April 30, 2023
Ukraine Invasion Updates April 2023
This page collects the Critical Threats Project (CTP) and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) updates on the invasion of Ukraine for April 2023. Full list of Ukraine invasion updates are available here.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 30, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to appoint an overall theater commander for his invasion of Ukraine has had cascading effects on the Russian military including fueling intense factionalization, disorganizing command structures, and feeding unattainable expectations. Western officials reported in April 2022 that Russia had not have a single military commander of its forces in Ukraine since the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022.[i] Putin likely sought to present himself as the commander-in-chief and the mastermind of the successful invasion of Ukraine. Captured Russian military plans revealed that the Kremlin expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv in mere days, and Putin had likely wanted to declare this speedy invasion a personal geopolitical victory.[ii] Putin may have been reluctant to appoint a commander for this invasion to avoid crediting a military commander with the military victory in Ukraine – a dynamic similar to the one between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov during World War II. Stalin had limited and outdated wartime experience and was reportedly jealous of Zhukov’s military exploits and fame. Putin has no military experience, which may have further contributed to his decision not to appoint a commander for his invasion who could have upstaged him by claiming credit for the expected dramatic victory.
Key inflections in ongoing military operations on April 30:
- The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces did not conduct offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on April 30. Ukrainian National Guard Spokesperson Rulan Muzychuk stated that Russian forces are using more artillery but conducting fewer assaults in the Kupyansk and Lyman directions than in Bakhmut and Marinka.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line on April 30. Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reported that Ukrainian forces continue to have access to logistics routes to Bakhmut.
- A Russian source suggested on April 30 that Russian forces will likely conduct their own offensive in southern Ukraine if the potential Ukrainian counteroffensive fails. The Russian source cited the fact that top Russian officials and law enforcement are discussing possible candidates to lead various districts in Zaporizhia Oblast which are currently under Ukrainian control as further evidence of Russian plans to move in the southern direction.
- Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov reported that Russia is seeking to take control of numerous Russian paramilitary groups and is trying to create a new structure that would subordinate private military companies (PMCs) to the Russian General Staff.
- A Russian milblogger claimed that Russia is forming new brigades of the airborne forces (VDV), elite units that have conducted joint operations with Wagner forces in Bakhmut.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 29, 2023
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut if the Russian military command fails to provide more ammunition to the Wagner mercenaries. Prigozhin stated in an interview with a Kremlin-affiliated milblogger on April 29 that the Wagner mercenaries will continue to fight in Bakhmut but will need to “withdraw in an organized manner or stay and die” if the situation does immediately not improve. Prigozhin stated that Wagner needs about 80,000 shells per day — its previous shell allowance prior to apparent Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) efforts to reduce Wagner’s influence. Prigozhin added that Wagner is only receiving 800 of the 4,000 shells per day that it is currently requesting. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner and Deputy Commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin developed a plan to “grind” the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut that deprived Ukraine of its initiative on the battlefield. Prigozhin’s mention of Surovikin is likely an attempt to publicly affiliate with Surovikin as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor is shifting away from Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s network. Prigozhin is likely attempting to regain access to more ammunition as Putin is once again reshuffling the Russian military leadership in a way that may favor Prigozhin.
Prigozhin also continued his efforts to convince the Kremlin to go over to the defensive in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive could take place before May 15 but that the Russian military is not rushing to prepare to repel attacks. Prigozhin’s threat to withdraw from Bakhmut may also indicate that Prigozhin fears that the Russian positions in Bakhmut’s rear are vulnerable to counterattacks.
Prigozhin offered a position as First Deputy Commander of Wagner forces to former Russian Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who was reportedly dismissed from his position on April 27. Prigozhin claimed on April 29 that the Wagner commanders’ council decided to offer Mizintsev a position as deputy commander under Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin. Prigozhin also stated in the interview that Mizintsev was operating on the frontlines and was fired for his intractability. Russian milbloggers previously claimed that Mizintsev’s dismissal could have resulted from the Russian Northern Fleet’s lack of supplies revealed by Wagner-affiliated Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces Mikhail Teplinsky’s readiness checks. Mizintsev’s affiliation with Wagner is unclear at this time. It is possible that his firing was an attempt to improve military supplies to the forces within or affiliated with Teplinsky’s command — such as Wagner forces. Prigozhin has previously mockingly offered command positions to figures he dislikes, such as former Russian officer Igor Girkin, and Prigozhin’s offer may have been an attempt to humiliate Mizintsev. Unconfirmed Russian sources claimed that Teplinsky assumed the position of deputy commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, and Mizintsev’s dismissal, if it occurred, suggests that Teplinsky has sway with Putin that allows him to shape decisions about command changes.
Ukrainian forces likely attacked an oil storage facility in Sevastopol reportedly with a wave of Mugin-5 UAVs on April 29. Footage posted on April 29 shows a large fire at an oil storage facility at Kozacha Bay on April 29. Occupation governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev stated on April 29 that a Ukrainian UAV struck an oil tank near Kozacha Bay and caused a fire over 1,000 square meters in extent. A prominent Russian milblogger based in Sevastopol reported that two Ukrainian UAVs destroyed four fuel tanks. Another Russian military blogger reported that at least 10 Ukrainian Mugin-5 drones conducted the attack from Shkolny Airfield in Odesa and that a combination of electronic warfare, small arms, and Pantsir-S1 air defense systems downed most of the UAVs upon approach to their target. Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov stated the attack did not result in any casualties. Ukraine has not formally taken credit for the attack. A Ukrainian intelligence official claimed the attack destroyed 10 oil tanks with a total capacity of 40,000 tons of fuel and that the fuel destroyed was intended for use in the Black Sea Fleet. This official also insinuated the attack was retribution for the Russian missile strike against Uman on April 28. Some social media users noted that the Black Sea Fleet’s main fuel depot is in a different location on the east end of Sevastopol Bay. Razvozhaev claimed that the fire will not affect the supply of fuel in Sevastopol as the destroyed reserves were not used to fuel gas stations. Some milbloggers argued that this attack highlights the effectiveness of using low-cost drones for swarm attacks and underscores the need for Russian forces to saturate the Crimean air space with more air defense systems.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut if the Russian military command fails to provide more ammunition to Wagner mercenaries.
- Prigozhin also continued his efforts to convince the Kremlin to go over to the defensive in eastern Ukraine.
- Prigozhin offered the position of First Deputy Commander of Wagner forces, possibly sarcastically, to former Russian Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev who was reportedly dismissed from his position on April 27.
- Ukrainian forces attacked an oil storage facility in Sevastopol reportedly with a wave of Mugin-5 UAVs on April 29.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces made limited gains in Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces conducted a sea-based missile strike against the command post of the Ukrainian Kherson Group of Forces. Ukrainian officials have so far not confirmed this claim.
- The Russian MoD continues to pursue measures to expedite the conscription process and increase the difficulty of evading summonses.
- Russian occupation authorities and border area officials have expanded security measures and filtration efforts likely in anticipation of increased Ukrainian partisan activity in support of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 28, 2023
Russian forces launched a series of missile strikes against rear areas of Ukraine on the night of April 27. Ukrainian military sources confirmed that Russian forces launched 23 Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles from Tu-95 aircraft over the Caspian Sea and struck civilian infrastructure in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast; Dnipro City; and Ukrainka, Kyiv Oblast. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian air defense shot down 21 of 23 missiles and two UAVs. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged the strike and claimed that the Russian aerospace forces conducted a coordinated missile strike against Ukrainian reserve deployment points and struck all intended targets. Geolocated footage shows large-scale damage to a residential building in Uman, with the death toll reaching 20 civilians, including children, as of 1700 local time on April 28.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the appointment of Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov as the new commander of the Baltic Fleet on April 28 following the transfer of former Baltic Fleet Commander Admiral Viktor Liina to the Pacific Fleet. Russian state media reported that the Russian MoD introduced Vorobyov as the new Baltic Fleet commander thereby confirming that Liina replaced Admiral Sergei Avakyants as Pacific Fleet command. ISW had previously reported that Liina may have been replacing Avakyants because of Pacific Fleet failures exposed during recent combat readiness exercises, and Russian officials claimed that Avakyants was moved to a new position as head of Russian military sports training and patriotic education centers after aging out of military service. Vorobyov has previously served as Chief of Staff and First Deputy Commander of both the Baltic and Northern Fleets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on April 27 codifying conditions for the further large-scale deportation to Russia of residents of occupied areas of Ukraine. Putin signed a decree entitled “On the Peculiarities of the Legal Status of Certain Categories of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Russian Federation” that defines those who are living in Russian-occupied territories who have declared their desire to retain their current citizenship and refuse to accept Russian passports as “foreign citizens and stateless persons currently residing in the Russian Federation.” The decree holds that such individuals may continue to reside in occupied territories until July 1, 2024, suggesting that these individuals may be subject to deportation following this date. This decree codifies coercive methods to encourage residents of occupied areas to receive Russian passports and also sets conditions for the deportation of Ukrainians who do not agree to become Russian citizens. Russian authorities are also continuing other efforts to deport Ukrainians, particularly children, to Russia under various schemes. ISW continues to assess that all lines of effort aimed at deporting Ukrainians to Russia may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as a potential deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign.
Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu promoted the Kremlin’s efforts to form a potential anti-Western coalition during a meeting of the defense ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states in New Delhi, India. Shoigu stated on April 28 that the SCO meeting occurred against the backdrop of the establishment of a new multipolar world order, which the collective West is actively opposing. Shoigu argued that the US and its allies are provoking conflicts with Russia and China and that the West is attempting to defeat Russia and threaten China through the war in Ukraine. Shoigu invited SCO member states to participate in the 11th Moscow Conference of International Security and called on the SCO to develop a framework for exchanging military information, cooperation in joint military exercises, and the development of partnerships between the SCO and Russian-favored multilateral organizations such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
The Kremlin has previously identified multilateral organizations without significant Western participation as its preferred bodies for international decision making and will likely continue to use such bodies to promote Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West. ISW assessed that Putin tried to use Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow from March 20 to 22 to promote the idea of an anti-Western Russian-Chinese-based geopolitical bloc, but that Xi rebuffed Putin’s rhetorical overtures. The Kremlin is likely aware that the attractiveness of such a bloc lies more with China’s economic and political power than with Russia's increasingly isolated economy and degraded military capacity, which is why it likely chose the Chinese-favored SCO to promote the idea of a potential anti-Western coalition. The Kremlin is also likely attempting to secure through multilateral engagement with China desired benefits of a Chinese-Russian bilateral relationship that Putin was unable to obtain in his meeting with Xi. The Kremlin’s attempts to use the SCO to support these efforts are unlikely to be more successful than its previous efforts to rally the rest of the world against the West and convince China that Russia is a reliable and equal security partner.
Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow defrocked a Russian Orthodox Church protodeacon who did not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian Orthodox Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev posted an order dated April 28 defrocking him for “anti-church activities” signed by Patriarch Kirill. The Russian Orthodox Church had previously defrocked Kuraev in December 2020, but Patriarch Kirill imposed a moratorium on the execution of this decision to give Kuraev time to "rethink his position." Kuraev reportedly does not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the invasion. Russian authorities fined Kuraev 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian military in August 2022 after Kuraev wrote a blog post about the current war in Ukraine. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty additionally reported that Kuraev has criticized the Russian Orthodox Church’s structures and Patriarch Kirill, accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of being distant from its parishioners, bureaucratic, and inert. Kuraev’s defrocking supports ISW’s assessment that the Russian Orthodox Church is not an independent religious organization but rather an extension of the Russian state and an instrument of Russian state power. Russian forces in Ukraine have reportedly gone out of their way to punish individual Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine who were not fully cooperative with Russian military forces.
- Russian forces launched a series of missile strikes against rear areas of Ukraine on the night of April 27.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the appointment of Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov as the new commander of the Baltic Fleet following the transfer of former Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Liina to the Pacific Fleet.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree codifying conditions for the further large-scale deportation of residents of occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
- Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu promoted the Kremlin’s efforts to form a potential anti-Western coalition during a meeting of the defense ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states in New Delhi, India.
- Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow defrocked a Russian Orthodox Church protodeacon who did not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks near Kreminna and have made an incremental advance northwest of Kreminna as of April 28.
- Russian forces are increasing pressure against the T0504 Kostyantynivka-Chasiv Yar-Bakhmut highway.
- Russian forces continued routine indirect fire and defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin tasked Russian officials with developing Russia’s domestic drone industry likely as part of the Kremlin’s effort to gradually mobilize Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
- Russian occupation authorities continue to announce patronage programs with Russian federal subjects.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 27, 2023
The Russian military command appears to be reshuffling the leadership of command organs associated with force generation, sustainment, and logistics. Several prominent Russian milbloggers claimed on April 27 that Colonel General Aleksey Kuzmenkov, Deputy Head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), has replaced Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev as Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Federation for Logistics. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Mizintsev’s dismissal may be a result of a combat readiness check of troops of the Northern Fleet carried out by former commander of the airborne (VDV) forces and Wagner affiliate Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who was recently re-appointed to an unspecified command role in Ukraine. The milblogger claimed that Teplinsky’s inspection revealed that troops in certain places of the front were not receiving necessary weapons. The Wagner Group has experienced significant issues with dealing with the Russian logistics enterprise, and Teplinsky’s reported role in identifying issues with supply may portend a renewed focus of Russian sustainment organs on providing Wagner with necessary logistical support, as Teplinsky’s affiliations with Wagner are well-established. ISW previously reported on September 24, 2022, that Mizinstev replaced Army General Dmitry Bulgakov as Head of Logistics and that Mizintsev previously was the head of the Russian National Defense Control Center and oversaw command of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (8th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) during Russian operations in Mariupol in spring 2022. Russian milbloggers additionally reported that former Head of the 8th Directorate of the Russian General Staff (State Secret Protection) Yuri Kuznetsov will become Head of the Main Directorate of Personnel of the Russian Ministry of Defense and that Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the Russian General Staff will replace General Oleg Gorshenin as Head of the National Defense Control Center. Official Russian sources have not yet confirmed these changes.
The three command organs that are reportedly receiving new leadership as part of this reshuffle are noteworthy because they are associated with managing aspects of Russian force generation, troop sustainment, and logistical oversight. The Russian National Defense Control Center is the body responsible for coordinating the actions of the Russian Armed Forces and is essentially the nerve center of the entire Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Alongside the coordination actions of the National Defense and Control Center, the organs responsible for personnel and logistical oversight facilitate critical troops sustainment functions. The Russian General Staff may be scrambling to enact these changes as fear over a Ukrainian counteroffensive mounts in the Russian information space. These changes also suggest that existing commanders in charge of these functions failed to properly facilitate Russia’s winter offensive, which has largely culminated without making substantial gains. However, these changes are unlikely to effectively set conditions for Russian forces to respond to a Ukrainian counteroffensive in a timely manner. These changes may be part of a wider effort to reform and formalize the Russian Armed Forces over the long term.
Western officials expressed confidence in Ukraine’s ability to conduct a successful counteroffensive. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on April 27 that NATO has trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian brigades, emphasizing that Ukrainian forces are in a “strong” position to retake captured territory in their upcoming counteroffensive. Stoltenberg also stated that NATO and its partners have delivered over 98 percent of promised combat vehicles to Ukraine, totaling over 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks, and other unspecified equipment. US European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Christopher Cavoli stated that the US has been working closely with Ukrainian forces to develop a counteroffensive plan, including developing techniques to surprise Russian forces.
Russian forces are reportedly using new tactics to complicate Ukrainian air defenses’ ability to detect Russian missiles. Russian forces conducted four Kalibr missile strikes on Mykolaiv City on April 27, and Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces directed the missiles using different terrain features, different heights of launches, and multiple trajectory changes to complicate their detection by Ukrainian air defenses. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged that Russian forces conducted a sea-based, long-range, high precision missile strike on April 27, following its recent notable silence about Russian missile and air strikes as part of its broader missile campaign in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that Russia‘s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine‘s unified energy infrastructure definitively failed and that Russian forces appear to have abandoned the effort. Russian forces maintain the capability to renew their missile campaign if they desire, and Russian forces may employ these tactics in order to conserve their stocks of high precision missiles in the event of a renewed missile campaign.
Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have launched a renewed campaign for national attention. Kadyrov publicized that he met with several prominent Russian officials – including Russian National Guard Federal Service Director Viktor Zolotov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Presidential Administration Head Anton Vaino, and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov – on April 26. Kadyrov claimed that he discussed topics including relations between Russian regions and the federal government with Bortnikov and that Bortnikov thanked him personally for the stable situation in Chechnya. Kadyrov also continues to draw heavily on Chechen soldiers’ role in Ukraine to bolster his own image. Kadyrov claimed on April 26 that Chechen Akhmat-1 Special Purposes Mobile Unit (OMON) security officers with extensive combat experience departed to replace their comrades in Ukraine.
Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani in New Delhi, India on April 27. Belarus’s ongoing efforts to build relationships with countries that have either supported or not condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine likely aim to build a coalition of non-Western countries and deepen pathways to help Russia evade Western sanctions, on which ISW has previously reported. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that Khrenin and Li discussed the status of an “all-weather” comprehensive strategic partnership between Belarus and China as well as prospects for cooperation in military and general spheres. The Belarusian MoD’s mention of an “all-weather” partnership closely mirrors Russian efforts to frame the Sino-Russian relationship as a “no limits” partnership despite existent Chinese reservations. The Belarusian MoD stated that Khrenin and Ashtiani noted the existence of “significant potential and prospects” to strengthen military contracts and increase practical cooperation.
- The Russian military command appears to be reshuffling the leadership of command organs associated with force generation, sustainment, and logistics.
- The three command organs that are reportedly receiving new leadership as part of this reshuffle are noteworthy because they are associated with managing aspects of Russian force generation, troop sustainment, and logistical oversight.
- Western officials expressed confidence in Ukraine’s ability to conduct a successful counteroffensive.
- Russian forces are reportedly using new tactics to complicate Ukrainian air defenses’ ability to detect Russian missiles.
- Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have launched a renewed campaign for national attention.
- Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani in New Delhi, India on April 27.
- Russian forces conducted defensive operations in the Kupyansk direction and limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
- Russian forces did not make any confirmed gains in or around Bakhmut but may be transferring additional reserves to the Bakhmut area.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces are further militarizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to defend against possible Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
- The Washington Post reported that leaked US intelligence documents state that Russian military leaders aim to enlist 815,000 soldiers while balancing concerns about critical labor shortages.
- Ukrainian partisans conducted three separate attacks in occupied territories on April 26-27.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 26, 2023
Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on April 26 that Russia is trying to change the ethnic composition of Ukraine by actively conducting a large-scale resettlement of people mainly from poorer and remote regions of Russia into Ukraine. Malyar noted that the most intensive efforts are ongoing in occupied Luhansk Oblast and remarked that Russia is also deporting Ukrainians and forcibly resettling them in Russia. ISW previously reported on specific instances of Russian authorities overseeing the depopulation and repopulation of areas of occupied Ukraine, particularly in occupied Kherson Oblast over the course of 2022. Ukrainian sources remarked in October 2022 that Russian authorities in then-occupied parts of Kherson Oblast deported large groups of Ukrainian residents to Russia under the guise of humanitarian evacuations and then repopulated their homes with Russian soldiers. Russia may hope to import Russians to fill depopulated areas of Ukraine in order to further integrate occupied areas into Russian socially, administratively, politically, and economically, thereby complicating conditions for the reintegration of these territories into Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that such depopulation and repopulation campaigns may amount to a deliberate ethnic cleansing effort and apparent violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut. A video appeal addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin by personnel of the “Potok” PMC (reportedly one of three volunteer detachments from Russian-state owned energy company Gazprom) claims that Gazprom officials told members of “Potok” that they would be signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) but then forced personnel to sign contracts with PMC “Redut.” One Potok soldier claimed that Gazprom created two other units — “Fakel” and “Plamya,” which were attached to the Russian MoD. A Russian milblogger claimed that ”Potok“ is not a PMC, but a BARS (Combat Reserve) unit, however. The ”Potok” personnel also reported poor treatment by Wagner fighters who threatened to shoot ”Potok” personnel if they withdrew from the line of contact. A Wagner fighter claimed in an interview published on April 26 that ”Potok” fighters abandoned Wagner’s flanks at night. A Russian milblogger claimed that “Potok” fighters abandoned their positions in Bakhmut due to a lack of ammunition. ISW previously assessed that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely views the proliferation of PMCs around Bakhmut as competition, and it appears that the increased prevalence of other PMCs around Bakhmut may be causing substantial friction.
The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression. The Russian Federation Council approved three bills on April 26 which would allow for the deprivation of Russian citizenship for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces and for actions that threaten national security, allow for life sentences for high treason, and allow for five-year sentences for those who promote the decisions of international organizations in which Russia does not participate. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin has supported laws strengthening punishments for trespassing at facilities run by certain federal bodies, misappropriation of Russian military assets, and discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine to expand pretexts for the arrests of Russian citizens and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor. The Kremlin is likely setting numerous conditions for domestic crackdowns to give Russian officials to have carte blanche in prosecuting anyone perceived to be against Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s war in Ukraine. The harsh punishments stipulated by these laws likely aim to promote widespread self-censorship amongst the Russian population. ISW has also assessed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs, and Russian authorities may use these new laws to support these efforts.
Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remarked on April 26 that as soon as weather conditions improve in Bakhmut, Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive, which may coincide with Russia’s May 9 Victory Day holiday (the commemoration of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945). A prominent Russian milblogger insinuated that Ukraine may be planning counteroffensive actions in order to ruin May 9 celebrations on Russia. The invocations of May 9 suggest that the Russian information space continues to place symbolic importance on dates associated with Russia’s Great Patriotic War, which continues to shape discourse on the prospects of the war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a press conference in New York on April 25 that discussions about the potential for negotiations after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive are ”schizophrenic.” Increasingly despondent and panicked rhetoric emanating from prominent information space figures suggests that the Russian information space has not yet settled on a line about how to address significant and growing concerns about the near future.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Xi’s statement made China’s position on Ukrainian independence clear, rejecting Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s April 22 statements that post-Soviet states lack a basis for sovereignty. Both Ukrainian and Chinese government readouts of the call mentioned a possible role China could play in negotiating nuclear issues. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova expressed broad agreement with China’s peace plan and blamed Ukraine for rejecting it. The tepid Russian response to Zelensky and Xi’s call is likely further evidence of Russia’s displeasure at China's unwillingness to establish a no-limits bilateral partnership. It is not clear that Chinese actions match Chinese rhetoric, however. According to US government statements and investigative journalism reports, China may be providing non-lethal military assistance to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 26 in which they reportedly discussed the development of the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh. The brief Kremlin read out for the conversation called for strict compliance with the agreements made by Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani leaders considering the increasing tensions in the Lachin corridor. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 26 that Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lentsov is the new commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh and will oversee operations at the 30 observation posts that Russian forces operate in the area. The Russian MoD likely announced the appointment to signal to Armenia a commitment to meet Russia peacekeeping responsibilities and to augment Putin’s effort to reassure Pashinyan.
