Russian War Report: Drones target central Moscow skyscrapers
Drone strikes hit central Moscow this week killing none but damaging a skyscraper. Meanwhile, TGStat has restricted access to a Telegram channel that tracks Russian casualties.
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.
Ukraine strikes critical bridge as Wagner trains Belarusian brigades
Ukrainian armed forces announced on July 29 a successful attack on a railway bridge near Chonhar, along the M-18 Dzhankoi-Melitopol highway, which connects occupied Crimea with the occupied Kherson region. The bridge is a notable point along a critical ground line of communication for Russia.
Ukrainian officials circulated a photo purportedly documenting railway damage at one end of the bridge.
Satellite imagery before and after the attack appears to show damage in the same location.
The Ukrainian army continued to launch counteroffensive attacks in northwest and southwest Bakhmut and in the eastern and western parts of Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar announced on July 31 that Ukrainian forces took back two square kilometers of territory in the Bakhmut area over the past week, as well as twelve square kilometers in the direction of Berdyansk and Melitopol. Ukrainian troops reported forty combat engagements with Russian forces in Donetsk’s Mariinka, Pobjeda, and Staromaiorske, as well as east toward Berestove in Kharkiv and near Novoselivske in Luhansk. Ukrainian troops also claimed that they caught a Russian saboteur group attempting to enter the Chernihiv region, though this is not yet confirmed.
A drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet appears to have resulted in casualties, according to intercepted radio communications between Russian Ka-29 helicopters involved in an evacuation and coastal aviation services. The Russian defense ministry claimed to have successfully repelled three naval drones that targeted the patrol ships Sergey Kotov and Vasily Bykov. However, audio shared by the Telegram channel Babel purports that one person was killed and five injured. The DFRLab cannot independently verify the authenticity of the audio at this time.
Soldiers with Ukraine’s AREY Battalion, within the Territorial Defense Forces, spoke to CNN on August 1 about the tactical strategies Russia employs against Ukraine. They alleged that Russia often hides the bulk of its personnel in basements to avoid aerial reconnaissance. As a result, when attacking, Ukrainian forces may encounter an enemy many times larger than expected. In addition, the report claimed that Russian army commanders had adopted the Wagner tactic of taking prisoners to uncover Ukrainian firing positions.
Meanwhile, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani on July 31 in Tehran. The pair signed a memorandum of understanding and a military cooperation plan. In May, the government-affiliated Ukrainian National Resistance Center reported, citing unnamed Belarusian rebels, that Iran was considering opening a Shahed drone production plant in Belarus. This report has not been confirmed. Russia is actively using Shahed drones across Ukraine. On August 1, several groups of Shahed drones were reportedly launched from Russia’s Primorsko-Akhtarsk area toward Ukraine; around this time explosions were reported in Kherson.
Ukraine has begun producing RUBAKA kamikaze drones, which are expected to be deployed by Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence. The drones reportedly have a range of five hundred kilometers. Unlike Iran’s Shahed drones, RUBAKA drones will carry a smaller warhead and cost about $15,000 per unit. According to a report from the New York Times, Shahed drones cost about $20,000 per unit.
On August 1, Ukrainian Telegram channels claimed that five medical personnel were reportedly wounded in an attack on a Kherson hospital. In addition, one person was reportedly killed and another injured in an aerial attack on Pershotravneve, Kharkiv Oblast.
On July 30, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that Wagner soldiers conducted company-level training with multiple Belarusian mechanized brigades. The Belarusian military usually conducts such exercises with Russian trainers. This could signal a new role for Wagner; the DFRLab will continue to monitor Wagner’s buildup in Belarus.
Ukrainian Presidential Chief-of-Staff Andriy Yermak stated on July 30 that Kyiv and Washington will begin consultations on providing Ukraine with “security guarantees.” Yermak said the guarantees would remain in place until Ukraine acquires NATO membership. US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller confirmed the consultations during a press briefing on July 31. “Those talks are going to kick off this week,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian military intelligence spokesperson Andrii Cherniak alleged on July 30 that since the beginning of 2022, Russia had forcibly mobilized 55,000 to 60,000 men in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Cherniak told Radio Svoboda that Russian forces “caught people on the street…and forcibly took people away.” Cherniak’s claims have not been independently verified.
According to a Financial Times report, the United States has signed contracts with Bulgaria and South Korea to supply 155mm shells to Ukraine. The report stated that the US government has also financed additional ammunition production facilities in Texas and Canada. Bulgaria recently opened a plant to produce 155mm projectiles. Negotiations toward a similar agreement with Japan are currently under way.
—Ruslan Trad, resident fellow for security research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Wave of drone attacks target Moscow’s central business district
Drone strikes in Moscow’s central business district on July 30 and August 1 targeted buildings housing government ministries. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin addressed the July 30 attack on his Telegram channel, reporting zero casualties. According to Russian independent outlet Meduza, one of three drones was intercepted by anti-air defense systems, causing it to crash into one of the OKO towers, a complex of two eighty-four-story skyscrapers built in 2015, damaging the facade on the first and fourth floor. The neighboring fifty-story IQ-Kvartal skyscraper had damaged windows on the sixth and fifth floors. Sobyanin identified the drones as Ukrainian in his Telegram post. Short of admitting responsibility, Adviser to the Head of the Office of President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted about “[m]ore unidentified drones.”
Speaking with journalists, Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov referred to the incidents as “terrorist attacks” and “desperate attacks amid failures.” The second comment is a possible reference to the frontline situation. Telegram channel SOTA posted social media pictures that allegedly show documents found near the damaged towers. SOTA’s Telegram post alleged the documents belong to the ministries of industry and commerce, economic development, and digital development and communications; the DFRLab has not verified the authenticity of the documents at this time. Russian outlet Astra shared footage on Telegram capturing the moment of impact at the OKO Tower. Astra also reported that windows shattered on the twenty-first floor, the location of Russia’s economic development office.
On the morning of August 1, another drone strike targeted Moscow’s business district. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), one drone was allegedly “suppressed by means of electronic warfare, and having lost control, crashed on the territory of a complex of non-residential buildings in Moscow City.” The MoD also said it intercepted two drones over the Odintsovo and Naro-Fominsk districts in western Moscow Oblast.
Previously on July 24, a Russian MoD building was reportedly damaged in an earlier drone attack. The location was identified by Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev as the potential headquarters of Fancy Bear, a hacker group aligned with Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). As cited by Meduza, quoting Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta, the struck building was previously mentioned in an US indictment as the home of military unit 26165, which allegedly has ties to Fancy Bear.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium
TGStat restricts access to channel providing data on slain Russian soldiers
Telegram analysis tool TGStat has restricted access to the channel “Don’t wait for me FROM Ukraine,” also known by its handle @poisk_in_ua (“Search in Ukraine”). When searching for the channel, the TGStat platform now displays a pop-up message with a 403 access restricted error that says forbidden content was found on the channel. The channel frequently shared death announcements for Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. It also reportedly posted data containing personal information and social media pictures of the deceased.
The DFRLab recently analyzed @poisk_in_ua’s posts about Russian fatalities to glean insights into the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. The channel made nearly 20,000 posts about slain Russian soldiers, an estimate that is consistent with figures cited by other outlets, including the BBC and independent Russian media outlet Mediazona.
In a piece posted in early July 2023, Meduza indicated that it had confirmed more than 47,000 fatalities using reports of inheritance notices published since February 2022.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium