Operational / Strategic Military
- The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed the formal integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR/LNR) militias into the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) on 19 February. Reportedly there had been command changes due to dismissals of officers, and the overall integration had not been well received amongst militia volunteers.
Recently dismissed DNR Militia Spokesman, Eduard Basurin, speaking with Wagner owner, Prigozhin. Source @georgewbarros
- As the DNR and LNR are currently engaged in fighting for the RFAF, it is likely that formal integration will assist in deploying newly trained and mobilised conventional forces across the battlespace and ensure that all combat components are overseen and directed by the Russian MoD. It is highly likely that there has been a lack of coherent military planning, with militia elements loosely following RFAF direction, yet overall acting independently. Given that this is occurring at such a critical stage of the conflict, the Russian MoD has likely felt compelled to integrate the DNR and LNR now to assert a co-ordinated effort for the next phase of the conflict. Not only this, given the logistic issues of the wider RFAF, integration will also likely assist in RFAF management of lethal aid. Conversely, when juxtaposed with the public feuding between the Russian MoD and Wagner owner, Prigozhin, the Russian MoD is highly likely managing future rogue elements which would cause further embarrassment or counter the narrative of a single fighting force. It is also possible the Russian MoD is attempting to professionalise the RFAF, such as the introduction of grooming standards (seen in January 2023 regarding facial hair - to much ridicule on social media) to rectify the inherent lack of cohesion at a conscript level and the inability to integrate at an operational level.
- It is unlikely that forced integration, particularly in battle-hardened and experienced militias (yet not necessarily effective or well-trained either) such as the DNR and LNR will be well received. This is evidenced in the alleged dismissal of officers of the integrated DNR and LNR’s 1st and 2nd Army Corps, who publicly criticised the Russian MoD dismissal of DNR Militia Spokesman, Eduard Basurin, on 17 February – two days before the confirmed integration. Notably, Basurin later publicised a conversation with Prigozhin during which he commented on the effect command changes would have on the militias morale, and ruminated on what would happen if they refused to fight as a result of the Russian integration effort. Combined with reported issues regarding the integration and lack of experience of newly mobilised troops in conventional units, the Russian MoD is highly unlikely to be putting forward a cohesive and professional force, regardless of the scale.
- During this reporting period, President Putin gave several speeches regarding the “Special Military Operation”. Notably an address to the Russian Federal Assembly on 21 February, and Defenders of the Fatherland Day on 22 February. Both speeches alluded mostly to historical lands, Ukrainian neo-Nazism, and protection of Russian culture. However, Putin was widely criticised for the lack of detail regarding the progress or objectives of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.
- President Biden made a brief visit to Kyiv and held talks with President Zelensky on 20 February, during a visit to Poland. Biden reportedly promised another $500 million in aid, which included much-needed artillery shells for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF).
- China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, conducted a visit to Moscow during 21 and 22 February, meeting initially with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and later Putin. Putin and Yi conducted a televised meeting in which Putin stated the Russian/Chinese relationship was progressing as planned. Yi stopped short of pledging support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, referring to the situation as a “crisis”. The United States (US) Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, accused China this week of considering supplying lethal aid to Russia, which China has denied.
Televised meeting between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi and President Putin on 22 February 2023. @AZgeopolitics
- Putin has highly likely used his addresses to reinforce the RFAF commitment to the “Special Military Operation” regarding Russian culture and values to conservative Russians at home. Whilst this conflicts with the reality, the Russian State owns the narrative within its borders, albeit a loose narrative, to perpetuate the existential threat to the Russian way of life. Concurrently, by not setting out any specific objectives or timelines, Putin is unlikely to be held to account domestically. However, images posted on social media show a half empty stadium at the Defenders of the Fatherland Day celebrations, even though attendees were reportedly paid for their presence. Similarly, pro-Russian mil-bloggers openly criticised the lack of an articulated plan for Ukraine and any punishment for the lack of an organised mobilisation or the military failures by Russian Generals and their lack of any significant progress. It is highly likely though that any mention of these would be an admission of a flawed Russian MoD, instead Putin laid the blame at the West’s feet.