The Kremlin may attempt to use conscripts to maintain peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh and preserve relations with Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states. ISW previously assessed that Russia’s redeployment of elements of its peacekeeping force from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine is likely eroding Russia’s influence with Armenia. Pashinyan accused Russian peacekeeping forces of not meeting their obligations in December 2022 and stated on March 16, 2023, that Armenia should appeal to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if Russia is unable to uphold the November 9, 2020, ceasefire agreement. The Kremlin efforts are likely failing to convince Armenia that it will uphold its obligations under the ceasefire agreement, and Russia’s potential inability to do so may severely degrade Russia’s standing with other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states. The Russian State Duma approved on April 4 the first draft of a bill that would allow all Russian personnel, including conscripts, to participate in Russian peacekeeping operations, likely in an effort to send conscripts to sustain the peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated on April 24 that the Kremlin made a decision to replace the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh with a contingent of conscripts, although ISW has not observed visual confirmation of Russian conscripts serving in Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians.
- Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut.
- The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression.
- Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, stating that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
- The Kremlin is likely attempting to reassure Armenia that it is a reliable partner despite the fact that the war in Ukraine is limiting Russia’s ability to play a larger role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Kremlin may attempt to use conscripts to maintain peacekeeping operations in Nagorno Karabakh and preserve relations with Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states.
- Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces did not conduct any offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces made gains within Bakhmut and north of Avdiivka.
- Russian milbloggers continue to argue amongst themselves about Ukrainian activity along the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian authorities have started sending military registration summonses that include threats of “restrictive measures.”
- Russian sources claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) prevented an attempted attack in Crimea.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 25, 2023
Senior US and EU officials assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin would remain unwilling to negotiate in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive. The New York Times (NYT) reported on April 24 that a senior European official stated that the chances of Putin “backing down” in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive are “less than zero.” The official stated that Putin would likely mobilize more soldiers to fight in Ukraine. US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander said that there is “very little evidence” to suggest that Putin would alter his strategic goal of subjugating Ukraine “politically, if not fully militarily.” US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby told Voice of America on April 25 that the US is increasing security assistance to Ukraine because the US expects that Russia will attempt to go on the offensive as the weather improves.
A Ukrainian military official claimed on April 25 that Ukrainian forces are achieving “impressive results” in counter-battery combat against Russian forces on the Russian-occupied eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Southern Operational Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Ukrainian forces hit and destroyed Russian artillery systems, tanks, armored vehicles, and air defense systems. Humenyuk added that Ukrainian forces are working to clear the frontline on the east bank in a “counter-battery mode.” Humenyuk added that Russian forces are evacuating civilians from the Dnipro River bank area to move in Russian units, which is simplifying Ukrainian operations.
ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command may have partially repaired its strained relationship with Prigozhin to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt offensive operations ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive. ISW had also observed a dramatic change in the nature of Prigozhin’s public interactions with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin as early as beginning of April. Prigozhin stated that ISW’s assessment is a “fake,” noting that he would not “exchange ammunition for [his] guys even for friendship with God.”
Prigozhin’s continued instance on his distaste for the Russian military leadership contradicts the change in Prigozhin’s rhetoric as well as the sudden influx of artillery ammunition after months of reported shell hunger in Bakhmut. Russian independent outlet Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) also reported that Prigozhin’s companies earned a record amount of income in 2022 from their contracts with the Russian MoD despite his feud with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Prigozhin has repeatedly acknowledged cooperation with troops subordinated to the Russian MoD and is receiving mobilized personnel to reinforce his flanks. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that his eldest son fought in the war with Wagner, which ISW assessed to be an information operation to mend the relationship and possibly increase or demonstrate Prigozhin’s loyalty to the Kremlin. All these factors indicate that Prigozhin – despite his claimed independence and pride – needs to retain the favor and support of the Kremlin and the Russian MoD to sustain his operations.
Russian ultranationalists are continuing to advocate for the Kremlin to adopt Stalinist repression measures. Russian State Duma Parliamentarian Andrey Gurulyov – a prominent Russian ultranationalist figure within the ruling United Russia Party – stated that Russia needs to reintroduce the concept of the “enemy of the people.” This concept designated all the late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s opposition figures as the enemies of society. Gurulyov frequently shares extreme opinions on Russian state television but the rhetoric among the ultranationalists is increasingly emphasizing the need for the targeting and elimination of Russia’s internal enemies. Former Russian officer Igor Girkin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin often echo similar calls to prosecute Russian officials who are hoping to end the war via negotiations with the West. Such attitudes indicate that the ultranationalist communities are expecting Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand repression and fully commit to the war.
The Kremlin continues to avoid adopting overtly repressive measures likely out of concern for the stability of Putin’s regime. The Russian government withdrew a bill from the Russian State Duma that would have increased taxes from 13 to 30 percent for Russians who have fled the country. Russian ultranationalists have repeatedly called on the Kremlin to nationalize property belonging to Russians who had “betrayed” the country by fleeing, but the Kremlin appears to remain hesitant to introduce such unpopular measures. Unnamed sources told Russian independent outlet Verska that the Russian presidential administration does not support the return of capital punishments in Russia – another issue that recently reemerged in Russian policy discussions. The Kremlin could use the threat of the death penalty to scare Russians into supporting the war effort (or remaining passively resistant to it), but Putin likely remains hesitant to destroy his image as a diplomatic and tolerant tsar. ISW previously assessed that Putin relies on controlling the information space to safeguard his regime much more than the kind of massive oppression apparatus of the Soviet Union and that Putin has never rebuilt an internal repression apparatus equivalent to the KGB, Interior Ministry forces, and the Red Army.
Russian civil rights groups OVD-Info, Memorial, and Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars) issued a legal challenge to the Russian censorship law against discrediting the Russian military on April 25. OVD-Info announced that its lawyers filed 10 of 20 planned complaints against the law to the Russian Constitutional Court in hopes that the court will rule the law unconstitutional. The complaints centered around individual cases of alleged discreditation, including one case wherein authorities fined a mans (about $612) for holding a sign calling for peace. A fringe group of at least 20, mostly smaller, pro-war Russian milbloggers amplified a call for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws on April 11 following the prosecution of a Russian medic for telling battlefield truths. OVD-Info and other human rights organizations are most likely to face prosecution under Russian censorship laws. The Russian government is unlikely to repeal or strike down these laws without direction from the Kremlin, but challenges like OVD-Info's demonstrate continued resistance to domestic censorship and repression.
- Senior US and EU officials assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin would remain unwilling to negotiate in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- A Ukrainian military official claimed on April 25 that Ukrainian forces are achieving “impressive results” in counter-battery combat against Russian forces on the Russian-occupied eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied ISW’s April 22 assessment about limited improvements in Wagner’s relations with the Russian military command ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian ultranationalists continue to advocate for the Kremlin to adopt Stalinist repression measures.
- The Kremlin continues to avoid adopting overtly repressive measures likely out of concern for the stability of Putin’s regime.
- Russian civil rights groups OVD-Info, Memorial, and Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars) issued a legal challenge to the Russian censorship law against discrediting the Russian military on April 25.
- Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kremmina line.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Russian milbloggers continued to issue vehement denials that Ukrainian forces established sustained positions on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is attempting to financially incentivize Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, offering them compensation equivalent to that of Russian volunteers.
- The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Ukrainian partisans detonated a Russian military checkpoint near Oleshky.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 24, 2023
Russian milbloggers speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered additional military command changes on April 20. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Putin signed a decree on April 20 about a series of military command changes and formally dismissed Commander of the Eastern Military District Colonel General Rustam Muradov.[i] The milblogger noted that Muradov’s dismissal likely resulted from his disastrous offensive on Vuhledar that resulted in many casualties among Russian personnel and the loss of much military equipment. The milblogger added that the decree also forced Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov — who reportedly commanded Russian forces in Ukraine in April 2022 — to retire. The milblogger claimed that Putin forced former commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov into retirement alongside other unnamed commanders as well. The milblogger claimed that the Kremlin is now relying on newly reappointed Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky to achieve decisive results.
These reports about command changes and dismissals follow the Kremlin’s reported dismissal of Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergei Avakyants on April 19.[ii] A Russian milblogger claimed that Avakyants was not fired as a result of poor performance during military drills in the Pacific, but that he will be forming a new “organization” under the rumored control of the “gas sector.”[iii] It is unclear if this was an intentionally vague reference to the reports about Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom‘s formation of a private security company. The milblogger noted that he is not sure if the organization will cooperate with the Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF) or the Young Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya). ISW previously reported that Russian state gas companies — namely Gazprom — are forming new military formations and that DOSAAF has been proactive in Russian military recruitment efforts.[iv]
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched an information operation to undermine the credibility of Russian state-affiliated private military groups (PMCs). Prigozhin claimed to visit the positions of “Potok” and the “Alexander Nevsky” units - which Prigozhin characterized as “micro-PMCs” - and harshly criticized the poor condition of these units on April 24.[v] The Potok battalion is reportedly one of three volunteer detachments of the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom and is analogous to the Russian State Combat Reserve (BARS).[vi]The Potok battalion is reportedly subordinated to the Russian Ministry of Defense PMC Redut.[vii] Prigozhin claimed that these units are supposed to cover Wagner‘s flanks and asked how these units can conduct combat operations if they lack the proper supplies and weapons. Prigozhin also criticized the general proliferation of such PMCs, which likely suggests that Prigozhin views these new entities as Wagner’s competition.
Wagner-affiliated sources claimed on April 24 that Wagner forces tasked Potok with defending unspecified newly captured positions to allow Wagner to regroup, but that Potok abandoned these positions and allowed Ukrainian forces to recapture the area.[viii] Alleged personnel of the Potok unit posted a video message on April 24, blaming the leadership of Gazprom and PMC Redut for failing to provide Potok with proper weapons and supplies as well as blaming Wagner for forbidding the Potok personnel from leaving their positions.[ix] Some milbloggers — including Wagner-affiliated milbloggers — criticized the Potok unit for blaming leadership and instead attributed their poor combat performance to their status as volunteers.[x] The milbloggers’ and Prigozhin’s reports indicate that Wagner has authority over Russian MoD-owned entities, which in turn indicates that Prigozhin has regained some favor with the Kremlin.
Kremlin authorities proposed equalizing pay between mobilized personnel and volunteers likely in an attempt to incentivize military service. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with United Russia Secretary Andrey Turchak on April 24 to discuss initiatives to provide benefits to Russian military personnel. Putin expressed support for Turchak’s proposal to equalize the salary of “all participants” of the war in Ukraine.[xi] Turchak claimed that mobilized personnel currently receive 195,000 rubles (about $2,400) monthly no matter where they serve, whereas contract soldiers receive the same amount only when serving on the frontlines. Turchak claimed that contract soldiers serving in the rear are receiving salaries “several times less” than those received by soldiers in the same role on the front line. Turchak also proposed to implement other social benefits including: setting an admission quota at Russian universities for veterans, for those awarded Hero of Russia of three Orders of Courage, and for children of participants in the war; reducing or canceling the commission fees for withdrawing or transferring money; and extending or canceling loans for parents, spouses, and children of veterans in the event of death or severe disability. ISW previously reported on conflicts between different groups of Russian servicemen regarding unequal payments and social benefits, and the Kremlin is likely attempting to appear to resolve these discrepancies to encourage enlistment.[xii]
The Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee detained a former Wagner Group commander who told Russian human rights organization Gulagu.net about Wagner’s murder of children and other civilians in Bakhmut. Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin reported on April 24 that the Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee arrested Wagner commander Azamat Uldarov, who detailed Wagner’s practice of killing children in Bakhmut and the group’s treatment of prisoners of war on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s orders (which Prigozhin denied).[xiii] Osechkin stated that four other Wagner mercenaries accompanied the Investigate Committee and threatened Uldarov with death for his testimony against Prigozhin.[xiv] Wagner’s cooperation with local investigative authorities indicates that Wagner and Prigozhin are able to influence certain local authorities and security organs. This anecdote further suggests that Wagner is deeply invested in encouraging participation in atrocities in order to build social cohesion among the group and indicates that Wagner uses the threat of retribution to discourage dissenting voices that expose Prigozhin to discredit the wider group.[xv]
Ukrainian forces likely conducted a naval drone attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) base in Sevastopol in the early morning of April 24. Geolocated footage shows a likely Ukrainian naval drone detonating in the port of Sevastopol reportedly around 3:30am on April 24.[xvi] The extent of damage from the strike is unclear. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on April 24 that Ukrainian forces attempted to attack the BSF base in Sevastopol with three unmanned surface vehicles and claimed that Russian forces destroyed all three vehicles.[xvii] Russian occupation governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev reported that of the two of the three unmanned surface vehicles entered Striletskyi Bay and that one of them detonated on its own, damaging four residential buildings.[xviii] Razvozhaev reported that the attack did not damage any military infrastructure.[xix] Ukrainian forces have likely targeted the Russian BSF before: the Ukrainian forces likely attacked a Grigorovich-class frigate of the BSF near Sevastopol with unmanned surface vehicles on October 29, 2022.[xx]
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York City on April 24 to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).[xxi] Lavrov led a session on April 24 entitled “maintenance of international peace and security” and was met with widespread condemnation by other members of the session.[xxii] ISW has previously assessed that Russia uses its position at the UNSC as a method of power projection and forecasted that Russia would likely exploit its one-month UNSC presidency to amplify Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine.[xxiii]
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 24 that Russian ships are ferrying Iranian ammunition across the Caspian Sea to resupply Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.[xxiv] The WSJ, citing unnamed Middle Eastern officials, stated that cargo ships have carried over 300,000 artillery shells and a million ammunition rounds from Iran to Russia via the Caspian Sea over the past six months. The unnamed officials reportedly said that the last known shipment left Iran for Astrakhan in early March and carried 1,000 containers with 2,000 artillery shells. The WSJ noted that the Iranian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has a contract with Russian state-owned joint stock company Rosobronexport for the sale of 74,000 artillery shells at a price of $1.7 million. A prominent Russian milblogger responded to the report and claimed that he has not yet seen the arrival of this ammunition on the front despite continued Russian–Iranian defense cooperation.[xxv]
Krasnoyarsk Krai deputy Konstantin Senchenko resigned on April 24 following the resignation of Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss on April 20. Senchenko reportedly left Russia over a year ago and actively criticized the war, earning himself a fine in January for “discrediting the army.”[xxvi] Uss reportedly resigned following an offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin to work on the federal level.[xxvii] Senchenko’s and Uss’s resignations may signal discontent with Kremlin leadership on more regional levels of Russian government.
- Russian milbloggers speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered additional military command changes on April 20.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched an information operation to undermine the credibility of Russian state-affiliated private military groups (PMCs).
- Kremlin authorities proposed equalizing pay between mobilized personnel and volunteers, likely in an attempt to incentivize military service.
- Saratov Oblast Investigative Committee detained a former Wagner Group commander who told Russian human rights organization net about Wagner’s murder of children and other civilians in Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian forces likely conducted a naval drone attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) base in Sevastopol in the early morning of April 24.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York City on April 24 to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
- The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 24 that Russian ships are ferrying Iranian ammunition across the Caspian Sea to resupply Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
- Krasnoyarsk Krai deputy Konstantin Senchenko resigned on April 24 following the resignation of Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss on April 20.
- Ukrainian forces have made marginal gains south of Kreminna as of April 24 and continue to target Russian logistics nodes in rear areas of Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Some Russian sources denied claims from other Russian milbloggers that Ukrainian forces established enduring positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin continues crypto-mobilization efforts likely in an attempt to avoid a second wave of formal mobilization.
- The Wagner Group may be attempting to fill law enforcement roles in occupied territories.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 23, 2023
ISW is publishing a special edition campaign assessment today, April 23. This report outlines the current Russian order of battle (ORBAT) in Ukraine, assesses the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russian force groupings along the front, and discusses major factors that may complicate Russian defensive operations in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
This report is based on a number of assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities that ISW does not, as a matter of policy, attempt to assess or report on. It assumes, in particular, that Ukraine will be able to conduct a coordinated multi-brigade mechanized offensive operation making full use of the reported nine brigades being prepared for that operation. That task is daunting and larger than any offensive effort Ukraine has hitherto attempted (four Ukrainian brigades were reportedly used in the Kharkiv counter-offensive, for example). It also assumes that Ukraine will have integrated enough tanks and armored personnel carriers of various sorts into its units to support extended mechanized maneuver, that Ukrainian mechanized units will have sufficient ammunition of all sorts including artillery, and that Ukraine will be able to conduct long-range precision strikes with HIMARS and other similar systems integrated with and supporting maneuver operations as it has done before. It further assumes that Ukrainian forces will have the mine-clearing and bridging capabilities needed to move relatively rapidly through prepared defensive positions. ISW sees no reason to question any of these assumptions given the intensity with which Ukraine has reportedly been preparing for this operation and the time it has taken to do so, as well as the equipment reportedly delivered to Ukrainian forces by Western countries. If any significant number of these assumptions prove invalid, however, then some of the assessments and observations below will also be invalid, and the Russians’ prospects for holding their lines will be better than presented below. ISW offers no assessment of or evidence for these assumptions, and thus offers no specific forecast for the nature, scale, location, duration, or outcome of the upcoming Ukrainian counter-offensive. Ukraine has attractive options for offensive operations all along the line, and ISW does not assess that the information presented in this report or any observations ISW has made below lead obviously to the conclusion that Ukrainian forces will attack in one area or another.
Russian forces in Ukraine are operating in decentralized and largely degraded formations throughout the theater, and the current pattern of deployment suggests that most available units are already online and engaged in either offensive or defensive operations. ISW assesses that Russian forces are currently operating along seven axes: Kupyansk; Luhansk Oblast; Bakhmut; Avdiivka-Donetsk City; western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia; western Zaporizhia; and Kherson Oblast. Russian forces are pursuing active offensive operations on at least five of these axes (Kupyansk, Luhansk, Bakhmut, Avdiivka-Donetsk City, and western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia) and predominantly pursuing defensive operations on the western Zaporizhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast axes. The forces currently committed to both offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine are both regular (doctrinally consistent based on Russian pre-war units) and irregular (non-standard and non-doctrinal) forces, and it is highly likely that the majority of Russian elements throughout Ukraine are substantially below full strength due to losses taken during previous phases of the war. This report will discuss “elements” of certain units and formations deployed to certain areas, but it should not be assumed that any of these units or formations are operating at full strength.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 22, 2023
Russian milbloggers have provided enough geolocated footage and textual reports to confirm that Ukrainian forces have established positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of April 22 though not at what scale or with what intentions. Geolocated footage published by a Russian milblogger on April 22 shows that Ukrainian forces have established positions on the Dnipro River bank north of Oleshky (7km southwest of Kherson City) and advanced up to the northern outskirts of the settlement on the E97 highway, as well as west of Dachi (10km south of Kherson City). This footage also indicates that Russian forces may not control islands in the Kinka and Chaika rivers less than half a kilometer north of the geolocated Ukrainian positions near the Antonivsky Bridge. Russian milbloggers claimed on April 20 and 22 that Ukrainian forces have maintained positions in east bank Kherson Oblast for weeks, established stable supply lines to these positions, and regularly conduct sorties in the area—all indicating a lack of Russian control over the area. Another milblogger’s battle map claimed that Russian forces do not control some Dnipro River delta islands southwest of Kherson City as of April 22, suggesting possible Ukrainian advances on these islands. Some milbloggers complained that the slow rate of Russian artillery fire due to the over-centralization of the Russian military command allowed Ukrainian forces to land on the east bank. Russian forces may be prioritizing maintaining defenses in urban areas such as Oleshky and Nova Kakhovka, leaving the islands in the Dnipro River delta unmanned. The extent and intent of these Ukrainian positions remain unclear, as does Ukraine’s ability and willingness to maintain sustained positions in this area. ISW is recoding territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River to Ukrainian-held only now because this is the first time ISW has observed reliable geolocated imagery of Ukrainian positions on the east bank along with multi-sourced Russian reports of an enduring Ukrainian presence there.
Prigozhin argued on April 21 that Russia needs to “anchor itself in such a way that it is only possible to tear out [Russian forces from their positions] with the claws of the opponent.” Prigozhin’s comment followed a discussion of the Ramstein meeting results, Western commitments to train more Ukrainian personnel and continuous military support for Ukraine. Prigozhin also noted that Ukraine will try to “tear” Russian forces apart and that Russia needs to resist such attacks. Prigozhin has been increasingly alarmist in his recent rhetoric and has made similar statements about the uncertain future of Russian offensive operations in Donbas. Prigozhin’s calls for strengthening Russian defenses in occupied territories and frequent discussions of the prospects of Ukrainian counteroffensives are notable as they indicate that he is trying to amplify the discussion in the Russian domestic information space. Russia, however, continues to conduct offensive operations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Prigozhin is also advocating for Russia to focus on holding the current frontlines rather than seeking more gains so that Russian forces can regain their combat effectiveness for later offensive operations. Prigozhin is not arguing for Russia to end the war and negotiate with Ukraine and the West as some Russian and Western sources reported, as ISW previously observed, but is instead condemning the faction within the Kremlin that is hoping to end the war in negotiations. Prigozhin is actually arguing that Russia needs to meet the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive at full strength and try to hold the current frontlines without ending the war or entering into peace negotiations. He argues that a pause after the Ukrainian attack culminates would allow Russia to regain combat power and build nationalist support within the Russian society for renewing the fight even in the event of a defeat. Prigozhin is also attempting to redefine and undermine some of Putin’s key maximalist goals in Ukraine—namely the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine—likely to minimize the informational impact that might result from going over to the defensive and abandoning efforts to gain more ground now. Russian far-right paramilitary formation Rusich (Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group), which facilitates recruitment of Russian ultranationalist and irregular forces, echoed Prigozhin’s rejection of the “denazification” and “demilitarization” goals. Rusich noted that Russia is fighting Ukraine to avenge Donbas, for living space, and for combat experience—rather than fighting claimed Ukrainian “fascism” and “Nazism.” By reframing Putin’s goals, Prigozhin and some factions within the ultranationalist community may be attempting to condition the Russian domestic information space for the prospect of frozen frontlines, potentially near the initial lines of February 23, 2022.
