Ukraine Conflict Updates

 

 

 



This page collects ISW and CTP's updates on the conflict in Ukraine. In late February 2022, ISW began publishing daily synthetic products covering key events related to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. These Ukraine Conflict Updates replaced ISW’s previous “Indicators and Thresholds for Russian Military Operations in Ukraine and/or Belarus,” which we maintained from November 12, 2021, through February 17, 2022.

This list also includes prominent warning alerts that ISW and CTP launched beyond our daily Ukraine Conflict Updates. These products addressed critical inflection points as they occurred.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2023.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2022.

Click here to see ISW's interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map complements the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW daily produces with high-fidelity and, where possible, street-level assessments of the war in Ukraine.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will add new time-lapses to our archive on a monthly basis. This high-definition interactive map is resource-intensive. The performance and speed of the map correlate with the strength of your hardware.

Click here to read about the methodology behind ISW and CTP's mapping of this conflict. 



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 14, 2024

click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 14, 2024, 7:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Israel’s success in defending against large-scale Iranian missile and drone strikes from Iranian territory on April 13 underscores the vulnerabilities that Ukrainian geography and the continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella pose for Ukrainian efforts to defend against regular Russian missile and drone strikes. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force launched roughly 170 Shahed-136/131 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles at targets in Israel in a strike package similar to recent Russian strike packages against Ukraine.[1] Russian forces have experimented with cruise missile, ballistic missile, and drone strikes of varying sizes and combinations, and are now routinely conducting large, combined strikes against targets in Ukraine.[2] Iran’s similarly large, combined strike package was far less successful than recent Russian strikes in Ukraine, however, with Israeli air defenses intercepting almost all of the roughly 320 air targets except several ballistic missiles.[3] Iranian drones and missiles had to cross more than 1,000 kilometers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian airspace before reaching Israel, affording Israel and its allies hours to identify, track, and intercept missiles and drones on approach to Israel.[4] Russian forces launch drones and missiles from throughout occupied Ukraine and in close proximity to Ukraine from within Russia, affording Ukrainian air defenders a fraction of the time that Israel and its allies leveraged to successfully blunt the mass Iranian missile and drone strike.[5] Israel also has a robust air defense umbrella that is responsible for responding to potential attacks across shorter borders with its neighbors, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank; whereas, Ukraine has increasingly degraded air defense capabilities to employ against missile and drone strikes across a much wider frontline in Ukraine as well as its international borders with Belarus and Russia. Ukraine also currently lacks the capability to conduct air-to-air interception with fixed wing aircraft as Israel and its allies did on the night of April 13. Ukraine’s large size compared to Israel makes it more difficult for Ukraine to emulate the density of air defense coverage that Israel enjoys, especially amid continued delays in US security assistance.

The exhaustion of US-provided air defenses resulting from delays in the resumption of US military assistance to Ukraine combined with improvements in Russian strike tactics have led to increasing effectiveness of the Russian strike campaign in Ukraine.[6] Without substantial and regular security assistance to Ukraine, Russian strikes threaten to constrain Ukraine’s long-term warfighting capabilities and set operational conditions for Russia to achieve significant gains on the battlefield.[7] Ukraine requires significant provisions of Western air defense systems and fighter jets capable of intercepting drones and missiles in order to establish a combined air defense umbrella that is even remotely as effective as the one Israel and its allies successfully used on April 13.[8]

Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine demonstrates that even a limited number of successful ballistic or cruise missile strikes can cause significant and likely long-term damage to energy and other infrastructure, highlighting the need for an effective and well-provisioned air defense umbrella capable of a sustained high rate of interception. Recent large-scale Russian strike packages using drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles against Ukraine have caused significant damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure. All 15 ballistic missiles and seven of the 44 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian energy facilities on the night of March 21 to 22 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses.[9] Some of the missiles significantly damaged the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) in Zaporizhzhia City and took it completely offline, and it will take some time to repair the plant.[10] Three of seven ballistic missiles and eight of 30 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian HPPs on the night of March 28 to 29 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses, damaging HPPs and thermal power plants (TPPs) in central and western Ukraine.[11] All 18 ballistic missiles and six of the 24 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of April 10 to 11 successfully penetrated Ukrainian air defenses, of which five missiles completely destroyed the Trypilska TPP in Kyiv Oblast.[12] The Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities on the night of April 10 to 11 also damaged energy facilities in Zaporizhia and Lviv oblasts.[13] The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 11 that Russian strikes, not including the April 10 to 11 strike series, have disrupted 80 percent of the generation capacity of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, which supplies about 20 percent of Ukraine’s power.[14]

Ukrainian Deputy Energy Minister Svitlana Hrynchuk told CNN in an article published on April 14 that successful Russian strikes over the course of just a few days in the past few weeks have destroyed a year's worth of Ukrainian repairs to energy facilities following the winter 2022-2023 Russian strike campaign.[15] A Ukrainian source told CNN that Russian forces have changed their strike tactics to launch a large number of missiles and drones simultaneously against a limited number of targets. DTEK Head Maksym Timchenko stated that Russia began targeting Ukrainian energy generation infrastructure, instead of transmission systems, in late March 2024.[16] DTEK previously warned that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage against Ukrainian energy facilities than previous Russian attacks did.[17] Israel, the US, and their allies and partners should be cognizant of the risk that even small numbers of missiles penetrating defense umbrellas can cause nonlinear damage to modern societies if they hit the right targets.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is falsely equating the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes targeting Israel with the April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus, amplifying Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 strikes. The Russian MFA issued a statement on April 14 in response to the April 13 Iranian strikes amplifying Iran's claim that Iran conducted the April 13 strikes as an act of “self-defense” in response to claimed Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets, including the April 1 strike targeting IRGC officials in Damascus.[18] The Russian MFA reiterated its condemnation of the April 1 Israeli strike and accused Western members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) of impeding the UNSC’s ability to “adequately respond” to the April 1 Israeli strike targeting IRGC officials. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a phone call with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian later on April 14, and the Russian MFA again amplified Iran’s claim that the April 13 strikes were a response to the April 1 Israeli strike in the readout of the call.[19] Russian MFA Spokesperson Maria Zakharova notably refused an Israeli request for Russia to condemn the April 13 Iranian strikes, claiming that Israel has never condemned a Ukrainian strike against Russia and criticizing Israel for its statements supporting Ukraine.[20] The Russian government is willfully furthering an information operation to justify Iran’s April 13 strikes against Israel to the international community.

Russian milbloggers largely responded to the April 13 Iranian strikes against Israel by suggesting that the increased threat of military escalation in the Middle East will likely draw Western, specifically US, attention and aid away from Ukraine. Russian milbloggers leaned into an established information operation on April 13 and 14 claiming that the Western media will slowly stop covering the war in Ukraine as Western attention turns to the risk of escalation in the Middle East and suggested that the US and Ukraine’s other Western allies may begin to falter in their expected aid deliveries to Ukraine because the West may prioritize aiding Israel.[21] Several Russian milbloggers specifically gloated that if Ukraine does not receive additional Western air defense systems, Russian drones and missiles will “safely cruise” in uncontested Ukrainian air space.[22] Russian milbloggers and Kremlin officials, including Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, expressed similar hopes following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.[23] Significant delays in US military assistance have already created shortages in Ukraine’s air defense missile and ammunition stockpiles, hindering Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian frontline offensive operations and drone and missile strikes against rear areas, creating opportunities that Russian forces are actively exploiting. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely operating on the assumption that US military assistance to Ukraine will either be further delayed or permanently ended, and any evidence supporting that notion will likely encourage Russian efforts to strain Ukrainian forces past their breaking point on the battlefield and in deep rear areas. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensive operations and Russia’s ongoing strike campaign is heavily dependent on continued US security assistance and that the longer Ukrainian forces go under-provisioned, the harder it will be to defend against Russian offensive operations.[24]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that the senior Russian military command aims to seize Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast by Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9.[25] The Russian military command’s objective to seize Chasiv Yar in only three and a half weeks indicates that the Russian command likely assesses that Russian forces will be able to seize the town at a faster tempo of offensive operations than efforts to seize Bakhmut in May 2023 or Avdiivka in February 2024.[26] The Russian military command likely assesses that continued Ukrainian critical munitions shortages will enable Russian forces to seize Chasiv Yar in several weeks, despite ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have currently only reached the easternmost part of the Kanal Microraion in easternmost Chasiv Yar. The Russian command has routinely set unrealistic goals for Russian advances, however, and a Russian milblogger expressed hope that Russian forces may be able to just enter the Novyi Microraion in southeastern Chasiv Yar by May 9.[27] The Russian military will likely intend to capitalize on significant Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages that are crucial to Ukrainian defense and that were not constraining Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut or Avdiivka to the same degree as their current constraints, however. The Russian military command will likely continue efforts against Chasiv Yar until the effort culminates, but Russian forces may be able to make speedier advances than in prior efforts given the degree of Ukraine’s current artillery and air defense shortages.

The Russian military’s ongoing restructuring of the Western Military District (WMD) into the Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) is reportedly shifting areas of operational responsibility (AOR) for Russian force groupings in Ukraine. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on April 14 that Russian units part of the Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod border groupings will form part of the LMD and that elements of the 11th Army Corps (AC) and the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade (6th Combined Arms Army [CAA]) and likely elements of the currently-forming 44th AC and the 25th Motorized Rifle Brigade (6th CAA) will form the “Northern” Grouping of Forces alongside existing units on the border in Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod oblasts.[28] This report suggests that the entire 6th CAA and 11th AC are also subordinated to the LMD, which would be consistent with the boundaries of the military district and the permanent stations of those formations. Mashovets also reported that the 1st Guards Tank Army, 20th CAA, and 25th CAA will integrate into the MMD and be responsible for the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast axis — an observation also largely consistent with the military district boundaries and permanent stations of those formations. Mashovets also speculated on possible commanders for the MMD as well as the LMD and Northern Grouping of Forces, but ISW is unable to confirm these speculations.[29] Mashovets’ report suggests that the LMD’s Northern Grouping of Forces is pulling Russian formations currently operating on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line — including elements of the 6th CAA and 11th AC — to the northern international border and elsewhere in the theater, which will undermine any Russian offensive efforts on that line and may create confusion in the Russian military command as it seeks to disentangle the WMD into the MMD and LMD.[30] This redeployment could support possible future Russian operations against Kharkiv City to which Ukrainian leaders have previously alluded.[31]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reportedly fired the commanders of a combined arms army and motorized rifle regiment operating in southern Ukraine likely for failing to recapture areas lost during the Ukrainian summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive. Russian sources claimed on April 13 and 14 that the Russian military command fired Lieutenant General Arkady Marzoev, commander of the Russian 18th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District [SMD]) that has been fighting near Krynky, Kherson Oblast, as well as the commander of the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment (42nd Motorized Rifle Division, 58th Combined Arms Army [CAA], SMD) that has been fighting near Robotyne, Zaporizhia Oblast.[32] ISW is unable to confirm these reported firings. Elements of the 18th CAA have been repelling Ukrainian attacks and attempting to push Ukrainian forces from their positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast since Ukrainian forces established a limited tactical bridgehead in November 2023, and have notably failed.[33] Elements of the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment have been conducting periodic counterattacks to recapture territory in and around Robotyne since September 2023 and suffered significant degradation as a result.[34] Elements of the 18th CAA and the 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment have been unable to recapture all the territory that Ukrainian forces captured in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts during the summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive. If the Russian sources’ speculations are accurate, the Russian MoD is likely replacing these commanders in hopes that new leadership will oversee the seizure of more territory around Robotyne and Krynky, thereby allowing the Russian MoD to claim with some degree of believability that Russia has undone the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Key Takeaways:

  • Israel’s success in defending against large-scale Iranian missile and drone strikes from Iranian territory on April 13 underscores the vulnerabilities that Ukrainian geography and the continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella pose for Ukrainian efforts to defend against regular Russian missile and drone strikes.
  • The exhaustion of US-provided air defenses resulting from delays in the resumption of US military assistance to Ukraine combined with improvements in Russian strike tactics have led to increasing effectiveness of the Russian strike campaign in Ukraine.
  • Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine demonstrates that even a limited number of successful ballistic or cruise missile strikes can cause significant and likely long-term damage to energy and other infrastructure, highlighting the need for an effective and well-provisioned air defense umbrella capable of a sustained high rate of interception.
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is falsely equating the April 13 large-scale Iranian strikes targeting Israel with the April 1 Israeli strike targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials in Damascus, amplifying Iran’s “justification” for the April 13 strikes.
  • Russian milbloggers largely responded to the April 13 Iranian strikes against Israel by suggesting that the increased threat of military escalation in the Middle East will likely draw Western, specifically US, attention and aid away from Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi reported that the senior Russian military command aims to seize Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast by Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9.
  • The Russian military’s ongoing restructuring of the Western Military District (WMD) into the Moscow and Leningrad military districts (MMD and LMD) is reportedly shifting areas of operational responsibility (AOR) for Russian force groupings in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reportedly fired the commanders of a combined arms army and motorized rifle regiment operating in southern Ukraine likely for failing to recapture areas lost during the Ukrainian summer-fall 2023 counteroffensive.
  • Ukrainian forces advanced south of Kreminna and southwest of Donetsk City and Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and Avdiivka. 


Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 13, 2024, 7:45pm ET 

Russian forces are pursuing at least three operational-level efforts that are not mutually reinforcing but let Russian forces prioritize grinding, tactical gains on a single sector of their choice at a time. Ukrainian forces will increasingly struggle to defend against these Russian efforts the longer Ukraine lacks further US military assistance. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on April 13 that the situation in eastern Ukraine has significantly worsened in recent days and that Russian forces are conducting mechanized attacks in the Lyman, Bakhmut, and Pokrovsk (west of Avdiivka) directions.[1] Syrskyi stated that hot and dry weather conditions have made most open terrain accessible to Russian tanks and that Russian forces are dedicating new units to achieving tactical successes despite heavy losses. The Russian efforts in the Lyman, Chasiv Yar, and Pokrovsk directions each pursue operationally significant objectives, but these operations are not mutually supporting, and Russian forces still seem to be alternating emphasis among the different operational directions rather than leaning into all three at any given time.[2] Ukrainian forces have successfully defended against prior Russian operational-level offensive efforts of this sort when they had the resources the US is currently withholding, forcing these efforts to culminate before they could achieve operationally significant results.[3] Ukrainian forces currently struggle with significant shortages of both artillery shells and air defense means, both of which are critical components of their defense, and Russian forces are capitalizing on these shortages and improved weather conditions.[4]

The Russian military command likely assesses that Ukrainian forces will be unable to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations due to delays in or the permanent end of US military assistance. Russian forces have recently periodically shifted their focus among offensive operations in the Lyman, Chasiv Yar, and Pokrovsk directions; Russian forces first prioritized the capture of Avdiivka in early 2024, alongside simultaneous but less intense operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, then leaned into the Lyman direction while slightly decreasing the tempo near Avdiivka, and now are intensifying efforts to seize Chasiv Yar in March-April 2024.[5] Though Russian forces likely lack the ability to conduct more than one simultaneous effective large-scale operational effort as they have throughout the war, Russian forces are now able to use multiple alternating offensive efforts to stretch Ukrainian defensive capabilities amid Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages.[6] The current pattern of Russian offensive operations allows elements of units participating in less intensive efforts to rest and reconstitute while other units, presumably those that are more rested or those that have recently received reinforcements. They can then intensify efforts in another operational direction, forcing Ukrainian forces to reallocate their defensive resources across the theater and creating vulnerabilities that Russian forces can exploit. Russian forces are reportedly developing operational- and strategic-level reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations in Ukraine, likely to support an anticipated spring-summer offensive effort.[7] ISW continues to assess that these reserves are unlikely to be ready to act as a first-echelon penetration force or second-echelon exploitation force capable of conducting large-scale mechanized assaults in 2024 as long as Ukrainian forces have the wherewithal to resist them.[8] Russian forces would more likely use these reserves to restaff or reinforce existing formations and continue grinding, infantry-led assaults with occasional limited mechanized pushes in their direction of choice at key moments. If the United States does not resume providing aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian forces continue to lack essential artillery and air defense munitions in particular, however, even badly-trained and poorly-equipped Russian troops might be able to conduct successful offensive operations.

The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances as the seizure of the town would likely allow Russian forces to launch subsequent offensive operations against the cities that form in effect a significant Ukrainian defensive belt in Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces have long aimed to capture a group of major cities in Donetsk Oblast that include Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka, and the Russian military initially attempted and failed to conduct a wide operational encirclement of Ukrainian forces in eastern Donetsk Oblast by driving on Slovyansk in spring 2022.[9] The Ukrainian liberation of Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and further advances in northern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts during the fall of 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive disrupted Russian plans to resume efforts to drive on the northern edge of this Ukrainian “fortress” belt.[10] Russian forces continued their drive towards the southern portion of the Donetsk Oblast “fortress” belt with their attritional, months-long effort to seize Bakhmut, but the seizure of the city and the culmination of Russian offensive operations in the area in May 2023 did not allow Russian forces to immediately threaten the southern edge of the “fortress“ belt.[11] Russian forces began localized offensive operations west of Bakhmut in November 2023 and are now operating on the eastern outskirts of Chasiv Yar. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would allow Russian forces to begin attacking the southern “fortress” cities in the Ukrainian defensive belt directly. Chasiv Yar is roughly seven kilometers from Kostyantynivka (the southernmost “fortress” city) and roughly 20 kilometers from Druzhkivka. Russian forces could launch subsequent offensive operations directly on Druzhkivka or Kostyantynivka after some period of rest and replenishment following the possible seizure of Chasiv Yar. Russian forces could also drive on Oleksiilevo-Druzhkivka (15km west of Chasiv Yar) in an effort to cut off and isolate Kostyantynivka from the rest of the “fortress” belt and set conditions for the operational encirclement of the city. These options depend on the Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar, however, which is not certain.

Russian threats to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka are very operationally significant since these “fortress” cities help form the backbone of the Ukrainian defense in Donetsk Oblast and of eastern Ukraine in general. The isolation of Kostyantynivka or the outright seizure of the settlement would likely significantly degrade Ukraine’s ability to hold the frontline further south in Donetsk Oblast as it would sever a major ground line of communication along the H-20 (Kostyantynivka-Donetsk City) highway and require Ukrainian forces to commit a significant portion of manpower and materiel to the defense of the remaining “fortress” belt and relatively less fortified areas of central and western Donetsk Oblast. Russian advances through Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka and then further west into Donetsk Oblast would likely present Russian forces with greater opportunities to collapse the Ukrainian frontline in Donetsk Oblast and possibly restore relatively rapid maneuver to the battlefield in pursuit of seizing all of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces will be challenged to seize either city rapidly as long as Ukrainian forces have the wherewithal to defend them, however. ISW is not forecasting that the Russians will be able to seize either city in the near term. Russian advances further west of these “fortress” cities into Donetsk Oblast could also present Russian forces with opportunities to make offensive operations along diverging axes along the Donetsk Oblast frontline mutually supporting an offensive push on Pokrovsk and the western borders of Donetsk Oblast. The possible Russian seizure of Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka would significantly degrade Ukraine’s operational position even if the frontline then stabilized since the possible Russian seizure of these cities would present Russian forces with more secure positions from which threaten a wider area of Donetsk Oblast that is more sparsely populated and offers less advantageous terrain to defend. These cities, even after the likely widescale destruction that a Russian offensive operation would cause, would present opportunities for Russian forces to establish a significant defensive line that could materially degrade the prospects for Ukrainian counteroffensive operations to retake them. The threat to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka presents a potential major operational setback for Ukraine that would be very challenging to reverse. ISW is neither forecasting that Russian forces will seize Chasiv Yar nor forecasting that Russian forces will be able to threaten or even seize Kostyantynivka or Druzhkivka. ISW offers these considerations of the threat that the Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would present because they are a plausible most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) especially if the US does not rapidly resume the provision of military assistance to Ukraine.

Russian forces may not be able to seize Chasiv Yar rapidly and would likely struggle to leverage its operational significance immediately as long as Ukrainian forces have the resources needed to hold their positions. The Russian Southern Grouping of Forces and substantial elements of the Russian Airborne (VDV) forces are currently responsible for offensive operations from northeast of Bakhmut to southeast of Chasiv Yar, and elements of the 98th VDV Division, 11th VDV Brigade, the 150th Motorized Rifle Division’s 102nd Motorized Rifle Regiment (8th Combined Arms Army [CAA], Southern Military District [SMD]) are attacking the immediate outskirts of Chasiv Yar.[12] Elements of the 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade (Northern Fleet) and Volunteer Corps and limited elements of the 98th VDV Division are attempting to advance on Chasiv Yar from the northeast, and elements of the 83rd VDV Brigade, the Luhansk People’s Republic 2nd Army Corps (AC), and the 3rd AC are currently attempting to recapture territory southeast of Chasiv Yar and push Ukrainian forces across the Siversky-Donets Donbas Canal.[13] Russian forces appear to have committed their most combat-effective elements in the area to frontal assaults on Chasiv Yar, and these frontal assaults will likely produce gradual gains at attritional costs as long as Ukrainian defenders have essential materiel. The elements that Russian forces have currently concentrated northeast and southeast of Chasiv Yar are relatively less combat effective and will struggle to make advances similar to those made east of Chasiv Yar against supplied Ukrainian defenders. Russian tactical gains east of Chasiv Yar have not set conditions for an encirclement or envelopment of the settlement, and Russian forces would likely have to make notable tactical gains southeast and northwest of Chasiv Yar before pursuing an envelopment or encirclement of the settlement, which may require additional and combat effective units and formations. Available imagery, which ISW will not present or describe in greater detail at this time to preserve Ukrainian operational security, shows that Ukrainian forces have established significant fortifications in a ring shape in the Chasiv Yar area, and Russian forces will likely struggle to rapidly break through these defenses at their current offensive tempo in the area as long as Ukrainian forces have the ammunition needed to resist.[14] In the absence of significant new Russian deployments, Russian forces will likely have to fight their way directly through the town or attempt a narrow tactical-level turning movement, which would force Russian forces to contend with Chasiv Yar’s fortifications, elevated Ukrainian positions, and the obstacle of the Siversky-Donets Donbas Canal.

The possible Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar in itself does not allow Russian forces to conduct a successful operation to threaten Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka, and Russian forces would likely need to set other operational conditions to threaten the southern “fortress” cities. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would create a notable salient, and a Russian attempt to advance further west immediately from Chasiv Yar would make that salient increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks. Russian forces would likely need to recapture territory that Russian forces lost southeast of Chasiv Yar during the summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive to stabilize the advancing Russian front, an effort that elements of the 83rd VDV Brigade, 2nd AC, and 3rd AC have struggled to pursue. Russian attempts to advance towards Kostyantynivka would likely allow Ukrainian forces to use positions in the Toretsk-Pivnichne area to interdict and threaten rear Russian logistics lines and possibly isolate the immediate battlespace west of Chasiv Yar. The terrain between Chasiv Yar and the southern edge of the Ukrainian “fortress” belt is predominantly open fields with limited cover and concealment, which would likely require Russian forces to conduct effective mechanized maneuver to advance up to the cities. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated their ability to repel intensive Russian mechanized assaults and degrade Russian logistics when well-provisioned, and the Russian ability to leverage the operational significance of Chasiv Yar likely rests in large part on whether the US will resume security assistance to Ukraine.[15]

Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance are allowing Russian mechanized forces to make marginal tactical advances, and future Russian mechanized assaults may be able to achieve more significant gains should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine. Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces are strengthening the “most problematic” areas at the front with electronic warfare (EW) systems, air defense systems, drones, and anti-tank missiles.[16] Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces also need to improve the quality of their training, especially for infantry units to optimize their use of limited and dwindling Western-supplied weapons and equipment. The Telegraph reported on April 12 that a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel stated at the end of February 2024 that Russian forces often have three times as many artillery shells as Ukrainian forces and that some Ukrainian artillery units only have enough shells to strike a single Russian mechanized assault group out of several Russian mechanized groups, forcing the Ukrainians to use small arms to defend against subsequent Russian mechanized assaults.[17] A Russian Storm-Z instructor stated on April 13 that recent Russian mechanized assaults have achieved tactical successes but have been unable to make significant advances due to Ukrainian counterattacks, the exhaustion of Russian fire support during the assault, and the incompetence of Russian forces that are meant to consolidate gained positions.[18] The instructor stated that recent Russian tactical advances are not the result of improvements in the quality of Russian combat capabilities, increases in Russian technical means, or the optimization of Russian organizational structures but are rather due to Russia’s increased use of glide bombs and constraints on Ukrainian artillery fire resulting from the lack of US supplies. The instructor claimed that Ukrainian forces are attempting to compensate for their decreased firepower by increasing their use of strike drones but noted that Ukrainian drones are able to strike but not destroy Russian armored vehicles, as ISW has previously observed.[19]

ISW continues to assess that continued delays in US security assistance are specifically impacting Ukraine’s ability to respond to an increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in eastern Ukraine.[20] Sparse and inconsistent Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front resulting from shortages in Ukrainian air defense systems and missiles has facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in February 2024 and which Russian forces are using again during their current offensive operations near Chasiv Yar.[21] Ukrainian forces have also suffered from ongoing artillery ammunition shortages, which they have partially mitigated by using first person view (FPV) drones to blunt Russian infantry and armored vehicle assaults.[22] ISW continues to assess, however, that while Ukrainian FPV drones are likely able to temporarily render armored vehicles hors de combat, the relatively light payloads on the current FPV drones are unlikely to destroy armored vehicles very often.[23] Ukrainian forces have been partially able to repel the recently increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults despite these shortages but will likely be unable to continue to defend against Russian mechanized assaults as effectively in the future should delays in US security assistance continue.

Ukrainian forces have previously demonstrated their ability to repel Russian mechanized assaults and inflict significant equipment losses on Russian forces when adequately provisioned. Ukrainian forces destroyed significant elements of a Russian motorized rifle brigade that tried to cross a pontoon bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River in 2022, and Russian forces lost at least 130 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) during a three-week offensive near Vuhledar in 2023.[24] Ukrainian forces were recently able to inflict serious armored vehicle losses during several waves of Russian mechanized assaults on Avdiivka in fall 2023 before artillery shortages worsened through the winter into the spring of 2024.[25] ISW has generally observed that recent Russian mechanized assaults have exhibited the same tactical patterns that have previously resulted in large Russian vehicle losses in 2022 and 2023, and Ukrainian forces are therefore likely able to repeat their previous successes against Russian mechanized assaults should the US provide Ukraine with the necessary assistance.[26]

Germany announced that it will immediately transfer another Patriot air defense system to Ukraine in response to recent very urgent Ukrainian requests for additional Patriot systems to defend against the increased Russian strike campaign amid ongoing Ukrainian efforts to expand Ukraine’s air defense capabilities. The German Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 13 that Germany will immediately transfer another Patriot system to Ukraine to defend against the ongoing increased Russian strike campaign against the Ukrainian energy grid.[27] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later clarified that the Patriot system includes an unspecified number of missiles and that Germany and Ukraine are discussing the provision of an additional IRIS-T air defense system.[28] German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated that the Russian strike campaign against Ukrainian citizens and infrastructure is endangering Ukraine’s energy supply and destroying defense industrial facilities that are critical to Ukraine’s operational readiness.[29] Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently called on Ukraine’s Western allies to send Ukraine more Patriot batteries to protect Ukrainian cities and frontline areas, particularly Kharkiv City, from Russian ballistic missiles.[30] Kuleba stated on April 10 that Ukraine urgently needs seven Patriot batteries, and the additional German-provided Patriot system will significantly ease, but not resolve, the strain on Ukraine‘s air defense umbrella and the limited number of Patriot batteries currently in Ukraine.[31] Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhaylo Podolyak stated during an interview on April 13 that Ukraine has not run out of Patriot and IRIS-T missiles, but that Ukraine’s supply of Western air defense missiles is “in deficit.”[32] Former Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat warned in January 2024 that Ukraine began rationing its air defense equipment and ammunition and used a considerable amount of Ukraine’s existing air defense missile stockpile in defending against several large Russian drone and missile strike series in the first two weeks of January.[33] Recent large-scale Russian strikes have likely only further degraded Ukraine’s air defense missile stockpiles, and the German MoD and Zelensky did not specify how many additional Patriot missiles Germany is sending to Ukraine alongside the system.

Ukrainian officials also continue to discuss their envisioned use of F-16 and other fixed wing aircraft as part of Ukraine’s broader air defense umbrella. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Major Ilya Yevlash stated on April 13 that Ukraine needs at least 150 aircraft to effectively conduct air operations and noted that the Ukrainian Air Force will base its rearmament around F-16s, Swedish produced Gripen multirole fixed-wing aircraft, and other aircraft.[34] Yevlash stated that Ukraine will use F-16s to augment existing Ukrainian ground-based air defenses defending against Russian Shahed-136/131 drones and cruise and guided missiles and to constrain Russian aviation operations. Yevlash noted that even two squadrons, roughly 18 aircraft, could significantly influence the situation in the Ukrainian air space and ease pressure on strained Ukrainian air defense systems. Zelensky stated on April 6 that the promised F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine’s Western partners only account for 10 percent of the fighter aircraft that Ukraine would need to defeat the Russian aviation threat.[35] Zelensky suggested that Ukraine will need a combination of air defense systems and fighter aircraft to defeat the Russian aviation threat. Some of the promised European-provided F-16s are expected to arrive in Ukraine in the summer of 2024, although ISW continues to assess that only the United States can rapidly provide aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine at the scale necessary to significantly improve Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.[36]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces are pursuing at least three operational-level efforts that are not mutually reinforcing but let Russian forces prioritize grinding, tactical gains on a single sector of their choice at a time. Ukrainian forces will increasingly struggle to defend against these Russian efforts the longer Ukraine lacks further US military assistance.
  • The Russian military command likely assesses that Ukrainian forces will be unable to defend against current and future Russian offensive operations due to delays in or the permanent end of US military assistance.
  • The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances as the seizure of the town would likely allow Russian forces to launch subsequent offensive operations against the cities that form in effect a significant Ukrainian defensive belt in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian threats to Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka are very operationally significant since these “fortress” cities help form the backbone of the Ukrainian defense in Donetsk Oblast and of eastern Ukraine in general.
  • Russian forces may not be able to seize Chasiv Yar rapidly and would likely struggle to leverage its operational significance immediately as long as Ukrainian forces have the resources needed to hold their positions.
  • Ukrainian artillery and air defense shortages resulting from the lack of US security assistance are allowing Russian mechanized forces to make marginal tactical advances, and future Russian mechanized assaults may be able to achieve more significant gains should the US continue to withhold assistance to Ukraine.
  • Germany announced that it will immediately transfer another Patriot air defense system to Ukraine in response to recent very urgent Ukrainian requests for additional Patriot systems to defend against the increased Russian strike campaign and ongoing Ukrainian efforts to expand Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and Donetsk City.
  • Bloomberg reported on April 12 that Russia still relies on Chinese companies to supply most of the foreign-produced machine tool components and microelectronics to Russia’s defense industry for Russian weapons production.

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 12, 2024, 5:55pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russia’s ongoing strike campaign against Ukrainian energy facilities aims in part to devastate the Ukrainian defense industry, confirming ISW’s ongoing assessment that Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity. Putin stated during a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on April 11 that Russian drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s energy sector are connected to Russia’s goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine – one of his three stated goals in Ukraine.[1] Putin characterized Russia’s ongoing strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure as a “forced” response to recent Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil and gas facilities and openly stated that Russian strikes indirectly aim to degrade Ukraine’s defense industrial capacity. The recent Russian strike campaign is degrading Ukraine's power generation capacity while also exploiting reported Ukrainian air defense missile shortages in a renewed effort to collapse Ukraine’s power grid.[2] Putin likely hopes to prevent Ukraine’s defense industry from developing to the point of near self-sufficiency in the long term as a strong defense industry could put Ukraine in a good position to defend against future Russian aggression and significantly reduce Ukraine's dependence on Western aid.[3] Significant delays in Western aid, due in part to successful Russian information operations and Western hesitancy, have created an opportunity for Russian offensive operations and Russia’s strike campaign.

ISW continues to assess that the development of Ukraine’s defense industrial base (DIB) over time can allow Ukraine to sustain its defense against Russia and longer-term national security needs with significantly reduced foreign military assistance.[4] Ukrainian officials have expressed their intention to expand Ukraine’s DIB domestically and abroad since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov previously identified increased Ukrainian domestic production of weapons and military equipment as a priority for 2024.[5] US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller has stated that the short- and medium-term provision of Western air defenses to Ukraine will be a critical element of Ukraine’s ability to stand up its defense industry, which will, in turn, decrease Ukrainian dependence on Western aid and especially US aid to Ukraine in the long term.[6] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently emphasized that Ukraine cannot mitigate the lack of sufficient air defense systems and that only Western-provided air defense systems, namely Patriot systems, allow Ukraine to defend Ukraine against the intensified Russia strike campaign.[7] ISW continues to assess that the US will not need to send large security assistance packages to Ukraine indefinitely if Ukraine can sufficiently expand its defensive industrial capacity, but the West’s provision of air defense systems and missiles to Ukraine is crucial for Ukraine’s ability to defend its energy infrastructure and its developing defense industry against Russian strikes.[8]

Russian forces are domestically producing and fielding a new air-to-surface subsonic cruise missile against Ukraine designated the Kh-69 as part of continued efforts to improve strike packages and penetrate Ukraine’s degraded air defense. Ukrainian media reported on April 11 that Ukrainian law enforcement sources stated that Russian forces destroyed the Trypilska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in Kyiv Oblast on April 11 with new Kh-69 missiles, which Russian forces had reportedly used in “isolated cases” in 2023 prior to the April 11 strike.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Major Ilya Yevlash confirmed on April 12 that Russian forces used the Kh-69s in the April 11 strike and described the Kh-69 missiles as an improved version of Kh-59 cruise missiles, which Russian forces have frequently used in strike packages against Ukraine in recent weeks.[10] ISW has not previously observed the Russian use of Kh-69 missiles in Ukraine. Russian forces have reportedly launched Kh-69 missiles from 400 kilometers away from their targets, exceeding a previous estimated range of 300 kilometers and the 200-kilometer range of the most recent Kh-59MK2 variant.[11] Russian forces can reportedly launch the missiles from more numerous Su-34 and Su-35 tactical aircraft rather than exclusively from strategic bombers.[12] Yevlash stated that Russian forces are domestically producing the Kh-69 missiles but that their ability to manufacture the missiles depends on their ability to source critical components.[13] While the Russian stockpiles and production capability of these Kh-69 missiles are unclear, Russia is unlikely to be able to produce them at a significantly greater speed or quantity than its other domestically produced missiles. Yevlash noted that Ukrainian forces are still developing methods to counter the Kh-69s but emphasized that Patriot air defense systems would likely be able to intercept them.[14]

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a group of Central Asians from perpetrating a terrorist attack against a Russian military facility in occupied Ukraine with Ukraine’s help, likely as part of efforts to set information conditions to portray any future Ukrainian attack on legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine as “terrorist” attacks. The FSB claimed on April 11 that it detained six citizens of an unspecified Central Asian state for allegedly preparing a Ukrainian-orchestrated terrorist attack on a Russian military facility in occupied Donetsk Oblast.[15] The FSB claimed that the attackers were planning to go to Turkey and then back to Ukraine after carrying out the attack - a narrative that likely attempts to parallel how the Crocus City Hall attackers traveled to Turkey before the March 22 attack.[16] Russia routinely labels Ukrainian strikes against legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine and within Russia as ”terrorist” attacks.[17]

The FSB also claimed that it prevented a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Moscow on April 10 and that the FSB killed one of the alleged terrorists, a native of an unspecified Central Asian country, during a shootout.[18] The FSB claimed on March 7 that it prevented members of the Islamic State (IS) in Kaluga Oblast from conducting an attack on a Moscow synagogue.[19] The FSB may have not claimed that Ukraine was involved in the attack that the FSB allegedly stopped on April 10 due to the FSB’s prior public statements connecting the previous plans for an attack on a Moscow synagogue to IS. Russian authorities recently conducted counterterrorism operations in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria and the Republic of Dagestan, and ISW continues to assess that the increased frequency of counterterrorism operations in Russia is likely due to either Russian law enforcement’s actual heightened fears of another terrorist attack in Russia or is part of efforts to show the Russian public that authorities are taking competent preventative steps following the major law enforcement and intelligence failure that was the Crocus City Hall attack.[20] These counterterrorism activities are also further evidence that Russian authorities actually assess that terrorist threats emanate from Central Asian and Muslim communities instead of Ukraine.[21]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russia’s ongoing strike campaign against Ukrainian energy facilities aims in part to devastate the Ukrainian defense industry, confirming ISW’s ongoing assessment that Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity.
  • ISW continues to assess that the development of Ukraine’s defense industrial base (DIB) over time can allow Ukraine to sustain its defense against Russia and longer-term national security needs with significantly reduced foreign military assistance.
  • Russian forces are domestically producing and fielding a new air-to-surface subsonic cruise missile against Ukraine designated the Kh-69 as part of continued efforts to improve strike packages and penetrate Ukraine’s degraded air defense.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it prevented a group of Central Asians from perpetrating a terrorist attack against a Russian military facility in occupied Ukraine with Ukraine’s help, likely as part of efforts to set information conditions to portray any future Ukrainian attack on legitimate Russian military targets in occupied Ukraine as “terrorist” attacks.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russia is reportedly sending about 2,400 Eastern Military District (EMD) military personnel currently in Russia to fight in Ukraine to make up for personnel losses at the front.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to expand educational programs that aim to indoctrinate Ukrainian children and erase their Ukrainian identity.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 11, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

April 11, 2024, 6:25pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on April 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11 that caused notable and likely long-term damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 82 air targets at Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11, including 20 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from Saratov Oblast; six Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles from Tambov Oblast; 12 S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Belgorod Oblast; four Kh-59 cruise missiles from occupied Zaporizhia Oblast; and 40 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and occupied Cape Chauda, Crimea.[1] Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 57 air targets, including 16 Kh-101/555 missiles, two Kh-59 missiles, and 39 Shahed drones.[2] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo stated that this strike series was the third large-scale Russian strike on Ukrainian electricity generation in 2024, likely referring to the March 22 and 28 strikes that damaged Ukrainian thermal and hydroelectric power plants (TPPs/HPPs).[3] Ukrainian energy company Centrenergo reported that an unspecified Russian strike destroyed the Trypilska TPP in Kyiv Oblast — the largest supplier of electricity to Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Zhytomyr oblasts.[4] Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration Head Oleh Synehubov stated that Russian forces conducted at least 10 strikes on critical infrastructure in Kharkiv City and Oblast.[5] Lviv Oblast Military Administration Head Maksym Kozytskyi reported that Russian forces struck a gas distribution facility and electric substation in Lviv Oblast with drones and unspecified missiles.[6] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Russian forces damaged an energy facility in Zaporizhia Oblast with unspecified missiles, that debris from a downed drone caused a fire at an energy facility in Odesa Oblast, and that Russian forces targeted Odesa City with a Kh-31 anti-radar missile, but that the missile malfunctioned over the Black Sea.[7] Ukrainian officials also reported that an unspecified number of Russian ballistic missiles struck Mykolaiv City and that Russian guided glide bombs struck a power plant in Sumy City during the day of April 11.[8] The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 11 that Russian strikes, not including the April 10–11 strike series, have disrupted 80 percent of the generation capacity of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, which supplies about 20 percent of Ukraine’s power.[9] The WSJ reported that DTEK’s chief executive, Maksym Timchenko, stated that DTEK spent $110 million repairing damage during the war’s first year and that it will cost more than twice that much to fix the most recent destruction caused by Russian strikes.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Ukraine needs more Patriot air defense batteries to protect both Ukraine’s population centers and frontline areas. The Washington Post reported on April 10 that Kuleba is currently focusing on obtaining seven Patriot batteries from other countries as quickly as possible to defend Ukraine’s largest cities.[10] Kuleba reportedly stated that Ukraine would place at least one of these batteries closer to the frontline. Kuleba recently emphasized that Ukraine especially needs Patriot systems to defend against Russian ballistic missiles, such as Kinzhal missiles, as Ukraine’s Soviet-era air defense systems are unable to intercept these missiles.[11] Russian strikes have forced Ukraine to make difficult decisions between providing air defense coverage to large population centers in the rear and active areas on the frontline, and Russia appears to be exploiting Ukraine’s degraded air defense umbrella in an attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid and constrain Ukraine’s defense industrial capacity while Russian ground forces take advantage of their ability to use air strikes on Ukrainian frontline positions to make slow but steady gains.[12] ISW continues to assess that sparse and inconsistent air defense coverage along the front has likely facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024 and which Russian forces appear to be using again during their current offensive operations near Chasiv Yar.[13]

The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted a new mobilization law on April 11, a significant step in addressing Ukraine’s manpower challenges amid growing manpower constraints in Ukrainian units defending on the frontline.[14] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the new mobilization law will come into force after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signs the law in May.[15] Ukrainian Joint Forces and “Khortytsia” Group of Forces Commander Lieutenant General Yuriy Sodol addressed the Verkhovna Rada ahead of the vote and reiterated that one of Ukraine’s main problems is its manpower challenges.[16] Sodol stated that some Ukrainian units are severely undermanned and suggested that some Ukrainian detachments are undermanned to the point that the detachment can currently only defend roughly 20 of the 100 meters a detachment at full end strength is typically able to defend. Sodol suggested that the Ukrainian military is currently deploying three partially manned brigades to cover the same area that one fully manned brigade can typically defend, forcing Ukraine to allocate additional units to defensive actions that could otherwise be resting in rear areas or preparing for future counteroffensive actions. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensive operations and eventually challenge the theater-wide initiative depends heavily on the provision of US military assistance and the continuation of non-US military support as well as on Ukraine’s efforts to restore and reconstitute existing units and create new units.[17]

US European Command (EUCOM) Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Chistopher Cavoli reported that EUCOM and NATO are strengthening their ability to respond to the “chronic threat” that Russia poses to global stability and European security in hopes of deterring future Russian aggression against NATO. Cavoli stated during a briefing to the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on April 10 that Russia poses a “chronic threat” to the world and warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not intend to limit or stop his aggression at the borders of Ukraine.[18] Cavoli reported that EUCOM is responding to the Russian threat by enhancing its deterrence posture across Europe, including strengthening EUCOM’s eastern flank with rotational force deployments, expanding EUCOM’s pre-positioned stocks, and modernizing EUCOM’s infrastructure to enable a rapid reception of reinforcing forces. Cavoli stated that EUCOM and NATO are exercising extensively to demonstrate their ability to defend against and deter future Russian aggression against NATO. Cavoli noted that China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are forming “interlocking, strategic partnerships” that are antithetical to US national security interests and aim to challenge the existing global security framework. Kremlin officials, particularly Putin, are increasingly contextualizing the war in Ukraine as part of a long-term geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West in order to justify Russia’s long-term war effort in Ukraine and future Russian aggression against other European countries.[19]

Ukraine and Latvia signed a bilateral security agreement on April 11 providing for long-term Latvian assistance and security commitments to Ukraine.[20] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the agreement will provide annual aid to Ukraine valued at 0.25 percent of Latvia’s GDP from 2024 through 2026 and confirms Latvia’s 10-year commitment to aid Ukraine in reconstruction, the protection of critical infrastructure, de-mining, unmanned technology, and cyber security.[21] Latvia will also provide about 112 million euros (about $120 million) worth of military aid to Ukraine in 2024.[22]

Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly killed two suspected terrorists in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria on April 11. The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) stated that Russian authorities declared a counterterrorism regime in Nalchik and Chereksky Raion, Kabardino-Balkaria and killed two militants who were reportedly planning sabotage and terrorist attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria.[23] The NAK also conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly detained three militants in the Republic of Dagestan on March 31.[24] Russian security forces are likely intensifying counterterrorism operations in Russia — particularly in the North Caucasus, which has seen Islamic State-Caucasus Province (Wilayat al Qawqaz) and other jihadist activity over the years — due to heighted fears of terrorism in Russia following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack. Continued Russian counterterrorism operations in the North Caucasus and intensified measures targeting Central Asian migrants in Russia are further evidence that Russian authorities actually assess that threats emanate from Russia’s Central Asian and Muslim communities instead of Ukraine despite Russian efforts to baselessly tie Ukraine to the Crocus City Hall attack.[25] ISW remains confident that Islamic State (IS) conducted the Crocus City Hall attack and has yet to observe independent reporting or evidence to suggest that an actor other than IS was responsible for or aided the attack.[26]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces conducted another large-scale series of missile and drones strikes against Ukraine on the night of April 10 to 11 that caused notable and likely long-term damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Ukraine needs more Patriot air defense batteries to protect both Ukraine’s population centers and frontline areas.
  • The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada adopted a new mobilization law on April 11, a significant step in addressing Ukraine’s manpower challenges amid growing manpower constraints in Ukrainian units defending on the frontline.
  • US European Command (EUCOM) Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Chistopher Cavoli reported that EUCOM and NATO are strengthening their ability to respond to the “chronic threat” that Russia poses to global stability and European security in hopes of deterring future Russian aggression against NATO.
  • Ukraine and Latvia signed a bilateral security agreement on April 11 providing for long-term Latvian assistance and security commitments to Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and reportedly killed two suspected terrorists in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria on April 11.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, in the direction of Chasiv Yar west of Bakhmut, and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area on April 11.
  • Russian exiled opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe reported on April 11 that Russian courts have commuted sentences in over half of all criminal cases against Russian veterans and active-duty servicemen due to military service in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 10, 2024

Click Here to Read the Full Report

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

The Ukrainian military’s effective use of drones on the battlefield cannot fully mitigate Ukraine’s theater-wide shortage of critical munitions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in an interview with German outlet BILD published on April 10 that Ukraine is successfully domestically producing drones, but that drones cannot replace air defense systems, long-range missile systems, or artillery.[1] Ukrainian forces have partially mitigated ongoing artillery ammunition shortages by using first-person view (FPV) drones to blunt Russian infantry and armored vehicle assaults, although artillery systems can deliver much more powerful strikes than loitering munitions and drone-dropped munitions. An unnamed NATO official told Foreign Policy in an article published on April 9 that Ukrainian forces have used FPV drones to “destroy” over two-thirds of the total number of Russian tanks that the Ukrainians have “destroyed” in recent months.[2] Ukrainian FPV drone pilots reportedly target a Russian tank’s ”open hatch, the engine or ammunition stored in the turret.”[3] Ukrainian FPV drones are likely able to temporarily render armored vehicles hors de combat during a combat operation, but current FPV drones with relatively light payloads are unlikely to destroy armored vehicles rendering them irretrievable and irreparable very often. Electronic warfare systems and increased armor on armored vehicles can also make it difficult for FPV drones to strike a specific target location on the vehicle, although technological and tactical competition can create periodic windows of opportunity for offense or defense to gain an advantage.[4] Reuters reported on March 26 that Ukrainian FPV drone pilots acknowledged that they would be unable to hold the frontline without artillery and infantry.[5] Ukrainian forces have managed partially to repel an increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in recent weeks despite ammunition shortages.[6] Ukraine’s ability to repel mechanized assaults with FPV drones is a partial mitigation, however, and continued shortages of artillery deprive Ukrainian forces of the ability to destroy armored vehicles rapidly and in large numbers.

US European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Christopher Cavoli warned on April 10 that Russian forces currently have a five-to-one artillery advantage along the frontline – a statement consistent with Ukrainian officials’ reports – but that Russian forces could have a 10-to-1 artillery advantage “in a matter of weeks” if the United States continues to delay the provision of military aid to Ukraine.[7] Zelensky and senior Ukrainian military officials have recently warned that delays in Western military assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative to Russia and that the Ukrainian military cannot plan a successful counteroffensive or defensive effort without knowing when and what kind of aid Ukraine will receive. ISW continues to assess that delays in Western military assistance have forced the Ukrainian military to husband materiel and that Ukrainian forces must make difficult decisions prioritizing certain aspects of its defense at the cost of lives and lost territory as well as at the expense of contesting the initiative to constrain Russian military capabilities or planning for future counteroffensive operations.[8]

Zelensky stated that there are no mitigations for insufficient air defense systems and indicated that Russian strikes are forcing Ukraine to reallocate already scarce air defense assets to defend Kharkiv City. Zelensky told BILD that drones cannot replace air defenses and that Ukraine needs air defenses to survive.[9] Russian forces have recently intensified their strike campaign against Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials have recently warned that if Russian forces sustain the current high tempo of this campaign, then Ukraine will likely lack the air defense missile stocks necessary to protect Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.[10] Zelensky discussed plans with Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk on April 10 to redeploy Ukrainian air defenses to protect Kharkiv City, against which Russian forces have recently intensified missile, drone, and glide bomb strikes.[11] The Russian strike campaign has pressured Ukraine to prioritize protecting strategic objects, population centers, and energy infrastructure in deep rear areas over the frontline and near rear areas such as Kharkiv City.[12] This further reorganization of Ukrainian air defenses to protect Kharkiv City will presumably draw from Ukraine’s existing arsenal of missiles and launchers, which will stretch Ukraine’s already limited air defense capabilities and provide Russian forces with the opportunity to further exploit weakened air defenses elsewhere. As ISW has recently assessed, degraded and thin Ukrainian air defenses would afford Russian aviation prolonged security to operate on the frontline, significantly increase devastating glide bomb strikes at scale, and possibly even permit routine large-scale Russian aviation operations against near rear Ukrainian logistics and cities.[13]

US emergency efforts to bolster Ukraine’s existing air defense capabilities remain insufficient to protect Ukraine against Russian strikes. The US Department of Defense (DoD) approved the possible sale of equipment worth $138 million on April 9 to repair and modernize Ukraine’s HAWK air defense systems due to Ukraine’s “urgent need” to defend against Russian airstrikes but acknowledged that the possible transfer would “not alter the basic military balance” in Ukraine absent additional aid.[14] Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently emphasized that Patriots can shoot down Russian ballistic missiles that Ukraine’s Soviet systems cannot, and Zelensky recently stated that Ukraine will need an additional 25 Patriot air defense systems, likely meaning launchers, to extend full air defense coverage to all of Ukraine’s territory.[15] NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and US European Command Commander General Christopher Cavoli warned on April 10 that Ukraine will run out of missiles for the launchers it already has “in fairly short order” if the United States does not continue to support Ukraine and stressed that the US failure to provide Ukraine with additional military assistance has generated battlefield effects that favor Russia.[16]

Zelensky warned about the threat of a potential future Russian ground offensive operation targeting Kharkiv City, which would force Ukraine to reallocate some of its already-strained manpower and materiel capabilities away from other currently active and critical sectors of the front. Zelensky told BILD that he cannot rule out the possibility of a major Russian offensive operation on Kharkiv City and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to seize Kharkiv City since the beginning of the full-scale invasion because Kharkiv City is a major Ukrainian city and has symbolic meaning for both Russia and Ukraine.[17] Zelensky noted that Ukrainian forces are doing everything possible to prevent Russia from seizing Kharkiv City. Zelensky recently told CBS that Ukrainian forces are also constructing fortifications and defensive positions near Sumy City in response to a reported significant buildup of Russian forces in neighboring Bryansk Oblast.[18] A Russian ground operation against Kharkiv in the very near future is unlikely, but Russian efforts to create strategic reserves and reposition forces in the theater could allow Russian forces to launch an offensive toward the city in the summer.[19]

The threat of a Russian offensive operation targeting Kharkiv or Sumy city appears to be forcing the Ukrainian military to redistribute its limited manpower and materiel to the construction of defensive fortifications in those areas and an active Russian operation to seize these cities would only further exacerbate this dynamic. The Russian military maintains the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine, and Russia’s ability to conduct opportunistic offensive operations in almost any area of the frontline will continue to strain Ukraine’s already stretched resources, regardless of any one operation’s success in actually seizing a targeted city or settlement.[20] The Russian forces are able to allocate significant resources in hopes of achieving operationally significant breakthroughs in frontline areas of their choosing and can exploit areas of the front previously made vulnerable by Ukrainian manpower and materiel transfers. Russian forces are currently concentrating significant resources near Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka and continue to make slow, grinding advances in those areas, largely due to Ukrainian manpower challenges and delays in US and Western aid.[21] Ukrainian forces will likely not be able to contest the theater-wide initiative and more proactively allocate their resources without continuing to address their manpower issues and receiving additional Western aid.

The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada considered and adopted provisions from Ukraine’s draft mobilization law on April 10 as part of an ongoing effort to increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term. The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada National Security and Defense Committee adopted the second reading of the draft mobilization law on April 9 and submitted it to the wider Verkhovna Rada for consideration, which began on April 10.[22] Ukrainian officials reported that the Verkhovna Rada adopted a provision from the law allowing for the mobilization of Ukrainian convicts and a provision amending Ukraine’s criminal code to increase penalties for mobilization evasion.[23] Ukrainian officials reportedly removed an existing provision from the draft law that would have stipulated the end of active military service for mobilized personnel after 36 months of service.[24] Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Spokesperson Dmytro Lazutkin stated on April 10 that Ukrainian officials will consider issues regarding the conclusion of military service of individuals and rotations of military personnel in a separate draft law.[25] Ukrainian efforts to establish a more sustainable mobilization apparatus will support the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and reconstitute existing units and create new units. ISW continues to assess that Western-provided materiel continues to be the greatest deciding factor for the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and augment its combat power, however.

Russian officials continue to indicate that they are not interested in any meaningful negotiations on the war in Ukraine amid Switzerland’s announcement that it will host a global peace summit on the war on June 15 and 16.[26] Swiss officials stated that Switzerland will send invitations for the summit to representatives of over 100 countries and that the summit will include discussions of various peace proposals, including Ukraine’s Peace Formula and China’s vague 12-point peace plan.[27] The Russian Embassy in Switzerland reiterated previous Russian statements that Russia would reject any invitation to the summit and that any discussions about Ukraine without Russia are pointless.[28] Russian officials have repeatedly falsely blamed Ukraine and the West for the lack of peace negotiations, despite numerous public Russian statements suggesting or explicitly stating that Russia is not interested in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine.[29] The Kremlin continues efforts to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity and fundamentally weaken NATO and has shown no legitimate indication that it is open to reconsidering these objectives.[30]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to downplay tension in Armenian-Russian relations amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia. Peskov claimed on April 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will meet in the near future to discuss “existing questions” about Armenian-Russian relations.[31] Peskov asserted that Armenia is Russia’s ally and that Russia engages with Armenia on the assumption that Russia and Armenia can resolve all problems through dialogue.[32] Pashinyan stated on April 10 that Armenian-Russian relations are “not experiencing their best time” and that Armenia has “not made a single wrong step” in this relationship.[33] Pashinyan stated that Armenian-Russian relations are transitioning from a “historical” nature to “real” relations, likely a reference to growing dissatisfaction at Russia’s inability and unwillingness to support Armenian interests in Nagorno-Karabakh and increasing Armenian interest in deepening cooperation with the West.[34] Pashinyan stated that Armenia is still considering whether it will participate in the May 8 Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit and did not mention if he would attend Putin’s presidential inauguration on May 5.[35] Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan announced on April 9 that he would not attend the Council of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting on April 12 in Minsk, although Kremlin newswire TASS claimed that Armenia would send a deputy minister.[36] Armenian Minister of High-Technology Industry Mkhitar Hayrapetyan stated that Armenia is considering terminating an agreement with Russia that allows Russia to broadcast Russian state television programs in Armenia following the March 29 announcement that Armenia blocked two of Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s shows.[37]

Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed that Russia has no economic reason to import foreign labor, a direct contradiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent efforts to justify Russia’s current migration laws to his xenophobic ultra-nationalist constituency. Bastrykin claimed during a speech at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum on April 10 that Russia has no economic reason to import migrant workers, particularly workers from Central Asian countries.[38] Bastrykin stated that an Uzbek government official once asked Bastrykin why Russia takes in so many migrants and allows migrants to apply for Russian citizenship, particularly young migrants whom Bastrykin insinuated were dangerous. Bastrykin claimed that there is “no way” Russia can overcome the reported trend of increased migrant crime in Russia and claimed that migrants in Russia are unwilling to assimilate into Russian culture and society. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) published a “criminogenic index” in January 2024 that detailed which migrant groups are more predisposed to criminal activity and indicated that the number of crimes committed by migrants in Russia has increased annually since 2019.[39] Bastrykin reiterated a sentiment that he claimed to see on social media – that migrants who are Russian citizens should sign military service contracts and fight in Ukraine while migrants who are unwilling to fight in Ukraine should return to their native countries.[40] Russian milbloggers and some State Duma members have previously justified Russia’s ongoing coercive crypto-mobilization effort, which disproportionally targets migrants, by claiming that migrants who receive Russian citizenship must fight in Ukraine to “earn” their Russian citizenship and that migrants who fight in Ukraine will receive Russian citizenship.[41] Putin stated on April 4 that Russia’s future labor shortage is “absolutely certain” and that Russia will either have to import labor from abroad or increase its existing labor productivity.[42] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is unlikely to approve anti-migrant policies that could worsen Russia’s labor shortages and degrade Russia’s crypto-mobilization efforts despite xenophobic demands from Russian ultranationalists to drastically reduce – if not eliminate – migration to Russia.[43] Bastrykin’s contradiction of Putin further illustrates that the Kremlin’s attempts to appeal to ultranationalist anti-migrant fervor may continue to generate inconsistencies and contradictions with the Kremlin’s migration policy and rhetoric.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Ukrainian military’s effective use of drones on the battlefield cannot fully mitigate Ukraine’s theater-wide shortage of critical munitions.
  • Zelensky stated that there are no mitigations for insufficient air defense systems and indicated that Russian strikes are forcing Ukraine to reallocate already scarce air defense assets to defend Kharkiv City.
  • Zelensky warned about the threat of a potential future Russian ground offensive operation targeting Kharkiv City, which would force Ukraine to reallocate some of its already-strained manpower and materiel capabilities away from other currently active and critical sectors of the front.
  • The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada considered and adopted provisions from Ukraine’s draft mobilization law on April 10 as part of an ongoing effort to increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term.
  • Russian officials continue to indicate that they are not interested in any meaningful negotiations on the war in Ukraine amid Switzerland’s announcement that it will host a global peace summit on the war on June 15 and 16.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to downplay tension in Armenian-Russian relations amid Armenia’s continued efforts to distance itself from political and security relations with Russia.
  • Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed that Russia has no economic reason to import foreign labor, a direct contradiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent efforts to justify Russia’s current migration laws to his xenophobic ultra-nationalist constituency.
  • Russian forces recently captured Ivanivske, a settlement east of Chasiv Yar, and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Eight Russian senators and 16 State Duma deputies submitted a bill to the Russian State Duma that would likely allow Russian authorities to deploy Russian Federal Penitentiaries Service (FSIN) employees to Ukraine, amid reports that Russia is intensifying its crypto-mobilization efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 9, 2024

Click Here to Read the Full Report

Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

April 9, 2024, 8pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30 pm ET on April 9. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 10 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian state media highlighted Russia and China’s joint effort to combat perceived Western “dual containment” targeting Russia and China during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on April 9. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Wang suggested that China and Russia engage in “dual counteraction” in response to alleged Western attempts at “dual containment” targeting Russia and China.[1] Lavrov claimed that the Russian–Chinese “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction” have reached an “unprecedented level,” and that Russia and China have mutual international interests and will coordinate to solve internal and external problems.[2] Lavrov claimed that Russian–Chinese relations extend beyond a “military-political alliance of the Cold War” and that both countries are working to create a “multipolar world order” through multilateral formats that include BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).[3] Russia has consistently pushed the idea of a Russian-led “multipolar world order” that imagines Russia as the leader of a coalition of non-Western states in opposition to the US and West.[4] Lavrov claimed that Russia and China will continue to cooperate on anti-terrorism measures and that Russia and China signed another plan for inter-Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) consultations in 2024.[5] The Russian MFA stated that China and Russia “exchanged views” on possible ways to resolve the war in Ukraine, that both sides called international meetings that discuss an end to the war without Russia “futile,” and that Russia “positively” assesses China’s suggestions for an end to the war, likely in reference to the 12-point peace plan that China released in February 2023.[6] The Russian MFA notably did not mention bilateral military or technological cooperation, possibly due to recent reports that China is increasingly helping Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) and even providing Russia with geospatial intelligence that Russia likely uses to support military operations in Ukraine.[7] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin continues to be concerned with China’s reticence to participate fully in the Kremlin's desired no-limits partnership, and that China continues to hold the upper hand in the Russian–Chinese relationship despite recent reports suggesting that China is increasingly willing to assist Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.[8]

US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on April 9 that it transferred roughly a brigade’s worth of small arms and ammunition seized from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Ukraine on April 4. CENTCOM reported that the US government transferred over 5,000 AK-47s, machine guns, sniper rifles, RPG-7s and over 500,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to the Ukrainian military.[9] CENTCOM stated that it obtained these munitions on December 1, 2023 through a Department of Justice (DoJ) civil forfeiture claim opened against the IRGC in July 2023.[10] CNN reported that CENTCOM had already transferred over one million rounds of seized IRGC ammunition to Ukraine as of October 2023.[11]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) is likely responsible for a drone strike against the Borisoglebsk Airbase in Voronezh Oblast overnight on April 8 to 9. GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that two unspecified drones struck the aviation center in Borisoglebsk, which reportedly trains Russian frontline bomber and attack aviation flight crews, and that preliminary information suggests that the strike damaged unspecified production facilities at the airbase.[12] Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine cited its own source within GUR as confirming that the Borisoglebsk strike was a GUR operation.[13] Geolocated footage published on April 9 shows one drone striking the airbase.[14] Russian sources reported that one Ukrainian drone struck the facade of the Chlakov aviation training center near the airbase and another drone struck the same spot an hour later, only damaging the outside of the building.[15] ISW has not yet observed visual confirmation of the type and extent of damage from the drone strike.

Russian ultranationalist milbloggers continue to employ virulently anti-migrant rhetoric and call for xenophobic domestic policies, but in doing so are exposing the inherent hypocrisy in Russia’s treatment of its own indigenous ethnic minority communities. Several ultranationalist milbloggers seized on an April 5 post by the Leningrad Oblast House of Friendship cultural center for awarding the local “Khorezm” Uzbek cultural organization with a grant for its work in “harmonization of interethnic relations and support for small indigenous peoples of Leningrad Oblast.”[16] Several milbloggers retorted that Uzbeks are not indigenous to Leningrad Oblast and questioned why an Uzbek cultural organization received an award from the Leningrad Oblast budget.[17] One milblogger emphasized that Leningrad Oblast has formally defined Vepsians, Vods, and Izhorians as the ethnic groups indigenous to Leningrad Oblast.[18] Another Russian milblogger published a post on April 9, which was later amplified by a Telegram channel affiliated with imprisoned Russian former officer and ultranationalist commentator Igor Girkin, calling the domestic situation in Russia a “migration catastrophe,” accusing migrants of attacking the Russian domestic rear and of “unleashing ethnic, economic, and religious terror against indigenous citizens of the Russian Federation of all ethnicities.”[19] The milbloggers who criticized the Leningrad Oblast authorities and the post amplified by the Girkin-affiliated channel all narrowly define Muslim migrants from Central Asian countries as an explicit threat to “indigenous Russians.”[20]

This same ultranationalist community, however, has been inconsistent and hypocritical in selectively defining who it believes to be an “indigenous Russian,” and the actual indigenous populations of Russia’s ethnic minority republics have faced discrimination and poor treatment at the hands of ethnic Russians, particularly against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers have criticized Tuvans, an ethnic minority group indigenous to Siberia, for using indigenous Tuvan orthography on road signs, while accusing Tuvan activist groups of inciting “ethnic discord” in Russia.[21] The Kremlin has also heavily relied on the more geographically remote and economically disenfranchised Russian federal subjects, many of which are indigenous ethnic minority republics, to disproportionately bear the brunt of mobilization for the war in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians in major population centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg from high casualties and the realities of the war.[22] Indigenous Buryat, Kalmyk, Tuvan, and Sakha activist organizations have spoken out against the Kremlin’s heavy reliance on ethnic minority indigenous populations for force generation purposes.[23] Russian authorities have also been trying to undermine cultural identity in the Republic of Tatarstan through amendments to state national policy that remove provisions on “strengthening Tatarstan’s identity.”[24]

Russian ultranationalists’ anti-migrant rhetoric, which has increased exponentially following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terror attack, has exposed gaps in the Kremlin’s already strained relationship with migrant communities within Russia. The Kremlin is likely struggling to balance appeasing the anti-migrant calls of ultranationalist commentators, who comprise a major Kremlin support base, with its reliance on migrants and ethnic minority communities to fill roles both on the battlefield and in the domestic labor economy, as ISW has previously assessed.[25]

The Kremlin will likely be able to leverage a new agreement signed by the Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, and a state-owned Russian bank to further its efforts to destabilize Moldovan society, attack Moldova’s democratic government, and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU). Gutsul met with Petr Fradkov, the chairman and CEO of Russian state-owned bank Promsvyazbank (PSB), in Moscow on April 9.[26] Petr Fradkov is the son of Mikhail Fradkov, the former long-time director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and current director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.[27] PSB will reportedly open accounts for an estimated 5,000 government employees and 20,000 pensioners in Gagauzia, who will reportedly receive cards for Russia’s Mir payment system, whose operator the US sanctioned in February 2024.[28] Gutsul asked PBS to provide “humanitarian aid” and “additional funding” to Gagauzian pension payments and public sector salaries.[29] Gutsul claimed that Moldovan authorities may detain her upon her return to Chisinau, echoing previous claims by pro-Russian Moldovan actors that Moldovan authorities were going to detain Gutsul in Chisinau following her visit to Moscow in March 2024, though authorities did not detain Gutsul.[30] It is unclear if Gagauzia will be able to implement the agreement with PSB, however. Gagauzian outlet Notka reported that the head of the Gagauzian Department of Justice Petr Manol noted that the governor of Gagauzia does not have the power to independently sign international agreements under Moldovan law.[31] The Mir system also does not work in Moldova except in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, the other pro-Russian region of Moldova.[32] Fradkov mentioned that PSB will give “special services at PSB at a separate tariff” to Gagauzian residents’ relatives who live in Russia, but it is unclear if PSB payments to Gagauzian pensioners and public sector employees will only go through the Gagauzian diaspora in Russia.[33]

The current pro-Russian Gagauzian government previously attempted to use Russian money to finance increased pension payments that were part of a campaign promise from a Kremlin-affiliated political candidate, and the new Gagauzia-PSB deal may be part of propaganda efforts to portray Russia as the sole benefactor of the autonomous region. Ilan Shor, a US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician who founded the Kremlin-affiliated Shor Party under which Gutsul ran for governor of Gagauzia, promised to increase pensions in Gagauzia and other Shor Party-affiliated Moldovan regions in October 2023 in the lead up to the November 2023 local elections.[34] Moldovan outlet NewsMaker reported that a Russian citizen living in Israel, whose name repeatedly appears in documents related to Shor’s various promised deals, transferred 15 million Moldovan lei (about $850,000) to the Gagauzian regional pension payments account.[35] Gutsul claimed that the Moldovan federal government blocked this money, and a spokesperson for leading Moldovan political Party of Solidarity and Action stated that the money came illegally from an organized crime group and that law enforcement agencies should investigate its origins.[36] The April 9 Gagauzia–PSB deal is noteworthy because Kremlin-affiliated actors are now directly and openly linked to Gagauzian government financial promises. Gutsul highlighted this relationship on April 9, claiming that Russia is the “friend” and “protector” who “saved” Gagauzia.[37] Gutsul also claimed that the Moldovan central government is enacting an “economic blockade” on Gagauzia — similar to language used by Kremlin and Transnistrian actors to promote Kremlin information operations about Tiraspol–Chisinau relations in recent months.[38] The Kremlin may be able to exploit the PSB deal regardless of the deal’s legality or how Moldovan authorities react. If Moldovan authorities prevent the deal from moving forward, pro-Russian Moldovan actors and the Kremlin will likely use the situation to promote the Kremlin’s ongoing narratives targeting the current Moldovan government and to stir up anger in Gagauzia. If the Gagauzian government is able to somehow enact the agreement, however, the Kremlin could use the payments to economically capture a segment of Gagauzia to do the Kremlin’s bidding, or could cut off the payments at a future time of Moscow’s choosing to foment a crisis.

The Kremlin may also hope to use the Gagauzia–PSB deal to recreate the way in which Kremlin-affiliated Moldovan political parties previously influenced Moldovan elections and public opinion. Shor reportedly paid demonstrators to protest against Moldovan President Maia Sandu in 2022, and Moldovan authorities raided Shor Party offices following the Gagauzia gubernatorial election in the summer of 2023 as part of investigations into voter bribery.[39] The Kremlin may hope to use pro-Russian political parties in Moldova and the PSB payments to Gagauzia in similar tactics to influence Moldova’s upcoming elections, particularly the presidential election in late 2024 and parliamentary elections in the summer of 2025.

Russia is reportedly considering creating a new ministry for youth policy and patriotic education, likely as part of an ongoing attempt to instill pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-approved ideology in Russia’s next generation. Russian outlet Vedemosti reported on April 9 that four unnamed sources close to the Russian presidential administration stated that Russian authorities are considering creating a new ministry for youth policy and patriotic education that would be formed on the basis of the Russian Federal Agency of Youth Affairs (Rosmolodezh), which would then take over some patriotic education functions from the Ministry of Education.[40] The sources also claimed that the Russian government is considering merging the Ministry of Science and Higher Education with the Ministry of Education (also known as the ”Ministry of Enlightenment” in its literal Russian translation), which the Russian government divided in 2018. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported in October 2023 that the Russian federal budget significantly increased its allocations for funds promoting patriotic education. Verstka reported that Russia allocated 43.8 billion rubles for patriotic education in 2023, almost four times the number of funds that Russia allocated to patriotic education in 2022.[41] Verstka also noted that Russia increased funding in 2023 to patriotic youth projects including the World Youth Festival and Yunarmia, a military-patriotic movement that instills pro-Russian and militarized ideals in youth in Russia and occupied Ukraine. Russia is likely trying to expand efforts to disseminate pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-approved ideology to create a generation of Russians pliant to the Kremlin’s goals, especially as Russia sets domestic information conditions for a long war effort in Ukraine and increasingly postures against the West.

Russian military authorities in Armenia detained another Russian citizen in Armenia, likely in an effort to assert military and political power over Armenia and to challenge Armenia’s sovereignty amid a continued deterioration of Armenian–Russian relations. The Armenian branch of the international human rights organization Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Vanadzor reported on April 9 that Russian military police at the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, detained Russian citizen Anatoly Shchetin in Armenia for desertion and intend to forcibly transfer him to Russia.[42] Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s lawyer Ani Chatinyan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenian service Radio Azatutyun that the organization sent a report of the crime to the Armenian Prosecutor General’s Office and that Russian law enforcement agencies do not have the right to detain people in Armenia and instead should transfer operations to Armenian law enforcement.[43] The Armenian Prosecutor General’s office told Radio Azatutyun that it has processed the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s report in accordance with its procedures. Russian military police at the 102nd Military Base previously detained a Russian citizen in Armenia for desertion in December 2023.[44] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan responded to the December 2023 arrest in February 2024 and stated that Armenian authorities are investigating the incident and that Armenia “cannot tolerate illegal actions on [its] territory.”[45]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian state media highlighted Russia and China’s joint effort to combat perceived Western “dual containment” targeting Russia and China during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on April 9.
  • US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on April 9 that it transferred roughly a brigade’s worth of small arms and ammunition seized from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Ukraine on April 4.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) is likely responsible for a drone strike against the Borisoglebsk Airbase in Voronezh Oblast overnight on April 8 to 9.
  • Russian ultranationalist milbloggers continue to employ virulently anti-migrant rhetoric and calls for xenophobic domestic policies, but in doing so are exposing the inherent hypocrisy in Russia’s treatment of its own indigenous ethnic minority communities.
  • The Kremlin will likely be able to leverage a new agreement signed by the Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, and a state-owned Russian bank to further its efforts to destabilize Moldovan society, attack Moldova’s democratic government, and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU).
  • Russia is reportedly considering creating a new ministry for youth policy and patriotic education, likely as part of an ongoing attempt to instill pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-approved ideology in Russia’s next generation.
  • Russian military authorities in Armenia detained another Russian citizen in Armenia, likely in an effort to assert military and political power over Armenia and to challenge Armenia’s sovereignty amid a continued deterioration of Armenian–Russian relations.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, west of Avdiivka, and south and southwest of Donetsk City on April 9.
  • Kremlin officials continue efforts to ease public fears about another possible wave of partial mobilization.
  • The Russian occupation regime in Crimea is systematically persecuting clergy and parishes affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in occupied Crimea.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 8, 2024

Click here to read the ful report.

Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, and George Barros

April 8, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2pm ET on April 8. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 9 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil refineries are reportedly forcing Russia to seek gasoline imports from Kazakhstan. Three unnamed industry sources told Reuters in an article published on April 8 that Russia asked Kazakhstan to establish an “emergency reserve” of 100,000 metric tons of gasoline that Kazakhstan could supply to Russia in case of shortages exacerbated by Ukrainian drone strikes and resulting refinery outages.[1] One of the unnamed sources stated that Kazakhstan and Russia have already reached an agreement allowing Russia to use Kazakh gasoline reserves in some unspecified capacity. Advisor to the Kazakh Energy Minister Shyngys Ilyasov denied that the Kazakh Energy Ministry had received such requests from Russia, however.[2] Reuters reported on April 2, citing its own data, that constant Ukrainian drone strikes have shut down about 14 percent of Russia’s overall oil refining capacity.[3] Reuters also previously reported on March 27 that Russia has significantly increased its gasoline imports from Belarus following Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian oil refineries and that Russia has imported 3,000 metric tons of gasoline from Belarus in the first half of March as compared to 590 metric tons in February and no gasoline imports in January.[4] Recent Russian efforts to import gasoline from Belarus and Kazakhstan indicate that Russia is likely increasingly concerned about the immediate domestic supply of distillate petroleum products following Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries.

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) indirectly suggested that it may have been responsible for an explosion that disabled a Russian Baltic Fleet small missile carrier at the naval base in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad Oblast on April 7. The GUR published footage on April 8 allegedly of an explosive detonating in the control room of the Russian Baltic Fleet’s Serpukhov Project 21631 Buyan-M class corvette on April 7.[5] The GUR reported that the resulting fire destroyed the Serpukhov’s automation and communications systems and that repairs will take a long time to complete. Some Ukrainian media outlets cited their sources within GUR as stating that GUR conducted the attack against the ship.[6] ISW has not observed independent confirmation of damage to the Serpukhov. Baltic Fleet elements in Kaliningrad Oblast have notably conducted several recent electronic warfare (EW) exercises, and Estonian and United Kingdom (UK) officials have linked Russian EW forces in Kaliningrad with multiple recent GPS jamming incidents in the Baltic region since December 2023, including one incident that jammed the satellite signal of a plane carrying UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps.[7]

Recent discourse among select Russian milbloggers highlights contradictory Russian rhetoric in the Russian information space between narratives that seek to portray Russian forces as more capable than Ukrainian forces and other narratives that criticize the Russian military for shortcomings that result in high Russian infantry casualties. Several milbloggers recently discussed and criticized the tactic of having infantry ride atop armored vehicles to frontline positions before dismounting to conduct frontal assaults.[8] This is not a novel tactic for either Russian or Ukrainian forces, but the tactic, which exposes unprotected infantry to threats, recently appears to have attracted more scrutiny from Russian military commentators. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) posted footage on April 8 that shows elements of the 98th Guards Airborne (VDV) Division apparently employing this tactic on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar (east of Bakhmut), wherein armored vehicles transported infantry to frontline positions, the infantry dismounted, and the armored vehicles quickly withdrew.[9] One milblogger responded to separate footage that reportedly shows about 25 Russian personnel riding on the side of a tank in an unspecified area, before Ukrainian forces either struck the tank or the tank ran over a mine, forcing the personnel to rapidly dismount and run across an open area without cover or concealment.[10] The milblogger called this kind of tactic “extremely crazy,” but another milblogger refuted this characterization and claimed that this practice of using armored vehicles to rapidly transport and dismount infantry reveals more about the lack of Russian armored vehicles on certain sectors of the front than it does about the underlying tactics of such assaults.[11] The second milblogger claimed that Ukrainian fires have significantly attrited Russian armored vehicle numbers especially near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, and Krynky, Kherson Oblast, so Russian troops must make do with very few armored vehicles to transport personnel to compensate for losses in armor and prevent further such losses.[12]

Another milblogger questioned why Russian media fixated on footage of failed Ukrainian armored attacks during the summer 2023 counteroffensive even though Russian forces themselves struggle with many of the same tactical issues when conducting similar attacks, especially due to the saturation of drones in the battlespace.[13] A milblogger affirmatively responded and noted the reality of Russian soldiers on the ground in Ukraine differs dramatically from conversations propagated in the Russian information space, emphasizing that Russian commentators can “laugh at [Ukraine’s] counteroffensive in the Zaporizhia direction, and then lose many times more [Russian soldiers] on the Avdiivka front,” and concluding that Russia is lying to itself about the losses it is suffering in the war.[14] The discourse between Russian milbloggers about the use of Russian armored vehicles and their survivability on the battlefield, as well as about the conduct of Russian assaults, highlights arguments that many Russian milbloggers continue to have over how the war is being fought and suggests that many milbloggers are very attuned to the impacts these conversations are having on the wider understanding of the war.

The Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldova autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, insinuated that Romanian officials control the Moldovan government — the latest in a series of recent Kremlin efforts to question European pro-Western governments’ sovereignty. Gutsul claimed on April 8 during an interview on Russian state television channel Channel One (Perviy Kanal) that if Gagauzia begins the process of seceding from Moldova, there will be a reaction not only from the Moldovan government in Chisinau, but also from Bucharest, Romania, which Gutsul claimed “controls” Moldovan authorities, implying that Moldova is not sovereign.[15] Gutsul claimed that Moldovan authorities may respond to Gagauzian secession with “loud, threatening statements” or deploy forces to Gagauzia and claimed that unification between Moldova and Romania would be the “death” of Moldova and Moldovan language and culture.[16] Gutsul claimed on April 5 that Gagauzia would “immediately” begin the process of seceding from Moldova should Moldova unify with Romania.[17] Gutsul’s April 8 interview on Russian state television is likely aimed at setting conditions to justify potential future Russian aggression against Moldova to Russian-speakers and pro-Russian audiences in Gagauzia, Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway republic of Transnistria, and other pro-Russian areas of Europe and Central Asia and in Russia itself. The Kremlin likely views its efforts in Moldova as part of Russia’s wider existential geopolitical conflict with the West. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and MFA officials recently insinuated that Western countries are somehow guiding the Armenian government‘s national security policy and claimed that Finland has “lost its independence in making foreign policy decisions” since its accession to NATO.[18] The Kremlin previously made similar false claims that NATO controls Ukraine and is using Ukraine to threaten Russia in order to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[19] The Kremlin will likely continue claiming that its various target states are not fully sovereign to set information conditions for Russian hybrid or conventional operations against them. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is likely attempting to use pro-Russian actors in Moldova to destabilize Moldovan democracy and society, prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU), or even justify future hybrid or conventional operations against in Moldova.[20]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil refineries are reportedly forcing Russia to seek gasoline imports from Kazakhstan.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) indirectly suggested that it may have been responsible for an explosion that disabled a Russian Baltic Fleet small missile carrier at the naval base in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad Oblast on April 7.
  • Recent discourse among select Russian milbloggers highlights contradictory Russian rhetoric in the Russian information space between narratives that seek to portray Russian forces as more capable than Ukrainian forces and other narratives that seek to criticize the Russian military for shortcomings that result in high Russian infantry casualties.
  • The Kremlin-affiliated governor of the pro-Russian Moldova autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, insinuated that Romanian officials control the Moldovan government — the latest in a series of recent Kremlin efforts to question European pro-Western governments’ sovereignty.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian Cabinet of Ministers and Russian machine construction company KONAR JSC to increase the production of components for the domestic machine tools industry, likely as part of ongoing efforts to expand the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) and mitigate the effects of international sanctions.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 7, 2024

Click here to read the full report 

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

April 7, 2024, 4:15pm ET 

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov reported that Ukraine anticipates Russian offensive operations to intensify in late spring and early summer. Budanov stated in an interview with German broadcaster ARD published on April 7 that Ukraine expects that Russian offensive operations will especially intensify in the Donbas.[1] Budanov also reported that Russian forces will likely attempt to advance to Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) and in the direction of Pokrovsk (about 43km northwest of Avdiivka). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky previously stated in a CBS News interview published on March 28 that the major Russian offensive effort may start in late May or June.[2] ISW has recently observed that Russian forces intensified the tempo of their offensive operations across the theater, including by conducting a roughly reinforced company-sized mechanized assault toward Chasiv Yar on April 4, and continues to assess that the Russian military appears to be successfully mitigating likely increased manpower and materiel losses.[3] Zelensky and senior Ukrainian military officials have recently warned that delays in security assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative to Russia and that the Ukrainian military cannot plan a successful counteroffensive nor defensive effort without knowing when and what kind of aid Ukraine will receive. ISW continues to assess that delays in Western military assistance have forced the Ukrainian military to husband materiel and that Ukrainian forces likely must make difficult decisions prioritizing certain aspects of its defense at the expense of contesting the initiative to constrain Russian military capabilities or plan for a future counteroffensive operations as prolonged US debates about military aid continue.[4]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with Chinese officials in China on April 8 and 9 amid Western warnings that China is increasingly helping Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) and even providing Russia with geospatial intelligence. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that Lavrov will meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss bilateral cooperation and “hot topics,” including the war in Ukraine.[5] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC on April 6 that China is “propping up the Russian war economy” and supporting the Russian DIB.[6] Bloomberg reported on April 6 that unspecified sources stated that China’s support for Russia has “deepened” recently.[7] Bloomberg reported that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed unspecified European allies on China’s support and asked them to directly speak to China about the issue. Bloomberg’s sources reportedly stated that China and Russia have increased space cooperation and that China has given Russia microelectronics, optics, machine tools for tanks, and propellants for missiles. Bloomberg reported that White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that China has also provided Russia with nitrocellulose — an intermediary good used in producing gunpower and explosives — and turbojet engines. Bloomberg reported that China is also providing Russia with geospatial intelligence, including satellite imagery which the Russian military likely uses to support military operations in Ukraine. The Atlantic reported on March 18 that Ukrainian military sources believe that Russia may be using unspecified third parties to buy satellite imagery from US companies for targeting data to conduct long-range strikes.[8]

Russian forces reportedly continue to systematically use prohibited chemical weapons in Ukraine and are attacking Ukrainian positions with chemical substances almost daily throughout the frontline. The Telegraph published an investigation into the systematic use of Russian chemical weapons in Ukraine on April 6 and found that Ukrainian soldiers report near daily Russian attacks using K-51 grenades with CS-gas — a riot control agent (RCA) that causes harmful but not necessarily lethal effects and that is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which Russia is a signatory.[9] Ukrainian soldiers told the Telegraph that these attacks are not immediately incapacitating but do usually cause panic at Ukrainian positions that Russian forces try to exploit when conducting assaults.[10] A Ukrainian commander near Robotyne, Zaporizhia Oblast reportedly stated that soldiers in his unit regularly carry gas masks due to the high frequency of Russian CS attacks in the area.[11] The Telegraph reported that there are unconfirmed reports that Russian forces have used chlorine, chloropicrin, and possibly even hydrogen cyanide substances against Ukrainian forces.[12] The Ukrainian Support Forces Command stated on April 5 that Ukrainian forces had recorded 371 cases of Russian forces using munitions containing chemical substances during March 2024 alone and 1,412 cases of Russian forces using chemical weapons between February 2023 and March 2024.[13] The Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade acknowledged in a now-deleted post that elements of the brigade deliberately used K-51 grenades with CS gas on Ukrainian positions near Krynky in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast in December 2023.[14]

Russian officials accused Ukraine of launching a series of drone strikes against the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on April 7, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not attribute responsibility for the strikes. ZNPP occupation officials claimed that a Ukrainian drone struck a canteen located on the territory of the ZNPP and damaged a truck unloading food in the area.[15] ZNPP occupation officials claimed that other Ukrainian drones later struck the ZNPP’s cargo port area and the dome of the 6th Power Reactor, which did not result in any critical damages or casualties.[16] Russian officials called on the international community to condemn Ukraine for “nuclear terrorism.”[17] IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stated that ZNPP occupation authorities informed IAEA experts that a drone detonated at the ZNPP and that the report is consistent with IAEA observations.[18] Grossi did not specify the party responsible for the drone strike and called on both parties to refrain from such actions in order to not “jeopardize nuclear safety.”[19] Russian authorities have repeatedly attempted to use Russia’s physical control over the ZNPP to force international organizations, including the IAEA, to meet with Russian occupation officials to legitimize Russia’s occupation of the ZNPP and by extension Russia’s occupation of sovereign Ukrainian land.[20]

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi openly condemned and is taking action following reports that members of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) may have purposefully intimidated a Ukrainian journalist investigating corruption within the SBU by issuing the journalist a draft summons. Ukrainian outlet Slidstvo.Info stated on April 6 that some SBU personnel may have instructed employees of a military registration and enlistment office to deliver draft summons to a Slidstvo.Info journalist who had been investigating corruption in the SBU’s cybersecurity department.[21] Syrskyi condemned the reported intimidation scandal, denounced any attempts by Ukrainian military officials to harass or otherwise compromise the integrity of journalists, and ordered an official investigation into the matter on April 7.[22] ISW continues to assess that corruption is endemic to rapid wartime mobilization in any country and that Ukrainian officials are actively and openly identifying and resolving corruption problems, including by leveraging the robust and expansive Ukrainian community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).[23]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov reported that Ukraine anticipates Russian offensive operations to intensify in late spring and early summer.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with Chinese officials in China on April 8 and 9 amid Western warnings that China is increasingly helping Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) and even providing China with geospatial intelligence.
  • Russian forces reportedly continue to systematically use prohibited chemical weapons in Ukraine and are attacking Ukrainian positions with chemical substances almost daily throughout the frontline.
  • Russian officials accused Ukraine of launching a series of drone strikes against the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on April 7, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not attribute responsibility for the strikes.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi openly condemned and is taking action following reports that members of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) may have purposefully intimidated a Ukrainian journalist investigating corruption within the SBU by issuing the journalist a draft summons.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka amid continued positional fighting along the entire line of contact on April 7.
  • Chieftan of the All-Russian Cossack Society and Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Nationalities Nikolai Doluda claimed on April 7 that more than 30,000 Cossack personnel have fought in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 6, 2024

Click here to read the full report 

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

April 6, 2024, 10:15pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2pm ET on April 6 ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 7 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that Ukraine does not have enough materiel to contest the battlefield initiative. Zelensky stated during an interview aired on April 6 that Ukrainian forces currently do not have enough ammunition to initiate and sustain future counteroffensive operations and reiterated that Ukrainian forces are currently using drones to partially compensate for artillery ammunition shortages across the theater.[1] Zelensky stressed that Ukraine must conduct countermeasures to deprive Russian forces of the ability to prepare and conduct significant offensive efforts and not only rely on defensive operations. Zelensky stated that striking Russian force concentrations is one such countermeasure but that Ukrainian forces lack long-range weapons to strike Russian force concentrations and other targets necessary to undermine Russian operations. Senior Ukrainian officials have long called for timely and sustained Western military assistance that would enable Ukraine to conduct both defensive and counteroffensive operations when the timing is optimal for Ukraine to undertake such efforts, as opposed to having materiel shortages constrain Ukraine’s ability to plan and execute operations and losing opportunities to exploit Russian weaknesses.[2] Zelensky recently stated that delays in security assistance forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative to Russia, and Ukrainian officials have warned that Ukraine cannot plan either a successful counteroffensive or defensive effort without knowing when and what kind of aid Ukraine will receive. ISW continues to assess that shortages in Western military assistance have forced Ukrainian forces to husband materiel, and Zelensky’s statement suggests that Ukrainian forces are now having to make difficult decisions about prioritizing certain aspects of its defense over constraining Russian military capabilities or preparing for counteroffensive operations.[3] The New York Times similarly reported on April 5 that Ukrainian forces are close to running out of some types of munitions and that Ukrainian officials have observed a five-to-one Russian artillery advantage throughout the frontline.[4] Ukrainian soldiers reportedly told the New York Times that Ukrainian forces currently have enough cluster munitions that are effective at repelling Russian infantry assaults but are low on high-explosive artillery shells needed to repel mechanized assaults.[5]

Zelensky stressed that additional Western security assistance is necessary for Ukrainian forces to effectively defend Ukraine’s airspace against the intensified Russian strike campaign and increased Russian aviation operations along the frontline. Zelensky stated that Ukraine will need an additional 25 Patriot air defense systems, likely meaning launchers, to extend full air defense coverage to all of Ukraine’s territory.[6] Zelensky warned that if Russian forces sustain the tempo of their current missile and drone strikes then Ukraine will likely lack the air defense missile stocks needed to protect Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.[7] Russian forces appear to be exploiting Ukraine’s already degraded air defense umbrella in an attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid, likely in an effort to constrain Ukraine’s long-term defense industrial capacity.[8] Russian missile and drone strikes have consistently pressured Ukraine’s limited air defense and have forced Ukraine to make difficult decisions about providing air defense coverage between large population centers in the rear and active areas of the frontline.[9] Sparse and inconsistent air defense coverage along the front has likely facilitated Russia’s intensification of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes, which Russian forces used to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February 2024.[10] Zelensky stated that the previous downing of Russian aircraft has temporarily constrained glide bomb strikes and that Russian forces are now conducting glide bomb strikes from further away, increasing the need for long-range air defense systems.[11]

Zelensky cautioned that the arrival of all promised F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine’s Western partners in 2024 will provide Ukraine with only 10 percent of the fighter aircraft Ukraine would need to completely defeat Russian aviation and restore Ukraine’s ability to operate effectively in the air domain.[12] Zelensky stated that Ukraine will need a combination of air defense systems and fighter aircraft to combat the Russian aviation threat, namely to prevent the Russian use of KAB guided glide bombs.[13] Zelensky also added that Ukraine is currently developing new weapons to defend against Russian KAB guided glide bombs as part of this combined air defense. The further degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella would not only limit Ukraine’s ability to protect critical elements of its war effort in the rear but would also likely afford Russian aviation prolonged secure operation along the frontline. Such security would allow Russian forces to significantly increase glide bomb strikes at scale and possibly even allow Russian forces to conduct routine large-scale aviation operations against near rear Ukrainian logistics and cities to devastating effect.[14] Western security assistance that allows Ukraine to establish a robust combined air defense system will enable Ukraine to protect its cities while providing air defense to potentially operationally significant defensive and counteroffensive operations.

Continued delays in US security assistance are specifically impacting the capabilities that Ukrainian forces need to respond to the increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi warned on April 6 that a particularly difficult situation has emerged east of Chasiv Yar and west of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast, both areas where ISW has observed a recent intensification of Russian mechanized assaults ranging from platoon-sized to battalion-sized attacks.[15] Syrskyi also observed that Russian forces are conducting platoon-, company-, and sometimes battalion-sized infantry assaults in separate directions. The Press Service of the Ukrainian Airborne Forces stated that Russian forces with massed armored vehicle support are still attempting to break through Ukrainian defenses west of Avdiivka despite not yet repeating mechanized assaults as large as the ones that they conducted in the area between March 29 and March 31.[16] Geolocated footage published on April 6 indicates that elements of the Russian 90th Guards Tank Division (41st Combined Arms Army [CAA], Central Military District [CMD]) recently conducted a  likely company-sized mechanized assault southeast of Umanske (west of Avdiivka), and a Ukrainian airborne assault brigade reported that its personnel destroyed 10 Russian tanks, five BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and a MT-LB IFV during 11 mechanized assaults in the area.[17] Ukrainian forces have so far successfully repelled intensified Russian mechanized assaults throughout eastern Ukraine in the past week but have done so despite persisting materiel shortages.

The Kremlin explicitly threatened its long-term ally Armenia on April 5 over Armenian outreach to the West following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Union (EU) High Representative Josep Borell, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Powers met on April 5 in Brussels to discuss continued Western support of Armenian democratic and economic development.[18] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement later on April 5 responding to the meeting, in which the Russian MFA claimed that the West is attempting to “drag the South Caucasus [region] into a geopolitical confrontation" between Russia and the West.[19] The Russian MFA stated that "extra-regional interference” in the South Caucasus region is “irresponsible” and “destructive” and aims to drive a wedge between the South Caucasus countries and Russia. The Russian MFA threatened that Western interference could result in the “most negative consequences for [regional] stability, security, and economic development” and an “uncontrollable increase in tension” in the region. The Russian MFA explicitly threatened the Armenian government and warned that Armenia could “go down the wrong path,” which the MFA claimed is fraught with security and economic issues, could result in an “outflow of the population,” and is reminiscent of the issues that Russia’s invasion has caused Ukraine. The Russian MFA accused the West of attempting to “deceive” Armenia into withdrawing from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and requesting that Russia withdraw from Russia’s military base in Armenia and from the Yerevan International Airport.     

The Russian MFA's April 5 statement follows several months of Kremlin threats against Armenia in response to ongoing Armenian efforts to secure new, Western security guarantees and efforts to blame Armenia for deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.[20] Armenian officials recently stated that Armenia is considering withdrawing from the CSTO and applying to join the EU and recently asked Russia to withdraw Russian border guards from the Yerevan International Airport.[21] The Russian MFA’s statement insinuates that the Armenian government is not independently making decisions about its security, and that Western countries are somehow guiding the Armenian government’s decisions. The Kremlin has made similar ridiculous claims that the West controls the Ukrainian government as part of Kremlin efforts to question and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.[22] The Kremlin has previously conducted hybrid wars against former Soviet states that have sought EU accession.

The Russian MFA also continues to threaten Finland and claimed that Finland has “lost its independence in making foreign policy decisions” since its accession to NATO — a narrative that the Kremlin routinely used to falsely claim that NATO was controlling Ukraine and using Ukraine to threaten Russia. Russian Ambassador to Finland Pavel Kuznetsov stated during an interview with Kremlin newswire TASS on April 6 that Finland is on a “destructive course” in its relationship with Russia and that Finland’s accession to NATO is making the Baltic region a “zone of potential escalation.”[23] Kuznetsov threatened Finland and the NATO alliance broadly, claiming that Russia would have to respond to a buildup of NATO material and manpower or the deployment of a nuclear weapon in Finland and that Russia’s response would be “adequate but not necessarily symmetrical.” Kuznetsov claimed that Finland has joined the “party of war until victory over Russia” by joining NATO and accused perceived Finnish “Russophobia” of causing a complete breakdown of the Russian-Finnish relationship. Kuznetsov insinuated that Finland has no option but to improve its relationship with Russia, given that “we can’t escape geography," but blamed Finland unilaterally for the poor state of Russian–Finnish relations, despite the artificial migrant crisis that Russia created on the Russian–Finnish border in fall 2023 and repeated Russian threats against Finland and the wider NATO alliance.[24] ISW continues to assess that Russian threats against NATO member states are aimed at leading the West to deter itself and that Russian claims of imagined threats originating from NATO are aimed at setting informational conditions to justify and support an envisioned long-term geopolitical confrontation with the West.[25]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov announced on April 5 that 3,000 former Wagner Group personnel will join the Akhmat Spetsnaz unit following successful negotiations between Akhmat and Wagner commanders.[26] Kadyrov claimed that Commander of the Akhmat Spetsnaz (and deputy commander of the 2nd Luhansk People’s Republic’s [LNR] Army Corps [AC]) Apty Alaudinov reached an agreement with Wagner leadership that Wagner commander Alexander Kuznetsov (call sign “Ratibor”) will join Akhmat Spetsnaz along with 3,000 Wagner personnel. Kadyrov added that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) already allocated a required number of vacancies within the Akhmat Spetsnaz unit to accommodate the Wagner personnel, and that Wagner personnel can start combat missions after resolving all organizational issues. Kadyrov’s mention of the Russian MoD indicates that these Wagner elements will be subordinated under the Russian MoD’s authority rather than Rosgvardia. Alaudinov also amplified a Kremlin-affiliated milblogger’s claim that the main group of Wagner commanders and 5,000 Wagner personnel are transferring to the 2nd AC under the Russian MoD.[27] The milblogger added that the Russian military is still discussing whether these 5,000 Wagner personnel will form a regiment like the unit under Kuznetsov, form a new separate brigade, or be distributed among existing brigades.

The claimed transfer of 3,000 Wagner personnel into MoD’s Akhmat Spetsnaz indicates that the Russian MoD is successfully formalizing control over some elements of the remaining Wagner Group force — an objective it has been pursuing since 2023. ISW previously assessed that the Russian MoD launched a campaign in early-to-mid-2023 which aimed to directly subordinate Wagner forces under the Russian MoD. ISW also assessed that deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner personnel started the mutiny in June 2023 in protest of the Russian MoD’s efforts to consolidate control over Wagner forces.[28] The transfer of Wagner personnel to Akhmat Spetsnaz units sparked some criticism from Wagner-affiliated irregular formations, such as the Rusich Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group which accused these Wagner personnel of selling out to the Russian MoD.[29] One Russian milblogger also accused Kadyrov of exaggerating the number of transferred Wagner personnel, claiming that most Wagner personnel hate Kuznetsov and are located in Africa.[30] Kremlin-affiliated milbloggers largely celebrated the claimed transfer, claiming that Wagner personnel had two options: to either hold on to their past grudges or let them go to serve the Russian state.[31] One Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that former Wagner forces previously formed the Kamerton detachment under Akhmat Spetsnaz and that the Russian MoD did not ban this detachment from using Wagner symbology, networks, and management systems.[32]

Key Takeaways:

  •  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that Ukraine does not have enough materiel to contest the battlefield initiative.
  • Zelensky stressed that additional Western security assistance is necessary for Ukrainian forces to effectively defend Ukraine’s airspace against the intensified Russian strike campaign and increased Russian aviation operations along the frontline.
  • Zelensky cautioned that the arrival of all promised F-16 fighter jets from Ukraine’s Western partners in 2024 will provide Ukraine with only 10 percent of the fighter aircraft Ukraine would need to completely defeat Russian aviation and restore Ukraine’s ability to operate effectively in the air domain.
  • Continued delays in US security assistance are specifically impacting the capabilities that Ukrainian forces need to respond to the increased tempo of Russian mechanized assaults in eastern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin explicitly threatened its long-term ally Armenia on April 5 over Armenian outreach to the West following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.
  • The Russian MFA also continues to threaten Finland and claimed that Finland has “lost its independence in making foreign policy decisions” since its accession to NATO — a narrative that the Kremlin routinely used to falsely claim that NATO was controlling Ukraine and using Ukraine to threaten Russia.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov announced on April 5 that 3,000 former Wagner Group personnel will join the Akhmat Spetsnaz unit following successful negotiations between Akhmat and Wagner commanders.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin passed two laws on April 6, offering Russian society some concession for its sacrifices to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 5, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, and George Barros 

April 5, 2024, 8:15pm ET


Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted one of the largest series of drone strikes against military facilities within Russia, targeting at least four Russian airbases, on the night of April 4 to 5. Ukrainian media reported that sources within Ukrainian security services, including the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR), stated that the SBU and Ukrainian forces conducted successful strikes on airfields near Kursk City and Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai; the Engels Airbase in Saratov Oblast; and the Morozovsk Airbase in Rostov Oblast.[1] These Ukrainian security sources reportedly stated that the Ukrainian drone strikes significantly damaged three Tu-95MS strategic bombers at Engels airbase, damaged two Su-25 fixed-wing aircraft at the airbase near Yeysk, and destroyed six unidentified aircraft and significantly damaged another eight unidentified aircraft at the Morozovsk Airbase.[2] The Ukrainian strikes reportedly killed four Russian military personnel at the airbase near Yeysk and seven Russian personnel at the Engels Airbase and wounded and killed up to 20 Russian personnel at the Morozovsk Airbase.[3] Geolocated footage shows explosions and Russian air defenses activating near all the airbases except for the one near Yeysk.[4] ISW has not yet observed any visual confirmation that Ukrainian forces damaged or destroyed aircraft or infrastructure at any of the airbases. Satellite imagery collected on April 4 indicates that there were three Tu-160 heavy strategic bombers, five Tu-95 strategic bombers, an Il-76 transport aircraft, and a Tu-22 bomber at Engels Airbase; ten L-39 training and combat aircraft, five An-26 transport aircraft, an An-74 transport aircraft, an An-12 transport aircraft, four Su-27 fixed-winged aircraft, four Su-25 fixed-wing aircraft, one Su-30 fixed-wing aircraft, and several Ka-52 and Mi-8 helicopters at the Yeysk Airbase; and 29 fixed-wing aircraft, primarily Su-34s, at the Morozovsk airfield.[5] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 44 drones over Rostov Oblast, six drones over Krasnodar Krai, and a drone each in Saratov, Kursk, and Belgorod oblasts on the night of April 4 and into the morning on April 5.[6] Ukrainian drone strikes have typically only targeted individual airbases within Russia, and Ukraine’s ability to strike four separate airbases in one strike series represents a notable inflection in the capabilities that Ukrainian forces are employing in their campaign against Russian military infrastructure, critical infrastructure, and strategic industries within Russia.

ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes against targets within Russia are a necessary component of Ukraine’s campaign to degrade industries that support the Russian war effort and military capabilities deployed in the Russian rear through asymmetric means. Russian forces routinely use Tu-95 strategic bombers stationed at Engels Airbase to launch Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, and the Russian military had roughly 60 Tu-95 aircraft as of 2023.[7] If confirmed, the possible loss of roughly five percent of Russia’s strategic Tu-95 bombers in a single strike would be notable. ISW has also previously observed that the loss of fixed-wing aircraft is not negligible since Russia likely has about 300 various Sukhoi fixed-wing aircraft.[8] Russian forces are currently using Sukhoi fixed-wing aircraft to conduct guided and unguided glide bomb strikes along the entire frontline in Ukraine and have previously leveraged significantly intensified glide bomb strikes to make tactical gains.[9] Sustained Ukrainian strikes against Russian airfields within Russia will degrade the Russian Aerospace Force’s (VKS) ability to conduct missile and air strikes throughout Ukraine.

The recently intensified tempo of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine will likely result in increased manpower and materiel losses, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to be successfully mitigating these losses. Russian forces have conducted several mechanized assaults roughly at the platoon, company, and battalion levels west of Bakhmut near Chasiv Yar, west of Kreminna near Terny, and west of Avdiivka near Berdychi, Semenivka, and Tonenke over the past week after primarily conducting infantry-led “meat” assaults across the theater following the start of the campaign to seize Avdiivka in October 2023.[10] The previous pattern of Russian infantry-led attacks did not employ armored vehicles at scale at the expense of greater manpower losses, and Russia appears to have successfully leveraged its ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts to make up for increased manpower losses.[11] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on January 15 that Russia recruits around 30,000 personnel per month, which the Russian military uses to replenish personnel losses in Ukraine and form tactical and operational-level reserves.[12] The observed new trend in which Russian forces are now employing more vehicles than was the previously observed standard for tactical assaults suggests that the Russian military may no longer be as constrained or concerned about its armored vehicle and tank losses. The British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank reported on February 12 that Russia is likely able to sustain its current rate of vehicle losses (over 3,000 armored fighting vehicles annually) for at least two or three years by mainly reactivating vehicles from storage.[13] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on February 4 that the Russian defense industry can produce 250-300 ”new and thoroughly modernized” tanks per year and can repair around 250-300 additional damaged tanks per year, suggesting that Russia can currently compensate for its vehicle losses in Ukraine by refurbishing vehicles from Soviet-era storage.[14] The Kremlin is unlikely to conduct unpopular manpower or economic mobilization efforts in the short term unless Russia’s manpower or materiel losses significantly increase past the point that Russia’s current crypto-mobilization campaign and defense production capacity can accommodate. The recent intensification of mechanized attacks in eastern Ukraine indicates that the Russian command appears to believe that Russia is capable of compensating for losses in these intensified mechanized assaults while preparing for a forecasted offensive effort in Summer 2024.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal indicated that Ukraine is starting to staff new units, but that Ukraine needs further Western military assistance to properly equip them. Shmyhal stated in an interview with Estonian outlet Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) published on April 4 that Ukrainian forces are staffing an unspecified number of new brigades with new personnel but are waiting for Western partners to deliver military equipment, weapons, and ammunition to equip these brigades at their full end strength.[15] Shmyhal stated that Ukraine can meet its necessary objectives with ”usual mobilization” and that Ukraine has begun rotating out frontline personnel, which is consistent with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s recent statements that Ukraine does not need to conduct a proposed effort to mobilize 500,000 new personnel.[16] Ukrainian forces have recently transferred rear area personnel in noncombat units to frontline units to enable force rotations and lowered the mobilization age from 27 to 25 to address ongoing manpower issues.[17] Shmyhal’s statement highlights Ukraine’s need for continued timely and consistent Western military assistance in the short- and medium-term to maintain its defense.

Shmyhal also reported that Russian missile and drone strikes have damaged or disrupted roughly 80 percent of electricity generation at Ukrainian thermal power plants (TPPs) in recent weeks, as Russian forces continue to exploit the degraded Ukrainian air defense umbrella in an effort to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid.[18] Russian forces intensified missile and drone strikes on March 22 and have since been primarily targeting Ukrainian critical energy infrastructure, and Shmyhal added that these strikes have damaged or disrupted more than six gigawatts of power generation at Ukrainian TPPs and hydroelectric power plants (HPPs).[19] Recent Russian drone and missile strikes have notably expanded their target sets to include Ukrainian HPPs.[20] The increasing damage and disruptions to major Ukrainian power plants threaten to accelerate the degradation of Ukraine’s energy generation capabilities and constrain Ukraine’s ability to stabilize future disruptions to its energy grind in the long term.[21] The Russian effort to collapse the Ukrainian energy grid may aim to heavily degrade the critical defense industrial capacity that Ukraine needs to support a long war effort against Russia.[22] Continued delays in US security assistance will continue to degrade Ukrainian air defense capabilities and present Russian forces with greater opportunities to severely damage Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.[23]

Ukrainian officials continue to warn that Russian forces are systematically and increasingly using chemical weapons and other likely-banned chemical substances in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Support Forces Command stated on April 5 that Ukrainian forces have recorded 371 cases of Russian forces using munitions containing chemical substances during the last month and 1,412 cases of Russian forces using chemical weapons between February 2023 and March 2024.[24] The Ukrainian Support Forces Command reported that Russian forces primarily use K-51 and RG-VO grenade launchers to launch munitions containing chemical agents. Ukrainian officials, and a Russian military unit, have previously reported on increasingly common instances of Russian forces using chemical substances in combat that are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which Russia is a signatory.[25]

An unattributed drone reportedly struck a military unit in the pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway republic of Transnistria on April 5 amidst an assessed ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within. The Transnistria Ministry of State Security (MGB) claimed that unspecified actors conducted a drone strike against a Transnistrian Ministry of Defense (MoD) military unit in Ribnita on the Dniester River on the afternoon of April 5.[26] The Transnistrian MGB claimed that the drone strike targeted a radar station, which sustained minor damage. Transnistrian authorities did not report any casualties. The Transnistrian MGB did not specify the actor behind the drone strike but noted in their press release that Ribnita is six kilometers from the Transnistrian-Ukrainian border, likely to vaguely allege Ukrainian involvement. Transnistrian sources posted footage of a drone allegedly flying in the area and posted photos of where the drone allegedly hit the ground, but neither the footage nor the photos showed the drone hitting a target or any radar station.[27] Kremlin newswire TASS and other Russian outlets amplified the Transnistrian MGB’s claims.[28] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that Ukraine had nothing to do with the drone strike and ”would not waste valuable drones for such minor provocations.”[29] ISW cannot independently verify the details of the reported drone strike or identify the responsible actors, but it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces conducted the strike given the limited means used in the strike. Russian authorities previously baselessly accused Ukraine of conducting a reported drone strike against a military base in Transnistria on March 17 and may similarly blame Ukraine for the reported April 5 strike as part of ongoing Kremlin hybrid operations against Moldova.[30] Yevgenia Gutsul, the governor of the other pro-Russian Moldovan region, Gagauzia, claimed on April 5 that Gagauzia would ”immediately” begin the process to secede from Moldova should Moldova unify with Romania, a NATO and European Union (EU) member state.[31] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is likely trying to exploit both Transnistria and Gagauzia to forward its efforts to destabilize Moldova from within and prevent Moldovan EU accession.[32]

Russia reportedly has conducted thousands of cyber-attacks against Czechia’s rail transport infrastructure and that of other European states as part of a broader effort to degrade NATO members’ transport logistics since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Czech Transport Minister Martin Kupka reportedly told Financial Times (FT) in an article published on April 4 that Czechia suspects Russia of conducting a hacking campaign consisting of thousands of attacks against Czech national railway operator České dráhy to destabilize the EU and destroy critical infrastructure.[33] Kupka noted that Czechia is capable of defending against all the attacks. The European Union Agency for Cyber Security (ENISA) published its first threat report in March 2023 consisting of data collected between January 2021 and October 2022 and found that pro-Russian hacker groups had escalated major cyberattacks against railway companies in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Estonia.[34] ENISA’s March 2023 report also found pro-Russian major cyberattacks against air and maritime transport in the EU more broadly.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted one of the largest series of drone strikes against military facilities within Russia, targeting at least four Russian airbases, on the night of April 4 to 5.
  • The recently intensified tempo of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine will likely result in increased manpower and materiel losses, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to be successfully mitigating these losses.
  • Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal indicated that Ukraine is starting to staff new units, but that Ukraine needs further Western military assistance to properly equip them.
  • Shmyhal also reported that Russian missile and drone strikes have damaged or disrupted roughly 80 percent of electricity generation at Ukrainian thermal power plants (TPPs) in recent weeks, as Russian forces continue to exploit the degraded Ukrainian air defense umbrella in an effort to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to warn that Russian forces are systematically and increasingly using chemical weapons and other likely-banned chemical substances in Ukraine.
  • An unattributed drone reportedly struck a military unit in the pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway republic of Transnistria on April 5 amidst an assessed ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within.
  • Russia reportedly has conducted thousands of cyber-attacks against Czechia’s rail transport infrastructure and that of other European states as part of a broader effort to degrade NATO members’ transport logistics since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka amidst ongoing positional fighting along the entire line of contact on April 5.
  • Russia’s defense industry continues to mobilize to meet the Russian military’s needs in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on April 4 that Russia will open two youth centers aimed at indoctrinating Ukrainian youth into Russian culture and historical narratives in occupied Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts in the near future.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 4, 2024

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, and Karolina Hird

April 4, 2024, 6:35pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on April 4 ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 5 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov claimed that NATO and Russia are in “direct confrontation,” likely as part of ongoing Kremlin efforts to intensify existing information operations meant to force the West into self-deterrence. Peskov claimed on April 4 that relations between Russia and NATO have “slipped to the level of direct confrontation” and that NATO is “already involved in the conflict surrounding Ukraine.”[1] Peskov accused NATO of moving towards Russia’s borders, likely referencing Finland and Sweden’s recent accessions to the alliance, and claimed that NATO is expanding its military infrastructure closer to Russia. Russian officials have long attempted to frame NATO and the West as an existential threat to Russia as part of the Kremlin’s justifications for its war in Ukraine.[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on March 18 that a full-scale war between NATO and Russia is undesirable but possible.[3] Peskov’s repeated claims that NATO and Russia are already in “direct confrontation” represents an intensification of this ongoing narrative but is likely still part of Russia‘s reflexive control campaign that uses threatening language to delay and influence important decisions regarding Western support for Ukraine.[4] This Kremlin narrative is also likely an attempt to pose NATO’s defensive activity in response to Russia’s outright aggression as provocative.[5] ISW continues to assess that Russia has been preparing for a potential conventional war with NATO, including through ongoing conventional military reforms and by recreating the Leningrad Military District (LMD) and Moscow Military District (MMD) in western Russia.[6] Russian officials have accused NATO of giving Russia a reason to reconstitute the LMD directly on the border with Finland.[7]

Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov appealed to Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS) members to increase cooperation against perceived Western threats as part of the effort to posture against the West. Gerasimov claimed on April 4 at a meeting of the chiefs of the general staffs of CIS member states that CIS countries are currently facing “increasingly real and diverse challenges, which requires [them] to have well-equipped and well-trained armed forces” as the West consistently destroys the “fundamental foundations of strategic stability and international security institutions.”[8] Gerasimov also reiterated false Russian accusations that the West sponsors international terrorism. Gerasimov called on the chiefs of general staff of CIS members to analyze the military-political situation developing in the world and on CIS members’ borders, develop integrated military systems, conduct combat training using member states’ combat experience, and increase multilateral military cooperation. Gerasimov is attempting to frame the West as a wider security threat to the CIS countries to portray Russia as the leader of an imagined coalition of countries that oppose the collective West. Russia has routinely attempted to posture against the West by casting Russia as the leader of the “world majority,“ a group of countries including post-Soviet and non-Western states that Russia intends to rally to oppose the West.[9] CIS countries’ governments apart from Belarus have not expressed open support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and have not recognized Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts in September 2022, although Russia likely uses commerce through CIS countries to evade international sanctions.[10]

The Kremlin leveraged this overall information operation about escalation with NATO to target France specifically, following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent calls for the West to expand the level and types of security assistance it sends to Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu held a phone conversation on April 4, reportedly their first contact since October 2022.[11] Shoigu threatened that the potential deployment of French troops to Ukraine would “create problems for France itself” in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s March 16 statement that “perhaps at some point” it would be necessary for French troops to operate in Ukraine. Shoigu’s call with Lecornu is likely an attempt to directly influence recent French calls for Europe and the West to provide more military aid and other support to Ukraine. Shoigu likely attempted to single out France since Macron initiated the ongoing conversation about the West removing self-imposed constraints on its support for Ukraine. Shoigu is also likely attempting to deter future attempts from any Western states to increase military aid to Ukraine and intensify support for Ukraine by forcing Western leaders to self-deter out of fear of Russian retaliation. Shoigu had similar calls with senior US, UK, French, and Turkish officials in October 2022 in which he promoted Kremlin information operations threatening nuclear escalation in a likely attempt to deter the West from providing tanks to Ukraine.[12] Shoigu also claimed that he and Lecornu noted a “readiness for dialogue on Ukraine” that could resemble the Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations that occurred in Istanbul in April 2022, although a French government source told Reuters that “at no moment did [France] show any willingness to dialogue on Ukraine or negotiations.”[13] Shoigu’s attempts to threaten France and deter continued Western support for Ukraine while feigning interest in peace negotiations are part of a wider Russian information operation aimed at convincing Western countries to push Ukraine into unfavorable and unequal negotiations on Russia’s terms.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also promoted information operations feigning interest in negotiations, and Lavrov’s and Shoigu’s likely coordinated informational efforts may signal a new round of intensified Russian rhetoric about negotiations.[14] Lavrov used a meeting of dozens of foreign ambassadors from non-Western states to denounce Ukraine’s “peace formula” while claiming that Russia is ready to negotiate on terms favorable to the Kremlin. Lavrov spoke at a “round table” of more than 70 foreign ambassadors at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Diplomatic Academy on April 4 and reiterated several boilerplate narratives claiming that Ukraine was responsible for starting the war in 2014 and about Ukraine’s alleged involvement in the recent terrorist attack in Moscow. Lavrov also used the ambassadorial meeting to criticize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “peace formula” and urge the countries present to not support it. Lavrov told journalists following the meeting that Russia thinks it is “not necessary to talk with Zelensky” but that Russia should negotiate instead with the West.[15] Lavrov claimed that the West, however, is not ready for negotiations. Lavrov also claimed that the current situation on the battlefield has created “new realities” and that Russia is ready for “honest talks based on these new realities and on Russia’s security interests.”[16] Russian officials have repeatedly falsely blamed Ukraine and the West for the lack of peace negotiations, despite numerous public Russian statements suggesting or explicitly stating that Russia is not interested in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine.[17] ISW continues to assess that Russia’s maximalist objectives – which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender – remain unchanged and that any Russian statements suggesting that Russia is interested in peace negotiations are very likely efforts to force the West to make concessions on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.[18]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues attempts to balance the Kremlin’s opposing efforts to set social expectations for a protracted Russian war effort and to assuage Russian society’s concerns about the economic consequences of the war and labor migration. Putin stated during a speech at the 12th Congress of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia in Moscow on April 4 that Russia will experience a high demand for human capital and face labor shortages in the coming years.[19] Putin stated that Russia’s future labor shortage is “absolutely certain” and that it is “critically important” for Russia to increase labor productivity and modernize and automate various economic sectors, such as industrial production, service industries, and the agro-industrial sphere. Putin stated that Russia does not “have much of a choice: either [Russia] needs to import labor from abroad or [Russia] needs to increase labor productivity.” Putin appears to be telling Russia‘s xenophobic ultra-nationalist community that Russia must continue to rely on migration to address Russia’s labor shortages, likely to signal to Russian ultranationalist constituents to stop their calls for anti-migrant policies, especially in the wake of the March 22 Crocus City Hall terror attack.[20] ISW previously assessed that anti-migrant policies could worsen Russian labor shortages and degrade Russia’s crypto-mobilization efforts and that Russian authorities are unlikely to fully give into ultranationalist xenophobic demands to drastically reduce – if not eliminate –  immigration to Russia at the expense of Russia’s war effort and economic needs.[21]

Putin also claimed that Russia has not transferred its economy to a wartime footing and that Russia’s economy is instead “quite balanced” and fulfilling all social guarantees.[22] Putin did note that the Russian government is concentrating its efforts and administrative and financial resources on developing Russia’s defense industry, however. Putin’s suggestions that the Russian economy either is or is not on a wartime footing depending on the constituency he is addressing is a false binary as Russia has been gradually but effectively mobilizing its defense industry to support its invasion of Ukraine over the past several years.[23] Russia is currently allocating roughly a third or more of its annual federal budget to defense spending, and Polish President Andrzej Duda warned on March 20, citing unspecified German research, that Putin is intensifying efforts to shift Russia to a war economy with the intention of being able to attack NATO as early as 2026 or 2027.[24] The Kremlin has not, and likely cannot, rapidly transition the Russian economy to total economic mobilization as the Soviet Union did during the Great Patriotic War (Second World War), although the Kremlin consistently appeals to the mythos of the Great Patriotic War to suggest that Russia is capable of such an effort.[25] Putin invoked the idea of a wider Russian social and economic mobilization reminiscent of that of the Soviet Union’s total mobilization during a speech to Russian workers on February 2 and may have been gauging domestic reactions to a wider economic or military mobilization.[26] Putin’s claim of a peacetime Russian economy is part of a wider pattern wherein the Kremlin oscillates between appeals to a wider economic mobilization to support its war effort on the one hand and appeals to domestic economic stability to cater to an increasingly apathetic domestic populace on the other hand. The Kremlin’s routine invocations of a wider economic mobilization likely aim to shore up domestic support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and create fear within the West of the Kremlin’s ability to bring to bear a significant amount of materiel in Ukraine.[27] The Kremlin’s efforts to reassure Russian citizens about Russia’s economic and social stability likely aim to avoid generating public discontent over the prospect of future economic disruptions.[28]

Key Takeaways:

  • Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov claimed that NATO and Russia are in “direct confrontation,” likely as part of ongoing Kremlin efforts to intensify existing information operations meant to force the West into self-deterrence.
  • Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov appealed to Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS) members to increase cooperation against perceived Western threats as part of the effort to posture against the West.
  • The Kremlin leveraged this overall information operation about escalation with NATO to target France specifically, following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent calls for the West to expand the level and types of security assistance it sends to Ukraine.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also promoted information operations feigning interest in negotiations, and Lavrov’s and Shoigu’s likely coordinated informational efforts may signal a new round of intensified Russian rhetoric about negotiations.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues attempts to balance the Kremlin’s opposing efforts to set social expectations for a protracted Russian war effort and to assuage Russian society’s concerns about the economic consequences of the war and labor migration.
  • Russian forces conducted a roughly reinforced company-sized mechanized assault towards Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut) on April 4 and advanced up to the eastern outskirts of the settlement.
  • Russian forces also recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Donetsk City.
  • An unspecified senior NATO official reportedly told Russian opposition news outlet Vazhnye Istorii that NATO intelligence agencies have not observed indications that Russia is preparing for a large-scale partial mobilization wave.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 3, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

April 3, 2024, 8pm ET 

Russian forces appear to have increased the number and size of mechanized ground assaults on select sectors of the frontline within the past two weeks, marking a notable overall increase in Russian mechanized assaults across the theater. Ukrainian officials stated on March 20 that Ukrainian forces repelled a large Russian assault in the Lyman direction and published geolocated footage showing Ukrainian forces damaging or destroying several Russian armored vehicles east of Terny (west of Kreminna).[1] Ukrainian forces later defeated a battalion-sized Russian mechanized assault near Tonenke (west of Avdiivka) on March 30 to which Russian forces reportedly committed at least 36 tanks and 12 BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).[2] A Ukrainian serviceman stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed 12 Russian tanks and eight IFVs during the assault near Tonenke, and Russian forces have likely only conducted one other mechanized assault of that scale along the entire frontline since the beginning of the Russian campaign to seize Avdiivka in October 2023, which was also near Terny on January 20.[3] Geolocated footage published on April 3 shows Ukrainian forces repelling a roughly reinforced platoon-sized mechanized Russian assault near Terny.[4] The April 3 footage is likely recent and is distinct from the March 20 footage of Russian assaults near Terny. Russian forces may be intensifying mechanized assaults before muddy terrain becomes more pronounced in the spring and makes mechanized maneuver warfare more difficult. Russian forces may also be intensifying mechanized assaults to take advantage of Ukrainian materiel shortages before the arrival of expected Western security assistance.[5]

Russian forces may be intensifying the overall tempo of their offensive operations in Ukraine. The intensification of Russian mechanized assaults has occurred generally at the same time as intensified missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities.[6] Russian forces escalated its strike campaign in Ukraine by beginning a new pattern of striking hydroelectric power plants around March 22, for example.[7] Russian forces may be intensifying strikes to further pressure the Ukrainian command to deploy air defense systems away from the front in order to more safely intensify aviation operations in support of ground operations.[8] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported that Russian forces have been gradually moving materiel and personnel to frontline positions in small increments making it difficult for Ukrainian forces to monitor Russian force accumulations, suggesting that Russian forces have been preparing for larger-scale assault operations.[9] US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell stated on April 3 that the US assesses that Russia has “almost completely reconstituted militarily” over the past several months, suggesting that Russia is preparing and may already have sufficient manpower and materiel to significantly intensify ongoing offensive operations or initiate offensive efforts in new areas of the theater.[10]

Ukrainian sources continue to stress that the piecemeal and delayed arrival of new Western systems to Ukraine will allow Russian forces to adapt to and offset the likely operational benefits these systems would otherwise provide to Ukrainian forces. Politico Europe reported on April 3 that unspecified high-ranking Ukrainian military officers stated that provisions of new Western systems are arriving too late and in insufficient quantities to have maximally effective operational impacts on the battlefield.[11] The Ukrainian officers reportedly stated that Russian forces rapidly adapted to the marginal advantages that new Western-provided weapons systems provide, eliminating those advantages.[12] The Ukrainian officers reportedly pointed to the arrival of Western anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and HIMARS as systems that arrived at the right time to help Ukrainian forces protect Kyiv in the early months of the full-scale invasion and liberate Kherson City in November 2022, respectively.[13] The Ukrainian officers stated that other Western-provided weapon deliveries have not been so timely, however. The officers reportedly stated that Russian forces are likely already optimizing Russia’s air defense network to counter the arrival of F-16 fighter aircraft, which are scheduled to arrive in Ukraine in the summer of 2024. Russian forces have shown the capacity to adapt to fighting in Ukraine both through mass as well as through steady, though uneven, operational, tactical, and technological.[14] The Russian military’s demonstrated ability to adapt, even if uneven or relatively slow, means that Ukrainian forces have a limited window of opportunity to maximally effectively use new Western systems to achieve operationally significant impacts. Individual systems pose specific challenges to Russian forces, and Russian forces would likely struggle to adapt as easily or quickly as they have previously if Ukrainian forces could employ several new systems at scale simultaneously. The arrival of new Western systems in a timely manner would likely allow Ukrainian forces to significantly degrade Russian forces and prevent even marginal Russian tactical gains while also providing Ukraine with capabilities necessary for operationally significant counteroffensive operations

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack has caused a significant increase in Russian contract service applicants amid reported Russian efforts to increase force generation this spring. The Russian MoD claimed on April 3 that Russian military recruitment centers have documented a significant increase in the number of people applying for military service contracts throughout Russia.[15] The Russian MoD claimed that 16,000 Russian citizens have signed military service contracts over the past 10 days and emphasized that most applicants indicated that their main motive for signing a military contract was to “avenge” the victims of the Crocus attack. The Russian MoD claimed that more than 100,000 Russians have signed military service contracts since the beginning of 2024. Kremlin officials and mouthpieces have consistently attempted to falsely implicate Ukraine in the Crocus attack. If accurate, suggests that the Kremlin’s information operation may have been successful.[16] The fear and instability that the Islamic State’s (IS) attack created in Russian society may have spurred some Russian citizens to sign up for military service. The Russian MoD may alternatively be running a simultaneous information operation designed to portray Russians as increasingly signing military contracts for revenge to further convince others to sign contracts and justify its long-term war effort in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on April 3 that Russia is preparing to “mobilize” an additional 300,000 personnel on June 1.[17] Zelensky may be referring to Russia’s ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts or efforts to increase contract service applications following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, but Zelensky is likely not referring to another wave of Russian partial mobilization akin to Russia’s September 2022. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on March 22 that high-ranking Russian officials stated that the Russian MoD plans to increased force generation starting in the spring and that Russia may intend to generate an additional 300,000 personnel within an unspecified time frame.[18] Russian authorities continue to deny Russian and Ukrainian claims about an imminent Russian partial or general mobilization order, and ISW continues to assess that Russian authorities would likely intensify crypto-mobilization efforts before deciding to conduct another unpopular wave of mobilization.[19]

Republic of Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov warned that Russian companies and local authorities must defend themselves against Ukrainian drone strikes and not rely on Russian air defenses following the April 2 Ukrainian strikes on Russian military production and oil refinery infrastructure in Tatarstan. Minnikhanov stated on April 3 that “there is no need to wait for [Russian] missile defense to work...we must decide on our own, every enterprise, every municipality, every city.”[20] Minnikhanov stated that Russians should “wake up” and realize that “no one will protect you except yourself.” Russian military sources recently told Russian state outlet Izvestia that the Russian military is forming mobile fire groups to combat Ukrainian drones, indicating that Russia may be unable to deploy conventional air defense systems to defend all of Russia’s critical facilities.[21] ISW assessed that Ukraine’s April 2 strikes on targets in Tatarstan likely represent a significant inflection in Ukraine’s ability to conduct long-range strikes far into rear Russia’s areas.[22] Minnikhanov’s statement is likely a reflection of increased Russian concern following the April 2 strikes and is a clear acknowledgment and admonition of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) failure to defend Russian cities and critical infrastructure from Ukrainian drone strikes.

Russian-backed former Ukrainian separatist politician Oleg Tsaryov complained on April 3 that no current Russian political party adequately represents the political interests of Russian ultranationalists, highlighting a possible source of discontent between the pro-Russian ultranationalist community and the Kremlin. Tsaryov responded to a recent claim by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church, that there is an absence of Russian nationalism in Russian politics, stating that Russian nationalism and demands for the Kremlin to implement nationalist ideals are increasing.[23] Tsaryov claimed that an official nationalist political party could provide the nationalists with a legal avenue through which to pursue policy changes without discrediting themselves and allow more radical nationalists to work with the mainstream nationalists, presumably as part of a Russian nationalist political coalition.[24] Now-imprisoned ardent nationalist Igor Girkin previously founded the Angry Patriot’s Club, his failed initiative to provide fringe Russian ultranationalists with a platform that directly opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and conduct of the war in Ukraine.[25] Tsaryov’s call for an official nationalist political party highlights a grievance that mainstream Russian ultranationalist milbloggers may develop over the long term as Putin aims to further increase control over the ultranationalist information space and fails to implement some of their desired political changes.[26] Putin likely aims to suppress any possible ultranationalist political movement that could oppose his regime as he did with the Angry Patriots by having Girkin arrested.[27] Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of conquest against Ukraine is insufficiently nationalist for Tsaryov.

Ukraine and Finland signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement on April 3.[28] Finland also announced a new military aid package to Ukraine worth 188 million euros (about $204 million) that includes air defense materiel and large-caliber artillery ammunition.[29]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces appear to have increased the number and size of mechanized ground assaults on select sectors of the frontline within the past two weeks, marking a notable overall increase in Russian mechanized assaults across the theater.
  • Russian forces may be intensifying the overall tempo of their offensive operations in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian sources continue to stress that the piecemeal and delayed arrival of new Western systems to Ukraine will allow Russian forces to adapt to and offset the likely operational benefits these systems would otherwise provide to Ukrainian forces.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack has caused a significant increase in Russian contract service applicants amid reported Russian efforts to increase force generation this spring.
  • Republic of Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov warned that Russian companies and local authorities must defend themselves against Ukrainian drone strikes and not rely on Russian air defenses following the April 2 Ukrainian strikes on Russian military production and oil refinery infrastructure in Tatarstan.
  • Russian-backed former Ukrainian separatist politician Oleg Tsaryov complained on April 3 that no current Russian political party adequately represents the political interests of Russian ultranationalists, highlighting a possible source of discontent between the pro-Russian ultranationalist community and the Kremlin.
  • Ukraine and Finland signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement on April 3.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • Russian authorities continue to expand social benefits for Russian military personnel.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 2, 2024

click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, and George Barros

April 2, 2024, 7:15pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on April 2. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 3 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law on April 2 that lowers the Ukrainian military’s mobilization age from 27 to 25 years of age. The Verkhovna Rada approved the law in May 2023, and the law will come into force on April 3, 2024.[1] Lowering the mobilization age is one of many measures that Ukraine has been considering in an ongoing effort to create a sustainable wartime force-generation apparatus.[2] Lowering the mobilization age from 27 to 25 years of age will support the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and reconstitute existing units and to create new units.[3] Ukraine will need to equip any newly mobilized military personnel with weapons, and prolonged US debates about military aid to Ukraine and delays in Western aid may impact the speed at which Ukraine can restore degraded and stand up new units. ISW continues to assess that Western-provided materiel continues to be the greatest deciding factor for the Ukrainian military’s ability to restore and augment its combat power.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on April 2 that Russian forces seized about 400 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory in the first three months of 2024 — a rate of advance not necessarily reflective of wider Russian offensive prospects due to the impact of US security assistance delays. Shoigu claimed during a conference call with Russian military leadership on April 2 that Russian forces have seized 403 square kilometers of territory in Ukraine since the beginning of 2024.[4] ISW has only observed visual evidence allowing ISW to confirm that Russian forces seized approximately 305 square kilometers between January 1 and April 1, 2024. ISW continues to assess that material shortages are forcing Ukraine to conserve ammunition and prioritize limited resources to critical sectors of the front, however, increasing the risk of a Russian breakthrough in other less-well-provisioned sectors and making the frontline overall more fragile than the current relatively slow rate of Russian advances makes it appear.[5] Ukraine’s materiel constraints also offer Russian forces flexibility in how they conduct offensive operations, which can lead to compounding and non-linear opportunities for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the future.[6]

Ukraine conducted long-range unidentified unmanned aerial systems (UAS) strikes against Russian military production and oil refinery infrastructure in the Republic of Tatarstan, over 1,200 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Russian Telegram channels posted footage on April 2 showing three UAS striking the territory of the Alabuga Special Economic Zone (SEZ) near Yelabuga and causing a large explosion upon impact.[7] Geolocated footage of the strike shows that the UAS hit a dormitory area near the Yelabuga Polytechnical College.[8] Russia notably uses the production facilities at the Alabuga SEZ to make Shahed-136/131 drones to attack Ukraine.[9] Additional geolocated footage published on April 2 shows a drone strike against the Taneko oil refinery in Nizhnekamsk, Tatarstan, and Russian sources claimed that Russian electronic warfare suppressed the drone, causing it to fall on refinery infrastructure and start a fire.[10] Reuters reported that the Ukrainian drone strike on Taneko, Russia’s third-largest oil refinery, impacted a core refining unit at the facility responsible for roughly half of the facility’s oil refining.[11] Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) claimed responsibility for conducting the strikes, and GUR sources reported that the strike on Yelabuga caused “significant destruction” to Shahed production facilities.[12] Russian sources, including Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov, denied that the strikes caused any significant damage to either the drone production plants within the Alabuga SEZ or the Taneko refinery.[13] Reuters noted that its own data shows that constant Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil refineries, such as Taneko, have shut down about 14 percent of Russia’s overall refining capacity.[14] The April 2 strikes are the first Ukrainian strikes on Tatarstan, and the distance of the targets from Ukraine’s borders represents a significant inflection in Ukraine’s demonstrated capability to conduct long-range strikes far into the Russian rear. ISW continues to assess that such Ukrainian strikes are a necessary component of Ukraine’s campaign to use asymmetric means to degrade industries that supply and support the Russian military.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) board meeting on April 2 illustrated Russia’s dissonant response to the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack as Russian authorities simultaneously pursue law enforcement actions against migrant communities while also baselessly implicating Ukraine. Putin stated that Russian authorities are assessing the actions of all Russian law enforcement, management, supervisory services, and commercial organizations responsible for the Crocus City Hall concert venue and instructed the MVD to increase security and emergency preparedness at large public gathering areas.[15] Putin explicitly stated that the MVD needs to address several unresolved problems, including its response to extremist groups, likely to preemptively scapegoat possible criticism about the Russian intelligence failure to prevent the Crocus City Hall attack amid reports that Russia ignored international warnings, including from its allies, about the attack.[16] Putin and other Kremlin officials have struggled to reconcile information operations aimed at blaming Ukraine and the West for the attack with the reality of the Kremlin’s intelligence failure, and Putin’s indirect public criticism of the MVD likely aims to signal to the Russian public that he is addressing the failures that contributed to the attack.[17]

Putin continued to suggest that there are other beneficiaries of the attack that the MVD needs to investigate, however, and Russian MVD Head Vladimir Kolokoltsev proceeded to baselessly portray Ukraine as a transitional criminal and terrorist threat to Russia.[18] The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) baselessly claimed on April 1 that the US is attempting to cover up alleged Ukrainian responsibility for the Crocus City Hall attack, including by blaming the attack on the Islamic State’s Afghan branch IS-Khorasan (IS-K).[19] Russian law enforcement and intelligence responses in the North Caucasus — such as a counterterrorism raid in Dagestan on March 31 and intensified measures targeting Central Asian migrants in Russia are further evidence that Russian authorities in practice assess that the terrorist threat is emanating from Russia’s Central Asian and Muslim minority communities instead of Ukraine.[20] The Kremlin will likely continue efforts to capitalize on domestic fear and anger about the attack to generate perceptions of Ukrainian and Western involvement in the Crocus City Hall attack and wider alleged “terrorist” attacks within Russia in hopes of increasing Russian domestic support for the war in Ukraine.[21] ISW remains confident that IS conducted the Crocus City Hall attack and has yet to observe independent reporting or evidence to suggest that an actor other than IS was responsible for or aided the attack.[22]

Putin also attempted to address intensified debates about migration that have emerged following the Crocus City Hall attack but continued to express an inconsistent and vague stance on the issue. Putin stated that illegal migration can be a breeding ground for extremist activity and asserted that Russia needs to improve its migration database since the alleged attackers were able to legally stay in Russia without speaking Russian.[23] Putin called for Russia to radically update its approach to migration policy and instructed the MVD to draft its own new migration policy.[24] Putin did not expound upon what this new policy should entail beyond vague demands that it should preserve interethnic and interreligious harmony and Russia’s cultural and linguistic identity.[25] Putin reiterated that it is unacceptable to use the Crocus City Hall attack to provoke ethnic, Islamophobic, or xenophobic hatred, a rhetorical position that may collide with the Kremlin’s and Russian Orthodox Church’s contradictory appeals to ultranationalists' anti-migration fervor.[26] Anti-migrant policies could worsen Russian labor shortages and degrade Russia’s crypto-mobilization efforts if Russia deports large numbers of migrants or if significant portions of Russia’s migrant communities emigrate due to anti-migrant sentiment, and Russian authorities are generally unlikely to fully give into ultranationalist xenophobic demands to drastically reduce if not eliminate foreign immigration to Russia at the expense of Russia’s war effort. The Kremlin’s attempts to appeal to ultranationalists may generate further inconsistencies and contradictions within the Kremlin’s migration policy, however.[27]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on April 2 that the GUR believes that Russian forces will likely temporarily pause strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure in order to replenish low missile stockpiles.[28] Skibitskyi stated that the Russian military currently has about 950 high-precision operational-strategic and strategic level missiles with a range of or exceeding 350 kilometers available in its arsenal.[29] Skibitskyi stated that the Russian military tries to prevent the missile stockpile from falling below 900 missiles and that Russian forces will temporarily pause missile strikes to accumulate more missiles to a level above this threshold.[30] Skibitskyi stated that Russia plans to produce 40 Kh-101 cruise missiles in April and suggested that Russia will have roughly at least 90 missiles to conduct two or three more large strike series against Ukrainian targets before pausing to restock missiles.[31] Skibitskyi noted that Russian forces have not launched any Kalibr cruise missiles since September 2023 and that Russia has accumulated at least 260 of these missiles and aims to produce 30 more in April. Skibitskyi added that Russian forces may not be launching Kalibr cruise missiles either because Ukrainian air defenses can easily intercept them or because Ukrainian strikes have damaged Black Sea Fleet (BSF) Kalibr missile carriers.[32] Skibitskyi and Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are increasingly launching unknown ballistic missiles from occupied Crimea at Ukraine, but noted that it is unclear if Russian forces are using Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles or modernized Onyx-M anti-ship cruise missiles.[33] Russian forces can launch Zircon missiles at semi-ballistic trajectories, however.[34] Humenyuk reported on March 27 that Russian forces had accumulated “several dozen” Zircon missiles in military facilities in occupied Crimea.[35] Skibitskyi stated that Russian forces have accumulated 440 Onyx anti-ship cruise missiles, and that Russia can produce about six to eight of these missiles per month.[36] Russian forces temporarily reduced the intensity of its missile strikes and relied more heavily on Shahed drone strikes in summer and fall 2023 to marginally replenish stocks of high-precision missiles ahead of the intensification of the Russian strike campaign in winter 2023-2024 and spring 2024.[37]

US sanctions against Russia continue to impact Russian financial ties to post-Soviet countries, as Kyrgyzstan’s national payment system Elkart announced on April 2 that it would stop processing transactions using the Russian “Mir” payment system to prevent secondary sanctions. Elkart’s operator Interbank Processing Center stated that Elkart would stop processing all transactions with the “Mir” payment system starting on April 5 since the US sanctioned “Mir” system’s operator, the National Payment Card System Joint Stock Company, in February 2024.[38] Ten of 23 Kyrgyz commercial banks completely or partially suspended their use of the “Mir” payment system in October 2022 after the US Department of the Treasury reported that it would impose sanctions on financial institutions that enter contracts with the National Payment Card System.[39] ISW recently reported that several Kazakh banks and Armenia’s Central Bank also suspended the use of Mir payment systems to prevent secondary sanctions.[40]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed on April 2 that Vice Admiral Sergei Pinchuk became the commander of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF).[41] Pinchuk replaced former BSF Commander Admiral Viktor Sokolov, who likely died as a result of a Ukrainian strike on the BSF headquarters in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea in September 2023.[42]

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reportedly proposed a NATO aid package that would send $100 billion of military assistance to Ukraine over five years.[43] Bloomberg reported that all NATO members need to approve the proposal and that the details will likely change during negotiations between member states.[44] Bloomberg reported that the proposal gives NATO control of the US-led Ukraine Contact Defense Group that coordinates weapons supplies to Ukraine and that sources familiar with the talks stated that NATO members are discussing whether the total sum should include bilateral aid to Ukraine. Financial Times reported that NATO foreign ministers will discuss the proposal on April 3 and that discussions will likely continue in the lead up to the NATO summit in Washington in July 2024.[45]

Key Takeaways 

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law on April 2 that lowers the Ukrainian military’s mobilization age from 27 to 25 years of age.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on April 2 that Russian forces seized about 400 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory in the first three months of 2024 — a rate of advance not necessarily reflective of wider Russian offensive prospects due to the impact of US security assistance delays.
  • Ukraine conducted long-range unidentified unmanned aerial systems (UAS) strikes against Russian military production and oil refinery infrastructure in the Republic of Tatarstan, over 1,200 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) board meeting on April 2 illustrated Russia’s dissonant response to the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack as Russian authorities simultaneously pursue law enforcement actions against migrant communities while also baselessly implicating Ukraine. Putin also attempted to address intensified debates about migration that have emerged following the Crocus City Hall attack but continued to express an inconsistent and vague stance on the issue.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on April 2 that the GUR believes that Russian forces will likely temporarily pause strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure in order to replenish low missile stockpiles.
  • US sanctions against Russia continue to impact Russian financial ties to post-Soviet countries, as Kyrgyzstan’s national payment system Elkart announced on April 2 that it would stop processing transactions using the Russian “Mir” payment system to prevent secondary sanctions.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reportedly proposed a NATO aid package that would send $100 billion of military assistance to Ukraine over five years.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna and Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on April 2.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated on April 2 that the Russian military intends to finish and deploy several newly constructed small missile and patrol ships in 2024.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) is increasing its law enforcement presence in occupied Ukraine in order to intensify Russian control over Ukrainian civilians and strengthen security over critical infrastructure.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 1, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and George Barros

April 1, 2024, 6:50pm ET 

A joint investigation by 60 Minutes, the Insider, and Der Spiegel strongly suggests that the Kremlin has waged a sustained kinetic campaign directly targeting US government personnel both in the United States and internationally for a decade, with the likely objective of physically incapacitating US government personnel. The investigation, which the outlets published on March 31, indicates that the infamous Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) Unit 29155 (the same unit whose operatives attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent in the United Kingdom in 2018) may be using nonlethal directed energy or acoustic weapons to target a large number of US government personnel, each of whom has reported experiencing an “anomalous health incident” (also called “Havana Syndrome”) of varying severity between 2014 and as recently as 2023.[1] The investigation cites intercepted Russian intelligence documents, travel logs, call metadata, and eyewitness testimony that places GRU Unit 29155 operatives at many of the locations where US officials experienced Havana Syndrome, either shortly before or during each attack. The investigation suggested that GRU operatives conducted a directed energy attack against an FBI agent in Florida a few months after the agent interviewed detained undercover GRU officer Vitaliy Kovalev at some point between June and December 2020.[2] Other US government officials claimed they were attacked by the directed energy weapons while they were in the United States, including in Washington, DC. The joint investigation interviewed US Army Colonel Greg Edgreen, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)’s working group investigating Havana Syndrome, who believes that Russia is behind the Havana Syndrome incidents and that the incidents consistently have a “Russia nexus.”[3] Edgreen stated that the incidents all targeted the top five to ten percent “performing DIA officers” and that the victims were either experts on Russia or had otherwise worked to defend US national security interests against Russia. The investigation noted that many affected personnel were assigned to roles aimed at countering Russia following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine after these personnel had previously worked on other portfolios. The investigation reported that these incidents have affected senior US personnel, including a senior official in the National Security Council who served at some point in 2020-2024 and CIA Director Bill Burns’ then-deputy chief of staff who experienced an anomalous health incident in September 2021 in Delhi. Several of the US officials who experienced Havana Syndrome have severe life-altering and career-ending injuries. Many US officials’ spouses and children also experienced Havana Syndrome while deployed overseas.

Retired CIA officer Marc Polymeropolous, who experienced Havana Syndrome while in Moscow in December 2017 and ended his career as Chief of Operation for the CIA’s Europe and Eurasia Mission Center, stated that if the investigation’s attribution of the attacks to Russia’s GRU is true, then the attacks fit a pattern of the Kremlin “seeking retribution for events” for which it believes the United States is responsible.[4] Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed that a senior unnamed Department of Defense official at the NATO Vilnius summit in July 2023 experienced similar symptoms to other anomalous health incidents.[5] Senior US intelligence officials have previously publicly stated that the intelligence community cannot attribute a foreign adversary to any of the anomalous health incidents, and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated in response to the joint investigation on April 1 that the intelligence community “has not concluded” that Russian military intelligence was involved in the incidents.[6] If the Russian GRU is confirmed to be responsible for numerous attacks against US military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel and their families, however, then this would amount to a significant sustained Russian campaign of kinetic attacks against the United States designed to degrade US intelligence capabilities against Russia to which the United States has not publicly responded.

The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is intensifying efforts to falsely implicate Ukraine in the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack while denying any Islamic State (IS) responsibility or involvement in the attack. The SVR baselessly claimed on April 1 that the United States is attempting to cover up Ukraine’s alleged responsibility for the Crocus City Hall attack, including by blaming the attack on the Islamic State’s Afghan branch IS-Khorasan (IS-K).[7] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) recently demanded that Ukrainian authorities arrest and extradite people allegedly involved in the Crocus City Hall attack and a wider set of alleged “terrorist” attacks in Russia.[8] ISW continues to assess with high confidence that IS conducted the Crocus City Hall attack and has yet to observe independent reporting or evidence to suggest that an actor other than IS was responsible for or aided the attack.[9] The Kremlin likely intends to capitalize on domestic fear and anger about the attack and hopes that perceptions of Ukrainian and Western involvement in the Crocus City Hall attack and wider alleged “terrorist” attacks in Russia will increase Russian domestic support for the war in Ukraine.[10]

Reuters reported on April 1 that Iran warned Russia about a possible “major terrorist operation” at an unspecified date prior to the Crocus City Hall attack, according to “three sources familiar with the matter.”[11] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and Russian Presidential Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov denied the report that Iran warned Russia of a terrorist attack.[12] The Russian government will likely continue to deny any reports that the Kremlin received a warning of a potential terrorist attack before the Crocus City Hall attack to deflect blame from Russia’s law enforcement and intelligence failure and divert accusations towards Ukraine.

The Russian MFA announced on April 1 that it is working to remove the Taliban’s status as a designated terrorist organization in Russia and announced that Russia invited the Taliban to participate in the May 14-19 Russia-Islamic World Forum in Kazan, Tatarstan Republic.[13] The Kremlin’s hyper fixation on pinning the blame for the attack on Ukraine, as opposed to addressing very real and necessary terrorist threats, will likely continue to pose a security threat to Russia in the long term.

Russian authorities are taking measures to further crackdown against migrant communities in Russia following the Crocus City Hall attack. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) stated on April 1 that it is preparing a bill that introduces various measures tightening Russia’s migration policy.[14] The proposed bill includes requirements that all foreigners undergo mandatory fingerprinting and photographing upon entering Russia; the creation of a government system containing the digital profiles of foreigners; requirements that all foreigners receive a new identification document confirming their right to live and work in Russia; reductions on the limits on how long foreigners can temporarily stay in Russia from 90 days per every six months to 90 days per year; and authorizations for courts and certain federal executive bodies outside of courts to deport foreigners who “pose a security threat.” The MVD’s proposals to tighten the government's tracking of and control over migrants in Russia will also likely make it easier for authorities to target and coerce migrants into the Russian military as part of ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts, as such efforts will build out a database of personal information that makes migrant communities more immediately identifiable.[15] Kremlin newswire TASS also reported on April 1 that Russian authorities detained the tenth person allegedly complicit in the Crocus City Hall attack and that Russian authorities detained him as part of an ongoing Russian operation, called Operation “Illegal,” which Russian authorities have reportedly regularly conducted in previous years.[16] Russian human rights project First Department reported on March 29 that Russian authorities launched “Operation Anti-Migrant,” a large-scale operation to identify and deport migrants, in St. Petersburg, and Russian authorities are likely increasing their searches on migrants in the wake of the Crocus City Hall attack.[17] It is unclear if Operation “Illegal” and “Operation Anti-Migrant” are related programs.

The Kremlin is reportedly taking steps to directly strengthen its control over government bodies that oversee migration policy. Russian outlet Vedomosti reported on April 1 that sources close to the Russian presidential administration and government stated that Russian authorities are considering creating a new department to oversee interethnic and migration policy and that the department will be directly subordinated to the Russian president.[18] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated in response that there are no official decisions about creating a department for interethnic and migration policy yet.[19] Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized during his annual “Direct Line” speech in December 2023 that Russia needs a “special organ, not just the Ministry of Internal Affairs” to address Russia’s migration issues.[20] Putin may scapegoat certain MVD personnel for Russia’s recent migration issues. A Russian insider source claimed on April 1 that Putin is expected to attend the MVD’s extended board meeting on April 2 which will summarize the MVD’s 2023 activities.[21] The insider source claimed that the meeting will include discussions of migration issues and that unspecified actors will “attack” the head of the MVD‘s Main Directorate for Migration Affairs, Valentina Kazakova, and her “curator” MVD Deputy Minister Alexander Gorovoy, likely due to their perceived inaction and inefficacy. The insider source claimed that the Kremlin will likely dismiss MVD leaders, including Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, after Putin’s inauguration on May 7 and that the Kremlin offered the minister position to the head of the Economic Security Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Sergei Alpatov.

