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Russia on the defensive? Meduza shares an updated combat map, the latest from Bakhmut, and how the Belgorod raid could change the course of the war
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Meduza has adopted a consistent antiwar position, holding Russia responsible for its military aggression and atrocities. As part of this commitment, we regularly update an interactive map that documents combat operations in Ukraine and the damage inflicted by Russia’s invasion forces. Our map is based exclusively on previously published open-source photos and videos, most of them posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We collect reports already available publicly and determine their geolocation markers, adding only the photos and videos that clear this process.
Meduza doesn’t try to track the conflict in real time; the data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old.
Key updates as of 9 p.m. GMT (5 p.m. EDT) on May 27, 2023
On May 27, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi posted on social media that, “The time has come to return what is ours.” This likely implies that the Ukrainian army is prepared to begin the long-awaited counteroffensive. However, nothing yet indicates that any of the 20 brigades formed specifically for the counteroffensive are present on the front lines. In the past few days, the actions carried out by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) could be interpreted as preparation for an offensive. One such example was the incursion into Russia’s Belgorod region, which was led by groups of Russian nationalists with links to Ukrainian intelligence. Another is the ongoing battle for Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces lost control of the city on May 20.
What’s the situation on the ground in Bakhmut?
- After Wagner Group captured a block of high-rise buildings near the southwest exit from the city on May 20 (a neighborhood residents call “airplane,” after an airplane monument in the area, or “Bugor,” after a hill overlooking the city and its surroundings on which some of the captured apartment blocks sit), Ukrainian troops withdrew and positioned themselves just outside the city limits. It’s not entirely clear what exactly the situation is to the southwest of this hill, since there has not been any confirmation as to whether Russian forces control a building belonging to a natural foods company and located 300 meters (around 984 feet) from the high-rise buildings. In all the Russian videos taken from the city’s outskirts, Wagner Group mercenaries can be seen rushing hundreds of meters away from the building.
- In the southwest outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukrainian troops are positioned hundreds of meters from houses located just inside the city limits. It’s not clear whether Russian forces are attempting to move the front line away from Bakhmut. Gunfire is audible in videos shot from Ukrainian positions. The footage also shows continued Ukrainian artillery strikes on the city.
- The offensive taking place on the flanks of the frontlines in Bakhmut, which the Ukrainian command has recently been presenting as “an operation to surround Bakhmut,” has stalled in recent days. Russian Armed Forces have transferred reserves there. Ukrainian units, as they are currently configured, lack the troops to take out the Russian reserves located on the hills to the city’s north and south. So far, the Ukrainian troops are increasing shelling and employing “suicide drones” to attack Russian forces positioned at the rear of the city. If the Ukrainian command decides it’s necessary to continue the attack, it will require the transfer of new forces, which may have to be taken from the 20 brigades that are equipped with Western tanks and armored vehicles.
- It’s not clear whether Wagner Group will completely pull out of Bakhmut. Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin reported that its withdrawal has begun, though the group’s mercenaries are currently defending the city’s outskirts. If Wagner Group does withdraw by June 1, as Prigozhin has stated it will, Russia’s Defense Ministry will transfer additional reserves to the city. However, if the reserves turn out not to be strong enough, the situation on the ground could become complicated for Russian Armed Forces — even without AFU transferring over new troops.
What to make of the recent incursion into Russia’s Belgorod region?
- On the morning of May 22, armed groups entered Russia’s Belgorod region from Ukrainian territory through the Grayvoron border checkpoint. According to social networks, the attackers belonged to two units of the Russian “armed opposition” — the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia legion. Video footage of the attackers suggest there were members of far-right groups in their ranks. They had previously carried out smaller attacks on the border in the Bryansk region in March 2022.
- Last week’s incursion had more armed combatants than the small number who took part in March 2022 events. Ukrainian social media channels showed two different scenes from vehicles at the border crossing (one was part of the assault, the other was likely reinforcement). The groups used International MaxxPro vehicles from America’s latest deliveries to Ukraine, which clearly demonstrates the groups’ connections to AFU. The drone operator coordinating the attack on the checkpoint spoke Ukrainian. However, Ukrainian soldiers were not visible in the video.
- The groups used approximately a dozen armored vehicles between them, and the first group had at least one tank. Given the capacity of each vehicle, a total of approximately 100 people could have entered Russian territory. They were actively supported by artillery from Ukrainian territory. It’s not clear how many advanced into Grayvoron and how many remained at the border.
- It took approximately one day to repel the attack. At first glance, the attack could be considered unsuccessful — the group was able to advance a maximum of eight kilometers (around 5 miles) from the border and lost a significant amount of equipment during the retreat (more than Russian divisions lost repelling the attack). This video shows equipment losses.
- It appears as though raids across the border aren’t aimed at capturing military objectives or large population centers. After Russian troops left the border of the Chernihiv and Sumy regions in March 2022, and most of the Kharkiv region in September 2022, their command decided that the AFU would not cross the border, since it wouldn’t make strategic sense for Ukraine — Kyiv’s goal is to liberate its own territories and not to capture Russia’s. Furthermore, the international coalition supporting Ukraine is seeking to avoid an escalation that would transfer hostilities into Russian territory. That reality led the Russian Armed Forces to transfer almost all their troops from the border to the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia regions.
- However, even if there’s no expectation of a full-scale transfer of Ukrainian troops across the border, the border region still remains vulnerable to raids, including by large units. It’s impossible for current forces to defend the full contact line, which is hundreds of kilometers long, if intelligence does not warn of an attack in advance. The location of the first attack in the Bryansk region in March was 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from the location of the attack in Belgorod.
- Reliable border defense would require the transfer of tens of thousands of soldiers, which would weaken Russian units fighting in Ukraine. It’s possible that the command has decided on a mobile defense arrangement, stationing small Russian units in the Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod regions to wait for an attack, and then transfering reserves in that direction if necessary.
- On the evening of May 22, the Russian command mobilized major forces in the region and deployed aviation and long-range artillery, which led the attackers to retreat into Ukrainian territory. However, judging by reactions on pro-war Telegram channels, those in Russia who support the war have responded negatively to the events in Belgorod and now demand that border defenses be strengthened.
- Thus, these attacks can have major impacts on not only strategy, but on propaganda as well. If Russia feels forced to increase the amount of troops on the border, this could weaken the Russian army in other areas along the front — this would benefit Ukraine, which doesn’t expend many resources supporting initiatives such as the Belgorod raid.
The data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old. Meduza is careful in working with data, but mistakes are still possible, and perhaps even inevitable. If you spot one, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected]. Thank you!
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