Ukraine at D+382: Two struggles in Bakhmut.
N2K logoMar 13, 2023

Observers see signs of disagreement within Russia's elites, over both the kinetic and the information war.

Ukraine at D+382: Two struggles in Bakhmut.

The Russian Ministry of Defense appears to be using the fighting at Bakhmut to deplete the Wagner Group and marginalize its leader.

Bakhmut's other conflict.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported Saturday on the situation in Bakhmut. "Over the last four days, Wagner Group forces have taken control of most of [the] eastern part of the Donbas town of Bakhmut. In the town centre, the Bakhmutka River now marks the front line. Ukrainian forces hold the west of the town and have demolished key bridges over the river, which runs...north-south through a strip of open ground 200m-800m wide, between built up areas." Russian success now seems dependent on their ability to carry out an envelopment. "With Ukrainian units able to fire from fortified buildings to the west, this area has become a killing zone, likely making it highly challenging for Wagner forces attempting to continue their frontal assault westwards. However, the Ukrainian force and their supply lines to the west remain vulnerable to the continued Russian attempts to outflank the defenders from the north and south."

The battle represents a dual conflict. Beside the obvious struggle between Russian attackers and Ukrainian defenders, Bakhmut is also an occasion of conflict between Russia's Ministry of Defense and its much smaller rival, the Wagner Group. The Institute for the Study of War wrote Sunday, "The conflict between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely reached its climax against the backdrop of the Battle of Bakhmut. The Russian MoD – specifically Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov – is likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin. The Russian MoD had been increasingly restricting Prigozhin’s ability to recruit convicts and secure ammunition, forcing Prigozhin to publicly recognize his dependency on the Russian MoD."

The Russian Ministry of Defense has also imposed restrictions on the Wagner Group's ability to recruit in prisons. The UK's MoD described the effects of Wagner's loss of access to convicts: "In recent weeks, Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has likely lost access to recruiting in Russian prisons due to his ongoing disputes with the Russian MoD leadership. Prigozhin is highly likely pivoting recruitment efforts towards free Russian citizens. Since the start of March 2023, Wagner has set up outreach teams based in sports centres in at least 40 locations across Russia. In recent days, masked Wagner recruiters also gave career talks in Moscow high schools, distributing questionnaires entitled ‘application of a young warrior’ to collect the contact details of interested pupils. About half of the prisoners Wagner has already deployed in Ukraine have likely become casualties and the new initiatives are unlikely to make up for the loss of the convict recruit pipeline.If the ban endures, Prigozhin will likely be forced to reduce the scale or intensity of Wagner operations in Ukraine." Mr. Prigozhin's employees are not expected to have much success at high school career days.

Differential impact (and running out of people who don't, in the regime's view, count).

Russian casualties seem to have fallen disproportionately on relatively disfavored, remoter populations. The MoD tweeted Sunday, "As Russia continues to suffer extremely heavy casualties, the impact varies dramatically across Russia’s regions. In proportion to the size of their population, the richest cities of Moscow and St Petersburg have been left relatively unscathed. This is especially true for the families of the country’s elite. On 21 February 2023, Russian senior officials were photographed making up the front two rows of the audience of President Putin’s state of the nation speech. None of these are known to have children serving in the military. In many of the Eastern regions, deaths are likely running, as a percentage of population, at a rate 30+ times higher than in Moscow. In places, ethnic minorities take the biggest hit; in Astrakhan some 75% of casualties come from the minority Kazakh and Tartar populations. As the Russian MoD seeks to address its continued deficit of combat personnel, insulating the better-off and more influential elements of Russian society will highly likely remain a major consideration."

Russia's wartime narrative.

The Russian outlet Business Gazeta reports a discussion between oligarch Igor Ashmanov (a tech entrepreneur and, inter alia, co-founder of the Great Fatherland Party) and Maria Zakharova, director of the Russian foreign ministry's press department. Their conversation concerned messaging about the special military operation. Mr. Ashmanov called for the revival of Stalin's Sovinformburo. Call it "Rusinformburo," but its mission would be comparable--shaping and controlling the state's narrative. Ms Zakharova said such an effort would be premature and destined to fail simply because there is no consensus about such a narrative within the government itself. "I've said that we do not have a single voice of the state," Business Insider quotes her as saying.

Narrative preparation of the battlespace.

Moldovan police said yesterday that they had stopped a Russian attempt to foment unrest in Moldova. The AP reports, "The head of Moldova’s police, Viorel Cernauteanu, said in a news conference that an undercover agent had infiltrated groups of “diversionists,” some Russian citizens, who allegedly were promised $10,000 to organize “mass disorder” during the protest in the capital, Chisinau. Seven people were detained, he said."

The Daily Beast reports that Russia is conducting a major influence campaign against Moldova, perhaps in preparation for an invasion like the one under way in Ukraine. Ambassador Michael Carpenter, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to Moldova said, “What I clearly observed while I was there was a very intense Russian information operation” whose goal is "to create uncertainty.”

Moldova is seen as having a relationship to Russia analogous, in significant ways, to Ukraine's. Russia has for several years detached a strip of Moldovan territory, Transnistria, on the grounds that it's an ethnic Russian territory entitled to self-determination. The resemblance to Russian action in Ukraine's Donbas is obvious.

A different influence campaign also seems to be in progress against Georgia. RT presents an example of the current line of Kremlin disinformation concerning Georgia.

Russia's cyber operators were experienced and feared, but have fallen short in wartime.

Estonia has successfully conducted its elections (where a majority of voting is done online) despite extensive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks by Russian threat actors on election infrastructure and other government services, the Record reports. The attempts didn't succeed in disrupting voting, but Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said there are clear signs the Russians are trying to adapt. The Record quotes her: "We see now, the Russian attacks — actually, they are not attributed officially, so maybe I can’t say this so openly — but the attacks on our systems, we see that they are learning. They see that ‘OK, these things are not going through’ so they are improving and constantly trying new ways to really undermine our system.”

The Russian cyber operators weren't rookies, but they weren't up to the task, either, Heise explains. In a review of the GRU units Ukraine faced--Fancy Bear, Voodoo Bear, and Gossamer Bear--the outlet points out that they'd enjoyed success in peacetime, but fell short when faced by determined, well-resourced, and well-supported Ukrainian defenders. Medium offers an overview of the fissures the war has opened within the Russophone (but not exclusively Russian) cyber underworld.