Operational / Strategic Military

  • An Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) outlet, Conflict Intelligence Team, has published a report purporting Russian T-55/54 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) have been brought out of storage from Primorsky Krai, in the far east of Russia. Other social media channels also shared footage of them having been loaded onto rail freight and being transported to western Russia, although there was no confirmation as to the final destination, mil-bloggers speculated they were being deployed to Ukraine.

Footage shared on social media by mil-bloggers purporting Russian T54 and T55 MBTs being transported to Ukraine. Source: @Militarylandnet

So What?

  • According to the Dutch OSINT group Oryx, the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) have lost at least; 57x T-90, 448x T-80, 1,025x T-72, 53x T-64, and 73x T-62 MBTs as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. Both the T-54 and T-55 MBTs are older than all of these and were brought into use in the post-Second World War Soviet-era. Although they are reported to be easily and cheaply repairable with a large store of spare parts, it is highly likely indicative of significant issues of reconstituting previous losses. Russia’s difficulty to conduct effective mechanised manoeuvre warfare has repeatedly made Russian MBTs targets for Ukrainian minefields, and less conventional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) bomblet attacks, as well as precision guided munitions and indirect fire attacks. Modern MBTs are equipped with Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA), however, T-54/55 MBTs lack the basic armour to withstand the munitions seen on the frontlines, as well as modern equipment to be combat effective in contact such as rangefinders, ballistic computers, modern sights, and adequate gun stabilisation systems. Additionally, the age of these MBTs will likely render them unreliable from a serviceability standpoint. It is highly likely that the use of these MBTs will increase the number of RFAF casualties, as lethal effects against them will destroy both the MBT and the crew. Although the exact numbers being transported out of storage is not known, given the Soviet tendency to produce tens of thousands, it is likely that should they be used for conventional armoured assaults, their effect will be similar to that seen with human waves; to exhaust Ukrainian defenders and their munitions. It should be noted that if the T-54/55 MBTs come into use, this would be in stark contrast to the announcement by Russian Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, who announced that Russia would produce 1,500x T-90M MBTs in 2023. It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF are aware of the limitations of T-54/55 MBTs and will instead use them in the direct fire support role for infantry. Despite its age, the tanks are still unable to be defeated by small arms and the main gun is effective at suppressing/destroying defensive positions. The lack of ballistic computers or advanced sights will however limit the utility of these systems for indirect fires and night operations.

Political

  • Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has visited Moscow during this reporting period to hold talks with President Putin, reportedly to discuss the “Ukraine Crisis” and deepen the bi-lateral ties between Russia and China. The ten agreements reportedly signed between the two Presidents are reported to include; technology and military co-operation, the sovereignty and security of the internet, and the trade of natural gas and oil. The Chinese “12 Point Peace Plan” was not discussed in depth between the two President’s, citing that Kyiv and the West were not ready to negotiate.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing of the success of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. Source: @mfa_russia

So What?

  • The Russian-state news agency, TASS, covered extensively the breadth of bi-lateral agreements initiated during President Xi’s visit. There was however no depth to the coverage to articulate how these aspects will function. It is likely that the agreements were based on areas that will cause concern to the West, notably technology and military co-operation. Co-operation such as the recently seen Naval exercise hosted by South Africa in late-February 2023 with Russia and China is not new and is part of existing relationships as part of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) partnership. The combination of technology and military is likely to suggest future intent to ensure interoperability (such as that seen amongst NATO allies), which would likely increase the West-facing threat vector of Russia and China being combined militarily. It is highly unlikely that this is being pursued with the intent of a conflict, however it likely aligns with Russian and Chinese intent to counter Western influence and NATO expansion. This is particularly notable when compared to the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to China in late-February 2023, significantly more detail had been published, and much of the agreements had been specifically on trade and industry. As has been previously assessed, Chinese assistance is highly unlikely to come for free, and therefore highly likely that any Chinese technology provided is either paid for (likely in goods) or by information collected digitally possibly via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). It is possible that as China seeks to evade sanctions from the US and EU, the provision of dual-use technologies such as UAVs, communications equipment or computers will likely have to reach back to Chinese Intelligence Services. Regardless of the method of Chinese provision, Chinese technology companies are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, and companies act and feedback as a matter of law. The information gathered from the “Ukraine Crisis” will highly likely inform Chinese military information requirements on US/NATO allies military capability ahead of possible future Chinese aggression against Taiwan, or in the South China Sea.
  • Both Russia and China operate internet and mass media censorship at State-level (Rozkomnadzor and Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), respectively). It is highly likely that the agreement regarding to sovereignty and security of the internet pertains to co-operation between these organisations. Whilst Russia is for the most part able to control conventional State media outlets such as newspapers and television channels, criticism of the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) via internet-based media such as Telegram has proved more difficult to suppress. Whilst Russia recently brought in a new law to restrict domestic criticism of its deployed forces through large fines and has previously blocked websites (over 100,000 since 24 February 2022), it is likely looking to emulate the “Great Firewall of China”. This would likely involve the ability to block links to restricted content through the highlighting of keywords, and subsequently blocking foreign machines and denying them access to domestic internet service providers. The Russian information space has been tightly controlled to ensure continued support and also compliance domestically, however like the CAC, it will also likely support pro-Russian State companies where searches via domestic online search tools can be manipulated both for messaging and commercial purposes. Foreign internet-based and technology companies will highly likely be required to adapt their products in order to conduct business, therefore controlling the Russian narrative outside of its borders.
  • Russia has highly likely had to find a new long-term customer for its hydrocarbons, notably natural gas, now that the EU is no longer a buyer. A new “Power of Siberia 2” pipeline to China via Mongolia was agreed. The pipeline is reported to deliver 50 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year as of 2030, reportedly when China will have a requirement for more natural gas. Whilst the agreement has been made, planning is still required, which Russian State-owned Gazprom initiated in 2020, and likely hastened due to the decline in European business. China has invested in infrastructure schemes globally as part of the Belt-and-Road initiative, with these schemes regularly ensuring a low price for China on the resulting products. This indicates a likely desperation on Russia’s part, as it will no longer be able to dictate prices as it once did in Europe, similarly, cutting off supplies when it needs to bring countries to heel. This project will highly likely ensure that China is invested in Russia for years to come, not only in the trade of natural gas, yet possibly also in the construction required for a new pipeline. Russia’s turning East with regards to natural gas likely allows a glimpse into its long-term trade, that Europe is no longer seen as a customer, at least whilst the conflict is ongoing. However, the conflict has also forced Europe to purposefully turn away from Russia for its natural gas supply, and it will highly likely take time post-conflict before such reliance is seen again, especially if President Putin remains in power.

What Next?

It is highly likely that Russia will continue to assert strength through the narrative of its international relationships of trade and military co-operation. However, if reports of vintage MBTs on the battlefield are proven to be true, international relationships are highly likely veiling a reality of desperation. This is likely causing Russia to make deals which will likely only exploit its natural resources at a cut-price for decades to come in return for lethal aid (be it dual-purpose or conventional munitions depending on the risk China is prepared to take). This hidden desperation highly likely makes the requirement for pervasive and authoritarian control regarding the internet and its “sovereignty” all the more important, especially when comparing the narrative of 1,500 T-90M MBTs by the end of 2023 and the stark reality (although at this time still unconfirmed) of T-54/55 MBTs coming out of storage. It is highly unlikely that international partners of Russia will be willing to provide armoured vehicles for use in Ukraine, so the trade of hydrocarbons for dual-use components may be essential to maintain the Russian upgrade/manufacture of MBTs and other ground-combat systems, as well as for precision guided munitions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R)