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Military And Security Developments
*Moldova: New language law will increase polarisation, government instability, domestic unrest. On 16 March, the Moldovan parliament approved a law referring to the national language as Romanian, as opposed to Moldovan, in all legislative texts and the constitution. The bill was proposed by pro-Western President Maia Sandu’s ruling Action and Solidarity Party and comes amid rising protests from the pro-Moscow ?or party in recent weeks and an ongoing Russian destabilisation campaign. The approval signals Chi?in?u’s efforts to align itself closer with the West and neighbouring Romania, which is both an EU and NATO member. Further Russian destabilisation efforts are likely in the coming weeks, as well as deeper polarisation in Moldovan politics and society, which is likely to manifest in an increase of anti-government demonstrations.
8Georgia: NGO report on criminal investigations against opposition deputies will fuel polarisation. On 16 March, the Georgian NGO Human Rights Centre published a report underscoring the high number of criminal cases against opposition politicians, resulting in their removal from parliament. The report states that the premature termination of parliamentary mandates endangers the functioning parliamentary oversight mechanisms, given these are most likely to be utilised by opposition deputies. The publication of the NGO report comes days after the government dropped a controversial foreign agent law that provoked intense anti-government protests. Amid the growing polarisation of Georgian politics, there is a realistic possibility that the report will legitimise the opposition’s calls for fresh elections and the pursuit of anti-government protests. Although the likelihood of a snap election is low given the government party’s parliamentary majority, the prospects for opposition-backed protests will remain high in the upcoming weeks.
*China-Russia: Friendly ties fuel scepticism over Beijing’s bid as peace mediator in Ukraine conflict. On 17 March, the Chinese foreign ministry announced that President Xi Jinping will visit Russia on 20-22 March for reasons of ‘friendship, co-operation and peace’. The visit reaffirms China’s close strategic ties with Russia and Xi’s good personal relations with President Putin. There has also been increasing contact with Kyiv in recent days, as Beijing tries to present itself as a potential mediator in the Ukraine conflict. A virtual meeting between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will reportedly soon take place, which Beijing hopes will help dampen negative perceptions of Xi’s upcoming Russia visit. However, the latest reports in Western media about Chinese firms supplying ‘dual use’ technologies and equipment to Russia, including ‘civilian assault rifles’, will undermine Beijing’s credibility as a reliable broker for any peace talks. There is also an increased risk of sanctions by the US and other Western governments targeting Chinese businesses, which will continue to fuel already elevated geopolitical tensions.
- ESCALATION: According to CNN, the US is conducting a review of its drone operations over the Black Sea and assessing the benefits of intelligence gathering against the risk of escalation with Russia. Although the US has not halted its drone operations since the forced landing of an MQ-9 Reaper on 14 March, the review underscores the extent to which Washington DC is seeking to limit the risk of escalation with Russia. Our assessment remains that an escalation between the US and Russia is highly unlikely. Meanwhile, Russian media citing Russian defence ministry sources reported on 16 March that Russian naval forces have identified the location of the wreckage of the drone. The Chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley stated on 15 March that recovering the drone would be technically ‘very difficult’.
- OFFENSIVES: Russian forces continue to expand extensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia oblast in anticipation of a potential Ukrainian counter-offensive. On 16 March, a Russian source claimed to have passed up to 50 ‘dragons teeth’ anti-tank fortifications (and trenches) along routes between Enerhodar, Melitopol and Tokmak. However, another Russian source noted widespread deficiencies in defences built across Zaporizhzhia oblast, amplifying concerns among some Russian commentators about Ukraine’s ability to conduct a successful counter-offensive towards Melitopol. In recent days, Russian sources have claimed that their forces repelled several Ukrainian probing attacks and reconnaissance missions along the lines of control near Orikhiv, Polohy and Vasylivka.
- BAKHMUT: Russian offensive operations have continued in and around Bakhmut over the past 24 hours, albeit at a slightly slower pace than in previous days. Russian sources claim that their forces have continued to advance north-west of Bakhmut following the now-confirmed capture by the Wagner Group of Zalizianske, located five miles (9km) north of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage indicates that Russian forces have likely made marginal advances around Kurdiumivka, located eight miles (13km) south-west of Bakhmut. The slower pace of operations in Bakhmut likely reflects a broader slowdown in the pace of Russia’s winter offensive this week; this slowdown has likely been driven by personnel and equipment losses, as well as artillery shortages (see MUNITIONS).
