Iran Update, March 28, 2023

March 28, 2023 - Press ISW

IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour claimed foreign-backed threats are the source of unrest in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, possibly to set conditions to degrade Prominent Sunni Cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid’s anti-regime following in Zahedan. Pakpour claimed that foreign-backed “evildoers and enemies” were responsible for unrest in the province and threatened to deal “severely” with these actors in a speech to local clan leaders, scholars, and critics in Sistan and Baluchistan Province on March 28. The regime has both recently and historically blamed foreign actors to justify violently cracking down on domestic unrest. CTP has not observed any significant increase in violence in Zahedan that would warrant a regime security response. This suggests Pakpour’s statement referenced anti-regime protests inspired by Abdol Hamid, who has continuously criticized the regime during his Friday prayer sermons and generated significant in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province throughout the past several months.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 28, 2023

March 28, 2023 - Press ISW

Wagner Group forces have likely taken the AZOM industrial complex in northern Bakhmut and continue to make gains within the city. Russian milbloggers widely claimed on March 28 that Wagner fighters have captured the AZOM complex and are working to clear the area of remaining Ukrainian forces. These claims are relatively consistent with available visual evidence of Russian presence in the AZOM complex. Geolocated footage posted on March 26 shows a military correspondent from Russian outlet RIA Novosti moving around the territory of the complex with apparent ease, indicating that Wagner likely controls enough of the plant to host media personalities in relative safety. RIA Novosti correspondent Sergei Shilov additionally visited AZOM on March 28 and indicated that fighting has now moved to the industrial zone south of AZOM. Several Russian milbloggers also claimed on March 28 that Wagner fighters have advanced closer to Bakhmut’s city center, taken control of the city market, and reached the Palace of Culture. These claims are plausible considering geolocated visual evidence of Wagner’s advances towards the city center posted on March 28, as well as combat footage of Ukrainian infantry engaging in small arms exchanges with Russian forces near the Palace of Culture and central market area in Bakhmut city’s center. Wagner is likely working to consolidate gains in northern and central Bakhmut to push towards the city center and expand its zone of control into western Bakhmut. ISW assesses that Russian forces have advanced into an additional five percent of Bakhmut in the last seven days and that they currently occupy roughly 65 percent of the city.

Iran Update, March 27, 2023

March 27, 2023 - Press ISW

Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have messaged that the Iran-led Axis of Resistance is prepared to continue escalating against American forces in eastern Syria. Iran uses the term “Axis of Resistance” to refer to the regional state, semi-state, and non-state actors with which Tehran cooperates to pursue its strategic objectives, including the Bashar al Assad regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various Iraqi, Syrian, and other proxy groups. The Iranian Advisory Center in Syria—likely a front for the IRGC Quds Force—issued a statement on March 24 warning the US that the Axis of Resistance has “the upper hand” in Syria and can retaliate against any US attacks. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Spokesperson Keyvan Khosravi echoed these remarks on March 25. Iranian state media and Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated outlets have similarly emphasized in recent days that the Axis of Resistance is prepared to attack US forces in eastern Syria if the escalation cycle between them continues. The IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah are responding to the series of attacks between the US and Iranian-backed forces that erupted in Syria on March 23-24 after Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 27, 2023

March 27, 2023 - Press ISW

Rumors about the dismissal of Russian Eastern Group of Forces (Eastern Military District) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov on March 27 generated a muted and cynical response in the Russian information space. The milbloggers claimed that Russian military authorities dismissed Muradov from his position as Eastern Group of Forces commander, but ISW cannot currently verify these claims. Muradov took command of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD) on October 6, 2022, and has overseen a series of disastrous offensive operations led by EMD elements in western Donetsk Oblast over the past five months. One milblogger claimed that Muradov is on “vacation,” which the milblogger noted is tantamount to resignation. Others claimed that Muradov’s removal is a positive step but stated that Muradov’s replacement is more important than his removal. Some milbloggers noted that Muradov was responsible for significant Russian military failures in western Donetsk Oblast, including the high casualties suffered in the assault against Pavlivka in October-November 2022 and the prolonged and failed effort to take Vuhledar. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Istorii (iStories), citing sources close to the Russian General Staff, reported that the Russian General Staff accused Muradov of being inept due to battlefield failures and significant losses in western Donetsk Oblast, including the near obliteration of the Tatarstan ”Alga” volunteer battalion. One prominent milblogger claimed that military authorities are also considering dismissing Western Military District Commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov, whose forces operate along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line in eastern Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 26, 2023

March 26, 2023 - Press ISW

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, March 26. This report discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to seek complete victory in Ukraine, which he appears confident that he can attain over time. Putin seems to reject the idea increasingly prevalent in Western discourse that the current military realities require or support a negotiated resolution of the conflict. Neither Ukraine nor the West has persuaded him that he must consider accepting any sort of off-ramp or compromise settlement. Putin instead remains focused on achieving his initial war aims through protracted conflict in which he wins either by imposing his will on Ukraine by force or by breaking Ukraine’s will following the West’s abandonment of Kyiv. Multiple successful Ukrainian counter-offensives are almost certainly necessary but not sufficient either to persuade Putin to negotiate on acceptable terms or to create military conditions on the ground favorable enough to Ukraine and the West that continued or renewed Russian attacks pose acceptable threats to Ukraine or NATO.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 25, 2023

March 25, 2023 - Press ISW

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the predictable next information operation to discourage Ukrainian resistance and disrupt Western support for Ukraine as Russian offensives culminate and Ukraine prepares to launch counter-offensives in an interview with a state-owned Russian news channel on March 25.

