The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions for false flag operations on the Chernihiv Oblast international border and in Moldova ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian Northern Operational Command reported on February 23 that Russian forces are preparing possible false flag operations in the international border areas of Chernihiv Oblast. The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command stated that Ukrainian intelligence has already observed Russian convoys with unmarked military equipment and personnel dressed in uniforms resembling those worn by the Ukrainian military move to areas near the Chernihiv Oblast border. The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command stated that the purpose of these false flag operations would be to accuse Ukrainian forces of violating the territorial integrity of an unspecified country, very likely referring to Belarus. The Kremlin may be preparing false flag attacks to coerce Belarus into the war following Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s February 16 statement that Belarus would only enter the war if attacked by Ukraine. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense also notably claimed on February 21 that Belarusian forces observed a buildup of Ukrainian forces at its borders. ISW continues to assess that Belarusian or Russian attack on northern Ukrainian regions is highly unlikely, but Russia seeks to force Lukashenko’s hand or blame Ukraine for expanding the war to undermine support for Kyiv. Such a false flag operation could also aim to fix Ukrainian forces at the northern border in an effort to weaken Ukrainian defenses in eastern Ukraine and preparations for counter-offensive operations.
The Kremlin also appears to be setting information conditions to stage a false flag operation in occupied Transnistria, Moldova. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on February 23 that Ukrainian forces are planning to conduct an armed provocation against Transnistria in the near future. The MoD claimed that Ukrainian forces would dress as Russian military personnel and stage an alleged Russian offensive from positions in Transnistria. The Moldovan government denied the Russian MoD’s allegations. The MoD likely sought to foster this false narrative to twist Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s warning to Moldovan President Maia Sandu that the Kremlin was preparing provocations in Moldova and his offer to help Moldova if Russian forces in Transnistria threaten the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The MoD’s dissemination of this false narrative does not indicate that Putin intends to attack Moldova—an undertaking for which he lacks military capability—although it points toward an escalation in his ongoing efforts to undermine the Moldovan state.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deliver boilerplate rhetoric in public addresses that offered him opportunities he did not take to shape the Russian information space ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin marked Defenders of the Fatherland Day on February 23 with a video address in which he reiterated tired Kremlin talking points arguing that the Russian military is fighting neo-Nazism in Ukraine and protecting “our people in our historical lands.” Putin delivered vague remarks that the Russian military is improving the training of its units and continuing to supply advanced equipment to its forces. Putin also asserted that Russian industry is quickly increasing the production of a broad range of conventional weapons and preparing for the mass production of advanced models of military equipment, although ISW assesses that Russia continues to gradually prepare its defense industrial base (DIB) for a protracted war instead of engaging in wider rapid economic mobilization. Putin’s speech did not offer specific goals or objectives for the war on Ukraine but instead continued generic rhetorical lines of effort aiming to prepare the Russian public for a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin’s refusal to use the public address to issue specific goals or policies ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggests that Putin remains uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space through a dramatic speech that represents a significant inflection in his rhetoric.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely continues to suffer from confirmation bias in his belief that Russia’s will to fight will outlast the West’s will to support Ukraine. The Financial Times (FT) cited unnamed officials close to the Kremlin stating that Putin assesses that “Russia is more committed to the war than the West is to Ukraine and [is] resilient enough to see out the economic pain.” Unnamed Kremlin sources also told FT that Putin’s demands for loyalty over competence among elites is forcing them to refrain from being honest with him about the progress of the war, and noted that Putin gets information of “poor” quality as a result. Sources also revealed that most of Putin’s presidential administration and economic cabinet expressed that they do not support this war but use lies as a survival tactic, with only a small number of officials resigning since the start of the invasion. One longtime insider also observed that Putin is of “sound mind” and is “reasonable,” which supports ISW’s February 5 assessment that he is a highly calculated actor who places considerable emphasis on eliminating risks. Insiders also revealed that Putin also withheld his plans to launch a full-scale invasion in February 2022 and his plans to occupy Crimea in 2014 from his closest advisors, with his circle of advisors recently tightening even more. The insider information indicates that Putin is prepared for Russia to suffer through a costly and exhausting protracted war under the conviction that the war will tire out Western support. Putin is also likely misinformed about the effectiveness of the Western equipment on the frontlines and its ability to impede his plans for a protracted war of attrition. The combination of Putin’s beliefs about Russian staying power and expectations of the collapse of Western will with the shrinking circle of advisors and the apparent unwillingness of insiders to contradict him likely create a strong confirmation bias in Putin’s observations of Western statements and outreach. Putin is likely to prioritize any indications of waning Western support or hesitancy over statements or indications of Western toughness or determination if this hypothesis is correct. Western leaders would do well to consider the likelihood that confirmation bias of this sort is shaping Putin’s perceptions in their own public and private statements and actions.
- The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions for false flag operations in Chernihiv Oblast and Moldova ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deliver boilerplate rhetoric in public events that present him opportunities to shape the Russian information space ahead of the year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Putin likely attempted to downplay recent surges of criticism regarding the integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR) into the Russian Armed Forces.
- Putin seems more concerned with appealing to ultranationalist pro-war ideologues with meaningless gestures than with presenting any new approach to achieving the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine.
- Putin likely continues to suffer from confirmation bias in his belief that Russia’s will to fight will outlast the West’s will to support Ukraine.
- A Russian source attempted to preempt Western discussions of releasing classified information regarding China’s considerations to provide lethal aid to Russia.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) fulfilled Wagner Group’s complete artillery ammunition request on February 23 following immense support for Prigozhin in the Russian information space.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Svatove and Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian authorities announced that they completed the repair of the Kerch Strait Bridge road spans ahead of schedule.
- Russian officials continue to offer incremental and insufficient benefits to support Russian military personnel and defense manufacturers.
- Russian occupation officials continue efforts to militarize Ukrainian children through the installation of military-patriotic educational programs in occupied areas.