- Battlefield Update
This week the main Russian offensive continued to push forward along the eastern axis, with the goals of capturing the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and encircling northern Donetsk. Russian assaults intensified in Kupiansk, Lyman, and the adjacent Bakhmut territory. Supporting offensive activity occurred along the southern axis of assault, echoing the concepts of operations (CONOPS) Russia has employed for many weeks.
Clashes continued in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and along the Dnipro riverbank. The Russian military has reportedly stalled Ukrainian progress in the tactically important Robotyne bulge in the south, where the Ukrainian General Staff has also reported preventing attempted Russian assaults. Overlapping reports from the Russian and Ukrainian high commands illustrate that the front from Robotyne to Verbove has played host to a series of clashes featuring incremental exchanges of territory, reflecting the highly positional character of the unfolding war.
The Velyka Novosilka axis also witnessed tactical clashes, with Russian forces allegedly capturing a Ukrainian position there, though this remains unconfirmed by open-source satellite imagery or digital data assessments. Regardless, the forested areas of the Staromaiorske region have seen fierce military activity this week. Reportedly, Ukrainian attempts to extend territorial control near Krynky and expand a bridgehead there were unsuccessful.
However, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade is carrying out defensive combat operations in this region without access to maps of area minefields. This has disrupted the combat formation’s deployment, leading to losses. In the northern sector, Russian attacks persisted but have not resulted in confirmed gains. Ground warfare efforts in other parts of this sector have been subdued. Russian forces remained active near Bakhmut and Avdiivka, with some potential tactical progress. Overall, however, the situation remains largely unchanged.
Recent clashes around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) illustrated Russia’s reckless behavior around high-risk zones and critical infrastructure, as the ZNPP was fully disconnected from external power sources for five and a half hours this week. This marked the eighth power outage incident at the plant since it fell into Russian hands last year. Both Ukrainian and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sources confirmed the incident.
Open-source intelligence suggests that after receiving drone transfers from Iran and ammunition support from North Korea, Russia may also now be receiving material support from China. Footage from Krynky shows that Russian troops are now operating Chinese Desertcross-1000-3 all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to break Ukraine’s bridgehead on the bank of the Dnipro.
Finally, the Ukrainian Air Force has officially confirmed an air defense systems victory from May 2023 in Bryansk. Yuriy Ihnat, the Air Force’s spokesperson, recently announced that Ukraine’s forces successfully downed five Russian aircraft over Bryansk Oblast using a US-supplied Patriot air and missile defense system. Reportedly, the downed assets included one Su-35 air-superiority fighter, one Su-34 tactical bomber, two rare Mi-8MTPR-1 electronic warfare helicopters, and one Mi-8 rotary-wing platform. The May 2023 Bryansk attack, though only now confirmed publicly, showcases the capacity of Western strategic weapon systems and their vital importance to Ukraine.
- Iran Continues to Upgrade Its Shahed Kamikaze Drone Baseline
Last week’s Russian attacks on Ukraine using Iran-supplied Shahed-136 drones brought a surprising revelation. Ukrainian drone manufacturers inspecting the intercepted loitering munitions reported that some of the examined drones featured 4G modems and SIM cards produced by the Kyivstar Telecommunications firm, a subsidiary of the Dutch-incorporated holding VEON.
While noteworthy, this modification is not surprising given the evolving nature of the Shahed-136. Since its combat debut in Ukraine, the Iranian kamikaze drone baseline has undergone significant changes, including updates on warhead designs, manufacturing processes, and available sensors. These modifications have even included the development of jet-powered variants that will soon be entering service. Growing military cooperation between Iran and Russia will likely produce further innovations to the Shahed drone that tailor it to meet the Kremlin’s shifting needs on the battlefield.
From a strategic standpoint, the recent revelations involving the Shahed’s capabilities could have several implications. Its SIM cards and modems might allow Russia to geolocate intercepted drones and map out Ukrainian air defenses in search of suitable pathways for attack. These new capabilities could also provide Russian drone teams with an additional navigation capacity, while possibly paving the way for real-time flight adjustments. By equipping their Iranian loitering munitions with modems and SIM cards, Russian operators will also enjoy improved telemetry data for launching drone salvos with real-time control. Cellular connectivity linking drones to their launchers would significantly augment the long-range strike edge of Shahed-136 variants.
- The Winter War Commences
The long-awaited winter war has finally begun. Harsh weather persists across Ukraine, impeding both Ukrainian and Russian military operations. While winter conditions have not completely halted the ongoing fighting, they have significantly disrupted maneuver warfare.
The fighting in Avdiivka illustrates the weather’s effects on the war. In the past week, Russian forces reportedly advanced toward the city from multiple angles. But winter conditions and recent heavy storms around the metropolitan area significantly hindered their efforts. Alternating frozen and muddy ground hampered Russia’s ground assault, forcing a reduced deployment of main battle tanks and armored vehicles. The performance of Ukrainian artillery and engineering formations has also added to Russia’s hesitancy in deploying heavy armor to the area. As a result, recent Russian advances around the city have been minimal.
Russian combat formations concentrated their Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 kamikaze drone and missile strikes on the south of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force announced that the country’s air defenses successfully intercepted 10 out of 12 Shahed UAVs on December 2 and 3. However, Russia continues to use a mixed strike package in its aerial assaults. The Ukrainian Air Force’s inability to engage a Kh-59 cruise missile used in recent strikes suggests a lingering vulnerability in the country’s air defense architecture.
- Echoes of Wagner as a New Private Army Arises in Russia
The Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) has seemingly established a new private military company (PMC), the Redut. According to a new investigative report, the effort is designed to recruit Russians in the thousands for irregular combat service in Ukraine. A meticulous harvest of data from the phones, private documents, public statements, and social media accounts of Redut personnel has uncovered crucial details involving the service contracts and payment procedures the new private army appears to be utilizing.
The findings of the investigation suggest that Redut comprises at least 20 irregular Russian units, each with varying levels of recruitment and training. Estimates suggest that the outfit’s current total manpower count amounts to anywhere from 7,000 to 25,000 servicemen. This new group will certainly bear watching as the war continues to unfold.