- On 30 May 2023, United States Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, gave an interview to Politico, regarding a briefing he received from President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team on the upcoming Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) counteroffensive. According to Sen. Graham, the Russians are “in for a rude awakening.” This is combined with President Zelensky’s announcement on 29 May 2023, in which he stated that “decisions have been made” with regard to the start of troop movements.
- Overall, UAF shaping activity for the anticipated counteroffensive has continued, which has included:
- Another incursion into Belgorod Oblast by all-Russian pro-Ukrainian forces, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) on the morning of 1 June 2023. This resulted in heavy clashes and buildings being set on fire.
- Conducted a UAV attack on the Ilsky and Afipsky Oil Refineries, Krasnodar Krai, Russia during the early hours of 31 May 2023.
- Targeting of the Russian-occupied town of Almazna, Luhansk Oblast (40km east of Bakhmut) with HIMARS on 28 May 2023.
- Multiple raids by UAF across the Dnipro River to varying degrees of success, with Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) reportedly stating they repelled UAF activity during 26-27 May 2023.
- Targeting of Russian locations with long range missiles in Polohy, Berdyansk, and Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast during periods of darkness between 25-27 May 2023.
All-Russian pro-Ukrainian forces, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) conducted another incursion into Belgorod Oblast on 1 June 2023. Source: @NOELreports
- There has been a notable increase in both the discussion of the UAF counteroffensive and shaping activity in the form of UAF long range missile strikes (highly likely using the recently gifted Storm Shadow cruise missiles) during this reporting period. In a continuation from the last reporting period, the UAF and regional allies (such as the RDK and LSR) still apply a multi-dimensional threat, without disclosing or making an obvious inference to where and how the counteroffensive will begin. It is, however, possible that the build-up of activity will continue to grow over the next reporting period, gradually increasing the pressure for RFAF along the frontline with current offensive/defensive operations and the targeting of critical Russian logistic nodes and concentrations of forces. This lack of an obvious start point for the UAF counteroffensive will highly likely exhaust the morale as well as the perception of threat of RFAF troops on the ground (and in the reserve) as the anticipation continues to amount to only shaping activity. Notably though, the unknowing and the anticipation is highly likely intended to spread the RFAF thinly across the frontline and overwhelm command and control elements. In addition to this, the threat to Russian occupied territory from the UAF newly acquired long-range capability will complicate and impede logistic resupply routes to the RFAF in Ukraine. This has previously been used to UAF success, where targeting closer to the frontline with the use of HIMARS led to the shortages of munitions seen only recently in Bakhmut. Coupled with the threat to critical supplies such as diesel, as observed with the recent UAV attacks targeting oil refineries within Russian borders, RFAF logisticians will be forced to relocate yet further away from the frontline. It is reported that the Russian Border Guards of the FSB are poorly trained and ill-equipped, making them vulnerable to cross-border raids by forces aligned with Ukraine. These raids are likely to force the Russian MoD to reinforce vulnerable border areas with military personnel, further reducing the forces available for offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine. This conventional/asymmetric insurgent threat creates multiple dilemmas across a broad geographic area for the cumbersome Russian government machine to respond to.
According to NASA, the UAF missile strike against RFAF targets in Berdyansk, Zaporizhzhia Oblast was detected by their Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). Source: @bradyafr
Operational / Strategic Military
- On the morning of 30 May 2023, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of conducting Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) attacks within Moscow suburban areas. According to Russian media outlets and footage circulating on social media, some UAVs were shot down by Russian air defence assets outside of the city, whilst others crashed into properties in prestigious neighbourhoods, known to house oligarchs and politicians. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), eight UAVs in total were intercepted: five by air defence, and three by electronic warfare systems. However, both pro-Russian commentators and mil-bloggers have accused Ukraine of launching up to 32 UAVs, yet this cannot be verified. There were reportedly no casualties caused. Notably, this UAV attack came immediately after three consecutive days of Russian air strikes using long range missiles and Iranian-made Shahed 131 and 136 UAVs, taking the number of days of air strikes against Ukraine during the month of May to 20. Although the Russian MoD accused Ukraine of being the perpetrators of the UAV attack, this was vehemently denied by the Ukrainian Government (however, some Ukrainian Officials did profess to be enjoying the role-reversal). There was no comment by the Ukrainian Government when pressed on the possibility of all-Russian pro-Ukrainian elements being responsible, however. Reportedly, the response from the Russian populace was indifferent, with pro-Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov despairing at some Russians rejoicing in the attack. Additionally, Wagner-owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, released an expletive-ridden audio recording to the Kremlin asking how the attack was allowed to have taken place, and insulted the Kremlin on its inability to defend Russia through laziness.
