Russian War Report: Russia just lost the most troops in a single battle so far in 2023
In Ukriane, fighting over the strategically important town of Avdiivka has led to heavy Russian losses. In Armenia, Russian propaganda is targeting the Armenian government.
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 (EU)—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Russian forces suffer losses in attempt to break through Ukrainian line at Avdiivka
During a press briefing on October 26, John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, confirmed that, according to US reports, Russian army officers are shooting soldiers for refusing to obey orders to attack. He also confirmed high losses for the Russian troops at Avdiivka, although he added that the Russian Armed Forces retain offensive capabilities and can achieve tactical successes. Though largely in ruins because of the fighting, Avdiivka is a strategically important town, and it could open the way to the southern parts of Donetsk Oblast for Ukrainian forces.
In a Telegram post on October 28, the commander of Ukraine’s Tavria operational-strategic group, Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, said that Russian losses had increased. Also, on October 28, British intelligence said it believed the Russian command threw at least eight brigades into the assaults on Avdiivka. This resulted in the most significant losses for the Russian Armed Forces in a single battle in 2023 so far. At the same time, the Russian army launched four Iskander-K cruise missiles at Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian Air Force intercepted three of them, while the fourth missile reportedly missed its target.
On October 29, the Ukrainian army reported that the Russian army continued its offensive actions in the area around Kupiansk, Avdiivka, and Marinka and tried to regain lost positions near Andriivka and Robotyne. A resumption of Russian attacks in all regions except Lyman, where the regrouping of Russian Armed Forces units is underway, was reported by Ukraine’s army on October 28. The most intense fighting took place in the region around Avdiivka and Marinka.
In the evening of October 30, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) noted a reduction in the intensity of Russian attacks compared to the previous days. In particular, there had been no attacks in the regions of Lyman or Zaporizhzhia, though five battles took place near Avdiivka and ten near Marinka.
The AFU Air Force has reported the shooting down of all twelve Shahed drones, as well as both Kh-59 missiles fired at Ukraine on October 29–30. On October 30, the Russian army hit the Odesa region with Onyx anti-ship missiles. According to the regional administration, a ship repair plant was damaged, and two enterprise employees were wounded.
Elsewhere, the commander of Ukraine’s Eastern Group troops, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said that Russian forces had brought reinforcements to the Bakhmut region and had transitioned from defense to offense, trying to regain lost positions. In particular, Russian airborne troops and the so-called “Storm Z” units, which are made up of former prisoners recruited in lieu of imprisonment, are being actively used.
The situation is also complicated in the region of Kupiansk, where Russian units are trying to advance in several directions simultaneously. On October 30, locals reported that explosions were heard and smoke seen overhead in occupied Sevastopol after missiles flew over. The occupation authorities reported that the strikes were carried out with Storm Shadow cruise missiles. On its Telegram channel, the Strategic Communications Directorate of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief’s Office confirmed that an air defense facility of the Russian occupation forces in Crimea was hit on October 30. In the same Telegram post, the department also confirmed that, on October 25, it had destroyed an S-400 air defense missile system in occupied Luhansk, which had only been rumored up to that point.
Meanwhile, on the international engagement front, Ukrainian officials continued to engage with officials from allied countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with a bipartisan US congressional delegation on October 30, when he briefed them on the situation at the front and discussed further assistance needed for the Ukrainian armed forces. A few days earlier, on October 28, the New York Times reported that US experts had modified a Soviet-made Ukrainian Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system to fire Patriot missiles. Such “hybrid” SAMs will assist Ukraine in defending itself against Russian missile strikes.
Elsewhere, on October 26, the commander-in-chief of the AFU, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, held a meeting with Commander of NATO in Europe General Christopher Cavoli, as well as with Admiral Tony Radakin, chief of the British defense staff. Together, they discussed the situation on the front, supplies of ammunition, and air defense equipment for Ukraine. A few days later on October 30, the British defense secretary said that his government would provide more military aid to Ukraine and would not let other countries forget about the war.
