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Russo-Ukrainian War. Day 547: PMC Wagner’s demise on the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day

Wagner Group’s Prigozhin and Utkin on the passenger list of a crashed jet. Ukraine advances in Robotyne.  Russian pilot lands a Mi-8 helicopter on Ukrainian airbase in defection, Ukrainian intelligence says. 

Daily overview — Summary report, August 24 2023

Situation in Ukraine. August 23, 2023. Source ISW.

According to information from the General Staff as of 06.00 24.08.2023, supplemented by its [18:00 assessment].

Day 547 of the russian full-scale military aggression against Ukraine has begun.
 
Last night, the russian federation launched a missile strike on the city of Dnipro. Information on the aftermath of this terrorist attack is currently being updated.
 
During the day of August 23, the enemy launched 10x missile and 57x air strikes, 70x MLRS attacks at the positions of Ukrainian troops and various settlements. Also, the occupants launched yet another attack on the territory of Ukraine using Shahed-136/131 UAVs. The Ukrainian air defense intercepted 12x combat UAVs of the adversary. Unfortunately, the russian terrorist attacks have killed and wounded civilians. Residential buildings, port infrastructure, schools, and other civilian infrastructure were damaged.
 
The likelihood of missile and air strikes across Ukraine remains high.
 
During the day of August 23, there were 23x combat engagements.
 
Volyn and Polissya axes: no significant changes.
 
Luhansk Battle Map. August 23, 2023. Source ISW.
 
Sivershchyna and Slobozhanshchyna axes: the adversary launched air strikes in the vicinities of Romny, Kostyantynivka (Sumy oblast), Dovzhyk, and Chuhunivka (Kharkiv oblast). The invaders fired mortars and artillery at more than 15x settlements, including Bleshnya (Chernihiv oblast), Volfyne, Kindrativka, Veselivka (Sumy oblast), Ohirtseve, Hatyshche, and Krasnyi Yar (Kharkiv oblast).
 
Kup’yans’k axis: the adversary conducted unsuccessful offensives in the vicinity of Novojehorivka (Luhansk oblast). The enemy launched air strikes in the vicinities of Shyikivka (Kharkiv oblast), and Tverdokhlibove (Luhansk oblast). The settlements of Dvorichna, Kyslivka, Kotlyarivka, Tabaivka, Krokhmal’ne, and Pishchane (Kharkiv oblast) came under artillery and mortar fire of the adversary.
 
Donetsk Battle Map. August 23, 2023. Source ISW.
 
Lyman axis: the adversary fired artillery at more than 30x settlements, including Nevs’ke, Bilohorivka (Luhansk oblast), Vyimka, Zvanivka, Rozdolivka, and Fedorivka (Donetsk oblast).
Bakhmut axis: the adversary conducted unsuccessful offensives in the vicinity of Vesele (Donetsk oblast). The invaders launched air strikes in the vicinities of Spirne, Klishchiivka, Andriivka, and Bila Hora (Donetsk oblast). More than 25x settlements, including Ivanivske, Klishchiivka, Stupochky, Bila Hora, Dyliivka, and Kurdyumivka (Donetsk oblast), suffered from enemy artillery shelling.
 
Bakhmut Battle Map. August 23, 2023. Source ISW.
 
Avdiivka axis: the Ukrainian defenders successfully repelled russian troops attacks in the
vicinity of Avdiivka. The invaders fired artillery at more than 15x settlements, including Keramik, Novokalynove, Avdiivka, Soloviove, Stepove, and Orlivka (Donetsk oblast).
 
Mar’inka axis: the Ukrainian Defense Forces continue to hold back the russian offensive in the vicinity of Mar’inka and Novomykhailivka (Donetsk oblast). The enemy launched an air strike in the vicinity of Krasnohorivka (Donetsk oblast). The invaders fired artillery at the settlements of Krasnohorivka, Mar’inka, Oleksandropil’, Kurakhove, Antonivka, and Yelyzavetivka (Donetsk oblast).
 