The Russian military command is likely attempting to convince Putin to turn to defensive operations as well—but may be unable to bluntly deliver this message to Putin. Some ultranationalist figures argued that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled efforts to recruit 400,000 contract servicemen to ensure that Russia has enough military personnel to defend existing frontlines and to efficiently freeze the current frontlines in Ukraine. The Russian military command is also reportedly transferring conscripts to hold Russian lines in Crimea and may be planning to prepare other resources to ensure that Russia can retain some lines once the potential Ukrainian counteroffensive culminates. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov are likely sensible to the threat of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but are likely continuing to send contract servicemen to reinforce senseless offensive operations at Putin’s insistence. Kremlin sources previously revealed that Putin favors loyalty over competence, and this sentiment likely prevents Shoigu and Gerasimov from focusing on setting optimal conditions for an efficient defense by refusing to expend Russian elite units in grinding attritional battles for marginal gains. ISW previously observed that Shoigu and Gerasimov were likely unable to convince Putin to conduct mobilization in May 2022despite the fact that Russia needed such a measure to reconstitute forces necessary to maintain offensive operations in Ukraine.
The Russian military command may have partially repaired its strained relationship with Prigozhin to persuade Putin to halt offensive operations via the Russian information space. ISW has observed a sudden improvement in Prigozhin’s relations with the Russian MoD and the Kremlin since early April. The Russian MoD, for example, began to directly acknowledge Wagner forces in its daily situational reports and provided Wagner with ammunition and mobilized personnel as reinforcements in early April 2023. Prigozhin and Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers amplified claims that Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s son Nikolai Peskov is reportedly serving with Wagner in Ukraine—likely an information operation to publicly mend the relationship and possibly elevate Prigozhin’s loyalty to the Kremlin. Prigozhin had previously been able to impact Putin’s decision-making by engineering the appointment of Wagner-affiliated commanders and the dismissal of inept military officials and breaking through Putin’s close circle with his critiques of the progress of the war. A Russian political expert observed that different Kremlin officials have historically voiced their plans and projects publicly to convince Putin to implement changes, and it is likely that Prigozhin follows the same model of influence. The Russian military command and select Kremlin officials who are advocating for Putin to freeze the war may have reapproached Prigozhin to influence Putin one more time.
Putin’s continued insistence on Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine suggests that the group that wants to freeze the war along the current front lines has not fully persuaded Putin. Russian forces are continuing attritional offensives to capture Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka in Donetsk Oblast as well as limited offensive operations in Luhansk and western Donetsk Oblast, despite increasing Russian fears about the threat of a potential imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Russian winter offensive failed to achieve the Kremlin’s ambitious goals of seizing the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast administrative borders by March 31, but it appears that Russian forces have not subsequently deemphasized their operational focus on tactical gains, no matter how marginal and costly those gains are. Russian forces suffered significant manpower and equipment losses during the winter offensive campaign that are currently constraining their abilities to maintain offensive operations along more than one axis and that will likely limit the Russian military’s ability to respond to possible Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Russian forces have not responded to these constraints by prioritizing one axis or by conducting an operational pause along any axis that would allow Russian forces to replenish and reconstitute for a decisive defensive effort. Russia forces are continuing to deploy contract servicemen and remaining combat-effective units to support offensive operations in eastern Ukraine instead of conserving this critical pool of combat power to respond to a Ukrainian counter-offensive. Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka offer no significant operational benefits to Russian forces, and any marginal tactical gains along any axis are unlikely to improve the Russian military’s ability to defend against a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin may be hesitant to commit to a ceasefire due to the influence of select unknown pro-war figures or out of concern for the implications for his regime’s stability. The insistence on tactical gains suggests that the pro-war camp advocating for maintaining offensives at any cost is likely still influencing Putin’s decision-making for the war. A possible shift to preparing for defensive operations ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely indicate that Putin had finally rejected the pro-war camp’s views in favor of the more pragmatic group’s. The possible success of the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive could determine the outcome of this struggle for influence over Putin’s decisions.
Russian occupation authorities are continuing to oppress Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine, likely in an effort to suppress Ukrainian religious institutions beyond Moscow’s control. Head of the Ukrainian Berdyansk City Military Administration Viktoria Halitsina reported on April 22 that Russian forces seized the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in occupied Berdyansk. Halitsina stated that Russian propagandists accused the clergy of hiding weapons and collaborating with Ukrainian forces because of their previous service as chaplains for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2015. ISW has also reported on two other instances of Russian occupation authorities persecuting Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine. ISW has previously reported on Russian authorities’ weaponization of religion in occupied territories as part of an ongoing cultural genocide.
Russian authorities continue to arrest personnel associated with the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) likely to justify crackdowns and further conceal DIB activities. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on April 22 that it arrested the deputy head of the testing laboratory at the Promtekhnologiya weapons plant in Moscow on suspicion of treason. The FSB did not provide additional details about the alleged treasonous act. The Promtekhnologiya plant participates in the development and modernization of high-tech weapons. The Promtekhnologiya plant claimed that it had not employed the arrested employee since March 2021. ISW has reported on other recent arrests that are part of an ongoing crackdown using the pretext of threats to Russia’s DIB.
Russian authorities announced on April 22 the presence of a second, undetonated bomb that landed in Belgorod. Belgorod authorities evacuated 3,000 civilians from the city while sappers extracted and later detonated the bomb. Russian authorities have so far provided no further explanation as to the cause of the accidental bombing. The Russian fighter bomber either intended to drop the bombs on a different target and one bomb failed to detonate, or the fighter bomber did not arm the bombs to drop them, and one bomb improperly detonated.
- Russian milbloggers have provided enough geolocated footage and textual reports to confirm that Ukrainian forces have established positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of April 22 though not at what scale or with what intentions.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely attempting to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to go over to the defensive ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- The Russian military command is likely attempting to convince Putin to turn to defensive operations as well – but is unable to bluntly deliver this message to Putin.
- The continued insistence on Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine suggests that the group that wants to freeze the war along the current front lines has not fully persuaded Putin of its views.
- Russian occupation authorities are continuing to oppress Roman Catholics in occupied Ukraine, likely in an effort to suppress Ukrainian religious institutions beyond the Kremlin’s control.
- A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 21 with two FAB-500 bombs, one of which likely malfunctioned.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line and near Siversk.
- Russian forces continued to advance around Bakhmut on April 22, although Russian forces have not completed a turning movement around the city.
- Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front and conducted a limited ground attack in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian authorities have made headway in their attempts to compel international recognition of Russian ownership over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
- Continued Russian efforts to block evacuations of wounded soldiers, likely to prevent soldiers from leaving the combat zone, have contributed to the deaths of some Russian soldiers.
- Russian occupation officials are expanding patronage networks in occupied territories.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 21, 2023
Russian forces used a new delivery of Shahed drones to strike Ukraine for the third consecutive day, targeting Kyiv for the first time in 25 days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 26 drones on April 20, of which Ukrainian forces shot down 21 and 12 drones on April 21, of which Ukrainian forces shot down eight.[i] Russian forces targeted Kyiv, Odesa, Poltava, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv oblasts overnight on April 19 to 20 and 20 to 21.[ii] The Kyiv City Military Administration reported no damage from the strikes in Kyiv.[iii] Head of the Ukrainian Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated on April 20 that Russian forces waited until a new shipment of Shahed drones arrived to use them for further strikes and noted that Russian use of missiles has also decreased.[iv]
Commander of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina reportedly assumed command of the Russian Pacific Fleet on April 21 following the completion of Russian drills in the Pacific on April 20. Kremlin newswire TASS, citing an unnamed source, reported that Liina replaced Admiral Sergei Avakyants who had commanded the Russian Pacific Fleet since 2012.[v] Unofficial reports of Liina’s appointments coincide with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) announcement that the Pacific Fleet and elements of the Russian Aerospace Forces completed drills in the Pacific under the supervision of Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov.[vi] The Russian MoD may have named Yevmenov as the supervisor for these drills following milblogger and nationalist discourse about Avakyants’ abrupt termination amidst the combat readiness checks.[vii] ISW previously assessed that Avakyants’ dismissal may have been a result of his inability to recreate pre-war, large scale Pacific Fleet combat readiness checks due to the Pacific Fleet’s significant combat losses in Ukraine.[viii]
A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 20. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 20 that a Russian Su-34 bomber accidentally dropped a bomb while flying over Belgorod City.[ix] The explosion left a crater with a 20-meter (65-foot) radius in the southern part of the city and injured three civilians.[x] The cause of the accidental bombing remains unclear, as does the reason for flying an armed bomber over a populated city. Russian milbloggers did not react to the bombing with the same vitriolic anger they often use with Russian battlefield failures. One milblogger compared the accidental bombing to the Su-34 crash in Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai, in October 2022, claiming that Belgorod residents should be thankful that the bomb did not hit a residential building.[xi] Another milblogger expressed appreciation for the MoD taking responsibility for the accident and characterized the act as an atypical sign of health in the MoD.[xii] A Rossiya-1 broadcaster, speaking about the event, stated that “modern military equipment allows Russian units to eliminate extremists in the special operation zone from a minimal distance”-- likely an error that indicates confusion in Russian state media on how to frame the accident in the information space.[xiii]
- Russian forces used a new delivery of Shahed drones to strike Ukraine for the third consecutive day, targeting Kyiv for the first time in 25 days.
- Commander of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina reportedly assumed command of the Russian Pacific Fleet following the completion of Russian drills in the Pacific.
- A Russian fighter-bomber accidentally bombed Belgorod on April 20.
- The Angry Patriots Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of supporting efforts to freeze the war in Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law aimed at supporting the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to set conditions for domestic crackdowns and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to advance in and around Bakhmut, although Russian forces have not completed a turning movement around the city.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk front and conducted a limited ground attack in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces have established positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
- Russian federal subjects are forming new cross-regional volunteer formations to support the ongoing force generation campaigns.
- Russian authorities are expanding the logistics capabilities and security measures on the Arabat Spit likely to prepare for a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 20, 2023
The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet on April 19 amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev announced on April 19 the “appointment” of Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergei Avakyants to the headquarters overseeing Russia’s military sports training and patriotic education centers, a clear demotion for one of the seniormost commanding officers in the Russian Navy. It is unclear why a Kremlin official initially announced Avakyants’ reappointment instead of the Ministry of Defense. The Russian Pacific Fleet reported on April 20 that Avankyants is changing position due to his reaching the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) age limit for military service (65 years). However, Russian state media outlet TASS reported that its sources claimed that Avakyants’ demotion was not due to his old age. Several Russian general officers – including current Russian theater commander in Ukraine and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov – have served in the Russian armed forces beyond turning 65. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a surprise readiness check of the Pacific Fleet on April 14 that is still ongoing as of April 20. Russian state wire TASS reported on April 20 that two sources close to the Russian Pacific Fleet’s management stated that current Commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina may take command of the Pacific Fleet and that Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov may command the Baltic Fleet.
The Kremlin clearly demoted Avakyants from a senior operational commander to a military bureaucrat overseeing programmatic work, despite Russian officials’ framing of the shift as a new “appointment.” Avakyants’ demotion may be connected to the poor performance of Pacific Fleet naval infantry (such as the 155th and 40th naval infantry brigades) around Vuhledar since early 2023. Avakyants alternatively may have failed in some manner to conduct large-scale drills in the Pacific. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin linked Avakyants’ dismissal to the Pacific Fleet drills and sarcastically questioned if someone could conduct drills within the Russian MoD, likely advocating for the dismissal of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Another milblogger welcomed Avakyants’ dismissal, stating that Russia needs to appoint younger commanders like Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov.
A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s ineffective use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces in Ukraine. The milblogger argued on April 20 that Russian forces are relying on VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units to conduct ground attacks in Ukraine due to a lack of high-quality infantry, despite VDV and Spetsnaz units not initially being prepared for conducting combined arms operations. The milblogger argued that VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units need to carry out their intended purposes and not serve as the Russian military’s elite infantry and assault groups in Ukraine. The milblogger particularly criticized Spetsnaz units for not conducting enough sabotage and targeting operations and VDV units for being too large and requiring expensive specialized equipment that is not useful in the current tactical realities in Ukraine. The milblogger asserted that the Russian military will not be able to normalize command, management, and planning for major operations until it establishes clear roles for VDV, naval infantry, and Spetsnaz units. The milblogger additionally admitted that the Russian military has in practice formed light infantry units without transports for some time, despite the Russian military’s doctrinal focus on ”motorized rifle” (mechanized infantry) units. ISW previously assessed that Russia’s most elite forces – VDV and Spetsnaz – are diluting their combat effectiveness and doctrinal specialties with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high casualties sustained in Ukraine. The milblogger’s criticism of the use of these elite forces further suggests that these units’ reputation as Russia’s elite fighting force in Ukraine is questionable.
The Russian State Duma adopted a law on April 20 that grants members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s (DNR and LNR) Militias veterans' status and could apply to select PMC or other irregular personnel but fails to explicitly address the status of PMC groups as legal entities. The law (adopted in its third reading) provides veteran status to members of the DNR and LNR Militias who have fought since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, as well as to personnel who served in unspecified organizations which “contribute to the tasks of the Russian Armed Forces” in Ukraine. This framing will likely allow the Kremlin to provide veteran status to select PMC personnel without recognizing the legality of PMCs like the Wagner Group, for which Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has long campaigned. Prigozhin focused on the lack of recognition of the Wagner Group, though this law would have been an unusual way for the Kremlin to legally recognize Wagner. Prigozhin griped that unnamed Russian entities seek to “forever remove [Wagner] from the history of Russia.” Prigozhin claimed that he is happy for the DNR and LNR militiamen and that he is okay not receiving recognition until authorities eventually punish the individuals who stole Wagner’s recognition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint on the Ukrainian-Russian border during a meeting with government officials on April 19. Putin claimed that he personally traveled through the Gukovo checkpoint, which connects Rostov and Luhansk oblasts, when returning from his recent trip to occupied Luhansk and Kherson oblasts. Putin stated that poor road conditions at the checkpoint caused a civilian backup and forced trucks delivering perishable goods to wait for hours before passing through, causing shipment delays and price increases in occupied territories. Putin added that some trucks must bypass the checkpoint entirely as the roads are too narrow and practically nonexistent. Putin called on Russian special services and law enforcement to increase the number of inspection complexes and employees at checkpoints and ordered Russian officials to improve roads around checkpoints and establish routes from Rostov-on-Don to Luhansk Oblast.
Putin’s orders indicate that Russia intends to maintain customs checkpoints with the illegally annexed eastern regions out of security concerns. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers complained that Russian checkpoints at the international customs line significantly slowed down Russian deliveries of ammunition to the frontlines in Donetsk Oblast. The Kremlin’s failure to implement meaningful integration policies and secure occupied Ukraine is likely undermining Russia’s ability to provision forces on the front line, as ISW has previously assessed. Putin is likely attempting to remedy the delays by expanding staffing to speed up inspections at the checkpoints and is not entertaining the possibility of removing these obstructions. Russia previously intensified security measures and inspections around the Kerch Strait Bridge, the Kremlin likely continues to use these checkpoints for similar security reasons. The Kremlin may also use these checkpoints to prevent the mass movement of men from occupied Ukraine escaping forced mobilization, to stop Russian mobilized personnel from fleeing to Russia, and to maintain Russian filtration measures. The existence of these checkpoints further highlights that Russian officials do not view the residents of occupied Ukraine as Russian nationals and are governing as the occupying power they are, despite ongoing claims the illegally annexed territories are part of Russia.
Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss announced his resignation on April 20, reportedly in response to an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to work at the federal level. The reason for Uss’ promotion is currently unclear but may be part of Putin’s efforts to strengthen control over regional officials.
- The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet Sergei Avakyants amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. It is unclear if the Kremlin demoted Avakyants due to his poor performance in the ongoing rills or for other reasons.
- A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces as frontline infantry in Ukraine.
- The Russian State Duma adopted a law granting members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias veterans' status which could possibly cover PMC personnel but does not formally recognize PMC formations.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint during a meeting with government officials, indicating continued Russian challenges integrating illegally annexed Ukrainian territory.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Kreminna area.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued reconnaissance activity northwest of Svatove.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk frontline, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine out of concern for a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- The Kremlin may be eliminating or deprioritizing formal force structures controlled by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and permitting private military companies (PMCs) to absorb their soldiers.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to target Ukrainian youth to consolidate societal control of occupied territories.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 19, 2023
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs. Russian state-controlled outlet TASS reported on April 19 that the FSB and the Main Directorate of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have been conducting mass checks at the Moscow Central District Internal Affairs Directorate and several Moscow district police offices for the past several weeks due to “the leakage of data from Russian security forces at the request of Ukrainian citizens.”[i] Another Russian source noted that the FSB and MVD have already detained police officers as part of this investigation.[ii] Russian outlets reported that the suspected police officers leaked personal data on Russian security forces to external individuals, some of whom are Ukrainian citizens.[iii] The reported FSB and MVD raids on the Moscow police departments are occurring against the backdrop of a series of arrests and dismissals of prominent members of Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) leadership.[iv] The Kremlin may be pushing for such arrests and investigations in order to conduct an overhaul of the domestic security apparatus to oust officials who have fallen out of Kremlin favor and consolidate further control internal security organs.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on April 19 that Ukrainian forces are already conducting some counteroffensive actions. Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces will never preemptively announce when the counteroffensive starts and reiterated that Ukrainian forces aim to liberate all Ukrainian territory.[v] Malyar also reported that Russian forces are concentrating on offensives in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka directions and that Russian forces have concentrated weapons, equipment, and all professional units – including Wagner Group forces, Spetsnaz, and airborne forces (VDV) – around Bakhmut.[vi] Malyar noted that Ukrainian counteroffensive actions will be both offensive and defensive in nature given the complex nature of the battlefield.
Russian forces continue to use Shahed drones and other lower-precision systems to offset the degradation of Russia’s precision munition supply. Russian forces launched 12 Shahed-131/136 drones at southern Ukraine from the Sea of Azov on the night of April 18 to 19, 10 of which Ukrainian air defense shot down.[vii] Ukrainian United Coordination Press Center of the Southern Defense Forces Head Nataliya Humenyuk noted on April 19 that the Shahed strike was a deliberate attempt to find and destroy Ukrainian air defense systems.[viii] Russian milbloggers have recently discussed the importance of targeting Ukrainian air defense capabilities in advance of any potential Ukrainian counteroffensives, and the Shahed strikes were likely intended in part to set conditions to do so.[ix] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuri Ihnat noted that Russia has used almost all of its strategic missile stockpile since September 11, 2022, and that Ukrainian forces have shot down 750 of the total 850 missiles that Russian forces have launched at Ukrainian during this period.[x] Ihnat noted that Russian forces have switched to cheaper and shorter-range options such as guided aerial bombs and have removed Kh-50 type missiles from storage for restoration.[xi] Ihnat was likely referring to Kh-55 Soviet-era air launched cruise missiles, as Russia is slated to begin production on newer Kh-50 cruise missiles in summer 2023.[xii] Russia may be removing Kh-55 cruise missiles from storage to refit them for future strikes on Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 18, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts. The Kremlin announced on April 18 that Putin visited the headquarters of the Russian Dnepr Group of Forces in Kherson Oblast and the Vostok National Guard headquarters in occupied Luhansk Oblast. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that Putin visited occupied territories on April 17. Putin, however, stated that Orthodox Easter holiday is “coming up” in one of the videos, which suggests that his visit occurred prior to April 16. The Kremlin later edited the video to exclude Putin’s statement about the then-upcoming East holiday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Avdiivka frontline on April 18, and it is possible the Kremlin deliberately released footage of Putin’s visit to overshadow Zelensky’s visit in the information space. ISW reported on Russian milbloggers criticizing Russian officials for failing to visit the frontlines like Zelensky, and Putin had previously visited occupied Mariupol on March 19 to improve his appearance as a wartime leader. Russian occupation officials and milbloggers celebrated Putin’s visit and claimed that he boosted the morale of Russian servicemen preparing to repel Ukrainian counteroffensives. Geolocated footage shows that Putin visited Arabat Spit in southwestern Kherson Oblast - at least 130km from the nearest frontline.
Putin’s visit likely also intended to publicly identify potential scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives. Putin received briefings from Commander of Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, Commander of the Dnepr Group of Forces Colonel General Oleg Makarevich, and other unnamed military commanders regarding the situation along the Kherson and Zaporizhia frontlines. Putin also met with Colonel General Alexander Lapin and other unnamed top-ranking officers to discuss the situation on the Luhansk frontline. Putin likely deliberately singled out Teplinsky and Makarevich as commanders responsible for southern Ukraine, and Lapin as a commander overseeing the Luhansk direction. Putin, Kremlin sources, and milbloggers have been increasingly discussing the prospects for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and it is likely that the Kremlin is preparing the domestic information space for either military failures or the defeat of the counteroffensive threat.
Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger observed that the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu did not attend Putin’s meetings in occupied Ukraine. The milblogger claimed that Teplinsky and Lapin – both of whom had reportedly been placed on a leave – returned to the Russian military command likely against the wishes of Gerasimov and Shoigu. Russian sources previously claimed that the Kremlin replaced Wagner-affiliated Teplinsky with Makarevich as the VDV commander on January 13, likely after the Russian MoD and Gerasimov regained Putin’s favor in the lead up of Russia’s unsuccessful winter-spring offensive operation in Donbas. The meeting confirms previous Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s hints at Teplinsky’s reappointment. ISW previously assessed that Teplinsky’s confirmed reappointment suggests that the Kremlin is likely seeking to work with Wagner to achieve a decisive victory in Bakhmut. The confirmation may further indicate that Prigozhin has at least partly regained Putin’s favor by overriding Gerasimov and Shoigu’s efforts to eliminate Wagner in Bakhmut.
