Publications

What Russia’s Failed Coercion of Transnistria Means for the Annexation of Occupied Territory in Ukraine

September 20, 2022 - Press ISW

The series of bombings in Transnistria in late April was likely a false flag operation executed by the Kremlin intended to draw Transnistria into its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s effort was likely unsuccessful due to a fundamental misalignment of interests between the Kremlin and Viktor Gushan, the most powerful player in Transnistria. The Kremlin’s failure to coerce Transnistrian leadership could be part of the dynamic, along with recent Ukrainian battlefield successes, driving Moscow to annex occupied territory in Ukraine. This failure also demonstrates the extent to which Moscow’s proxies and allies are hesitant to join the Kremlin’s faltering invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 19

September 19, 2022 - Press ISW

Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which is not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers. The legislatures of Russia’s proxies in occupied Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), each called on their leadership to “immediately” hold a referendum on recognizing the DNR and LNR as Russian subjects. Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan spoke glowingly of the call, referring to it as the “Crimean scenario.” She wrote that by recognizing occupied Ukrainian land as Russian territory, Russia could more easily threaten NATO with retaliatory strikes for Ukrainian counterattacks, “untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 18

September 18, 2022 - Press ISW

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on irregular volunteer and proxy forces rather than conventional units and formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. ISW has previously reported that Putin has been bypassing the Russian higher military command and Ministry of Defense leadership throughout the summer and especially following the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Putin’s souring relationship with the military command and the Russian (MoD) may explain in part the Kremlin’s increasing focus on recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 17

September 17, 2022 - Press ISW

Russian forces continue to conduct meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut instead of focusing on defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives that continue to advance. Russian troops continue to attack Bakhmut and various villages near Donetsk City of emotional significance to pro-war residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) but little other importance. The Russians are apparently directing some of the very limited reserves available in Ukraine to these efforts rather than to the vulnerable Russian defensive lines hastily thrown up along the Oskil River in eastern Kharkiv Oblast. The Russians cannot hope to make gains around Bakhmut or Donetsk City on a large enough scale to derail Ukrainian counteroffensives and appear to be continuing an almost robotic effort to gain ground in Donetsk Oblast that seems increasingly divorced from the overall realities of the theater.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 16

September 16, 2022 - Press ISW

The revelations of mass graves of civilians and torture chambers in newly liberated Izyum confirm ISW’s previous assessments that the Bucha atrocities were not isolated war crimes but rather a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas. The Ukrainian General Staff published images on September 16 showing a mass burial site in Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and noting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the site contained more than 400 bodies showing signs of torture and brutality.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 15

September 15, 2022 - Press ISW

Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine, increasingly pressuring Russian positions and logistics lines in eastern Kharkiv, northern Luhansk, and eastern Donetsk Oblasts. Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground operations southwest of Izyum, near Lyman, and on the east bank of the Oskil River, reportedly compelling Russian forces to withdraw from some areas in eastern Ukraine and reinforce others. Russian forces in eastern Ukraine will likely struggle to hold their defensive lines if Ukrainian forces continue to push farther east.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 14

September 14, 2022 - Press ISW

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant. A Russian milblogger noted that Prigozhin is introducing a “Stalinist” method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society. Milbloggers have been consistently praising Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some even said that he should replace the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom milbloggers and Kremlin pundits blame for the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian military correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) claimed to have spoken to Prigozhin about the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the area. The Prigozhin-Fomin meeting, if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command. Prigozhin is Putin’s close confidant, and his developing relationship with milbloggers may help retain milblogger support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin has changed its information approach to address the demands of the Russian milbloggers and nationalists’, suggesting that Putin seeks to win back the critical milblogger community alienated by Russian failures.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 13

September 13, 2022 - Press ISW

The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin officials and state media propagandists are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, a marked change from their previous pattern of reporting on exaggerated or fabricated Russian successes with limited detail. The Kremlin never admitted that Russia was defeated around Kyiv or, later, at Snake Island, framing the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas and the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill.” The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup, but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online. The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the defeat is part of an effort to mitigate and deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the uniformed military command.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 12

September 12, 2022 - Press ISW

Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive is continuing to have significant impacts on Russian morale and military capabilities in southern Ukraine. Satellite imagery of known Russian positions in Kyselivka, 15km northwest of Kherson City, shows that all but four Russian vehicles have departed from previous forward positions, consistent with rumors that Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) troops have abandoned Kyselivka and moved back towards the Dnipro River. Kyselivka is an operationally significant location for Russian forces around Kherson City because it is the last major settlement along both the E58 highway and a railway line between current Ukrainian positions and Chornobaivka, the outermost part of Kherson City. The apparent withdrawal of Russian troops from this position may compromise the Russians’ ability to defend the northwestern outskirts of Kherson City and suggests that Russian troops in this area perceive an imminent threat to their positions. Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command, Natalya Humenyuk, stated on September 12 that Russian forces located along the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast are attempting to negotiate for surrender under the auspices of international law. Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast are unlikely to have had such a dramatic psychological effect on Russian troops this far south, and both the withdrawal of troops from forward positions in Kyselivka and reports of surrender negotiations are indicators that Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south are progressing in a significant way, even if visibility on this axis is limited by the shift in focus to Kharkiv.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 11

September 11, 2022 - Press ISW

Ukrainian forces have inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, recapturing almost all Kharkiv Oblast in a rapid counter-offensive. The Ukrainian success resulted from skillful campaign design and execution that included efforts to maximize the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS. Kyiv’s long discussion and then an announcement of a counter-offensive operation aimed at Kherson Oblast drew substantial Russian troops away from the sectors on which Ukrainian forces have conducted decisive attacks in the past several days. Ukraine’s armed forces employed HIMARS and other Western systems to attack Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts, setting conditions for the success of this operation. Ukrainian leaders discussed the strikes in the south much more ostentatiously, however, successfully confusing the Russians about their intentions in Kharkiv Oblast. Western weapons systems were necessary but not sufficient to secure success for Ukraine. The Ukrainian employment of those systems in a well-designed and well-executed campaign has generated the remarkable success of the counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast. The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum ended the prospect that Russia could accomplish its stated objectives in Donetsk Oblast.

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