- Ahead of the widely anticipated Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) counter-offensive, OSINT imagery analysts continue to highlight the creation and bolstering of Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) defensive positions and fortifications.
OSINT imagery analysis of RFAF defensive positions in the vicinity of Sovkhoznoye, Crimea (36TWR5895990773). Source: @bradyafr
- There have been several examples in this reporting period of OSINT imagery analysis throughout Ukraine displaying the enhancement or creation of RFAF defensive positions, notably in the South. Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 has almost certainly required a defensive posture and therefore has been ongoing since then. However, the increase of such activity has been observed throughout the last several months and is a likely indicator of Russian prioritisation of the South, likely amid a fear that UAF will prioritise a counter-offensive there. Geo-located analysis of the location in Sovkhoznoye is IVO the E97 MSR running north-south onto the Crimean Peninsula from Kherson Oblast and sits within a 3km wide area of flat ground between Stare Lake to the east and the Black Sea to the west. It is likely that RFAF are defending against assessed UAF counter offensive activity at what is likely considered Key Terrain (KT) given the channelled terrain and the proximity of the Black Sea to the MSR which would likely be an avenue of approach south into the rest of the Peninsula and north-east into Kherson Oblast.
Operational / Strategic Military
- Two separate pieces of footage of reportedly Wagner Forces conducting beheadings of UAF soldiers in the vicinity of Bakhmut have circulated on both Russian and Western Social Media channels. The violence committed in the video has been widely condemned, with Ukrainian President Zelensky stating that Russian War Crimes will not go unpunished.
- The Russian State Duma approved the digitalisation of mobilisation orders into law on 11 April 2023. Prospective conscripts and reservists called for mobilisation will receive digital orders via a Russian Government website, however this is reportedly not going to be in operation before the Autumn 2023 conscription cycle. In the meantime, however, Russian anti-mobilisation social media channels have publicised paper summonses received by Russian men of fighting age to “verify the data”.
Russian anti-mobilisation Telegram channels publicising the new methods regarding digitalisation of enlistment details.Source: @mobilizationnews
- Should the footage be confirmed to be Wagner Forces, this will not have been the first incident where Wagner brutality has been circulated on social media. Wagner’s use of sledgehammers for executions of deserters was previously seen in Ukraine, yet also against a Syrian man in 2017; whereupon it is reported to have become a typical method of execution. Although RFAF War Crimes are reported regularly in the Ukrainian conflict, and should its location of Bakhmut be true, it is possible that it is symbolic of the frustration felt by Wagner forces who have been engaged in the offensive in Bakhmut for at least eight months. However, it is possible that it is also a method of instilling fear within its own and RFAF’s ranks, with the presumption that UAF soldiers would retaliate in a similar way, and therefore discouraging desertion or becoming a Prisoner of War. Yet it is also likely a method of dehumanising the ‘enemy’. The Russian narrative of ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine and pro-Russian news channel pundits using similar language to the effect of beheading are likely seeing the culmination of these views in the Russian domestic psyche.
- The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced in December 2022 the changes to the RFAF regarding modernisation and professionalisation, this included improvement of efficiencies in recruitment. RFAF recruitment is currently paper based, which likely dove the previously seen trend of fire-bombing of recruitment centres, likely attempting to destroy paperwork and disrupt the threat from mobilisation. According to the reports, the onus to acknowledge, respond, and appear when summoned will now be on the recipient, rather than the state having to ensure that mobilisation papers arrived as intended. It is also likely for this reason that men of fighting age are being required to verify their details to ensure that digitalisation captures accurate details. It is possible that through social media channels, those who are likely to be conscripted or mobilised will risk punishment of not responding to verification requests to avoid being drafted.
- Intelligence documents on social media have been circulating during this reporting period, purporting to have been leaked by an insider at the Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States (USA) Department of Defence. Images of the intelligence documents were reportedly released within a group chat on a site known as Discord, dating back to late February 2023. The documents are annotated as Top Secret and contain sensitive information relating to Ukraine.
- The United Kingdom (UK) has pledged a further $500million in guaranteed loans for Ukraine. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, announced the support on 13 April whilst attending the International Monetary Fund Spring conference in Washington DC, USA.
The Treasury of the UK has announced on 13 April the pledging of a further of $500million guarantee of loans, taking the total to $1billion for 2023. Source: @hmtreasury
- According to an article published on 13 April 2023 in The Washington Post newspaper, the documents were leaked by an individual within the Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are currently investigating the source of the leak. The Discord group chat was reported to have had a number of leaks published dating back to January 2023, however, only came into public view when they were re-posted by another user to a wider audience. The documents detail UAF weapon and artillery daily rates of fire, strategic assessments, and sensitive details on the UAF counter-offensive. Plans of a UAF counter-offensive are reported to have been changed as a result of the leak. The wide circulation of these documents has reportedly allowed for crude manipulation of the statistics by pro-Russian mil-bloggers, and the quality of the images do not allow for all detail to be visible. It is likely that images of the documents will continue to appear and disappear on social media for some time. However, regardless of their authenticity, like all intelligence, timeliness is a factor and will shortly be outdated, if not so already. The imperative for the FBI in this instance is almost certainly to find those responsible and ensure further leaks do not occur.
- According to the UK Treasury, the loan “will ensure that the country has the financing to keep the lights on, hospitals running and schools open. This, alongside UK military support, will help defeat Putin”. Taking the total UK support to Ukraine in 2023 to $1 billion, it is likely that the reference to “keeping the lights on” is related to the earlier announcement by the Ukrainian Government on the resumption of Ukrainian Energy Exports to customers in Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary. This is likely two-fold, it demonstrates to Russia that Ukraine was able to survive the winter, and that Russian air-strikes of critical national infrastructure, such as electrical substations are repaired in a timely fashion to maintain services as best as possible. Also, the loans likely enable essential items required for schools and hospitals, such as back-up generators, allowing services to withstand power-cuts. The UK Treasury also stated that the further support pledged to the UAF will assist in the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, June 2023, where the private sector is encouraged by the UK Government to invest in Ukraine’s security and economic recovery.
Although there is continued speculation regarding the commencement of a UAF counter-offensive, there is an atmosphere of anticipation which is rife within social media channels and is only continuing to build. The release of the accused Wagner beheading videos, likely months after the event took place was likely on purpose. Whilst Russia does not exclusively control social media, it can amplify messages sympathetic to its cause whether carried out on its behest or not. This can also likely be said regarding the leaking of US intelligence. It has possibly amplified messaging which embarrasses and disrupts plans which would have been months in the making. As RFAF seek to make significant changes to its functioning, at a crucial period of planning against the anticipated UAF counter-offensive, any time which can be bought through disruption is likely welcomed. Conversely, evidence of Ukraine being able to support itself and also welcoming support from its allies in order to maintain economic effectiveness is also embarrassing for the Kremlin. Ukraine’s support from allies and the seemingly stoic, unfazed attitude in the face of sensitive military and strategic information being made public, will likely continue to frustrate Russia, and likely ensure the intense information operation continues.