Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to manifest concern over potential threats that the Wagner Group and its financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may pose during an impromptu two-day extension of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to St. Petersburg. BBC’s Russian Service reported on July 25 that Putin told Lukashenko at the beginning of their July 23 meeting that Putin was ready to adjust his schedule to prolong Lukashenko’s visit and “discuss important topics in more detail.” Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reported on July 25 that Putin and Lukashenko intended to “’synchronize watches’ and exchange views” but not sign any agreements during their prolonged meeting. Peskov also reported that Putin and Lukashenko discussed the Wagner Group, the Union State, and external threats on the borders of Russia and Belarus. Putin’s decision to prolong his meeting with Lukashenko likely shows Putin’s continued concerns about Wagner, which it appears that Lukashenko did not allay.
Likely Ukrainian forces conducted a drone strike near the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) building in Moscow on July 24. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claimed that Russian electronic warfare (EW) suppressed two Ukrainian UAVs that detonated, damaging two non-residential buildings. One drone detonated on Komsomolsky Prospekt within 500 meters of the MoD building and within 200 meters of a reported secret Russian General Staff Main Directorate (GRU) building. Russian sources reported that the second drone hit a business center on Likhachev Prospekt. CNN reported that an unspecified Ukrainian intelligence official confirmed that Ukrainian forces conducted the attack. Ukrainian Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov stated that unspecified UAVs attacked the capital and warned that more UAV attacks against Russia will occur. Russian opposition source The Insider reported that Russian authorities banned Russian television channels from covering the drone strikes, citing sources in Russian state media channels. Russian milbloggers had a muted reaction to these strikes; some criticized the Russian air defenses for allowing the drones to penetrate that far into Moscow, while others argued that the informational victory of such attacks is minimal and short-lived.
The West risks handing the Kremlin another opportunity to prolong its war in Ukraine if it fails to resource Ukraine’s sustained counteroffensive. Delays and fragmented aid are exactly what allowed Russia to regroup prior to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The West must not wait on the results of the current phase of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and, instead, help Ukraine maintain its momentum to prevent Russia from rebuilding its military strength and prolonging the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed his continuing concern over the potential threats that the Wagner Group and Yevgeny Prigozhin may pose to him through symbolism and posturing during a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg, Russia. Putin made several significant symbolic gestures during his July 23 meeting with Lukashenko, suggesting that Putin sought to project power and confidence in his own supremacy over the Prigozhin-aligned St. Petersburg-based faction. Putin took Lukashenko to visit Kronstadt in St. Petersburg – the historically significant island fortress where Russian soldiers and sailors conducted a famous unsuccessful anti-Bolshevik insurrection in early 1921 that the Soviet government ultimately suppressed. Putin and Lukashenko toured Kronstadt with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s younger daughter Ksenia Shoigu. Both Beglov and Shoigu are personal enemies of Prigozhin, and Putin‘s public meeting with Beglov, Shoigu‘s daughter, and Lukashenko on the historic grounds of the failed Kronstadt rebellion was almost certainly intended to signal Putin’s and his loyalist cadre‘s defeat of Prigozhin‘s armed rebellion and Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg-based supporters. Putin also made an unusual effort to take photographs with crowds of local Russian citizens, including children, while at Kronstadt, likely to present himself as a popular and beloved leader among the Russian people. These symbolic gestures indicate that Putin is concerned about his perceived popularity, the security of his regime, and the array of factions competing for power within the high echelons of Russian governance.
Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast area) and Melitopol directions (western Zaporizhia Oblast). The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces repelled 14 Ukrainian attacks south of Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast, and in the Bakhmut area. The Ukrainian General Staff did not publish a situation report about its counteroffensive operations on July 22.
The arrest of former Russian officer and ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin (Strelkov) on July 21 may be the public manifestation of a shifting balance of power among Kremlin factions, possibly to the detriment of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), in which Girkin had served. The Russian Investigative Committee arrested Girkin on July 21, and Girkin will be held until September 18 on extremism changes. Girkin’s wife, Miroslava Reginskaya, reported that representatives from the Russian Investigative Committee detained Girkin at his home in Moscow, and noted later that the Moscow’s Meshansky Court arrested Girkin and that he will be held until September 18 on extremism charges. Girkin unsuccessfully attempted to argue in the court that he is not a high flight risk due to his sentence at the Hague Tribunal, but the court cited Girkin’s notoriety and “connections in law enforcement” as the reasons for his immediate incarceration. Girkin’s lawyer, Alexander Molokhov, argued that Russian law enforcement is prosecuting Girkin for his May 25, 2023 Telegram posts, which reportedly discussed the lack of payments to servicemen of the 105thand 107th airborne (VDV) regiments. Court documents, however, indicate that Russian authorities opened a case against Girkin on July 18 - the day on which Girkin published several harsh critiques of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Girkin had been consistently criticizing Putin prior to July 18, however, but his past criticisms had not triggered an arrest. Members of the Girkin-led “Angry Patriots Club” gathered for a small protest outside of the court demanding Girkin’s release. Some sources claimed that Girkin’s arrest followed his conflict with a fellow Angry Patriots Club member about the Wagner Group. Other sources speculated that Wagner complaints about Girkin may have triggered his arrest. One source claimed that the arrest is related to Russian authorities targeting Russian “patriots” deemed disloyal to Putin.
