biden says. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assured Joe Biden Ukraine would not use Western-provided F-16 fighter jets to strike the territory of Russia, US President told journalists in Hiroshima, Japan. At the end of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Joe Biden said that F-16s would operate “wherever Russian troops are within Ukraine.”

Ukraine maintains control over small portion of Bakhmut – Ground Forces Commander. In his statement on the situation at Bakhmut on 21 May, Col-Gen Syrskyi says Ukraine still controls a small portion of the city, emphasizing the significance of maintaining control over it and the strategic advantages gained through advancing along the flanks to encircle the city.

Bakhmut is not fully occupied by Russia as of today, Zelenskyy said. Bakhmut is not occupied by Russia as of today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the press conference following the G7 summit in Japan on 21 May 2023. Answering the questions of journalist, Zelenskyy was asked whether the battle for the city was still ongoing despite the statements of the Russian head of Wagner Mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that Russian troops had completely occupied Bakhmut on 20 May 2023.

Night explosions occur near Russian HQ in occupied Berdiansk. Several explosions happened in the south-Ukrainian city of Berdiansk, occupied by Russian troops. Officially, Russian local authorities reported about the “work of air defense.” At the same time, Ukraine’s military Stratcom communication channel reported that the night strike was successful and Russian military headquarters in the city were hit: “As a result of a night strike, the Defense Forces successfully hit the headquarters of one of the occupiers’ units in the city of Berdiansk. The losses of the enemy are being updated.”

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

  • Russia is highly likely creating a new ‘elite’ attack aviation group code-named ‘Shtorm’ to operate over Ukraine. The unit is likely to consist of at least one squadron of Su-24 FENCER and Su-34 FULLBACK fighter-bombers, and a squadron of attack helicopters.

 

  • The mix of aircraft types suggests the group will have a primary role of ground attack missions. Credible Russian media reports suggest that the Russian MoD aims to attract highly skilled and motivated pilots by offering large pay incentives and opening recruitment to retired aviators.

 

  • The creation of the group highlights how Russian assesses its regular air force squadrons have severely underperformed in their core function of conducting airstrikes on Ukrainian lines.

Losses of the Russian army 

Losses of Russian Army. Source: Euromaidan Press.

Humanitarian 

One year after Mariupol fell, families share last words of fallen defenders from Azovstal fortress. The defense of Azovstal ended a year ago, on 20 May 2022. Ukrainian troops had defended the large steel plant in the city of Mariupol for almost three months, disrupting Russian plans for a blitzkrieg early in the war. In memory of the fallen defenders of Mariupol, a special exhibition has been created in the National Museum of History of Ukraine. Part of that exhibition includes images of the final conversations the defenders had with their families.

Court sentences Odesa resident to 15 years for sharing military intel with Russia. A man in Odesa has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for transmitting sensitive military information to Russia, according to a statement from the Prymorskyi District Court of Odesa on 20 May, Suspilne reports. During the period from 27 April to 25 May 2022, the man obtained and shared intelligence data with a representative of the Russian Federation regarding the location of the Armed Forces and other military units in Odesa and Odesa Oblast, according to the court’s statement.

Support

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US announces new USD 375 million aid package for Ukraine. Following President Biden’s meeting with President Zelenskyy in Japan, the US Department of Defense announced an additional security assistance package for Ukraine on 21 May 2023. The package worth $375 million meets Ukraine’s critical security and defense needs, the US Department of Defense announced. It includes additional ammunition for US-provided HIMARS, artillery rounds, and anti-armor capabilities:

• Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
• 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds;
• Tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles;
• Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems;
• Laser-guided rocket system munitions;
• Demolition munitions;
• Armored bridging systems;
• Armored medical treatment vehicles;
• Trucks and trailers to transport heavy equipment;
• Logistics support equipment;
• Thermal imagery systems;
• Spare parts and other field equipment.

Ramstein format meeting next week to discuss bolstering Ukraine’s air defenses – Ukrainian Defense Minister. Next week, the next Ramstein format meeting will take place, its key topic will be strengthening Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, according to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Ukrinform reports.

New Developments

Zelenskyy compares obliteration of Bakhmut to nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima (Japan) and compared the destruction of Bakhmut to the aftermath of the nuclear strike against Hiroshima in 1945. At Peace Memorial Park, President Zelenskyy joined Prime Minister Kishida in laying flowers tied with blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, below the cenotaph, the Japan Times reported.

