April 7, 2023
Russian milbloggers responded with speculative anxiety to reportedly leaked (and possibly altered) classified US military documents about the war in Ukraine, indicating continued fear over the prospect of future Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Russian information space. The New York Times reported on April 6 that a slate of five-week-old, classified US military documents are circulating on various social media platforms, reportedly depicting operational reports and assessments of the capabilities of the Ukrainian military. Bellingcat analyst Aric Toler noted that the documents circulated online as early as March 4, and it remains unclear why these documents reached mainstream Western media over a month later. Clearly doctored versions of the documents which reduce reported Russian losses and inflate Ukrainian casualty numbers are additionally circulating on Russian Telegram channels.
Regardless of the veracity of the reportedly leaked documents, which ISW will not speculate on, the response of Russian milbloggers to the New York Times story highlights the fear of prospective Ukrainian counteroffensives pervading the Russian pro-war information space. While several prominent Russian milbloggers immediately rejected the validity of the documents and suggested that they are fakes, they fixated on the possibility that the released documents are disinformation intended to confuse and mislead Russian military command. One milblogger stated that the document leak could be part of a larger Ukrainian campaign to mislead Russian forces before a counteroffensive. Another Russian milblogger noted that there is historical precedent for militaries disseminating false planning information prior to starting surprise offensives. The milblogger urged their audience to be cautious in discussing where Ukrainian counteroffensives may take place due to document leak. The New York Times story has therefore exposed a significant point of neuralgia in the Russian information space, and responses to the documents suggest that Russian milbloggers may be increasingly reconsidering the validity of their own assessments and speculations regarding any potential Ukrainian counteroffensives and their ability to forecast Ukrainian operations.
The Kremlin continues to indicate that it is not interested in legitimate negotiations and places the onus for any negotiations on the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on April 7 that Russia does not refuse to negotiate but that negotiations can only be based on Russia’s claimed “legitimate” interests and concerns. Lavrov claimed the West has arrogantly ignored Russia’s interests ”with disdain.” The Kremlin retains Putin’s original maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine and maintains that Russia’s ”legitimate” interests include international recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, regime change in Kyiv under Russia‘s calls for ”denazification,” and the ”demilitarization” of Ukraine. Concerns about losing more occupied territory in Ukraine during an expected upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive may be prompting the Kremlin to intensify an ongoing information operation intended to pressure the West to offer preemptive concessions and coerce Ukraine into negotiations on conditions more favorable to Russia.
A Ukrainian official reported that Russian aviation units are changing tactics, possibly due to aviation losses and depleted stocks of high-precision weapons. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuri Ihnat reported on April 7 that Russian aviation units are reducing their operations in the immediate vicinity of Ukrainian positions and are increasingly relying on more remote aviation strikes with guided aerial bombs. Ihnat stated that Russian Su-35 aircraft can use these munitions from more than 50km away from the line of contact and that Ukrainian forces are unable to drive Russian aviation units away from Ukraine’s borders at this range. These modified aerial bombs are likely less precise than other munitions that Russian aviation units have previously used in Ukraine. Russian forces may be changing aviation tactics to mitigate the risk of further aviation losses by operating out of the range of most Ukrainian anti-aircraft and air defense systems, at the cost of the ability to conduct close air support.
Former Russian proxy commander and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin revealed on April 7 that a volunteer battalion that he previously actively promoted is essentially a sham. Girkin posted an angry rant to Telegram on April 7 claiming that the “Nevsky” volunteer battalion that he advertised throughout 2022 has deployed as a “brigade” consisting of three battalions and 1,186 total personnel. A single Russian battalion typically consists of around 800-900 personnel, so Girkin’s remark suggests that ”Nevsky’s” leadership sought to erroneously portray the volunteer battalion as a larger formation by designating it as a brigade. Girkin noted that ”’Nevsky” deployed to the frontline near Avdiivka with the forces of a ”reinforced company” without promised equipment or training and quickly found itself conducting costly assaults. Girkin accused ”Nevsky’s” commander of being more interested in ”political and commercial machinations” and suggested that ”Nevsky” was created for the sole purpose of generating profit. Girkin’s tirade against a formation that he once ardently supported suggests that even volunteer formations held in high regard face corruption and training issues that are endemic to the Russian force generation apparatus.
High-ranking Russian officials including ministers and department heads can reportedly only leave Russia with permission from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Independent Russian news outlet The Bell reported on April 7 that Mishustin restricted international travel by his subordinates to official business and with his permission. The Bell reported that employees of the presidential administration are not subject to the same travel restrictions. ISW previously reported that Russian security services are reportedly confiscating the passports of Russian officials, ex-officials, and state company executives to prevent flight from Russia.
- Russian milbloggers responded with speculative anxiety to reportedly leaked (and possibly altered) classified US military documents about the war in Ukraine, indicating continued fear over the prospect of future Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Russian information space.
- The Kremlin continues to indicate that it is not interested in legitimate negotiations while placing the onus for negotiations on the West.
- A Ukrainian official reported that Russian aviation units are changing tactics, possibly as a result of aviation losses and depleted stocks of high-precision weapons.
- High-ranking Russian officials reportedly can only leave Russia with permission from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
- Former Russian officer and prominent critical milblogger Igor Girkin revealed on April 7 that a volunteer battalion that he previously promoted is essentially a sham.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued advancing in and around Bakhmut and continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City frontline.
- Russian forces continue to build defenses in occupied Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts.
- Russian officials continue measures to support Russia’s ongoing spring conscription cycle amid continued crypto-mobilization efforts.
- Russian occupation officials are accelerating passportization efforts in occupied Ukraine.