Institute for the Study of War: Russian forces make slow, steady advance near Izium amid false flag attacks in Moldova

April 26, 2022

Russian forces have adopted a sounder pattern of operational movement in eastern Ukraine, at least along the line from Izyum to Rubizhne. Russian troops are pushing down multiple roughly parallel roads within supporting distance of one another, allowing them to bring more combat power to bear than their previous practice had supported. Russian troops on this line are making better progress than any other Russian advances in this phase of the war. They are pushing from Izyum southwest toward Barvinkove and southeast toward Slovyansk. They are also pushing several columns west and south of Rubizhne, likely intending to encircle it and complete its capture. The Russian advances even in this area are proceeding methodically rather than rapidly, however, and it is not clear how far they will be able to drive or whether they will be able to encircle Ukrainian forces in large numbers.

Russian forces on the Izyum axis likely benefit from the absence of prepared Ukrainian defensive positions against attacks from the Kharkiv direction toward Donbas. Ukraine has prepared to defend the line of contact with Russian-occupied Donbas since 2014, and Russian troops continue to struggle to penetrate those prepared defenses—as shown by repeated Russian efforts to take Avdiivka, just north of Donetsk City, or to advance through Popasna, just beyond the original line of contact.

Russian troops continued to attack Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol, including in the Azovstal Plant, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that there is no more fighting in the city. Ukrainian forces likely still hold important positions beyond the plant itself, and Russian forces continue to fight outside the plant, bomb the plant, and assault positions near the plant. Putin’s order not to chase Ukrainian defenders into the tunnels and catacombs of the facility evidently did not preclude continued efforts to secure at least the entire perimeter of the plant and likely also the important M14 highway that runs along it to the north and northwest.

Russia is staging false-flag attacks in Transnistria, Moldova, likely setting conditions for further actions on that front. The two motorized rifle battalions Russia has illegally maintained in Transnistria since the end of the Cold War are not likely sufficient to mount a credible attack on Odesa by themselves, nor are the Russians likely to be able to reinforce them enough to allow them to do so. They could support more limited attacks to the northwest of Odesa, possibly causing panic and creating psychological effects to benefit Russian operations in the south of Ukraine.

Russia may also seek to destabilize Moldova itself, however. Comments by the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic and other Russian officials and proxies raise the possibility that Putin might recognize the self-styled Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) in Transnistria as he recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The PMR could then ask for additional Russian protection, and Putin could attempt to send some additional forces or capabilities to Transnistria. Any such activities would greatly raise tensions and fears in Moldova and neighboring Romania, putting additional pressure on NATO, possibly giving Putin a cheap “win,” and distracting from Russia’s slog in eastern Ukraine.

Continued indications that Russian forces intend to hold referenda to establish “people’s republics” in occupied areas of southern Ukraine raise the possibility that Putin intends to unveil an array of new “independent” “people’s republics” as part of a Victory Day celebration. The forecast cone is wide, and there is as yet no solid basis to assess one path as much more likely than another. But the false-flag attacks and Russian and Russian proxy reactions to them are alarming, and it behooves NATO and the West to consider the most dangerous courses of action and prepare to meet them.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces continue to make slow but steady progress south from Izyum and northwest of Rubizhne, but Russian offensive operations elsewhere along the line in eastern Ukraine remain unsuccessful.

  • Fighting continues in Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders apparently still hold positions beyond the Azovstal Plant.

  • Russia and/or Russian proxies have staged false-flag attacks in Russian-occupied Transnistria, possibly to threaten a (very likely unsuccessful) attack on Odesa, possibly to destabilize Moldova.