April 11, 2023

Institute for the Study of War for April 11:  Russian Defense Ministry recognizes Wagner mercenaries’ role in Bakhmut attacks

Institute for the Study of War

April 11, 2023

The Kremlin passed legislation to use tools of digital authoritarianism to digitize and improve the effectiveness of issuing summonses and crack down on Russian draft dodgers. The Russian State Duma adopted a bill in its third reading on April 11 to create a digital unified register of Russian citizens eligible for military service.[1] Russian military recruitment offices will use the digital register to issue summonses to military service. The unified register harvests Russian citizens’ personal identification information—including medical, educational, and residence history, foreign citizenship status, and insurance and tax data—from multiple Russian legal entities, including Russia’s Federal Tax Service, investigative bodies, courts, medical institutions, the Russian Pension and Social Insurance Fund, the Central Election Commission, and federal and local authorities.[2]  Summoned individuals may not leave Russia and must appear at a military recruitment office within 20 days of being summoned. The law bans summoned individuals who are 20 days delinquent for reporting from driving vehicles, buying or selling real estate, and taking out loans. A senior Russian legislator stated that the law will correct some of the bureaucratic shortcomings that appeared during Russia’s partial mobilization in September 2022.[3] Some Russian milbloggers who have long agitated for more aggressive force generation policies praised the law and stated that it exemplifies healthy interactions between Russian civil society and government.[4] ISW previously forecasted that the Kremlin would marry Soviet-style societal control measures with big data and 21st-century information technology to intensify control over the Russian population after Russia used facial recognition, QR codes, and mobile device geo-tracking technology to enforce a draconian COVID-19 quarantine in 2020.[5]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged each other’s roles in the Bakhmut effort on April 11. The Russian MoD and Prigozhin claimed that Wagner fighters comprise the main effort to take territory and push Ukrainian forces in central Bakhmut, whereas unspecified Russian Airborne (VDV) elements comprise the supporting effort on Wagner’s flanks north and south of Bakhmut, including near Zalizhnyanske, Sakko i Vantsetti, and Mykolaivka.[6] The Russian VDV forces on the flanks likely aim only to hold the flanks rather than make any significant advances. This array of forces suggests that the Russian MoD intends to use the Wagner Group to capture Bakhmut while minimizing casualties among conventional Russian forces—supporting ISW’s prior assessments that the MoD seeks to use Wagner forces to capture Bakhmut then supplant them and take credit for the victory.[7] Prigozhin reiterated that Wagner forces are making gains within Bakhmut, however, claiming that Russian forces control 80 percent of Bakhmut due to Wagner advances.[8] Russian forces occupy at least 30.68 square kilometers (about the size of the Chicago O’Hare airport) or 76.5 percent of Bakhmut based on ISW’s control of terrain assessment.  However, this area increases to 34.5 square kilometers or 86.1 percent of Bakhmut when factoring in all Russian-claimed territory in Bakhmut, including contradictory claims.

A small, fringe group of pro-war Russian milbloggers called for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws against discrediting the Russian military. A group of at least 20 Russian milbloggers amplified a blanket statement expressing solidarity with “angry patriots” and others enraged at and weary of the poor application of the Russian censorship laws.[9] These milbloggers, many of whom have limited social media followings, represent a small fraction of the Russian information space and their statement does not indicate broader anger over the mere existence of these laws.  However, this faction of milbloggers is the most likely to face prosecution under these laws because they lack Kremlin affiliation, are among the most critical of the Russian war effort, and would likely be among the first targets of an expanded application of the law. The pro-war information space has expressed continued outrage over Russian authorities prosecuting a Russian medic under these censorship laws, which ISW has assessed will likely be a growing source of discontent in the pro-war information space.[10]

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin passed legislation to use tools of digital authoritarianism to digitize and improve the effectiveness of issuing summonses and to crack down on Russian draft dodgers.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged each other’s roles in the Bakhmut effort.
  • A small, fringe group of pro-war Russian milbloggers called for the Russian government to repeal the censorship laws against discrediting the Russian military.
  • Russian forces appear to hold positions northeast of Kupyansk and have made gains in the forest area south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces conducted defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited defense industrial enterprises in Tula Oblast as part of the ongoing effort to portray the resilience of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).
  • Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova continues to confirm that Russian authorities are taking a number of actions vis-a-vis Ukrainian children in an attempt to exculpate herself from the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s warrant for her arrest.
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