Shakhtars’ke axis: the enemy launched an air strike in the vicinity of Blahodatne (Donetsk oblast). More than 10x settlements, including Vuhledar, Shakhtars’ke, Vremivka, Blahodatne, Urozhaine, and Novopil’ (Donetsk oblast), suffered from enemy artillery shelling.
Zaporizhzhia axis: the adversary conducted unsuccessful offensive operations in the vicinity of Mala Tokmachka (Zaporizhzhia oblast). The invaders launched air strikes in the vicinities of Orikhiv, Novodanylivka, and Robotyne (Zaporizhzhia oblast). More than 20x settlements suffered from enemy artillery shelling, including Yehorivka, Chervona Krynytsya, Orikhiv, Novodanylivka, Robotyne, and Il’chenkove (Zaporizhzhia oblast).
 
Kherson-Mykolaiv Battle Map. August 23, 2023. Source ISW.
 
Kherson axis: the adversary launched air strikes in the vicinities of Beryslav, Odradokam’yanka, L’vove, Kherson (Kherson oblast), and Izmail (Odesa oblast). The adversary fired artillery at Osokorivka, Zolota Balka, Mykhailivka, Respublikanets’, Burhunka (Kherson region), and the city of Kherson.
 
At the same time, the Ukrainian Defense Forces continue to conduct the offensive operation on Melitopol’ axis, consolidating their positions and conducting counter-battery fire.
The russian invaders continue to use the civilian infrastructure of the temporarily occupied settlements to provide medical care to their wounded servicemen. In the settlement of Melitopol’ (Zaporizhzhia oblast), russian servicemen have re-purposed the territory of a health resort into a field hospital, where around than 100x wounded occupants are being treated.
 
During the day of August 23, Ukrainian Air Force air 2x air strikes on command posts, 9x air strikes on the concentrations of troops, and 4x air strikes on the anti-aircraft missile system of the adversary.
 
During the day of August 23, the Ukrainian missile and artillery troops hit 2x command posts, 1x concentration of troops, weapons, and military equipment, and 2x artillery systems of the adversary at their firing positions.
 

Military Updates

The one most important thing for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Why is Ukraine’s counteroffensive so slow, and does still stand a chance? Would it be catastrophic to put it off for a year? Will Ukraine’s time run up after the fall of 2022? Is the West’s strategy of escalation management showing any cracks? Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow with the National Institute for Strategic Studies and senior analyst at the Come Back Alive Foundation, offers a dose of realism.

Russian pilot landed a Mi-8 helicopter on Ukrainian airbase in defection, Ukrainian intelligence says. A Russian Mi-8 helicopter pilot landed on a Ukrainian air base in Kharkiv Oblast in what Ukrainian officials claimed was a planned defection, Ukrainian intelligence officials said, according to Ukrainska Pravda. The incident was the culmination of a secret plot by the Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence. The pilot of the helicopter who conducted flights between two Russian air bases and transported the parts of Su-27 and Su-30SM fighter jets, cooperated with Ukrainian intelligence during the last six months. His had been brought from Russia to Ukraine before his defection.

Ukraine’s Intelligence chief says how many strategic bombers remain operational in Russia after Ukraine’s recent attacks. Head of Ukraine’s Intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe that Russia has only 27 TU-22 strategic bombers that are still operational. Recent Ukrainian attacks on two Russian airfields destroyed two and damaged two more bombers. According to Budanov, 436 Russian aircraft in total are participating in air operations against Ukraine.

UK intel: Russian logistics still disrupted in southern Ukraine following destruction of two key bridges. As of mid-August 2023, Russian forces continued using pontoon bridges at the Chonhar and Henichesk crossing points between southern Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Both permanent bridges sustained damage from precision strikes by Ukrainian forces in early August 2023. “The pontoon bridges are unlikely to be able to fully sustain the flow of heavy vehicles carrying ammunition and weaponry to the front,” British intelligence said in its daily report.

Frontline report: Ukrainians gain ground in Robotyne, utilizing Bradley IFVs to counter Russia’s top tanks. Ukrainian troops have entered and started mopping up operations in the village of Robotyne as part of a counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Russians utilized their prime tanks, but Ukrainians broke through the defenses with Bradley IFVs.

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

British Intelligence Map.
  • As of mid-August 2023, Russian forces were continuing to employ pontoon bridges at Chonhar and Henichesk crossing points on the border between southern Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Both permanent bridges sustained damage from Ukrainian precision strikes in early August 2023.
  • The pontoon bridges are unlikely to be able to fully sustain the flow of heavy vehicles carrying ammunition and weaponry to the front.
  • The resulting bottlenecks mean Russian forces are partially reliant on a long diversion via Armiansk, northern Crimea. This is adding further friction to Russia’s logistics network in the south.