Key Takeaways:

  • A joint investigation by 60 Minutes, the Insider, and Der Spiegel strongly suggests that the Kremlin has waged a sustained kinetic campaign directly targeting US government personnel both in the United States and internationally for a decade, with the likely objective of physically incapacitating US government personnel.
  • The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is intensifying efforts to falsely implicate Ukraine in the March 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack while denying any Islamic State (IS) responsibility or involvement in the attack.
  • Russian authorities are taking measures to further crack down against migrant communities in Russia following the Crocus City Hall attack.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on April 1.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to reassure the Russian public that Russian military conscripts will not deploy to most of occupied Ukraine nor participate in combat operations in Ukraine amid the start of the spring semi-annual military conscription call-up that started on April 1.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 31, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, and George Barros

March 31, 2024, 6:55pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on March 31. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the April 1 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) reportedly directed all its clergy to change their liturgy to include pro-war prayers in support of Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine and is likely threatening to defrock ROC MP clergy who do not support the war. A Russian Telegram channel with insider sources within the ROC MP amplified on March 31 a document dated March 29, in which Head of the ROC MP Affairs, Metropolitan Gregoriy of Voskresensk, instructed clergy to read a prayer — the “Prayer for Holy Rus” — on a daily basis during Lent.[1] Metropolitan Gregoriy of Voskresensk also called on the clergy to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus” at home and to offer to read this prayer to parishioners. The “Prayer for Holy Rus” is a new prayer that the ROC MP officially introduced in September 2022. This prayer is a highly politicized and pro-war and pro-Kremlin prayer filled with Kremlin talking points and other false Russian narratives. The prayer asks God to “to help [Russian] people and grant [Russia] victory” against “those who want to fight [and] have taken up arms against Holy Rus, eager to divide and destroy her one people.”[2] The mention of “Holy Rus” and “one people” echoes Putin’s long-term false narrative that Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians comprise one Russian nation, and is a misappropriation of the history of Kyivan Rus.[3] ROC MP Head Patriarch Kirill — reportedly himself a former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) officer and a known staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin — first read the “Prayer for Holy Rus” (which he supposedly authored) on September 25, 2022, following Putin’s unpopular call for partial mobilization. The ROC MP had previously instituted politicized prayers in June 2014 and March 2022 supporting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and ISW has long assessed that the ROC MP is a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit that promotes the Kremlin’s interests and nationalist ideology domestically and abroad.[4]

The ROC MP leadership has intensified internal scrutiny against ROC MP clergy and has reportedly defrocked several clergy members that refused to promote Kremlin-introduced prayers supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A guest researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ksenia Luchenko, noted that the ROC MP regards individual ROC MP clergy members’ refusal to use assigned prayers in liturgy as perjury and a sin punishable by defrocking under the 25th Apostolic Canon.[5] The Christians Against War Project, a Russian organization that tracks persecutions of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian priests, reported that ROC MP or Russian state authorities have already disciplined no fewer than 28 ROC MP clergy members from Russia, five from Belarus, one from Kazakhstan, and six from Lithuania for anti-war rhetoric or refusing to read the assigned pro-war prayers during liturgy.[6] The ROC MP has reportedly administered various punishments, including defrocking, demotions, and excommunication.[7] Local Russian state officials opened administrative cases and issued fines for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” against several such anti-war ROC MP clergy members.[8] Patriarch Kirill, for example, approved a decision in February 2024 to defrock one of the most famous and respected ROC MP priests, Archpriest Alexey Uminsky, for refusing to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus.”[9] The Court of the Moscow Diocese also defrocked a priest in May 2023 for substituting the word “victory” with “peace” when reading the ”Prayer for Holy Rus.” Luchenko also reported that clergy members are increasingly self-censoring themselves out of fear that their own parishioners will report them for sharing anti-war sentiments. Parishioners, for example, reportedly called the police on a ROC MP priest in March 2022 after he prayed for peace in Ukraine. The ROC MP recently intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” and the Kremlin will likely continue to use the ROC MP to promote its imperialist and aggressive goals in Ukraine and elsewhere to secure long-term domestic support for Putin’s war efforts.[10] The ROC MP also recently approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.[11]

Russia conducted another series of missile and drone strikes largely targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of March 30 to 31 as delays in US security assistance continue to degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and enable Russia to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 14 Kh-101/555 cruise missiles from Saratov Oblast; 11 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and occupied Crimea; one Iskander-M ballistic missile from occupied Crimea; and one Kh-59 cruise missile from occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.[12] The Ukrainian Air Force added that Ukrainian forces shot down nine Kh-101/555 missiles and nine Shahed drones.[13] The Rivne Oblast Police reported that Ukrainian forces also shot down a Kh-55 missile and an Iskander missile over Rivne Oblast.[14] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched two S-300 air-defense missiles at Selydove, Donetsk City and an unspecified number of S-300 missiles at Beryslav, Kherson Oblast.[15] Lviv Oblast Military Administration Head Maskym Kozytskyi reported that Russian forces conducted a cruise missile strike on the same critical infrastructure facility that Russian forces previously struck on March 24 and March 29, and a Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces struck unspecified targets in Stryi, Lviv Oblast.[16] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces targeted energy and agricultural infrastructure in Kherson Oblast, struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv Oblast, and struck energy infrastructure in Odesa Oblast.[17] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo reported that they implemented emergency power shutdowns in Odesa City and nearby areas following the overnight Russian strike on energy facilities in southern Ukraine.[18] Russian forces reportedly shot down one of their own Kh-101 missiles over Saratov Oblast on the morning of March 31.[19]

Ukrainian forces appear to have repelled a Russian battalion-sized mechanized assault near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on March 30 — the first battalion-sized mechanized assault since Russian forces began the campaign to seize Avdiivka in late October 2023. A Ukrainian serviceman reported on March 31 that Russian forces, including elements of the Russian 6th Tank Regiment (90th Tank Division, Central Military District [CMD]), committed 36 tanks and 12 BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) to a large-mechanized assault near Tonenke on March 30.[20] Geolocated imagery published on March 31 shows a large number of destroyed and damaged Russian armored vehicles and tanks along a road northwest of Tonenke (west of Avdiivka).[21] The Ukrainian serviceman stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed 12 Russian tanks and eight IFVs during the assault and noted that the frontal assault failed to breakthrough the Ukrainian line. This appears to be the first report of any elements of the 90th Tank Division participating in assaults following the Russian seizure of Avdiivka and ISW previously assessed that elements of the 90th Tank Division, alongside other Russian units and formations, likely represent a sizeable uncommitted operational reserve that the Russian military command can commit to continue and intensify efforts to push west of Avdiivka.[22] The elements of the 6th Tank Regiment appear to have failed in their March 30 attack near Tonenke, however, suggesting that elements of Russia’s uncommitted operational reserve near Avdiivka may be too degraded or otherwise unable to lead further Russian advances westward in the short term.

The scale of the Russian mechanized assault on March 30 is significant. Russian forces have not conducted a mechanized assault this large since the beginning of the Russian localized offensive effort to seize Avdiivka in late October 2023, when Ukrainian forces reportedly destroyed almost 50 Russian tanks and over 100 armored vehicles on October 19-20, 2023.[23] Ukraine’s ability to defend against the March 30 assault, particularly near Avdiivka where Ukrainian forces have been forced to quickly withdraw to new, defensive positions following the loss of the settlement, is a positive indicator for Ukraine’s ability to defend against future large-scale Russian assaults and the expected summer 2024 Russian offensive operation. Ukrainian officials, justifiably so, continue to warn about Ukraine’s ability to defend against the expected summer Russian offensive effort in the face of ammunition shortages, manpower limitations, and delayed Western assistance.[24] Ukrainian forces may have had to expend a significant amount of material to defend against the Russian assault near Tonenke, highlighting Russia’s ability to conduct assaults that force Ukraine to expend outsized portions of its already limited material and manpower reserves to defend against.[25] Ukraine’s demonstrated ability to skillfully defend against a large-scale Russian assault in a particularly critical part of the front despite Ukraine’s challenges suggests that Ukrainian forces can achieve significant battlefield effects if they are properly equipped.

The Russian command may be prioritizing the Avdiivka area in Donetsk Oblast. The Russian military command’s willingness to commit a battalion’s worth of tanks to an attack near Avdiivka indicates that this assault was a priority effort. The Russian command may focus their forecasted late spring/summer 2024 offensive operation on western Donetsk Oblast in hopes of building upon Russian forces’ steady but marginal advances in this sector.[26] Ukrainian officials have recently warned that Russian forces are accumulating personnel along the Kharkiv-Luhansk axis, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast, but ISW continues to assess that Russian forces will likely only be able to launch a concerted large-scale offensive operation in one operational direction at a time due to Russia’s own manpower and planning limitations.[27]

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu announced on March 31 that France will provide an unspecified number of Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles and “hundreds” of armored vehicles and other equipment to Ukraine.[28] Lecornu stated that France will provide Ukraine with “hundreds” of old, but still functional, armored vehicles and equipment from the French military and that the materiel will arrive in 2024 and early 2025. Lecornu also reported that France will provide a “new batch of Aster 30 missiles” to Ukraine for the SAMP/T MAMBA air defense systems and that France is developing remotely operated munitions to provide to Ukraine as early as summer 2024.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed on March 31 the scheduled decree authorizing Russia’s semi-annual spring military conscription, which will conscript 150,000 Russians between April 1 and July 15.[29] The decree specifies that Russia’s spring 2024 conscription will conscript men aged 18 to 30 years old who are not currently in military service. Russia’s spring 2024 conscription marks the first conscription cycle in which the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will conscript men up to age 30. The Russian law raising the upper limit of the conscription age from 27 to 30 years of age officially came into force on January 1, 2024, although Putin signed the law in August 2023.[30] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Russian men who turned 27 before the end of 2023 and men who are 28 or 29 and currently in zapas (general mobilizable human resource composed of men who could be mobilized regardless of prior military experience) are excluded from conscription.[31] Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vice Admiral Vladimir Tsimlyansky stated on March 29 that the spring 2024 conscription cycle will include the conscription of men in occupied Ukraine and all Russian federal subjects, except for certain federal subjects in northern Russia due to inclement weather.[32] The Geneva Convention forbids any occupying power to force civilians in occupied territories to serve in the occupying power’s military or auxiliary services.[33] Tsimlyansky also stated that Russia will not deploy Russian conscripts to occupied Ukraine and that conscripts will not participate in combat or support operations in the war in Ukraine. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin remains unlikely to deploy conscripts to participate in combat operations in Ukraine due to concerns that conscript causalities may cause societal discontent within Russia, although Russia may expand its crypto-mobilization efforts during the spring 2024 conscription cycle.[34] The Kremlin, however, will likely continue using conscripts to defend the international border between Ukraine and Russia.[35]

The Russian military command reportedly appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lapin as commander of the newly formed Leningrad Military District (LMD). Ural regional information agency URA.ru, citing an unspecified military source, claimed on March 31 that the Russian military command appointed Lapin as LMD Commander.[36] There has been no official confirmation of this appointment. Lapin previously served as the commander of the Central Military District [CMD] and commanded Russian forces in Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September 2022, which resulted in significant Russian territorial and materiel losses.[37] Russian military bloggers widely criticized Lapin for Russian battlefield defeats under his command in September 2022, but later received praise for his role in defending Belgorod Oblast against raids by all-Russian pro-Ukrainian forces in May and June 2023.[38] URA.ru has previously accurately reported on Lapin’s previous appointments prior to their official confirmations and may have credible insider sources within the CMD given its affiliation with the Russian government and the outlet’s presence within the CMD’s geographic boundaries.[39]

The Kremlin continues efforts to enforce Russian federal laws in post-Soviet countries where Russia has no legal jurisdiction. Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov stated on March 31 that Russia will continue to assert its right, contrary to international law, to enforce Russian federal law on officials of NATO and post-Soviet states for their actions taken within the territory of their own countries where Russian courts have no jurisdiction, despite acknowledging that prosecuting such cases would be “unrealistic.”[40] The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has placed multiple officials from NATO member countries on its wanted list for them allegedly breaking various Russian laws within their own counties.[41] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin’s attempt to enforce its federal laws over NATO officials for actions in their own countries effectively denies the sovereignty of these states and are part of Russian efforts to set informational conditions justifying possible Russian escalations against NATO states in the future.[42]

Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and detained suspected terrorists in the Republic of Dagestan on March 31. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Dagestan declared a counterterrorism operation regime in Makhachkala and Kaspiysk, and the Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee stated that Russian authorities detained three militants who were allegedly planning terrorist acts.[43] Dagestan Head Sergei Melikov stated that Russian authorities conducted the counterterrorism operation as part of efforts to strengthen security in the region following the Crocus City Hall attack.[44] Select Russian milbloggers alleged that the detained terrorist suspects in Dagestan are connected to the Crocus City Hall attackers.[45] Russian authorities previously meted out minor punishments following large-scale antisemitic riots in Dagestan in October 2023.[46] The intensification of counterterrorism operations in Russia, particularly in the Caucasus region, is likely due to either Russian law enforcement’s actual heightened fears of another terrorist attack in Russia or part of efforts to show the Russian public that authorities are taking competent preventative steps following the major law enforcement and intelligence failure that was the Crocus City Hall attack.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) reportedly directed all its clergy to change their liturgy to include pro-war prayers in support of Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine and is likely threatening to defrock ROC MP clergy who do not support the war.
  • The ROC MP leadership has intensified internal scrutiny against ROC MP clergy and has reportedly defrocked several clergy members who refused to promote Kremlin-introduced prayers supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia conducted another series of missile and drone strikes largely targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of March 30 to 31 as delays in US security assistance continue to degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and enable Russia to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Ukrainian forces appear to have repelled a Russian battalion-sized mechanized assault near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on March 30 — the first battalion-sized mechanized assault since Russian forces began the campaign to seize Avdiivka in late October 2023.
  • French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu announced on March 31 that France will provide an unspecified number of Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles and “hundreds” of armored vehicles and other equipment to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed on March 31 the scheduled decree authorizing Russia’s semi-annual spring military conscription, which will conscript 150,000 Russians between April 1 and July 15.
  • The Russian military command reportedly appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lapin as commander of the newly formed Leningrad Military District (LMD).
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to enforce Russian federal laws in post-Soviet countries where Russia has no legal jurisdiction.
  • Russian authorities conducted a counterterrorism operation and detained suspected terrorists in the Republic of Dagestan on March 31.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and southwest of Donetsk City on March 31.
  • The Russian government continues to fail to properly compensate volunteer and irregular forces fighting in Ukraine, despite recently passing new legislation that simplifies the access to veteran statuses for these servicemen and their families.

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

March 30, 2024, 6:55pm ET 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that delays in American security assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative and that these delays continue to threaten Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. The Washington Post published excerpts of an interview with Zelensky on March 29 in which Zelensky stated that Ukraine will not be able to defend its territory without American support, as Ukraine currently relies on air defense systems and missiles, electronic warfare jammers, and 155mm artillery shells from the United States.[1] Zelensky stated that continued materiel shortages will force the Ukrainian military to cede more Ukrainian territory and people “step by step” since a smaller but more stable frontline is preferable to a larger but unstable front that Russian forces could exploit to achieve a breakthrough. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are “trying to find some way not to retreat” from unspecified frontline areas and noted that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the front near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. Zelensky reiterated that the Ukrainian military’s planning ability to make decisions is contingent on US military assistance and that Ukraine cannot plan counteroffensive efforts without knowing whether Ukraine will receive US military assistance, and what future US military assistance will entail. Zelensky warned that Russia will exploit any future scenarios in which Ukraine must cede the initiative: “If you are not taking steps forward to prepare another counteroffensive, Russia will take [these steps].” Zelensky also stated that Ukraine has learned that “if you don’t do it, Russia will do it.” Zelensky also indicated that Ukraine is conducting rear-area strikes against Russian oil refineries to generate strategic effects as Ukraine cannot plan for or conduct counteroffensive operations without more information about US military assistance. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian strikes against Russian oil refineries and other strategic targets are in response to Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Zelensky’s interview is consistent with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s recent statements that delays in Western military assistance are constraining Ukrainian forces and that Ukrainian forces are not able to completely compensate for battlefield shortcomings caused by material shortages.[2]

Russian missile strikes destroyed one of the largest thermal power plants in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22, as continued delays in US security assistance degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and increase Russia’s ability to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid. Ukrainian electric company Tsentrenergo reported on March 29 that Russian missile strikes destroyed all power units and auxiliary equipment at the Zmiivska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22.[3] Russian forces conducted the largest series of combined drone and missile strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of March 21 to 22 since the start of the full-scale invasion and have since heavily targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure, including hydroelectric power plants (HPPs).[4] Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities may aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity, and Russian forces are likely trying to exploit Ukraine’s degraded air defense umbrella to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid.[5] The Washington Post reported on March 29 that Ukraine’s largest private energy company DTEK stated that Russian drones and missiles are increasingly penetrating Ukraine’s air defense, and that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage against Ukrainian energy facilities.[6] Previous Russian strikes have recently rendered other Ukrainian energy facilities inoperable before, but the complete destruction of a TPP is rare and notable, and the recently accelerated degradation of Ukraine’s energy generation capabilities, if gone unchecked, will likely constrain Ukraine’s ability to stabilize future disruptions to its energy grid in the long term.[7]

Russian forces are demonstrating technological and tactical adaptations and are increasingly using unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) on the frontlines of Donetsk Oblast. Russian and Ukrainian sources amplified footage on March 29 and 30 showing Ukrainian forces striking Russian unmanned ground vehicles in southeastern Berdychi (northwest of Avdiivka) and in the Bakhmut direction.[8] Russian milbloggers claimed that these UGVs are equipped with AGS-17 grenade launcher systems, which reportedly can fire 50 to 400 grenades per minute.[9] Russian sources also amplified footage of other Russian small wheeled and tracked unmanned ground drones operating in unspecified areas, which Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) expert Samuel Bendett assessed to be involved in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), logistics, personnel evacuations, and light combat roles.[10] The US and NATO should study the rapidly evolving battlefield in Ukraine to develop a deeper understanding of the future of warfare and the characteristics of future warfare.

The Russian military is reportedly forming mobile fire groups to mitigate against Ukrainian drone strike threats but will likely struggle to field these groups at the required scale in the near term. Russian state outlet Izvestia reported on March 29 that Russian military sources stated that the Russian military is forming mobile fire groups within unspecified combined arms armies (CAAs) and air force and air defense armies to combat drones, and will equip these groups with thermal imagers, electronic warfare (EW) systems, and machine guns mounted on pickup trucks.[11] Izvestia did not report where the Russian military intends to field the mobile fire groups or the size or echelon of these groups. The Russian military notably faces Ukrainian drone threats both within occupied Ukraine as well as within Russia at oil refineries and other critical infrastructure supporting Russia’s war effort, and it is unclear if these mobile groups will be able to defend the extent of territory that Ukrainian drones target.[12] Izvestia’s description of the Russian mobile fire groups is similar to Ukrainian tactical mobile fire groups, which the Ukrainian military started to deploy at scale in the spring of 2023 to defend against routine Russian Shahed-136/131 drone strikes.[13] Ukrainian forces have long been conducting drone strikes against Russian targets in occupied Ukraine, and the Russian military command’s decision to form the mobile fire groups is likely in response to the recent intensification of Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil refineries in February and March.[14]

The Russian Ministry of Energy is reportedly working with Rosgvardia to deploy Pantsir-S1 air defense systems to strategic energy facilities within Russia, but Russian ultranationalists have complained that Russian bureaucracy and a Russian priority defending critical assets in the vicinity of Moscow and St. Petersburg are hampering these efforts.[15] The formation of the mobile fire groups indicates that Russia may be unable to deploy conventional air defense systems, such as Pantsir-S1 or S-300 /400 systems, to all critical facilities within western Russia. Russian forces will be more likely to successfully field mobile groups within occupied Ukraine, where there is relatively less airspace to cover and fewer possible Ukrainian flight vectors for Ukrainian drones, than within western Russia. Russian forces appear to struggle with properly deploying short-range air defense systems along expected flight vectors for Ukrainian drones, and the Russian military appears to have even failed to cover important potential targets in reportedly well-defended areas within Russia.[16] The mass deployment of mobile fire groups throughout western Russia could pose similar challenges for Russian forces, as the Russian military may not be able to sufficiently field the groups at scale.

Russian authorities continue to escalate legal pressure against migrants in the wake of the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, prompting both Russian authorities to increase deportations and migrants to voluntarily leave Russia. Russian human rights project First Department reported on March 29 that St. Petersburg authorities have launched “Operation Anti-Migrant" and are conducting a large-scale operation to identify and deport migrants who reportedly violated migration laws from Russia.[17] One of First Department’s lawyers stated that Russian law enforcement is conducting raids on hostels and apartments in St. Petersburg and that temporary detention centers in St. Petersburg are overcrowded with migrants. The lawyer stated that Russian authorities deported 64 foreign citizens on March 28 and estimated that Russian authorities deported enough migrants to fill two full planes that recently flew from St. Petersburg to an unspecified destination. Russian opposition news outlet Astra reported on March 30 that more than 400 St. Petersburg police officers and Rosgvardia personnel are participating in the operation and that St. Petersburg police have inspected the paperwork of almost 1,500 foreign citizens, issued several hundred administrative violations, and initiated 10 criminal cases during the operation so far.[18] St. Petersburg City Courts Joint Press Service Head Daria Lebedeva stated that St. Petersburg courts over the past week ruled to forcibly deport 418 migrants and ordered an additional 48 migrants (who had been living in the city) to pay a fine and voluntarily leave Russia for violating migration laws.[19] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers detained three Central Asian migrants accused of preparing to conduct a terrorist attack at an unspecified mass gathering in Stavropol Oblast.[20] Tajikistan’s Deputy Minister of Labor, Migration, and Employment Shakhnoza Nodiri stated that Tajikistan has observed an outflow of Tajik migrants from Russia following the Crocus attack and that many Tajik migrants are calling the Tajik government stating that they want to leave Russia out of fear and panic.[21] Nodiri stated that more people are entering Tajikistan than leaving, but that the government expects the outflow of Tajik migrants from Russia to be a temporary phenomenon.

Russian officials have thus far charged nine people for their supposed involvement in the Crocus attack, all of whom Russian authorities have identified as citizens of Tajikistan.[22] The BBC News Russian Service reported on March 27 that Russian authorities have significantly increased the number of criminal cases initiated for migration law violations since the Crocus attack, particularly against Tajik citizens.[23] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Russian citizens from ethnic minorities and migrants in Russia have grown increasingly concerned about ethnically motivated crimes and xenophobic rhetoric in the aftermath of the Crocus attack, and First Department similarly noted that anti-migrant and xenophobic sentiments have risen sharply in Russia following the attack.[24] The Russian ultranationalist community has intensified its calls for anti-migrant policies, and Russian officials recently proposed policies, such as limiting the entrance of migrants to Russia, introducing harsher punishments for crimes committed by migrants, and abolishing Russia’s visa-free regime with Central Asia countries.[25] Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern over heightened ethnic tensions in Russian society following the Crocus attack on March 28 and may have signaled to the Russian ultranationalist community that they should stop inflaming ethnic tensions.[26] Russian authorities may seek to detain a larger number of migrants to coerce them into signing military service contracts, given Russia’s previous reliance on migrants and prisoners in its crypto-mobilization campaign.[27] Anti-migrant policies could threaten Russia’s crypto-mobilization efforts and further worsen Russian labor shortages if Russia deports large numbers of migrants or if significant portions of Russia’s migrant communities emigrate, but Russian authorities are unlikely to be willing to give into Russian ultranationalists’ xenophobic demands at the expense of Russia’s war effort.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that delays in American security assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative, not contest the battlefield initiative, and continue to threaten Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.
  • Russian missile strikes destroyed one of the largest thermal power plants in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22, as continued delays in US security assistance degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and increase Russia’s ability to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Russian forces are demonstrating technological and tactical adaptations and are increasingly using unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) on the frontlines of Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Russian military is reportedly forming mobile fire groups to mitigate against Ukrainian drone strike threats but will likely struggle to field these groups at the required scale in the near term.
  • Russian authorities continue to escalate legal pressure against migrants in the wake of the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, prompting both Russian authorities to increase deportations and migrants to voluntarily leave Russia.
  • Positional engagements continued throughout the theater on March 30.
  • Russian mobilized personnel continue to suffer high casualties while fighting in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 29, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

March 29, 2024, 9:30pm ET

 

The Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP), a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit, held the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow on March 27 and 28 and approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.[1] ROC MP Head Patriarch Kirill, reportedly himself a former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) officer and a known staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, chaired the congress of the World Russian People's Council that approved the document, and Kirill likely coordinated the document’s ideological narrative and policy recommendations with the Kremlin.[2] The document, "The Present and Future of the Russian World,” addresses Russian legislative and executive authorities with specific calls to amend Russian policy documents and laws. These calls are likely either attempts to socialize desired Kremlin policies among Russians before their implementation or to test public reactions to policies that Kremlin officials are currently considering. Putin and Kremlin officials have gradually attempted to elaborate on amorphous ideological narratives about the war in Ukraine and their envisioned geopolitical confrontation with the West since the start of the full-scale invasion, and the ROC MP appears to be offering a more coherent ideological framework for Russians.[3] The ROC MP released the document a week after the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack and roughly a month before the start of the Orthodox Easter Holy Week, and likely aims to seize on heightened anxieties following the terrorist attack and increased Russian Orthodoxy observance to garner support for its desired ultranationalist policies and ideological vision.

The ROC MP intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” a significant inflection for Russian authorities who have so far carefully avoided officially framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as any kind of “war.” The ROC MP called Putin’s “special military operation” a holy war (Svyashennaya Voyna) and a new stage in the Russian people’s struggle for “national liberation...in southwestern Russia,” referencing eastern and southeastern Ukraine.[4] The ROC MP claimed that the Russian people are defending their lives, freedom, and statehood; their civilizational, religious, national, and cultural identity; and their right to live within the borders of a single Russian state by waging Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine. The ROC MP argued that the war in Ukraine is a holy war because Russia is defending “Holy Russia” and the world from the onslaught of globalism and the victory of the West, which has fallen into Satanism. The ROC MP asserted that the war in Ukraine will conclude with Russia seizing exclusive influence over the entire territory of modern Ukraine and the exclusion of any Ukrainian government that the Kremlin determines to be hostile to Russia. The ROC MP’s description of Russian goals is in line with repeated Kremlin statements indicating that Putin retains his objective to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and statehood.[5] The ROC MP’s use and description of the holy war in Ukraine is also consistent with Kremlin efforts to frame the war as an existential national struggle against Ukraine and the collective West but notably expands the alleged threats that defeat in Ukraine poses for Russians.[6] The term “holy war” may also conjure allusions to the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), as the Soviet Union’s unofficial war anthem shared the same name, and the Kremlin has routinely invoked the mythos of the Great Patriotic War to generate domestic support for the war in Ukraine.[7] The Kremlin has continued to stress that the war in Ukraine is a “special military operation,” however, and the ROC MP’s direct acknowledgment of the conflict as a holy war may elicit support from Russians who have found the Kremlin’s comparatively restrained rhetoric uninspiring. The ROC MP did not define the holy war as a purely Orthodox concept and instead tied it to the Kremlin’s purposefully broad conception of who is a part of the Russian nation and Russkiy Mir (Russian World).[8] Ukrainian victory does not pose these existential threats, however, as Ukraine’s struggle to restore its territorial integrity, return its people, and defend its national identity does not infringe on Russian identity, statehood, or territorial integrity.

The ROC MP called for the codification of elements of the Russkiy Mir and may be gauging public support for the formal inclusion of ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians in the Kremlin’s concept of the Russian nation. The ROC MP stated that Russia is the “creator, support, and defender” of the Russkiy Mir and that the Russkiy Mir is a “spiritual, cultural, and civilizational phenomenon” that transcends the borders of the Russian Federation and historical Russian lands and encompasses everyone that values Russian traditions and culture.[9] The ROC MP claimed the Russkiy Mir’s mission is to destroy and prevent efforts to establish “universal hegemony in the world” and that the reunification of the “Russian nation” should be one of the priorities of Russian foreign policy. The ROC MP stated that Russia should return to the “trinity doctrine” of the Russian nation, which falsely asserts that the “Russian nation” is comprised of sub-groups of ethnic Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians whom Russia should reunify. The ROC MP called on Russia to codify the “trinity doctrine” in law, make it an “integral part” of the Russian legal system, include it in the “normative list” of Russian spiritual and moral values, and give the concept legal protection. Putin and other Kremlin officials have consistently invoked similar claims about the “Russian people” and Russkiy Mir since before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine as a means to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine while undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and denying the existence of a Ukrainian ethnic identity.[10] The ROC MP may be gauging the response to the idea of codifying the “trinity doctrine” on the Kremlin’s orders. The Kremlin may codify this doctrine as official Russian policy.

The ROC MP heavily emphasized Russia’s need for traditional family values and an updated migration policy to counter Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis. The ROC MP labeled Russia’s demographic crisis as Russia’s main existential threat and characterized steady demographic growth as a critical national security priority. The ROC MP asserted that Russia should aim to grow its population to 600 million people (a roughly 450 million increase) in the next 100 years and laid out a series of measures that it envisions would allow Russia to achieve this monumental task. The ROC MP called for the revival of the “traditional large family” and traditional family values in Russia – echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emphasis on 2024 as the “Year of the Family” in recent major national addresses.[11] The ROC MP claimed that the Russian government should recognize the family and its well-being as Russia’s ”main national development goal” and a “strategic national priority” and should amend Russia’s main strategic planning documents to reflect this.[12] The ROC MP called on Russian popular culture to create a “cult of the family” in society and suggested various economic benefits the state should enact to encourage larger families. The ROC MP claimed that a new state migration policy is also key to an “effective” demographic policy. The ROC MP complained that migrants who do not speak Russian, do not understand Russian history and culture, and cannot integrate into Russian society are “deforming” Russia’s unified legal, cultural, and linguistic space. The ROC MP alleged that the “uncontrolled” influx of migrant labor decreases the “indigenous” population’s wages and access to jobs and that “closed ethnic enclaves” are “breeding grounds” for corruption, organized crime, extremism, and terrorism. The ROC MP offered a series of policy recommendations that Russia should prioritize in a new migration policy, including “significant” restrictions on low-skilled foreign laborers, guarantees of employment and high incomes for Russian citizens, protections of the rights and interests of ethnic Russians, and other indigenous peoples of Russia, the mass repatriation of "compatriots” to Russia, and the relocation of highly-skilled foreign specialists who are loyal to Russia and ready to integrate into Russian society.

The ROC MP’s demographic and migration policy suggestions continue to highlight how the Kremlin struggles with inconsistent and contradictory policies concerning migrants and the interests of its ultranationalist population. Select Russian officials and ultranationalist voices have recently called for Russia to enact anti-migrant policies following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, but ISW continues to assess that Russia is unlikely to introduce any restrictions that would reduce the number of migrants in Russia given that Russia continues to heavily rely on migrants to offset domestic labor shortages and for force generation efforts.[13] Putin asserted in December 2023 that Russia’s “compatriots abroad” are those who have historical, cultural, or linguistic ties to Russia, and the ROC MP appears to suggest that the repatriation of such “compatriots” to Russia could be a large resource Russia could tap into to solve its demographic crisis.[14] Some of the ROC MP’s other policy recommendations, however, contradictorily seek to restrict some of the very migrants that would fall under Putin’s definition of “compatriots abroad.” The ROC MP’s approach to the Russkiy Mir appears to be at odds with Putin’s previous definition of Russkiy Mir which posits a diverse and inclusive Russian civic nationalism.[15]

The ROC MP appears to be combining previously parallel Kremlin narrative efforts into a relatively cohesive ideology focusing on national identity and demographic resurgence that promises Russians a period of national rejuvenation in exchange for social and civic duties. The ROC MP highlighted that “the restoration of the unity of the Russian people” through the war in Ukraine is a key condition for Russia’s survival and successful development throughout the 21st century. This call for restoration amounts to the full-scale destruction of the Ukrainian nation and its envelopment into Russia. The ROC MP aims to also envelop ethnic Belarusians into the Russian nation through its conception of the “trinity doctrine” while also massively repatriating other “compatriots” abroad. The ROC MP’s calls for Russians to assume the responsibility for steadily increasing birth rates and averting demographic catastrophe similarly promises Russians that Russian sovereignty and identity will persist in the 21st century. These efforts to expand Russia’s control over those it considers to be a part of the Russkiy Mir, whether through mass repatriation or forceful means like Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine, serve the same purpose as the calls for Russians to increase birth rates — increasing Russia’s overall population with people that ultranationalists consider to be “Russian.” The ROC MP argued that the establishment of a stable and sovereign Russkiy Mir under the Russian state will lead to economic opportunity and Russia’s role as one of the leading centers of a multipolar world order. The ROC MP stated that the typical embodiment of the Russkiy Mir after the promised national rejuvenation would be a Russian family with three or more children and their own single-family home, offering ordinary Russians future socioeconomic benefits in exchange for sacrifices made now in backing the ROC MP’s suggested ultranationalist ideology and achieving Russia’s “unification” with Ukraine and Belarus. The ROC MP’s suggested ideology explicitly ties Russian national security to the preservation of an imagined and disputed Russian nation and Russian demographic growth, offering the Kremlin expanded justifications for acts of aggression against neighboring countries and the West in the name of protecting the overall size and growth of the imagined Russkiy Mir. The Kremlin may choose not to fully align itself publicly with the ultranationalist ideology that the ROC MP has proposed at this time but will highly likely borrow from and leverage it to generate support for the war effort in Ukraine and any future acts of aggression against Russia’s neighbors and the West.

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stressed that materiel shortages from delays in Western security assistance are constraining Ukrainian forces and forcing Ukraine to conduct a strategic defense. Ukrainian outlet Ukrinform published an interview with Syrskyi on March 29, wherein Syrskyi stated that a strategic defense is logical given Ukraine’s materiel shortages and noted that Ukraine is unable to plan operations due to uncertainty around Western military aid provisions.[16] Syrskyi stated that Russian forces’ significant personnel advantage, heavy Russian airstrikes, and Ukrainian artillery shell shortages enabled Russian forces to break through Ukrainian defenses and seize Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, in mid-February 2024, and that Ukrainian forces could have successfully defended Avdiivka if they had sufficient artillery ammunition and air defenses in the area. Syrskyi acknowledged that Russian forces significantly increased airstrikes against Ukrainian forces in recent weeks and months and that Russian forces recently had an advantage over Ukrainian artillery ammunition at a ratio of six to one. Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces have been able to offset Russian forces’ artillery superiority through rear area strikes, but only in certain areas of the theater.

Ukrainian forces have proven themselves capable of significantly degrading Russian forces when well-provisioned. Ukrainian forces conducted an interdiction campaign using HIMARS to target bridges over the Dnipro River forcing Russian forces to withdraw from west (right) bank Kherson Oblast in November 2022.[17] Ukrainian forces exploited a surprise breakthrough of Russian lines in Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022.[18] Ukrainian forces are currently waging an ongoing campaign that is limiting the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF)’s ability to operate freely in and control the Black Sea.[19] Syrskyi’s interview, particularly his assertion that Ukrainian forces can defend their territory and defeat Russia’s invasion provided sufficient Western military assistance no matter how many soldiers Russia generates, underscores how the American failure to provide timely and consistent military equipment and weapons to Ukraine has constrained Ukraine’s ability to conduct strategic planning or wage major operations.[20] Syrskyi’s statements indicate that Ukraine is attempting to adapt to reduced assistance both on the battlefield and by mobilizing its defense industrial base (DIB), but these efforts are insufficient to fully compensate for the lack of materiel in the near term.[21]

Syrskyi also indicated that Ukraine is attempting to mitigate manpower shortages by reinforcing frontline units with existing personnel from rear areas. Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces have transferred thousands of personnel from rear area non-combat units to frontline combat units and begun force rotations to allow frontline forces to rest.[22] Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces expect to have sufficient personnel to conduct its strategic defense and that this number is well below the 500,000 personnel that Ukrainian officials had suggested mobilizing in December 2023.[23]

The Russian military likely expanded the target set for Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure to include hydroelectric power plants. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched a series of missile and drone strikes at targets in Ukraine on the night of March 28 to 29, including 60 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and Kursk Oblast; three Kinzhal missiles from MiG-31 aircraft over Ryazan Oblast; nine Kh-59 cruise missiles from Su-34 aircraft over Belgorod Oblast; four Iskander-K missiles from Kursk Oblast; and 21 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from Tu-95MS strategic bombers that took off from Engels airbase in Saratov Oblast.[24] Ukrainian air defenses downed 58 Shahed drones, five Kh-59 cruise missiles, all four Iskander-K missiles, and 17 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Russian forces deliberately targeted the Kaniv and Dnister hydroelectric power plants in Cherkasy and Chernivtsi oblasts during the March 28-29 strikes.[25] Ukrainian officials reported that these Russian strikes targeted unspecified critical infrastructure in Ivano-Frankivsk and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck the Kryvyi Rih Thermal Power Plant and the Serednodniprovska Hydroelectric Power Plant in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[26] Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo reported that Russian strikes on March 28-29 damaged thermal and hydroelectric power plants in central and western Ukraine, causing electricity shutdowns in Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv oblasts.[27] Russian strikes on March 22 significantly damaged Ukraine’s Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant (DHPP) in Zaporizhzhia City and the facility will likely remain offline for some time.[28] ISW previously assessed that Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities may aim to degrade Ukraine’s defense industrial capacity and that Russian forces are likely trying to exploit Ukrainian air defense missile shortages in a renewed attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid.[29]

Russia’s newly emerging pattern of striking Ukrainian dams and hydroelectric power plans is a significant inflection and an escalation of Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine. Russian forces did not previously conduct sustained missile strikes against Ukrainian dams and hydroelectric power plans. The US and European countries remain unwilling to provide Ukraine with materiel that could prove operationally or strategically significant and assist significant Ukrainian offensive efforts due to fears of Russian escalation or retaliation. Western states’ decisions to limit Ukraine’s defense capabilities in an effort to manage escalation have failed to prevent Russia from escalating its war against Ukraine, however. Ukraine, moreover, is conducting a strategic defense, not an offensive effort that could seriously threaten Russian positions in occupied Ukraine or Russian territory. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown Jr. stated on March 28, regarding the provision of long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine, that the “risk of escalation is not as high as maybe it was at the beginning [of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine].”[30] Russia has consistently proven its willingness to escalate its aggression without provocation, and concern about Russian retaliation and escalation in response to the further provision of Western weapons and systems to Ukraine should not dictate US or other Western decision-making regarding this assistance.[31]

Russia vetoed an annual United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution extending a monitoring panel tracking adherence to UN sanctions against North Korea on March 28.[32] China also abstained from the vote. The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted the annual renewal of the North Korean sanctions monitoring panel’s mandate since its inception in 2009.[33] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov vaguely commented that the veto was in Russia’s interest.[34] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the UN sanctions against North Korea are “old models” and have led to “severe humanitarian consequences” in North Korea.[35] Zakharova claimed that the “collective West” is responsible for Russia’s veto of the resolution and that the West did not want to accept Russia’s proposed “compromises.”[36] Voice of America (VOA) reported that Russia and China recently attempted to push the UNSC to add “sunset” clauses to some of the sanctions on North Korea in which the sanctions would expire after an unspecified period of time if the UNSC did not reach a consensus on their extension.[37] Russia recently strengthened its relationship with North Korea as part of efforts to source North Korean ballistic missiles and artillery ammunition to use in Ukraine, and Russia may be helping North Korea evade international sanctions beyond the immediate violations of sanctions involved in North Korean weapons transfers to Russia.[38] Russia’s veto of the supervisory panel is likely part of Russian efforts to prevent the detection of Russia’s own sanctions evasion schemes with North Korea. Russia may also have suspected that the UNSC would not approve the “sunset” clause proposals and instead used these proposals to set information conditions to later blame the West for the expiration of the monitoring panel’s mandate. Kremlin newswire TASS stated on March 27 that Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergei Naryshkin met with North Korean Minister of State Security Ri Chang-dae in Pyongyang during a visit on March 25-27 and discussed deepening Russian-North Korean relations.[39]

The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in pressuring Telegram to further censor extremist content following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, highlighting the Kremlin’s ability to pressure significant actors within the Russian information space to act in its interests. Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov stated on March 28 that Telegram began measures to prevent extremist posts calling for terrorist attacks on March 24, preventing tens of thousands of alleged attempts to send messages calling for terrorist attacks and blocking thousands of users who sent such messages.[40] Durov stated that Telegram users in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus will be able to limit who can send them private messages beginning next week and emphasized that Telegram is not a place to call for violence.[41] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stated on March 28 that Russia has no plans to block Telegram but specifically called on Durov by name to pay more attention to how terrorists use the platform and that the Kremlin “expected more” from Durov.[42] The Kremlin’s ability to pressure Durov is noteworthy given that Telegram is no longer based in Russia, and Durov reportedly left Russia in 2014 after refusing to cooperate with Russian censorship measures.[43]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP), a Kremlin-controlled organization and a known tool within the Russian hybrid warfare toolkit, held the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow on March 27 and 28 and approved an ideological and policy document tying several Kremlin ideological narratives together in an apparent effort to form a wider nationalist ideology around the war in Ukraine and Russia’s expansionist future.
  • The ROC MP intensified Kremlin rhetoric about Russia’s war in Ukraine and cast it as an existential and civilizational “holy war,” a significant inflection for Russian authorities who have so far carefully avoided officially framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as any kind of “war.”
  • The ROC MP called for the codification of elements of the Russkiy Mir and may be gauging public support for the formal inclusion of ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians in the Kremlin’s concept of the Russian nation.
  • The ROC MP heavily emphasized Russia’s need for traditional family values and an updated migration policy to counter Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis.
  • The ROC MP appears to be combining previously parallel Kremlin narrative efforts into a relatively cohesive ideology focusing on national identity and demographic resurgence that promises Russians a period of national rejuvenation in exchange for social and civic duties.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stressed that materiel shortages from delays in Western security assistance are constraining Ukrainian forces and forcing Ukraine to conduct a strategic defense.
  • The Russian military likely expanded the target set for Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure to include hydroelectric power plants.
  • Russia vetoed an annual United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution extending a monitoring panel tracking adherence to UN sanctions against North Korea on March 28.
  • The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in pressuring Telegram to further censor extremist content following the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, highlighting the Kremlin’s ability to pressure significant actors within the Russian information space to act in its interests.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 29.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is preparing for Russia’s semi-annual spring conscription cycle, which will begin on April 1.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue law enforcement crackdowns, including against the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority, to consolidate control over occupied Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 28, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 28, 2024, 8:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on March 28. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 29 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukraine is currently preventing Russian forces from making significant tactical gains along the entire frontline, but continued delays in US security assistance will likely expand the threat of Russian operational success, including in non-linear and possibly exponential ways. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in an interview with CBS News published on March 28 that Ukrainian forces managed to hold off Russian advances through winter 2023–2024 and that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the operational situation.[1] Ukrainian forces slowed the rate of Russian advances west of Avdiivka following the Russian seizure of the settlement on February 17, and Russian forces have only made gradual, marginal tactical gains elsewhere in Ukraine.[2] Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are not prepared to defend against another major Russian offensive effort expected in May or June 2024, however.[3] Russian forces will likely continue to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations through spring 2024 regardless of difficult weather and terrain conditions in order to exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages before the arrival of expected limited Western security assistance.[4] Russian forces also likely aim to force Ukraine to expend materiel it could otherwise accumulate for defensive efforts this summer and possible counteroffensive operations later in 2024 or in 2025.[5] Pervasive shortages may be forcing Ukraine to prioritize limited resources to critical sectors of the front, increasing the risk of a Russian breakthrough in other less-well-provisioned sectors and making the frontline overall more fragile than it appears despite the current relatively slow rate of Russian advances.[6]

ISW assesses that Russian forces have seized 505 square kilometers of territory since launching offensive operations in October 2023, and Russian forces gained almost 100 more square kilometers of territory between January 1 and March 28, 2024, than in the last three months of 2023 (although this rate of advance may be due to a combination of Ukrainian materiel shortages and more conducive weather conditions in the winter than in the fall). This marginal increase in the rate of Russian advance is not reflective of the threat of Russian operational success amid continued delays in US security assistance, however. Materiel constraints limit how Ukrainian forces can conduct effective defensive operations while also offering Russian forces flexibility in how to conduct offensive operations, which can lead to compounding and non-linear opportunities for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the future.[7] The opportunities to exploit Ukrainian vulnerabilities will widen as materiel shortages persist and as Ukraine continues to grapple with how to address manpower challenges.[8] The arrival of sufficient and regular Western security assistance and the resolution of Ukrainian manpower challenges would narrow these opportunities for Russian forces and provide Ukrainian forces with the ability to stop Russian forces from making even marginal tactical gains, to degrade Russian offensive capabilities, and to prepare for future counteroffensive operations to liberate more Ukrainian territory.[9]

The continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella provides one of the most immediate avenues through which Russian forces could generate non-linear operational impacts. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Russian forces launched 190 missiles of various types, 140 Shahed drones, and 700 glide bombs at targets in Ukraine between March 18 and 24.[10] Intensified Russian drone and missile strikes are likely once again placing pressures on Ukraine to prioritize the allocation of sparse air defense assets to defending population centers, critical infrastructure, and industrial facilities in the rear over positions along the frontline.[11] Kuleba stated that Russia’s widespread use of glide bombs along the frontline gives Russia a major battlefield advantage and that the only way to counter these tactics is for Ukrainian forces to shoot down the Russian aircraft conducting the strikes, which requires a sufficient number of air defense systems along the front.[12] Russian forces notably employed mass glide bomb strikes to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February and have steadily increased their use of guided and unguided glide bomb strikes against rear and frontline Ukrainian positions in 2024.[13] Ukrainian and Western officials have increasingly warned of a critical shortage of air defense missiles in the coming months, and the further degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella would not only limit Ukraine’s ability to protect critical elements of its war effort in the rear but would also likely afford Russian aviation prolonged secure operation along the frontline.[14] This security would allow Russian forces to significantly increase glide bomb strikes at scale and possibly even allow Russian forces to conduct routine large-scale aviation operations against near rear Ukrainian logistics and cities to devastating effect.[15] Expanded aviation operations could allow Russian forces to heavily degrade Ukrainian combat capabilities and isolate sectors of the battlefield in support of efforts to make operationally significant gains.

US security assistance that could establish a wider and more stable Ukrainian air defense umbrella would deny Russian forces these opportunities. Zelensky stated on March 28 that five to seven additional Patriot air defense systems would allow Ukraine to protect population centers, industrial facilities, and the Ukrainian military.[16] Kuleba also noted that Patriot air defense systems are needed to defend Ukraine against intensified Russian ballistic missile strikes, as Ukraine’s Soviet-era air defense systems are unable to intercept these missiles.[17] Kuleba added that stronger Ukrainian air defense along the frontline would prevent Ukrainian forces from losing positions and enable Ukraine to force Russian forces to retreat from positions, likely in reference to the possible operational impacts of decreased Russian aviation operations.[18]

Russia’s ability to conduct opportunistic but limited offensive actions along Ukraine’s international border with Russia offers Russia further opportunities to constrain Ukrainian manpower and materiel, but Western aid provisions and Ukrainian efforts to address manpower challenges would ease the impacts of such Russian efforts. Zelensky told CBS that Ukrainian forces are constructing fortifications and defensive positions near Sumy City in response to a reported significant buildup of Russian forces in neighboring Bryansk Oblast and recent strikes on Ukrainian settlements in the area.[19]  Sumy Oblast Military Administration Head Volodymyr Artyuk recently warned that Russia is conducting an information operation threatening a possible Russian attack on Sumy Oblast but stated that Ukrainian authorities have not observed any Russian strike groups near the borders with Sumy Oblast.[20] ISW has not observed visual evidence that Russian forces are concentrating forces in Bryansk Oblast in preparation for any significant military undertaking. Russian forces will likely only be able to conduct a large-scale offensive operation in one direction in the coming months, and it is unlikely that Russian forces would suddenly prioritize a whole new front over the operational directions that they have been focusing on in the past year and a half in Ukraine.[21] Russian forces could theoretically choose to concentrate forces at any point along the over three-thousand-kilometer-long frontline along the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine borders in addition to the frontline in Ukraine, forcing Ukraine to respond to Russian actions by re-allocating already scare resources from other, more active sectors of the front. Ukraine already appears to be prioritizing its limited manpower and materiel resources to critical sectors of the frontline, and even limited transfers of Ukrainian materiel and personnel from active frontline areas could prove destabilizing.[22] Future Russian offensive operations are not necessarily limited to the existing frontlines in eastern and southern Ukraine, and the Russian military command may only have to deploy a limited number of Russian personnel to any previously inactive sector of the frontline to force Ukraine to redeploy necessary manpower and equipment to that area, potentially creating vulnerabilities that Russian forces could exploit.  

Ukraine could overcome these vulnerabilities if it received US military assistance in a timely fashion and addressed its ongoing manpower challenges. Ukrainian officials recently reported that the Ukrainian military is prioritizing rotations and rest for frontline units and other efforts to optimize Ukraine’s military organization structure.[23] The need for rotations is only part of the manpower challenge Ukraine faces, however. ISW continues to assess that consistent provision of Western military assistance in key systems, many of which only the US can provide rapidly at scale, will play a critical role in determining Russian prospects in 2024 and when Ukrainian forces can attempt to contest the theater-wide initiative.[24] The course of the war over the rest of 2024 depends heavily on the provision of US military assistance and continuing non-US military support as well as on Ukraine’s ability to address its manpower challenges. The forecast cone — the range of possible outcomes from most advantageous to most dangerous — is very wide and will remain so until it is clear whether the US will resume military support and Ukraine will address its manpower challenges. Both the US and Ukraine retain considerable agency in determining the course of the war this year and in coming years. This war’s immediate and long-term prospects remain highly contingent on decisions yet to be made in Washington, Kyiv, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and elsewhere and on the execution of those decisions in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to make sensationalized statements as part of Russia’s ongoing reflexive control campaign, which aims to deter further Western military aid provisions to Ukraine and deflect attention from the growing Russian force posturing against NATO. Putin, during a visit to the Russian 344th Center for Combat Employment and Retraining of Army Aviation Pilots on March 27, reiterated basic truisms and several boilerplate narratives aimed at distracting Western policymakers with irrelevant and tired Russian threats, likely seeking to delay and influence important decisions regarding additional Western military aid to Ukraine and countering the Russian threat against NATO. Putin claimed that Russia has “no aggressive intentions” towards NATO states and that Russia “would not be doing anything in Ukraine” if it were not for “the coup d’état in Ukraine and subsequent hostilities in Donbas.”[25] Putin is once again injecting into the international media bloodstream the false narrative that the West and NATO are responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin routinely falsely accuses Western countries of staging a coup in Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine of violence against Russian-speaking residents of Donbas in an effort to deflect responsibility for the war in Ukraine and manipulate Western perceptions about Russia’s intent and capabilities.[26]

Putin dismissed claims that Russia wants to attack other countries, including Poland, the Baltic states, and the Czech Republic as “complete nonsense,” while adding that Russia is defending the people living on Russia’s “historical territories” in Ukraine. Putin’s denials of Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing against NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Kremlin’s claims that Russian forces would not invade Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022 (including right up to the eve of the full-scale invasion) — a line the Kremlin used to delay and deter any preparations to counter the Russian threat.[27] Putin’s denials of Russia’s imperialist aspirations are also incongruent with his own definition of the “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) — an ideological and geographic conception that includes all of the former territories of Kyivan Rus, the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation.[28] The concept of the “Russian World” allows Putin to regard any territories that were once ruled by or claimed to be ruled by a Russian regime as Russia’s “historical territories,” which include Poland and the Baltic states. Putin may elect to “protect” people the Kremlin describes as Russian “compatriots” in these claimed “historic territories” at the time of his choosing by replicating similar narratives he used to invade Ukraine.

Putin also attempted to scare NATO states away from supplying Ukraine with F-16 fighter aircraft and attempted to deter Western audiences from further financial commitments to Ukraine’s and NATO’s security. Putin stated that Russia will destroy F-16 aircraft in Ukraine just like it destroyed other Western-provided military equipment and threatened that Russia would target Western airfields if Ukraine used these facilities to facilitate strikes against Russia. These statements, presented in sensationalized fashion, are, in fact, statements of the obvious — naturally Russian forces will seek to destroy Ukrainian military equipment of any sort, and naturally Russia would regard bases from which such forces conduct military operations against Russian forces as legitimate targets — such is war. Such declarations deserve no attention, yet Putin uses them to achieve important informational effects.  Putin and Russian sources previously deliberately overwhelmed the Western information space with reports and footage of destroyed Western-provided military equipment and other Ukrainian tactical losses in summer 2023 to discourage timely Western military aid support and confidence in Ukrainian forces during the counteroffensive period.[29] Putin additionally attempted to involve himself in the US domestic political debate over defense spending by claiming that Russia spends nearly ten times less on its defense budget than the United States — an irrelevance considering Russia’s far smaller GDP and the fact that the US is not committing its own combat forces (paid for by the US defense budget) to this war.[30] Putin’s mention of US defense spending also likely attempted to create a false perception that Russia is more successful on the battlefield despite having a smaller defense budget, obscuring the reality that Russia has partially mobilized its economy and imposed hardship on its people to support the war effort while the US and the West are maintaining their economies on a peacetime footing.

Putin’s March 27 statements are neither new nor surprising and best illustrate how the Kremlin routinely overwhelms the Western information space, often with irrelevant or decontextualized truths rather than with outright misinformation or disinformation, to shape global perceptions and advance its own long-term objectives. These statements should be analyzed alongside endless instances of the Kremlin reusing the same narratives, rather than as standalone inflections. Overwhelming, confusing, and manipulating the Western information space and perceptions are part of the Russian strategy of “reflexive control” — or a way of transmitting bases for decision-making to an opponent so that they freely come to a pre-determined decision.[31] Putin’s statements target the US and Western perception of costs, priorities, risks, and alignment with values to achieve the desired outcome of delaying Western military aid provisions to Ukraine or prevent NATO from recognizing and responding to the potential Russian threat in a timely manner. Putin’s statements and other Kremlin information operations are part of Russia’s principal effort to force the US and the West to accept and reason from Russian premises to decisions that advance Russia’s interests, as ISW has recently assessed.[32]

The Russian Investigative Committee unsurprisingly claimed that it has evidence tying Ukraine to the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack amid continued Kremlin efforts to link Ukraine and the West to the terrorist attack to generate more domestic support for the war in Ukraine. Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin claimed on March 28 that that the Investigative Committee’s investigation into the Crocus City Hall attackers confirmed that the attackers received “significant amounts of money and cryptocurrency” from Ukraine that they used to plan the attack.[33] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin likely intends to capitalize on domestic fear and anger and hopes that perceptions of Ukrainian and Western involvement in the Crocus City Hall attack will increase domestic support for the war in Ukraine.[34] The Kremlin will likely continue to conduct information operations targeting the Russian population and international audiences claiming to have evidence linking Ukraine and the West to the Crocus City Hall attack. ISW remains confident that the Islamic State (IS) conducted the Crocus City Hall attack and has yet to observe independent reporting or evidence to suggest that an actor other than IS was responsible for or aided the attack.[35]

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern for heightened ethnic tension in Russian society following the Crocus City Hall attacks and may be falsely blaming Ukraine and the West for the Crocus City Hall attack in order to divert domestic attention away from ethnic tensions. Putin claimed on March 28 that he is concerned over statements that “Russia is only for [ethnic] Russians” from “jingo-patriots,” likely referencing March 24 footage of Russian ultranationalists harassing a woman from Sakha Republic in the Moscow metro and shouting that “Russia is only for [ethnic] Russians.”[36] Putin’s choice to quote these random and unknown Russian ultranationalists is likely a deliberate attempt to signal to Russian ultranationalists, including more well-known milbloggers and media and political personalities, that they should stop enflaming ethnic tension in the wake of the Crocus City Hall attack. Putin likely wants to avoid heightened animosity against ethnic minorities in Russia, whom Russia has disproportionally targeted in force-generation efforts, and to avoid continued calls for anti-migrant policies. ISW continues to assess that Russia is unlikely to introduce any restrictions that would reduce the number of migrants in Russia or restrict new migrants from entering Russia given that Russia continues to heavily rely on Central Asian migrants to offset domestic labor shortages and to target Central Asian migrants for crypto-mobilization efforts.[37] Putin intends to falsely direct blame for the Crocus City Hall attack onto Ukraine and the West to generate domestic support for the war in Ukraine, but continued Russian ultranationalist attempts to blame migrants and radical Islamists for the attack highlight the reality that the attack was a notable Russian intelligence and law enforcement failure.[38]

Ukrainian drone strikes against oil refineries in Russia are reportedly forcing Russia to import gasoline from Belarus. Reuters reported on March 27 that Russia has significantly increased gasoline imports from Belarus in March due to unscheduled repairs at oil refineries following Ukrainian drone strikes.[39] Reuters reported that Russia has imported 3,000 metric tons of gasoline from Belarus in the first half of March as compared to 590 metric tons in February and no gasoline imports in January.[40] Russia banned gasoline exports at the beginning of March to stabilize domestic prices, and the significant increase in Belarusian imports suggests that operational Russian refineries may be unable to prevent domestic gasoline prices from rising.[41] Ukrainian drone strikes against oil refineries have significantly disrupted Russia’s refining capacity and will likely impact Russian exports of distillate petroleum products and the domestic prices of these goods.[42] Russian officials have noted that a reduction in primary oil refining in 2024 will likely lead to increases in Russian crude oil exports since Russia would not be able to refine as much as it usually does.[43]

An independent investigation found that international information operation campaigns linked to deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remained active, despite the Russian government shutting down media companies and organizations overtly linked to Prigozhin after his death. US cybersecurity company Mandiant reported on March 28 that several Prigozhin-linked information operation campaigns remain active, namely Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens Campaign, Cyber Front Z, and Togo-based Panafrican Group for Commerce and Investment.[44] Mandiant reported that these campaigns continue to target the US, Ukraine, Russia, and countries in Europe and Africa — all regions that Prigozhin-linked information operations targeted prior to Prigozhin’s death. Mandiant did not assess the identity of actors managing these information operation campaigns since Prigozhin’s death. ISW has observed reports that Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko oversees multiple information operations targeting Russia’s domestic information space, Ukraine, and the West.[45]

Senior Russian officials are intensifying their victim-blaming of Armenian leadership as Armenia continues to distance itself from security relations with Russia after the Kremlin abandoned Armenia to its fate as it lost Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on March 28 that the Armenian leadership is consciously contributing to the deterioration of Russian-Armenian relations by making up far-fetched pretexts and distorting the last three and a half years of history.[46] Lavrov further blamed the Armenian leadership for defaming Russian border guards, Russian military personnel at Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) “as a whole.” Lavrov also claimed that the European Union (EU) mission in Armenia is “turning into a NATO mission.”[47] Lavrov’s increasingly critical statements suggest that the Kremlin is likely preparing a harsher and more concerted response as Armenia continues to take measures to distance itself from Russia and signals interest in strengthening relations with the West.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine is currently preventing Russian forces from making significant tactical gains along the entire frontline, but continued delays in US security assistance will likely expand the threat of Russian operational success, including in non-linear and possibly exponential ways.
  • The continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella provides one of the most immediate avenues through which Russian forces could generate non-linear operational impacts.
  • Russia’s ability to conduct opportunistic but limited offensive actions along Ukraine’s international border with Russia offers Russia further opportunities to constrain Ukrainian manpower and materiel, but Western aid provisions and Ukrainian efforts to address manpower challenges would ease the impacts of such Russian efforts.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to make sensationalized statements as part of Russia’s ongoing reflexive control campaign, which aims to deter further Western military aid provisions to Ukraine and deflect attention from the growing Russian force posturing against NATO.
  • Putin’s March 27 statements are neither new nor surprising, and best illustrate how the Kremlin routinely overwhelms the Western information space, often with irrelevant or decontextualized truths rather than with outright misinformation or disinformation, to shape global perceptions and advance its own long-term objectives.
  • The Russian Investigative Committee unsurprisingly claimed that it has evidence tying Ukraine to the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack amid continued Kremlin efforts to link Ukraine and the West to the terrorist attack to generate more domestic support for the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern for heightened ethnic tension in Russian society following the Crocus City Hall attacks and may be falsely blaming Ukraine and the West for the Crocus City Hall attack in order to divert domestic attention away from ethnic tensions.
  • Ukrainian drone strikes against oil refineries in Russia are reportedly forcing Russia to import gasoline from Belarus.
  • An independent investigation found that international information operation campaigns linked to deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remained active, despite the Russian government shutting down media companies and organizations overtly linked to Prigozhin after his death.
  • Senior Russian officials are intensifying their victim-blaming of Armenian leadership as Armenia continues to distance itself from security relations with Russia after the Kremlin abandoned Armenia to its fate as it lost Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Donetsk City.
  • Russia continues efforts to source ballistic missiles and other weapons from North Korea for use in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 27, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 27, 2024, 5:10pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:15pm ET on March 27. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 28 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) released its 38th report on the human rights situation in Ukraine on March 26, confirming several of ISW’s longstanding assessments about Russia’s systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in occupied territories and towards Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs).[1] The HRMMU report details activities between December 1, 2023 and February 29 2024, and includes new findings about Russia’s abuse of Ukrainian POWs during this timeframe, based on interviews with 60 recently released male POWs.[2] Nearly all of the POWs that HRMMU interviewed detailed how they were tortured by Russian forces with beatings and electric shocks and threatened with execution, and over half of the interviewees experienced sexual violence. HRMMU also reported that it has evidence of Russian forces executing at least 32 POWs in 12 different incidents during the reporting period and independently verified three of the executions. ISW observed open-source evidence of several POW executions during this reporting period: the execution of three Ukrainian POWs near Robotyne, Zaporizhia Oblast on December 27, 2023; the execution of one Ukrainian POW near Klishchiivka, Donetsk Oblast on February 9, 2024; the executions of three Ukrainian POWs near Robotyne, the execution of six Ukrainian POWs near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, and the executions of two Ukrainian POWs near Vesele, Donetsk Oblast on or around February 18, 2024; and the execution of nine Ukrainian POWs near Ivanivske, Donetsk Oblast, on February 25.[3] The summary execution and mistreatment of POWs is a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.[4] The HRMMU report also details the forced Russification of Ukrainian populations in occupied areas, including the imposition of Russian political, legal, and administrative systems onto occupied Ukraine in violation of Russia’s international legal obligations as an occupying power.[5] ISW has reported at length on the specifics of Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine, consistent with the findings of the UN HRMMU report.[6]

Russian officials are tying the US and the West to a broader set of “terrorist” attacks against Russia following the Crocus City Hall attack, likely to intensify rhetoric about alleged Western and Ukrainian threats to generate greater domestic support for the war in Ukraine. The Russian Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office stated on March 27 that they will consider an appeal from the Russian State Duma to investigate American and Western financing and organization of terrorist attacks against Russia.[7] The Russian Investigative Committee, Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Duma Deputies that made the appeal did not explicitly reference the Crocus City Hall attack.[8] Kremlin officials have previously tied Ukraine and the West to the Crocus City Hall attack but have yet to make a formal accusation, and the Kremlin may refrain from issuing an official accusation as all available evidence continues to show that the Islamic State (IS) is very likely responsible for the attack.[9] Russian officials routinely describe Ukrainian military strikes against legitimate military targets in occupied Ukraine and Russia as terrorism and consistently claim that Western actors help organize these strikes.[10] The Kremlin likely aims to seize on wider Russian social fears and anger following the Crocus City Hall attack by portraying Ukraine, the US, and the West as immediate terrorist threats. The Kremlin likely hopes that perceptions of Ukrainian and Western involvement in the Crocus City Hall attack will increase domestic support for the war in Ukraine, and Russian officials will likely invoke a broader view of what they consider terrorism to further cast Ukrainians as terrorists and the West as a sponsor of terrorism.[11] The Kremlin may still formally accuse Ukraine of conducting the Crocus City Hall attack if it believes that these other informational efforts are insufficient to generate the domestic response it likely desires.[12]

Russian authorities are increasing legal pressure against migrants in Russia following recent Russian officials’ proposals for harsher, measures against migrant communities in response to the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack. BBC News Russian Service stated that there has been a significant increase in the number of cases related to violations of the rules of entry for foreign citizens into Russia following the Crocus City Hall attack.[13] BBC News Russian Service reported on March 27 that 784 such cases have been registered since the morning of March 25, as compared with 1,106 during the entire previous week. A Russian lawyer who often works with Tajik citizens reportedly told BBC News Russian Service that over 100 people waited for a Moscow district court to hear their cases on March 25 alone and that Russian authorities are especially targeting migrants from Tajikistan during searches. BBC News Russian Service reported that representatives of the Tajik diaspora in Russia are expecting Russian authorities to conduct a large wave of deportations following the Crocus City Hall attack. A Russian insider source claimed on March 27 that unspecified actors gave the Moscow Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) an “unspoken” order to “not spare” migrants and for MVD employees to use their own judgement in the field.[14] The insider source claimed that a source suggested that Russian authorities are not preparing to conduct raids on migrant communities but will apply the “strictest measures” to migrants in “controversial situations.” Kremlin newswire TASS stated on March 27 that Russian police and Rosgvardia conducted a raid at the Wildberries warehouse in Elektrostal, Moscow Oblast to check the documents of migrant workers, and Russian opposition outlet Baza reported that Russian authorities detained 21 people during the raid.[15] Several Russian ultranationalist milbloggers complained that the way Russian-language schools in Tajikistan are teaching about Russia’s historical imperial occupation of Tajikistan is discouraging Tajik migrants from integrating into Russian society, essentially blaming migrants for the alienation that Russian society subjects them to.[16] Select Russian officials recently called for the introduction of several anti-migrant policies, which Russian authorities are unlikely to enact given Russia’s reliance on migrants for its force generation and labor needs.[17] Russian authorities may continue the practice of raiding migrant workplaces and increase crackdowns at border crossings to temporarily placate emotional cries for retribution following the March 22 attack as the Kremlin continues to develop a cogent and practical response.

Key Takeaways:

  • The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) released its 38th report on the human rights situation in Ukraine on March 26, confirming several of ISW’s longstanding assessments about Russia’s systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in occupied territories and towards Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs).
  • Russian officials are tying the US and the West to a broader set of “terrorist” attacks against Russia following the Crocus City Hall attack, likely to intensify rhetoric about alleged Western and Ukrainian threats to generate greater domestic support for the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities are increasing legal pressure against migrants in Russia following recent Russian officials’ proposals for harsher, measures against migrant communities in response to the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and southwest of Donetsk City on March 27.
  • Russian Storm-Z personnel continue to complain about their poor treatment by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as the MoD tries to posture efficacy in its force generation and social benefit allocation system.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 26, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 26, 2024, 8:20pm ET 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the Crocus City Hall attackers originally fled toward Belarus not Ukraine, directly undermining the Kremlin narrative on Ukraine’s involvement, possibly to head off questions about why the attackers headed toward Belarus in the first place. During a visit to Belarus’ northwestern Ashmyany raion on March 26, Lukashenko reported that the Crocus City Hall attackers may have been planning to escape Russia’s Bryansk Oblast to Belarus, but that Belarus introduced a heightened security regime that forced the attackers to change course towards the Russia-Ukraine border.[1] Lukashenko stated that the attackers “couldn’t enter Belarus” and praised high levels of cooperation between Russian and Belarusian special services for leading to the attackers’ arrests. Lukashenko’s suggestion that the attackers were heading towards Belarus before Belarusian and Russian special services forced them to change direction flatly contradicts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims regarding the attackers’ planned escape. Putin addressed the Russian Federation on March 23 following the March 22 Crocus City Hall terror attack and claimed that the attackers had “contacts” who had prepared a “window” for their exfiltration across the border into Ukraine, a claim for which there is no evidence that has become central to the Kremlin’s baseless accusations that Ukraine was involved in or responsible for the attack.[2] Geolocated footage from March 23 shows Russian personnel capturing the four attackers in a forest area along the E101 highway about 20 kilometers southeast of Bryansk City, Bryansk Oblast.[3] The geolocated place of capture is about 95 kilometers from the Ukrainian border at the closest point, or 130 kilometers from where the E101 crosses into Ukraine. This point is notably about 124 kilometers from the Belarusian border, and about 25 kilometers away from the A-240 highway that runs to Gomel, Belarus. Lukashenko’s statement about the activation of Belarusian personnel suggests a scenario in which the attackers were initially traveling along the A-240 highway towards Belarus but saw roadblocks or other deterrents and shifted their course east through forest roads to the E101 route.

Lukashenko has very little evident incentive to lie about the facts of the attack in this way. The suggestion that the attackers were traveling towards Belarus, presumably to seek refuge there, could have damaging political consequences for Lukashenko and his regime as it would raise questions about why they thought they would be safer in Belarus and who they thought might receive them there. Lukashenko may therefore have desired to preempt discussions about the attackers’ hypothetical links to Belarus by saying that Belarusian forces were instrumental in leading to their arrests. While Lukashenko’s claim subverts the standing Kremlin narrative, it reduces his vulnerability to Kremlin efforts to use non-public information about the attackers’ original escape plans to pressure him in the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Kremlin officials appear to be struggling to maintain a consistent rhetorical line about the Crocus City Hall attack, indicating that the Kremlin has not fully figured out how to reconcile its information operations with the reality of its intelligence and law enforcement failure. Putin and other senior officials have not fully coalesced around the false narrative that Ukraine somehow conducted the March 22 attack on the Crocus concert venue for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Putin directly suggested that the attackers were connected to Ukraine in his March 23 address following the attack.[4] Putin then addressed the board of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office on March 26 and referenced the Crocus attack, calling for the Prosecutor General’s Office to establish all the facts of the case but not implicitly or explicitly blaming Ukraine for the attack.[5] Putin only mentioned the Ukrainian government once during an unrelated part of the address about returning Russia’s “lost” property abroad — a notable change from his March 25 address that claimed Ukraine was the ”customer” of the attack and his March 23 accusation that the attackers were fleeing to Ukraine.[6] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov similarly refused to state outright on March 26 that Ukraine orchestrated the Crocus attack in response to a press question on how Russia would respond if Russia ”confirms” Ukraine’s alleged involvement.[7] Putin’s oscillation between blaming Ukraine outright one day and then avoiding the issue the following day suggests that the Kremlin has not yet established a templated line on how to discuss the attack, likely partially as a result of the shock felt by the Russian elite in its aftermath.

Other senior Russian officials have doubled down on the Kremlin’s baseless narrative accusing Ukraine of conducting the attack, however, while conceding that Russian authorities currently lack critical information about the attack, seemingly contradicting their own statements and statements made by other Kremlin officials. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Head Alexander Bortnikov accused the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) of conducting the attack with involvement from the United States and UK in order to create panic in Russian society — a longstanding Kremlin narrative line attempting to portray the war in Ukraine as an existential war against the collective West — but then stated that Russia has not yet identified the person who ordered the attack.[8] Bortnikov also emphasized that Russian security services conducted every possible measure to prevent the attackers from crossing into Ukrainian territory, aligning with Putin’s March 23 address but contrasting with Lukashenko’s March 26 claims.[9] Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev answered a press question on March 26 about whether the Islamic State (IS) or Ukraine conducted the attack with “Ukraine, of course” then later doubled down on this narrative by claiming “many things point to Ukraine’s involvement” while appearing on Russian state television channel Rossiya-1 and suggested that Russian special services and law enforcement agencies will eventually reach this conclusion.[10]

Russian officials are proposing actionable but likely impractical solutions to the emotional outcries for retribution in response to the Crocus City Hall attack. A Just Russia Party Leader Sergei Mironov called for Russia to abolish the visa-free regime with Central Asian countries in order to regulate migration and counter terrorist attacks.[11] Russian State Duma Deputy from occupied Crimea Mikhail Sheremet and State Duma Deputy Chairperson and recent New People Party presidential candidate Vladislav Davankov also recently proposed harsher measures against migrants in response to the Crocus City Hall attack.[12] Russian ultranationalists have intensified calls for anti-migrant measures since the Crocus City Hall attack, although a prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger criticized Mironov’s proposal to introduce a visa regime with Central Asian countries and claimed that a visa regime would damage Russia’s relationship with Central Asian states and Russia’s “compatriots” living there.[13] Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Head Leonid Slutsky called for Russia to lift the moratorium on the death penalty in response to the Crocus City Hall attack, and United Russia State Duma Deputy Alexander Spiridonov claimed that Russia should consider lifting the moratorium for charges of terrorism.[14] Mironov claimed that Russia could lift the moratorium on the death penalty through a federal referendum, while Russian State Duma Chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin claimed that the Russian Constitutional Court could lift the mortarium without a referendum.[15] The Russian Constitutional Court announced that it would not comment on issues about the death penalty because the issue may “become a subject of consideration.”[16] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, conversely, claimed on March 25 that the Kremlin is not discussing lifting the moratorium on the death penalty, despite continued calls by various Russian political leaders.[17] Russian officials are likely struggling to establish a cogent response to domestic calls for retribution following the Crocus City Hall attack, causing various Russian political factions to attempt to address the situation along diverging avenues. Russia is unlikely to introduce a visa regime with Central Asian countries given that Russia continues to heavily rely on Central Asian migrants to offset domestic labor shortages and to target Central Asian migrants for crypto-mobilization efforts.[18] The Russian government is also unlikely to lift the moratorium on the death penalty, which it established in 1996, the same year it officially executed the last death sentence.[19]

The Moldovan Constitutional Court reversed a ruling banning the Kremlin-affiliated Shor Party on March 26, which will likely allow pro-Russian Moldovan actors to reconsolidate around the Shor Party and reverse the impacts of the previous Moldovan ban on the party. Ilan Shor is a US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician who founded the Shor Party and whom Moldovan authorities convicted in absentia for massive fraud and money laundering.[20] The Moldovan Parliament declared the Shor Party unconstitutional on July 19, 2023, and amended the Electoral Code on July 31, 2023, to ban members of political parties deemed unconstitutional from running in elections for five years.[21] The Moldovan Constitutional Court declared these July 2023 changes to the Electoral Code unconstitutional on October 3, 2023.[22] The Moldovan Parliament responded on October 4, 2023, by further amending the Electoral Code to stipulate that people suspected of, accused of, or indicted for the crimes that the argument declaring the political party to be unconstitutional mentioned cannot participate in elections.[23] The Moldovan Constitutional Court then decided on March 26, 2024, that the Moldovan Parliament’s amendments to the Electoral Code on October 4, 2023, were also unconstitutional, thereby allowing Shor Party politicians to run in the upcoming Moldovan presidential election in late 2024 and parliamentary elections in the summer of 2025.[24] The Kremlin will likely amend its hybrid operations in Moldova to more directly exploit and promote the Shor Party before the upcoming Moldovan elections as part of the Kremlin’s wider hybrid campaign aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within, about which ISW has extensively reported.[25]

Shor-affiliated actors have consistently aligned themselves with Russian authorities. Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Leonid Slutsky met with Vasile Bolea and Alexandr Suhodolskii, Moldovan politicians from the Shor-offshoot Revival Party, in Moscow on March 26.[26] Slutsky claimed that he is ready for more cooperation with the Revival Party and reiterated long-standing Kremlin narratives claiming that the current Moldovan government’s policies are antithetical to the interests of the Moldovan population.[27] Slutsky also has previous connections with other Moldovan Shor-affiliated actors. Slutsky met with several Moldovan Shor Party politicians, as well as a Moldovan Socialist Party politician who has links to the Kremlin, in mid-September 2022 just before the outbreak of Shor Party-organized protests in Moldova that demanded the resignation of the current pro-Western government against the backdrop of rising energy prices.[28] Slutsky also endorsed the candidacy of the current governor of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, who initially ran for governor in 2023 as a Shor Party candidate before Moldovan authorities banned the party.[29]

Bolea and Suhodolskii also have connections with other Kremlin officials and pro-Russian Gagauzian politicians. Suhodolskii and Victor Petrov, who ran in the 2023 Gagauzian gubernatorial election and is currently Gutsul’s deputy, invited Republic of Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov to Gagauzia to attend the “Friendship of the Peoples” forum on April 17, 2023, after Suhodolskii and Petrov reportedly visited Minnikhanov in Kazan at an unspecified time.[30] Moldovan authorities denied Minnikhanov entry into Moldova to attend the forum, however. Gutsul won the Gagauzian gubernatorial election on May 14, 2023, and Suhodolskii, Bolea, and Petrov flew to Israel on May 17, 2023, to meet with Shor.[31] Suhodolskii and Bolea then announced on May 22, 2023, that they were joining the then largely defunct Revival Party.[32] Petrov’s pro-Russian “People’s Union of Gagauzia” political movement, which Suhodolskii and Bolea have supported since the organization's inception in July 2022, then merged with the Revival Party in July 2023.[33]

Ukrainian officials stated on March 26 that Ukrainian forces successfully conducted a strike on the night of March 23 to 24 against a Ukrainian ship that Russian forces had captured in 2014. Ukrainian Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated that Ukrainian forces conducted a Neptune missile strike on the Ukrainian Kostyantyn Olshanskyi Ropucha-class landing ship that Russian forces captured during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.[34] Pletenchuk stated that Russian forces had been disassembling the Kostyantyn Olshanskyi at the port in Sevastopol to use it for spare parts but decided to start restoring it in 2024 after concluding that the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) was running out of large landing ships. Ukrainian military officials previously stated that Ukrainian forces successfully struck the Yamal and Azov Ropucha-class landing ships, Ivan Khurs Yury Ivanov–class reconnaissance ship, a BSF communications center, and several unspecified BSF infrastructure facilities in Sevastopol on the night of March 23 to 24.[35] Satellite imagery from March 23 and 24 shows damage to the rear part of the Ivan Khurs docked in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea.[36] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes against BSF ships and infrastructure will likely continue to deter Russian forces from redeploying ships to Sevastopol and the western Black Sea and complicate the BSF’s ability to maximize its combat capabilities.[37]

Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) Head Vasyl Malyuk stated on March 26 that Russian forces have not used the Kerch Strait Bridge to transfer weapons and other materiel after two successful Ukrainian operations on the Kerch Strait Bridge, likely referring to an explosion in October 2022 and a strike in July 2023.[38]

Separate investigations conducted by Western media outlets have found that Russian forces may be using Starlink terminals in Ukraine. CNN reported on March 26 that frontline Ukrainian troops have increasingly observed Russian forces using Starlink devices despite US sanctions prohibiting Russia’s use of Starlink.[39] CNN noted that Ukrainian troops’ increased sightings of Russian forces using Starlink coincide with claims from Russian crowdfunders that they successfully purchased Starlink technology in third-party countries. Ukrainian soldiers also told CNN that Starlink’s connection speeds decreased, while connection issues increased in the past several months. ISW previously observed claims in February that Russian forces were using Starlink in occupied Ukraine.[40] Bloomberg reported on March 26 that its own investigation determined that there are “wide-spanning” examples of unspecified actors trading and selling Starlink kits illegally on the black market.[41] An anonymous trader told Bloomberg that recent government crackdowns in Kazakhstan against illegal Starlink terminals “barely” reduced illegal Starlink usage. Bloomberg noted that Starlink‘s operator SpaceX should be able to prevent Russia from using Starlink in occupied Ukraine because SpaceX should be able to identify every Starlink transmitter. ISW cannot independently verify any of these reports.

Key Takeaways:

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the Crocus City Hall attackers originally fled toward Belarus not Ukraine, directly undermining the Kremlin narrative on Ukraine’s involvement, possibly to head off questions about why the attackers headed toward Belarus in the first place.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Kremlin officials appear to be struggling to maintain a consistent rhetorical line about the Crocus City Hall attack, indicating that the Kremlin has not fully figured out how to reconcile its information operations with the reality of its intelligence and law enforcement failure.
  • Russian officials are proposing actionable but likely impractical solutions to the emotional outcries for retribution in response to the Crocus City Hall attack.
  • The Moldovan Constitutional Court reversed a ruling banning the Kremlin-affiliated Shor Party on March 26, which will likely allow pro-Russian Moldovan actors to reconsolidate around the Shor Party and reverse the impacts of the previous Moldovan ban on the party.
  • Ukrainian officials stated on March 26 that Ukrainian forces successfully conducted a strike on the night of March 23 to 24 against a Ukrainian ship that Russian forces had captured in 2014.
  • Separate investigations conducted by Western media outlets have found that Russian forces may be using Starlink terminals in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna and Bakhmut on March 26.
  • The Russian military has reportedly started recruiting personnel for elements of the newly reformed Leningrad Military District (LMD).

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 25, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 25, 2024, 6:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on March 25. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The March 22 Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall is a notable Russian intelligence and law enforcement failure, and explaining currently available open-source evidence does not require any wider and more complicated conspiracy theory either within or against the Russian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed during an address on March 25 that “radical Islamists” committed the attack, but immediately and basely accused the United States of trying to cover the “Ukrainian trace” of the attack, directly accusing Ukraine of being the “customer” of the attack.[1] ISW continues to assess that the attack itself, as well as the claim pattern following the attack, is highly consistent with the way IS conducts and claims such incidents and has observed no evidence that Ukraine was involved in the attack.[2] Available open-source evidence indicates that the Crocus City Hall attack was the result of a significant Russian intelligence failure, not a conspiracy initiated by, or targeting, the Russian intelligence apparatus. Russian investigative opposition outlet Dossier Center reported on March 24 that Russian intelligence services were closely monitoring IS-K activities before the March 22 attack and alleged that the Russian Security Council received a warning that IS-K might use Tajik citizens for an attack in Russia a few days before IS-K carried out the attack on Crocus City Hall.[3] Dossier Center and other Russian insider and opposition outlets also noted that Russian law enforcement was very slow in responding to the incident and reported that security officers first arrived at Crocus City Hall an hour after the attack began, despite the fact that the Moscow Special Purpose Mobile Unit (OMON) headquarters is less than three kilometers away from the hall.[4]

Sources familiar with the US intelligence community previously noted that the United States warned Russia about “fairly specific” indicators that IS-K wanted to carry out attacks in Russia, and the US Embassy in Russia issued a warning on March 7 that it was monitoring reports of extremist plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, including concerts, over the proceeding 24 hour period.[5] Putin dismissed the warnings as “provocative statements” on March 19, three days before the attack.[6] The Kremlin’s acknowledgement of the US intelligence warnings prior to the attack shows that the Russian government was aware of US warnings, but likely discounted them. The United States also notably warned Iran about an IS-K attack against Iran ahead of the IS-K attack against Kerman on January 4, 2024, a warning that Iran also apparently disregarded.[7]

The responses by both the Russian intelligence apparatus and law enforcement agencies must be situated in the wider domestic Russian context. Russian intelligence could well have decided to ignore the US intelligence warning because of the extreme distrust of the United States Putin has driven deep into the Russian information and security spaces. Russian authorities may have also been concerned about the second-order effects of acting on the intelligence by seeming to target Muslim communities within Russia, which would likely cause even more discontent and alienation in a community that Russia already discriminates against yet relies on for the forcible generation of manpower for its war in Ukraine.[8] The Kremlin may have balanced the cost of acting on intelligence from an adversary it does not trust with the risk of impacting a critical source of mobilizable manpower and found the risk of action too great. Russian law enforcement, for its part, has likely been conditioned to respond to mass-casualty events such as the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis and 2004 Beslan School Siege, so the delay in Russian law enforcement’s deployment to Crocus City Hall may have resulted from conditioning about the need to proceed cautiously in what could have become a mass-hostage situation.[9] Those incidents evolved over the course of several days. Even during the 2015 attack on the Bataclan Theater in Paris the first armed responders did not enter the building until roughly 25 minutes after the attacker had begun shooting on the street but had to withdraw and wait about an hour and a quarter before sufficient backup arrived to start clearing the scene.[10]

Kremlin officials’ and Russian ultranationalists’ continued insistence on blaming Ukraine for an attack that IS-K very likely committed may come at the expense of Russian internal security and civilian lives. A Kremlin-awarded Russian ultranationalist milblogger doubled down on the narrative baselessly blaming Ukraine on March 24 and 25, widely amplifying other ultranationalist claims that IS and IS-K are incapable of conducting a terrorist attack as significant as the Crocus concert venue attack and that the IS claim is a ruse to hide Ukrainian and Western involvement.[11] Other Russian milbloggers further amplified this narrative, claiming that IS and IS-K are weakened and defeated and are now largely “media outlets.”[12] That assertion is demonstrably untrue, as CTP has repeatedly documented.[13] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the United States of making “excuses” for Ukraine in reporting that IS likely conducted the attack.[14] The IS claim of conducting the Crocus concert venue attack is notably consistent with prior IS-claimed attacks and IS risks discrediting itself in the global Salafi-Jihadi community by falsely claiming credit for high-profile attacks.[15] The Russian claims insisting on Ukrainian involvement, on the other hand, forward the Kremlin’s longstanding effort to justify its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the long-term by falsely portraying the existence of an independent and sovereign Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia. The Kremlin and its ultranationalist mouthpieces are evidently ignoring the clear threat that IS and IS-K operations inside Russian territory poses to Russia’s internal security and its civilians to prioritize instead the informational impacts of falsely accusing Ukraine of involvement while also maintaining a level of access to the ethnic minority communities that may be vulnerable to recruitment by IS-K and similar groups in order to retain a mobilizable resource for the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has likely decided that the informational value of blaming Ukraine for the Crocus attack is worth whatever internal security risks and civilian casualties Russia may suffer for failing to adequately address a radical Salafi-Jihadi threat within its borders.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed that Lieutenant General Esedulla Abachev became the Leningrad Military District (LMD) Deputy Commander as the Russian military continues the formal disbandment of the Western Military District (WMD) and recreation of the LMD and Moscow Military District (MMD). The Russian MoD posted footage on March 25 showing Abachev awarding personnel of the Russian state border covering group who arrested the Crocus City Hall attackers in Bryansk Oblast and named Abachev as the LMD Deputy Commander, confirming speculation by insider sources about Abachev’s new appointment in early March.[16] Russian sources credited LMD personnel, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards, and Chechen “Akhmat” personnel for arresting the Crocus City Hall attackers on March 23.[17] It is unclear why LMD personnel were operating in Bryansk Oblast in the first place, as Bryansk Oblast is part of the new MMD, but some individual units that are now part of the LMD may have been left over in Bryansk Oblast as military reforms and transitions are ongoing.[18] The Russian Western Grouping of Forces Spokesperson recently began wearing a MMD patch, suggesting that the process of disbanding and transferring the WMD is underway.[19] The process of transferring WMD formations into the MMD and LMD may cause some temporary confusion and inconsistencies, as evidenced by the presence of LMD personnel within the MMD during the Crocus City Hall arrests.

Ukrainian officials stated that the Ukrainian strike on occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on the night of March 23 targeted more Black Sea Fleet (BSF) ships and caused more damage than initially reported. Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated on March 25 that Ukrainian forces struck the BSF ship repair plant in Sevastopol where the Yamal Ropucha-class landing ship was moored on March 23, making a hole in the Yamal’s upper deck and forcing BSF personnel to continuously pump water out of the ship.[20] Ukrainian Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated that the March 23 Ukrainian strike on the BSF communications center caused substantial damage, which Pletenchuk assessed may significantly hinder the functioning of the BSF because the communications center supported the general activities of the fleet and may have also been responsible for the fleet’s provisions, ongoing repairs, and other important functions.[21] Pletenchuk reported that Ukrainian forces also struck the Ivan Khurs Yury Ivanov–class reconnaissance ship on March 23 and that Ukrainian officials are verifying the damage to the ship.[22] GUR Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated that Ukrainian forces used Ukrainian Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus (Magura) V5 naval drones to strike the Ivan Khurs and Yamal ships and that these Ukrainian naval drones are becoming more powerful and accurate.[23] Skibitskyi stated that Ukrainian forces also used the Magura V5 drones to strike the BSF’s Akula-class and Serna-class ships in November 2023, the Ivanovets Tarantul-class corvette and the Ceasar Kunikov Ropucha-class landing ship in February 2024, and the Sergei Kotov large patrol ship in March 2024.[24] Pletenchuk and Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces have rarely used Kalibr missiles in recent months because the BSF naval base in Sevastopol is the only BSF base that has the infrastructure needed to reload these missiles onto Kalibr-capable ships.[25] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes against BSF ships and infrastructure will likely continue to deter Russian forces from redeploying ships to Sevastopol and the western Black Sea and complicate the BSF’s ability to maximize its combat capabilities.[26]

The Kremlin continues to lean on long debunked narratives as part of its wider information operations aimed at discrediting and undermining Western support for Ukraine. Russian Ambassador to the Hague Vladimir Tarabin reiterated the Kremlin’s debunked claim that Ukraine is developing biological weapons in US- and NATO-funded biolabs in Ukraine during an interview published on March 25.[27] Tarabin also claimed that Ukrainian forces are “systematically” using a “wide range of toxic chemicals” against Russian military personnel in unspecified areas of the frontline, including chemical substances banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).[28] Tarabin’s reliance on the already discredited biolabs narrative calls into question his other allegations. An unnamed Russian company command also claimed that Ukrainian forces are using phosphorus ammunition shells in unspecified areas of the Zaporizhia direction, which are not banned in conventional warfare by the CWC but are prohibited from use against civilians.[29] Russian forces have used white phosphorus against urban areas in Ukraine, risking civilian harm on several occasions.[30] Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been accusing the West of continuing to fund biolabs in Ukraine since before the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[31] Western publications, officials, and international organizations have long debunked this Russian narrative.[32] These Russian claims are not comparable to the Ukrainian and Russian reporting of Russian forces using chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS) gas or chloropicrin (PS), both of which the CWC — which Russia ratified in 1997 — bans in warfare.[33] Several Russian and Ukrainian sources have provided evidence of the use of such banned chemical agents against Ukrainian positions on the battlefield.[34]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • The March 22 Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall is a notable Russian intelligence and law enforcement failure, and explaining currently available open-source evidence does not require any wider and more complicated conspiracy theory either within or against the Russian state.
  • Kremlin officials’ and Russian ultranationalists’ continued insistence on blaming Ukraine for an attack that IS-K very likely committed may come at the expense of Russian internal security and civilian lives.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed that Lieutenant General Esedulla Abachev became the Leningrad Military District (LMD) Deputy Commander as the Russian military continues the formal disbandment of the Western Military District (WMD) and recreation of the LMD and Moscow Military District (MMD).
  • Ukrainian officials stated that the Ukrainian strike on occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on the night of March 23 targeted more Black Sea Fleet (BSF) ships and caused more damage than initially reported.
  • The Kremlin continues to lean on long debunked narratives as part of its wider information operations aimed at discrediting and undermining Western support for Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka on March 25.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 24, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 24, 2024, 5:45pm ET


Ukrainian forces struck a Black Sea Fleet (BSF) communications center in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, and reportedly struck an oil depot and at least partially damaged two BSF landing ships on the night of March 23. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on March 24 that Ukrainian forces successfully struck the BSF’s Yamal and Azov Ropucha-class landing ships, a BSF communications center, and several unspecified BSF infrastructure facilities in Sevastopol.[1] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces launched over 40 Storm Shadow and Neptune missiles, ADM-160 decoy missiles, and drones during the strike.[2] Geolocated footage published on March 24 shows a missile strike on the BSF communications center, and satellite imagery published on March 24 shows significant damage to the building.[3] Russian opposition outlet Astra posted footage reportedly of an explosion at an oil depot in occupied Hvardiiske (northeast of Sevastopol) and reported that its sources stated that three tanks of petroleum products and a warehouse burned as a result of the drone strike.[4] Ukrainian Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated that Ukrainian officials initially confirmed that the Yamal and Azov landing ships sustained fire damage but are still assessing the extent of the damage to the ships.[5] Pletenchuk noted that the BSF currently has only five landing ships and that only three will remain operational if the Ukrainian strike seriously damaged the Yamal and Azov. ISW previously assessed that Ukrainian strikes against BSF assets caused the BSF to move some ships away from its main base in Sevastopol and hampered its ability to operate in the western part of the Black Sea.[6] Ukrainian officials have recently reported that other BSF bases are structurally inferior to the one in Sevastopol and that Russian forces must still perform some tasks, such as reloading Kalibr missile systems on ships and submarines, in Sevastopol as other bases lack the capacity to handle such missiles.[7] The latest Ukrainian strikes targeting BSF ships, regardless of the extent of the damage caused, will likely continue to deter Russian forces from redeploying ships to Sevastopol and the western Black Sea and complicate the BSF’s ability to maximize its combat capabilities.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of February 23 to 24, mainly targeting southern and western Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force reported on March 24 that Russian forces launched 29 Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles from Tu-95MS strategic aircraft and 28 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and occupied Cape Chauda, Crimea.[8] Ukrainian air defenses reportedly downed 18 Kh-101/555 missiles and 25 Shahed drones over Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Sumy, Kyiv, Volyn, and Lviv oblasts.[9] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces launched two waves of Shahed drones and that Russian drone strikes primarily targeted port infrastructure along the Danube River, a branch of whose delta forms the Ukraine-Romania border, and energy facilities in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[10] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that Russian forces struck Mykolaiv Oblast with unspecified cruise and ballistic missiles on the evening of March 23 and the night of March 23 to 24.[11] Lviv Oblast officials reported that Russian forces struck a critical infrastructure facility with two Kinzhal missiles on the morning of March 24, and Ukrainian state-owned oil and gas company Neftogaz Chairperson Oleksiy Chernyshov stated that Russian forces struck an underground gas storage facility and damaged technical equipment in Lviv oblast.[12] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces also struck Myrnohrad, Donetsk Oblast with four S-300 missiles.[13] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian strikes damaged infrastructure in western Ukraine, residential buildings in Myrnohrad, Donetsk Oblast, and energy infrastructure in Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and Kharkiv City.[14] Polish Operational Command reported that a Russian cruise missile violated Polish air space on the morning of March 24 for 39 seconds before presumably returning into Ukrainian airspace.[15]

Russian forces are reportedly approaching the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast but are unlikely to threaten the settlement with encirclement or seizure in the coming months. ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced within 1.5 kilometers of Chasiv Yar based on available visual evidence, and Russian milbloggers claimed on March 24 that Russian forces recently advanced further towards and up to the outskirts of the settlement.[16] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on March 23 that Russian forces seized Ivanivske (west of Bakhmut and immediately east of Chasiv Yar), although ISW has not observed confirmation of Russian forces seizing Ivanivske or advancing up to the outskirts of Chasiv Yar.[17] Russian forces began a localized offensive operation in the Bakhmut direction in November 2023 that aims to recapture territory that Ukraine liberated during the summer 2023 counteroffensive and to seize Chasiv Yar.[18] Russian forces have only achieved marginal tactical gains northwest and west of Bakhmut in the past four months, however. Select Russian sources have described Russian offensive activity in the Bakhmut area in recent months as conditions setting for a potential intensified offensive operation to encircle and seize Chasiv Yar.[19]

Available imagery, which ISW will not present or describe in greater detail at this time to preserve Ukrainian operational security, shows that Ukrainian forces have established significant fortifications in a ring shape in the Chasiv Yar area, and Russian forces will likely struggle to break through these defenses at their current offensive tempo in the area.[20] Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Russian forces planned to transfer forces to the Bakhmut area from the Avdiivka direction following their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February, but that the opportunity to exploit tactical Ukrainian vulnerabilities immediately west of Avdiivka incentivized Russian forces to maintain the tempo of offensive operations in the area and may have prevented the Russian command from accumulating more forces in the Bakhmut direction.[21] It is unclear if the Russian elements that have been operating in the Bakhmut area since the start of the Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive are sufficient for a potential intensified effort to seize Chasiv Yar, or if Russian forces will need to accumulate more forces near Bakhmut if they wish to pursue such an effort. Russian tactical gains east of Chasiv Yar have not set conditions for an encirclement or envelopment of the settlement, and Russian forces would likely have to make notable tactical gains southeast and northwest of Chasiv Yar before pursuing an envelopment or encirclement of the settlement. Russian forces have previously struggled to conduct significant operational encirclements but have shown the ability to conduct gradual envelopments or turning movements that have posed tactical threats to Ukrainian forces, as seen with the Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka.[22] The Russian military command may believe that Russian forces will be able to conduct a successful operational encirclement while continued delays in Western security assistance constrain Ukrainian capabilities.[23]

The seizure of Chasiv Yar would offer Russian forces limited but not insignificant operational benefits if they could achieve it. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar and surrounding areas would further secure the southwestern flank of the Russian frontline in the Bakhmut-Soledar area, which has long been a wide salient. A Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar and advances north and south of the settlement would push Ukrainian forces further away from Russian ground lines of communication (GLOC) in the Bakhmut area. A Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would likely push Ukrainian forces out of tube artillery range of a section of the E40 highway east of Bakhmut, and Ukrainian forces would likely have to deploy tube artillery in immediate frontline areas to interdict Russian logistics along most of the T-05-13 (Soledar-Bakhmut-Horlivka) highway. Chasiv Yar would also offer Russian forces routes of advance to Kostyantynivka, the southern edge of a major urban agglomeration in Donetsk Oblast that Russia has long viewed as a major operational objective in Ukraine.[24] Advances through Chasiv Yar provide a more immediate route to this urban agglomeration than possible routes of advance from the south along the H-20 highway from Avdiivka or from the southwest from the Toretsk area. Russian forces attempted and failed to conduct a wide sweeping operational encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Donetsk Oblast in spring 2022 that focused on seizing the Ukrainian stronghold of Slovyansk (one of the largest cities in this urban agglomeration).[25] The Russian command may intend to reattempt a wide-sweeping maneuver in 2025 or beyond, and advances west of Chasiv Yar would set further conditions for this possible larger offensive operation.[26] ISW offers these observations to present the assessment that a Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would be more operationally significant than the Russian seizure of Avdiivka but reiterates that ISW does not forecast that Russian forces will take Chasiv Yar rapidly if they can take it at all.

The Islamic State’s (IS) Amaq News Agency published footage on March 23 purportedly filmed from the perspective of the attackers involved in the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack.[27] The footage further supports ISW’s assessment that IS is very likely responsible for the Crocus City Hall attack, despite continued efforts by Kremlin mouthpieces to baselessly tie Ukraine to the attack.[28]

Russian officials proposed more anti-migrant policies in response to the Crocus City Hall attack. Russian State Duma Deputy from occupied Crimea Mikhail Sheremet proposed on March 24 that Russia limit the entry of migrants into Russia during the war in Ukraine and claimed that Western intelligence targets migrants to conduct terrorist attacks in Russia and destabilize Russia.[29] Sheremet also claimed that Russia does not have the bandwidth to determine which migrants have “good intentions” since all of Russia’s efforts and means are focused on the war. Russian State Duma Deputy Chairperson and recent New People Party presidential candidate Vladislav Davankov also proposed introducing several harsher measures against migrants including introducing a “zero tolerance” policy for migrants who commit any level of offense in their first year in Russia, enforcing ”digital control“ over migrants, and developing a ”migrant replacement” program wherein Russia attempts to expand industrial automation to reduce dependence on labor migrants.[30] Russian force generation efforts and anti-migrant policies, an increasingly prominent ultranationalist movement that espouses xenophobic rhetoric, and an increasingly ultranationalist Kremlin that stresses the importance of Russian Orthodoxy in public life are likely further alienating migrant communities and generating animosities that Salafi-Jihadi groups can exploit in recruitment efforts.[31]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov expressed concerns about Russian ultranationalist reactions to the Crocus City Hall attack. Kadyrov claimed that the scale of the Crocus City Hall attack is ”much larger and deeper” than solely the attack itself because Russia’s enemies are trying to undermine Russia through promoting nationalism.[32] Kadyrov claimed that Russia has always been a multiethnic and multiconfessional country but that ”false patriots” are trying to play on people’s emotions and ”call for fascist methods.” Kadyrov also threatened to have a ”short conversation” with instigators of ethnic conflict. Kadyrov is likely attempting to address Russian ultranationalists who used the Crocus City Hall attack to express animosity toward non-ethnic Russian minorities and migrants within Russia.[33] Kadyrov has previously been at the center of high-profile interethnic and religious scandals, which has likely disrupted his attempts to balance between upholding Chechnya’s Islamic values and supporting an increasingly ultranationalist Kremlin.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces struck a Black Sea Fleet (BSF) communications center in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, and reportedly struck an oil depot and at least partially damaged two BSF landing ships on the night of March 23.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of February 23 to 24, mainly targeting southern and western Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are reportedly approaching the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast but are unlikely to threaten the settlement with encirclement or seizure in the coming months.
  • The seizure of Chasiv Yar would offer Russian forces limited but not insignificant operational benefits if they could achieve it.
  • The Islamic State’s (IS) Amaq News Agency published footage on March 23 purportedly filmed from the perspective of the attackers involved in the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack.
  • Russian officials proposed more anti-migrant policies in response to the Crocus City Hall attack.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov expressed concerns about Russian ultranationalist reactions to the Crocus City Hall attack.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City amid continued positional fighting along the entire line of contact on March 24.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on March 23 establishing a legal basis for enrolling members of the All-Russian Cossack Society into the Russian military’s mobilization reserve, likely as part of ongoing crypto-mobilization and military formalization efforts.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 23, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Karolina Hird, Brian Carter and Frederick W. Kagan

March 23, 2024, 5:45pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on March 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian authorities claimed to have arrested the four attackers and seven others involved in the March 22 “Crocus City Hall” concert venue attack, which Russian authorities reported killed at least 133 civilians. Russian sources claimed that the attackers entered the Crocus venue on March 22 and began firing machine guns at civilians at 19:55 Moscow time, reached the main auditorium by 20:03, and fled the scene in a car at 20:13 – conducting the entire attack and laying explosives that ignited the venue in only 18 minutes.[1] The Russian Investigative Committee and Moscow authorities reported that the attack killed at least 133 and injured at least 140 as of March 23, but this number may grow as Russian authorities find more casualties trapped under rubble in the concert hall.[2] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that it detained four individuals it claims are the attackers in Bryansk Oblast on March 23 as well as seven others whose involvement is not yet specified.[3] Russian sources widely circulated geolocated footage of Russian security forces detaining four individuals alleged to be the attackers before they could flee near Kommuna, Bryansk Oblast (about 14km southwest of Bryansk City).[4] Russian authorities claimed that they detained two individuals in the vehicle that the four were driving and chased down two others who fled into the surrounding forest.[5] Russian sources also amplified footage of Russian security forces interrogating the individuals, all of whom either spoke little Russian or communicated with Russian personnel via translators.[6] Russian sources largely claimed that the attackers are all citizens of Tajikistan, and Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) Spokesperson Iryna Volk claimed that none of the individuals whom Russian authorities claimed conducted the attack are Russian citizens.[7]  

ISW assesses that the Islamic State (IS) is very likely responsible for the Crocus City Hall attack. IS Amaq’s News Agency took responsibility for the attack on the night of March 22, claiming that IS fighters attacked a “large gathering of Christians” on the outskirts of Moscow, “killing and wounding hundreds and causing great destruction...before they [the attackers] withdrew to their bases safely.”[8] The Amaq News Agency later posted a blurred-out image of the four fighters who it claimed conducted its “fiercest attack in years” standing in front of an IS flag.[9] The Amaq News Agency announcement is consistent in terms of style, branding, and language with previous Amaq claims for other attacks. IS media organs make deceptive or false claims only ”infrequently” and carefully and try to maintain “high credibility” in their communique in order to define clear ideological objectives and maintain fundraising streams.[10] IS propaganda enables the group to fundraise and disseminate its guidance to lower-level commanders and supporters--IS risks discrediting itself within the competitive Salafi-jihadi community by falsely taking credit for very high-profile attacks. The conduct of the attack itself is also consistent with previous IS attacks, including the 2015 Paris terror attacks.[11] The IS fighters in the Crocus City Hall and some of those involved in the 2015 Paris attacks exfiltrated the target and subsequently evaded security forces for a time.[12]

The Islamic State’s Afghan branch IS-Khorasan (IS-K) may have conducted the Crocus City Hall attack. This branch has conducted at least four high-profile attacks outside of central Asia in the last 18 months.[13] US Central Command Commanding General Michael Kurilla notably stated in March 2023 that IS-K would be able to conduct “external operations against US or Western interests abroad in under six months,” meaning that Western intelligence had already assessed that IS and IS-K would be able to field the capabilities for such external attacks by September 2023.[14] US intelligence most recently confirmed that IS-K was responsible for a bombing attack in Kerman, Iran as recently as January 2024, further highlighting IS external attack capabilities.[15] Allegations that the Crocus City Hall attack was a false flag operation are inconsistent with the evidence ISW has observed from the attack itself correlated with other reports of previous IS external attacks that ISW and CTP have covered since the emergence of the Islamic State, as well as the IS claim pattern following the attack.[16] It is also highly unlikely that IS would have conducted the attack on the orders of Ukrainian special services, which several Russian sources have alleged. Amaq News Agency is IS’s central media arm. IS would not falsely claim an attack that may have been conducted by one Christian state against another (or by the Kremlin against Russia’s own people in some sort of false-flag operation), because the implications of IS conducting an attack at the behest of a predominantly Christian country would damage IS credentials within the Salafi-Jihadi community.

The Kremlin nevertheless and without evidence quickly attempted to tie Ukrainian actors to the Crocus City Hall attack but has yet to formally accuse Ukraine of involvement in the attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian public on March 23 and claimed that the attackers’ “contacts” had prepared a “window” for the attackers’ exfiltration across the international border into Ukraine (without mentioning how the attackers were supposed to get through the defenses the Russians have established along the border).[17] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that it apprehended the four attackers as they were attempting to reach their alleged contacts on the Ukrainian side of the border.[18] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova falsely asserted that Ukraine has been spreading terrorism for the past ten years at the behest of the West and that this is why the attackers attempted to flee to Ukraine.[19] The Russians describe Ukrainian military strikes against legitimate targets in Russia as terrorism.[20] Russian State Duma Defense Committee Head Andrey Kartapolov claimed that Ukraine and its allies are the main “stakeholders” in the attack at the Crocus City Hall.[21] Kremlin officials likely aim to indirectly tie Ukraine to the attack to set conditions for information operations that seek to attribute the attack to Ukraine without having to issue an immediate official accusation. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported that an employee at an unidentified Russian state-owned media organization stated that state-owned media received instructions from the Kremlin to emphasize the alleged “Ukrainian trace” in the Crocus City Hall attack.[22] Russian ultranationalists responded to these indirect accusations and explicitly claimed that Ukrainian and Western special services orchestrated the Crocus City Hall attack.[23] The Kremlin likely hopes that perceptions about Ukrainian involvement in the attack will increase Russian domestic support for the war in Ukraine, and the Kremlin may still issue an official accusation to this end if it believes that indirect accusations are insufficient to generate the domestic response it likely desires.

Russian ultranationalists responded to the attack by reiterating typically xenophobic calls for anti-migrant policies, reflecting the growing tension in Russian society over the mistreatment of migrants and the impacts migrant disenfranchisement could have on expanding a viable recruitment base in Russia for Salafi-Jihadi groups. Russian ultranationalists widely connected the attack to what they consider unfettered migration to Russia and the development of diaspora communities within Russia that they claim act as parallel societies.[24] Russian ultranationalists denied that their calls for stricter migration policies and the end of diaspora communities were ethnically motivated, and instead accused Ukraine and the West of selecting Tajik attackers specifically to foment further ethnic conflict within Russia.[25] The Russian ultranationalist community has made xenophobia and insecurities about Russia’s ethnic composition some of its key ideological principles and has increasingly used incidents involving migrants and non-ethnic Russian groups to express growing hostility towards non-ethnic Russians in Russia.[26] The ultranationalists’ attempts to frame the attack as a migration issue while warning against alleged Western attempts to foment ethnic tension are likely indicative of some awareness that further ethnic animosity could increase disenfranchisement and drive migrants towards various Salafi-Jihadi groups. Russia is currently conducting a force generation campaign that is alienating large numbers of migrants from economic and social life in Russia and making military service one of the few avenues for remaining in the country.[27] Russian force generation efforts and anti-migrant policies, an increasingly prominent ultranationalist movement that espouses xenophobic rhetoric, and an increasingly ultranationalist Kremlin that stresses the importance of Russian Orthodoxy in public life are likely further disenfranchising migrant communities and generating animosities that Salafi-Jihadi groups can exploit in recruitment efforts.

Russian sources accused Ukrainian actors of reportedly conducting a successful drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Samara Oblast on the night of March 22 to 23. Footage published on March 23 shows a large fire and a smoke plume rising from the Kuibyshev Oil Refinery in Samara Oblast.[28] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces successfully struck the Kuibyshev refinery and unsuccessfully attempted to strike the nearby Novokuibyshevsky refinery.[29] BBC Russian Service, citing sources within Ukrainian security forces, reported that Ukraine is implementing a “detailed strategy to reduce” Russia’s economic potential and that Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil infrastructure are part of this strategy.[30] Former US Army in Europe Commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges stated on March 22 that Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries have significantly impacted Russia’s ability to pay for its war effort and supply fuel to the Russian military.[31]

Russia is reportedly delaying the delivery of two S-400 air defense systems to India, likely due to limitations in Russia’s production of S-400 systems, an increased need for air defense systems to protect cities and strategic enterprises in Russia from Ukrainian drone strikes, and a reported souring of Russian relations with India. The Economic Times reported on March 20, citing unspecified defense sources, that Russian officials informed India that Russia will deliver two remaining squadrons of S-400 air defense systems by August 2026 after delivering three of the five squadrons that Russia reportedly agreed to deliver by the end of 2024.[32] The Economic Times stated that Russian officials claimed that they are unable to supply the S-400 systems on time due to the “developing situation” and “requirements” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian drone strikes against targets in Russia may be constraining Russian air defense systems and prompting the Russian military command to reallocate air defense systems to better defend Russian cities and strategic facilities.[33] Russia likely also has a limited number of air defense systems allocated for export and may be choosing to delay deliveries to India in favor of supplying more steadfast allies following India’s recent decisions to turn away Russian oil tankers over concerns about Western sanctions.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian authorities claimed to have arrested the four attackers and seven others involved in the March 22 “Crocus City Hall” concert venue attack, which Russian authorities reported killed at least 133 civilians.
  • ISW assesses that the Islamic State (IS) is very likely responsible for the Crocus City Hall attack.
  • The Kremlin nevertheless and without evidence quickly attempted to tie Ukrainian actors to the Crocus City Hall attack but has yet to formally accuse Ukraine of involvement in the attack.
  • Russian ultranationalists responded to the attack by reiterating typically xenophobic calls for anti-migrant policies, reflecting the growing tension in Russian society over the mistreatment of migrants and the impacts migrant disenfranchisement could have on expanding a viable recruitment base in Russia for Salafi-Jihadi groups.
  • Russian sources accused Ukrainian actors of reportedly conducting a successful drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Samara Oblast on the night of March 22 to 23.
  • Russia is reportedly delaying the delivery of two S-400 air defense systems to India, likely due to limitations in Russia’s production of S-400 systems, an increased need for air defense systems to protect cities and strategic enterprises in Russia from Ukrainian drone strikes, and a reported souring of Russian relations with India.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on March 23 that will release individuals from criminal liability if they are called up for mobilization or sign military service contracts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 22, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 22, 2024, 10:10pm ET

Russian forces conducted the largest series of combined drone and missile strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure since the start of the full-scale invasion during the night of March 21-22. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 151 drones and missiles at Ukraine overnight, including 63 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai; 12 Iskander-M missiles from Belgorod Oblast and occupied Crimea; 40 Kh-101/Kh-55 missiles from strategic bombers over the Caspian Sea; five Kh-22 cruise missiles from bombers over Rostov Oblast; seven Kh-47 Kinzhal missiles from bombers over Tambov Oblast; two Kh-59 cruise missiles from bombers over occupied Zaporizhia Oblast; and 22 S-300/S-400 air defense missiles from Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.[1] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 55 Shahed drones, 35 Kh-101/55 missiles, and two Kh-59 missiles.[2] Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces targeted 136 energy facilities in Zaporizhia, Khmelnytskyi, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Mykolaiv, Vinnytsia, Lviv, and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts, damaging dozens of these facilities in the largest attack against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since February 2022.[3] 

Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities may aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity, and Russian forces are likely trying to exploit Ukrainian air defense missile shortages in a renewed attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid. Ukrainian officials reported that the Russian strikes temporarily caused power, water, and other outages but that Ukrainian authorities have since restored these services.[4] Intensified Russian strikes in winter 2023-2024 reportedly heavily targeted Ukrainian defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises, and the Russian strikes on energy infrastructure in early Spring 2024 likely aim to collapse the energy grid in part to stall Ukrainian efforts to rapidly expand its DIB.[5] Russian forces failed to collapse the Ukrainian energy grid on March 22 but may aim to continue intensified strikes on energy infrastructure in subsequent strike series, especially to capitalize on continued delays in Western security assistance that are reportedly expected to significantly constrain Ukraine‘s air defense umbrella.[6] Russian forces have steadily degraded some Ukrainian power production capabilities: capturing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in March 2022, occupying the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) in February 2022 and subsequently destroying its dam in June 2023, and now significantly damaging the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant (DHPP) in Zaporizhzhia City during the March 22, 2024 strike.[7] The strikes took the DHPP offline, and it will likely take some time to repair.[8] The Russian strikes may also support Russian efforts to sow internal instability in Ukraine as the Kremlin seeks to degrade domestic and international confidence in the Ukrainian government. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command warned on March 22 that Russia is preparing information operations aiming to falsely portray Ukraine as without power.[9]

Russian forces will likely continue offensive operations through Spring 2024 while preparing for an expected offensive effort in Summer 2024, although Russian forces will likely struggle to launch a concerted large-scale offensive operation in multiple operational directions in Ukraine at the same time. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stated on March 22 that Russian forces are currently committing all available resources to the Lyman, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka directions to sustain ongoing offensive operations and retain the advantage of holding the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine.[10] Russian forces have conducted consistent offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine in order to first seize and then retain the theater-wide initiative and appear to be committing tactical and operational reserves to ongoing offensive operations in hopes of destabilizing Ukrainian defensive lines and preventing Ukraine from getting the respite it would need to contest the initiative.[11] Pavlyuk stated that Russian forces are currently creating force groupings of 100,000 personnel in Ukraine but did not specify in which operational directions.[12] Russian forces have accumulated roughly 100,000 personnel along the Kharkiv-Luhansk axis, roughly 50,000 near Bakhmut (as of fall 2023), over 50,000 near Avdiivka, and are reportedly attempting to accumulate a grouping of roughly 50,000 personnel in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[13] Pavlyuk stated that Russian forces can use these groupings to replenish units that are currently losing combat power but that Russian forces may form a grouping sufficient to conduct an offensive operation in one operational direction in Summer 2024.[14] The Russian military command also appears to be forming reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations at their current tempo in Ukraine, but these reserves are unlikely to be able to function as cohesive large-scale penetration or exploitation formations ahead of the Summer 2024 offensive effort.[15] Russian forces have previously struggled to conduct large-scale offensive operations in more than one operational direction at the same time, and the Russian military does not appear to have accumulated multiple large groupings of forces or established the ”strategic reserves” that would facilitate two or more large-scale offensive operations.[16]

Russian forces likely seek to exploit current Ukrainian materiel shortages while preparing for efforts that will force Ukraine to expend a sizeable portion of the Western security assistance it may receive in the coming months. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Ivan Havrylyuk stated on March 22 that he expects that European security assistance will even out disparities between Russian and Ukrainian artillery capabilities in the next month or two.[17] Havrylyuk stated that Russian forces currently have a seven-to-one advantage in artillery ammunition over Ukrainian forces, and current Ukrainian ammunition shortages are constraining Ukraine’s ability to prevent gradual tactical Russian gains along the front.[18] Pentagon Spokesperson Sabrina Singh stated on March 21 that Ukrainian forces are having to make difficult decisions to withdraw from certain areas due to continued delays in Western security assistance, and ISW has previously assessed that materiel shortages will likely force Ukrainian forces to make tough decisions about prioritizing certain sectors of the front over sectors where limited territorial setbacks are least damaging.[19] Russian forces may seek to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations through spring regardless of difficult weather and terrain conditions in an effort to exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages before promised Western security assistance arrives in Ukraine.[20]

Imminent packages of Western security assistance may address Ukraine’s pressing immediate shortages, but Russian offensive efforts will continue to force Ukraine to expend materiel in ways that can reproduce similar shortages over time in the absence of more consistent security assistance. The expected large-scale Russian offensive effort in Summer 2024 will require Ukrainian forces to expend materiel that is in short supply, and the Russian command may intend in part for the summer offensive effort to prevent Ukrainian forces from fielding well-provisioned forces for prolonged periods or accumulating materiel for future counteroffensive operations. Ukraine’s European partners are expanding their efforts to provide more regular security assistance to Ukraine but will likely not be able to do so, specifically for artillery ammunition, in the coming months as Ukraine defends against expected Russian summer offensive operations and possible Russian offensive efforts in the second half of 2024. Consistent provisions of Western military assistance in key systems, many of which only the US can provide rapidly at scale, will play a critical role in determining Russian prospects in 2024 and when Ukrainian forces can attempt to contest the theater-wide initiative.[21]

The Ukrainian military command appears to be prioritizing rotations for frontline units but will have to address additional manpower challenges if Ukrainian forces are to seize the initiative even on a localized basis in 2024 as Ukrainian senior military officers say they hope to do. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi announced on March 22 that the Ukrainian military is currently optimizing its military organization structures to simplify and maximize the quality and efficiency of Ukraine’s force management.[22] Syrskyi stated that some Ukrainian force groupings will be “reformatted” and that this effort aims to improve the management and distribution of Ukrainian personnel. Syrskyi stated that conducting rotations for frontline units is a key priority, and Syrskyi had observed on March 14 that unspecified Ukrainian units that have been deployed to the frontline for a long time have started conducting rotations.[23] Pavlyuk stated on March 22 that the Ukrainian military has started regrouping and withdrawing a number of brigades from unspecified positions to restore their combat capability.[24] Pavlyuk stated that Ukraine is transferring forces and resources to ”recovery areas” in order to give servicemen time to rest, recover, and resupply and allow Ukrainian forces to launch ”new actions with new forces.” ISW previously assessed that the reported beginning of Ukrainian rotations suggests that the Ukrainian command believes that the situation on whatever unspecified sector(s) of the frontline where the rotations have or will occur has stabilized sufficiently for Ukrainian troops to rotate.[25]

Pavlyuk stated that Ukraine can seize the initiative if the tempo of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine decreases.[26] Russia’s theater-wide initiative allows Russia to determine the location, time, intensity, and requirements of fighting along the frontline and allows the Russian military command to reprioritize efforts dynamically to take advantage of perceived opportunities created by Ukrainian materiel shortages or other factors.[27] ISW previously assessed that it would be unwise for Ukraine to cede the advantage of the theater-wide initiative to Russia for longer than is necessary, although it is unclear when Ukraine could be able to challenge Russia’s control of the initiative given Ukraine’s manpower challenges and delays and uncertainty in the provision of US military assistance.[28] Analyst Michael Kofman told the Washington Post on March 15 that the US supplemental aid package would allow Ukrainian forces to ”buy time” but that Ukraine must also fix the ”structural problem” related to its manpower.[29] The need for rotations is only part of Ukraine’s manpower ”structural problem."

Russian authorities reportedly intend to significantly expand crypto-mobilization efforts starting in Spring 2024 amid reports about significant decreases in the number of voluntary recruits. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on March 22 that high-ranking sources from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), presidential administration, and regional governments stated that the Russian MoD plans to increase force generation starting in the spring and that Russia may intend to generate an additional 300,000 personnel within an unspecified time frame.[30] Verstka’s sources reportedly stated that the Russian military will first focus on recruiting reservists who have signed contracts with the MoD to join the “personnel mobilization reserve” that undergoes military training twice a year. An officer from an unspecified military unit in Trans-Baikal Krai reportedly told Verstka that Russian authorities are currently recruiting such reservists in ways similar to those used before partial mobilization in 2022, but that it is unclear if Russian authorities will order another mobilization wave. Verstka reported that presidential administration sources stated that Russian authorities aim to persuade and even coerce conscripts whose service term will end in April 2024 or has already ended in 2023 to sign military contracts. Verstka reported that sources indicated that military registration and enlistment offices started to issue more deferment certificates to employees of state enterprises and some defense enterprises at the end of February but that the reason for this phenomenon is unclear. Verstka reported that sources differed on whether recent activity in the Moscow Mayor’s office, including the resumption of work by employees who had previously helped military registration and enlistment offices during the fall 2022 mobilization wave and the creation of a new center for conscripts, is related to the upcoming biannual spring conscription cycle or something else.

Verstka reported that employees of the military recruitment center in Moscow indicated that the pace of Russian voluntary recruitment “dropped sharply” starting in October 2023 with the number of visitors to the Unified Contract Hiring Center in Moscow decreasing from 500-600 per day to 20-30 per day.[31] Russian forces’ ability to replenish their significant losses in recent months has been crucial for their ability to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine, particularly offensive operations near Avdiivka that began in October 2023.[32] Should Russian authorities be unable to recruit the quantity of personnel needed to replenish losses and maintain the current tempo of offensive operations in Ukraine through intensified volunteer recruitment efforts, Russian authorities would likely intensify other crypto-mobilization methods, such as the coercive mobilization of convicts and migrants, to sustain offensive operations before deciding to do so by conducting another unpopular wave of mobilization.

A Russian Storm-Z instructor noted that Russian authorities must consider the conflicting interests of the Russian military command, various groups of military personnel in Ukraine, and Russian society when deciding whether to conduct another wave of mobilization or not. The instructor claimed that Russian authorities have resorted to recruiting volunteer military personnel since they are concerned that another mobilization wave would likely spark social tension in Russia and lead to another mass exodus from the country. The instructor claimed that volunteers’ recruitment prospects in the post-election period are “ambiguous” and that another mobilization wave would be “fairly logical” to fill both the active army and the strategic reserves. The instructor highlighted, however, that Russian authorities must consider various problematic factors when deciding whether to call for another mobilization. The instructor stated that if Russian authorities were to conduct another mobilization without demobilizing those already called up in Fall 2022, there would be tension between the newly mobilized and previously mobilized personnel; if Russian authorities conduct a larger-scale mobilization than the one in the fall of 2022 and replace those previously mobilized, there would be tension with volunteer recruits who have open-ended contracts; and if Russian authorities do not conduct another mobilization wave, there would be increased tension among the military personnel who have been on the front for a long time. The instructor claimed that Russian authorities can avoid a possible mobilization if Russian forces systematically improve their reconnaissance-fire complexes (RFC) and reconnaissance-strike complex (RSC) in coordination with offensive actions. The instructor also suggested that Russian “meat assaults” are aggravating Russian forces’ personnel problems and complained that Russian authorities praise "meat assault” commanders who “amuse” Russian authorities with “beautiful” but untrue frontline reports.

Verstka reported that select Russian officials stated that the Russian military command hopes that increased force generation will allow Russian forces to conduct a future offensive operation to encircle Kharkiv City. Such an operation would pose significant challenges both to the Russian forces responsible for the effort and to the wider Russian campaign in Ukraine, however. Verstka reported that its sources stated that conscripts called up in the spring conscription cycle and “incompetent” reservists will go to Russia’s southern border in support roles or as border troops as part of efforts to free up more experienced military personnel for an attack on Kharkiv City.[33] A Russian presidential administration source reportedly told Verstka that the Russian military needs 300,000 additional personnel in order to launch an operation to encircle Kharkiv City and that Russian forces hope to seize the city without turning it into a ”second Mariupol.”[34]

A Russian offensive operation to encircle Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would require long drives across open terrain that Russian forces have not conducted since the start of the full-scale invasion.[35] Russian forces are currently conducting an offensive operation along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line that aims to reach the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast, but even if that ongoing effort achieves its intended goal, the prospects for Russian advances into Kharkiv Oblast from the east bank of the Oskil River are as challenging as the prospects of advancing elsewhere along the international border with Belgorod Oblast if not more so.[36] Russian forces have committed relatively minimal forces to protect Russia’s international borders, and these elements would be insufficient for an operation to encircle Kharkiv City.[37] The reported plan to generate 300,000 new personnel could allow Russian forces to free up relatively combat-effective elements along the frontline in Ukraine for an operation to encircle Kharkiv City, but at the expense of offensive operations in sectors of the front that the Russian military command has been prioritizing for over a year and a half of campaigning in Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces may intend to conduct limited offensive operations along the international border with Kharkiv Oblast to draw and fix Ukrainian forces and that Kremlin officials may be engaging with ultranationalists’ calls to push Ukrainian forces away from the border with Belgorod Oblast to divert Ukrainian attention away from the ongoing Russian offensive operation along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast axis.[38] ISW has yet to observe any indicators that Russian forces are currently preparing for an offensive operation to encircle Kharkiv City.

This Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a mass shooting and bombing at a concert venue in the suburbs of Moscow on the evening of March 22. Russian authorities reported that three to five attackers in camouflage opened fire with automatic weapons and detonated explosives during an event at the “Crocus City Hall” concert venue in Krasnogorsk on the northwestern outskirts of Moscow City, killing at least 40 and injuring at least 100.[39] The attackers reportedly fled the scene.[40] Russian reports suggest that up to 6,200 people had gathered at the Crocus concert venue for a sold-out concert, and eyewitnesses reported and posted footage of gunfire, explosions, casualties, and civilians fleeing the venue.[41] The explosions caused a significant fire at the Crocus venue, engulfing roughly 13,000 square meters of the building, causing the roof to cave in, and destroying the top floor.[42] Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) forces, Rosgvardia’s Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) and Special Purpose Mobile Unit (OMON) forces, and firefighters deployed to the Crocus concert hall to help fight the fire, evacuate civilians, secure the area, and search for suspects.[43] Russian authorities have detained at least one unspecified individual, though it is unclear if this individual is a suspected attacker or was detained for another reason in the aftermath of the attacks.[44]

Russian authorities have not yet reported on the identities or affiliations of the attackers but IS claimed responsibility for the attacks.[45] US officials told the Washington Post that the US has “no reason to doubt” the IS claim.[46] The Washington Post cited US officials as saying that the American and British embassies in Russia issued warnings on March 8 of possible terrorist attacks at mass gatherings in Moscow and St. Petersburg in part due to reports of IS-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) operating in Russia.[47] CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt reported that sources informed him that the US has had ”fairly specific” intelligence about IS-KP plans for an attack in Russia and that the US informed Russia of the intelligence.[48]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian authorities informed Putin about the attack within several minutes and that Putin is receiving updates from all the relevant services.[49] Russian authorities responded to the attack by canceling public events and issuing “high alert” warnings throughout Russia.[50] Russian authorities also announced increased security measures throughout Moscow Oblast and at Russian airports and rail stations.[51] The Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case into the attack and deployed an investigative team to the concert venue shortly after Russian security forces security the scene.[52] Russian officials and milbloggers threatened punishments and retaliation against the attackers and baselessly suggested that Ukraine was involved in the attack.[53]

Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhaylo Podolyak stated that Ukraine had nothing to do with the attack in Moscow.[54] The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that it rejected all accusations that Ukraine was involved in the attack.[55] US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated that there is no indication that Ukraine was involved in the attack.[56]

NATO Military Committee Chairperson Admiral Rob Bauer highlighted the ways in which Russia has prompted NATO’s refocus on collective security and the applicability of Ukrainian naval drone operations in other theaters during an interview on March 22. Bauer stated that NATO has been tracking the possibility of a conflict with Russia since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and that Russian aggression has made it necessary for NATO to return to focusing on collective security after focusing on “crisis response” over the last 20 to 30 years.[57] Bauer stated that NATO understands that ”time is not on our side” in terms of collective security because ”the enemy decides when and where they attack and how long the conflict lasts.” Bauer stated on March 21 that ”Russia’s war against Ukraine has never been about any real security threat coming from either Ukraine or NATO,” which is consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 to weaken and ultimately destroy NATO – a goal that he still pursues.[58] Bauer also highlighted Ukrainian naval drone operations against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as an “extraordinary example of innovation.”[59] Bauer stated that drones will continue to play an important role on land and at sea and that the role of drones in combined missile strikes will increase. Bauer noted that there is an important question about how naval drones can be used in other oceans and seas as effectively as Ukrainian forces have used naval drones in the Black Sea. CTP-ISW has previously reported on similar but unsuccessful efforts by the Houthis to strike vessels in the Red Sea.[60]

US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor is reportedly in Moscow, his second visit in the last two months, as the Kremlin appears to be intensifying efforts to set information conditions to justify a variety of Russian hybrid operations aimed a destabilizing Moldova. Shor stated on March 22 that his current trip to Russia is aimed at building a “clear plan” for future Russian and Moldova cooperation.[61] Shor stated that his goal is the “total resignation of the current pro-Western regime” that acts against the interest of the Moldovan people and claimed that the West is attempting to turn Moldova into “some kind of battlefield.”[62] Shor noted that he plans to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 5-8 2024.[63] Shor last visited Russia on February 7 and met with Russian Duma official Leonid Kalashnikov, the chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Eurasian Integration, and Relations with Compatriots Abroad.[64] Shor and Kalashnikov reportedly discussed the ”negative impact of the collective West on the lives of ordinary citizens of Moldova.” ISW previously assessed that Shor is a prominent Kremlin political proxy in Moldova and that Shor’s February 7 meeting with Kalashnikov was a notable inflection. Shor’s meeting with Kalashnikov was followed by the February 28 Seventh Congress of Deputies from pro-Russian Moldova breakaway region Transnistria, in which Transnistrian officials requested unspecified ”zashchita” (defense/protection) from Russia, and governor of pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul’s meetings with Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, in early March.[65] Shor may have played a role in orchestrating these events and is almost certainly a significant actor within the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Moldova.

US sanctions have seemingly prompted India to significantly decrease the amount of crude oil it imports from Russia, likely further constraining Russian attempts to skirt the G7 oil price cap. Bloomberg reported on March 22 that all of India’s private and state-run oil refineries are refusing to accept Russian crude oil transported on Russian PJSC Sovcomflot tankers due to US sanctions.[66] Bloomberg noted that the Indian refineries are increasingly scrutinizing which tankers are carrying the Russian oil and that Sovcomflot tankers account for 15 percent of Russian oil shipments to India.[67] Bloomberg also recently reported that two tankers carrying Russian crude oil have been idling off the Indian west coast since February 29.[68] Bloomberg previously reported that Indian oil buyers have turned away tankers carrying Russian crude oil priced above the G7’s $60 per barrel price cap and that India wants to distance itself from Russia due to the war in Ukraine.[69]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted the largest series of combined drone and missile strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure since the start of the full-scale invasion during the night of March 21-22.
  • Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities may aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity, and Russian forces are likely trying to exploit Ukrainian air defense missile shortages in a renewed attempt to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Russian forces will likely continue offensive operations through Spring 2024 while preparing for an expected offensive effort in Summer 2024, although Russian forces will likely struggle to launch a concerted large-scale offensive operation in multiple operational directions in Ukraine at the same time.
  • Russian forces likely seek to exploit current Ukrainian materiel shortages while preparing for efforts that will force Ukraine to expend a sizeable portion of the Western security assistance it may receive in the coming months.
  • The Ukrainian military command appears to be prioritizing rotations for frontline units but will have to address additional manpower challenges if Ukrainian forces are to seize the initiative even on a localized basis in 2024 as Ukrainian senior military officers say they hope to do.
  • Russian authorities reportedly intend to significantly expand crypto-mobilization efforts starting in Spring 2024 amid reports about significant decreases in the number of voluntary recruits.
  • Verstka reported that select Russian officials stated that the Russian military command hopes that increased force generation will allow Russian forces to conduct a future offensive operation to encircle Kharkiv City. Such an operation would pose significant challenges both to the Russian forces responsible for the effort and to the wider Russian campaign in Ukraine, however.
  • This Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a mass shooting and bombing at a concert venue in the suburbs of Moscow on the evening of March 22.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets reported on March 22 that Ukrainian authorities helped return another nine Ukrainian children to Ukrainian-controlled territory from occupied Ukraine and Russia.
  • The Moscow military registration and enlistment office has reportedly begun to issue electronic summonses for the Spring 2024 Russian conscription cycle.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 21, 2024

Click to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 21, 2024, 6:35pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:15pm ET on March 21. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 22 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian military command appears to be forming reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations in Ukraine, but these reserves are unlikely to be able to function as cohesive large-scale penetration or exploitation formations this year. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on March 21 that the Russian military command plans for the bulk of its “strategic reserves” to be operational ahead of Russia’s reported summer 2024 offensive but suggested that it is unlikely that Russia’s “strategic reserves” will be equipped to their full end strength by this time due to materiel and manpower shortages.[1] Mashovets cited Russia’s 44th Army Corps (AC), a formation that Russia is reportedly forming as part of the Leningrad Military District (LMD), and Russia’s 163rd Armored Repair Plant as examples of how materiel limitations will constrain the formation of Russian “strategic reserves.” Mashovets stated that the Russian military command will likely only be able to provide 55 to 60 percent of the arms and equipment that the 44th AC will need by the end of 2024. Mashovets similarly stated that Russian authorities are attempting to double the 163rd Armored Repair Plant’s production volumes but that this effort will likely not be completed until the end of 2024 instead of in summer 2024 as planned. Mashovets suggested that Russia’s ability to produce new weapons and equipment and modernize old systems “does not correspond” with how quickly Russia hopes to equip its strategic reserves. Mashovets’ assessment is consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian defense production is capable of sustaining the current tempo of Russian offensive operations but is unlikely to be able to fully support a potential operational or strategic-level mission in 2024.[2]

Large-scale Russian manpower losses are likely more significant than armored vehicle losses at this point in the war, particularly since Russian forces adjusted their tactics and transitioned to infantry-heavy ground attacks to conserve armored vehicles at the expense of greater manpower losses in fall 2023.[3] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi previously reported that Russia is capable of generating forces at a rate equal to Russian monthly personnel losses (roughly 25,000 to 30,000 personnel per month) and that Russia would have to conduct “mobilization” (likely referring to large-scale mobilization) to establish a “powerful strategic reserve.”[4] The British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank reported on February 12 that Russia is likely able to sustain its current rate of vehicle losses (over 3,000 armored fighting vehicles annually and nearly 8,000 since February 2022) for at least two to three years by mainly reactivating vehicles from storage.[5]

It is unclear what kind of “strategic reserve” Russia is forming based on open-source reporting but known Russian manpower and material limitations suggest that Russia will likely not commit these “strategic reserves” as a cohesive formation to fighting in Ukraine but will instead use them as a manpower pool to replenish losses along the frontline. Russia’s “powerful strategic reserves” could in theory be capable of serving as a first-echelon, penetration force or second-echelon exploitation force, capable of conducting large-scale mechanized assaults into Ukrainian defensive lines and making operationally significant advances if they were fully equipped and properly trained. ISW forecasts that Russia will not develop a strategic reserve that can serve in such capacities, however, due to the limitations discussed above.[6] Russia’s ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts have proven capable of sustaining Russia’s current offensive efforts in Ukraine despite heavy losses and could be capable of recruiting the manpower necessary to form more limited Russian operational reserves.[7] The formation of additional reserves would likely allow the Russian military to backfill losses in Ukraine without taking a significant operational pause between Russia’s ongoing localized offensive efforts this spring and Russia’s anticipated summer 2024 offensive effort, which ISW previously assessed Russian forces are attempting to avoid despite difficult weather and terrain conditions.[8]

Russian offensive tactics will likely increasingly pressure Ukrainian defenses as long as delays in Western security assistance persist. Russian forces are generally relying on their manpower and materiel superiority to conduct a relatively consistent tempo of assaults against Ukrainian positions along the frontline in hopes of wearing down Ukrainian defenders and setting conditions for exploiting Ukrainian vulnerabilities.[9] Russian forces are also expanding their use of tactical aviation, drones, and electronic warfare (EW) systems in Ukraine to prepare for and support these assaults while reportedly conducting artillery fire exceeding Ukrainian artillery fire by a ratio of up to ten to one.[10] Russian forces have significantly increased guided and unguided glide-bomb strikes against rear and frontline Ukrainian positions in 2024, notably employing mass glide-bomb strikes to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February.[11] Russian and Ukrainian forces have heavily integrated drones into their reconnaissance-fire complexes (RFC) along the frontline, and Russian forces rely on drones both before and during assaults.[12] A Ukrainian commander stated on March 20 that Russian forces in the Bakhmut direction currently operate first-person view (FPV) drones at night after Russian artillery units conduct indirect fire during the day, suggesting that Russian forces continue to experiment with tactical drones and may be deconflicting artillery and drone strikes temporally.[13] Russian forces are widely employing EW systems throughout the front to disrupt Ukraine’s own drones and are reportedly increasingly equipping armored vehicles with EW systems to minimize the threat that Ukrainian drones pose to mechanized assaults.[14] Russian artillery advantages allow Russian forces to provide extensive artillery preparation and coverage for Russian assaults and are likely allowing Russian forces to systematically degrade Ukrainian fortifications.

Ukrainian military observer Tatarigami stated on March 20 that Russian forces conduct offensive operations near Bilohorivka (south of Kreminna) and in many other sectors of the front according to the following sequence: Russian forces first conduct reconnaissance with drones, strike Ukrainian forces with glide bombs, conduct artillery preparations, advance with small squad- to company-sized infantry or lightly mechanized groups, attack Ukrainian positions from 50 to 150 meters away with FPV drone support, and then, if successful, seize positions and quickly fortify them.[15] Tatarigami added that once Russian forces sufficiently degrade the Ukrainian defense in an area, Russian forces will then commit larger, company-sized assault groups to exploit vulnerabilities.[16] Tatarigami’s observations are consistent with ISW’s observations of the general chronology of the majority of current Russian assaults along the front. Russian forces do routinely change the size of assault groups and the amount of equipment they use in assaults, however, likely to test Ukrainian responses and exploit tactical opportunities in specific sectors of the front.[17]

Overall materiel shortages will likely limit how Ukrainian forces can conduct effective defensive operations while also offering Russian forces flexibility in how to conduct offensive operations. Ukrainian ammunition shortages are reportedly forcing Ukraine to husband artillery shells, constraining Ukrainian artillery units from conducting effective counterbattery fire and likely preventing Ukrainian forces from relying on artillery fire to repel Russian assaults.[18] Tatarigami stated that constrained Ukrainian artillery resources complicate Ukrainian efforts to push Russian forces from recently captured positions and often necessitate that Ukrainian forces conduct more costly counterattacks.[19] Open-source investigations indicate that Ukraine’s ammunition shortage and inability to conduct sufficient counterbattery warfare has likely allowed Russian forces to establish stationary artillery fire positions allowing for higher and more sustained rates of fire.[20] Ukrainian air defense missiles shortages will likely continue to limit Ukraine’s ability to contest air space over occupied Ukraine and threaten the Russian tactical aircraft conducting routine glide-bomb strikes.[21] Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have repeatedly shown that they are able to prevent these Russian offensive tactics from producing tactical gains, however.[22]

Russian forces conducted a larger series of missile strikes targeting Kyiv City on the night of March 20 to 21. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched two Iskander-M/KN-23/Kh-72M Kinzhal ballistic and “aeroballistic” missiles and 29 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from 11 Tu-95MS from Volgodonsk, Rostov Oblast and Engels, Saratov Oblast and that Ukrainian air defenses and mobile fire units shot down all of the missiles over Kyiv Oblast.[23] “Aeroballistic missiles” likely refer to air-launched Kh-72M2 Kinzhal missiles, as Iskander-Ms and North Korean KN-23s are ground-launched.[24] The Kyiv City Military Administration noted that Russian forces have not targeted Kyiv City with missiles strikes in the past 44 days.[25] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported that its sources in the GUR stated that the Russian missile strikes targeted GUR positions.[26] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Patriot and other Western-provided air defense systems can down Russian ballistic missiles but noted that Ukraine does not currently have enough of these systems to cover other areas of Ukraine.[27]

NATO Military Committee Chairperson Admiral Rob Bauer stated that neither Ukraine nor NATO prompted Russia to invade Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces’ adaptations and innovations have in part changed modern warfare. Bauer stated on March 21 that “Russia’s war against Ukraine has never been about any real security threat coming from either Ukraine or NATO” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “not achieved any of his strategic objectives.”[28] ISW continues to assess that Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022 not to defend Russia against a nonexistent threat from NATO but rather to weaken and ultimately destroy NATO — a goal he still pursues.[29] Putin has claimed that Russia did not start the war in 2022 and that Russia’s invasions of Ukrainian territory in 2014 and 2022 were part of a defensive campaign aimed at protecting Russian people and the Russian state — false narratives that are meant to hide Russia’s aggression.[30] ISW also continues to assess that Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine, which amount to complete Western and Ukrainian capitulation and expansionist territorial gains, remain unchanged.[31]

Bauer also stated that Ukrainian forces have “fundamentally changed many aspects of modern warfare” and have quickly adapted and innovated, including by using Soviet-style equipment with modern Western materiel.[32] Ukraine’s innovations on the battlefield include its successful employment of so-called FrankenSAM hybrid air defense systems and experimentation and production of different drone technologies for combat missions on the battlefield.[33] Ukrainian officials have recently stated that Ukrainian forces have proven that a well-trained army with more advanced weapons can defeat an enemy with numerical manpower and materiel superiority but that Ukrainian forces can only maintain their superior capabilities with Western support, such as the provision of long-range, high-precision munitions and ammunition for Western-provided artillery systems.[34]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on March 21 that Vice Admiral Konstantin Kabantsov became acting Commander of the Russian Northern Fleet.[35] Kabantsov previously served as the Northern Fleet’s First Deputy Commander and replaced Admiral Alexander Moiseev who became acting Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy.[36]

Bloomberg reported on March 20 that an unspecified source close to the Kremlin stated that the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian incursions into Belgorod Oblast are forcing the Russian military to divert forces from the frontline to Belgorod Oblast, although ISW has not observed such claims.[37] It is unclear what forces Bloomberg’s source is referencing. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian airborne conscripts repelled recent raids in Tetkino, Kursk Oblast and that elements of the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade repelled recent raids in Belgorod Oblast.[38] Russian officials stated that Russian military, Federal Security Service (FSB) border personnel, and Rosgvardia personnel repelled recent incursions into Russia, and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that units of the Chechen "Zapad-Akhmat“ Battalion repelled raids from Kharkiv Oblast.[39] Russia previously deployed similar forces to defend against Russian pro-Ukrainian border incursions in June 2023.[40] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin must balance between the reputational cost of accepting that pro-Ukrainian forces will sometimes be able to conduct minimally effective cross-border raids into Russia while conserving its military resources for use in Ukraine and the resource cost of allocating additional forces and means to border security to reassure the Russian populace at the expense of its military operations against Ukraine.[41] The Kremlin may not suffer as high a reputational cost for limited border incursions in 2024 as it did in 2023 due to ongoing censorship efforts, however.

US sanctions continue to influence the financial sector in post-Soviet countries, as two banks in Kazakhstan recently banned the use of Russia’s “Mir” national payment system to prevent secondary sanctions. Kazakhstan’s Freedom Finance Bank stated on February 28 that it suspended operations with the “Mir” payment system due to US sanctions.[42] Kazakhstan‘s Bereke Bank also stopped issuing cash from cards using the “Mir” system on March 6.[43] Russia’s Sberbank, which fell under Western sanctions in 2022, previously owned Bereke Bank, and a company owned by the Kazakh government bought over 99 percent of Bereke Bank’s shares in September 2023, leading the US Treasury Department to remove sanctions on Bereke Bank in March 2024.[44] ISW previously reported that Armenia’s Central Bank will reportedly ban the use of the “Mir” system on March 29 and that 17 of 18 Armenian commercial banks will stop using the system on March 30.[45] The US imposed sanctions against the “Mir” system’s operator, the National Payment Card System Joint Stock Company, in February 2024.[46]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian military command appears to be forming reserves capable of sustaining ongoing offensive operations in Ukraine, but these reserves are unlikely to be able to function as cohesive large-scale penetration or exploitation formations this year.
  • Russian offensive tactics will likely increasingly pressure Ukrainian defenses as long as delays in Western security assistance persist.
  • Russian forces conducted a larger series of missile strikes targeting Kyiv City on the night of March 20 to 21.
  • NATO Military Committee Chairperson Admiral Rob Bauer stated that neither Ukraine nor NATO prompted Russia to invade Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces’ adaptations and innovations have in part changed modern warfare.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on March 21 that Vice Admiral Konstantin Kabantsov became acting Commander of the Russian Northern Fleet.
  • Bloomberg reported on March 20 that an unspecified source close to the Kremlin stated that the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian incursions into Belgorod Oblast are forcing the Russian military to divert forces from the frontline to Belgorod Oblast, although ISW has not observed such claims.
  • US sanctions continue to influence the financial sector in post-Soviet countries, as two banks in Kazakhstan recently banned the use of Russia’s “Mir” national payment system to prevent secondary sanctions.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 21.
  • Russian officials continue to highlight the work of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) in supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 20, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 20, 2024, 6:30pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30 pm ET on March 20. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Several Russian financial, economic, and military indicators suggest that Russia is preparing for a large-scale conventional conflict with NATO, not imminently but likely on a shorter timeline than what some Western analysts have initially posited. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of Russian State Duma factions on March 19 and outlined priorities for his fifth presidential term.[1] Putin emphasized the importance of developing the Russian economy and expanding the social programs announced in his February 29 address to the Federation Council.[2] Putin claimed on March 19 that he personally witnessed how corporate interests fueled appointments to legislative bodies while he was working in Leningrad and later St Petersburg, although he himself likely made substantial commissions from illegally endorsed contracts and licenses while serving as St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor and Head of Committee.[3] Putin urged the Russian State Duma faction leaders to act in the interest of the state instead of corporations or parties and emphasized the importance of appointing people based on skill and competence. Putin similarly criticized the Russian “elite” in his February 29 Federation Council address by claiming that the individuals who “lined their pockets” in the 1990s are not the elite, but that the “real elite” are workers and military servicemen who proved their loyalty to Russia.[4]

Putin is likely attempting to set conditions to stabilize Russia’s long-term financial position at a higher level of government expenditure and is signaling that Russia’s long-term financial stability will require imposing at least some pain on some wealthy industrialist siloviki (Russian strongmen with political influence). Putin likely understands that financial crackdowns against industrialist siloviki could risk the political rapport Putin has built with them and is trying to mitigate those consequences. Russia does not appear to be facing imminent financial crisis, and increased military spending has been the most significant change in Russian budgetary policy, so efforts to secure Russia’s financial future are much more likely intended to set long-term conditions than to address immediate financial concerns.[5] Russia continues efforts to circumvent international sanctions, and the International Monetary Fund assessed that Russia’s GDP will grow by 2.6 percent in 2024 and reported that Russia’s GDP grew faster than all Group of Seven (G7) countries’ economies in 2023.[6]

Polish President Andrzej Duda emphasized in a March 20 interview with CNBC that Putin is intensifying efforts to shift Russia to a war economy with the intention of being able to attack NATO as early as 2026 or 2027, citing unspecified German research.[7] Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen stated on February 9 that new intelligence indicates that Russia may attempt to attack a NATO country within three to five years, an accelerated timeline from NATO’s reported assessment in 2023.[8] The timeline for the reconstitution of a significant Russian conventional military threat depends heavily on the financial resources Putin is willing to put against military efforts. In the absence of other explanations for Putin’s apparent preparations to risk damaging his relationship with wealthy Russian clients and in the context of continuing announcements of plans to expand the Russian military considered below, Putin’s attempts to set conditions to stabilize Russia’s economy and finances are most likely part of Russian financial and domestic preparations for a potential future large-scale conflict with NATO and not just for a protracted war in Ukraine.

The Russian military continues to undertake structural reforms to simultaneously support the war in Ukraine while expanding Russia’s conventional capabilities in the long term in preparation for a potential future large-scale conflict with NATO. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu addressed the Russian MoD board on March 20 and discussed ongoing Russian military reforms intended to increase the Russian military’s combat capabilities.[9] Shoigu reported that Russia has formed the “Dnepr River Flotilla” and a “brigade” of boats as part of the flotilla. The Dnepr River Flotilla is the historical name of various special military river units that were active during the Russo-Turkish wars in 1735-1739 and 1787-1792, the Russian Civil War, and World War II, but this is the first time that Russian military officials have confirmed the formation of the Dnepr River Flotilla in relation to the ongoing war in Ukraine.[10] The Dnepr River Flotilla would most likely be deployed along with the Dnepr Grouping of Forces in Kherson Oblast and will likely defend against Ukrainian cross-river raids and counteract Ukrainian efforts to sustain a limited presence in left (east) bank Kherson Oblast. The size and level of equipment of the Dnepr River Flotilla remains unclear, but the Russian military command may also intend to use it to support Russian cross-river raids and attempts to land in Ukrainian-controlled west (right) bank Kherson Oblast. Russian and Ukrainian sources confirmed that Russian forces were able to conduct a limited raid and temporarily land in west bank Kherson Oblast on March 13, and the Dnepr River Flotilla could feasibly support further such cross-river attempts.[11] It is unlikely that the Dnepr River Flotilla has the manpower and equipment necessary to establish an enduring large-scale Russian presence in west bank Kherson Oblast or credibly threaten to re-occupy significant territory in Kherson Oblast at this time, but the presence of a new formation in this area may force Ukraine to commit manpower and scarce materiel to an axis that has been relatively inactive since November 2022. The deployment of the Dnepr River Flotilla may force the Ukrainian command to make challenging decisions about resource attribution as it husbands limited stores of artillery ammunition and other critical military equipment.

Shoigu outlined several ongoing efforts to bolster Russia’s conventional military capabilities, more likely as part of Russia’s long-term effort to prepare for a potential conventional war with NATO than as part of the war against Ukraine. Shoigu stated that Russia has formed an army corps (AC) (likely either in reference to the AC currently forming in Karelia or to the 40th AC, which has deployed to Kherson Oblast) and a motorized rifle division (potentially in reference to the 67th Motorized Rifle Division, which is committed to the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast line as part of the new 25th Combined Arms Army).[12] Shoigu also claimed that the Russian military plans to form two combined arms armies (CAAs) and 14 divisions, and 16 brigades by the end of 2024. Russia formed two new CAAs — the 25th and the 18th — in 2023, and it is unclear if Shoigu is suggesting that Russia intends to stand up two additional CAAs over the course of 2024.[13] Shoigu initially announced in January 2023 that Russia would also create three new motorized rifle divisions, two new air assault divisions, and reorganize seven motorized rifle brigades into motorized rifle divisions, and Shoigu’s March 20 speech did not differentiate between air assault and motorized rifle divisions, so it is likely that Shoigu is suggesting that Russia will stand up two new divisions in 2024 in addition to the 12 divisions (air assault and motorized rifle, inclusive) he announced in January 2023. ISW continues to assess that Russia currently lacks the manpower, military infrastructure, and training capacity to properly staff several entirely new divisions to army-level formations to full end strength in the immediate to medium-term.[14] Such reforms, however, are more likely intended to build out Russia’s long-term military capabilities vis-a-vis NATO, as opposed to immediately creating and staffing new formations up to the army level.

Ongoing personnel changes within the Russian MoD may be further indicators of Russia’s preparations for a conflict in the long-term. Shoigu introduced Lieutenant General Andrei Bulyga as the Deputy Defense Minister for logistics support during the MoD address on March 20, confirming the Russian MoD’s initial announcement of Bulyga’s appointment on March 11.[15] The Russian Armed Forces Headquarters of Logistics Support, which Bulyga now heads, is intended to organize and coordinate logistical support for Russian troops in both peacetime and wartime.[16] Bulyga’s appointment is unlikely to remedy logistics and support issues faced by Russian troops in Ukraine in the immediate term, but Bulyga may spearhead reforms to the logistics headquarters that will have more noticeable impacts in the medium to long-term. Bulyga will likely task his department with addressing logistical issues to support the ongoing conventional military reforms, setting conditions for longer-term efforts to build out Russia’s conventional capabilities.

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian air base in Saratov Oblast on March 20 amid further indications that Ukrainian drones strikes within Russia are achieving limited asymmetric effects against Russian military assets and economic output. Ukrainian and Western media reported that the GUR struck unspecified targets at the Engels air base in Saratov Oblast with Ukrainian-produced drones.[17] Satellite imagery indicates that there were 11 Russian aircraft present at the air base on March 19, although ISW has yet to observe any visual confirmation that Ukrainian forces struck Russian aircraft at Engels-2 Air Base.[18] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces destroyed four Ukrainian drones over Saratov Oblast, and Saratov Oblast Governor Roman Busargin claimed that the strikes did not cause any damage.[19] Geolocated footage from Engels includes the sound of loud explosions from nearby but is unclear if the footage depicts strikes against targets in Engels or the sound of Russian air defense striking aerial targets.[20]

Recent Ukrainian drone strikes against oil refineries within Russia may have significantly disrupted Russia’s refining capacity. Bloomberg reported on March 20 that Ukrainian drone strikes may have disabled up to 11 percent of Russia’s total refining capacity.[21] Torbjorn Tornqvist, Chief Executive Officer of multinational energy commodities trading company Guvnor, estimated on March 18 that Ukrainian strikes have taken 600,000 barrels of daily Russian oil refining capacity offline, and American multinational financial institution JPMorgan Chase and Co. estimated that the strikes have taken 900,000 barrels of daily refining capacity offline.[22] The decline in Russia’s refining capacity appears to have prompted a surge in gasoline and diesel prices on the St. Petersburg International Mercantile Exchange, but only a marginal increase in the cost of domestic fuel prices within Russia.[23] Russian Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov stated on March 20 that the Russian Energy Ministry expects refining volumes to remain roughly the same in 2024 as in 2023, although Russian Deputy Energy Minister Pavel Sorokin stated on March 14 that a possible reduction in primary oil refining in 2024 would likely lead to increases in Russian crude oil exports (since Russia would not be able to refine as much as it usually does).[24] Tornqvist estimated that offline Russian refining capacity will likely immediately impact Russian distillate exports (petroleum products produced in conventional distillation operations).[25] ISW has yet to observe reports of decreased Russian crude oil and petroleum product exports following Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries in recent weeks. Russia relied on oil revenues to buoy federal budgets amid increased spending on its war in Ukraine in 2023, and significant constraints on Russian oil exports could have substantial impacts on Russia’s ability to balance a record level of defense spending in 2024 with its commitments on social spending.[26]

Ukrainian drone strikes against targets within Russia are also likely increasing pressures on available Russian air defense assets. Director of the Russian Energy Ministry’s Department for the Development of the Gas Industry Artem Verkhov stated on March 19 that the Russian Energy Ministry is working with Rosgvardia on proposals to deploy Pantsir-S1 air defense systems to strategic energy facilities within Russia.[27] GUR spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that Russia has already deployed Pantsir air defense systems at energy facilities, however, and that Russian claims about the planned deployments are meant to reassure the Russian public.[28] Previous Ukrainian drone strikes against strategic targets in Moscow and Leningrad oblasts may have fixed Russian short-range air defenses along expected flight routes, and Russian ultranationalists have recently complained about a lack of available air defense assets in other Russian federal subjects in deep rear areas.[29] The Ukrainian ability to target Russian military infrastructure within Russia, threaten Russian oil refining and exports, and increase pressure on Russia’s air defense umbrella demonstrates that Ukraine can achieve asymmetrical impacts through strikes with limited numbers of mostly domestically produced drones.