Russian forces launched a third night of missile and drone strikes against port and grain infrastructure in southern Ukraine on July 20 following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched seven Onyx cruise missiles, four Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, three Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles, five Iskander ballistic missiles, and 19 Iranian-made Shahed drones. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed 18 targets, including two Kalibrs, three Iskanders, and 13 Shaheds. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces targeted port infrastructure in Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts and noted that the strikes mainly affected warehouses and logistics facilities. Humenyuk noted that Russian “blackmail and sabotage” of Ukrainian ports started shortly after Russian began its rhetoric about its conditions for the expansion of the grain deal. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces struck Ukrainian manufacturing and storage facilities in Odesa City and Chornomorske in Odesa Oblast, and fuel infrastructure facilities and ammo depots in Mykolaiv City. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces destroyed the Odesa Seaport Administration building in the center of Odesa City and noted that residential buildings were damaged by the blast wave. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian missile strikes also damaged a Chinese consulate building in Odesa City.
Russian forces launched an extensive missile and drone attack against port and grain infrastructure in southern Ukraine on July 19 likely to further emphasize Russia’s objections to the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal and hinder Ukraine’s ability to export grain. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted strikes using 16 Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles, eight Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, six Onyx cruise missiles, one Kh-59 guided air missile, and 32 Iranian-made Shahed drones. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces predominantly targeted civilian and military infrastructure in Odesa Oblast with Kh-22 and Onyx missiles and that Ukrainian forces shot down 37 air targets including 13 Kalibrs, one Kh-59 missile, and 23 Shaheds. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Russian forces deliberately targeted the infrastructure necessary for executing the Black Sea grain deal in Odesa, Zhytomyr, and other oblasts. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that Russian forces struck grain and oil terminals and damaged tanks and loading equipment. Ukrainian Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Mykola Solskyi reported that Russian strikes destroyed 60,000 tons of grain in the Chornomorsk port in Odesa Oblast on the night of July 19. The Southern Operational Command added that Russian strikes also targeted coastal areas in Mykolaiv Oblast and some infrastructure in Kherson City. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Captain of the First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that the Russian July 19 strikes “happened virtually simultaneously,” and that Russian forces likely attempted to overwhelm the Ukrainian air defense systems. Ukrainian Air Forces Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that this attack was the most intense missile and drone attack on Odesa Oblast since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The July 17 Kerch Strait Bridge attack is likely having immediate ramifications on Russian military logistics in southern Ukraine. Footage and imagery published on July 17 and 18 show extensive traffic jams and accidents reportedly on the E58 Mariupol-Melitopol-Kherson City highway – Russia’s current main logistics line connecting Russia to southern Ukraine – at various points between Mariupol and Berdyansk, and in Kherson Oblast. Russian occupation authorities claimed to have reduced traffic at Crimea-Kherson Oblast checkpoints near Chonhar and Armiansk following significant traffic jams in the morning. Russian occupation authorities also advertised alternate routes and rest stops along them for tourists to drive from occupied Crimea through occupied Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts – rear areas in a war zone – to return to Russia. Russian authorities also announced additional measures to mitigate resulting traffic jams and logistics issues, including a temporary road bridge next to the Kerch Strait Bridge, the reconstruction of a 60-kilometer stretch of road between Crimea and Kherson Oblast through Armiansk, and lowering security measures at the Kerch Strait Bridge checkpoints. Russian authorities reopened one span of the Kerch Strait Bridge to one-way road traffic towards Russia on July 18, and plan to reopen the same span to two-lane traffic on September 15 and the whole bridge to road traffic in November. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on July 18 that the Russian government is still developing measures to increase the security of the Kerch Strait Bridge, and Russian milbloggers continued to criticize the claimed Russian security failure to adequately protect the bridge.
The July 17 attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge will likely have continuing ramifications on Russian logistics in southern Ukraine. Russian authorities accused Ukrainian special services of conducting an unmanned surface vehicle strike against the Kerch Strait Bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea on the morning of July 17. Footage of the aftermath shows that one Kerch Strait Bridge road span had collapsed and another span suffered damage but remains intact. The Russian Ministry of Transport claimed that the strikes did not damage the rail bridge or supports of the road bridge, and rail traffic across the Kerch Strait Bridge resumed several hours after the strike. Russian occupation authorities rerouted heavy civilian traffic from occupied Crimea to Russia through occupied southern Ukraine, and Russian sources reported extensive traffic jams in Crimea’s Dzhankoy Raion and occupied Kherson Oblast towards Melitopol. Russian tourists fleeing occupied Crimea likely exacerbated traffic and likely impeded Russian logistics from Crimea to rear areas in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts. Occupation authorities asked civilians to consider alternate evacuation routes to mitigate the immediate traffic issues. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andrii Yusov declined to comment on Ukrainian involvement in the incident. The Kerch Strait Bridge and military areas in occupied Crimea are legitimate military targets for Ukrainian forces in their defense against the full-scale Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, as ISW and Ukrainian officials have previously reported.