Putin claimed that the West cannot sustain weapons provisions to Ukraine and exaggerated Russia’s potential to mobilize its own defense industrial base (DIB) to create the false impression that further Ukrainian resistance and Western support to Ukraine is futile. Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces expend up to 5,000 shells a day, while the United States produces an average of 14,000–15,000 shells a month. Putin alleged that planned Western defense production increases will not match Russian planned increases. Putin announced that Russia will build over 1,600 new tanks by the end of 2023 and that Russia will have more than three times the number of tanks as Ukraine at that time. Putin likely seized the opportunity to advance this narrative based on The Financial Times’s March 19 report that European arms manufacturers are “hobbled” by an explosives shortage. Putin argued that continued Western weapons provisions to Ukraine are merely an attempt to prolong the war.

Iran Update, March 24, 2023

March 24, 2023 - Press ISW

The US has become entangled in a regional escalation pattern between Iran and Israel. Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American, on March 23. Iran likely ordered the attack in retaliation for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed targets in Syria. Israel has conducted several such strikes in recent days, including attacking Iranian-backed positions at Aleppo International Airport on March 22, as CTP previously reported. Senior Iranian military officers frequently threaten that they will hold the US accountable for Israeli attacks in Syria.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 24, 2023

March 24, 2023 - Press ISW

Prominent voices in the Russian information space are increasingly setting information conditions to prepare for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian Security Council Deputy Head Dmitry Medvedev emphasized on March 24 that the Russian General Staff is aware that Kyiv is preparing for offensive operations and that the Russian General Staff is considering its own decisions and responses to prepare for a Ukrainian offensive. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian actors are disseminating disinformation about plans for a Ukrainian attack towards Belgorod Oblast, in order to draw Russian troops to border areas and allow Ukrainian troops to launch attacks on other sectors of the front, partially echoing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s prior warnings about a Ukrainian push on Belgorod Oblast. Another Russian milblogger warned that Ukrainian forces will likely try to launch a counteroffensive before the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) gains the capacity to increase production and bolster Russian defensive potential. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin similarly claimed on March 23 that he knows of plans for an extensive Ukrainian counteroffensive, as ISW previously reported. The wider Russian spring offensive appears to be culminating, and the Russian information space appears to be responding to the slow-down of Russian operations and potential for Ukraine to regain the initiative with substantial anxiety. Russian military command will need to commit a significant number of forces to the frontline to either prevent culmination or launch renewed offensive operations, and it is unlikely that such forces exist at sufficient scale to do either.

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, March 22, 2023

March 24, 2023 - Press ISW

Iraq and Syria. ISIS increased attacks targeting a pro-regime tribe north of Deir ez Zor city, Syria, to drive a wedge between regime forces and tribal fighters in the area. ISIS is attempting to illustrate the regime’s inability or unwillingness to support the tribe, which has had a troubled relationship with regime forces in the past. ISIS likely exploited the relief and replacement of regime forces north of Deir ez Zor city to increase its attacks, indicating the group’s continued tactical and organizational expertise.

Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Islamic State has used its global network to rapidly grow its affiliate based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The group’s growth demonstrates the danger the IS global network poses by enabling terror groups across Africa, and its regional aims threaten nearby US counterterrorism partners, which could jeopardize counterterrorism missions elsewhere in Africa. Diverging interests between regional security forces likely will prevent Congolese and Ugandan forces from containing or defeating the group. The shortcomings of regional and US efforts to degrade the group and the global IS network increase the likelihood this group will continue to strengthen its threat to US and African interests in central and southern Africa.

Pakistan. Pakistani government officials are attempting to use the security situation in northwestern Pakistan to delay elections for the foreseeable future. The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkwa province said on March 17 that the regional government will postpone provincial elections until Pakistan addresses the expansion of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan has held elections in this region during periods of significantly higher TTP activity, indicating that the postponement is due to political conflicts rather than the TTP threat.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 23, 2023

March 23, 2023 - Press ISW

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has softened his rhetoric towards the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) likely out of fear of completely losing his mercenary force in Bakhmut. Prigozhin emphasized his concerns about a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine during a 23-minute interview on March 23. Prigozhin claimed that Ukraine has 200,000 reserves concentrating to attack along the entire eastern frontline, into Belgorod Oblast, and in Bakhmut. Prigozhin also claimed that the Ukrainians currently have 80,000 troops in Bakhmut, Slovyansk, and Kostyantynivka to counterattack Bakhmut – a claim that former Russian officer Igor Girkin observed was dubious. Prigozhin‘s exaggerated statements about the imminent threat to Russian forces are likely an attempt to secure more supplies and reinforcements from the Russian MoD to save his forces in Bakhmut. Prigozhin made several positive statements about the Russian MoD, even acknowledging that Russian MoD forces are fighting alongside Chechen units in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast. Prigozhin also surprisingly promoted both Russian MoD-controlled volunteer recruitment efforts and recruitment into Wagner, instead of only advertising service with Wagner formations as he has usually done. Prigozhin expressed some generalized criticism of the Russian military bureaucracy – namely the defense industrial base (DIB) - but such criticisms echo the current state propaganda narrative. Prigozhin had been an avid critic of the Russian military command, and the softening of his rhetoric may indicate that he may be attempting to partially appease the Russian MoD to gain supplies or reinforcements for Wagner forces in Bakhmut.