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Russia shifts attention to Avdiivka, Kyiv requests Finnish jets, Wagner PMC may leave Ukraine. What happened on the front line on March 23?

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The front line

Russian troops have drastically changed their priority direction for an offensive, according to the latest assessment from the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The ISW’s analysts believe that the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region’s Pokrovsk district is a new possible target instead of Bakhmut. Russia may be aiming to encircle the settlement, and it is possible that Russian forces are doing so at the expense of their operations around Bakhmut and the stalled offensive around Vuhledar.

To the north of Avdiivka, fighters of Russia’s 132nd Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade have advanced west of Novobakhmutivka in recent days, claimed the pro-Russian Telegram channel Rybar. Ukrainian fighters were dislodged from two strongholds to the south of Novobakhmutivka and northeast of Krasnohorivka, the channel said. According to the channel, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are now holding positions in a forest belt near a section of the H20 highway and have been semi-surrounded by Russian troops.

To the north-west of Avdiivka, position battles continue near the railway. After the Russian army’s attack in Stepnove, Ukrainian servicemen have moved their reserves and pushed the Russian grouping behind the railway line. To the west, the Russian Armed Forces are shelling the AFU in Lastochkyne, Tonenke and Severne.

On the evening of 23 March, a report from the AFU General Staff stated that all Russian army units had left Nova Kakhovka, but later denied the claim, specifying that the information about the Russian withdrawal from the settlement had been released due to the “misuse of available data.” The initial report said that the Russian military had “confiscated” household and electronic appliances, jewellery, clothes and mobile phones from civilians for profit. The Russian Defence Ministry has not yet commented on the situation in Nova Kakhovka.

The commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, announced that the AFU would soon take advantage of the Russian losses near Bakhmut, just as they had done near Kyiv and in the Kharkiv region. According to Syrskyi, Russia is not giving up hope to take Bakhmut at any cost, despite sustaining losses in both manpower and equipment.

“The main Russian forces in this direction are representatives of the Wagner PMC. Without sparing anything, they are losing significant forces and are exhausted. Very soon we will use this opportunity, as we did in due time near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliia and Kupiansk.
Under constant enemy artillery and aviation fire, our frontline soldiers demonstrate superhuman fortitude, courage and bravery. In particular units of the 93rd, 10th, 57th and 5th brigades, which are now defending our homeland in the east of the country.”

In a post on his Telegram channel, Boris Rozhin, a military expert at the Russian propagandist “Center for Political-military Journalism,” claimed that the situation north of Avdiivka had changed. According to him, there is no operational encirclement, let alone a pocket, as the roads through Orlivka continue to be actively used by the AFU. According to Rozhin, it is currently impossible to mount serious pressure on Tonenke from the direction of Pervomaiske and Vodyane. At the same time, the advance near Krasnohorivka poses a threat of reaching Orlivka from the northeast, so the Ukrainian servicemen are now strengthening their defences to the west of Krasnohorivka.

The Wagner PMC itself claims that up to 80,000 AFU personnel, about 280 tanks, over 1,000 armoured vehicles, up to 300 pieces of artillery and 93 MLRS are concentrated near Bakhmut, Konstantinivka, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Druzhkivka. The grouping is how the AFU command will try to dislodge the PMC assault forces from Bakhmut and develop an offensive towards Donetsk.

Bloomberg quoted its sources as saying that Yevgeny Prigozhin plans to wind down the Wagner PMC’s operations in Ukraine. Russia’s security services and political establishment view Prigozhin as a “growing threat,” as he is now short of ammunition and manpower after a government-issued ban on recruiting Russian prisoners for the war. A day prior, reports revealed that the Wagner PMC is set to lose many mercenaries as their six-month military contracts come to an end. Thousands of prisoners recruited for the war with Ukraine will be pardoned and released, the ISW reported.

The ISW also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to completely distance himself from Wagner PMC founder Yevgeny Prigozhin after the conflict over the capture of Soledar. Prigozhin has created a brand mocking the Russian Defence Ministry for its disregard for the lives of its servicemen, and is unlikely to anger convicts by keeping them on the front lines after their contract expires, the ISW concluded.

Arms supplies

Czech President Petr Pavel told German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that his country had helped Ukraine with arms deliveries as much as it could, but that it no longer had the capacity to do so. He added that 2023 would be a decisive year for the war. Pavel said there could be problems with the production of air defenses and ammunition due to a shortage of labor, as the Czech Republic has a low unemployment rate, and suggested inviting workers from Ukraine.

Ukraine has sent an official request to Finland for deliveries of F/A-18 Hornet fighters for the Ukrainian Air Force, according to a report from the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, citing sources with knowledge of the matter. The media outlet added that the negotiations over the jets were trilateral and were held between Finland, Ukraine and the US. A possible transfer of the airplanes is conditional on future US approval, since the fighters are produced by a US defence company.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, current deputy head of Russia's Security Council, claimed that the Russian military industrial complex would produce 1,500 modern battle tanks in 2023. In a conversation with The Insider, defense expert Pavel Luzin commented that those numbers were impossible to achieve. According to Luzin, Russia only upgrades anywhere from 150 to 180 previously manufactured T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks per year, and the net production of new T-90 tanks stands at about 20-30 annually. Even the Soviet Union did not produce more than 1,500 tanks per year, noted the expert.

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