March 24th war map in Ukraine by Nathan Ruser
Map by Nathan Ruser. Disclaimer: This map and the information below is informed by reliable and verified open sources, it is meant to convey the general disposition of Russian troops in Ukraine and should not be considered confirmed nor comprehensive. Importantly, do not use this map to plan evacuation routes through Ukraine.

The present sta­tus of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggres­sion in Ukraine is very flu­id, vio­lent, and fre­quent­ly star­tling. NPI will try to err on the side of cau­tion when evi­dence behind claims or state­ments are lacking.

Nei­ther Russ­ian nor Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary forces have been able to achieve deci­sive vic­to­ries in their most recent com­bat against one anoth­er, but pat­terns are emerg­ing that could reach deci­sive moments with­in the next two weeks or less.

In the greater Kyiv met­ro­pol­i­tan area, Ukrain­ian forces are attempt­ing to trans­late the retak­ing of the towns of Markariv and Kukhars­ka into attacks beyond them, accom­pa­nied by attacks on the oppo­site side of the tip of the Russ­ian salient north­west of Kyiv and just north of Bucha and Hostomel.

The like­ly objec­tive is to force the Rus­sians to with­draw or lose artillery and ground-to-ground mis­sile units and thus min­i­mize their abil­i­ty to suc­cess­ful­ly bom­bard Kyiv, but appar­ent­ly the Russ­ian defense has been soft enough that the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary is talk­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of iso­lat­ing and sur­round­ing a por­tion of Russ­ian mil­i­tary forces with­in the salient.

(This has­n’t stopped Russ­ian forces from bom­bard­ing a neigh­bor­hood near­by the cen­ter of Kyiv on Wednes­day, March 23rd.)

Regard­less of whether or not such a pos­si­bil­i­ty exists, it has been con­firmed that Russ­ian units are adopt­ing defen­sive posi­tions in most of the salient north­west of Kyiv and imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing the besieged town of Chernihiv.

More impor­tant­ly, it appears that recent fight­ing imme­di­ate­ly to the south and south­east of Cherni­hiv has result­ed not only in reopened sup­ply lines to the city, which had been momen­tar­i­ly closed, but also may have cre­at­ed an iso­lat­ed Russ­ian pock­et between Kozelets and Bohdaniv­ka and anoth­er around the town of Nova Basan. Fur­ther east, though Russ­ian bom­bard­ment has con­tin­ued in Sumy, the Sumy-through-Okhtyrkra area has been large­ly qui­et since a recent failed Russ­ian assault on Okhtyrkra.

Fur­ther south, the Rus­sians have large­ly con­tin­ued their slow but steady progress. With­in the Lunan­sk and Donet­sk oblasts of the Don­bas region, the Rus­sians are fight­ing hard to turn the flanks of the exten­sive defen­sive lines both sides have cre­at­ed since the 2014 inva­sion, specif­i­cal­ly at Marin­ka to the south and an area between the towns of Yampil, Sievierodonet­sk and Lystchan­sk to the north.

The Rus­sians are also tak­ing cues from the Ukraini­ans: they’ve been bomb­ing key rail junc­tions behind the lines to min­i­mize access to sup­plies and muni­tions and have been using drones more often to find and fol­low sin­gle or small groups of mobile Ukrain­ian units to destroy larg­er con­cen­tra­tions in the process.

And when that has­n’t worked, they’ve been will­ing to be worse.

There have been grum­blings that Russ­ian forces have used white phos­pho­rus in night­time attacks around Kyiv and the Don­bas for the last week, and this has final­ly led to for­mal accu­sa­tions of such use around the town of Kram­a­torsk.

Anoth­er appar­ent Russ­ian effort has been to detect Aero­scope sig­nal­ing on drones man­u­fac­tured by Chi­nese firm DJI, which exists to deter­mine when such drones enter restrict­ed air­space in peace­time, to track and kill their operators.

The prob­lem is that while most DJI drones in Ukraine are being used by its mil­i­tary, the drones are inex­pen­sive enough that civil­ians have them in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers as well. The Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary is appeal­ing to DJI to turn off Aero­scope sig­nals with­in Ukraine, as it may have led to the deaths of over one hun­dred Ukrain­ian chil­dren play­ing with some­thing they con­sid­er a hobby.

Toward the south­west, Mar­i­upol is slow­ly being reduced to rub­ble and ash by Russ­ian forces. While appar­ent­ly around 190,000 civil­ians have been able to with­draw from the city to areas behind the front lines with­in Ukraine, there are still at least two hun­dred thou­sand civil­ians thought to be in the city, which has no elec­tric­i­ty, nat­ur­al gas or potable water available.

