March 31, 2023
Ukraine Invasion Updates March 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 March 2023. Full list of Ukraine invasion updates are available here.
March 31, 6:30 ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian Foreign Policy Concept on March 31 that likely aims to support the Kremlin’s attempts to promote a potential anti-Western coalition. The new Foreign Policy Concept paints the West as an anti-Russian and internationally destabilizing force to a far greater extent than Russia’s previous 2016 Foreign Policy Concept and explicitly states that the US and its “satellites” have unleashed a hybrid war aimed at weakening Russia.[i] The new document also heavily stresses Russia's goal of creating a multipolar world order and subordinates under that goal Russia’s broad foreign policy objectives, which include ending the United States’ supposed dominance in world affairs.[ii] The document asserts that most of humanity is interested in constructive relations with Russia and that a desired multi-polar world will give opportunities to non-Western world powers and regional leading countries.[iii] Putin previously used meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 20 through 22 to increase attempts to rhetorically rally the rest of the world against the West, and the new document likely aims to support the Kremlin’s attempts to intensify proposals to non-aligned countries to form a more coherent anti-Western bloc.[iv] ISW assessed that Putin’s proposal to form an anti-Western bloc during Xi’s visit to Moscow was not positively received as Xi refused to align China with Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West.[v] Russia’s declining economic power and degraded military effort in Ukraine continue to offer little incentive to countries to express serious interest in the proposal. The Kremlin likely decided to release the new Foreign Policy Concept on the eve of assuming the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in order to set informational conditions for future rhetorical efforts at the UN aimed at forming an anti-Western coalition.[vi] ISW previously assessed that Russia will likely weaponize its presidency of the UNSC as a method of Russian power projection.[vii]
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continues to use high-profile public statements to portray Belarus as a sovereign state despite its current de-facto occupation by Russian forces. Lukashenko reiterated boilerplate rhetoric about how he is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s equal partner in defense of Russia and Belarus by explicitly painting Belarus as the target of a Western hybrid war – a narrative Lukashenko has promoted since 2020.[viii] Lukashenko stated that he and Putin mutually agreed to deploy Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus to protect Belarus’ ”sovereignty and independence.”[ix] Lukashenko also stated that he and Putin mutually decided to partially deploy elements of the Union State’s Regional Grouping of Troops (RGV) to an unspecified area.[x] Lukashenko stated that nobody should worry that Russia ”captured something” in Belarus and stated the Russian forces training in Belarus under Belarusian officers are subordinated to Belarusian forces’.[xi] Lukashenko likely seeks to use the narrative that Belarus is a fully sovereign state and Russia’s equal partner in the Union State so that he can use informational leverage to request that Russian forces leave Belarus after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine concludes. Lukashenko also stated that he supports peace negotiations “as soon as possible” and offered to help mediate negotiations.[xii]
- Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian Foreign Policy Concept on March 31 that likely aims to support the Kremlin’s attempts to promote a potential anti-Western coalition.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continues to use high-profile public statements to portray Belarus as a sovereign state despite its current de-facto occupation by Russian forces.
- Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov promptly rejected Lukashenko’s suggestion of a ceasefire and indicated that the Kremlin is not interested in serious negotiations.
- Russian Security Council deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev leveraged comments about sending peacekeeping forces to Ukraine to continue information operations that portray the West as escalatory.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces made gains within Bakhmut and Ukrainian forces regained positions in the Bakhmut area.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Avdiivka-Donetsk frontline.
- Ukrainian strikes against Russian concentration areas in southern Ukraine are likely causing the Russian grouping in the area to change tactics to avoid the risk of strikes.
- Russian officials continue to state that Russian forces have no plans for a formal second wave of mobilization.
- Russian officials continue to send Ukrainian children to camps in Russia.
March 30, 7:30 ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 30 authorizing Russia’s semiannual spring conscription which will induct 147,000 Russians between April 1 and July 15. Russia conducts two conscription cycles per year with the spring conscription cycle usually conscripting 134,000 Russian men. Russia may use Belarus’ training capacity to support the increase of 13,000 conscripts from previous years. A Ukrainian military official reported on March 4 that Russian personnel training in Belarus do not exceed 9,000 to 10,000 at a time, and ISW previously observed Russian forces training up to 12,000 troops in Belarus. Satellite imagery indicates that Russian forces training in Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground recently redeployed to Russia in mid-March, freeing up space for new Russian trainees. The new conscripts will not increase Russian combat power in the short term, as Russian conscripts must undergo months of training and service before they see combat.
Putin remains unlikely to deploy newly conscripted troops to participate in combat in Ukraine due to concerns for the stability of his regime. Chairman of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee Andrey Kartapolov stated on March 30 that spring conscripts will not deploy to Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine during the spring 2023 conscription cycle. Kartapolov also noted that Russian forces will not conscript men from occupied territories. Kartapolov‘s statements may be true given that ISW has not observed the Russian military use conscripts on any significant scale on the frontlines since the first months of the war and especially since the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Moskva, which had some conscripted sailors aboard. Putin’s use of conscripts during the winter-spring period of 2022 sparked social tensions in Russia, and Putin is unlikely to risk his regime’s stability by deploying newly conscripted servicemen to the frontlines. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Putin even publicly instructed Russian authorities to investigate alleged incidents of Russian conscript deployments to Ukraine on March 9, 2022 (which were technically illegal at that time). Putin likely perceives the political cost of deploying conscripts to the frontlines as being higher than that of Russia’s September 2022 mobilization. Putin did not deploy conscripts from the spring 2022 conscription cycles in response to Ukraine’s September 2022 counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast but instead mobilized reservists to stabilize collapsing frontlines. This decision indicated Putin’s policy preference for mobilizing reservists rather than committing conscripts to battle — likely for political reasons — even though conscripts entering the final months of their annual service obligation might fight more effectively than civilian reservists. A prominent Russian news aggregator criticized the Russian conscription system, noting that Russia’s current staffing levels for contract servicemen are insufficient even though Russia has 250,000 available conscripts. The aggregator added that it is “unacceptable” that “half of the Russian army is fighting with all its strength, while the other part is sitting in the barracks.”
The start of the new conscription period, even with a slightly increased number of conscripts, may actually reduce Russian training capacity for reservists and other personnel recruited via crypto-mobilization campaigns. Russia has limited training capacity and allocating it to training conscripts who will not fight in 2023 deprives the Kremlin of the opportunity to train reservists and volunteers who would. The Kremlin may seek to increase its combat personnel in Ukraine by coercing spring 2022 conscripts who are finishing their one-year service into signing military contracts, since these freshly discharged conscriptions would need less additional training before deploying to Ukraine. It is far from clear how successful such an effort will be.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed a prominent milblogger and Russian proxy battalion commander as a regional Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) official for occupied Donetsk Oblast, advancing several Kremlin efforts. Multiple Russian milbloggers reported on March 30 that Putin signed a decree appointing former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Security Minister and current Vostok Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky as deputy head of the Main Directorate of Rosgvardia in occupied Donetsk Oblast, making him responsible for Rosgvardia’s special rapid response and riot police (OMON and SOBR) in the region. Khodakovsky announced on March 30 that he received this appointment in early February 2023 and posted a public recruiting ad for Rosgvardia OMON and SOBR units now under his command. Khodakovsky publicly praises Putin and has been a loyal pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist since March 2014. (Khodorkovsky was a Ukrainian SPETSNAZ commander for the Donetsk Oblast Alpha Group under the Ukrainian State Security Service before participating in Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine in 2014.) Khodakovsky’s appointment is analytically significant for several of ISW’s running assessments:
- Khodakovsky’s appointment indicates a Russian effort to generate more forces from occupied Donetsk Oblast. Putin passed a bill on March 27 removing the upper age limit and other barriers to entry for Rosgvardia recruits from occupied Ukraine. Khodakovsky - a native of Donetsk City - is well connected with Donetsk People‘s Republic militia fighters, veterans, and pro-Russian patriot groups in Donbas, and can help facilitate recruitment drives.
- The appointment advances a Kremlin effort to formalize legacy irregular Russian proxy forces in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and subordinate them to Kremlin-controlled structures.
- Putin may use Khodakovsky’s appointment to ensure that Putin maintains reliable control over new Rosgvardia elements in Donetsk Oblast. ISW assessed that Russian authorities may be conducting a sweeping corruption probe within Rosgvardia, possibly to weed out actors who are perceived to be unreliable to Putin.
- The appointment could help Putin divide and conquer influential communities that the Kremlin does not fully control. Mixed reactions to Khodakovsky’s appointment from various Russian milbloggers’ — notably among Russian military veterans — indicate a significant fracture within the Russian nationalist veteran community. ISW has previously assessed the Russian nationalist veteran community within the blogosphere to be more or less unified.
Khodakovsky’s appointment also indicates that Putin continues to prioritize loyalty over competence in his subordinates. One Russian milblogger criticized Khodakovsky’s appointment and stated that Khodakovsky’s incompetence as the Vostok Battalion commander in 2014 resulted in an especially bad friendly fire incident in which Khodakovsky’s troops destroyed a Russian volunteer detachment, killing 42. Former Russian officer and convicted war criminal Igor Girkin accused Khodakovsky of being a swindler and a “corrupt slug-traitor" and stated that the Kremlin’s “failed personnel policy” of advancing ”traitors, scum, and mediocrity” will lead Russia to ruin. Putin has appointed loyalists ahead of competent people before. Putin replaced relatively competent Army General Sergey Surovikin, who effectively conducted a politically unpopular but militarily necessary withdrawal from upper Kherson in fall 2022, with Putin loyalist and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov — who green-lit the disastrous campaign plan for the initial full-scale invasion of Ukraine — as theater commander for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in January 2023.
Western officials reported that Wagner Group and conventional Russian forces have likely lost a substantial amount of manpower in the Bakhmut area, which will further constrain Russia’s offensive on Bakhmut. US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley reported on March 29 that the Wagner Group has around 6,000 professional personnel and 20,000 to 30,000 recruits, mostly convicts, fighting in the Bakhmut area. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported in late December 2022 that the Wagner Group had 50,000 personnel in Ukraine including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convict recruits. The Wagner Group has deployed the vast majority of its force to support the offensive to capture Bakhmut, and it is likely that the difference between Kirby’s 50,000 figure in Ukraine and Milley’s 26,000 to 36,000 figure in the Bakhmut area is the result of casualties from Wagner’s attritional offensive on Bakhmut. Kirby reported on February 17 that the Wagner Group had suffered 30,000 casualties, with 9,000 dead, in operations in Ukraine. The Wagner Group may lose thousands more convict recruits in the upcoming weeks as convicts finish their six-month military contracts, and the Wagner leadership appears for now to be allowing pre-pardoned convicts to return from the frontlines to Russia at the conclusion of those contracts.
The senior military advisor to the United Kingdom’s mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ian Stubbs, reported on March 30 that 30,000 Russian military and Wagner personnel have died or been injured in the Bakhmut area since the Battle of Bakhmut began in July 2022. Stubbs stated that Russian and Wagner forces have particularly suffered significant losses in and around Bakhmut in recent weeks and that they urgently need to replenish their personnel. These losses in manpower will continue to constrain Russian offensive operations in the Bakhmut area as well as the wider theater, and Wagner’s significant losses will likely threaten its ability to maintain its influential role among Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast on charges of espionage on March 30. The FSB claimed that Gershkovich collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of a Russian military-industrial complex enterprise on behalf of the US, and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that FSB officers caught Gershkovich “red-handed.” Russian authorities may have arrested Gershkovich as a retaliatory response to the US arrest of Russian national Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov on March 24 on charges of acting as an agent of a foreign power. The Kremlin will likely use Gershkovich’s detention to attempt to extract some type of concession from the United States and possibly may seek to replicate a prisoner exchange similar to the December 2022 exchange of US basketball player Brittney Griner for Russian illegal arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The reported site of Gershkovich’s arrest is noteworthy. Yekaterinburg hosts 12 Russian defense enterprises that specifically produce anti-aircraft rocket systems, long-range anti-aircraft missiles, radio systems, ground support equipment for missiles and aircraft, electronic control systems for missile complexes, missile-related guidance systems and radars, self-propelled artillery systems, highly enriched uranium, rare earth metal alloys, heavy machinery, and optical systems for military aircraft. These enterprises include Russia’s primary producer of self-propelled artillery systems, Uraltransmash; one of Russia’s leading optical enterprises, Urals Optical-Mechanical Plant; and Uralmash, which mass produced tanks during and after the Second World War. It is not evident which military industrial enterprise is associated with the FSB’s claims about Gershkovich’s arrest, but many of them produce systems and equipment that Russian forces have lost or used in significant quantities in Ukraine. Others use microchips, which are in critically short supply in Russia and the object of intense smuggling and sanctions-evasion efforts. ISW assesses that significant equipment shortages are likely constraining the Russian military’s ability to conduct mechanized maneuver warfare in Ukraine and that the Kremlin is trying to gradually mobilize Russia’s Defense Industrial Base (DIB) to meet the Russian military’s needs without conducting full economic mobilization. ISW also previously assessed that the FSB may be trying to penetrate the Russian DIB in a way that is reminiscent of the KGB’s involvement and surveillance of the Soviet military establishment.
Ukrainian National Security Defense Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov stated on March 30 that Ukrainian authorities do not intend to expel the Kremlin-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra by force. Independent Russian news outlet Meduza reported that parishioners of the UOC MP prevented a Ukrainian Ministry of Culture commission from entering the Lavra to conduct an inventory of the property. Meduza reported that Ukrainian officials ordered the UOC MP to leave the Lavra on March 10 by March 29, and the UOC MP stated that it did not intend to comply.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 30 launching the semiannual spring conscription cycle, which will conscript 147,000 Russians between April 1 and July 15.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed a prominent milblogger and Russian proxy battalion commander as a regional Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) official for Donetsk Oblast.
- Western officials reported that Wagner Group and conventional Russian forces have likely lost a substantial amount of manpower in the Bakhmut area.
- The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast on charges of espionage.
- Ukrainian National Security Defense Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov stated that Ukrainian authorities do not intend to expel the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra by force.
- Russian authorities arrested Bryansk Oblast Acting Deputy Head Elena Egorova and Second Deputy Governor Tatyana Kuleshova for reportedly receiving bribes.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks north of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut as well as along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
- International Atomic Energy Agency Director (IAEA) Rafael Grossi stated that plans to ensure the safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) have evolved.
- Pardoned Wagner Group convicts are continuing to commit crimes in Russia following the end of their contract service with Wagner.
- Russian occupation authorities continue efforts to set conditions for September 2023 elections by further integrating occupied territories into the Russian legal apparatus.
March 28, 6:30pm ET
Wagner Group forces have likely taken the AZOM industrial complex in northern Bakhmut and continue to make gains within the city. Russian milbloggers widely claimed on March 28 that Wagner fighters have captured the AZOM complex and are working to clear the area of remaining Ukrainian forces.[i] These claims are relatively consistent with available visual evidence of Russian presence in the AZOM complex. Geolocated footage posted on March 26 shows a military correspondent from Russian outlet RIA Novosti moving around the territory of the complex with apparent ease, indicating that Wagner likely controls enough of the plant to host media personalities in relative safety.[ii] RIA Novosti correspondent Sergei Shilov additionally visited AZOM on March 28 and indicated that fighting has now moved to the industrial zone south of AZOM.[iii] Several Russian milbloggers also claimed on March 28 that Wagner fighters have advanced closer to Bakhmut’s city center, taken control of the city market, and reached the Palace of Culture.[iv] These claims are plausible considering geolocated visual evidence of Wagner’s advances towards the city center posted on March 28, as well as combat footage of Ukrainian infantry engaging in small arms exchanges with Russian forces near the Palace of Culture and central market area in Bakhmut city’s center.[v] Wagner is likely working to consolidate gains in northern and central Bakhmut to push towards the city center and expand its zone of control into western Bakhmut. ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced into an additional five percent of Bakhmut in the last seven days and that they currently occupy roughly 65 percent of the city.
March 27, 7:15pm ET
Rumors about the dismissal of Russian Eastern Group of Forces (Eastern Military District) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov on March 27 generated a muted and cynical response in the Russian information space. The milbloggers claimed that Russian military authorities dismissed Muradov from his position as Eastern Group of Forces commander, but ISW cannot currently verify these claims. Muradov took command of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD) on October 6, 2022, and has overseen a series of disastrous offensive operations led by EMD elements in western Donetsk Oblast over the past five months. One milblogger claimed that Muradov is on “vacation,” which the milblogger noted is tantamount to resignation. Others claimed that Muradov’s removal is a positive step but stated that Muradov’s replacement is more important than his removal. Some milbloggers noted that Muradov was responsible for significant Russian military failures in western Donetsk Oblast, including the high casualties suffered in the assault against Pavlivka in October-November 2022 and the prolonged and failed effort to take Vuhledar. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Istorii (iStories), citing sources close to the Russian General Staff, reported that the Russian General Staff accused Muradov of being inept due to battlefield failures and significant losses in western Donetsk Oblast, including the near obliteration of the Tatarstan ”Alga” volunteer battalion. One prominent milblogger claimed that military authorities are also considering dismissing Western Military District Commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov, whose forces operate along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line in eastern Ukraine.
ISW cannot confirm the rumors of either Muradov’s or Nikiforov’s dismissals, but it is noteworthy that Russian milbloggers are discussing potential dismissals of commanders associated with areas of operation in which Russian forces have been largely unable to secure substantial gains or have suffered major losses. Russian milbloggers do not appear to be hypothesizing about the removal of either the Central Military District (CMD) Commander Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev or Southern Military District Commander (SMD) Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev. Neither the CMD nor the SMD are heavily committed in critical areas of the front, and Mordvichev and Kuzovlev have therefore likely avoided becoming targets of Russian command skepticism because they are not currently responsible for significant failures. The muted information space response to the reported firings is additionally indicative of broader disillusionment with Russian military command, which milbloggers have argued for months needs systemic overhauls. Many milbloggers have consistently praised former Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin despite the fall of west (right) bank Kherson Oblast under his command, however. One milblogger claimed on March 27 that Surovikin may be responsible for defending against a future Ukrainian counteroffensive and claimed that Surovikin’s military strategy is better than that of Russian Chief of the General Staff and current Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Valery Gerasimov. Russian authorities and some milbloggers have fixated on identifying and punishing individual commanders for the failures of their troops, rather than interrogating and resolving endemic issues in Russian command and control, force structure, and deployment patterns.
Russian milbloggers also had a muted response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 25 announcement that Russia will deploy tactical nukes to Belarus, suggesting that Putin’s messaging is aimed at Western rather than domestic Russian audiences. Many milbloggers and news aggregators simply amplified various points from Putin’s March 25 interview that artificially inflate the capabilities of the Russian military and defense industrial base (DIB) to sustain a prolonged war effort, as well as the nuclear weapons deployment announcement itself. One milblogger correctly noted that deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus does not improve Russia’s military situation in Ukraine, claiming that Russian forces need to instead prepare for a future Ukrainian counteroffensive, and criticized continued Russian military command and organization issues. Another milblogger recognized that Putin targeted his nuclear weapons deployment announcement at the West and praised the prospect of being the ”nightmare” of the US.
Russian military leadership likely committed limited higher quality Wagner Group elements to the offensive on Avdiivka, potentially to reinforce recent limited tactical successes in the area. Ukrainian Tavriisk Defense Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivyskyi stated on March 25 that Ukrainian intelligence forecasts that Wagner may appear in the Avdiivka direction. A Russian VK user posted an obituary on March 26 announcing the death of Wagner Group fighter Yevgeny Malgotin in Avdiivka on March 20. The obituary claims that Malgotin had prior military experience and fought with the 2nd Russian Volunteer Detachment of the Army of Republika Sprska (commonly referred to as the Bosnian Serb Army) in 1992. Malgotin appears to have been a seasoned fighter, and likely represents the higher caliber of fighter that comprises Wagner’s special operations forces. While Wagner has heavily committed a majority convict-based force to operations near Bakhmut, there is likely a contingent of higher-quality operators at various locations in Ukraine. Russian military leadership may have decided to deploy certain Wagner elements to the Avdiivka area in recent weeks to support exhausted and lower-quality Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) elements in their efforts to take the settlement. If such Wagner fighters have been fighting near Avdiivka, their involvement may help explain the limited tactical gains made in the area over the past week.
- Rumors about the dismissal of Russian Eastern Group of Forces (Eastern Military District) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov on March 27 generated a muted and cynical response in the Russian information space.
- Russian milbloggers also had a muted response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 25 announcement to deploy tactical nukes to Belarus, underscoring that Putin’s messaging is aimed at Western rather than domestic Russian audiences.
- Russian military leadership likely committed limited higher quality Wagner Group elements to the offensive on Avdiivka, potentially to reinforce recent limited tactical successes in the area.
- Russian forces made marginal gains around Svatove and Russian forces continue ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and made gains within Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russia appears to be increasingly deploying elements of conventional formations in a piecemeal fashion along the entire frontline, including in southern Ukraine.
- Russian authorities continue forming new volunteer battalions subordinate to irregular formations.
- Ukrainian partisans conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against an occupation law enforcement officer in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast.
March 26, 4:30 pm ET
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, March 26. This report discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to seek complete victory in Ukraine, which he appears confident that he can attain over time. Putin seems to reject the idea increasingly prevalent in Western discourse that the current military realities require or support a negotiated resolution of the conflict. Neither Ukraine nor the West has persuaded him that he must consider accepting any sort of off-ramp or compromise settlement. Putin instead remains focused on achieving his initial war aims through protracted conflict in which he wins either by imposing his will on Ukraine by force or by breaking Ukraine’s will following the West’s abandonment of Kyiv. Multiple successful Ukrainian counter-offensives are almost certainly necessary but not sufficient either to persuade Putin to negotiate on acceptable terms or to create military conditions on the ground favorable enough to Ukraine and the West that continued or renewed Russian attacks pose acceptable threats to Ukraine or NATO.
The outcomes of wars often are, in fact, determined on the battlefield with negotiations that merely ratify military realities. Putin likely has one such example vividly in his mind—World War II in Europe. That war ended only when Allied forces had completely defeated the German military and Soviet troops stood in the wreckage of Berlin. Japan surrendered a few months later after the US had demonstrated what appeared to be the ability to destroy the country completely—and only after the Japanese military had lost the ability to do more than impose casualties on the US in the process of losing. Going further back in history the peaces that ended the three Wars of German Unification, the American Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars also merely ratified realities created by decisive military victories. Even the most recently ended war adhered to this pattern. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed by a decisive Taliban military victory that has ended that conflict (for now) without any formal treaty or accord ratifying this outcome. History offers many counter-examples, to be sure, including the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian conflict and the resolution of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. But it is simply not the case that all wars end in negotiated settlements, particularly if by “negotiated settlements” is meant mutual recognition of the impossibility of achieving desired aims through military force.
March 25, 10 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the predictable next information operation to discourage Ukrainian resistance and disrupt Western support for Ukraine as Russian offensives culminate and Ukraine prepares to launch counter-offensives in an interview with a state-owned Russian news channel on March 25.
Putin claimed that the West cannot sustain weapons provisions to Ukraine and exaggerated Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defense industrial base (DIB) to create the false impression that further Ukrainian resistance and Western support to Ukraine is futile. Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces expend up to 5,000 shells a day, while the United States produces an average of 14,000–15,000 shells a month. Putin alleged that planned Western defense production increases will not match Russian planned increases. Putin announced that Russia will build over 1,600 new tanks by the end of 2023 and that Russia will have more than three times the number of tanks as Ukraine at that time. Putin likely seized the opportunity to advance this narrative based on The Financial Times’s March 19 report that European arms manufacturers are “hobbled” by an explosives shortage. Putin argued that continued Western weapons provisions to Ukraine are merely an attempt to prolong the war.
Putin compared the state of the Russian wartime DIB with current Western military industrial outputs, stating that the West would need to make significant sacrifices to civilian projects to increase military production to support war in Ukraine. Putin added that unlike the West, Russia does not need excessive militarization of the economy to expand its DIB capabilities. These claims are not supportable. The US GDP alone is 10 times the size of Russia’s. Germany, the UK, and France together have economies nearly five times the size of Russia’s. The US and its allies certainly must make choices when considering spending the large sums required to support Ukraine, but the choices they face are nothing like as hard as those confronting Russia. The balance of overall available resources and industrial capacity is decisively weighted toward the West. Russian military industrial potential is, in fact, hopelessly outmatched by Western military industrial potential. Putin’s messaging is intended to persuade the West to commit less of that potential to supporting Ukraine by convincing the West, falsely, that it cannot match Russia. Russia must move to a full war footing to sustain its current military operations—something Putin has been very reluctant to do. The West does not need to shift to a wartime footing to continue to support Ukraine if it chooses to do so.
Putin’s stated goals for Russian tank production in 2023 and comparisons with Ukrainian tank stocks also disregard Russia’s limited industrial capacity to produce more advanced tanks rapidly and ignore Russian tank losses on the battlefield. Russia’s sole tank production factory, UralVagonZavod, reportedly produces 20 tanks a month. It would take over six years to meet Putin’s goal at that rate. UralVagonZavod is unlikely to expand production of modern tanks such as the T-90 rapidly enough to meet these targets in nine months due to international sanctions and shortages of skilled labor. The Kremlin will thus likely continue to pull archaic tanks from storage and may attempt to refurbish some older tanks to meet the stated quota. A Kremlin pundit stated on a live broadcast on March 25 that Russia would pull old T-34 tanks from storage and monuments if needed for the war effort while attempting to justify Russia’s recent deployments of the T-54 and T-55 tanks to the frontlines. These tanks are not comparable to modern Abrams, Challenger, or Leopard tanks, or even to T-72s, in either armament or armor protection.
Even Putin’s announced (and unrealistic) production targets are actually close to the minimum level required to replace Russian battlefield losses. Russia has reportedly been losing 150 tanks per month and so would need to produce 1,350 tanks in the next nine months merely to remain at current levels.
Putin’s observations also ignore the fact that the West has been providing Ukraine with smaller numbers of technologically advanced systems in part to offset the requirement to send masses of ammunition and equipment. Western militaries have historically held lower stocks of conventional artillery rounds, for example, because they rely on precision long-range fires such as the HIMARS systems the US has provided Ukraine. The Ukrainian military and its Western backers can confidently expect that loss rates in tank duels between M1s, Leopards, and Challengers, on the one hand, and T-55s, T-62s, or even T-72s, on the other, will be far from one-to-one. The US military, after all, has repeatedly demonstrated the relative effectiveness of M1s and T-72s on the battlefields of Iraq.
Putin’s comments are an information operation designed to revive the aura of Soviet-era military industry and massed forces. They do not reflect current Russian realities or the balance of economic power or military industrial capacity between Russia and the collective West.
Putin advanced another information operation by announcing that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by July 1 and renewed tired information operations about the potential for nuclear escalation. Putin implied that the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to send munitions containing depleted uranium – uranium that is significantly less radioactive than natural uranium – to Ukraine triggered his decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus for fear of nuclear escalation. Putin rejected Western statements that such munitions are safe to use and do not contain radioactive components. Putin insisted that the projectile core releases “radiation dust” and may sicken Ukrainian citizens and damage Ukraine’s environment. Western anti-tank munitions commonly contain depleted uranium, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes is “very suitable for military uses.” Such munitions cannot be used to create either nuclear or radiological weapons. Putin’s argument is false-to-fact, and even some domestic audiences likely realize it. A prominent Russian milblogger on March 25 challenged Putin’s argument and stated that it the Western provision of depleted uranium rounds is not a ”real problem.” Putin’s concern for the well-being of the environment in Ukraine, furthermore, appears somewhat misplaced considering the massive damage Russian forces have inflicted on Ukraine’s agricultural lands, to say nothing of Ukraine’s cities and people. If Putin really is so concerned about the future of Ukraine’s ecology he could best serve it by withdrawing from Ukraine and allowing Ukraine and the rest of the world to begin repairing the damage the Russian invasion has caused.
The announcement of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is irrelevant to the risk of escalation to nuclear war, which remains extremely low. Putin is attempting to exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Russia has long fielded nuclear-capable weapons able to strike any target that tactical nuclear weapons based in Belarus could hit. ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break Western resolve. The Financial Times further reported on March 24 that EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell stated that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Russia reduced the chance that Russia forces would use nuclear weapons because Xi made it “very, very clear” to Putin that he should not deploy nuclear weapons.
Putin has likely sought to deploy Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus since before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and has likely chosen this moment to do so in order to serve the immediate information operation he is now conducting. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko offered to host Russia nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory on November 30, 2021, and Belarus removed the constitutional clause enshrining Belarus’ neutral status in a referendum in February 2022. ISW forecasted in January and February 2022 that Putin might seek to deploy tactical or strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus as part of a broader effort to deepen Russian control over Belarus. Putin likely refrained from deploying the weapons to Belarus at the start of the 2022 invasion in order to preserve the option to deploy them as part of a future Russian information operation to manipulate the West.
Putin likely chose to push these narratives now in hopes of diminishing Ukrainian morale and Western aid to diminish the effectiveness of a rumored pending Ukrainian counteroffensive. Many prominent Russian milbloggers and officials warned that Ukrainian forces will likely attempt a major counteroffensive soon. Putin’s actions suggest that he agrees and that he fears the potential success of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Putin and senior Kremlin officials have previously leveraged narratives around Russian heightened nuclear readiness, false flag warnings, and vague statements about negative battlefield developments claiming that Russia is entitled to use nuclear weapons to defend itself in Ukraine in order to deter further Western support for or military aid to Ukraine. ISW has previously reported on Putin’s escalation of nuclear rhetoric in September and October 2022 followed by a de-escalation in early November 2022 before the Russian loss of Kherson City and west (right) bank Kherson Oblast and assessed that the Kremlin might leverage further nuclear escalation rhetoric to coerce Western states to negotiate with Russia and halt further military aid to Ukraine. ISW assesses that Putin's March 25 announcement is part of this effort and continues to assess that Russia is very unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Ukrainian and Western officials offered various views of the state of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut on March 25, but all are consistent with the assessment that the Russian effort around Bakhmut is likely culminating. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed on March 25 that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut is stalling and that Russian forces may shift their focus to the Avdiivka and Svatove-Kreminna areas. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty cautioned that the recent decrease in reported Russian ground assaults near Bakhmut needs further analysis. Cherevaty also stated that unspecified Russian conventional forces are reinforcing Wagner Group forces, suggesting that Russian conventional forces are intervening to prevent the Wagner offensive from culminating prematurely. Cherevaty noted that Russian forces conducted 18 ground attacks near Bakhmut on March 25 but recently conducted 40–50 attacks a day in the area, suggesting that exhausted Wagner forces are unable to sustain their prior tempo of operations alone but may increase their tempo to earlier levels with assistance from Russian conventional forces. Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander in Chief General Valery Zaluzhny stated that the Bakhmut situation is stabilizing. These statements are not mutually exclusive, however, and the Russian effort against Bakhmut is likely culminating. Russian forces may continue to attack Bakhmut frequently and aggressively even if the offensive has culminated with little to no success, as ISW has previously assessed, as culmination does not mean the absence of fighting. Russian attacks in and around Bakhmut may resume at high levels without generating significant new gains if conventional Russian forces do, in fact, enter the fray. The commitment of conventional reserves could even prevent the attack from culminating and generate operationally significant advances or persuade Ukrainian forces to withdraw, although ISW regards those eventualities as unlikely at this time.
Russian forces do not have the degree of fire control over Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and likely other areas of the front that Russian milbloggers claim, further undermining the Russian effort to take Bakhmut. Recent footage shows that Ukrainian forces remain able to drive on the Bakhmut-Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut-Khromove roads despite Russian artillery targeting the Ukrainian vehicles. Russian milbloggers likely based their fire control claims on Russian artillery system ranges, but even Russian ground advances close to these GLOCs have failed to prevent Ukrainian vehicles from using them at least on a small scale. Geolocated footage posted on March 25 shows that Wagner Group forces have crossed the T0504 but remain unable to establish sustained positions that would cut the GLOC.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the predictable next information operation to discourage Ukrainian resistance and disrupt Western support for Ukraine as Russian offensives culminate and Ukraine prepares to launch counter-offensives in an interview with a state-owned Russian news channel on March 25.
- Putin pushed the false narrative that the West cannot sustain weapons provision to Ukraine due to limited Western production and hyperbolized Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defense industrial base (DIB).
- Putin advanced another information operation by announcing that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by July 1 and renewed tired information operations about the potential for nuclear escalation.
- Russian conventional forces may intervene in Wagner Group’s offensive around Bakhmut to prevent the offensive from culminating prematurely.
- Russian forces do not have the degree of fire control over Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and likely other areas of the front that Russian milbloggers claim.
- Russian forces conducted limited attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and gained limited ground in the city.
- Russian forces reportedly conducted a mass rotation of forces in Nova Kakhovka on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin accused Russian authorities on March 25 of rewriting history to cut out Wagner by forcing state-controlled media outlet RT to cut some coverage of the Wagner Group.
- The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on March 24 that Moscow elites are competing for funding to “restore” occupied territories and really plan to use the projects to further their own interests.
March 24, 4:30pm ET
Prominent voices in the Russian information space are increasingly setting information conditions to prepare for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian Security Council Deputy Head Dmitry Medvedev emphasized on March 24 that the Russian General Staff is aware that Kyiv is preparing for offensive operations and that the Russian General Staff is considering its own decisions and responses to prepare for a Ukrainian offensive.[i] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian actors are disseminating disinformation about plans for a Ukrainian attack towards Belgorod Oblast, in order to draw Russian troops to border areas and allow Ukrainian troops to launch attacks on other sectors of the front, partially echoing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s prior warnings about a Ukrainian push on Belgorod Oblast.[ii] Another Russian milblogger warned that Ukrainian forces will likely try to launch a counteroffensive before the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) gains the capacity to increase production and bolster Russian defensive potential.[iii] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin similarly claimed on March 23 that he knows of plans for an extensive Ukrainian counteroffensive, as ISW previously reported.[iv] The wider Russian spring offensive appears to be culminating, and the Russian information space appears to be responding to the slow-down of Russian operations and potential for Ukraine to regain the initiative with substantial anxiety.[v] Russian military command will need to commit a significant number of forces to the frontline to either prevent culmination or launch renewed offensive operations, and it is unlikely that such forces exist at sufficient scale to do either.
Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov has reportedly formed a Wagner Group-affiliated private military company (PMC) in occupied Crimea. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Istorii (iStories) reported on March 23 that Aksyonov has publicly sided with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and created PMC “Convoy” under the leadership of Prigozhin associate Konstantin Pikalov, who has led Wagner operations in Africa.[vi] PMC ”Convoy” is reportedly a BARS (combat reserve) unit, meaning that ”Convoy” servicemembers sign two contracts—one with ”Convoy” itself and one with the Russian MoD.[vii] iStories reported that ”Convoy” initially consisted of 300 people and has been deployed to occupied Kherson Oblast.[viii] The iStories report is particularly noteworthy against the backdrop of Wagner’s and Prigozhin’s continually declining influence in Russia and loss of access to convict recruits. Prigozhin and Prigozhin-affiliated elements may be trying to diffuse Wagner’s remaining power by creating separate PMCs and other parallel military formations in addition to launching new recruitment efforts through traditional channels.[ix] Aksyonov additionally appears to have affiliated himself and the Crimea occupation administration with Prigozhin, which may have important implications for the role of forces from occupied Crimea in subsequent phases of the war.
- Prominent voices in the Russian information space are increasingly setting information conditions to prepare for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov has reportedly formed a Wagner Group-affiliated private military company (PMC) in occupied Crimea.
- Some prominent Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian military command for continuing to impale Russian forces on Vuhledar with ineffective human-wave style frontal assaults.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with the Russian Security Council likely as part of his effort to portray himself as a present and effective wartime leader.
- Russian forces conducted limited attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces have made gains in and around Bakhmut and conducted ground attacks in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
- The Ukrainian General Staff corrected its March 23 statement that Russian forces withdrew from Nova Kakhovka, occupied Kherson Oblast.
- Russian occupation authorities announced the creation of a pro-Russian militaristic youth movement aimed at brainwashing children.
- The Russian government is adopting new measures to revitalize and eliminate corruption, lethargy, and resistance in Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
- The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on March 24 that at least 1,000 Russian personnel training at the 230th Combined Arms Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest, Belarus, redeployed to Russia.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has softened his rhetoric towards the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) likely out fear of completely losing his mercenary force in Bakhmut. Prigozhin emphasized his concerns about a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine during a 23-minute interview on March 23.[i] Prigozhin claimed that Ukraine has 200,000 reserves concentrating to attack along the entire eastern frontline, into Belgorod Oblast, and in Bakhmut. Prigozhin also claimed that the Ukrainians currently have 80,000 troops in Bakhmut, Slovyansk, and Kostyantynivka to counterattack Bakhmut – a claim that former Russian officer Igor Girkin observed was dubious.[ii] Prigozhin‘s exaggerated statements about the imminent threat to Russian forces are likely an attempt to secure more supplies and reinforcements from the Russian MoD to save his forces in Bakhmut. Prigozhin made several positive statements about the Russian MoD, even acknowledging that Russian MoD forces are fighting alongside Chechen units in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast. Prigozhin also surprisingly promoted both Russian MoD-controlled volunteer recruitment efforts and recruitment into Wagner, instead of only advertising service with Wagner formations as he has usually done. Prigozhin expressed some generalized criticism of the Russian military bureaucracy – namely the defense industrial base (DIB) - but such criticisms echo the current state propaganda narrative. Prigozhin had been an avid critic of the Russian military command, and the softening of his rhetoric may indicate that he may be attempting to partially appease the Russian MoD to gain supplies or reinforcements for Wagner forces in Bakhmut.
Prigozhin denied the Kremlin’s claims that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine and questioned whether there are actually Nazis in Ukraine as the Kremlin constantly claims. Prigozhin stated that Russia is fighting “exclusively with Ukrainians” who are equipped with NATO-provided equipment and some “russophobic” mercenaries who voluntarily support Ukraine - but not NATO itself.[iii] Prigozhin also noted that Russian officials most likely knew that NATO would offer Ukraine military aid, because “it is ridiculous to think that when [Russia] decided to conduct this special military operation it did not account for NATO’s help to Ukraine.” Prigozhin noted that he is unsure about the “denazification” objectives in Ukraine, because he does not know if there are “Nazis” in Ukraine. Prigozhin also noted that Russia will ”demilitarize” Ukraine only when all of the Ukrainian military is destroyed, claiming that this effort is ongoing, but that it is unclear if it will be successful. Prigozhin stated that Russia can avoid an exhausting protracted war by deciding now which borders it wants to capture. Prigozhin also called on the Russian military and media to stop underestimating Ukrainian forces and engaging in internal conflicts. Prigozhin effectively rejected the Kremlin’s pre-war and post-war claims that Russia needed to defend itself against a NATO threat in Ukraine and undermined the necessity and probability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated maximalist objectives for this invasion.
Bloomberg reported that Prigozhin is preparing to scale back Wagner’s operations in Ukraine after the Russian military leadership succeeded in cutting key supplies of personnel and munitions, citing unspecified people familiar with the matter. Bloomberg’s sources stated that Wagner is planning to shift focus back to Africa but that there is no current indication that Prigozhin is planning to redeploy the Wagner Group to Africa.[iv] Bloomberg reported, citing sources close to the Kremlin and intelligence services, that top Russian military commanders worked to undermine Prigozhin‘s position with Russian President Vladimir Putin by claiming that Prigozhin achieved limited and slow success despite sending waves of Russian convicts to their deaths around Soledar and Bakhmut. ISW assessed on March 12 that Putin ultimately turned away from Prigozhin following Wagner’s inability to capture Bakhmut.[v] Bloomberg’s sources claimed that the Russian MoD will not allow Prigozhin to take credit for the fall of Bakhmut in state-run media, which is consistent with the MoD’s ongoing effort to diminish and supplant the role of Wagner forces in territorial gains in the area.[vi] Prigozhin notably denied Bloomberg’s claim of scaling back and shifting focus to Africa.[vii]
A Ukrainian intelligence official supported ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.[viii] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Vadym Skibitsky stated on March 23 that Russian forces have demonstrated in the last year of the war that Russian forces are unable to maintain large-scale, strategic-level offensives on multiple axes of advance.[ix] Skibitsky stated that Russian forces failed to achieve expected quick or significant advances in the Donbas offensive that began in early 2023. Skibitsky stated that Ukrainian forces fixed Russian forces to multiple areas on the front line, and that Russian forces in occupied Crimea and Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts are on the defensive. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated on March 21 that Russian forces will try to start another offensive, possibly even on multiple different axes, in the coming weeks.[x]
Russian forces may be shifting their missile strike tactics to focus on Ukrainian military facilities as overall Russian missile strikes decrease, indicating the depletion of Russia’s stocks of high precision missiles. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Vadym Skibitsky stated that Russian forces may be reorienting the their strikes to focus on Ukrainian military facilities and force concentrations while continuing to strike Ukrainian energy infrastructure, as opposed to prioritizing striking energy infrastructure as Russian forces did in fall 2022.[xi] Skibitsky said that the GUR assessed that currently only 15 percent of Russia‘s pre-February 24, 2022 high-precision weapons stocks remain. Skibitsky stated that Russia‘s higher end Kalibr, Kh-101, and Kh-555 cruise missiles comprise less than 10 percent of Russia’s total remaining stocks. Skibitsky stated that Russian forces cannot conduct missile attacks more than twice a month due to the growing need to conserve missiles, in contrast with how Russian forces conducted large air attacks at a higher frequency of about once a week in October 2022. Skibitsky stated that Russia‘s defense industrial base can produce only produce 20 to 30 Kalibr and Kh-101 cruise missiles per month and that Russia‘s production of Iskander ballistic missiles is even lower. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces are depleting their missile arsenal, which may constrain Russian missile strikes frequency and intensity[xii]￼
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin outlined various measures to support Russian military personnel, the Russian defense industrial base (DIB), and Russian independence from the West in an address to the State Duma on March 23.[xiii] Mishustin claimed that Russia aims to produce over 100 aircraft, likely including military aircraft, with unspecified modifications by 2026. Mishustin also claimed that Russia has made significant progress towards mobilizing the DIB for increased production and implementing social support measures to support Russian military personnel, particularly mobilized personnel, and their families. Mishustin used the bulk of his address to claim that Russia has done well but will improve even further despite needing to implement additional economic, social, political, technological and diplomatic measures to both counteract the effects of significant Western sanctions and decrease Russian dependence on the West. Mishustin’s speech follows Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s March 22 speech at the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) collegium, and both Mishustin and Shoigu are attempting to portray Russia as capable of maintaining a prolonged war effort at a pace and scope likely beyond Russia’s actual capability, as ISW has previously assessed.[xiv]
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Rosatom may be working to restore three power lines at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) that would increase Russian control over the ZNPP. IAEA General Director Rafael Grossi on March 22 commented on Russian reports that Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom is working to restore three powerlines at the thermal power plant switchyard to incorporate into the grid system in Russian occupied territory, but that the IAEA has not been able to verify this information.[xv] Grossi stated that the IAEA personnel at the ZNPP observed Russian NPP workers training with experienced ZNPP staff in the main control room of the ZNPP. Russian authorities claimed that the purpose of the training is to ensure that adequate staff are available to work at the plant in case of licensed staff shortages. ISW has previously reported on Russian efforts to use Rosatom’s management and personnel to establish control over the ZNPP to force the IAEA into accepting Russian control over the ZNPP.[xvi]
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has softened his rhetoric towards the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) likely out fear of completely losing his mercenary force in Bakhmut.
- Prigozhin denied the Kremlin’s claims that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine and questioned whether there are actually Nazis in Ukraine as the Kremlin constantly claims.
- Bloomberg reported that Prigozhin is preparing to scale back Wagner’s operations in Ukraine after Russian military leadership succeeded in cutting key supplies of personnel and munitions.
- Ukrainian officials supported ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.
- Russian forces may be shifting their missile strike tactics to focus on Ukrainian military facilities as overall Russian missile strikes decrease, indicating the depletion of Russia’s stocks of high precision missiles.
- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin outlined various measures to support Russian military personnel, the Russian defense industrial base (DIB), and Russian independence from the West in an address to the State Duma.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Rosatom may be working to restore three power lines at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) that would increase Russian control over the ZNPP.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces are continuing to attack Bakhmut City and areas in its vicinity and around Avdiivka.
- Ukrainian forces continue to conduct raids over the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to coerce Russian reservists, conscripts, and other personnel into contract service.
- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that Russia is continuing efforts to integrate newly-occupied Ukraine into Russian institutions and infrastructure.
- Russian forces in Belarus recently redeployed back to Russia ahead of Russia’s spring conscription call-up on April 1.
Russian forces conducted a limited drone and missile strike campaign in Ukraine overnight on March 21-22, indicating that Russian forces continue struggling with precision missile shortages. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted 21 drone strikes targeting residential and infrastructure areas in Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhia, and Odesa oblasts, and Ukrainian forces shot down 16 of the drones. Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces struck two residential high-rise buildings in Zaporizhzhia City, killing at least one civilian and injuring 33. Russian forces conducted more intensive and wider-ranging strikes during the fall 2022 air and missile campaign, suggesting that Russian forces may now be rationing their use of high-precision munitions for these strike campaigns or may simply lack the necessary munitions to sustain strike campaigns at their earlier pace and intensity. Head of the Ukrainian Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that the Russian missile strike threat remains high but that Russian forces would likely only conduct a limited campaign.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) intends to increase the size of Russia’s air defense forces at a Russian MoD collegium on March 22. Shoigu stated that one of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ (VKS) development priorities is to generate more air defense units with advanced air defense systems. He noted that in 2023 Russian forces plan to form a new air defense division and brigade, form a special purpose air defense missile brigade, form a new anti-aircraft missile regiment with more advanced S-350 systems, form a military transport aviation regiment, and complete the modernization of Moscow City’s air defense systems. Shoigu also commented on Russian combat experience in Ukraine, stating that Russian pilots conducted over 140,000 combat sorties since February 24, 2022, and that 90 percent of operational-tactical and army aviation, 60 percent of strategic long-range aviation, and 85 percent of UAV operators have combat experience.
The Russian military is unlikely to generate such forces within several years, let alone by the end of 2023. Russia’s defense industrial base has historically experienced multi-year delays in developing advanced air defense systems, even before the strict sanctions and exacerbated resource constraints resulting from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Current Russian air defense brigades and regiments received their S-400 systems up to several years behind schedule. The Russian military had only fielded the S-500 system, which was reportedly supposed to enter production in 2015, in one Russian air defense army by 2021. Russia also delayed its planned delivery of a second S-400 battery to India in 2022 due to constraints caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia may eventually grow its air defense forces as part of a larger effort to recreate a large conventional military in the long term, however. Shoigu’s announcement is similar to his previous announcement at an MoD collegium in December 2022 in which Shoigu stated that Russia seeks to form 17 new maneuver divisions over several years.
The formation of new Russian air defense and airlift units will not increase Russian combat power in Ukraine this year. Shoigu’s statement is likely intended to reassure the Russian people that the Russian MoD is continuing to develop the Russian military as a world-class military power to offset perceptions about Russian military failures in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be setting conditions to weaponize the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a method of Russian power projection in advance of Russia’s accession to the rotating UNSC presidency in April. Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya stated during a press conference on March 21 that Russia plans to hold an informal UNSC meeting in early April to discuss the “real situation” of “Ukrainian children taken to Russia.” Nebenzya claimed that Russia planned to hold the meeting before the announcement of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrants for Putin and Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Nebenzya’s announcement, as well as vitriolic denials of the ICC’s accusations by Russian officials, come as Kremlin-appointed occupation officials continue to facilitate the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia under a variety of schemes and guises. Putin additionally made a number of notable comments proclaiming Russia’s commitment to the UN, UNSC, and the UN charter during his press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 21. Taken in tandem, Nebenzya’s and Putin’s comments suggest that Russia continues to use its position on the UNSC as a base of power projection as the UNSC prepares for Russia to take the UNSC presidency in April. By setting information conditions to posture about Russia’s supposed commitment to the UNSC, Putin is positioning himself to continue to weaponize and exploit Russia’s UNSC veto power in the coming months.
The second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to suggest that Putin has not been able to secure the no-limits bilateral partnership with China that he likely hoped for. Putin and Xi signed a “Joint Statement by the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on Deepening Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation, Entering a New Era” on March 21, which stressed that Russian–Chinese relations are comprehensive, strategic, and at the highest level in history. The Joint Statement outlines a variety of bilateral intentions and affirms the commitment of Russia and China to each other’s state sovereignty and territorial integrity, among other diplomatic promises. The commitments made by Xi and Putin were notably lopsided, however, indicating the Xi is agreeing to a more reserved version of Russian–Chinese relations than Putin likely desires, as ISW observed on March 20. Xi praised Putin, reaffirmed China’s commitment to Russia in the UNSC, and amplified China’s position on a political settlement of the war in Ukraine; but Xi did not go much further than offering those statements. Putin, by contrast, announced a number of measures that signal Russia’s continued orientation towards and dependence on China in the energy and economic sectors, which appear very one-sided compared to Xi’s relatively tempered commitments. Xi additionally did not signal an intent to provide support for Russia’s war in Ukraine beyond vague diplomatic assurances, which is likely a step down from what Putin hoped to secure in negotiations. Putin has likely failed to secure the exact sort of partnership that he needs and desires, and Xi will likely leave Moscow having secured assurances that are more one-sided than Putin intended them to be. Putin observed that Russia and China had “a very substantiative and candid exchange of views” on the prospects for the further development of the Russian-Chinese relations. Such rhetoric notably lacks the language normally used in diplomatic readouts to indicate that the two parties have come to definitive and substantive agreements.
Putin portrayed the Western provision of depleted uranium ammunition to Ukraine as a significant escalation in order to bolster information operations aiming to deter Western security assistance to Ukraine and to place the onus for negotiations on the West. Putin claimed on March 21, while discussing the Chinese peace plan, that the West is beginning to use weapons with a “nuclear” component in a response to the UK’s announcement that it would provide Ukraine with shells with depleted uranium. Putin claimed that the UK’s provision of depleted uranium shells indicated that the West is not ready for a “peaceful settlement.“ Anti-tank munitions in the West are commonly made of depleted uranium—that is, uranium that is less radioactive than natural uranium—due to its high density and the penetrative effect it generates. Such munitions cannot be used to produce either nuclear or radiological weapons. Putin seeks to portray the provision of depleted uranium shells as escalatory in order to deter Western security assistance despite the shells not containing any fissile or radiological material.
The Wagner Group may lose most of its convict force in the upcoming weeks as convicts finish their six-month military contracts. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed that thousands of Wagner convicts who were recruited during fall 2022 will be pardoned and released, given that Wagner appears to be sticking to its promise of releasing convicts after six months of service. The UK MoD forecasted that the exodus of convict forces would worsen Wagner personnel shortages as the Kremlin has also blocked Wagner from recruiting additional prisoners. The Kremlin had previously confirmed on January 27 that Russian President Vladimir Putin is issuing preemptive pardon for convicts who serve in Russian combat operations in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s announcement aligns with the ISW-established timeline of Putin’s decision to completely distance himself from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin following the fall of Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on January 12–13. The Kremlin had likely deliberately authorized publicization of pre-emptive pardons to incentivize more Wagner convicts to leave following the expiration of their contracts to further erode the Wagner force. Prigozhin has developed a brand consistently mocking the Russian MoD for its disregard for the troops’ wellbeing and is unlikely to anger a convict force by retaining them on the frontlines past the expiration of their contracts.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) launched a criminal investigation into the Deputy Commander of the Rosgvardia’s Central District, Major General Vadim Dragomiretsky on March 20. Russian State Duma Parliamentarian Aleksandr Khinshtein stated that Dragomiretsky is suspected of receiving multimillion dollar bribes and abusing his power and will face subsequent dismissal from his position. Khinshtein said that officials forced Dragomiretsky to admit his guilt in a written confession. Dragomiretsky was suspected of having received bribes from a contractor who reconstructed a military unit in the Moscow Oblast. The accusations follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bill on March 18 that increased fines and jailtime for the misappropriation of Russian military assets. Khinshtein stated that the Rosgvardia leadership’s investigation proves its dedication to “purifying their ranks.“ The Kremlin may use the premise of misappropriation of military funds to oust officials who have fallen out of favor.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced on March 20 that it authorized a presidential drawdown to provide an additional $350 million of security assistance to Ukraine. The DoD stated that the package will include ammunition for HIMARS, 155mm artillery rounds, HARMs missiles, and other critical military equipment.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be setting conditions to weaponize the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a method of Russian power projection in advance of Russia’s accession to the rotating UNSC presidency in April.
- The readouts of the second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to suggest that Putin has not been able to secure the no-limits bilateral partnership with China that he likely hoped for.
- Putin falsely portrayed the Western provision of depleted uranium ammunition (not suitable for use in nuclear or radiological weapons) to Ukraine as a significant escalation in order to bolster information operations aiming to deter Western security assistance to Ukraine and to place the onus for negotiations on the West.
- Wagner Group may lose most of its convict force in the upcoming weeks as convicts finish their six-month military contracts.
- The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) launched a criminal investigation into the Deputy Commander of the Rosgvardia’s Central District, Major General Vadim Dragomiretsky.
- The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced that it authorized a presidential drawdown to provide around $350 million of security assistance to Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued limited offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces did not make any confirmed gains in or around Bakhmut and continued offensive operations along the outskirts of Donetsk City.
- The Kremlin continues crypto mobilization campaigns to recruit men across Russia for contract service to avoid declaring second mobilization wave.
- Russian occupation officials continue to facilitate the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
March 20, 6:45 pm ET
Russian forces made marginal gains in and around Bakhmut amid a reported increase in the tempo of Russian operations around Avdiivka. Russian forces likely made additional gains in southwestern and northern Bakhmut as well as northwest of Bakhmut between Bohdanivka and Khromove as of March 20. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 19 that Russian troops attacked toward Berdychi (10km northwest of Avdiivka), which indicates that Russian forces likely advanced west of Krasnohorivka (9km north of Avdiivka) and captured Stepove (just west of Krasnohorivka). Russian forces are likely increasing the tempo of operations north of Avdiivka in an effort to set conditions for the encirclement of the settlement and are reportedly employing a greater number of aviation units in the area to support these operations. Avdiivka Mayor Vitaly Barabash told AFP News on March 20 that Russian forces are increasingly using Kh-59, Kh-101, Kh-555, and S-300 missiles in the Avdiivka area. A Ukrainian military spokesperson stated on March 20 that Russian forces have lost about three unspecified companies (likely referring to infantry) in assaults on Avdiivka since March 19. ISW previously reported that this increased tempo of Russian operations in the Avdiivka area has reportedly led to major losses and is likely a misguided effort to pull Ukrainian forces away from other areas of the front. ISW has not observed Russian forces arraying substantial combat power along the outskirts of Donetsk City, and it is unlikely that Russian forces will be able to sustain this temporary increased tempo. ISW assesses that the overall Russian spring offensive is likely approaching culmination, and Russian forces may be intensifying efforts to make even marginal gains before they lose the initiative in Ukraine. It remains possible that Russian advances could prompt Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut and/or Avdiivka although neither appears likely at this time.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 20 and offered a more reserved vision for Russian-Chinese relations than what Putin was likely seeking. Xi and Putin touted the strength of Chinese-Russian relations in their meeting on March 20, but offered differing interpretations of the scale of future relations in articles they published on March 19. Putin published an article in Chinese state media in which he argued that Russia and China are building a partnership for the formation of a multipolar world order in the face of the collective West’s seeking of domination and the United States pursuing a policy of dual containment against China and Russia. Xi offered a less aggressive overarching goal for Russian-Chinese relations in his article published in Russian state media outlet Rossiskaya Gazeta, in which he noted that Russia and China are generally pursuing a multipolar world order but not specifically against an adversarial West. Xi instead focused heavily on presenting China as a viable third-party mediator to the war in Ukraine whose plan for negotiations ”reflects the unity of views of the world community on overcoming the Ukrainian crisis.” Putin wrote that Russia welcomes China’s willingness to ”play a constructive role in crisis management” regarding the war in Ukraine, but Putin likely was hoping for Xi to adopt a similarly aggressive rhetorical line against the West.
Xi’s refusal to explicitly align China with Russia in Putin’s envisioned geopolitical conflict with the West is a notable departure from China’s declared “no limits partnership” with Russia preceding the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Xi’s rhetoric suggests that he is not inclined to fully give Russia the economic and political support that Russia needs to reverse setbacks in Ukraine. Putin and Xi offered somewhat similar visions for increased Chinese-Russian economic partnership, and it is likely that the two will sign bilateral trade and economic agreements during Xi’s visit, some of which will likely aim to facilitate schemes for sanctions evasion. Xi will also likely offer a more concrete proposal for a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine, although it remains unclear what his proposal will entail and how receptive the Kremlin will be to it. The prospects of China supplying Russia with military equipment also remain unclear.
Putin is likely increasing his attempts to rhetorically rally the rest of the world against the West, although it remains unlikely that he will achieve decisive effects through this effort. Putin attended the International Parliamentary Conference “Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World” on March 20 and stated that Russia and states in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America uphold the norms of social principles, morality, and traditions and oppose neo-colonial ideology. Putin’s depiction of an envisioned Chinese-Russian axis against the West and his comments at the conference likely amount to an intensified proposal to non-aligned countries to form a defined anti-Western bloc. Putin likely hoped that Xi would offer a similar vision to augment this proposal, and Xi’s refusal to do so likely weakens the impacts of Putin’s efforts. The attractiveness of a potential anti-Western Chinese-Russian-based geopolitical bloc lies more with China’s economic and political power than with Russia’s declining economic strength and its military power badly degraded by fighting in Ukraine. Russia’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to generate support for its war in Ukraine continue to produce few tangible results, and an intensified effort to rally the rest of the world against the West will not likely be more effective.
Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to maintain powerful political leverage and regional connections within Russia despite some officials’ attempts to distance themselves from the Wagner Group. Prigozhin claimed on March 20 that Krasnodar Krai Governor Veniamin Kondratyev personally invited a Wagner representative to Krasnodar Krai, overruled local refusals to bury Wagner mercenaries, and informed the representative that the Wagner Group will face no further obstacles burying its dead. Prigozhin on March 18 claimed that authorities in Goryachiy Klyuch, Krasnodar Krai, reneged on an agreement to bury Wagner personnel. A Goryachiy Klyuch official initially told a Wagner representative that Kondratyev stripped him of authority to cooperate with Wagner, which ISW assessed as an indicator of weakening connections between Prigozhin and regional officials. Prigozhin’s ability to reach out to Kondratyev directly and resolve the situation suggests that his leverage in the krai remains strong. Goryachiy Klyuch officials’ initial refusal to bury Wagner mercenaries and ongoing clashes between Prigozhin and St. Petersburg officials over Wagner burials indicate that some authorities do seek to distance themselves from Wagner PMC, however.
Russian authorities are likely unsure of how to redefine Wagner’s new role following Prigozhin’s overextension of Wagner resources and support. The destruction of Wagner forces near Bakhmut is likely forcing Prigozhin and Russian officials to reconsider the role of Wagner while Prigozhin works to rebuild his forces. Several news sources reported on March 20 that Russian political party “A Just Russia – for Truth” leader Sergey Mironov publicly advocated for the legalization of private military companies – such as the Wagner Group – and proposed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) take control of their oversight, which would likely be a major limitation on Prigozhin’s current freedoms as Wagner’s financier. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger on March 19 accused the Russian MoD of sabotaging Wagner efforts to replenish its ranks in Ukraine with Wagner fighters from further abroad by canceling military transport flights. If true, this report would suggest that the Russian MoD is attempting to prevent Wagner from regaining political leverage and rebuilding its military capabilities in Ukraine while maintaining Wagner’s role abroad. Prigozhin himself appears to be taking every opportunity to increase his media relevance and maintain the Wagner Group’s prominence in the process. Prigozhin has publicized an array of statements picking fights with local officials, amplifying disputes over Wagner burials, commenting on the expansion of Russian censorship laws, commemorating the alleged one-year anniversary of Wagner involvement in Ukraine, and more since March 18 alone.
The Russian information space continues to respond to the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s issuance of arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova with ire and anxiety. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed on March 20 that the Kremlin is “calm” about Putin’s arrest warrant and called its issuance “outrageous and unacceptable.” The Russian Investigative Committee, however, opened a criminal case against ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan and several ICC judges on March 20, indicating that Russian leadership feels the need to posture proactively in its response to the ICC despite promises that the arrest warrants are meaningless in the eyes of the Russian government. Russian Security Council Deputy Head Dmitry Medvedev relatedly threatened a missile strike against the ICC and suggested that ”it is quite possible to imagine the point of application of a hypersonic missile carrier from the North Sea from a Russian ship to the Hague courthouse.” Medvedev has notably made continuous inflammatory and escalated threats against the collective West, and his threats should not be taken as more than aggressive informational posturing on the part of the Kremlin. The range of ostensibly diverging Russian responses to the ICC arrest warrants suggests that this event will likely remain a point of neuralgia in the Russian information space and will likely lead to continued legislative and informational responses.
Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on March 20 that the frequency of large Russian missile attacks has decreased. Yusov stated that Russia does not have many Kalibr, Iskander, and Kinzhal missiles left, but still has many S-300 surface-to-air missiles. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces continue to deplete their missile arsenal and may constrain how often and at what scale to conduct missile strikes but will likely continue to threaten Ukrainian critical infrastructure and civilians.
Russia requested that the UN Security Council discuss Israeli airstrikes in Syria possibly in retaliation for Israel’s approval of export licenses for anti-drone jamming systems for Ukraine. Israeli news outlet The Times of Israel reported on March 18 that Russia’s UN representative told the UN Security Council that Israel’s airstrikes in Syria must stop. An Israeli official claimed that Israel had not expected Russia to call for the discussion and feared that Russia would promote a resolution against Israel. Russia’s comments about Israeli airstrikes in Syria occurred after Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen notified Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the approval of the export licenses on Cohen’s visit to Ukraine on March 15.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and offered a more reserved vision for Russian-Chinese relations than Putin likely desires.
- Putin is likely increasing his attempts to rally the rest of the world against the West, although it remains unlikely that he will achieve decisive effects in this effort.
- Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to maintain powerful political leverage and regional connections despite some officials’ attempts to distance themselves. Russian authorities are likely unsure of how to redefine Wagner’s new role following Prigozhin’s overextension of Wagner resources and support.
- The Russian information space continues to respond to the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s issuance of arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova with ire and anxiety.
- Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that the frequency of large Russian missile attacks has decreased.
- Russia requested that the UN Security Council discuss Israeli airstrikes in Syria possibly in retaliation for Israel’s approval of export licenses for anti-drone jamming systems for Ukraine.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted offensive operations northeast of Kupyansk.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations near Svatove and Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued making advances in and around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline and made marginal gains near Avdiivka.
- Russian sources claim that Russian forces are building up defensive fortifications and repelled Ukrainian reconnaissance-in-force operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian sources accused unknown actors of planting a bomb that exploded near a gas pipeline in occupied Simferopol, Crimea.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Russian difficulties obtaining components for high-tech industrial production.
- Ukrainian partisans killed Russian-appointed head of the Kherson Oblast pre-detention center Serhii Moskalenko with an improvised explosive device on March 17.
March 19, 5 pm ET
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, March 19. This report discusses growing Russian concern about a prospective Ukrainian counteroffensive near Bakhmut or in southern Ukraine, and Russian efforts to prepare mitigations for these claimed efforts. The tempo of Russian offensive operations across the theater has slowed in recent weeks, suggesting that the Russian spring offensive in Donbas may be nearing culmination. Ukrainian officials have indicated that significant Russian losses near Vuhledar are severely inhibiting Russian forces’ capacity to conduct further offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast. Russian President Vladimir Putin used his first visit to recently-occupied Ukraine to portray himself as an involved wartime leader amid exaggerated responses in the Russian nationalist information space over fears of a possible future Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces likely conducted a localized counterattack southwest of Bakhmut amid growing Russian discussion about a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Bakhmut area. Geolocated footage published on March 19 indicates that Ukrainian forces conducted a successful counterattack southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) and pushed Russian forces further away from the T0504 highway in the area. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty reported that Russian forces conducted 25 attacks in the Bakhmut area on March 19, but Russian forces likely only secured marginal gains. Russian sources amplified footage on March 18 alleging to show a column of Ukrainian armored vehicles along the T0504 southwest of Kostyantynivka (22km southwest of Bakhmut) and speculated that Ukrainian forces are preparing to launch counteroffensive operations southwest of Bakhmut. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces are currently capable of intensifying counterattacks to stabilize the front line around Bakhmut. The growing Russian discussions about an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Bakhmut area suggest that Russian sources are increasingly uncertain about the Russian military’s ability to maintain the initiative around Bakhmut.
March 18, 7:15pm ET
Russian forces targeted Ukraine with 16 Shahed-136 drones overnight on March 17-18. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 11 of the 16 drones and noted that it is difficult for Ukrainian mobile fire groups to shoot down drones at night due to the lack of visibility.[i] The drones targeted facilities in Kyiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Lviv oblasts, reportedly including a Ukrainian fuel warehouse in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[ii] Russian sources claimed that Russian drone strikes also targeted Kyiv Thermal Power Plant 5, which Russian forces reportedly targeted in a strike campaign on March 9.[iii]
Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against anti-war dissent and the misappropriation of military assets within Russia. Putin signed two bills into law on March 18 that significantly increase the fines and jail time for discrediting Russian forces in Ukraine and for selling Russian arms to foreign actors.[iv] Russian sources reported that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel detained over 40 people in raids against two Moscow bars for suspicion of financing Ukrainian forces and made patrons participate in pro-war activities on March 17.[v] Russian sources have increasingly reported on FSB detaining Russian civilians under suspicion of financially assisting Ukrainian forces since February 28 after Putin instructed the FSB to intensify counterintelligence measures and crackdown against the spread of pro-Ukrainian ideology.[vi]
Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigohzin is likely attempting to set informational conditions to explain the Wagner Group’s culmination around Bakhmut. Prigozhin-affiliated outlet RIA FAN published an interview with Prigozhin on March 17 in which he asserted that Ukrainian forces are preparing to launch counteroffensives in five separate directions: into Belgorod Oblast, in the Kreminna area, in the Bakhmut area, towards Donetsk City, and in Zaporizhia Oblast.[vii] Prigozhin stated that Ukrainian forces will launch these operations starting in mid-April and urged Russian forces to prepare for these counteroffensives by preserving ammunition and equipment.[viii] Prigozhin likely depicted Ukrainian forces as having enough combat power to launch a massive theater-wide counteroffensive to justify the Wagner Group’s inability to complete an envelopment or encirclement of Bakhmut. Prigozhin stated that Ukrainian forces are preparing to counterattack Wagner’s flanks in the Bakhmut area and that Wagner fighters are preparing for these counterattacks.[ix] ISW previously assessed that Wagner fighters are likely conducting opportunistic attacks on easier-to-seize settlements further north and northwest of Bakhmut as their ability to make tactical gains in Bakhmut itself diminishes, and Prigozhin likely seeks to frame these activities as securing flanks in preparation for Ukrainian counteroffensives.[x] A prominent Wagner-affiliated milblogger similarly argued that Wagner fighters are conducting offensive operations northwest of Bakhmut to spoil Ukrainian counterattacks and asserted that Wagner fighters are focused on advancing towards the Siverskyi Donets Canal west of Bakhmut to complete the envelopment of the city.[xi] The milblogger likely tried to rationalize the Wagner Group’s failure to envelop Bakhmut by setting the necessary conditions for the envelopment further away and farther out of the Wagner Group’s current operational capabilities. Prigozhin also claimed that Ukrainian forces have at least 19,000 personnel deployed within Bakhmut, likely an attempt to justify Wagner’s lack of progress within the city.[xii]
- Russian forces targeted Ukraine with 16 Shahed-136 drones overnight on March 17-18.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his crackdown against anti-war dissent and misappropriation of military assets within Russia.
- Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely attempting to set informational conditions for the Wagner Group’s culmination around Bakhmut.
- Russian regional authorities may be severing their connections with Prigozhin.
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova reiterated that the Kremlin has not abandoned its maximalist goals in Ukraine.
- BBC and Russian opposition news outlet Mediazona estimated that Russian forces have suffered at least 35,000 total deaths and 157,000 total casualties.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut and on the outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continue to erect defensive fortifications along ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in and near occupied Crimea.
- Conventional Russian authorities and the Wagner Group continue to invest significant resources in efforts to involve youth in the war effort and ready them mentally and physically for military service.
- Russian occupation authorities continue efforts russify Ukrainians in occupied territories.
March 16, 6:15pm ET
The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) appears to be trying to penetrate the Russian Defense Industrial Base (DIB) in a way that is reminiscent of the KGB’s involvement with the Soviet military establishment. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Center for the Research of Trophy and Prospective Weapons and Military Equipment of the Ukrainian General Staff Andrii Rudyk remarked on March 16 that Ukrainian experts have found FSB markings on many Russian weapons components that Ukrainian forces have destroyed or captured on the battlefield. Rudyk noted that these markings appear not only on equipment such as T-90M tanks, but also on weapons’ microcircuits, and suggested that this means that the FSB conducted an equipment inspection of such weapons and components. Rudyk concluded that this means that the FSB does not trust Russian military leadership and is conducting inspections of Russian equipment accordingly. FSB markings on Russian equipment and weapons components, if confirmed, would have broader implications for the relationship between the FSB, the Russian DIB, and the broader Russian military apparatus. Either FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov has instructed the FSB to conduct these investigations at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Bortnikov has issued this directive independent of Putin. In either case the FSB appears to be directly inserting itself into the inner workings of the Russian DIB, likely penetrating equipment acquisition and inspection processes. The KGB — the FSB’s predecessor — notably penetrated the Red Army and Soviet defense industry in a similar fashion.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that he received a press question exposing a plot spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to undermine and “neutralize” the Wagner Group. Prigozhin’s press service published a claimed request for comment on March 16 from Russian outlet Nezavisimaya Gazeta asking if Prigozhin was aware of alleged discussions between Putin and Patrushev regarding the future of the Wagner Group. The press comment claims that information on these discussions has recently circulated on Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels and alleges that Patrushev suggested to Putin that there will be “nothing left” of Wagner in “one and a half to two months.” The post goes on to claim that Patrushev suggested that upon Wagner’s destruction in Ukraine, Prigozhin will try to “unite the former and remaining active Wagner fighters under a far-fetched pretext,” arm them, and ”send them to the territory of Russia in order to seize power in the regions bordering Ukraine with a possible advance inland.” The post concludes that Patrushev has already ordered observation and control over the movement of former Wagner fighters and that Putin reportedly agreed with this step and thanked Patrushev for his efforts to “neutralize Wagner in general and Yevgeny Prigozhin in particular.” Prigozhin posted an audio clip in response to the claimed press comment saying that he had not heard about these supposed negotiations or observed speculation on Telegram channels, remarking that Russian special services should work to neutralize threats to Russia regardless of where they come from.
ISW has not observed any information to suggest that these discussions have happened, nor has ISW captured any speculation in the Russian information space about them. Nezivisimaya Gazeta has not published the press comment on its own site, and no record of the comment is visible anywhere other than in references to the post by Prigozhin’s press service. The lack of external confirmation on this subject suggests that Prigozhin has fabricated the alleged plot to further several information operations on behalf of Wagner and his own reputation. First, this exchange clearly identifies Patrushev and possibly the Russian Security Council as enemies of the Wagner Group. Prigozhin appears to be setting careful information conditions to blame Patrushev for Wagner’s failures and potential crackdowns against the group, as well as introducing an invented scenario wherein Wagner poses a direct threat to Russia domestically. This effort appears to be the next evolution of Prigozhin’s campaign against the Russian military establishment, and Patrushev could become Prigozhin’s next target after his concerted informational campaigns against the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff.
Western news agencies confirmed on March 16 that Chinese companies have sold rifles, drone parts, and equipment that could be used for military purposes to unidentified Russian entities. Politico cited data provided by customs data aggregator ImportGenius showing that Chinese companies sent equipment including 1,000 assault rifles, 12 shipments of drone parts, and over 12 tons of body armor to unspecified Russian actors between June and December 2022. CNN also reported on March 16 that Ukrainian forces shot down a retrofitted, weaponized commercial Mugin-5 drone produced by a Chinese commercial manufacturer. These sales appear small in scale, concern largely commercial equipment, and — in all but one confirmed case — do not include companies with ties to the Chinese government, according to Politico.
Such Chinese shipments are significant, however, because they could alleviate strain on the overextended Russian defense industrial base (DIB) and circumvent Western attempts to limit Russian access to microchips. ISW has not observed routine Russian small arms shortages, and Russia’s DIB appears capable of producing sufficient quantities of assault rifles. The import of domestically available equipment from China likely enables the Russian DIB to transfer resources — most critically the limited number of skilled Russian defense plant workers — from the production of such goods to the production of military equipment for which Russia has a dire need. Meanwhile, the sale of even commercial drone parts to Russian entities could provide Russia’s DIB with access to valuable microchips vital to the production of sophisticated equipment, which Western sanctions have worked to prevent.
Syrian President Bashar Assad used a staged interview with Russian outlet RIA Novosti to amplify notable Russian information operations. Assad told RIA on March 16 that Russian military bases in Syria should receive the “most advanced weapons” to effectively deter threats in response to a question about the deployment of hypersonic missiles. This comment is explicitly in support of the deployment of Russian hypersonic weapons, likely of the Kinzhal variety, to Syria, which is part of a longstanding Russian information operation to strengthen Assad and increase pressure against Turkey as Ankara considers ratification of Finland and Sweden’s accession into NATO.  Assad also notably recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine as a part of Russia.
Polish President Andrzej Duda stated on March 16 that Poland will give Ukraine four MiG-29 fighter jets. Polish news outlet Wydarzenia reported that Duda said that Poland will deliver the MiG-29s in the coming four to six weeks. Polish news outlet Rzeczpospolita reported that Duda announced that Poland is servicing an unspecified number of additional MiG-29s for delivery to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force operates MiG-29s and would be able to use them in counteroffensive operations if Ukraine receives them with enough time in advance of its next counteroffensive.
Russia’s redeployment of elements of its “peacekeeping force” from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine is eroding Russia’s influence with Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of preparing to conduct a new large-scale attack and genocide against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh at an unspecified future time on March 16. Pashinyan stated that Armenia should appeal to the United Nations Security Council if the Russian Federation is unable to uphold the November 9, 2020, Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire that Moscow helped broker with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan previously accused Russia’s “peacekeeping force” in Nagorno-Karabakh of “not fulfilling its obligation” under this ceasefire in December 2022 after Russian forces failed to secure passage on the only road through the Lachin Corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s “peacekeeping force” in Nagorno-Karabakh is very likely understrength. The Russian military redeployed elements of the 15th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade — Russia's only dedicated peacekeeping brigade — from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine in March 2022. Ukraine’s General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces severely degraded the 15th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, killing about 800 and wounding about 400 soldiers of the brigade’s 1,800 soldiers that deployed to Ukraine as of June 2022. Russia will likely lose military influence in other post-Soviet states since Moscow has redeployed elements of permanently stationed Russian forces from Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan, occupied Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and Tajikistan to fight in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long-term economic consequences, likely as part of the Kremlin’s effort to prepare Russians for a protracted war. Putin delivered a speech at the Congress of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Moscow on March 16 in which he claimed that the Russian economy has steadily grown in the past eight months following a roughly five percent contraction over the first months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin attempted to portray Russia as not being isolated from the international economy by claiming that Russian trade with fast-growing markets has increased at double-digit rates. Putin claimed that the domestic Russian economy will experience sustainable long-term growth and forecasted that Russian industries will significantly grow as they fill niches previously held by Western firms that have left the country and stopped doing business with Russia. Putin suggested that the entire Russian economy will expand in a manner similar to the Russian agricultural sector’s growth following 2014 Western sanctions regimes associated with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin claimed that Russia’s supposed economic resilience has disproven Western analysts who predicted empty store shelves and massive shortages of goods in Russia because of Western sanctions.
Putin’s portrayal of a healthy and resilient Russian economy is at odds with Russia’s issues with sanctions-related supply chain bottlenecks, the Russian defense industrial base’s (DIB) struggle to meet the Russian military's needs in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s substantial projected budget deficit problems. Putin likely sought to reassure the Russian public as the Kremlin increasingly signals to Russians that the Kremlin intends to fight a protracted war in Ukraine and implicitly consign the Russian economy to an indefinite period of stringent Western sanctions. The Kremlin also likely sought to reassure the Russian public that war-related production will not detrimentally impact the rest of the Russian economy as Russian officials continue efforts to gradually mobilize more of Russia’s DIB. The Kremlin will likely struggle to not contradict its different informational lines of effort as it attempts to reassure the Russian public about the Russian economy, set informational conditions for a protracted war, and mobilize a wider portion of Russia’s DIB.
- The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) appears to be trying to penetrate the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) in a way that is reminiscent of the KGB’s involvement with the Soviet military and industrial base.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that he received a press question exposing a plot spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to undermine and “neutralize” the Wagner Group.
- Western news agencies confirmed that Chinese companies have sold military and dual-use equipment to unidentified Russian entities. These sales appear small in scale but could alleviate strain on Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) and circumvent Western attempts to limit Russian access to microchips.
- Syrian President Bashar Assad used a staged interview with Russian outlet RIA Novosti to amplify notable Russian information operations.
- Polish President Andrzej Duda stated that Poland will give Ukraine four MiG-29 fighter jets.
- Russian’s decision to redeploy elements of its “peacekeeping force” from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine is eroding Russia’s influence with Armenia.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long term economic consequences, likely as part of the Kremlin’s effort to prepare Russians for a protracted war.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued advancing in and around Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line and in Western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted localized assaults in Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces increased their naval presence in the Black Sea.
March 15 | 7:30 pm
The overall pace of Russian operations in Ukraine appears to have decreased compared to previous weeks. A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavriisk Defense Forces, Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, stated on March 15 that Russian offensive actions have decreased significantly over the last week and noted that daily Russian ground attacks have decreased from 90 to 100 attacks per day to 20 to 29 per day. Dmytrashkivskyi reported that Russian forces have somewhat lost offensive potential due to significant manpower and equipment losses. Dmytrashkivskyi’s statements are consistent with ISW’s general observation regarding the pace of Russian operations along the entire frontline in Ukraine. The Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing culmination, if it has not already culminated, although Russia has committed most elements of at least three divisions to the Svatove-Kreminna line. Russian forces have made only minimal tactical gains along the entire Luhansk Oblast frontline over the last week, and Ukrainian forces have likely recently managed to conduct counterattacks and regain territory in Luhansk Oblast. ISW has been unable to confirm the commitment of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division (1st Guards Tank Army, Western Military District) to the offensive in Luhansk Oblast since certain unspecified elements reportedly deployed to Luhansk Oblast in January--the only large formation assessed to be operational but not yet engaged. It is unclear if the 2nd Motor Rifle Division has already deployed and has not been observed or if it is waiting to deploy to either Luhansk Oblast or other areas of the front. The commitment of two or three of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division’s constituent regiments, however, is unlikely to significantly delay or reverse the culmination of the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast, especially considering that at least five Russian regiments have definitely been fully committed in this area, likely along with several others, but Russian forces have still been unable to make substantial gains.
The overall Wagner Group offensive on Bakhmut additionally appears to be nearing culmination. Ukrainian military sources have noted a markedly decreased number of attacks in and around Bakhmut, particularly over the last few days. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has recently emphasized the toll that a reported lack of ammunition is having on Wagner’s ability to pursue offensives on Bakhmut and stated on March 15 that due to ammunition shortages and heavy fighting, Wagner has had to expand its encirclement of Bakhmut. Prigozhin notably claimed that Wagner captured Zalizianske, a tiny rural settlement 9km northwest of Bakhmut on the east side of the E40 Bakhmut-Slovyansk highway, which indicates that Wagner forces are likely conducting opportunistic localized attacks on settlements further north of Bakhmut that are small and relatively easier to seize. Recent Wagner gains north of Bakhmut suggest that manpower, artillery, and equipment losses in fights for Bakhmut will likely constrain Wagner’s ability to complete a close encirclement of Bakhmut or gain substantial territory in battles for urban areas. The capture of Zalizianske and other similarly small towns north of Bakhmut and east of the E40 highway is extremely unlikely to enhance Wagner’s ability to capture Bakhmut itself or make other operationally significant gains. It therefore is likely that Wagner’s offensive on Bakhmut is increasingly nearing culmination. Russian forces would likely have to commit significant reserves to prevent this culmination. They may be able to do so, as ISW has observed elements of Russian airborne regiments in and around Bakhmut that do not seem to be heavily committed to the fighting at the moment. The Russians might also commit elements of other conventional units, including possibly the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division, or units drawn from elsewhere in the theater. But it seems that the Wagner offensive itself will not be sufficient to seize Bakhmut. Russian forces are not pursuing active or successful offensive operations elsewhere in theater, and as the pace of operations slows along critical sectors of the front, Ukrainian forces likely have an increased opportunity to regain the initiative.
International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s long-term strategy document for destabilizing Moldova and reintegrating it back into the Russian sphere of influence by 2030. The Kyiv Independent, Yahoo News, and several other international news partners released details of the Moldova report, reportedly originating from the same document as the leaked Belarus annexation strategy document. Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean reportedly saw the document and stated that it is consistent with Moldova’s assessments of Russia’s ongoing campaign to undermine Moldovan sovereignty. ISW is unable to confirm the existence or authenticity of this document, but the document’s political lines of effort are consistent with recent Russian efforts to destabilize Moldova.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin commented on the reports about the dismissal of the Russian Commander of the Airborne (VDV) Forces Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky (first reported on January 20) - likely revealing Teplinsky’s affiliation with Wagner. Prigozhin stated on March 15 that Teplinsky is an honest and competent commander whom he had met before the war in passing and during “tragic” operations near Berestove, Donetsk Oblast. Prigozhin stated that one of the possible reasons behind Teplinsky’s dismissal was his refusal to lie about the situation on the frontlines. Prigozhin also claimed that Teplinsky expressed his ”honest opinion,” which had saved many paratroopers. Prigozhin stated that he hopes that commanders like Teplinsky and former theater commander in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin, would take senior positions in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Ukrainian intelligence previously linked Surovikin to Wagner, and Prigozhin’s praise for Teplinsky is similar to the praise he offered Surovikin in October 2022. ISW previously observed Wagner-affiliated milblogger claims about Teplinsky’s dismissal on January 20 attributed to a reported disagreement with the Russian General Staff. These claims emerged only nine days after Surovikin’s dismissal from the position of theater commander and his new subordination under Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov on January 11. Gerasimov may have removed Teplinsky as a result of his affiliation with Wagner, if the reports about his dismissal are true.
The Russian State Duma adopted the law on punishment for “discreditation” of all participants of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on March 14 to foster self-censorship within Russian society. Individuals found guilty of discrediting participants in combat operations will receive 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. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin responded to a journalist’s question about the law on March 15 stating that while he initiated and supported this law, he expected that it would not protect Wagner commanders and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) from criticism. Prigozhin noted that he is not worried about being accused of discrediting the Russian MoD because he ”only speaks the truth” and has lawyers review all of his ”carefully worded” social media posts. Prigozhin also implied that Russia cannot physically arrest 146 million Russians, further indicating that this law aims to encourage self-censorship among Russians and hinting that many Russians share his views critical of the MoD.
Continued Russian efforts to portray the war in Ukraine as existential to Russian domestic security by establishing additional air defense installations in areas that will never see hostilities is reportedly sparking internal backlash. Russian independent opposition outlet The Insider reported on March 14 that Russian forces are establishing additional S-400 air defense systems in residential areas and protected nature zones in Moscow, generating backlash for potentially endangering civilians and cutting down heavily forested areas for the installations. The Insider reported that Kremlin-affiliated Telegram channels denied reports of the additional air defense installations. The Bryansk Oblast Duma reported on March 9 that Russian State Duma Defense Committee Head Andrey Kartapolov proposed using public utilities payments to fund the installation of air defense systems to defend against ”terrorist attacks.” The Bryansk Oblast Duma later removed this initiative from its website after the initiative garnered public attention on March 15 and blamed its publication on unspecified hackers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used his March 15 meeting with the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to continue to bolster his reputation as an involved and effective wartime leader. Putin identified several lines of the war effort for the Prosecutor General’s Office to regulate and improve upon, including timely payment and social support to Russian military personnel and their families, timely payment for defense industrial base (DIB) workers, proper usage of the DIB’s allocated funds, law enforcement efforts in occupied Ukraine, and measures to support and protect orphaned children. Putin praised the Prosecutor General’s Office for its ongoing efforts but emphasized throughout his speech that Russia needs more weapons and protection against external threats. Putin has attempted to reinvigorate his image as a wartime leader since late 2022 by framing himself as mobilizing the Russian DIB to a robust wartime footing. He is also working to mobilize the DIB, but publicized meetings of this type are more likely staged for imagistic purposes than effective.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow, Russia on March 15. NOTE: A version of this text will also appear in The Critical Threat Project’s (CTP) March 15 Iran Update.
Russian news outlet RIA Novosti claimed that Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that topics for discussion included Syria-Russian relations, Syrian post-war reconstruction, and Syrian-Turkish relations. According to the Kremlin readout of the meeting, Assad thanked Putin for the Russian military’s ”decisive contribution” in Syria. Putin likely used the meeting to foster relationships with international partner states such as Syria and maintain Russia’s stake in Levantine affairs. Assad regime officials used the meeting to discuss issues surrounding the attempted and struggling Ankara-Damascus rapprochement with their Russian counterparts. State-affiliated Syrian media refuted recent Turkish claims that ministerial-level Iran-Syria-Russia-Turkey quadrilateral rapprochement talks would occur in Moscow on March 15 and 16, as CTP previously reported. The Assad regime’s decision to discuss rapprochement issues with Russian officials after refusing to participate in the quadrilateral meetings may be part of a negotiating strategy intended to strengthen the Syrian position with intentional ambiguity.
- The overall pace of Russian operations in Ukraine appears to have decreased compared to previous weeks.
- The overall Wagner Group offensive on Bakhmut appears to be nearing culmination.
- International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s long-term strategy document for destabilizing and reintegrating Moldova back into the Russian sphere of influence by 2030.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin commented on the reports about the dismissal of the Russian Commander of the Airborne Forces Mikhail Teplinsky - likely revealing Teplinsky’s affiliation with Wagner.
- The Russian State Duma adopted the law on punishment for “discreditation” of all participants of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on March 14 to foster self-censorship in Russian society.
- Continued Russian efforts to portray the war in Ukraine as existential to Russian domestic security by establishing additional air defense installations in areas that will never see hostilities is reportedly sparking internal backlash.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin used his March 15 meeting with the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to continue to bolster his reputation as an involved and effective wartime leader.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Moscow, Russia on March 15.
- Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks northwest of Svatove and conducted limited ground attacks on the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued advancing in and around Bakhmut and conducted ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces attempted to conduct offensive actions across the Kakhovka Reservoir in Kherson Oblast.
- The Kremlin reportedly tasked the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to recruit 400,000 contract servicemen starting on April 1.
- Ukrainian partisans killed a Russian collaborator in an IED attack in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast.
Prominent Russian milbloggers are reamplifying a longstanding Russian information operation that seeks to weaponize religion to discredit Ukraine. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture issued a decision on March 9 stipulating that the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Reserve will terminate its lease agreement with the Kremlin-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), meaning that the UOC MP will need to vacate the premises of the lower Lavra by March 29.[i] The Ukrainian government did not renew the UOC MP’s expired lease on the upper Lavra and allowed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) to hold Christmas services at the Lavra on January 7, as ISW previously reported.[ii] Two prominent milbloggers responded on March 14 to the latest decision requiring the UOC MP to vacate the lower Lavra by March 29 and exploited the story to accuse Kyiv of repressing freedom of religion within Ukraine.[iii] Former Russian officer and convicted war criminal Igor Girkin claimed with no evidence that Kyiv will likely stage a military takeover of the Lavra because Ukrainian authorities are bent on “bloodily pitting the Russians on both sides of an artificial border” against one another.[iv] Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) commander and former DNR Security Minister Alexander Khodakovsky accused Ukraine of causing a “church frenzy” to divide the UOC MP and OCU dioceses and encouraged Ukrainian authorities to see past Ukrainian and Russian distinctions and exercise “restraint and Christian patience.”[v] Khodakovsky’s comment is remarkable because it is Russia’s rejection of the validity of seeing any distinctions between Russians and Ukrainians that was one of the justifications for the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first place.
Both Girkin’s and Khodakovsky’s renewed exploitations of the Lavra issue are based on a misrepresentation of events and disingenuously seek to portray Kyiv as attacking religious liberty in Ukraine. The UOC MP is the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church’s subordinate element in Ukraine and provided material support for Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.[vi] The UOC MP is not an independent religious organization but rather an extension of the Russian state and an instrument of Russian hybrid warfare.[vii] By misrepresenting the Ukrainian government’s decision to reduce the Kremlin-controlled UOC MP’s influence in Ukraine, Russian milbloggers are amplifying a known information operation attempting to delegitimize the Ukrainian state and turn international public opinion against Ukraine.
A member of the Kremlin-affiliated Valdai Discussion Club accused Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin of pursuing political objectives in Russia that are endangering Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Russian political scientist Aleksey Mukhin—who contributes to the Valdai Discussion Club and Russian state media—commented on Prigozhin’s March 11 sarcastic announcement that he will be running in Ukrainian presidential election in 2024.[i] Mukhin stated on his Telegram channel that the Russian public began to interpret Prigozhin’s statement as an announcement that he will run for the Russian presidential elections, which are also scheduled for 2024. Mukhin rhetorically asked if Prigozhin notified Russian President Vladimir Putin about his “presidential ambitions.” Mukhin argued that Prigozhin’s presentation of himself as the “commander” of the Wagner private military company (PMC) “directly affects the planning and management of the assault squads’ combat operations.” Mukhin also sarcastically stated that Prigozhin is a “prospective politician” who searches for scapegoats to blame for Wagner’s high losses among personnel. Mukhin observed that everyone knows that the Russian government pays for Prigozhin’s forces and their ammunition and stated that Prigozhin’s failure to acknowledge the support from conventional Russian forces alienated him from other Russian battlefield commanders. Mukhin concluded that Prigozhin “has placed the Wagner fighters in danger of encirclement during the expected Ukrainian counterattack” as a result of his actions. Mukhin stated that Prigozhin now is demanding that Russian conventional forces “cover his flanks,” and that Russian forces may need to put aside their distaste for Prigozhin to prevent further Wagner losses in Bakhmut.
The conflict between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely reached its climax against the backdrop of the Battle of Bakhmut. The Russian MoD – specifically Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov – is likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin. The Russian MoD had been increasingly restricting Prigozhin’s ability to recruit convicts and secure ammunition, forcing Prigozhin to publicly recognize his dependency on the Russian MoD. Prigozhin, for example, publicly complained that he mailed a letter and tried to send his representative – likely to Shoigu and Gerasimov – with an urgent demand for ammunition, but that the representative was not allowed to present his complaints. Prigozhin had been able to grow his forces by 40,000 convicts likely with the Kremlin’s permission to recruit in prisons in 2022 but lost that permission and access to that manpower pool at the beginning of 2023. Prigozhin has threatened to withdraw Wagner forces from Bakhmut and insinuated that the Russian MoD used Wagner to bear the brunt of the high-intensity attritional urban warfare to seize Bakhmut in order to conserve Russian conventional forces. These threats and complaints indicate that Prigozhin is aware of the gravity of his conflict with the Russian MoD.
The Russian military leadership may be trying to expend Wagner forces – and Prigozhin’s influence – in Bakhmut. Russian forces’ rate of advance in Bakhmut slowed following the Ukrainian withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut around March 7. ISW assessed on March 6 that Wagner had to commit its elite forces to maintain offensive momentum in Bakhmut but may be running out of these forces during direct assaults on eastern, southern, and northern parts of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage published on February 18 showed 43 buses with Wagner mercenaries moving from Crimea via Melitopol possibly to reinforce positions in Bakhmut. Prigozhin complained on March 5 and 6 that Wagner needed additional reinforcements, and Ukrainian military officials observed that Russian forces were suffering a seven-to-one casualty ratio compared to Ukrainian forces.
Prigozhin likely anticipated that Ukrainian forces would entirely withdraw from Bakhmut out of fear of imminent encirclement and hoped that his commitment of Wagner’s elite forces would be sufficient to generate that effect. Prigozhin even offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to allow Ukrainian forces to withdraw from Bakhmut in two days on March 3. Limited information about the Prigozhin’s pleas likely indicates that the Russian military command is intent on expending Wagner forces within the city. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Serhiy Cherevaty also noted on March 11 that Ukrainian forces may be able to severely degrade Wagner and have already thinned out Wagner’s second prisoner formation over the winter. Ukrainian servicemen noted in a social media video from March 12 that they are holding positions in Bakhmut waiting for Russians to “shoot each other.” Russian military leadership may be allowing the Wagner Group to take high casualties in Bakhmut to simultaneously erode Prigozhin’s leverage while capturing the city at the expense of Wagner troops.
The Russian military leadership is likely attempting to avenge itself on Prigozhin for a conflict that he initiated in May 2022. ISW assessed on January 22 and February 26 that the Kremlin likely lent Prigozhin its support when Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to replenish his forces with volunteer recruits to avoid declaring highly unpopular mobilization. Prigozhin likely convinced Putin that he would be able to seize Bakhmut if given access to the Russian MoD’s ammunition stocks and allowed to expand his existing ultranationalist recruitment campaigns to include regular Russians and prisoners. Putin granted Prigozhin access to those resources as he had likely become increasingly disillusioned with the Russian military command that had failed to capture Kyiv and effectively wasted reserves without achieving a tangible result. Putin likely perceived the Russian military command’s appeals for mobilization as a threat to the stability of his regime and placed his confidence in Prigozhin whose forces had already helped seize Popasna, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk in Luhansk Oblast. Putin’s decision to side with Prigozhin likely angered Shoigu and Gerasimov, who were then tasked with sharing limited equipment and ammunition with Wagner mercenaries.
Prigozhin has also waged a relentless defamation campaign against the Russian MoD and the military command since May 2022 – first covertly via Wagner-affiliated ultranationalist social media platforms. Wagner-affiliated milbloggers began to boast about Wagner’s successes in assault operations and even spread the idea that Prigozhin could replace Shoigu as defense minister in September 2022. These milbloggers capitalized on the increasing criticism among the Russian ultranationalist communities aimed at the Russian conventional military command that failed to maintain the initiative following the exhausting capture of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Wagner was able to exploit the greater ultranationalist community because the ultranationalists shared the objective of improving the war effort and saw a common enemy in the Russian MoD and its bureaucracy. The ultranationalist community had also been extremely interconnected over the years prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and drew on the same recruitment pools.
Prigozhin overestimated Putin’s reliance on Wagner forces and attempted to replace Russian military and political leadership with Wagner-affiliated figures. Prigozhin exploited the Russian military’s failures during Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensives in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman in Donetsk Oblast, and the turbulent reserve mobilization in September-October 2022 to establish Wagner-affiliated personnel in place of disgraced military commanders. Prigozhin made a publicized entrance into the Russian information space in a prisoner recruitment video on September 14, only three days after the Russian loss of much of Kharkiv Oblast. Prigozhin later rode the wave of domestic criticism of the Russian MoD’s inability to properly conduct a reserve call-up on September 21 and used the opportunity to promote recruitment into the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC).
Prigozhin, alongside Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, used the fall of Lyman to push for and ultimately secure the firing of Commander of the Central Military District (CMD) Alexander Lapin who had reportedly commanded the Lyman grouping of forces. Prigozhin and Kadyrov both served alongside Lapin during the battles of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, and Lapin received credit for seizing Lysychansk with Wagner-affiliated Army General Sergey Surovikin on July 3, 2022. US intelligence officials reported that persistent military failures – likely the loss of Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman, faulty mobilization, and the annexation of four partially-occupied Ukrainian regions on September 30 – had ignited a wave of criticism within Putin’s inner circle. US intelligence later revealed that Prigozhin directly addressed Putin regarding these military failures, likely leading to the appointment of Surovikin as the commander of the Russian group of forces in Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence linked Surovikin with Wagner, and Prigozhin even offered praise to Surovikin in response to his appointment. Reports of Lapin’s dismissal as the commander of the “central” grouping of forces appeared on November 1, shortly following Surovikin’s appointment.
Prigozhin sought to establish Wagner-affiliated military officials partly to secure greater access to Russian MoD ammunition stores and budget. Prigozhin’s ability to sustain and grow Wagner forces tenuously relied on his ability to retain favor with Putin who would order the Russian MoD and other federal institutions to support these mercenaries. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Prigozhin and Kadyrov sought to undermine Shoigu in order to receive access to the Russian MoD budget to pursue other political goals through the growth of their paramilitary organizations. ISW also observed that Prigozhin had extensively targeted St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and claimed to have contracted his own advisors to the local administration, likely in hopes of gaining political and commercial power in the city. Prigozhin admitted on February 20 that Surovikin had been assisting Wagner in obtaining ammunition, further confirming that Wagner forces benefited from specific connections within the Russian military leadership that Prigozhin had likely helped rise in power.
Prigozhin’s obvious military-political ambitions likely alarmed Putin in October, when his regime was most vulnerable to public scrutiny. Putin likely warned Prigozhin obliquely on October 5, 2022 in an odd allusion to the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great’s authority in the mid-1770s, for example. Putin noted that the rebellion occurred because Pugachev “claimed to a be tsar” and because of the “weakening of the central power.” Putin’s bizarre public statement, apropos of nothing, may have been a direct response to Prigozhin’s criticism of the war effort and attempts to enhance his own military and political influence. Kremlin officials also confirmed that Putin has been increasingly preferring loyalty over competence within his inner circle, and Putin may have perceived Prigozhin’s critiques a form of disloyalty. Prigozhin likely did not intend to challenge Putin directly, but Putin likely saw Prigozhin’s aggressive self-promotion at the expense of others who had Putin’s trust as a threat. Shoigu and Gerasimov, after all, have been loyal to Putin and his regime structure for years and likely erred by excessive loyalty – failing to tell Putin what Putin did not want to hear – a trait Putin seems willing to forgive.
Putin is a risk-adverse and highly calculating actor who likely sought to manage the emerging threat to his control by gradually reintroducing the Russian MoD into prominence and power. The Russian MoD reportedly started recruiting prisoners in October, which likely cut into Prigozhin’s recruitment efforts. Shoigu was allowed to make high-profile contacts with French, Turkish, UK, and US counterparts on October 23 – establishing a level of authority unattainable for Prigozhin, who holds no official position in the Russian government. Gerasimov made similar calls to his UK and US counterparts on October 24 after having been absent from the public eye since the spring of 2022. Putin continued to appease Prigozhin and his ultranationalist community during this period because he likely recognized that the involuntary reserve call-up could not close the gap between Russian force requirements and available manpower in a timely fashion and thus let Wagner expand its recruitment of prisoners and its operations on the frontline until the mobilized personnel could arrive en masse. Putin likely stopped the Russian MoD from directly attacking Prigozhin but instead created conditions in which the Russian military leadership could reassume more authority. Such conditions likely threatened Prigozhin, who began to intensify his criticism of the Russian MoD and further deepened the conflict between Wagner forces and military leadership.
Putin had ultimately allowed the Russian MoD to retake control of the Bakhmut direction from Prigozhin in January as Wagner forces failed to deliver the promised victory over Bakhmut by the end of 2022. Putin appeared in several meetings with Gerasimov and Shoigu in late December 2022, likely indicating that he was not confident that Prigozhin would achieve the promised victory before the end of the year. The Russian military leadership may have also been successful in convincing Putin that Wagner forces were not a good investment of resources as Russia began to run low on shells around the same timeframe. Putin ostentatiously demoted Surovikin and appointed Gerasimov as the theater commander in Ukraine on January 11. Putin similarly appointed Lapin as the Chief of the Russian Ground Forces on January 10 and reshuffled the Russian military command in Ukraine. The Russian MoD claimed responsibility on January 13 for the capture of Soledar and deliberately failed to acknowledge Wagner in the success. Putin himself failed to credit Prigozhin for the capture of Soledar in an unusual TV interview on January 15 and instead attributed the victory to the Russian MoD and General Staff. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately manipulating the information space to expose the conflict between Wagner and the Russian MoD. Putin also met with Prigozhin’s long-standing nemesis Beglov on January 18, likely in a deliberate attempt to further marginalize Prigozhin. The Kremlin had cut off Prigozhin’s access to prisoner recruitment since the start of 2023.
Putin and the Russian MoD may use Prigozhin as a scapegoat for the costly drive on Bakhmut once the offensive culminates. ISW assessed on February 5 that Putin relies on a group of scapegoats to publicly take risks in his place and shoulder the blame for Russian military failures and unpopular policies. Putin will likely use Wagner’s high casualties, reports about poor morale, and war crimes to deflect from likely equal or possibly worse problems within the Russian Armed Forces. Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers have ambushed Prigozhin with interviews that exposed numerous Wagner controversies regarding the ineffectiveness and mistreatment of the Wagner convict force – likely in an effort to set conditions in the Russian information space to discredit Wagner. Much of the Russian and Western coverage of Bakhmut already focuses mainly on heavy Wagner losses, allowing the MoD to cover up or downplay other losses suffered by Russian conventional forces. The revelation of high losses among Wagner convicts and mercenaries would not cause as much societal outrage as ongoing reports of casualties and mistreatment of involuntarily mobilized servicemen.
Prigozhin is unlikely to regain Putin’s favor to the same extent as he had between May and October 2022. Unnamed Kremlin officials stated that Putin has been increasingly tightening his inner circle and is unlikely to offer the benefits Prigozhin once had regardless of the severity of the Russian military failures on the frontlines. The Russian MoD still apparently retains favor with Putin despite devastating military failures around Vuhledar in early February. The Kremlin is creating new armed formations under state energy companies likely in an effort to replace Wagner while possibly retaining a counterbalance to the Russian MoD. Prigozhin’s fall from grace will likely scare other Kremlin officials such as Kadyrov into scaling down their ambitions to avoid experiencing Prigozhin’s fate. Putin has likely not decided yet whether he will spare Prigozhin, and Wagner’s fate likely depends on Prigozhin’s ability to convince the Kremlin of his loyalty.
Prigozhin is also unlikely to reach his previous heights regardless of his renewed efforts to recruit mercenaries from 42 different cities in Russia. Prigozhin had earned a bad reputation for the treatment of his forces as cannon fodder and had drained ultranationalist communities of recruits. Prigozhin’s public pleas for ammunition and supplies are also unlikely to make service with Wagner attractive to recruits. Prigozhin has fractured and polarized the previously interconnected ultranationalist community which had aided him in the recruitment of forces earlier in the war and in prior conflicts worldwide.
The conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner shows that different parties in Putin’s inner circle are competing with one another in potentially zero-sum games that do not further Putin’s overall objectives. The Russian MoD is currently prioritizing eliminating Wagner on the battlefields in Bakhmut, which is likely slowing down the rate of advance in the area. Prigozhin saw Bakhmut as an opportunity to gain leverage on the Russian MoD and likely in the Kremlin in pursuit of his own commercial and political aspirations. Putin used Wagner to protect his regime from detrimental societal ramifications of mobilization, which also continues to inhibit his war efforts in Ukraine.
Key inflections in ongoing military operations on March 12:
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed on March 12 that ISW’s March 11 report about her comments acknowledging Kremlin infighting is false and an “informational attack.” ISW used accounts from Russian media sources as well as a Russian milblogger (who claimed to be in attendance) to report on Zakharova’s comments in an altercation with information space entrepreneur Igor Ashmanov during a panel discussion in Moscow. A milblogger who attended the event quoted Zakharova as saying that Kremlin cannot replicate the Stalinist approach of establishing a modern equivalent to the Soviet Information Bureau to centrally control Russia’s internal information space due to infighting among unspecified Kremlin “elites.” The milblogger did not comment on Zakharova’s denial on March 12 but amplified a social media post from another milblogger who claimed that the West (presumably ISW) misrepresented Zakharova’s statements. The social media post, however, also blamed Zakharova and the Kremlin for failing to adopt stronger information space policies. Several other milbloggers confirmed that Ashmanov accused Kremlin organs of failing to create a trusted centralized information campaign but argued about how other attendees attempted to downplay his statements. This milblogger discourse not only confirms that the incident occurred, but also that ultranationalist figures reiterated variants of ISW’s assessment that the Kremlin’s ability to control the Russian information space is diminishing.
- Iranian State Media announced on March 11 that Iran has finalized a deal to buy Sukhoi-35 fighter jets from Russia.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut but have not completed a turning movement, envelopment, or encirclement around the city.
- Russian milbloggers claimed that Wagner Group fighters captured parts or all of Orikhovo-Vasylivka (11km northwest of Bakhmut), although Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that Wagner fighters do not control the settlement.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Avdiivka and along the western outskirts of Donetsk City. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces entered Krasnohorivka (9km north of Aviivka), although ISW has not observed visual confirmation of these claims.
- A Russian milblogger claimed on March 12 that there is a high desertion rate among SPETSNAZ. The Russian milblogger claimed that no SPETSNAZ units are at their full complement and that some SPETSNAZ commanders have fled their units despite having received generous salaries for the past ten years. ISW has no independent confirmation of these assertions. It appears unlikely that most commanders have fled these elite units.
- The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on March 12 that Russian military personnel from eastern regions of Russia die in Ukraine at per capita rates up to fortyfold of those of Russian personnel from Moscow City. The UK MoD reported that Kazakh and Tartar minorities make up 75 percent of casualties among Russian military personnel from Astrakhan Oblast.
- Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk stated on March 12 that Russian officials have illegally deported 2,161 Ukrainian orphans to Russia. Vereshchuk also stated that the total number of children deported to Russia may be approximately 150,000.
Russian forces did not make any confirmed advances within Bakhmut on March 11. Ukrainian and Russian sources continue to report heavy fighting in the city, but Wagner Group fighters are likely becoming increasingly pinned in urban areas, such as the AZOM industrial complex, and are therefore finding it difficult to make significant advances. ISW will continue to monitor and report on the situation in Bakhmut as it unfolds.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova confirmed that there is infighting in the Kremlin inner circle, that the Kremlin has ceded centralized control over the Russian information space, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently cannot readily fix it. Kremlin journalists, academics, and Novorossiya supporters held a forum on the “practical and technological aspects of information and cognitive warfare in modern realities” in Moscow on March 11. During a panel discussion Zakharova stated that the Kremlin cannot replicate the Stalinist approach of establishing a modern equivalent to the Soviet Information Bureau to centrally control Russia’s internal information space due to fighting among unspecified Kremlin “elites.”
Zakharova’s statement is noteworthy and supports several of ISW’s longstanding assessments about deteriorating Kremlin regime and information space control dynamics. The statement supports several assessments: that there is Kremlin infighting between key members of Putin’s inner circle; that Putin has largely ceded the Russian information space over time to a variety of quasi-independent actors; and that Putin is apparently unable to take decisive action to regain control over the Russian information space. It is unclear why Zakharova — a seasoned senior spokesperson — would have openly acknowledged these problems in a public setting. Zakharova may have directly discussed these problems for the first time to temper Russian nationalist milbloggers’ expectations regarding the current capabilities of the Kremlin to cohere around a unified narrative — or possibly even a unified policy.
Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin said that he would transform the Wagner Group into a hardline ideological elite parallel military organization after the Battle of Bakhmut. Prigozhin stated on March 11 that the Wagner Group will start a new wave of recruitment after the envisioned capture of Bakhmut and reform itself into an army with an ideological component. The Wagner Group has recently been expanding recruitment centers throughout Russia, including centers and programs focused on recruiting youth. A Russian regional news source stated on March 11 that the Wagner Group has opened six recruitment centers in schools and youth sports clubs in Altai, Zabaykalsky, and Krasnoyarsk krais and Irkutsk Oblast. A Russian opposition news source reported on March 11 that the Ministry of Education in Apatity, Murmansk Oblast included Wagner personnel at a career guidance lesson to tell “heroic stories” and promote the Wagneryonok [“little Wagner”] youth group and summer camp in Crimea. The Wagner Group likely aims to recruit more impressionable recruits through these youth-focused campaigns and instill in them Prigozhin’s extremist ideological brand of Russian ultranationalism. Prigozhin may be attempting to restructure the Wagner Group into a hardline ideological elite parallel military organization to carve out a specialized role among Russian forces in Ukraine as its former role in solely securing tactical gains dissipates with the Wagner Group’s likely culmination around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces did not make any confirmed advances within Bakhmut on March 11.
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova confirmed that there is infighting in the Kremlin inner circle, that the Kremlin has ceded centralized control over the Russian information space, and implicitly that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot fix it.
- Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin said that he would transform the Wagner Group into a hardline ideological elite parallel military organization after the Battle of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian sources report that Ukrainian forces advanced toward Svatove.
- Russian forces continue to establish fortifications in Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian mobilized soldiers continue to publicize complaints that commanders treat them poorly and used them as expendable manpower to patch holes in existent formations.
- Russian occupation officials use children’s healthcare to generate dependency on the Russian healthcare system.
US intelligence warned that individuals with ties to Russian intelligence may be planning to attempt to instigate an insurrection in Moldova. CNN reported on March 10 that White House officials believe that Russian intelligence-linked individuals are planning to stage protests against the Moldovan government with the intent of fomenting a “manufactured insurrection” to install a pro-Russian administration in Moldova. CNN reported that the US believes Russia has been spreading disinformation about Moldova’s purported instability and supporting it with information operations emanating from Russian-occupied Transnistria. ISW has recently reported on several ongoing information operations in Transnistria premised on undermining the Moldovan government and sewing distrust of Ukraine and the West.
Russian forces continue to establish defensive lines in rear areas far from current frontlines and areas in Russia that will likely never see fighting. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov claimed on March 9 that Russian authorities finished constructing the “zasechnaya line” of fortifications along Belgorod Oblast’s border with Ukraine. Gladkov claimed that Russian forces should dedicate troops to defending this system of fortifications in case of an implausible Ukrainian attack on Belgorod Oblast. Russian forces would significantly misallocate forces that would be better suited supporting active offensive operations elsewhere in Ukraine by manning these fortifications. Gladkov also claimed that Russian officials spent 10 billion rubles (about $132 million) constructing the defensive line, a likely waste of funds amid questions about Russia’s ability to fund its war effort in Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported on March 10 that Russian forces continued building fortifications along Kursk Oblast‘s border with Ukraine, another area that will likely never see fighting. Occupied Crimea head Sergey Aksyonov claimed on March 10 that Russian forces are constructing a defensive line in Crimea and implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the construction of the line. These fortifications are far away from the current frontlines in southern Ukraine, and any Russian personnel and equipment deployed to these lines would similarly be better suited elsewhere in Ukraine. Russian officials in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts may be constructing defensive fortifications in support of information operations that aim to portray Ukraine as threatening Russian territory in order to frame the war in Ukraine as existential for Russia. Continued Russian fortifications in Crimea may suggest that Russian forces are unsure of their ability to hold occupied territories in southern Ukraine in the long term. ISW has not observed Russian forces deployed to any of these defensive lines at this time, and the fortifications are therefore currently inconsequential for Russian operations in Ukraine.
Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, confirmed that the Russian government is using a variety of schemes to deport Ukrainian children to Russia in a comment that was apparently meant to disprove Western allegations of the illegality of these actions. In a Telegram post published on March 10, Lvova-Belova accused the West of artificially manufacturing fear regarding the deportation and forced adoption of Ukrainian children and claimed that children came to occupied areas of Ukraine and Russian territory “voluntarily” and can return to their families. Lvova-Belova admitted that Russian authorities have taken children from Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Kharkiv oblasts to “sanatoriums” and health camps in occupied Crimea and Krasnodar Krai for “rest” and protection from hostilities and claimed that 89 “children of Ukrainian citizens” will be reunited with their families from such programs in Crimea and Krasnodar Krai. ISW has previously reported on such schemes to remove children from Ukraine under the guise of rest and relaxation programs and noted that several children in Krasnodar Krai and Crimea have been held for forced adoption into Russian families. An independent investigation by Yale’s Humanitarian Research Lab found that of likely over 14,700 Ukrainian children deported to Russia, only 126 returned to Ukraine as of January 2023. Lvova-Belova's claim that a certain number of Ukrainian children are being returned to their families does not negate the reality that the vast majority of abducted children do not return to Ukraine. ISW continues to assess that the forced deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children is an apparent violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, as well as a component of a wider ethnic cleaning campaign.
- US intelligence warned that individuals with ties to Russian intelligence may be planning to attempt to instigate an insurrection in Moldova.
- Russian forces continue to establish defensive lines in areas in rear areas far from current frontlines and areas in Russia that will likely never see fighting.
- Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, confirmed that the Russian government is using a variety of schemes to deport Ukrainian children to Russia in a comment that was apparently meant to disprove Western allegations of the illegality of these actions.
- Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian sources claimed that Wagner Group forces entered the built-up AZOM industrial complex, and frontal assaults on the complex will likely be costly for Wagner Group forces.
- Russian forces made gains in Bakhmut, are clearing eastern parts of the city, and have advanced to new positions in northwestern Bakhmut within 800 meters of the AZOM metal processing plant.
- Russian forces continue reconnaissance activity near islands in the Dnipro River delta.
- The Wagner Group continues to expand efforts to recruitment efforts in Russia.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to announce new infrastructure projects to increase connectivity between the Russian mainland and occupied territories.
March 9, 8 pm ET
Russian forces conducted the largest missile strike across Ukraine of 2023 so far on March 9, but the attack likely only served Russian state propaganda objectives. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces targeted Ukrainian critical infrastructure with 84 different missiles including 28 Kh-101/Kh-555 and 20 Kalibr cruise missiles, six Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, six Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, two Kh-31P supersonic anti-ship missiles, six Kh-59 guided missiles, and at least 13 S-300 air-defense missiles. Russian forces also attacked Ukraine with eight Iranian-made Shahed–136 drones, which Ukrainian officials noted likely sought to distract Ukrainian air defense systems before the missile strikes. Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 34 of the 48 Kalibr and Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and four Shahed-136 drones. Ukrainian officials also noted that all eight of the Kh-31P and Kh-59 missiles did not reach their intended targets. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Ukrainian forces did not have the capacity to shoot down some of the Russian missiles—likely referring to Kinzhal and S-300 missiles. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces conducted “high precision long range air, sea, and land-based missile strikes” targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure, military-industrial complexes, and energy infrastructure supporting the Ukrainian military as retaliation for the alleged incursion into Bryansk Oblast on March 2.
Ukrainian officials, Russian milbloggers, and social media footage indicate that Russian forces overwhelmingly targeted energy infrastructure across Ukraine. The head of the Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrynskyi, stated that Russian missile strikes once again targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure, but yet again failed to achieve Russia’s ongoing goal of destroying Ukrainian power supplies. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated that Russian strikes hit eight energy sites resulting in power outages in some areas of the country. The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that preliminary data showed that Russian forces may have used Kinzhal missiles to strike unspecified infrastructure, while social media footage showed smoke rising from one of Kyiv’s thermo-electric power plants. Russian milbloggers amplified footage and reports of the aftermath of strikes on energy facilities in the cities of Kyiv, Dnipro, Vinnytsia, Odesa, Kirovohrad, and Kharkiv among others. ISW continues to assess that these missile strikes will not undermine Ukraine’s will or improve Russia’s positions on the frontlines.
The Kremlin likely deliberately launched missiles that Ukrainian air defenses cannot intercept to achieve results within the Russian information space despite the dwindling supplies of such missiles. Ihnat noted that Russia has up to 50 Kinzhal missiles and had used some missiles that it cannot replace. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely used these scarce missiles in fruitless attacks to appease the Russian pro-war and ultranationalist communities, which have overwhelmingly called on him to retaliate for the Bryansk Oblast incident on March 2. Russian milbloggers and propagandists have also criticized the Russian missile campaign for failing to make Ukraine “freeze” over the winter in late February and early March before the spring season. Putin likely attempted to offset these narratives with another missile attack similar to the ones that Russia conducted in the fall of 2022, using advanced missiles to guarantee some damage in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers did not overwhelmingly support today‘s strikes, however, noting that the Kremlin needs to fundamentally change its targeting approach given that Ukraine has adapted to the established attack pattern against its energy infrastructure.
Russian forces likely advanced northwest of Bakhmut on March 9 amidst a likely increased tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Wagner Group fighters completely captured Dubovo-Vasylivka (6km northwest of Bakhmut), and geolocated footage published on March 9 indicates that Wagner forces likely captured the settlement. The likely capture of Dubovo-Vasylivka corresponds with the potentially increased tempo of Russian offensive operations northwest of Bakhmut in recent days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted at least 30 percent of their assaults in Ukraine northwest of Bakhmut on March 8. The Ukrainian General Staff has not reported Russian assaults near Khromove since March 1, and Ukrainian forces have reportedly reestablished river crossings in the area after Russian forces reportedly destroyed a bridge in the area on March 4. ISW has assessed that Ukrainian forces have likely pushed Russian forces back from Khromove since the Ukrainian General Staff’s reporting of the March 1 assaults, and the reported establishment of pontoon bridges suggests that Ukrainian forces are strengthening their positions around the critical ground lines of communications (GLOCs) near Khromove. Russian forces may be temporarily focusing their operational efforts northwest of Bakhmut to set conditions for future offensive operations aimed against these strengthened Ukrainian positions around Khromove or intended to bypass them in a larger envelopment.
The Wagner Group’s offensive operation in eastern Bakhmut appears to have entered a temporary tactical pause and it remains unclear if Wagner fighters will retain their operational preponderance in future Russian offensives in the city. There have been no reports of Wagner fighters conducting offensive operations from eastern Bakhmut into central parts of the city since Russian forces captured all of eastern Bakhmut located east of the Bakhmutka River on March 7. Wagner fighters have been conducting highly attritional frontal assaults on eastern Bakhmut for nine months and are likely not prepared to conduct a crossing of the Bakhmutka River to the Bakhmut city center at this time. The frontal offensive on eastern Bakhmut likely consumed a significant amount of Wagner personnel and resources, although it is not yet evident whether this effort has caused Wagner’s offensive within Bakhmut itself to culminate. Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty stated on March 9 that an increasing number of unspecified Russian airborne and mechanized reinforcements have recently arrived at Bakhmut. The arrival of an increased number of conventional Russian forces to the area may suggest that Russian forces intend to offset the possible culmination of Wagner's offensive operations in Bakhmut with new conventional troops. Wagner Group fighters may also be conducting a temporary tactical pause to wait for these conventional Russian reinforcements and replenish themselves in preparation for costly operations within central Bakhmut.
Russian forces may be preparing to resume offensive operations around Vuhledar, although persistent personnel and ammunition issues will likely continue to constrain Russian forces from advancing. Social media footage published on March 8 reportedly shows personnel of the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 58th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District appealing to the Russian military command for more artillery ammunition before they replace the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet near Vuhledar and conduct ground attacks in the area. The 155th Naval Infantry Brigade bore a significant proportion of the catastrophic losses that Russian forces suffered in their culminated three-week February offensive to capture Vuheldar and has reportedly been reconstituted at least seven times since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces may be rotating in the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade to replace a severely degraded formation in hopes of renewing offensives near Vuhledar, although this one-for-one replacement does not represent a Russian reinforcement of this effort. Personnel of the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade detailed that they need to conserve their artillery ammunition as Russian forces send the majority of artillery shells to forces fighting around Bakhmut. The 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade is unlikely to achieve tactical advances near Vuhledar that the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, 40th Naval Infantry Brigade, and other Russian formations failed to make following months of preparation to start offensives in this direction. The likely degradation of other units in the area, significant equipment losses, and the reported continued artillery constraints will likely prevent Russian forces from securing significant tactical gains if they decide to resume offensives in the area.
Internal dynamics within the Russian military may be driving the potential resumption of costly offensives near Vuhledar that promise little operational benefit. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly ordered Eastern Military District (EMD) commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov to take Vuhledar at any cost to settle widespread criticism within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) about the lack of progress and significant losses in the Vuhledar area. Shoigu recently visited Muradov in western Donetsk Oblast likely to assess the viability of the Vuhledar offensive as well as Muradov’s continued role as EMD commander. ISW previously assessed that Muradov would need new manpower and equipment reserves to follow through on Shoigu’s reported instructions, and the one-for-one replacement of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade by the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade does not represent a notable fraction of the reinforcements likely required. It is still not clear if Shoigu has decided to provide Muradov with the necessary resources to resume offensives, but Muradov may decide that he needs to resume offensive operations regardless to demonstrate his competence as EMD commander. ISW assesses that Russian forces would need to advance upwards of 24km from the current frontlines around Vuhledar for this offensive to support operations elsewhere in Donetsk Oblast, a rate of advance that Russian forces have not achieved since the first months of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The resumption of costly offensives around Vuhledar would be a misallocation of already degraded forces to an increasingly nonsensical operational effort, but Muradov’s personal motivations may cause Russian forces in the area to resume these operations nonetheless.