- DONETSK: Russian sources claim their forces captured the village of Krasnohorivka, located five miles (9km) north of the key Ukrainian-held city of Avdiivka. However, a former FSB and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) officer, Igor Strelkov (Girkin), contested the claim, stating his sources indicated that Krasnohorivka remains under Ukrainian control. Russian and DNR forces have made slow progress at various points around the heavily fortified Donetsk front in recent weeks and are attempting to encircle Avdiivka. However, they have failed to achieve any notable breakthrough along this front in over 12 months of fighting; as such, the city is still not at risk of encirclement.
- MUNITIONS: On 16 March a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR), Vadym Skibitskyi, reported that Russia is attempting to find suppliers of shells and weapons in Africa and Asia due to ammunition shortages. Skibitskyi claimed that in addition to ongoing co-operation with Iran, Russia has sent officials to Myanmar and other unspecified countries in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. Skibitskyi’s claims are consistent with a recent UK Defence Intelligence (DI) report stating that artillery shortages have likely deteriorated to the point that shell-rationing has been in force across multiple sections of the frontline. As we previously assessed, this artillery shortage is likely to be a key reason behind the limitations of Russia’s winter offensive.
- AID: On 16 March, Poland pledged to send four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the coming days. This would be the first known shipment of combat aircraft to Ukraine by its allies, marking a notable upgrade in Western military aid to Kyiv. Earlier on 17 March, Slovakia also pledged to supply MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, indicating that Warsaw’s decision has likely encouraged other states to send fighter jets in support of Kyiv. Notably, the US National Security Council communications co-ordinator, John Kirby, stated that Poland’s decision would not influence the US to send F-16 fighter jets. The US and other allies of Kyiv have so far been reluctant to supply Western fighter jets due to concerns over escalating tensions with Moscow; they worry that Ukrainian pilots could use the aircraft to strike targets in Russian territory. Furthermore, it would take months to train Ukrainian pilots how to operate and maintain F-16 fighter jets, raising questions over the value of F-16 deliveries given that Kyiv could launch a counter-offensive this spring.
- AID: On 16 March, Israeli media outlets reported that Israeli and Ukrainian officials have approved export licences for the possible sale of anti-drone jamming systems which would allow Ukraine to counter Iranian-made drones operated by Russia. According to the media outlets, the approval was made in mid-February as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested a review of Israel’s policy towards the war. However, as per an unnamed Ukrainian official familiar with the plan, no sales have yet been signed. Although the approval of the export licence remains to be officially confirmed by the Israeli government, such a decision would constitute a significant shift in Israel’s stance towards the war; it is the first time since Russia’s invasion that Israel has approved export licenses for defence equipment sales to Kyiv.
- GRAIN: At the time of writing, there appears to be no clear agreement on the extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative ahead of the 18 March deadline. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov reiterated on 17 March that Moscow stands by renewing the grain deal for 60 days. However, Kyiv has stated that it will stick to the 120-day extension as stipulated in the initial agreement; both Turkey and the UN have pushed for a 120-day renewal. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian General Staff reported on 16 March that Russia continues to export stolen Ukrainian grain from the occupied Berdyansk port (Zaporizhzhia oblast). Given Moscow’s reluctance to agree to the terms of the initial deal, as well as recent reports of grain looting, there is a realistic possibility that Russia will stall the renewal of the deal. A failure to broker an agreement by the deadline threatens to drive global food prices upwards, which would be most acutely felt in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. Nevertheless, pressure from some of Russia’s MEA partners will likely continue to deter Moscow from completely withdrawing from the initiative.
- MOLDOVA: Speaking during a visit to Moldova on 16 March, British Foreign Minister James Cleverly said that the best way to defend Moldova from the threat posed by Russia is to protect Ukraine. Cleverly announced GBP 10 million of British aid to support Chișinău’s economic and governance reforms, including in the energy sector. As per a statement published on the UK government’s website, the funding is intended to boost regional resilience against Russian malign interference. Cleverly’s visit comes amid an ongoing Russian destabilisation campaign and pro-Moscow protests in recent weeks. These will likely persist until Moldova’s presidential elections in 2024 (see Sibylline Situation Update Brief – 8 March 2023).
CHINA: On 17 March, China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Russia on 20-22 March. This will likely be a key indicator of Beijing’s position on the war in Ukraine. The visit reaffirms China’s close strategic ties with Russia and Xi’s good personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Beijing has tried to present itself as a potential mediator in the conflict, as seen via its contact with Kyiv in recent days. A virtual meeting between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will reportedly take place soon. Beijing almost certainly hopes the discussion will dampen the negative perception of Xi’s Russia visit. However, recent reports in Western media regarding Chinese firms supplying dual use technologies, drone parts and assault rifles to Russia will likely undermine Beijing’s credibility as a reliable broker for any peace talks. The supply of such goods is significant, as it will help to relieve pressure on Russia’s defence industry. Nevertheless, it remains our assessment that Beijing is highly unlikely to increase military support for Russia in a fashion that is either overt or impactful with regard to battlefield dynamics. The threat of Western sanctions will likely remain an effective deterrent against Chinese military aid.
