February 28, 2024

Institue for the Study of War: Ukraine kills Russian troops at Donetsk awards ceremony using HIMARS rocket

Institute for the Study of War

Pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria held the Seventh Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 and adopted a series of decisions that likely aim to provide the Kremlin with justifications for a wide range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova — actions the Kremlin can pursue both immediately and over the long-term. The Congress of Transnistrian Deputies adopted seven decisions, including a request to the Russian State Duma and Federation Council for Russian “defense” of Transnistria in response to alleged increasing pressures from Moldova. Transnistrian officials specifically used “zashchita” (защита), a word that means both “defense” and “protection” in their request, likely to set conditions for the Kremlin to interpret “defense” in a military sense if it so chooses. Transnistrian officials invoked the obligations of the Russian “peacekeeping mission” in Transnistria and the roughly 220,000 Russian citizens they claim are residing in Transnistria in their request for Russian “defense.” Transnistrian officials likely aim for these appeals to serve as the basis for any potential Russian intervention in Transnistria and Moldova in the near or long term as they cohere with Russian justifications for previous interventions, most notably its invasions of Ukraine. The Kremlin has increasingly promoted rhetoric about Russia’s ”compatriots abroad,” which include ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, to further justify its war in Ukraine and to likely set informational conditions for provocations in countries where Russian ”compatriots” live. The Kremlin has also used the idea of protecting its “compatriots abroad” to justify the fact that Russian troops have occupied Transnistria since 1992, and Transnistrian officials likely made appeals concerning Transnistrian residents with Russian citizenship to set further informational conditions for the Kremlin to escalate Russian activities in Transnistria and Moldova. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on February 14 that Russia is ”concerned” about Russian citizens in Transnistria and “will not allow them to become victims of another Western adventure.”

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted another strike on a Russian personnel concentration in occupied Donetsk Oblast, once again sparking ire amongst Russian milbloggers and re-surfacing concerns about Ukraine’s use of HIMARS systems. A Russian Telegram user who claims to be an employee of an unspecified branch of Russian special services reported that a Ukrainian HIMARS strike hit a gathering of personnel of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade (Pacific Fleet) during a military awards ceremony in Olenivka, Donetsk Oblast on the night of February 27. The Russian source claimed that the strike killed 19, including the deputy brigade commander, a major, and a captain, and wounded 12, including brigade commander Colonel Mikhail Gudkov. The Russian source accused the Russian command of being aware of Ukrainian drone reconnaissance activity in the area but ignoring the available information ahead of the strike. Ukrainian forces have conducted two similar HIMARS strikes against Russian troop concentrations over the past week, targeting a training ground near occupied Volnovakha, Donetsk Oblast on February 20 and a training ground in occupied Podo-Kalynivka, Kherson Oblast on February 22. One milblogger noted that “these are no longer isolated mistakes,” and suggested that Ukraine is deliberately striking such gatherings of Russian personnel in a “clinical” manner. Russian milbloggers appear increasingly concerned that Ukrainian forces are able to exploit poor Russian operational security practices (such as large gatherings in near-rear areas under Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance) using well-timed and well-targeted HIMARS strikes, which continue to generate discontent in the Russian information space.

Key Takeaways:

  • Pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria held the Seventh Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 and adopted a series of decisions that likely aim to provide the Kremlin with justifications for a wide range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova — actions the Kremlin can pursue both immediately and over the long-term.
  • The Kremlin has yet to signal an immediate route for escalation following the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies, although Russian President Vladimir Putin may respond to the Transnistrian requests during his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 29.
  • The Kremlin can use the outcomes of the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies to justify a range of possible COAs that are not mutually exclusive.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted another strike on a Russian personnel concentration in occupied Donetsk Oblast, once again sparking ire amongst Russian milbloggers and re-surfacing concerns about Ukraine’s use of HIMARS systems.
  • Russia continues cracking down on actors it deems “foreign agents” to consolidate control over the Russian information space ahead of the March 2024 presidential election.
  • A Financial Times (FT) investigation published on February 27, reportedly based on leaked classified Russian military documents from 2008-2014, outlines Russia’s purported criteria for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
  • Turkey and China appear to be pursuing their own negotiation platforms for a settlement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin will likely exploit to further its long-standing narratives regarding negotiations and the war.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Svatove, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspected the Tula State University’s Military Training Center and several defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises in Tula Oblast on February 28.
  • Russian occupation authorities are using early voting for the Russian presidential election to cloak Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine in a veneer of fabricated legitimacy.
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