Putin may be attempting to balance Wagner’s influence by reappointing Lapin to command the Luhansk sector of the frontline. The Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Lapin assumed the role of the commander of the Vostok National Guard formation and noted that the Putin-Lapin meeting confirms Lapin’s return to the frontlines. Prigozhin and Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov had led a successful campaign to remove Lapin from his position as the commander of the “center” group of Russian forces, likely due to personal conflicts during the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk and Luhansk offensive operations in the summer of 2022. The milblogger speculated that Putin reappointed Lapin to reinforce command in the area or to help Putin avoid conflicts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Select members of the “Club of Angry Patriots” are advocating for a revolution in Russia if the Kremlin freezes the war or pursues peace negotiations with Ukraine and the West. Self-proclaimed former “People’s Governor of Donetsk Oblast” Pavel Gubarev defined the “Club of Angry Patriots” as a “potentially revolutionary power” that will prevent “betrayal” if the government decides to freeze the current frontlines in Ukraine. Gubarev also noted that Russia cannot win the war without a revolution – either from within the government or in society – because oligarchs, agents, ethnic mafias, and nationalist separatists will not allow for the reformation of social-economic institutions to support the war effort. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin noted that Gubarev’s opinion does not represent the collective vision on the “Club of Angry Patriots” and noted that any revolution begins with a “coup from the top” over which he and other members of the group have no control over since they do not have connections to the Kremlin.
The official “Club of Angry Patriots” Telegram account amplified a forecast regarding possible political changes within the Kremlin as a result of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may represent the group’s concerns over the progress of the war. The group amplified a post from the leader of the Russian “Civil Solidarity” movement Georgiy Fedorov, who stated that the political situation in Russia largely depends on frontline realities. Fedorov assessed that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent statements about the end of the “special military operation” is the start of the campaign to freeze the war in Ukraine.
Fedorov stated that if Russians are able to defeat Ukrainian counteroffensives over the summer, then Russian President Vladimir Putin may freeze the war to avoid calling up mobilization ahead of the 2024 presidential election cycle. Fedorov claimed that Russia would likely present a suppressed Ukrainian counteroffensive as a victory and is likely intensifying volunteer recruitment efforts to generate enough contract servicemen to hold existing frontlines. Fedorov claimed that the Kremlin will continue to intensify censorship and repressions and will not replace officials in the Kremlin or within the military command under the conditions of unsuccessful counteroffensive operations. Fedorov stated that if Ukrainians are successful, then political situation within the Kremlin will lead to a deeper conflict between different parties for influence and the Kremlin will conduct personnel changes. Fedorov claimed that despite potential mobilization and disruption in society and the Kremlin, Putin’s system is capable of eliminating all threats “associated with the interception of power.” Fedorov noted that the most unlikely scenario is the imminent dissolution of Putin’s power system, but noted that different financial, regional, and industrial figures may be preparing for such an outcome.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met to discuss unspecified strategic partnership and military cooperation in Moscow on April 18. Shoigu claimed that mutual Russian-Chinese efforts aim to stabilize and reduce conflict and that each state significantly values deepening military cooperation. Shoigu also claimed that Russia and China can deepen their partnership by firmly supporting each other on national security issues. Li stated that his first visit to Russia as Defense Minister demonstrates the determination to strengthen cooperation between the Russian military and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Shoigu’s and Li’s remarks largely echoed Li’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on April 16.
The Kremlin continued efforts to portray Russia as a respected international partner by meeting with China against the backdrop of the G7 meeting in Japan on April 18. The G7 communique condemned Russian nuclear blackmail rhetoric, Russia’s possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, destabilizing Wagner Group activities in Africa, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine, Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty, and Iran’s provision of combat UAVs to Russia. The Russian Ministry of Defense published footage of two Russian strategic bombers flying in international airspace over the Bering and Okhotsk Seas as part of the Pacific Fleet’s ongoing readiness check. ISW previously assessed that the Pacific Fleet’s ongoing readiness checks are likely meant to posture that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific ahead of the G7 meeting.
Russian authorities detained Russian public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov, an associate of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in Yekaterinburg on April 18. Russian news outlet Kommersant reported on April 18 that Russian authorities detained Shirshikov and charged him with justifying terrorism possibly for his social media posts about prominent Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) assassination. Shirshikov spoke to Gershkovich shortly before Gershkovich’s arrest and was one of the first people to report Gershkovich as missing. Shirshikov previously stated that Gershkovich had traveled to Yekaterinburg to report on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s criticisms of Yekaterinburg History Museum Director Igor Pushkarev and locals’ opinions on the war.
The Russian State Duma approved a series of possibly unconstitutional amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 18 aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship and repressing the Russian public. The Russian State Duma approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that increase the maximum prison sentence for high treason from 20 years to life and authorize the revocation of Russian citizenship for discrediting the Russian military and participating in designated undesirable nongovernmental organizations. The amendment also stipulates that a Russian citizen may not renounce their citizenship if the citizen has an outstanding duty to the state, such as mobilization. These measures appear to violate the Russian Constitution, as Article 6 states that a Russian citizen may not be deprived of their citizenship or of the right to change citizenship status. The State Duma also approved an amendment that criminalizes advising international organizations in which Russia does not belong or foreign states bodies. Russian opposition media outlet OVD-Info states that this amendment would criminalize facilitating international war crimes investigations. International Humanitarian Law, to which Russia is a party, stipulates that states have a duty to investigate and prosecute war crimes.
The Russian Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters announced the cancellation of the annual Immortal Regiment Victory Day march, likely in an effort to reduce public discussion of deaths in the current conflict. Russian State Duma Member Deputy and Co-Chair of the Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters Elena Tsunaeva announced the cancellation of the march, which memorializes Russian war dead, on April 18, for unspecified security reasons. Tsunaeva stated that citizens can instead submit photos of relatives to a centralized online database to participate in a ”virtual procession,” which Russian authorities will likely use to hide the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Tsunaeva also invited people to share pictures of their deceased family members online, on clothes, and on cars.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts.
- Putin’s visit likely intended to publicly identify scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.
- Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle.
- Select members of the “Club of Angry Patriots” are advocating for a revolution in Russia if the Kremlin freezes the war or pursue peace negotiations with Ukraine and the West.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met to discuss on strategic partnership and military cooperation in Moscow on April 18.
- The Russian State Duma approved a series of amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 18 aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship and repressing the Russian public.
- Russian authorities detained Russian public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov, an associate of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in Yekaterinburg on April 18.
- The Russian Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters announced the cancelation of the annual Immortal Regiment Victory Day march, likely in an effort to reduce public discussion of war dead.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to make gains in Bakhmut and conducted ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to integrate proxy formations with conventional Russian forces.
- Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian civilians to Russia under healthcare and rehabilitation schemes.
- Belarus may begin economically supporting Russian-occupied Donetsk Oblast with a patronage system.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 17, 2023
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. Wagner forces appear to be receiving reinforcements, ammunition, and political recognition – which is a stark deviation from the Kremlin’s previous efforts to expend Wagner forces and Prigozhin in Bakhmut since at least January 2023.[i] Wagner-affiliated sources announced on April 17 that Wagner is training up to three motorized rifle brigades of mobilized personnel to reinforce Wagner‘s flanks in Bakhmut.[ii] Prigozhin also confirmed that Russian airborne forces (VDV) are operating alongside Wagner and indicated that Wagner is actively receiving artillery shells.[iii] Prigozhin advocated for Wagner to receive more artillery shells, which indicates that Prigozhin has reestablished his supply of ammunition from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). The Russian State Duma will also consider amendments to the Russian law on veterans’ rights to grant veteran status to private military companies (PMCs) and volunteers.[iv] Prigozhin had been routinely advocating for Wagner personnel to be recognized as participants of the ”special military operation” in Ukraine, and the adoption of this bill would signify that Prigozhin’s position in the Kremlin inner circle has improved.
The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition.[v] The New York Times, citing leaked Pentagon documents, reported that Putin personally attempted to resolve the feud between Wagner and the Russian MoD by holding a meeting between Shoigu and Prigozhin on February 22.[vi] Putin can be turning back to Prigozhin after experiencing another disappointment with Russian conventional forces, which did not capture Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts frontlines before the April 1 that Putin had reportedly set for them.[vii] Putin is reportedly once again reappointing select Wagner-affiliated commanders such as VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, which if true, suggests that he is prioritizing a decisive victory at least in Bakhmut in the near term.[viii] Putin likely needs an immediate victory in Bakhmut ahead of Victory Day on May 9 or the rumored ”Direct Line” press conference he is preparing to hold in June to assert his authority among domestic audiences.[ix]
Putin’s improving relations with Wagner may also be a symptom of his hesitance to increase mobilization and signal a return to crypto mobilization. Putin increased the annual conscription quota from 134,000 conscripts to 147,000 men for the spring 2023 cycle, and likely is experiencing shortages of trainers to prepare conscripts, remaining mobilized personnel, and volunteers.[x] The Kremlin may be hoping to use Wagner trainers to prepare its mobilized forces. ISW had previously reported that the Kremlin outsourced recruitment of personnel to nationalist groups and is currently carrying out large-scale volunteer recruitment campaigns.[xi] Wagner is currently recruiting across Russia, and it is possible that the Kremlin may still see Wagner as a feasible source of combat power.
The extremely graphic atrocities described by Yaldarov and Savich underscore a slate of recent reports of Wagner’s systematic use of brutality as a method of waging war.[xiv] Prigozhin and Wagner’s command may actively encourage active engagement in atrocities in an attempt to build social cohesion and reputation within Wagner units. This type of engrained violence is likely to have escalating domestic impacts on Russian domestic society, especially as Wagner fighters complete their contracts and return to their homes. Russian society will have to increasingly work to handle the normalized brutality committed by its forces as they reintegrate into the domestic sphere, which will likely have generational domestic societal ramifications.
The Gulagu.net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization. Yaldarov claimed that he was the commander of Wagner’s 5th Assault Detachment and that he trained with a special unit that specifically taught him to kill.[xv] Yaldarov stated that the higher Wagner command gave his unit the order to place a flag on likely the Bakhmut administrative building and that he was not allowed to leave Bakhmut until after its capture. Considering the fact that Yaldarov gave the interview from his home in Russia because he was released from his contract, his anecdote about the administrative building may suggest that Wagner considered the capture of the administrative building and the central Bakhmut area to be threshold for announcing the capture of the city. The apparent return of Putin’s favor to Prigozhin may have resulted in part from Prigozhin’s ability to claim the capture of Bakhmut — his objective — while the Russian MoD’s conventional forces failed to achieve any of their objectives. Yaldarov’s account of Prigozhin’s orders for Wagner troops to massacre civilians and everyone they came across in Soledar in early January additionally indicates that Prigozhin pushed for the quick capture of the settlement and ordered his fighters to take it essentially at any cost. Both Yaldarov and Savich emphasize the way that the Wagner command demands brutal treatment of Wagner dissenters within the ranks and the operational reliance on attritional assaults carried out by convict recruits.
The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza's criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.[xvi] The 25-year sentence is the longest and harshest for an opposition activist to date.[xvii] Kara-Murza's sentencing comes as the Kremlin has continued to intensify domestic repression of dissenting voices through escalated legislative manipulations.[xviii] The Russian State Duma previously approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 13 that will introduce life sentences for high treason and increase prison sentences for terrorist activity.[xix] Kara-Murza's high-profile case and sentencing are emblematic of the wider trend in Russia towards total and codified authoritarianism.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Li stated that he had arrived in Moscow to implement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agreement with Putin from late March and claimed that Russian-Chinese relations “have already entered a new era.”[xx] Li noted that China is prepared to work with Russia to “strengthen strategic communication between the two militaries, strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, and make new contributions to safeguarding regional and global security for peace.”[xxi] Official Russian and Chinese readouts did not include any mentions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s intent to promote peace talks in Ukraine and continuation of cooperation which Xi and Putin agreed upon previously.[xxii] ISW previously assessed that Putin was unable to secure a no-limits bilateral partnership with China during Xi’s visit to Moscow, and it is likely that the meeting between Li and Putin did not further expand the scope of Russian-Chinese cooperation.
Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit. Putin stated that the Russian military is prioritizing the war in Ukraine but continues to develop the Russian Pacific Fleet during his meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on April 17.[xxiii] Shoigu stated that recent Russian combat readiness drills involved 25,000 military personnel, 167 warships and support vessels, and 89 planes and helicopters. Shoigu stated that Russian forces are currently conducting maneuver exercises and are moving to the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk. Shoigu claimed that the final drills will begin on April 18, a day before Li’s departure from Russia. ISW assessed on April 14 that the Russian Pacific Fleet‘s combat readiness checks are likely meant to signal to China that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific, especially ahead of the G7 meeting in Japan between May 19 and May 21.[xxiv]
Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.” The “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto on April 17 on its newly created Telegram channel, which emphasizes protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin instead of efforts to win the war in Ukraine.[xxv] The manifesto claims that unspecified actors who remain in power in Russia have transferred their money and allegiance to the West and may be preparing for a coup and the ”dismemberment” of the Russia Federation. The manifesto likens the Kremlin‘s pro-war and anti-war factions to the fight between the Reds and Whites in the Russian Civil War following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The manifesto also claims that Russia is currently fighting the war in a mediocre way and is unable to defeat Ukraine in its current state. ISW previously assessed that Girkin and the “Club of Angry Patriots” may be attempting to advance the political goals of unnamed figures in Russian power structures who want to influence Putin’s decision making through public discourse.[xxvi]
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is seemingly regaining some favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin likely as a result of the Russian conventional military’s inability to accomplish the tasks Putin had set for it during the winter offensive in Donbas. The extent of Putin’s trust and favor for Prigozhin is unclear at this time, but it is likely that Putin halted the Russian MoD’s efforts to avenge Wagner by denying Wagner reinforcements and ammunition.
- An interview with two former Wagner Group fighters on their treatment of Ukrainian children and other civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) further highlights how Wagner has institutionalized systematic brutality as part of its fundamental modus operandi.
- The net interview with the two former Wagner fighters provides valuable insight into Wagner’s force structure and operational prioritization.
- The Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on the charge of high treason for Kara-Murza's criticism of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.
- Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 16 and pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and China. Putin continued efforts to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China and a Pacific naval power amidst Li’s visit.
- Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin’s newly formed “Club of Angry Patriots” published its manifesto focused on protecting pro-war factions in the Kremlin from possible “sabotage” and “betrayal.”
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and south of Kreminna.
- Russian forces have made further gains in Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin’s transition to electronic summonses distribution is continuing to complicate Russian conscription procedures.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to discuss the provision of Russian passports in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 16, 2023
The Russian military command appears to be increasingly shifting responsibility for offensive operations in Ukraine to the Russian Airborne troops (VDV). The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on April 16 that it is highly likely that VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky has returned to a “major” but unspecified role in Ukraine after reports that the Russian MoD replaced him on January 13. UK MoD noted that Teplinsky’s return to command in Ukraine will not be limited to just VDV units, but that it is also likely that Teplinsky will try to promote the VDV’s traditional role as an elite force. ISW previously assessed on April 1 that milblogger speculation that the Russian MoD recalled Teplinsky from ”leave“ suggests that Russia may be preparing to reshuffle senior commanders following the failed winter offensive and in preparation for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. The UK MoD’s apparent confirmation of Teplinsky’s reappointment to a senior command position supports ISW’s assessment, and additionally suggests that the Russian military command is likely seeking to place an increased emphasis on the role of VDV elements in Russian offensive operations. VDV units are actively engaged along critical sectors of the front in Luhansk Oblast and near Bakhmut and have recently received TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems, further indicating that the Russian military command may seek to elevate the VDV to greater operational prominence.
News of Teplinsky’s reappointment suggests that the Russian MoD is seeking to work more closely with the Wagner Group in order to complete the capture of Bakhmut, despite obvious tensions between Prigozhin and the traditional MoD establishment. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seemingly confirmed Teplinsky’s Wagner affiliations in a public show of support for Teplinsky following Teplinsky’s reported dismissal over a disagreement with Chief of the Russian General Staff and overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov in January. Teplinsky became embroiled in the rising tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD establishment (represented by Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) as the Russian MoD appeared to be actively trying to cut the Wagner Group off from artillery shell supply and otherwise interfere with Wagner’s ability to operate around Bakhmut. Over the past few weeks, however, it appears that the Russian military command has been working more closely with Wagner, likely in an effort to expedite the capture of Bakhmut. The Russian MoD and Prigozhin publicly acknowledged on April 11 that VDV elements are engaged in the Bakhmut area and holding Wagner’s flanks north and south of Bakhmut while Wagner pursues the main offensive effort in the city itself. ISW has recently observed that elements of the 106th VDV division are operating in the Bakhmut area. Prigozhin has also scaled down his explicit rhetorical attacks on the MoD in recent days. Russian milbloggers have reported that Wagner forces are operating T-90 tanks within Bakhmut, suggesting that Russian leadership has allocated more modern assets to Wagner in their efforts to take the city. Teplinsky’s reappointment is therefore likely also an attempt by the Russian MoD to posture itself better to work with Wagner to finish the task of taking Bakhmut.
Teplinsky remains highly unlikely to restore the VDV to its prior status as an elite force due to widespread losses to the most elite Russian units. VDV units suffered extraordinarily high losses in the early phases of the war in 2022, and a prominent milblogger claimed on Russian state television on January 31 that VDV forces lost 40 to 50 percent of their personnel between the start of the war and September 2022. BBC Russia Service confirmed the deaths of 1,669 VDV personnel as of April 14, 2023. Widespread losses to previously elite units that are now being restaffed with poorly trained mobilized personnel are likely to have long-term impacts on the combat effectiveness of these units, and the replacement of a single commander is highly unlikely to be able to solve such pervasive damage.
Russian milbloggers criticized Beglov for standing in front of a Ukrainian flag at a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly in St. Petersburg on April 13. The milblogger-amplified image shows Beglov standing on the left side of the podium as another official speaks, and the angle of the image shows Beglov standing directly in front of the Ukrainian flag—a perspective likely not indicative of Beglov’s actual location relative to the flag. The milbloggers claimed that a “high-ranking Russian official” such as Beglov should not stand in front of the Ukrainian flag, with one even claiming that the act was analogous to a Leningrad City head standing in front of the flag of Nazi Germany during World War II. The milbloggers also criticized Beglov for standing in front of the flag just a few weeks after the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky) in St. Petersburg. Prigozhin himself claimed that the Russian “deep state” is responsible for the flag’s presence, implying that Beglov is part of this deep state. Other milbloggers claimed that the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag at the meeting suggests that Russia has failed to put itself on a wartime footing. One milblogger claimed that CIS protocol required the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag but noted the strangeness of the protocol given the current conflict. Ukraine ended its affiliation with the CIS in 2018 and has never been a full CIS member.
Russian officials may have included the Ukrainian flag in an attempt to convey the fact that the Kremlin does not recognize Ukraine’s withdrawal from the CIS and refusal to conform to Kremlin-controlled international structures, falsely anticipating that the Russian information space would praise this underlying message. The Russian information space appears to be so poisoned against Beglov, however, that milbloggers jumped at the chance to criticize him regardless of the subtle Kremlin messaging. This attack against Beglov also suggests that Prigozhin’s Russian “deep state” narrative, about which also he notably warned in an April 14 essay, has the potential to similarly permeate the Russian information space.
The Wagner Group returned 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) on April 16, suggesting that Wagner may have engaged in the exchange independent of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Ukrainian sources confirmed that 130 Ukrainian POWs returned to Ukraine but did not specify how many Russian POWs were exchanged in turn. The Russian MoD deviated from its normal routine and did not confirm the prisoner exchange at all. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video showing Wagner forces preparing Ukrainian POWs for the exchange. The lack of Russian MoD confirmation contrasted with Prigozhin’s engagement with the exchange may suggest that the Wagner Group maintains a level of autonomy from the Russian MoD and was able to negotiate the exchange with the Ukrainian government independent from the Russian MoD. In the posted video, Prigozhin claimed that he ordered Wagner forces to provide Ukrainian POWs with food and water before their release and personally wished them good luck and health. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger noted that Wagner’s kindness to Ukrainian prisoners is particularly uncharacteristic for a unilateral prisoner exchange that was purportedly not coordinated with the Russian MoD or another entity. Wagner is notorious for the mistreatment of POWs, engaging in several high-profile and widely circulated executions of both returned Wagner POWs and Ukrainian POWs under Wagner’s control. The milblogger also criticized Prigozhin‘s decision to release such a large number of Ukrainian servicemen ahead of the anticipated large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive. Prigozhin’s decision to release so many Ukrainian POWs at such a time likely suggests that the exchange returned high-value Wagner members whom he intends to redeploy on the battlefield. Prigozhin has previously accused Wagner POWs of being traitors and supported their execution, but the conditions of the April 16 prisoner exchange likely imply that he is prioritizing replenishing diminished Wagner units over his continued effort to project Soviet brutalist strength and appeal to Russian ultranationalists.
Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov also commented on the prisoner exchange on April 16. Kadyrov reported that five Chechens returned as part of the prisoner exchange but that he refused to meet them upon their arrival in Grozny. Kadyrov claimed that the five Chechen fighters should prove their honor by returning to the frontlines, stating that Chechens do not interpret capture as an excuse to lay down arms but instead as an action forced upon them. Kadyrov is likely using the POW exchange to fortify his own reputation as a capable and brutal silovik.
The Wagner Group may be attempting to force mobilized Russian personnel to sign contracts with Wagner, possibly in an effort to offset Wagner’s losses in Ukraine. Mobilized personnel from Moscow and Ivanovo oblasts alleged in a public complaint released on April 16 that the Wagner Group forced 170 mobilized personnel to sign contracts with Wagner. Russian sources previously claimed that 100 mobilized personnel in Luhansk Oblast disappeared as of April 7 after refusing to sign contracts with the Wagner Group, and geolocated footage published on April 11 shows Wagner personnel detaining the mobilized personnel in Kadiivka before escorting the personnel to an unspecified training ground. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may allow mobilized personnel to fulfill their service obligations by signing contracts with Wagner, although the status of mobilized personnel initially assigned to conventional Russian units who have signed contracts with Wagner is unclear. Wagner’s reported impressment of poorly trained mobilized personnel, in addition to its change in approach to prisoner exchanges, suggests that Wagner is increasingly desperate for manpower as it continues to conduct highly attritional offensive operations in and around Bakhmut.
