Ukraine at D+552: Five tactical narratives.
N2K logoAug 30, 2023

Russia and Ukraine exchange drone strikes as Ukrainian forces continue their incremental push through Russian prepared lines.

Ukraine at D+552: Five tactical narratives.

Overnight a large Russian drone and missile strike hit Kyiv, with damage and casualties mostly in the Shevchenkivskiy and Darnytskyi districts. Shevchenkivskiy is a university area, with cultural and religious monuments as well as student bars and hangouts. Darnytskyi is a commercial area. Reports from Kyiv describe the damage on the ground (which included two dead and three injured) as caused by "falling debris," which suggests that the inbound missiles were intercepted before they hit whatever their intended targets were.

Ukraine also executed its own drone strikes against targets in Russia proper, Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports. Russian sources say six distinct regions were targeted, but that the strikes were met with effective air defense. At least one of the strikes hit its target, an airfield near Pskov, where four Il-76 military transport aircraft were damaged. TASS reports Ukrainian shelling of the Belgorod region.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Ukraine's deliberate advance continues, with ground taken near Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast and Robotyne in the western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 29.

Combat refusals and potential sources of combat power.

The UK's Ministry of Defence looked this morning at the high rate of combat refusal in the Russian army. "On 25 August 2023, two Russian soldiers were sentenced to serve at least two years in a penal colony by a military court for refusing to obey orders to return to the front in Ukraine. On 18 July 2023 the Mediazona news outlet reported that Russia was convicting close to 100 soldiers a week for refusing to fight. If this trend continues, there will be approximately 5,200 convictions a year for refusing to fight. The high rate of convictions demonstrates the poor state of morale in the Russian Army and the reluctance of some elements to fight. Refusal to fight likely reflects the lack of training, motivation and high stress situations Russian forces face along the entire Ukrainian frontline. Although some soldiers have refused to fight and attrition rates remain high, Russia highly likely mitigates their loss by committing a mass of poorly trained soldiers to the frontline. Since Russia’s September 2022 partial mobilisation, Russia has adapted its approach to warfare by utilising sheer mass for offensive and defensive operations."

It seems doubtful that the remnant of the Wagner Group will be reconstituted in a way that makes a contribution to Russian combat power. The PMC's exile to Belarus, the gutting of its business model, and the death of its proprietor make a swift return unlikely.

Crossing red lines.

An essay in the Washington Post points out that Ukraine has crossed a number of perceived red lines, all of which Russia had marked as events that would warrant swift and terrible retribution. These include raids into occupied Crimea. drone strikes against targets in Moscow itself, diversionary operations on the ground in Russia proper, and the destruction of strategic bombers on the ground at Russian air bases. While Russia has acknowledged and protested all of these, the threatened retaliation hasn't materialized, and Russia has continued wage war as it has since the outset. Brutally, to be sure, but without the promised escalation, and especially without either nuclear escalation or attacks on nations that support Ukraine. NATO's provision of F-16s represent another such red line, and the essay suggests that Russia will again object, but not escalate. Calls on Russian television for the immediate use of nuclear weapons against Robotyne should be understood in this light. (Such calls also show a misunderstanding of how such weapons might be employed. Using nuclear weapons because "this is our heritage," as one military pundit and Duma member, Lieutenant General Andrey Gurulyov, explained, is not serious military thinking.)

US announces another tranche of aid for Ukraine.

The US yesterday announced another package of military assistance for Ukraine, valued at $250 million. It includes:

  • AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles for air defense;
  • Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
  • 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds;
  • Mine clearing equipment;
  • Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) anti-tank missiles;
  • Javelin and other anti-armor systems and rockets;
  • Hydra-70 Rockets;
  • Over 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition;
  • Armored medical treatment vehicles and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) ambulances;
  • Demolitions munitions for obstacle clearing; and
  • Spare parts, maintenance, and other field equipment.

Yevegny Prigozhin is buried in a private ceremony.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary chieftain (and mutineer, and accused war criminal) killed last week in the deliberately induced crash of his Embraer business jet, was buried in a private ceremony at a St. Petersburg cemetery. About a hundred mourners, many wearing Wagner Group badges, attended, the Telegraph reports, but President Putin was not among them.

Russia will not "at the moment" investigate the crash under international conventions that would involve investigators from the country where the aircraft was manufactured, which in this case would be Brazil. Such involvement is recommended on domestic accidents, required for international mishaps, and so while Russia is under no strict obligation to ask for Brazilian assistance, failing to do so is a bad look. The Embraer was brought down by a bomb on board, and, while Russian propagandists blame either the US, Ukraine, or (especially) the UK, most observers think the plane and its occupants were destroyed on the orders of President Putin as punishment for the Wagner Group's march on Moscow. "We all know that the Kremlin has a long history of killing opponents," Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty quotes White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre as saying. "It's very clear what happened here."

She's not alone in that assessment. Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty has a long interview with Dmitri Alperovitch, a co-founder of CrowdStrike and now the head of the Silverado Policy Accelerator. He thinks the deal President Putin made with Mr. Prigozhin in the days after the abortive mutiny was genuine enough, as such things go, but that Mr. Prigozhin's subsequent behavior revealed him to be an unrepentant threat. "I do not buy the argument that this was simply revenge for the mutiny. I actually do think that there was a deal that was made after the mutiny, where he was going to be forgiven for this act of disobedience, to put it mildly," Alperovitch said. "But it was going to be on Putin's terms; and one of those terms is that he was going to go away. [Exile to] Belarus was not really about Belarus as much as about Prigozhin kind of disappearing into the night. And he decided not to do that." He thinks it unlikely that President Putin gave detailed instructions on how to kill Mr. Prigozhin, but he has little doubt that the President gave the organs a mission order to have the mercenary boss and one-time crony killed.

Alperovich closed the interview with a general appreciation of the nature of the Russian state, today. "But it was business. And, you know, the one thing you cannot do is interfere with business interests in a mafia state, which is what Russia is today. It is not just a dictatorship, an authoritarian system; it literally is a gangster state that Putin has created, and it lives by gangster rules."

Narrative themes in Russian influence operations.

Russian propaganda in the active theater has taken a tactical turn, apparently aimed at undermining Ukrainian morale while simultaneously shoring up Russian domestic resolve. The Institute for the Study of War confirms five themes the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) is pursuing. "The GUR reported on August 29 that the Russian Presidential Administration held a meeting on August 25 to approve the specific narratives that Russian media should promote in the information space. The Russian narratives include claims that Ukraine is conducting mass mobilization regardless of age, gender, or health; claims that Ukraine’s Western partners are disappointed in Ukraine‘s prospects for victory; claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is failing; claims that the Ukrainian government is completely corrupt and is not fighting corruption and; claims that Russian authorities provide good living standards and conditions in occupied Ukraine. Russian First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko and Russian media representatives reportedly attended the meeting. ISW has observed all five false narratives in the Russian information space."