Russia Crisis Military Assessment: How Ukraine is taking the fight to Russian soil

In light of the ongoing Russia crisis, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense (FD) practice will share regular assessments of the latest force developments surrounding Ukraine, leveraging the expert perspectives of our senior military fellows. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

The bottom line

  • While Russia has made slight progress in the Donbas, the line of control has hardly budged and the Kremlin’s campaign has largely stalled.
  • The Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv remains strong, with Russian forces being pushed back toward the Russian border.
  • Russia continues to assault the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and attack Odesa via missile strikes. These offensives are unlikely to result in the capture of Mariupol, especially as the Donbas campaign rages on.
  • Numerous Ukrainian fires and explosions within Russia have rocked Russian logistics and supply facilities, including oil and fuel depots. We assess that these efforts are part of a Ukrainian strategy to interrupt Russian supply lines and destabilize its military establishment.
  • US weapons deliveries are rapidly reaching Ukraine—as seen by the employment of 155mm Howitzer long-range artillery pieces within weeks of their announced transfer—and are bolstering Ukrainian resistance.

The Russian offensive

Since Russia began its Donbas campaign on April 19, the Kremlin has made very little progress toward its goal of gaining control over the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. After ending its assault on Kyiv and withdrawing the bulk of its forces from northern Ukraine, Russia has redeployed some Battalion Tactical Groups to reinforce its eastern offensive. Yet, despite numerical superiority, Russian forces have failed to encircle Ukrainian forces south of Izyum.

We believe that the delivery of both Soviet-built and Western heavy weapons (e.g., long-range artillery) to Ukraine have blunted Russia’s advance. The qualitative edge brought by long-range fires—including artillery, rocket, air, and missile attacks—negate Russia’s numerical advantage in forces and fires. Moreover, the sustained Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv is pushing the remaining Russian force from the north.

Elsewhere, Russian forces continue to assault the Azovstal steel plant—the heart of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol—but have not dislodged Ukrainian forces from the facility. Russia continued to strike Odesa with missiles but has not begun an assault on the city. We predict that a major Russian offensive in the south is unlikely in the near term. Given the ongoing and intensifying fight in eastern Ukraine, doing so would replicate Russia’s early error of splitting its focus and fires on multiple areas of operations.

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The Ukrainian counteroffensive

Drive to the Russian border. Ukrainian attacks northeast of Kharkiv continue to drive Russian forces back. At its current rate of advance, we assess that Ukraine could reach the Russian border in a few weeks or less. The potential effects of this Ukrainian counteroffensive are threefold:

  1. Ukraine pushes Russian forces out of range of Kharkiv, dismissing the threat of Russian artillery bombardment of the city.
  2. Ukraine pushes Russian forces from offensive operations in southern Ukraine to defensive positions outside Kharkiv, forcing the Kremlin to protect its territory from a Ukrainian offensive targeting the Russian city of Belgorod. A short Ukrainian offensive near Belgorod would jeopardize Russian supply lines critical to its fight in the Donbas.
  3. If Ukraine successfully expels Russian forces from northeast of Kharkiv back across the Russian border, it can then flank Russian forces in Izyum, overwhelming them with simultaneous attacks from the west and north.

Asymmetric naval campaign. Last week, Ukraine reported that it destroyed another Russian warship. There are conflicting reports as to whether it was the Admiral Makarov (an Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate) hit by a Neptune missile, or a Serna-class landing vessel hit by a missile strike from a Turkish-built TB-2 Bayraktar drone. Regardless, this attack further demonstrates Ukraine’s ability to challenge Russian naval dominance in the Black Sea. The naval component of Ukraine’s counteroffensive is essential to prevent the Kremlin from completing its land bridge and rendering Ukraine landlocked.

A chronology of Ukrainian attacks. For over a month, there have been fires and explosions well within Russian territory. While the Ukrainian military was clearly behind some attacks, including the helicopter attack on a Belgorod fuel depot, other fires are less obvious and could have been caused by hostile action or a benign reason (i.e., faulty maintenance).

