Operational / Strategic Military
- Russian air strikes throughout Ukraine during the night of 8-9 March have reportedly killed six people. The strikes targeted Ukrainian Critical National Infrastructure (CNI), and Ukraine’s Air Force reported a total of 81 missiles launched, of which 34 were intercepted by Air Defence (AD). Notably, six Kinzhal hypersonic missiles were reported to have been used. The strikes have left much of the country without power, most notably affecting a main power line near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), forcing a switch to backup generators to maintain the flow of coolant. The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) stated that these were retaliatory strikes for the “terrorist attack” in Bryansk Oblast on 2 March, where the Russian MoD stated that two were killed and a child was injured.
- Footage circulating on social media amongst mil-bloggers purported to show a Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) soldier with symptoms of exposure to chemical agents, such as foaming at the mouth and a bleeding nose. The footage had been used by Russia to make accusations that Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) were engaging in Chemical Warfare (CW) by using specially designed drones to spray chemicals causing severe sickness among its troops, including dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
Wreckage of an Iranian Shahed kamikaze drone intercepted during the air strikes of night of 8-9 March. Source: @KyivPost
- Ukrainian Officials noted that this had been the “worst” barrage of air strikes yet by Russia; it is highly likely the variety of munitions which had been used were to overwhelm and observe the effect against AD systems throughout Ukraine. Ukraine has a multitude of donated AD systems from Western allies which for the most part are untested against Russian munitions or those donated by Russian allies such as Iran. Russia reportedly has a total of 42 Kinzhal missiles which are nuclear warhead capable. Launched from MiG-31k fighter jets (or Tu-22M3 or Tu-160M) and claimed to reach speeds of up to 8000mph (Mach12). The Kinzhal has a range of 2000km and is undefeatable by Ukrainian AD. It is highly likely that their use in the barrage was to ensure that high-value targets were struck (although exact locations are unknown at this time), and to demonstrate to the Russian population that perceived Ukrainian transgressions within Russia’s borders will not go unpunished. President Putin is highly likely frustrated with the lack of territorial gains across the operational area and is likely under pressure from Russian critics to demonstrate strength and that Russia is having an effect in the conflict. Thus, highly likely justifying the use of a prestige munition such as the Kinzhal missile. It is likely to be used rarely, yet its use will likely be an indicator of Russian frustration or for messaging amongst the Russian population.
- The targeting of CNI is highly likely intended to affect Ukrainian military planning and diplomacy, through the disruption caused by diverting coordination efforts to restore power. However, it is also highly likely intended to apply pressure on the Ukrainian Government by creating discontent amongst the Ukrainian population, and to force Ukraine to negotiate from a weaker position should ceasefire talks begin in earnest. Considering the effect that the air strikes have had on the power lines which supply the ZNPP, it is possible that Russia has scored an own-goal, in that they currently occupy the ZNPP, and have previously been reported to have fortified it. Although the ZNPP is currently not in use, it still requires electricity to pump water to keep nuclear reactors cool, so the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides diesel-powered backup generators to ensure that a tragedy such as Chernobyl does not occur. Regardless, the damage likely demonstrates Russian lack of planning and the understanding of second and third order effects; further highlighting the likely desperate situation the Russian MoD finds itself in and the poor implementation of likely targeting guidelines.
- It is highly likely that the uncorroborated video of the RFAF soldier with symptoms of exposure to chemical agents is Russian propaganda aimed at discrediting Ukraine and eroding its support from the West, whilst simultaneously shifting the narrative away from Russia's own actions (including war crimes such as the execution of prisoners). The lack of corroborating evidence and the history of Russian disinformation campaigns suggest that the video should be viewed with scepticism. It is unlikely that Ukraine would engage in Chemical Warfare (CW), as this would violate international law and highly likely alienate its allies, whom it relies on for military aid. Overall, the emergence of this video highlights the importance of critically evaluating sources of information and being aware of potential disinformation campaigns.
Footage circulating on social media of purported RFAF soldiers being attacked with chemical agents by UAF. Source: @TWMCLtd
- Yevgeny Prigozhin's recent social media posts regarding a lack of artillery ammunition reveal that the competition between Russia's conventional army and Private Military Contractors (PMCs) in Bakhmut has escalated. Russian PMC Wagner, led by Prigozhin, have again accused Moscow of withholding ammunition, stymieing their efforts to gain control of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. This has led to intensified infighting between Wagner and the regular Russian army in recent weeks, with President Zelensky and his commanders agreeing to strengthen their defence of Bakhmut.
- Protests in Tbilisi, Georgia, have taken place during this reporting period. Draft legislation named the ‘Foreign Agent bill’ had been presented to Parliament on 7 March. The legislation would have required any organisation (namely media or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)) in Georgia receiving over 20% of foreign investment or funding to register as ‘Foreign Agents’ or face fines. Its basis had strong comparisons drawn with a Russian bill which had been legislated in 2012 and had been widely perceived by the pro-European Union (EU) population as a hark back to the Soviet-era. This caused fights to break out within the Georgian Parliament and led to two nights of mass protests and arrests in the capital, Tbilisi. As of the morning of 9 March, the ruling party, Georgian Dream, declared it had withdrawn the bill.
- On 9 March, the Russian news agency, TASS, reported that the Transnistrian Special Service disrupted an assassination attempt on its officials (no further details on who, when, or how), which had reportedly been organised by Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). This accusation was vehemently denied by Ukrainian officials.
