April 4, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia continues ground operations in and around Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

April 4, 2023

The Kremlin will likely attempt to coerce Belarus into further Union State integration when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on April 5 and 6. The Kremlin announced on April 4 that Putin and Lukashenko will meet for private bilateral discussions on April 5 and attend a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State in Moscow on April 6.[1] The Kremlin stated that the Union State Supreme State Council meeting will address the implementation of the Union State Treaty through 28 different Union State programs from 2021 to 2023 —likely the package of 28 integration roadmaps that Lukashenko ratified in November 2021.[2] The Kremlin stated that Russian and Belarusian officials also plan to agree on other unspecified “practical issues of further integration,” possibly in the area of intelligence sharing, as Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergey Naryshkin met with Lukashenko in Minsk and discussed Russian-Belarusian intelligence sharing on April 4.[3] The Kremlin may pressure Belarus for more integration concessions under the rubric of defending the Union State from claimed Western military and/or terrorist threats.[4]

The Kremlin continues to attempt to employ nuclear threats to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu justified Russia’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by accusing NATO of intensifying combat training and reconnaissance activities near the Russian and Belarusian borders and accused the West of escalating the war in Ukraine by providing additional military aid to Ukraine on April 4.[5] Shoigu reinforced existing Russian nuclear threats by stating that Belarus has nuclear-capable attack aircraft and nuclear strike-capable Iskander-M systems.[6] Shoigu also stated that Belarusian missile forces began training in Russia to operate Iskander-M systems, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, on April 3.[7] Shoigu’s statements do not present any new information on Belarusian training and are likely part of an information operation. ISW previously reported that Belarusian servicemen were training with Iskander systems in Russia as of February 2023.[8] Shoigu’s reinvigorated nuclear blackmail rhetoric coincides with Finland joining NATO and a new US aid package to Ukraine.[9] ISW continues to assess that the risk of nuclear escalation remains extremely low and that Russian deployments of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus are highly unlikely to affect battlefield realities in Ukraine.[10] Russian-deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus additionally will almost certainly remain under the control of Russian personnel permanently deployed in Belarus.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demonstrative response to the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tatarsky) indicates Prigozhin likely believes that the attack was in part directed at himself. Prigozhin held an event on April 4 at the remnants of the restaurant where Fomin was killed by an improvised explosive device on April 2.[11] Prigozhin claimed that he arrived at the scene from the Bakhmut frontline as quickly as he could to commemorate Fomin. Prigozhin announced that he intends to expand “Kiber Front Z”—the Wagner-affiliated ultranationalist group that held Fomin’s fatal event—into a social movement that fights against external threats.[12] Prigozhin stated that the Wagner Group has been thwarting attempts by unnamed actors to eliminate the group since 2014.[13] Prigozhin also noted that he will offer financial compensation to the event’s attendees. Prigozhin’s publicly demonstrative response and vague accusations of a campaign against Wagner suggest that Prigozhin is likely attempting to indirectly frame the incident as an attack on him.[14] Prigozhin’s response also shows that he intends to continue to pursue a central position within the Russian pro-war ultranationalist community, despite the threat of violence and pushback.

The Kremlin continued efforts to (falsely) reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long-term economic consequences. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Tula Railway Engineering Plant and attempted to address workers’ economic concerns on April 4.[15] Putin later held a State Council Presidium meeting to discuss developing Russian industry in the face of sanctions pressure, during which he claimed that sanctions are having positive outcomes by forcing Russian firms to embrace import substitution, an argument the Kremlin has made sporadically since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.[16] Putin suggested in both meetings that Russian industry as a whole will be able to grow like the Russian agricultural sector did following the imposition of Western sanctions in 2014.[17] Putin has previously relied on the example of post-2014 Russian agricultural growth to assuage Russians of their economic anxieties but has yet to offer concrete proposals for how Russian industry would increase domestic production in a similar way.[18] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin will likely struggle to reassure Russians about their economic concerns while also setting informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine and mobilizing a wider portion of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).[19]

The Kremlin is likely trying to shift responsibility for expanding Russian industry onto regional bodies to insulate itself from possible criticism about Russia’s deteriorating economic situation. Putin emphasized the need for regionally based industrial development funds to assume a greater role in supporting Russian industry and stated that the Russian government should consider refinancing regional funds for these efforts, including from federal reserve funds.[20] Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also attempted to reassure the Russian public on April 3 by stating that there will be no problems financing budget obligations and that reserves will cover falling oil and gas revenues for the federal budget.[21] Siluanov stated that Russian officials are unlikely to replenish reserves in the National Welfare Fund in 2023.[22] A growing Russian overreliance on funding through reserves could lead to further economic instability.

Key Takeaways 

  • The Kremlin will likely attempt to coerce Belarus into further Union State integration when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on April 5 and 6.
  •  The Kremlin continues to attempt to employ nuclear threats to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demonstrative response to the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin indicates that Prigozhin likely believes that the attack was in part directed at himself.
  • The Kremlin continues to attempt to (falsely) reassure the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will not have significant long-term economic consequences.
  • The Kremlin is likely trying to shift more responsibility for growing Russian industry onto regional bodies to insulate itself from possible criticism about Russia’s deteriorating economic situation.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
  • Russian forces continue to prepare for a rumored pending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern direction.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russia’s ongoing spring conscription cycle is going according to plan, progressing as quickly as planned, and has completed initial military registration.
  • Russian occupation officials denied Ukrainian reports that Russian occupation authorities are preparing evacuation plans from occupied regions of Ukraine.
  • Belarusian state media claimed that the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) reportedly arrested two men under the suspicion of attempted terrorist attacks in Grodno.
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