Operational / Strategic Military
- UK Intelligence reports that Russia is facing a severe shortage of artillery ammunition, which is hindering their ability to generate significant offensive action. The shortage has reportedly worsened to the point where rationing measures are in force in many parts of the contact line, resulting in the inability of Russian formations to break Ukrainian defences and gain any momentum. As a result, Russia has almost certainly resorted to using old stockpiles of unfit-for-use ammunition.
- Following Russia's decision to suspend its participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty, the United States (US) has notified Russia that it will cease exchanging information on its nuclear forces. In retaliation, Russia has announced its plans to conduct nuclear exercises in Omsk and Novosibirsk, involving its Yars intercontinental ballistic missile.
Russian Deputy FM Ryabkov explains Russia’s stance on New START treaty, 29 March 2023. Source @TRTWorldNow
- Due to Russia’s unsustainable expenditure of shells (reportedly upwards of 50,000 a day), Russia is likely increasing its use of a command-and-control economy, in which the government, rather than the market, determines what goods and services should be produced. This is likely placing pressure on the military-industrial complex to meet production targets. However, it is worth noting that Lithuanian military intelligence has previously stated that Russia has the resources to wage an intensive war for two years, so it remains to be seen how this ammunition shortage will impact their capabilities over the long term.
- The New START treaty is critical in limiting the deployment of strategic nuclear warheads and promoting transparency by exchanging information on each other's nuclear capabilities to avoid the risk of escalation. However, Russia's track record of withdrawing from agreements (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, Open Skies treat in 2021) and recently announced placement of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus suggests continued aggressive posturing. While the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict is assessed as highly unlikely, the presence of such weapons elevates the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation.
- During the reporting period Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Hossein Amir Abdollahian met in Tehran, Iran, for bi-lateral talks.
- A Wall Street Journal reporter and US citizen, Evan Gershkovich was reportedly arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on the morning of 30 March, whilst in the Ural region city of Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. The FSB alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on US orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.”
- On the 25 March, President Putin indicated the Russian intent to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. President Putin cited escalation of nuclear threats by the West as a reason for doing so.
- President Volodymyr Zelensky is persistently appealing to Europe to intensify and expedite its provision of armaments to Ukraine. In his recent public addresses, he emphasises the vital importance of artillery systems and ammunition in significant quantities. He clarifies that Ukraine requires artillery not to assault Russian territory but to recapture regions that Kyiv considers its own. Furthermore, President Zelensky highlights the shortage of warplanes, stating unequivocally, "Our imperative is planes, not mere dialogues or pledges, but the provision of aircraft for training and deployment by our personnel."
Iranian and Russian Foreign Ministers, Hossein Amir Abdollahian and Sergei Lavrov meet for talks in Tehran, Iran on 29 March 2023. Source: @mfa_russia
- It is likely that Lavrov’s visit to Tehran has followed on from President Lukashenko’s visit on 13 March, where eight agreements were made which included trade, mining, and transportation. Although publicly both Belarus and Iran denied discussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is likely that references were made. It should be noted that a similar format of President Lukashenko holding high-level talks and making bi-lateral agreements ahead of Russian ones occurred with China in late February 2023. Whilst publicly there are have been no forms of words which unite Russia, Belarus, China, and Iran’s collective stance on Ukraine, it is possible that President Lukashenko holds a position of diplomacy in advocating for Russia, with all countries individually expressing the intent to shift the balance of power and the effect of sanctions away from the West. Lavrov’s visit to Tehran is reportedly for a “co-operation agreement” which includes the resumption of flights between Moscow and Tehran, and to discuss Iran’s participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had been ended when ex-President Trump exited the deal. Lavrov’s advocacy for the JCPOA will likely undermine the US, and project itself as a reasonable power regarding nuclear proliferation amid Russia’s own narrative of Western nuclear escalation. It is also highly likely that Lavrov’s visit will ensure continued supply of Iranian produced ‘Shahed’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which have been used extensively throughout the invasion so far. It is also likely that Lavrov will seek to obtain other forms of lethal aid from Iran, with Russia reciprocating with nuclear assistance. Whilst this would be in opposition to the advocation of reinstating the JCPOA, it is unlikely to occur whilst the Ukraine invasion is ongoing. As such, Iran highly likely has nothing to lose in the supply of lethal aid to Russia, unlike China who must straddle both East and West. Notably, there have been no bi-lateral agreements between China and Iran outside of the Saudi agreement to resume diplomatic relations which it brokered; it is therefore possible that such talks will occur in the short term.
- Whilst there has been no further detail at this time regarding exactly when and how Gershkovich had been arrested, Yekaterinburg holds a number of manufacturing plants which support both military and civilian industries. Given the allegations made by the FSB, it is possible that Gershkovich was or had been in the vicinity of a sensitive site when arrested. On 28 March, Gershkovich published an article which had been critical of the Russian economic situation, reporting on the increase of military related production, its effects on masking wider problems with Russian output, and the exodus of young Russian men avoiding mobilisation to Ukraine. It is possible that the charges of espionage are related to Gershkovich’s activity researching this article or further articles of the Russian Defence Industrial Base. Although sites which build weapons or military hardware are sensitive for all nations, it is likely that as Russia struggles to reconstitute armoured vehicles and Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) any in-depth and accurate reporting will highly likely be regarded as a red line and have subsequently led to Gershkovich’s arrest. As a US citizen, Gershkovich’s arrest will likely be concerning to the US, it is also a likely Russian demonstration of power and authority over all media outlets working within Russia. The Wall Street Journal has vehemently denied the accusations and has demanded the immediate release of their reporter; however, he will remain in detention until his trial reportedly begins on 29 May 2023.
