September 8, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia rejects EU concessions aimed at freeing Ukraine grain shipments

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces have reportedly made notable changes to their command and control (C2) in Ukraine to protect command infrastructure and improve information sharing, although Russian force deployments are likely still exacerbating issues with horizontal integration. Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) Deputy Director of Analysis Magarita Konaev and CSET Fellow Owen Daniels stated on September 6 that Russian forces moved headquarters out of range of most Ukrainian strike systems and have placed forward command posts further underground and behind heavily defended positions.[1] It is unclear if Russian forces have employed this more protected command infrastructure throughout Ukraine and to what degree these defensive efforts have impeded Ukraine’s ongoing interdiction campaign.[2] Konaev and Daniels stated that Russian forces have improved communications between command posts and units at the front by laying field cables and using safer radio communications.[3] The Royal United Services Insitute (RUSI) stated on September 4 that Russian forces are also trying to improve signals through the wider use of application-based C2 services that require less training.[4] Konaev and Daniels noted that signals at the battalion level downward are still often unencrypted and that Russian personnel still frequently communicate sensitive information through unsecure channels.[5]

Konaev and Daniels concluded that Russian forces still face challenges creating a horizontally integrated command structure to share information across different units in real time, a challenge the Russian military previously identified which has been exacerbated by Russia’s current force structure in Ukraine.[6] The Russian force grouping in Ukraine is comprised of both regular and irregular units, often deployed together and separate from their respective parent formations, further complicating efforts to horizontally integrate units. Russian forces in western Zaporizhia Oblast, for example, are notably comprised of elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District), Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), Spetsnaz, naval infantry, irregular volunteer battalions, and brigades entirely made up of mobilized personnel.[7] Russian command is likely struggling to share information and create a common command space across these widely disparate forces defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

Artillery constraints in Ukraine are reportedly prompting the Russian military to accelerate longstanding efforts to implement a fires doctrine prioritizing accuracy over volume. Konaev and Daniels stated that Russian forces have tightened the link between reconnaissance systems and artillery units to improve fire accuracy, as Russian forces face growing constraints on their ability to leverage mass indirect fire.[8] RUSI noted on September 4 that Russian commanders are doubling down on the need to prioritize the development of a reconnaissance fires complex (RFC) due to assessing that existing Russian fires doctrine, which heavily relies on a high volume of fires and pre-established calculations of the density of fires needed to achieve certain effects, without a reliable system of rapid battle damage assessment is non-viable.[9] Russian forces have long sought to implement the concept of RFC prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which dictates that Russian forces employ high-precision, long-range weapons linked to real-time intelligence data and precise targeting provided by an intelligence and fire-direction center.[10] RUSI added that Russian forces are prioritizing strike accuracy over volume because they lack the ammunition to sustain mass indirect fires, have difficulties transporting a large volume of ammunition to the frontline, and see diminishing effectiveness with mass strikes.[11] Russia is also reportedly increasing the production of Krasnopol laser-guided shells and Lancet drones (loitering munitions) to increase fires accuracy.[12] Russian units at the front are rapidly learning and innovating, but their ability to fully implement the desired RFC will likely be constrained by their ability to issue improved communications systems — and provide necessary training — to forces in combat.

Russian forces are additionally reportedly adapting their deployment of electronic warfare (EW) complexes. Konaev and Daniels stated that Russian forces have dispersed their deployment of EW complexes since spring 2022 from a concentration of roughly 10 EW complexes for every 20 kilometers of the frontline to 1 major EW system every 10 kilometers, with additional supporting EW assets deployed as needed.[13] The dispersal of these EW assets suggests that Russian forces have improved the coverage that a single EW complex provides, although Konaev and Daniels noted that the systems still have issues with limited coverage and EW fratricide.[14] RUSI stated that Russian forces are dispersing Pole-21 systems and treating them as disposable EW systems in order to provide wide-area protection from Ukrainian drone strikes.[15] Russian sources particularly credited superior Russian EW capabilities for aiding Russian forces’ successful defense against the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine in June.[16] Konaev and Daniels added that these EW systems continue to present challenges for Ukrainian drones transmitting targeting information and securing Ukrainian signals.[17]

Ukrainian forces reportedly continued to advance south of Bakhmut and south of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed gains on September 8. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing to advance south of Bakhmut and achieved unspecified successes south of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv).[18] One Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced north of Andriivka (9km southwest of Bakhmut) and in Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut), although another milblogger noted that the situation in Klishchiivka is unclear at this time.[19] Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces seized positions on the northwestern outskirts of Novomayorske (18km southwest of Velyka Novosilka) on the Donetsk–Zaporizhia Oblast border.[20]

