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February 22, 2023

Russia fighting in Ukraine for its ‘historic frontiers’ — Putin

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin revived his imperialistic narrative that Russia is fighting for Russia’s “historic frontiers” on February 22, a narrative that he had similarly voiced in his speech before the re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Putin gave a four-minute speech at the rally for the Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, stating that there is currently “a battle going on for [Russia’s] historical frontiers, for [Russian] people.”[1] Putin had similarly called territories adjacent to Russia “[Russian] historical land” when announcing Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.[2] Putin did not offer other notable remarks on the progress of the war or discuss concrete frontline objectives. The concept of Russia’s “historical frontiers” could be used to justify aggression against almost any of Russia’s neighbors, as well as Moldova and the Central Asian states that do not share a border with Russia, since all of them contain territory that belonged at one point to either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire or both.

Putin’s speech also followed his February 21 decree revoking his May 2012 edict on Russia’s position on Moldovan territorial integrity.[3] Putin revoked his 2012 orders to the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) to firmly uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter—which require the development of friendly relations between states on the basis of equality, respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity—and Russia’s commitment to actively seek ways to resolve the Transnistria issue on the basis of respect for Moldovan territorial integrity. The revocation of the 2012 decree does not indicate that Putin intends to attack Moldova—an undertaking for which he lacks the military capability—although it does point toward an escalation in his ongoing efforts to undermine the Moldovan state.

The new decree also canceled the provision of “consistent implementation” of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) with the United States. Putin stated that he signed the decree “in order to ensure the national interest of the Russian Federation in connection with the profound changes taking place in international relations.”

Ukrainian intelligence officials continue to assess that Russia lacks the combat power and resources needed to sustain its new offensive operations in Ukraine. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky told the AP that Russian forces intensified their offensive operations in at least four or five directions in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts at the beginning of February but have yet to achieve any significant successes despite continuing to exhaust their personnel and resources.[4] Skibitsky added that Russian forces are concentrating their efforts on capturing Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Marinka, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.

GUR Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated in an interview with Forbes that the Russian offensive is so ineffective as to be almost unnoticeable and noted that Russian forces have been rationing shells and ammunition to sustain assaults on the Bakhmut, Lyman, and Vuhledar directions while conserving shells in other areas.[5] Budanov’s statement coincides with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces are prioritizing the Bakhmut and Lyman directions and have yet to launch a significant push to advance in areas west of Donetsk City.[6] Budanov added that Russian artillery stocks decreased to 30 percent of the total number of shells.  He claimed that Russia has imported a test batch of artillery shells from Iran and is currently attempting to procure another batch of 20,000 shells. Budanov previously estimated that Russian forces fired about 20,000 shells per day in late December 2022, down from 60,000 shells per day during the early stages of the war.[7] Budanov also observed that Russian tactics around Bakhmut and Vuhledar have largely shifted from artillery and mechanized attacks to infantry assaults due to the lack of shells and armored vehicles. Budanov noted that Russia had committed more than 90 percent of its 316,000 mobilized personnel to the frontlines, which further confirms Western and ISW’s assessments that Russian forces do not have significant untapped combat-ready reserves.[8] Budanov noted that the Kremlin’s stated objective of producing 800 tanks per year is unrealistic and stated that Russia can only produce 40 cruise missiles per month, which they use up in a single round of missile strikes. Russia has already lost at least 1,500 tanks and possibly as many as 2,000, as ISW has previously reported.[9]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin directly accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of mistreating Wagner forces, igniting intense backlash in the information space and supporting ISW’s prior assessments of a growing Wagner-MoD fissure.[10] Prigozhin accused the MoD of lying about supplying all unconventional units with requested artillery ammunition, claiming instead that Wagner forces receive only 20 percent of the artillery ammunition promised to them.[11] Prigozhin claimed that the MoD’s statement is “spitting at the Wagner private military company (PMC)” and an attempt to hide the MoD’s “crimes against fighters” who achieve battlefield successes near Bakhmut.[12] Prigozhin published a dossier contrasting Wagner forces’ artillery ammunition usage with what the MoD distributes to Wagner forces, an image showing Wagner fighters dead supposedly from the lack of artillery support during assaults, and an interview response claiming that the support of certain regional heads, including Crimean Occupation Governor Sergey Aksyonov, has helped raise awareness of Wagner forces’ ammunition shortages.[13] Prigozhin called on the MoD to fulfill its promises rather than “deceiving” the Russian public.[14] Many prominent Russian milbloggers jumped to defend Prigozhin, spreading Prigozhin’s claims and accusing the MoD of failing to support the supposedly most effective Russian forces in Ukraine.[15] One milblogger noted that the Russian MoD is now treating Wagner forces in the same way that the MoD treats its conventional forces in Ukraine, a clear step down from Prigozhin’s prior posturing as the true victor near Bakhmut.[16] Prigozhin’s complaints also confirm that his earlier boasts of Wagner’s independence from the Russian MoD were lies.[17] Another Kremlin-affiliated milblogger criticized the rivalry between the Wagner Group and the MoD as counterproductive.[18]

US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that the US government is concerned about the potential strengthening of Russia-China relations.[19] Price stated that the United States is concerned because “these two countries share a vision… in which big countries could bully small countries [and] borders could be redrawn by force.”[20] Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi in Moscow on February 22.[21] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Yi said “no matter how the international situation changes, China remains committed to… maintaining positive trends in the development of its relations with Russia.”[22]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin revived his imperialistic narrative that Russia is fighting for Russia’s “historic frontiers” on February 22, a narrative that he had similarly voiced in his speech before the re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
  • Putin’s speech also followed his February 21 decree revoking his May 2012 edict on Russia’s position toward Moldovan territorial integrity.
  • Ukrainian intelligence officials continue to assess that Russia lacks the combat power and resources necessary to sustain its new offensive operations in Ukraine.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin directly accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of mistreating Wagner forces, igniting intense backlash in the information space and supporting ISW’s prior assessments of a growing Wagner-MoD fissure.
  • US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that the US government is concerned about the potential strengthening of Russia-China relations.
  • Russian forces are likely attempting to increase the tempo of their offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Lyman line.
  • Some Russian sources refuted other Russian claims about the intensification of offensive operations in western Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks throughout the Donetsk Oblast front line and secured marginal territorial gains around Bakhmut.
  • Russian and occupation authorities continue to publicly indicate that Russian forces are focusing on defensive operations in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and Crimea.
  • US intelligence officials stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin may mobilize significantly more Russian personnel.
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