Russian War Report: Russian army advances toward Bakhmut, but its offensive capabilities remain unclear
The Russian army advances toward Bakhmut while a large-scale russian air attack targets civilian infrastructure.
As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine—as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Russian army advances toward Bakhmut, but its offensive capabilities remain unclear
The Russian army continues to carry out operations in the Bakhmut area, with heavy fighting occurring in recent days. The battle for Bakhmut has become the face of the war’s battlefield brutality. On March 8, Chechen fighters within the Ukrainian army shared footage of the mass destruction caused by the recent offensives there.
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on March 8 that Russian forces, boosted by Wagner troops, had captured all of eastern Bakhmut. The Institute for the Study of War, however, assessed that Wagner “appears to have entered a temporary tactical pause and it remains unclear if Wagner fighters will retain their operational preponderance in future.” According to Politico.eu, Ukrainian army commanders agreed on March 6 to strengthen positions in Bakhmut. On March 7, Ukrainian forces conducted a controlled withdrawal from eastern Bakhmut. Admitting the possibility that Bakhmut could soon fall, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russian capture of Bakhmut would not “necessarily reflect any turning point of the war,” though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed concern to CNN that the fall of Bakhmut would give Russia an “open road” to capture other Ukrainian cities.
It is unclear whether Russian forces can afford an offensive to pressure the Ukrainian army west and south of Bakhmut, however. Ukraine has fortified its frontlines in recent months, creating more obstacles for Russia, which is experiencing a series of issues in its command structure due to ongoing divisions between the Russian military and Wagner leadership. Prigozhin stated that Russia used Wagner forces to bear the brunt of the fighting and bled the unit’s ranks.
The reported infighting and probable lack of sufficient forces in the Russian army to launch an offensive could explain a recent announcement posted in the popular pro-Russian Telegram channel VoenKor (“Military Correspondent”) claiming that Gazprom is creating and supporting volunteer units. Initial reports suggested that Gazprom wanted to pursue creating its own private military company. On February 6, the Kremlin authorized Gazprom to create a private security organization to protect Russia’s energy infrastructure. Competition for resources between units can be expected if Gazprom pursues the use of mercenary units on the battlefield.
Over the past week, Ukrainian security forces have carried out raids as part of an anti-infiltration and anti-espionage operation, with the focus primarily falling on the Odesa region. The Security Service of Ukraine said they had detained the former commander of one of Ukraine’s special operations teams who allegedly agreed to cooperate with Russian intelligence and convinced the authorities in Ochakiv to side with Russia. According to the Ukrainian news outlet Babel, the former commander is Eduard Shevchenko, who until 2017 led the 73rd SOF Marine Operations Center, and fought in Sloviansk and Debaltseve, but he was relieved of his command due to a PTSD diagnosis. Shevchenko did not agree with this decision and filed a lawsuit in administrative court. On September 7, 2017, the court recognized the actions of the military leadership as illegal and ordered Shevchenko to be re-examined by the commission. In 2018, the Odesa Administrative Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the Ochakiv District Court of Mykolaiv Oblast, allowing Shevchenko to continue his military service in the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Large-scale Russian air attack targets Ukrainian civilian infrastructure
In the early hours of March 9, Russia conducted coordinated large-scale airstrikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. The attack involved twenty-eight Kh-101 and Kh-555 air-surface missiles, twenty Kalibr missiles, thirteen S-300 anti-air missiles and eight Shahed UAVs. The Ukrainian Air Force posted a statement on Facebook indicating dozens of aircraft conducted the attack, including Tupolev Tu-95 and Tu-22M3, MiG-31K, and Su-35 fighters. Russia also launched at least a dozen hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, which Ukraine is unable to counter with its current air defense systems.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu stated the attack was in retaliation to the Russian Volunteer Corps’ infiltration of western Russia’s Bryansk Oblast last week, which official Russian media is calling a “terror attack.” Ukraine denied involvement in the incident.
As a consequence of the attack, the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada reported disturbances to the energy grids in the Zhytomyr, Kharkiv, and Odessa Oblasts. The nuclear power plant of Zaporizhzhia was disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid for eleven hours, according to Ukrenergo, which operates Ukraine’s electricity transmission system. Power was later restored to the plant.
A residential area was struck as a result of the attack in the Zolochiv region of Lviv Oblast, killing six people. Pro-Russian sources countered Ukrainian reports on the incident by shifting the blame to Ukrainian S-300 anti-air missiles, which they allege missed while targeting a Russian missile.
—Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Security, Brussels, Belgium
Transnistria accuses Ukraine of staging a terrorist attack
On March 9, the so-called Ministry of State Security (MGB) of Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region claimed that they had stopped a “terrorist attack” against local high-level officials purportedly planned “under the guidance of the Security Service of Ukraine.” The investigating committee of the unrecognized republic claimed that the people behind the attack had planned to target a busy street in the city center of Tiraspol. The committee released a report that said attackers “packed a car with Transnistrian license plates with explosives and other deadly materials.”
A video purportedly showing the vehicle was uploaded to the Telegram channel of Transnistrian state television. The post claimed that “eight kilograms of RDX, screws, nuts, and wire were placed in the automobile doors (to hit as many people as possible).” The same Telegram channel claimed, without evidence, that the explosives were moved from Ukraine through Moldova.
Vitali Ignatiev, the foreign minister of the breakaway region, claimed in an interview with Russia24 that the materials used in the purported incident were manufactured in Ukraine. “We are talking about materials and technical means, which indicate that they were manufactured in or were associated with Ukraine,” he stated. Ignatiev also noted that the self-proclaimed republic could appeal to the United Nations Security Council “to draw attention to this egregious situation.”
Ukrainian authorities denied the allegations. According to a statement released by the Security Service of Ukraine, they view this “exclusively as a provocation coordinated by the Kremlin.” The SBU denounced Russia for trying to “destabilize the situation in the territory that is actually occupied and under its control.”
Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Mihail Podolyak said the accusation was the “the third phase of Russia’s plan” for the region. The first part was releasing information that Ukraine would invade Transnistria, and the second part was an attempt to plan a coup in Chisinau. “Ukraine has no reason, no intention to carry out certain actions that can be qualified as a terrorist act,” he said. “We don’t need that, we have things to do on the battlefield. No act of terrorism on foreign soil will give us any advantage.”
The Reintegration Bureau of Moldova commented on Facebook, “Information regarding a possible terrorist attack in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova is currently being investigated by the appropriate national authorities. The authorities will follow up with more information.”
In response to Transnistria’s claims, Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean said, “As of now, we have no evidence,” adding, “There is no threat of escalation. The Moldovan government is preoccupied with maintaining peace and addressing the ongoing provocations.”
Last month, Russia accused Ukraine of planning an invasion of Transnistria. Both Kyiv and Chisinau rejected the accusation. In another attempt to inflame anti-Ukraine rhetoric, Moscow expressed concern about the possibility of delivering radioactive substances to Ukraine through the port of Odesa, fearing a provocation in Transnistria.
—Victoria Olari, Research Assistant, Moldova