- OFFENSIVES: On 15 March, Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavriisk Defence Forces, stated that the pace of Russian offensive operations had slowed considerably this week. Dmytrashkivskyi noted that Russian forces launched up to 90-100 assaults last week compared with around 20-29 daylight assaults and between two and nine night-time assaults this week. He added that personnel and equipment losses had reduced Russia’s offensive capabilities. This is in line with our assessment that Russia’s current offensive operations in the Donbas have been largely unsuccessful in recent weeks. Similarly, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) noted earlier on 16 March that Russian attacks against Vuhledar in the west of Donetsk oblast have ‘almost certainly’ slowed this week. The MoD noted that Ukraine’s use of Remote Anti-Armour Mine (RAAM) systems had inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces near Vuhledar.
- INFIGHTING: The UK MoD noted that there is a realistic possibility that the Russian MoD’s aim to capture Vuhledar is related to its desire to compete with the Wagner Group. Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has repeatedly accused the Russian MoD of holding back ammunition supplies from Wagner Group forces. On 15 March, Prigozhin accused the Russian MoD of deliberately cutting ammunition deliveries to prevent Wagner Group forces from taking Bakhmut after its previous success in capturing the town of Soledar to the north-east of Bakhmut. Although Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut have been supported by regular Russian artillery units and airborne forces, it is clear that competition between the Russian MoD and Wagner Group leadership has stifled co-ordination.
- BAKHMUT: On 15 March, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin indicated that Washington DC likely favours a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut, though he insisted that the US would support Kyiv regardless of its decision. In comments made following a virtual Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting, Austin noted that any decision by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reposition from Bakhmut ‘doesn’t mean that the war is lost… and probably will mean that he is positioning himself to maintain advantage’. Austin stressed that the US would continue to support Zelensky regardless of his battlefield decisions. However, his public suggestion that withdrawing from Bakhmut would benefit Ukrainian forces will apply further pressure on Kyiv to consider a reposition.
- BAKHMUT: Russian offensive operations have continued in and around Bakhmut over the past 24 hours. It is highly likely that Wager Group forces have captured the small village of Zaliznianske, located five miles (9km) from Bakhmut. While Prigogzhin has spun the capture of Zaliznianske (and recent progress north-west of Bakhmut) as ‘expanding the encirclement of Bakhmut’, it should be noted that such settlements are not heavily defended and are therefore easier to capture than better protected parts of the city proper. Nevertheless, geolocated footage posted on 15 March appears to show that Russian forces have advanced to the east of the AZOM complex.
- BLACK SEA: On 15 March, the head of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev stated that Russia was seeking to retrieve the wreckage of the US MQ-9 drone that was forced to land in the Black Sea on 14 March. Notably, Ukraine’s Southern Command reported earlier on 16 March that 20 Russian ships were scattered around an unspecified location in the Black Sea, likely as part of a mission to retrieve the drone. Although unconfirmed at the time of writing, it is likely that Russian forces have retrieved the drone. However, US officials have stated that sensitive software was remotely removed from the drone before it crashed in order to limit the value of the wreckage.
- OSKIL-KREMINNA: Russian offensive operations appear to have slowed considerably along the Oskil-Kreminna line over the past 24-hours. This follows a week of extremely limited tactical successes by Russian forces along the frontline and a slight uptick in small-scale Ukrainian counter-offensives.
- AID: On 15 March, the Financial Times (FT) reported that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is finalising a four-year lending programme worth USD 15.6 billion for Ukraine. According to a source cited by the FT, an announcement is likely to be made in the coming days. In a statement released on the same day, the IMF disclosed that discussions with the Ukrainian authorities had been held in Warsaw (Poland) between 8 and 15 March. The IMF’s Resident Representative to Ukraine, Vahram Stepanyan, said that the talks were productive and that progress has been made towards an agreement on a set of policies that could underpin a fund-supported programme. The prospect of the lending programme signals positive long-term financial aid to Kyiv to assist with the enduring economic impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
- AID: On 15 March, US Secretary of Defence Austin stated that nine countries have already pledged more than 150 Leopard tanks to Ukraine. According to Austin, Sweden announced that it would provide ten Leopard 2 tanks, as well as key air defence components, while Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles pledged an additional four Leopard 2 tanks. Separately, Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said on 15 March that Warsaw has received ‘clear declarations’ from several countries willing to supply MiG-29 fighter jets, though it did not specify which countries. Following a meeting with his Czech counterpart Petr Pavel on 16 March, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that Warsaw will hand over the first four MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine in the coming days.
