April 14, 2023
The Kremlin is likely attempting to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China ahead of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s visit to Moscow from April 16 to 18. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 14 that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu will meet with Li to discuss bilateral defense cooperation as well as issues of regional and global security. Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang stated on April 14 that China will not sell weapons to Russia and will regulate the export of items to Russia that have dual civilian and military uses. Qin‘s comments represent a continuation of China’s efforts to rhetorically downplay its support for Russia and demonstrate that there are limits to the ”no limits” partnership that Russia and China declared before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. ISW assessed that Putin was unable to secure the no-limits bilateral partnership with China that he likely hoped for when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow from March 20 to 22.
The Kremlin is likely hoping to make itself more attractive to China by launching Russian Pacific Fleet exercises to project Russia’s naval power in the Pacific. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on April 14 that the Russian military raised the Pacific Fleet of the Eastern Military District (EMD) to the highest level of combat readiness for combat readiness checks. Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, also stated that elements of the Pacific Fleet will conduct combat exercises. The Russian Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks are likely meant to signal to China that Russia supports Chinese security objectives in the Pacific and that Russia remains an equal military partner that can operate as a Pacific power despite the degradation of Russian military power in Ukraine.
The Kremlin also likely intends to use the Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks to attempt to deter further Japanese support for Ukraine ahead of the G7 meeting from May 19 to 21. Shoigu stated on April 14 that Russian forces declared that combat readiness checks are intended to work out methods to prevent enemy forces from deploying in the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk and to repel a landing on the southern Kuril and Sakhalin islands, both signals to Japan (which claims part of the archipelago that the Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II). Russia‘s Eastern Military District (EMD) recently deployed a battery of Bastion coastal defense missile systems to Paramushir Island in the northern portion of the Russian-occupied Japanese Kuril Islands, which ISW assessed was likely a warning to Japan about further supporting Ukraine. Russia likely intends to use military posturing in the north Pacific to raise fears about military escalation with Japan in an increased effort to prevent Japan from further supporting Ukraine when it hosts the G7 meeting in Hiroshima. Russia has employed similar information operations and demonstrative actions against the West aimed at preventing further Western security assistance to Ukraine by stoking concerns about escalation, although these efforts have never presaged any real escalation.
The Russian military is in no position to threaten Japan at this time. ISW previously reported that elements of the 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades of the Pacific Fleet suffered heavy losses near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast in early 2023 and in late 2022, with the 155th being reconstituted as many as eight times in the past year. The Pacific Fleet likely lacks the available combat power in the Pacific region to posture in a way that would be truly threatening to Japan or suitable for Russia power projection attempts that would be able to convince China that it is an equal military power.
It is noteworthy that Prigozhin – one of most extreme thought leaders among Russia’s pro-war faction – considers that Russia can incur a defeat in Ukraine and that such a defeat in the short run would actually benefit Russia.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is setting information conditions to exploit a Russian military failure if the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful. Prigozhin published an essay on April 14 in which he argues that Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive is more likely to succeed than fail. Prigozhin warned that a selfish Russian “deep state” (which he defines as “a community of near-state elites that operate independently of the political leadership of the state and have close ties and their own agenda”) is currently in crisis due to the Russian military’s failures to secure a victory quickly. Prigozhin accused members of this deep state embedded in the Russian bureaucracy of deliberately sabotaging Russian success in the war because they seek to resume their privileged lives of comfort. Prigozhin stated that these Russian deep state “internal enemies” will push the Kremlin to “make serious concessions” tantamount to “betraying Russian interests,” including even possibly returning occupied Ukrainian territory to Ukraine over the course of a few years.
Prigozhin explicitly rejected the notion of any negotiations to end the war and urged Russians to continue fighting, even if it results in Russia’s temporary defeat. Prigozhin stated that Russia must ignore the Russian deep state’s temptations to cut Russian losses and settle. Prigozhin stated the Russian military cannot stop fighting now despite current Russian territorial gains because the Ukrainian state has transformed, and unoccupied Ukraine is now politically opposed the Kremlin. Prigozhin stated that Russia must continue to fight relentlessly in Ukraine regardless of how adverse conditions become. He stated that any scenario in which Russia faces defeat will result in a groundswell of “radical national feelings” in Russia that will serve as the catalyst for a reinvigorated Russian patriotism and enable the Russian nation to undergo the baptism by fire necessary to emerge victorious and defeat Ukraine. Prigozhin’s essay is thematically and logistical consistent with his previous stated effort to transform Wagner Group into a hardline ideological elite parallel military organization to advance Russian interests.
The Russian nationalist discourse about the acceptability of Russia suffering defeat in Ukraine deviates from some Western assertions of the need to preserve Russia from humiliation and allow Russia to “save face.” Prigozhin’s argument that the Kremlin must resist the temptation to settle and instead remain committed to winning in Ukraine is not compatible with the idea that the Kremlin must be given a way to save face lest it conduct a massive, possibly nuclear, escalation. It is noteworthy that Prigozhin – one of most extreme thought leaders among Russia’s pro-war faction – considers that Russia can incur a defeat in Ukraine and that such a defeat in the short run would actually benefit Russia. Prigozhin’s comments, together with those of other radical pro-war voices, highlight the priority that the pro-war community places on galvanizing Russian society and energizing it for a long fight against the West. That agenda is not advanced by courting thermonuclear destruction.
Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin denied speculations that he is facing charges in St. Petersburg for the discreditation of the Russian Armed Forces – a denial that likely further indicates his protection by unknown siloviki patrons. A Russian news aggregator claimed on April 14 that a Novosibirsk resident asked the St. Petersburg Investigative Committee to investigate Girkin’s social media content for discreditation of Russian forces – a crime punishable by a fine of up to five million rubles ($65,530), up to five years of correctional or forced labor, or up to seven years in prison. Girkin denied receiving a criminal charge notice, claiming that he will not alter his behavior and is not intimidated by authorities. Girkin denied receiving any charges from the Russian Ministry of Interior (MVD) and hypothesized that the MVD could ”theoretically” investigate him for discreditation. Girkin added that if someone has the ”political will” then he could be framed for humanitarian aid fraud. Girkin noted that everyone will soon find out if the “authorities are ready to stop [him].” Girkin’s response is consistent with his ruthless criticisms of the Kremlin and may indicate that he likely continues to benefit from some protection from within the Russian force structures – the siloviki. Girkin has every reason to believe that he would be convicted without such protection, as his vitriolic assaults on the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine almost self-evidently violate the discreditation law.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to apply pressure on Girkin’s patronage networks by responding to accusations against Girkin. Prigozhin stated that Girkin would not be recruited into Wagner as Wagner is no longer recruiting prisoners – likely implying that Girkin would remain in prison for his behavior. While it is unclear if Prigozhin or Wagner-affiliated figures are involved in sparking an investigation against Girkin, it is notable that the complaint was filed in St. Petersburg – a city where Prigozhin has connections and a city where Prigozhin is attempting to push his political aspirations. Girkin is reportedly based out of Moscow, which makes the St. Petersburg venue of the complaint more unusual. Prigozhin and Girkin have a history of personal attacks and feuds, and Prigozhin may want to expose or strain Girkin’s patronage networks, which are allowing him to be unscathed despite ongoing censorship measures in Russia. ISW also previously assessed that Prigozhin and Girkin are likely competing for influence and patronage within the pro-war faction, and a public investigation into Girkin might burden Girkin’s patrons as they attempt to deflect or quash these accusations.
Russian elite forces are diluting their combat effectiveness with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high causalities sustained in Ukraine. The Washington Post reported that leaked classified US intelligence documents revealed that Russia’s 22nd Separate Guards Special Purpose (SPETSNAZ) Brigade (Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff) and two other unspecified SPETSNAZ brigades suffered an estimated 90-95% attrition rate in Ukraine. The Washington Post also reported that the 346th SPETSNAZ Brigade lost almost its entire complement, with only 125 servicemen remaining active out of 900 initially deployed. These high casualty rates suggest that Russia’s most elite forces – Airborne and SPETSNAZ forces – are likely no longer elite. Russian forces have recently deployed elements of airborne brigades and SPETSNAZ formations to frontline areas in Ukraine that operate as volunteer battalions or that are almost entirely comprised of mobilized personnel. It is highly unlikely that mobilized personnel or volunteers received training on how to conduct aerial landing operations and special forces operations, which would suggest that these Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) and SPETSNAZ elements do not differ markedly from other combat ineffective Russian formations staffed by mobilized personnel or volunteers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely host his annual June press conference in early June 2023. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced on April 14 that the Kremlin expects to hold the “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” a live forum at which Putin addresses questions from the Russian public, on an unspecified date likely in June 2023. Putin cancelled his “Direct Line” in 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as in 2020 due to COVID-19. Putin notably cancelled his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly in December 2022 and regurgitated boilerplate rhetoric at his annual New Year’s speech, indicating that Putin was uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space amidst criticism of the Russian military’s performance in the war. This year’s event will likely be highly filtered to support Putin’s current rhetorical lines and avoid exposing any challenges to the Kremlin or to Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian State Duma is intensifying its efforts to censor Russian cultural figures who fled Russia and criticize the war, likely aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship. Russian State Duma Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy announced on April 14 that the State Duma has created a working group to find a “fair solution” to prevent these cultural figures as well as designated foreign agents from receiving income from creative endeavors in Russia. Tolstoy claimed that some deputies are making “radical proposals…because it’s not worth making money in a country that you hate.” Prior Duma proposals included withholding state funding, royalty payments, advertising revenue and copyrights, and confiscating the property of Russians who fled. State Duma Vice Speaker Irina Yarovaya chairs the committee, and other members include Tolstoy and the chairs of the State Duma committees for Security and Anti-Corruption, State Building and Legislation, Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications, and Culture. Measures that punish Russians abroad or foreign agents for criticizing the war in Ukraine also demonstrate to domestic audiences the range of punishments they may also suffer for airing their own criticisms.
- The Kremlin is likely attempting to portray Russia as an equal defense partner with China ahead of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s visit to Moscow from April 16 to 18.
- The Kremlin is likely hoping to make itself more attractive to China by launching Russian Pacific Fleet exercises to project Russia’s naval power in the Pacific.
- The Kremlin also likely intends to use the Pacific Fleet’s combat readiness checks to attempt to deter further Japanese support for Ukraine ahead of the G7 meeting from May 19 to 21.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is setting information conditions to exploit a Russian military failure if the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful.
- Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin denied speculations that he is facing charges in St. Petersburg for the discreditation of the Russian Armed Forces – a denial that likely further indicates his protection by unknown siloviki patrons.
- Russian elite forces are diluting their combat effectiveness with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high causalities sustained in Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely host his annual June press conference in early June 2023.
- The Russian State Duma is intensifying its efforts to censor of Russian cultural figures who fled Russia and criticize the war, likely aimed at encouraging domestic self-censorship.
- Russian forces continued limited offensive operations in the Kreminna area as Ukrainian forces targeted rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to advance in Bakhmut and conduct ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russian forces continue to endanger the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) amidst continued Russian efforts to establish control over the ZNPP.
- The Kremlin reportedly continues to use private military companies (PMCs) and nationalist networks to support its force generation campaigns.
- Russian security personnel continue to arrest Ukrainian citizens under allegations that they associate with claimed illegal formations.