April 8, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia gains around Bakhmut, but overall offensive operations decrease

Institute for the Study of War

April 8, 2023

Ukrainian and Russian sources discussed the decreased rate of Russian offensive operations along the entire frontline on April 8, supporting ISW’s assessment that the overall Russian offensive is approaching culmination. Council of Reservists of the Ukrainian Ground Forces Head Ivan Tymochko reported on April 8 that Russian forces are fighting along the entire frontline, but that Russian offensive potential continues to decline and that current Russian attacks are focused on distracting and dispersing Ukrainian troops in anticipation of counteroffensive operations. Tymochko stated that Russian forces are not making serious advances anywhere on the frontline, noting that the pace of attacks in and around Bakhmut has slightly decreased in some areas and stagnated entirely in others. Tymochko also assessed that the Russian offensive on Avdiivka has “choked” and reported that Russian forces still do not control Marinka despite having reduced the city to rubble. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that the pace of Russian offensive operations along the entire Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline has decreased over the past day and emphasized that Russian forces are struggling to advance anywhere in Ukraine. Several Russian commentators are emphasizing Russian preparations for an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, suggesting that the overall focus of the Russian information space is shifting away from discussing Russian offensive capabilities and towards assessing Ukraine’s potential to regain significant ground.

The dynamics of battlefield artillery usage in Ukraine reflect the fact that Russian forces are using artillery to offset their degraded offensive capabilities. Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Security Minister and current Vostok Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky reported that the Russian command has decided to stop the daily issue of ammunition to areas of the front where there are no active offensive operations almost entirely. Khodakovsky noted that the artillery shortage on the frontline results in part from preparations for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Khodakovsky’s statement indicates that the Russian command must prioritize artillery ammunition supplies rigorously due to shortages. High demand for shells indicates that Russian forces are still heavily relying on artillery to offset key shortcomings in combat capability, including poor Russian targeting skills, insufficient ground assault capabilities, and inadequate availability of airpower in Ukraine. Russian forces use heavy artillery barrages to flatten settlements before seizing them with ground attacks, offsetting the need to conduct effective infantry attacks or to conduct an airstrike using scarce precision munitions and putting airframes and pilots at risk of Ukrainian air defenses. Continuing Russian shortages in artillery ammunition will undermine the Russian military’s ability to continue offsetting its other weaknesses and limitations. The Washington Post reported on April 8 that by contrast, Ukrainian forces are using one-third as many shells as Russian forces and that Ukrainian forces are conserving shells by carefully prioritizing targets. Ukrainian forces are more accurate in their targeting, but also likely benefit from being on the defensive in most areas–offensive operations normally generate increased artillery requirements.

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin launched a new effort likely aimed at protecting the influence of the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin. Girkin formed the “Club of Angry Patriots” social movement along with seven prominent proxy and ultranationalist figures on April 1 seeking to help Russia to win the war and avoid an internal conflict within Russia. Members of the club stated that Russia will imminently face defeat in Ukraine and may experience a pro-Western coup or civil war if Moscow does not drastically improve the situation on the frontlines. The members claimed that Russian officials are unable to improve the war effort and its effects on Russian society because most Kremlin officials belong to an anti-war faction. The anti-war faction reportedly advocates for a peace settlement with the West to regain access to its oversees wealth and is not actively attempting to improve the war effort – not out of a fundamental disagreement with war aims or genuine desire for peace. The club claimed that it seeks to help Russian authorities – likely implying the pro-war grouping within the Kremlin – complete the “special military operation” in a timely manner, claiming that a protracted war in Ukraine could prompt the anti-war officials to revolt. The group also stated that it is attempting to build a defense network to resist a coup in Russia in such an event. The members declared that the group is functioning within the framework of Russian law and will not engage in armed conflict, but will instead focus on raising public awareness in Russia so that Russian executive officials realize the danger to the Russian regime. Members of this club had previously warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in May and September 2022 about the negative repercussions on the battlefield if Russia did not immediately declare mobilization.

