April 13, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Putin reportedly approved the arrest of Wall St. Journal reporter

Institute for the Study of War

April 13, 2023

A senior Ukrainian official warned that Russia can reconstitute itself as a serious threat to Ukraine in the long run despite facing severe force generation problems at this time. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov stated on April 13 that Russian crypto-mobilization efforts are stagnating due to Russians’ growing awareness that causality rates for Russian soldiers in Ukraine are high. Hromov stated that Volgograd and Saratov oblasts have only met seven percent (134 of the 7,800 recruits) and 14 percent (270 of the 7,600 recruits) of their regional recruitment quotas for the first quarter of 2023 respectively.[1] Hromov also stated that Moscow is creating “alternative” private military companies (PMCs) to fill these gaps, but that these PMCs will not be as powerful as the Wagner Group in the near future, partially supporting previous ISW forecasts.[2] Hromov noted that Ukraine and its allies must not underestimate Russian force generation capabilities in the long run for a protracted war of attrition. ISW has previously warned that the US and NATO should not underestimate Russian capabilities in the long run, as Russia can regenerate by leveraging its population and defense industrial base (DIB) to threaten Ukraine and NATO if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to fundamentally change Russia’s strategic resource allocation over the long run.[3] Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced plans on January 17 to form 12 new maneuver divisions over the course of several years, for example.[4]

The Kremlin has not yet undertaken the necessary reorganization of its war effort to effectively leverage economies of scale to support large-scale Russian force generation, however. Current Russian half-measures and decentralized recruitment efforts to regenerate forces such as crypto-mobilization, leaning on Russia’s regions to generate volunteers, relying on new small PMCs, and pressuring various Russian state-owned enterprises to sponsor and pay for recruitment campaigns seek to shift the resource burden to generate forces among different siloviki and elements of the Russian state.[5] The Kremlin is reportedly billing the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom for its volunteer recruitment efforts in occupied Donetsk Oblast, offering volunteers 400,000 rubles (approximately $4,900) salary per month.[6] A Russian State Duma official proposed the institution of a new 2–3% “military tax” on Russian citizens’ income — a provision that would allow Putin to reduce the burden on existing federal funds but would likely anger more Russians.[7] These various Russian groups’ resources are finite. The Kremlin’s currently unsustainable effort to commandeer them will exhaust itself without fundamental resource generation and resource allocation reform. These current efforts will generate some additional combat power in the short term, to be sure, but will do so with diminishing marginal returns at increasing cost. The Russian state’s current model of resource allocations and economies of scale do not synergize disjointed efforts to tap discrete resource pools. The Kremlin’s decision to continue relying on financially incentivizing voluntary recruits with both one-time payments and accrued lifetime benefits will create large long-term structural costs and will not be sustainable indefinitely.[8]

Ukrainian assessments confirm ISW’s longstanding assessment that Russia cannot conduct multiple offensive operations simultaneously at this time. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov stated on April 13 that Russian forces deployed unspecified Russian forces from the Avdiivka area of operations to reinforce offensive operations around Bakhmut and that Russia has lost about 4,000 Wagner and conventional personnel in Bakhmut since around March 30.[9] Hromov’s statement supports ISW’s longstanding assessment that the Russian military — in its current form — is unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly personally approved the arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich. Bloomberg reported on April 12 that Putin personally approved the arrest of Gershkovich on espionage charges before the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast on March 30 for collecting information constituting a state secret about the activities of a Russian military-industrial complex enterprise.[11] Putin’s reported personal involvement in the arrest suggests that the arrest was likely a retaliatory response to the US arrest of Russian national Sergey Cherkasov on March 24 on charges of acting as agent of a foreign power.[12] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin ordered Gershkovich’s arrest and stated that Russian special services independently decided to arrest Gershkovich.[13] ISW has previously reported that the FSB has made other recent arrests in connection with information about defense enterprises in Sverdlovsk Oblast, and ISW assesses that the Kremlin may use the pretext of threats to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) to justify crackdowns and further conceal the activities of Russian defense industrial enterprises.[14] Putin’s reported personal involvement in the first arrest of a US journalist since the Cold War may indicate that the Kremlin viewed the arrest as a calculated escalation that it will attempt to use as leverage for extracting concessions from the United States.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed to have identified the individuals allegedly responsible for assassinating milblogger Maxim Fomin (known under the alias Vladlen Tatarsky) on April 13.[15] The FSB claimed that alleged Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) agents Darya Trepova and Yuriy Denisov worked with Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation associates Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhadanov — both located abroad — to track Fomin for months and eventually assassinate him.[16] The FSB stated that it added Denisov to the international wanted list after he fled Russia.[17] Anti-Corruption Foundation Director Ivan Zhandov claimed on April 13 that the FSB released this version of events to justify extending Anti-Corruption Foundation founder and Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s prison sentence.[18]

Key Takeaways

  • A senior Ukrainian official warned that Russia can reconstitute itself as a serious threat to Ukraine in the long run despite facing severe force generation problems at this time.
  • The Kremlin has not yet undertaken the necessary reorganization of its war effort to effectively leverage economies of scale to support large Russian force generation.
  • Ukrainian assessments confirm ISW’s longstanding assessment that Russia cannot conduct multiple offensive operations simultaneously at this time.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly personally approved the arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich.
  • The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) on April 13 identified the individuals allegedly responsible for assassinating milblogger Maxim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky).
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to make gains in Bakhmut, and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces continue to reinforce and strengthen their positions in southern Ukraine in preparation for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters continue to feud with St. Petersburg authorities and advertising companies allegedly obstructing Wagner Group recruitment efforts.
  • Wagner Group are reportedly training Ukrainian children to use weapons as part of the Russian Young Army Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya) in occupied Ukraine.
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