April 18, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts. The Kremlin announced on April 18 that Putin visited the headquarters of the Russian Dnepr Group of Forces in Kherson Oblast and the Vostok National Guard headquarters in occupied Luhansk Oblast. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that Putin visited occupied territories on April 17. Putin, however, stated that Orthodox Easter holiday is “coming up” in one of the videos, which suggests that his visit occurred prior to April 16. The Kremlin later edited the video to exclude Putin’s statement about the then-upcoming East holiday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Avdiivka frontline on April 18, and it is possible the Kremlin deliberately released footage of Putin’s visit to overshadow Zelensky’s visit in the information space. ISW reported on Russian milbloggers criticizing Russian officials for failing to visit the frontlines like Zelensky, and Putin had previously visited occupied Mariupol on March 19 to improve his appearance as a wartime leader. Russian occupation officials and milbloggers celebrated Putin’s visit and claimed that he boosted the morale of Russian servicemen preparing to repel Ukrainian counteroffensives. Geolocated footage shows that Putin visited Arabat Spit in southwestern Kherson Oblast – at least 130km from the nearest frontline.
Putin’s visit likely also intended to publicly identify potential scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives. Putin received briefings from Commander of Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, Commander of the Dnepr Group of Forces Colonel General Oleg Makarevich, and other unnamed military commanders regarding the situation along the Kherson and Zaporizhia frontlines. Putin also met with Colonel General Alexander Lapin and other unnamed top-ranking officers to discuss the situation on the Luhansk frontline. Putin likely deliberately singled out Teplinsky and Makarevich as commanders responsible for southern Ukraine, and Lapin as a commander overseeing the Luhansk direction. Putin, Kremlin sources, and milbloggers have been increasingly discussing the prospects for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and it is likely that the Kremlin is preparing the domestic information space for either military failures or the defeat of the counteroffensive threat.
Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger observed that the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu did not attend Putin’s meetings in occupied Ukraine. The milblogger claimed that Teplinsky and Lapin – both of whom had reportedly been placed on a leave – returned to the Russian military command likely against the wishes of Gerasimov and Shoigu. Russian sources previously claimed that the Kremlin replaced Wagner-affiliated Teplinsky with Makarevich as the VDV commander on January 13, likely after the Russian MoD and Gerasimov regained Putin’s favor in the lead up of Russia’s unsuccessful winter-spring offensive operation in Donbas. The meeting confirms previous Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s hints at Teplinsky’s reappointment. ISW previously assessed that Teplinsky’s confirmed reappointment suggests that the Kremlin is likely seeking to work with Wagner to achieve a decisive victory in Bakhmut. The confirmation may further indicate that Prigozhin has at least partly regained Putin’s favor by overriding Gerasimov and Shoigu’s efforts to eliminate Wagner in Bakhmut.
Putin may be attempting to balance Wagner’s influence by reappointing Lapin to command the Luhansk sector of the frontline. The Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Lapin assumed the role of the commander of the Vostok National Guard formation and noted that the Putin-Lapin meeting confirms Lapin’s return to the frontlines. Prigozhin and Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov had led a successful campaign to remove Lapin from his position as the commander of the “center” group of Russian forces, likely due to personal conflicts during the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk and Luhansk offensive operations in the summer of 2022. The milblogger speculated that Putin reappointed Lapin to reinforce command in the area or to help Putin avoid conflicts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a wartime leader in anticipation of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive during his visit to occupied Kherson and Luhansk oblasts.
- Putin’s visit likely intended to publicly identify scapegoats ahead of the planned Ukrainian counteroffensives.
- Putin’s demonstrative meetings with Teplinsky, Makarevich, and Lapin likely confirm another change in military command and possibly within the Kremlin’s inner circle.
- Select members of the “Club of Angry Patriots” are advocating for a revolution in Russia if the Kremlin freezes the war or pursue peace negotiations with Ukraine and the West.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu met to discuss on strategic partnership and military cooperation in Moscow on April 18.
- The Russian State Duma approved a series of amendments to the Russian Criminal Code on April 18 aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship and repressing the Russian public.
- Russian authorities detained Russian public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov, an associate of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in Yekaterinburg on April 18.
- The Russian Immortal Regiment Central Headquarters announced the cancelation of the annual Immortal Regiment Victory Day march, likely in an effort to reduce public discussion of war dead.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued to make gains in Bakhmut and conducted ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue defensive preparations in southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin continues efforts to integrate proxy formations with conventional Russian forces.
- Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian civilians to Russia under healthcare and rehabilitation schemes.
- Belarus may begin economically supporting Russian-occupied Donetsk Oblast with a patronage system.