G7 leaders reassure their support for Ukraine’s peace formula at the Hiroshima summit. According to the chancellor, Russia should withdraw its troops from Ukraine. When many are putting forward proposals on how to guarantee peace and security and end the war, “it should become important to understand that this does not mean the possibility of freezing the conflict and preserving for Russia all its military gains, but the only result should be the withdrawal of troops Russia,” Scholz said. We’re not going anywhere, the US president and UK prime minister told Zelenksyy at the G7 summit.

Russia makes two Kinzhals a month, shifts missile strike strategy – Ukrainian intel. Russian missile strikes on Ukraine resumed on 28 April after a 50-day pause that was needed to replenish stocks depleted by the unsuccessful winter campaign to take out Ukraine’s energy sector, Vadym Skibitsky, Deputy Head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR), told in an interview with RBC. Despite sanctions, Russia is able to keep producing missiles. Having depleted a significant portion of their missile arsenal — nearly 900 missiles during the fall and winter — the Russians have managed to establish production lines to replenish their supplies, as per Skibitsky. The evidence lies in the debris of the missiles used by the aggressor, which suggests recent manufacture. He clarified, “These are ammunitions made in the first quarter of 2023.”

Assessment 

  1. On the war. 

The Institute for the Study of War has made the following assessment as of  May 21, 2022:

Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces control an “insignificant” part of southwestern Bakhmut City around the T0504 highway — a tacit acknowledgement that Russian forces have secured the rest of western and northwestern Bakhmut, if not all of it.[1] These officials’ statements indicate that Ukrainian forces withdrew from the remaining areas in Bakhmut except those adjacent to the two highways into the city. Geolocated footage published on May 21 showed Wagner forces raising Russian and Wagner flags over a residential building in westernmost Bakhmut.[2] The Wagner Group’s likely capture of the last remaining small area of western Bakhmut does not impact ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks north or south of Bakhmut, nor does it impact Ukrainian control over the ground lines of communications (GLOCs) around Bakhmut that exhausted Wagner forces would need to reach in order to conduct further offensive operations. Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions. ISW has observed artillery units of the 132nd Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (which was previously observed in the Avdiivka area) operating in the Bakhmut direction.[3]

Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces lost part of the dominant heights around Bakhmut and noted that sustained Ukrainian advances could lead to a tactical encirclement of Wagner forces in Bakhmut.[4] The Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade stated on May 20 that the brigade’s counterattacks have expanded the Ukrainian salient in the Bakhmut area to 1,750 meters wide by 700 meters deep in an unspecified area.[5] Geolocated footage showed the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade striking unspecified Russian forces south of Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut), and engaging with the Russian 200th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 14th Army Corps (Northern Fleet) northeast of Bohdanivka (5km northwest of Bakhmut).[6] Russian conventional forces such as the 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade are unsuccessfully attempting to regain lost positions and respond to Ukrainian counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks, actions that are consistent with ISW’s assessment that Ukrainian forces regained the tactical initiative around Bakhmut.[7] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian conventional forces conducted unsuccessful offensive operations south of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), in the direction of Hryhorivka (about 6km northwest of Bakhmut), and in the direction of Bila Hora (12km southwest of Bakhmut), and Russian milbloggers also noted the failed Russian assaults on Bakhmut’s flanks.[8]