Girkin’s movement is already reportedly facing resistance from Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin. A Russian milblogger claimed Pushilin ordered DNR officials to spread rumors about the “Club of Angry Patriots,” claiming bizarrely that the movement is preparing a pro-Western coup. A member of the movement also accused Pushilin’s administration of discrediting the movement.

The “Club of Angry Patriot’s” creation may offer several important insights into Kremlin dynamics and the danger to Putin’s regime elements within his inner circle fear. ISW previously reported that successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman in September-October 2022 exposed a rift between the Kremlin’s anti-war and pro-war factions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin also made similar remarks about the schisms among Kremlin officials. The club’s preoccupation with the anti-war faction may indicate that the rift within the Kremlin deepened during the failed Russian winter offensive campaign or ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The concern over the expansion of the anti-war faction may also indicate that there is concern that Putin may be driven to accept a peace settlement by the threat of replacement. The group may be attempting to preempt the anti-war faction’s efforts to reduce the urgency of full-scale war in Ukraine.

Girkin may be advancing political goals of unnamed figures within Russian power structures, possibly within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Girkin has been ruthlessly criticizing Putin throughout the war, and it is likely that he is receiving some protection from a silovik. Russian independent outlet The Insider and Bellingcat have previously reported that Girkin had been consistently using passports under fictitious names that he received from the FSB. While it is unclear which silovik is protecting Girkin and what his motivations might be, Girkin’s protector may be attempting to gain Putin’s attention and shape his decisions via public discourse. Prigozhin and Wagner had previously showed that the Kremlin monitors and reacts to the public’s attitudes, which prompted notable changes within the Russian military command in the fall of 2022. Prigozhin similarly announced plans for a Wagner-affiliated social movement on April 4.

Russian nationalists seized on assassinated Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s (also known as Vladlen Tatarsky) funeral to promote pro-war narratives. Footage from Fomin’s funeral at Troekurovsky Cemetery in Moscow shows hundreds to thousands of people in attendance including Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leader Leonid Slutsky. Images showing the Order of Courage medal, Wagner awards, and an engraved sledgehammer at Fomin’s coffin circulated in Russian nationalist media. Prigozhin commended the “difficult work” of war reporters and claimed that he would do everything to ensure that Fomin’s work continues to resonate. Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Spokesperson Eduard Basurin used Fomin’s funeral to reiterate the narrative that Russia must reject negotiations and pursue the unconditional surrender of Ukraine. Footage from the funeral service and burial show Russian forces giving Fomin military honors. Fomin’s funeral could be the first instance of a Wagner-affiliated funeral receiving official Russian military honors.

Russia’s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine’s unified energy infrastructure has failed definitively, and Russia appears to have abandoned the effort. Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko announced on April 8 that Ukraine is resuming energy exports for the first time since October 11, 2022. Russian authorities began efforts in October to degrade Ukrainian energy infrastructure to a significant extent by the end of winter, which Russians consider March 1; however, the series of large-scale Russian missile strikes on energy infrastructure failed to achieve the assessed Russian aims of causing a humanitarian disaster, weakening Ukrainian military capabilities, and forcing Ukraine to negotiate. State-run Russian media acknowledged this failure on March 1. Russia likely abandoned the effort soon after. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) noted on April 8 that the frequency of Russian large-scale, long-range attacks on energy infrastructure has decreased since March 2023. The UK MoD assessed that Russia continues small-scale strikes (strikes using fewer than 25 munitions) with predictably less effect. Russia maintains the capability to renew such strikes though, if it so desired. Halushchenko stated that Ukraine has the flexibility to adjust Ukrainian energy exports if the situation changes.

