The weekend was busy. Let’s get to it.
1.) On Friday, seemingly right after INTSUM 25MAR22 was issued, the head of the General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, Sergei Rudskoi, stated that Russian forces would begin concentrating on Russia’s “main goal.” In a bit of revisionist history, Rudskoi seems to suggest that Russia’s main goal was never the complete subjugation of Ukraine but was always limited to the Donbass. Here’s what Rudskoi said:
“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished. The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.”
1.a.) This led many commenters to speculate that Russia would begin scaling down its offensive operations in the north, around Kyiv, and would shift its forces east to Donbass. Some believe that this represents an attempt to save face, perhaps before winding down operations and attempting to get concessions from Ukraine in the form of Donbass and/or Crimea. I’m not yet convinced that either are true. The initial goal of Russia’s operations in Ukraine was almost undoubtedly the decapitation of the Zelenskyy government and the total capitulation of Ukraine, regardless of what Rudskoi says. We know that Russian plans called for the quick capture of Kyiv and replacement of Zelenskyy. But now we’re supposed to believe that that was never actually the goal, and the whole thing was orchestrated solely to reduce Ukraine’s military capabilities. Russia, Rudskoi says, conducted operations throughout Ukraine to “damage its military infrastructure and tie down forces,” according to Reuters. To be fair, the “demilitarization” of Ukraine was a stated Russian goal, but this conflict has also resulted in widespread reduction of Russian forces and prestige, in particular the myth of Russian conventional military might. Another stated goal, well-advertised from the outset, was the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. I’m not sure that Russia could argue that goal has been achieved since the Zelenskyy government is still apparently functioning and in power. Note, this goal wasn’t the “de-Nazification” of Donbass. It was the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. This, while merely a propagandic pretext, has not been achieved by any measure.
Analyst’s Comment: Russia doesn’t generally advertise its intentions, at least not in words, and virtually everything Russian officials have said about this conflict — leading up to it and throughout the invasion itself — has proven to be untrue. I think that it’s equally likely, perhaps even more likely, that this is another ruse that will, Russia hopes, allow them the time to reorganize their fighting forces in order to renew offensive operations around Kyiv. We’ve discussed the potential for reinforcement BTGs coming from other areas in Russia. I may well be wrong, but this morning there were reports of Russian attacks to the east and northwest of Kyiv, with numerous explosions audible in the center of the city. NASA FIRMS data seems to confirm this. [End Comment]
2.) In related news, Zelenskyy has repeated statements from last week that Ukraine would entertain declaring neutrality, though again this would have to be the result of a public referendum, which he stated would take place some months after Russian forces left Ukraine. Other Ukrainian officials have stated that Russia’s intent is to split the nation in two. Firstly, Russia has said that it wanted assurances that Ukraine would remain neutral and would never join NATO. Perhaps such assurances, which were not previously up for discussion by Ukraine, would end the conflict. However, I’d remain skeptical of any Russian assurances in return. If I were Ukraine, I’d also be rather skeptical of any Western assurances regarding Ukraine’s security, keeping in mind that Ukraine gave up its nuclear arms in the 1990s on the back of similar security assurances. Secondly, a split Ukraine might also be beneficial to Russian interests, and I can’t help but wonder about the long-term destabilizing effect this invasion might have on Ukraine and Ukrainians. Millions of people have been displaced. Some might decide to never return. Perhaps Russia intended on, in essence, depopulating parts of Ukraine, forcing millions of Ukrainians into Europe with the follow-on effect of causing a humanitarian crisis that would burden those host nations and thus, potentially, destabilize NATO nations. This says nothing of the 400,000 Ukrainians who’ve been reportedly moved to Russia, which we’ve previously discussed.
3.) We’ve all no doubt heard about President Biden’s ad-libbed moment during his recent speech in Poland when he said, “For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” This man being Putin. The world remains abuzz. While American politics are not the focus of this space, nor do I even like tangential mentions of the subject, this merits brief discussion. The US response in general, and the Biden Administration in particular, to this invasion has been remarkably disciplined, whether you agree with it or not is beside the point. I generally applauded the release of US intelligence concerning Russian intent in the lead up to the invasion, even though I expressed some concern regarding the potential exposure of what we in (or formerly in) the IC called “sources and methods” (in other words, HOW the US acquired and processed said information into intelligence). I have applauded the Biden Administration’s efforts in galvanizing NATO and other nations. This administration’s approach has been tempered, on-message, and relentless in the narrow vein prescribed. This utterance, however well-intentioned and walked back, was a gaff. (Biden recently said that his comments reflected his personal feelings, not US policy…to the press corps today he further stated: “The last part of the speech was talking to the Russian people. I was communicating this to not only the Russian people, but the whole world. This is just stating a simple fact that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.”) I’m sure that many people across the globe have felt similarly regarding President Putin, probably even a lot of Russians. But for a US president to even obliquely suggest regime change in Russia is not a good look. For one, it invites the same sort of commentary from other foreign leaders about the United States and, given the myriad accusations of Russian meddling in US politics and elections, is probably not something one would wish to invite at all. To be clear, however, it seems very unlikely that the US has the intention or the capability (even if it wanted) to effect regime change in Russia.