Kremlin-affiliated actors in the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia are invoking narratives that mirror previous Russian claims about Ukraine in the years leading up to Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of the Kremlin’s wider hybrid efforts to destabilize Moldova. Yevgenia Gutsul, the governor of Gagauzia, stated in an interview with Russian outlet Izvestia published on March 20 that she would like Gagauzia to receive “zashchita” (a word that means both “defense” and “protection”) from Russia so that Gagauzian residents can have the right to a prosperous life, Gagauzian farmers can export their products to Russia, and Gagauzia can receive gas at a lower price — points Gutsul recently claimed she spoke about with Russian President Vladimir Putin.[30] Gutsul also claimed that Gagauzia is not considering leaving Moldova but wants the Moldovan government to observe the 1994 law on Gagauzia’s “special legal status” and implied that Gagauzia would consider leaving if this condition was not met.[31] Gutsul has recently drawn increased attention to the fact that Moldovan President Maia Sandu has not signed the decree to confirm Gutsul as a member of the Moldovan government, as required by the 1994 law.[32] Sandu stated in September 2023, however, that she would not sign the decree until the Moldovan Prosecution Service completed its investigation regarding corruption and bribery in the Gagauzia gubernatorial elections that brought Gutsul to power.[33]

Gutsul’s claims that the Moldovan government is not adhering to the law on Gagauzia’s special status parallel the Kremlin’s previous accusations that Ukraine did not adhere to the Minsk Agreements’ stipulations on the “special status” for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).[34] Kremlin officials and mouthpieces and Transnistrian authorities have also similarly claimed that Moldova abandoned the 5+2 negotiating process that aimed to resolve the decades-long conflict in Moldova’s other pro-Russian region, the breakaway republic of Transnistria.[35] The Kremlin has notably claimed that Ukraine’s alleged violations of the Minsk Agreements “forced” Russia to launch its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.[36] The Seventh Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 formally requested unspecified “zashchita” from Russia in response to alleged increasing pressures from Moldova.[37] ISW previously assessed that the use of a word that means both “defense” and “protection” was likely intended to set conditions for the Kremlin to interpret “defense” in a military sense if it so chooses.[38] Gutsul’s use of “zashchita” and the fact that both Transnistrian and Gagauzian authorities have invoked narratives that mirror those surrounding the Minsk Agreements in a major Russian publication suggest that the Kremlin is orchestrating a wider effort between pro-Russian actors in Gagauzia and Transnistria as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing hybrid operations to destabilize Moldova from within.[39]

Moldovan Interior Minister Adrian Efros stated on March 20 that the recent footage of a single drone allegedly flying from the direction of Odesa Oblast and striking a helicopter on the territory of a military unit in Transnistria is a video “montage” meant to cause panic and fear and that there was actually no explosion.[40] The Transnistrian Ministry of State Security (MGB), which is reportedly a “department” of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), responded to Efros’ statement and stated that it will present all available “evidence” of the incident to Interpol for assistance in an investigation.[41] ISW previously assessed that Russia or Russian-linked actors would likely be the beneficiaries of the alleged drone strike in Transnistria.[42] Russia or Russian-linked actors would also likely benefit from the dissemination of fake footage of a drone strike in Transnistria that heightens tensions between Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities and that the Kremlin could use to justify any future Russian activity in Transnistria. ISW cannot independently verify the details of the singular drone strike in Transnistria, but it is consistent with the way that Russia staged provocations in Donbas leading up to the 2022 full-scale invasion.

Key Takeaways:

  • Several Russian financial, economic, and military indicators suggest that Russia is preparing for a large-scale conventional conflict with NATO, not imminently but likely on a shorter timeline than what some Western analysts have initially posited.
  • The Russian military continues to undertake structural reforms to simultaneously support the war in Ukraine while expanding Russia’s conventional capabilities in the long term in preparation for a potential future large-scale conflict with NATO.
  • GUR reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian air base in Saratov Oblast on March 20 amid further indications that Ukrainian drones strikes within Russia are achieving limited asymmetric effects against Russian military assets and economic output.
  • Kremlin-affiliated actors in the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia are invoking narratives that mirror previous Russian claims about Ukraine in the years leading up to Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely as part of the Kremlin’s wider hybrid efforts to destabilize Moldova.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna and Donetsk City on March 20.
  • The Russian military continues to train drone operators for operations in Ukraine.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 19, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 19, 2024, 5:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on March 19. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 20 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as a key guarantor of Russian security and sovereignty following his victory in the Russian presidential election, likely signaling that Russian security services and siloviki (Russian strongmen with political influence) will continue to represent his core constituency in his fifth presidential term. Putin delivered his first major address following his March 18 electoral victory speech at the FSB board meeting on March 19 and praised FSB officers for ensuring Russian security and sovereignty.[1] Putin thanked FSB officers for successful operations in Ukraine, for suppressing attempts to interfere in Russian internal affairs, and for repelling “terrorist” attacks against Russia (in reference to limited raids by all-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteers in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts).[2] Putin also highlighted the FSB’s role in suppressing attempts by unnamed actors to provoke internal unrest and interethnic conflict within Russia and the FSB‘s responsibilities to ensure Russia’s economic security, combat corruption, and protect critical infrastructure.[3] Putin’s appeals to these FSB functions likely sought to remind his domestic constituency that his regime has the backing of an extensive security apparatus, which the Kremlin has been attempting to expand since the start of the full-scale invasion, particularly since the Wagner Group‘s failed rebellion in June 2023.[4] It is notable that one of the greatest challenges to the stability of Putin’s rule came from a silovik, deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Putin likely aims to signal that Russia’s siloviki are firmly united in support of his fifth presidential term and his war effort in Ukraine.[5] Putin, a former KGB officer himself, may be highlighting the FSB as an organization that has his current favor, although Putin has traditionally pitted Russia’s security organizations and siloviki against each other to compete for his support and prevent any singular entity from amassing too much power.[6]

Russia continues efforts to build a coalition to counterbalance the West by pursuing bilateral relationships with Iran, North Korea, and China. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko met with Chinese Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming in Moscow on March 19 to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula.[7] Rudenko and Liu accused the United States and its allies of threatening the military situation in northeastern Asia and warned the United States against the proliferation of Cold War-style “bloc thinking.”[8] Russia has notably been pursuing an intensified relationship with North Korea and has received ballistic missiles and artillery ammunition from North Korea in exchange for likely technological cooperation and other unspecified support, which has generated concern in Seoul about the security situation on the peninsula.[9] Russian Ambassador to China Igor Morgulov additionally met with Chinese Xinhua News Agency Head Fu Hua to discuss bilateral cooperation in the media sphere.[10] Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 19 to discuss bilateral cooperation, and Raisi affirmed his willingness to help Russia stabilize the South Caucasus region, potentially in reference to ongoing developments in Armenia and Azerbaijan.[11] Russia’s pursuit of a stronger political and diplomatic bilateral relationship with Beijing while also leveraging its bilateral relationships with Iran and North Korea for military benefit represents the type of ”bloc thinking ” of which Liu and Rudenko accused the US and its allies. The Kremlin has exploited the war in Ukraine to pursue bilateral relationships and create a coalition of states to counterbalance the West, which has long been a central aspect of Russia’s foreign policy.[12]

Armenia's Central Bank will reportedly ban the use of Russia’s “Mir” national payment system to prevent Armenia from falling under secondary US sanctions.[13] Kremlin newswire TASS reported on March 19 that a high-ranking source in the Armenian banking sector stated that Armenia’s Central Bank will ban local Armenian banks from using the “Mir” system starting on March 29.[14] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Armenian service Radio Azatutyun reported that 17 of 18 Armenian commercial banks will stop using the ”Mir” national payment system on March 30 and that only VTB-Armenia, a subsidiary of the Russian VTB Bank, will continue to use the system.[15] Turkey and Uzbekistan stopped using the “Mir” system in 2022, likely to avoid secondary sanctions.[16] The United States imposed sanctions against VTB Bank in February 2022 and against ”Mir” national payment system’s operator the National Payment Card System Joint Stock Company in February 2024.[17]

Pro-Russian actors in Moldova are continuing efforts to support wider Kremlin hybrid efforts to destabilize Moldova. The Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) informed Russian Ambassador to Moldova Oleg Vasnetsov that the Moldovan government is expelling an unspecified Russian diplomat in connection with their organization of polling stations in Transnistria for the Russian presidential elections despite the lack of official Moldovan consent.[18] Vasnetsov and Russian MFA Spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded, stating that Russia will not leave Moldova’s “unfriendly” actions unanswered.[19] Ilan Shor, a US-sanctioned, pro-Russian Moldovan politician, stated in an interview with Russian-language diaspora-focused outlet RTVi published on March 16 that he plans to become the Moldovan Prime Minister following the 2025 Parliamentary elections.[20] Governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, stated on March 19 that she will sue Moldovan President Maia Sandu for defamation after Sandu stated to journalists on March 18 that Gustul works for a “criminal group and not the residents of Gagauzia” and Sandu would therefore not sign the decree to include Gutsul in the Moldovan government.[21] Sandu stated in September 2023 that she would not sign the decree until the Moldovan Prosecution Service completed its investigation regarding corruption and bribery in the Gagauzia gubernatorial election that brought Gutsul to power.[22] ISW continues to assess that Russia and Russian-linked actors in Moldova are engaged in a hybrid campaign that is most likely aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within ahead of the upcoming Moldovan presidential election in late 2024 and Parliamentary elections in summer 2025.[23] Shor is currently living in exile in Israel after he fled Moldova in 2019 to avoid serving a prison sentence for massive fraud and money laundering charges.[24] The Moldovan Constitutional Court also deemed Shor’s pro-Russian political party, the Shor Party, unconstitutional in 2023.[25] Shor’s confident statement that he plans to become the Moldovan Prime Minister in 2025 indicates that he hopes a pro-Russian politician will become Moldovan president in 2024, exonerate him, vacate his prison sentence so that he can safely return to Moldova and then presumably appoint him prime minister. It is also notable that Gutsul plans to sue Sandu for defamation now, as Sandu made identical statements in November 2023 about her refusal to allow Gutsul into the Moldovan government because of Gutsul’s involvement in a ”criminal group,” which did not prompt Gutsul to press charges at that time.[26] Gutsul’s avowed decision to press charges now suggests that charges against Sandu are part of a wider effort to discredit or distract Sandu in her campaign for re-election.

Ukraine’s European partners continue efforts to stand up significant initiatives to provide military support to Ukraine. Bloomberg reported on March 19 that the European Union (EU) has prepared draft legislation that would allow the transfer of profits from frozen Russian assets to Ukraine as early as July 2024.[27] EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell stated that the EU should transfer 90 percent of Russian frozen asset revenue to an EU-run fund to finance security assistance for Ukraine and that he will submit a formal proposal for this mechanism to EU member states on March 20.[28] Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Defense Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz additionally announced on March 18 that Germany and Poland are creating an “armored vehicle coalition” to support Ukraine and noted that Sweden, the UK, and Italy have already declared their willingness to participate in the coalition.[29]

The Russian military confirmed that Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Alexander Moiseev replaced Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov as acting Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy. The Russian military officially introduced Moiseev as acting Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy at a Russian Navy ceremony in Kronstadt in St. Petersburg on March 19.[30] ISW recently assessed that Moiseev may have been appointed as acting Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy to retain a high-ranking command role as the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) deprives the Northern Fleet of its status as an “interservice strategic territorial organization” (a joint headquarters in Western military parlance) to restore the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts (MMD and LMD).[31]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as a key guarantor of Russian security and sovereignty following his victory in the Russian presidential election, likely signaling that Russian security services and siloviki will continue to represent his core constituency in his fifth presidential term.
  • Russia continues efforts to build a coalition to counterbalance the West by pursuing bilateral relationships with Iran, North Korea, and China.
  • Armenia's Central Bank will reportedly ban the use of Russia’s “Mir” national payment system to prevent Armenia from falling under secondary US sanctions.
  • Pro-Russian actors in Moldova are continuing efforts to support wider Kremlin hybrid efforts to destabilize Moldova.
  • Ukraine’s European partners continue efforts to stand up significant initiatives to provide military support to Ukraine.
  • The Russian military confirmed that Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Alexander Moiseev replaced Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov as acting Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy.
  • Russian forces recently made a confirmed advance near Avdiivka on March 19.
  • Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Kartapolov stated on March 19 that the Russian military will not increase the number of conscripts summoned during the upcoming semi-annual spring conscription cycle in comparison to the previous fall 2023 conscription cycle.
  • Kremlin officials continue to implicate themselves directly in the illegal removal of Ukrainian children to other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 18, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 18, 2024, 8:35pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00pm ET on March 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed occupied Crimea 10 years ago, setting conditions for the full conquest of Ukraine Putin still seeks. Putin signed an illegal annexation treaty with Crimean occupation officials on March 18, 2014, after Russian soldiers without identifying insignia (also known colloquially as “little green men” and, under international law, illegal combatants) swiftly and quietly invaded Crimea in February 2014.[1] Russian occupation officials staged a false and illegitimate referendum in Crimea on March 16, 2014, calling on Russia to annex Crimea.[2] Putin delivered an annexation speech to the Russian government on March 18, 2014, establishing the same false narratives he later used to set information conditions to justify and launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Putin falsely claimed that Russia was protecting Crimeans from the “oppressive“ Ukrainian government, that Ukraine is not a real state, and that Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians shared the same culture, civilization, and human values.[3] Putin celebrated the 10th anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2024, during which he attempted to justify his continued occupation of parts of Donbas and southern Ukraine and to set conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.[4]

Russian occupation authorities have consistently oppressed Ukrainians on the peninsula — the same charge of which Putin accused the Ukrainian government to justify his invasion — and Russia has since militarized Crimea to support its broader territorial ambitions against Ukraine. Putin militarized Crimea for eight years and used it to launch a large-scale invasion of southern Ukraine in February 2022.[5] Russia also began efforts in 2014 to materially change the ethnic demographics of Crimea by resettling thousands of Russians in the peninsula and sought to eradicate both the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar national identities to further integrate Crimea into Russia and secure Russia’s control over the peninsula.[6] Amnesty International released a report commemorating the 10th anniversary of Crimean occupation on March 18 stating that Russian authorities have systematically tried to eradicate the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar national identities in Ukraine over the past 10 years by interrupting, limiting, and prohibiting the use of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages.[7] Amnesty International also reported that Russian occupation authorities have suppressed religious and cultural rights in Crimea, and extensively restricted freedom of speech. ISW has previously assessed that Russia is using a similar occupation playbook to establish permanent control over newly occupied territories in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[8] Putin’s aims were never limited to the annexation of Crimea, and his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 under the amorphous stated goals of “demilitarizing,” “denazifying,” and rendering Ukraine “neutral,” indicates that Putin sought nothing less than regaining full Russian control of Ukraine and still maintains this objective today. The conditions of occupied Ukraine suggest, however, that prolonged Russian occupation of already occupied territories or the rest of Ukraine will be accompanied by oppression and ethnic cleansing to consolidate permanent Russian control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to use claimed record levels of voter turnout and support for his presidential candidacy to set informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) claimed on March 18 that Putin won the presidential election with 87.28 percent of the votes.[9] Russian CEC Chairperson Ella Pamfilova claimed that the Russian election had a record voter turnout of 77.44 percent.[10] The CEC claimed that the 2018 Russian presidential election had a 67.47 percent voter turnout and that Putin won with 76.67 percent of the vote.[11] Putin and senior Russian officials claimed that the reported record voter turnout and high public support for Putin demonstrated Russia’s unity and trust in Putin.[12] The CEC claimed that Putin won 88.12 to 95.23 percent of the vote in occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts, and Crimea.[13] Russian occupation officials have likely falsified record high support for Putin in occupied Ukraine and likely coerced Ukrainian citizens to participate in the elections, which were inherently coercive given the large number of Russian forces operating in occupied Ukraine.[14] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that 99.8 percent of the personnel in the Russian armed forces voted in the presidential election of whom 97.27 percent voted for Putin.[15] Putin claimed that he did not expect such high election results in occupied Ukraine and that the results demonstrate that people in occupied Ukraine are “grateful for Russian protection” and, therefore, he said that Russia will do everything to ensure the “protection” of occupied Ukraine.[16] Putin is likely continuing efforts to set informational conditions to justify a protracted conflict and long-term occupation of Ukraine under the guise of “protecting” civilians in occupied Ukraine who are only in danger because of the Russian invasion.[17]

Putin responded to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposals to send Western troops to Ukraine by claiming that NATO personnel are already in Ukraine. Putin stated on March 18 that military personnel from NATO member countries are already in Ukraine, including personnel who speak French and English, and acknowledged Macron’s claim that Western personnel would perform “secondary functions.”[18] Putin also reiterated Kremlin talking points about the possibility of full-scale conflict between Russia and NATO and Russia’s feigned interest in peace negotiations aimed at undermining Western support for Ukraine and convincing Western countries to push Ukraine into negotiations that would ultimately undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.[19] Politico recently reported that France is prepared to build a coalition of countries that are open to sending Western military personnel to Ukraine following Putin’s recent claims that "Western escalations,” such as sending NATO military contingents to Ukraine, could risk nuclear conflict.[20] Putin’s claim that Western military personnel are already operating in Ukraine suggests that Putin believes that the West has already violated this purported “red line,” and thus that Western concern over Russia’s response to the violation of the “red line” (if it ever existed at all) is baseless. ISW previously noted that Ukrainian forces and Western assistance to Ukraine have crossed Russia’s supposed “red lines” several times over the course of the war without drawing a significant Russian reaction, indicating that many of Russia’s “red lines” are most likely information operations designed to deter Ukrainian and Western actions.[21]

Putin re-emphasized the idea of a “sanitary zone” in Ukraine in a manner congruent with Russian Security Council Deputy Chair Dmitry Medvedev’s recent call for the total elimination of Ukrainian statehood and absorption into the Russian Federation. Putin responded to a media question on March 18 on whether Russia needs to occupy Kharkiv Oblast to ensure security of Belgorod Oblast, stating that he does “not rule out” the idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukrainian-controlled areas in response to recent “tragic events” along the Ukrainian-Russian international border. Putin was likely referring to recent pro-Ukrainian Russian cross-border raids in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.[22] Putin called the depth of this demilitarized zone a “separate issue” and refused to discuss which areas Russia needs to occupy and when, but noted that Russia may need a demilitarized zone that is difficult for Ukraine to “overcome” using “primarily foreign made” weapons.[23] Putin has previously emphasized the idea of a demilitarized zone that would push Russia and Russian-occupied of Ukraine out of range of both Ukrainian and Western-provided weapons, a goal that is unobtainable as long as Ukraine remains independent with any capability of fighting because Putin would likely lay claim to any Ukrainian territory in the demilitarized zone.[24] Putin’s demilitarized zone narrative is subtler than Medvedev’s direct calls for the total annihilation of the Ukrainian state but is still congruent with the goals outlined in Medvedev’s sardonically-named seven point “peace plan.”[25] Medvedev reiterated the Kremlin’s calls for Ukrainian “demilitarization,” “denazification,” and total defeat that Putin has highlighted as the Kremlin’s war aims since February 2022, and Medvedev’s seven points have a strong ideological basis in Putin’s 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” as ISW has previously reported.[26]

Putin admitted that the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteer forces are comprised of Russian citizens amid the continuation of cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast on March 18. Putin stated on March 18 that “four groups of traitors” (likely referring to the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), Siberian Battalion, and Ichkerian volunteers) are conducting cross-border raids into Russia and insinuated that Russia will execute the traitors.[27] Putin claimed that Russian forces have destroyed 800 of the 2,500 all-Russian pro-Ukrainian personnel he estimated to be involved in conducting the attacks into Russia.[28] Putin previously accused “Ukrainian forces” of conducted the cross-border raids on March 12 to 15.[29] Russian milbloggers praised Putin and agreed that Russian “traitors” need to “eliminated,” despite previously also claiming that “Ukrainian forces“ were conducting the raids into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.[30] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the volunteer forces continued limited ground attacks near Spodaryushino and Kozinka, Belgorod Oblast and the Siberian Battalion posted a photo claiming to show volunteer forces operating in Kozinka.[31] The Russian MoD recently added a section to its daily situational report to account for the “Belgorod direction,” suggesting concern within the Russian MoD regarding how long these cross-border raids will continue.[32] Pro-Russian all-Ukrainian volunteer forces conducted isolated cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast on March 22, June 1, and June 4–5 in 2023.[33] The previous raids appear to have been more limited than the current raids, which began on March 12 and have continued over the past six days.[34]

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova baselessly accused Ukraine of conducting the reported March 17 drone strike against a military base in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway republic of Moldova, likely as part of an ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova. Zakharova claimed on March 17 that the drone strike in Transnistria was a Ukrainian “attempt to shake [up] the situation in Transnistria and sow panic among Russian voters in Transnistria.”[35] Zakharova additionally claimed that official Moldovan statements denying Ukraine’s involvement in the strike are "ridiculous,” and Transnistrian authorities accused Moldovan authorities of an “inadequate reaction” to the strike and previous “terrorist attacks” in Transnistria.[36] The Moldovan Bureau of Reintegration previously stated that the drone strike was deliberately meant to spread fear and panic in Transnistria, implying that the strike was part of an adversarial information operation targeting Moldova, and the Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation accused Russia of conducting the strike to manipulate the information space.[37] ISW cannot independently verify the details of the singular drone strike in Transnistria or identify the responsible actors, but it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces conducted the strike given the limited means used in the strike and the insignificance of the target. Russia or Russian-linked actors could benefit from the strike in order to further the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to set information conditions to justify a variety of Russian hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing Moldova.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed occupied Crimea 10 years ago, setting conditions for the full conquest of Ukraine Putin still seeks.
  • Russian occupation authorities have consistently oppressed Ukrainians on the peninsula — the same charge of which Putin accused the Ukrainian government to justify his invasion — and Russia has since militarized Crimea to support its broader territorial ambitions against Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to use claimed record levels of voter turnout and support for his presidential candidacy to set informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin responded to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposals to send Western troops to Ukraine by claiming that NATO personnel are already in Ukraine.
  • Putin reemphasized the idea of a “sanitary zone” in Ukraine in a manner congruent with Russian Security Council Deputy Chair Dmitry Medvedev’s recent call for the total elimination of Ukrainian statehood and absorption into the Russian Federation.
  • Putin admitted that the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteer forces are comprised of Russian citizens amid the continuation of cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast on March 18.
  • Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova baselessly accused Ukraine of conducting the reported March 17 drone strike against a military base in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway republic of Moldova, likely as part of an ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova.
  • Russian forces recently made a marginal confirmed advance in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia needs to form a veteran-led Russian “Administrative Corps” as part of the “Time of Heroes” initiative, which will incorporate Russian veterans into the Russian workforce.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 17, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

March 17, 2024, 5pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:00 pm ET on March 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

French President Emmanuel Macron underlined the necessity for European countries to continue supporting a Ukrainian victory against Russia in order to ensure Ukrainian and European security. Macron stated in a March 16 interview with Ukrainian TV channels 1+1 and My-Ukraina that there will be “no peace in Europe if Ukraine is forced to capitulate.”[1] Macron called on European countries to speed up military assistance deliveries to Ukraine and stated that a “lasting peace” will restore the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and guarantee the security of Ukraine and all of Europe.[2] Macron also implied that negotiations require both Russia and Ukraine to engage in negotiations, highlighting Russia’s unwillingness to engage in legitimate and good-faith negotiations with Ukraine as an equal party.[3] Macron’s emphasis that only Russia and Ukraine can engage in legitimate negotiations directly challenges an ongoing Russian information operation aimed at framing the West as the only meaningful negotiating party in order to convince the West to accept the Kremlin’s premise that Ukraine has no independent agency and to gain concessions from the West that undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Macron also stated in a March 16 interview with French outlet Le Parisien that "perhaps at some point” it would be necessary for French troops to operate on the ground in Ukraine to counter Russian forces but that he “does not want it.”[4] Russian sources hyper-focused on Macron’s response to a question in which he affirmed that he would ask Russia for a ceasefire in Ukraine during the summer 2024 Olympics in Paris.[5] Russian official sources largely rejected Macron’s offer of a ceasefire, citing France’s continued support for Ukraine.[6] Macron stated that France would maintain a message of peace in accordance with the spirit of the Olympic movement but that a message of peace and tolerance does not preclude Ukraine’s need to fully restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity.[7]

The Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU), Special Forces (SOF), and Unmanned Systems Forces reportedly conducted a successful drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Krasnodar Krai on the night of March 16 to 17. Sources in the SBU told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that the Ukrainian SBU, SOF, and Unmanned Systems Forces struck the crude oil atmospheric distillation columns of the Slavyansk oil refinery in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, Krasnodar Krai, resulting in a large fire.[8] Krasnodar Krai Operational Headquarters claimed that several drones attempted to strike the Slavyansk oil refinery and that Russian forces neutralized them, though falling drones caused a fire.[9] A Russian milblogger claimed that two of 17 drones that targeted the Slavyansk oil refinery struck the facility.[10] Suspilne reported that SBU drones have recently successfully struck 12 oil refineries in Russia.[11] A Russian milblogger claimed that the Ukrainian strike on the Slavyansk oil refinery is the ninth Ukrainian strike on a Russian oil refinery in the past week.[12] Another Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian strikes on oil refineries are more serious than strikes on fuel depots because international sanctions against Russia complicate Russia’s ability to repair technologically complex oil refinery facilities.[13]

Unspecified actors launched a drone at a military base in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway republic in Moldova, on March 17 amidst an assessed ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within. Transnistrian outlets claimed on March 17 that a single drone struck a helicopter on the territory of an unspecified military unit in Transnistria, posted video footage of the moment of the drone strike, and alleged that the drone flew from the direction of Odesa Oblast.[14] Neither Transnistrian nor Russian authorities have accused Ukrainian forces of conducting the strike as of this writing but may do so in the future. The former Transnistrian Supreme Council Chairman, Alexander Shcherba, claimed that the strike had “Ukrainian fingerprints” and that the “main beneficiary” was Ukraine.[15] The Moldovan Bureau of Reintegration stated that the struck helicopter had not flown for years, and the strike was deliberately meant to spread fear and panic in Transnistria, implying it was part of an adversarial information operation targeting Moldova, though the Bureau of Reintegration did not explicitly accuse Transnistrian or pro-Russian forces of conducting the strike.[16] Moldovan authorities stated that they were in contact with the Ukrainian government.[17] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov described the situation as a Russian provocation.[18] The Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation accused Russia of conducting the strike to manipulate the information space.[19] ISW cannot independently verify the details of the singular drone strike in Transnistria or identify the responsible actors, but it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces conducted the strike given the limited means used in the strike and the insignificant target. Ukrainian officials have also recently stated that Transnistria does not pose a military threat to Ukraine.[20] Transnistrian authorities recently asked Russia for unspecified “zashchita” (defense/protection) against Moldova, and Russia or Russian-linked actors would likely be the beneficiaries of this provocation in order to further the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to set information conditions to justify a variety of Russian hybrid operations that aim to destabilize Moldova, about which ISW has extensively warned.[21]

All-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteer forces reportedly seized a Russian administrative building in the Belgorod Oblast border area amid continued cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast. The all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) and Siberian Battalion claimed on March 17 that their forces entered the Gorkovsky border settlement in Belgorod Oblast and seized the settlement’s administration building.[22] Russian milbloggers either denied this claim or claimed that the settlement was already deserted several years ago.[23] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), amplified footage claiming to show Russian air defenses downing a Ukrainian helicopter near Lukashivka, Sumy Oblast that was reportedly en route to Belgorod Oblast.[24] Russian milbloggers initially claimed that Russian forces downed a Western-produced helicopter, but the Russian MoD later claimed that the helicopter was a Soviet-era Mi-8.[25] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) denied the Russian claims that Russian forces downed a Ukrainian helicopter and characterized the claims as part of a Kremlin information operation.[26] Russian milbloggers claimed that limited ground activity continued near Kozinka and Spodariushino, Belgorod Oblast.[27]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled that it intends to protect the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) against Ukrainian strikes and may have replaced the BSF commander as part of this effort. The Russian MoD reported on March 17 that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the BSF command post in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea where he received reports about Ukrainian operations and the BSF’s performance.[28] Shoigu emphasized that the BSF must conduct daily training exercises to repel aerial and unmanned maritime vehicle strikes so that all Russian crews are ready to defend against such strikes.[29] Shoigu ordered that the BSF install additional weapons, including large-caliber systems and machine guns, on unspecified BSF assets to augment Russian defenses.[30] Shoigu also received a report from Russian Vice Admiral Sergei Pinchuk, whom some Russian sources recently claimed replaced Admiral Viktor Sokolov as BSF commander.[31] ISW remains unable to confirm this claim, however. A Ukrainian strike campaign has forced the BSF to redeploy the majority of its naval assets away from its main base in Sevastopol to smaller and less capable bases in Novorossiysk and elsewhere, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces Center for Strategic Communications (StratCom) reported that Ukrainian strikes have disabled roughly 33 percent of the BSF’s warships as of early February 2024, including 24 ships and one submarine.[32] Shoigu’s posturing to protect the BSF sets conditions for Shoigu to either take credit should the BSF become more effective at protecting itself against Ukrainian strikes or blame other commanders should the BSF fail in this effort.

Key Takeaways:

  • French President Emmanuel Macron underlined the necessity for European countries to continue supporting a Ukrainian victory against Russia in order to ensure Ukrainian and European security.
  • The Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU), Special Forces (SOF), and Unmanned Systems Forces reportedly conducted a successful drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Krasnodar Krai on the night of March 16 to 17.
  • Unspecified actors launched a drone at a military base in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway republic in Moldova, on March 17 amidst an assessed ongoing Kremlin hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing Moldova from within.
  • All-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteer forces reportedly seized a Russian administrative building in the Belgorod Oblast border area amid continued cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled that it intends to protect the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) against Ukrainian strikes and may have replaced the BSF commander as part of this effort.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities continue to militarize children in occupied Ukraine as part of efforts to Russify Ukrainian children and create a resource for Russia’s future force generation needs.

We do not report in detail on Russian war crimes because these activities are well-covered in Western media and do not directly affect the military operations we are assessing and forecasting. We will continue to evaluate and report on the effects of these criminal activities on the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian population and specifically on combat in Ukrainian urban areas. We utterly condemn Russian violations of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity even though we do not describe them in these reports.   

  • Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine (comprised of two subordinate main efforts)
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and encircle northern Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis
  • Russian Air, Missile, and Drone Campaign
  • Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
  • Russian Technological Adaptations
  • Activities in Russian-occupied areas
  • Ukrainian Defense Industrial Base Efforts
  • Russian Information Operations and Narratives
  • Significant Activity in Belarus

Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Luhansk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and northern Donetsk Oblast)

Ukrainian military officials recently reported that Ukrainian forces repelled three Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups on the Ukrainian-Russian international border near Stara Huta and Brusky, Sumy Oblast.[33] It is unclear whether the Ukrainian military officials were referring to previously reported Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups in the same area on March 16 or additional Russian operations on March 17 that occurred since the initial reports.[34]

Positional fighting continued on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on March 17, but there were no confirmed changes to the frontline. Positional fighting continued northeast of Kupyansk near Synkivka; west of Kreminna; and south of Kreminna near Bilohorivka.[35] Elements of the Chechen Akhmat “Aida” detachment continue to operate near Bilohorivka, and elements of the 346th Spetsnaz Brigade (Russian General Staff’s Main Directorate [GRU]) are reportedly operating near Lysychansk.[36]

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)

Russian forces reportedly unsuccessfully attacked in the Siversk direction (northeast of Bakhmut) on March 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian assault near Rozdolivka (southwest of Siversk).[37] Elements of the Russian 6th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People's. Republic [LNR] Army Corps [AC]) reportedly continue to operate near Spirne (southeast of Siversk).[38]

Positional engagements continued around Bakhmut on March 17 but did not result in changes to the frontline. Positional battles continued northwest of Bakhmut near Bohdanivka; west of Bakhmut near Ivanivske and east of Chasiv Yar; southwest of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka, Shumy, and Pivdenne.[39] Elements of the Russian 6th Motorized Rifle Division (3rd AC) reportedly continue to operate in the Bakhmut direction; and elements of the Russian 78th “Sever-Akhmat” Special Purpose Motorized Regiment are reportedly operating near Klishchiivka.[40]

Russian forces recently marginally advanced northwest and west of Avdiivka amid continued positional fighting in the area on March 17. Geolocated footage published on March 16 indicates that Russian forces recently advanced northwest of Tonenke (west of Avdiivka), and a Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces advanced along Tsentralna Street in the settlement.[41] Geolocated footage published on March 16 also indicates that Russian forces recently advanced to the central part of Orlivka (northwest of Avdiivka).[42] Positional battles continued northeast of Avdiivka near Oleksandropil; northwest of Avdiivka near Novobakhmutivka, Berdychi, and Orlivka; west of Avdiivka near Tonenke; and southwest of Avdiivka near Pervomaiske and Nevelske.[43]

Russian and Ukrainian forces recently advanced on the Donetsk City frontline amid continued positional fighting on March 17. Geolocated footage published on March 14 shows elements of the Russian 39th Motorized Rifle Brigade (68th AC, Pacific Fleet) striking Ukrainian positions south of Novomykhailivka (southwest of Donetsk City), indicating that Ukrainian forces have advanced in the area.[44] Geolocated footage published on March 17 indicates that Russian forces marginally advanced northeast of Marinka (immediately west of Donetsk City).[45] Positional fighting continued west of Donetsk City near Krasnohorivka and Heorhiivka and southwest of Donetsk City near Novomykhailivka and Pobieda.[46] Elements of the Russian 305th Artillery Brigade (5th Combined Arms Army [CAA], Eastern Military District [EMD]) are reportedly operating near Novomykhailivka.[47]

Positional engagements continued in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area on March 15. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are advancing near Malynivka (southwest of Velyka Novosilka).[48] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks southeast of Velyka Novosilka near Vodyane and Volodymyrivka and south of Velyka Novosilka near Urozhaine.[49] Elements of the Russian 60th Motorized Rifle Brigade (5th CAA, EMD) are reportedly operating near Staromayorske (south of Velyka Novosilka).[50]

Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)

Russian forces reportedly seized Myrne (northeast of Robotyne) amid continued positional fighting in western Zaporizhia Oblast on March 17. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that elements of the Russian 35th Combined Arms Army (Eastern Military District [EMD]) seized Myrne after pushing Ukrainian forces from the settlement.[51] Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces advanced near Robotyne and Verbove (east of Robotyne).[52] Positional engagements continued near Robotyne and northwest of Verbove.[53] Elements of the Russian BARS-3 ”Rodina” Battalion (Combat Army Reserve) are reportedly operating in the Zaporizhia direction.[54]

Positional engagements continued in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, particularly near Krynky and the Antonivsky roadway bridge area, on March 17.[55] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian Spetsnaz forces conducted a raid in an unspecified area of west (right) bank Kherson Oblast at an unspecified time earlier this week.[56]

Russian Air, Missile, and Drone Campaign (Russian Objective: Target Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure in the rear and on the frontline)

Russian forces launched several drone and missile strikes on Ukraine on March 16 and March 17. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces struck Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts with five S-300 missiles and struck Chernihiv Oblast with two Kh-59 cruise missiles on the night of March 16 to 17.[57] Ukrainian officials reported on March 17 that Russian forces struck an infrastructure facility in Mykolaiv City with two ballistic missiles, likely Iskander-Ms.[58] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 16 Shahed-136/131 drones from occupied Cape Chauda, Crimea, overnight on March 16 to 17 and that Ukrainian forces shot down 14 Shaheds over Odesa Oblast.[59] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that some Shahed drones damaged agricultural enterprises in Odesa Oblast overnight.[60]

Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)

Russian authorities continue to militarize children in occupied Ukraine as part of efforts to Russify Ukrainian children and create a resource for Russia’s future force generation needs. Ukrainian Luhansk Oblast Military Administration Head Artem Lysohor stated on March 17 that Russian authorities have approved the creation of the Luhansk Cadet Corps under the Russian Investigative Committee (Russia’s rough equivalent to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation), possibly before 2025.[61] Lysohor stated that Luhansk Cadet Corps will teach Ukrainian children about pro-Russian concepts including their “debt” to the Russian “Motherland.” The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated on March 17 that Russian authorities have spent a decade developing a plan to introduce a Russian federal military training system for civilians in occupied Crimea and plan to introduce the same military training system in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.[62] The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated the Kremlin ordered the establishment of centers for military-patriotic education and military training for civilians in each of Russia’s municipal entities and in occupied Ukraine and that occupation authorities are focusing on the expansion of the Young Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya) as part of these efforts. The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated that occupation authorities plan to build an “Avangard” military-patriotic education center in occupied Sevastopol in 2025-2027 that will train about 5,000 Ukrainian children annually. The “Avangard” centers reportedly cooperate with the Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF), and the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) will reportedly use the new “Avangard” center in Sevastopol to recruit personnel from occupied Crimea. Yevpatoria occupation administration head Elena Demidova announced in October 2023 that Russian occupation officials opened an “Avangard” center in the “Gagarin” children’s health camp in occupied Yevpatoria, Crimea, which reportedly accepted its first group of 100 ninth-through-eleventh grade students in early October 2023, to teach Ukrainian children basic Russian military training and organize “patriotic leisure activities.”[63] Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported in August 2023 that the Russian Investigative Committee and its head, Alexander Bastrykin, were using toys, clothes, and school supplies to coerce Ukrainian children in orphanages in Russia to join the Russian cadet corps and that Bastrykin ordered some Russian cadets corps to prepare to receive Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine as early as February 25, 2022.[64]

Russian authorities continue to use financial incentives to encourage Russian civilians to voluntarily sign contracts for military service with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russian outlet Kommersant reported on March 11 that Tatarstan regional authorities temporarily increased the signing bonus for signing a contract to join the Russian military from 305,000 rubles (about $3,300) to 400,000 rubles (about $4,300) until March 25.[65] A Russian insider source claimed on March 17 that taxi drivers are reporting an increased number of advertisements on taxi driver forums offering monetary bonuses for joining the Russian military.[66]

Russian Technological Adaptations (Russian objective: Introduce technological innovations to optimize systems for use in Ukraine) 

Nothing significant to report.

Ukrainian Defense Industrial Efforts (Ukrainian objective: Develop its defense industrial base to become more self-sufficient in cooperation with US, European, and international partners)

Note: ISW will be publishing its coverage of Ukrainian defense industrial efforts on a weekly basis in the Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. ISW will continue to track developments in Ukrainian defense industrial efforts daily and will refer to these efforts in assessments within the daily Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment and other ISW products when necessary.

ISW is not publishing coverage of Ukrainian defense industrial efforts today.

Activities in Russian-occupied areas (Russian objective: Consolidate administrative control of annexed areas; forcibly integrate Ukrainian citizens into Russian sociocultural, economic, military, and governance systems)

Note: ISW will be publishing coverage of activities in Russian-occupied areas twice a week in the Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. ISW will continue to track activities in Russian-occupied areas daily and will refer to these activities in assessments within the daily Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment and other ISW products when necessary. 

ISW is not publishing coverage of activities in Russian-occupied areas today.

Russian Information Operations and Narratives

The March 2024 Russian presidential election concluded on March 17, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the likely victor as expected. Russian state newswire TASS reported that exit polls suggest that 87 percent of voters voted for Putin, which is congruent with ISW’s previous assessments that the Kremlin aims to portray public support for Putin at about 80 percent.[67] Russian authorities continue efforts to portray the Russian presidential election as a popular and legitimate election, including by claiming that voter turnout exceeded 90 percent in some federal subjects and that the overall voter turnout was 70 percent as of 15:45 Moscow time on March 17, exceeding the alleged turnout of 67.54 percent of the last 2018 Russian presidential election.[68] Senior Russian officials continued to accuse the West of interfering in the election and claimed that attempts to divide Russia only united Russians around the election and Putin, even as demonstrations against the choreographed election continued in Russia.[69] Russians across the country and the global Russian diaspora organized large-scale “Noon against Putin” protests, lining up en masse at noon on March 17 to vote against Putin so that a surge of ballots against Putin simultaneously would complicate the Kremlin’s efforts to falsify votes in Putin’s favor.[70] Many Russian opposition outlets posted imagery showing anti-war slogans written on election ballots.[71] Russian authorities continued to crack down on certain demonstrators who damaged ballot boxes or polling centers, reportedly detaining at least 75 Russians on March 17 alone.[72] A Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed that Russian military veterans and athletes attempted to argue with and disperse demonstrators against the choreographed election.[73]

Significant activity in Belarus (Russian efforts to increase its military presence in Belarus and further integrate Belarus into Russian-favorable frameworks and Wagner Group activity in Belarus)

Nothing significant to report.

Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 16, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

March 16, 2024, 5:20pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30 pm ET on March 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) reportedly conducted a series of successful drone strikes against three Russian oil refineries in Samara Oblast on March 16. Sources in Ukrainian special services told Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine that the SBU struck the Novokuibyshevsky, Kuibyshevsky, and Syzran Rosneft oil refineries in Samara Oblast.[1] RBK-Ukraine reported that the three refineries process an estimated 25 million tons of oil per year, or 10 percent of Russia’s annual oil refinement output.[2] Geolocated footage published on March 16 shows a fire at the Syzran oil refinery following the drone strikes, and Samara Oblast Governor Dmytro Azarov stated that there was also a fire at the refinery in Novokuibyshevsky.[3] Russian outlet Kommersant reported on March 13 that Russian authorities recently strengthened anti-drone protection at the Novokuibyshevsky, Kuibyshevsky, and Syzran oil refineries following previous Ukrainian drone strikes targeting Russian oil infrastructure and reported on March 14 that Russian oil and gas and industrial enterprises are currently the main purchasers of anti-drone systems in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.[4] Kommersant also reported that Rosneft has not restarted operations at the Tuapse oil refinery following the January 25 Ukrainian drone strike against the facility, indicating that the January 25 strike likely significantly damaged the facility.[5] Russian milbloggers deliberated whether the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or Rosgvardia are to blame for not protecting Russian oil refineries and criticized general Russian bureaucracy for delaying the deployment of anti-drone countermeasures and air defense systems to defend Russian critical infrastructure operators against Ukrainian drone strikes.[6] One Russian milblogger asked why Russia has not been able to implement even an “elementary decision,” such as copying Ukraine’s mobile fire groups, to defend against drone strikes.[7]

All-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteers continue limited cross-border raids into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts. The all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) stated on March 16 that it is continuing a “limited military operation” in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts and denied previous Russian claims about the RDK, Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion suffering heavy losses in raids in recent days.[8] The RDK posted footage of alleged Russian prisoners of war (POW) that it recently captured and called on Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov to meet in order to negotiate the exchange of 25 Russian POWs.[9] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled the cross border raids near Popivka, Sumy Oblast, and in the direction of Spodaryushino and Kozinka in Belgorod Oblast.[10]

Russian authorities appointed Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reported “personal banker” Yuri Kovalchuk, to a position within the Russian Presidential Administration. Russian news outlet RBK, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported on March 15 that Russian authorities appointed Boris Kovalchuk the deputy head of the Presidential Control Directorate, a department of the Russian Presidential Administration that monitors how Russian federal and regional authorities implement Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders and directives.[11] Russian outlet Kommersant reported on March 6 that Kovalchuk left Russian energy company Inter RAO, which he headed for 15 years, and that Russian authorities initially gave Kovalchuk four positions to choose from – head of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, head of Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, Deputy Prime Minister for the Fuel and Energy Complex, or governor of St. Petersburg.[12] Bloomberg also reported on March 12 that Russian authorities were considering appointing Kovalchuk as Russian Minister of Energy.[13] The Kovalchuks are also longtime friends of Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko, who has gained increased influence with Putin since the start of the full-scale invasion.[14] Boris’ Kovalchuk’s new position within the Russian presidential administration suggests that both the Kovalchuk family and even Kiriyenko’s wider faction are gaining increased influence within the Kremlin and with Putin himself.

Russian authorities threatened Russian election disruptors and some Russian citizens’ continued attempts to disrupt voting in the Russian presidential election on March 16. Russian opposition outlet Sever Realii reported on March 16 that Russian authorities have opened at least 15 criminal cases across Russia for attempts to disrupt the election and sent at least two people to pre-trial detention centers.[15] Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairperson Ella Pamfilova stated that “simple-minded people” tried to disrupt the voting process by committing arson or damaging ballot boxes at 29 polling stations in 20 Russian federal subjects.[16] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitri Medvedev claimed that Russian citizens who attempt to disrupt the election are “scoundrels” and “traitors” who can face criminal charges for obstructing the exercise of electoral rights.[17] Medvedev threatened that attempts at election disruption are a form of “direct” assistance to Ukraine and the perpetrators could face charges of high treason. Russian State Duma deputy Yana Lantratova told Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti on March 16 that Duma deputies are preparing a bill that would increase the sentencing severity for Russians who attempt to disrupt elections and are allegedly acting on instructions from a foreign state opposing Russia during wartime.[18] The bill reportedly imposes stricter sentences of five to eight years in prison for disrupting elections. Lantratova stated that Duma deputies are preparing the bill as quickly as possible so Russian lawmakers have time to adopt it before the 2026 Russian legislative elections. Isolated public protests against the Russian presidential election and Russian President Vladimir Putin are highly unlikely to impact the course or outcome of the choreographed Russian presidential election, but Kremlin officials may be quickly responding to these incidents out of concerns that continued disruptions will tarnish the Kremlin’s effort to portray the election as Russia unifying around Putin.

Group of Seven (G7) countries issued a joint statement on March 15 warning Iran against transferring ballistic missiles or related technology to Russia.[19] The G7 stated that it is prepared to respond swiftly and in a coordinated manner should Iran provide Russia with ballistic missiles or related technology, including new and “significant measures” against Iran.[20] The G7 statement did not specify what those measures may be, but a senior US official reportedly told journalists that one option under consideration is an effective ban on Iran Air flights to Europe.[21] Reuters reported in late February 2024 that Iranian sources stated that Iran had begun ballistic missile transfers to Russia and that Russia has already received 400 Iranian short-range ballistic missiles.[22] Western media reported on March 15 that the senior US official stated that the United States and its allies have not confirmed that Iran has transferred the missiles to Russia, however.[23] Russia and Iran have been reportedly negotiating transfers of the Iranian short-range ballistic missiles in recent months as Russia continues to increasingly rely on Iran for key components and weapons for its war effort in Ukraine.[24]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • The Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) reportedly conducted a series of successful drone strikes against three Russian oil refineries in Samara Oblast on March 16.
  • All-Russian pro-Ukrainian volunteers continue limited cross-border raids into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.
  • Russian authorities appointed Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reported “personal banker” Yuri Kovalchuk, to a position within the Russian Presidential Administration.
  • Russian authorities threatened Russian election disruptors and some Russian citizens’ continued attempts to disrupt voting in the Russian presidential election on March 16.
  • Group of Seven (G7) countries issued a joint statement on March 15 warning Iran against transferring ballistic missiles or related technology to Russia.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • A Russian insider source claimed on March 16 that Rosgvardia Director Viktor Zolotov revoked a reported agreement allowing former Wagner Group units to operate independently within Rosgvardia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 15, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan 

March 15, 2024, 8:50pm ET


Russian forces will likely continue ongoing offensive efforts to destabilize Ukrainian defensive lines in Spring 2024 while also preparing for a forecasted new offensive effort in Summer 2024. The provision of Western security assistance will likely play a critical role in Ukraine’s ability to hold territory now and to repel a new Russian offensive effort in the coming months. Russian forces are attempting to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine in an effort to prevent Ukrainian forces from stabilizing their defensive lines.[1] Russian forces are particularly concentrating on pushing as far west of Avdiivka as possible before Ukrainian forces can establish a harder-to-penetrate line in the area.[2] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on March 15 that Russian forces have concentrated their efforts on the Avdiivka direction and have been conducting daily mechanized and infantry assaults in an attempt to break through Ukrainian defenses.[3] Although Ukrainian forces have recently been able to slow Russian advances west of Avdiivka, pervasive materiel shortages caused by delays in Western security assistance appear to be forcing Ukraine to prioritize limited resources to critical sectors of the front, increasing the risk of a Russian breakthrough in other less-well-provisioned sectors and making the frontline overall more fragile than it appears despite the current relatively slow rate of Russian advances.[4] Russian forces will continue to use the advantages provided by possessing the theater-wide initiative to dynamically reweight their offensive efforts this spring and into the summer, likely in hopes of exploiting possible Ukrainian vulnerabilities.[5] Russian forces may be pressing their attempts at a breakthrough before difficult weather and terrain conditions in spring will likely constrain effective mechanized maneuver on both sides of the line and further limit Russian capabilities to make significant tactical advances while the ground is still muddy.[6] Russian forces have intensified offensive operations during similar conditions before, however, and Russian forces may seek to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations through spring regardless of difficult weather and terrain conditions in an effort to exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages before promised Western security assistance arrives in Ukraine.[7]

 

Ukrainian and Western officials are increasingly warning about both significant Ukrainian materiel shortages and a new large-scale Russian offensive this summer.[8] The intent and design of the Russian Summer 2024 offensive effort is not immediately clear and likely will not be until Russian forces launch it, but the Russian military command likely intends to capitalize on any gains it makes in the coming weeks as well as on forecasts that the Ukrainian military may be even less-well-provisioned this summer than it is now. Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have shown that they can prevent Russian forces from making even marginal gains during large-scale Russian offensive efforts, and there is no reason to doubt that Ukraine could further stabilize the frontline and prepare for repelling the reported Russian offensive effort this summer if materiel shortages abated.[9]

 

Western and Ukrainian officials are expressing concerns about delays in Western security assistance to Ukraine ahead of this expected Russian offensive effort. EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell stated on March 14 that the West must increase and speed up its support for Ukraine as the next months will be “decisive” ahead of the expected major Russian offensive in the summer of 2024.[10]  Borrell stated in an interview with PBS published on March 14 that Europe alone cannot, however, make up for the lack of US aid as the US has a much stronger and larger military capacity, as ISW has previously assessed.[11] The Washington Post reported on March 15 that a senior US official stated that there is no “bright” future for Ukraine if the US does not pass the supplemental aid package for Ukraine.[12] A senior advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly told the Washington Post that Russian forces are highly likely to make significant territorial gains in Summer 2024 if the US does not provide aid to Ukraine. The Washington Post reported that Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michael Kofman assessed that the US supplemental aid package would allow Ukrainian forces to “buy time” but that Ukraine must also fix the ”structural problem” related to its limited manpower resources.

 

The threat of significant Russian gains in the coming months does not mean that there is no threat of Russian forces making such gains through offensive operations this spring. Relative Russian successes this spring, even tactical, may set conditions for Russian forces to pursue operationally significant gains in the summer. Neither would a Ukrainian ability to further stabilize the current frontlines this spring preclude Russia from pursuing a breakthrough this summer. Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces will likely be able to prevent any significant Russian advances both in Spring and Summer 2024 as long as sufficient Western security assistance arrives in the next months in a manner that allows Ukrainian forces to address current materiel shortages and prepare for and sustain future defensive operations.

 

Pressing shortages in air defense systems and missiles will likely dramatically reduce Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian strikes both in rear and frontline areas in the coming weeks if not addressed rapidly. The Washington Post reported on March 15 that Ukrainian policymakers conveyed to Western official sources that Ukraine may use up some of its air defense systems by the end of March.[13] The Ukrainian officials reportedly stated that Ukraine has previously aimed to shoot down four out of every five missiles that Russian forces launch at Ukrainian rear cities but that Ukrainian air defense shortages may force Ukraine to only target one out of every five Russian missiles. Ukraine has already had to make difficult decisions regarding the placement of its limited air defense systems in rear and frontline areas, and Russian forces have recently taken efforts to strain Ukrainian air defenses both in rear population areas and along the frontline.[14] Russian forces have recently experimented with strike packages with different means of penetrating and further pressuring the Ukrainian air defense umbrella.[15] Russian forces also utilized air strikes to tactical effect in the seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February and have intensified and improved their use of glide bombs along various sectors of the front.[16] A 60 percent reduction in Ukraine’s ability to target - let alone shoot down - Russian missiles will further exacerbate these allocation issues. ISW continues to assess that the US remains the only immediate source of necessary air defense systems like Patriots.[17]

 

Russian forces have shown the capacity to adapt to fighting in Ukraine and will likely aim to scale lessons learned from the war in Ukraine to ongoing efforts to prepare the Russian military for a potential long-term confrontation with NATO. Foreign Policy reported on March 14 that Director-General of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) Kaupo Rosin told journalists that the Russian military is “turning into a learning organization” after the past two years of war in Ukraine and is currently resolving its battlefield problems within months.[18] Rosin stated that Estonian intelligence assesses that Russian forces have largely addressed battlefield issues with large amounts of manpower and materiel and that reforms relying on mass will likely result in a low-tech, Soviet-style Russian military with significant firepower and artillery.[19] Russian forces have addressed many tactical and operational challenges in Ukraine through their ability to field a greater amount of materiel and manpower than Ukrainian forces, notably seen with a reliance on manpower-intensive ”meat assaults” to maintain a relatively high tempo of offensive operations.[20]

 

Notable Russian adaptations through mass are not the only adaptations that Russian forces have made in Ukraine, however, as the Russian military has demonstrated an uneven propensity for operational, tactical, and technological innovation and learning. The Russian defensive effort against the Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast was relatively successful largely due to the 58th Combined Arms Army’s (Southern Military District [SMD]) ability to prepare for and conduct a doctrinally sound ”elastic defense” that Russian forces had previously struggled to conduct in Ukraine.[21] That Russian defensive effort also successfully employed technological adaptations with electronic warfare (EW) systems and drones, and the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) appears to have established some degree of effective reconnaissance-fire complex (RFC) to repel Ukrainian mechanized assaults.[22] It remains unclear to what degree the Russian military has internalized and disseminated these adaptations among different Russian force groupings in Ukraine, but the Russian military is attempting to adapt to the tactical and operational challenges of fighting in Ukraine at scale.[23] Ongoing Russian offensive operations suggest that the Russian command may have learned from previous operational campaign design mistakes, and the Russian military is employing select tactical-level adaptations on certain sectors of the front.[24] Continued widespread Russian tactical failures throughout Ukraine suggest that the Russian military command has struggled the most to internalize and disseminate adaptations at the tactical level, however.[25]

 

Rosin stated that Russia is currently attempting to restructure and expand in anticipation of a possible war with NATO in the next 10 years, and other Western intelligence agencies have previously made similar assessments.[26] ISW assesses that the ongoing recreation of the Leningrad and Moscow military districts (LMD and MMD) and efforts to create at least a dozen new formations are likely preparations for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO.[27] Russian forces will also likely attempt to ensure that the Russian military has widely scaled adaptions from its current conventional war in Ukraine to forces that it envisions potentially fighting a conventional war against NATO countries that do not have similar recent experiences to draw from.

 

Senior European officials stressed that a Russian victory in Ukraine would result in Russia posing a strategic threat to NATO security. European Union (EU) High Commissioner Josep Borrell stated on March 14 that a Russian victory in Ukraine that places Russian troops on the borders of Poland, Moldova, and the Baltic states would be an “unbearable” security cost to Europe and the United States.[28] Borrell noted that there is no alternative to NATO to ensure European security against a Russian threat and stated that Russia’s invasion acted as a ”strategic wake-up call” for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense capacities in the future.[29] French President Emmanuel Macron agreed with Borrell, stating that Russia’s war in Ukraine is ”existential for our Europe and for France.”[30] Macron emphasized that a Russian victory in Ukraine would diminish European security and that if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, Europe should ”be ready to make sure that Russia never wins that war [in Ukraine].”[31] Director-General of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) Kaupo Rosin stated that a war between Russia and NATO is not inevitable but that the future of Europe heavily depends on the outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine.[32]

 

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev questioned the sovereignty of Latvia, a NATO member state, and threatened Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs following Medvedev’s March 14 call for the total elimination of Ukraine and Ukraine's absorption into Russia under Medvedev's “peace formula.” Medvedev threatened Rinkēvičs’ life in a post on March 15 and claimed that Russia will hang Rinkēvičs alongside the current “Nazi” Ukrainian government for “wish[ing] for the death of Russia.”[33] Medvedev also claimed that Latvia is a ”non-existent country.” ISW previously noted that Medvedev’s sardonic and extreme March 14 ”peace formula” more explicitly outlines real and central elements of the Kremlin’s ideology and stated war aims and justifications.[34] Medvedev’s March 15 post is a similarly explicit presentation of the Kremlin’s ideological framing of the war in Ukraine as part of Russia’s longer-term conflict with the West and NATO that Putin has previously alluded to by claiming that Russia is fighting a geopolitical “Nazi” force gaining power in the West.[35] Medvedev’s threats against Rinkēvičs and the current Ukrainian government follow previous Kremlin efforts to assert its right, contrary to international law, to enforce Russian federal law on officials of NATO member and former Soviet states for actions taken within the territory of their own countries where Russian courts have no jurisdiction, effectively denying the sovereignty of those states.[36]

 

French President Emmanuel Macron stated on March 15 that he is not ruling out sending Western troops to Ukraine but that the current situation does not require it.[37] Macron stated that anyone advocating for ”limits” on aid to Ukraine is choosing defeat and that ”to have peace in Ukraine, [Europe] must not be weak.” Macron noted that if France decides to send French troops to Ukraine in the future, the responsibility for the decision will lie solely with Russia. Macron stated that the West is doing everything possible to help Ukraine and that there can be no lasting peace in Ukraine without recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty and internationally recognized borders, including Crimea.  Politico previously reported that France is building an alliance of countries open to potentially sending Western troops to Ukraine.[38]

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed continued limited raids from Ukrainian territory into Russia’s border region on March 15. Putin accused “Ukrainian forces” - referring to likely elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion - of conducting the cross-border raids into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts on March 12 to 15 in order to disrupt Russia’s ongoing presidential election and turn international attention to Ukraine.[39] Putin claimed that the Russian people will respond to these raids with ”even greater unity” and that pro-Ukrainian forces will not intimidate Russia. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Russian border units and the Russian military continued to repel assaults by pro-Ukrainian forces near Spodaryushino and Kozinka, Belgorod Oblast and Tetkino, Kursk Oblast on March 14 and 15.[40] Russian milbloggers claimed that elements of Russia’s 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade (Russian Main Military Intelligence Directorate’s [GRU])  are also defending against the attacks on the borders of Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.[41]

 

Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Kaluga Oblast, and recent Ukrainian strikes against oil refineries reportedly caused a spike in Russian domestic oil prices. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported that the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) conducted a drone strike against the Perviy Zavod oil refinery near Kaluga City overnight on March 14 to 15 and that Russia uses this refinery for military purposes.[42] Geolocated footage published on March 15 shows a drone impact and a large explosion at the Perviy Zavod refinery, which is reportedly the largest petrochemical complex in Kaluga Oblast.[43] Russian news outlet RBK reported on March 13 that the price of Russian AI-95 grade oil exceeded 60,000 rubles (about $648) per ton for the first time since September 2023 due to Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries and that the price of other grades of Russian oil similarly increased on March 13.[44] RBK also reported that the shutdown of the two main oil processing units at the Ryazan oil refinery and another main oil processing unit at the Nizhny Novgorod refinery due to Ukrainian strikes on March 13 may reduce Russian gas production by eight to nine percent and significantly impact the Russian oil market.[45]

 

Several Russians made limited attempts to disrupt the first day of voting in the Russian presidential election on March 15. Russian opposition outlet Sever Realii reported on March 15 that the Russian Investigative Committee opened eight criminal cases against Russians who committed arson and damaged ballot boxes at polling stations throughout Russia and in occupied Ukraine.[46] Russian sources amplified footage of several Russians pouring dye, ink, or paint into ballot boxes, and Russian officials reported that some Russians also poured paint on ballot counting devices and set polling stations on fire.[47] The Moscow Prosecutor’s Office warned that residents should not attend ”Noon Against Putin” protests outside polling stations at noon on March 17.[48] Isolated public protests against the Russian presidential election and Russian President Vladimir Putin are highly unlikely to impact the course or outcome of the Russian presidential election unless there is widespread public participation, which is also unlikely.

 

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces will likely continue ongoing offensive efforts to destabilize Ukrainian defensive lines in Spring 2024 while also preparing for a forecasted new offensive effort in Summer 2024. The provision of Western security assistance will likely play a critical role in Ukraine’s ability to hold territory now and to repel a new Russian offensive effort in the coming months.
  • Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have shown that they can prevent Russian forces from making even marginal gains during large-scale Russian offensive efforts, and there is no reason to doubt that Ukraine could further stabilize the frontline and prepare for repelling the reported Russian offensive effort this summer if materiel shortages abated.
  • The threat of significant Russian gains in the coming months does not mean that there is no threat of Russian forces making such gains through offensive operations this spring.
  • Pressing shortages in air defense systems and missiles will likely dramatically reduce Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian strikes both in rear and frontline areas in the coming weeks if not addressed rapidly.
  • Russian forces have shown the capacity to adapt to fighting in Ukraine and will likely aim to scale lessons learned from the war in Ukraine to ongoing efforts to prepare the Russian military for a potential long-term confrontation with NATO.
  • Senior European officials stressed that a Russian victory in Ukraine would result in Russia posing a strategic threat to NATO security.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev questioned the sovereignty of Latvia, a NATO member state, and threatened Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs following Medvedev’s March 14 call for the total elimination of Ukraine and Ukraine's absorption into Russia under Medvedev's “peace formula.” 
  • French President Emmanuel Macron stated on March 15 that he is not ruling out sending Western troops to Ukraine but that the current situation does not require it.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed continued limited raids from Ukrainian territory into Russia’s border region on March 15.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike against a Russian oil refinery in Kaluga Oblast, and recent Ukrainian strikes against oil refineries reportedly caused a spike in Russian domestic oil prices.
  • Several Russians made limited attempts to disrupt the first day of voting in the Russian presidential election on March 15.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kupyansk and Avdiivka and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian Treatment of Prisoners of War Coordinating Headquarters Representative Petro Yatsenko stated that Russia has intensified its efforts to recruit military personnel from abroad.
  • Ukrainian sources and Russian opposition media reported that occupation officials continue coercive efforts to artificially inflate voter turnout and perceptions of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin in occupied Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 14, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 14, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00pm ET on March 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev posted a detailed call for the total elimination of the Ukrainian state and its absorption into the Russian Federation under what he euphemistically called a “peace formula.”[1] Medvedev’s demands are not novel but rather represent the Kremlin’s actual intentions for Ukraine — intentions that leave no room for negotiations for purposes other than setting the precise terms of Ukraine’s complete capitulation. Medvedev begins the “peace plan” by rhetorically stripping Ukraine of its sovereignty, referring to it as a “former” country and placing the name Ukraine in quotation marks. Medvedev laid out the seven points of his “peace formula,” which he sardonically described as “calm,” “realistic,” “humane,” and “soft.”[2] The seven points include: Ukraine’s recognition of its military defeat, complete and unconditional Ukrainian surrender, and full “demilitarization”; recognition by the entire international community of Ukraine’s “Nazi character” and the “denazification” of Ukraine’s government; a United Nations (UN) statement stripping Ukraine of its status as a sovereign state under international law, and a declaration that any successor states to Ukraine will be forbidden to join any military alliances without Russian consent; the resignation of all Ukrainian authorities and immediate provisional parliamentary elections; Ukrainian reparations to be paid to Russia; official recognition by the interim parliament to be elected following the resignation of Ukraine’s current government that all Ukrainian territory is part of Russia and the adoption of a “reunification” act bringing Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation; and finally the dissolution of this provisional parliament and UN acceptance of Ukraine’s “reunification” with Russia.[3]

The tone of Medvedev’s post is deliberately sardonic, and the calls he is making appear extreme, but every one of the seven points in Medvedev’s “peace formula” are real and central pieces of the Kremlin’s ideology and stated war aims and justifications — Medvedev just simplified and synthesized them into a single brutal Telegram post. The first two of the seven points call for the complete military defeat, disarmament, “demilitarization,” and “denazification” of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin identified the full “demilitarization” (stripping Ukraine of all its military and self-defense capabilities) and “denazification” (complete regime change) as Russia’s main goals in Ukraine when initially announcing the invasion on February 24, 2022. Putin and other Kremlin officials have frequently re-emphasized these goals in the subsequent two years of the war.[4] Medvedev’s calls for the resignation of all Ukrainian authorities and the creation of a new provisional government are calls for regime change simply made with more specificity about the methods. The demand that any successor state to Ukraine be forbidden to join military alliances without Russian permission is a call for Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, a demand that Putin and other Kremlin officials reiterate regularly.[5]

Putin established the principles that align the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine with Medvedev’s seven points in Putin’s 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Putin claimed in that article that Ukrainians and Russians are historically one united people who were violently and unjustly separated by external nefarious forces.[6] Putin used this essay to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and claims over its own political, social, historical, linguistic, and cultural development — all suggestions that underpin Medvedev’s calls to dissolve Ukraine as a legal entity and fully absorb it into the Russian Federation. Putin and other Russian officials have long set informational conditions to define Ukraine as an integral and inseparable part of Russian territory and set Russia’s goal in Ukraine as “reuniting” Ukrainian territories with their supposed historic motherland.[7] Medvedev’s “peace formula” makes explicit and brutal what Putin and the Kremlin have long demanded in somewhat more euphemistic phrases: that peace for Russia means the end of Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state of any sort with any borders. Those advocating for pressing Ukraine to enter negotiations with Russia would do well to reckon with this constantly reiterated Russian position.

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on March 14 that unspecified Ukrainian units that have been deployed to the frontline for a long time have started rotations.[8] Syrskyi stated that these unit rotations, during which deployed units will be replaced at the front with fresher units, will help stabilize the operational situation but did not specify where along the frontline Ukrainian forces were conducting the rotations in order to preserve Ukrainian operational security.[9] Ukrainian forces would likely be unable to conduct significant rotations in areas where the Ukrainian command assesses the situation is difficult or at risk of a Russian breakthrough. The reported beginning of Ukrainian rotations suggests that the Ukrainian command believes that the situation on whatever unspecified sector(s) of the frontline where the rotations will occur has stabilized sufficiently for Ukrainian troops to rotate.

Russian forces may be currently committing tactical and operational reserves to fighting in eastern Ukraine in an effort to maintain and potentially intensify the tempo of ongoing Russian offensive operations. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on March 14 that the Russian military command is committing tactical and operational reserves to Russian offensive efforts in the Lyman direction, near Bakhmut, and west and southwest of Donetsk Oblast to prevent Ukrainian forces from further stabilizing the frontline in these areas.[10] Mashovets stated that many of these reserves were meant to exploit an envisioned Russian breakthrough of Ukrainian defenses, not necessarily to support current Russian offensive operations against stabilizing Ukrainian defensive positions.[11] Mashovets stated that Russian forces recently committed additional elements of the 3rd Army Corps (AC) to fighting southwest of Bakhmut; an unspecified reserve regiment of the 20th Motorized Rifle Division (8th Combined Arms Army [CAA], Southern Military District [SMD]) and the 10th Tank Regiment (1st Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] AC) to fighting southwest of Donetsk City; and elements of the 272nd Motorized Rifle Regiment (47th Tank Division, 1st Guards Tank Army [GTA]) to the Lyman direction.[12] Mashovets added that Russian forces still possess appropriate reserves to further intensify offensive operations but that these reserves would likely be inadequate to permit the Russian military to collapse Ukrainian defenses.[13] Russian forces have previously struggled to achieve more than gradual marginal tactical gains in Ukraine since mid-2022, and the introduction of tactical or even limited operational reserves in itself does not change Russian prospects for operationally significant gains because Russian forces have not yet demonstrated the capability to conduct sound mechanized maneuvers to take large swaths of territory rapidly.[14]

The Russian ability to make significant gains is still dependent on the level of Western support for Ukraine, however, and continued delays in Western security assistance will increase the risk of operationally significant Russian gains in the long run. Ukrainian materiel shortages resulting from delays in Western security assistance may be making the current Ukrainian frontline more fragile than the relatively slow Russian advances in various sectors would indicate.[15] Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have proven that they can prevent Russian forces from making even marginal gains during large-scale Russian offensive efforts, and there is no reason to doubt that Ukrainian forces with sufficient Western security assistance would be able to stabilize the current frontline.[16] Difficult weather and terrain conditions in spring 2024 will likely constrain effective mechanized maneuver on both sides of the line and further limit Russian capabilities to make significant tactical advances while the ground is still muddy.[17] Russian forces are likely committing tactical and operational reserves to sustain the tempo of their offensive operations to press current advantages against ill-provisioned Ukrainian forces before ground conditions slow the overall operational tempo in Ukraine. Russian forces may also seek to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations through spring 2024 regardless of difficult weather and terrain conditions in an effort to exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages before promised Western security assistance arrives in Ukraine. Russian forces are reportedly preparing for a new offensive effort in late May or summer 2024, and Western security assistance to Ukraine will likely play a significant role in determining the prospects of that effort.[18]

Reported Russian transfers of tactical reserves to new areas of the frontline demonstrate Russia’s likely ability to dynamically balance and reweight its offensive efforts. Mashovets’ reporting about the transfer of elements of the DNR’s 10th Tank Regiment to southwest of Donetsk City and elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army’s (GTA) 272nd Motorized Rifle Regiment to the Lyman direction are notable as these elements were likely reserves in other directions where Russian forces are conducting offensive operations.[19] Elements of the 10thTank Regiment participated in the seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February and appear to have rested and likely partially reconstituted in the past month, and the commitment of these elements southwest of Donetsk City instead of west of Avdiivka suggests that the Russian command does not want to intensify the tempo of offensive operations near Avdiivka at the expense of a decreased operational tempo southwest of Donetsk City. Russian forces apparently reconstituting in the Avdiivka area can likely allow Russian forces to intensify efforts to push further west of Avdiivka at a moment of the Russian military’s choosing, and the Russian military command may have decided that this potential reserve is sufficient without the elements of the 10th Tank Regiment.[20]Elements of the 1st GTA have been responsible for Russian offensive operations northwest of Svatove since the start of the Russian winter-spring 2024 offensive effort on the Kharkiv-Luhansk axis in January 2024, and the 272nd Motorized Rifle Regiment was likely meant as a reserve to support those offensive operations.[21] The transfer of the elements of the 272nd Motorized Rifle Regiment to the Lyman direction may suggest that Russian forces are currently prioritizing advances in the Lyman direction over advances elsewhere along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line. These tactical transfers are relatively minor but are examples of the way in which the Russian military command can choose to increase or decrease commitment to operations anywhere along the line at will due to the operational flexibility offered by Russia’s possession of the theater-wide initiative.[22]

British outlet The Times reported on March 14 that the British government believes that Russia deliberately jammed the satellite signal on a plane carrying British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps back to the UK from Poland.[23] The Times reported that British officials believed that Russian jammed the satellite signal of a Royal Air Force (RAF) Dassault 900LX Falcon jet transporting Shapps, his staff, and select journalists back to the UK after Shapps observed NATO Steadfast Defender exercises in Poland. The signal jamming reportedly impacted GPS signals for about 30 minutes as the jet flew near Kaliningrad, also preventing passengers from accessing the internet on their mobile phones. Data from the GPSJAM GPS interference tracking site show that much of northern and central Poland and the Baltic Sea region experienced high levels of GPS jamming on March 13.[24] ISW previously reported that widespread GPS disruptions across the Baltic region and much of Poland in late December 2023 and early January 2024 may have been linked to Russian electronic warfare (EW) activity in Kaliningrad.[25] It is unclear if Russian forces deliberately targeted Shapps’ plane, but considering the recent rates of GPS interference in this region that have been likely linked to Russian EW activity, Russia could well have targeted the RAF jet for informational and political effects. Russia may have been reacting to Shapps’ recent announcement extending the deployment of British Sky Saber air defense systems in Poland through the end of the year, which pro-Kremlin milbloggers amplified likely as part of the information operation to portray the West as threatening Russia.[26]

Continued limited raids from Ukrainian territory into Russian border regions will likely force the Kremlin to choose between paying a reputational or resource cost in responding to the incursions. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), continued to claim that likely elements of the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) continued attacks on Russian border settlements, primarily Tetkino, Kursk Oblast and Kozinka and Spordaryushino, Belgorod Oblast on March 14, but that Russian border guards repelled the attacks.[27] The milbloggers claimed that these likely RDK and LSR forces conducted a low-altitude helicopter landing near Kozinka in the evening and that Russian forces continued defending against the incursion.[28] A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military command because Russian border regions cannot “breathe free” in the third year of the war and claimed that “someone” committed a “strategic miscalculation” by deciding to withdraw Russian forces all the way back to the Russian border when withdrawing from northern Ukraine in the first months of the war, making the border the frontline.[29] The milblogger called for the Russian military to implement “corrective measures” that would somehow push the frontline at least 40 kilometers from the Russian border and into Ukraine. Another milblogger criticized Russian forces for not establishing barricades in certain border settlements to prevent attacks from Ukrainian territory.[30] These criticisms highlight the Kremlin’s current dilemma in light of such cross-border incursions. The Kremlin must balance between the reputational cost of accepting that pro-Ukrainian forces will sometimes be able to conduct minimally effective cross-border raids into Russia while conserving its military resources for use in Ukraine and the resource cost of allocating additional forces and means to border security to reassure the Russian populace at the expense of its military operations against Ukraine. Russia previously allocated Rosgvardia and some Chechen “Akhmat” Spetsnaz elements to border security following May 2023 cross-border incursions without meaningfully impacting its military operations in Ukraine and could feasibly chose to make the same choice now.[31]

The Kremlin must choose a balance between acceptable reputational and resource costs, but the Kremlin may not suffer as high a reputational cost in 2024 as it did in 2023 due to ongoing censorship efforts. The Russian military command’s failure to protect Russian border regions from Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian attacks has become a point of neuralgia for the Russian information space, and this neuralgia reached a boiling point resulting from RDK and LSR raids into Belgorod Oblast in late May and early June 2023.[32] Russian ultranationalists heavily criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) failure to protect Russians within Russia, including criticizing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov by name.[33] This throughline is notably similar to that of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters when Prigozhin launched his armed rebellion and march on Moscow soon after these raids on June 24, 2023, intending to unseat Shoigu and Gerasimov for continued military failures that traded Russian lives and military competency for personal gain.[34] The Kremlin has since cracked down on the Russian information space’s complaints against the MoD, actively censoring certain fringe and extreme milbloggers through arrests or other measures, encouraging self-censorship and compliance among the remaining milbloggers, and disbanding the Wagner Group following the rebellion.[35] The Russian milblogger response to the March 2024 border raid thus far is relatively neutral compared to its response to previous border raids, indicating that the Kremlin’s efforts to directly and indirectly censor the ultranationalist community has tempered milbloggers’ willingness to respond publicly to military failures. The milbloggers who criticized the Russian response on March 12–14 did not place blame directly on the MoD, Shoigu, Gerasimov, or other prominent military figures by name, title, or epithet, instead writing in the passive voice or blaming a vague “someone.”[36] The majority of the Russian milblogger responses criticized Ukraine and the RDK and LSR rather than the Russian military command and praised the Russian forces defending against the attacks.[37]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev posted a detailed call for the total elimination of the Ukrainian state and its absorption into the Russian Federation under what he euphemistically called a “peace formula.” Medvedev’s demands are not novel but rather represent the Kremlin’s actual intentions for Ukraine—intentions that leave no room for negotiations for purposes other than setting the precise terms of Ukraine’s complete capitulation.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on March 14 that unspecified Ukrainian units that have been deployed to frontline for a long time have started rotations.
  • Russian forces may be currently committing tactical and operational reserves to fighting in eastern Ukraine in an effort to maintain and potentially intensify the tempo of ongoing Russian offensive operations.
  • The Russian ability to make significant gains is still dependent on the level of Western support for Ukraine, however, and continued delays in Western security assistance will increase the risk of operationally significant Russian gains in the long run.
  • Reported Russian transfers of tactical reserves to new areas of the frontline demonstrate Russia’s likely ability to dynamically balance and reweight their offensive efforts.
  • British outlet The Times reported on March 14 that the British government believes that Russia deliberately jammed the satellite signal on a plane carrying British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps back to the UK from Poland.
  • Continued limited raids from Ukrainian territory into Russian border regions will likely force the Kremlin to choose between paying a reputational or resource cost in responding to the incursions.
  • The Kremlin must choose a balance between acceptable reputational and resource costs, but the Kremlin may not suffer as high a reputational cost in 2024 as it did in 2023 due to ongoing censorship efforts.
  • Russian forces advanced west of Avdiivka and in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid continued positional engagements across the theater on March 14.
  • Russian regional governments have reportedly increased economic incentives for Russian volunteers to sign contracts for military service.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 13, 2024

click here to read the full assessment

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 13, 2024, 7:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on March 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian shortages of ammunition and other war materiel resulting from delays in the provision of US military assistance may be making the current Ukrainian front line more fragile than the relatively slow Russian advances in various sectors would indicate. Ukrainian prioritization of the sectors most threatened by intensive Russian offensive operations could create vulnerabilities elsewhere that Russian forces may be able to exploit to make sudden and surprising advances if Ukrainian supplies continue to dwindle. Russia’s retention of the theater-wide initiative increases the risks of such developments by letting the Russian military command choose to increase or decrease operations anywhere along the line almost at will.