Russian authorities are likely establishing volunteer-based military formations under Russian state-owned energy companies in order to distribute responsibility and accountability for managing units, alleviate burdens on the national budget and regional budgets, and draw on the financial resources of those entities. The BBC reported on March 9 that the Russian Tax Service entered the Zaporizhia-based Sudoplatov volunteer battalion into the register of Russian legal entities—making the battalion a state unitary enterprise. The BBC added that the Russian Tax Service registered the battalion under the same address as state-owned enterprises Tavria-Energo and State Grain Operator. The registration may be connected to the emerging Kremlin effort to establish a state-controlled armed formation analogous to the Russian Combat Army Reserve (BARS) units under Gazprom subsidiary Gazprom Neft. The creation of state-controlled military formations legally nested under energy companies could allow the Kremlin to reduce logistical burdens on the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and regional administrations, delegate clear responsibility for recruitment, recruit volunteers without committing additional federal funding, and provide a hedge against the limitations of the Wagner Group private military company (PMC). The decision to register the Sudoplatov battalion in proximity with Tavria-Energo, an organization that, unlike Gazprom, is not included in the US Treasury Department’s sanctions lists, may provide additional financial incentives, as Tavria-Energo may aid the Sudoplatov battalion in circumventing financial hurdles that a Gazprom Neft-affiliated volunteer formation would face.
The Transnistrian occupation government accused the Ukrainian government of plotting to kill Transnistria’s president, likely as part of the ongoing Russian information operations to undermine Ukrainian credibility and destabilize Moldova. The Transnistrian occupation Ministry of Security Services accused six people, including Ukrainian nationals and Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) personnel, on March 9 of plotting to assassinate senior Transnistrian occupation officials and the occupation head Vadim Krasnoselsky. The SBU stated that the Transnistrian authorities’ accusation is a Kremlin information provocation. ISW has previously reported on increasing Russian information efforts to destabilize Moldova and even draw Transnistria into the war. The Kremlin also tried to undermine Ukraine’s credibility through the recent claimed border incursions in Bryansk Oblast.
- Russian forces conducted the largest missile strike across Ukraine of 2023 likely only to advance Russian state propaganda objectives.
- Russian forces likely advanced northwest of Bakhmut amid a likely increased tempo of Russian offensive operations in the area.
- The Wagner Group’s offensive operation in eastern Bakhmut appears to have entered a temporary tactical pause and it remains unclear if Wagner fighters will retain their operational preponderance in future Russian offensives in the city.
- Russian forces may be preparing to resume offensive operations around Vuhledar, although persistent personnel and ammunition issues will likely continue to constrain Russian forces from advancing.
- Internal dynamics within the Russian military may be driving the potential resumption of costly offensives near Vuhledar that offer little prospect of operational benefit.
- Russian authorities are likely formalizing structures to create and coopt volunteer-based military formations under state-owned energy companies in order to distribute accountability, reduce burdens on the national budget, and avoid sanctions.
- The Transnistrian occupation government accused the Ukrainian government of involvement in a claimed terrorist plot, likely as part of the Russian information operations to undermine Ukrainian credibility and destabilize Moldova.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks throughout the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut but have not completed a turning movement or enveloped or encircled the city.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the outskirts of Donetsk City and near Vuhledar.
- Russian strikes completely disconnected the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast, from all external power sources for 10 hours.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian occupation authorities are preparing for a spring 2023 mobilization wave in occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that may include male teenagers born in 2006.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities are continuing efforts to integrate occupied territories into the Russian political and bureaucratic systems.
March 8, 7:45 pm ET
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on March 8 that Russian forces captured all of eastern Bakhmut, a claim consistent with available visual evidence. ISW assessed on March 7 that Ukrainian forces completed a controlled withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut across the Bakhmutka River. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces control between 45 to 52 percent of Bakhmut as of March 7. This figure is reasonable; ISW assesses that Russian forces now occupy at least 50 percent of Bakhmut as of March 8. Russian forces will likely intensify attacks in northwestern and southwestern Bakhmut (north from Opytne and south from Yahidne, respectively) to circumnavigate the Bakhmutka River.
Russian forces remain unlikely to rapidly exploit a breakthrough beyond Bakhmut if Russian forces capture the city. Prigozhin implied on March 8 that the Russian Ministry of Defense used the Wagner Group to bear the brunt of high-intensity attritional urban warfare in Bakhmut and may discard the Wagner Group after capturing Bakhmut so conventional Russian units can continue to attack. Prigozhin did not provide an assessment of the likelihood of success of future Russian offensive operations beyond Bakhmut. ISW has not observed any indicators that the Russian military has a well-equipped and prepared reserve force to advance beyond Bakhmut. Most observed Russian units in Donbas are already engaged in offensive operations, including Russian airborne (VDV) elements that joined the Russian offensive in Bakhmut in January 2023. ISW continues to assess that the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine will shortly culminate if Russian forces capture Bakhmut, as the Russian military does not have the combat power or reinforcements necessary to exploit a breakthrough near Bakhmut. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on March 8 that the Russian capture of Bakhmut would not “necessarily reflect any turning point of the war.”
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated on March 8 that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely recognizes the Russian military’s current limited capability to sustain a short-term offensive and may pursue a protracted war. Haines stated on March 8 that Putin is likely only temporarily focused on pursuing short-term military objectives in Ukraine and may believe that prolonging the war will increase the likelihood of achieving his strategic goals. ISW has previously assessed that Putin maintains maximalist war goals in Ukraine despite Russian forces’ currently limited capabilities to achieve these goals. Haines stated that Russia will increasingly struggle to maintain its current tempo of operations in Ukraine without conducting full mobilization and securing adequate ammunition to mitigate Russia’s current shortage. Haines noted that Russian forces are suffering high losses to take Bakhmut, which Haines characterized as “not particularly strategic,” supporting ISW’s prior assessments that a Pyrrhic tactical victory in Bakhmut would not further Russia’s operational or strategic battlefield aims. ISW previously assessed on January 15 that the Kremlin was preparing for a strategically decisive effort in 2023 while simultaneously preparing for a protracted war.
The Kremlin may be attempting to establish a new Russian government-controlled armed formation billed as a volunteer unit through the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom. A prominent Russian milblogger stated that Gazprom subsidiary Gazprom Neft is forming a volunteer formation analogous to Russian Combat Army Reserve (BARS) units. The milblogger originally claimed that Gazprom Neft is forming a private military company (PMC) and is actively deploying unspecified elements to occupied Donetsk Oblast before later issuing a correction that the Gazprom Neft formation is a volunteer unit, not a PMC. The milblogger claimed Gazprom Neft’s recruitment campaign generated interest in Donetsk City given that the company is offering 400,000 rubles (approximately $5,260) salary per month and additional compensation for performance bonuses. The milblogger added that this offered salary is twice the amount offered by the Wagner Group, noting that a volunteer in the Gazprom Neft formation can—with bonuses—earn up to 600,000 rubles (about $7,890) per month. Gazprom Neft may be attempting to compete with Wagner for recruits from Donetsk Oblast given that Wagner is also conducting its own recruitment campaign in the area.
The Russian government previously authorized Gazprom Neft to create a private security organization (not a PMC) on February 6 to protect Russian energy infrastructure. Ukrainian intelligence previously noted that the creation of the Gazprom Neft private security company aligns with an assessed Kremlin effort to sideline Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and mitigate the Kremlin’s dependency on Wagner Group forces. A Russian milblogger also rhetorically questioned when the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will become “jealous” of the new Gazprom Neft formations and cut off their access to ammunition—likely referencing the Russian MoD’s conflict with Prigozhin.
A US official denied on March 8 that US intelligence assessed that a pro-Ukrainian group sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines in September 2022. US National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson Andrienne Watson stated on March 8 that the NSC is unable to confirm the New York Times March 7 report that US officials reviewed unverified intelligence suggesting a pro-Ukrainian group conducted the attack. Watson stated that the anonymous claims in the report did not come from downgraded intelligence shared by the US government and that sources were not authorized to speak on the US government’s behalf.
German and Polish officials announced that Germany and Poland will deliver 28 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in March 2023, which will bolster Ukraine’s capabilities to conduct a counteroffensive amidst high Russian tank losses. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced on March 8 that Germany will deliver 18 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine by the end of March, and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced that Poland will deliver 10 more tanks by the end of the week. These tanks, though below the quantities that the Ukrainian military needs, will augment Ukraine’s capabilities to conduct counteroffensive operations, particularly due to the degraded state of Russian armored units. Dutch open-source group Oryx reported that it verified Russian losses of over 1,000 T-72 tank variants in Ukraine as of March 8. Oryx verified 1,079 destroyed Russian tanks and 549 captured Russian tanks as of February 24, and estimated on February 9 that Russian forces had committed roughly 3,000 tanks to the war in Ukraine.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on March 8 that Russian forces captured all of eastern Bakhmut, a claim consistent with available visual evidence
- Russian forces remain unlikely to exploit a breakthrough beyond Bakhmut if Russian forces capture the city.
- The Kremlin may be attempting to establish a new Russian government-controlled armed formation billed as a volunteer unit through the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom.
- A US official denied that US intelligence assessed that a pro-Ukrainian group sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines in September 2022.
- German and Polish officials announced that Germany and Poland will deliver 28 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in March 2023, which will bolster Ukraine’s capabilities to conduct a counteroffensive amidst high Russian tank losses.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut on March 8 but have not succeeded in completing a turning movement around the city.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces landed on the Dnipro River Delta islands for the third consecutive day.
- The Kremlin is doubling down on reviving volunteer recruitment campaigns throughout Russia and occupied Ukraine.
- Russian hospitals are continuing to form new medical centers in Russia in an effort to maximize the capacity for overfilling hospitals in occupied territories to treat wounded Russian servicemen.
March 7, 2023 | 8:15pm ET
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on March 7 that the hypothetical Russian capture of Bakhmut would provide Russian forces an “open road” to Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, and other critical settlements in Donetsk Oblast.
ISW continues to assess, however, that Russian forces lack the capability to exploit the tactical capture of Bakhmut to generate operational effects, and will likely rapidly culminate following the capture of Bakhmut. As ISW has previously assessed, Russian forces would have to choose between two diverging lines of advance after capturing Bakhmut. Russian forces could attempt to push west along the T0504 highway towards Kostiatynivka (about 20km from Bakhmut) or could push northwest along the E40 highway towards the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk area in northwestern Donetsk Oblast (about 40km northwest of Bakhmut). These two potential axes of advance are not mutually supporting, and degraded Russian forces would likely have to prioritize the pursuit of just one to have any chance of success - though Russian commanders have repeatedly stretched their forces too thin across multiple axes of advance throughout the invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have also heavily fortified both of these routes, which are supplied by numerous ground lines of communication (GLOCs) running deep into the Ukrainian rear, and any Russian attempt to advance down these roads would likely be highly costly.
Russian forces additionally likely lack the mechanized forces necessary to advance beyond Bakhmut, and the tactical “assault detachments” used in assaults against Bakhmut are likely unable to conduct maneuver warfare. Recent Russian advances within urban areas of Bakhmut demonstrate that Russian forces can secure limited tactical gains with infantry-led frontal assaults. Russian forces likely lack the mechanized forces necessary to exploit the roads (which are likely highly fortified) west of Bakhmut. As ISW has recently reported, Russian forces are increasingly relying on “assault detachments,” a battalion-size element optimized for frontal assaults on fortified areas, rather than for maneuver warfare. These detachments are artillery-heavy, use simplified tactics, relegate tanks to a fire support role in rear areas, and would almost certainly struggle to effectively conduct operations beyond urban areas. A prominent Russian milblogger echoed this observation on March 7, noting that assault detachments are simply too small to “punch a wide and deep gap” in Ukrainian defensive formations and follow with tank and mechanized battalions, and called for the formation of “breakthrough brigades,” a change likely far beyond the current capabilities of Russian forces in the area. The continuing devolution of Russian force structure towards small assault detachments using simplified tactics, combined with mounting losses among the most effective Russian troops, will likely greatly limit the ability of Russian forces to properly exploit any paths of advance opened by the capture of Bakhmut Russian forces remain unlikely to secure more than a tactical victory following 10 months of assaults.
March 6, 2023 | 10:45pm ET
Ukrainian authorities indicated that Ukraine will continue to defend Bakhmut for now. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated at the end of the day on March 6 that he has ordered reinforcements to Bakhmut.[i] This announcement follows Zelensky’s March 6 meeting with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi where both commanders recommended the continued defense of Bakhmut and asked Zelensky to strengthen Ukrainian forces in the area.[ii] Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak similarly stated on March 6 that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut thus far has “achieved its goals” and been a “great strategic success.”[iii] Statements made by Ukrainian officials regarding Bakhmut are likely meant in part to respond to the continued concern expressed by some Americans regarding the costs of Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated on March 6 that he would not view a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut as a “significant strategic setback,” possibly intimating that he favors such a withdrawal.[iv]
Bakhmut is not intrinsically significant operationally or strategically as ISW has previously observed. Taking Bakhmut is necessary but not sufficient for further Russian advances in Donetsk Oblast, and Russian forces have already taken such heavy losses fighting for the city that their attack will very likely culminate after they have secured it—if not before. The loss of Bakhmut is not, therefore, of major operational or strategic concern to Ukraine, as Secretary Austin and others have observed.
But Ukraine’s fight for Bakhmut has become strategically significant because of the current composition of Russian forces arrayed in the area. Some Western reports have recently suggested that Ukraine is expending its own elite manpower and scarce equipment on mainly Wagner Group prison recruits who are mere cannon fodder, noting that such an exchange would be to Ukraine’s disadvantage even at high ratios of Russian to Ukrainian losses. That observation is valid in general, although the pool of Russian convict recruits suitable for combat is not limitless and the permanent elimination of tens of thousands of them in Bakhmut means that they will not be available for more important fights.
- Ukrainian authorities indicated that Ukraine will continue to defend Bakhmut for now.
- Bakhmut is not intrinsically significant operationally or strategically as ISW has previously observed. But Ukraine’s fight for Bakhmut has become strategically significant because of the current composition of Russian forces arrayed in the area. The Battle of Bakhmut may, in fact, severely degrade the Wagner Group’s best forces, depriving Russia of some of its most effective and most difficult-to-replace shock troops.
- Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin apparently fears that his forces are being expended in exactly this way. The severe degradation or destruction of the elite Wagner fighting force would have positive ramifications beyond the battlefield.
- The Kremlin is returning to its previously unsuccessful volunteer recruitment and crypto-mobilization campaigns to avoid calling the second mobilization wave. The return of the voluntary recruitment and crypto-mobilization campaigns likely indicates that the Kremlin will not launch another mobilization wave at least before the summer 2023 due to spring conscription cycle on April 1.
- A reportedly captured Russian military manual suggests that Russian forces intend to use the newly created “assault detachment” elements in urban warfare.
- Russian forces utilized a new type of guided aerial bomb against Ukrainian targets amid continued precision missile shortages.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces secured territorial gains in Bakhmut but have not yet encircled the city or forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks near Avdiivka and west of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continue struggling to maintain fire control over the Dnipro River Delta in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian military command is failing to properly equip its forces despite forces increasingly conducting close combat in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian officials reported on alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut, although it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city. Ukrainian forces may be withdrawing from their positions on the eastern bank of the Bakhmutka River given recent geolocated footage of the destruction of the railway bridge over the river in northeastern Bakhmut on March 3. Russian war correspondents and milbloggers claimed that Russian forces captured eastern, northern, and southern parts of Bakhmut on March 5 and claimed to be reporting from positions in eastern Bakhmut, but ISW cannot independently verify these claims at this time. Geolocated footage showed that Wagner Group forces continued to make advances in northeastern Bakhmut and advanced near the Stupky railway station on March 5. A Ukrainian serviceman told a Ukrainian outlet that Russian forces have yet to cross the Bakhmutka River into central Bakhmut as of March 4, and Russian milbloggers claimed that the Wagner Group pushed Ukrainian positions back to central Bakhmut. It is unclear if Ukrainian forces are planning to hold positions on the western bank of the Bakhmutka River.
March 4 | 6:00 pm ET
Russian forces appear to have secured a sufficient positional advantage to conduct a turning movement against certain parts of Bakhmut but have not yet forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw and will likely not be able to encircle the city soon. Russian forces made one limited confirmed advance near Bakhmut on March 4. As ISW reported on March 3, Ukrainian forces are likely setting conditions for a controlled fighting withdrawal out of particularly difficult sectors of eastern Bakhmut, although it is not clear that Ukrainian commanders have decided to withdraw at this time. Russian sources claim that Wagner Group elements have made gains in northeastern and eastern Bakhmut over the past few days, creating a tactically challenging turning movement in urban areas in northern Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials have recently reiterated that Ukrainian forces still control the situation in Bakhmut but have noted that circumstances are increasingly complicated and that the Wagner Group has committed its most advanced and prepared elements to assault operations in the area.
Russian advances in Bakhmut have been slow and gradual and do not suggest that Russian forces will be able to encircle Bakhmut soon, much less that they will be able to take the city by frontal assaults. The Russians have, rather, managed to push close enough to critical ground lines of communication from the northeast to threaten Ukrainian withdrawal routes in a classical envelopment maneuver. The purpose of a turning movement is to force the enemy to abandon prepared defensive positions and is different from the aim of an encirclement, which is to trap and destroy enemy forces. The Russians may have intended to encircle Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, but the Ukrainian command has signaled that it will likely withdraw rather than risk an encirclement. ISW assesses that Ukrainian forces are far more likely to withdraw than to become encircled and that the Ukrainians might still be able to hold their positions in Bakhmut if they choose to try. Russian forces have been suffering high casualties in these advances, and Ukrainian commanders’ assessments of the likelihood that they can force Russian attacks to culminate near or behind their current positions balanced against the risk of losing access to essential withdrawal routes will likely guide the Ukrainian decision to stay or pull back.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov in western Donetsk Oblast, likely to assess the extent of Russian losses around Vuhledar and the possibility of further offensives in this direction. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) published a video on March 4 purporting to show Shoigu visiting Muradov in an unspecified area of western Donetsk Oblast and claimed that Muradov delivered a report on the current situation and actions of Russian forces in his area of responsibility. Russian forces suffered catastrophic losses in a recent three-week offensive near Vuhledar, and severe personnel and equipment constraints are likely preventing Russian forces from making even marginal advances in this direction. The Russian MoD may be considering whether transferring reserves of manpower and equipment to the Vuhledar area for renewed offensive operations is a worthwhile effort. The Russian MoD recently confirmed that Muradov is the EMD commander, and the substantial losses around Vuhledar have likely already caused Muradov significant reputational damage. Shoigu may have therefore visited western Donetsk Oblast also to assess Muradov’s continued suitability for the position of EMD commander. Shoigu’s visit to Ukraine may suggest that the Russian MoD lacks confidence in Chief of the General Staff and theater commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine Army General Valery Gerasimov, who likely should have been the officer making this frontline visit or at least accompanying Shoigu. Russia’s military district commanders report to Gerasimov on operational matters, and Shoigu’s publicized solo visit to western Donetsk appears to undermine Gerasimov.
The Chinese government is reportedly displeased with the Kremlin over the publicization of arms sales discussions. The Economist reported on March 2 that an unspecified European official claimed that the Chinese government wanted discussions of lethal aid to remain secret so that China could maintain its image as a neutral mediator. CNBC News reported on March 3 that US officials have indicated that information regarding Chinese considerations to send Russia arms was an assessment ”gleaned” from Russian officials.
Russian State Duma Defense Committee Head Andrey Kartapalov stated that Russian companies should purchase their own air defense systems to defend against drones. A Russian state-owned news source reported that Kartapalov claimed on March 1 that Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) resources are focused on protecting critical state and military facilities. He argued that every “self-respecting corporation” should be able to purchase and install such systems for themselves. This bizarre proposal would likely create further security issues for Russia, not resolve them, as the prospect of numerous companies fielding and presumably using their own air defense systems independent of the Russian military should alarm any sane Russian official. Kartapalov’s statements are almost certainly an extension of the domestic panic inflamed by reports of the March 2 incursion into Bryansk Oblast and accusations of recent Ukrainian drones in Russian airspace. Kartapalov may have additionally hoped to place the onus of defense on individual enterprises to frame Ukrainian activity as a direct threat to domestic Russian affairs.