ISW previously forecasted that Wagner offensive operations would likely culminate after months of attritional urban combat, and it is unlikely that Wagner will continue fighting beyond Bakhmut at its current depleted state. ISW assessed that Wagner forces were nearing culmination when they decided to fight through Bakhmut City. Wagner forces were enabled to continue offensive operations past that culmination point as Russian regular forces took responsibility for Bakhmut’s flanks, allowing Wagner to concentrate on the urban fight. Wagner forces began showing signs that they would be unable to pursue offensive operations beyond Bakhmut City from at least late December 2022.[9] A Russian milblogger claimed on May 21 that Wagner forces have not directly attacked Khromove and Ivanivske — settlements immediately west and southwest of Bakhmut — since capturing Bakhmut.”[10] Commander of the Vostok Battalion Alexander Khodakovsky stated that, “driven in [their] head by the inertia of the offensive, [Russian forces] did not want to promptly recognize the depletion of [Russian] offensive potential and did not take care to set up necessary defenses” in captured areas.[11] Former Russian officer Igor Girkin stated that all Russian forces are now exhausted after decisively committing to win an unnecessary battle for Bakhmut and claimed that exhausted Wagner mercenaries stopped immediately at the outskirts of Bakhmut “as they crawled” to the city’s administrative border.[12] Russian regular forces situated on Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks are also unlikely to push west towards Kostyantynivka or north towards Sloviansk amid Ukrainian counterattacks in the Bakhmut area any time soon. Russian conventional forces will be even more unlikely to pursue offensive operations if Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin delivers on his stated intent to withdraw Wagner personnel from Bakhmut City on May 25.[13] It is currently unclear if Prigozhin will actually withdraw his forces from Bakhmut, but some milbloggers are speculating that Prigozhin will commit Wagner to a different “critical” frontline at the end of the month.[14] Russian forces faced a similar culmination following highly attritional infantry attacks in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in June–July 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Wagner Group and the Russian military on May 21 for capturing Bakhmut.[15] Putin directly attributed the capture of the city to Wagner mercenaries, while noting that Russian regular forces provided “necessary support and flank protection” for the Battle of Bakhmut. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) similarly announced that Russia captured Bakhmut because of Wagner assaults in the city and aviation and artillery support from the Russian Southern Grouping of Forces.[16] Putin and the MoD likely directly acknowledged Wagner’s responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut to avoid a repetition of the backlash that followed their immediate failure to do so when Wagner captured Soledar on January 12.[17] Putin’s acknowledgement of Wagner’s role in Bakhmut is the first time that he himself has directly credited Wagner with a battlefield victory. Putin likely took this step because Prigozhin has thoroughly established Wagner’s responsibility for operations in Bakhmut within the Russian information space. Putin and the MoD likely sought to mitigate Prigozhin’s ability to claim sole responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut by emphasizing that regular Russian forces aided in the effort.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin predictably claimed the victory over Bakhmut City entirely for himself and his forces. Prigozhin stated on May 21 that “it is a total lie” that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) helped Wagner capture the city and said that no one from the Russian MoD was in Bakhmut.[18] Prigozhin claimed that Wagner practically received no help from the Russian military except from former overall theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin and Russian Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics-turned-Wagner-Group-deputy-commander Colonel General Mikhail Mizinstev.[19] Prigozhin claimed that that the 305th Artillery Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) helped Wagner after being subordinated to Wagner’s command. Prigozhin also acknowledged that the 57th Motorized Infantry Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army, Eastern Military District) played a ”satisfactory” role in controlling one of the flanks around Bakhmut.[20] Prigozhin argued that the Russian command will attempt to claim the victory over Bakhmut when Wagner transfers the city to regular Russian forces and stated that the situation will be similar to how the MoD took much of Wagner’s alleged credit for capturing Palmyra, Syria, in 2016.[21]

Prigozhin is likely attempting to solidify Wagner as solely responsible for Bakhmut’s capture before the Kremlin and the MoD can craft a response. Russian sources widely congratulated Wagner for the capture of Bakhmut and accepted Prigozhin’s May 20 claim — rather than Putin’s statement — as the official announcement of the city’s capture.[22] Russian sources also amplified footage of Wagner forces placing a Wagner Group flag — not a Russian flag — at the highest point in Bakhmut, likely an intentional snub of the MoD.[23] Prigozhin will likely use Wagner’s perceived responsibility for Bakhmut’s alleged capture to advocate for more supplies, responsibilities, and privileges for Wagner as he did following Wagner’s involvement in the capture of Popasna in May 2022.[24] Prigozhin will also likely use Wagner’s role in the alleged capture of Bakhmut to intensify his efforts to establish himself as the central figure of the Russian ultranationalist community.

Russian reactions to the claimed capture of Bakhmut illustrate an increasingly growing divide between the Kremlin’s domestic presentation of the war and the ultranationalist milblogger community’s coverage of Russian operations in Ukraine. Russian state television portrayed the alleged capture of Bakhmut as a seminal historic event and claimed that the city’s capture would facilitate Russian operations to capture Sloviansk (41km northwest of Bakhmut) and Kramatorsk (35km northwest of Bakhmut) and even Dnipro City (roughly 215km west of Bakhmut).[25] The Kremlin likely attempted to oversell the significance of the capture of Bakhmut as a historical victory due to the continued lack of tactical success in Ukraine, with one Russian state media outlet outrageously commenting that Wagner personnel in Bakhmut must feel like “their grandfathers in Berlin.”[26]

