Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine captures the high ground in Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian officials stated on July 10 that Ukrainian forces have fire control over Bakhmut and Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) around the city. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces have taken control of unspecified heights around Bakhmut, allowing Ukrainian forces to establish fire control over Bakhmut itself. Ukrainian officials have recently signaled that Ukraine seeks to trap Russian forces within the city, and it appears that Ukrainian operations in the Bakhmut area in recent days have been intended to slowly envelop Russian troops in Bakhmut and on its flanks. ISW was previously conservative when assessing claims of Russian fire control and general interdiction of Ukrainian lines of communication in and around Bakhmut as Russian forces gradually took control of the settlement, but Ukrainian claims of establishing fire control may be more credible. Both Ukrainian and Russian sources have indicated in recent days that Ukraine is gaining ground in the Bakhmut area and on its southwestern flanks including specific terrain features that can give Ukrainian forces fire advantage. The fear of Ukrainian fire control and imminent threats to Bakhmut is also permeating the Russian information space, and Russian milbloggers have repeatedly expressed fear over Ukrainian forces encircling Russian forces in Bakhmut. Russian sources claimed at least since February that Russian forces maintained fire control over critical Ukrainian GLOCs around Bakhmut, while Ukrainian officials and sources did not express concern over these Russian claims, in contrast, and withdrew their forces in good order in the face of the Wagner Group‘s expensive frontal assaults. The persistent signaling of Ukrainian officials about Ukrainian operational intent in Bakhmut, alongside the clear concern of milbloggers over exactly what this intent may be, suggests that Ukrainian counteroffensive actions in this direction may be credibly threatening the Russian hold on Bakhmut, although it is far too early to forecast the liberation of the city.

Russian Chief of the General Staff and overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov’s first public appearance since Wagner’s rebellion supports ISW’s previous assessment that he will likely retain his official position within the Russian military. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) published footage on July 10 showing Gerasimov receiving reports about alleged Ukrainian attempts to strike Russian military targets in occupied Crimea and Rostov and Kaluga oblasts. ISW previously assessed that Gerasimov’s past long periods of public absence have not been indicators of his official position within the Russian military leadership and that Putin will likely not remove Gerasimov as the overall theater commander or Chief of the General Staff, as doing so would be too damaging to the Kremlin’s and the MoD’s reputation. The Kremlin has previously responded to speculations about Gerasimov’s public absences by affirming his role as Chief of the General Staff and appears to be currently publicizing Gerasimov’s presence at the meeting to respond to a new bout of rumors about his absence following Wagner’s rebellion on June 24. ISW has previously observed Russian speculations that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky has recently assumed Gerasimov’s responsibilities for Russian operations in Ukraine, although there continues to be no confirmation of these speculations. Gerasimov’s first public appearance since the rebellion was notably focused on alleged Russian internal security issues and not necessarily on Russian operations in Ukraine that the overall theater commander oversees.

The Kremlin and Western intelligence officials reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 29 (and/or July 1) following Wagner’s armed rebellion on June 24. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Putin met with Prigozhin and all of the Wagner commanders (35 people in total) in a three-hour meeting in the Kremlin. Peskov claimed that Putin gave an assessment of Wagner’s actions during the “special military operation,” gave his assessment of the armed rebellion, and listened to commanders’ explanations. Putin also reportedly offered Wagner commanders “further employment options,” while the Wagner commanders assured Putin that they are loyal supporters and soldiers of the state and Putin. Peskov refused to answer a question about whether Russian MoD officials were present at the meeting. French outlet Liberation previously reported on July 7, citing Western intelligence officials that Prigozhin and Wagner’s top commanders met with Putin, Head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) Viktor Zolotov, and Head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin on July 1. It is unclear if Liberation is referring to the claimed June 29 meeting or an additional meeting in the Kremlin.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials stated on July 10 that Ukrainian forces have fire control over Bakhmut and Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) around the city.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 10.
  • Russian Chief of the General Staff and overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov’s first public appearance since Wagner’s rebellion supports ISW’s previous assessment that he will likely retain his official position within the Russian military.
  • The Kremlin and Western intelligence officials reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 29 (and/or July 1) following Wagner’s armed rebellion on June 24.
  • Putin’s decision to meet with Prigozhin is inconsistent with the Kremlin’s prior rhetoric about Prigozhin and his role within the Wagner private military company (PMC).
  • A Kremlin-affiliated war correspondent characterized the Putin-Prigozhin meeting as the Kremlin’s attempt to “gently” replace Prigozhin and restructure Wagner.
  • Gerasimov’s public reemergence and the acknowledgment of the Putin-Prigozhin meeting is likely a part of the Kremlin’s wider narrative effort to portray itself as fully in control following Wagner’s rebellion while also reaching out to those who lean toward loyalty toward Wagner and especially Prigozhin himself.
  • It is unclear whether any agreements between the Kremlin and Prigozhin will prompt significant numbers of Wagner personnel to agree to sign contracts with the MoD.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that Chechen Akhmat Special Forces have deployed to the Bakhmut direction, but a local Ukrainian commander denied having encountered Chechen forces, suggesting that these Chechen elements are not making significant frontline contributions to Russian operations in Ukraine.
  • Former Russian officer and prominent critical nationalist milblogger Igor Girkin claimed on July 10 that he managed to deliver a speech in St. Petersburg despite efforts by law enforcement to censor him and prevent the speech from happening
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line and in the Bakhmut direction.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast on July 10.
  • Russian forces are continuing to suffer significant casualties on the battlefield.
  • Russian occupation officials acknowledged widespread utility service disruptions in occupied Donetsk Oblast.
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