- It is likely that Putin’s reference to “historical lands” was also linked with the removal of legislature which regarded Moldova as its own sovereign state. This rapidly led to the Moldovan President, Maia Sandu, meeting Biden in Poland in a likely show of solidarity. From an allied NATO perspective, this is likely entirely reasonable. Moldova has been on the receiving end of Russian rockets (likely accidental through proximity, rather than targeted) and the 1500 Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria have likely made it feel vulnerable. Russia was likely responsible for the disinformation seen regarding an impending Ukrainian invasion of Transnistria. These sentiments would highly likely cause civil unrest, giving Russia a self-perceived just-cause to intervene. However, with assessments of 97% of RFAF deployed to Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that there is intent to take back “historical lands” in the medium to long term at the very least. It is more likely that conditions are being set for future activity.
- The Russian/Chinese meeting in Moscow was almost certainly timed to coincide with the 24 February anniversary of the war in Ukraine, and a counter to the US President, Joe Biden’s visit to Europe, and subsequently Kyiv. Although there had been a mention by Putin of a state level visit in the future by Chinese President, Xi Jinping, no dates have been formalised. Speculation in media outlets suggest that this is likely to occur in April or early May 2023 when Russia celebrates its World War Two victory over Germany. This is likely significant due to the neo-Nazi accusations against Ukraine and Russia’s basis for the conflict. China have supported Russia economically throughout the last year, by enabling trading of Russia’s hydrocarbons and supplying Russia with non-lethal aid. This however is nothing new; Russia and China’s economic relationship is historically hard to quantify through exchanges of goods in order to subvert sanctions. The relationship is almost certainly reciprocal and based on the weakening of Western influence; therefore, highly unlikely to be based on shared intent on the fate of Ukraine. From China’s perspective, a continued conflict in Ukraine will weaken its economic partner. If Russia fails both abroad and domestically, it could possibly mean the establishment of a pro-Western Russian state. As such, it is possible that China is intending to supply lethal aid, yet it remains to be seen if US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, releases intelligence (as has threatened to) to confirm exactly what that is. Regardless, the provision of weapons will assist Russia in prolonging the war, which will add to pressure on Ukraine defenders, and thus, its allies (who notably have already stated that support is not endless) to negotiate with Russia. This in turn is more likely to force Ukraine to renege on its conditions for negotiations, the main being the withdrawal of all Russian forces. China likely knows that having Ukraine at peace negotiations with RFAF still within its borders would be considered a success for Putin. It is highly likely that China anticipates this and has thus established itself as the diplomatic go-between with a “Peace Initiative”, reportedly to be published on 24 February (which Zelensky has already disregarded). Chinese supply of lethal aid, and the strategic risk that would entail almost certainly will not come for free. It is highly likely that this will also buy access and information into how Ukraine is supported by its allies. Information which would highly likely be required should China find itself in a similar situation with Taiwan.
Academics on social media fact-checking Russian MoD disinformation regarding Ukrainian invasion of Transnistrian territory. Source: @steffanobottoni1
- Although strategically there has been a lot of activity in the days preceding the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine of the 24 February, overall, nothing of significance has happened operationally. UAF defenders are highly likely expecting a significant increase in Russian offensive activity as of the 24 February, yet it is likely that it will not materialise. It is likely that the significance of the 24 February will allow for a large symbolic operational gesture, such as an increase to that which has been seen already; rocket attacks on Ukrainian cities or premature declarations of occupation by RFAF on contested cities such as Bakhmut. It is more likely; however, that the significance of the date has been more important for Putin domestically. Dwindling support amongst the Russian population, an inability to recruit volunteers for mobilisation into an uncoordinated RFAF, and requiring support from China does not allude to a swift victory.
LVIV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 22: A view of the graves of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the Russian-Ukrainian war at the Lychakiv Cemetery