December 13, 2022

Institute for the Study of War:  As Russian blogges deride their ministry of defense, US prepares to send Patriot missile defense batteries to Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine despite a snap Belarusian military readiness check on December 13. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a snap comprehensive readiness check of the Belarusian military on December 13. The exercise does not appear to be cover for concentrating Belarusian and/or Russian forces near jumping-off positions for an invasion of Ukraine. It involves Belarusian elements deploying to training grounds across Belarus, conducting engineering tasks, and practicing crossing the Neman and Berezina rivers (which are over 170 km and 70 km away from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, respectively).[1] Social media footage posted on December 13 showed a column of likely Belarusian infantry fighting vehicles and trucks reportedly moving from Kolodishchi (just east of Minsk) toward Hatava (6km south of Minsk).[2] Belarusian forces reportedly deployed 25 BTR-80s and 30 trucks with personnel toward Malaryta, Brest (about 15 km from Ukraine) on December 13.[3] Russian T-80 tanks reportedly deployed from the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest, Belarus, to the Brest Training Ground also in Brest (about 30 km from the Belarusian-Ukrainian Border) around December 12.[4] Russia reportedly deployed three MiG-31K interceptors to the Belarusian airfield in Machulishchy on December 13.[5] These deployments are likely part of ongoing Russian information operations suggesting that Belarusian conventional ground forces might join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[6] ISW has written at length about why Belarus is extraordinarily unlikely to invade Ukraine in the foreseeable future.[7]

Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated on December 13 that the situation in northern Ukraine near Belarus has not significantly changed and that Ukrainian authorities still have not detected Russian forces forming strike groups in Belarus.[8] The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service reported that the situation on the border with Belarus is under control despite recent Belarusian readiness checks.[9]

Russian milbloggers accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of engaging in performative “excessive reporting” instead of addressing systemic issues with the Russian military and Russian operations in Ukraine. A prominent Russian milblogger discussed the “vicious practice of photo reports” in the Russian military and noted that Russian soldiers are often made to dress in statutory uniforms and appear on camera to propagate a sense of preparedness and professionalism instead of actually preparing for combat missions.[10] The milblogger emphasized that such demonstrations are purely theatrical and create a false sense of coherency in the Russian Armed Forces without actually addressing substantive issues with logistics, communications, and basic provision of units.[11] Several other milbloggers amplified this discussion and accused Russian authorities of engaging in “excessive reporting” in order to inundate the information space with photo and video artifacts that aim to “justify the existence” of the Russian MoD and create a guise of success for Russian operations in Ukraine.[12] One source emphasized its discontent with such “excessive reporting” and called the Russian MoD “the Ministry of Camouflage and Selfies.”[13] Russian milbloggers continue to leverage their platforms and notoriety to launch nuanced critiques at the Russian MoD in a way that continues to indicate a growing rift between the bureaucratic practices of the MoD and the realities faced by Russian soldiers on the ground and reported on by a slate of Russian military correspondents. Such discourse allows prominent voices in the nationalist information space to advocate for substantive change while undermining the MoD establishment.

Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide Russia. Axios reported on December 12 that Iran fears international backlash from providing Russia with long range missiles to use in the war in Ukraine and noted that United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2231 passed in 2015 prevents the transfer or receipt of Iranian ballistic missiles with a range over 300 kilometers and a payload over 500 kilograms until October 2023.[14] Axios noted that violating this resolution could result in a “snapback” mechanism that reimposes UN sanctions against Iran.[15]

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russian in the 1990s as part of an international agreement that Russia explicitly violated by invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. In a comment to The New York Times Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky said that Russian forces are using ballistic missiles and Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers that Ukraine transferred to Russia as part of the Budapest Memorandum, whereby Ukraine transferred its nuclear arsenal to Russia for decommissioning.[16] Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom committed in return to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.” This agreement has generated some debate about whether or not it committed the United States and the United Kingdom to defend Ukraine, which it did not do. There can be no debate, however, that by this agreement Russia explicitly recognized that Crimea and areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts it occupied in 2014 were parts of Ukraine.  By that agreement Russia also committed “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” among many other provisions that Russia has violated. Skibitsky noted that Russia has removed the nuclear warhead from these decommissioned Kh-55 subsonic cruise missiles, which are now being used to launch massive missile strikes on Ukraine.[17]

US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine. The US officials expect to receive the necessary approvals from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden, and the Pentagon could make a formal announcement as early as December 15.[18] CNN reported that it is unclear how many Patriot missile systems the Pentagon plan would provide Ukraine, but that a typical Patriot battery includes up to eight launchers with a capacity of four ready-to-fire missiles each, radar targeting systems, computers, power generators, and an engagement control station.[19]

Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression. Independent Russian outlet Meduza noted on December 13 that Russia has been expanding the concept of terrorism under Russian legislation over the course of the last two decades, and as recently as December of this year the State Duma proposed new amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that equate sabotage with an act of terrorism.[20] Meduza amplified an investigation by another independent Russian outlet, Novaya Gazeta, that noted that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has transitioned from focusing on defining Islamist militant activity in the Caucasus as terrorism to orienting terrorism around the concept of Ukrainian “saboteurs.”[21] FSB Head Alexander Bortnikov relatedly claimed on December 13 that there has been an increase in “terrorist” activity within Russia in 2022, which he related to Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) supposedly operating with Western support.[22] Russian authorities seem to be weaponizing the backdrop of the war in Ukraine to justify expansions of terrorism legislation under the guise of protecting domestic security. Such measures likely afford Russian security authorities greater latitude in cracking down on domestic dissent. As ISW has previously reported, Russian authorities have taken similar steps to use legal frameworks to broadly define individuals and actions as dangerous to Russian security and have recently proposed new bills on expanding the definition of “foreign agents” and the punishment for crimes considered to be sabotage.[23]

Key Takeaways

  • Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine despite a snap Belarusian military readiness check on December 13.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13.
  • Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide to Russia in order to avoid triggering UN “snapback” sanctions.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russia in the 1990s as part of an international agreement by which Russia recognized Crimea and all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as part of Ukraine and committed not to threaten or attack Ukraine.
  • US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine.
  • Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made marginal advances within Bakhmut and continued ground assaults near Avdiivka and Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces may be withdrawing from certain areas south of the Dnipro River as they continue fortifying rear positions in occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Likely Ukrainian actors downed a bridge in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast amid increased reports of Ukrainian strikes against Russian military assets near Melitopol within the past few days.
  • The Wagner Group is continuing efforts to use recruits from Russian prisoners to generate combat power.
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