- The Russian military command appears to be increasingly shifting responsibility for offensive operations in Ukraine to the Russian Airborne (VDV) troops.
- News of Teplinsky’s reappointment suggests that the Russian MoD is seeking to work more closely with the Wagner Group in order to complete the capture of Bakhmut, despite obvious tensions between Prigozhin and the traditional MoD establishment.
- Russian milbloggers seized on an opportunity to denigrate St. Petersburg Mayor Alexander Beglov in a manner that indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s anti-Beglov campaign has permeated the Russian ultra-nationalist information space.
- The Wagner Group returned 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) on April 16, suggesting that Wagner may have engaged in the exchange independent of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
- The Wagner Group may be attempting to force mobilized Russian personnel to sign contracts with Wagner, possibly in an effort to offset Wagner’s losses in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks south of Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces reportedly intensified the rate of artillery strikes in southern Ukraine.
- Russian mobilized personnel continue to publish public complaints against Russian commanders alleging mistreatment.
- A Russian source stated that the Wagner Group is involved in the removal of Ukrainian children from Bakhmut.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 15, 2023
Reporting from some Western sources that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin called for Russia to end its war against Ukraine is inaccurate. Some Western reports covering Prigozhin’s April 14 essay on a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive and the future of the war miscontextualized a rhetorical statement in which Prigozhin established a strawman argument he attributed to Russia’s “internal enemies” who seek to rationalize Russia ending the war in Ukraine now. The point of his essay was to attack this strawman, not to advance it. Prigozhin actually called on Russia to commit to a decisive fight that will either defeat Ukraine or result in a temporary Russian defeat that will catalyze Russia’s nationalist rebirth and set conditions for future victory. A full reading of Prigozhin‘s essay, titled, “Only an Honest Fight: No Negotiations,” does not lend itself to any reasonable interpretation that Prigozhin advocated for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Reading Prigozhin‘s public communications is not a straightforward undertaking. Much of the nuance included in Prigozhin’s speech is lost when translating Russian to English. Prigozhin has an idiosyncratic rhetorical and writing style that relies heavily on deadpan sarcasm, selective ambiguity, aphorisms, vulgarity, and ironic slang. Prigozhin’s isolated quotes separated from the full context of his messages often lose their initial meaning.
Certain Russian players in the information space have also misinterpreted Prigozhin’s essay, further exposing fissures between some Russian milbloggers. Pro-Kremlin news aggregator Readovka noted on April 15 that some unspecified Russian-language Telegram channels – like some Western media – simply repeated Prigozhin’s strawman argument about the seduction of settling for negotiations without ”reading any further” into Prigozhin’s call for a protracted struggle. Readovka endorsed Prigozhin’s actual argument that the ”uncomfortable truth” is that Russia must continue to fight, concurring that negotiations to end the war would “do more harm than good.” Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin – an enemy of Prigozhin – leaned into the misinterpretation of Prigozhin’s essay (possibly on purpose) as part of their ongoing blogging feud. Girkin sarcastically asked, ”Do I understand correctly that the Black Clown [Prigozhin] called for the Russian Federation to reject half of the Donetsk People’s Republic and a third of Zaporizhia Oblast...?” Girkin also implied that that Russian prosecutors should investigate Prigozhin for his essay, likely for discrediting the Russian ”special military operation,” given that the strawman argument advocates that Russia should simply retain only territory it currently occupies in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s essay may continue to fuel debate along existing cleavages in the Russian information space where Prigozhin’s supporters and competitors may use selective readings of the essay to either praise or malign Prigozhin while advancing their own arguments.
The Russian information space is reckoning with demographic transitions within Russia in a way that indicates that the nationalist ideologies underpinning the war in Ukraine will continue to have reverberating domestic impacts. Russian outlet RBC reported on April 13 that a study published by the Russian New Economic Association found that an increase in the number of migrants from 390,000 to 1.1 million annually would help stabilize Russia’s population, which is in decline due to domestic levels of fertility and life expectancy as well as population outflow. Moscow Duma Deputy Andrey Medvedev responded to the study and accused ”lobbyists” of advocating for uncontrolled migration from Central Asia, which Medvedev claimed will bring more violence and extremism to Russia at great social and economic cost. Medvedev called instead for a new law on the repatriation of ethnic Russians from all over the world in order to stabilize demographic shifts and save them from ”Russophobia” abroad. Russian State Duma Deputy for Defense Dmitry Kuznetsov relatedly reported on April 15 that Voronezh Oblast may begin a pilot program on the social integration of refugees and noted that this program is intended for pro-Russian refugees who left Ukraine for Russia. Kuznetsov’s proposed bill underlines the same brand of staunch nationalism that Medvedev is advocating for and seeks to uphold and codify a sense of exceptionalism for ethnic Russians in Russian at the expense of all ethnic minority populations. The war in Ukraine has had, and will continue to have, substantial population and demographic impacts within Russia. These impacts will leave the door open for the continued weaponization of intensely nationalist rhetoric as the war continues to empower the most staunchly xenophobic (and vocal) factions of Russian society.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party intends to recruit Russian military personnel who have served in Ukraine as candidates for elections in 2023 and 2024, likely in an effort to establish itself as the definitive pro-war party in Russia. United Russia Central Executive Committee Head Alexander Sidyakin announced on April 14 that the Young Guard of United Russia (United Russia’s youth wing) launched an educational module about participating in primaries for Russian military personnel and volunteers who have fought in Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Sidyakin reportedly stated that Russian military personnel and volunteers will be on United Russia candidate lists for upcoming regional elections in September 2023. The United Russia party is currently nominating candidates for primaries until April 27, and primaries will run from May 22 to 28. Young Guard of United Russia Chairman Anton Demidov reportedly stated on April 14 that Russian military personnel and volunteers will become the main speakers of the party during Russia’s 2024 presidential election.
The recruitment of military personnel as political candidates during a time of war is typical for a society that holds elections, regardless of the fairness or significance of those elections. The Kremlin likely intends to recruit military personnel as candidates to a greater extent than is usual even for a war time country, however. The Kremlin likely aims to use candidates who have served in Ukraine as the public face of the United Russia party in upcoming elections to court the support of military constituents and their family members and to establish United Russia as the definitive political party for the pro-war movement. The potential “militarization” of the United Russia party likely does not presage a Kremlin effort to escalate the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin is likely aiming to co-opt military personnel to support its ongoing effort to curry favor with the pro-war Russian ultranationalist community without fulfilling the community’s extreme demands.
- Reporting from some Western sources that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin called for Russia to end its war against Ukraine is inaccurate.
- Certain Russian players in the information space have also misinterpreted Prigozhin’s essay, further exposing fissures between some Russian milbloggers.
- The Russian information space is reckoning with demographic transitions within Russia in a way that indicates that the nationalist ideologies underpinning the war in Ukraine will continue to have reverberating domestic impacts.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party announced its intention to recruit Russian military personnel who have served in Ukraine as candidates for elections in 2023 and 2024, likely in an effort to establish itself as the definitive pro-war party in Russia.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Kreminna and may be preparing to defend territory in the Kupyansk direction.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
- Russian forces continued defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- A Russian opposition news source reported that Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) head Leonid Pasechnik signed a decree on April 14 authorizing spring and fall conscription in occupied Luhansk Oblast.
- The Russian State Security Service (FSB) is likely involved in efforts to target Ukrainian youth in occupied territories for law enforcement and counter-partisan purposes.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 14, 2023
April 14, 8pm ET
The Kremlin is likely attempting to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China ahead of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s visit to Moscow from April 16 to 18. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 14 that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu will meet with Li to discuss bilateral defense cooperation as well as issues of regional and global security. Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang stated on April 14 that China will not sell weapons to Russia and will regulate the export of items to Russia that have dual civilian and military uses. Qin‘s comments represent a continuation of China’s efforts to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the ”no limits” partnership that Russia and China declared before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. ISW assessed that Putin was unable to secure the no-limits bilateral partnership with China that he likely hoped for when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow from March 20 to 22.
The Kremlin is likely hoping to make itself more attractive to China by launching Russian Pacific Fleet exercises to project Russia’s naval power in the Pacific. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on April 14 that the Russian military raised the Pacific Fleet of the Eastern Military District (EMD) to the highest level of combat readiness for combat readiness checks. Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, also stated that elements of the Pacific Fleet will conduct combat exercises. The Russian Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks are likely meant to signal to China that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific and that Russia remains an equal military partner that can operate as a Pacific power despite the degradation of Russian military power in Ukraine.
The Kremlin also likely intends to use the Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks to attempt to deter further Japanese support for Ukraine ahead of the G7 meeting from May 19 to 21. Shoigu stated on April 14 that Russian forces declared that combat readiness checks are intended to work out methods to prevent enemy forces from deploying in the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk and to repel a landing on the southern Kuril and Sakhalin islands, both signals to Japan (which claims part of the archipelago that the Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II). Russia‘s Eastern Military District (EMD) recently deployed a battery of Bastion coastal defense missile systems to Paramushir Island in the northern portion of the Russian-occupied Japanese Kuril Islands, which ISW assessed was likely a warning to Japan about further supporting Ukraine. Russia likely intends to use military posturing in the north Pacific to raise fears about military escalation with Japan in an increased effort to prevent Japan from further supporting Ukraine when it hosts the G7 meeting in Hiroshima. Russia has employed similar information operations and demonstrative actions against the West aimed at preventing further Western security assistance to Ukraine by stoking concerns about escalation, although these efforts have never presaged any real escalation.
The Russian military is in no position to threaten Japan at this time. ISW previously reported that elements of the 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades of the Pacific Fleet suffered heavy losses near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast in early 2023 and in late 2022, with the 155th being reconstituted as many as eight times in the past year. The Pacific Fleet likely lacks the available combat power in the Pacific region to posture in a way that would be truly threatening to Japan or suitable for Russia power projection attempts that would be able to convince China that it is an equal military power.
It is noteworthy that Prigozhin – one of most extreme thought leaders among Russia’s pro-war faction – considers that Russia can incur a defeat in Ukraine and that such a defeat in the short run would actually benefit Russia.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is setting information conditions to exploit a Russian military failure if the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful. Prigozhin published an essay on April 14 in which he argues that Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive is more likely to succeed than fail. Prigozhin warned that a selfish Russian “deep state” (which he defines as “a community of near-state elites that operate independently of the political leadership of the state and have close ties and their own agenda”) is currently in crisis due to the Russian military’s failures to secure a victory quickly. Prigozhin accused members of this deep state embedded in the Russian bureaucracy of deliberately sabotaging Russian success in the war because they seek to resume their privileged lives of comfort. Prigozhin stated that these Russian deep state "internal enemies” will push the Kremlin to “make serious concessions” tantamount to “betraying Russian interests,” including even possibly returning occupied Ukrainian territory to Ukraine over the course of a few years.
Prigozhin explicitly rejected the notion of any negotiations to end the war and urged Russians to continue fighting, even if it results in Russia’s temporary defeat. Prigozhin stated that Russia must ignore the Russian deep state’s temptations to cut Russian losses and settle. Prigozhin stated the Russian military cannot stop fighting now despite current Russian territorial gains because the Ukrainian state has transformed, and unoccupied Ukraine is now politically opposed the Kremlin. Prigozhin stated that Russia must continue to fight relentlessly in Ukraine regardless of how adverse conditions become. He stated that any scenario in which Russia faces defeat will result in a groundswell of “radical national feelings” in Russia that will serve as the catalyst for a reinvigorated Russian patriotism and enable the Russian nation to undergo the baptism by fire necessary to emerge victorious and defeat Ukraine. Prigozhin’s essay is thematically and logistical consistent with his previous stated effort to transform Wagner Group into a hardline ideological elite parallel military organization to advance Russian interests.
The Russian nationalist discourse about the acceptability of Russia suffering defeat in Ukraine deviates from some Western assertions of the need to preserve Russia from humiliation and allow Russia to “save face.” Prigozhin’s argument that the Kremlin must resist the temptation to settle and instead remain committed to winning in Ukraine is not compatible with the idea that the Kremlin must be given a way to save face lest it conduct a massive, possibly nuclear, escalation. It is noteworthy that Prigozhin – one of most extreme thought leaders among Russia’s pro-war faction – considers that Russia can incur a defeat in Ukraine and that such a defeat in the short run would actually benefit Russia. Prigozhin’s comments, together with those of other radical pro-war voices, highlight the priority that the pro-war community places on galvanizing Russian society and energizing it for a long fight against the West. That agenda is not advanced by courting thermonuclear destruction.
Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin denied speculations that he is facing charges in St. Petersburg for the discreditation of the Russian Armed Forces – a denial that likely further indicates his protection by unknown siloviki patrons. A Russian news aggregator claimed on April 14 that a Novosibirsk resident asked the St. Petersburg Investigative Committee to investigate Girkin’s social media content for discreditation of Russian forces – a crime punishable by a fine of up to five million rubles ($65,530), up to five years of correctional or forced labor, or up to seven years in prison. Girkin denied receiving a criminal charge notice, claiming that he will not alter his behavior and is not intimidated by authorities. Girkin denied receiving any charges from the Russian Ministry of Interior (MVD) and hypothesized that the MVD could ”theoretically” investigate him for discreditation. Girkin added that if someone has the ”political will” then he could be framed for humanitarian aid fraud. Girkin noted that everyone will soon find out if the “authorities are ready to stop [him].” Girkin’s response is consistent with his ruthless criticisms of the Kremlin and may indicate that he likely continues to benefit from some protection from within the Russian force structures – the siloviki. Girkin has every reason to believe that he would be convicted without such protection, as his vitriolic assaults on the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine almost self-evidently violate the discreditation law.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to apply pressure on Girkin’s patronage networks by responding to accusations against Girkin. Prigozhin stated that Girkin would not be recruited into Wagner as Wagner is no longer recruiting prisoners – likely implying that Girkin would remain in prison for his behavior. While it is unclear if Prigozhin or Wagner-affiliated figures are involved in sparking an investigation against Girkin, it is notable that the complaint was filed in St. Petersburg - a city where Prigozhin has connections and a city where Prigozhin is attempting to push his political aspirations. Girkin is reportedly based out of Moscow, which makes the St. Petersburg venue of the complaint more unusual. Prigozhin and Girkin have a history of personal attacks and feuds, and Prigozhin may want to expose or strain Girkin’s patronage networks, which are allowing him to be unscathed despite ongoing censorship measures in Russia. ISW also previously assessed that Prigozhin and Girkin are likely competing for influence and patronage within the pro-war faction, and a public investigation into Girkin might burden Girkin’s patrons as they attempt to deflect or quash these accusations.
Russian elite forces are diluting their combat effectiveness with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high causalities sustained in Ukraine. The Washington Post reported that leaked classified US intelligence documents revealed that Russia’s 22nd Separate Guards Special Purpose (SPETSNAZ) Brigade (Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff) and two other unspecified SPETSNAZ brigades suffered an estimated 90-95% attrition rate in Ukraine. The Washington Post also reported that the 346th SPETSNAZ Brigade lost almost its entire complement, with only 125 servicemen remaining active out of 900 initially deployed. These high casualty rates suggest that Russia’s most elite forces - Airborne and SPETSNAZ forces - are likely no longer elite. Russian forces have recently deployed elements of airborne brigades and SPETSNAZ formations to frontline areas in Ukraine that operate as volunteer battalions or that are almost entirely comprised of mobilized personnel. It is highly unlikely that mobilized personnel or volunteers received training on how to conduct aerial landing operations and special forces operations, which would suggest that these Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) and SPETSNAZ elements do not differ markedly from other combat ineffective Russian formations staffed by mobilized personnel or volunteers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely host his annual June press conference in early June 2023. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced on April 14 that the Kremlin expects to hold the “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” a live forum at which Putin addresses questions from the Russian public, on an unspecified date likely in June 2023. Putin cancelled his “Direct Line” in 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as in 2020 due to COVID-19. Putin notably cancelled his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly in December 2022 and regurgitated boilerplate rhetoric at his annual New Year’s speech, indicating that Putin was uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space amidst criticism of the Russian military’s performance in the war. This year’s event will likely be highly filtered to support Putin’s current rhetorical lines and avoid exposing any challenges to the Kremlin or to Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian State Duma is intensifying its efforts to censor Russian cultural figures who fled Russia and criticize the war, likely aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship. Russian State Duma Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy announced on April 14 that the State Duma has created a working group to find a “fair solution” to prevent these cultural figures as well as designated foreign agents from receiving income from creative endeavors in Russia. Tolstoy claimed that some deputies are making “radical proposals...because it’s not worth making money in a country that you hate.” Prior Duma proposals included withholding state funding, royalty payments, advertising revenue and copyrights, and confiscating the property of Russians who fled. State Duma Vice Speaker Irina Yarovaya chairs the committee, and other members include Tolstoy and the chairs of the State Duma committees for Security and Anti-Corruption, State Building and Legislation, Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications, and Culture. Measures that punish Russians abroad or foreign agents for criticizing the war in Ukraine also demonstrate to domestic audiences the range of punishments they may also suffer for airing their own criticisms.
- The Kremlin is likely attempting to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China ahead of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s visit to Moscow from April 16 to 18.
- The Kremlin is likely hoping to make itself more attractive to China by launching Russian Pacific Fleet exercises to project Russia’s naval power in the Pacific.
- The Kremlin also likely intends to use the Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks to attempt to deter further Japanese support for Ukraine ahead of the G7 meeting from May 19 to 21.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is setting information conditions to exploit a Russian military failure if the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful.
- Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin denied speculations that he is facing charges in St. Petersburg for the discreditation of the Russian Armed Forces – a denial that likely further indicates his protection by unknown siloviki
- Russian elite forces are diluting their combat effectiveness with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high causalities sustained in Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely host his annual June press conference in early June 2023.
- The Russian State Duma is intensifying its efforts to censor of Russian cultural figures who fled Russia and criticize the war, likely aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship.
- Russian forces continued limited offensive operations in the Kreminna area as Ukrainian forces targeted rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to advance in Bakhmut and conduct ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continue to endanger the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) amidst continued Russian efforts to establish control over the ZNPP.
- The Kremlin reportedly continues to use private military companies (PMCs) and nationalist networks to support its force generation campaigns.
- Russian security personnel continue to arrest Ukrainian citizens under allegations that they associate with claimed illegal formations.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 13, 2023
A senior Ukrainian official warned that Russia can reconstitute itself as a serious threat to Ukraine in the long run despite facing severe force generation problems at this time. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov stated on April 13 that Russian crypto-mobilization efforts are stagnating due to Russians’ growing awareness that causality rates for Russian soldiers in Ukraine are high. Hromov stated that Volgograd and Saratov oblasts have only met seven percent (134 of the 7,800 recruits) and 14 percent (270 of the 7,600 recruits) of their regional recruitment quotas for the first quarter of 2023 respectively. Hromov also stated that Moscow is creating “alternative” private military companies (PMCs) to fill these gaps, but that these PMCs will not be as powerful as the Wagner Group in the near future, partially supporting previous ISW forecasts. Hromov noted that Ukraine and its allies must not underestimate Russian force generation capabilities in the long run for a protracted war of attrition. ISW has previously warned that the US and NATO should not underestimate Russian capabilities in the long run, as Russia can regenerate by leveraging its population and defense industrial base (DIB) to threaten Ukraine and NATO if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to fundamentally change Russia’s strategic resource allocation over the long run. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced plans on January 17 to form 12 new maneuver divisions over the course of several years, for example.
The Kremlin has not yet undertaken the necessary reorganization of its war effort to effectively leverage economies of scale to support large-scale Russian force generation, however. Current Russian half-measures and decentralized recruitment efforts to regenerate forces such as crypto-mobilization, leaning on Russia’s regions to generate volunteers, relying on new small PMCs, and pressuring various Russian state-owned enterprises to sponsor and pay for recruitment campaigns seek to shift the resource burden to generate forces among different siloviki and elements of the Russian state. The Kremlin is reportedly billing the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom for its volunteer recruitment efforts in occupied Donetsk Oblast, offering volunteers 400,000 rubles (approximately $4,900) salary per month. A Russian State Duma official proposed the institution of a new 2–3% “military tax” on Russian citizens’ income — a provision that would allow Putin to reduce the burden on existing federal funds but would likely anger more Russians. These various Russian groups’ resources are finite. The Kremlin’s currently unsustainable effort to commandeer them will exhaust itself without fundamental resource generation and resource allocation reform. These current efforts will generate some additional combat power in the short term, to be sure, but will do so with diminishing marginal returns at increasing cost. The Russian state’s current model of resource allocations and economies of scale do not synergize disjointed efforts to tap discrete resource pools. The Kremlin’s decision to continue relying on financially incentivizing voluntary recruits with both one-time payments and accrued lifetime benefits will create large long-term structural costs and will not be sustainable indefinitely.
Ukrainian assessments confirm ISW’s longstanding assessment that Russia cannot conduct multiple offensive operations simultaneously at this time. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov stated on April 13 that Russian forces deployed unspecified Russian forces from the Avdiivka area of operations to reinforce offensive operations around Bakhmut and that Russia has lost about 4,000 Wagner and conventional personnel in Bakhmut since around March 30. Hromov’s statement supports ISW’s longstanding assessment that the Russian military — in its current form — is unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly personally approved the arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich. Bloomberg reported on April 12 that Putin personally approved the arrest of Gershkovich on espionage charges before the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast on March 30 for collecting information constituting a state secret about the activities of a Russian military-industrial complex enterprise. Putin’s reported personal involvement in the arrest suggests that the arrest was likely a retaliatory response to the US arrest of Russian national Sergey Cherkasov on March 24 on charges of acting as agent of a foreign power. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin ordered Gershkovich’s arrest and stated that Russian special services independently decided to arrest Gershkovich. ISW has previously reported that the FSB has made other recent arrests in connection with information about defense enterprises in Sverdlovsk Oblast, and ISW assesses that the Kremlin may use the pretext of threats to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) to justify crackdowns and further conceal the activities of Russian defense industrial enterprises. Putin’s reported personal involvement in the first arrest of a US journalist since the Cold War may indicate that the Kremlin viewed the arrest as a calculated escalation that it will attempt to use as leverage for extracting concessions from the United States.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed to have identified the individuals allegedly responsible for assassinating milblogger Maxim Fomin (known under the alias Vladlen Tatarsky) on April 13. The FSB claimed that alleged Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) agents Darya Trepova and Yuriy Denisov worked with Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation associates Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhadanov — both located abroad — to track Fomin for months and eventually assassinate him. The FSB stated that it added Denisov to the international wanted list after he fled Russia. Anti-Corruption Foundation Director Ivan Zhandov claimed on April 13 that the FSB released this version of events to justify extending Anti-Corruption Foundation founder and Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s prison sentence.