Losses of the Russian army

British Intelligence Map.

Humanitarian

Two Ukrainian women brutally attacked in Czechia. Several men in Czechia attacked and seriously injured two women after finding out that they had come to the country from Ukraine, as per Novinky.cz. On 13 August, a car stopped next to a children’s playground in the city of Plasy where two women – Tetiana and Lilia were playing with their kids. A driver asked if they were from Ukraine. He drove a few meters away, left the car, and came back to them. The man started cursing and attacked them, the victims say.

Russian drone attack on Sumy Oblast killed two teachers. On 23 August, a Russian drone attack on the city of Romny in Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine killed four staff members – the school’s headteacher, deputy head, secretary, and librarian, local authorities reported.

Support

Ukraine to receive NASAMS air defense systems from Lithuania in September 2023. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has announced that Vilnius will send several NASAMS air defense systems to Ukraine to help the country destroy Russian missiles. The statement came on 23 August after Nausėda arrived in Kyiv to show his support for Ukraine amid Russian aggression and meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Finland to provide new military aid package to Ukraine. Finland will provide the 18th military aid package to Ukraine, which will include heavy weapons and ammunition, Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo announced at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Yevropeiska Pravda reported. According to Orpo, this package is the same size as the previous ones. He noted that Finland is one of the largest donors to Ukraine, given the size of the country.

New Developments

Prigozhin was on board plane that crashed near Moscow, Russian transport agency says – CNN (UPDATE). The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency has confirmed that Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board a plane that crashed in Tver Oblast, according to CNN. In addition, US President Joe Biden has suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been behind the crash of a plane near Moscow. He said he wasn’t surprised that the Russian mercenary leader may have been targeted. Wagner-linked Telegram channels also said Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash.

Ukraine’s PM Shmyhal meets with Moldova’s PM Recean, agree on joint border control. On 23 August, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal held a meeting with Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean, during which the ministers agreed to control state borders jointly, Shmyhal announced on his TG channel. “We noted our progress in developing logistics amid Russia’s blocking of the grain corridor in the Black Sea. A quick decision on constructing a bridge across the Dniester, developing checkpoints, and railroad connections are all significant and crucial for us,” Shmyhal wrote.

Three drones attack Moscow, one hits business center building. On the night of 23 August, three drones attacked Moscow, all were allegedly neutralized, but one hit a building in the Moscow City business district, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, two drones were shot down by air defense over the Mozhaisky and Khimki districts of the Moscow Oblast. The third drone was allegedly suppressed by electronic warfare and hit the Neva Tower building in the Moscow City business and government district of Russia’s capital.

Assessment

  1. On the War

The Institute of Study of War has made the following assessment as of 23 August:

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and founder Dmitry Utkin reportedly died after Russian forces shot down an aircraft transporting senior Wagner commanders over Tver Oblast. The Russian Federal Aviation Agency (Rosaviatsiya) reported on August 23 that all the passengers – Yevgeny Prigozhin, Dmitry Utkin, Sergei Propustin, Yevgeny Makaryan, Alexander Totmin, Valery Chekalov, Nikolai Matyuseev – died in the crash along with all three crew members.[1] Russian opposition outlet Dossier reported that Chekalov, who is under US sanctions for transferring munitions to Russia and has acted on behalf of Prigozhin, oversaw Wagner transport logistics and “civilian” projects abroad.[2] A Russian insider source claimed that Chekalov also served as head of Wagner’s security services, though another source refuted this claim.[3] Dossier also reported that several other passengers joined Wagner between 2015 and 2017 and fought in Syria, although their current positions are unclear.[4] Russian sources amplified footage apparently showing a Russian missile striking an aircraft carrying Prigozhin, Utkin, and other Wagner commanders and the wreckage of the aircraft.[5] An insider source claimed that two S-300 missiles shot down the aircraft.[6] Flight tracking data for an Embraer Legacy 600 jet (registration number RA-02795) registered to the Wagner Group stopped after 6:11pm Moscow time while over Tver Oblast.[7] Russian sources claimed that a second Wagner Group-owned Embraer jet (registration number RA-02748) departed Moscow but turned around and landed at Ostafyevo airport in Moscow around the time of the strike.[8] Flight tracking data showed that this second aircraft arrived in St Petersburg at 6:27pm and flew back to Moscow 20 minutes later arriving at 8:02pm, however.[9]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin have been destroying the Wagner private military company (PMC) and weakening Prigozhin’s authority since the rebellion – and the assassination of Wagner’s top leadership was likely the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization. Wagner and Russian insider sources reported that the Russian MoD recently began forming new PMCs to replace Wagner in Africa and the Middle East and started recruiting Wagner personnel.[10] Wagner commanders indicated that two high-ranking Wagner officials joined the Russian MoD, and insider sources claimed that some Wagner personnel began to leave Belarus after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko refused to finance Wagner when he discovered that Russia would not pay Wagner’s costs.[11] Prigozhin’s online persona has been largely silenced since the rebellion – possibly as part of the deal between Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Prigozhin – which may have negatively impacted Wagner’s ability to recruit new personnel amidst the Kremlin’s defamation campaign against Prigozhin. The Russian MoD and the Kremlin had effectively created conditions in which Prigozhin could no longer adequately support the Wagner contingent unless he was able to secure new funding and missions for Wagner personnel in the immediate term. Such conditions could have eventually led Wagner to slowly lose fighters and cause Prigozhin to lose his relevancy and influence.