The Wagner Group reportedly opened at least three new recruitment centers at Russian sports clubs between March 2 and 4, possibly to augment Wagner’s recruitment base after losing access to prisoner recruits. The Wagner Group reportedly opened at least three new recruiting centers collocated with Russian sporting clubs since Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin officially announced that Wagner launched recruiting efforts through Russian sports club on March 2. The new Wagner recruiting centers are reportedly based at the “Dynamo” sports facility in Samara, the “Antares” Sports Club in Rostov, and the Russian Boxing Federation building in Tyumen. This effort may seek to offset decreases in Wagner recruitment after the Wagner Group reportedly lost access to recruiting prisoners in early 2023. Prigozhin insinuated on March 3 that Russian government officials barred the Wagner Group from recruiting prisoners—just as the Russian Ministry of Defense sabotaged Wagner Group forces’ ammunition supplies. Prigozhin announced on February 9 that Wagner had completely stopped recruiting prisoners but did not characterize it as the result of a Russian government ban at that time. Russian media additionally reported that Wagner has opened a "Wagnernyok” youth club in St. Petersburg.
- Russian forces appear to have secured a sufficient positional advantage to conduct a turning action against certain parts of Bakhmut but have not yet forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw and will not likely be able to encircle the city soon.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Eastern Military District Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov in western Donetsk Oblast, likely to assess the extent of Russian losses around Vuhledar and the possibility of a further offensive in this direction.
- The Chinese government is reportedly angry with the Kremlin over the publicization of arms sales discussions.
- Russian State Duma Defense Committee Head Andrey Kartapalov encouraged Russian companies to purchase their own air defense systems to defend against drones.
- The Wagner Group reportedly opened at least three new recruitment centers at Russian sports clubs between March 2-4, possibly to augment Wagner’s recruitment base after losing access to prisoner recruits.
- Russian forces conducted offensive actions along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued efforts to encircle Bakhmut and conduct ground attacks along the Donetsk Oblast front line.
- Ukrainian sources continue to report that Russian forces are trying to set conditions for offensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues apparent efforts to increase Chechen influence within Russia through promoting Chechnya’s Special Forces (SPETSNAZ) and youth policy efforts.
- Russian occupation administrations are strengthening law enforcement measures in occupied territories.
March 3, 2023 | 7pm ET
Ukrainian forces appear to be setting conditions for a controlled fighting withdrawal from parts of Bakhmut. Russian forces have been fighting to take Bakhmut, a city with a pre-war population of roughly 70,000 people, since roughly May 2022 and have suffered devastating casualties in the process. Geolocated footage posted on March 3 confirms that Ukrainian troops have destroyed two critical bridges in the Bakhmut area—one across the Bakhmutivka River in northeastern Bakhmut and one along the Khromove-Bakhmut route just west of Bakhmut. The preemptive destruction of bridges is likely an indicator that Ukrainian troops may seek to inhibit Russian movement in eastern Bakhmut and limit potential westward Russian egress routes out of Bakhmut. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksandr Rodnyanskyi previously stated on February 28 that Ukrainian forces could choose to pull back from positions in Bakhmut as needed. Rodnyanskyi also noted that Ukraine has fortified the area west of Bakhmut such that even if Ukrainian troops begin to withdraw, Russian forces would not necessarily be able to rapidly take the entire city. If the Ukrainian military command deems it necessary to withdraw from Bakhmut it will likely conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sectors of eastern Bakhmut judging from Ukrainian statements and reported Ukrainian actions. ISW will continue to monitor the situation and offer updated assessments of the implications of possible Russian courses of action if and when Ukrainian forces begin to pull back.
Russian officials continued to release limited information about the March 2 incursion in Bryansk Oblast but failed to provide clarity about what actually transpired. Russian State Duma Deputy Alexander Khinshtein claimed on March 2 that a Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) vehicle ran over a mine while clearing the area near Sushany, Bryansk Oblast, and four personnel sustained minor injuries. Russian authorities previously claimed that the perpetrators mined the area before leaving. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) released edited footage of the purported aftermath on March 3 that shows two civilian cars with substantial damage from bullet holes and deceased drivers as well as man-portable military equipment and mines, all supposedly in the Bryansk Oblast border area. The footage largely lacks any identifying features of the area that could verify the FSB’s claims and has not been geolocated. The head of the Russian Volunteer Corps, which claimed responsibility for the incursion, claimed on March 3 that Ukrainian officials greenlit the incursion. The Russian Investigative Committee did not corroborate the Volunteer Corps’ claim, instead announcing that it has initiated an investigation into the actions of “Ukrainian saboteurs.” Russian officials and milbloggers made additional claims accusing Western states of direct involvement in the incursion. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the perpetrators used NATO-provided weapons during the incursion and accused NATO states of being “accomplices” to the operation. State-run media outlet RT amplified a milblogger claim that the Russian Volunteer Corps has indirect affiliations with the UK via the Azov Regiment and accused the UK of involvement. ISW remains unable to confirm any of the Russian or Russian Volunteer Corps’ claims about what actually occurred on the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not address the reported situation in Bryansk Oblast in the readout of an emergency meeting with the Russian Security Council on March 3. Russian sources widely claimed that Putin held the meeting to discuss anti-terrorist security measures in response to the Bryansk incident, but the readout of the meeting instead recycled a number of tired Kremlin talking points and did not use this platform to introduce any new objectives or means for Russian military operations in Ukraine. Putin did use the speech to outline new, albeit limited, support measures for Russian soldiers serving in Ukraine and announced that all families of soldiers killed in Ukraine will receive the standard insurance coverage provided for by law, a one-time lump sum allowance of 7.4 million rubles (98,143 USD). Putin also called for “appropriate payments” for those wounded in Ukraine in the form of insurance payments and one-time injury payments. Putin continues to use public appearances to expand promises of social support for existing servicemembers, potentially to quell domestic discontent and incentivize those already fighting, but does so instead of articulating specific goals or outlining additional resources or measures to be taken for the future of the war.
Russian authorities continued efforts to portray Russia as the only safe operator of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), likely to constrain the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presence at the ZNPP and compel the de facto recognition of Russian ownership of the ZNPP. Advisor to the head of Russian nuclear energy operator Rosenergoatom, Renat Karchaa, claimed that Ukrainian personnel used a machine gun to fire at the Russian personnel during a rotation of IAEA personnel stationed at the ZNPP on March 2. Karchaa also claimed that the Russian security personnel tripped several mines while escorting the IAEA personnel. The IAEA has not corroborated Karchaa’s claim, instead characterizing the March 2 personnel rotation as “successful” after previously delaying the rotation for over a month due to security concerns. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reported that the final remaining backup power line to the ZNPP was damaged for the third time in a week on March 1, which the IAEA contingent at the ZNPP characterized as “likely because of shelling on the other side of the Dnipro River.” Ukrainian nuclear energy operator Energoatom reported on March 3 that Russian forces have established machine gun firing positions and erected sandbag fortifications at ZNPP facilities. ISW has extensively reported on Russian efforts to militarize the ZNPP, including prior footage confirming that Russian forces have stored military equipment, including ammunition, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns, and other armaments on the ZNPP grounds.
- Ukrainian forces appear to be setting conditions for a controlled fighting withdrawal from parts of Bakhmut.
- Russian officials continued to release limited information about the March 2 incursion in Bryansk Oblast but failed to provide clarity about what actually transpired.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin did not address the reported situation in Bryansk Oblast in an emergency meeting with the Russian Security Council according to the meeting’s readout.
- Russian authorities continued efforts to portray Russia as the only safe operator of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), likely to constrain the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presence at the ZNPP and compel the de facto recognition of Russian ownership of the ZNPP.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Donetsk Oblast front line as Ukrainian forces appeared to prepare for a controlled withdrawal from at least parts of Bakhmut.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to increase government oversight of the Russian defense industrial base (DIB).
- Russian occupation authorities continue to prepare occupied territories for the September 10 Russian regional elections.
March 2, 2023 | 8pm ET
The Kremlin accused Ukraine of conducting a border incursion in Bryansk Oblast, Russia on March 2 — a claim that Ukrainian officials denied. Bryansk Oblast Governor Alexander Bogomaz claimed that “several dozen” Ukrainian saboteurs conducted an armed incursion into the villages of Lyubenchane and Sushany on the international border. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) doubled down on Bogomaz’s accusation and claimed that the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) conducted an operation to “eliminate” Ukrainian saboteurs who reportedly killed one individual and took up to six individuals hostage. Russian milbloggers and news aggregators offered differing information about the number of casualties and hostages, including claims that Ukrainian saboteurs fired on a school bus. Russian President Vladimir Putin then responded unusually quickly to these claims, alleging that “neo-Nazis and their owners” carried out a “terrorist attack” against Bryansk Oblast. Putin did not directly name Ukraine as the perpetrator of the attack in his televised statement, prompting Russian state media to later clarify that Putin meant ”Ukrainian neo-Nazis.” Putin also claimed that Russia will ”crush” neo-Nazis that have consistently aimed to deprive Russia of its history, killed the daughter of Russian nationalist ideolog Alexander Dugin, and ”killed people in Donbas.”
Ukrainian officials denied the Kremlin’s accusations of Ukraine’s involvement in Bryansk Oblast and claimed that Russian officials might be facing problems with increasing partisan activity in Russia. Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Mykhailo Podolyak stated that Russian accusations are a deliberate “provocation” aimed at scaring the Russian people into believing that Russia needs to continue to fight in Ukraine. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Andriy Yusov stated that the incident in Bryansk Oblast is “part of transformative processes in Russia” and pointed to inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and socio-economic conflicts among Russian citizens in Russia. Yusov also noted that the March 2 public statements of the Russian Volunteer Corps’, which claimed responsibility for the incursion, further show that “Russia is beginning to wake up against Putin’s bloody dictatorship.” Yusov likely referred to two videos uploaded by Russian Volunteer Corps fighters claiming that they crossed the international border into Bryansk Oblast to “liberate” fellow Russian citizens from Putin’s dictatorship without harming Russian civilians. The Russian Volunteer Corps claims to be an all-Russian, Ukraine-based armed formation operating under the Ukrainian Armed Forces; however, it is unclear if the group is affiliated with the Ukrainian military. The head of Dutch open-source investigative group Bellingcat's far-right monitoring project reported that the leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, is a notable far-right extremist figure. Social media users geolocated one of the two videos showing two servicemen with the Russian Volunteer Corps flag to Sushany. ISW cannot independently verify Russian, Ukrainian, or Russian Volunteer Corps’ claims at this time, and the two videos each showing two men in uniform holding a flag remains the only concrete evidence available that anything happened.
The Bryansk incident generated speculation by Russian officials and ultranationalist groups about the Kremlin’s response to the situation. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on questions regarding any change of the “special military operation” status to “war” because of the incident. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin sarcastically observed that Russia had been allowing Ukraine to violate its “red lines” and used the opportunity to promote Wagner mercenaries. Russian officials such as Crimean occupation head Sergey Aksyonov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov along with milbloggers called on the Kremlin to expand security measures and conduct retaliatory operations. Kadyrov, for example, called on the Kremlin to target civilians to punish the perpetrators of this incident - effectively calling for Russia to conduct war crimes. Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers and former proxy officials also called on the Kremlin to designate the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and Ukrainian armed organizations as terrorist organizations and compared the incident to the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia in 2004. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that the Russian Volunteer Corps was responsible for the murder of Daria Dugina and other terrorist activity in Russia. Russian milbloggers also called on the Kremlin to use this incident to form a Supreme High Command to undertake all political, military, and economic decisions to ensure that Russia wins the war. Other milbloggers also linked the incident to recent Putin statements that the FSB needs to strengthen border protection and advocated for more resources for border units. Some milbloggers called on Russia to form assassination squads to kill Ukrainian officials and form exclusion zones at the border. These responses indicate that the ultranationalist community is largely dissatisfied with numerous aspects of the Kremlin’s inability to fully commit to its own false rhetoric that Russia is fighting an “existential war” in Ukraine. The Kremlin does not have the capacity to satisfy all of these ultranationalists’ demands and may seize this opportunity to introduce additional security provisions in Russia that would benefit Putin without committing Russia to a higher risk or domestic unrest — such as declaring war.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated on March 2 that Germany is negotiating with allies about providing security guarantees to Ukraine but provided no further details on these proposed guarantees. Scholz emphasized that the pact would only work if Ukraine prevailed in the war. Scholz mentioned the security guarantees while criticizing China for failing to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling on Chinese authorities to pressure Russia into withdrawing Russian forces from Ukraine. Scholz’ statements are consistent with reports of a proposed Ukraine-NATO defense pact that would provide enough arms to Ukraine to force Russia to the negotiation table, but would not offer Article V protection or obligate NATO states to deploy forces to Ukraine. ISW has recently assessed that such an agreement appears to reflect a desire to pressure Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms, especially as Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently unlikely to compromise on his maximalist goals of demilitarization and de facto regime change in Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India on March 2 about Russia’s suspension of the New Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Blinken stated that he urged Lavrov to reverse Russia’s February 28 suspension of Russian cooperation with New START, which imposes verifiable limits on the number of Russian and US intercontinental-range nuclear weapons. Blinken expressed US readiness to collaborate with Russia on strategic nuclear arms control regardless of the status of the war in Ukraine or the US-Russia relationship. Blinken separately called on Russia to stop its war in Ukraine and come to the negotiating table and to release detained American Paul Whelan. Russian officials are highly unlikely to pursue meaningful discussions to restore New START, however. The Kremlin very probably is weaponizing fears of nuclear escalation and the suspension of New START in hopes of deterring Western support for Ukraine and slowing down pledged Western military aid transfers. The Kremlin remains extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons but routinely makes low-credibility threats of nuclear escalation in an effort to intimidate the West and appeal to its ultranationalist base, as ISW has previously reported.
Russian authorities appear to be concerned over a growing loss of leverage in Serbia, which Russia has worked to integrate into the Russian sphere of influence for many years. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated on March 2 that reports of Serbian authorities secretly transferring multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) ammunition to Ukraine are a matter of “deepest concern.” Russian state-affiliated news aggregator Mash claimed on February 27 that Serbian defense company Krusik supplied over 3,500 Grad MLRS rockets to Ukraine but claimed that it is not clear that Krusik knew that Ukraine was the final buyer of the rockets. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin responded to Serbian President Alexander Vucic’s prior complaint that Wagner Group is recruiting in Serbia, claiming that no Serbian personnel have served in Wagner Group in 2023 and characterizing Vucic as having “thrown a tantrum in vain.” Vucic’s complaints about Wagner Group recruitment efforts in Serbia are one factor in Vucic’s possible reconsideration of Serbia’s close ties with Russia, as ISW has recently reported.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and several Russian milbloggers continue to debate the appropriateness of criticism of Russian war efforts as they react to a proposed amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code which would increase punishments for “discrediting” the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin on March 1 defended his statements made earlier that day defending criticism of the war effort. Prigozhin claimed that Russians should have the right to criticize Russian commanders and strategists, including himself, but not to criticize or “discredit” ordinary soldiers. Russian milblogger Yuri Kotyenok defended restrictions on “discreditation attempts,” arguing that criticism of Russian soldiers of all levels — from soldier to supreme commander — is like shooting them in the back. Kotyenok conceded that some criticism is necessary but said that it must be made carefully and in a limited way. Kotyenok added that Wagner Group representatives have earned the right to their “special opinion” due to their efficient fighting near Bakhmut. Former Russian officer (and avid critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin) Igor Girkin feigned repentance on March 2 and mockingly instructed his users “not” to make statements calling Russian leadership “illiterate, irresponsible mediocrities” and telling them to refer to major failures as victories, offering as an example the “alternative successes” in Vuhledar.
- The Kremlin accused Ukraine of conducting a border incursion in Bryansk Oblast, Russia, on March 2 — a claim that Ukrainian officials denied.
- The alleged Bryansk incident generated speculations from Russian officials and ultranationalist groups about the Kremlin's response to the situation.
- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated on March 2 that Germany is negotiating with allies about providing security guarantees to Ukraine but provided no further details on these proposed guarantees.
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India on March 2 about Russia’s suspension of the New Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The Kremlin very probably is weaponizing New START and fears of nuclear escalation in hopes of deterring Western support for Ukraine.
- Russian authorities appear to be concerned over a growing loss of leverage in Serbia, which Russia has worked to integrate into the Russian sphere of influence for many years.
- Russian ultranationalists continue to debate the appropriateness of criticism of Russian war efforts and to react to proposed increased punishments for “discrediting” the war in Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and offensive operations around Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, along the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces appear to have temporarily scaled back efforts to encircle Bakhmut from the southwest as well as from the northeast and may instead be focusing on pressuring Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the city by concentrating on the northeastern offensive.
- Russian sources claimed that Russian forces downed two Ukrainian UAVs in Crimea.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that the Wagner Group has launched recruiting efforts through Russian sports clubs.
- Russian occupation officials denied reports of the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russian territories.
March 1, 6:00pm ET
The Kremlin may leverage an amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code increasing punishments for "discrediting" the war in Ukraine to promote further self-censorship among the critical ultranationalist community, prompting pushback from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and prominent milbloggers. Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin announced on March 1 that the Duma could ratify amendments to the Russian Criminal Code introducing harsher punishments for discrediting participants of the Russian "special military operation," including "volunteers," as soon as March 14.[i] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) labels irregular armed formations fighting in Ukraine—specifically the Wagner Group—as volunteers. Volodin stated punishments would include a fine of up to five million rubles (about $66,450), five years of correctional or forced labor, or a sentence of 15 years in prison.[ii] Russian President Vladimir Putin previously stated on February 28 that Russia must "identify and stop illegal activities of those who are trying to weaken [Russian] society" and identify those who "use separatism, nationalism, neo-Nazism as a weapon."[iii] Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has long called on the Kremlin to punish anyone who spoke poorly of Wagner under the guise of ensuring that all participants of the war are protected under existing laws against discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. However, Prigozhin released a suggested adjustment to the amendments in response to Volodin’s statement, arguing the amendment should not punish criticism of senior Russian MoD and Wagner Group commanders.[iv] Prigozhin argued constructive criticism "is necessary" to ensure Russian commanders use their powers "transparently and responsibly." Prigozhin may be concerned that the Kremlin could use the expanded amendment to crack down on or, at minimum, promote self-censorship practices among ultranationalist milblogger communities who regularly criticize senior Russian commanders, and likely seeks to balance his desired protection of the Wagner Group with retaining the freedom for himself and friendly milbloggers to criticize the Russian military.
ISW assessed on February 26 that Putin has allowed the ultranationalist community to expand its influence at the expense of the Russian MoD so the Kremlin can leverage the community’s pre-established networks to recruit volunteers.[v] The Kremlin likely seeks to mitigate further pushback from the pro-war ultranationalist community, which continues to look up to Putin as the facilitator of the war despite their criticisms of the conduct of the war. The State Duma will likely pass these amendments on March 14, given Volodin’s announcement. The Kremlin could use these amendments to promote self-censorship among select milbloggers whose constituencies are no longer needed for its force generation or crowdfunding campaigns, or whose criticisms have exceeded the Kremlin’s tolerance for open criticism. It is unclear to what extent such measures would scare Russian milbloggers into self-censorship, however. Former Russian officer (and avid critic of Putin) Igor Girkin mocked Volodin’s announcement, stating that he will start apologizing for his previous critiques of Russia’s military failures and sarcastically retracting his criticism.[vi] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger, however, celebrated the amendments, noting that Putin is attempting to prevent divisions in society to improve the war effort.[vii]
- The Kremlin may leverage an amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code increasing punishments for "discrediting" the war in Ukraine to promote further self-censorship measures among the critical ultranationalist community, prompting pushback from Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and prominent milbloggers.
- A New York Times (NYT) investigation into catastrophic Russian losses during the recent Russian offensive near Vuhledar indicates the Russian military remains unable to rapidly fix the endemic challenges posed by severe personnel and equipment losses.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a package of 16 documents that may facilitate Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese aid to Russia through Belarus.
- US officials continue to report that Ukrainian forces are properly using Western-provided weapons in Ukraine.
- Russian and occupation authorities may be attempting to further limit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presence at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to compel the de facto recognition of Russian ownership of the plant.
- Politico reported that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is seemingly reconsidering Serbia’s close ties to Russia during the war in Ukraine, spurred in part by ongoing Wagner Group recruitment and subversion efforts in Serbia.
- Russian forces are fortifying positions on the international border in Belgorod Oblast.
- Russian forces advanced within Bakhmut and continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
- Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continue defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to struggle with the administrative management of occupied areas.