- DOMESTIC: On 15 March, President Zelensky officially dismissed several officials including the governor of Luhansk oblast, Serhiy Haidi. Although the details are unclear, reports suggest that Haidi is being posted to Kazakhstan for a period of several months. It therefore appears unlikely that Haidi’s dismissal is linked to the recent corruption allegations that led to widespread personnel changes within Ukraine’s government.
- RUSSIA: On 16 March, local officials in Rostov-on-Don said that at least one person was killed and another two were injured in a blast and fire at a building used by the border patrol of Russia’s federal security services (FSB). Rostov’s governor, Vasily Golubev, said the blaze appeared to have been caused by an electrical short-circuit. Eyewitnesses also claim to have heard several explosions. Russian-state media RIA Novosti, quoting the emergency services, said that the fire engulfed a two-storey building used for garages and storage. While details are unclear, it is worth noting that there have been previous reports of arson attacks on Russian government buildings, including enlistment and conscription offices, since the start of the war in Ukraine.
- MOLDOVA: On 16 March, opposition demonstrators affiliated with the pro-Russian Șor party protested against the cost of living and the pro-EU government near Moldova’s parliament in the capital Chișinău. Anti-government demonstrations backed by the Șor party have gained momentum in recent weeks, undermining the country’s socio-economic and political stability amid ongoing Russian destabilisation efforts. The protests are likely to persist in the coming days and weeks (see Sibylline Situation Update Brief – 8 March 2023).
- SABOTAGE: On 15 March, Poland’s Internal Security Agency claimed that it had detained six foreign citizens working as part of a Russian spy ring who allegedly had been gathering intelligence on transfer points for weapons destined to Ukraine and planning acts of sabotage. The suspects were reportedly arrested following the discovery of hidden cameras placed on important railway routes mainly in Podkarpackie region. On 15 March, Polish President Duda met with CIA Director William Burns; Duda’s office stated that the focus of their discussions was the ‘current security situation’. The Polish authorities will likely be placed on high alert following the reported incident, especially near key railway routes and critical infrastructure which are strategically important for the transfer of Western weapons bound for Ukraine.
MOBILISATION: On 14 March, media reports emerged suggesting that Russia intends to commence a new military recruitment campaign on 1 April to enlist around 400,000 professional soldiers. In a separate report on 15 March, the Moscow Times claimed that military enlistment offices have begun issuing summons to men in Lipetsk, Penza, Sverdlovsk, Tyumen and Voronezh oblasts, as well as Krasnodar Krai. While most of the summons are allegedly to clarify data in the offices’ systems, some residents in Sverdlovsk and Tyumen have reportedly been ‘encouraged’ to attend training camps by military registration and enlistment offices. Although Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said on 14 March that a second wave of mobilisation is not currently being discussed, these reports signal that Moscow is likely seeking to replenish its forces, which have suffered heavy casualties fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. There is a realistic possibility that fears of mobilisation will prompt a fresh exodus abroad of predominantly Russian men eligible for conscription in the coming weeks.
*Russia: Reports of new military recruitment plan likely indicate further mobilisation efforts. On 14 March, media reports emerged that Russia plans to start a new military recruitment campaign on 1 April to hire 400,000 professional soldiers. In a separate report on 15 March, the Moscow Times claimed that military enlistment offices have begun issuing summons to men in Lipetsk, Penza, Sverdlovsk, Tyumen and Voronezh oblasts, as well as Krasnodar Krai. While most of the summons are allegedly to clarify data in the offices’ systems, some residents in Sverdlovsk and Tyumen oblasts have reportedly been ‘encouraged’ to attend training camps by local military registration and enlistment offices. Although Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said on 14 March that a second wave of mobilisation was not currently being discussed, the reports signal that Moscow may be seeking to replenish its forces as Russia sustains heavy casualties in eastern Ukraine. There is a realistic possibility that fears of mobilisation will prompt a fresh exodus of predominantly Russian men eligible for conscription.
- ESCALATION: On 14 March, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet collided with an uncrewed US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, forcing the drone to crash in an unspecified location in international waters near Crimea in the Black Sea. We assess that a military escalation between Russia and the US as a result of this incident is highly unlikely. For further analysis see ‘forecast’.