Prigozhin was likely attempting to counter the Russian MoD’s and the Kremlin’s destruction of Wagner. A Russian insider source with reported ties to Russian security services claimed that Prigozhin’s “hasty” departure to and from Africa was in response to the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff’s (GRU) plans and measures to undermine Wagner’s presence in Africa.[12] The source claimed that GRU Deputy Head (Head of the Special Activities Service) Colonel General Andrei Averyanov led the effort to completely block Wagner from operating in Africa and that there were plans to create and train an army corps of more than 20,000 people as Wagner replacements. The source added that Prigozhin was deeply opposed to these efforts and “made every effort to prevent them.” ISW observed that Prigozhin and Wagner’s representatives intensified their efforts to reestablish Wagner in Africa and the Middle East in mid-August, and Prigozhin even published a video of himself in an unspecified African country on August 21 – one of the few published videos of Prigozhin since the rebellion.[13] This video appeared to have heavy recruitment undertones, and it is possible that Prigozhin had traveled to Africa in hopes of securing further missions for Wagner personnel independent of the Russian MoD and the Kremlin.[14] Averyanov has reportedly participated in other high-profile assassination attempts such as the poisoning of Sergei and Yuliya Skripal, and it is possible that Russian officials capitalized on Prigozhin’s panic and impulsivity to eliminate Wagner’s top-most leadership.

Wagner PMC’s future without a leader remains uncertain. A Russian news aggregator claimed that the Wagner council of commanders is currently meeting at the time of this publication to prepare a joint statement and announce what will happen to Wagner in the near future.[15] The aggregator, citing an unnamed source, also claimed that Wagner had long developed a mechanism to mitigate the aftermath of Prigozhin’s and Utkin’s deaths.[16] The source, however, refused to disclose what such mitigations entail but noted that “in any scenario, [these mitigations] will be bad news.”[17] Wagner-affiliated channels urged Russian media to refrain from speculations about Prigozhin, Wagner’s fate, and the council of commanders.[18] A prominent Russian milblogger with reported connections to the Russian State Duma claimed that Wagner personnel are still “at their posts” in Belarus and Africa and denied the claims that Wagner personnel are being evacuated.[19] Prigozhin and Utkin were undeniably the faces of Wagner, and their assassinations will have dramatic impacts on Wagner’s command structure and the Wagner brand. Wagner commanders and fighters may begin to fear for their lives or become demoralized. The Russian MoD’s and Kremlin’s inroads into Wagner’s operations and the absence of Prigozhin – who would fight for new opportunities for Wagner personnel – may further lead to the degradation of the Wagner grouping.

