Russia moves conscripts to assembly areas, and a dark web souk appears on Moscow's electronic billboards.
Ukraine at D+348: Preparing for the first anniversary of the invasion.
Russian Defense Minister Shoigu offered an optimistic picture of operations around Bakhmut (which he's taken to calling "Artyomovsk"--see below for the significance of the change in name). Russian forces are "grinding down the armaments Ukraine is receiving from abroad, and protecting the inhabitants of the region from the genocidal barbarism of the Kyiv government. (This is Mr. Shoigu's characterization, retailed by TASS. Internationally it's distinctly a minority view of the situation.) "The United States and its allies have been trying to prolong the conflict as much as possible," Mr. Shoigu said. "For this purpose, they are supplying 'heavy offensive weapons' and openly calling on Ukraine to seize Russian territories. Such moves are actually drawing NATO countries into the conflict and can eventually lead to an unpredictable escalation."
Signs of Russian preparation for a major offensive continue to appear.
Ukraine has continued to warn that a major Russian offensive seems to be in the offing. The Wall Street Journal quotes Serhiy Haidai, Ukrainian governor of Luhansk. “We can see that more and more reserves are being brought in our direction, we’re observing more military equipment that is being partly hidden in forested areas or dug in,” he said. "Starting from February 15 we can expect [a major offensive] at any time."
The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning sees Russian commanders struggling to mount an offensive as they're driven by political pressure to show results in Donetsk. "It is highly likely that Russia has been attempting to re-start major offensive operations in Ukraine since early January 2023. Its operational goal is almost certainly to capture the remaining Ukrainian-held parts of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces have only managed to gain several hundred metres of territory per week. This is almost certainly because Russia now lacks the munitions and manoeuvre units required for successful offensives. Senior commanders likely make plans requiring undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political and professional pressure. Russian leaders will likely continue to demand sweeping advances. It remains unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially affect the outcome of the war within the coming weeks."
In any case, the troops called up during the partial mobilization appear to have finished all the training they're going to get, received the equipment they can expect, and are being moved to assembly areas in Donetsk and Luhansk. The invasion's first anniversary falls on February 24th.
Swagger online (and maybe in the air), but misery on the ground.
The Wagner Group continues to play a prominent public role in the front around Bakhmut. According to the Telegraph, the corporation's proprietor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has challenged Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to an aerial duel, with control of Bakhmut as the stakes. “Volodymyr Oleksandrovych," he apostrophized President Zelenskyy in a video he published after (Mr. Prigozhin said) he'd just flown a combat sortie, "we have landed. We have bombed Bakhmut. I will fly a MiG-29. If you so desire, let's meet in the skies. If you win, you take Artemivsk. If not, we advance till Dnipro.” The use of "Artemivsk" alternatively transliterated as "Artyomovsk," is significant: it's the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, which was during that period named after Comrade Artem. (He was a revolutionary pseudonym for Fedor Sergeev, a close associate of Stalin's with a typically bloody record. Restoring his name to a town would be analogous to a movement in Germany to start naming things after Horst Wessel.) It's swagger, especially since there's no particular reason to think that Mr. Prigozhin is checked out in MiG-29s, but it's about the sizzle, and not the steak.
The swank seems not to be carrying the Wagner Group through difficult times, the Guardian reports. Its high casualty rates seem to have diminished its ability to recruit even from convicts, who are showing signs of preferring prison to active service with a promise of remission. Ukraine released drone footage that appears to show Wagner Group troops near Bakhmut dragging off one of their wounded officers and then beating him with shovels. The video is impossible, so far, to authenticate, but it rings true, and suggests that morale is dangerously bad in the mercenary force. As the Guardian puts it, "Ukrainian soldiers fighting in and around Bakhmut have described how Wagner troops attack in waves. They are reportedly threatened with execution if they fail to advance and are mown down in large numbers, their corpses littering the frontlines."
The curious case of the Moscow billboards.
Electronic billboards in Moscow over the weekend displayed large, prominent ads for BlackSprut, a prominent dark web contraband market mostly involved in illicit drug sales. The Record reports that the ads featured a woman in what the Record calls "a futuristic mask" (but which looks more like kinky erotic gear) and the slogan, “Come to me if you’re looking for the best.” It's unclear why the ads appeared, but the competing theories are:
- It was an oversight: someone slipped up.
- The billboards were hacked.
- The ads were permitted.
#3 seems likeliest. BlackSprut is a successor to the now-defunct Hydra illicit market, and it handles a lot of trade, perhaps as much as 28% of the darknet market share globally. Mega and OMG are also-rans at, respectively, 22% and 17%. BlackSprut may be too big to interfere with, and this may simply represent an evolution in the longstanding coziness between the Russian organs and the country's online gangs.