The Russian milblogger information space continues to seize on official responses to the Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka to criticize endemic issues in the Russian military apparatus. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) released an official response to the strike on January 4 and attributed it to the “presence and mass use by personnel, contrary to prohibitions, of mobile telephones within range of enemy weapons systems.” The Russian MoD also claimed that the death toll of the strike is now 89, including a deputy regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bachurin. The clear attempt by the Russian MoD to blame the strike on individual mobilized servicemen, as ISW assessed the Russian MoD would likely do on January 2, drew immediate ire from Russian milbloggers. One milblogger emphasized that it is “extremely wrong to make mobile phones guilty for strikes” and concluded that “it is not cell phones and their owners that are to blame, but the negligence of the commanders.” Several milbloggers noted that the use of cell phones on the frontline in the 21st century is inevitable and that efforts to crack down on their use are futile. The milblogger critique of the Russian MoD largely converged on the incompetence of Russian military command, with many asserting that the Russian military leadership has no understanding of the basic realities faced by Russian soldiers on the frontline and is seeking to shift the blame for its own command failures on the “faceless masses” of Russian mobilized recruits.
The Russian milblogger response to the Russian MoD deflection of blame onto individual servicemen accurately identifies the endemic unwillingness or inability of the Russian military apparatus to address systemic failures. Cell phone use may have aided the Ukrainian strike to some degree, but the Russian MoD’s fixation on this as the cause of the strike is largely immaterial. An appropriately organized and properly trained and led modern army should not permit the convergence of the factors that contributed to the Makiivka strike in the first place. The Russian command was ultimately responsible for the decision to pack hundreds of mobilized men into non-tactical positions within artillery range of the frontline and near an ammunition depot. The Russian MoD is likely using the strike to further deflect blame for its own institutional failures in the conduct of the war onto mobilized forces, whose own conduct is additionally emblematic of the Russian force generation failures.
The continued construction of Russian units using solely mobilized recruits will not generate combat power commensurate with the number of mobilized personnel deployed. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin remarked in the wake of the Makiivka strike on January 4 that some of the officers of the targeted regiment were mobilized servicemen. Pushilin’s indication that certain Russian units are relying on newly mobilized and poorly trained recruits for leadership roles, as opposed to drawing from the combat-hardened officer cadre, adds further nuance to the poor performance of and high losses within units comprised of mobilized recruits. Mobilized servicemen with minimal training and degraded morale in the role of officers are likely contributing to poor operational security (OPSEC) practices and lack the basic acumen to make sound tactical and operational decisions.
The Russian MoD has again shifted the rhetoric and format of its daily situational reports (SITREPs) likely to flood the information space with insignificant claimed successes and distract from its significant military failures. The Russian MoD instituted this shift on January 3, doubling the length of its previous SITREPs and focusing on claimed strikes against Ukrainian military assets that often lack operational significance rather than on its largely unsuccessful ground attacks. These SITREPs focus on small settlements and group strikes by target type rather than location, making it difficult for its audience to geographically orient the SITREP and verify the claimed strikes. The Russian MoD also dedicated multiple Telegram posts to featuring a new missile carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, that is very unlikely to conduct operations supporting Russian forces in Ukraine, a performative measure similar to those that Russian milbloggers have recently criticized, as ISW has previously reported. The Russian MoD had previously attempted to emulate the Ukrainian General Staff’s SITREPS in response to widespread milblogger criticism of the lack of transparency in official war coverage following Russia’s military failures in the fall of 2022.
Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring of 2023. Budanov stated in an interview with ABC News published on January 4 that he expects fighting to be the most intense in March of 2023 and that the Ukrainian military is planning a major push in the spring that will liberate territory “from Crimea to Donbas” and deal “the final defeats to the Russian Federation.” Ukrainian officials have previously indicated that Ukrainian forces will attempt to maintain the initiative through a series of ongoing and subsequent counteroffensive operations in the winter of 2023. This reportedly planned major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the spring of 2023 would not be mutually exclusive with Ukrainian counteroffensive operations continuing this winter, as Ukrainian forces could use ongoing and subsequent counteroffensive operations this winter to set conditions for a larger counteroffensive operation in the spring. ISW has not observed any indicators that Ukrainian forces intend to halt counteroffensive operations this winter in order to conduct a major counteroffensive this spring. Budanov stated that there would be further strikes “deeper and deeper” inside Russia but declined to comment on Ukraine’s involvement in previous strikes on Russian rear areas in Russia.