The streets of Tbilisi, Georgia during the protests against the ‘Foreign Agents’ bill, brought by the Georgian Dreams ruling party, but since now withdrawn. Source: @visegrad24
- Russia's desire to capture Bakhmut has become symbolic and important to their information operations, despite being of little strategic value; leading some to suggest that the intense discourse is due to the competition between Wagner and the regular Russian army for resources and recognition. The situation has been further complicated by accusations of betrayal and the possibility of Wagner being set up as scapegoats if Russia loses the war. It is likely the ongoing friction in Bakhmut between Wagner and the regular Russian army indicates Putin's desire to maintain control over Prigozhin. Multiple sources of reporting and analysis have commented that Putin may be coming weary of Prigozhin’s attempted rise to power, therefore it’s a realistic possibility that Putin is using this as an opportunity to undermine Prigozhin, smearing his reputation and ultimately reducing his sphere of influence. Prigozhin's attack on Russia's MoD leadership has highly likely put him in a vulnerable position, as his PMC, Wagner Group, is illegal in Russia and exists at Putin's pleasure. If Prigozhin continues to lose Putin's favour, he could lose everything or be imprisoned, and his fighters likely absorbed into the regular army.
- The founder of Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch with strong ties to Putin had reportedly been the main protagonist of the ‘Foreign Agent’ bill. Media outlets reported that the bill did have strong support amongst the party; however, the President, Salome Zourabichvili (an independent candidate – not affiliated to the Georgian Dream party), stated she would veto the bill if it came across her desk. Georgia overall has leant towards the EU in recent years, looking for future ascension in the community; however, recent attempts to gain Candidate status (like Ukraine and Moldova) have been denied, with stalled political reforms cited. This likely led to the EU delegation to Georgia stating that the bill would be detrimental to Georgia’s ascension, and in turn the threat of the bill caused the mass protests witnessed over recent days.
- Although the bill has now been withdrawn, it has not been formally denounced, and protesters have not yet been released from prison. It is highly likely that protests will continue until there has been a resolution regarding these two factors. This is highly likely due to the sensitivities felt by pro-EU Georgians who believe accession to at least Candidate status will distance Georgia from its Soviet past and present ties to Russia through the Russian occupied breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Georgian ‘Foreign Agent’ bill and the Russian equivalent bill in 2012 are reportedly very similar, and given Ivanishvili’s Oligarch past and ties to Putin, it is highly likely intended as a counter to EU influence. This is highly likely in line with Putin’s addresses to the Russian nation and military over the period of the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, regarding historical borders and the protection of Russian culture. It is possible that the Georgian Dream party did not expect such a reaction from the population, and the bill was possibly submitted to placate Russia and to avoid subversive (probably Russian-organised) destabilisation protests, as seen in recent weeks in Moldova. If so, it has likely backfired and will likely be exploited by Russia to demonstrate the pervasive threat posed by the EU/Western nations so close to its borders. It is possible that this perception precedes future information operations, setting the conditions for further destabilisation in Georgia. Regardless of Georgia’s desire to align with the EU, Russian-influenced destabilisation can almost certainly prevent Georgia’s accession, thus giving Putin evidence to Russians that his foreign policy keeps the West from its borders. It is highly unlikely in the short to medium term however, that Russian forces will conduct operations or bolster forces in the Russian-occupied breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (à la 2008), given the current pressures in Ukraine.
- The reported assassination attempt of Transnistrian Officials is highly likely a disinformation operation by Russia in order to justify subversive action to destabilise the Moldovan Government. During the last reporting period, there had been protests in the capital, Chișinău, with non-Moldovan speakers being reportedly transported to cause unrest. It is highly likely that Russia intends to destabilise Moldova through the antagonization of Transnistria to bring about a change in Government more sympathetic to Russian influence. Russia highly likely does not have the capacity to engage in a conflict in Transnistria yet is highly likely relying on disinformation and civil discontent to advance its strategic goals.
Russian news channels reporting on the purportedly disrupted assassination attempt on Transnistrian officials by Ukrainian SBU. Source: @rybar_en
- It is unlikely that ‘false flag’ operations like those seen in Moldova will occur in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia in the short to medium term. However, it is possible that subversive Russian political activity will continue to occur in Georgia through the Georgian Dream party, like those seen in Moldova regarding the Transnistria dispute. Previous assessments have discussed Putin’s intent to expand the conflict outside of Ukrainian borders, yet this is highly unlikely to emulate the kinetic activity seen in Ukraine. It is possible that the timing of the Georgian ‘Foreign Agent’ bill was purposefully set to demonstrate an increase of Western influence along Russian borders. Whilst it will unlikely be Putin’s intent to look weak or overwhelmed with threats to Russian borders, it is likely that the existential threat to Russian culture previously warned by Putin is culminating. The unsettling of Russian diaspora within ‘historical border’ countries, attempted assassinations, terrorist attacks, chemical warfare, are seemingly coming to a head in the weeks post the one-year anniversary of the invasion (24 February). Russia is highly likely setting the information space amongst its population for future mobilisation in the medium term. It is also likely that as the conflict expands through subversive means outside of Russia, notably in Moldova and Georgia, it contributes to mobilisation efforts from Russian diaspora within these countries.