Curated news, analysis, and commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tactical situation on the ground, Ukrainian defense, and NATO. Additional topics include refugees, internally displaced personnel, humanitarian efforts, cyber, and information operations.
Image / Photo: Ukraine APC, courtesy of Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.
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Russian Campaign Update. The shelling of Ukrainian cities by Russian artillery, missiles, and air strikes continues, taking a toll on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Major movement on the ground by Russian forces has been limited. Some cities are experiencing probing attacks and there are reports that Russian SOF have entered parts of the cities and engaging in firefights. Russia has launched over 1,100 missiles against targets in Ukraine, possibly expending about 1/2 of their inventory. The Russians have taken only a few population centers – the largest being Kherson in the south. Ukraine says over 15,000 Russians have been killed in the war, while many Western officials say the numbers are around 9,000.
The Russians appear to have shifted its strategy from capturing major cities to attempting to encircle them and force them to surrender with indiscriminate shelling. Russian offensive action has been limited due to problems with command and control, lack of fuel, logistics difficulties, communications difficulties, and a stiff Ukrainian defense. Thus far, the Russians have captured three sizeable cities – Melitopol, Berdyans’k, and Kherson. They are still trying to capture Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. There are indications that the Ukrainians may go on the offensive to recapture Kherson.
Ukrainian Defense. The Russians have been frustrated by the stiff opposition put up by the Ukraine military. Progress over the past few weeks has been very slow for the Russians and the continued dogged defense of the large cities by the Ukrainians have been costly. Ukrainian air defense has been very nimble and on the move to avoid being neutralized by air attacks and missile strikes.
Fight for the Skies. It is believed that the Russian Air Force is facing inventory problems with their precision-guided munitions. In addition, some of their munitions are failing to launch, not hitting targets, or failing to explode on contact. Some reports indicate that the Russians are conducting more air sorties now than in days past – perhaps as many as 300 sorties a day conducting air to ground attacks. Many Russian aircraft do not leave Russian or Belarusian airspace. When they do overfly Ukraine it isn’t for very long or far into Ukrainian airspace. Although there have been reports that Slovakia would send some of their S-300 missile systems to Ukraine, it seems it hasn’t happened yet. Germany has sent one of its Patriot batteries to Slovakia to enhance their air defense capability.
Drone Warfare. Ukrainian drones have been having great success against Russian targets. Drones as simple as the cheap, commercial ones available online to more complex ones like the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 are taking a toll on the Russians. One of the more favorite targets are Russian convoys that are parked along the side of a road at night. The Ukrainian drone unit, Aerorozvidka, was started in 2014 by model plane enthusiasts. The unit is now flying up to 300 missions a day. “We strike at night, when the Russians sleep – How Ukraine is stalking Russian armor with drones”, Task & Purpose, March 21, 2022.
Maritime Activities. An amphibious landing force on several ships is still positioned in the Black Sea off the coast of Odessa to land a substantial element of Russian naval infantry. It is doubtful if it will be employed unless the Russians make further ground advances toward Odessa along the Black Sea coast. The intentions of Russian amphibious warships in the Black Sea are unclear. This force will likely continue to pose a threat requiring the Ukrainians to keep forces available to counter it – which precludes those ground units from fighting at the frontlines. This Russian fleet is conducting shelling and missile attacks against Ukrainian targets along the Black Sea coast and into the interior of Ukraine. The Russian blockade of Ukrainian shipping continues.
Kyiv. The capital city of Ukraine is considered the primary objective of the Russians. The capture of Kyiv would allow Russia to put in place its puppet government. The Russian offensive against Kyiv has been stalled. The city is undergoing shelling from artillery, missiles, and rockets. There are limited Ukrainian counterattacks taking place in the Kyiv area – with the Ukrainians retaking a key suburb of Kyiv. The Russians are being held at a distance from the city center – 15 klics NW of Kyiv and 30 klics east of Kyiv. Indications are that the Russians are reinforcing their defensive positions.
Kharkiv. The second largest city of Ukraine is Kharkiv located in the northeast of the country. The Ukrainians are holding out in this city and it has not yet been encircled. Refugees have been leaving whenever the humanitarian corridors open up.