The Kremlin is likely intensifying legal punishments for terrorism-related crimes as part of a larger effort to promote self-censorship and establish legal conditions for intensified domestic repressions. Duma Chairman of the Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption Vasily Piskarev stated on April 7 that the State Duma has introduced amendments to increase prison terms for committing acts of terrorism, assistance to terrorist activities or organizations or participation in a terrorist community, sabotage, and acts of international terrorism. Russian President Vladimir Putin also recently signed two bills expanding legal punishment for the discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine and for the misappropriation of Russian military assets, likely to promote sell-censorship and facilitate crackdowns on anti-war dissent. Russian sources have previously reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) is increasingly detaining Russian civilians under suspicions of financially assisting Ukrainian forces and that Russian authorities appear to be cracking down against bars in urban areas that host Russian civil society groups. The Kremlin has introduced indefinite terrorism warning regimes in occupied territories and maximum, medium, and elevated levels of martial law in many western Russian oblasts, and Russian authorities in these areas may more readily apply the expanded terrorism terms to further stifle resistance to occupation authorities as well as dissent in Russia itself.

Russian authorities are likely planning to further expand what they deem to be terroristic and extremist affiliations to encourage self-censorship. Duma Deputy Head of the Committee on Information Policy Oleg Matveichev stated on April 4 that he has prepared a bill to recognize feminism as an extremist ideology and argued that feminists overwhelmingly oppose the “military operation” in Ukraine. Matveichev argued that Ukrainian feminism consists of women serving together with men fighting against Russians and alleged that the woman accused of killing of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky) was motivated by feminist ideology. Matveichev has not specified how the bill would define feminism, and the bill may use a vague overarching definition in order to further promote widespread self-censorship. Russian authorities may increasingly portray other ideologies and groups not explicitly aligned with the Kremlin as being against the war in Ukraine in order to set conditions for increased crackdowns and self-censorship. Ukrainian “feminism” would appear to be giving Ukraine an advantage in this war since, as Matveichev notes, it has brought many talented and determined Ukrainian women into the fight.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be setting conditions for a false flag attack in Sumy Oblast. The Russian MoD claimed on April 8 that Ukrainian forces have been delivering dead bodies from morgues to Okhtyrka, Sumy Oblast and applying toxic chemicals to the remains and the area in order to allege that Russian forces used chemical weapons. Russian forces may be attempting to set informational conditions for future chemical weapons attacks in Sumy Oblast or to justify previous chemical weapons use, although ISW has not observed Russian forces recently using chemical weapons in the area. It is unclear what overarching effect the Kremlin intends to achieve with increasingly outlandish and ineffective Russian information operations alleging Ukrainian false flag attacks.

Key Takeaways

·       Ukrainian and Russian sources discussed the decreased rate of Russian offensive operations along the entire frontline on April 8, supporting ISW’s assessment that the overall Russian offensive is approaching culmination.

·       The dynamics of battlefield artillery usage in Ukraine reflect the fact that Russian forces are using artillery to offset their degraded offensive capabilities.

·       Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin launched a new effort likely aimed at protecting the influence the Russian pro-war faction within the Kremlin.

·       The “Club of Angry Patriot’s” reveals several key implications about the Kremlin dynamics and the perceived danger to Putin’s regime.

·       Girkin may be advancing the political goals of unnamed figures within Russian power structures possibly within the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

·       Russian nationalists seized on assassinated Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin’s funeral to promote pro-war narratives.

·       Russia’s missile campaign to degrade Ukraine’s unified energy infrastructure has failed definitively, and Russia appears to have abandoned the effort.

·       The Kremlin is likely intensifying legal punishments for terrorism-related crimes as part of a larger effort to promote self-censorship and establish legal conditions for intensified domestic repressions.

·       The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be setting conditions for a false flag attack in Sumy Oblast.

·       Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.

·       Russian forces have continued to make gains around Bakhmut, and tensions between the Wagner Group and conventional Russian forces over responsibility for tactical gains in Bakhmut appear to be intensifying.

·       Russian sources continued to speculate about the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, including hypothesizing about the possibility of a Ukrainian amphibious landing across the Kakhovka Reservoir.

·       The Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) on April 6 proposed a defense industrial base (DIB) deregulation reform that could expedite defense production but will more likely facilitate corruption and embezzlement.

·       Ukrainian officials reported that 31 children returned to Ukraine after having been deported to Russia as Russian officials continue to discuss the adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families.

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