- A senior Ukrainian official warned that Russia can reconstitute itself as a serious threat to Ukraine in the long run despite facing severe force generation problems at this time.
- The Kremlin has not yet undertaken the necessary reorganization of its war effort to effectively leverage economies of scale to support large Russian force generation.
- Ukrainian assessments confirm ISW’s longstanding assessment that Russia cannot conduct multiple offensive operations simultaneously at this time.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly personally approved the arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich.
- The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) on April 13 identified the individuals allegedly responsible for assassinating milblogger Maxim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky).
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to make gains in Bakhmut, and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continue to reinforce and strengthen their positions in southern Ukraine in preparation for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters continue to feud with St. Petersburg authorities and advertising companies allegedly obstructing Wagner Group recruitment efforts.
- Wagner Group are reportedly training Ukrainian children to use weapons as part of the Russian Young Army Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya) in occupied Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 12, 2023
The Kremlin’s campaign of “Russification” in Ukraine is burning back into Russia itself as it continues to empower and amplify overtly nationalist voices and ideologies. Russia is engaged in a campaign of deliberate “Russification” within Ukraine aimed at the destruction of Ukrainian identity through a multitude of military, social, economic, legal, bureaucratic, and administrative lines of efforts.[i] The ideologies that underpin the basis of this “Russification” also form the rhetorical backbone of the pro-war information space, which frequently mirrors its militarism with staunch Russian nationalism and intense xenophobia that is directed both at Ukraine and Ukrainian identity as well as at domestic minorities within Russia itself.
The domestic ramifications of the acceptance of the ideology of “Russification” are manifested in the responses by Russian authorities and prominent Russian milbloggers to ethnic minorities in Russia. Several Russian milbloggers and commentators published their reactions to a recent news story about the murder of a 17-year-old Russian student by a group of Tajik migrants in Chelyabinsk and used the story to criticize Central Asian migrants and ethnic minority communities for failing to integrate into Russian society.[ii] Head of the Russian Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin accused migrants of destabilizing Russia by importing terrorism and extremist ideologies and emphasized the role of migration policy in ensuring public order.[iii] Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin amplified a criticism that authorities of the Tuvan Republic are returning the indigenous Tuvan names to 104 administrative-territorial units, which one milblogger decried as “pushing boundaries” unnecessarily during wartime.[iv] Social media footage circulated on April 12 shows a group of Russian men reportedly giving the Nazi salute and walking past administrative buildings in Ufa, Bashkortostan while shouting “Russia is for Russians.”[v] These instances of xenophobia and racism exemplify the crux of domestic “Russification.” The war in Ukraine has empowered the most virulent voices in the information space to consolidate their ideology and project it both towards the Ukrainian people and towards non-Slavic minorities in Russia itself. This dynamic will likely escalate as the war continues and will outlive Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pervading the Russian domestic space for years to come.
These domestic-facing ramifications of “Russification” ironically continue to place the onus of the war effort on the communities that it marginalizes. Bastrykin has previously called for military authorities to specifically recruit migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who received Russian citizenship because these migrants have a “constitutional obligation to protect the country that received them.”[vi] Russian officials at the Sakharovo migrant center in Moscow are reportedly requiring the center’s employees to offer migrants contracts for military service, as ISW previously reported.[vii] Russian officials have continuously targeted migrant and ethnic minority communities in ongoing force generation efforts, which largely places the military burden of the “Russification” project in Ukraine on communities and individuals that are its targets domestically.[viii]
Russian milbloggers offered a muted response to a Kaluga Oblast court’s refusal to hear a case against Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” The Kozelsky District Court in Kaluga Oblast issued on April 12 a decision on the “return of the protocol” of Yevich’s administrative offense and other materials of the case to Russian law enforcement agencies, which permits those agencies to resolve any issues associated with the case materials.[ix] Russian authorities may still decide to pursue legal prosecution against Yevich for the charge of “discrediting Russian armed forces” after reviewing and formalizing those case materials. Russian milbloggers had previously widely decried the charging of Yevich and voiced concerns that Russian authorities could use the law as carte blanche to suppress any Russian soldier, volunteer, or “patriot.”[x] A very limited number of Russian milbloggers amplified the court’s decision without additional commentary on April 12, however.[xi] The court’s refusal to hear the case partially met Russian milbloggers’ previous demands, and the milbloggers’ failure to recognize this fact reflects the fact that this community focuses on promoting salient controversies to criticize Russian officials and institutions. Russian milbloggers’ responses to the court's refusal to hear the case may also be muted because they are worried that the charges against Yevich represent a trial run for using the law against the “discreditation” of the Russian Armed Forces to suppress segments of the ultranationalist pro-war community. Russian milbloggers may view the court’s refusal to hear the case as a pause in a possible Kremlin plan to begin censoring some segments of the Russian pro-war information space that have been highly critical of the Kremlin, and milbloggers will be unlikely to admit any satisfaction about this controversy until the case against Yevich is completely dropped.
The Russian nationalist community continues to glorify atrocities and advocate for the expansion of brutality. Russian milbloggers responded to widely circulated footage of a Russian soldier beheading a Ukrainian prisoner of war. A Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel attempted to excuse the beheading by claiming that both sides engage in brutal acts and asserted that this beheading would not be the last violent execution during the war.[xii] The channel claimed that being accused of brutality during war is like getting fined for speeding during a car race—a claim it used when discussing two previous Wagner executions videos.[xiii] Russian forces’ continued use of such violent tactics and its support in the Russian information space undermines professionalism and discipline in the Russian military.
- The Kremlin’s campaign of “Russification” in Ukraine is burning back into Russia itself as it continues to empower and amplify overtly nationalist voices and ideologies.
- The domestic ramifications of the acceptance of the ideology of “Russification” are manifested in the responses by Russian authorities and prominent Russian milbloggers to ethnic minorities in Russia.
- These domestic-facing ramifications of “Russification” ironically continue to place the onus of the war effort on the exact communities that it marginalizes.
- Russian milbloggers offered a muted response to a Kaluga Oblast court’s refusal to hear a case against Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.”
- The Russian nationalist community continues to glorify atrocities and advocate for the expansion of brutality.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk line.
- Russian forces continue to construct defenses in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast and Crimea.
- Russian officials continue to advance a law aimed at improving the effectiveness of issuing summonses and cracking down on Russian draft dodgers.
- The Ukrainian Resistance Center released a report detailing the extent of illegal deportations of Ukrainian children from Donbas to the Russian Federation.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 11, 2023
The Kremlin passed legislation to use tools of digital authoritarianism to digitize and improve the effectiveness of issuing summonses and crack down on Russian draft dodgers. The Russian State Duma adopted a bill in its third reading on April 11 to create a digital unified register of Russian citizens eligible for military service. Russian military recruitment offices will use the digital register to issue summonses to military service. The unified register harvests Russian citizens’ personal identification information—including medical, educational, and residence history, foreign citizenship status, and insurance and tax data—from multiple Russian legal entities, including Russia’s Federal Tax Service, investigative bodies, courts, medical institutions, the Russian Pension and Social Insurance Fund, the Central Election Commission, and federal and local authorities. Summoned individuals may not leave Russia and must appear at a military recruitment office within 20 days of being summoned. The law bans summoned individuals who are 20 days delinquent for reporting from driving vehicles, buying or selling real estate, and taking out loans. A senior Russian legislator stated that the law will correct some of the bureaucratic shortcomings that appeared during Russia’s partial mobilization in September 2022. Some Russian milbloggers who have long agitated for more aggressive force generation policies praised the law and stated that it exemplifies healthy interactions between Russian civil society and government. ISW previously forecasted that the Kremlin would marry Soviet-style societal control measures with big data and 21st-century information technology to intensify control over the Russian population after Russia used facial recognition, QR codes, and mobile device geo-tracking technology to enforce a draconian COVID-19 quarantine in 2020.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged each other's roles in the Bakhmut effort on April 11. The Russian MoD and Prigozhin claimed that Wagner fighters comprise the main effort to take territory and push Ukrainian forces in central Bakhmut, whereas unspecified Russian Airborne (VDV) elements comprise the supporting effort on Wagner’s flanks north and south of Bakhmut, including near Zalizhnyanske, Sakko i Vantsetti, and Mykolaivka. The Russian VDV forces on the flanks likely aim only to hold the flanks rather than make any significant advances. This array of forces suggests that the Russian MoD intends to use the Wagner Group to capture Bakhmut while minimizing casualties among conventional Russian forces—supporting ISW’s prior assessments that the MoD seeks to use Wagner forces to capture Bakhmut then supplant them and take credit for the victory. Prigozhin reiterated that Wagner forces are making gains within Bakhmut, however, claiming that Russian forces control 80 percent of Bakhmut due to Wagner advances. Russian forces occupy at least 30.68 square kilometers (about the size of the Chicago O’Hare airport) or 76.5 percent of Bakhmut based on ISW's control of terrain assessment. However, this area increases to 34.5 square kilometers or 86.1 percent of Bakhmut when factoring in all Russian-claimed territory in Bakhmut, including contradictory claims.
A small, fringe group of pro-war Russian milbloggers called for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws against discrediting the Russian military. A group of at least 20 Russian milbloggers amplified a blanket statement expressing solidarity with "angry patriots” and others enraged at and weary of the poor application of the Russian censorship laws. These milbloggers, many of whom have limited social media followings, represent a small fraction of the Russian information space and their statement does not indicate broader anger over the mere existence of these laws. However, this faction of milbloggers is the most likely to face prosecution under these laws because they lack Kremlin affiliation, are among the most critical of the Russian war effort, and would likely be among the first targets of an expanded application of the law. The pro-war information space has expressed continued outrage over Russian authorities prosecuting a Russian medic under these censorship laws, which ISW has assessed will likely be a growing source of discontent in the pro-war information space.
- The Kremlin passed legislation to use tools of digital authoritarianism to digitize and improve the effectiveness of issuing summonses and to crack down on Russian draft dodgers.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged each other's roles in the Bakhmut effort.
- A small, fringe group of pro-war Russian milbloggers called for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws against discrediting the Russian military.
- Russian forces appear to hold positions northeast of Kupyansk and have made gains in the forest area south of Kreminna.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces conducted defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited defense industrial enterprises in Tula Oblast as part of the ongoing effort to portray the resilience of Russia's defense industrial base (DIB).
- Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova continues to confirm that Russian authorities are taking a number of actions vis-a-vis Ukrainian children in an attempt to exculpate herself from the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s warrant for her arrest.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 10, 2023
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly advancing his political aspirations by seeking to gain control of a Russian political party. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s growing cooperation with members of the A Just Russia — For Truth party likely indicates that Prigozhin seeks to gain control over the party. Meduza noted that four members of the party left to form a new movement, with some members citing the rapprochement between party leader Sergey Mironov and Prigozhin as the reason for their exit. ISW has consistently reported on the growing relationship between Mironov and Prigozhin and assessed that Mironov’s advocacy for recognition of Wagner in Russia could trigger further fractionalization within the Kremlin. Two Kremlin sources and one St. Petersburg government insider claimed that Prigozhin is pursuing a leadership position within A Just Russia — For Truth’s St. Petersburg branch to compete with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov for influence in the city. Meduza’s sources claimed that Prigozhin previously was interested in investing in the “Motherland” political party and may be interested in pursuing a position on the federal level. Mironov, in turn, is likely attempting to revive his political influence and use Prigozhin as a patron for his political ambitions. Meduza’s interlocutors indicated that the Russian Presidential Administration is unlikely to allow Prigozhin to gain control of the A Just Russia — For Truth party due to Prigozhin’s conflict with administration officials and with Beglov.
The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) directly responded to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s criticisms of its agenda for Russia’s presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), marking the first time that a Russian government institution has formally responded Prigozhin’s criticism. Prigozhin criticized the MFA’s work in Africa on April 7, claiming that the Russian MFA does “absolutely nothing” and that Wagner forces face “enormous difficulties” when interacting with the MFA and other government institutions in the region. The MFA responded to Prigozhin’s criticism on April 9 and said that it is ready to cooperate with Russian businesses and entrepreneurs to promote Russian businesses abroad and that a number of upcoming events under Russia’s UNSC chairmanship are dedicated to African issues. Prigozhin then responded to the MFA, questioning its ability to solve problems through the UNSC, and published a list of 15 issues that Prigozhin believes require urgent discussion at the UNSC, most of which relate to support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Africa.
The Russian MFA’s attack on Prigozhin is a continuation of the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit and undermine Prigozhin. The MFA, other Russian government institutions, and Kremlin affiliates likely seek to shut down any attempts by Prigozhin to garner public or political support. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) refused to name Wagner forces as participants in the battle of Bakhmut, referring instead to “assault detachments.” Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately exposing conflicts between the MoD and Wagner. Russian political scientist Aleksey Mukhin — who contributes to the Kremlin-affiliated Valdai Discussion Club and Russian state media — criticized Prigozhin for pursuing political objectives that endanger Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Prigozhin likely criticized the Russian MFA agenda in the UNSC in an effort to portray himself as a capable statesman able to influence foreign affairs and to garner support from the Russian ultranationalist community. Prigozhin continues to attempt to aggrandize himself by exaggerating Wagner forces’ role in Russian successes in Ukraine and using his prominence in the Russian nationalist information space to criticize the Russian government.
Russian milbloggers adamantly decried the charging of Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” suggesting that the broad applications of this new law will likely be a growing source of discontent in the pro-war information space. Russian authorities reportedly charged Yevich under the discreditation law because of a lecture on tactical medicine he gave to Rosgvardia employees, which someone reported to the authorities as offering a “negative assessment” of Russian forces. Yevich fought with Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) militias in Donbas after 2014 and was a part of the ”Union of Donbas volunteers” following the full-scale invasion in 2022. Yevich became popular in the pro-war Russian information space for popularizing and advocating for the application of tactical combat medicine on the battlefield. Several pro-war milbloggers and commentators seized on the news of Yevich’s arrest and criticized Russian authorities for targeting someone whom they deem to be a true Russian patriot. Many milbloggers noted that Yevich’s charging will become a carte blanche for Russian authorities to sanction every Russian soldier, volunteer, and patriot and questioned the legitimacy of both the case against Yevich and the law itself. Yevich likely presented an important truth regarding the state of Russian combat medicine to an internal audience and was arrested for it. If the Kremlin uses this law to shut down honest critiques of the performance of Russian forces or the Russian government even during internal discussions it runs a very high risk of repeating the kinds of fundamental errors that led to the failure of the initial Russian plans and campaign in February 2022.
The Russian State Duma will consider an amendment to the Russian Criminal Code increasing criminal penalties for high treason and terrorist activities on April 13. The Russian State Duma Committee on State Construction and Legislation approved amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that would introduce life prison sentences for high treason and increase prison sentences for terrorist activities, including conducting terrorist activities, aiding terrorist activities, sabotaging transport and health infrastructure and, organizing and participating in a terrorist society. The Russian Criminal Code’s definition of treason is likely intentionally vague, including espionage, passing state secrets to foreign governments or their representatives, and providing financial, logistical, consulting, or other assistance to foreign organizations engaged in activities directed against Russian state security. Such legislative manipulations are part of a larger domestic effort to encourage self-censorship and codify conditions for domestic repressions, as ISW has previously reported.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, on April 10. Shoigu and Lukashenko mainly used the meeting to reiterate boilerplate rhetoric that emphasized the strength of Russian and Belarusian bilateral cooperation and blamed NATO and the collective West for threatening Belarusian territorial integrity. Lukashenko expressed his gratitude that Russia maintains a military presence in Belarus and accused Poland and Lithuania of threatening the Belarusian borders, while Shoigu thanked Lukashenko for providing Belarusian training grounds for the use of Russian troops.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly advancing his political aspirations by seeking to gain control of a Russian political party.
- Putin may be unable to satisfy the role of a patron to loyalist figures to the same extent as he had been able to before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
- The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) directly responded to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s criticisms of its agenda at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), marking the first time that a Russian government institution has formally responded to Prigozhin’s criticism.
- The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) attack on Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is a continuation of the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit and undermine Prigozhin.
- Russian milbloggers adamantly decried the charging of Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” suggesting that the broad applications of this new law will likely be a growing source of discontent in the pro-war information space.
- The Russian State Duma will consider an amendment to the Russian Criminal Code increasing criminal penalties for high treason and terrorist activities on April 13.
- Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, on April 10.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to make territorial gains in and around Bakhmut, and continued ground attacks on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continued defensive preparations in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin criticized Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) prisoner recruitment efforts, likely in an effort to advertise ongoing Wagner volunteer recruitment campaigns.
- Wagner forces are reportedly continuing to commit war crimes by beheading Ukrainian servicemen in Bakhmut.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to deport children to Russia under the guise of medical, rehabilitation, and voluntary evacuation schemes.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 9, 2023
ISW is publishing a special edition campaign assessment today, April 9. This report discusses Russia’s religious repressions throughout occupied Ukraine since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russia continues to weaponize religion in an effort to discredit Ukraine in the international arena and is using information operations about religion to advance military objectives despite itself committing gross violations of religious freedom in occupied Ukraine. Russia may use the upcoming Orthodox Easter holiday on April 16 in an effort to delay Ukrainian counteroffensives by calling for a ceasefire out of respect for the Orthodox religion despite the fact that Russia has shown no such respect for religion in areas its forces occupy. Russian religious persecutions are likely also part of an ongoing Russian cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at extirpating the idea of an independent Ukrainian nationality or Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Russian occupation authorities are likely conducting a campaign of systematic religious persecution in occupied Ukraine. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Russian soldiers or occupations authorities have reportedly committed at least 76 acts of religious persecution in Ukraine.[i] Russian authorities have closed, nationalized, or forcefully converted at least 26 places of worship to the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, killed or seized at least 29 clergy or religious leaders, and looted, desecrated, or deliberately destroyed at least 13 places of worship in occupied Ukraine.[ii] These cases of religious repression are not likely isolated incidents but rather part of a deliberate campaign to systematically eradicate “undesirable” religious organizations in Ukraine and promote the Moscow Patriarchate.
Key inflections in ongoing military operations on April 9:
- Russian sources reacted with outrage to Russian authorities charging “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich with discrediting Russian forces. Russian sources claimed that Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs officials accused Yevich of delivering a tactical medicine class to Rosgvardia employees that negatively portrayed Russian forces in Ukraine.
- Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin directly criticized the Russian Foreign Ministry’s approach to Russia’s presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and offered his own list of agenda items for the UNSC, likely a demonstrative act aimed at supporting his standing in the Russian ultranationalist community and furthering his oblique efforts to portray himself as a suitable president of Russia at some point in the future.
- Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavriisk Direction Head Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi stated that Russian forces have concentrated 113 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the Zaporizhia direction and 205 BTGs in the Donetsk direction.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty stated that seven engagements occurred in these directions.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, and on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line. Cherevaty stated that Russian Airborne (VDV) forces have appeared in Bakhmut. Russian forces likely made marginal gains in southern Bakhmut on April 9.
- A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a reconnaissance-in-force operation in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Head of the independent Russian human rights organization “Rus Sidyashchaya” (Russia Behind Bars) Olga Romanova claimed on April 8 that convict recruits have begun signing 18-month contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
- Russian occupation officials are likely continuing to use medical relocation schemes to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Head Leonid Pasechnik claimed that Russian medical specialists have examined more than 94,000 children in Luhansk Oblast and that occupation officials have sent thousands of children from Luhansk Oblast to Russian federal clinics, the majority of which are likely in Russia.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 8, 2023
Ukrainian and Russian sources discussed the decreased rate of Russian offensive operations along the entire frontline on April 8, supporting ISW’s assessment that the overall Russian offensive is approaching culmination. Council of Reservists of the Ukrainian Ground Forces Head Ivan Tymochko reported on April 8 that Russian forces are fighting along the entire frontline, but that Russian offensive potential continues to decline and that current Russian attacks are focused on distracting and dispersing Ukrainian troops in anticipation of counteroffensive operations. Tymochko stated that Russian forces are not making serious advances anywhere on the frontline, noting that the pace of attacks in and around Bakhmut has slightly decreased in some areas and stagnated entirely in others. Tymochko also assessed that the Russian offensive on Avdiivka has “choked” and reported that Russian forces still do not control Marinka despite having reduced the city to rubble. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that the pace of Russian offensive operations along the entire Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline has decreased over the past day and emphasized that Russian forces are struggling to advance anywhere in Ukraine. Several Russian commentators are emphasizing Russian preparations for an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, suggesting that the overall focus of the Russian information space is shifting away from discussing Russian offensive capabilities and towards assessing Ukraine’s potential to regain significant ground.
The dynamics of battlefield artillery usage in Ukraine reflect the fact that Russian forces are using artillery to offset their degraded offensive capabilities. Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Security Minister and current Vostok Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky reported that the Russian command has decided to stop the daily issue of ammunition to areas of the front where there are no active offensive operations almost entirely. Khodakovsky noted that the artillery shortage on the frontline results in part from preparations for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Khodakovsky’s statement indicates that the Russian command must prioritize artillery ammunition supplies rigorously due to shortages. High demand for shells indicates that Russian forces are still heavily relying on artillery to offset key shortcomings in combat capability, including poor Russian targeting skills, insufficient ground assault capabilities, and inadequate availability of airpower in Ukraine. Russian forces use heavy artillery barrages to flatten settlements before seizing them with ground attacks, offsetting the need to conduct effective infantry attacks or to conduct an airstrike using scarce precision munitions and putting airframes and pilots at risk of Ukrainian air defenses. Continuing Russian shortages in artillery ammunition will undermine the Russian military’s ability to continue offsetting its other weaknesses and limitations. The Washington Post reported on April 8 that by contrast, Ukrainian forces are using one-third as many shells as Russian forces and that Ukrainian forces are conserving shells by carefully prioritizing targets. Ukrainian forces are more accurate in their targeting, but also likely benefit from being on the defensive in most areas--offensive operations normally generate increased artillery requirements.
Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin launched a new effort likely aimed at protecting the influence of the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin. Girkin formed the “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement along with seven prominent proxy and ultranationalist figures on April 1 seeking to help Russia to win the war and avoid an internal conflict within Russia. Members of the club stated that Russia will imminently face defeat in Ukraine and may experience a pro-Western coup or civil war if Moscow does not drastically improve the situation on the frontlines. The members claimed that Russian officials are unable to improve the war effort and its effects on Russian society because most Kremlin officials belong to an anti-war faction. The anti-war faction reportedly advocates for a peace settlement with the West to regain access to its oversees wealth and is not actively attempting to improve the war effort – not out of a fundamental disagreement with war aims or genuine desire for peace. The club claimed that it seeks to help Russian authorities – likely implying the pro-war grouping within the Kremlin – complete the “special military operation” in a timely manner, claiming that a protracted war in Ukraine could prompt the anti-war officials to revolt. The group also stated that it is attempting to build a defense network to resist a coup in Russia in such an event. The members declared that the group is functioning within the framework of Russian law and will not engage in armed conflict, but will instead focus on raising public awareness in Russia so that Russian executive officials realize the danger to the Russian regime. Members of this club had previously warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in May and September 2022 about the negative repercussions on the battlefield if Russia did not immediately declare mobilization.
Girkin’s movement is already reportedly facing resistance from Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin. A Russian milblogger claimed Pushilin ordered DNR officials to spread rumors about the “Club of Angry Patriots,” claiming bizarrely that the movement is preparing a pro-Western coup. A member of the movement also accused Pushilin’s administration of discrediting the movement.
The “Club of Angry Patriot’s” creation may offer several important insights into Kremlin dynamics and the danger to Putin’s regime elements within his inner circle fear. ISW previously reported that successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman in September-October 2022 exposed a rift between the Kremlin’s anti-war and pro-war factions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin also made similar remarks about the schisms among Kremlin officials. The club’s preoccupation with the anti-war faction may indicate that the rift within the Kremlin deepened during the failed Russian winter offensive campaign or ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The concern over the expansion of the anti-war faction may also indicate that there is concern that Putin may be driven to accept a peace settlement by the threat of replacement. The group may be attempting to preempt the anti-war faction’s efforts to reduce the urgency of full-scale war in Ukraine.
Girkin may be advancing political goals of unnamed figures within Russian power structures, possibly within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Girkin has been ruthlessly criticizing Putin throughout the war, and it is likely that he is receiving some protection from a silovik. Russian independent outlet The Insider and Bellingcat have previously reported that Girkin had been consistently using passports under fictitious names that he received from the FSB. While it is unclear which silovik is protecting Girkin and what his motivations might be, Girkin’s protector may be attempting to gain Putin’s attention and shape his decisions via public discourse. Prigozhin and Wagner had previously showed that the Kremlin monitors and reacts to the public’s attitudes, which prompted notable changes within the Russian military command in the fall of 2022. Prigozhin similarly announced plans for a Wagner-affiliated social movement on April 4.
Russian nationalists seized on assassinated Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s (also known as Vladlen Tatarsky) funeral to promote pro-war narratives. Footage from Fomin’s funeral at Troekurovsky Cemetery in Moscow shows hundreds to thousands of people in attendance including Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leader Leonid Slutsky. Images showing the Order of Courage medal, Wagner awards, and an engraved sledgehammer at Fomin’s coffin circulated in Russian nationalist media. Prigozhin commended the “difficult work” of war reporters and claimed that he would do everything to ensure that Fomin’s work continues to resonate. Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Spokesperson Eduard Basurin used Fomin’s funeral to reiterate the narrative that Russia must reject negotiations and pursue the unconditional surrender of Ukraine. Footage from the funeral service and burial show Russian forces giving Fomin military honors. Fomin’s funeral could be the first instance of a Wagner-affiliated funeral receiving official Russian military honors.
Russia’s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine’s unified energy infrastructure has failed definitively, and Russia appears to have abandoned the effort. Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko announced on April 8 that Ukraine is resuming energy exports for the first time since October 11, 2022. Russian authorities began efforts in October to degrade Ukrainian energy infrastructure to a significant extent by the end of winter, which Russians consider March 1; however, the series of large-scale Russian missile strikes on energy infrastructure failed to achieve the assessed Russian aims of causing a humanitarian disaster, weakening Ukrainian military capabilities, and forcing Ukraine to negotiate. State-run Russian media acknowledged this failure on March 1. Russia likely abandoned the effort soon after. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) noted on April 8 that the frequency of Russian large-scale, long-range attacks on energy infrastructure has decreased since March 2023. The UK MoD assessed that Russia continues small-scale strikes (strikes using fewer than 25 munitions) with predictably less effect. Russia maintains the capability to renew such strikes though, if it so desired. Halushchenko stated that Ukraine has the flexibility to adjust Ukrainian energy exports if the situation changes.
The Kremlin is likely intensifying legal punishments for terrorism-related crimes as part of a larger effort to promote self-censorship and establish legal conditions for intensified domestic repressions. Duma Chairman of the Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption Vasily Piskarev stated on April 7 that the State Duma has introduced amendments to increase prison terms for committing acts of terrorism, assistance to terrorist activities or organizations or participation in a terrorist community, sabotage, and acts of international terrorism. Russian President Vladimir Putin also recently signed two bills expanding legal punishment for the discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine and for the misappropriation of Russian military assets, likely to promote sell-censorship and facilitate crackdowns on anti-war dissent. Russian sources have previously reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) is increasingly detaining Russian civilians under suspicions of financially assisting Ukrainian forces and that Russian authorities appear to be cracking down against bars in urban areas that host Russian civil society groups. The Kremlin has introduced indefinite terrorism warning regimes in occupied territories and maximum, medium, and elevated levels of martial law in many western Russian oblasts, and Russian authorities in these areas may more readily apply the expanded terrorism terms to further stifle resistance to occupation authorities as well as dissent in Russia itself.
Russian authorities are likely planning to further expand what they deem to be terroristic and extremist affiliations to encourage self-censorship. Duma Deputy Head of the Committee on Information Policy Oleg Matveichev stated on April 4 that he has prepared a bill to recognize feminism as an extremist ideology and argued that feminists overwhelmingly oppose the “military operation” in Ukraine. Matveichev argued that Ukrainian feminism consists of women serving together with men fighting against Russians and alleged that the woman accused of killing of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky) was motivated by feminist ideology. Matveichev has not specified how the bill would define feminism, and the bill may use a vague overarching definition in order to further promote widespread self-censorship. Russian authorities may increasingly portray other ideologies and groups not explicitly aligned with the Kremlin as being against the war in Ukraine in order to set conditions for increased crackdowns and self-censorship. Ukrainian “feminism” would appear to be giving Ukraine an advantage in this war since, as Matveichev notes, it has brought many talented and determined Ukrainian women into the fight.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be setting conditions for a false flag attack in Sumy Oblast. The Russian MoD claimed on April 8 that Ukrainian forces have been delivering dead bodies from morgues to Okhtyrka, Sumy Oblast and applying toxic chemicals to the remains and the area in order to allege that Russian forces used chemical weapons. Russian forces may be attempting to set informational conditions for future chemical weapons attacks in Sumy Oblast or to justify previous chemical weapons use, although ISW has not observed Russian forces recently using chemical weapons in the area. It is unclear what overarching effect the Kremlin intends to achieve with increasingly outlandish and ineffective Russian information operations alleging Ukrainian false flag attacks.
- Ukrainian and Russian sources discussed the decreased rate of Russian offensive operations along the entire frontline on April 8, supporting ISW’s assessment that the overall Russian offensive is approaching culmination.
- The dynamics of battlefield artillery usage in Ukraine reflect the fact that Russian forces are using artillery to offset their degraded offensive capabilities.
- Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin launched a new effort likely aimed at protecting the influence the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin.
- The “Club of Angry Patriot’s” reveals several key implications about the Kremlin dynamics and the perceived danger to Putin’s regime.
- Girkin may be advancing the political goals of unnamed figures within Russian power structures possibly within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).
- Russian nationalists seized on assassinated Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s funeral to promote pro-war narratives.
- Russia’s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine’s unified energy infrastructure has failed definitively, and Russia appears to have abandoned the effort.
- The Kremlin is likely intensifying legal punishments for terrorism-related crimes as part of a larger effort to promote self-censorship and establish legal conditions for intensified domestic repressions.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be setting conditions for a false flag attack in Sumy Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces have continued to make gains around Bakhmut, and tensions between the Wagner Group and conventional Russian forces over responsibility for tactical gains in Bakhmut appear to be intensifying.
- Russian sources continued to speculate about the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, including hypothesizing about the possibility of a Ukrainian amphibious landing across the Kakhovka Reservoir.
- The Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) on April 6 proposed a defense industrial base (DIB) deregulation reform that could expedite defense production but will more likely facilitate corruption and embezzlement.
- Ukrainian officials reported that 31 children returned to Ukraine after having been deported to Russia as Russian officials continue to discuss the adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 7, 2023
Russian milbloggers responded with speculative anxiety to reportedly leaked (and possibly altered) classified US military documents about the war in Ukraine, indicating continued fear over the prospect of future Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Russian information space. The New York Times reported on April 6 that a slate of five-week-old, classified US military documents are circulating on various social media platforms, reportedly depicting operational reports and assessments of the capabilities of the Ukrainian military. Bellingcat analyst Aric Toler noted that the documents circulated online as early as March 4, and it remains unclear why these documents reached mainstream Western media over a month later. Clearly doctored versions of the documents which reduce reported Russian losses and inflate Ukrainian casualty numbers are additionally circulating on Russian Telegram channels.
Regardless of the veracity of the reportedly leaked documents, which ISW will not speculate on, the response of Russian milbloggers to the New York Times story highlights the fear of prospective Ukrainian counteroffensives pervading the Russian pro-war information space. While several prominent Russian milbloggers immediately rejected the validity of the documents and suggested that they are fakes, they fixated on the possibility that the released documents are disinformation intended to confuse and mislead Russian military command. One milblogger stated that the document leak could be part of a larger Ukrainian campaign to mislead Russian forces before a counteroffensive. Another Russian milblogger noted that there is historical precedent for militaries disseminating false planning information prior to starting surprise offensives. The milblogger urged their audience to be cautious in discussing where Ukrainian counteroffensives may take place due to document leak. The New York Times story has therefore exposed a significant point of neuralgia in the Russian information space, and responses to the documents suggest that Russian milbloggers may be increasingly reconsidering the validity of their own assessments and speculations regarding any potential Ukrainian counteroffensives and their ability to forecast Ukrainian operations.
The Kremlin continues to indicate that it is not interested in legitimate negotiations and places the onus for any negotiations on the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on April 7 that Russia does not refuse to negotiate but that negotiations can only be based on Russia’s claimed “legitimate” interests and concerns. Lavrov claimed the West has arrogantly ignored Russia’s interests ”with disdain.” The Kremlin retains Putin’s original maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine and maintains that Russia’s ”legitimate” interests include international recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, regime change in Kyiv under Russia‘s calls for ”denazification,” and the ”demilitarization” of Ukraine. Concerns about losing more occupied territory in Ukraine during an expected upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive may be prompting the Kremlin to intensify an ongoing information operation intended to pressure the West to offer preemptive concessions and coerce Ukraine into negotiations on conditions more favorable to Russia.
A Ukrainian official reported that Russian aviation units are changing tactics, possibly due to aviation losses and depleted stocks of high-precision weapons. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuri Ihnat reported on April 7 that Russian aviation units are reducing their operations in the immediate vicinity of Ukrainian positions and are increasingly relying on more remote aviation strikes with guided aerial bombs. Ihnat stated that Russian Su-35 aircraft can use these munitions from more than 50km away from the line of contact and that Ukrainian forces are unable to drive Russian aviation units away from Ukraine’s borders at this range. These modified aerial bombs are likely less precise than other munitions that Russian aviation units have previously used in Ukraine. Russian forces may be changing aviation tactics to mitigate the risk of further aviation losses by operating out of the range of most Ukrainian anti-aircraft and air defense systems, at the cost of the ability to conduct close air support.
Former Russian proxy commander and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin revealed on April 7 that a volunteer battalion that he previously actively promoted is essentially a sham. Girkin posted an angry rant to Telegram on April 7 claiming that the “Nevsky” volunteer battalion that he advertised throughout 2022 has deployed as a “brigade” consisting of three battalions and 1,186 total personnel. A single Russian battalion typically consists of around 800-900 personnel, so Girkin’s remark suggests that ”Nevsky’s” leadership sought to erroneously portray the volunteer battalion as a larger formation by designating it as a brigade. Girkin noted that ”’Nevsky” deployed to the frontline near Avdiivka with the forces of a ”reinforced company” without promised equipment or training and quickly found itself conducting costly assaults. Girkin accused ”Nevsky’s” commander of being more interested in ”political and commercial machinations” and suggested that ”Nevsky” was created for the sole purpose of generating profit. Girkin’s tirade against a formation that he once ardently supported suggests that even volunteer formations held in high regard face corruption and training issues that are endemic to the Russian force generation apparatus.
High-ranking Russian officials including ministers and department heads can reportedly only leave Russia with permission from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Independent Russian news outlet The Bell reported on April 7 that Mishustin restricted international travel by his subordinates to official business and with his permission. The Bell reported that employees of the presidential administration are not subject to the same travel restrictions. ISW previously reported that Russian security services are reportedly confiscating the passports of Russian officials, ex-officials, and state company executives to prevent flight from Russia.
- Russian milbloggers responded with speculative anxiety to reportedly leaked (and possibly altered) classified US military documents about the war in Ukraine, indicating continued fear over the prospect of future Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Russian information space.
- The Kremlin continues to indicate that it is not interested in legitimate negotiations while placing the onus for negotiations on the West.
- A Ukrainian official reported that Russian aviation units are changing tactics, possibly as a result of aviation losses and depleted stocks of high-precision weapons.
- High-ranking Russian officials reportedly can only leave Russia with permission from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
- Former Russian officer and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin revealed on April 7 that a volunteer battalion that he previously promoted is essentially a sham.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued advancing in and around Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Russian forces continue to build defenses in occupied Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts.
- Russian officials continue measures to support Russia’s ongoing spring conscription cycle amid continued crypto-mobilization efforts.
- Russian occupation officials are accelerating passportization efforts in occupied Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 6, 2023
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on April 5 and 6 to discuss further Union State integration, with Putin likely focused on strengthening Russian economic control over Belarus. Putin and Lukashenko held a one-on-one meeting on April 5 and attended a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State on April 6 to address Union State integration efforts on security, economic, defense, cultural, and humanitarian topics. Putin claimed that Russian and Belarusian officials have fulfilled 74 percent of 28 Union State programs and highlighted the creation of a joint system for indirect taxes, measures to form general standards for Russian and Belarusian industrial enterprises, and efforts to unify Belarusian and Russian trade legislation. Putin and Lukashenko both noted that Russian and Belarusian officials are focused on import substitution measures (likely to mitigate Western sanctions) and supporting microelectronic industries. Putin stated that Russian and Belarusian officials are continuing the process of creating a joint oil and gas market and are working on drafting an agreement for the formation of a single electricity market. The Kremlin is likely advancing longstanding efforts to subsume elements of Belarus’ defense industrial base (DIB), and both states are likely using Union State economic integration efforts to augment their ongoing sanctions evasion measures. Putin and Lukashenko also likely highlighted strengthening economic cooperation to support their ongoing efforts to falsely reassure the Russian and Belarusian publics that Western sanctions regimes will not have long-term consequences.
Putin and Lukashenko also discussed bilateral security issues during their one-on-one meeting and at the Supreme State Council meeting, but official Kremlin and Belarusian readouts offered little concrete details on these discussions. Putin and Lukashenko stated that Russian and Belarusian officials began work on a Security Concept for the Union State, but offered no details for what the joint security document would include. Lukashenko stated that a single joint Russian–Belarusian regional air defense system is already operating, likely referring to the recent deployment of Russian S-400 air defense systems to Belarus. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on April 6 that Lukashenko and Putin did not discuss the placement of Russian strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus following Putin’s March 25 announcement that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
Lukashenko delivered boilerplate rhetoric that continues to indicate that he has no intention of involving Belarus further in Russia’s war effort. Lukashenko stated that NATO is conducting a purposeful buildup of forces along the borders of the Union State and that the West has unleashed an informational, political, and economic war against Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko has previously employed such rhetoric in an attempt to justify resisting Kremlin pressure to further support the Russian war effort in Ukraine by arguing that Belarus needs to protect the western flank of the Union State. ISW has written at length about why Lukashenko is extraordinarily unlikely to further involve Belarus in the war in Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that Lukashenko is increasingly losing maneuvering room with the Kremlin amid the Kremlin’s steady pressure campaign to formalize the Russian-Belarusian Union State, and Lukashenko may be acquiescing to further integration measures while rejecting Putin’s likely larger demand for the direct participation of Belarusian forces in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russian commanders are reportedly constructing specialized company-size units within key frontline formations engaged in urban combat to reinforce the diminished combat effectiveness of most Russian units. A reliable Ukrainian reserve officer released a reportedly captured document on April 6 detailing the recruitment of personnel (who receive the status of BARS reservists) to form new “Storm Z” companies within elements of the 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District) and the 1st Army Corps, the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Each “Storm Z” company is created outside of conventional army unit structure and apparently is formed of newly recruited reservists and attached in some manner to existing Russian regiments and brigades, rather than adding additional assets or providing specialized training to existing frontline companies. It is unclear at this time how these “Storm Z” units fit into Russian command structures at the battalion level and above and why Russian units are forming new companies, continuing a standing Russian tendency throughout the war in Ukraine to break down doctrinal unit structures. Each company is comprised of 100 personnel, broken into four capture squads (10 personnel each), four fire support squads (10 personnel each), a 2-person company command element, a 5-person combat engineering group, an 8-person reconnaissance group, a three-person medevac group, and a two-person UAV crew. ”Storm Z” companies are intended to conduct urban combat operations or operations in complicated geographic areas to capture important and strategic objects such as strongholds, command posts, and communication centers. The Ukrainian reserve officer noted that the personnel that staff these companies receive 10 to 15 days of refresher training, a remarkably short amount of time to adequately train personnel (even reservists with some experience) to perform complex combat tasks and create unit cohesion.
The “Storm Z” companies will likely primarily deploy along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline, where Southern Military District (SMD) units are heavily committed to continuously unsuccessful offensive operations. The Ukrainian reserve officer stated that the document requires the establishment of “Storm Z” companies in various separate motorized rifle brigades of the 1st Army Corps (forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic) and motorized rifle regiments, tank regiments, and separate motorized rifle brigades of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (part of the 8th Combined Arms Army). ISW has observed the heavy commitment of DNR forces along the entire Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline and noted that the 150th Motorized Rifle Division has been particularly active in Marinka, on the southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City. Russian offensive operations along this frontline remain largely unsuccessful and have failed to secure more than tactical advances in the area. Russian military command likely seeks to create ”Storm Z” companies and attach them to already-committed elements in order to reinforce minor tactical success and encourage further offensive operations and gains. However, due to the ramshackle construction of yet more ad hoc Russian units, as well as the already degraded quality and poor morale that is pervasive within DNR units in this area, it is unlikely that the use of these formations will lend Russian forces on this frontline a significant offensive edge.
China continues to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the declared “no limits” Russian–Chinese partnership, but it will not be a true neutral arbiter in the war. French President Emmanuel Macron met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 6 and urged Xi to “bring Russia to its senses” and “bring everyone back to the negotiating table.” Xi stated that China “advocates for peace talks and seeks a political solution” without going into significant detail or assigning blame. China’s maintained neutral status and ongoing talks with Western leaders, refusal to blatantly condemn the West, and minimization of relations with and withholding of concrete support to Russia are likely a source of ongoing frustration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as ISW has previously assessed. However, Xi’s equivocating comments do not indicate any serious intent by Beijing to overtly pressure Russia to end the invasion of Ukraine, as would be necessary for serious peace talks.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on April 5 and 6 to discuss further Union State integration, with Putin likely focused on strengthening Russian economic control over Belarus.
- Lukashenko delivered boilerplate rhetoric that continues to indicate that he has no intention of involving Belarus further in Russia’s war effort.
- Russian commanders are reportedly constructing specialized company-size units within key frontline formations engaged in urban combat to reinforce the diminished combat effectiveness of most Russian units.
- Russian forces will likely deploy these “Storm Z” units along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline.
- China continues to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the declared “no limits” Russian–Chinese partnership, but it will not be a true neutral arbiter in the war.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line.
- Ukrainian officials indicated that Russian forces are able to maintain a suitable rate of artillery fire in prioritized areas of the front at the expense of other sectors.
