October 24, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Russian missile, drone attacks down — is it due to waning stockpiles?

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin intensified its information operation to accuse Ukraine of preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb for a second day in a row on October 24. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov separately called his counterparts from the United Kingdom and United States about the “situation connected with Ukraine’s possible use of a dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material that is not a nuclear weapon) on October 24.[1] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made similar calls with his counterparts from the United Stated, United Kingdom, France, and Turkey on October 23.[2] The Chief of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Forces, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, gave a lengthy briefing accusing Ukraine of planning a dirty bomb false-flag provocation to accuse Russia of detonating a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine on October 24.[3] Russian military bloggers are amplifying this information operation.[4] ISW assesses the Kremlin is unlikely to be preparing an imminent false-flag dirty bomb attack.[5]

Russian forces conducted air, missile, and drone strikes against targets in Ukraine at a markedly slower tempo than in previous days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 24 that Russian forces conducted 2 missile and 28 air strikes, and Ukrainian forces shot down 16 Shahed-136 drones on October 23.[6] The slower tempo of Russian air, missile, and drone strikes possibly reflects decreasing missile and drone stockpiles and the strikes’ limited effectiveness of accomplishing Russian strategic military goals.

Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, stated on October 24 that the impact of Russian terrorist strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure is waning as Russian forces further deplete their limited arsenal of cruise missiles.[7] Budanov stated that Russian forces have stopped targeting Ukraine’s military infrastructure, instead aiming for civilian infrastructure to incite panic and fear in Ukrainians. Budanov noted, however, that Russian forces will fail as Ukrainians are better adapted to strategic bombing than at the beginning of the war. Budanov claimed that Russian forces have used most of their cruise missile arsenal and only have 13 percent of their pre-war Iskander, 43 percent of Kaliber, and 45 percent of Kh-101 and Kh-555 pre-war stockpiles left, supporting ISW’s prior reports on dwindling Russian precision-guided munition stockpiles.[8] Budanov noted that Russian cruise missiles lack precision, as a missile likely intended to hit the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building in Kyiv missed its target by 800 meters. Budanov stated that Russia’s dwindling supply of cruise missiles is forcing the Russian military to rely on Iranian drones but that Iranian suppliers only send 300 drones per shipment and that the drones take a long time to manufacture. Budanov stated that Ukrainian air defenses shoot down 70 percent of all Shahed-136 drones, including 222 of the 330 Russia has used so far. It is impossible to assess the degree to which ongoing unrest and growing strikes in Iran might interfere with Tehran’s ability to manufacture and ship drones to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts on September 30 ignited a schism within the Kremlin, which will likely intensify as Ukraine liberates more territories, according to Budanov. Budanov stated that Kremlin elites largely did not support Putin’s decision to annex Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts prior to securing those territories, prompting many officials to contact their Western counterparts to express their disinterest in continuing the war in Ukraine.[9] Budanov claimed that some Kremlin officials began advocating for negotiations with Ukraine to their Western counterparts while the Russian military-political command plotted missile strikes to scare Ukrainians into negotiations. Budanov‘s statement is consistent with the influx of Western reports about direct criticism of Putin within the Kremlin less than a week after the annexation announcement around October 6.[10] Wagner Group­–affiliated Telegram channels also noted the emergence of the pro-war and pro-negotiations factions within the Kremlin within the same timeframe.[11] Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin has been consistently referencing the factionalization within the Kremlin since, even explicitly stating that he is part of the “war until victory” faction.[12] These observations raise the possibility that hints from insiders of a Kremlin readiness to engage in serious negotiations may not reflect Putin’s own views or any decisions he has taken but may instead be part of efforts by those who have lost the internal argument with him to persuade the West and Ukraine to offer concessions in hopes of bringing him around to their point of view.

Prigozhin continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces, which may come to pose a threat to Putin’s rule — at least within the information space. Russian milbloggers reported that Prigozhin is sponsoring the formation of a Wagner-based volunteer battalion recruited by a Russian war criminal and former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin.[13] Girkin is an avid critic of the Russian higher military command and a prominent figure among the Russian ultra-nationalists who participated in the annexation of Crimea or the illegal Russian seizures of Ukrainian territory in Donbas in 2014. Milbloggers noted that the structure of the Russian Armed Forces has long prevented Girkin from forming his own volunteer battalion due to lack of supplies and other bureaucratic restrictions, while Prigozhin has the luxury to operate Wagner forces without the direct supervision of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Milbloggers also noted that the Prigozhin-Girkin collaboration is likely making a large nationalist constituency accessible to Prigozhin in support of his maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine.[14]

Prigozhin holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space that allows him to expand his constituency in Russia more readily than the disgraced Russian higher military command. Prigozhin can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.[15] Putin depends on Wagner forces in Bakhmut and is likely attempting to appease Prigozhin despite the fact that Prigozhin is undermining the conventional Russian military. Prigozhin, for example, sarcastically stated in an interview that he is constructing the “Wagner Line” in an effort to make Russian Armed Forces that “hide behind Wagner’s backs” feel safe.[16] Prigozhin also frequently levies his critiques of the Russian military in interviews with Russian online publications and among Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels, which allow him to reach and interact with audiences inaccessible to the Russian MoD, which is restricted in its public statements and means of communication. Prigozhin also benefits from holding no formal position of responsibility. He is not in command of any axis in Ukraine nor in charge of any major bureaucratic effort. He can critique those who are in positions of authority freely without fear that anyone can point to something he was specifically responsible for that he failed to achieve.