4.) Over the weekend, Ukrainian Defense Ministry officials stated that they’ve begun to get reports of Russian front-line forces being issued chemical weapons antidote kits, specifically antidotes for nerve agents such as sarin. Sarin was reportedly used by Russian/Syrian forces in several cities in Syria. I’ve seen no confirmation of this; however, it is obviously concerning. It is certainly possible that if this is happening, it is part of Russia’s cover story/propaganda efforts stating that Ukraine has been working on developing chemical/biological weapons and that these kits are to protect Russian troops from a Ukrainian attack. Alternatively, it could be in preparation for a Russian use of chemical weapons. Or both things are true in conjunction.
5.) Yesterday, some pro-Russian Telegram accounts released video footage allegedly showing Ukrainian soldiers committing war crimes, namely shooting Russian prisoners in the legs. The Ukrainian government has stated that it will investigate, with Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovych saying, “We are a European army, and we do not mock our prisoners. If this turns out to be real, this is absolutely unacceptable behavior. I’d like to remind all our military, civilian, and defense forces once again that the abuse of prisoners is a war crime that has no amnesty under military law and has no statute of limitations.” Ukrainian General Valerii Zaluzhnyi claimed that Russia staged the videos. I’ve seen the video and I can’t tell if it’s legitimate or not. It’s not shot in high definition and the angles, at least in terms of the shootings, aren’t very revealing. I would not be surprised either way. These sorts of disgusting things happen in war, and they always have, even by personnel on the side of the objectively just. This is not to excuse such behavior, merely to be frank about what war often means. But credible accusations should be investigated, and those who do engage in such activity should be prosecuted. That said, Russia has shown a willingness to use deep fakes and misinformation to sow discontent and to undermine solidarity. I do hope that it is investigated, but if true it could undermine Ukraine’s credibility in the international community.
6.) It has been reported in numerous media outlets that Roman Abramovich and two other members of the peace talks delegation suffered from poisoning due to exposure to some form of chemical weapon, which took place on 03 March. Bellingcat, an investigative journalism outfit that worked on both the Skripal poisonings and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, has confirmed that some sort of poisoning had taken place, speculating about several substances, none of which they were able to confirm. Reportedly, Abramovich and others experienced eye and skin inflammation, to include peeling of the skin of the face, though all symptoms abated within a week. Belligncat assesses that the dosage was likely intended to cause fear rather than permanent damage or death. Senior Ukrainian officials, however, have downplayed this event, saying that “the members of the Ukrainian delegation are fine; I was in contact with one of them and they said the story was false.” My thoughts are: The poisoning did happen, but the Ukrainians don’t want anything to get in the way of a potential agreement.
7.) Ukrainian military intelligence has reportedly released data on 620 Russian FSB employees, to include names and passport information. This will undoubtedly make it a bit harder for these people to conduct very-important FSB operations. Perhaps they can use LifeLock in the future.
8.) Russian air defense activity was observed over the weekend in the vicinity of Sevastopol, Crimea. Initial reports suggest two S-400 were fired at an unknown target. This is all a mystery and speculation at this point. But it’s significant to remember that the ships that were previously in Berdyansk had moved to Sevastopol. I don’t have any range rings handy, but I’m not sure that the Ukrainians have any weapons systems that can reach Sevastopol. Perhaps it was some sort of drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). That might explain to some degree why the two S-400s were fired at what amounts to point blank range for the system; associated radars just didn’t see anything until it was that close. UAVs are very small. Both missiles seem to have detonated/hit something. We will probably never know what.
9.) Kherson is now considered “contested,” according to multiple sources. Kherson was the first Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces. Ukrainian sources also claim that Ipin is back under Ukrainian control, though this has not been confirmed and civilians are not being allowed back into the city pending likely further Russian attacks. Ukrainian outlets suggest 5,000 civilian casualties in Mariupol.
10.) Russia has reportedly withdrawn two battalions of the 106th Guards Airborne Division from Kyiv due to heavy losses sustained during Ukraine’s counterattacks. We discussed a few days ago in this space the likelihood of rotations among Russian forces. I expect to see more of the same assuming, of course, the information is made available. Additionally, Russia is reportedly opening a draft consisting of 100,000 reservists with the intent for service in Ukraine. These reservists are to have combat experience, likely in Syria or Georgia. If this is true, and coupled with all the other indicators we’ve seen, it sort of undermines Russia’s claims that only wants to secure/liberate Donbass.
11.) The US Navy is deploying six EA-18G Growlers and 250 personnel to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. These assets will then be forward deployed somewhere in Eastern Europe. The EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare platform, replacing the EA-6B Prowler. Their primary mission is jamming things like radars; think Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) so that strike packages can blow things up. It’s probably quite capable of collecting ELINT, too. Keep in mind that these are carrier-based aircraft being deployed to ground bases, and it is significant that the only publicly disclosed action they’ve seen was in Syria. But it’s also important to remember that it’s the sole tactical platform in the US inventory currently capable of this mission. Could mean a lot; could mean little. It’s likely just the US/NATO doing due diligence in case things go south. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. These birds do, however, improve NATO’s capabilities. It’s easy to forget, but there’s a lot of NATO assets in Eastern Europe and while that’s significant, I tend to think that it would be a dereliction of duty if it wasn’t the case.
12.) I have lost track of how many Russian generals have been killed. I think it’s up to eight, now.
More to follow as news develops. Thank you for reading.