- Russian forces may have withdrawn equipment from occupied Crimea for redeployment elsewhere in southern Ukraine out of fear of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Russian Defense Industrial Base (DIB) enterprises in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast to monitor the implementation of state defense orders.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin held one-on-one meetings with Russian occupation authorities.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 5, 2023
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces will withdraw from Bakhmut to avoid encirclement if necessary, but do not yet assess the need to do so. Zelensky stated during a press conference in Poland on April 5 that Ukrainian troops face a very challenging situation in Bakhmut, and that Kyiv will make the “corresponding decisions” if Ukrainian troops risk encirclement by Russian forces.[i] Zelensky’s statement is in line with other recent statements by Ukrainian officials that Ukrainian military command will order a withdrawal from Bakhmut when and if they deem a withdrawal to be the most strategically appropriate option. While it remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut and its efficacy in fixing Russian forces in the area is worth Ukrainian losses (and we will likely be unable to assess this until observing the Ukrainian spring counteroffensive), Ukrainian military leadership continues to clearly signal that Ukrainian forces are still not encircled and have the option to withdraw as necessary.[ii]
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 4, 2023
The Kremlin will likely attempt to coerce Belarus into further Union State integration when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on April 5 and 6. The Kremlin announced on April 4 that Putin and Lukashenko will meet for private bilateral discussions on April 5 and attend a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State in Moscow on April 6.[i] The Kremlin stated that the Union State Supreme State Council meeting will address the implementation of the Union State Treaty through 28 different Union State programs from 2021 to 2023 —likely the package of 28 integration roadmaps that Lukashenko ratified in November 2021.[ii] The Kremlin stated that Russian and Belarusian officials also plan to agree on other unspecified “practical issues of further integration,” possibly in the area of intelligence sharing, as Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergey Naryshkin met with Lukashenko in Minsk and discussed Russian-Belarusian intelligence sharing on April 4.[iii] The Kremlin may pressure Belarus for more integration concessions under the rubric of defending the Union State from claimed Western military and/or terrorist threats.[iv]
The Kremlin continues to attempt to employ nuclear threats to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu justified Russia’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by accusing NATO of intensifying combat training and reconnaissance activities near the Russian and Belarusian borders and accused the West of escalating the war in Ukraine by providing additional military aid to Ukraine on April 4.[v] Shoigu reinforced existing Russian nuclear threats by stating that Belarus has nuclear-capable attack aircraft and nuclear strike-capable Iskander-M systems.[vi] Shoigu also stated that Belarusian missile forces began training in Russia to operate Iskander-M systems, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, on April 3.[vii] Shoigu’s statements do not present any new information on Belarusian training and are likely part of an information operation. ISW previously reported that Belarusian servicemen were training with Iskander systems in Russia as of February 2023.[viii] Shoigu’s reinvigorated nuclear blackmail rhetoric coincides with Finland joining NATO and a new US aid package to Ukraine.[ix] ISW continues to assess that the risk of nuclear escalation remains extremely low and that Russian deployments of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus are highly unlikely to affect battlefield realities in Ukraine.[x] Russian-deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus additionally will almost certainly remain under the control of Russian personnel permanently deployed in Belarus.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demonstrative response to the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tatarsky) indicates Prigozhin likely believes that the attack was in part directed at himself. Prigozhin held an event on April 4 at the remnants of the restaurant where Fomin was killed by an improvised explosive device on April 2.[xi] Prigozhin claimed that he arrived at the scene from the Bakhmut frontline as quickly as he could to commemorate Fomin. Prigozhin announced that he intends to expand “Kiber Front Z”—the Wagner-affiliated ultranationalist group that held Fomin’s fatal event—into a social movement that fights against external threats.[xii] Prigozhin stated that the Wagner Group has been thwarting attempts by unnamed actors to eliminate the group since 2014.[xiii] Prigozhin also noted that he will offer financial compensation to the event’s attendees. Prigozhin’s publicly demonstrative response and vague accusations of a campaign against Wagner suggest that Prigozhin is likely attempting to indirectly frame the incident as an attack on him.[xiv] Prigozhin’s response also shows that he intends to continue to pursue a central position within the Russian pro-war ultranationalist community, despite the threat of violence and pushback.
The Kremlin continued efforts to (falsely) reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long-term economic consequences. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Tula Railway Engineering Plant and attempted to address workers’ economic concerns on April 4.[xv] Putin later held a State Council Presidium meeting to discuss developing Russian industry in the face of sanctions pressure, during which he claimed that sanctions are having positive outcomes by forcing Russian firms to embrace import substitution, an argument the Kremlin has made sporadically since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.[xvi] Putin suggested in both meetings that Russian industry as a whole will be able to grow like the Russian agricultural sector did following the imposition of Western sanctions in 2014.[xvii] Putin has previously relied on the example of post-2014 Russian agricultural growth to assuage Russians of their economic anxieties but has yet to offer concrete proposals for how Russian industry would increase domestic production in a similar way.[xviii] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin will likely struggle to reassure Russians about their economic concerns while also setting informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine and mobilizing a wider portion of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).[xix]
The Kremlin is likely trying to shift responsibility for expanding Russian industry onto regional bodies to insulate itself from possible criticism about Russia’s deteriorating economic situation. Putin emphasized the need for regionally based industrial development funds to assume a greater role in supporting Russian industry and stated that the Russian government should consider refinancing regional funds for these efforts, including from federal reserve funds.[xx] Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also attempted to reassure the Russian public on April 3 by stating that there will be no problems financing budget obligations and that reserves will cover falling oil and gas revenues for the federal budget.[xxi] Siluanov stated that Russian officials are unlikely to replenish reserves in the National Welfare Fund in 2023.[xxii] A growing Russian overreliance on funding through reserves could lead to further economic instability.
- The Kremlin will likely attempt to coerce Belarus into further Union State integration when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on April 5 and 6.
- The Kremlin continues to attempt to employ nuclear threats to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demonstrative response to the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin indicates that Prigozhin likely believes that the attack was in part directed at himself.
- The Kremlin continues to attempt to (falsely) reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long-term economic consequences.
- The Kremlin is likely trying to shift more responsibility for growing Russian industry onto regional bodies to insulate itself from possible criticism about Russia’s deteriorating economic situation.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Russian forces continue to prepare for a rumored pending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern direction.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russia’s ongoing spring conscription cycle is going according to plan, progressing as quickly as planned, and has completed initial military registration.
- Russian occupation officials denied Ukrainian reports that Russian occupation authorities are preparing evacuation plans from occupied regions of Ukraine.
- Belarusian state media claimed that the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) reportedly arrested two men under the suspicion of attempted terrorist attacks in Grodno.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 3, 2023
Wagner Group fighters made further advances in central Bakhmut and seized the Bakhmut City Administration Building on the night of April 2. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin raised a Russian flag with an inscription in memory of assassinated milblogger Maksim Fomin across from the Bakhmut City Administration building the night of April 2 and claimed that Wagner “legally controls” Bakhmut, though Ukrainian troops remain in the western part of the city. Russian forces made further advances on April 3, with drone footage posted on April 3 depicting Wagner Group and Russian flags planted over the rubble of the destroyed administration building. Several Russian milbloggers additionally circulated an image of a Wagner fighter standing in front of the Bakhmut City Administration building before its destruction. The Wagner Group likely will continue attempts to consolidate control of central Bakhmut and attempt to push westward through dense urban areas toward Khromove.
Russian authorities are blaming Ukrainian government entities and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny for the April 2 assassination of Russian milblogger Maksim Fomin (also known as Vladlen Tartarsky). The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee claimed that Ukrainian special services collaborated with the Anti-Corruption Fund, which Navalny founded in 2011, to plan the attack against Fomin. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Ukrainian government may be behind Fomin’s death and claimed that Ukraine has killed others since 2014, such as Daria Dugina, which Peskov spuriously used as justification for the “special military operation.” The Russian Investigative Committee reclassified the case as a terrorist attack and claimed that it was planned in Ukrainian territory. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) confirmed that the sculpture handed to Fomin prior to his death contained hidden explosives. The Russian Investigative Committee confirmed on April 3 that Russian authorities detained Daria Trepova in a St. Petersburg apartment on suspicion of the attack. Authorities released an excerpt of their interrogation of Trepova, in which Trepova stated that authorities questioned her about giving a sculpture to Fomin, but she did not answer on camera whether she knew the sculpture contained explosives. The range of various official responses is notably disjointed, with a lack of consensus among official Russian sources regarding Trepova’s involvement or association with either Ukrainian special services or Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund.
Official Russian responses to Fomin’s death failed to generate a single narrative in the information space and led to disjointed responses from prominent pro-war voices. Several prominent mibloggers and news aggregators fixated on the reported investigation into Daria Trepova and analyzing footage of the lead-up to and aftermath of the explosion. Other milbloggers claimed that the attack was carried out by Ukrainian special services and amplified news of the investigation without offering additional commentary into the situation. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia posted a simple message mourning Fomin without engaging with the Kremlin's informational response. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation deputy Vladimir Rogov claimed that unspecified attackers targeted Fomin because he listened to both the Russian and Ukrainian perspectives, had over 500,000 Telegram subscribers, and effectively organized donation drives for Russian forces. Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill connected Fomin’s murder to the ongoing conflict over the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, despite no obvious connection between the two incidents.
As Russian officials try to galvanize an official narrative around the National Anti-Terrorism Committee’s investigation, Russian milbloggers will likely increasingly criticize the results and conclusions of the investigation, and Fomin’s death is likely to become a major point of information space neuralgia. One Russian milblogger and political analyst overtly criticized the official Russian response to Fomin’s death and noted that Russian officials have likely predetermined the final findings of the investigation. The absence of a coherent narrative in the pro-Russian information space is reminiscent of responses to Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensive in fall 2022, when the Kremlin’s propaganda machine initially failed to define a rhetorical line to respond to massive Ukrainian gains and caused an information space breakdown that manifested in disjointed responses across the entire pro-war community.
Russian security services reportedly continue to confiscate the passports of senior officials and state company executives to limit flight from Russia. Financial Times reported on April 2 that the Russian security services seek to prevent senior officials, ex-officials, and state company executives from traveling abroad, indicating that the Kremlin continues to fear elites will flee Russia. Current Time TV and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-associated investigative project ”Sistema” reported on March 10 that the Russian security officials told government officials and employees of state-owned companies to hand over their passports on threat of forcibly revoking an individual’s passports or forced resignation.
- Wagner Group fighters made further advances in central Bakhmut and seized the Bakhmut City Administration Building on the night of April 2.
- Russian authorities are blaming Ukrainian government entities and Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny for the assassination of Russian milblogger Maksim Fomin (also known as Vladlen Tartarsky).
- Official Russian responses to Fomin’s death failed to generate a single narrative in the information space and led to disjointed responses from prominent pro-war voices.
- Russian security services reportedly continue to confiscate passports of senior officials and state company executives in an effort to limit flight from Russia.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian sources reported on April 3 that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) units received TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems for the first time.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian officials likely remain concerned about a potential Ukrainian threat to Crimea amid continued fortification and logistical efforts.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree establishing a state fund to support military personnel who participate in the war in Ukraine and their families.
- Likely Ukrainian partisans used an improvised explosive device (IED) to target a former Russian occupation official in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 2, 2023
Unknown actors killed Russian milblogger Maksim Fomin in a deliberate and targeted attack during an event in a St. Petersburg bar reportedly belonging to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on April 2. Social media footage showed Fomin receiving a statue as a gift from a female audience member who introduced herself as a sculptor moments before the explosion. Fomin was making a public presentation at the Street Food Bar #1 Café in downtown St. Petersburg. Russian authorities reported that the explosion killed Fomin and wounded 30 audience members who had gathered to listen to Fomin discuss his experience as a frontline correspondent. The event was advertised as open to the public and had approximately 100 attendees. Prigozhin confirmed that he had offered his Street Food Bar #1 Café to the Russian ultranationalist movement “Kiber Front Z,” to hold Fomin’s event and other nationalist gatherings. Witnesses stated that the woman who presented the statue to Fomin identified herself as Nastya and told the audience that the event’s security asked her if there was a bomb inside the statue during a Q&A session. Witnesses noted that there was no security when entering the event, however, and that the explosion occurred within three to five minutes after the exchange between Fomin and the woman. Russian Interior Ministry sources told Russian state media that the explosive may have remotely detonated and that the woman or other unknown individuals may have been responsible for this attack. Russian state media published unconfirmed information that Russian police detained St. Peterburg resident Daria Trepova, who had previously been arrested for anti-war protests in February 2022. Russian Interior Ministry sources also revealed that Russian special services had known about assassination plans against Fomin for a long time.
Russian officials and propagandists have accused Ukraine of staging a “terrorist attack” to assassinate Fomin. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Kyiv of Fomin’s assassination and praised Russian milbloggers for their war coverage—seemingly ignoring the fact that Fomin and other milbloggers routinely criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA). Russian propagandist Tina Kandelaki stated that Russia needs to punish terrorists who still have “power, water, working railways, restaurants, and internet”—likely referring to Ukrainians who survived the Russian missile campaigns against the Ukrainian energy infrastructure during the fall of 2022 and the winter of 2023. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan echoed Kandelaki’s calls for retribution against Ukraine for this assassination. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian agents have likely been attending similar milblogger events, blaming the attack on Ukrainian special forces and the failures of Russian security.
Prigozhin oddly stated on April 2 that he would not “blame the Kyiv regime” for the deaths of Fomin and Russian ultranationalist figure Daria Dugina, suggesting that Ukrainian agents were not in fact responsible. Dugina was assassinated on August 20. Prigozhin noted that a group of radicals unaffiliated with the Ukrainian government may be responsible for such attacks. Advisor to Ukrainian Presidential Office Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Fomin’s death was a result of infighting and political competition among Russian actors.
Fomin was a prominent figure in the Russian pro-war nationalist information space, although not more so than some others. Fomin was a Wagner-affiliated convict who escaped from prison in Donetsk Oblast at the outset of Russia’s invasion of Donbas in 2014. Fomin also claimed to have served in proxy armed formations, regularly expressed ultranationalist views, and balanced his allegiance to Wagner with remaining loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fomin attended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s event announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions on September 30 where he stated: “We will defeat everyone, we will kill everyone, we will rob everyone we need; Everything will be as we like.” ISW also uncovered that Fomin had been involved with Islamic jihadist propaganda, likely in order to expand Russian recruitment efforts. Fomin co-hosted a TV show with another prominent milblogger, appeared on Russian state media platforms, and participated in numerous Russian state broadcasts. Fomin had also led numerous crowdfunding and recruitment campaigns, promoted violent militarism, and supported Putin’s ideology and maximalist goals to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine.
Fomin shared his ideology and activities with many other Russian milbloggers, however, and does not appear to have been a target worthy of special attention from Kyiv. A number of the milbloggers ISW regularly uses and cites are not only war correspondents, but also participants in efforts to fund, recruit for, and advance the Russian war effort through various parastatal and private organizations. This cadre of milbloggers not only speaks to but also represents a constituency critical for Putin’s war effort. ISW has long assessed that the role these milbloggers play in all their capacities is a key factor explaining the surprising degree of tolerance Putin has hitherto shown them. Fomin’s assassination could be evidence that Putin’s tolerance toward these milbloggers, in general, is waning, but it could also have resulted instead from Fomin’s proximity to Prigozhin.
Fomin’s assassination at Prigozhin’s bar is likely part of a larger pattern of escalating Russian internal conflicts involving Prigozhin and Wagner. Fomin had attended another event earlier in the day without incident, so it appears that the attack was deliberately staged in a space owned by Prigozhin. Advisor to Ukrainian Presidential Office Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Fomin’s death was a result of antifighting and political competition among Russian actors. Some Russian political analysts also speculated that Prigozhin was supposed to attend Fomin’s event, although there is no confirmation of that speculation.
Fomin’s assassination may have been intended as a warning to Prigozhin, who has been increasingly questioning core Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine and even obliquely signaling an interest in the Russian presidency, whether in competition with Putin or as his successor. Fomin’s biography and behavior bear a resemblance to Prigozhin’s as both became prominent ultranationalist figures after being imprisoned and receiving pardons.
Russian officials may be intending to use Fomin’s assassination to drive the self-censorship of a growing Russian civil society questioning the progress of the war in bars. ISW previously observed FSB raids of bars in Moscow and St. Petersburg in March launched on the basis of accusations that individuals in those bars were providing financial assistance to Ukrainian forces and involving minors in “anti-social acts.” Putin had instructed the FSB to intensify counterintelligence measures and crackdown against the spread of pro-Ukrainian ideology on February 28—an order that has been used to dismantle gatherings in Moscow and St. Petersburg bars. The Wagner-affiliated Kiber Front Z movement has been spearheading discussions about the war in Prigozhin-owned bars for months, and it is possible this high-profile assassination will discourage people from attending similar events. This attack may also be an effort to intimidate other Wagner-affiliated milbloggers.
The assassination is already deepening a divide within the Russian milblogger space, which may ultimately be beneficial to the Kremlin’s efforts to consolidate control of the information space. Prominent Russian milbloggers exposed the identity of a smaller milblogger publishing under the handle MoscowCalling who joked that the woman involved in Fomin’s murder was Dugina. The milbloggers claimed that former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) fighter Andrey Kurshin has been accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine using the handle MoscowCalling while residing in Moscow. The milbloggers claimed that the Russian police and FSB have failed to prevent milbloggers such as Kurshin from fostering anti-government attitudes online, thereby allowing Ukrainian intelligence to stage attacks in Russia. The milbloggers also called for the arrests and executions of other milbloggers who have expressed similar views against Putin, his regime, and the conduct of the war. The Kremlin may use such divisions to justify censorship of certain milbloggers who are vocal critics of Putin.
Key inflections in ongoing military operations on April 2:
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made marginal gains northwest of Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued to attack Bakhmut and its environs. Russian forces likely seized the AZOM plant in northern Bakhmut as ISW has previously assessed. Ukrainian forces conducted a missile strike on the plant on April 2.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line. Ukrainian Tavriisk Direction Forces Joint Press Center Spokesperson Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi stated that Russian forces retreated from unspecified positions in the Donetsk direction.
- Ukrainian forces conducted a HIMARS strike against a rail depot in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast, the third strike against the city in the past week.
- The UK Ministry of Defense assessed that a significant minority of Russia’s 200,000 casualties in Ukraine are due to poor discipline and training outside of combat, including due to excessive alcohol consumption and mishandling of small arms.
- Former Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) official Rodion Miroshnik denied ISW’s April 1 report citing Miroshnik that Russian authorities are deporting Ukrainian children to Russia under rest-and-rehabilitation schemes. Miroshnik claimed that mothers and children from Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast went to Russian sanitoriums for medical treatment. Miroshnik denied being closely affiliated with the current occupation regime, claiming that he has not served as advisor to the Head of the LNR for a year. LNR People’s Militia Press Service called Miroshnik “advisor to the LNR Head” as recently as January 29, 2023, however. Miroshnik claimed on his Telegram channel that he served as LNR Ambassador to Russia as recently as November 13, 2022.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 1, 2023
Russian, Ukrainian, and Western sources observed on April 1 that the Russian winter offensive has failed to achieve the Kremlin’s goals of seizing the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast administrative borders by March 31. Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov had announced on December 22 that Russian forces were focusing most of their efforts on seizing Donetsk Oblast, and Russian forces launched their winter offensive operation in early February along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna-Lyman line and on select frontlines in western Donetsk Oblast. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) observed that Gerasimov has failed to extend Russian control over Donbas during his appointment as the theater commander in Ukraine and has achieved only marginal gains by expending mobilized personnel. Ukrainian intelligence representative Andriy Yusov stated that Gerasimov missed the Kremlin’s deadline to capture Donbas by March 31. 
Russian milbloggers fretted that Russian forces must finish their offensive operations in Bakhmut and Avdiivka to prepare for the Ukrainian counteroffensives they expect between Orthodox Easter on April 16 and Soviet Labor Day on May 9. Milbloggers highlighted their disappointment that there have not been any decisive battles throughout the winter and observed that Russia will not be capable of continuing a large-scale offensive operation if it is unable to secure Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the coming weeks. Deputy Head of the Main Directorate of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) in occupied Donetsk Oblast Alexander Khodakovsky stated that he agrees with former theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin that Russia needs to shift to defensive positions. (ISW is not aware of any publicly reported statement Surovikin has made along these lines) Khodakovsky noted that failures during the offensive cause manpower losses and spark negative sentiments among the personnel, and argued that unnamed actors may be attempting to continue the offensive for personal reasons rather than taking a rational approach to the issue. Khodakovsky’s comment likely implies that Gerasimov is pursuing personal interest in sustaining the offensive in order to retain favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Khodakovsky’s recent appointment on March 30 as regional Rosgvardia deputy head and the return of Surovikin (at least by proxy) to the information space may indicate that Gerasimov’s unsuccessful theater-wide offensive may already be costing him favor with Putin.
Khodakovsky’s and milbloggers’ requests for Russian forces to prioritize defensive operations are not unreasonable and indicate that nationalist groups are sensible to the changing dynamics on the frontlines. ISW had long assessed that the Russian winter offensive is unlikely to be successful due to persistent failures of the Russian command to comprehend the time and space relationships involved in such a campaign. ISW also assessed that Russia would lack the combat power necessary to sustain more than one major offensive operation in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and ongoing recruitment campaigns in Russia and occupied Ukrainian territories may indicate that Russia is preparing for reserve shortages.
Growing Russian speculation about Russian military command changes likely indicates that Russia may soon reshuffle its senior military command due to the failed winter offensive. Russian milbloggers claimed on April 1 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) recalled Russian Airborne (VDV) Forces commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky from leave on March 30 after the Russian MoD reportedly replaced him with Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich on January 13. The Russian MoD never confirmed Teplinsky’s dismissal, and it is likely that the MoD placed him on leave so it could recall him to command the VDV whenever it deemed necessary. Russian milbloggers claimed that Teplinsky immediately flew to the Russian Joint Grouping Headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar Krai to assume command of the VDV and that he is already planning future operations. One milblogger claimed that Chief of the General Staff of the Ground Forces and former Central Military District (CMD) Commander Colonel General Alexander Lapin flew with Teplinsky to the Joint Grouping Headquarters. The Russian MoD replaced Lapin with Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev as CMD commander officially on February 17 following intense public criticism of Lapin for his management of the Svatove-Kreminna line in the fall of 2022. It remains to be seen if Lapin will regain a role commanding forces in Ukraine, however. Russian sources speculated starting on March 27 that the Russian MoD has also recently dismissed Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov in response to intense criticism of his command over significant losses in offensive operations near Vuhledar in early 2023. ISW has previously observed that intensified Russian speculation about changes in military command has corresponded with real changes in Russian commanders, although not necessarily following the exact claims of Russian sources.
- Russian, Ukrainian, and Western sources observed that the Russian winter offensive has failed to achieve the Kremlin’s goals of seizing all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 31.
- Growing Russian speculation about Russian military command changes likely indicates that Russia may soon reshuffle its senior military command due to the failed winter offensive.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces did not make any confirmed gains in or around Bakhmut and continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Russian forces continued to build defenses in occupied southern Ukraine.
- Russia began its semi-annual conscription on April 1, the largest conscription call-up since 2016.
- Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under rest and rehabilitation schemes.
- Russian nationalist figures criticized Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for failing to pursue the Union State between Russia and Belarus efforts since mid-1990s.