Assessment of the Russian offensive campaign, May 20


May 20, 5:30 a.m. ET

Russian forces are focused on deepening and strengthening defensive positions in Kharkiv and along the southern axis in preparation for Ukrainian counter-offensives, while the majority of active offensive operations remain confined to the city arc of ‘Izyum-Donetsk and in particular to the Popasna-Severodonetsk region. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are creating secondary defensive lines on the southern axis, indicating that the Russian grouping in this area could be preparing for a major Ukrainian counter-offensive and a protracted conflict. .[1] Russian forces are said to have occupied defensive positions north of the city of Kharkiv after the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive since May 5 and carried out limited attacks either to give Russian forces time to complete their redeployment in Russia in good order, or to allow reinforcements to arrive to defend the territory in the Kharkiv oblast. Important Russian offensive operations are confined to the Severodonetsk region. Russian troops made marginal gains north, west, and south of the city, especially around Popasna, in an attempt to take control of Severodonetsk.

Key points to remember

  • Russian forces may have made marginal gains north, west and south of Popasna in order to continue their offensive on Severodonetsk from the south.
  • Russian sources may be exaggerating the number of Ukrainian defenders who were evacuated from Azovstal either to maximize the number of Russian POWs that could be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers or to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they had been locked in a siege of several months against only “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers.
  • Russian troops reportedly took over some positions taken by the Ukrainian counter-offensive north of the city of Kharkiv.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing for a major Ukrainian counter-offensive and protracted conflict on the southern axis.

We do not report in detail on Russian war crimes because these activities are well covered by Western media and do not directly affect the military operations we assess and plan. We will continue to assess and report on the effects of these criminal activities on the Ukrainian army and population and more specifically on the fighting in Ukrainian urban areas. We strongly condemn these Russian violations of the law of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and humanity, even if we do not describe them in these reports.

The ISW has updated its assessment of the four main efforts in which Russian forces are currently engaged. We have discontinued coverage of Support Effort 4, “Sumy and Northeastern Ukraine”, as it is no longer an active effort:

  • Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine (composed of one subordinate effort and three supporting efforts);
  • Subordinate Main Effort – Encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the cauldron between Izyum and Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts
  • Support Effort 1—Mariupol;
  • Support Effort 2—City of Kharkiv;
  • Support Effort 3—South Axis.

Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine

Subordinate Main Effort – South of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk Oblasts (Russian objective: encircle Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine and capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, territory claimed by Russian proxies in the Donbas)

Russian forces conducted unspecified offensive operations towards Sloviansk but made no confirmed advances on 20 May.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops were trying to erect a pontoon bridge over the Severskyi Donets River near Yaremivka, about 25 kilometers southeast of Izyum towards Sloviansk.[3] Russian forces also carried out artillery strikes on Dovhenke and Dolyna, both southeast of Izyum towards Sloviansk.[4]

Russian forces reportedly intensified their efforts to break through Ukrainian defenses around Popasna to push towards Severodonetsk from the south on 20 May. Pro-Russian news sources reported that Russian forces advanced through Ukrainian defense lines in three directions. Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) reportedly took control of Volodymirivka and Lypove, and broke through Ukrainian defenses at Komyshuvakha, just north of Popasna.[5] Troops of the Russian private military company “Wagner” reportedly took control of Trypillya and Vyskrivka west of Popasna.[6] Ukrainian sources noted that offensive operations are underway in Vyskrivka.[7] Russian forces also reportedly took control of Troitske, south of Popasna.[8] Such reports are consistent with the statements of the Ukrainian General Staff that the Russian grouping around Popasna is trying to cross new borders in the region.[9] However, NASA Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) data does not show a concentration of fires in this area, which may suggest that Russian sources are exaggerating the scale or significance of the attacks, although the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence in this case.[10] The alleged encirclement of the Popasna region may be an effort to break through Ukrainian defenses to provide support for the ongoing battle for Severodonetsk, where Russian troops are making marginal gains and are believed to have taken control of Shchedryshcheve and Syrotne, just in north of Severodonetsk. .[11]