  • Attacks on Belgorod. On March 29, explosions occurred at an ammunition warehouse approximately twenty-five miles inside the Russian border and less than fifty miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The culprit behind this attack was likely a Ukrainian missile. Just three days later, two large fires erupted at a Belgorod fuel depot and were likely ignited by Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter attacks. These attacks on Belgorod marked the first significant attacks inside Russia. The targets are telling: ammunition and fuel storage, two supplies critical to Russia’s northern offensive.
  • Attacks on Bryansk. On April 24, two large fires flared up at oil depots in the Russian city of Bryansk, nearly one hundred miles inside the Russian border. The fires were caused by explosions that hit a fuel depot and an oil pipeline connecting Russia to Europe. We assess that these targets fit within a Ukrainian strategy of targeting critical Russian supplies and logistics.
  • Mysterious fires at critical defense facilities. On April 21, two mysterious fireswere reported deep inside of Russia without an obvious cause. First, a fire broke out at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow. A second fire occurred at a chemical plant in Kineshma, 250 miles east of Moscow. The next day, a fire broke out at the Korolyov Center for Security and Civil Defense of the Population, just fifteen miles from Moscow. We find it highly unlikely that Ukrainian aircraft or tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) could successfully reach this far into Russia. If Ukraine started the fires, it was likely done through special operations or paramilitary sabotage operations. Though unlikely, these fires could have been purely coincidental.
  • Attacks across southwest Russia. On April 27, explosions occurred in three Russian cities within a radius of just hundreds of miles. A large fire broke out at an ammunition depot in a village twenty miles inside of Russia in the Belgorod province. Explosions were then heard in Kursk, seventy miles inside of Russia, where local authorities claim Russian air defenses shot down an unmanned aerial system (UAS). Video footage appears to show a Russian air-defense system destroying an airborne target—likely a small, tactical UAS. It is unclear whether this UAS intended to conduct reconnaissance or strike a target in Voronezh (nearly two hundred miles inside Russia).

The Ukrainian “deep strike” strategy. Attacks on adversary forces or supplies well behind the forward line of battle (termed a “deep strike”) are likely part of a Ukrainian deep strike strategy, serving both operational and psychological purposes. Operationally, these attacks on critical Russian military facilities (ammunition and fuel depots) target critical supplies to exacerbate the logistics problems plaguing Russian military operations and slow Russian momentum. Psychologically, the specter of attack causes the Kremlin to keep air and ground defenses alert in the region, thus holding back support for Russian operations inside Ukraine.

Probable means of attack. Although Russia could be staging events as false-flag operations to justify further aggression against Ukraine, we judge the likelihood of Russian culpability as low. Even to push a narrative, the Kremlin would be unwilling to risk moderate disruption to fuel or ammunition supply. We assess that Ukraine is responsible for many (if not all) of the fires and explosions on Russian territory. The possible Ukrainian means of attack are as follows:

Missile strike via the Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab-A) tactical ballistic missile.Ukraine operates the Tochka-U mobile launch TBM with a seventy-five-mile range, with an estimated pre-war total of as many as five hundred missiles available. The Tochka-U is an accurate missile that uses an internal navigation system to reach its target. It can hit large targets, such as fuel storage tanks or ammunition supply buildings. However, given the short range of the system, the Tochka-U could only be responsible for nearby attacks (i.e., the Belgorod province fires). While Russia’s potent air defense systems can engage TBMs, we find it likely that some Ukrainian Tochka missiles have penetrated Russian air defenses to reach their targets.

Air strike. Despite having a small and depleted air force, Ukraine still has the ability to conduct an air strike into Russia. Ukraine operates a small fleet of ground-attack fighters, including the Su-24 Fencer and the Su-25 Frogfoot, and Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters—all of which have recently been spotted operating over Ukraine—and low-altitude attacks a short distance into Russia provide the greatest survivability. This leads us to believe that two Mi-24 helicopters were responsible for the Belgorod fuel depot attacks. However, it is unlikely that Ukraine will use manned jets and helicopters to execute future raids deep into Russian territory. Air attack with a manned platform is extremely risky, and a captured Ukrainian aviator would be a public relations and human rights loss for Ukraine. The most likely means of air attack is the TB-2 drone, which has been successful in combat operations over Ukraine.

Special operations force or paramilitary operations. These are the highest risk options for attacks deep in the Russian homeland. Though they offer an extremely high payoff, sabotage missions are very high risk and, similar to downed aviators, captured special operators would be a public relations win for Russia and would likely result in horrific torture to the warfighter. We find it probable that Ukrainian operators or agents will continue to operate in Russia, but they are unlikely to conduct high-profile attacks deep inside the country.

