Tactical Military

  • Footage purporting to show the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) capturing a Russian TOS-1A Thermobaric Multi-Launch Rocket System (MRLS) has circulated on social media channels.
  • A UAF mil-blogger has published information on a Russian PMC operating reportedly under the control of Wagner. The “Wolves” (not to be confused with Russian motorcycle gang Night Wolves) is reported to have been mobilised by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), yet have been placed under the command of Wagner, and have been trained by them in various locations around Russia. The Russian men were reported to have had their IDs confiscated and transported to an unknown location in Luhansk Oblast, Ukraine, and forced to sign contracts. Footage has been published appealing for assistance as soldiers have claimed they have been misled.

Footage circulating online purporting the UAF capture of a Russian TOS-1A Thermobaric MLRS, however there are conflicting reports of its location. Source: @Paul_TheNewf

So What?

  • The footage does highly likely indicate a TOS-1A in the possession of the UAF, however the location of the footage is conflicting between the Bakhmut area, and the Svatove-Kreminna area. There had been both academic and mil-blogger assessments during this and previous reporting periods that the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) Airborne (VDV) forces (elements of the 76th and 98th Divisions) had been allocated a TOS-1A, who have been reportedly operating in vicinity of Kreminna, Luhansk Oblast. The use of the TOS-1A, whilst unlikely to be decisive for the RFAF, will highly likely have had a localised effect in the Serebrianka Forest area due to the complexity of fighting in woods and forests, and its presence was regularly touted by Russian state media. As such, it is likely to be an embarrassing loss of a prestige weapons system for the RFAF, and notably the VDV, to had been given elevated status since the TOS-1A re-subordination from its doctrinal Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) ORBAT. It is possible that the inconsistency in the reported location of the captured TOS-1A is due to a change in deployed position, with both sides re-positioning men and materiel from Luhansk Oblast to Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast. If the system has been moved in order to have a tactical effect, it would suggest a likelihood that the UAF possess the required rockets with which to use the TOS-1A, however this remains to be seen. The inability to geolocate the equipment is also likely to be due to UAF operational security concerns.
  • During this reporting period there has been a body of anecdotal reporting through social media describing the re-subordination of RFAF soldiers to Wolves, a likely new element of Wagner. The numbers (according to pro-Wagner Telegram channels) are reported as three Motorised Rifle Brigades (300-500 personnel). This would highly likely require an agreement between the Russian MoD and Wagner and is possibly a means of placating Wagner’s requirement to reconstitute its forces after a prolonged engagement in Bakhmut, and no longer being able to recruit convicts. The source describes the men in this instance of having been mobilised, therefore not conscripted, and are likely to have had previous military training or possibly some previous combat experience. This likely allows for Wagner to use its own forces to train newly mobilised personnel faster – assuming a basic level of knowledge – resulting in their arrival to the frontline sooner. It is likely that this agreement will have occurred in response to the recent Russian Spring conscription season, and Wagner is possibly offering a means to relieve training burdens. In return, Wagner is likely using these personnel to supplement its own forces in Bakhmut in order to expedite the offensive, likely having trained them specifically for the type of combat seen in Bakhmut. It is possible that the re-subordination of RFAF conventional forces to Wolves (Wagner), and the use of VDV to hold the northern and southern flanks of the Bakhmut encirclement indicate that the Kremlin are co-ordinating at a high-level in order to complete the offensive in Bakhmut. Given the relative quiet on fronts such as Avdiivka, when compared to previous reporting periods, it is likely that for the short term, Bakhmut is the Russian main effort.

Ukrainian mil-blogger commenting on the emergence of new element within Wagner. Source: @Tatarigami_UA

Operational / Strategic Military

  • The Russian Federation Navy (RFN) Pacific Fleet held a readiness and inspection exercise in the Sea of Okhotsk over the period of 14 – 18 April 2023. According to Russian state news outlets, 25,000 personnel took part.
  • Germany has made the first delivery to Ukraine of the United States (US) made Patriot Missile System on 19 April 2023. The US and the Netherlands are due to follow although no dates have been made public at this time. In total, Ukraine has been promised four Batteries.

The Russian state news agency, TASS, promoting the bi-lateral military co-operation between Russia and China, and President Putin praising the readiness of the Pacific Sea Fleet. Source: @tassagency_en

So What?