The Rus­sians have forced the evac­u­a­tion of over sev­en thou­sand civil­ians in the city into either the occu­pied Lunan­sk and Donet­sk oblasts of the Don­bas region, or to with­in Rus­sia itself.

In either case, this lat­ter group of civil­ians have not con­tact­ed rel­a­tives or friends since their removal from Mar­i­upol, and no aid agency has been able to con­firm where they are in order to pro­vide for their needs.

In addi­tion to attempts to cre­ate human­i­tar­i­an cor­ri­dors out of Mar­i­upol, with mixed results, there are sev­en attempt­ing to come into being and suc­cess­ful­ly used as of Sun­day, March 20th.

The Rus­sians have been ruth­less in tak­ing Mar­i­upol, with prime exam­ples from the media being the destruc­tion of both the Mar­i­upol Dra­ma School with a bomb shel­ter hous­ing between a thou­sand and twelve hun­dred women, chil­dren and the elder­ly, and lat­er an art school with over four hun­dred res­i­dents, many hud­dled in its basement.

But for all this, even with­in this area the lines of bat­tle are still porous.

On Tues­day, March 24th, appar­ent­ly one Russ­ian war­ship was sunk and two more dam­aged at the port of Berdyan­sk, some fifty miles south­west of Mariupol.

This was a force that dis­persed Russ­ian naval infantry, muni­tions and sup­plies toward Mar­i­upol, and which would have been used lat­er in any amphibi­ous attack on Odesa.

There is some ques­tion as to how much Ukrain­ian sup­plies and war materiel were pre-posi­tioned with­in the city, as giv­en its loca­tion on the Sea of Azov, which in turn makes it cru­cial for con­trol of the Black Sea, the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary like­ly saw it as a prime tar­get in the event of an inva­sion. Most mil­i­tary observers have been sur­prised by the extent to which the city has held out so far. This mat­ters because the more Russ­ian casu­al­ties there are in tak­ing Mar­i­upol, the less forces are avail­able for rein­forc­ing attacks toward Marin­ka or points fur­ther west.

Fur­ther south­west, Ukrain­ian coun­ter­at­tacks have been made toward Kher­son, ini­tial­ly through bom­bard­ment and/or mis­sile attacks on the near­by air­field at Chornobayiv­ka on March 15th and 18th — this may have led to the with­draw­al of Russ­ian mil­i­tary heli­copters at the air­field.

On Wednes­day, March 16th, there was an attempt to force local nota­bles from Kher­son, through a group called the “Kher­son Res­cue Com­mit­tee for Peace and Order,” to cre­ate a new col­lab­o­ra­tionist author­i­ty that would even­tu­al­ly lead to the cre­ation of a new break­away republic.

The effort failed, how­ev­er, and lat­er that same evening, Ukrain­ian spe­cial forces units freed Melitopol’s elect­ed May­or, Ivan Fyo­dor­ov, from his Russ­ian captors.

On March 20th, Pavel Slo­bod­chikov, an assis­tant to Russ­ian col­lab­o­ra­tionist Kher­son City Coun­cil mem­ber Volodymyr Sal­do, was, with his wife, assas­si­nat­ed.

Demon­stra­tions against Russ­ian occu­py­ing forces by the cit­i­zens of Kher­son have been ongo­ing since its sur­ren­der by the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary, but they were fired upon for the first time on Mon­day, March 21st, result­ing in at least two wounded.

Ukrain­ian forces have been able to suc­cess­ful­ly push back Russ­ian forces near Myko­laiv, with suc­cess­ful attempts toward the east at tak­ing the near­by towns of Khrysto­foriv­ka, Hrei­hove, Kyse­liv­ka and Per­vo­maiske, pos­si­bly through the Ukrain­ian 79th Air Assault Brigade. Mean­while, Russ­ian forces have been mak­ing explorato­ry attacks to the north­east of Kherson.

One is toward the city of Kryvyi Riv, which would place them anoth­er step clos­er to pock­et­ing Ukrain­ian forces in both the Don­bas and pos­si­bly the Sumy-through-Okhtyrkra area.

The sec­ond is toward the city of Nikopol, across the Dnipro Riv­er from the occu­pied town of Ener­ho­dar and its adja­cent Zapor­izhzhia com­mer­cial nuclear pow­er facil­i­ty. This would also be a means of fur­ther ensur­ing that Dnipro Riv­er water can’t be blocked from access to the Crimean penin­su­la, which relies almost entire­ly on the riv­er for its supply.

(A dam built by the Ukraini­ans after the 2014 inva­sion to block access was blown up by the Rus­sians ear­ly in the 2022 invasion.)

The fight­ing at this point has clar­i­fied each side’s weak­ness­es and strengths.