US & allied support for Ukraine

Wartime mobilization. As the war in Ukraine transitions into a longer-term conflict, Russian and Ukrainian abilities to generate combat power will become more decisive. Ukraine’s military-industrial capacity appears to be trending positively as Russia’s capacity flatlines. While Russia is primarily going it alone, depending on its manufacturing and repair capabilities, Ukraine has broad support from NATO countries supplying new equipment and repairing and refurbishing older gear. Ukraine has also capitalized on its home-field advantage by capturing and repurposing significant amounts of abandoned Russian equipment.

  • Sanctions take a bite. Widespread financial sanctions and export controls are beginning to cripple Russia’s ability to produce new combat systems. Russia’s two primary tank plants have shut down due to a lack of components required for production. Reduced access to foreign-made computer chips and integrated circuits has proven especially troublesome for Russia. Particularly, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s biggest chipmaker, halted semiconductor exports to Russia in line with Taiwan’s sanctions.
  • A little help from their friends. Ukraine is quickly ramping up its ability to manufacture, repair, and restore military equipment, with significant support from its friends. Recently, both Bulgaria and Slovakia agreed to help repair Ukraine equipment in its facilities. Ukraine has repurposed large quantities of Russian equipment abandoned on the battlefield, all while enhancing its assembly lines to refurbish outdated equipment and prepare for future battles. Ukrainian innovation, coupled with heavy support from the United States and NATO, has bolstered Ukraine’s combat power as the war drags on.

Uncle Sam’s special delivery. As of May 9, 85 of the United States’ 90 pledged 155mm M777 Howitzer long-range artillery pieces are in Ukraine, and over 300 Ukrainian troops have already been trained on the system. Just 17 days after the United States announced the transfer of 12 Howitzer systems—and just 10 days since that number was bumped to 90—the weapons delivery demonstrates the increased speed of US assistance. Additionally, 20 of the pledged 121 Phoenix Ghost tactical UASs have been delivered to Ukraine just 10 days after their transfer was announced—and 20 Ukrainian troops have already been trained on the system. We assess that the rapid delivery of the heavy artillery and precision UASs is having a tangible effect on the battlefield by countering Russian numerical superiority in forces and fires.

US arms in action. On May 6, video footage appeared to confirm the first Ukrainian combat use of the “kamikaze” UAS in the Kharkiv oblast, destroying a Russian machine gun position. On May 8 a video showed Ukrainian forces towing an M777 Howitzer in the Odesa oblast, and on May 9 a video demonstrated Ukrainian forces firing an M777 in the Donbas region. This anecdotal evidence hints at the continued effectiveness of the delivery of heavy military equipment to Ukrainian forces by the United States and its allies and partners, and the agility and efficacy of Ukraine in rapidly integrating and employing these systems. We assess the Kremlin’s inability to halt—or even slow—Western deliveries of military equipment is affecting its own success in Donbas and across Ukraine. As long as Ukraine can receive offensive weapons, it can counter Russian force and fire superiority, prevent Russian offensive momentum, and inflict sizable personnel and equipment losses on Russia.

FD’s conclusion

As our last assessment predicted, the United States and its allies and partners are winning the race to resupply Ukraine, with heavy weapons and precision fires continuing to flow to the Ukrainian front lines. Ukrainian forces are using these systems to great effect across the country, and especially to blunt Russian momentum in the Donbas region. The Ukranian counteroffensive around Kharkiv has been more effective than any Russian offensive in over a month, and Ukrainian forces continue to push their Russian counterparts away from the city and back across the border into Russia. Russia’s offensive momentum has also stalled in the south, as Russia has been unable to overrun the remaining Mariupol resistance fighters in the Azovstal steel plant. Russia continues to conduct missile attacks on Odesa and threaten larger military action against the city, but it is unlikely the Kremlin will embark on a major new offensive until it regains its footing in Donbas. The war in Ukraine continues to slow to a war of attrition along established lines, magnifying the importance of resupply for both sides. 

Check out these military moves and more on our military assessment map here.

Meet the FD team

Today’s briefing is brought to you by senior US Air Force fellow Lt Col Tyson Wetzel, senior US Army fellow COL Benjamin G. Johnson, and senior US Marine Corps fellow Col J.B. Barranco. The Scowcroft Center Military Fellows Program, housed by the Forward Defense practice, hosts military fellows from participating branches of the US military and the armed forces of US allies and partners each year as part of a twelve-month fellowship program. 

Further reading

Related Experts: Tyson Wetzel, John B. Barranco, and Benjamin G. Johnson

Image: A view shows a fuel depot on fire in the city of Belgorod, Russia, on April 1, 2022. Pavel Kolyadin/BelPressa/Handout via REUTERS