Russian forces are increasingly reliant on Iranian-made drones in their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure and have likely significantly depleted their current stock of these systems. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky reported on January 4 that Russian forces have used about 660 Iranian-made Shahed-131 and -136 drones in Ukraine since their first use in September of 2022. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces have increased the pace of drone attacks against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the past month primarily using Shahed drones. Ukrainian Air Force Command Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat reported on January 4 that Russian forces use Shahed drones because they can better evade detection on radar because of how low they fly to the ground, particularly along the Dnipro River in attack routes focused on targets in Kyiv. Ihnat reported that Ukrainian air defenses have shot down 540 Russian strike drones but stated that even at a 100 percent shoot-down rate Shaheds are still able to damage Ukrainian cities as their warheads do not necessarily always explode when intercepted by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles and can detonate upon falling to the ground. Skibitsky reported that Russian forces use massive swarms of Shahed drones to break through Ukrainian air defenses and noted that Russian forces could not achieve similar results if they use five to 10 drones at a time. Russian forces, as a result, are running through a significant number of these drones that arrive from Iran in batches of 200 and 300 units.
Skibitsky reported that Russia’s contract with Iran stipulates the transfer of 1,750 drones and that Russian forces currently need to replenish their stocks following a high use of these systems in previous days. Skibitsky also reported that the GUR has intelligence that suggests that Russia will receive another shipment of Iranian-made drones on an unspecified date. Russian forces have likely become reliant on the use of Iranian-made drones because they are a cheap alternative to more conventional high-precision missiles, the stock of which the Russian military has likely significantly depleted.
Russia will likely seek further bilateral cooperation with Iran in order to secure a greater number of high-precision weapons systems for use in Ukraine. An Iranian state-run media source claimed on December 28 that Iran will soon receive 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia likely in exchange for Iranian-made drones and ballistic missiles. A Russian milblogger claimed that these high-precision weapon systems will allow Russian forces to more effectively target Ukrainian rear areas defended by Western anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems than their current manned aircraft. Senior US officials reported on December 9 that Russia is providing an unprecedented level of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Iranian-made weapons systems.
Russian forces would use all the pledged 1,750 Iranian-made drones in Ukraine by May 2023 if they consume them at the same rate as between September and December 2022. Russia will therefore likely look to secure further agreements with Iran on the provision of Iranian-made high-precision weapons systems in order to augment its campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. The Iranian government’s Islamic Republic News Agency claimed on January 1 that Russia and Iran are building a new transcontinental trade route to bypass sanctions and “foreign interference.” Russian and Iranian officials may be negotiating a trade route in part to support more consistent arms transfers between the two countries. ISW has previously assessed that Iran may be supplying drones and potentially ballistic missiles to the Russian Federation to more clearly establish an explicitly bilateral security relationship with Russia in which Iranians are more equal partners.
- The Russian milblogger information space continues to seize on official responses to the Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka to criticize endemic issues in the Russian military apparatus and its unwillingness to address systemic failures.
- The continued construction of Russian units using solely mobilized recruits will not generate combat power commensurate with the number of mobilized personnel deployed.
- The Russian MoD has again shifted the rhetoric and format of its daily situational reports (SITREPs) likely to flood the information space with insignificant claimed successes and distract from its significant military failures.
- Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring of 2023.
- Russian forces are increasingly reliant upon Iranian-made drones to strike Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and Russia will likely seek further bilateral cooperation with Iran in order to secure a greater number of high-precision weapons systems for use in Ukraine.
- Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line as Ukrainian strikes reportedly damaged Russian military logistics in Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut amid continued indicators that the broader offensive may be culminating.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations on the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued to rebuild force capability and conduct defensive operations in Kherson Oblast on January 4.
- Select Russian private armament manufacturers are continuing to criticize the Russian military campaign.
- Russian occupation authorities continued to take measures to resolve administrative issues associated with consolidating Russian control of occupied territories on January 4.