Mariupol. Most of the population of Mariupol spend their time in shelters and basements seeking safety from the constant shelling by the Russians. When they do venture out it is in search for water and food. The city is in ruin with entire neighborhoods devastated. Between 18 and 20 March more than 13,000 people have been evacuated from the city. Russia has been accused of forcibly removing thousands of Ukrainians from Mariupol to camps in Russia after having their cell phones screened and Ukrainian passports confiscated. This city is situated along the coastal road network that would provide Russia with a land bridge between Russia and the Crimea. Mariupol is a key port city on the Sea of Azov and a link between the Russian-occupied Donbass area and Russian-occupied Crimea. “Ukraine conflict: Russia trying to starve Mariupol into surrender”, BBC News, March 20, 2022. The Russians demanded the surrender of the city but Ukraine rejected those demands. (Military Times, Mar 21, 2022).
Mykolayiv. Located on the west bank of the Dnieper River close to the coast of the Black Sea, Mykolayiv is a strategic objective for the Russians that is on the road to Odessa located further west along the coast of the Black Sea. The Russian attack on this major city has been stalled.
Negotiations. The Ukrainian president says direct talks with Vladimir Putin are necessary to understand Moscow’s position on ending the war. Putin is unlikely to meet with Zelensky. (Aljazeera, Mar 21, 2022).
Situation Maps. War in Ukraine by Scribble Maps. Read an assessment and view a map of the Russian offensive campaign by the Institute for the Study of War. The ISW provides a very detailed tactical overview of the situation.
Refugees, IDPs, and Humanitarian Crisis. As of March 22, over 3,400,000 refugees have left Ukraine according to data provided by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Over 6.5 million people have been internally displaced within Ukraine. On Monday (Mar 21) over 8,000 people were evacuated from cities through humanitarian corridors. 3,000 of them came from the embattled city of Mariupol. Read the latest report published on Monday (Mar 21) by OCHA Ukraine on the humanitarian impact of the war.
Poland Steps Up to Assist Refugees – But There Will be Some Issues. Most of the refugees have gone to Poland as part of the largest migration crisis in post-war European history. Two million people have fled Ukraine for Poland, mostly women and children. The refugees can stay in Poland for up to 18 months and the healthcare system has opened up to them. However, Poland is poorly equipped to handle this many people over the long-term. Western governments will need to find a way to help Poland financially and logistically. Read more in “Poland’s refugee crisis in waiting”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, March 22, 2022.
Meetings in Europe. President Biden and Secretary of Defense Austin will be meeting with European leaders and NATO officials this week . . . the topic, of course, is the Ukraine War. Part of the visit will entail a trip to Poland. One topic that could come up is the Polish proposal of a NATO ‘peacekeeping force’ to enter Ukraine.
Russia’s ‘Kinzhal’. Much has been made of Russia’s ‘hypersonic’ missile but most defense experts say there is not much special or particularly exciting about it. The Kinzhal is an air launched version of the Iskander-M. Launched from an aircraft gives it added range. Currently, within the context of the Ukraine War, it seems to be more of a propaganda tool than anything else. Still dangerous, but not the ‘ultimate weapon’ everyone initially pronounced it to be. Read more in “US can’t verify Russian hypersonic missile claim, official says”, The Hill, March 21, 2022.
Cyber and Information Operations
Banning Wikipedia? There are rumors that Russia’s censorship office may block Russian Wikipedia. Some Russians are making local copies of Wikipedia before it gets blocked. The 29-gigabyte file that contains the Russian-language Wikipedia was downloaded over 100,000 times during the first half of March. This was a 4,000 per cent increase compared with the first half of January. “Russians Are Racing to Download Wikipedia Before It Gets Banned”, Slate, March 21, 2022.
Russia’s Cyber Attack on Ukraine. Before Russia moved its troops and tanks into Ukraine it conducted a wave of cyberattacks. Websites were hamstrung, malware infected computers, denial of service attacks took place, and communications were hampered. But the widespread digital devastation of critical infrastructure did not happen. No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously as Russia. But in the current conflict this capability seems to have not been used to its fullest extent. Are the Russians holding back? Read more in “Blue, yellow and gray zone: the cyber factor in Ukraine”, C4ISRNET, March 14, 2022.
