August 7, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: China’s presence at Jeddah talks on Ukraine indicates growing Russian isolation

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on August 7. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in the Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast area) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions.[1] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that fighting is ongoing south of Bakhmut and that eastern Ukraine has been the epicenter of hostilities in the past week.[2] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged in an interview published on August 6 with Argentine news outlet La Nacion that the tempo of counteroffensive operations is slower than expected and stated that patience is necessary in order for Ukraine to win.[3] Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are in the offensive phase of operations and continue to hold the initiative.[4]

Russian forces and occupation administrators continue to seek to mitigate the impact of recent Ukrainian strikes on logistics nodes along key Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) connecting occupied Crimea with occupied Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk noted that Ukrainian strikes on the Chonhar and Henichesk bridges were intended to specifically target Russian plans and strategies and inhibit the ability of Russian forces to bring supplies and personnel to the front.[5] Humenyuk also emphasized that Russian forces must now route supplies and personnel through Armyansk, directly on the border between Kherson Oblast and Crimea and within 80km of the frontline.[6] Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo reported that his administration has temporarily changed the logistics and vehicle crossing routes between occupied Kherson and Crimea due to damage to the Chonhar Bridge, including the suspension of bus traffic between Simferopol, Crimea and Henichesk, Kherson Oblast.[7] Russian milbloggers notably did not comment on the aftermath of the strikes on August 7, further supporting ISW’s previous assessment that Russian officials may have directed Russian correspondents to not offer commentary on Ukrainian strikes on Russian logistics nodes in Crimea to avoid generating panic within the information space.[8]

Russian opposition media outlet Verstka suggested that the Russian Investigative Committee and its head, Alexander Bastrykin, are directly involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the forced placement of Ukrainian children into Russian military training programs.[9] Verstka reported that the Russian Investigative Committee “took patronage” over Ukrainian children living in children‘s homes throughout Russia, and sent its employees to 10 such homes with toys, clothes, and school supplies in order to coerce the children to enter the Russian cadet corps. Verstka reported that Bastrykin personally visited Ukrainian children in Russia and told them that Russian victory depend on the children and that the Russian Investigative Committee is there to support them. Verstka reported that the Investigative Committee previously advertised the cadet corps to Ukrainian children from Donbas and stated that 78 Ukrainian children entered educational institutions, including the cadet corps and academies affiliated with the Investigative Committee, between February 2022 and March 2023. Verstka reported that Bastrykin ordered the cadet corps in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Volgograd to prepare to receive Ukrainian children from occupied Donbas as early as February 25, 2022. Verstka highlighted statements from Ukrainian children who said they felt compelled to participate in the Russian cadet corps due to the educational opportunity. The coercion of Ukrainian children, who are legally unable to consent to their deportations and participation in such military-patriotic re-education programs, is likely part of an ongoing Russian campaign to eradicate the Ukrainian national identity and militarize youth who have been forcibly deported to Russia.

China’s increasing misalignment with Russia on any settlement to end the war in Ukraine was reportedly evident at the talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 5-6. The Financial Times reported that the Chinese representatives at the meeting were “constructive” and “keen to show that [China] is not Russia.”[10] The Financial Times quoted one European diplomat present at the talks as saying that the “mere presence of China shows Russia is more and more isolated.”[11] The Chinese delegation reportedly indicated its willingness to attend the next meeting of a similar format that will likely also exclude Russia.[12] A Russian insider source alleged that Russia has rejected China’s 12-point peace plan for the war in Ukraine from February 2023 (which the Chinese delegation re-introduced during the talks in Saudi Arabia) and that some Chinese elites are secretly expressing their dissatisfaction with the actions of the Russian leadership regarding a peaceful settlement of the war in Ukraine.[13] These reports from the talks in Saudi Arabia and insider allegations, if true, align with ISW’s previous assessments that China is not fully aligned with Russia on the issue of Ukraine and that Russia and China’s relationship is not a “no limits partnership” as the Kremlin desires.[14]

The Ukrainian delegation at the talks in Saudi Arabia presented a 10-point peace plan that reportedly included calls for global food security, nuclear safety, environmental security, humanitarian aid, and prisoner releases.[15] Ukrainian Presidential Administration Chief of Staff reported that all of the members of BRICS besides Russia – Brazil, India, China, and South Africa – attended the talks.[16] Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova predictably responded to the Ukrainian peace plan, calling it a “meaningless ultimatum, which is aimed at protracting hostilities.”[17] Zakharova thereby repeated a longstanding Russian information operation that absurdly claims that Russia, unlike Ukraine, “has always been and will remain open to a diplomatic solution” to the war in Ukraine.[18]

Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a prisoner-of-war (POW) exchange on August 7. Ukrainian officials reported that 22 Ukrainian soldiers returned to Ukraine and did not state how many Russian POWs returned to Russia.[19] Official Russian sources have not reported on the POW exchange and Russian milbloggers have notably not commented on it either. Russian milbloggers have often criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) when POW exchanges are not carried out on a one-to-one ratio between Ukrainian and Russian personnel.[20]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least two sectors of the front on August 7.
  • Russian forces and occupation administrators continue to seek to mitigate the impact of recent Ukrainian strikes on logistics nodes along key Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) connecting occupied Crimea with occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian opposition media outlet Verstka suggested that the Russian Investigative Committee and its head, Alexander Bastrykin, are directly involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the forced placement of Ukrainian children into Russian military training programs.
  • China’s increasing misalignment with Russia on any settlement to end the war in Ukraine was reportedly evident at the talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 5-6.
  • The Ukrainian delegation at the talks in Saudi Arabia presented a 10-point peace plan that reportedly included calls for global food security, nuclear safety, environmental security, humanitarian aid, and prisoner releases.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a prisoner-of-war (POW) exchange on August 7.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 7 and made advances in certain areas.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to portray itself as adequately mobilizing the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) for a protracted war effort.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to use maternity capital benefits to coerce Ukrainian civilians in occupied territories to accept Russian citizenship and increase social control in occupied areas.
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