- OFFENSIVES: On 14 March Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny stated that the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut is of ‘paramount strategic importance’ and that it is ‘key to the stability of the defense of the entire front’. Zaluzhny’s comments are the latest indication that Kyiv will commit additional resources and troops to the increasingly attritional defence of Bakhmut, at least in the short-term. Also on 14 March, President Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief’s staff (which Zaluzhny also attended) during which all members of the staff reportedly expressed a ‘common’ position on the further defence of Bakhmut. As we have previously assessed, the strategy to hold Bakhmut raises questions around Kyiv’s ability to generate sufficient quality forces for its widely-anticipated spring counteroffensive.
- BAKHMUT: Russian offensive operations continue in and around Bakhmut, with slow and costly progress to the north-west. Over the past 24-hours Russian sources claimed that Wagner Group forces captured an industrial plant in the AZOM industrial zone in the north of the city. Like the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, the complex is highly defensible and frontal assaults to the south of the complex led by Wagner Group forces will almost certainly prove costly. Russian sources also claimed that Wagner Group forces continued to offensives to the northwest of Bakhmut, with some sources claiming that the village of Zalizianske 5 miles (9 km) northwest of Bakhmut was captured, though this remains unconfirmed.
- OSKIL-KREMINNA: On 14 March, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk Oblast, Serhiy Haidai, reported that despite significant personnel losses, Russian forces maintain the intensity of ground attacks around along the Oskil-Kreminna line. Geolocated footage posted on 14 March suggests that Russian forces made marginal advances towards Novoselivkse, approximately nine miles (14km) northwest of Svatove. The Ukrainian General Staff continues to report that Russian operations northeast of Kupiansk and around Kreminna and Svatove remain unsuccessful, indicating that Russian offensive operations have continued to yield very limited progress across the front over the past 24 hours.
- MOLDOVA: On 14 March, several international media outlets reported that they had obtained an internal strategy document from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration which sets out Moscow’s plans to destabilise Moldova. According to the source who leaked the document, it was drafted in autumn 2021 with the input of Russia’s General Staff and Moscow’s main intelligence services. The document is allegedly divided into different sections: political, military and defence, humanitarian, and economy. Reportedly, there are also specific milestones for Moscow to achieve its aims. The plan envisions the creation of ‘stable pro-Russian groups of influence’ in Chișinău’s political and economic elite by 2030. Pro-Russian protests, which are a key component in Moscow’s ongoing destabilisation efforts, have intensified in recent weeks . If authentic, the leaked document underscores Russia’s long-term ambitions to keep Moldova within its sphere of influence amid Chișinău’s attempts to align with the West.
- AID: On 14 March, Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, announced that Warsaw could transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the next four to six weeks. However, he did not clarify whether there was any international coalition that is ready to follow suit. Warsaw has previously stated that it is willing to send MiG-29 jets as part of a coalition led by the US. It therefore remains unclear whether Warsaw will deliver the jets in the absence of such a coalition. Morawiecki’s comments come after Slovakia’s Defence Minister, Jaroslav And, announced on 9 March that both Bratislava and Warsaw are ready to provide MiG-29 jets to Ukraine.
- AID: On 14 March, Politico reported that a cross-party group of eight US senators were pressing the Pentagon to send F-16 jets to Ukraine, insisting that transferring the jets could be a gamechanger on the battlefield. Kyiv’s allies have so far been reluctant to supply Ukraine with Western fighter jets due to concerns over escalating tensions with Moscow and that Ukrainian pilots could use the aircraft to strike within Russian territory. It is unlikely that the cross-party group will have significant influence on Washington’s position.
- AID: On 14 March, the Council of the European Union approved an increase in the budget of the European Peace Facility (EPF), from which military assistance to Ukraine is being financed, to EUR 7.98 bbn until 2027. In a statement, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that ensuring the financial sustainability of the EPF is vital for Brussels’ support for Ukraine, as well as other partners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The announcement comes after the EU defence ministers agreed on 8 March to supply Kyiv with EUR 1 bbn worth of ammunition from their stocks, with the immediate delivery to be reimbursed from the EPF defence fund. Separately, today, 15 March, Denmark’s government revealed that it would establish a fund worth USD 1bn for military, civilian and business aid to Kyiv this year, with the biggest proportion of funding intended to go towards military support.
- SABOTAGE: On 14 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines had been carried out on a ‘state-level’ and dismissed recent reports that an autonomous pro-Ukrainian group was behind the attacks. Putin’s comments are consistent with the Kremlin’s immediate response to the reports, namely that the finds were part of a coordinated media campaign to spread disinformation and ‘divert attention’ away from the perpetrators of the attacks. Russian media continue to focus heavily on the claim made by US investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, that the US was behind the sabotage. The Kremlin has previously accused the British Royal Navy and US intelligence of conducting the sabotage and Putin’s latest comments indicate that Moscow is doubling down on the line that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ powers were behind the incident.