U.S. Held Soviet Weapons Going to Ukraine? The United States has captured, snatched, or otherwise acquired various Russian-made air defense systems over the years. They could be heading to Ukraine. Some of these systems have been in storage at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Read more in “Secretive American Stocks of Soviet Air Defense Systems Are Headed to Ukraine”, The WarZone, March 21, 2022.
Hungary – a Balancing Act? Although the international response to the Russian aggression towards Ukraine has been strong there are still some countries that are less than strident in their condemnation of Russia. The UAE, India, and China are among those. So is Hungary. It opposes a no-fly zone over Ukraine and an embargo on Russian energy.
Saudi Arabia. The United States is finding out a little more about its friendship with the Saudis. Pleas by the U.S. for this country to increase its oil production to help ease the spike in world oil prices has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the Saudis are using the Ukraine War and its oil resources as leverage against the United States. It is warming up to China in what many see as a realigning of the international order. Read more in “Saudi Crown Prince Uses Leverage Against the United States”, The Soufan Center Intel Brief, March 22, 2022. Of course, the lack of Saudi cooperation hasn’t seemed to diminish the eagerness of the United States to transfer Patriot missile batteries to that country to help it defend against missile and drone attacks from Yemen.
Western SOF? Some conjecture that Western special operations forces are actively engaged in supporting Ukrainian forces in the conflict is now taking place. Certainly they are ‘in touch’ with their Ukrainian SOF counterparts . . . but to what degree? The Brits could be leaning forward in this area.
Mercenaries in Ukraine. Both warring countries are actively recruiting foreigners to their fighting ranks. Robert Lawless, managing director of the Lieber Institute for Law & Land Warfare at the United States Military Academy (West Point), examines the legality of ‘mercenaries’ in the Ukraine War. “Are Mercenaries in Ukraine?”, Articles of War, March 21, 2022. There has been a lot of talk about Syrians going to Ukraine to fight on behalf of the Russians, but there has not been a detectable influx of foreign fighters hired or recruited by Russia. There are hundreds of ‘private soldiers’ of the Wagner Group currently engaged in combat in Ukraine.
Ukraine, Nukes, and the Indo-Pacific. Countries around the world are watching the Ukraine War with great interest. They have observed the West refrain from some potentially escalatory responses (no-fly zone, MiG-29s, etc.) due to the verbal threats of Putin to employ nuclear weapons. They also know that the agreement between Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom to ensure the security of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons was meaningless. There are lessons here for the nations of the Indo-Pacific. North Korea is going to continue to improve its nuclear weapons capability, China is engaged in a nuclear modernization program, and Pakistan has nukes as well. Read more in “Ukraine war may drive more Indo-Pacific nations towards nuclear weapons”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, March 22, 2022.
SOF News welcomes the submission of articles for publication. If it is related to special operations, current conflicts, national security, defense, or the current conflict in Ukraine then we are interested.
Maps and Other Resources
UNCN. The Ukraine NGO Coordination Network is an organization that ties together U.S.-based 501c3 organizations and non-profit humanitarian organizations that are working to evacuate and support those in need affected by the Ukraine crisis. https://uncn.one
Maps of Ukraine
Ukraine Conflict Info. The Ukrainians have launched a new website that will provide information about the war. It is entitled Russia Invaded Ukraine and can be found at https://war.ukraine.ua/.
UNHCR Operational Data Portal – Ukraine Refugee Situation
Ukrainian Think Tanks – Brussels. Consolidated information on how to help Ukraine from abroad and stay up to date on events.
Janes Equipment Profile – Ukraine Conflict. An 81-page PDF provides information on the military equipment of the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces. Covers naval, air, electronic warfare, C4ISR, communications, night vision, radar, and armored fighting vehicles, Ukraine Conflict Equipment Profile, February 28, 2022.
Russian EW Capabilities. “Rah, Rah, Rash Putin?”, Armada International, March 2, 2022.
Arms Transfers to Ukraine. Forum on the Arms Trade.