Russ­ian com­bat effec­tive­ness and coor­di­na­tion have been severe­ly dis­si­pat­ed through hav­ing six axes of attack against Ukraine.

At this point, beyond explorato­ry attacks out­side of the Don­bas, the focus now appears to be on ensur­ing a sup­ply line from Kher­son to the Russ­ian city of Ros­tov-on-Don, in prepa­ra­tion for a future push toward Ode­sa, and attempt­ing to break the Ukrain­ian forces in the Don­bas with an effort toward pock­et­ing forces there and to the imme­di­ate north before they can escape the net and cross the south­ern approach­es of the Dnipro River.

The Rus­sians have been fight­ing some­what more intel­li­gent­ly late­ly, but can they afford to con­tin­ue to sus­tain such heavy loss­es? The Syr­i­an mer­ce­nar­ies may not be com­ing. Even if the mil­i­tary of Belarus wants to assist, the ongo­ing “rail­way war” could wreak hav­oc with that plan, and if they attack the north­west por­tion of Ukraine with­out sig­nif­i­cant Russ­ian fire sup­port, they will be slaughtered.

Call­ing up con­scripts through­out Rus­sia to replace loss­es may harm the image with­in Rus­sia that this con­flict is both lim­it­ed and under control.

The Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary, with an extra­or­di­nary lev­el of of sig­nals intel­li­gence, sup­plies and muni­tions pro­vid­ed by NATO, has fought a resilient and adapt­able defense against a huge but large­ly incom­pe­tent Russ­ian mil­i­tary that has relied too much on shock and awe, mass and fire­pow­er to ensure a quick victory.

The first prob­lem is how to cre­ate a more flex­i­ble defense in the Donbas.

The Rus­sians are try­ing to starve the Ukraini­ans of future muni­tions there and grind away at their posi­tions, and if they lose key points along their defen­sive lines, the geog­ra­phy behind them will be very dif­fi­cult to defend until they reach the Dnipro Riv­er. That in turn could unrav­el the defense of Kharkov to Sumy, and cause Cherni­hiv to be at risk of being sur­round­ed again.

The oth­er prob­lem is that while the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary has been very effec­tive as a defen­sive force, at some point they will have to be able to com­mit to sig­nif­i­cant offen­sive oper­a­tions. And that means artillery or its equiv­a­lent in greater num­bers than they have present­ly. They are care­ful­ly using what they have in their approach toward Kher­son, the Cherni­hv area and north­west of Kyiv, but they will need much more offen­sive fire­pow­er to even­tu­al­ly break the Russ­ian army.

This may be where the new Amer­i­can Switch­blade weapons sys­tem proves effec­tive, but for the imme­di­ate future, the dif­fi­cul­ty will be how to get enough artillery from NATO to Ukrain­ian units with­out run­ning into a dilem­ma sim­i­lar to that of the Pol­ish Mig-29 air­craft poten­tial­ly avail­able to Ukraine.

There has been no word of the sta­tus regard­ing the Zapor­izhzhia com­mer­cial nuclear pow­er facil­i­ty or the sta­tus of its oper­a­tions and main­te­nance staff since short­ly after its takeover by Russ­ian mil­i­tary forces on March 4th.

Only a por­tion of the Ukrain­ian staff at the Cher­nobyl com­mer­cial nuclear pow­er facil­i­ty in the north of Ukraine, occu­pied by Russ­ian mil­i­tary forces since Feb­ru­ary 24th, were rotat­ed out of main­te­nance and replaced with fresh staff on March 20th. This was imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed on Tues­day, March 22nd, by a series of for­est fires with­in the Exclu­sion Zone of the facil­i­ty, which suf­fered a reac­tor breach, explo­sion and wide­spread dis­per­sal of radi­a­tion in 1986.

Mon­i­tor­ing of both facil­i­ties by the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency has essen­tial­ly been unavail­able since their occu­pa­tion by the Russ­ian military.

Over three and a half mil­lion peo­ple have fled Ukraine, and over six and a half mil­lion peo­ple with­in Ukraine are inter­nal­ly displaced.

Over six­ty per­cent of those that have left Ukraine now reside in Poland, which had over three hun­dred thou­sand Ukraini­ans work­ing there with tem­po­rary res­i­dence per­mits before the war. There are con­cerns that appro­pri­ate lev­els of fund­ing aren’t yet in place to accom­mo­date such large num­bers of refugees, espe­cial­ly with respect to health con­cerns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is also the issue of whether refugees want to, and the extent to which they will be, accept­ed by oth­er coun­tries with­in NATO. The Unit­ed States is expect­ed to imme­di­ate­ly take in around 100,000 refugees, though details are not yet final.

