April 6, 2023
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on April 5 and 6 to discuss further Union State integration, with Putin likely focused on strengthening Russian economic control over Belarus. Putin and Lukashenko held a one-on-one meeting on April 5 and attended a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State on April 6 to address Union State integration efforts on security, economic, defense, cultural, and humanitarian topics. Putin claimed that Russian and Belarusian officials have fulfilled 74 percent of 28 Union State programs and highlighted the creation of a joint system for indirect taxes, measures to form general standards for Russian and Belarusian industrial enterprises, and efforts to unify Belarusian and Russian trade legislation. Putin and Lukashenko both noted that Russian and Belarusian officials are focused on import substitution measures (likely to mitigate Western sanctions) and supporting microelectronic industries. Putin stated that Russian and Belarusian officials are continuing the process of creating a joint oil and gas market and are working on drafting an agreement for the formation of a single electricity market. The Kremlin is likely advancing longstanding efforts to subsume elements of Belarus’ defense industrial base (DIB), and both states are likely using Union State economic integration efforts to augment their ongoing sanctions evasion measures. Putin and Lukashenko also likely highlighted strengthening economic cooperation to support their ongoing efforts to falsely reassure the Russian and Belarusian publics that Western sanctions regimes will not have long-term consequences.
Putin and Lukashenko also discussed bilateral security issues during their one-on-one meeting and at the Supreme State Council meeting, but official Kremlin and Belarusian readouts offered little concrete details on these discussions. Putin and Lukashenko stated that Russian and Belarusian officials began work on a Security Concept for the Union State, but offered no details for what the joint security document would include. Lukashenko stated that a single joint Russian–Belarusian regional air defense system is already operating, likely referring to the recent deployment of Russian S-400 air defense systems to Belarus. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on April 6 that Lukashenko and Putin did not discuss the placement of Russian strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus following Putin’s March 25 announcement that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
Lukashenko delivered boilerplate rhetoric that continues to indicate that he has no intention of involving Belarus further in Russia’s war effort. Lukashenko stated that NATO is conducting a purposeful buildup of forces along the borders of the Union State and that the West has unleashed an informational, political, and economic war against Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko has previously employed such rhetoric in an attempt to justify resisting Kremlin pressure to further support the Russian war effort in Ukraine by arguing that Belarus needs to protect the western flank of the Union State. ISW has written at length about why Lukashenko is extraordinarily unlikely to further involve Belarus in the war in Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that Lukashenko is increasingly losing maneuvering room with the Kremlin amid the Kremlin’s steady pressure campaign to formalize the Russian-Belarusian Union State, and Lukashenko may be acquiescing to further integration measures while rejecting Putin’s likely larger demand for the direct participation of Belarusian forces in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russian commanders are reportedly constructing specialized company-size units within key frontline formations engaged in urban combat to reinforce the diminished combat effectiveness of most Russian units. A reliable Ukrainian reserve officer released a reportedly captured document on April 6 detailing the recruitment of personnel (who receive the status of BARS reservists) to form new “Storm Z” companies within elements of the 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District) and the 1st Army Corps, the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Each “Storm Z” company is created outside of conventional army unit structure and apparently is formed of newly recruited reservists and attached in some manner to existing Russian regiments and brigades, rather than adding additional assets or providing specialized training to existing frontline companies. It is unclear at this time how these “Storm Z” units fit into Russian command structures at the battalion level and above and why Russian units are forming new companies, continuing a standing Russian tendency throughout the war in Ukraine to break down doctrinal unit structures. Each company is comprised of 100 personnel, broken into four capture squads (10 personnel each), four fire support squads (10 personnel each), a 2-person company command element, a 5-person combat engineering group, an 8-person reconnaissance group, a three-person medevac group, and a 2-person UAV crew. ”Storm Z” companies are intended to conduct urban combat operations or operations in complicated geographic areas to capture important and strategic objects such as strongholds, command posts, and communication centers. The Ukrainian reserve officer noted that the personnel that staff these companies receive 10 to 15 days of refresher training, a remarkably short amount of time to adequately train personnel (even reservists with some experience) to perform complex combat tasks and create unit cohesion.
The “Storm Z” companies will likely primarily deploy along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline, where Southern Military District (SMD) units are heavily committed to continuously unsuccessful offensive operations. The Ukrainian reserve officer stated that the document requires the establishment of “Storm Z” companies in various separate motorized rifle brigades of the 1st Army Corps (forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic) and motorized rifle regiments, tank regiments, and separate motorized rifle brigades of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (part of the 8th Combined Arms Army). ISW has observed the heavy commitment of DNR forces along the entire Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline and noted that the 150th Motorized Rifle Division has been particularly active in Marinka, on the southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City. Russian offensive operations along this frontline remain largely unsuccessful and have failed to secure more than tactical advances in the area. Russian military command likely seeks to create ”Storm Z” companies and attach them to already-committed elements in order to reinforce minor tactical success and encourage further offensive operations and gains. However, due to the ramshackle construction of yet more ad hoc Russian units, as well as the already degraded quality and poor morale that is pervasive within DNR units in this area, it is unlikely that the use of these formations will lend Russian forces on this frontline a significant offensive edge.
China continues to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the declared “no limits” Russian–Chinese partnership, but it will not be a true neutral arbiter in the war. French President Emmanuel Macron met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 6 and urged Xi to “bring Russia to its senses” and “bring everyone back to the negotiating table.” Xi stated that China “advocates for peace talks and seeks a political solution” without going into significant detail or assigning blame. China’s maintained neutral status and ongoing talks with Western leaders, refusal to blatantly condemn the West, and minimization of relations with and withholding of concrete support to Russia are likely a source of ongoing frustration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as ISW has previously assessed. However, Xi’s equivocating comments do not indicate any serious intent by Beijing to overtly pressure Russia to end the invasion of Ukraine, as would be necessary for serious peace talks.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on April 5 and 6 to discuss further Union State integration, with Putin likely focused on strengthening Russian economic control over Belarus.
- Lukashenko delivered boilerplate rhetoric that continues to indicate that he has no intention of involving Belarus further in Russia’s war effort.
- Russian commanders are reportedly constructing specialized company-size units within key frontline formations engaged in urban combat to reinforce the diminished combat effectiveness of most Russian units.
- Russian forces will likely deploy these “Storm Z” units along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City frontline.
- China continues to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the declared “no limits” Russian–Chinese partnership, but it will not be a true neutral arbiter in the war.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line.
- Ukrainian officials indicated that Russian forces are able to maintain a suitable rate of artillery fire in prioritized areas of the front at the expense of other sectors.
- Russian forces may have withdrawn equipment from occupied Crimea for redeployment elsewhere in southern Ukraine out of fear of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Russian Defense Industrial Base (DIB) enterprises in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast to monitor the implementation of state defense orders.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin held one-on-one meetings with Russian occupation authorities.