German outlet Der Spiegel published interviews with unnamed Ukrainian commanders on March 12 who stated that almost all Ukrainian units and formations have to husband ammunition and materiel because of the overall ammunition shortage and that some Ukrainian units with limited ammunition and materiel can only hold their current positions if Russian forces do not “attack with full force.”[1] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi warned that there is a threat of Russian units advancing deep into Ukrainian formations in unspecified areas of the frontline.[2]

Ukrainian forces are likely attempting to mitigate problems caused by ammunition shortages by prioritizing the allocation of ammunition to sectors of the front facing larger-scale Russian offensive operations. The lower intensity of Russian offensive efforts against currently de-prioritized sectors likely obscures the risks to Ukrainian forces in those areas resulting from ammunition shortages. ISW continues to assess that Russian forces have the theater-wide initiative and will be able to determine the time, location, and scale of offensive operations so long as they retain the initiative.[3] Syrskyi’s and the Ukrainian commanders' statements suggest that an intensification of Russian offensive operations in an area where Ukrainian forces have not prioritized allocating already limited ammunition supplies could lead to a Russian breakthrough and destabilization along a previously stable sector of the frontline in a short period of time. The current frontline is likely thus not stable, and timely Western resourcing of Ukrainian troops is essential to prevent Russia from identifying and exploiting an opportunity for a breakthrough on a vulnerable sector of the front.

The rate of Russian advance west of Avdiivka has recently slowed, although Russian forces likely retain the capability to intensify offensive operations in the area at a moment of their choosing. Russian forces seized Avdiivka on February 17 after roughly four months of attritional offensive efforts to take the settlement and proceeded to maintain a relatively high tempo of offensive operations in the area to exploit tactical opportunities initially offered by the Russian seizure of the settlement.[4] Russian forces made relatively quick tactical gains west of Avdiivka in late February and aimed to push as far west as possible before Ukrainian forces could establish more cohesive and harder-to-penetrate defensive lines.[5] Ukrainian forces appear to have slowed Russian advances along positions near the Berdychi-Orlivka-Tonenke line in early March, however, despite speculation that these positions would be insufficient to receive oncoming Russian offensive operations.[6]  Russian forces likely sought to make the Russian Central Grouping of Forces (comprised of mainly Central Military District [CMD] and Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] elements) the exploitation force to take advantage of the seizure of Avdiivka.[7] The Russian military command likely intends for CMD elements to continue offensive efforts in the Avdiivka area in the near and medium term.[8]

The Central Grouping of Forces notably has yet to commit elements of select formations in the area to offensive operations west of Avdiivka as far as ISW has been able to observe.[9] Russian President Vladimir Putin previously credited the 30th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Combined Arms Army [CAA], CMD); 35th, 55th, and 74th motorized rifle brigades (all of the 41st CAA, CMD); 1st, 9th, and 114th motorized rifle brigades and 1454th Motorized Rifle Regiment and 10th Tank Regiment (all of the 1st DNR Army Corps [AC]); and the 6th, 80th, and 239th tank regiments (all of the 90th Tank Division, 41st CAA, CMD) with capturing Avdiivka.[10] Elements of the 2nd CAA’s 15th and 21st motorized rifle brigades, the DNR 1st AC’s 110th Motorized Rifle Brigade, and the Russian “Veterany” private military company (PMC) also heavily participated in Russian offensive operations near Avdiivka beginning in October 2023.[11] ISW has observed reports of elements of all three of the 2nd CAA’s brigades; elements of the 41st CAA’s 55th and 35th motorized rifle brigades, and elements of the DNR’s 1st, 9th, 110th, and 114th motorized rifle brigades attacking northwest, west, or southwest of Avdiivka since February 17.[12] ISW has not observed reports of any elements of the 90th Tank Division committed to fighting following the Russian seizure of Avdiivka, however, and Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on March 2 that elements of the 90th Tank Division were reconstituting and resting in Horlivka (northeast of Avdiivka).[13] Mashovets stated on March 2 that the Russian military command committed elements of the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade from reserve to offensive operations west of Avdiivka, although ISW has not observed wider subsequent reporting about the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade fighting in the area.[14]

Elements of the 90th Tank Division, the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade, the DNR’s 1454th Motorized Rifle Regiment and 10th Tank Regiment, and the “Veterany” PMC likely represent a sizeable uncommitted operational reserve that the Russian command can commit to continue and intensify efforts to push west of Avdiivka. These elements likely suffered heavy casualties in offensive operations between October 2023 and mid-February 2024, but a month or more of rest will likely allow Russian forces to replenish these elements and restore their degraded combat capabilities to the low-quality levels that Russian commanders appear willing to accept. ISW previously assessed that the Russian offensive effort in the Avdiivka area would eventually temporarily culminate at least until or unless Russian forces reinforced their attacking elements.[15] The Russian forces apparently reconstituting in the Avdiivka area can serve as operational reserves and let Russian forces prevent the culmination of their offensive operation and intensify efforts to push further west of Avdiivka, if or when the Russian command chooses to do so.

Russia’s theater-wide initiative in Ukraine will likely allow the Russian military command to dynamically reprioritize offensive operations throughout the frontline. The theater-wide initiative allows Russia to determine the location, time, intensity, and requirements of fighting along the frontline, and the flexibility this opportunity provides will allow the Russian military command to reprioritize efforts dynamically to take advantage of perceived opportunities occasioned by Ukrainian materiel shortages or other factors.[16] The reprioritization of offensive efforts and the commensurate transfer of materiel and manpower to various areas of the front can result in decreased offensive activity, operational pauses, or the temporary culmination of offensive operations in the area from which attacking forces are drawn. Substantial decreases in the tempo of offensive operations, operational pauses, or outright culmination are typically risky as they relieve pressure on defending forces and offer them opportunities to counterattack to regain the initiative in that sector of the frontline. The Russian military command may believe that delays in Western security assistance and growing Ukrainian materiel shortages will reduce these risks and allow Russian forces to reweight efforts without significant risk anywhere in the theater. Russian forces will continue to leverage the advantages of the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine, and ISW assesses that it would be unwise for Ukraine to cede this advantage to Russia for longer than is necessary, although continuing and increasing shortages of materiel will likely leave Ukraine with few choices.[17]

Ukrainian actors conducted large-scale drone strikes against energy infrastructure and military assets within Russia on the night of March 12 to 13. Ukrainian outlets Suspilne and RBC-Ukraine reported on March 13 that their Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) sources stated that SBU agents conducted drone strikes against oil refineries in Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, and Leningrad oblasts and military airfields in Buturlinovka and Voronezh City, Voronezh Oblast.[18] Ryazan Oblast Head Pavel Malkov confirmed that a drone struck the Ryazan oil refinery, starting a fire, and footage shows a plume of smoke rising from the oil refinery area.[19] At least three Ukrainian drones also targeted the Novoshakhtinsk oil refinery in Rostov Oblast, reportedly causing the refinery to temporarily stop operations.[20] Some Russian sources additionally claimed that one drone struck a Federal Security Service (FSB) regional building in Belgorod City, but Russian opposition media noted that Russian state media later deleted reports of this particular strike.[21] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses destroyed 58 drones on the night of March 12 to 13: 11 over Belgorod Oblast; eight over Bryansk Oblast; 29 over Voronezh Oblast; eight over Kursk Oblast; one over Leningrad Oblast; and one over Ryazan Oblast.[22] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger reported that Ukrainian drones specifically targeted the Ryazannefteprodukt Rosneft refinery in Ryazan Oblast, the Kirishi Petroleum Organic Synthesis (KINEF) refinery in Kirishi, Leningrad Oblast, and the Novoshakhtinsk refinery in Rostov Oblast, but claimed that Russian air defense and electronic warfare (EW) systems destroyed and neutralized all the drones.[23] A Russian aviation-focused milblogger claimed that Ukrainian drones mostly targeted military airfields in Voronezh Oblast.[24]

SBU sources told Suspilne that these strikes are intended to reduce Russia’s economic output and reduce oil revenue and fuel supplies that Russia uses directly for its war effort in Ukraine.[25] Ukrainian actors have continually conducted similar drone strikes against several major Russian oil refineries in 2024 thus far and successfully struck oil refineries in Krasnodar Krai and Volgograd Oblast in January and February.[26] Russian outlet Kommersant reported in February that Russian refineries reduced their output by 4 percent in January 2024 compared to the same period in 2024, and by 1.4 percent compared to December 2023.[27] Kommersant stated that this reduction was partially a result of increased drone attacks on refinery infrastructure. This reported decline in refinery production is not large, but it shows the potential for Ukraine to generate asymmetrical effects against critical Russian energy and military infrastructure by targeting high-value assets with a few relatively inexpensive drones.

The governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, claimed on March 13 that her recent meetings with Russian officials in Russia led to deepening economic ties between Gagauzia and Russia, which the Kremlin likely hopes to exploit as part of its wider efforts to destabilize Moldova and prevent Moldova from joining the European Union (EU). Gutsul gave a briefing on her meetings in Russia during her visit from March 1 to 8.[28] Gutsul claimed that her meetings focused on three “key” topics that are of the “most concern” to the Gagauz people a “special gas tariff” for Gagauzia, opening accounts for Gagauzian businesses and individuals remotely in the Russian “MIR” payment system, and the details about excise taxes and duties so Russia can open its markets to Gagauzian companies. Gutsul claimed that Gagauzian businesses exporting goods to Russia “will most likely receive very serious advantages compared to other regions of Moldova.” Moldova’s other pro-Russian region, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, has long enjoyed free supplies of Russian gas from Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom to an electricity plant in Transnistria.[29] Moldova is still heavily reliant on Transnistrian-produced electricity, despite Moldovan efforts to limit its dependence on Russian energy since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[30] Russian gas supplies to Gagauzia would likely hamper the Moldovan government’s efforts to move away from its decades-long dependence on Russian energy as it turns instead to European suppliers and would create another avenue through which Moldova is vulnerable to Russian “energy blackmail” schemes, which the Kremlin has already employed against Moldova in the past.[31] Russia could also use reduced gas prices for Gagauzia to stoke domestic discontent against the backdrop of higher gas prices in Moldova as compared to previous years when Moldova imported Russian gas.[32] Sergei Ibrishim, the Head of the Main Directorate of the Agro-Industrial Complex of Gagauzia, sent an appeal to Kremlin officials in January 2024 claiming that Gagauzian businesses have been unable to sell their products to Russia since Moldova's July 2023 decision to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly and asked Russian officials to abolish excise taxes and customs duties for Gagauzian exports to Russia.[33] The opening of Russian markets to Gagauzian products and the likely tax benefits that would accompany this opening are likely meant to dissuade Moldova from leaving the CIS, which Moldova plans to do by the end of 2024, and create inconsistencies in Moldova’s economic relations that would complicate or derail its progress towards accession into the EU.[34]

The Kremlin is likely trying to use cooperation between Gutsul and other pro-Russian actors and parties in Moldova as part of wider Kremlin hybrid warfare operations in Moldova ahead of upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Gutsul claimed that she will soon meet with Igor Dodon, Vladimir Voronin, Ilan Shor, and the leadership of the Moldovan Revival Party to discuss “possible cooperation.”[35] Dodon is the former pro-Russian president of Moldova who preceded the current president, Maia Sandu.[36] Voronin is also a former Moldovan president and current member of parliament. Dodon, as the leader of the Moldovan Socialist Party, and Voronin, as the leader of the Moldovan Communist Party and a current member of Parliament, formed an electoral alliance in parliament in 2021.[37] Ilan Shor is a US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician who recently met with Kremlin officials in Russia and is currently living in Israel after Moldovan authorities sentenced him in absentia for fraud and money laundering in April 2023.[38] The Revival Party is affiliated with Shor’s now-banned Moldovan political party, the Shor Party, and multiple parliamentary deputies from Dodon’s Socialist party have recently joined the Revival Party.[39]

Gutsul, who ran as a candidate for the Shor Party in Gagauzia’s 2023 gubernatorial election, does not have an extensive political background. Gutsul is a lawyer by training, reportedly worked as a telephone operator from 2012–2014 and then as a telecommunications operator, commercial representative, and archivist.[40] Gutsul reportedly started working as a secretary for the Shor Party from 2018-2022.  Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Leonid Slutsky and Russian cultural figures supported her gubernatorial campaign.[41] Gutsul’s plans to meet with multiple Kremlin-linked politicians and parties, despite the fact that these actors are not directly involved in Gagauzian politics and do not have previous ties to Gutsul, suggests that these meetings are Kremlin-orchestrated and aimed at furthering wider Kremlin, not Gagauzian, objectives. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is trying to use both Gagauzia and Transnistria as part of its hybrid operations aimed at sabotaging Moldova’s EU accession process and keeping Moldova within Russia’s sphere of influence.[42] The Kremlin may hope to create and exploit a coalition between Dodon’s Socialist Party, Voronin’s Communist Party, and various Shor-linked parties, such as the Revival party, to counter Sandu’s pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) party ahead of the upcoming Moldovan presidential elections in late 2024 and parliamentary elections in 2025.

Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled another limited cross-border incursion by the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts on the night of March 12 and the morning of March 13. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled all-Russian pro-Ukrainian forces that attempted to conduct a limited incursion near Kozinka and Mokraya Orlovka, Belgorod Oblast and unspecified areas in Kursk Oblast.[43] The LSR posted footage on March 13 and claimed that it seized part of Tetkino, Kursk Oblast, although the footage was geolocated to Ryzhivka, Sumy Oblast.[44] The RDK, LSR, and Siberian Battalion issued a joint statement on March 13 stating that they are targeting Russian military positions in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts and calling on civilians to leave.[45] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov acknowledged the joint statement.[46]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian shortages of ammunition and other war materiel resulting from delays in the provision of US military assistance may be making the current Ukrainian front line more fragile than the relatively slow Russian advances in various sectors would indicate.
  • The rate of Russian advance west of Avdiivka has recently slowed, although Russian forces likely retain the capability to intensify offensive operations in the area at a moment of their choosing.
  • Ukrainian actors conducted large-scale drone strikes against energy infrastructure and military assets within Russia on the night of March 12 to 13.
  • The governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, claimed on March 13 that her recent meetings with Russian officials in Russia led to deepening economic ties between Gagauzia and Russia, which the Kremlin likely hopes to exploit as part of its wider efforts to destabilize Moldova and prevent Moldova from joining the EU.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled another limited cross-border incursion by the all-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts on the night of March 12 and the morning of March 13.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire frontline on March 13.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to censor protests of wives and mothers of mobilized soldiers ahead of the Russian presidential election.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 12, 2024 

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 12, 2024, 8pm ET 

The All-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion conducted a limited cross-border incursion into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts on the morning of March 12. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on March 12 that elements of the RDK, LRS, and the Siberian Battalion were involved in clashes in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts.[1] Russian sources initially denied reports of the incursion but later claimed that Russian forces repelled Russian pro-Ukrainian forces with tank, armored vehicle, and drone support attacking near Odnorobivka, Kharkiv Oblast and Nekhoteevka and Spodaryushino, Belgorod Oblast.[2] Footage published on March 12 shows Russian pro-Ukrainian forces operating near Nekhoteevka and Spodaryushino in Belgorod Oblast and in Tetkino, Kursk Oblast.[3] LSR forces reportedly seized Tetkino, although Russian sources claimed that Russian airborne conscripts repelled all the assaults in Tetkino.[4] ISW has previously observed reports that Russia uses conscripts to defend its border with Ukraine against limited incursions and assessed that this is likely due to Russia’s unwillingness to transfer forces away from the frontline elsewhere in Ukraine.[5] Russian milbloggers noted that the incursion came days before the Russian presidential election on March 17, and several Russian milbloggers warned that there might be additional incursions in the coming days.[6]

The New York Times (NYT) reported that Russian and Ukrainian forces have differential advantages and disadvantages in their electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. NYT reported on March 12 that Russian forces have more EW equipment but that Russian EW capabilities are spread out unevenly along the front and that Russian armored vehicles are vulnerable to Ukrainian drone strikes due to their lack of mounted EW equipment.[7] The NYT stated that Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) has adopted a “top down” approach to drone production with “heavy military oversight” that has made Russian drones “predictable” and lacking variety. This lack of variation has reportedly made it easier for Russian units to coordinate their drones’ flight paths and jammers so that they can jam Ukrainian drones without jamming their own. ISW has previously reported that the effectiveness of Russian EW systems is inconsistent across the front.[8] Russian milbloggers have routinely complained about Russian forces’ lack of EW systems in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast, for example.[9] Russian milbloggers have also recently criticized the Russian military command’s failure to properly equip Russian forces with drones and EW systems after an unsuccessful Russian mechanized assault near Novomykhailivka, Donetsk Oblast.[10]

The NYT noted that Ukraine’s DIB, on the other hand, has allowed non-military companies to fund and supply drones to Ukrainian forces, which has allowed Ukrainian drone units to test different technologies, procurement processes, and combat missions on the battlefield. The NYT reported that a Ukrainian sergeant commanding a drone platoon stated that Ukrainian and Russian forces are engaged in a “constant arms race” in which one side improves its drone technology, forcing the other side to find a new way to combat this improvement.[11] ISW has also previously reported that Ukraine has over 200 companies (most of which are privately owned) producing various drones for the Ukrainian military as of October 2023.[12] Moscow Duma Deputy Andrei Medvedev recently stated that Russia has opted to mass produce drones, leading to the production of large numbers of drones that lack the technological adaptations needed to compete with Ukrainian drones.[13] Medvedev noted that Ukrainian forces are constantly improving their drones. ISW has observed how recent Russian drone and missile strike packages are also characteristic of the constant air domain offense-defense innovation-adaptation race in which Russia and Ukraine are engaged.[14] Ukrainian and Russian capabilities will likely vary across space and over time as one side will be unlikely to gain a decisive advantage across the entire frontline or permanently in one sector of the front. There will likely be opportunities to take advantage of these shifting variations.

US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably believes” that Russian forces have blunted Ukrainian efforts to retake significant territory and that US and Western support to Ukraine is “finite.”[15] The 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russia “almost certainly” does not want to engage in a direct military conflict with the United States or NATO but “will continue asymmetric activity below what it calculates to be the threshold of military conflict globally.”[16] ISW continues to assess that Russia continues to threaten NATO states and is setting conditions to justify future escalations against NATO states but does not assess that Putin desires direct full-scale war with NATO at this time.[17] US National Intelligence Director Avril Haines noted the importance of US security assistance to Ukraine to help Ukrainian forces maintain their previously liberated territories, especially amid “the sustained surge in Russian ammunition production and purchases from North Korea and Iran.”[18] ISW has previously assessed that the United States remains the only immediate source of necessary quantities of essential military equipment such as M1 Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers, advanced air defense systems such as Patriots, and long-range strike systems - equipment that previous US aid packages prioritized.[19]

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced an emergency military aid package valued at $300 million for Ukraine on March 12.[20] Sullivan stated that the aid package is comprised of new funding made available by cost saving measures in unspecified Pentagon weapons contracts.[21] Unnamed US officials told CNN that the new funding is a result of “good negotiations” and “bundling funding across different things” but noted that this is not a sustainable long-term solution to aiding Ukraine, calling the package a “one time shot.”[22] This funding does not appear to be part of the reported $4 billion in presidential drawdown authority fund still available for Ukraine.[23] Sullivan stated that the aid package would provide Ukrainian forces with enough ammunition to last “a couple of weeks” and noted that this package “does not displace and should not delay the critical need” to pass a supplemental aid package for Ukraine.[24]

Lithuanian and French authorities are expected to meet in Paris in the coming days to discuss accelerating support for Ukraine. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda stated on March 12 that he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris to discuss ways to accelerate support for Ukraine, to strengthen the security of NATO’s eastern flank, and to increase European defense production.[25] Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis stated on March 11 that “now is the time to debate” sending Western military personnel to Ukraine and the “red lines that [the West] has imposed on [itself]” in response to recent French discussions about sending Western military personnel to Ukraine.[26] French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné stated on March 9 during a meeting with Baltic and Ukrainian officials that Ukraine could use foreign troops for operations such as demining and that Russia should not be able to tell the West how to aid Ukraine by setting arbitrary “red lines.”[27]

The Kremlin continues to assert its right, contrary to international law, to enforce Russian federal law on officials of NATO members and former Soviet states for actions taken within the territory of their own countries where Russian courts have no jurisdiction, effectively denying the sovereignty of those states. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) placed the Estonian Minister of Internal Affairs, Lauri Laanemets, on its online Russian wanted list.[28] Kremlin newswire TASS reported on March 12 that Russian law enforcement agencies stated that Laanemets is wanted for the destruction and damage of Soviet war monuments.[29] The Russian MVD previously put other Baltic and Polish officials, including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, on the wanted list for the same charges despite Russia’s lack of legal authority to prosecute foreign citizens for allegedly violating Russian laws in foreign states.[30] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also banned 347 citizens from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, including many high-ranking Baltic officials, from entering Russia for allegedly having “hostile” policies towards Russia, interfering in Russian internal affairs, persecuting Russian-speaking populations, demolishing Soviet monuments, “glorifying Nazism,” and supplying Ukraine with weapons.[31] The Russian MFA claimed that it could expand the list “at any time.” Russia has previously used narratives about Russia’s right to protect its “compatriots abroad” (which includes Russian speakers), its alleged fight against neo-Nazism, and its dissatisfaction with the treatment of Soviet monuments in former Soviet states to justify its invasions of Ukraine and aggression against other countries, including NATO member Estonia, in the past.[32] ISW continues to assess that Russia‘s attempted use of pseudo-legal mechanisms against Baltic officials are part of the Russian efforts to set informational conditions justifying possible Russian escalations against NATO states in the future.[33]

The Kremlin recently implemented a series of personnel changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), Rosgvardia, and the Russian military command. Russian sources reported that the Russian military command named Lieutenant General Andrei Bulyga Deputy Defense Minister for Logistics.[34] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Bulyga previously served as Russian Western Military District (WMD) Deputy Commander for Logistics, and a Russian insider source, which has previously provided accurate reports regarding Russian command changes, claimed that Bulyga previously served in the Central Military District under Russian Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, who is reportedly the current Russian Ground Forces Commander.[35] Russian State Duma Committee on Information Policy Head Alexander Khinshtein stated on March 11 that Russian President Vladimir Putin reappointed Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Kuzmenkov as Rosgvardia Deputy Director overseeing rear areas and logistics and claimed that Kuzmenkov’s return to Rosgvardia means that Kuzmenkov has “completed his tasks” at the Russian MoD.[36] The Russian insider source claimed that the Russian military command appointed Lieutenant General Alexander Peryazev and Igor Seritsky as deputy commanders of the Moscow Military District and Lieutenant General Esedulla Abechev as Deputy Commander of the Leningrad Military District.[37] Peryazev reportedly previously served as the Commander of the Russian 6th Combined Arms Army (WMD); Seritsky reportedly previously served as the Deputy Commander of the WMD; and Abechev reportedly previously served as the Deputy Command of the 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern Military District).[38]

Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia would leave the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if the CSTO fails to meet certain Armenian expectations, as Armenia continues to distance itself from Russian security relations. Pashinyan stated on March 12 that the CSTO must clarify its “zone of responsibility” in Armenia and pledge to defend Armenia against foreign aggression, likely referencing Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty that parallels Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and states that aggression against one CSTO member state is aggression against all member states.[39] Pashinyan stated that Armenia would leave the CSTO at an unspecified date if the CSTO’s answers to Armenia’s questions do not correspond with Armenia’s expectations.[40] Pashinyan expanded on his February 22 statement that Armenia “essentially” froze its CSTO membership and explained that Armenia does not participate in CSTO sessions, does not have a permanent representative in the CSTO, did not appoint a CSTO Deputy Secretary General, and does not express opinions on documents circulating in the CSTO.[41] CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov stated on March 12 that Armenia has not recently participated in that CSTO secretariat, but that Armenia has not made any official statements about its suspension of CSTO membership.[42] Pashinyan also stated on March 12 that Russian border guards will leave Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan by August 1, 2024, following a March 6 announcement that Armenia officially informed Russia that “only Armenian border guards” should perform duties at the Zvartnots Airport.[43] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed on March 12 that Russia received Armenia’s notification that it is terminating Russian border guards’ operations at the Zvartnots Airport.[44]

Key Takeaways:

  • The All-Russian pro-Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR), and Siberian Battalion conducted a limited cross-border incursion into Belgorod and Kursk oblasts on the morning of March 12.
  • The New York Times (NYT) reported that Russian and Ukrainian forces have differential advantages and disadvantages in their electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.
  • US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) 2024 Annual Threat Assessment reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably believes” that Russian forces have blunted Ukrainian efforts to retake significant territory and that US and Western support to Ukraine is “finite.”
  • US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced an emergency military aid package valued at $300 million for Ukraine on March 12.
  • Lithuanian and French authorities are expected to meet in Paris in the coming days to discuss accelerating support for Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin continues to assert its right, contrary to international law, to enforce Russian federal law on officials of NATO members and former Soviet states for actions taken within the territory of their own countries where Russian courts have no jurisdiction, effectively denying the sovereignty of those states.
  • The Kremlin recently implemented a series of personnel changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), Rosgvardia, and the Russian military command.
  • Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia would leave the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if the CSTO fails to meet certain Armenian expectations, as Armenia continues to distance itself from Russian security relations.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 12.
  • The Kremlin is reportedly considering raising taxes, likely as part of efforts to increase federal budget revenues to fund its war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko continues to pursue industrial projects in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 11, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 11, 2024, 6:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30 pm ET on March 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. 

A Ukrainian military observer offered assessments of Russian force generation and defense industrial base (DIB) capacities that are consistent with ISW’s previous assessments. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that the Russian military command is aiming to create a “strategic reserve” for offensive operations in spring–summer 2024 but is not planning to equip these newly formed units and formations with the doctrinally required quantities of weapons and equipment due to current Russian DIB production constraints.[1] Mashovets stated that the Russian military command only plans to equip the 27th Motorized Rifle Division — which Russia is reportedly in the process of standing up on the basis of the Central Military District’s existing 21st Motorized Rifle Brigade — with up to 87 percent of its doctrinally required amounts of weapons and equipment by the second and fourth quarters of 2024 and implied that the Russian military command has a similar goal for other new formations and units. Mashovets assessed that it is unlikely that Russian forces will be able to meet this equipment goal by the fourth quarter of 2024 given that many Russian regiments, brigades, and divisions currently operating in Ukraine only have about 30 percent of the doctrinally required amounts of weapons and equipment. Several Western and Ukrainian military officials and analysts noted that Russia’s reported tank production numbers largely reflect restored and modern tanks drawn from storage rather than new production.[2]

Mashovets’ assessment is consistent with ISW’s assessment that the Russian DIB is capable of sustaining Russia’s current tempo of operations, although not likely able to fully support a potential operational or strategic-level offensive operation using a strategic reserve of manpower 2024.[3] Reports that the Russian military is prioritizing creating new underequipped units and formations are consistent with ISW‘s assessment that Russia is prioritizing the quantity of manpower and materiel over the quality of its forces.[4] ISW continues to assess that Russia would have the opportunity to expand its DIB and amass resources if it maintains the theater-wide initiative throughout 2024, thus allowing Russia to set conditions for a future offensive operation using a larger reserve of manpower and equipment.[5]

Mashovets stated that the Russian military command intends to form the bulk of the 27th Motorized Rifle Division from the newly formed 433rd Motorized Rifle Regiment (reportedly staffed by degraded elements of the 21st Separate Motorized Rifle Regiment), 506th Motorized Rifle Regiment, and 589th Motorized Rifle Regiment.[6] Mashovets stated that Russia is currently forming its 433rd, 506th, and 589th motorized rifle regiments at the Totskoye training ground in Orenburg Oblast and the “Trekhizbenovsky“ training ground in occupied Luhansk Oblast and plans to have these units ready for combat by late spring or early summer 2024.[7] These newly formed regiments are likely meant to rapidly deploy to Ukraine to offset frontline losses and are unlikely to be staffed with high-quality recruits or operating at doctrinal end strength.[8] Although Russia likely does not have the capacity to staff and equip these new units near their intended end strength in the near term, the Russian military command almost certainly has long-term intentions to fully equip these and similar units. Mashovets noted that the Russian military command has already been forced to reconsider the formation of a number of units due to “discrepanc[ies]“ between Russia’s force-generation ambitions and realities and that Russia’s ability to deploy its strategic reserves in practice are likely limited “to a certain point.”[9] The Russian military command appears to be prioritizing short-term benefits, such as limited territorial gains, over long-term sustainability and large-scale operationally meaningful undertakings in Ukraine amid ongoing Russian reformation and reconstitution efforts. ISW continues to assess that the Russian military command’s use of ongoing force structure changes to rush newly created and understrength formations into combat in Ukraine will likely constrain the immediate efficacy of these units on the battlefield but is enough to maintain the current pace of operations.[10] The major variable likely to determine the rate at which such partially replenished Russian forces can advance this summer is the availability of materiel to Ukraine, which in turn depends heavily on the continued provision of US military assistance.

Russia’s increased defense industrial base (DIB) production is likely not sustainable in the medium- and long-term as it will likely suffer from labor shortages, decreased weapons and equipment stockpiles, and an inability to completely compensate for military and dual-use items it can no longer acquire due to sanctions. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on March 11 that a senior NATO official stated that Russia can likely sustain its current war effort for two to five more years.[11]  WSJ noted that some Russian production figures, such as those for military vehicles, do not differentiate between newly produced items and refurbished ones brought out of storage, such as older, lower quality T-62 and T-54/-55 tanks. ISW has observed that reports of Russia’s reported tank “production” numbers in recent years largely reflect restored and modernized tanks drawn from storage rather than new production.[12] Open-source researchers recently analyzed satellite imagery and assessed that Russia has reportedly removed 25 to 40 percent of its tank strategic reserves, depending on the model, from open-air storage facilities since 2022.[13] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program Senior Fellow Dara Massicot assessed on March 8 that Russia’s “remaining inventory will dwindle in the next couple of years” if Russia continues its current tempo of operations.[14] WSJ reported that the Bank of Finland concluded that Russia may not be able to sustain its increased DIB production as the DIB takes personnel and material resources away from other sectors of the Russian economy.[15] WSJ reported that Kremlin official statements suggest that the Russian DIB is suffering from a personnel shortage of about 20 percent and that some DIB enterprise employees have recently complained about the lack of training and tools. ISW has previously assessed that Russia’s labor shortage, which is partially a result of its war in Ukraine and partially a symptom of Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis, will likely continue to complicate Kremlin efforts to balance increasing Russian economic capacity and force generation while catering to select members of the Russian ultranationalist community by disincentivizing migrant workers from working in Russia.[16] The Bank of Finland also reportedly found that Russia’s increased DIB production has focused on low-tech products, such as fabricated steel, and that Russia is still reliant on foreign suppliers for higher-tech items such as semiconductors.[17] WSJ stated that while Russia has successfully evaded sanctions and imported some products, Russia is struggling to source some necessary specialized items, such as tank optics, from third countries.  

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported that Russia currently has about three million rounds of old artillery ammunition in its stockpiles, but that much of it is in poor condition.[18] WSJ reported that RUSI and other Western analysts have assessed that Russia’s current domestic ammunition production is not sufficient for its war in Ukraine, so Russia will likely continue relying on supplies from partners.[19] CNN reported on March 11 that NATO intelligence estimates that Russia is producing about 250,000 artillery munitions of unspecified caliber per month totaling about three million shells per year.[20] A senior European intelligence official reportedly told CNN the US and Europe can collectively produce only about 1.2 million shells of unspecified calibers per year for Ukraine. CNN stated that the US military set a goal to produce 100,000 shells per month by the end of 2025 and noted that this is less than half of Russia’s current monthly production, but US Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Doug Bush stated on February 5 that this goal of 100,000 shells per month by 2025 only refers to 155mm artillery shells and does not include shells of other calibers that the US produces and that Ukrainian forces use.[21] NATO intelligence estimates of Russian artillery munition production cited by CNN likely include various calibers of munitions, not just 152mm shells that are the analogue to Western 155mm shells, and is likely not a direct comparison to the West’s goals for the production of 155mm shells.

Transfers of North Korean weapons to Russia by sea have apparently resumed after a pause since mid-February 2024. North Korea–focused outlet NK Pro reported on March 11 that satellite imagery indicates that a ship resembling the Russian Lady R cargo ship arrived at North Korea’s Rajin Port on March 10 and appears to be loaded with containers that crews will likely fill with arms for delivery back to Russia.[22] NK Pro stated that objects, likely delivered to the port by train from inside North Korea, appeared at the pier at Rajin Port where ships are usually loaded before departing to Russia. The Lady R ship reportedly delivered cargo from North Korea to Russia twice in October 2023 and once in February 2024. NK Pro reported on February 29 that satellite imagery indicated that Russian ships involved in the maritime transport of North Korean ammunition and weaponry to Russia had not docked at the Rajin Port since February 12.[23]

A Ukrainian military source noted that Russian forces are increasingly using grenades equipped with chemical substances in the Zaporizhia direction, in potential violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to which Russia is a signatory. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Dmytro Lykhovyi stated on March 11 that Russian forces used at least 60 grenades equipped with a suffocating and tear-inducing substance on Ukrainian positions in the Tavriisk direction (Avdiivka through western Zaporizhia Oblast) between March 4 to March 10 alone, noting that most of these attacks occurred in the Zaporizhia direction.[24] Lykhovyi suggested that Russian forces are most likely equipping grenades with chloropicrin (PS) or a similar substance. PS is a lung-damaging riot control agent (RCA) that shares the characteristics of tear gas — it is not necessarily lethal but can have extremely irritating and harmful impacts when inhaled.[25] The CWC prohibits the use of PS and other RCAs in warfare, and Russia has been a signatory to the CWC since 1997.[26]

The Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has summoned Russian Ambassador to Moldova Oleg Vasnetsov in response to claims that Russia will operate polling stations in pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria during the Russian presidential election. The Moldovan MFA summoned Vasnetsov to appear on March 12 in response to Moldova’s “disapproval” of claims that Russia will operate polling stations in Transnistria.[27] Regional outlet Transnistrian News claimed on March 11 that Russian citizens will be able to vote in the Russian presidential election at six polling stations in Transnistria on March 17 despite previous Moldovan rulings that Russia can only operate one polling station at the Russian embassy in Chisinau.[28] Russian Embassy Press Secretary Anatoly Loshakov appeared to deny Transnistrian News’ claim, stating that the embassy is only organizing voting at the polling station at the embassy.[29] These claims may be part of the Kremlin’s efforts to use Transnistria and pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia in information operations to support hybrid operations aimed at sabotaging Moldova’s EU accession process and keeping Moldova within Russia’s sphere of influence.[30]

Russia, China, and Iran will hold the joint Maritime Security Belt – 2024 naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman between March 11–15.[31] Kremlin-affiliated outlet Izvestia reported on March 11 that a detachment ships of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, including the Varyag Slava-class cruiser, arrived at Iran’s Chabahar Port to participate in Maritime Security Belt-2024 alongside Iranian and Chinese naval detachments.[32] The exercise, which was first held in 2019, is intended to practice safe joint naval maneuvers to ensure safe maritime economic activity.[33] The Russian Marshal Shaposhnikov Udaloy-class destroyer; the Chinese Ürümqi destroyer, Linyi frigate, Dongpinghu replenishment ship; and 10 unnamed Iranian ships, boats, and supply vessels and three naval helicopters are taking part in the exercise.[34] Representatives of Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Oman, India, and South Africa will observe the exercise.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claimed that the West intends to use Armenia as a tool against Russia, a notable escalation in its information operations criticizing Armenian efforts to distance itself from security relations with Russia. UK Minister of State for the Armed Forces James Heappey stated on March 10 that the UK recognizes Armenia’s decision to “essentially” freeze its participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) “in the face of threats of relation from Russia,” while acknowledging that Armenia is not officially leaving the CSTO.[35] The Russian MFA claimed that Heappey’s statement was “direct confirmation” of the West’s intent to “turn Armenia into a tool against Moscow” and its wider “anti-Russian” efforts in the post-Soviet space and the South Caucasus.[36] The Russian MFA called on Armenian officials to “think seriously.” Senior Russian government officials have acknowledged and criticized Armenia’s lack of participation in the CSTO since Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan’s February 22 announcement that Armenia “essentially” froze its participation in the CSTO.[37] The Kremlin is likely preparing a harsher and more concerted response as Armenia continues to take measures to distance itself from Russia and signal interest in strengthening relations with the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill on March 11 that allows Russian authorities to further restrict actors it deems “foreign agents” to consolidate control over the Russian information space ahead of the presidential election. Putin signed a bill that bans Russians from advertising the content of individuals and organizations legally designated as “foreign agents” and from advertising their own content on platforms that “foreign agents” own.[38] ISW previously assessed that this law will impact Russian opposition media’s ability to operate and report reliably in Russia and reported that at least one Russian opposition journalist has already suspended their work in Russia due to the new advertising ban.[39] ISW recently observed reports that large Russian advertising agencies have already included unilateral termination clauses in their advertising contracts in case the Kremlin designates a client as a foreign agent during the term of their contract.[40] The Russian Cabinet of Ministers also announced its support for a draft bill that would allow the Russian government to designate foreign organizations whose founders or participants are allegedly affiliated with foreign governments as “undesirable” and fine or imprison individuals found guilty of participating in their events.[41]

France is reportedly prepared to build a coalition of countries that are open to potentially sending Western military personnel to Ukraine.[42] French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné announced on March 9 during a meeting with Baltic and Ukrainian officials that Ukraine could use foreign troops for operations such as demining or similar efforts and that Western personnel in Ukraine would not necessarily fight.[43] Séjourné emphasized that “it is not for Russia to tell us how we [the West] should help Ukraine in the coming months or years,” noting that Russia should not be able to control how the West responds to Russia by setting arbitrary “red lines.” Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski similarly stated on March 8 that the “presence of NATO forces in Ukraine is not unthinkable.”[44] Séjourné reiterated on March 11 that France seeks to “send strong signals” to Russia and speak to the Kremlin in the “language of balance of power.”[45]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • A Ukrainian military observer offered assessments of Russian force generation and defense industrial base (DIB) capacities that are consistent with ISW’s previous assessments.
  • Russia’s increased defense industrial base (DIB) production is likely not sustainable in the medium and long-term as it will likely suffer from labor shortages, decreased weapons and equipment stockpiles, and an inability to completely compensate for military and dual-use items it can no longer acquire due to sanctions.
  • Transfers of North Korean weapons to Russia by sea have apparently resumed after a pause since mid-February 2024.
  • A Ukrainian military source noted that Russian forces are increasingly using grenades equipped with chemical substances in the Zaporizhia direction, in potential violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to which Russia is a signatory.
  • The Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has summoned Russian Ambassador to Moldova Oleg Vasnetsov in response to claims that Russia will operate polling stations in pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria during the Russian presidential election.
  • Russia, China, and Iran will hold the joint Maritime Security Belt – 2024 naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman between March 11–15.
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claimed that the West intends to use Armenia as a tool against Russia, a notable escalation in its information operations criticizing Armenian efforts to distance itself from security relations with Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill on March 11 that allows Russian authorities to further restrict actors it deems “foreign agents” to consolidate control over the Russian information space ahead of the presidential election.
  • France is reportedly prepared to build a coalition of countries that are open to potentially sending Western military personnel to Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues efforts to cater to Russian servicemembers and their families with the promise of various social benefits.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 10, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

March 10, 2024, 7:00pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30 pm ET on March 10. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 11 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

A Ukrainian military official confirmed that Russian forces are conducting strikes in Ukraine with improved glide bombs. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Captain Dmytro Lykhovyi reported on March 10 that Russian forces struck Myrnohrad, Donetsk Oblast, with three universal interspecific glide munition (UMPB) D-30SN guided glide bombs that Ukrainian forces initially originally assessed were S-300 missiles.[1] Lykhovyi stated that improved UMPB D-30SN guided glide bombs essentially convert Soviet-era FAB unguided gravity bombs to guided glide bombs. Russian forces had previously used unguided glide bombs as recently as January 2024.[2] ISW recently observed Russian milbloggers claim that Russian forces began conducting strikes with FAB UMPB guided glide bombs, as opposed to using unguided glide bombs with unified planning and correction modules (UMPC), in unspecified areas in Ukraine.[3] A Russian milblogger claimed that UMPB guided glide bombs have a guidance system that includes a noise-resistant GLONASS/GPS “Comet” signal receiver and folding wings similar to a Kh-101 cruise missile.[4] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces can launch UMPB guided glide bombs from aircraft and ground-based multiple rocket launch systems (MLRS) such as Tornado-S and Smerch MLRS.[5] A Russian outlet claimed that Russian aviation is currently launching UMPBs without jet engines, but that Russia anticipates employing UMPBs with jet engines in the future.[6] Russian milbloggers claimed that UMPB guided glide bombs with a jet engine and fuel tank, currently absent from aerial glide bombs with UMPC, will allow Russian aviation to drop guided glide bombs from a lower altitude “similar to air-to-surface cruise missiles” and increase the maximum strike range to 80-90 kilometers.[7] Russian milbloggers claimed that the increased range of UMPB guided glide bombs will allow Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to increase the depth of strikes on Ukrainian positions without risk from Ukrainian air forces detecting or destroying Russian fixed-wing aircraft.[8] Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is attempting to mass-produce UMPB guided glide bombs.[9] Russian forces will likely attempt to serialize production of UMPB guided glide bombs and increase their use across the frontline.

Russian sources reported that Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Alexander Moiseev has replaced Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy. St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka reported on March 10 that Moiseev was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, and former Black Sea Fleet (BSF) Commander retired Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov later stated that Moiseev is the new Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy in an interview with Ural Regional State newswire URA.ru.[10] Russian milbloggers similarly claimed that Moiseev was appointed to command the Russian Navy and that recent command changes in the Russian Navy are occurring amid a “complete paralysis” of fleet leadership about new threats, likely referring to recent Ukrainian strikes against BSF assets in and near occupied Crimea.[11] Russian sources recently claimed that the Russian military officially removed BSF Commander Admiral Viktor Sokolov and replaced him with BSF Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Sergei Pinchuk.[12] ISW cannot confirm either Pinchuk’s or Moiseev’s reported appointments. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is in the process of depriving the Northern Fleet of its status as an “interservice strategic territorial organization” (a joint headquarters in Western military parlance) to restore the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts (MMD and LMD), and Moiseev may have been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy to retain a high-ranking command role.[13]

Russian occupation authorities opened early voting in occupied Ukraine for Russia’s presidential election on March 10 that will last until March 14. Kremlin newswire TASS reported on March 10 that early voting started in occupied Donetsk Oblast, but noted that early voting in areas close to the frontline has been ongoing since February 25.[14] TASS stated that stationary polling stations will open in occupied Ukraine on March 15-17. Ukrainian Luhansk Oblast Military Administration Head Artem Lysohor stated that 2,600 Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) election commission officials have been conducting door-to-door campaigning for the past 20 days.[15] Ukrainian officials stated that Russian occupation officials intend to claim a 94 percent voter turnout in occupied Ukraine.[16] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin and Russian occupation officials intend to falsify votes in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and fabricate a large voter turnout in an attempt to legitimize Russia’s occupation of Ukraine to the international community.[17]

Chechen officials organized a march in Grozny, Chechnya, on March 10 in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in the upcoming March presidential election. Russian state media outlet TASS reported that more than 150,000 Chechens attended the march in Grozny and that Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s eldest child, Chechen Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Khadizhat Kadyrova, organized the march.[18] Russian opposition outlet SOTA amplified a claim on March 9 that the Chechen State University and Grozny State Petroleum Technical University instructed its employees and students to attend the election march on March 10.[19] Kadyrov praised the rally on March 10, emphasizing the importance of the election for the Russian state and praising Putin by name.[20] Kadyrov claimed that many prominent Chechen politicians and voices attended the march but did not mention Kadyrova by name.[21] Chechen National Policy Minister Akhmed Dudayev stated that the march “reflects that we [Chechnya] are one united team of our first President, Hero of Russia Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov.”[22] This election march likely supports Kadyrov’s ongoing effort to balance appealing to his Chechen constituency while courting Putin’s favor.[23]

Over 1,000 civilian ships have transited Ukraine’s “grain corridor” in the Black Sea despite persistent Russian efforts to undermine international confidence in the corridor. US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink stated on March 9 that 1,005 civilian ships have traveled from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea through the “grain corridor” and have delivered roughly 30 million tons of cargo, including grain, to world markets.[24] A civilian ship used the Ukrainian corridor to leave a Ukrainian port for the first time in August 2023 and to reach a Ukrainian port for the first time in September 2023.[25] Russian forces began heavily targeting Ukrainian grain and port infrastructure in summer 2023 in an effort to exact concessions on the renewal of the defunct Black Sea grain deal and have continued those strikes in part to discourage civilian maritime traffic through the corridor.[26]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) awarded a state honor to a prominent Russian ultranationalist — who is an active supporter of imprisoned former officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin — likely as part of ongoing Kremlin campaign to coopt the critical milblogger community. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu signed a decree awarding Russian military volunteer and milblogger Vladimir Grubnik with the “For Military Cooperation” medal on January 24, 2024.[27] Grubnik routinely publishes and amplifies posts in support of Girkin (also known under the alias Strelkov) - who is a prominent critic of the Russian MoD, the Russian military command, and the Kremlin.[28] Grubnik is also a member of the Russian Strelkov Movement, which advocates for Girkin‘s release from prison, and the Russian Angry Patriots Club, which Girkin founded and briefly headed in 2023.[29] Grubnik had also previously amplified posts that criticized the Russian MoD and the military command, some of which directly accused Shoigu of military failures in Ukraine.[30] Grubnik notably defended Shoigu from accusations posed by deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin during his mutiny in June 2023, however.[31] ISW had previously observed that the Kremlin began to coopt Russian milbloggers critical of the Russian war effort’s poor performance by offering them state awards or government positions starting November 2022 in an effort to regain control over the Russian information space.[32] Grubnik’s award may indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to secure control over the group of ultranationalists who support Girkin’s extremist views, are actively providing military and humanitarian help to Russian forces on the frontline, and have participated in the Russian invasion of Donbas and Crimea in 2014. Grubnik’s award, however, is different than the Order of Merit of the Fatherland Second Class medals that the Kremlin previously awarded to two other milbloggers explicitly for their milblogger activities, but the reason for Grubnik’s award is likely related to his volunteer efforts on the frontline.[33]

Key Takeaways:

  • A Ukrainian military official confirmed that Russian forces are conducting strikes in Ukraine with improved guided glide bombs.
  • Russian sources reported that the Russian military command has replaced Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov with Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Alexander Moiseev as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy.
  • Russian occupation authorities opened early voting in occupied Ukraine for Russia’s presidential election on March 10 that will last until March 14.
  • Chechen officials organized a march in Grozny, Chechnya, on March 10 in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in the upcoming March presidential election.
  • Over 1,000 civilian ships have transited Ukraine’s “grain corridor” in the Black Sea despite persistent Russian efforts to undermine international confidence in the corridor.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) awarded a state honor to a prominent Russian ultranationalist — who is an active supporter of imprisoned former officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin — likely as part of an ongoing Kremlin campaign to coopt the critical milblogger community.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire frontline on March 10.
  • Prominent Russian ultranationalists praised Russian volunteers and mobilized personnel on March 10, likely to assuage continued concerns among these personnel in spite of their improper and inequal treatment in the Russian military.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 9, 2024 

Christina Haward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

March 9, 2024, 5:55pm ET 

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted drone strikes targeting Rostov Oblast overnight on March 8-9 and may have struck a Russian aircraft plant refurbishing and modernizing Russian A-50 long range radar detection aircraft. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 41 Ukrainian drones overnight over Rostov Oblast, and eyewitnesses reportedly stated that the strike caused at least five explosions.[1] Geolocated footage of a strike shows an explosion at the Beriev Aircraft Plant in Taganrog, Rostov Oblast.[2] The Beriev Aircraft Plant in Taganrog is reportedly refurbishing and modernizing Russian A-50 aircraft for use in Ukraine, and Russian sources claimed that the plant was repairing an A-50 damaged in a previous drone strike (possibly referring to the attack on a Russian A-50 at the Machulishchi Air Base in Minsk, Belarus, in February 2023).[3] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published satellite imagery dated February 29 indicating that the geolocated explosion occurred roughly 900 meters from a Russian A-50 aircraft that previously had been present at the Beriev Aircraft Plant, although it is unclear whether the A-50 was in the same location at the time of the strike.[4] Senior Ukrainian officials have not commented on the strike at the time of this publication. ISW is unable to confirm that the reported strike damaged any Russian A-50 aircraft, facilities repairing or refurbishing aircraft, or other Russian military infrastructure in the area.

Russian sources widely circulated footage of a Russian strike on March 9 to claim that Russian forces destroyed a Patriot air defense system in eastern Ukraine, although there has yet to be any confirmation of these claims. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) published footage on March 9 purportedly of Russian forces striking a Ukrainian S-300 air defense missile launcher with Iskander missiles near Pokrovsk, Donetsk Oblast.[5] Russian sources amplified additional footage of the strike’s aftermath purportedly showing destroyed German MAN KAT1 trucks, which can be used as a base for Patriot air defense missile launchers.[6] Russian sources used this footage to claim that Russian forces destroyed a MIM-104 Patriot air defense system, although the Russian MoD has yet to revise its earlier claim about destroying a Ukrainian S-300 system.[7] Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported that a source in Russian law enforcement stated that the Russian Iskander strike destroyed two Patriot air defense systems.[8] Several OSINT social media accounts concluded that the strike likely destroyed a Ukrainian Patriot air defense system, although another OSINT account noted that Ukrainian forces also use the MAN KAT1 trucks as logistics vehicles.[9] ISW has not yet observed evidence confirming that Russian forces destroyed a Patriot air defense system.

US officials reportedly told CNN that Russia considered using “tactical or battlefield” nuclear weapons in Ukraine in 2022 – during the same time Russia conducted an intense information operation aimed at the West about Russia potentially using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine to deter Western support for Ukraine. CNN reported on March 9 that two senior Biden administration officials stated that the United States began “preparing rigorously” for a potential Russian “tactical or battlefield” nuclear strike in late 2022 after collecting intelligence indicating that Kremlin officials at various levels were discussing this possibility.[10] The United States reportedly contacted multiple high-level Kremlin officials, discussed the issue with US allies, and asked China and India to discourage Russia. CNN reported that one US official assessed that Chinese and Indian public statements were a “helpful, persuasive factor” that showed Russia the costs of their potential decision. The sources reportedly stated that the United States believed that significant Russian territorial or personnel losses in Ukraine could have been a “potential trigger” for a Russian tactical nuclear strike as the Kremlin viewed areas of occupied Ukraine, such as Kherson City, as Russian territory and potentially viewed the loss of such territories as a direct threat to the Kremlin or the Russian state – one scenario in which Russia would contemplate using nuclear weapons. CNN reported that US officials believed that the Kremlin may have tried to use claims that Ukraine intended to use a “dirty bomb,” which Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other Kremlin officials were reportedly promoting in conversations with Western military and political officials at the time, as “cover” for a Russian tactical nuclear strike. Shoigu and other Kremlin officials routinely publicly promoted claims about a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” in October 2022 as part of an information designed to deter Western security assistance to Ukraine following Ukrainian forces’ rout of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022.[11] Ukrainian forces have transgressed Russia’s nuclear “red lines” several times over the course of the war with no Russian nuclear strike, indicating that many of Russia’s “red lines” are most likely information operations designed to deter Ukrainian and Western action to defeat Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s liberation of Russian-occupied territories during counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine in fall 2022 and subsequent Ukrainian strikes against occupied Ukraine violated Russia’s ”red lines.”[12] Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO accession also violated Russia’s so-called red lines. ISW continues to assess that Russian nuclear use in Ukraine remains highly unlikely.[13]

Senior Armenian officials stated that Armenia is considering seeking membership in the European Union (EU), against the backdrop of deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan stated in a March 9 interview with Turkish TV channel TRT World that Armenia is considering new opportunities “taking into account the challenges [Armenia] has faced in the last three to four years” including “the idea of joining the EU.”[14] Armenian Parliament Speaker Alen Simonyan stated on February 29 that ”[Armenia] should think about [seeking EU candidate status].”[15] Russian officials have not responded to Armenian officials’ statements as of this publication. ISW continues to assess that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s acknowledgement and criticism of Armenia’s lack of participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) indicates that the Kremlin may be preparing a more concerted response to its deteriorating relations with Armenia.[16] The Kremlin has conducted hybrid wars against former Soviet states that have sought EU accession.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine would be open to negotiations with Russia only after Ukraine and its partners develop a peace plan and as Turkey continues to promote its own negotiation platform for the war in Ukraine. Zelensky stated that Ukraine would invite representatives of Russia to a peace summit only after Ukraine and other countries have developed a peace plan at a first peace summit.[17] Ukraine plans to hold the first Ukrainian Peace Formula Summit in Switzerland in 2024.[18] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated on March 8 that Turkey is ready to host a peace summit between Ukraine and Russia.[19] ISW continues to assess that Russia is not interested in good faith negotiations with Ukraine and has no interest in ending the war on anything but Russia’s articulated maximalist terms of destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty and eradicating the notion of a unique Ukrainian national identity.[20]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted drone strikes targeting Rostov Oblast overnight on March 8-9 and may have struck a Russian aircraft plant refurbishing and modernizing Russian A-50 long range radar detection aircraft.
  • Russian sources widely circulated footage of a Russian strike on March 9 to claim that Russian forces destroyed a Patriot air defense system in eastern Ukraine, although there has yet to be any confirmation of these claims.
  • US officials reportedly told CNN that Russia considered using “tactical or battlefield” nuclear weapons in Ukraine in 2022 – during the same time Russia conducted an intense information operation aimed at the West about Russia potentially using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine to deter Western support for Ukraine.
  • Senior Armenian officials stated that Armenia is considering seeking membership in the European Union (EU), against the backdrop of deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine would be open to negotiations with Russia only after Ukraine and its partners develop a peace plan and as Turkey continues to promote its own negotiation platform for the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna and Avdiivka amid continued positional fighting along the entire frontline on March 9.
  • Open-source researchers analyzed satellite imagery and assessed that Russia has reportedly removed 25 to 40 percent of its tank strategic reserves, depending on the model, from open-air storage facilities, although ISW cannot independently verify this report.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 8, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

March 8, 2024, 6:35pm ET

 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a ceasefire in Ukraine would allow Russia to rebuild its forces and means for future offensive operations, as Russia previously did following the start of Russia’s 2014 invasion. Zelensky stated on March 8 that a pause in fighting in Ukraine would pose a serious challenge and problem both to Ukraine and all of Europe.[1] Zelensky noted that Russia would benefit from a pause or ceasefire as Russian forces would use the pause to optimize Russia’s military and overall war effort, including by training its soldiers, many of whom deploy to the front line with very little training. Zelensky also stated that Russian forces are suffering from missile, artillery, and drone shortages, so Russia is sourcing these weapons from North Korea and Iran and needs to rebuild its stockpiles. Zelensky stated that Russia similarly benefited from previously freezing the war in 2014 and was able to build up its weapons, accumulate forces, and invade Ukraine again in 2022. ISW continues to assess that any ceasefire in Ukraine would benefit Russia, giving it time to reconstitute and regroup for future offensive operations, optimize command and control, implement lessons learned from experience in Ukraine, and resupply Russian forces in a manner that is exceedingly difficult to do while high-intensity combat is underway.[2] Zelensky also stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is not just to occupy all of Ukraine, but to deprive Ukraine of its independence and integrate Ukraine into Russia using either force or political means.[3] Kremlin officials, including Putin, have repeatedly indicated that Russia hopes to occupy most, if not all, of Ukraine and eliminate Ukrainian statehood and independence.[4] Putin has also geographically defined historical ”Russian” lands - a characterization which the Kremlin has used to justify its full-scale invasion of Ukraine - as encompassing the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union.[5] 

Some Russian forces may have improved their tactical capabilities and leveraged limited tactical surprise during the final weeks of the Russian effort to seize Avdiivka, suggesting that select elements of the Russian military may have internalized tactical adaptations from conducting offensive operations in Ukraine. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets published a retrospective on March 8 about the Russian effort to seize Avdiivka in which he stated that Russian forces were able to tactically regroup and shift the tactical focus of their offensive operations from north of the Avdiivka Coke Plant in northwestern Avdiivka to areas near northeastern Avdiivka.[6] Mashovets stated that Russian forces achieved this regrouping and tactical shift without Ukrainian forces fully realizing that the regrouping had shifted Russia’s tactical focus.[7] Russian forces initially began their turning movement through Avdiivka after making tactical gains in northeastern Avdiivka, and Mashovets’ reporting suggests that Russian forces may have advanced in the area due to some tactical surprise.[8] Even limited tactical surprise, in which attacking forces engage defenders at a time, place, or manner for which the defender is unprepared, is a notable development given that both Russian and Ukrainian forces have widespread visibility throughout the frontline.[9] The Russian force’s ability to achieve elements of tactical surprise in such an operating environment with little-to-no concealment is therefore noteworthy. ISW has not observed other recent notable incidents of Russian forces achieving or leveraging tactical surprise. The reported Russian ability to do so near Avdiivka is not necessarily indicative of a wider Russian capability. Russian forces have shown limited tactical-level adaptations on certain sectors of the front, but continued widespread Russian tactical failures throughout Ukraine suggest that the Russian military command has not internalized and disseminated all possible tactical adaptations among all the various Russian force groupings operating in Ukraine.[10]

Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk stated on March 8 that Ukrainian forces are regularly targeting Russian fighter aircraft.[11] Oleshchuk stated that Russian forces continue to conduct guided aerial strikes against Ukrainian frontline positions, but that Russian aircraft “no longer dare” to fly too close to the frontlines and that Ukrainian air defenses recently attempted to strike a Russian aircraft from over 150 kilometers away.[12] Oleshchuk stated that the recent reported downing of Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft and Su-34 and Su-35 fighter aircraft have caused Russian forces to ”significantly reduce” the frequency of Russian air strikes in Ukraine.[13] ISW has not observed dispositive evidence that the tempo of Russian unguided glide bomb strikes has decreased, however. Forbes recently reported that Russian aircraft are conducting one hundred or more sorties per day to conduct unguided glide bomb strikes on Ukrainian positions at a range of 25 miles (about 40 kilometers), indicating that Russian aircraft are continuing to conduct a relatively high volume of glide bomb strikes in Ukraine despite Ukraine’s claimed shoot-downs of such aircraft.[14]

Ukraine’s European partners continue efforts to send additional aid and materiel to Ukraine. Czech officials stated on March 8 that Ukraine’s partners have raised enough funds to purchase the first batch of 300,000 shells to send to Ukraine “in the coming weeks.”[15] The Czech Republic is leading an initiative to purchase 800,000 ammunition shells outside of Europe and deliver them to Ukraine.[16] European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis stated on March 8 that the European Union (EU) will send the first tranche of 4.5 billion euros (about $4.9 billion) to Ukraine in March and will send 1.5 billion euros (about $1.6 billion) in April as part of the EU’s previously announced support package of 50 billion euros (about $54.7 billion) for 2024-2027.[17]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors approved a resolution calling for Russia’s withdrawal from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), undermining Russian efforts to use the IAEA and other international organizations to legitimize its occupation of the plant.[18] The March 7 IAEA resolution calls for the urgent withdrawal of all Russian unauthorized military and other personnel from the ZNPP and the return of the ZNPP to full Ukrainian control.[19] The resolution also expresses significant concern for the unstable security situation at the ZNPP during armed conflict, including the lack of qualified personnel, gaps in planned and preventative maintenance, lack of reliable supply chains, vulnerable water supply for cooling the ZNPP‘s nuclear reactors, and the installation of antipersonnel mines between the ZNPP’s internal and external perimeters.[20] The March 6 resolution echoes previous calls from the IAEA on March 3, 2022, September 15, 2022, November 17, 2022, and September 28, 2023.[21] Russian authorities have repeatedly attempted to use Russia’s physical control over the ZNPP to force international organizations including the IAEA to meet with Russian occupation officials to legitimize Russia’s occupation of the ZNPP and by extension Russia’s occupation of sovereign Ukrainian land.[22] The IAEA’s March 7 resolution reiterates the IAEA’s recognition of Ukraine as the legitimate operator of the ZNPP and undermines the consistent Russian assertion that Russia is the only safe operator of the ZNPP.[23]

Ukrainian efforts to encourage women to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces continues allowing Ukraine to tap into a wider mobilization base for its war effort. The Ukrainian Military Media Center reported in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 that over 45,500 women serve in the Ukrainian army as of January 2024, including more than 13,000 women serving in combat roles.[24] Ukrainian officials previously reported that over 5,000 women were actively serving in frontline combat zones as of November 2023.[25] ISW previously noted that Ukraine has not been conscripting women but that Ukrainian women are nonetheless volunteering for military service, including combat roles, and that Ukrainian society appears to be galvanized by a popular desire to defend Ukraine strong enough to bring so many Ukrainian women near and onto the battlefield of their own accord.[26]

Russian information space actors are intensifying their focus on covering recent events surrounding the governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, and are amplifying Kremlin narratives aimed at destabilizing Moldova to a wider audience. Gutsul returned from Russia to Chisinau on March 8 without incident and hundreds of supporters gathered to meet her at the airport.[27] US-sanctioned, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor claimed on March 7 that Moldovan authorities would arrest Gutsul upon her arrival to Moldova after the Moldovan Prosecutor General’s Office publicly stated that Moldovan authorities collected enough evidence to demonstrate Gutsul’s involvement in unspecified criminal acts.[28] Kremlin newswire TASS closely followed Gutsul’s return to Moldova on March 8, reporting that Gutsul stated that Moldova must have friendly relations with Russia and criticized Moldovan President Maia Sandu after arriving at the Chisinau airport.[29] An abnormally large number of Russian milbloggers reported on Gutsul’s return to Moldova and promoted commonplace Kremlin narratives that target the Moldovan government.[30] Such a pattern of activity could indicate a centrally directed Kremlin information operation. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin’s intensified focus on spreading destabilizing narratives regarding Gagauzia after a recent rhetorical focus on Moldova’s other pro-Russian region, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, indicates that the Kremlin seeks to use both these regions in information operations to support hybrid operations aimed at sabotaging Moldova‘s EU accession process.[31]

A recent Russian state-run poll suggests that the Kremlin aims for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s predetermined “support level” to be around 80 percent in the upcoming March 17 presidential election in an effort to portray Putin as legitimately popular and use the March election to legitimize Putin’s next term. The Public Opinion Foundation, a Russian state-owned polling institution, reported on March 7 that roughly 83 percent of Russians surveyed view Putin favorably and that roughly 82 percent plan to vote for him in the upcoming presidential election.[32] The Public Opinion Foundation published the results of another poll on March 5 claiming that 83 percent of Russians plan to vote in the upcoming election.[33] The Public Opinion Foundation’s numbers are consistent with recent reporting from Russian opposition outlets suggesting that the Kremlin aims to portray the election as having a 70-80 percent turnout and for Putin to win the election with 80 percent of the votes.[34] The Kremlin is likely using claims of strong voter turnout and support for Putin to set informational conditions to portray Russian society as confidently unified around Putin and his agenda.[35]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a ceasefire in Ukraine would allow Russia to rebuild its forces and means for future offensive operations, as Russia previously did following the start of Russia’s 2014 invasion.
  • Some Russian forces may have improved their tactical capabilities and leveraged limited tactical surprise during the final weeks of the Russian effort to seize Avdiivka, suggesting that select elements of the Russian military may have internalized tactical adaptations from conducting offensive operations in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk stated on March 8 that Ukrainian forces are regularly targeting Russian fighter aircraft.
  • Ukraine’s European partners continue efforts to send additional aid and materiel to Ukraine.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors approved a resolution calling for Russia’s withdrawal from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), undermining Russian efforts to use the IAEA and other international organizations to legitimize its occupation of the plant.
  • Ukrainian efforts to encourage women to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces continues allowing Ukraine to tap into a wider mobilization base for its war effort.
  • Russian information space actors are intensifying their focus on covering recent events surrounding the governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, and are amplifying Kremlin narratives aimed at destabilizing Moldova to a wider audience.
  • A recent Russian state-run poll suggests that the Kremlin aims for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s predetermined “support level” to be around 80 percent in the upcoming March 17 presidential election in an effort to portray Putin as legitimately popular and use the March election to legitimize Putin’s next term.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 8.
  • BBC Russian Service and Russian opposition outlet Mediazona published a joint report on March 8 that at least 46,678 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, including at least 1,555 confirmed killed in the past two weeks.
  • Unspecified actors, likely Ukrainian partisans, assassinated a Russian occupation official in occupied Berdyansk, Kherson Oblast on March 6.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 7, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, and George Barros

March 7, 2024, 6:25pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:00pm ET on March 7. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 8 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. 

Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia has the capability to continue sustaining the current tempo of its war in Ukraine and will likely have the capability to gradually expand its military capabilities in the near term.[1] Lithuanian intelligence published its 2024 national threat assessment on March 7 wherein it assessed that Russia has the manpower, material, and financial resources to sustain its war effort in Ukraine in the near term. Lithuanian intelligence noted that Russia reconstituted and increased its deployed manpower in Ukraine in 2023 despite suffering heavy losses but continues to prioritize quantity of manpower and materiel over quality of forces. Lithuanian intelligence also assessed that Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) has become a driving force within the Russian economy at the expense of other economic sectors and that Russia had allocated at least 10.8 trillion rubles (about $119 billion) to military spending in 2023. The Lithuanian intelligence assessment stated that Russia’s economy is doing better than expected due to high oil prices and Russia’s ability to offset Western sanctions. Lithuanian intelligence caveated that short-term factors are driving Russia’s economic growth and that Russian structural problems, which impose limits on Russia’s short-term capacity, are only likely to deepen in the long term. Lithuanian intelligence also assessed that the Kremlin views Russia’s upcoming March 2024 presidential election as a significant event to legitimize Russian President Vladimir Putin and that Putin will be more likely to make unpopular decisions (potentially such as mobilization) after the election, which could allow the Kremlin to address some potential constraints on its long-term war effort.

Lithuanian intelligence also assessed that Russia is unlikely to abandon its long-term objectives of subjugating Ukraine even if Russia fails to achieve these objectives through military means. Lithuanian intelligence assessed that “Russia shows no intention of de-escalating" its war against Ukraine and that Russia is unlikely to abandon its operational objectives in the long-term, even if Russia suffers a military defeat in Ukraine.[2] Lithuanian intelligence stated that Russia will continue to pursue its goal of completely undermining Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty, enforcing Ukraine’s neutral status, and destroying Ukraine’s military potential in the long term, regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia will also continue efforts to expand the Russian state’s administrative control to the administrative borders of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts in the short term. Recent Russian official statements underscore that the Kremlin’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine have remained unchanged since the beginning months of the full-scale invasion and likely will not change, despite Russian information operations that aim to persuade Western audiences and leaders that Russia has limited objectives in Ukraine to seduce the West to support negotiations that favor Russia.[3]

Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia is preparing for confrontation with NATO in the long term while also waging its war in Ukraine. Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia has allocated substantial resources to the war in Ukraine but maintains the means to prepare for a long-term confrontation with NATO in the Baltic Sea region.[4] Lithuanian intelligence stated that Russia has deployed forces and assets from its western border areas to Ukraine and has thus had to increasingly rely on air and naval capabilities for security and deterrence purposes on NATO’s eastern flank. Lithuanian intelligence reported that Russia deployed Kalibr missile carrier ships on combat duty in Lake Ladoga near St. Petersburg for the first time in 2023, likely in response to Finland’s accession to NATO, and increased the number of Tu-22M3 heavy bomber flights over the Baltic Sea from none in 2022 to five in 2023. The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (VLA) also recently assessed that the Russian military is forming the Leningrad Military District (LMD) and Moscow Military District (MMD) in part to posture against Finland and NATO.[5]

Russian military thinkers are openly discussing how Russia can go to war against NATO in the near future. Russian General Staff Military Academy Head Colonel Vladimir Zarudnitsky claimed in a recent article in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) journal Military Thought that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a large-scale war in Europe and that the end of hostilities in Ukraine will not lead to the end of confrontation between the West and Russia.[6]

Sweden formally joined NATO on March 7, becoming the 32nd member of the alliance. The US State Department announced that Sweden fulfilled the conditions of NATO membership and formally entered the alliance.[7]

The governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, met with Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko in Russia on March 7 as Moldovan authorities announced that a criminal case against Gutsul will soon go to court. Gutsul met with Kiriyenko at the World Youth Festival in Sochi and reportedly discussed “the support that Russia can provide to Gagauzia” and the “political situation” in Moldova.[8] Gutsul asked Kiriyenko to help Gagauz people open Russian bank accounts “for social projects,” to lift the Russian embargo on imports from Gagauzia, and to help negotiate with Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom on the supply of gas to Gagauzia at a preferential price. Kiriyenko is reportedly in charge of multiple Kremlin committees that run information operations and hybrid operations against the West, including Moldova.[9] Moldovan Acting Prosecutor General Ion Munteanu stated on March 7 that Moldovan authorities have enough evidence to demonstrate Gutsul’s involvement in unspecified criminal acts, are finalizing a criminal case against Gutsul and will soon take the criminal charges to court.[10] Moldovan authorities opened a criminal case against Gutsul for illegal financing and bribing voters during her electoral campaign in 2023.[11] Gutsul previously ran as a candidate of the now-outlawed Shor Party led by US-sanctioned pro-Kremlin Moldovan politician Ilan Shor.[12] Shor denied on March 7 that he illegally financed Moldovan political parties and claimed that Moldovan authorities will arrest Gutsul upon her return to Moldova.[13] Gutsul claimed on March 7 that she will return to Moldova soon and that she will “speak in detail at a briefing” in Chisinau on an unspecified date.[14] Gutsul met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on March 6 where Putin reportedly “promised to support Gagauzia and the Gagauz people in defending [their] legitimate rights, powers, and positions in the international arena.”[15] The Kremlin’s intensified focus on relations with Gagauzia after a recent rhetorical focus on Moldova’s other pro-Russian region, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, continues to indicate that the Kremlin hopes to use both these regions to justify hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing and further polarizing Moldova ahead of Moldova’s EU accession negotiations and the Moldovan presidential election later in 2024.[16]

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Chinese calls for peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on March 7; Russia will likely continue to use such calls to promote long-standing information operations aimed at prompting Western concessions.[17] Wang stated that China maintains an objective and impartial position on the war in Ukraine, rhetoric that is part of China’s long-standing efforts to cast itself as an independent mediator in an envisioned aspirational negotiations process.[18] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin and Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hiu met in Moscow on March 2 to discuss China’s desire to facilitate peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.[19] China has not publicly expounded upon the specifics of a vague 12-point peace plan that it released in early 2023, and Russian officials will likely continue to engage with Chinese calls for negotiations to promote Kremlin information operations about peace negotiations.[20] Galuzin and Li noted that it is “impossible” to discuss a settlement in Ukraine without Russia’s participation and without “taking into account [Russia’s] interests in the security sphere,” claims that the Kremlin routinely uses to place the onus for negotiations on the West.[21]

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on March 7 that it neutralized an Islamic State (IS) terrorist cell that had been preparing an attack on synagogues in Moscow.[22] The FSB stated that it neutralized the IS cell in Kaluga Oblast but did not specify its size.[23] The Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) announced on March 3 that the FSB conducted a localized counter-terrorism operation against alleged IS militants in Karabulak, Republic of Ingushetia.[24] Russian law enforcement has routinely attributed terrorist activity in Russia, and specifically the north Caucasus, to the Islamic State when militants may be affiliated with IS or a different terrorist organization.[25]

Key Takeaways:

  • Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia has the capability to continue sustaining the current tempo of its war in Ukraine and will likely have the capability to gradually expand its military capabilities in the near term.
  • Lithuanian intelligence also assessed that Russia is unlikely to abandon its long-term objectives of subjugating Ukraine even if Russian fails to achieve these objectives through military means.
  • Lithuanian intelligence assessed that Russia is preparing for confrontation with NATO in the long term while also waging its war in Ukraine.
  • Sweden formally joined NATO on March 7, becoming the 32nd member of the alliance.
  • The governor of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, met with Russian Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko in Russia on March 7 as Moldovan authorities announced that a criminal case against Gutsul will soon go to court.
  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Chinese calls for peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on March 7; Russia will likely continue to use such calls to promote long-standing information operations aimed at prompting Western concessions.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on March 7 that it neutralized an Islamic State (IS) terrorist cell that had been preparing an attack on synagogues in Moscow.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kupyansk and Donetsk City amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 7.
  • Russian intelligence services likely continue to source and operate sanctioned precision machine tools and dual-use components to produce Russian military equipment.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 6, 2024

 Click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and George Barros

March 6, 2024, 5:20pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:00 pm ET on March 6. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 7 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stated on March 6 that Ukraine will try to seize the initiative and conduct unspecified counteroffensive actions in 2024.[1] Pavlyuk stated that Ukrainian forces will aim to stabilize the frontline while degrading Russian forces in order to rotate frontline Ukrainian units to training grounds in the rear for replenishment and restoration.[2] Pavlyuk stated that this will allow Ukraine to create a grouping of forces that will conduct unspecified counteroffensive actions (possibly but not necessarily counteroffensive operations) in 2024.[3] Pavlyuk stated that Russian forces are concentrating offensive efforts near Avdiivka, in the direction of Chasiv Yar (west of Bakhmut), and in the Lyman direction and that Russian forces are trying to maintain a relatively high tempo of offensive operations along the frontline in order to retain the theater-wide initiative.[4] Pavlyuk stated that Russian forces are currently suffering significant losses and assessed that Ukrainian forces will stabilize the frontline in the near future.[5] A Ukrainian effort to contest the initiative in 2024 is operationally sound. Russia will be able to determine the location, time, scale, and requirements of fighting in Ukraine as long as it retains the theater-wide initiative, which may allow Russia to force Ukraine to expend materiel and manpower in reactive defensive operations, denying Ukraine the ability to amass the materiel necessary for future counteroffensive operations.[6] ISW continues to assess that it would be unwise for Ukraine to cede the advantage of the theater-wide initiative to Russia for longer than is necessary.[7]

Continued delays in Western security assistance will likely postpone Ukrainian efforts to regain the theater-wide initiative, however. Materiel shortages are forcing Ukrainian forces to husband materiel and uncertainty about future assistance is likely constraining Ukrainian operational planning.[8] Delays in crucial assistance will force Ukraine to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources between future operationally significant counteroffensive operations and ongoing Ukrainian defensive operations against Russian attackers who currently hold the initiative.[9] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently stated that Ukrainian forces are planning to conduct counteroffensive operations in 2024 but stressed that Ukraine’s primary objective remains the defense of Ukrainian territory.[10] Zelensky has also stated that Russia is preparing a new offensive effort that will start in late May or summer 2024, which would likely further postpone opportunities for Ukraine to prepare and launch counteroffensive operations.[11] Well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have proven capable of preventing even marginal Russian gains during large-scale Russian offensive efforts and are capable of heavily degrading attacking Russian forces.[12] Western security assistance is crucial for both Ukraine’ ability to concentrate material and manpower for future counteroffensive operations as well as its ability to degrade Russian offensive efforts sufficiently enough so that Ukraine can seize the theater wide initiative.