  • The Sea of Okhotsk lies to the east of Russia and to the north of Japan and is separated from the Pacific Sea by the Kuril Islands. It is likely that the timing of the exercise had been to coincide with the visit of the Chinese Defence Minister in order to demonstrate the RFN is still a capable and combat effective force, despite the ongoing and attritional conflict in Ukraine. It is highly likely that the “no limits” relationship between Russia and China incorporates Russian support for Chinese activity in the Pacific (and by extension the South China Sea) and continued Chinese intimidation of Taiwan. In order to reinforce this axis, it is likely that the RFN’s Pacific Fleet has been protected, not necessarily with regard to hardware, but personnel. From an information operation perspective, it is unlikely that the RFAF would re-deploy personnel away from the Pacific Fleet, as this would likely be a strong indication that the RFAF is not operationally effective within Ukraine. It would also mean it reneges on a likely commitment of solidarity to China and deterioration of security on its eastern flank. There is also a likely show of force to Japan ahead of the G7 summit to be held in late May 2023. Japan has recently and publicly declared support for Ukraine through emergency loans and the acceptance of refugees.
  • Since the start of the 2022 invasion, Russia has consistently targeted critical national infrastructure as well as civilian and military areas using Iranian Shahed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Precision Guided Missiles. The introduction of Patriot will highly likely have an effect against future Russian airstrikes, however, it is unlikely to change the course of the war. Patriot missiles are expensive and hard to resupply, and it will likely be used to compliment current Ukrainian air defence of High Value Targets. Despite Russian airstrikes, Ukraine recently announced its ability to repair and maintain enough CNI to enable exports of energy once again. It is therefore possible that once all the Patriot Missile Systems are in Ukraine, some will be used closer to the frontline to ensure air superiority in specific areas where UAF counter-offensives are taking place. Despite the capabilities of Patriot, it is still likely threatened by UAVs, and therefore it will require a Joint Force capability to manage the risk within the area it operates. The RFAF are highly likely to seek to destroy one or more of these systems as soon as they are deployed in order to boost morale and display technological and military superiority over advanced western systems. The paucity and cost of Patriot batteries is also likely to push them to a high position on the RFAF’s High Priority Target List and may impact the areas in which the UAF can deploy them.

The first delivery of Patriot Missile Systems which will be used to defend against Russian airstrikes arrived in Ukraine on 19 April 2023. Source: @POLITICOEurope

Political

  • The Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu visited Moscow during this reporting period to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. Almost concurrently, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, had received a visit from German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, in Beijing. Mr Li stated that China will not be supplying weapons to Russia and will regulate the export of dual use technologies.

The German Foreign Minister, visited Beijing to hold talks with Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, on 14 April 2023. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

So What?

  • It is likely that China had purposefully coincided these visits to demonstrate its neutrality and continue its self-assumed role as peacemaker. In early April, President of France, Emmanuel Macron, visited China which has recently led to sources leaking that France is working discreetly with China to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table, reportedly as early as Summer 2023. However, it is unlikely that any negotiating will take place until at least a Ukrainian counter-offensive has culminated. China’s continued diplomacy with Europe, is likely to nurture French perceptions of heavy US influence amongst the NATO allies. China will highly likely echo this narrative, which is largely in line with its own regarding the West. This, along with an explicit (for China) statement to not supply weapons to Russia, demonstrates that there are limits to the Russian pursuit of a “no-limits” partnership. Although it would be speculation as to whether China would have supplied weapons to Russia had it not been for the US intelligence services stating China was considering it; supply would highly likely irrevocably alter China’s relationship with the West. However, the “regulation” of dual use technologies is likely a grey area in China’s neutrality, and a reciprocal exchange for Russian co-operation in the Pacific. Although the Russian and Chinese Defence Ministers met this week, much like previous bi-lateral talks, there have been no tangible outcomes or agreements (publicly) which will change the outcome of the war in Ukraine for Russia. Therefore, it is highly likely that the meeting was for the most-part symbolic.

What Next?

As Russia continues to struggle to make tangible gains in its occupation of Ukraine, it is likely pursuing strategic strength with its international partners to ensure support with its domestic audience and maintain its place on the world stage. As seen with the Wolves, and the likely embarrassing capture of prestige hardware, discontent amongst Russian soldiers continues to permeate the narrative. Coupled with rumours gaining traction regarding a Russian retreat from parts of Kherson Oblast (possible, however it cannot be verified at this time and likely to be redeployment activity), the Russian ‘Special Military Operation’ is likely becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Although strategic relationships with countries who still have reach into the West such as China provide the global significance Russia requires for domestic messaging, it is still unlikely getting all the support it needs in order to make a decisive gain in Ukraine.