December 20, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  Russian forces advance north of Bakhmut

Institute for the Study of War

Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill made a series of anti-migrant and xenophobic remarks that directly contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to reestablish the inclusive Russian World (Russkiy Mir) ideology. During the Moscow Diocesan Assembly on December 20, Kirill blamed migrants for increasingly threatening interreligious and interethnic peace in Russia by refusing to integrate into Russian society and forming criminal and extremist organizations. Kirill added that life for the ethnically Russian “indigenous population” is almost unbearable in some areas, including Moscow, claiming that if such trends continue then the Russian Orthodox people will “lose Russia.” Kirill’s statements contrast with Putin’s recent efforts to present himself as a centrist figure and to reestablish the concept of the Russian World, which includes all people of different ethnicities and religious affiliations who have lived or are living in geographical areas that belonged to Ancient Rus (Kyivan Rus), the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation. Putin notably also stated during the Meeting of the Council of Legislators on December 20 that the Russian constitution and government are trying to ensure harmony in a diverse and large Russia – reemphasizing his efforts to present Russia as an inclusive and harmonious multicultural Russian state.

Putin, on the one hand, has been increasingly reimagining himself as a modern tsar who is defending Russian sovereignty to justify his war in Ukraine and to appease his ultranationalist constituencies who tend to have more intolerant views on religion and Russian identity. But Putin has, on the other hand, been trying to seem to be an inclusive leader to incentivize all religious and ethnic groups to support his regime and war efforts. ISW assessed on November 28 that Kirill’s anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric is more closely aligned with Russian government policies towards migrants and non-Russian ethnicities in Russia than Putin’s more inclusive rhetoric in the context of the Russian World. These narratives and policies are thus contradictory and may ultimately complicate Putin’s efforts to appease different constituency groups in Russia and may trigger further interethnic and interreligious conflicts.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov explicitly stated that the Kremlin is uninterested in negotiations with Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin is moving away from its information operation meant to feign interest in negotiations. Peskov responded to a question on December 20 about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s December 19 statement that the issue of negotiations with Russia is currently “irrelevant,” stating that the Kremlin has repeatedly said that there is no “basis” or “foundation” for negotiations with Ukraine. Peskov also stated that the “prerequisites” for negotiations are absent, likely referring to Russia‘s unchanged maximalist objectives in Ukraine – which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender. ISW has long assessed that the Kremlin does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine or the West in good faith. The Kremlin previously pushed information operations feigning interest in negotiations with Ukraine in order to cast itself as a responsible party and blame Ukraine for refusing “reasonable” Russian negotiations, but the Kremlin appears to be moving away from this information operation, as ISW suggested on December 15.

Key Takeaways:

  • Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill made a series of anti-migrant and xenophobic remarks that directly contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to reestablish the inclusive Russian World (Russkiy Mir) ideology.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov explicitly stated that the Kremlin is uninterested in negotiations with Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin is moving away from its information operation meant to feign interest in negotiations.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled Africa Corps announced a recruitment campaign targeting former and current Wagner Group personnel and people with combat experience in the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed bilateral economic cooperation with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 20.
  • Moscow State University (MGU) is reportedly ending its master’s program in “information and hybrid warfare” aimed at teaching students how to create information operations and conduct hybrid warfare, generating outrage from Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
  • The Kremlin continues to set conditions to create a veneer of legitimacy over the upcoming March 2024 presidential election.
  • Russian forces made a confirmed advance north of Bakhmut and continued positional meeting engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian officials issued military summonses to migrants at a naturalization ceremony on December 20 as part of ongoing efforts to target naturalized migrants for crypto-mobilization efforts and to placate the Russian ultranationalist community.
  • Russian occupation administrators continue to use educational organizations to facilitate the temporary deportation of Ukrainians to Russia.

For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-december-20-2023

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