- The accusation of nuclear escalation by President Putin has likely followed on from previous accusations in the last reporting period regarding the alleged dangers of depleted uranium in British tank rounds being donated to Ukraine by the UK. The use of depleted uranium as tank rounds has always been well known, and not just by the UK, with them being regarded as safe by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Notably the donation of 14 Challenger 2 MBTs has been known for at least three months. It is only now that this association has been drawn and used as part of Russian information operations. It is likely that this information is being amplified by Russia to justify the extension of its axis into Belarus, who so far hasn’t been drawn into the conflict, which would in some regard push the narrative that Belarus would possibly become a Ukrainian target due to its relationship with Russia and the placement of tactical nuclear weapons. This is likely served under the guise of both Russia protecting itself and Belarus from a Western initiated nuclear war. However, in reality it is highly likely that the announcement and the depleted uranium accusations have been held in the reserve and timed at a likely crucial period in the conflict for Russia. With reports of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut culminating (although fighting still continues) and speculation on social media outlets suggesting elements of Wagner forces are being redeployed to Avdiivka. It is likely that Russian forces are moving into a defensive posture ahead of mounting expectations of a Ukrainian counter offensive. With little tactical gains being made along the Svatove-Kreminna line, the slowing of activity in Bakhmut, and Vuhledar still paused, it is likely that the timing of the tactical nuclear weapons which are highly likely always deployed regardless, this news is highly likely intended to frighten the west and to demoralise Ukrainians towards the negotiating table. It is highly unlikely they will be used, with reporting indicating that China was vehemently against it during President Xi’s visit last week, likely ceding to their use as a threatening tactic only.
- Although President Zelensky's focus on artillery systems and warplanes is understandable, it is important to recognise that modern warfare requires a multifaceted approach that extends beyond heavy weaponry. Clear ownership and responsibilities of the frontline and the areas behind are necessary to avoid friendly casualties due to a lack of boundary clarity. This requires the appointment of a designated commander for every area, with all personnel entering that area under their command. Additionally, the deployment of ‘Special Operations Forces’ needs to be reassessed as they are often being used as light infantry, wasting years of expensive training. Ukraine needs to prioritise discussions about "enablers" like drones, radios, and the internet, in addition to larger equipment. Outdated Soviet-style rules and regulations need to be modernised through policy changes, as delays in releasing equipment can result in soldiers' deaths (this is in reference to a case where foreign drones purchased by a unit were not released by the Ukrainian MOD for 4 weeks).
- Furthermore, it would be wise to consider implementing a new policy of creating mobile training teams near the front to update units out of battle with the latest lessons learned. The use of injured soldiers who can't fight is a viable option to make the most of available resources. Effective battle management requires senior commanders to delegate and listen to the concerns of junior commanders who are leading the fight, rather than imposing orders that do not fit with the battle commander's perspective. Commanders must be responsible for training their troops at all levels and for the quality of that training and anyone who lacks the knowledge and ability to train their subordinates should not be a commander.
The Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich was reportedly arrested in Russia, having been accused of espionage. Source: @WSJ
In a similar vein to the last reporting period, Russia is continuing to assert its international relevance through bi-lateral agreements with strategic partners who are willing to enable Russian goals. However, partners such as Iran are still international pariahs with limited scope to assist given its own economic issues through being heavily sanctioned by the West. Although a Chinese brokered deal for Iranian-Saudi diplomatic relations to be re-established will likely open Iran to potential trade agreements, it is unlikely that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will pursue a relationship that jeopardises an already extensive and important relationship with the US and possible future normalising of diplomatic relations with Israel. Therefore, from the perspective of China as a broker, and Russia as a supporter of Iran, it is unlikely to alter the status quo, and likely only be for the benefit of Russia not facing an embarrassing defeat in Ukraine. Russia faces and will likely continue to face shortages of munitions and slow reconstitution of armour, hence the sensitivities of it Defence Industrial Base. Whilst information on weapons and munitions are sensitive, their lack thereof is likely even more so. Russia likely needs to hold on long enough in this conflict to attrit Ukrainian forces enough to ensure favourable terms at the negotiating table; Iranian lethal aid will likely contribute to this. Conversely, President Zelensky is also highly likely aware of this, hence the reiteration of the Ukrainian requirement for artillery and military hardware. The Ukrainian support base of NATO allies, however, is more extensive than Russia’s and has already publicised the intent to increase production in essential munitions such as artillery rounds, with likely the same objective. Whilst Ukraine’s allies continue to provide support, it is unlikely that President Zelensky will stop advocating for more as speculation of a Ukrainian counter-offensive continues to build.