Finally, Azerbaijan sent a large shipment of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including cables to repair the power grid, a critical need before winter arrives.
—Ruslan Trad, resident fellow for security research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Ramped-up Russian propaganda machine targets the Armenian government
In an October 25 interview with the Wall Street Journal, two days after signing defense cooperation agreement with France, including an unprecedented agreement on buying French weapons, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made a resounding call for diversifying Armenia’s security alliances, shaking the traditional (i.e., Russia-favored) balance of power in the region.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Pashinyan as saying the post factum realities of Nagorno-Karabakh following Azerbaijan’s seizure of the territory brought the Armenian government to a decision to diversify relationships in the security sector. Notably, Pashinyan also said he sees no benefits in maintaining Russian military bases in Armenia. Officially, there are no procedures aimed at the closure of the sizable Russian military base on the country’s border with Turkey.
As Armenia increasingly moves away from Russia due to Moscow’s continuous failures to fulfill its contractual obligations and the loss of its biggest leverage over Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia’s influence has softened significantly. This diminishing influence has prompted Kremlin propaganda to become more aggressive in its efforts to maintain its influence on Armenia.
In early October, against all of Russia’s warnings, Armenia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. These recent events, combined with the failure of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh that led to the complete depopulation of Armenians from the territory, prompted Kremlin propagandists to call more openly and intensively for the overthrow of the Armenian government.
Russian state TV channel Channel 1 dedicated an hour-long program to attacking Pashinyan, portraying him as a Western puppet and a traitor. Specifically, the October 23 broadcast of the show “Heir Tutti’s Dolls” included a segment titled “Nikol Pashinyan: a harbinger of disaster,” during which the hosts claimed that Pashinyan was mentally ill, among other things.
In the opening of the program, a reporter addressed Pashinyan’s October 17 speech before the European Parliament, in which he openly called out Russia and stated that Armenia is ready for closer ties with the EU. In the segment, the report declared “allies, partners, and his own people were thrown at the feet of the Borrels and all sorts of Ursulas,” referencing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The reporter further editorialized that, while Pashinyan “was crawling under the puppets of the Anglo-Saxons, his wife, Anna Hakobyan, was driving around Kyiv, whispering with [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken, cozying up to Zelenskyy, and, on behalf of her husband, even agreed to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine.”
The program also made unfavorable comparisons between Pashinyan, Zelenskyy, and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, portraying all of them as Western puppets. The DFRLab previously reported on Russia’s greater propaganda efforts to push conspiracy theories that the West has appointed unfit leaders to bring disastrous outcomes to these countries.
The next day, Armenia delivered a note of protest to the Russian ambassador to Armenia over the TV program. Russia responded quickly. On October 26, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned the Armenian charge d’affaires in Moscow. According to the Russian state agency RIA Novosti, MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova added that the Armenian diplomat was told about the “unacceptability” of the ongoing “unbridled anti-Russian campaign” in Armenia, including on public television and other government-controlled media and through Telegram channels. Regarding the Wall Street Journal interview, Zakharova said that Pashinyan fell for provocative questions aimed at causing maximum damage to their respective countries’ relations and added, “unfortunately, in the current Armenian realities, such incitements work.”
On October 29, Armenia Public TV aired an episode of the program “Public Discussion” titled “the falsity and manipulation about Armenia on the Russian air” that focused on discussing the “Heir Tutti’s Dolls” episode. Civil society members and Western-aligned political figures participating in the program speculated that Russia is possibly preparing a “disaster,” such as cutting the gas supply, that it would pin on the Armenian government through messaging and that perhaps worse actions beyond subversive activities (such as information operations) could be taken against Armenia, given Russia’s aggression against Georgia and Ukraine.
—Ani Mejlumyan, Research Assistant, Yerevan, Armenia