The Russian newspapers were reported to have received guidance from the Kremlin on how to report the Moscow UAV attacks, and to downplay the threat as an inconvenience. Source: @ChrisO_wiki
Footage of fragmented UAV components were seen on social media; these were gathered up and removed by Russian security services. Source: @clashreport
- Although this is not the first instance of a reportedly Ukrainian UAV attack within Russian borders, it does indicate an escalation from that previously seen (regardless of the perpetrators). There has been speculation abound as to how much the Ukrainian Government knew and/or supported the attack, as well as speculation on the possibility of the attack being a Russian false-flag event. It is, however, unlikely to be a false-flag event, for two reasons; firstly, overall, the attack proved that air defence is likely only located as to protect the Kremlin, as the UAVs which struck civilians areas were not intercepted. Footage posted on social media channels of damage to buildings and clearly identifiable fragments of UAVs indicate that the UAVs impacted in Moscow, likely in line with the intent, but a lack of terminal guidance for more precise targeting of military and government infrastructure led to impacts in civilian areas. This is highly likely embarrassing for the Russian MoD, as it suggests it does not have enough air defence to adequately protect both the frontline troops of the ‘Special Military Operation’ and the domestic populace concurrently. Secondly, Western journalists still working within Russia noted the change in reporting on the event from the initial hours after the attack, to later in the day. Whilst the aftermath was reported heavily after the attack took place, there was comparatively little reporting in the evening news. The Russian newspapers the next day, however, did give coverage to the attack, yet it was presented from a perspective that it will have little effect against the reserve of the Russian populace; an independent Russian news outlet published leaked guidance from the Kremlin on how to report on the attack. It is highly likely this suggests the Kremlin (and President Putin, who commented on the event to Russian state media), whilst publicly calling the event a terrorist attack, has not been exploiting it for information operations to garner support from the domestic populace. It is also highly likely that the attack was being heavily downplayed in terms of the potentially lethal effect further attacks of this nature would highly likely have. Coupled with Solovyov’s televised comments on Russian domestic ridicule of the UAVs targeting the prestigious Rublyovka district, it also likely indicates a fracture in Russian society against those who are mobilised and conscripted for the ‘Special Military Operation’, and the men of fighting age from elite families who are consistently reported to evade deployment (either entirely or only deploy to the rear of combat operations, rather than the Ukrainian frontline). Whilst it is difficult to ascertain genuine domestic support for the ‘Special Military Operation’ it is possible that the reaction from Solovyov and the outburst from Prigozhin towards the bureaucratic elite of the Kremlin, demonstrate a form of domestic schadenfreude. If so, it is highly likely an indicator that Kremlin legislation to enforce support has over-brimmed in other ways, such as the after effects of the UAV attack, given that a high percentage of RFAF casualties come from communities outside of the Muscovite Metropolis.
- There have been disagreements amongst military commentators as to the exact types of UAVs which were used in the attack, however it was possible that a variety had been used given differences in the silhouettes seen on social media footage of airbourne UAVs and the fragmented sections seen in the neighbourhood’s post-strike. Yet, it is unlikely that the UAVs were carrying a payload of explosives, given the superficial damage caused to the buildings which were targeted in the prestigious areas. An explosive-laden UAV would almost certainly cause significantly more damage, and highly likely cause casualties. It is possible that the perpetrators purposefully did not include a payload on the UAVs, in the knowledge that the UAVs were targeting residential areas. This conscious decision lends weight to the attack likely being carried out by all-Russian pro-Ukrainian actors (such as the elements seen in the two recent Belgorod incursions). Whilst the Ukrainian Government have denied any involvement in the attack, it is likely that there was some awareness, possible provision of training and lethal aid, yet purposeful disassociation with planning. So far, Ukrainian Armed Forces have not (at least overtly) conducted operations or used munitions supplied by NATO allies within Russian borders, almost certainly as part of the terms of agreement. Therefore, whilst this attack will highly likely be welcome for Ukrainian morale, it will likely be conducted with assurances that it will cause a rift in continued support to Ukraine in the wider conflict.
