A prominent Russian pro-war blogger was killed in a bombing at a St. Petersburg cafe yesterday. Bakhmut remains contested.
Ukraine at D+403: A journalist remains under arrest. A milblogger is assassinated.
Bakhumt is still contested, and Ukraine has dismissed Russian claims of advances as fabrications.
Prominent Russian milblogger killed in restaurant bombing.
Vladlen Tatarsky, a prominent ultranationalist Russian milblogger whose writing (and speech) about the war in Ukraine has been extreme and intemperate even by milblogging standards, died yesterday evening in a bombing at a St. Petersburg restaurant, Street Food Bar #1 Cafe, the New York Times reports. According to the BBC, Russian authorities have arrested Darya Trepova in connection with the blast. Ms Trepova, who says she's being framed, had been arrested last year for participation in anti-war protests.
Russian government sources have accused Ukraine of being behind the bombing, the AP reports. The milbloggers in general are sure of it, calling for vengeance. Ukrainian officials say the incident was an internal Russian matter: Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak tweeted, "It begins in RF... Spiders are eating each other in a jar. Question of when domestic terrorism would become an instrument of internal political fight was a matter of time, as breakthrough of ripe abscess. Irreversible processes and Troubles 2.0. await RF. While we will watch." Mr. Tatarsky had grown increasingly critical of Russia's military (not extreme enough to wage hard war, not organized for effective combat, in need of a structural overhaul) and is reported to have been one of several milbloggers under investigation for the crime of slandering the Russian forces. The Institute for the Study of War outlines the domestic tensions that may have figured in the bombing.
Is General Gerasimov's job at risk?
The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) thinks General Gerasimov may be on the toboggan. "On 11 January 2023, Russian Chief of the General Staff (CGS) General Valery Gerasimov took personal command of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Gerasimov’s tenure has been characterised by an effort to launch a general winter offensive with the aim of extending Russian control over the whole of the Donbas region. Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed. On several axes across the Donbas front, Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties, largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel gained from the autumn’s ‘partial mobilisation’. After ten years as CGS, there is a realistic possibility that Gerasimov is pushing the limits of how far Russia’s political leadership will tolerate failure."
Sunday morning the British MoD took up Russia's problem of non-combat losses. "While Russia has suffered up to 200,000 casualties since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a significant minority of these have been due to non-combat causes. On 27 March 2023, a Russian Telegram news channel reported there have been ‘extremely high’ numbers of incidents, crimes, and deaths linked to alcohol consumption amongst the deployed Russian forces. Other leading causes of non-combat casualties likely include poor weapon handling drills, road traffic accidents and climatic injuries such as hypothermia. Russian commanders likely identify pervasive alcohol abuse as particularly detrimental to combat effectiveness. However, with heavy drinking pervasive across much of Russian society, it has long been seen as a tacitly accepted part of military life, even on combat operations." All armies lose troops to accidents, but the Russian losses from such causes seem unusually high.
Restoring a brigade's reputation.
"The Russian MOD is likely running a deliberate information operation to revive the reputation of a brigade which has become synonymous with recent Russian failures in Ukraine," the UK's MoD reported this morning. "Throughout March 2023, the activities of 155th Naval Infantry Brigade were highlighted via some of the most extensive Russian helmet-cam combat footage yet released, as well as a televised visit by a prominent Russian TV host, Vladimir Solovyov. There were also public announcements that the formation is in ‘high spirits [with] a strong determination to achieve the set goals’, as well as images showing the 155th being re-equipped with modified tanks. In reality, the 155th has likely been reduced to combat ineffective status at least twice in the last six months, due to being committed to tactically flawed frontal assaults near Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast. The MOD’s effort to revive the brigade’s image likely reflects concern about the way in which its failures were being increasingly associated with Russian senior military leaders." Naval infantry units have traditionally been considered an elite among Russian forces.
The FSB's arrest of Evan Gershkovich.
The FSB's arrest of reporter Evan Gershkovich is widely regarded in Western media as official hostage-taking, and his arrest has been denounced as such by the US State Department and the White House. The AP reports that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, to demand the journalist's immediate release. (Secretary Blinken also demanded the release of Paul Whelan, an American citizen whom Russia has detained for four years on espionage charges.) Russian state television takes a different line, as commentators on a Rossiya 1 news show say that Gershkovich was never a journalist and filed no stories from Russia. That's an easy charge to debunk. Here are the eleven stories with Gershkovich's byline that the Wall Street Journal published during just March of this year:
- Russia’s Economy Is Starting to Come Undone Investment is down, labor is scarce, budget is squeezed. Oligarch: ‘There will be no money next year.’ Georgi Kantchev and Evan Gershkovich (March 28, 2023).