Putin almost certainly ordered the Russian military command to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane. Elements of the Russian military, especially Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, would be extremely unlikely to execute Prigozhin without Putin’s order. The entirety of the Russian political and security sphere likely viewed Prigozhin’s continued survival following Wagner’s rebellion as at Putin’s discretion. ISW will make further assessments based on the assumption that Putin ordered Prigozhin’s assassination unless evidence to the contrary emerges. ISW’s previous standing assessment that Putin was unlikely to kill Prigozhin for fear of angering Wagner personnel has thus been invalidated.[20]

Putin may have concluded that he had sufficiently separated Prigozhin from Wagner and could kill him without turning Prigozhin into a martyr for the remaining Wagner personnel. Some Wagner commanders recently appeared to betray Wagner for the Russian MoD-affiliated Redut PMC, suggesting that the Kremlin’s and Russian MoD’s efforts to separate Wagner elements from those loyal to Prigozhin were partially succeeding.[21] Increasing reports of Wagner’s financial issues and corresponding reports of Wagner personnel leaving the group due to decreased payments and opportunities to deploy may have resulted in Prigozhin losing favor among the Wagner rank-in-file.[22] The Russian MoD has been setting conditions to replace the Wagner Group with MoD-affiliated PMCs, and Russian sources have claimed that these PMCs are attempting to recruit current and former Wagner personnel.[23] Putin may have decided that Wagner personnel had reached a point where they were sufficiently more interested in payments and deployments with these new PMCS than their continued loyalty to Prigozhin and that he could safely kill Prigozhin.

Alternatively, Putin may have decided that Prigozhin had crossed a pre-established redline with his efforts to retain Wagner’s access to operations in Africa. Putin, Prigozhin, and Lukashenko may have included an agreement in the deal that ended Wagner’s rebellion that required Prigozhin to limit his and Wagner’s media presence and/or curtail Wagner’s operations in Africa. Prigozhin’s August 21 video claiming that Wagner is expanding its presence in Africa and subsequent uptick in Wagner recruitment advertisements may have crossed a pre-established redline if Prigozhin had agreed to silence himself.[24] Prigozhin’s alleged repeated attempts to prevent the Russian MoD from completely replacing the Wagner contingent in Africa may have also crossed a pre-established redline restricting Wagner’s African operations. Putin may have decided that Prigozhin had violated enough aspects or all of the pre-established deal.

It is possible that Putin has intended to execute Prigozhin for some time and that the downing of Prigozhin’s plane on August 23 was coincidental timing, although this is unlikely. Kremlin newswire RIA Novosti reported on August 23 that Putin formally dismissed Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergei Surovikin as commander of Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and replaced him with Colonel General Viktor Afzalov.[25] The official confirmation of Surovikin’s dismissal in Russian state media on the same day as Prigozhin’s assassination is likely no coincidence. The Kremlin likely intends for both publicized punishments to send a clear message that those who were involved in the June 24 rebellion have been dealt with and that Wagner’s challenge to the Russian leadership is a settled affair.

Putin’s almost certain order for the Russian MoD to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane is likely a public attempt to reassert his dominance and exact vengeance for the humiliation that the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion on June 24 caused Putin and the Russian MoD. Putin notably attended a publicly televised concert in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk around the time that Russian air defenses downed Prigozhin’s plane. Putin’s attendance at the televised concert echoed the memory of Soviet state television showing Swan Lake on television in August 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.[26] Russian sources noted that it has been exactly two months since the beginning of Wagner’s armed rebellion during which Wagner forces shot down several Russian helicopters and killed at least 13 Russian servicemen.[27] The decision to have Russian air defenses be the method for Prigozhin’s assassination allowed the Russian MoD to directly avenge what was one the deadliest days for Russian aviation since the start of the full-scale invasion. Putin had suffered significant humiliation for failing to stop Wagner’s rebellion, relying on Lukashenko to stop Prigozhin’s march, and failing to punish Wagner servicemen who were responsible for shooting down Russian aircraft on June 24.[28] Putin’s behavior during the rebellion reportedly concerned his inner circle about his ability to sustain his regime, and CIA Director William Burns reiterated similar observations about Putin’s judgments and detachment from events.[29] Burns also noted that “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” and it is likely that Putin was waiting to set proper conditions to finally avenge himself on Prigozhin without appearing impulsive or overreacting.[30] Putin needed to exact ostentatious revenge against Prigozhin not only to prove that he is not a weak leader, but also to support his military – which in the eyes of many Russians did not see justice carried out for the events of June 24.