Wagner-owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin made his opinions known regarding the Russian bureaucratic elite. Source: @Gerashenko_en
Russian pro-Kremlin propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, showed his dismay at the subdued response by the Russian domestic populace regarding the Moscow UAV attacks. Source: @DevanaUkraine
- During the period of 25-29 May 2023, violent protests broke out in the northern provinces of Kosovo between ethnic Serbs and the NATO-led Kosovan Peacekeeping Forces (KFOR), with the most extreme clashes taking place outside of the Municipal building in the town of Zvecan. The protests were in response to ethnic Albanians being voted in as Mayors of predominantly ethnic Serb provinces. Since the initial protests, KFOR have deployed to municipal buildings to prevent violence between Kosovan Police and local population, with NATO surging another 700 personnel to KFOR. The European Union has called for protesters to stand down and for KFOR to remove personnel from municipal buildings, however the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, has deployed Serbian forces to the Serbian southern border. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated that the “situation was alarming and could spark another conflict in Europe.” As of the evening of 30 May 2023, social media channels were posting footage of pro-Russian marches in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, outside of the German Embassy.
Footage on social media channels purporting to be pro-Russia marches in Belgrade, Serbia, protesting the accused Kosovan Police and KFOR violence against ethnic Serbs. Source: @sentdefender
- For the purpose of brevity, detailed historical context regarding tensions and conflict in the Western Balkans will not be provided in this article. However, readers are invited to a previous Prevail Partners Newsroom backgrounder on Serbia, here.
- Whilst provinces affected by clashes are populated predominantly by ethnic Serbs, in recent local Mayoral elections, ethnic Serb voters boycotted the election which resulted in the current situation of ethnic Albanian Mayors taking office. Serbia, along with Russia and China do not recognise Kosovo’s independence; with Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, supporting the boycott. However, it is likely that there is some element of direction by Serbia for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo not to engage, with some regional reporting indicating that ring leaders arrested in the protests are said to be involved in criminal gangs. This is a likely indicator that the ethnic Serbs have been under pressure within their own community not to take part due to possible repercussions. As a result, ethnic Serbs do not wish to engage in the political process within Kosovo. Whilst Serbia has called for Kosovo to allow ethnic Serbs to participate in a process they agree with (demanding greater autonomy within these provinces), Serbia has seemingly offered no solution this at this time, with talks repeatedly breaking down. This is likely indicative of a purposeful sabotaging of political progress.
- It is almost certain that Russia has also supported the boycott, being a historical supporter of Serbia, and Serbia largely not applying EU sanctions against Russia as part of the Ukraine conflict. Interestingly, regional reporting has quoted Serbian officials using Russian-esque anti nazi-diatribes against Kosovan leaders and accusing the Kosovan Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, of wanting to “present himself as a little Zelensky.” Although there is a growing body of evidence to suggest Wagner are likely operating and recruiting within Serbia (for the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine), Russia unlikely has the means, currently, to support Serbia if this unrest should escalate into a conflict with NATO. The deployment of Serbian forces to the border is highly likely a means of sabre-rattling in order to force Prime Minister Kurti to remove Kosovan Police from predominantly ethnic Serbian provinces. Thus, highly likely granting the desired autonomy that ethnic Serbs desire. The likely current Russian perspective with regards to unrest in Kosovo is a welcome cause to distract NATO from assisting Ukraine. This is unlikely, given that KFOR exists specifically to protect citizens on both sides within Kosovo from unrest and conflict. The unrest does for Russia however, highly likely continue the narrative that NATO and the EU bloc are acting with impunity and drawing borders which are detrimental to relations in the Western Balkans.
Age restricted content: Footage on social media showing violent clashes between ethnic Serbs, Kosovan Police, and KFOR. Pro-Russian propagandists were quick to accuse KFOR of escalating the violence. Source: @JamesPorrazzo
This reporting period has seen an increase of kinetic activity within Russian borders and has likely caused a level of embarrassment which does not appear to have been seized upon for the Russian information narrative as some commentators would have expected. A second incursion by the RDK and LSR, which from initial reports looks to be more kinetic (no further detail known at the information cut-off) will be difficult for the Kremlin to explain, given the rhetoric of adequate defence and swift retaliation the last time. It is possible that these continued embarrassments have resulted in month of May 2023 seeing the most significant number of airstrikes by Russia against Ukraine, predominantly within Kyiv. This likely indicates some aspect of a petty tit-for-tat which are unlikely to be led by military planners. The amount of successful air strikes against targets in Kyiv would likely be better used on military targets. From this perspective, and the gradual shaping and building of pressure against Russia by Ukraine, suggest there is a somewhat well-constructed and cohered plan of a counteroffensive in place.