August 29, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia buries Wagner mercenary chief Prigozhin and a close aide in separate cemeteries

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces advanced near Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast and Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 29. Geolocated footage published on August 29 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced south of Bakhmut and about five kilometers southeast of Robotyne.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions.[2] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun reported on August 28 that Ukrainian forces continued to secure positions in Robotyne and are demining the area.[3] Shtupun reported that Ukrainian forces could bring more troops to the Robotyne area and would have greater opportunities for maneuver.[4] Shtupun noted that Robotyne is near the highway to Tokmak, an important Russian ground line of communication (GLOC).[5] A Russian milblogger suggested that Russian forces are continuing to commit a significant number of reserves, Airborne (VDV) elements, and TOS-1 thermobaric artillery systems to the area – likely indicating that Russian forces are worried about the vulnerability of their positions in Robotyne.[6] Another Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces intend to deplete Ukrainian offensive potential by fixing Ukrainian forces in engagements in the settlement of Robotyne.[7]

Russian sources continued to express concerns over Russian vulnerabilities in eastern and western Zaporizhia Oblast. One Russian milblogger claimed that the situation near Verbove (18km southwest of Orikhiv) is “very dangerous.”[8] Russian “Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky, reportedly defending the eastern Donetsk-western Zaporizhia Oblast border area, claimed that Russian forces in his sector are stretched in a long arc along the frontline, are having difficulties transferring reserves, and lack resources.[9] Khodakovsky claimed that Ukrainian efforts to cut off Russian transport routes would further complicate the situation.[10] Khodakovsky has previously highlighted concerns about the Russian defense in the eastern Donetsk-western Zaporizhia Oblast border area, specifically relating to poor Russian counterbattery capabilities, heavy Russian losses, exhausted Russian forces, and a lack of reserves.[11] The “Vostok” Battalion claimed that Ukrainian forces disrupted their logistics on August 28 by striking their rear area with drones.[12] The “Vostok” Battalion noted that Ukrainian shelling has wounded several of its personnel and that Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems are failing to down Ukrainian aircraft and drones.[13] Khodakovsky’s and the “Vostok” Battalion’s complaints are likely those of tactical commanders focused on their own local issues on a sector of the front that is of lower priority to Russian theater commanders who are focusing efforts in western Zaporizhia. These concerns could well be valid, but senior Russian commanders could have contingencies in place should the situation here deteriorate that they have not troubled to communicate to Khodakovsky and his colleagues. Such tensions between de-prioritized tactical commanders and higher commanders are not uncommon in war.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov were buried on August 29 in St. Petersburg in separate cemeteries, likely to prevent the creation of a single pilgrimage site that would establish the deceased Wagner members as martyrs. Prigozhin’s and Chekalov’s funerals were held at the Porokhovskoye and Severnoye Cemeteries, respectively.[14] The funerals were closed to the public, and Russian police and National Guard (Rosgvardia) units secured the areas.[15] The Kremlin’s likely efforts to separate the Wagner burial sites to prevent their martyrdom in the public eye may prove ineffective as the official Telegram channel of Prigozhin’s press service, which had been inactive since June 26, publicly confirmed Prigozhin’s burial site on August 29 and called on anyone “wishing to say goodbye” to visit.[16] Wagner-affiliated sources did not comment on the future of the Wagner private military company, likely indicating a hesitancy within the organization to appoint a successor given the Kremlin’s and the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) efforts to destroy the Wagner Group since the rebellion and the challenges any successor loyal to the Kremlin would likely face in securing his position within Wagner.[17]

Russian milbloggers accused the Russian MoD for the fifth consecutive day of attempting to conceal concerns over the mistreatment of a Southern Military District (SMD) brigade operating in occupied Kherson Oblast.[18] Russian milbloggers have continued to criticize the Russian MoD for mistreating elements of the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (49th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District). The milbloggers also accused the Russian MoD of reportedly staging a response video in which five men claiming to be serving in the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade called on milbloggers to refrain from discussing the brigade’s alleged lack of artillery support and supplies in the Dnipro River delta area.[19] One milblogger noted the Russian military command began punishing servicemen of the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade for speaking out about these problems and added that state-affiliated milbloggers and propagandists are discrediting that concerns of a unit that is operating on a dangerous coastal frontline on the east (left) bank Dnipro River.[20] Milbloggers also claimed that these problems began after the Russian military command appointed a former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 100th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade commander with the alias “Skif” to command the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade.[21] Milbloggers claimed that “Skif” had previously “destroyed” the 100th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade while receiving state honors.[22] The Russian MoD notably has yet to silence these complaints, which may indicate that the Russian military command is unsure it can effectively do so at this time.

