Institute for the Study of War: Ukrainian forces take the offensive as Russian forces continue regrouping

May 3, 2022

Ukrainian officials reported with increasing confidence that the Kremlin will announce mobilization on May 9. Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate Chief Kyrylo Budanov said on May 2 that the Kremlin has begun to prepare mobilization processes and personnel ahead of the expected May 9 announcement and has already carried out covert mobilization.[1] Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said that high-ranking Russian officials are trying to legitimize a prolonged war effort as the Third World War against the West, rather than the "special military operation” against Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has hitherto framed Russia’s invasion.[2] ISW has no independent confirmation of Russian preparations for mobilization.

A significant Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed Russian forces roughly 40 km east of Kharkiv City.[3] A senior American defense official reported the Ukrainian operation, which is consistent with social media reports from both Ukrainian and Russian sources that Ukrainian troops took control of Staryi Saltiv on May 2.[4] This Ukrainian counteroffensive is very unlikely to affect Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Izyum, as the Russians have not been relying on GLOCs from Kharkiv to support their operations in Izyum but have been using routes further to the east and well beyond the most recent Ukrainian counteroffensive’s limit of advance. The Ukrainian counteroffensive may, however, unhinge the Russian positions northeast of Kharkiv and could set conditions for a broader operation to drive the Russians from most of their positions around the city. This possibility may pose a dilemma for the Russians—whether to reinforce their positions near Kharkiv to prevent such a broader Ukrainian operation or to risk losing most or all of their positions in artillery range of the city.

Russia’s long-term intentions regarding the status of Mariupol and other occupied areas seem confused. Some anecdotes from Mariupol indicate that Russia may plan to incorporate Mariupol and the surrounding environs into the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and possibly annex the DNR to the Russian Federation. Other anecdotes suggest that Russia could directly absorb Mariupol into Rostov Oblast. These inconsistencies could simply be artifacts of reporting or confusion on the ground, but they could also indicate actual confusion about Russia’s long-term plans for governing the Ukrainian regions that Moscow’s forces currently occupy. These anecdotes clearly support the assessment that Putin has no intention of ceding occupied territories back to an independent Ukraine and is, at most, considering exactly how he intends to govern regions that Russia has illegally seized.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces resumed air, artillery, and ground assaults on the Azovstal Steel Plant following the conclusion of the May 2 evacuation efforts.

  • Russian forces continued to regroup on the Donetsk-Luhansk axis in likely preparation for a westward advance in the direction of Lyman and Slovyansk.

  • The Ukrainian Armed Forces conducted a counteroffensive that likely pushed Russian forces up to 40 km east of Kharkiv City.

  • Russian forces conducted limited ground offensives in Zaporizhia Oblast in the vicinity of Huliapole and intensified reconnaissance operations in the vicinity of Odesa amid growing tensions in Transnistria.

ISW has updated the structure of its discussion of the primary efforts that Russian forces are currently engaging in. The main Russian effort is concentrated in Eastern Ukraine and includes one subordinate main effort and four supporting efforts. The subordinate main effort is the encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the cauldron formed between the Izyum-Slovyansk highway and the Kreminna-Rubizhne-Popasna frontline in Luhansk. The four supporting efforts are: completing the seizure of Mariupol, Kharkiv City, the Southern Axis, and threatening northeastern Ukraine from Russian and Belarusian territory.

ISW has updated its assessment of the five primary efforts Russian forces are engaged in at this time:

  • Main effort—Eastern Ukraine (comprised of one subordinate and four supporting efforts);

  • Subordinate main effort—Encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the cauldron between Izyum and the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts

  • Supporting effort 1—Mariupol;

  • Supporting effort 2—Kharkiv City;

  • Supporting effort 3—Southern axis;

  • Supporting effort 4—Sumy and northeastern Ukraine.

Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine

Subordinate Main Effort—Southern Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk Oblasts (Russian objective: Encircle Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine and capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas.)

Russian forces continued to conduct unspecified offensive operations southwestward from Izyum towards Barvinkove on May 3. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that elements of the Airborne Forces (VDV), 1st Tank Army, 20th, 29th, 35th, and 36th Combined Arms Armies, and 68th Army Corps are operating in the Barvinkove direction and suffering continuous losses.[5]

Russian forces continued to fire along the Donetsk-Luhansk frontline and did not make any confirmed ground attacks on May 3.[6] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that elements of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps (forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics), 8th, 58th, and 5th Combined Arms Armies, Pacific Fleet, 2nd and 41st Combined Arms Armies, 90th Tank Division, and unspecified VDV elements are regrouping to advance westward in the direction of Lyman and Slovyansk.[7] Remotely sensed NASA data for fires and heat anomalies observed significant high-temperature anomalies in Lyman between May 2 and 3 over the past 24 hours, indicating Russian indirect fire that was likely in preparation for such an advance.[8] The large number of combined arms armies, divisions, and other organizations identified as contributing troops to this effort suggests that many if not most of the Russian units engaged on this axis are understrength and in ad-hoc organizations. That observation, if true, may help explain the slow and halting pace of the Russian advance.