Russian forces conducted a relatively larger series of drone and missile strikes targeting Ukraine on the night of March 5 to 6 and on March 6, including strikes on Odesa City during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that on the night of March 5 to 6 Russian forces launched five S-300 missiles from occupied Donetsk Oblast and 42 Shahed-136/131 drones from occupied Crimea, Kursk Oblast, and Krasnodar Krai.[13] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian forces downed 38 Shahed drones over Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Kherson, Khmelnytskyi, Cherkasy, Kharkiv, Vinnytsia, and Sumy oblasts.[14] Russian forces later targeted port infrastructure in Odesa City on March 6 with an unspecified number of missiles during Zelensky‘s and Mitsotakis’ visit to the Odesa Port.[15] Western media reported that a Russian missile struck within several hundred meters of a convoy transporting Zelensky and Mitsotakis.[16] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces launched a high-precision missile strike on a hanger in the Odesa Port where Ukrainian forces were preparing naval drones for operations.[17]

Kremlin officials continue to invoke nuclear threats as part of ongoing Russian information operations aimed at weakening Western support for Ukraine and deterring Western aid to Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov reiterated on March 6 that Russia will only use nuclear weapons if “something” threatens Russia’s existence — a longstanding Russian nuclear weapon usage talking point.[18] Peskov also accused the West of “routinizing” the topic of nuclear war, which Peskov called ”extremely dangerous” and “irresponsible,” despite the fact that it is, in fact, Russian officials, who most frequently openly threaten employing nuclear weapons. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to Finnish President Alexander Stubb’s recent statement about NATO membership providing Finland a nuclear deterrent by claiming that American nuclear facilities in northern Europe would be “legitimate targets” for Russia in a hypothetical direct conflict between Russia and NATO.[19] Zakharova threatened that the security of countries who received nuclear weapons from the US will “clearly suffer.” Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matviyenko stated that Russian needs to reassess and denounce international agreements that do not serve Russia’s national interests, specifically unspecified international agreements signed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet and Russian leaders.[20] Matviyenko’s statement suggests a Russian interest in denouncing a wide variety of international agreements, potentially including nuclear proliferation and security agreements. ISW has recently observed several Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, engaged in nuclear saber rattling but continues to assess that Russian nuclear use in Ukraine and beyond remains highly unlikely.[21]

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Rafael Grossi and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the security of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and nuclear non-proliferation issues on March 6 in Sochi, Russia.[22] Grossi stated that he had an “important exchange” with Putin about the “nuclear safety and security” of the ZNPP, which Russian forces have controlled for over two years.[23] The Kremlin and Russian state-run news outlets highlighted Grossi’s visit to Russia, likely as part of an ongoing effort to portray Russia as a responsible operator of the ZNPP and to prompt international recognition for the Russian occupation of the ZNPP and occupied Ukraine.[24]

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the governor of pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, on March 6 and emphasized Russia’s support for Gagauzia. Putin and Gutsul met on the sidelines of the World Youth Festival in Sochi and discussed “complex regional and geopolitical issues,” which Gutsul claimed Gagauzia is at the “epicenter of.”[25] Gutsul informed Putin about the “lawless actions” of Moldovan authorities and claimed that Moldova is systematically ”taking away [Gagauzia’s] powers, limiting the budget, violating legal rights, [and] provoking instability and destabilization in Gagauzia and throughout [Moldova].”[26] Gutsul claimed that Putin “promised to support Gagauzia and the Gagauz people in defending [their] legitimate rights, powers, and positions in the international arena.” Gutsul also met with various Russian officials and agreed to intensify economic and cultural ties with Krasnodar Krai and Penza and Pskov oblasts on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum.[27] Gutsul recently met with Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matviyenko, who emphasized Russia’s support for Gagauzia against perceived Moldovan “oppression.”[28] Gutsul’s trip to Russia follows the February 28 Congress of Deputies in pro-Russian Moldova breakaway region Transnistria, which requested “zashchita” (defense/protection) from Russia in response to alleged increasing pressure from Moldova.[29] Putin did not respond to the February 28 Transnistrian request, but the Transnistrian requests still afford the Kremlin a wide range of possible courses of action (COAs) at a later time.[30] It is unclear why Putin would choose to meet with Gutsul and engage with Gagauzian authorities after declining to respond to Transnistria’s request for defense/protection. The Kremlin’s recent high-level interactions with Gagauzian authorities after a previous rhetorical focus on Transnistria supports ISW assessment that the Kremlin desires to use both of Moldova’s pro-Russian regions to justify hybrid operations aimed a destabilizing and further polarizing Moldova ahead of Moldova’s EU accession negotiations and the Moldovan presidential election later in 2024.[31]

Moldova suspended the Cold War-era Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty on March 6.[32] Twenty-two NATO members and Warsaw Pact states signed the CFE Treaty in 1990, and it was ratified in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union.[33] The CFE was meant to set equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters between NATO and Warsaw Pact states in order to counterbalance the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional weapons systems in the final years of the Cold War.[34] Moldovan officials stated that Moldova is suspending the CFE Treaty because there has been a “fundamental change in circumstances” in the international security environment since the original signing of the treaty.[35] Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairperson Andrei Kartapolov responded to the Moldovan decision and claimed that it is against Russian interests, despite the fact that Russia itself withdrew from the treaty in 2023.[36] Russian officials’ negative response to Moldova’s decision further suggests that the Kremlin desires to maintain influence over Moldova using a variety of avenues.

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly conducted a drone strike on a mining and processing plant in Kursk Oblast on March 6. Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda reported on March 6 that unspecified GUR sources stated that GUR conducted a drone strike on the Mikhailovsky Mining and Processing Plant in Zheleznogorsk, Kursk Oblast.[37] Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoit claimed that a Ukrainian drone struck a fuel depot in Zheleznogorsk causing a fire and that another Ukrainian drone struck the Mikhailovsky Mining and Processing Plant.[38] Ukrainska Pravda reported that the Mikhailovsky Mining and Processing plants is one of the largest iron ore mining enterprises in Russia. The US has sanctioned the Mikhailovsky Mining and Processing Plant’s holding company, Metalloinvest.[39]

Armenia appears to be taking limited measures to reduce its bilateral security cooperation with Russia outside of its reduced participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan stated on March 6 that Armenia officially informed Russia that “only Armenian border guards” should perform duties at Zvarnots International Airport in Yerevan.[40] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Armenian service Radio Azatutyun reported that Russian border guards have been serving at the Zvarnots Airport since the signing of a 1992 Armenian-Russian agreement which regulates Russian forces in Armenia but does not specifically mention a Russian presence at Zvarnots Airport.[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk stated on March 6 that Ukraine will try to seize the initiative and conduct unspecified counteroffensive actions in 2024.
  • Russian forces conducted a relatively larger series of drone and missile strikes targeting Ukraine on the night of March 5 to 6 and on March 6, including strikes on Odesa City during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
  • Kremlin officials continue to invoke nuclear threats as part of ongoing Russian information operations aimed at weakening Western support for Ukraine and deterring Western aid to Ukraine.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Rafael Grossi and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the security of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and nuclear non-proliferation issues on March 6 in Sochi, Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the governor of pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia, Yevgenia Gutsul, on March 6 and emphasized Russia’s support for Gagauzia.
  • Moldova suspended the Cold War-era Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty on March 6.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly conducted a drone strike on a mining and processing plant in Kursk Oblast on March 6.
  • Armenia appears to be taking limited measures to reduce its bilateral security cooperation with Russia outside of its reduced participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kupyansk and Donetsk City and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian legal system continues efforts to use the Russian criminal justice system to augment Russia’s recruitment base.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 5, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, and George Barros

March 5, 2024, 8:15pm ET 

Ukraine destroyed the Project 22160 Sergei Kotov large patrol ship of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) off the coast of the Kerch Strait on the night of March 4-5.[1] Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on March 5 that GUR special unit “Group 13” conducted the attack against the Sergei Kotov using Magura V5 naval drones, inflicting severe damage on the port and starboard sides of the ship, killing seven sailors, and wounding six.[2] GUR noted that Russian forces were likely able to evacuate 52 other crew members, but that the loss of the ship cost Russia a total of $65 million.[3] Ukrainian sources noted that the Sergei Kotov had either a Ka-29 or Ka-27 helicopter on board, which Ukrainian forces destroyed along with the ship.[4] A Russian insider source claimed that after the initial naval drone strike, BSF forces tried to tow the ship back to port, but that the damage was so severe that the ship sank five kilometers off the coast of Cape Takil, southeastern Crimea.[5] The Sergei Kotov was one of the BSF’s newest vessels and only entered service in January 2021.[6] The Ukrainian Armed Forces Center for Strategic Communications (StratCom) reported that Ukrainian forces had disabled about 33 percent of the BSF’s warships as of early February 2024, including 24 ships and one submarine.[7]

Russian milbloggers responded to the sinking of the Sergei Kotov by decrying the Russian military command’s lack of response to the incident and mounting a wider critique against the bureaucratic inertia of the Russian military apparatus. Russian milbloggers alleged that this is the fourth Ukrainian attack on the Sergei Kotov since Russia’s full-scale invasion began and that the crew managed to repel similar Ukrainian attacks in July, August, and September of 2023.[8] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger noted that the Sergei Kotov was inadequately equipped to defend itself against such an attack, and many milbloggers questioned why the ship did not have systems to defend against naval drones considering the crew had experienced similar attacks before.[9] One prominent milblogger stated in a post published on March 5 (which has been viewed 1.7 million times as of this writing) that the Russian military command has no response to the sinking of the Sergei Kotov because no one likes to tell the truth to the military command and that the military command refuses to learn important lessons from past experiences to improve the military.[10] Another milblogger emphasized that it would be very important for the Russian command to listen to the crew of the Sergei Kotov to improve and modernize naval vessels and defensive procedures in the future.[11] Another milblogger responded to this assessment and claimed that the Russian command is extraordinarily unlikely to do so because of an ”administrative guillotine” in the Russian military bureaucracy that prevents such learning and innovation, as well as the command’s larger cultural proclivity to cover up mistakes instead of addressing them.[12]

The ire expressed by Russian milbloggers towards the Russian military apparatus represents a longstanding source of discontent for pro-war military commentators. Miroslava Reginskaya, the wife of imprisoned ultra-nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin, posted on March 5 an archival letter written by Girkin in 2018 wherein Girkin complained about the incompetence of Russian commanders causing the deaths of Russian soldiers and called for “Stalinist level repressions” against such commanders.[13] Girkin emphasized that all echelons of the Russian command are filled with such “scum” that contribute to “thousands of large and small disasters, based on incompetence, stupid immense greed, and disregard for people.” Girkin’s 2018 critique about the inability and lack of willingness of the Russian command to address its mistakes, internalize lessons learned, and disseminate them across the Russian military remains a central component of Russian information space critiques against the Russian military machine nearly six years later in 2024.

Russian aircraft appear to be continuing to conduct a relatively high volume of glide bomb strikes in Ukraine despite Ukrainian officials’ reports that Ukrainian forces have downed several bomber aircraft in recent weeks. Forbes reported on March 4 that Russian Su-34 aircraft, escorted by Su-35 aircraft, are conducting one hundred or more sorties per day to conduct glide bomb strikes on Ukrainian positions at a range of 25 miles (about 40 kilometers).[14] The New York Times reported on March 5 that Russian tactics are shifting to intensify operations in the air domain and that Russian forces’ “more aggressive” air support on the front lines has helped Russian forces to advance recently in eastern Ukraine.[15] These reports suggest that the Russian Air Force is maintaining a high tempo of fixed-wing air missions in Ukraine and is possibly willing to tolerate risks to fixed-wing aircraft, likely because the Russian command may have decided that the positive effects generated by such air operations outweigh the costs associated with flying such missions. Russian forces used glide bomb strikes to tactical effect in their seizure of Avdiivka in mid-February and are likely attempting to replicate such effects to support ongoing offensive operations elsewhere on the front. ISW cannot independently verify Ukrainian reports of the shootdowns of several Su-34 aircraft in recent weeks.

Forbes also reported that Ukrainian forces are using French-provided AASM Hammer glide bombs after France started supplying Ukraine with 50 of these bombs per month in January 2024.[16] Forbes noted that Ukrainian forces previously conducted strikes with US-provided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) glide bombs, but the supply of these bombs has halted due to the recent lack of US aid provisions to Ukraine.

Russia and China are deepening their strategic space cooperation, including cooperation on satellite surveillance and space exploration. Russian space agency Roscosmos Head Yuri Borisov stated on March 5 that Russia and China are considering delivering and constructing a nuclear power plant on the moon in 2032-2035.[17] Though Borisov’s proposal to create a nuclear power plant on the moon is odd, Borisov’s statement is indicative of warming relations and Chinese willingness to foster a long-term strategic partnership with Russia to posture against and possibly threaten the West. The Russian government approved a Russian-Chinese cooperation agreement on space cooperation through 2027 in November 2023 that Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) initially signed in November 2022.[18] The agreement outlines three phases to develop and build the International Scientific Lunar Station and jointly explore the moon’s surface. Roscosmos and CNSA also signed an agreement in September 2022 on the joint placement of Russian GLONASS and Chinese BeiDou satellite navigation system stations in six Russian and Chinese cities.[19] Russia is reportedly developing a space-based anti-satellite weapon, and a strategic space partnership with China suggests that Russia would be unlikely to use this or similar technology against China and that both states would mutually benefit from Russia’s posturing against the West through space and satellite technology.[20]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for two senior Russian commanders for their responsibility in perpetrating Russian war crimes – the first time the ICC has charged Russian military commanders. The ICC issued arrest warrants on March 5 for Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Long-Range Aviation, and Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the former commander of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), for their role in the war crimes of directing attacks at civilian objects and causing excessive or incidental harm to civilians or damage to civilian objects and the crime against humanity of inhumane acts under the Rome Statute between at least October 10, 2022, to at least March 9, 2023.[21] The ICC last issued arrest warrants for Russian officials’ involvement in war crimes in Ukraine in March 2022 against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.[22]

Russian forces are reportedly operating a “black market” to sell Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), including to Russian paramilitary groups that may be conducting their own POW exchanges with Ukraine. British outlet The Times, citing Ukrainian Spokesperson for the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs Petro Yatsenko and a Ukrainian POW, reported on March 4 that Chechen paramilitary groups are buying Ukrainian POWs from other Russian military units on a black market for trafficking POWs.[23] The Chechen units are reportedly then using the Ukrainian POWs in exchange for Chechen POWs held by Ukrainian forces. The Times stated that Chechen units are likely turning to the black market because Chechen units are currently largely acting in policing or logistics roles in rear areas of Ukraine where there are fewer opportunities to capture Ukrainian POWs and exchange them for Chechen POWs. The Times stated that although there are no articles in the Geneva Convention that explicitly prohibit the POW trades, this practice is likely in violation of the clause that “no special agreement shall adversely affect the situation of prisoners of war.” Reports of Chechen units apparently conducting their own POW exchanges with Ukraine suggest that some paramilitary units within the Russian military, like the Chechen Akhmat Spetsnaz units, are likely not included in wider, higher-level Russian-Ukrainian POW exchanges. Russian milbloggers have repeatedly criticized Chechen forces for their incompetence and lack of involvement in Ukraine, and Chechen forces have been relegated to rear areas or less active sectors of the front after participating in major Russian offensive operations in 2022.[24]

The director of the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service, Alexandru Musteata, stated on March 5 that the Kremlin has begun to conduct multi-year hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing Moldova and preventing its accession to the European Union (EU). Musteata stated that the Kremlin is conducting an “unprecedented level” of hybrid operations aimed at preventing Moldova from joining the EU and keeping Moldova in Russia’s sphere of influence.[25] Musteata stated that the first stage of Russian hybrid operations began with attempts to compromise local elections in 2023 and that Russia intends to also interfere in Moldova’s upcoming presidential election in late 2024 and parliamentary elections in the summer of 2025. Musteata stated that pro-Kremlin Moldovan politicians with ties to the Kremlin, either directly or through Russian and Moldovan organized crime groups, will try to promote pro-Russia policies in the Moldovan Parliament. Musteata warned that Russia plans to provoke protests and incite inter-ethnic conflict and economic and social crises in Moldova, including in the pro-Russian autonomous region of Gagauzia and the pro-Russian breakaway republic of Transnistria. Musteata stated that Moldovan authorities have already observed an increase in the use of social media platforms to spread anti-EU sentiment. ISW previously warned that the Kremlin could intensify hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing and further polarizing Moldova ahead of Moldova-EU accession negotiations and the 2024 presidential election or a suite of other courses of action against Moldova that are not mutually exclusive with hybrid actions.[26]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine destroyed the Project 22160 Sergei Kotov large patrol ship of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) off the coast of the Kerch Strait on the night of March 4-5.
  • Russian milbloggers responded to the sinking of the Sergei Kotov by decrying the Russian military command’s lack of response to the incident and mounting a wider critique against the bureaucratic inertia of the Russian military apparatus.
  • Russian aircraft appear to be continuing to conduct a relatively high volume of glide bomb strikes in Ukraine despite Ukrainian officials’ reports that Ukrainian forces have downed several bomber aircraft in recent weeks.
  • Russia and China are deepening their strategic space cooperation, including cooperation on satellite surveillance and space exploration.
  • The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for two senior Russian commanders for their responsibility in perpetrating Russian war crimes – the first time the ICC has charged Russian military commanders.
  • Russian forces are reportedly operating a “black market” to sell Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), including to Russian paramilitary groups that may be conducting their own POW exchanges with Ukraine.
  • The director of the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service, Alexandru Musteata, stated on March 5 that the Kremlin has begun to conduct multi-year hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing Moldova and preventing its accession to the EU.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Donetsk City amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on March 5.
  • Russian authorities are reportedly disbanding elements of the former Wagner Group that were supposed to join Rosgvardia or are currently in Belarus.
  • Russian law enforcement is likely intensifying crackdowns against Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 4, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and George Barros

March 4, 2024, 6:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on March 4. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 5 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment. 

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev promoted Russia’s extensive territorial objectives that expand deep into Ukraine’s territory. Medvedev gave a lecture on March 4 called “Geographical and Strategic Borders” at the Russian World Youth Festival, a Kremlin-organized event that includes attendees from more than 100 foreign countries, during which he claimed that “Ukraine is, of course, Russia.”[1] Russian forces currently occupy the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast, but Medvedev defined all the territories on the left bank of the Dnipro River and many territories on the right bank of the Dnipro River as “integral” to Russia’s “strategic historical borders.”[2] Russian forces currently do not occupy any territory in right-bank Ukraine. Medvedev spoke against the backdrop of a hypothetical English-language map of Eastern Europe that he originally posted on his Telegram channel in July 2022.[3] The map depicts parts of western Ukraine under Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian control — furthering the recently reignited Kremlin narrative that eastern European states have “territorial disputes” in western Ukraine that is aimed at spoiling Ukraine‘s relationships with its western neighbors.[4] The map shows Ukraine existing as a rump state only within the borders of Kyiv Oblast and the rest of modern-day Ukraine as part of Russia — well beyond the areas that Russian forces currently occupy, and the four oblasts Russia has illegally annexed.[5] The fact that Medvedev reused a map from 2022 underscores that the Kremlin’s maximalist territorial objectives have remained unchanged since the beginning months of the war.

Medvedev argued that the influence of sovereign great powers, like Russia, extends beyond their geographic borders, catering to a wider maximalist ideological interpretation of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir). Medvedev repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s previous statement that “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere.”[6] Medvedev alleged that a state’s strategic borders, which he differentiated from a state’s geographical borders, directly depend on “how strong and sovereign” the state and its authorities are.[7] Medvedev claimed that the more “powerful” a state is, the “further its strategic frontiers extend beyond its state borders” and the larger the state’s sphere of “economic, political, and socio-cultural influence.”[8] Putin made similar remarks recently that suggested that he views weaker states that are unable to unilaterally impose their will upon others, such as Ukraine, as having a truncated sovereignty.[9] Medvedev claimed on February 22 that Russia “probably” must seize and occupy Kyiv City, which he labelled an historically “Russian” city, at some point in the future.[10] Medvedev’s February 22 and March 4 statements suggest that the existence of a Ukrainian rump state in Kyiv Oblast — even after a hypothetical Russian-led negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine — may be temporary and subject to future Russian attacks.[11] Medvedev also did not specify to where Russia’s “strategic” borders would extend should Russia’s “geographic” borders expand as shown in the hypothetical map he presented. The map is notably a conservative depiction of possible Russian territorial claims, given Putin’s recent geographic definition of Russkiy Mir encompassing the former Russian Empire, which includes parts of Poland, Romania, Finland, and Moldova.[12]

Medvedev indicated that Russia is more interested in subjugating Ukraine’s people than taking its territory. Medvedev claimed that Russia’s “enemies constantly insist that Russia’s main goal is to seize Ukrainian lands” but, as the “riches” of Ukraine’s lands, such as wheat, steel, gas, and coal are “almost absent,” the main value that Russia seeks from its occupation of Ukraine is through controlling its people.[13] Medvedev also claimed that the concept of a sovereign Ukrainian state and the concept of a Ukrainian national identity that is not Russian must “disappear forever.”[14] ISW continues to document how Russian authorities are repeatedly engaging in large-scale and deliberate ethnic cleansing campaigns and systematically working to eliminate Ukrainian language, culture, history, and ethnicity in areas of Ukraine that Russia occupies.[15]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that unknown actors detonated explosives and severely damaged a Russian railway bridge over the Chapaevka River near Chapaevsk, Samara Oblast on March 4. The GUR reported that Russia uses the railway to transport military cargo, particularly ammunition produced at a joint-stock company in Chapaevsk.[16] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that the explosion delayed five trains and that Russian authorities suspended traffic across the bridge, but later opened one railway track.[17] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) stated that it opened a criminal investigation into the explosion but did not speculate on the actor responsible for the explosion.[18] Some Russian milbloggers blamed Ukrainian forces for the explosion on the railway bridge.[19]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly awarded a Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) and Spetsnaz-affiliated Russian milblogger, likely as part of the Kremlin’s longstanding efforts to co-opt milbloggers and make them loyal to the Kremlin. Russian milblogger channel Rusich Army (also known as Archangel Spetsnaza) claimed on March 4 that Putin awarded the channel’s anonymous head the Russian Order of Merit of the Fatherland Second Class for his efforts in supporting the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[20] Rusich is the second Russian milblogger that has received a federal award for his activities as such (Putin awarded Rybar founder Mikhail Zvinchuk with the same award on November 16, 2023, likely after co-opting him).[21] The Rusich Telegram channel has over one million followers as of March 4 and is well connected among other prominent Russian ultranationalist voices, including the Rybar Telegram channel and Russian state TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.[22] ISW previously assessed that Rybar’s public award was designed to incentivize other Russian milbloggers to offer their loyalty to the Kremlin in exchange for awards and accolades.[23] Rusich’s award demonstrates to other milbloggers that the Kremlin is actively willing to publicly praise milbloggers who embrace Kremlin messaging — and suppress negative reporting about Russia’s military performance in Ukraine — as the Kremlin continues to encourage self-censorship efforts in the Russian information space.

Kremlin-awarded milbloggers remain a minority in the Russian information space, however, and some milbloggers actively clash with state propagandists despite the Kremlin’s consolidation of the information space. Pro–Wagner Group Russian milbloggers strongly criticized Russian state propagandist and Solovyov-affiliate Boris Yakemenko on March 4 for disparaging deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and for accusing Russian milbloggers of failing to contribute to the Kremlin’s war effort in late February 2024.[24] Other Russian milbloggers, including deceased milblogger Andrei “Murz” Morozov, who lost faith in the Russian command due to its censorship efforts, regularly clashed with Solovyov and other information-space voices whom these milbloggers deemed as liars or otherwise unreliable.[25] The Kremlin will likely continue to tighten control over some milbloggers by coercing some critical milbloggers into self-censorship and awarding those who are loyal to the Kremlin as it seeks to consolidate control over the Russian information space.

The Russian government reportedly hid data on recipients of social support services in 2022, likely to obfuscate casualties suffered in the first year of the war in Ukraine or to cover up the government’s inability to pay promised social support to vulnerable populations. Russian opposition outlet Verstka investigated the Russian Unified State Information System for Social Security (EGISSO) and reported on March 4 that EGISSO has hidden the data on recipients of social benefits in 2022.[26] Verstka noted that that some of the hidden data contain information that could reveal the scale of losses in Ukraine, such as indicators about “widows of military personnel who died during military service” and “citizens who were wounded, concussed, injured, and mutilated while performing military duties.” The EGISSO may have hidden this information to prevent social discontent arising around reports of Russian casualties in Ukraine and decided only to share this information in 2023 and 2024 when the Kremlin line on Russian losses has consolidated somewhat to eliminate social shocks. The Kremlin may have also hidden 2022 social services data to cover its issues in providing promised social support measures to various individuals, particularly those impacted by the first year of the war.

The Kremlin is continuing efforts to ensure high voter turnout in the upcoming presidential election to present the guise of legitimacy and widespread popular support among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic electorate. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on March 4 that the Russian presidential administration is concerned about meeting its intended 70 to 80 percent voter turnout mark in March 2024 because there is a widespread sentiment in Russia that the election has already been decided and that Russians have generally accepted that Putin has already won again.[27] Meduza stated that the Kremlin hopes to obtain this voter turnout by mobilizing the domestic electorate affiliated with the Russian government, particularly employees of the public sector, state corporations, and companies loyal to the Russian government, as well as their families. United Russia employees, for example, are required to bring at least 10 people (family members, friends, and acquaintances) to polling stations. Meduza noted that the requirements of these employees decrease proportionately to their proximity to the Kremlin; for example, employees of large corporations only have to bring two people to polling stations. Meduza reported that there is no enforcement mechanism for the requirements but that the Kremlin is trying to encourage voting using electronic voting methods and QR codes to make voting more convenient. ISW has long assessed that the Kremlin’s election preparations are intended to cast the election as completely legitimate and widely popular with strong voter turnout.

Russian authorities continue to exploit the leaked recording of German military officers discussing the theoretical provision of Taurus missiles to Ukraine to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned the German Ambassador to Moscow on March 4 in response to the leaked recording.[28] German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated on March 3 that the leaked recording is part of the “information war” that that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging against the West in order to undermine Western unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine.[29]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev promoted Russia’s extensive territorial objectives that expand deep into Ukraine’s territory.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that unknown actors detonated explosives and severely damaged a Russian railway bridge over the Chapaevka River near Chapaevsk, Samara Oblast on March 4.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly awarded a Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) and Spetsnaz-affiliated Russian milblogger, likely as part of the Kremlin’s longstanding efforts to co-opt milbloggers and make them loyal to the Kremlin.
  • The Russian government reportedly hid data on recipients of social support services in 2022, likely to obfuscate casualties suffered in the first year of the war in Ukraine or to cover up the government’s inability to pay promised social support to vulnerable populations.
  • The Kremlin is continuing efforts to ensure high voter turnout in the upcoming presidential election to present the guise of legitimacy and widespread popular support among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic electorate.
  • Russian authorities continue to exploit the leaked recording of German military officers discussing the theoretical provision of Taurus missiles to Ukraine to deter Western military aid provisions to Ukraine.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City amid continued positional engagements along the entire frontline.
  • A Russian news aggregator claimed on March 4 that Russian forces replaced Storm-Z convict units with Storm-V units, a mechanism for distributing convicts into the regular Russian military as opposed to keeping them siloed within convict-only units, as was the case with Storm-Z formations.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 3, 2024

click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 3, 2024, 5:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on March 3. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 4 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

China and Turkey continue to pursue their own negotiations platforms for a settlement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin is exploiting to further its own information operations aimed at discouraging continued international support for Ukraine. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin and Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hiu met in Moscow on March 2 to discuss China’s desire to facilitate peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.[1] Galuzin and Li noted that it is “impossible” to discuss a settlement in Ukraine without Russia’s participation and without “taking into account [Russia’s] interests in the security sphere.” Galuzin and Li added that Western and Ukrainian “ultimatums” and “dialogue formats” only “harm the prospects for a settlement and cannot serve as [the settlement’s] basis.” Li is expected to visit Ukraine and unspecified EU states following his meetings in Russia.[2] Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan stated during the Antalya Diplomatic Forum on March 3 that Turkey hopes talks for a ceasefire in Ukraine will “start soon” and that Turkey believes that “both sides have reached the limits” of what they can achieve through military means.[3] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced that Turkey is prepared to provide another negotiations platform for Russia and Ukraine, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly rejected on March 1.[4]

Russian officials continue to falsely blame Ukraine and the West for the lack of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, despite numerous public Russian statements suggesting or explicitly stating that Russia is not interested in good faith peace negotiations with Ukraine.[5] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed during a panel at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum on March 2 that Ukraine lacks the “goodwill” to negotiate with Russia, insinuating that the lack of substantive negotiations is Ukraine’s fault and not Russia’s fault.[6] Lavrov claimed that people who misunderstand which party is at fault “lack understanding” about the reality of the situation. Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya claimed during an interview with Russian TV channel Rossiya 24 on March 3 that Russia has never refused negotiations, but that Ukraine refuses to talk to Russia.[7] Nebenzya stated that there are currently no negotiations efforts with Ukraine directly or through intermediaries. ISW continues to assess that any Russian statements suggesting that Russia is or always has been interested in peace negotiations are very likely efforts to feign interest to prompt preemptive Western concessions regarding Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and place the onus for negotiations on Ukraine and the West.[8]

Recent relatively high Russian aviation losses appear to be prompting a significant decrease in Russian aviation activity in eastern Ukraine, although it is unclear how long this decrease in activity will last. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk stated on March 2 that Russian aviation activity completely stopped in eastern Ukraine around 19:00 local time following the Ukrainian downing of two Russian Su-34 aircraft.[9] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that the decrease in Russian aviation activity continued on March 3 and that Russian forces have continued not to fly A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft following the destruction of an A-50 aircraft on February 23.[10] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces have lost 15 aircraft since February 17, which is not negligible for the Russian military given that Russia likely has about 300 various Sukhoi fighter aircraft.[11] Previous Russian aircraft losses have prompted Russian forces to temporarily decrease aviation activity throughout Ukraine for significant periods of time, although it remains unclear how long this current period of temporary decreased Russian aviation activity will last.[12] Russian forces appeared to tolerate an increased rate of aviation losses in recent weeks in order to conduct glide bomb strikes in support of ongoing Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian command may decide in the future to assume the risk of continued aviation losses in pursuit of further tactical gains.[13]

Delays in Western security assistance will likely make Ukraine’s energy infrastructure more vulnerable to Russian strikes. The Financial Times published an interview on March 3 with Maksym Timchenko, the executive of Ukraine’s largest private energy company DTEK, in which Timchenko warned that delays in security assistance have weakened Ukraine’s ability to counter Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.[14] Timchenko stated that Ukraine was initially prepared to protect energy infrastructure at the beginning of Winter 2023-2024 but that in recent weeks more Russian drones and missiles have reached their targets.[15] Timchenko stated that Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure 160 times in 2024 and that more than one million households and businesses have suffered from blackouts.[16] Russian forces launched several massive strike series against Ukraine in December 2023 and January and February 2024, likely forcing Ukrainian forces to expend a significant number of interceptors.[17] Ukrainian officials have stressed that Ukraine is facing a “critical shortage” of air defense missiles, and US officials have reportedly assessed that this shortage will become increasingly significant through spring and summer 2024 without further security assistance to Ukraine.[18] Timchenko noted that Ukraine’s economy depends on the stability of its energy grid, and major malfunctions in the energy grid would likely significantly disrupt ongoing Ukrainian efforts to expand its defense industrial base (DIB).[19] Limited effective air defense systems, dwindling air defense missile stocks, and continued Russian missile and drone strikes are likely forcing Ukraine to make difficult choices about air defense coverage.[20]

Russian forces operating around Avdiivka appear to be adapting to conducting offensive ground operations with trained and untrained personnel. The Washington Post published interviews on March 2 with seven Ukrainian servicemen from the 3rd Assault Brigade who discussed overwhelming Russian wave attacks in Avdiivka in the lead up to Russia’s capture of the settlement in mid-February. Several interviewed Ukrainian servicemen described Russian forces involved in later direct assaults on Ukrainian positions as well-prepared. One Ukrainian soldier told the Washington Post that about three-quarters of Russian personnel his unit engaged with near Avdiivka appeared to have “decent” military training and the rest were “just confused.”[21] One Ukrainian serviceman recalled that a group of well-trained Russian soldiers used rocket-propelled grenades to enter their positions, while another serviceman recalled that inexperienced Russian servicemen avoided attacking his position after he was able to shoot eight soldiers in one day. The serviceman stated that the Russian military sent inexperienced personnel who appeared to be 40 to 50 years old to attack in waves each morning, afternoon, and evening without protective vests or helmets near Avdiivka. Another Ukrainian serviceman observed that the Russian skill levels were not “really consistent” and that some servicemen had more advanced equipment than their counterparts who only had basic rifles. The reports about inconsistencies in the nature of Russian attacks and in the quality of attacking personnel indicates that Russian forces may be conducting layered ground attacks alternating between groups of trained forces and untrained forces, likely consisting of mobilized personnel or Russian “Storm” units composed of recruited convicts.[22] Commander of the 2nd Assault Battalion of the 3rd Brigade Mykola Zynkevych similarly recalled in an interview with a Ukrainian publication that Russian forces used 20 to 30 people to attack one position — a lot more than Russian forces used in similar attacks during the effort to seize Bakhmut.[23] Russian forces likely used poorly trained personnel to carry out mass daily attacks on Ukrainian positions and employed trained personnel with better equipment to assault specific positions after exhausting Ukrainian forces. Russian forces are likely attempting to adapt ground attacks to sustain a higher tempo of offensive operations near Avdiivka with personnel of varying levels of training and to prevent rapid attrition of better-trained units and formations.

German officials confirmed that the Kremlin is conducting an information operation aimed at deterring Western states, particularly Germany, from sending additional military aid to Ukraine. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated on March 3 that a leaked recording of German military officers discussing the theoretical provision of Taurus missiles to Ukraine is part of the “information war” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging against the West.[24] Pistorius stated that the Kremlin is conducting a “hybrid attack aimed at disinformation, division, [and] undermining [the West’s] resolve [and] unity.” Kremlin newswire TASS and veteran Russian propagandist and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan amplified the audio recording on March 1, in which German military personnel discuss how much training and preparation the German military would need to provide should Germany decide to supply Ukraine with Taurus missiles, and should Ukraine decide to conduct a complicated long-range precision strike against Russian targets such as the Kerch Strait Bridge.[25] Kremlin officials and Russian milbloggers seized on the audio to accuse Germany of planning a strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge and to accuse NATO of escalatory actions.[26] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev accused Germany of “preparing for war with Russia” and claimed that any effort to present the audio as an innocent “game of rockets and tanks” is “false.”[27] Russian officials have previously intensified their efforts to portray the provision of certain Western systems to Ukraine as significant escalations when those systems are subjects of debate in the West.[28]

The Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) announced on March 3 that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) conducted a localized counter-terrorism operation in Karabulak, Republic of Ingushetia. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Russian FSB officers conducted the counter-terrorism operation on four streets in Karabulak and killed six militants who were reportedly members of the Islamic State, were on the Russian federal wanted list, and had committed previous crimes.[29] Russian law enforcement has routinely attributed terrorist operations in the north Caucasus to the Islamic State when militants may be affiliated with the Islamic State or a different terrorist organization.[30] Russian milbloggers claimed that the militants wounded several Russian law enforcement personnel, while a Russian outlet reported that a man walking by was killed in a shootout.[31]

Key Takeaways:

  • China and Turkey continue to pursue their own negotiations platforms for a settlement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin is exploiting to further its own information operations aimed at discouraging continued international support for Ukraine.
  • Recent relatively high Russian aviation losses appear to be prompting a significant decrease in Russian aviation activity in eastern Ukraine, although it is unclear how long this decrease in activity will last.
  • Delays in Western security assistance will likely make Ukraine’s energy infrastructure more vulnerable to Russian strikes.
  • Russian forces operating around Avdiivka appear to be adapting to conducting offensive ground operations with trained and untrained personnel.
  • German officials confirmed that the Kremlin is conducting an information operation aimed at deterring Western states, particularly Germany, from sending additional military aid to Ukraine.
  • The Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) announced on March 3 that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) conducted a localized counter-terrorism operation in Karabulak, Republic of Ingushetia.
  • Positional engagements continued throughout the theater on March 3.
  • Russian regional administrations continue efforts to expand the aperture of ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 2, 2024 

Click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, and Kateryna Stepanenko

March 2, 2024, 6:05pm ET 

Russian forces appear to be willing to risk continued aviation losses in pursuit of tactical gains in eastern Ukraine, likely along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line. The Ukrainian Air Force reported on March 2 that Ukrainian forces destroyed one Su-34 aircraft that was conducting glide bomb strikes against Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine on the morning of March 1.[1] Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk later stated that Ukrainian forces attempted to down two additional Russian Su-34 aircraft and one Su-35 and downed one of the Su-34 aircraft.[2] Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces have shot down 15 Russian aircraft since February 17.[3] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russian forces have not deployed A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft over the Sea of Azov for the past six days following the destruction of an A-50 aircraft on February 23 and implied that the absence of A-50 aircraft forces Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft to fly closer to their targets to conduct strikes.[4] Previous Russian aircraft losses have prompted Russian forces to temporarily decrease aviation activity throughout Ukraine, but the increased rate of Russian aviation losses in Ukraine in the past weeks has yet to prompt Russian forces to significantly decrease tactical aviation activity.[5] ISW assessed that Russian forces temporarily established limited and localized air superiority during the final days of the Russian seizure of Avdiivka.[6] Russian forces are likely attempting to reestablish this limited and localized air superiority in order to support tactical Russian advances in the Avdiivka direction and have decided that continued offensive operations with air support outweigh the risk of losing more aircraft. ISW continues to assess that the reported loss of 15 aircraft and possibly some highly trained pilots in about two weeks is not negligible for the Russian military given that Russia likely has about 300 various Sukhoi fighter aircraft.[7]

Transfers of North Korean weapons to Russia by sea apparently paused as of mid-February 2024. North Korea-focused outlet NK Pro reported on February 29, citing satellite imagery, that Russian ships involved in the maritime transport of North Korean ammunition and weaponry to Russia have not docked at North Korea’s Rajin Port since February 12.[8] NK Pro reported that Russian ships have made at least 32 trips between the Rajin Port and Russia’s Dunay and Vostochny ports, Primorsky Krai since August 2023. NK Pro reported that the Russian Lady R cargo ship transported an unspecified number of shipping containers, likely containing North Korean ammunition and weapons, between North Korea and Russia from January 30 to February 8 and that the Maia-1 cargo ship arrived at Russia’s Vostochny Port from North Korea on February 12. NK Pro reported that satellite imagery has not captured another large cargo ship traveling between the two piers or new deliveries to the Rajin Port since February 12 and suggested that the pause could be due to production issues in North Korea or other logistical issues. NK Pro noted that North Korea could also be transporting weapons to Russia via air or rail. ISW previously reported that Russia uses the Baikal-Amur Railway and the East Siberian Railway to facilitate cargo transfers from and to China and North Korea, both countries that Russia is increasingly relying on for economic and military support respectively to sustain its war effort in Ukraine.[9] South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik stated on February 26 that North Korea has sent an estimated 6,700 shipping containers of ammunition to Russia in recent months.[10] Shin stated that these containers could carry over three million 152mm artillery shells or roughly 500,000 122mm shells.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent offer to host a negotiation platform for Russia and Ukraine.[11] Lavrov attended the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey on March 1 and responded to a question about Erdogan’s offer by stating that there are no current dialogue initiatives that consider Russian interests.[12] Lavrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other Kremlin officials routinely feign openness to negotiations while promoting information operations that place the onus for negotiations on the West.[13] Lavrov’s demand for a dialogue initiative that accounts for Russian interests is part of a longstanding effort to prompt preemptive Western concessions regarding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.[14]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used the Antalya Diplomatic Forum to promote Kremlin narratives about Moldova, likely to set conditions for potential Kremlin hybrid operations that aim to destabilize Moldova and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU). Lavrov answered a question at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey on March 1 about the recent Congress of Deputies held in pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, which requested that Russia provide Transnistria “defense/protection.”[15] Lavrov claimed that the Moldovan government is ”moving in Kyiv’s footsteps,” reiterating his previous comparisons of Moldovan policies towards Transnistria to Ukraine before 2014.[16] Lavrov continued to claim that Moldova is discriminating against Russian speakers, applying ”economic pressure” to Transnistria, and blocking the 5+2 negotiating process for the Transnistria conflict — claims that Kremlin officials and mouthpieces have consistently repeated.[17] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin will use the recent Transnistrian congress as a springboard to intensify hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing and further polarizing Moldova ahead of Moldova-EU accession negotiations and the Moldovan presidential election later in 2024.[18]

Senior Russian officials acknowledged Armenia’s reduced participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), marking a notable shift in Russian official rhetoric that previously sought to ignore Armenian efforts to distance itself from the CSTO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that “it is time for Armenia to decide on its status in the CSTO,” likely in response to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s February 22 statement that Armenia “essentially” froze its participation in the CSTO because the CSTO “failed to fulfill its obligations in the field of security” to Armenia, particularly in 2021 and 2022.[19] Pashinyan stated on February 28 that Armenia has not had a permanent representative to the CSTO in the past year and that Armenian officials and forces have not participated in CSTO events and exercises in “a long time.”[20] ISW observed that Armenia effectively abstained from the CSTO by failing to send representatives to several consecutive CSTO events in mid-to-late-2023.[21] Pashinyan has increasingly publicly questioned Armenia’s security relations with Russia since mid-2023.[22] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously responded to Pashinyan’s statements about the CSTO by rejecting his claims and emphasizing Armenia’s continued membership in the CSTO.[23] Lavrov’s acknowledgment of Armenia’s continued objection to its participation in the CSTO indicates that the Kremlin may be preparing a more concerted response to its deteriorating relations with Armenia.

The Kremlin appears to have largely permitted displays of anti-war sentiment in Moscow as Russians observed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s funeral on March 1. Russian opposition sources reported that up to 16,500 people attended Navalny’s funeral at the Borisovsky Cemetery in Moscow, and footage shows that crowds of people queueing for the funeral chanted anti-war slogans and calls for demobilization.[24] Russian civil rights group OVD-info reported that Russian authorities detained 15 people in Moscow and 89 other people in 18 other Russian cities in connection with Navalny’s funeral by the night of March 1 to 2.[25] Russians continued to lay flowers at Navalny’s grave in Moscow and at memorials elsewhere on March 2, although relatively large displays of anti-war sentiment did not continue on March 2.[26] The Moscow Times reported on March 1 that the Kremlin tasked Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officials with conducting an operation to ”protect the constitutional order from threats” during Navalny’s funeral.[27] The Kremlin likely did not order large crackdowns against displays of anti-war sentiment in order to avoid prompting wider outrage while also projecting confidence in public support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war effort in Ukraine ahead of presidential elections on March 17.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces appear to be willing to risk continued aviation losses in pursuit of tactical gains in eastern Ukraine, likely along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Transfers of North Korean weapons to Russia by sea apparently paused as of mid-February 2024.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent offer to host a negotiation platform for Russia and Ukraine.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used the Antalya Diplomatic Forum to promote Kremlin narratives about Moldova, likely to set conditions for potential Kremlin hybrid operations that aim to destabilize Moldova and prevent Moldova’s accession to the European Union (EU).
  • Senior Russian officials acknowledged Armenia’s reduced participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), marking a notable shift in Russian official rhetoric that previously sought to ignore Armenian efforts to distance itself from the CSTO.
  • The Kremlin appears to have largely permitted displays of anti-war sentiment in Moscow as Russians observed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s funeral on March 1.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Avdiivka, and Krynky on March 2.
  • Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov inspected a Russian shipbuilding facility and the construction site of a new military hospital in the Republic of Dagestan during a working trip to Russia’s Southern Military District on March 2.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 1, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, and Karolina Hird

March 1, 2024, 6:15pm ET 

Reported details of Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations that occurred in Istanbul in April 2022 indicate that Russia has consistently envisioned a settlement for its illegal invasion of Ukraine wherein Ukraine would be unable to defend itself from a future Russian attack – an objective Russia continues to pursue under calls for Ukraine’s “demilitarization.” The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on March 1 that documents it obtained of the draft treaty from the 2022 Ukrainian-Russian peace negotiations indicate that both sides initially agreed that Ukraine would be a “permanently neutral state that doesn't participate in military blocs.”[1] The draft treaty also reportedly banned Ukraine from receiving any foreign weapons or hosting any foreign military personnel. The WSJ reported that Russia pushed for the Ukrainian military to be limited to 85,000 soldiers, 342 tanks, and 519 artillery systems, whereas Ukraine wanted the caps to be 250,000 soldiers, 800 tanks, and 1,900 artillery systems. Russia also reportedly demanded that Ukrainian missiles be limited to a range of 40 kilometers, a range that would allow Russian forces to deploy critical systems and materiel close to Ukraine without fear of strikes. The Kremlin has repeatedly called for the “demilitarization” of Ukraine since its full-scale invasion but has not previously provided details on what that would specifically entail.[2] The Ukrainian military in 2014 – before Russia’s first invasion – consisted of about 130,000 personnel, and the documents from 2022 indicate that Russia intended to drastically reduce Ukraine’s military to such a level that Ukraine could no longer defend itself.[3] Russian President Vladimir Putin has most recently emphasized the idea of a “demilitarized” or “sanitary” zone in Ukraine that would place Russian territory – including occupied Ukraine – out of range of both Ukrainian frontline artillery systems and Western-provided long-range systems.[4] Putin likely aims for the ”demilitarization” of Ukraine to allow him to enforce his will upon Ukraine without any substantial resistance.

Reported details of the draft treaty suggest that Russia intended to use the treaty to set conditions for future attacks against Ukraine while also prompting the West to make concessions on Ukraine’s sovereignty. The WSJ reported that the United States, United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia were to be guarantors of the treaty.[5] Russia also reportedly wanted to include Belarus as a guarantor. The guarantor states were supposed to “terminate international treaties and agreements incompatible with the permanent neutrality of Ukraine,” including military aid agreements. The WSJ did not specify if other non-guarantor states would have to terminate their agreements with Ukraine as well, although this is likely considering that the treaty would ban Ukraine from having foreign-supplied weapons. It is unclear what Russia considers to be “incompatible” with a permanently “neutral” Ukraine, although the Kremlin most certainly would have broadly interpreted this as forbidding Ukraine from joining NATO, which is stipulated by Ukraine’s constitution, thereby likely demanding that Ukraine amend its constitution.[6] Russia reportedly wanted all guarantors to agree on a response should Ukraine be subject to any attacks, but the WSJ stated that the guarantor states were unlikely to agree on a response should Russia attack Ukraine again – likely due to the guarantor states’ diverging interests. This stipulation likely intended to allow Russia to influence, predict, and prepare for the international response to any possible future Russian attacks on Ukraine. ISW continues to assess that any ceasefire would benefit Russia, giving it time to reconstitute and regroup for future offensive operations.[7]

Russia’s territorial objectives beyond the areas it occupied in 2022 likely prevented Russia and Ukraine from agreeing on the status of Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine in April 2022. The WSJ reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were to hold “face-to-face talks” to discuss areas of eastern Ukraine that Russian forces have occupied since 2014, but that this meeting never took place.[8] The need for Putin and Zelensky to discuss the matter independently and separately suggests that the Russian and Ukrainian negotiating delegations were unable to reach an agreement on the status of the Russian-occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, likely due to Russia’s wider expansionist territorial desires, as Kremlin officials have repeatedly indicated.[9] The WSJ did not report on any clauses in the treaty concerning Russian-occupied territory outside of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Russian authorities suggested that the Kremlin has likely adopted a more extensive set of goals regarding Ukraine over the course of Russia's war against Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded to the leaked April 2022 draft agreement between Russia and Ukraine, claiming that the draft agreement is “no longer relevant” and that “conditions have changed.”[10] Peskov's statements are likely part of a current trend of increased Russian confidence in the Russian military’s capabilities and the attainability of Putin’s maximalist war objectives following the recent seizure of Avdiivka and prolonged US debates about military aid to Ukraine.[11] ISW continues to assess that Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains his maximalist objectives in Ukraine, which are tantamount to complete Ukrainian and Western capitulation, and that Russia has no interest in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine.[12]

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to disparage Russian elites in his February 29 Federal Assembly speech, more closely aligning himself with the veteran and military community and drawing praise from ultranationalist milbloggers. Putin attempted to distance himself from the Russian elite by claiming that the individuals who “lined their pockets due to economic processes in the 1990s” are not the elite, but that the ”real elite” are workers and military servicemen who proved their loyalty to Russia.[13] Putin used this subverted definition of elites to praise the Russian military and align himself more strongly with the veteran and military community, stating that military veterans should hold leading positions in Russian society, business, and government and “should be entrusted with Russia’s future” and implying that veterans should take on roles traditionally occupied by Russian elites. Several Russian milbloggers supported Putin’s claim that Russian military veterans should hold prominent and influential roles in Russian society and framed Putin‘s statements as the start of a campaign to change the “elites” of Russia.[14] Putin also proposed expanding and creating multiple economic support measures including "more fairly distributing the tax burden toward those with higher personal and corporate incomes.”[15] One Russian milblogger explicitly expressed support for economic reforms that would replace “oligarch capitalism“ with ”equal opportunities and minimal stratification in living standards.”[16] Putin’s criticism of Russian elites and economic proposals that would, in theory, reduce their influence may intensify an existing rhetorical line among pro-war milbloggers criticizing Russian elites.[17]

Kremlin officials met with leaders of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia and emphasized Russia’s support for Gagauzia against perceived Moldovan “oppression” on March 1. Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matviyenko met with Gagauzian Governor Yevgenia Gutsul and People’s Assembly Chairperson Dmitry Konstantinov in Moscow and criticized Moldovan authorities for “Russophobic” policies that are supposedly antithetical to Moldova’s national interests.[18] Matviyenko added that the Russian Federation Council is prepared to provide “all possible assistance” in expanding Russian-Gagauzian relations.[19] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced that 10 Russian federal subjects signed a range of bilateral agreements emphasizing economic and humanitarian ties with Gagauzia.[20] A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger who has previously focused on discontent in Gagauzia and pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria stated that Gutsul and Konstantinov are ”following the example of Transnistria” by asking for Russia’s support in the face of Moldovan ”oppression.”[21] The Transnistrian Congress of Deputies recently met and adopted a series of decisions that likely aim to provide the Kremlin with justifications for a wide range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova that the Kremlin can either pursue immediately or over the long term.[22] ISW has observed indications that the Kremlin hopes to use pro-Russian actors in Gagauzia as another basis to justify future intervention and hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing and polarizing Moldova to prevent or slow Moldova’s integration in the European Union (EU).[23]

Ukraine and the Netherlands signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement on March 1.[24] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the Netherlands announced that it would provide 2 billion euros (about $2.17 billion) in military aid to Ukraine in 2024 and additional security assistance over the next 10 years.[25] Zelensky stated that the bilateral security agreement prioritizes assistance in air defense and artillery systems and naval and long-range weapons.[26] The Dutch Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that it will provide Ukraine with 14 rigid-hull inflatable boats, eight paramilitary river patrol boats, and CB90-class fast assault craft.[27] The Dutch MoD also announced that it is increasing its contribution to the Czech initiative to provide artillery shells to Ukraine from 100 million euros (about $108 million) to 250 million euros (about $271 million).[28]

Key Takeaways:

  • Reported details of Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations that occurred in Istanbul in April 2022 indicate that Russia has consistently envisioned a settlement for its illegal invasion of Ukraine wherein Ukraine would be unable to defend itself from a future Russian attack – an objective Russia continues to pursue under calls for Ukraine’s “demilitarization.”
  • Reported details of the draft treaty suggest that Russia intended to use the treaty to set conditions for future attacks against Ukraine while also prompting the West to make concessions on Ukraine’s sovereignty.
  • Russian authorities suggested that the Kremlin has likely adopted a more extensive set of goals regarding Ukraine over the course of Russia's war against Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to disparage Russian elites in his February 29 Federal Assembly speech, more closely aligning himself with the veteran and military community and drawing praise from ultranationalist milbloggers.
  • Kremlin officials met with leaders of the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia and emphasized Russia’s support for Gagauzia against perceived Moldovan “oppression” on March 1.
  • Ukraine and the Netherlands signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement on March 1.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City on March 1.
  • Russian authorities will likely use annual combat training for Russian reservists to support crypto-mobilization efforts.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 29, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 29, 2024, 8:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on February 29. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the March 1 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials are reportedly concerned about the possibility of significant Russian territorial gains in summer 2024 in the event of continued delays in Western security assistance. Bloomberg reported that internal Ukrainian assessments state that Russian advances along the frontline could gain significant momentum by summer 2024 unless Ukraine’s partners increase provisions of artillery ammunition.[1] Bloomberg reported that sources close to Ukrainian leadership stated that Ukraine expects Russian forces to decide between continuing their current focus on gradual tactical advances and preparing for a larger breakthrough attempt in summer 2024 depending on the results of current Russian offensive operations.[2] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on February 25 that Russian forces are preparing for a new offensive effort that will start in late May or summer 2024.[3] Russian forces are currently trying to exploit tactical opportunities offered by the Russian seizure of Avdiivka and are attempting to push as far as possible in the area before Ukrainian forces establish harder-to-penetrate defensive lines.[4] Russian forces may determine to adjust future offensive operations based on the level of success they have in attacking subsequent Ukrainian defensive lines west and northwest of Avdiivka, and Ukrainian defenses in the Avdiivka area may impact Russian perceptions of the wider state of Ukraine’s defense along the frontline. Russian forces are also conducting a multi-axis offensive operation along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line but have not made any recent significant gains in the area, and the relative success or failure of that effort could similarly influence how the Russian military command views Russian prospects for operationally significant advances.[5] The Russian ability to make operationally significant advances is still largely dependent on the level of Western support for Ukraine, however, as well-provisioned Ukrainian forces have proven that they can prevent Russian forces from making even marginal gains during large-scale Russian offensive efforts.[6]

Bloomberg also reported that Ukrainian intelligence assessments stated that Russian Vladimir Putin has not given up his original goal of seizing major Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv and Odesa.[7] Putin has recently falsely claimed that Odesa is a “Russian city” and other Russian officials have also applied that expression to Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv cities.[8] The Kremlin has resumed expansionist rhetoric in recent months that explicitly calls for the occupation and annexation of additional Ukrainian territory.[9] The Kremlin has intentionally framed this rhetoric to avoid setting limits for further Russian expansion in Ukraine, and this rhetoric may aim to allow Putin to introduce new objectives for conquest in Ukraine when he sees fit.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his February 29 address to the Federal Assembly to attempt to convince the Russian public that his next term as president will be defined by Russian military success in Ukraine but not at the expense of stagnating or decreased social and economic welfare. Putin stated that Russian combat capabilities have increased “many times over” and that Russian forces “firmly hold the initiative, confidently advance in a number of operational areas” and capture “more territory.”[11] Putin’s characterization of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine is notably more confident than his December 14, 2023, Direct Line statement that Russian forces were in “the active stage of action.”[12] Putin’s willingness to publicly portray his apparent confidence in Russian offensive operations likely stems from Russia’s recent seizure of Avdiivka and prolonged US debates about military aid to Ukraine. Putin spent most of the speech not focusing on the war but instead detailing the specifics of economic policies and social programs he plans to launch.[13] Russia has increased defense spending to record levels in 2024, and Putin is likely stressing his plans for economic and social policies to assuage persisting domestic concerns about the ramifications of Putin’s war in Ukraine for ordinary Russians.[14] Putin attempted to further address these concerns by claiming that the West is attempting to draw Russia into an arms race as the West successfully did with the Soviet Union in the 1980s to the detriment of the Soviet Union’s economy. Putin emphasized, however, that the Russian government is taking measures to develop the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) while increasing social and economic spending, likely in an effort to demonstrate to the Russian public that Russia has measures in place to avoid ballooned defense spending reminiscent of the Soviet Union before its collapse. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stated that Putin’s Federal Assembly speech was largely his election program for the March 2024 presidential elections.[15] Putin’s apparent growing confidence in discussing the war publicly has not generated any notable inflections in his overall framing of the war in Ukraine, and Putin continues to issue the same justifications and maximalist goals for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine as he has offered all along.

Putin used tired rhetoric about negotiations and nuclear saber rattling during his Federal Assembly speech, likely to seize on Western attention to the speech to promote ongoing Kremlin information operations. Putin reiterated his feigned readiness for dialogue with the United States on issues of “strategic stability” and continued to place the onus for a lack of negotiations on the United States.[16] Putin asserted that if the United States wants to discuss important issues of security, then it is necessary to consider Russia’s national interests.[17] Putin continues to pursue maximalist objectives in Ukraine that amount to full Ukrainian capitulation and aims to weaken and dismantle NATO, objectives that he most certainly views as integral parts of Russian national interests.[18] The Kremlin is currently conducting an information operation feigning interest in negotiations to prompt preemptive Western concessions regarding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.[19] Putin also emphasized that Russia possesses weapons that can strike Western countries and claimed that Western escalation is threatening a possible nuclear conflict that could destroy civilization.[20] Putin and Russian officials frequently invoke nuclear threats to instill fear in Western audiences and weaken Western support for Ukraine.[21] The Kremlin has not engaged in any significant escalations in response to the provision of new Western systems to Ukraine, and ISW continues to assess that Russian nuclear use in Ukraine and beyond is highly unlikely.[22]

Putin emphasized the Kremlin’s domestic focus on 2024 as the “Year of the Family” to address Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis during his Federal Assembly address. Putin claimed that the main purpose of a family is to have children, a more overt acknowledgement of Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis than he made in his December 31, 2023, New Year’s address.[23] Putin stated on February 29 that all levels of Russian government, civil society, and religious leaders should contribute to the societal, economic, cultural, and educational efforts to promote Russian birth rates. Putin announced a new Russian government project called “Family” to provide social support to families with children and increase the Russian birth rate. The initiatives include expanding and increasing existing social benefits, including providing maternity capital payments to mothers, giving preferential mortgage rates to families with children, and giving tax deductions to children to families with more than one child. The Kremlin’s focus on 2024 as the “Year of the Family” is likely meant to provide an ideological basis for efforts aimed at increasing Russian birth rates and remedying Russian demographic issues through appeals to Russian “traditional values.” ISW continues to assess that Russia’s war in Ukraine has impacted some aspects of Russian demographics, although Russia has been experiencing a demographic crisis for decades.[24]

Putin did not respond to the February 28 request from the Congress of Deputies from pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria, but this lack of response still affords the Kremlin several possible courses of action (COA) at a later time. The Transnistrian Congress of Deputies adopted seven decisions that provide the Kremlin with justifications for a large range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova that the Kremlin can choose to pursue in the near or long term, and many of these possible COAs are not mutually exclusive.[25] Putin’s lack of response during his February 29 address is either consistent with or does not rule out all five possible Russian COAs that ISW outlined in its February 28 assessment, including the assessed most likely COA (MLCOA) of intensifying hybrid operations to destabilize Moldova and the assessed most dangerous COA (MDCOA) of formally annexing Transnistria in the future to justify military action against Moldova in the long term.[26]

Ukrainian forces downed three more Su-34 fighter aircraft in eastern Ukraine on February 28 and 29. Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk reported on February 29 that Ukrainian forces destroyed two Su-34 aircraft on the night of February 28 to 29 and another Su-34 on the morning of February 29 in the Mariupol and Avdiivka directions.[27] Pavlyuk noted that the aircraft were conducting glide bomb strikes against Ukrainian infantry in eastern Ukraine when Ukrainian forces downed the aircraft.[28] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russian forces have deployed an unspecified large number of aircraft to conduct glide bomb strikes in the Avdiivka direction.[29] The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Ukrainian forces have downed 13 Russian aircraft since February 17.[30] The International Institute for Strategic Studies previously estimated that Russia has roughly 300 various Sukhoi fighter aircraft, suggesting that the impact of losing 13 aircraft in almost as many days, and possibly some of their highly trained pilots, is not negligible for the Russian military.[31] Ukrainian forces have also downed two A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft in 2024 so far.[32]

The Kremlin continues to assert its self-arrogated right to enforce Russian federal law on citizens of NATO member and former Soviet states over actions taken within the territory of their own countries. The Russian Investigative Committee announced on February 28 that a Russian court convicted a Latvian citizen in absentia for fighting as a volunteer with the Ukrainian military against Russia and for desecrating a Soviet memorial in Latvia.[33] The Investigative Committee claimed that the Latvian citizen acted out of “political and ideological hatred of Russia,” and the court sentenced the man to 10 years in prison in absentia.[34] The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) previously placed several dozen government officials from NATO countries on Russia’s wanted list because of alleged violations of Russian federal law committed outside the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.[35] Russia, however, does not have the legal authority to prosecute foreign citizens for allegedly violating Russian laws in foreign states. ISW previously assessed that Russian criminal accusations against European officials and citizens may be part of an ongoing Russian effort to set informational conditions justifying possible Russian escalations against NATO states in the future.[36]

Russian officials and Kremlin mouthpieces also accused Latvian authorities of “intimidating” Russian citizens voting in the Russian presidential election in Latvia on February 29. Latvian Minister of Justice Inese Libina-Egnere stated on February 27 that Latvian authorities cannot prevent Russian citizens from voting at the Russian embassy, but noted that Latvia’s Criminal Code considers the “justification of war” (in this case Russia’s war in Ukraine) to be criminally liable.[37] Russian sources seized on Libina-Egnere's statements on February 29 and falsely claimed that Latvian authorities may criminally prosecute Russian citizens for voting in the presidential election.[38]

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a threat to Armenian security as Russian officials refused to acknowledge Armenia’s reduced participation in the CSTO. Pashinyan stated on February 28 that the CSTO is creating security problems instead of fulfilling its obligations to Armenia and that the CSTO’s “lack of an answer” regarding its responsibilities to Armenia “creates a threat” to Armenia’s “security and territorial integrity.”[39] Pashinyan previously stated that Armenia has “essentially” frozen its participation in the CSTO because the organization “failed to fulfill its obligations in the field of security” to Armenia, particularly in 2021 and 2022.[40] Pashinyan noted on February 28 that Armenia has not had a permanent representative to the CSTO in the past year and that Armenian officials and forces have not participated in CSTO events and exercises in “a long time.”[41] ISW previously observed that Armenia appeared to be effectively abstaining from participation in the CSTO after Pashinyan and other Armenian representatives did not attend several consecutive CSTO events in mid to late 2023.[42] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated on February 28 that Russia “does not accept” Armenia’s non-compliance with the CSTO agreement.[43]

The Kremlin has reportedly established high-level positions in all federal bodies to promote patriotism and history within each body, likely aimed at strengthening informational and ideological control over federal employees. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on February 29 that leaked Russian government documents indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in February 2023 establishing a “deputy head of social and political work” in each Russian federal body and that the presidential administration must approve each appointment for the position.[44] Meduza reported that the Russian Environmental Management Agency has published guidelines for conducting socio-political work including strengthening Russian patriotism and civic identity and ensuring understanding and support for Russia’s domestic and international policies.[45] The Russian Environmental Management Agency identified methods to educate federal employees about the military and political situations both in Russia and in the world as well as Russian history, including the development stages of Russian international policy, the history of wars and military conflicts, and the formation of Russian statehood. Meduza reported that the leaked documents indicate that these measures are considered necessary to counter the “deliberately distorted ideological intervention” from media allegedly funded by unfriendly states and that the Russian Ministry of Education has outlined similar proposals to tighten control over Russian universities.[46] These measures are likely part of a longstanding Kremlin effort to consolidate control over the broader Russian informational and cultural sphere beginning with employees in federal governmental bodies. Russian news outlet Kommersant reported in April 2022 that the Kremlin began considering the idea of creating these deputy heads of information and political work sometime in 2021 and began moving forward on the effort in 2022 after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine prompted the Kremlin to prioritize the effort.[47]

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian officials are reportedly concerned about the possibility of significant Russian territorial gains in Summer 2024 in the event of continued delays in Western security assistance.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin used his February 29 address to the Federal Assembly to attempt to convince the Russian public that his next term as president will be defined by Russian military success in Ukraine but not at the expense of stagnating or decreased social and economic welfare.
  • Putin used tired rhetoric about negotiations and nuclear saber rattling during his Federal Assembly speech likely to seize on Western attention to the speech to promote ongoing Kremlin information operations.
  • Putin emphasized the Kremlin’s domestic focus on 2024 as the “Year of the Family” to address Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis during his Federal Assembly address.
  • Putin did not respond to the February 28 request from the Congress of Deputies from pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria, but this lack of response still affords the Kremlin several possible courses of action (COA) at a later time.
  • Ukrainian forces downed three more Su-34 fighter aircraft in eastern Ukraine on February 28 and 29.
  • The Kremlin continues to assert its self-arrogated right to enforce Russian federal law on citizens of NATO member and former Soviet states over actions taken within the territory of their own countries.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a threat to Armenian security as Russian officials refused to acknowledge Armenia’s reduced participation in the CSTO.
  • The Kremlin has reportedly established high-level positions in all federal bodies to promote patriotism and history within each body, likely aimed at strengthening informational and ideological control over federal employees.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the frontline on February 29.
  • Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Head Sergei Chemezov stated on February 29 that Rostec plans to produce A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft on an unspecified schedule because Russian forces require more A-50 aircraft.
  • Occupation officials continue to support Kremlin efforts to gain further control over religious groups in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 28, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 28, 2024, 7:15pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on February 28. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the February 29 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria held the Seventh Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 and adopted a series of decisions that likely aim to provide the Kremlin with justifications for a wide range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova — actions the Kremlin can pursue both immediately and over the long-term.[1] The Congress of Transnistrian Deputies adopted seven decisions, including a request to the Russian State Duma and Federation Council for Russian “defense” of Transnistria in response to alleged increasing pressures from Moldova. Transnistrian officials specifically used “zashchita” (защита), a word that means both “defense” and “protection” in their request, likely to set conditions for the Kremlin to interpret “defense” in a military sense if it so chooses. Transnistrian officials invoked the obligations of the Russian “peacekeeping mission” in Transnistria and the roughly 220,000 Russian citizens they claim are residing in Transnistria in their request for Russian “defense.” Transnistrian officials likely aim for these appeals to serve as the basis for any potential Russian intervention in Transnistria and Moldova in the near or long term as they cohere with Russian justifications for previous interventions, most notably its invasions of Ukraine.[2] The Kremlin has increasingly promoted rhetoric about Russia’s ”compatriots abroad,” which include ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, to further justify its war in Ukraine and to likely set informational conditions for provocations in countries where Russian ”compatriots” live.[3] The Kremlin has also used the idea of protecting its “compatriots abroad” to justify the fact that Russian troops have occupied Transnistria since 1992, and Transnistrian officials likely made appeals concerning Transnistrian residents with Russian citizenship to set further informational conditions for the Kremlin to escalate Russian activities in Transnistria and Moldova.[4] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on February 14 that Russia is ”concerned” about Russian citizens in Transnistria and “will not allow them to become victims of another Western adventure.”[5]

The Congress of Transnistrian Deputies’ also specifically called for the United Nations (UN) and European Parliament to stop alleged Moldovan violations of Transnistrian rights and freedoms, for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to influence Moldova into an “adequate dialogue,” for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to prevent escalation on the Dniester River, and for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to ensure the rights of Transnistrian residents.[6] Transnistrian officials also called on participants to return to the 5+2 negotiation process for the Transnistrian conflict, which includes Russia, Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, and the OSCE as mediators and the European Union (EU) and US as observers. These appeals to multilateral organizations and negotiating formats aim to legitimize Transnistria as a sovereign entity separate from Moldova without pressing claims for its independence while also providing the Kremlin with prepared justifications for escalation and intervention in the name of fulfilling both Russia’s and others’ international obligations. The Congress of Transnistrian Deputies’ appeal to the Russian-led CIS notably could be interpreted as permitting the CIS to “prevent escalation” both in Moldova and Transnistria as it does not specify a side of the Dniester River. The appeals’ focus on protecting Transnistrian rights and freedoms likely aims to set conditions for the Kremlin to apply a similar narrative about preventing “discrimination” and “genocide” against “Russians” in Moldova as the Kremlin did ahead of and during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[7]

Kremlin officials and mouthpieces continue to set information conditions to use Transnistria and pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region Gagauzia to destabilize Moldova but have yet to indicate how and to what specific end they intend to leverage such information conditions.[8] These Transnistrian appeals notably do not call on Russian forces to take specific actions and are likely broadly scoped to give the Kremlin the widest set of possible courses of action (COA) for escalations and interventions aimed at destabilizing Moldova. These Transnistrian appeals are also not time delimited and allow the Kremlin to address various appeals whenever it deems necessary or expedient. The Transnistrian appeals set long-term justifications for the Kremlin to pursue escalations and interventions against Moldova regardless of the outcome of its war in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has yet to signal an immediate route for escalation following the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies, although Russian President Vladimir Putin may respond to the Transnistrian requests during his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 29.[9] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reported on February 28 in response to the Transnistrian Congress of Deputies’ appeal that protecting the interests of Transnistrian residents and Russia’s “compatriots” is one of Russia’s priorities and promised to “carefully consider” the Transnistrian requests.[10] Russian State Duma Committee on the CIS Affairs First Deputy Chairperson Konstantin Zatulin stated that the Duma will consider Transnistria’s proposals in consultation with Putin and the Russian MFA as soon as the proposals arrive.[11] Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs First Deputy Chairperson Alexei Chepa stated that Transnistrian appeals to Russia imply economic assistance and that there is currently no talk of Russia providing Transnistria military assistance.[12] Russia would be challenged to get concrete military assistance to Transnistria in any event because it is landlocked and bordered by Ukraine on one side and Moldova (and beyond that, Romania) on the other. Chepa added that the Transnistrian requests will contribute to “faster decision-making" on Russia’s part.[13] Russian Federation Council Committee on International Affairs First Deputy Chairperson Vladimir Dzhabarov stated that the Federation Council will consider providing humanitarian support to Transnistria but that the “political question” (likely referring to the political status of Transnistria) is “out of the equation for now.”[14]

The Kremlin can use the outcomes of the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies to justify a range of possible COAs that are not mutually exclusive. The most likely course of action (MLCOA) is that the Kremlin will use the Congress as a springboard to intensify hybrid operations aimed a destabilizing and further polarizing Moldova ahead of Moldova-European Union (EU) accession negotiations and the upcoming Moldovan presidential election in June and November 2024, respectively. The most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) is that the Kremlin may decide to formally annex Transnistria in the future in order to justify military intervention against Moldova in the long-term.

  • COA 1: The Kremlin may decide to not take any action immediately following the February 28 congress and allow the status quo between Transnistria and Moldova to continue. If Putin envisions a particular time frame for the development of Russian intervention in Moldova, and the Transnistrian authorities are attempting to expedite this timeframe with their requests, then Putin may decide that he is unwilling to exploit Transnistrian requests and refuse to take action or even acknowledge the requests in the immediate future. Putin may decide to engage with the requests at a later date, however.
  • COA 2: The Kremlin may place increased diplomatic pressure on Moldova to revoke its recent Customs Code that went into effect on January 1, 2024. Transnistrian officials have consistently identified Moldova’s new customs regulations as the crux of their recent complaints against Moldovan authorities and continue to identify the new customs regulations as part of Moldova’s “economic war” against Transnistria as a key issue, including during the February 28 congress.[15] The Kremlin may also choose to provide additional economic support to Transnistria through humanitarian aid, financial aid, or new trade agreements as part of its efforts to further pressure Moldova‘s economy and force Moldova to capitulate to Transnistrian demands to revoke Moldova‘s new Customs Code. Moldova’s changes to its Customs Code are essential in aligning Moldova with EU regulations as part of Moldova’s path towards EU membership.[16]
  • COA 3: The Kremlin may also attempt to send additional military assistance to Transnistrian forces in the future, although it is currently unclear how the Kremlin would hope to transport military equipment or personnel to Transnistria. If the Kremlin chooses to interpret “defense” in a military sense, Russia could send military assistance in the form of additional Russian “peacekeepers” or military equipment and weapons to Transnistria. It is unclear how Russia would transport this material to Transnistria given that Russia would likely have to fly the materiel through Ukrainian or Romanian (NATO) airspace or attempt a large-scale ground operation through Odesa Oblast, which Russian forces are highly unlikely to conduct as it would draw personnel away from their ongoing offensive efforts in eastern Ukraine and likely fail in any event.
  • MLCOA: The Kremlin may intensify hybrid operations aimed at destabilizing and further polarizing Moldovan politics and society ahead of June 2024 European Union (EU)-Moldova accession negotiations and the November 2024 Moldovan presidential election in order to undermine and delay Moldova’s future accession to the EU. ISW previously assessed that the EU’s December 14, 2023 announcement on launching membership talks with Moldova likely triggered the Kremlin’s preparations for a possible hybrid operation against Moldova and that the Kremlin will likely intensify information operations accusing the West of waging an anti-Russian hybrid war against Moldova and/or accusing Moldova of preparing to attack civilians in Transnistria.[17]
  • MDCOA: The Kremlin may decide to formally annex Transnistria in the future in order to justify military intervention against Moldova in the long-term. The Kremlin previously used similar justifications, particularly the protection of Russian citizens and “compatriots” abroad, to justify military intervention against Georgia and Ukraine.[18] ISW has not observed any clear indications of Russian military preparations to intervene in Transnistria or Moldova.[19] Russian military intervention would be challenging for Russia since Moldova (and Transnistria) is landlocked and only accessible through Romania or Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that the Russian forces currently in Transnistria could threaten the stability of Moldova, but ISW has observed no indicators that they are preparing to do so.[20]

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted another strike on a Russian personnel concentration in occupied Donetsk Oblast, once again sparking ire amongst Russian milbloggers and re-surfacing concerns about Ukraine’s use of HIMARS systems. A Russian Telegram user who claims to be an employee of an unspecified branch of Russian special services reported that a Ukrainian HIMARS strike hit a gathering of personnel of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade (Pacific Fleet) during a military awards ceremony in Olenivka, Donetsk Oblast on the night of February 27.[21] The Russian source claimed that the strike killed 19, including the deputy brigade commander, a major, and a captain, and wounded 12, including brigade commander Colonel Mikhail Gudkov. The Russian source accused the Russian command of being aware of Ukrainian drone reconnaissance activity in the area but ignoring the available information ahead of the strike. Ukrainian forces have conducted two similar HIMARS strikes against Russian troop concentrations over the past week, targeting a training ground near occupied Volnovakha, Donetsk Oblast on February 20 and a training ground in occupied Podo-Kalynivka, Kherson Oblast on February 22.[22] One milblogger noted that “these are no longer isolated mistakes,” and suggested that Ukraine is deliberately striking such gatherings of Russian personnel in a “clinical” manner.[23] Russian milbloggers appear increasingly concerned that Ukrainian forces are able to exploit poor Russian operational security practices (such as large gatherings in near-rear areas under Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance) using well-timed and well-targeted HIMARS strikes, which continue to generate discontent in the Russian information space.

Russia continues cracking down on actors it deems “foreign agents” to consolidate control over the Russian information space ahead of the March 2024 presidential election. The Russian State Duma adopted a law on February 28 banning Russians from advertising the content of individuals and organizations legally designated as “foreign agents” and from advertising their own content on platforms that these “foreign agents” own. ISW previously assessed that this law, if passed, would impact Russian opposition media’s ability to operate and reliably report in Russia, and at least one Russian opposition journalist has already suspended their work due to the new advertising ban.[24] Russian outlet RBK reported that large Russian advertising agencies are already including unilateral termination clauses in their advertising contracts in case the Kremlin designates a client as a foreign agent during the term of their contract.[25] Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on February 28 that the Kremlin has more than doubled its criminal prosecutions of designated foreign agents for violating Russian censorship laws from 2022 to 2023, most commonly for allegedly spreading ”fake” information about the Russian military or promoting extremism.[26] Some Russian regional authorities are also increasing efforts to discourage violations of Russian censorship laws; the Krasnodar Krai Legislative Assembly is considering a bill that would deprive Russians convicted of spreading fake information, discrediting the Russian military, or promoting extremism of their ability to vote in Russian elections.[27]

Financial Times (FT) investigation published on February 27, reportedly based on leaked classified Russian military documents from 2008-2014, outlines Russia’s purported criteria for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. FT reported that the documents show that Russia has war-gamed avenues for employing tactical weapons and alleged that the files show that Russia has a lower threshold for using nuclear weapons “if the desired result can’t be achieved through conventional means” than Russian officials have ever publicly admitted.[28] FT stated that the criteria for a nuclear response vary between “an enemy incursion on Russian territory” to more specific parameters, such as “the destruction of 20 percent of Russia’s strategic ballistic missile submarines.” FT noted that unspecified experts have confirmed that the documents remain relevant to Russian nuclear doctrine despite the fact that they are over a decade old. ISW cannot independently verify the legitimacy of the documents but has frequently observed that Russian actors invoke nuclear rhetoric and threats of nuclear weapons use to target the Western information space and instill concern aimed at weakening Western support to Ukraine.[29] It has long been established that Russian nuclear doctrine includes the option to use nuclear weapons in conventional wars at thresholds much lower than Western states.

