The past fifteen or so hours have been filled with happenings, particularly on the “diplomatic” front.
1.) Amidst ongoing negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations, Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin announced that Russia will “cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv to increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Since Russia is generally consistent with messaging across all levels, Russia Today (RT) reports that the apparently-still-alive Defense Minister Shoigu said, “Main tasks of the first state of special operation in Ukraine has been completed, now the focus is on the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.” We discussed the “evolution” of the original goals in INTSUM 28MAR21.
1.a.) Ukrainian officials have said that they’ve noticed Russian troop withdrawals in both those areas, and two senior US officials told CNN’s Jim Sciutto that the US has observed BTGs move away from Kyiy. Further, these two US officials do not view this as a short-term effort conducive to an operational pause before resumption of action against Kyiv and Chernihiv, but represents a “major strategy shift” and recognition by Russia of its failures in the north.
1.b.) Other unnamed officials in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community believe that this is a “strategic redeployment,” rather than a withdrawal. To be fair, I’ve not seen anything about a Russian withdrawal. The Russians haven’t to my knowledge said anything about a withdrawal, so this take is unclear to me. Interestingly, these unnamed officials have said that they “are investigating other extremely concerning allegations about the withdrawal.” What this means isn’t currently known. There has been, however, speculation in the OSINT community that such a “redeployment” of forces might presage the use of some sort of WMD in or around Kyiv. If that happens, we will all become aware of it very quickly.
1.c.) Never fear about that, however. The reliable and truthful spokesman for President Putin said today, “No one is thinking about using — even about the idea of using — a nuclear weapon.” Which makes me think that they have, absolutely, entertained the possibility of using a nuclear weapon.
2.) Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that “the most meaningful progress” was made in talks, which took place in Turkey on 29 March 2022. There isn’t a lot of information available about what they’ve discussed or what progress has been made. Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podoliak has stated that Ukraine wants an “enhanced analogue” to NATO’s Article 5 in which the US, UK, and other nations legally guarantee to protect Ukraine; additionally, he stated that the Crimea issue will be bilaterally settled within 15 years. I do not know what Russia’s position on either of these two issues are, but Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky stated that, “De-escalation does not mean a ceasefire.” But he also said that Russia now doesn’t wish to “put Kyiv at any military risk,” because “the people who make the decisions” are there. Make of that what you will. I still do not believe that Putin or his negotiators have any intention of negotiating in good faith.
Analyst’s Comment: I view the recent attempts to change the narrative vis a vis Russia’s war aims in two ways. 1.) The messaging is aimed primarily at Russia’s domestic audience and is designed to walk back expectations by suggesting that Russia never intended to subjugate Ukraine at all, merely to help “liberate” Donbass. It’s very much an example of “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” At present, there is no way to credibly assert even to the most supportive Russians that the original goals have been achieved and, as I’ve previously mentioned, the war’s toll will become increasingly obvious to those many Russian mothers back home. Russian offensives have stalled on almost every front and, in some cases, been driven back. This is domestic management of expectations. It’s classic authoritarian messaging. 2.) In terms of the international audience, which includes Ukraine, this is an effort to buy time, just as the negotiations are. Yes, it does offer the appearances of a goodwill gesture while negotiations continue. But these are not the first round of negotiations. We’ve seen time and time again that Russia will say one thing and then do another. They may make unrealistic demands during negotiations, yet again, and then use the refusal of those demands as justification to restart offensive operations in areas in which they’ve stated they would wind down those operations, such as Kyiv and Chernihiv. If that happens, which seems very likely to me at this point, Russian forces need time to rotate out units that have suffered heavy casualties, which we’ve already begun seeing. Russia likely hopes that declaring a draw-down of forces near Kyiv, in particular, might convince Ukrainian forces to cease their counteroffensive activity there. With the alleged plan to draft and mobilize 100,000 veterans beginning 01 April, it is possible that Russia wants to replace combat losses in the north of Ukraine, though it might take considerable time before these replacements are trained. I would certainly like to be wrong about this and see a legitimate and long-term reduction in combat operations throughout Ukraine. I just don’t see that happening right now. This strikes me as an attempt to save face for an operational pause while managing expectations at home.
It is exceedingly unlikely that Russia will withdraw all its forces from the areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv, even if the above assessments prove incorrect. There’s value in maintaining some combat capability there simply to prevent Ukrainian forces from being able to leave and reinforce areas in the eastern part of the country. [End Comment]
3.) Pro-Russian Telegram channels are currently a study in apoplexy as commenters lament the “betrayal of the Russian army” and failure to destroy the Nazis in Ukraine. “No concessions to the creatures!!!!!!!” writes one person named Anastasia, who really like exclamation points. “Putin, we were ready to endure and believed!!!! You gave the Nazis a chance???????” writes another named Anatoly Anatoly. It’s always very interesting to see the reactions of true believers when they feel they’ve been betrayed or deceived. It’s more interesting to see these sentiments from people who probably aren’t being killed on the front lines by Ukrainian ambushes. You’d think with all this zeal, Russia wouldn’t have any trouble filling that 100,000 conscript quota. But Russia couldn’t do it in 2021, and they won’t likely be able to do it in April 2022.
4.) Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee today to deliver the 2022 Posture Statement, EUCOM commander General Tod D Wolters reportedly stated that “We’re going to still need more,” referring to the number of US troops in Europe. It’s almost as if General Wolters doesn’t believe anything Russia says. I’m curious about what number of US troops and/or assets would be deemed enough. I expect that the US presence in Eastern Europe will be large and persist for years.
5.) Latvia’s Deputy Prime Minister Artis Pabriks stated via Twitter that Latvia would increase its defense budget to 2.5% of its GDP. This announcement comes on the anniversary of Latvian NATO membership.
6.) Belgium, Netherlands, and Ireland have reportedly coordinated in the expulsion of a number of Russian diplomatic staff, accusing them of espionage. Belgium expelled 21, Netherlands expelled 17, and Ireland expelled four. At this rate, Russia’s conscript quota will be filled with diplomats expelled from most of the Western world.
7.) The Polish Cabinet has approved a ban on Russian coal imports. I read that Nigeria is willing to send gas exports to Europe to make up for any losses from Russia.
8.) Russian-affiliated entities reportedly hit Ukrtelecom with some form of cyber-attack, disrupting internet access for a significant portion of users, though it has since been restored.
9.) Russian forces have made very slow progress in their assault on Mariupol. Recently, they have entered the city center. Putin reportedly told French President Macron that the “nationalists” in Mariupol need to surrender.
10.) A few pictures show at least two Russian T-80Us and other vehicles hilariously and hopelessly stuck in the mud. The location is unknown. Every time I see this sort of thing, I remember back to mid-February when so many commenters discounted problems with mud, saying that modern tanks can handle it and Russian forces know how to drive in it. As the soon-to-be retired Maury might say, “That’s a lie.”
More as news develops. Thanks for reading.