The weekend saw few changes on the ground, as Russia celebrated its illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. In cyberspace, low-level hacktivism and targeted disinformation persist.
Ukraine at D+585: Trench fighting in the south.
As they have for weeks, Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged drone and missile strikes over the weekend. Al Jazeera summarizes the long-range fires. Russia continues to target civilian infrastructure and grain facilities.
On both Friday and Saturday the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported continued incremental Ukrainian advances in the western Zaporizhia Oblast and in the vicinity of Bakhmut. The operational objective in the south remains Melitopol.
By Sunday the ISW had reported local Russian "tactical" counterattacks around Robotyne, and appear to have retaken some trenches lost to earlier Ukrainian attacks. The situation remains fluid.
In a friendly fire incident, a Russian SU-35 was shot down over Tokmak last Thursday by an S-300 air defense system.
Naval aviation in the Black Sea.
The UK's Ministry of Defence sees a growing role for Russian naval aviation. "In recent weeks, the Naval Aviation component of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has assumed a particularly important role in the Fleet’s operations as it struggles to deal with concurrent threats on the southern flank of the Ukraine war. Naval Aviation is emphasising maritime air patrol operations, highly likely with a primary mission of the early identification of uncrewed surface vessels. A key Russian asset in these operations is the Be-12 MAIL amphibious aircraft, designed in the 1950s, flying out of bases in occupied Crimea. Su-24 FENCER and FLANKER variant combat jets conduct maritime strike operations, including at least one recent air strike on the strategically located Snake Island. With more Fleet activities likely relocating to Novorossiysk in the face of threats to Sevastopol, Russia is attempting to use naval air power to project force over the north-western Black Sea."
Saturday marked a new Russian holiday, "Reunification Day," celebrating the annexation of territories from Ukraine. There was some confusion, or at least a lack of clarity, about what those territories are. Some celebratory maps showed all the claimed territories in Crimea and the Donbass; others depicted only those under actual Russian control. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, currently deputy chair of the security council, said during observances that there were more reunifications to come. "Victory will be ours. And there will be more new regions within Russia.” The annexations are generally considered illegal everywhere except in Russia itself a handful of countries sympathetic to the Russian cause.
Competition for the remnants of the Wagner Group.
The UK's MoD has been following the fortunes of the rump Wagner Group. "On 29 September 2023, Russian authorities published footage of President Putin meeting former Wagner Group Chief of Staff Andrei Troshev, tasking him with overseeing and establishing new ‘volunteer fighting units’. Deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was also at the meeting. Around the time of the June 2023 insurrection, Troshev took up a role in the official security forces: Troshev was probably involved in encouraging other Wagner personnel to sign contracts, contributing to the insurrection. Many Wagner veterans likely consider him a traitor. Yevkurov has recently been pictured touring African states. Presidential endorsement of Troshev and Yevkurov indicates Russia’s continuing utilisation of volunteer units and private military companies, and planning for the future of Wagner. It is prepared to draw on the experience of veterans who can demonstrate their loyalty to the state and continued involvement in the Global South, but probably with greater oversight from the Kremlin."
The ISW reported that President Putin met with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and former Wagner Group commander and current Ministry of Defense employee Andrey Troshev on Friday. The Ministry of Defense has been competing with the Rosgvardia (Russia's national guard, its internal security military force) for the services of Wagner alumni. This is taken as a signal that Mr. Troshev will recruit current and former Wagnerites into either the regulars or the Ministry-affiliated company Redut.
For all that apparent Presidential support of the Ministry of Defense, it appears that nonetheless many Wagnerites are serving with the Rosgvardia. The Duma is considering a bill that would give the Rosgvardia authority to organize volunteer units, and the Rosgvardia has its own advocate among senior Wagner Group ranks: the current commander Anton Yelizarov is negotiating terms for his personnel to join Rosgvardi volunteer formations.
The third competitor for Wagner alumni is Belarus, where President Lukashenka is interested in organizing a private military company to be manned by current Wagnerites.
Russia's defense budget and expectations concerning the duration of the war.
On the basis of "documents apparently leaked from Russia’s Finance Ministry," The UK's MoD sees the Russian defense budget as likely to increase to 6% of the country's GDP, or roughly 30% of all public expenditures. "It is highly likely that Russia can support this level of defence spending through 2024, but only at the expense of the wider economy." While complete details of Russian military spending are as always state secrets, "these figures suggest that Russia is preparing for multiple further years of fighting in Ukraine." Defense Minister Shoigu said, on September 27th, that he was prepared for the war to last into 2025.
Increased surveillance authorities.
The Duma is considering expanding the FSB's domestic surveillance remit to conduct more extensive monitoring of Russian Internet, banking, and telecommunications company users, the ISW reported. The surveillance would extend beyond simple intrusion and monitoring, and would amount to full control of databases, with the FSB authorized to remotely access, edit, and delete information in Russian private businesses’ databases. The Russian tech sector, including Yandex, opposes the measure on the grounds that FSB activities would render data less secure.
Developments in the Russian "information space."
The increasing self-censorship of Russian bloggers and social media users has paradoxically, the ISW reports "likely opened the door for some fringe elements to directly criticize and speculate about senior Russian military commanders without pushback." There are claims circulating among the hard-war milbloggers that General Gerasimov has fired the airborne commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky as deputy commander in Ukraine. (The Russian rank of colonel general is roughly equivalent to the US rank of lieutenant general.) The reports are unconfirmed. General Gerasimov has not been a milblogger darling. Colonel General Teplinsky, as is so often the case with the backup holding the clipboard, has been much more the fan favorite.
The ISW, citing the independent Belarusian media outlet Vot Tak, reports that Russian First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko had engaged the not-for-profit organization Dialog to categorize Russian Internet users, the better to tailor its messaging to their beliefs, interests, and dispositions. The categories, developed from both user data and information from government agencies, classify users by "profession, interests, and political beliefs and specifically orients false news about the war in Ukraine and pro-war narratives toward Russian military personnel, relatives of military personnel, and civil servants." And Dialog also sorts users as "loyal" or "disloyal." The classification and subsequent targeting seems to derive from Dialog's inability to develop "unified and clear narratives" that would appeal to the Russian public as a whole. Targeted messaging would also serve to promote self-censorship.
Killnet claims Royal family DDoS.
The British Royal family's official website went down Sunday due to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, Sky News reports. No data were lost, and service on the site was restored within hours. The Russian hacktivist auxiliary KillNet claimed responsibility in its Telegram channel, but those claims could not be verified. NDTV quotes KillNet as saying the DDoS campaign was an "attack on pedophiles."