Gen­er­al Magomed Tushaev’s pass­ing may not be accu­rate, though it’s still open to ques­tion. There is alleged­ly a video from Mon­day, March 21st, that shows him active with Russ­ian-sup­port­ing Chechen forces with­in the Don­bas region, but the sit­u­a­tion is murky at best.

Regard­less, the num­ber of Russ­ian offi­cers dying in Ukraine keeps ris­ing, one of the newest and high­est ranked being Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Andrei Mord­vichev, who died dur­ing one of the two attacks on Chornobayiv­ka airfield.

Here is a help­ful explain­er of the process and obsta­cles involved in suc­cess­ful­ly pros­e­cut­ing Pres­i­dent Putin of Rus­sia (or any high rank­ing offi­cer of the Russ­ian mil­i­tary, for that mat­ter), which Putin has been declared by Pres­i­dent Biden.

Pres­i­dent Biden will also, like­ly this week, extend per­son­al sanc­tions against the lead­er­ship of Rus­sia and its oli­garchs to include mem­bers of the Russ­ian Duma.

Over four hun­dred com­pa­nies world­wide have now with­drawn from, or have tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend­ed busi­ness for the time being, with­in Russia.

Cargill has decid­ed to trim exist­ing oper­a­tions and not invest in new plans as well, but that isn’t entire­ly sit­ting well with the state where its glob­al head­quar­ters is based. Cum­mins has sus­pend­ed all exist­ing oper­a­tions with­in Rus­sia as of March 15th.

Nes­tle, which had been adamant about main­tain­ing all oper­a­tions with­in Rus­sia, on March 23rd declared that it would only main­tain oper­a­tions for baby food and “essen­tial nutri­tion.” Renault, of a sim­i­lar frame of mind, has on the same day decid­ed to sus­pend oper­a­tions at its Moscow plant and is review­ing its options. One com­pa­ny that has refused to leave Rus­sia is Koch Indus­tries, which has led to dis­tanc­ing by Amer­i­can elect­ed offi­cials it has finan­cial­ly sup­port­ed in the past.

Hal­ibur­ton has decid­ed to end cur­rent oper­a­tions and future plans with­in Rus­sia, while its pri­ma­ry com­peti­tors have decid­ed to con­tin­ue exist­ing work but not com­mit to any future efforts for the time being.

British Petro­le­um gave up its $25 bil­lion invest­ment in Russ­ian oil com­pa­ny Rosen­felt on Feb­ru­ary 28th. Exxon­Mo­bil backed out of an off­shore project near Sakhalin Island and decid­ed to halt all future invest­ments in Rus­sia as of March 1st. French oil pro­duc­er Total­En­er­gies, the fifth largest oil com­pa­ny in the world, decid­ed to stop pur­chas­ing Russ­ian oil before the end of 2022.

(Remain­ing silent so far have been the sec­ond and third largest oil com­pa­nies in the world, PetroChi­na and Chi­na Petro­le­um & Chem­i­cal, who are appar­ent­ly try­ing to decide how best to take advan­tage of sud­den­ly open possibilities.)

While these might seem like weak respons­es, Rus­sia relies on sales of petrol to remain finan­cial­ly viable and over time this will mean less rev­enue as no new wells are quick­ly devel­oped and exist­ing wells con­tin­ue to decline in output.

Putin has respond­ed to all of this with a deci­sion to require all Russ­ian oil sold to “unfriend­ly coun­tries” be trad­ed in rubles.

His hope is to sta­bi­lize the ruble ver­sus oth­er cur­ren­cies due to demand for the ruble to pur­chase con­tracts, and high­lights the key means of hurt­ing Rus­sia that has­n’t hap­pened yet — a ban on imports of Russ­ian energy.

The Unit­ed States is mov­ing for­ward with a ban, but the Euro­pean Union has not.

Ger­many, which gets 55% of its nat­ur­al gas, 35% of its petro­le­um and 35% of its coal from Rus­sia, fears a deep and last­ing reces­sion if an imme­di­ate ban takes effect. Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orbán of Hun­gary, which relies on Rus­sia for almost all of its ener­gy require­ments, has flat out reject­ed this option.

Bul­gar­ia, which relies on Rus­sia for 70% of its ener­gy require­ments, won’t try to stop a ban but would require an excep­tion for itself. There’s talk of poten­tial­ly reduc­ing reliance on Russ­ian ener­gy sources sig­nif­i­cant­ly with­in the Euro­pean Union by the end of this year and full inde­pen­dence “before 2030,” but it’s a safe bet that one of Pres­i­dent Biden’s goals while vis­it­ing NATO, EU and G‑7 lead­ers in Lux­em­bourg, Brus­sels and Poland is to make this a real­i­ty much soon­er than later.

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