July 29, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:Russian war reporters stop criticizing Russian tactics, focus only on Ukraine setbacks

Institute for the Study of War

Segments of the Russian pro-war ultranationalist information space appear to be coalescing around the Kremlin’s narrative effort to portray the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure, increasingly overstating Ukrainian losses and writing less about Russia’s losses and challenges than they had been. Prominent Russian milbloggers have been increasingly presenting Ukrainian counteroffensive operations inaccurately as a series of failed Ukrainian assaults along the entire line of contact. Russian milbloggers widely amplified footage on July 29 claiming that it showed a single Russian tank defeating an entire Ukrainian company with armored vehicles as if the event had occurred recently, but the footage is actually from June 7 and shows Russian artillery units striking the Ukrainian column. Russian sources have previously recirculated old footage to support claims that Ukrainian forces are suffering significant armored vehicle losses, and the amplification of the footage on July 29 indicates that Russian sources are deliberately amplifying old footage to support the Kremlin narrative. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed that Ukrainian forces lost 39 armored vehicles in a few days of fighting in western Zaporizhia Oblast, a notable inflection in his exaggeration of Ukrainian losses during the Ukrainian counteroffensive. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin is likely shifting its policy about the coverage of the war to downplay the possibilities of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and to promote itself as an effective manager of the war effort. Russian milbloggers continue to report on localized Ukrainian advances and some issues with Russian defensive operations, but the pro-war Russian information space’s wider operational framing of the Ukrainian counteroffensive aligns with the likely shift in the Kremlin’s portrayal of the counteroffensive.

Select Russian milbloggers may be shaping their depiction of the wider Ukrainian counteroffensive for fear of Kremlin punishment following the arrest of prominent pro-war critic Igor Girkin. A Russian insider source claimed on July 28 that sources within the presidential administration stated that the Kremlin recently encouraged Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers to reduce their coverage of the war in Ukraine in general and to post more positive content on topics of nationalistic pride. ISW has not observed Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers reducing their coverage of the war, although Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers have begun to argue more emphatically that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is a failure. The arrest of notable critics of the Russian war effort in Ukraine such as Girkin along with ongoing Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) efforts to consolidate control over the Russian information space may be prompting select milbloggers to align their portrayal of the war with the Kremlin’s more than they have normally done.

The Kremlin’s ability to establish a more cohesive narrative about the war within the Russian information space remains uncertain, and subsequent Russian failures or significant Ukrainian successes could disrupt the Kremlin’s progress in this effort. Segments of the Russian information space do continue to complain about systemic issues within the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and many Russian milbloggers would likely reverse course on their portrayal of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the event of significant Ukrainian gains. The milblogger community continues to be highly reactive and motivated by salient topics of outrage, and many milbloggers would likely abandon efforts to align themselves with the Kremlin’s messaging about the war in the event that a controversy about Russian failure prompts renewed intense ire towards the Russian military leadership. A cohesively amplified and unchallenged Kremlin narrative concerning the tactical and operational situation in Ukraine would make accurate coverage of battlefield realities more challenging, particularly in the absence of more detailed reporting from the Ukrainian side.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front and advanced in some areas on July 29. Geolocated footage published on July 28 confirms that Ukrainian forces have advanced close to the northwestern outskirts of Kurdyumivka (13km southwest of Bakhmut). Geolocated footage published on July 29 shows that Ukrainian forces advanced to positions near the northern outskirts of Pryyutne (16km southwest of Velyka Novosilka) in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued assaults near Klishchiivka, Kurdyumivka, and Andriivka south of Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks near Rivnopil, Staromayorske, and Urozhaine in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted unsuccessful ground attacks near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and one milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces captured a forest northeast of Robotyne. A Russian milblogger stated that Russian defensive fortifications will not matter if Ukrainian forces inflict heavy losses on Russian forces to the point that there are not enough Russian personnel to man the fortifications. The milblogger also stated that the depth of Ukrainian advances into Russian defensive lines matters less than the degree to which the balance of forces has shifted to favor Ukraine during the course of the counteroffensive.

Key Takeaways:

  • Segments of the Russian pro-war ultranationalist information space appear to be coalescing around a Kremlin narrative effort to portray the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure, increasingly overstating Ukrainian losses and writing less about Russia’s losses and challenges than they had been.
  • Select Russian milbloggers may be shaping their depiction of the wider Ukrainian counteroffensive for fear of Kremlin punishment following the arrest of prominent pro-war critic Igor Girkin.
  • The Kremlin’s ability to establish a more cohesive narrative about the war within the Russian information space remains uncertain, and subsequent Russian failures or significant Ukrainian successes could disrupt the Kremlin’s progress in this effort.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front and advanced in some areas on July 29.
  • Ukrainian forces likely targeted Russian military and logistics assets in occupied Crimea on July 28 and 29.
  • Russian forces conducted a missile strike on Dnipro City, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on the evening of July 28.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line and the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and made claimed advances along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line, around Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line and advanced around Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and south of Orikhiv and advanced along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and south of Orikhiv but did not make confirmed or claimed advances.
  • A Ukrainian report indicates that Russian occupation authorities continue crypto-mobilization efforts in occupied Ukraine to replenish losses from combat casualties.
  • Russian authorities continue to forcibly deport Ukrainian children in occupied Ukraine to Russia under the guise of rest and rehabilitation programs.
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