Specific individuals who may have planned to oppose Putin, the Kremlin, or the MoD have likely taken note of Prigozhin’s ultimate fate and other recent measures to reassert the Kremlin’s backing for the senior Russian military leadership. Putin notably sidelined Tula Oblast Governor Alexey Dyumin at the recent Army-2023 forum, publicly posturing him as subordinate to Shoigu following suggestions that Dyumin might replace Shoigu.[31] Putin and Gerasimov visited the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which Wagner forces occupied during the rebellion, likely to publicly demonstrate the Kremlin’s backing of Gerasimov.[32] Prigozhin’s fate is also likely meant to serve as a deterrent to elements of the Russian military who may try to follow an existing precedent of insubordination that Prigozhin helped establish.[33] Lukashenko notably embarrassed Putin by directly negotiating with Prigozhin to end the rebellion, and Prigozhin’s assassination may signal to Lukashenko both a dramatic reduction of his negotiating space with the Kremlin and an implicit threat against his continued attempts to resist Union State integration efforts.[34]

The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions to deflect overt responsibility for Prigozhin’s assassination away from Putin and the Russian military. Rosaviatsiya created a special commission to investigate the technical condition of the crashed aircraft, the meteorological conditions on the flight route, and the dispatch services and ground radio equipment.[35] The Russian Investigative Committee has initiated a criminal case on the charge of violating the rules of traffic safety and operation of air transport.[36] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger noted that the Investigative Committee may choose the “erroneous” launch of air defense systems as the main version of the event given the claimed Ukrainian drone strikes on Moscow.[37] A Russian insider source claimed that the crash will likely be framed as a terrorist act that occurred onboard, and Russian State Duma Deputy Yevgeniy Popov already echoed this narrative in the Russian information space.[38] A Wagner-affiliated channel criticized Russian state TV channels for failing to mention the crash during the evening news cycle.[39]

The wider Russian information space refrained from commenting on the reasons behind the crash, with only a few sources tying the incident to the Kremlin and/or the Russian MoD. Many sources observed that the crash occurred exactly two months after the start of Prigozhin’s rebellion.[40] Several insider sources claimed that the incident indicated that Putin “has something to be afraid of” and speculated that Putin’s system (likely referring to his regime) is undergoing a new wave of changes.[41] Some milbloggers claimed that Prigozhin’s assassination will have “catastrophic consequences” and that this incident is a lesson that one must always continue going until the end – implying that Prigozhin should have continued his march on Moscow.[42] Most milbloggers refused to comment on Prigozhin’s death, citing a lack of available official information.[43] ISW will resume its coverage of milblogger reactions on August 24.

Russian milbloggers will likely focus most of their coverage in the coming days on Prigozhin’s assassination and may report less on the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian milbloggers similarly shifted much of their reporting to cover Wagner’s rebellion on June 24 to developments within Russia and it took several days for them to return to their normal reporting on the frontlines in Ukraine.[44] The Kremlin may have decided to ostentatiously kill Prigozhin at this time in part to shift focus in the Russian information space away from the frontlines in Ukraine amidst notable Ukrainian advances. ISW’s coverage of kinetic activity on the frontlines in the coming days may be constrained if Russian reporting is limited.

Further tactically significant Ukrainian gains in and around Robotyne in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast are widening the Ukrainian breach of Russian defensive lines in the area and threatening Russian secondary lines of defense. Geolocated footage published on August 22 and 23 indicates that Ukrainian forces have advanced further in Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and control most of the settlement and have made further gains west of Verbove (18km southeast of Orikhiv).[45] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved unspecified success in the direction of Novopokropivka (13km south of Orikhiv) and Novodanylivka (5km south of Orikhiv).[46] Russian forces had likely hoped to use their positions in and around Robotyne as a launching point for counterattacks against the western flank of the Ukrainian advance east of the settlement, where Ukrainian forces appear to be widening their penetration through Russian first lines of defense. The Ukrainian advance through Robotyne itself and the potential liberation of the settlement will deprive Russian forces of positions near the western flank of the Ukrainian breach and therefore give Ukrainian forces more maneuver space to launch offensive operations against the Russian secondary line of defense that runs south of Robotyne to the western outskirts of Verbove. A successful deep penetration of Russian defensive lines likely requires a widening of the initial penetration to prevent Russian forces from cutting off a too-narrow thrust.