- Ukraine Says Front Lines Around Embattled City of Bakhmut Are Stabilizing Western officials say Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine is losing momentum as Kyiv gears up for its spring campaign. Isabel Coles in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Evan Gershkovich in Moscow (March 25, 2023).
- Vladimir Putin Criticizes West as Xi Jinping Strikes Softer Tone The leaders wrote that relations between Russia and China are approaching new heights ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. Georgi Kantchev and Evan Gershkovich (March 19, 2023).
- Russia Makes a Habit of Harassing U.S. Planes, Pentagon Says U.S. Defense Department officials cited a pattern of aggressive and risky actions by Russian forces toward the U.S., a day after a Russian jet collided with a U.S. spy drone. Nancy A. Youssef, Evan Gershkovich and Thomas Grove (March 15, 2023).
- Russian Jet Collides With U.S. Drone Over Black Sea The collision forced the U.S. to bring the Reaper drone down in international waters, the Pentagon says. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and Evan Gershkovich in Moscow (March 14, 2023).
- Artillery Shortage Hampers Russia’s Offensive in East Ukraine, Western Officials Say Russia’s defense minister told domestic manufacturers to double their production of precision-guided weapons, as Moscow pushes to capture Bakhmut city after months of heavy fighting. Matthew Luxmoore in Dnipro, Ukraine, and Evan Gershkovich in Moscow (March 14, 2023).
- Fight for Bakhmut Becomes Moment of Truth for Wagner Founder The battle for the eastern Ukrainian city comes amid rising tensions between the Kremlin elite and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the paramilitary force. Thomas Grove, Evan Gershkovich and Benoit Faucon (March 10, 2023).
- Georgia Pulls Russia-Style Foreign-Agents Bill The move came after thousands of Georgians took to the streets to demonstrate against the legislation, that would label groups receiving funding from abroad as foreign agents. Evan Gershkovich (March 9, 2023).
- Georgia Rocked by Protests Over Russia-Style Foreign-Agents Bill Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Georgia as discontent erupted over draft legislation labeling groups receiving funding from abroad as foreign agents. Justyna Mielnikiewicz in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Evan Gershkovich in Moscow (March 8, 2023).
- As Russia Steps Up Shelling in Kherson, Ukraine Calls on Residents to Evacuate Ukraine urged residents to leave the southern city amid an uptick in Russian attacks, while pressure grew on Kyiv to vacate Bakhmut in the east. Matthew Luxmoore in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Evan Gershkovich in Moscow (March 7, 2023).
- Putin’s War Rhetoric Rallies Russian Border Towns, but Nerves Fray Growing casualties haven’t so far shaken Pskov, an impoverished region that is home to the elite Russian paratrooper division that occupied Bucha in Ukraine. Evan Gershkovich | Photographs by Nanna Heitmann/Magnum for The Wall Street Journal (March 1, 2023).
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, also appearing on Rossiya 1, argues that Gershkovich didn't attend official press briefings, and therefore couldn't be a journalist, which affords some insight into the Russian government's understanding of journalism.
Hacktivists claim to have tricked wives of Russian combat pilots into revealing personal information.
Cyber Resistance, a pro-Ukrainian hacktivist group, is reported to have inveigled the spouses of officers in the Russian 960th Assault Aviation Regiment (responsible for killing some six-hundred civilians who had taken shelter in a Mariupol theater last year, as well as having hit hospitals) into participating in a bogus morale-building calendar photoshoot, in the course of which the identities of the regiment's officers were revealed. The wife of Colonel Sergey Valeriyvich Atroschenko, the regiment's commander, was duped into organizing the photoshoot. The Telegraph writes, "The 41-year-old believed she was communicating with an officer from her husband’s regiment, and not a Ukrainian activist, when she agreed to take part and organise the 'patriotic photo shoot' at an airfield near the city of Primorsko-Akhtarsk in the Krasnodar Krai, on the shores of the Sea of Azov."
HackRead reports that the information obtained included a great deal of sensitive data. InfoNapalm, a hacktivist group cooperating with Cyber Resistance (both groups formed after Russia's 2024 invasion of Crimea) explained, “Among the large volumes of correspondence and spam in the mail dumps of the 960th AAR commander, Col. Sergey Atroshchenko, we managed to find and isolate various detailed lists of pilots, performance evaluation records of officers, bulletins, memos, theoretical and practical calculations, etc. which are of material interest for the Ukrainian intelligence.” (The data unfortunately also included information about the wives themselves, who after all flew no strikes and bombed no hospitals.)