Prigozhin has seemingly distanced himself from a fellow strongman, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, after their joint critiques of the Russian higher military command on October 1 drew much attention.[17] This rhetorical shift may indicate that Kadyrov is losing influence and standing and may fear losing his control over the Republic of Chechnya amid the Chechen public’s growing disapproval of his demands in support of Putin’s war.[18]

Racism and bigotry continue to plague the Russian Armed Forces, increasing the likelihood of ethnic conflicts. Russian social media footage showed a Russian officer beating a Muslim soldier for attempting to pray at a certain time.[19] While Russian milbloggers denied the authenticity of the footage, previous instances of violence along religious or ethnic lines, such as the shooting on a Belgorod Oblast training ground on October 15, indicate that such problems will intensify throughout time.[20] Racial and religious tensions may also help explain Kadyrov’s relative quieting and Prigozhin’s apparent separation from him.

Russian forces are likely preparing to defend Kherson City and are not fully withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast despite previous confirmed reports of some Russian elements withdrawing from upper Kherson.[21] Budanov stated on October 24 that Russian forces are not retreating from Kherson City but are instead preparing the city for urban combat.[22] This report is consistent with indicators that ISW has observed in late October.[23] Recent reporting about Russian military operations in Kherson have not always distinguished clearly enough between activities in Kherson City and those in western Kherson Oblast generally. Russian forces have begun a partial withdrawal from northwestern Kherson Oblast even while preparing to defend Kherson City. They have not launched into a full withdrawal from the city or the oblast as of this report.

The Russian position in upper Kherson Oblast is, nevertheless, likely untenable; and Ukrainian forces will likely capture upper Kherson Oblast by the end of 2022. A Russian milblogger stated that Russia’s surrender even of Kherson City is overdue, as an attempt to hold the city will likely result in defeat.[24] This milblogger argued that if Russia’s military command decides to wage the war in Ukraine to a successful end, then the surrender of Kherson City is “nothing terrible” in the long run. The Russian military likely has not prepared the information space for a military defeat in Kherson Oblast as of October 24. A Russian milblogger wrote that his Russian military contacts in Kherson Oblast do not want to nor plan to retreat.[25] Russian media has not discussed the possibility of a major military loss in Kherson Oblast besides promoting information operations about a Ukrainian false-flag attack against the Kakhova Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) Dam.[26]

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces have not yet laid enough explosives to fully destroy the HPP Dam as of October 24.[27] Budanov observed that the Russians have prepared parts of the dam for limited explosions that would not unleash the full force of the reservoir’s waters. The Russians may seek to damage the top portion of the dam, including the road that runs across it, to prevent the Ukrainians from following after retreating Russian forces if and when the Russians abandon the western bank of the Dnipro River.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin intensified its information operation to accuse Ukraine of preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb for a second day in a row.
  • Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Major General Kyrylo Budanov stated on October 24 that the impact of Russian terrorist strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure is waning.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts on September 30 ignited a schism within the Kremlin, which will likely intensify as Ukraine liberates more territories according to Budanov.
  • Prigozhin continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces, which may come to pose a threat to Putin’s rule – at least within the information space.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing to defend Kherson City and are not fully withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast despite previous confirmed reports of some Russian elements withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff confirmed that Ukrainian forces captured Karmazynivka, Miasozharivka, and Nevske in Luhansk Oblast and Novosadove in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Kursk Oblast Govenor Roman Starovoit announced the completion of the construction of two reinforced defense lines on the border with Ukraine on October 23 — likely an act of security theater designed to target a domestic Russian audience since there is no danger whatsoever of a Ukrainian mechanized invasion of Russia.
  • Wagner Group financer Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner Group ground operations around Bakhmut as Russian forces continued to lose ground near the city.
  • Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian force concentrations near the Zaporizhia Oblast front line on October 23–24 and struck a Russian force and equipment concentration in the vicinity of Enerhodar on October 22.
  • Hurried Russian mobilization efforts to fix personnel shortages on the front lines have cannibalized the Russian force-generation staff and diminished Russia’s ability to effectively train and deploy new personnel and to staff domestic industries.
  • Occupation administration officials have taken down communications systems in Kherson City in an attempt to limit civilian reporting on Russian positions to Ukrainian forces ahead of anticipated Ukrainian advances.

(For full report: https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-24)

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