Ukrainian advances have now brought Ukrainian forces within roughly two kilometers of the secondary lines of Russian defense, a relatively more continuous set of field fortifications consisting of anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles. The extent of minefields in the area is unclear, although areas in front of these secondary lines of defense may be less heavily mined to give Russian forces north of the lines the ability to retreat. ISW previously assessed that these secondary lines of defense may be relatively weaker than the first Russian defensive lines in the area due to a lack of uncommitted Russian forces in the area and further lateral deployments from other sectors of the front.[47]

Ukrainian forces likely struck a Russian S-400 air defense system in Crimea on August 23. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) announced and posted footage of a strike on a Russian S-400 long and medium-range anti-aircraft missile system near Olenivka, Crimea (116km northwest of Sevastopol and about 140km south of Kherson City).[48] GUR reported that the strike destroyed an air defense installation, an unspecified number of missiles, and killed nearby Russian military personnel, though the footage only shows part of the installation exploding.[49] A Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger suggested that Ukrainian forces likely used a Harpoon, Neptune, or Brimstone II missile to strike the air defense system.[50] Russian milbloggers expressed concern that Ukrainian forces were able to operate a drone and record footage of the strike roughly 120km behind the current frontline.[51] A Ukrainian strike on a Russian air defense installation deep within the Russian rear indicates a number of Russian tactical failures, particularly that Russian forces were seemingly unprepared to intercept the missiles with the air defense system or operate electronic warfare jamming to prevent Ukrainian forces from operating a drone in the area. These tactical failures, though surprising and serious, may not be indicative of wider systemic issues within Russian air defenses, however.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Pentagon Spokesperson General Patrick Ryder notably pushed back on an alleged US intelligence assessment that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will fail to meet its objectives. Sullivan stated on August 22 that the United States does not assess that the war in Ukraine “is a stalemate.”[52] Sullivan stated that the United States continues to support Ukraine in its counteroffensive efforts and noted that Ukrainian forces continue to take territory.[53] Sullivan noted that the United States will continue to support Ukrainian forces as they operate according to their tactics and timetable and proceed according to the strategic and operational decisions of their commanders and leadership.[54] Ryder stated on August 23 that it is “inappropriate” to draw any conclusions about the Ukrainian counteroffensive while fighting continues across the frontline and that Ukrainian forces continue to advance.[55] Sullivan’s and Ryder’s statements are a notable response to the Washington Post’s August 18 report that the US intelligence community has assessed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach Melitopol in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast and will not achieve its principal objective of severing the Russian land bridge to Crimea.[56]

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine on the night of August 22 to 23 and destroyed grain infrastructure at the port in Izmail, Odesa Oblast. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched nine missiles and up to 20 Shahed-131/136 drones and that Ukrainian forces destroyed 11 drones, including nine over Odesa Oblast.[57] Ukrainian Minister for Communities, Territories, and Infrastructure Development Oleksandr Kubrakov reported on August 23 that the Russian drone strike on the port of Izmail destroyed over 13,000 tons of grain intended for Egypt and Romania.[58] Kubrakov reported that Russian strikes have destroyed 270,000 tons of grain since Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17.[59] The Russian destruction of additional Ukrainian grain infrastructure comes less than a day after Putin attempted to mitigate dissatisfaction from African countries at Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal during the BRICS Business Forum in South Africa.[60]

Key Takeaways:

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and founder Dmitry Utkin reportedly died after Russian forces shot down an aircraft transporting senior Wagner commanders over Tver Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin have been destroying the Wagner private military company (PMC) and weakening Prigozhin’s authority since the rebellion – and the assassination of Wagner’s top leadership was likely the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization.
  • Prigozhin was likely attempting to counter the Russian MoD’s and the Kremlin’s destruction of Wagner and Wagner’s future remains uncertain.
  • Putin almost certainly ordered the Russian military command to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane.
  • Putin’s almost certain order for the Russian MoD to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane is likely a public attempt to reassert his dominance and exact vengeance for the humiliation that the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion on June 24 caused Putin and the Russian MoD.
  • Specific individuals who may have planned to oppose Putin, the Kremlin, or the MoD have likely taken note of Prigozhin’s ultimate fate and other recent measures to reassert the Kremlin’s backing for the senior Russian military leadership.
  • The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions to deflect overt responsibility for Prigozhin’s assassination away from Putin and the Russian military.
  • Further tactically significant Ukrainian gains in and around Robotyne in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast are widening the Ukrainian breach of Russian defensive lines in the area and threatening Russian secondary lines of defense.
  • Ukrainian forces likely struck a Russian S-400 air defense system in Crimea on August 23.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupiansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, in the Bakhmut area, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line on August 23 and did not make any confirmed advances.
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