- SABOTAGE: Today, 15 March, Russa’s state-controlled pipeline company, Transneft, alleged that it discovered explosive devices at the Novozykov pumping station of the Druzhba oil pipeline in the Bryansk region. According to a Transneft spokesperson, the explosives were dropped by via drone(s) and were intended to injure personnel working at the facility rather than to destroy the facility itself. The spokesperson did not explicitly blame Ukraine, though Ukrainian drones have previously targeted oil facilities within Russian territory.
ESCALATION: It is highly unlikely that the 14 March collision between a Russian Su-27 fighter jet and a US MQ-9 drone will result in a military escalation. According to the US Air Force General, James B. Hecker, the incident occurred at approximately 0700hrs (CET) when the Russian Su-27 clipped the propeller of the MQ-9 which was conducting a routine surveillance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace. The collision forced US forces to land the drone in international waters. Hecker stated that immediately prior to the collision, a pair of Su-27s had dumped fuel on the drone and conducted maneuvers in front of the drone. Washington summoned Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, who stated early today, 15 March, that Moscow views the incident as a ‘provocation’ and alleged that the MQ-9 was ‘moving towards Russian territory with transponders off’. However, it is notable that both sides have remained restrained in their rhetoric and that diplomatic channels of communication remain open. Although it remains unclear as of writing, it appears likely that the actual collision itself was likely an accident rather than deliberate given the risks such a collision would pose to a pilot. However, the incident fits a relatively longstanding pattern of dangerous manoeuvres performed by the Russian military during interactions with US and other NATO aircraft and/or naval ships in international airspace and waters. In particular, international waters and airspace over near Crimea in the Black Sea have been an enduring source of tension and will likely remain a flashpoint during the course of the war. Yesterday’s incident likely reflects a Russian attempt to ‘test’ US and NATO boundaries both in terms of response and capability. Although a repeat incident is unlikely in the very immediate term, Russian fighter jets will highly likely continue to engage in dangerous interactions with US and NATO aircraft over international airspace, sustaining the risk of an accidental confrontation.
Latest Significant Updates
Pro-Russia cyber groups sustain low-level distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks targeting of Denmark, India, Italy, Pakistan and the US; Killnet establishes operational structure and rules
- On 15 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist group Phoenix claimed to have breached the Indian Ministry of Health.
- On 14 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist group NoName05716 targeted Italian government organisations with DDoS attacks.
- On 13 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist collective Anonymous Sudan conducted a DDoS campaign against security and education organisations in Denmark.
- On 12 March, the Cyber Army of Russia targeted Pakistan with a DDoS attack, focusing on supply chain management organisations.
- On 10 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist group Usersec declared ‘war’ on the pro-Kyiv sects of Anonymous.
- On 9 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist groups ChaosSec, Mistnet and Usersec targeted US websites with DDoS attacks, focusing on New York public services and several airports.
- On 8 March, the pro-Russia hacktivist collective Killnet announced that it is developing its organisation and structure to target ‘Russophobic’ countries.
Pro-Kyiv hacking groups sustain targeting of Russian financial organisations, Russian communication broadcasting companies
- On 14 March, the pro-Kyiv hacktivist groups Mefisto, RoughSec and TeamOneFist claimed to have hacked Rosatrom and to have stolen 9 GB from its data centre.
- Between 8 and 14 March, the pro-Kyiv Italian sect of Anonymous (AnonSecIta) targeted various companies belonging to Vladimir Potanin, a Russian oligarch, with DDoS attacks. The affected companies include:
o The Russian International Olympic University
o Atomyze (a platform for digitising assets)
o Voskhod Management (a private fund promoting high-tech Russian start-ups)
o United Card Services (which facilitates credit card payment systems)
o Jump Finance (a fintech service)
o The Eco Russia International conference (which discusses nature tourism in Russia)
o Vivid Money (which provides banking and financial services through an app)
o The Rosa Khutor Ski Luxury Resort (used by Russian tycoons and Oligarchs)
- On 13 March, the pro-Kyiv IT Army of Ukraine, as well as Anonymous, RoughSec and TeamOneFist, launched DDoS attacks against the Russian bank Rosbank, the mining company HOT Mining and several Russian satellites.
- On 12 March, the IT Army of Ukraine and the hacktivist collective Anonymous targeted a Russian payment system called Moneta as part of their campaign targeting the Russian financial sector.
- On 9 March, an unknown pro-Kyiv group hacked a Russian TV network to broadcast a fake nuclear warning in Moscow, recommending that civilians head to shelters, take potassium iodide tablets and wear gas masks.