These milblogger persistent complaints are likely an attempt to spark command changes that may favor Russian Airborne Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who reportedly oversees Russian forces in southern Ukraine. Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian military command needs to immediately change its leadership if Russia wants to win the war and claimed that Ukrainian forces pose a threat to the allegedly mistreated 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade.[23] Ukrainian small-scale raids, however, do not pose a significant threat to the Russian grouping of forces in occupied Kherson Oblast – and milblogger concern is more likely aimed at discrediting unwanted commanders such as “Skif,” who was likely appointed by the Russian Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov or “Dnepr” Group of Forces (Kherson Oblast) Commander Colonel General Oleg Makarevich. Some of these milbloggers have previously complained about Gerasimov, Makarevich, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for failing to respond to Ukrainian threats in occupied Kherson Oblast, not providing boats to Russian forces, or blaming them for other military failures.[24] Some of these milbloggers had specifically attacked Makarevich, whom the Russian military command previously appointed to replace Teplinsky in January 2023 before Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstated Teplinsky in March-April 2023.[25] Some of these milbloggers also have a history of publicly praising Teplinsky and opposing Gerasimov’s or Shoigu’s efforts to remove Teplinsky from his position after the Wagner Group’s rebellion on June 24.[26] Teplinsky had been previously loosely affiliated with Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and had repeatedly been insubordinate to Gerasimov and Shoigu.[27] Teplinsky may have lost some authority since the rebellion or may be attempting to prevent Gerasimov and Shoigu from undermining his authority. These complaints may also be a part of an ongoing campaign to discredit Makarevich that existed prior to the rebellion and highlight that factional divisions within the Russian military command have continued past the rebellion.

The Russian MoD may be reverting to the more limited coverage of the war in Ukraine while attempting to censor complaints along the frontline and reports of Ukrainian advances. The Russian MoD recently changed its daily reporting style to reduce the daily amount of information it reports on the war.[28] The Russian MoD previously issued a daily situational report that differed from the individual situational reports from the press services of each Russian grouping of forces.[29] The press services of each Russian grouping of forces issued text directly copied from the overall daily situational report instead of their own original reports on August 29, however.[30] The Russian MoD has consistently attempted to institute an information policy that would provide limited information about the frontlines throughout the war.[31] The Russian MoD’s change in reporting, if this trend continues, may reflect its wider efforts to censor Russian reporting on the war and unify its own narrative.

The US State Department announced a new military aid package for Ukraine on August 29. The $250 million package includes AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, mine clearing equipment, HIMARS rockets, and Javelin anti-armor systems.[32]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Kremlin is currently focused on promoting five main information operations against Ukraine, all of which ISW has observed. The GUR reported on August 29 that the Russian Presidential Administration held a meeting on August 25 to approve the specific narratives that Russian media should promote in the information space.[33] The Russian narratives include claims that Ukraine is conducting mass mobilization regardless of age, gender, or health; claims that Ukraine’s Western partners are disappointed in Ukraine‘s prospects for victory; claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is failing; claims that the Ukrainian government is completely corrupt and is not fighting corruption and; claims that Russian authorities provide good living standards and conditions in occupied Ukraine.[34] Russian First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko and Russian media representatives reportedly attended the meeting. ISW has observed all five false narratives in the Russian information space.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces advanced near Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast and Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 29.
  • Russian sources continued to express concerns over Russian vulnerabilities in eastern and western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov were buried on August 29 in St. Petersburg in separate cemeteries, likely to prevent the creation of a single pilgrimage site that would establish the deceased Wagner members as martyrs.
  • Russian milbloggers accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for the fifth consecutive day of attempting to conceal concerns over the mistreatment of a Southern Military District (SMD) brigade operating in occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • These milblogger persistent complaints are likely an attempt to spark command changes that may favor Russian Airborne Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who reportedly oversees Russian forces in southern Ukraine.
  • The Russian MoD may be reverting to more limited coverage of the war in Ukraine while attempting to censor complaints along the frontline and reports of Ukrainian advances.
  • The United States State Department announced a new military aid package for Ukraine on August 29.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Kremlin is currently focused on promoting five main information operations against Ukraine, all of which ISW has observed.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border area but did not make confirmed advances.
  • The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on August 29 that the Russian MoD is still unlikely to meet its targets for volunteer recruitment, despite offering incentives such as high salaries and additional social benefits.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that occupation authorities continue to forcibly deport Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine to Russia.
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