Russian forces reportedly made marginal gains in ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on May 20. Pro-Russian Telegram channels said Russian forces were trying to surround a Ukrainian group around Svyatohirsk and storm Yarova, west of Lyman and less than 10 kilometers from the border. with Kharkiv Oblast.[12] The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces continued offensive operations around Lyman and would likely continue to push west to meet Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast.[13] Russian forces are also carrying out unsuccessful assault operations around the city of Donetsk, near Avdiivka and Novobakhmutivka.[14]

Support Effort #1—Mariupol (Russian objective: capture Mariupol and reduce Ukrainian defenders)

Russian sources may be exaggerating the number of Ukrainian defenders who were evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks as of May 20. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said nearly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have left Azovstal since evacuations began, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had only registered than “hundreds” of Ukrainian prisoners of war.[15] The discrepancy could simply be the result of delays in ICRC registrations or reports. However, official Russian sources may also obscure the actual number of evacuees for various reasons. The Russians might pretend they captured more Ukrainian soldiers than they actually did in order to maximize the number of Russian prisoners that can be exchanged if they agree to a prisoner swap with Ukraine. Russian leaders may also seek to avoid the embarrassment of admitting their forces have been locked in a months-long siege by “hundreds” rather than “thousands” of Ukrainian defenders. Azov regiment commander Denis Prokopenko also said that he gave the order to stop the defense of Mariupol to save the lives of the defenders of Azovstal, so the number of evacuations will probably increase in the next few years. days.[16]

The Ukrainian General Staff reports that the Russian forces are continuing the filtration measures in Mariupol.[17] Adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushchenko also made a number of claims that the ISW cannot independently verify. He claimed that Russian troops planned to use filter camps in Mariupol to forcibly mobilize men into the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) militia.[18] He claimed that the Russian occupation administration in Mariupol was planning a census of men between the ages of 18 and 50 to further force mobilization in the DNR.[19] He also claimed that four schools in Mariupol are expected to open by the end of May according to “Russian standards and Russian curricula”, with full implementation of Russian curricula expected by fall 2022.[20] Andryushchenko’s claims are consistent with general trends in the filtration and occupation processes in Mariupol that the ISW has been able to verify through other sources, although these particular claims are unverified at this time.

Support Effort #2—City of Kharkiv (Russian objective: withdraw forces north and defend ground lines of communication (GLOC) to Izyum)

Russian forces focused on retaking positions taken by Ukrainian forces during the counter-offensive north of the city of Kharkiv on 20 May.[21] Russian forces are said to be fighting at Vesele, Tsyrkuny, Zolochiv and Ternova and may have retaken Ternova and Rubizhne, although the ISW cannot independently confirm these claims at this time.[22] Such efforts likely spoil attacks intended to disrupt the Ukrainian counteroffensive in northern Kharkiv Oblast with the intention of either giving Russian forces time to withdraw and redeploy to other axes of attack. advance, or to reinforce the defensive positions north of the city of Kharkiv. Russian forces further continued to bombard the city of Kharkiv and its surroundings, likely to further distract Ukrainian forces from consistent offensive actions towards the Russian border.[23]

Support Effort #3—South Axis (Objective: Defend Kherson against Ukrainian counterattacks)

Russian forces focused on reinforcing existing defensive lines and creating secondary defensive lines on the southern axis, but made no confirmed advances by 20 May.[24] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops were bringing engineering equipment to the southern axis front lines to build a second line of defense, which likely indicates that Russian forces are preparing to defend against possible Ukrainian counter-offensives and settling in for prolonged operations in the south. Ukraine.[25] Russian forces carried out rocket, missile and artillery attacks against the oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa.[26]

The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian special services continued to destabilize the situation in Transnistria by spreading disinformation about the mining of social infrastructure and state institutions in Tiraspol, Bender, Dubossary and Rybnytsia.[27]

Immediate things to watch out for

  • Russian forces will likely complete their withdrawal from the vicinity of the city of Kharkiv, but will attempt to hold a line west of Vovchansk to defend their GLOCs from Belgorod to Izyum. We don’t know if they will succeed.
  • The Russians will continue their efforts to encircle Severodonetsk and Lysychansk at least from the south, possibly focusing on cutting off the last highway linking Severodonetsk-Lysychansk with the rest of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing for Ukrainian counteroffensives and settling in for prolonged operations in southern Ukraine.

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