 

[Source: NASA‘s Fire Information for Resource Management System over Lyman for May 2 and May 3]

 

Supporting Effort #1—Mariupol (Russian objective: Capture Mariupol and reduce the Ukrainian defenders.)

Russian forces resumed air, artillery, and ground attacks on the Azovstal Steel Plant on May 3 after the conclusion of preliminary evacuation efforts.[9] Deputy Commander of the Azov Regiment Sviatoslav Palamar stated that Russian forces conducted a ground assault to attempt entry of Azovstal under the cover of airstrikes that killed two civilians inside the plant.[10]

Russian occupying forces continue to set conditions for the administrative occupation of Mariupol. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that private enterprises in Rostov, Russia, received orders to produce official seals and stamps for public institutions in Mariupol that reportedly contain the inscription: “Russia, the Republic of Donbas, Mariupol, the military-civilian administration.”[11] GUR’s report is consistent with Advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol Petro Andryushchenko’s statement that children in the Mangush region near Mariupol are signing their school notebooks with “Rostov Oblast” and indicates continued Russian efforts to further institutionalize control of occupied territories in anticipation of potential annexation to Russia.[12] These reports taken in tandem, however, indicate potential confusion in the Kremlin’s ultimate end goal for the status of Mariupol and other occupied areas. Occupation authorities are likely unclear as to whether the intention is to absorb Mariupol into the existing administration of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), which then may be annexed to Russia, or to directly attach Mariupol to Russia as part of Rostov Oblast. Russia has not formally annexed the DNR, moreover, but rather recognized its independence, putting the formulation “Russia, the Republic of Donbas” at variance with Russia’s current formal stance. These oddities may indicate inconsistencies in the plans or implementation of occupational frameworks that could likely play out in occupied areas beyond Mariupol.

Supporting Effort #2—Kharkiv City (Russian objective: Continue to pressure Kharkiv City to fix Ukrainian defenders there and prevent their movement to reinforce defenders on other axes.)

The Ukrainian Armed Forces conducted a large-scale counteroffensive east of Kharkiv City on May 2, which could unhinge Russian positions to the northeast. A US senior defense official reported that Ukrainian forces pushed Russian forces about 40 km east on May 2, and social media reports corroborate that report by showing Ukrainian forces liberating the settlement of Staryi Saltiv.[13] Russian forces reportedly retreated in the direction of Volchansk near the Russian state border.[14] Ukraine’s Advisor to the Internal Affairs Minister Anton Herashchenko said that Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Molodova near Staryi Saltiv on May 3.[15] Ukrainian forces likely liberated more settlements along the T2104 highway based on May 1 reports that fighting occurred in highway adjacent settlements of Khotomlya, Shestakove, Staryi Saltiv, Molodova, and Peremoha.[16] Russian forces maintained artillery positions in Tsyrkuny, approximately 20 km from downtown Kharkiv City.[17] Russian forces will likely seek to retain their remaining settlements in Kharkiv’s vicinity to continue daily artillery fire and pin Ukrainian units in the area but may have to reinforce their positions in this area to do so.

Supporting Effort #3—Southern Axis (Objective: Defend Kherson against Ukrainian counterattacks)

Russian forces conducted limited ground offensives in Zaporizhia Oblast on May 3 but confined themselves to shelling elsewhere in southern Ukraine.[18] Zaporizhia Oblast Administration Head Oleksandr Staruch reported that Russian forces launched an assault on the outskirts of Huliapole and on the area east of the settlement but did not seize any new territories.[19] Russian forces shelled the settlement of Zaluznychne around 8 km from Huliapole, likely to break the Ukrainian defenses and secure the northbound T0401 highway.[20]

The Russian Defense Ministry released a video of Bastion coastal defense complexes firing Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles at land targets, claiming that Russian forces struck a Ukrainian logistics center in Odesa Oblast on May 3.[21] The use of the Oniks anti-ship missile in a ground-attack role may suggest that Russian forces are experiencing shortages of the other types of long-range precision-guided munitions necessary to disrupt Ukrainian logistics.[22]

 

Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command said that Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian “Forpost” reconnaissance drone in Odesa Oblast on May 3, confirming ongoing Russian reconnaissance in the area amid growing tensions in Transnistria.[23] Ukrainian officials blocked the Kuchurhan-Pervomaisc border checkpoint with Transnistria amid new Transnistrian claims that the proxy republic repelled a terrorist drone attack on May 3, likely in preparation for possible escalations.[24] The Ukrainian General Staff said that Russian officials are taking unspecified measures to prepare for evacuations of Russian military families from Transnistria.[25]