Pro-Russia cyber attacks against European and pro-Kyiv targets continued during this monitoring period. Several pro-Russia hacktivist groups focused their DDoS campaigns on Danish, Italian, Pakistani and US aviation, education, government and public service sectors. Other pro-Russia hacktivists began targeting India after the country agreed to impose sanctions against Russia. The pro-Russia hacktivist group Phoenix alleged that it is evolving its abilities by participating in cyber crime in order to sell network access and stolen data from Pakistan and Latvia.
The targeting of Pakistan has increased in recent weeks following its supply of weapons to Ukraine; this activity will likely continue in the coming weeks. The pro-Russia hacktivist group UserSec announced that it is declaring ‘war’ against Anonymous following the latter’s continuous support for Ukraine and ongoing operations against Russia. It is unclear how it will target Anonymous, especially as Anonymous is decentralised and has no clear base or leader. It is therefore possible that UserSec only made this announcement as a ‘fear’ tactic.
During this monitoring period, Killnet announced the creation of a new sub-organisation called Black Skills, which is intended to act as a cohesive collective of all 24 divisions within Killnet with synchronised rules and goals against pro-Kyiv countries, organisations and individuals. Killnet stated that Black Skills will operate as a single unit with a shared arsenal which takes requests and orders from Russia and pro-Russia entities. This evolution possibly highlights the reliance of the Kremlin on Killnet while it focuses on military developments in Ukraine. It possibly also underscores the expansion and support the group has received throughout the war from other Russian hacktivists.
Also during this monitoring period, an unknown pro-Kyiv threat actor hacked a Russian TV network to broadcast a false nuclear alert in Moscow. The alert stated that a nuclear attack was imminent and that people should head to shelters, wear gas masks and take potassium iodide tablets (which reduce the effects of radiation on the human body). The development follows the hacking of several Russian radio stations last week, in which alert systems were activated warning that missile strikes were imminent and that people should take cover. There is a realistic possibility that similar hacks against Russian warning systems will continue in the short term.
DDoS attacks by the pro-Kyiv AnonSecIta continued to take place against businesses owned by Vladimir Potanin during this monitoring period. The attacks focused on Potanin’s Russian businesses in the finance, technology and hospitality sectors. These areas are believed to contribute to the funding of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. DDoS attacks are highly likely to continue against Russian entities as the war rages on.
Cyber operations were sustained against Russian companies involved in the country’s infrastructure by Mefisto (the Polish sect of TeamOneFist) and RoughSec. During this monitoring period, these groups targeted Rosatom, a Russian state corporation specialising in nuclear energy, nuclear non-energy goods and high-tech products. They claim to have stolen 9 GB from its data centre. This follows attacks by Anonymous and GhostSec which knocked various Russian satellites out of service. Cyber activity impacting infrastructure and organisations contributing to Russia’s military operations will likely continue in the short term.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it will open two war crimes cases related to the war in Ukraine and that it will issue arrest warrants for several people involved in the invasion. This marks the first announcement related to trying Russian individuals for war crimes related to the ongoing conflict; it will likely be followed by similar announcements as the war continues. The Ukrainian government announced that it aims to introduce a law which establishes the IT Army of Ukraine as part of the country’s official armed forces. Kyiv wants to end the uncertainty surrounding the group’s status as an organisation engaged in a legally ‘grey’ area. The IT Army of Ukraine has prompted complaints from the Red Cross due to its targeting of Russian hospitals and other civilian entities. The new law also aims to build Ukraine’s cyber defence capabilities, creating a reserve of civilian cyber experts (trained by the military) who could be mobilised during times of increased cyber threat or conflict. This would allow the IT Army of Ukraine to operate with more rules and structure in terms of who it can and cannot target (and how). It would no longer fall within a legally ambiguous area and would instead operate within an international humanitarian and militarily legal framework promoted by the Red Cross to protect civilians.
*Threat of escalation between Russia-US limited following aircraft collision. In remarks published early on 15 March, Russia’s ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said that Moscow views the incident involving one of its Su-27 fighter jets and a US military drone over the Black Sea as a provocation. According to Antonov, the American drone was ‘deliberately’ and ‘provocatively’ moving towards Russian territory with its transponders turned off. Antonov’s remarks demonstrate the tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington, with the United States European Command (EUCOM) having called on the Russians following the incident on 14 March to ‘conduct themselves professionally and safely’. The incident was most likely a Russian attempt to ‘test’ US and NATO boundaries, although Russian fighter jets have repeatedly conducted similar manoeuvres in the past, including in the Black Sea. However, it is unlikely that this will lead to a notable escalation between the two sides.