Turkey and China appear to be pursuing their own negotiation platforms for a settlement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin will likely exploit to further its long-standing narratives regarding negotiations and the war. Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hiu will visit EU states, Ukraine, and Russia starting on March 2 to conduct a round of shuttle diplomacy regarding a political solution to the war in Ukraine.[30] Russia previously seized on China’s approach to a vaguely defined political peace plan for Ukraine to claim that China supports Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, as ISW previously reported.[31] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan similarly announced on February 28 that Ankara is prepared to provide another negotiations platform for Russia and Ukraine.[32] The Kremlin will likely weaponize these proposed platforms to further the narrative that Ukraine is the party refusing negotiations. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is not interested in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine and has no interest in ending the war on anything but Russia’s articulated terms.[33]

Key Takeaways:

  • Pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region Transnistria held the Seventh Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 and adopted a series of decisions that likely aim to provide the Kremlin with justifications for a wide range of possible escalatory actions against Moldova — actions the Kremlin can pursue both immediately and over the long-term.
  • The Kremlin has yet to signal an immediate route for escalation following the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies, although Russian President Vladimir Putin may respond to the Transnistrian requests during his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 29.
  • The Kremlin can use the outcomes of the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies to justify a range of possible COAs that are not mutually exclusive.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted another strike on a Russian personnel concentration in occupied Donetsk Oblast, once again sparking ire amongst Russian milbloggers and re-surfacing concerns about Ukraine’s use of HIMARS systems.
  • Russia continues cracking down on actors it deems “foreign agents” to consolidate control over the Russian information space ahead of the March 2024 presidential election.
  • Financial Times (FT) investigation published on February 27, reportedly based on leaked classified Russian military documents from 2008-2014, outlines Russia’s purported criteria for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
  • Turkey and China appear to be pursuing their own negotiation platforms for a settlement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin will likely exploit to further its long-standing narratives regarding negotiations and the war.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Svatove, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspected the Tula State University’s Military Training Center and several defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises in Tula Oblast on February 28.
  • Russian occupation authorities are using early voting for the Russian presidential election to cloak Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine in a veneer of fabricated legitimacy.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 27, 2024

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 27, 2024, 9:15pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on February 27. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the February 28 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces are attempting to exploit tactical opportunities offered by the Russian seizure of Avdiivka and appear to be maintaining a relatively high tempo of offensive operations aimed at pushing as far as possible in the Avdiivka area before Ukrainian forces establish more cohesive and harder-to-penetrate defensive lines in the area. Russian forces temporarily decreased their tempo of operations as they cleared Avdiivka following the Russian seizure of the settlement on February 17, but have since resumed a relatively high tempo of assaults further west and northwest of Avdiivka.[1] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Dmytro Lykhovyi stated on February 27 that Russian forces have recently increased the size of their assault groups in the Tavriisk direction (Avdiivka through western Zaporizhia Oblast) from small squad-sized groups to platoon-sized and even company-sized groups.[2] Russian forces are currently focusing assaults west of Avdiivka in the direction of Berdychi, Orlivka, and Tonenke, where Ukrainian forces established immediate defensive positions to cover their withdrawal from Avdiivka and to receive oncoming Russian offensive operations.[3] Lykhovyi and Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Oleksandr Tarnavskyi stated that Ukrainian forces have stabilized their defensive lines along the Tonenke-Orlivka-Berdychi line as of February 27.[4] Ukrainian military observers characterized Ukrainian fortifications west of Avdiivka as “disappointing” and ”problematic,” however.[5] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold defensive positions immediately west of Avdiivka and forecasted that Ukrainian forces will concentrate on a defensive line further west that Ukrainian forces began constructing in November 2023.[6]

Russian forces are likely continuing attempts to advance in order to deprive Ukrainian forces of the respite that would allow Ukraine to establish a more cohesive and harder-to-penetrate defensive line in the immediate vicinity of Avdiivka. The seizure of Avdiivka has allowed Russian forces to press on positions that Ukrainian forces have manned for a shorter period than Ukrainian positions in Avdiivka or further west, and Russian forces are likely sustaining a high operational tempo to try to exploit this tactical opportunity. Russian forces may be able to seize settlements immediately west and northwest of Avdiivka in the coming weeks, but terrain and water features further west of Avdiivka, particularly the body of water that runs between Berdychi-Semenivka-Orlivka, will likely slow the already relatively slow rate of Russian advances in the area. This difficult terrain will likely constrain further Russian tactical gains and allow Ukrainian forces to establish prepared defensive positions that will likely prompt the eventual culmination of the current Russian offensive effort in the area at least until or unless the Russians reinforce their attacking elements.[7]

Russian forces are likely attempting to create an operational maneuver force for the exploitation of recent Russian advances in the Avdiivka direction. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on February 27 that Russian forces have formally transferred responsibility for the Donetsk City-Avdiivka axis to the Russian Central Grouping of Forces and formally transferred the Central Grouping of Forces’ previous area of responsibility (AOR) in the Lyman direction to Russia’s Western Grouping of Forces.[8] Russia’s Western Grouping of Forces (likely comprised almost entirely of elements of the Western Military District [WMD]) assumed responsibility for at least a portion of the Lyman direction in late fall and early winter 2023 after the Russian command transferred the bulk of the committed formations of the Central Grouping of Forces (primarily comprised of elements of the Central Military District [CMD]) to the offensive effort to seize Avdiivka in October 2023.[9] Russian officials have recently praised the Central Grouping of Forces for the seizure of Avdiivka and have notably highlighted CMD Commander Colonel General Andrei Mordvichev and increasingly identified the Avdiivka direction as the AOR of the Central Grouping of Forces.[10] The Russian command may have decided to codify the de facto command structure that has existed in the Avdiivka area since late Fall 2023 to explicitly establish a maneuver force intended to exploit recent Russian advances in the area. The Avdiivka-Donetsk axis is a relatively narrower AOR compared to the AORs of other Russian force groupings in Ukraine, and this focused responsibility suggests that the Russian military command likely intends for CMD elements to continue offensive efforts in the Avdiivka area in the near and medium term.

The Russian command likely hopes that the reorganization of command structures will establish more cohesive Russian grouping of forces throughout the theater in Ukraine. Russian forces recently reorganized the command structure of the Russian grouping of forces in southern Ukraine, abolishing an unnamed grouping of forces that defended against the Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive and distributing its elements between the Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces (AOR in Kherson Oblast and western Zaporzihia Oblast) and the Russian Eastern Grouping of Forces (AOR in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and western Donetsk Oblast).[11] The Russian Western Grouping of Forces has launched an ongoing multi-axis offensive operation along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and has designed elements of that operation based on its control over a cohesive force grouping along a wide AOR.[12] Mashovets noted that the transfer of the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis to the Central Grouping of Forces bisects the Russian Southern Grouping of Forces, which previously had responsibility for the frontline from the Bakhmut direction through the Marinka direction.[13] It is unclear if this bisection will generate further command and control (C2) difficulties for Russian forces near Bakhmut and west and southwest of Donetsk City beyond the pervasive C2 issues that Russian forces already face writ large in Ukraine.[14] This apparent Russian reorganization effort suggests that the Russian command may be attempting to implement lessons it has learned about organizing command structures in areas in which it intends to prioritize offensive efforts as the more cohesive Russian groupings of forces are engaged in more concerted or broader offensive efforts.

Recent developments in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, are unlikely to pose a military threat to Ukraine and will more likely impact Moldova’s European Union (EU) integration prospects. Ukrainian officials stated that Russian drones flew into Moldovan airspace on the night of February 26-27 during a Russian strike series targeting Ukrainian rear areas.[15] The Moldovan Ministry of Defense (MoD), however, denied that any drones flew over Moldova.[16] ISW continues to assess that the Russian forces currently in Transnistria are not capable of posing a meaningful military threat to Ukraine without reinforcements, which Russia has no likely way of bringing to Transnistria rapidly or at scale, and ISW has not observed any clear indications of Russian military preparations to intervene in Transnistria or Moldova more generally.[17] The flight of a drone over Moldovan airspace has more direct implications for Moldovan sovereignty than for Ukrainian security.

ISW is amending its warning forecast in light of continued Transnistrian officials’ statements that the upcoming Congress of Transnistrian Deputies will discuss Moldovan economic policies, likely related to changes to Moldova’s Customs Code that went into effect on January 1, 2024.[18] ISW issued a warning forecast on February 22 and assessed that Transnistrian officials may call for a referendum on annexation to Russia during the Congress of Transnistrian Deputies on February 28 to support Russian hybrid operations intent on politically and socially destabilizing Moldova.[19] The last Congress of Transnistrian Deputies was convened in March 2006, at which Transnistrian deputies decided to hold a referendum on Transnistria’s independence and future subsequent annexation into Russia.[20] The 2006 congress similarly occurred a few weeks after Ukraine imposed new customs regulations on Transnistria.[21] While the referendum received overwhelming popular support in 2006, neither Russia nor Transnistria advanced legal mechanisms for annexation at that time.

Moldova’s path towards EU membership required Moldova to change to its Customs Code to align with EU regulations.[22] Moldova had previously exempted Transnistrian businesses from paying duties to the Moldovan government for Transnistrian imports from and exports to the EU and instead allowed Transnistrian businesses to pay duties to the Transnistrian government.[23] Transnistria responded to the January 2024 changes requiring that Transnistrian businesses pay required duties to the Moldovan government by increasing taxes on about 2,000 Moldovan businesses in Transnistria, but Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky stated on February 24 that customs payments to the Transnistrian budget still decreased by 18 percent since the start of 2024.[24]

Major actors in Transnistria have varying economic and political interests. The American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP) previously assessed that Transnistria is a mafia state run by Viktor Gushan, whose company Sheriff Enterprises controls a majority of the Transnistrian economy and receives large portions of Transnistria’s government spending.[25] Gushan’s businesses have been heavily oriented towards the EU after Moldova signed a trade deal with the EU in 2014 that guaranteed tariff-free access to EU markets. Gushan’s businesses would also benefit from the reestablishment of good Ukrainian-Transnistrian relations, as Transnistria imported and exported most of its goods through Ukraine until Ukraine closed those borders in 2022 due to Russia's full-scale invasion — facts that would give Gushan good reason to oppose Transnistrian annexation into Russia for economic reasons. EU officials have indicated that Moldova could join the EU without Transnistria.[26] Gushan may prefer a Western-oriented Moldova in which Transnistria enjoys special tax exceptions over annexation into Russia or Moldovan EU membership without Transnistria. Moldova, however, is unlikely to reverse its customs code changes given its current commitment to joining the EU. Gushan’s calculus, therefore, is complex, and his preferences are unclear at this time. ISW will provide an update following the Congress of Deputies on February 28.

Russia may also hope to exploit a hybrid play in Transnistria taking advantage of recent developments. Gushan likely competes with the Transnistrian Ministry of State Security (MGB), reportedly a “department” of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) that takes orders from the Kremlin.[27] Citizens of both Russian-influenced regions of Moldova — Transnistria and Gagauzia — notably recently protested Moldova’s new Customs Code.[28] Russia may attempt to exploit domestic opposition to Moldovan policies to sow instability in Moldova and delay Moldova’s accession to the EU.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to highlight recent Russian tactical successes in Ukraine as substantial battlefield victories for political purposes ahead of the upcoming Russian presidential election. Shoigu addressed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) board on February 27 and reported that Russian forces are continuing efforts to improve their positions in the Donetsk (Avdiivka) and Kupyansk (Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border area) directions.[29] Shoigu reported that Russian forces have pushed Ukrainian forces out of Lastochkyne and Sieverne (both west of Avdiivka) and Pobieda (southwest of Donetsk City) and claimed that Russian forces have captured about 327 square kilometers of territory since the beginning of 2024. ISW currently assesses that Russian forces have captured closer to 205 square kilometers since January 1, 2024, and Shoigu likely deliberately overstated Russian territorial gains. Shoigu’s promotion of the Russian capture of very small settlements of limited tactical significance suggests that the Russian MoD is trying to emphasize even such small gains to present an image of a constantly advancing Russian military. All three of the settlements that Shoigu chose to prominently highlight are comprised of small semi-urban areas spanning a few blocks, so Russian forces’ capture of these settlements was a very tactical endeavor. ISW recently assessed that the Russian MoD is likely trying to play up recent tactical gains to generate positive informational effects before the March 2024 presidential election.[30]

Shoigu additionally highlighted Russia’s Central and Eastern Military Districts (CMD and EMD) to posture against supposed anti-Russian activity in Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific.[31] Shoigu discussed security challenges emanating from Central Asia, specifically highlighting threats from Afghanistan, a purported increase in the number of Islamic State fighters in the region, and the spread of “radical ideology and subversive activities” targeted at the southern borders of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Shoigu claimed that the CMD will focus efforts on responding to various “crisis situations” in the Central Asian region through military exercises with CSTO member states. Shoigu also emphasized that the CMD is equipped with Iskander-M ballistic missiles and Tornado-G MLRS systems. Iskander-M and Tornado-Gs are not weapons systems particularly appropriate for responding to terrorist threats. Shoigu was more likely highlighting the capabilities of the CMD in this region to posture and project the impression of Russian military power and tacitly to threaten retaliation in the case of any perceived anti-Russian activities in this region. Shoigu also accused the US of fomenting tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and claimed that the EMD is increasing its combat capabilities in response to rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and around Taiwan. Shoigu also likely intended to project the image of Russian military might into the Indo-Pacific and tacitly threaten the US for its own efforts in this region while also supporting efforts to portray itself as an equal Indo-Pacific security partner for China. The bulk of CMD and EMD personnel, commanders, and military district-level assets are currently heavily committed in Ukraine, and the Russian military command may feel this vulnerability in Russia’s ability to protect its southern and eastern flanks or play the role that the Kremlin desires to play in the geopolitics of both regions.

Ukrainian forces have reportedly shot down two Russian Su-34s on February 27, the tenth downed Russian military aircraft within roughly as many days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces downed two Russian Su-34 fighter jets on February 27, at least one of which was downed in eastern Ukraine.[32] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on February 21 that Ukrainian forces have downed seven Russian Su-34 and Su-35 fighter jets since February 16.[33] The February 27 Su-34 shoot-downs are likely connected with Russian glide bomb strikes in Donetsk Oblast, particularly near Avdiivka as Russian forces use heavy glide bomb strikes in an attempt to exploit gains in the Avdiivka area. Ukraine’s downing of a Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft on February 23 has likely constrained Russian strategic reconnaissance capabilities. Ihnat stated that Russian forces have not deployed another A-50 over the Sea of Azov since the downing and have increased their use of aerial reconnaissance drones across the theater to compensate.[34]

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) reported on February 27 that the ongoing Russian information campaign to demoralize Ukrainian society will intensify between March and May 2024.[35] The SBU reported that the information campaign, which they call “Maidan-3," intends to sow panic and discontent among the Ukrainian population and drive a wedge between civilians and military and political leadership. The Ukrainian Presidential Intelligence Committee reported that Russia has spent a total of $1.5 billion on this information campaign (including $250 million on information operations on the Telegram messaging app alone) and noted that this spending is on par with Russia’s spending on conventional military activities. The SBU noted that the information campaign will intensify from March to May 20, 2024 to exploit the Ukrainian political situation and foment distrust in and discontent with the Ukrainian government. The March to May timeline is significant—if Russia had not illegally invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian presidential election would have been scheduled to occur on March 31, 2024 and May 20, 2024 is the fifth anniversary of Zelensky’s inauguration.[36] Russia appears to be pursuing this extremely costly information campaign to undermine trust in Ukrainian leadership and spread discontent with the aim of weakening Ukrainian society.

Russia likely tested an element of its Sovereign Internet on February 27, likely in an effort to strengthen control over individual aspects of the Russian information space. Russian sources reported several widespread outages of prominent social media platforms on February 27, including Telegram, YouTube, VKontakte (VK), Viber, WhatsApp, and Zoom, and later reported that service has since been restored.[37] Russian sources also reported that Russians were able to access some blocked social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, during the outage.[38] Russian State Duma Committee on Information Policy Deputy Head Anton Tkachev stated that Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor caused the outage while testing and reconfiguring gateways to identify and close “bottlenecks” to prohibited content.[39] BBC Russian Service quoted Russian organization ”Network Freedoms” as saying that Roskomnadzor may have been adjusting settings related to “technical means of countering threats” (TSPU), a set of tools that Russian federal law obligates Russian telecom providers to possess.[40] “Network Freedoms” told BBC Russian Service that Roskomnazdor is developing procedures and training specialists to use TSPU to centrally manage the Russian internet and develop a service on state-affiliated social media network VK to better censor content on the site.[41] Russia is likely attempting to expand this centralization to other social media sites that are active in Russia given the Kremlin’s tensions with other social media platforms. Russia has declared Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp parent company Meta as a “terrorist” organization, and Telegram has refused to comply with some of the Kremlin’s more extensive censorship measures.[42]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces are attempting to exploit tactical opportunities offered by the Russian seizure of Avdiivka and appear to be maintaining a relatively high tempo of offensive operations aimed at pushing as far as possible in the Avdiivka area before Ukrainian forces establish more cohesive and harder-to-penetrate defensive lines in the area.
  • Russian forces are likely attempting to create an operational maneuver force for the exploitation of recent Russian advances in the Avdiivka direction.
  • The Russian command likely hopes that the reorganization of command structures will establish more cohesive Russian grouping of forces throughout the theater in Ukraine.
  •  Recent developments in Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, are unlikely to pose a military threat to Ukraine and will more likely impact Moldova’s European Union (EU) integration prospects. ISW is amending its warning forecast in light of continued Transnistrian officials’ statements that the upcoming Congress of Transnistrian Deputies will discuss Moldovan economic policies, likely related to changes to Moldova’s Customs Code that went into effect on January 1, 2024.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to highlight recent Russian tactical successes in Ukraine as substantial battlefield victories for political purposes ahead of the upcoming Russian presidential election. Shoigu additionally highlighted Russia’s Central and Eastern Military Districts (CMD and EMD) to posture against supposed anti-Russian activity in Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
  • Ukrainian forces have reportedly shot down two Russian Su-34s on February 27, the tenth downed Russian military aircraft within roughly as many days.
  • Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) reported on February 27 that the ongoing Russian information campaign to demoralize Ukrainian society will intensify between March and May 2024.
  • Russia likely tested an element of its Sovereign Internet on February 27, likely in an effort to strengthen control over individual aspects of the Russian information space.
  • Russian forces advanced west of Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements across the theater.
  • A Ukrainian official warned that Russia seeks to ramp up force generation efforts in occupied Ukraine following the formal integration of occupied and claimed Ukrainian territories into the Russian Southern Military District (SMD).
  • Russian authorities are reportedly systematizing the adoption of deported Ukrainian children in Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 26, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 26, 2024, 8pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:30pm ET on February 26. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the February 27 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Sweden will join NATO following Hungary’s formal approval of Sweden’s accession bid on February 26.[1] Hungary was the final NATO member that needed to approve Sweden’s bid, but Sweden’s accession to the alliance has been a major sticking point for the Hungarian Parliament and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.[2] Sweden will now become NATO’s 32nd member upon completing official accession procedures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees on February 26 that officially re-establish the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts, codifying major Russian military restructuring and reform efforts. Putin signed one decree that deprives Russia’s Northern Fleet (NF) of its status as an “interservice strategic territorial organization” (a joint headquarters in Western military parlance) and transfers the land of the Northwestern Federal Okrug previously under the NF’s command to the newly formed Leningrad Military District (LMD).[3] Putin signed a second decree that formally re-establishes the LMD and the Moscow Military District (MMD) — with the LMD taking over most of the territory previously under the NF and the MMD taking over most of the territory previously under the Western Military District (WMD).[4] The second decree also incorporates occupied Ukraine into the Southern Military District (SMD), notably including all of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts (as well as Crimea, which has been part of the SMD since 2014), not just the parts currently under Russian occupation. The inclusion of both the occupied and un-occupied parts of Ukrainian territory further suggests that Russia maintains maximalist objectives in Ukraine and seeks to fully absorb all five of these Ukrainian territories into the Russian Federation.

The formal transfer of regions previously under the responsibility of the Northern Fleet is likely part of a wider Russian effort to re-establish military district commands as the primary headquarters for the Russian ground forces while reassigning naval assets to the Russian Navy, as ISW previously reported.[5] Russian state media reported in November 2023 that naval assets of all five of Russia’s fleets — the Northern, Pacific, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets and the Caspian Flotilla — may return to direct subordination to the Russian Navy, while the ground, aviation, and air defense assets of the fleets will be allocated to military district commands. This information is still unconfirmed, but it appears that the Russian military is trying to reconsolidate ground forces and assets under military districts while consolidating naval forces and assets under the Russian naval chain of command.[6]

The re-creation of the MMD and LMD supports the parallel objectives of consolidating control over Russian operations in Ukraine in the short-to-medium term and preparing for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO in the long term.[7] The February 26 decree officially disbands the WMD, which the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) formed in 2010 by merging the MMD and LMD.[8] The WMD previously covered the Russian border with northeastern Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States, which stretched the WMD’s strategic focus between overseeing Russian operations in Ukraine following the 2022 full-scale invasion and posturing against NATO.[9] The re-separation of the WMD into the MMD and LMD, therefore, is a direct remedy to this issue. The LMD will now run along NATO’s northeastern border, and the MMD will border northeastern Ukraine and Poland, which will allow Russia to simultaneously posture against NATO and streamline command and control (C2) for the war in Ukraine. Putin previously claimed that it was necessary to create the LMD after Finland joined NATO in 2023, signaling the Kremlin’s clear intent to use the LMD to posture against NATO.[10]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on February 25 that Russia is preparing a new offensive that will start in late May or summer 2024, consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have regained the theater-wide initiative and will be able to pursue offensive operations when and where they choose as long as they hold the initiative.[11] Zelensky also stated that the Ukrainian military has a clear plan to counter Russian forces. ISW continues to assess that Russian forces regained the initiative across the theater following Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive and that Russia will likely be able to determine the time, location, and scale of future offensive operations in Ukraine if Ukraine conducts an active defense throughout the theater in 2024, thereby ceding the strategic initiative to Russia. Russian forces will have the ability to maneuver reserve concentrations and determine how and where to allocate resources while forcing Ukraine to respond defensively as long as Russia maintains the strategic initiative. Ukrainian forces could deny Russia these opportunities if Ukrainian forces have enough means to challenge the Russian initiative and pursue their own offensive operations in 2024.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov is continuing a recent campaign to engage with Russian military personnel following the Russian capture of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast and reportedly visited a command post of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) in Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) posted footage on February 26 claiming to show Gerasimov visiting a 58th CAA command post in Ukraine, hearing reports about the operational situation, and presenting medals to Russian servicemen.[12] The 58th CAA is currently pursuing offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast, so the MoD video suggests that Gerasimov visited a command post somewhere in the Zaporizhia Oblast direction. The Russian MoD published footage showing Gerasimov awarding Russian soldiers after the capture of Avdiivka on February 21, which is notably the first public depiction of Gerasimov serving his command duties since December 29.[13] Gerasimov fired former 58th CAA Commander Major General Ivan Popov in July 2023 following reports that Popov bypassed Gerasimov’s command and directly appealed to the Kremlin to complain about Gerasimov’s refusal to rotate 58th CAA troops away from the frontline for rest and reconstitution while they were defending against Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive push in Zaporizhia Oblast.[14] Gerasimov likely visited the 58th CAA command post in part to rebuild his relationship with 58th CAA lower-level commanders and servicemembers following Popov’s firing and the criticism it generated of Gerasimov.[15] Gerasimov also appears to be engaged in a campaign to present himself as an effective and interested chief of the General Staff, and his recent public appearances on areas of the front where Russian forces are making tactical gains are likely part of this effort to bolster his public image.

Over 20 heads of state, including 15 European Union (EU) leaders met in Paris on February 26 to discuss ramping up ammunition supplies to Ukraine.[16] French President Emmanuel Macron organized the conference and announced the creation of a new coalition to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles and munitions.[17] Macron also stated that France “will do whatever it takes to ensure that Russia cannot win this war” and that European states should prepare for possible Russian escalations in the coming years.[18] Estonian Prime Minister Kaya Kallas stated that Estonia is providing long-term military aid to Ukraine worth 0.25 percent of Estonia’s GDP through 2028 and called on Ukraine’s other supporters to make similar commitments.[19]

Germany announced a new military aid package to Ukraine on February 26. The new military aid package includes 14,000 155mm artillery shells, 10 Vector recon drones, four WISENT-1 mine-clearing machines, and other equipment.[20] German outlet Der Spiegel reported on February 26 that the Bundeswehr’s Ukraine Situation Center Head, Major General Christian Freuding, stated that Germany is looking “all over the world” for artillery ammunition to provide to Ukraine.[21] Unspecified insider sources told Der Spiegel that Germany is engaged in “discreet negotiations” to obtain Indian artillery rounds through intermediaries and that “similar negotiations” may be possible with Arab countries.

Transnistrian sources reportedly told Russian independent outlet Verstka that Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, is not planning to ask to join Russia during the Congress of Deputies in Tiraspol on February 28. Two unnamed sources close to Transnistrian authorities told Verstka that the Congress of Deputies will not discuss integration with Russia and instead focus on discussing economic pressure from Moldova, without taking any “sudden steps.”[22] A source involved in preparing for Russian presidential elections in Transnistria claimed that Transnistria did not receive any tasks from the Kremlin aside from preparations for presidential elections. Verstka observed that Transnistrian foreign policy department head Vitaly Ignatiev “cooled off” many speculations about Transnistria’s possible request to join Russia after claiming on a local TV broadcast that the purpose of the congress is to bring to attention Moldova’s latest “economic pressure” on Transnistria. The Moldovan Bureau for Reintegration stated on February 22 that “there is no reason to believe that the situation in [Transnistria] could deteriorate” in response to public discourse regarding the Congress of Deputies in Tiraspol.[23] Ukrainian officials similarly stated that the possibility of a Russian ground attack on Ukraine from Transnistria is low.[24] ISW issued a warning forecast on February 22 and assessed that Transnistrian officials may call for a referendum on annexation to Russia to support Russian hybrid operations intent on politically and socially destabilizing Moldova.[25] It remains noteworthy that Transnistrian authorities have suddenly ordered the convening of the Congress of Deputies for the first time since that body authorized referenda on joining Moldova (that failed) and on seeking Russian annexation (that passed) in 2006. ISW amends its warning in light of these reports, however, and will continue to monitor the situation in Transnistria closely.

Key Takeaways:

  • Sweden will join NATO following Hungary’s formal approval of Sweden’s accession bid on February 26.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees on February 26 that officially re-establish the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts, codifying major Russian military restructuring and reform efforts.
  • The formal transfer of regions previously under the responsibility of the Northern Fleet is likely part of a wider Russian effort to re-establish military district commands as the primary headquarters for the Russian ground forces while reassigning naval assets to the Russian Navy, as ISW previously reported.
  • The re-creation of the MMD and LMD supports the parallel objectives of consolidating control over Russian operations in Ukraine in the short-to-medium term and preparing for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO in the long term.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on February 25 that Russia is preparing a new offensive that will start in late May or summer 2024, consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces have regained the theater-wide initiative and will be able to pursue offensive operations when and where they choose as long as they hold the initiative.
  • Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov is continuing a recent campaign to engage with Russian military personnel following the Russian capture of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast and reportedly visited a command post of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) in Ukraine.
  • Over 20 heads of state, including 15 European Union (EU) leaders met in Paris on February 26 to discuss ramping up ammunition supplies to Ukraine.
  • Germany announced a new military aid package to Ukraine on February 26.
  • Transnistrian sources reportedly told Russian independent outlet Verstka that Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, is not planning to ask to join Russia during the Congress of Deputies in Tiraspol on February 28.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed gains near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka amid continued positional engagements along the entire frontline.
  • Russia reportedly imported almost 450 million euros (about $488 million) worth of sanctioned “sensitive” European goods, including weapons technology, between January and September 2023.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 25, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 25, 2024, 4:30pm ET 

Russian officials and state media largely refrained from publicly discussing the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, likely in an effort to avoid addressing Russia’s failure to achieve its stated war aims at significant human costs. Russian opposition outlet Agentstvo Novosti reported on February 25 that Russian state TV channels Rossiya 1 and Channel One (Perviy Kanal) and Gazprom Media-owned TV channel NTV did not mention the two-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in broadcasts on February 24.[1] Agentstvo Novosti stated that Russian political commentator Mikhail Leontev noted in a February 24 broadcast of the “Vremya” program on Channel One that it was the two-year anniversary of the start of the war but did not offer further statements on the topic. ISW observed minimal discussion by Russian government officials on the two-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24.

Russian officials and state-run and state-affiliated TV channels likely refrained from commenting on the two-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion to avoid drawing attention to Russia’s failures to achieve its stated strategic goals in Ukraine and its more immediate goals of seizing all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, while also suffering high personnel losses. A recent Russian opinion poll indicated that Russian sentiments about the war in Ukraine have largely remained unchanged in recent months and that most Russians are largely apathetic to the war, though most do not support a second wave of mobilization.[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian government officials likely refrained from highlighting the second anniversary of Russia‘s full-scale invasion in an effort to maintain public apathy toward the war that, in part, allows Russian officials to continue the war without significant public backlash. ISW continues to assess that Putin is likely aware that a second mobilization wave would be widely unpopular and is concerned that such a measure would generate widespread discontent.[3] Putin may, however, become less concerned about public sentiment after his reelection in March 2024 and determine that Russian force generation requirements outweigh the risks of widespread domestic discontent.

Ukrainian officials discussed Ukraine’s goals and priorities for 2024 on February 25 and highlighted the need for continued Ukrainian innovation and Western aid to accomplish Ukraine’s objectives. Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov stated that Ukraine is doing everything “possible and impossible” to make a breakthrough along the frontline and that Ukraine has an undisclosed plan for 2024 that will not only bring “hope” but also yield tangible results.[4] Umerov and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi visited several Ukrainian command posts in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and other directions and noted the importance of protecting Ukrainian personnel from Russian drone and air strikes in certain areas of the front.[5] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Ukraine hopes to further reduce Russia’s advantage in battlefield artillery systems, currently estimated to be at a 6 to 1 advantage, ahead of future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.[6] Zelensky warned that Ukraine could continue to lose territory meter by meter if Ukraine does not receive and produce additional artillery systems.[7] Ukrainian Deputy Commander-in-Chief Colonel Vadym Sukharevskyi highlighted Ukraine’s newly-formed Unmanned Systems Force as an important next step in Ukraine’s war effort that is intended to improve Ukrainian efficiency, systematization, and analysis of drone use.[8] Sukharevskyi reiterated that Ukrainian forces are not trying to use drones to replace artillery systems, but rather as additional weapons to defeat the Russian military.[9] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukraine needs significant volumes of long-range weapons from Ukraine‘s Western allies, and Zelensky expressed confidence in Western provisions of long-range weapons.[10] Umerov noted that there is a critical difference between the allocation and provision of Western aid to Ukraine, and Budanov added that Russia and Ukraine are currently competing to see who will get the “upper hand” on the battlefield.[11] Several Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, highlighted plans to hold the first Ukrainian Peace Formula Summit in Switzerland this year and emphasized the importance of further developing Ukraine’s partnership with NATO in 2024.[12]

Drone footage posted on February 25 shows Russian forces committing apparent war crimes near Bakhmut. The footage shows Russian forces executing nine Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) who had just surrendered near Ivanivske (on the outskirts of Bakhmut).[13] The execution of POWs is a violation of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs.[14] The February 25 footage is the fourth such instance of video evidence showing Russian forces executing Ukrainian POWs in the past two weeks alone.[15]

The Russian information space continues to be highly sensitive to the recent losses of A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft, suggesting that the issue of deploying and defending these aircraft is of great concern. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces prepared the operation to shoot down the A-50 for two weeks.[16] Budanov stated that Russia has six more A-50s left and cryptically suggested that another A-50 will “fall” and force Russia to stop sortieing the planes “round-the-clock." A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces reported “to the top” (likely meaning to Russian high command) that a Ukrainian Patriot missile shot down the A-50, but the milblogger and others expressed doubt that this version of events was true and criticized the “systemic” problem of Russian personnel only thinking of themselves and their careers out of “self-preservation.”[17] Ukrainian media previously reported that sources in the Ukrainian GUR stated that Ukraine downed the A-50 with modified S-200 systems.[18] Another Russian milblogger claimed that the loss of a second Russian A-50 this winter is problematic as Russia already had a shortage of these aircraft before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[19] The milblogger claimed that Russia will not be able to modernize many A-50s into A-50Us for a number of unspecified technical and organizational reasons and offered possible alternatives, including creating inferior “ersatz” airborne and early warning control systems (AWACS) or purchasing similar aircraft from China.

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Russia has not received any long-range missiles from Iran as of February 25.[20] Reuters reported on February 21, citing alleged Iranian sources, that Iran provided Russia hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in early January 2024.[21] ISW has not yet observed visual evidence of Russian forces using Iranian missiles in Ukraine but has frequently observed increased Russo-Iranian military cooperation over the backdrop of the war.[22]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian officials and state media largely refrained from publicly discussing the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, likely in an effort to avoid addressing Russia’s failure to achieve its stated war aims at significant human costs.
  • Russian officials and state-run and state-affiliated TV channels likely refrained from commenting on the two-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion to avoid drawing attention to Russia’s failures to achieve its stated strategic goals in Ukraine and its more immediate goals of seizing all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, while also suffering high personnel losses.
  • Ukrainian officials discussed Ukraine’s goals and priorities for 2024 on February 25 and highlighted the need for continued Ukrainian innovation and Western aid to accomplish Ukraine’s objectives.
  • Drone footage posted on February 25 shows Russian forces committing apparent war crimes near Bakhmut.
  • The Russian information space continues to be highly sensitive to the recent losses of A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft, suggesting that the issue of deploying and defending these aircraft is of great concern.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Russia has not received any long-range missiles from Iran as of February 25.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Krynky amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on February 25.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to recruit Ukrainian citizens in occupied Ukraine into the Russian military.
  • Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets stated on February 25 that Russia is holding over 28,000 Ukrainian citizens captive in Russian prisons.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 24, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Ukraine continues to defend against Russian aggression and the Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity despite growing difficulties two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Two years ago Russia launched a full-scale war of conquest to overthrow the Ukrainian government and forcibly install a pro-Russian regime firmly under Moscow’s control. Russian forces drove on Kyiv from several directions and struck at Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities. Russian President Vladimir Putin expected Ukrainians to welcome his forces or flee. Instead, Ukrainians fought for their freedom. They stopped the Russian drives on Kyiv and Kharkiv cities, stopped the Russian advance on Mykolayiv and Odesa cities, and fought Putin’s troops to a standstill along the rest of the line. Then, armed with experience, courage, determination, and growing Western aid, Ukraine struck back. Ukrainian forces drove the Russians from Kyiv and away from Kharkiv and liberated large swathes of territory in northeastern Ukraine. They liberated Kherson City and forced Russian forces off the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River. They ended the threat to Ukraine’s existence for the time. 

But the Russians did not abandon their war aims or slacken their military operations. They remained in control of areas strategically and economically vital to Ukraine’s survival and of millions of Ukrainians whom they are subjecting to brutal Russification campaigns and deportation schemes.[1] The Russians launched a missile and drone campaign against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and cities that continues to this day.[2] The Russians then ground through the eastern city of Bakhmut, taking losses so devastating that they prompted an armed rebellion against Moscow.[3] The Russians also prepared themselves for the expected Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive. The excessive hopes for that counteroffensive were not met. The war assumed a positional character, and the expected US assistance has been held up.

The situation today is grave, but it is far from hopeless. Russian forces have regained the initiative across the theater and are attacking and making gains. Those gains thus far are very limited and extremely costly. More Russian soldiers have likely died to seize Avdiivka than died in the entire Soviet-Afghan war.[4] Ukrainians are weary and worried that American military assistance will cease, but they continue to fight with determination, ingenuity, and skill. Ukraine’s air defenders are dropping Russian planes from the sky while Ukrainian drone- and missile operators sink Russian ships.[5] And Ukrainian soldiers are fighting for their positions against Russian “meat assaults” using drones in novel ways as well as the artillery, tanks, and traditional weapons of war available to them. The Ukrainian Air Force will receive its first F-16s in the coming months, and Ukraine’s European allies are racing to make good deficiencies in other war materiel.[6] American military assistance remains essential—only the United States has the resources to give Ukraine right now what Ukraine most needs.[7] If the United States, in the end, withholds that aid, then the situation can become very grave indeed.

But the war is far from over. Ukraine has not lost and there is no reason for Ukraine to lose. Russians are adapting for a long war effort in Ukraine, but they are not the Red Army hordes wrapped in the triumphant banners of World War II victories that Putin and his propagandists pretend them to be.[8] The Russian military suffers from many flaws that Ukraine has learned to exploit.[9] And the combined economic power of Ukraine’s allies is many times that of Russia.  

Putin remains a deadly threat to NATO as well as to Ukraine, however. The Kremlin has been setting conditions to conduct hybrid warfare operations in the Baltic States and Finland for months and is currently engaged in such operations against Moldova.[10] Putin’s aims remain the destruction of NATO as an effective alliance, the breaking of the tie between the United States and Europe, and the construction of a new global order in which Russia’s voice and power are dominant.[11] The interests of America, Europe, and America’s allies in Asia and around the world are inextricably tied with helping Ukraine defeat Russia.[12]

Ukraine’s European and Canadian partners commemorated the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion by committing additional aid to Ukraine and discussing Ukraine’s integration into the European Union (EU). European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the European Commission will provide the framework for negotiations of Ukraine's EU accession in mid-March 2024.[13] Von der Leyen also stated that the EU will provide the first tranche of 4.5 billion euros (about $4.8 billion) of unspecified aid to Ukraine in March as part of the EU’s recently announced support package of 50 billion euros (about $54 billion) for 2024-2027. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that the EU plans to deliver almost 170,000 rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine by the end of March.[14] Kuleba stated that Spain is preparing a new military aid package for Ukraine that will include ammunition.[15] The United Kingdom (UK) announced that it will spend £245 million (about $310 million) throughout 2024 to procure and invigorate supply chains to produce ammunition for Ukraine.[16] The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) and UK-based Cook Defense Systems signed contracts to provide tracks for tanks and armored vehicles to aid Ukraine in restoring damaged vehicles. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Miloni signed a security cooperation agreement in which Italy stated that it will continue to provide assistance to Ukraine over 10 years.[17] Zelensky and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also signed a 10-year security cooperation agreement in which Canada allocated three billion Canadian dollars (about $2.2 billion) in financial and defense aid to Ukraine in 2024.[18]

Russian opposition media estimated that upwards of 75,000 Russian personnel have died in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.[19] Russian opposition outlets Meduza and Mediazona published a joint report on February 24 wherein they compared Mediazona’s ongoing count of confirmed Russian deaths with the Russian Register of Inheritance Cases (RND) and mortality data from the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) to estimate the number of Russian military deaths in Ukraine.[20] Meduza and Mediazona estimated that 66,000 to 88,000 Russian personnel have died in the war between February 2022 and December 2023.[21] Meduza and Mediazona extrapolated the current monthly rate of Russian military deaths in Ukraine to January and February 2024 and estimated that roughly 83,000 Russian personnel may have died since the start of the full-scale invasion.[22] Meduza and Mediazona noted that Russian military deaths in Ukraine began to steadily increase following the start of localized Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in October 2023 and added that Russian volunteers have made up the majority of the deaths since mid-2023.[23] US intelligence assessed in December 2023 that Russian forces had suffered 315,000 casualties in Ukraine since February 2022.[24] Meduza’s and Mediazona’s estimate is consistent with this US assessment, assuming a standard three to one wounded-to-killed casualty rate for Russian forces in Ukraine.

Russian forces are currently sustaining offensive operations in Ukraine despite these heavy losses by relying on crypto-mobilization efforts.[25] Russia is generating new forces roughly at a rate equivalent to current Russian losses, which allows Russian forces to consistently reinforce attacking units and regularly conduct operational-level rotations.[26] It is unclear if Russia would be able to sustain offensive operations in the same way at a higher operational tempo that would generate even greater losses, however.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to highlight Russian Central Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Andrei Mordvichev and Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka. The Russian MoD published footage on February 24 of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meeting with Mordvichev to discuss the Russian capture of Avdiivka at a Russian Central Grouping of Forces command post in occupied Ukraine.[27] Mordvichev claimed that Russian forces pushed Ukrainian forces back by over 10 kilometers during the Russian operation to seize Avdiivka.[28] Russian President Vladimir Putin noted on the evening of February 17 that Russian forces captured Avdiivka under Mordvichev’s leadership, and the Russian MoD published footage on February 21 of Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov meeting with Mordvichev to discuss plans for future Russian operations in the Avdiivka direction.[29]

Mordvichev highlighted Russian technological and tactical adaptations in the Russian seizure of Avdiivka in a likely effort to address persistent criticisms of Russian forces in Ukraine. Mordvichev told Shoigu that the effectiveness of Russian forces’ reconnaissance-strike complex (RSC) and reconnaissance-fire complex (RFC) has “increased significantly.”[30] A Russian RSC system is “designed for the coordinated employment of high-precision, long-range weapons linked to real-time intelligence data and precise targeting provided to a fused intelligence and fire-direction center,“ and the Russian RFC is the RSC’s tactical equivalent using tactical fire systems such as tube artillery, tactical drones, and short-range rockets.[31] Russian forces have yet to employ an operational-level RSC system at scale in Ukraine, however, and Mordvichev is likely applying the operational concept of the RSC alongside the RFC to Russian tactical operations in Avdiivka. ISW has consistently observed reports that Russian forces combine widespread drone reconnaissance data in order to conduct artillery, aviation, and loitering munition strikes. ISW assessed that Russian forces temporarily established limited and localized air superiority during the final days of the Russian seizure of Avdiivka.[32] Mordvichev notably did not highlight Russian glide bomb strikes, although Mordvichev may consider glide bomb strikes as part of the “RSC and RFC.” Shoigu emphasized the importance of drones and stated that the Russian MoD plans to equip Russian forces with drones “controlled using artificial intelligence,” likely referring to lethal autonomous systems. Mordvichev likely sought to manage expectations about future Russian offensive efforts while highlighting these alleged Russian adaptations and claimed that Ukrainian forces near Avdiivka have not decreased their intensity of indirect fire.[33] Mordvichev’s comment diverges from the triumphalist commentary of other Russian officials, who have seized on Ukrainian ammunition shortages to highlight Russian success in Ukraine and attempt to weaken Ukrainian morale.[34]

Senior Russian military officials likely are attempting to deflect responsibility for high-profile apparent Russian war crimes away from themselves and onto mid- and low-level Russian commanders. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) published footage of Russian Central Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Andrei Mordvichev reporting to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russian forces captured about 200 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) near Avdiivka.[35] Shoigu emphasized the need for Russian forces to treat POWs humanely “as [Russian forces] have always done” to Mordvichev and other Russian officers. Shoigu, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, is likely concerned about international repercussions for his subordinates’ actions regarding apparent Russian war crimes and may have explicitly addressed Ukrainian POWs given recent international attention on Russian atrocities in Ukraine.[36]

A recent Russian opinion poll indicates that Russian sentiments about the war in Ukraine have largely remained unchanged in recent months, but notably suggests that another mobilization wave would be widely unpopular. Independent Russian opposition polling organization Chronicles stated on February 24 that data from a survey conducted between January 23 and 29 indicates that respondents who are “consistent” supporters of the war – Russians who expressed support for the war, do not support a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine without Russia having achieved its war aims, and think that Russia should prioritize military spending – increased from 12 percent to 17 percent between October 2023 and January 2024.[37] Chronicles previously observed a significant decrease in staunch war support between its October 2023 survey and an earlier poll in February 2023 that found that 22 percent of Russians were “consistent“ war supporters.[38] Chronicles added that the proportion of ”consistent” peace supporters – Russians who expressed opposite positions on the three survey questions –  has largely remained the same at 19 percent of respondents in January 2024 compared to 20 percent in February 2023.[39] Chronicles’ observations that staunch pro-war and anti-war sentiments comprise a minority of Russian opinion are consistent with other recent independent Russian survey data that suggest that most Russians are largely apathetic to Russia’s war in Ukraine.[40]

Chronicles’ most recent poll also shows that 29 percent of respondents support demobilizing personnel mobilized through Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 2022 partial mobilization decree, 26 percent favor the current state of Russian force generation efforts, and 17 percent support a new mobilization wave.[41] Chronicles added that even the majority of “consistent” war supporters support the status quo regarding mobilization at 34 percent and that only 22 percent of these respondents support another mobilization wave.[42] Putin attempted to address concerns about a new mobilization wave during his “Direct Line” event on December 14, 2023, stressing that there is no need for a subsequent mobilization wave due to the success of ongoing Russian crypto-mobilization efforts.[43] Putin is likely aware that a second mobilization wave would be widely unpopular and likely remains concerned that such a measure would generate widespread discontent. Putin may nevertheless determine in the future that force generation requirements in Ukraine outweigh the risks of domestic discontent, and he may become less concerned about public sentiment after his assured reelection in March 2024.

Ukrainian special services conducted a drone strike on one of Russia’s largest metallurgical plants on the night of February 23-24. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported that sources stated that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) organized a drone strike on the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant (NLMK) in Lipetsk and that damage will stop production at the plant for a long time.[44] Lipetsk Oblast Governor Igor Artamonov claimed that Russian forces intercepted two drones in Lipetsk Oblast and that the plant’s operations were not significantly affected.[45] An NLMK representative claimed that the plant does not supply products to Russian defense industrial base (DIB) enterprises, likely in an attempt to downplay the extent of NLMK’s involvement in fulfilling contracts for the Russian government and defense industrial base (DIB).[46] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported in July 2023 that NLMK won contracts to supply steel to the Izumrud plant in Vladivostok, which the Russian Federal Agency for State Property Management controls and which produces artillery control systems, drone engines, and systems for dropping explosives from drones.[47] RFE/RL also reported that NLMK supplied steel to state-owned enterprises involved in the production of nuclear weapons from 2014 to at least 2019.[48] Vladimir Lisin owns NLMK and is one of Russia’s top three richest oligarchs.[49]

Ukrainian reporting indicated that the A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft shootdown on February 23 temporarily halted Russian aviation operations elsewhere in the theater. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Russian forces ordered five Su-35 fighter aircraft to terminate ongoing combat missions following the A-50's destruction and that some of these missions included conducting airstrikes near recently captured Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast.[50] Ukrainian media reported that sources in Ukrainian security services also stated that Ukrainian forces shot down the aircraft with a modernized S-200 air defense system and that all 10 crewmembers of the Russian A-50 died in the crash.[51]

Russian information space actors continued responding to the February 23 A-50 shootdown and largely denied that Ukraine is responsible for the downing of any recent Russian aircraft. Russian milbloggers continued to claim on February 23 and 24 that Russian forces were responsible for shooting down the A-50, but offered many different theories about the shootdown. One prominent milblogger claimed that Russian authorities are investigating a Russian S-400 crew for shooting down the A-50 while trying to intercept Ukrainian missiles targeting the A-50.[52] Another milblogger claimed that a Russian air defense crew purposefully targeted the A-50.[53] Other milbloggers continued to claim that Ukrainian forces could not have shot down the A-50 because the aircraft was out of range of Western-provided Patriot air defense systems and complained that Russian air defenders are so systemically incompetent that they shot down five of their aircraft in February 2024.[54] A prominent Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger dissented, however, expressing disbelief that Russian air defenses are so incompetent as to have shot down so many Russian aircraft in such a short period and attributed the shootdown to Ukrainian forces instead.[55]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine continues to defend against Russian aggression and the Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity despite growing difficulties two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
  • Ukraine’s European and Canadian partners commemorated the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion by committing additional aid to Ukraine and discussing Ukraine’s integration into the European Union (EU).
  • Russian opposition media estimated that upwards of 75,000 Russian personnel have died in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to highlight Russian Central Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Andrei Mordvichev and Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka.
  • Mordvichev highlighted Russian technological and tactical adaptations in the Russian seizure of Avdiivka in a likely effort to address persistent criticisms of Russian forces in Ukraine.
  • Senior Russian military officials likely are attempting to deflect responsibility for high-profile apparent Russian war crimes away from themselves and onto mid- and low-level Russian commanders.
  • A recent Russian opinion poll indicates that Russian sentiments about the war in Ukraine have largely remained unchanged in recent months, but notably suggests that another mobilization wave would be widely unpopular.
  • Ukrainian special services conducted a drone strike on one of Russia’s largest metallurgical plants on the night of February 23-24.
  • Ukrainian reporting indicated that the A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft shot down on February 23 temporarily halted Russian aviation operations elsewhere in the theater.
  • Russian information space actors continued responding to the February 23 A-50 shootdown and largely denied that Ukraine is responsible for the downing of any recent Russian aircraft.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Avdiivka and in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on February 24.
  • Indian authorities have asked Russian authorities for the “early discharge” of Indian citizens fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
  • The Russian government continues efforts to support infrastructure and logistics development in occupied Ukraine likely to support the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) and solidify Russian control over occupied areas.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 23, 2024

Click here to read the full report with maps

Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan 

February 23, 2024, 6:30pm ET

Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft on the night of February 23 – the second such aircraft shot down in 2024. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk and the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian A-50 near Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai over the Sea of Azov Coast.[1] Footage posted on February 23 shows a fixed-winged aircraft falling, and geolocated footage shows a significant fire with secondary detonations near the Trudovaya Farm northwest of Staroderevyankovskaya, Kanevskoy Raion in northern Krasnodar Krai (northeast of Primorsko-Akhtarsk).[2] Additional footage posted on February 23 shows mangled aircraft parts, and it is very unlikely that Russian forces will be able to repair the A-50 or that the crew survived the crash.[3] Krasnodar Krai authorities reported that an unspecified Russian aircraft crashed near the Trudovaya Farm but did not specify a cause.[4] Ukrainian officials have previously reported that Russian forces use the A-50 aircraft to coordinate Russian air and air defense activity.[5] The destruction of the Russian A-50 aircraft in mid-January led to a temporary reduction in tactical Russian aviation activity over the Sea of Azov.[6]

Russian ultranationalists are increasingly attributing the shootdown of Russian aircraft to Russian rather than Ukrainian air defenses. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces mistakenly shot down their own A-50 aircraft and accused the Russian military of systemic issues that it must fix to avoid further friendly fire incidents.[7] One milblogger noted that A-50 aircraft and its highly specialized crew are scarce resources for Russia that it cannot easily replace.[8] The milbloggers specifically denied Ukrainian and Russian reporting that Ukrainian forces shot down the A-50 on February 23 and connected this shootdown to their prior denials that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the A-50 and Il-22 shootdowns on January 15.[9] The milbloggers have also attributed recent Ukrainian downings of Russian Su-34 and Su-35 fighter jets to friendly air defense fire and criticized reports attributing them to Ukraine.[10] Russian milbloggers may be refusing to attribute any successes to Ukrainian forces as part of wider efforts in the Russian information space to demoralize Ukrainians and convince Russians that victory is assured. Recent Kremlin rhetoric has focused on portraying Russia as able to outlast Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight, including outlasting Western military support for Ukraine, and Russian milbloggers‘ consistent claims of ineffective Ukrainian air defenses and other battlefield capabilities are congruent with this disinformation campaign.[11] Ukrainian shootdowns of Russian strategic-level aircraft, especially twice within mere weeks of each other, severely undermine this Russian narrative. The milbloggers’ enthusiasm for attributing staggering incompetence to Russia’s own air defenders—the only possible explanation for multiple instances of friendly fire taking down the aircraft helping coordinate the air defenders themselves--is odd.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are planning future counteroffensive operations, although delays in Western security assistance will likely continue to generate uncertainty and constraints on these operations. Zelensky stated in an interview with Fox News published on February 22 that Ukrainian forces will prepare for new counteroffensive operations in 2024 but that their primary objective is to continue defending Ukrainian territory.[12] Zelensky acknowledged that materiel shortages are complicating ongoing Ukrainian operations, particularly in eastern Ukraine.[13] ABC News reported on February 22 that US officials assess that Ukrainian forces will begin to face critical shortages of ammunition and air defense missiles in late March 2024 and that these shortages will become increasingly significant through the spring and summer of 2024.[14] Materiel shortages are likely forcing Ukrainian forces to husband materiel, and delays in Western security assistance will likely continue to create uncertainty in Ukrainian operational plans and restrictions on preparations for future counteroffensive operations.[15] ISW continues to assess that it would be problematic for Ukraine to cede the theater-wide initiative to Russia for longer than is necessary, however, as Ukraine would risk consuming resources it had hoped to conserve for counteroffensive operations on efforts to stop continued Russian attacks.[16] Continued delays in security assistance and persisting materiel shortages may force Ukrainian forces to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources between potential operationally significant counteroffensive operations and ongoing efforts to hold ground, however.

Ukraine-based open-source organization Frontelligence Insight reported on February 22 that Russian forces are storing missiles and ammunition in previously abandoned facilities near the Russo-Ukrainian border and in occupied Ukraine to shorten and bolster Russian logistics lines.[17] Frontelligence Insight reported that satellite imagery shows that Russian forces began storing S-300 missiles, artillery shells, and possibly multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) ammunition at a previously abandoned farm in Voronezh Oblast in late July 2023. Frontelligence Insight stated that the facility is roughly 50 kilometers from the Russo-Ukrainian border and likely serves as a supply facility for Russian air defense units operating in the area. Frontelligence Insight reported that Russian forces have been actively repurposing facilities near the border and in occupied Ukraine since 2022 in order to create more robust and decentralized logistics lines and that improved Russian logistics will support Russian efforts to counter large Ukrainian offensive operations in 2025. Ukrainian forces have previously used Western-provided HIMARS to strike Russian ammunition depots and interdict Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) in occupied Ukraine to set favorable conditions for the Kharkiv counteroffensive in September 2022 and force Russian forces to withdraw from west (right) bank Kherson Oblast in November 2022.[18] These Ukrainian strikes forced Russian forces to array their logistics assets further from the frontline to the detriment of frontline forces, and Ukrainian forces would likely be able to achieve a similar effect with sufficient quantities of weapons systems capable of striking military assets deeper in occupied Ukraine and Russia.[19] Ukrainian officials have repeatedly promised to abide by Western governments’ wishes that Ukraine not use Western-provided systems against military targets in Russia’s internationally-recognized territory.[20]

Ukrainian officials stated that the probability of a Russian ground attack on Ukraine from Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, is low following reports that Transnistrian authorities may call for or organize a referendum on annexation to Russia on February 28. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk stated on February 23 that claims that Transnistrian authorities will call for Russian annexation are intended to “shake up” the information space and create socio-political tension.[21] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on February 22 that information that Transnistrian authorities will call for Russian annexation is “unconfirmed.”[22] Humenyuk stated that Russian forces conducted missile strikes against Odesa City on the night of February 22 to 23 to place additional pressure on the region and the ongoing “stormy situation” in Moldova and that Ukrainian forces have not observed any military activity in Transnistria that could threaten Ukraine.[23] ISW has not observed any indications suggesting that the limited Russian force grouping in Transnistria may attempt to conduct ground operations that could threaten Ukraine, and ISW does not assess that that force grouping is capable of launching a meaningful ground operation against Ukraine. ISW issued a warning forecast on February 22 and assessed that Transnistrian officials may call for a referendum on annexation to Russia to support Russian hybrid operations intent on politically and socially destabilizing Moldova.[24] ISW’s warning reflects threats to Moldova’s stability rather than Ukraine’s military situation.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia “essentially” froze its participation in the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) against the backdrop of deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations. Pashinyan stated in a February 22 interview with French outlet France 24 that Armenia “essentially” froze its participation in the CSTO because the CSTO “failed to fulfill its obligations in the field of security” to Armenia, particularly in 2021 and 2022.[25] ISW previously observed that Armenia appeared to be effectively abstaining from participation in the CSTO after Pashinyan and Armenian representatives did not attend several consecutive CSTO events in mid to late 2023.[26] Pashinyan reiterated the importance of the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration that founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and recognized the territorial integrity of its 11 signatories, including Russia and Ukraine. Pashinyan stated that ”what is happening in Ukraine is a violation of the Alma-Ata Declaration” and that Armenia is ”seriously concerned.” Pashinyan responded to reports of Russian military police at the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia detaining a Russian citizen for desertion in December 2023.[27] Pashinyan stated that Armenian authorities are investigating the incident and that Armenia ”cannot tolerate illegal actions on [its] territory.” Kremlin newswire TASS claimed that Pashinyan “suspended” Armenia’s membership in the CSTO, despite Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s statement that Armenia had not sent an official notification of its suspension of CSTO membership.[28] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) rejected Pashinyan’s statement that the CSTO has failed to fulfill its obligations to Armenia and criticized Armenia for inviting observers from the European Union (EU) instead of the CSTO to Armenia, likely referencing the recent increase in EU observers on the Armenian side of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border.[29] Several Russian milbloggers criticized Pashinyan’s policies and blamed him for deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations.[30]

The US, United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and the European Union (EU) announced new sanctions packages aimed at constraining Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. The US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it is sanctioning almost 300 individuals and entities and 500 targets to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[31] OFAC placed sanctions on Russian financial infrastructure supporting the Russian war effort and on Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces (MODAFL) for its role in supplying components for the Russian drone production facility in Alabuga, Republic of Tatarstan.[32] OFAC also placed sanctions on 26 third-country entities and individuals in 11 countries, including China, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[33] The UK announced 50 new sanctions measures against elements of Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB), Russian importers and manufacturers of machine tools, and oil traders and shipping management firms that have facilitated the transfer of Russian oil below the G7’s price cap.[34] Canada announced sanctions against 10 individuals and 153 entities primarily associated with Russia’s DIB.[35]

The EU adopted its 13th sanctions package that includes sanctions designations against 106 individuals and 88 entities also primarily from Russia’s DIB.[36] The 13th EU sanctions package against Russia places sanctions on 10 Russian entities and individuals involved in the shipping of armaments from North Korea to Russia, a Russian individual and entity heavily involved in sanctions evasion, and 15 individuals and two entities involved in the forced transfer, deportation, and military indoctrination of Ukrainian children.[37] The EU is also placing sanctions on third-country companies that have assisted Russia’s DIB, including four Chinese companies and one company each from Kazakhstan, India, Serbia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft on the night of February 23 – the second such aircraft shot down in 2024.
  • Russian ultranationalists are increasingly attributing the shootdown of Russian aircraft to Russian rather than Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are planning future counteroffensive operations, although delays in Western security assistance will likely continue to generate uncertainty and constraints on these operations.
  • Ukraine-based open-source organization Frontelligence Insight reported on February 22 that Russian forces are storing missiles and ammunition in previously abandoned facilities near the Russo-Ukrainian border and in occupied Ukraine to shorten and bolster Russian logistics lines.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that the probability of a Russian ground attack on Ukraine from Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, is low following reports that Transnistrian authorities may call for or organize a referendum on annexation to Russia on February 28.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia “essentially” froze its participation in the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) against the backdrop of deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.
  • The US, United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and the European Union (EU) announced new sanctions packages aimed at constraining Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces made confirmed advances near Kreminna, and Russian forces made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on February 23 that international sanctions are degrading the quality of Russian missiles amid continued Russian efforts to increase missile production.
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) provided additional details on February 22 about the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from Ukraine to Belarus.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 22, 2024

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 22, 2024, 8:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00pm ET on February 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the February 23 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia would likely have to seize Kyiv sooner or later while identifying Russia’s possible further territorial objectives in Ukraine. Medvedev responded in an interview published on February 22 to a question asking if there will “still be any part of Ukraine left that [Russia] will consider as a legitimate state, whose borders [Russia] will be ready to recognize.”[1] Medvedev stated that Russia must “ensure its interests” by achieving the goals of the “special military operation” as laid out by Russian President Vladimir Putin – referring to Russian demands for Ukraine’s “demilitarization,” “denazification,” and neutrality. Medvedev reiterated Russia’s intention of changing the in Ukraine, stating that the Ukrainian government “must fall, it must be destroyed, it must not remain in this world.” Medvedev claimed that Russia must create a “protective cordon” in order to protect against “encroachments on [Russia’s] lands,” including shelling and active offensive operations. Medvedev stated that he does not know where Russia should “stop” but that Russia “probably” must seize and occupy Kyiv “if not now then after some time.” Medvedev claimed that Kyiv is historically a “Russian” city from where “international” threats to Russia’s existence currently originate. Medvedev also labeled Odesa a historical “Russian” city. Putin similarly emphasized on January 31 the idea of a “demilitarized” or “sanitary” zone in Ukraine.[2] ISW previously assessed that Putin’s statements about creating a “protective” zone in which Russia’s claimed and actual territories are out of Ukrainian firing range actually mean that Russia cannot accept the existence of any independent Ukraine with the ability to defend itself.[3] Medvedev, however, also claimed that “if ... something remains of Ukraine,” then it “probably” has a low chance of survival and reiterated his previous comments about a possible Ukrainian rump state in Lviv Oblast while alluding to the fact that this area was Polish territory earlier in history.[4] Medvedev’s comments continue to indicate that the Kremlin has returned to its domestic narrative that Russia is fighting the war to “liberate its historic lands.”[5]

Medvedev’s mention of Russia’s possible intentions to occupy Odesa may be worth noting in light of recent developments in the pro-Russian breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova, the southern tip of which is about 50 kilometers from the city. Transnistrian authorities recently announced that the Transnistrian Congress of Deputies is planning to meet on February 28.[6] ISW forecasts that deputies may initiate a new referendum seeking annexation by Russia or propose or demand action on a 2006 referendum that called for Transnistria’s annexation by Russia.[7] ISW has not observed clear indications of Russian military preparations to intervene in Transnistria or Moldova more generally, and Russian military intervention would be challenging for Moscow since Moldova and Transnistria are landlocked and accessible only through Romanian or Ukrainian territory.[8]

Medvedev also described Russian plans to repress Ukrainian citizens in occupied Ukraine. Medvedev claimed that Ukrainian citizens in occupied Ukraine who “harm” (vredyat) Russia in must be “exposed and punished, sent to Siberia ... for re-education in forced labor camps.”[9] Stalin-era show trials and repressions starting in the 1920s and 1930s similarly targeted saboteurs (vrediteli), particularly in the agricultural sphere.[10] Medvedev’s usage of Stalin-era purge rhetoric is significant. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation governor Yevgeny Balitsky also openly discussed – and attempted to defend – the illegal Russian occupation policies, including the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens who oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possibly even alluded to Russian occupation forces’ summary executions of Ukrainian citizens.[11]

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders and Republic of Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov on February 21 and 22. Putin attended the “Games of the Future” in Kazan alongside Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon.[12] Putin also met with Minnikhanov and former head of Tatarstan Mintimer Shamaiev to discuss the construction of a new unspecified research and development center in Sibur, Tatarstan.[13] CTP-ISW previously reported that Minnikhanov visited Iran, likely to discuss Russo-Iranian defense industrial and military cooperation.[14] Minnikhanov’s visit was particularly noteworthy given his trip to the Esfahan Province, where several prominent Iranian defense industrial and military sites are located and considering that Iran is helping to construct a military drone manufacturing facility in the “Alabuga” Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Tatarstan. Minnikhanov also has previous ties to authorities in Gagauzia, a pro-Russia autonomous region of Moldova (although separate from Transnistria), which is notable given ISW’s February 22 warning forecast about a possible Russian hybrid operation against Moldova.[15]

Ukrainian forces conducted another successful strike against a Russian training ground in occupied Kherson Oblast on February 21 and likely inflected significant casualties. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Colonel Nataliya Humenyuk reported on February 22 that a Ukrainian strike killed nearly 60 Russian servicemen at a Russian training ground in occupied Podo-Kalynivka, Kherson Oblast.[16] Humenyuk stated that the targeted Russian assault groups were training to conduct operations near Krynky.[17] Footage published on February 21 shows the strike, which reportedly killed members of the Russian 328th Airborne Assault (VDV) Regiment (104th VDV Division), 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet), and 81st Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment (likely a reconstituted Soviet-era unit).[18] Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian command for conducting training exercises within the range of Ukrainian drones and HIMARS systems and advocated for updated training policies that account for the threat of Ukrainian strike systems and better protect Russian servicemen.[19] Some Russian milbloggers noted that this strike follows the February 20 Ukrainian HIMARS strikes against a Russian training ground near Volnovakha, Donetsk Oblast, which reportedly killed “dozens” of Russian military personnel.[20]

Ukraine’s European and Western allies continue to ramp up their support for Ukraine. The Danish Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced a new military aid package for Ukraine on February 22 valued at 1.7 billion Danish kroner ($228 million). This package includes 15,000 155mm shells jointly produced with the Czech Republic, air defense materiel and ammunition, mine clearance equipment, drones, radar, and communication equipment.[21] Denmark also signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement with Ukraine.[22] UK Defense Minister Grant Shapps announced that the UK is sending 200 Brimstone anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.[23] New Zealand also announced a new aid package for Ukraine valued at 25.9 million NZD ($15.4 million), including humanitarian aid and funding for other international funds that support Ukraine’s weapons acquisition, recovery, and reconstruction.[24] The German Bundestag approved additional military support to Ukraine, including unspecified long-range weapons systems and ammunition, but rejected a bill that called for Germany to provide Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine.[25]

Russian opposition outlet Proekt reported on February 22 that the Russian government has subjected at least 116,000 Russians to criminal and administrative charges since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fourth term in office in 2018.[26] Proekt reported that Russian authorities pursued criminal charges against 11,442 people for politically motivated charges, including extremism, justifying terrorism, discrediting the Russian military, and spreading “fake” information about Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2018-2023.[27] Proekt noted that Russian authorities brought administrative charges against an additional 105,000 people for charges related to speech, conscience, and assembly, including at protests.[28] Proekt reported that Russian authorities initiated 5,829 cases for crimes against the state in this time period, including espionage, disclosure of state secrets, cooperation with foreign organizations, and for refusing to participate in the war in Ukraine.[29] Proekt’s partner organization Agenstvo Novosti noted that Russian authorities have tried 329 people for disclosing state secrets since 2018, more than the Soviet Union did during the entirety of the Cold War.[30] Proekt reported that Russian authorities have tried over 13,000 people under criminal statues introduced due to the war in Ukraine, including spreading fake information and discrediting the Russian military, including roughly 4,500 military personnel punished for new articles related to conduct in the military or on the battlefield.[31] Proekt reported that Russian authorities have pursued over 600,000 cases for insubordination against, insulting, and violence against Russian government officials and over 159,000 cases for violating pandemic restrictions in this timeframe.[32] While it is likely that some and even many of these cases are legitimate, the Kremlin has increasingly weaponized the Russian criminal justice system to crack down on domestic dissent against the war and Putin’s autocratic rule to consolidate control over domestic Russian society.[33] Proekt noted that the number of political repression-related cases initiated has sharply increased since 2022 and that many of the cases are dubious, either due to officials’ obfuscation of the criminal case itself or because they are prosecutions of a fake or overblown crime to cover up another misdeed.[34]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on February 22 that the Kremlin does not regard Russian military correspondents (voyenkory) and milbloggers as participants of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, shortly after the suicide of a prominent Russian milblogger on February 21. Peskov stated that it would be wrong to linearly equate voyenkory to Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine because they do not bear arms.[35] Peskov implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a similar opinion and noted that Russian military correspondents' contributions to the war effort should be acknowledged in their own distinct category, despite the fact that many Russian milbloggers do in fact bear arms and engage in combat operations, among other tasks that military personnel perform.[36] Peskov’s statement follows the Russian information space‘s widespread discussion of the suicide of Russian serviceman and independent milblogger Andrei Morozov (alias Boytsovskiy Kot Murz).[37] Morozov served in the Russian 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic’s [LNR] Army Corps) while simultaneously maintaining a Telegram channel with over 100,000 followers — where he avidly criticized the Russian military command and senior Russian political figures — and coordinating aid provisions to Russian frontline forces. Morozov blamed the Russian military command and propagandists for triggering his decision to commit suicide after an abusive Russian military commander ordered him to delete his reports about high Russian personnel losses around Avdiivka. The timing of Peskov’s remarks is notable and may reflect a broader Kremlin campaign to consolidate a monopoly over the Russian military correspondent and milblogger community. The Kremlin has been increasingly collaborating with voyenkory who work as frontline correspondents, and ISW observed an increase in reports about persecutions against milbloggers who perform humanitarian or combat operations in addition to maintaining Telegram channels.[38] Russian officials have previously threatened to restrict certain milbloggers from reporting on the frontlines unless they possess Kremlin-issued “press” vests, and the Kremlin may be attempting to eliminate the independent class of milbloggers and replace them with Kremlin-affiliated voyenkory.[39]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia would likely have to seize Kyiv sooner or later while identifying Russia’s possible further territorial objectives in Ukraine.
  • Medvedev’s mention of Russia’s possible intentions to occupy Odesa may be worth noting in light of recent developments in the pro-Russian breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova, the southern tip of which is about 50 kilometers from the city.
  • Medvedev also described Russian plans to repress Ukrainian citizens in occupied Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders and Republic of Tatarstan Head Rustam Minnikhanov on February 21 and 22.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted another successful strike against a Russian training ground in occupied Kherson Oblast on February 21 and likely inflected significant casualties.
  • Ukraine’s European and Western allies continue to ramp up their support for Ukraine.
  • Russian opposition outlet Proekt reported on February 22 that the Russian government has subjected at least 116,000 Russians to criminal and administrative charges since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fourth term in office in 2018.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on February 22 that the Kremlin does not regard Russian military correspondents (voyenkory) and milbloggers as participants of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, shortly after the suicide of a prominent Russian milblogger on February 21.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • A Russian insider source claimed that Russian officials have postponed creating Rosgvardia’s 1st Volunteer Corps from remaining Wagner Group detachments because of an ongoing rotation of former Wagner personnel in Africa.
  • Russia continues to export its state policies on systemic religious persecution to occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 21, 2024

Click here to read the full report 

Kateryna Stepanenko, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, George Barros, Amin Soltani, Alexandra Braverman, Brian Carter, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 21, 2024, 8:30pm ET 

Prominent independent Russian milblogger Andrei Morozov reportedly committed suicide on February 21 after refusing the Russian military command’s orders to delete his reports about high Russian casualty rates around Avdiivka.[1] Morozov (also known under the alias Boytsovskiy Kot Murz) was a sergeant in the Russian 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic’s [LNR] Army Corps) and an avid critic of the Russian military command and the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Morozov published a lengthy suicide note in which he stated that an unnamed Russian colonel ordered him on February 20 to remove his February 19 report that claimed that 16,000 Russian personnel died in combat during Russian offensive operations in Avdiivka.[2] The colonel reportedly threatened to cut off ammunition and military equipment supplies to Morozov’s unit if he did not delete his reports about the Russian military’s heavy losses in seizing Avdiivka and told Morozov that he would not be able to change the current situation on the battlefield and that only presidential elections could trigger some changes. Morozov claimed that the colonel was likely following orders from the Russian military command, political leadership, and Russian propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov, who had sought to eliminate Morozov even prior to full-scale invasion. Morozov proclaimed that he tried to expose the truth about Russian battlefield realities and could no longer serve under this abusive colonel who assumed command over a “decapitated” brigade operating on a critical frontline and whose poor leadership made the situation worse for Russian forces. Morozov also implied that Russian authorities may have conspired to murder or arrest him and noted that he no longer saw the point in continuing his under-resourced fight against the incompetent Russian military bureaucracy.

Morozov used his suicide note to further discuss Russian military failures in Avdiivka and Donetsk Oblast. Morozov accused Russian generals of wastefully sacrificing thousands of servicemen to advance their military careers and implied that most Russian journalists lie about battlefield realities. Morozov also observed that the Russian military command had been increasingly using mobilized personnel as barrier forces (specialized units that shoot their own forces who retreat or refuse to attack) and amplified a formal complaint from a mobilized Russian serviceman of the 1487th Regiment (a mobilized unit under the command of the 1st Donetsk People’s Republic’s [DNR] Army Corps), which the Russian military prosecutor’s office rejected in early February. The mobilized serviceman complained that the 1487th Regiment was reduced to less than 30 percent of its strength due to the regiment’s lack of reinforcements and rotations since the regiment’s deployment in mid-January 2023.[3] The serviceman added that the commander of the 1st Army Corps, nicknamed “Krym” (Crimea), transferred 300 servicemen from the 1487th Regiment to the command of the Russian “Veterany” private military company (PMC) in November 2023 – most of whom died or were injured in the Avdiivka direction. The mobilized serviceman accused the “Veterany” PMC – which is reportedly staffed with convicts, drug addicts, and looters – of using mobilized personnel as barrier troops and refraining from participating in assaults. The mobilized serviceman added that his battalion completely lacked grenade launchers, mortars, and vehicles necessary for offensive operations. The mobilized serviceman also observed that Russian military medical staff refused to treat shellshocked servicemen and sent them back to the frontlines without medical examinations and that these issues systematically plague other Russian units.

The Russian information space, apart from select Russian propagandists and Kremlin-controlled milbloggers, largely mourned Morozov’s death and blamed various military and political actors for his demise. Russian propagandist Yuliya Vityazeva implied that Morozov’s suicide was the fault of his friends who failed to help him and are using his death to throw shade at the Russian MoD to profit off social media attention.[4] One Kremlin-affiliated milblogger acknowledged Morozov’s humanitarian aid contributions to the Russian military but noted that Morozov’s criticism of the Russian military command was so extremely negative that it helped Ukraine.[5] The milblogger added that it is unfortunate that Russia’s enemies and “hostile” Telegram channel networks will use the news of Morozov’s death to overshadow the Russian capture of Avdiivka. Wagner Group-affiliated milbloggers accused Solovyov and other propagandists of persecuting Morozov and mocking his death.[6] Supporters of the imprisoned Russian officer and ardent critic of the Russian military command, Igor Girkin, also condemned Morozov’s harassment and highlighted his years-long commitment to supplying Russian forces with equipment and exposing Russian military failures.[7] Several milbloggers blamed Morozov’s suicide on Russia’s inability to value and internalize different opinions in pursuit of the common goal.[8]

Morozov’s reported suicide will likely further the Kremlin’s and the Russian MoD’s efforts to consolidate a monopoly over the Russian information space. Morozov was one of the few remaining independent ultranationalist milbloggers who openly criticized the Russian military command and government after the Kremlin and the Russian MoD began to consolidate control over prominent Russian milbloggers in July 2023. Morozov, for example, previously warned about severely degraded Russian forces that were around Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast, in May-June 2022 – months prior to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area in September 2022.[9] Russian officials have been increasingly targeting radical milbloggers and have arrested several milbloggers who have expressed critiques similar to Morozov’s complaints.[10] ISW observed that many Russian milbloggers have drastically suppressed their critiques against Russian military command since the failed Wagner mutiny and reported pressure against Morozov may encourage more critical milbloggers to refrain from discussing Russian military failures. The Kremlin began an effort to co-opt pliant milbloggers in November 2022.[11]

A Ukrainian official denied a recent New York Times (NYT) report that Russian forces may have captured “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers during Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast.[12] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Dmytro Lykhovyi acknowledged on February 21 that Russian forces did capture some Ukrainian soldiers during Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from Avdiivka, but stated that reports about “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers being taken prisoner or otherwise being unaccounted for are false.[13] Lykhovyi suggested that the NYT’s February 20 report is an extension of Russian information operations aimed at demoralizing the Ukrainian military and noted that Russian propagandists would have shared footage of large numbers of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) if Russia had actually captured that many Ukrainian soldiers. Lykhovyi noted that Russian media widely shared footage of large numbers of Ukrainian POWs after Russian forces seized Azovstal in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast in 2022.[14] ISW recently noted that “unaccounted for” personnel include those killed, wounded, and missing in action as well as captured, and ISW has still not observed any open-source evidence of Russian forc