Russian forces conducted another series of Shahed-131/136 drone strikes targeting Odesa Oblast on the night of September 7–8. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on September 8 that Ukrainian forces downed 16 of 20 Shahed drones that Russian forces launched at grain and port infrastructure in Odesa Oblast.[21] Ukrainian Southern Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are launching drone strikes from Crimea in order to bypass Ukrainian air defenses.[22] Humenyuk also noted that the number of drones that Russian forces have launched and markings on the drones indicate that Russia has established domestic drone production.[23] ISW reported on September 6 that Russian authorities intend to expand domestic drone production beyond the Alabuga Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the Tatarstan Republic into the Bashkortostan Republic.[24] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian forces may increase the frequency of drone strikes on Ukraine.[25] Romanian news agency Digi24 reported on September 8 that the Romanian National Committee for Emergency Situations authorized the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations to issue warning and alarm messages where there are Russian drone attacks in the area.[26]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly rejected an offer from the UN Secretariat that met many of Russia’s stated demands to rejoin the Black Sea Grain Initiative on September 6, indicating that the Kremlin is either delaying its return to the grain deal in an attempt to extract maximum concessions from the West or has no intention whatsoever of returning to the grain deal. Lavrov stated on September 6 that the Russian government received a letter from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres offering several concessions in exchange for the resumption of the grain deal.[27] Lavrov stated and Reuters reported that the concessions in the letter included: reconnection to SWIFT for a Russian Agricultural Bank subsidiary in Luxembourg within 30 days, the creation of an insurance platform for Russian cargo and ships against Ukrainian strikes in the Azov and Black seas; the unblocking of Russian fertilizer assets in the EU, and approval for Russian ships carrying food and fertilizers to dock in European ports.[28] Lavrov publicly dismissed the UN Secretariat’s offer as a “workaround” that does not create a real solution to the problem.[29] Guterres stated on September 7 that the UN is “actively engaged” in attempting to improve Russia’s grain and fertilizer exports in order to convince Moscow to allow the safe export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.[30] Reuters confirmed the existence of the letter and its contents on September 8.[31] The UN‘s letter notably offers concessions to most of the previously expressed Russian demands, with the exception of the renewal of operations for the Togliatti–Odesa ammonia pipeline as Lavrov noted on September 6.[32] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin likely views the Black Sea Grain Initiative as one of its few remaining avenues of leverage against the West and has withdrawn from the deal and engaged in escalatory rhetoric to extract extensive concessions.[33]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated boilerplate rhetoric justifying the current war in Ukraine while commemorating a Soviet military victory during the Second World War on September 8. Putin claimed that soldiers of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR and LNR) militias inherited their courage and resilience from ancestors who fought to recapture Donbas in the Second World War and reamplified the narrative falsely portraying the current Ukrainian government as “Nazis.”[34] Putin’s September 8 speech is a continuation of the rhetoric from his September 5 speech invoking the memory of significant Soviet military victories to set ideological conditions for a prolonged war effort.[35]

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) directly responded to recent indications that the Armenian government may be questioning its decades-long security relationship with Russia. The Russian MFA claimed on September 8 that it observed doubts within Armenian official circles and political elite about Armenian bilateral ties with Russia, trilateral Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani ties, and ties to the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The MFA claimed that Armenian leadership has conducted “unfriendly actions,” including indicators that ISW recently identified: the provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the visit of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s wife Anna Hakobyan to deliver the humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and Armenia’s decision to host joint military exercises with the United States.[36] The MFA also criticized Armenian leadership for moving to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) Rome Statute and stated that it issued a formal protest to the Armenian Ambassador to Russia, Vagharshak Harutyunyan, in response to these “unfriendly actions.”[37] The MFA’s direct response to these events indicates that Russian anger over indications of Armenian dissatisfaction with Russian security guarantees are not confined to the Russian ultranationalist information space but includes the Russian government.[38]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a new security assistance package on September 7, providing Ukraine with $600 million worth of military equipment.[39] The DoD reported that the package includes: equipment to sustain Ukraine’s air defense systems, additional ammunition for HIMARS systems, 105mm artillery rounds, electronic warfare and counter–electronic warfare equipment, demolition munitions for obstacle clearing, mine-clearing equipment, and support and equipment for training, maintenance, and sustainment activities.

Unknown Russian actors may be helping Russian officials to censor Russian milbloggers who have previously criticized the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine. Supporters of imprisoned former Russian officer and ultranationalist Igor Girkin amplified an appeal from a Russian milblogger and serviceman Mikhail Polynkov who claimed that unknown individuals hacked into and stole access to his Telegram channel.[40] Polynkov claimed that these hackers began to impersonate him and are writing social media posts that contradict his opinions. Polynkov added that the hackers also published a post attacking another prominent milblogger (who advocates for veteran rights), unlisted many of his popular posts, and are trying to find information to blackmail him and his affiliates. Polynkov claimed that these hackers are not ordinary thieves who are attempting to scam his audience for money but instead are individuals who disagreed with his criticism of the Kremlin. ISW has recently observed several crackdowns against Russian ultranationalist veterans who consistently criticized the Kremlin likely as part of a centralized effort to silence some critical milblogger voices.[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces have reportedly made notable changes to their command and control (C2) in Ukraine to protect command infrastructure and improve information sharing, although Russian force deployments are likely still exacerbating issues with horizontal integration.
  • Artillery constraints in Ukraine are reportedly prompting the Russian military to accelerate longstanding efforts to implement a fires doctrine prioritizing accuracy over volume.
  • Russian forces are additionally reportedly adapting their deployment of electronic warfare (EW) complexes.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly continued to advance south of Bakhmut and south of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed gains on September 8.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of Shahed-131/136 drone strikes targeting Odesa Oblast on the night of September 7–8.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly rejected an incredibly favorable offer from the UN Secretariat that met many of Russia’s stated demands to rejoin the Black Sea Grain Initiative on September 6, indicating that the Kremlin is either delaying its return to the grain deal in an attempt to extract maximum concessions from the West or has no intention whatsoever of returning to the grain deal.
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) directly responded to recent indications that the Armenian government may be questioning its decades-long security relationship with Russia.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line, near Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line but did not make any confirmed advances on September 8.
  • The New York Times (NYT) — citing Western, African, and Russian sources — reported that Russian intelligence structures are competing for control of the Wagner Group’s assets and operations in Africa.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to hold illegal regional elections in occupied Ukraine. Russian occupation officials in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts announced the start of in-person voting in occupied territories on September 8.
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