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers celebrated the alleged capture of Bakhmut but emphasized that “Bakhmut is not Berlin” and that the capture of the city would be simply another step in ongoing difficult operations to achieve Russian objectives in Ukraine.[27] Russian milbloggers responded to the alleged capture of Bakhmut by discussing more immediate possible Russian operations to capture Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut), Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), and Chasiv Yar (12km west of Bakhmut).[28] Other prominent Russian milbloggers responded to the capture of Bakhmut by focusing on possible imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations instead of possible future Russian offensive operations.[29] Russian milbloggers shifted to more conservative expectations of Russian operations as the attritional offensive to capture Bakhmut continued from winter into spring of 2023, and they have largely abandoned their previous high expectations that the capture of Bakhmut would lead to a collapse of Ukrainian lines in the area and Russian advances up to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.[30] Russian milbloggers’ more realistic views about both Russian capabilities in Ukraine and the relevance of the Bakhmut offensive highlight the divergence between two very different segments of the pro-war Russian information space: the more optimistic presentation of the war offered by the Kremlin and the more informed presentation of the war offered by milbloggers. These growing differences will likely continue to undermine the Kremlin’s ability to shape the Russian information space.

US President Joe Biden stated on May 21 that the US will train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including F-16s, to augment Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the long term. Biden stated that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave him a “flat assurance” that Ukrainian forces will not use Western-provided F-16s to strike Russian territory.[31] Biden reiterated that Ukraine will not use F-16s in its anticipated counteroffensive and framed the provision of F-16s as part of a longer-term effort to augment Ukraine’s defensive capabilities as Ukraine’s operational needs evolve.[32] Biden expanded on this argument, stating that the US did not pledge to send Ukraine tanks earlier because Ukraine did not need tanks earlier.[33] ISW has assessed that the need to send Ukraine Western tanks, including M1s, became apparent in June 2022.[34]

ISW previously assessed in January 2023 that delays in the provision to Ukraine of Western long-range fires systems, advanced air defense systems, and tanks have limited Ukraine’s ability to take advantage of opportunities for larger counter-offensive operations presented by flaws and failures in Russian military operations.[35] The inevitable delay between the pledge to send such systems and the Ukrainians’ ability to use them calls for the provision of such systems at the earliest indications that they will be required, not when the situation becomes dire.[36] Had Western leaders started setting conditions for Ukraine to use Western tanks in June 2022, when the first clear indicators appeared that Western tanks would be needed, Ukrainian forces would have been able to start using them in November or December. The continual delays in providing Western materiel when it became apparent that it is or will soon be needed have thus contributed to the protraction of the conflict.[37]

Former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement opened a St. Petersburg chapter with an inaugural event on May 21. The event’s speakers discussed their dissatisfaction with the way elements of Russia’s “military-political elite” are not trying to decisively defeat Ukraine and instead are focusing efforts on maintaining current Russian gains in Ukraine and holding negotiations with the West.[38] They also discussed how the Club of Angry Patriots is creating an “alternative center of power” that should help achieve the final destruction of the Ukrainian state and the further mobilization of the Russian nation to that end.[39] Speakers also discussed how the Russian elite that formed against the backdrop of the 1990s period of privatization and “the post-Soviet catastrophe” has “rotted.”[40]

The opening of the club in St. Petersburg is likely a continuation of Igor Girkin’s political feud with Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group opened its first official national headquarters in St. Petersburg in November 2022.[41] The Angry Patriots Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of supporting efforts to freeze the war in Ukraine in April 2023.[42] Girkin launched the “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement as a new effort in April 2023 likely aimed at protecting the influence of the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin.[43]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts.
  • ISW previously forecasted that Wagner offensive operations would likely culminate after months of attritional urban combat, and it is unlikely that Wagner will continue fighting beyond Bakhmut at its current depleted state.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Wagner Group and the Russian military on May 21 for capturing Bakhmut.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin predictably claimed the victory over Bakhmut City entirely for himself and his forces.
  • Russian reactions to the claimed capture of Bakhmut illustrate an increasingly growing divide between the Kremlin’s domestic presentation of the war and the ultranationalist milblogger community’s coverage of Russian operations in Ukraine.
  • US President Joe Biden stated on May 21 that the US will train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including F-16s, to augment Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the long term.
  • Former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement opened a St. Petersburg chapter with an inaugural event on May 21.
  • Russian forces continued limited offensive operations northeast of Kupiansk and south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations on the Donetsk City-Avdiivka frontline but have not made any verifiable territorial gains.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a deep strike against a Russian headquarters at an airfield in Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, with a Storm Shadow missile.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that seven regiments and four battalions from Chechnya are operating in Ukraine as of May 20.
  • Russian occupation authorities are reportedly intensifying filtration measures in occupied Ukraine to find Ukrainian partisans.
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