- Moldova: Reports of leaked Kremlin document highlight Moscow’s long-term destabilisation efforts. On 14 March, several international media outlets reported that they had obtained an internal strategy document from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration which sets out Moscow’s plans to destabilise Moldova. According to the source who leaked the document, it was drafted in autumn 2021 with the input of Russia’s General Staff and Moscow’s main intelligence services. The document is allegedly divided into different sections: political, military and defence; humanitarian; and economy. There are also supposedly specific milestones for when Moscow would like to achieve its aims. The plan envisions the creation of ‘stable pro-Russian groups of influence’ in Chișinău’s political and economic elite by 2030. Pro-Russian protests have intensified in recent weeks, which are a key component in Moscow’s ongoing destabilisation efforts. The leaked document, if authentic, illustrates Russia’s long-term ambitions to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence as Chișinău attempts to align with the West.
*Uzbekistan: Constitutional amendments on Karakalpakstan autonomy will mitigate potential for domestic unrest. On 15 March, a draft constitution that will be submitted to a referendum on 30 April was officially published. The new draft will amend up to 65% of the current constitution and will include a clause on the extension of the presidential mandates, allowing President Shavat Mirziyoyev to run for a third presidential term and extending the length of the presidential mandate from five to seven years. Furthermore, the draft will preserve the autonomy of the Karakalpakstan republic by including a provision allowing the autonomous republic to conduct a referendum on its independence. In June 2022, an initial draft deprived Karakalpakstan of a possible referendum on independence and consequently triggered mass protests. Therefore, the new constitutional draft will likely mitigate the risk of large-scale protests against the strengthening of Mirziyoyev’s power, though moderate levels of unrest are still possible during the referendum.
- OFFENSIVES: On 14 March, UK Defence Intelligence (DI) reported that Russian artillery shortages have likely deteriorated to the point that ‘punitive shell-rationing’ has been in force across multiple sections of the front line. This is likely a key reason why Russia’s winter offensive has achieved such limited results. DI also noted that Moscow is applying the principles of a command economy over the country’s defence sector given severe vulnerabilities in the defence manufacturing sector’s capabilities to meet the requirements of the increasingly attritional war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian General Staff reported this morning (14 March) that Ukrainian forces have repelled over 100 Russian assaults over the last 24 hours, indicating that a high tempo of offensive operations continues despite the ammunition restrictions.
- OFFENSIVES: Artillery shortages and high casualty rates are not just a Russian concern, with reports from the frontline indicating that the deteriorating condition of Ukrainian forces will likely undermine the potential for a major counter-offensive later this year. On 13 March, The Washington Post cited numerous unnamed Ukrainian military personnel serving at the front as stating that an influx of inexperienced conscripts to plug the growing gaps in the frontline has fundamentally changed the makeup of the Ukrainian military. The loss of large portions of Ukraine’s experienced troops is limiting Kyiv’s capabilities, which growing shortages of basic munitions are exacerbating. As such, there is growing pessimism that Ukraine has, to an extent, already exhausted its offensive potential and that any spring counter-offensive risks failure due to reliance upon inexperienced and poorly resourced troops.
- OFFENSIVES: While such issues will lower the likelihood of a war-ending counter-offensive in 2023, Ukraine nevertheless continues to train and hold back reserves away from the frontline, which will form a large part of a future counter-offensive. Western weapons systems including infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks will furthermore provide additional offensive capability, and it is clear that Russian commentators remain extremely concerned about a potential Ukrainian counter-offensive along the Zaporizhzhia line. However, Kyiv’s decision to commit additional reinforcements to the increasingly attritional fighting around Bakhmut means it is unclear to what extent reserves for such counter-offensive operations have already been committed. As such, the attritional nature of the battle for Bakhmut may yet have major strategic ramifications for both sides, even though the town itself has limited operational significance.
- BAKHMUT: Russian offensive operations continue in and around Bakhmut, making slow but steady progress, particularly to the north-west. While conflicting reports make confirmation difficult, Russian forces are likely continuing to focus on operations along the M-03 (E-40) highway to the north-west of the town, with fighting likely ongoing in the village of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, around seven miles (12km) to the north-west of Bakhmut. Further south, numerous Russian sources on 13 March continued to report on Ukrainian build-ups and counter-attacks in this direction, south of Chasiv Yar, five miles (8km) west of Bakhmut. This build up is unconfirmed, but geolocated footage indicates that Russian forces have advanced to the T-0504 highway in the southern part of the town. While the Ukrainian line is holding along the western stretches of the road, this advance will place additional pressure on the two remaining roads supplying the town.
- DONETSK: Various Russian sources have claimed their forces have made advances around Krasnohorivka, 11 miles (18km) west of Donetsk, and are clearing Kamianka as of 13 March, eight miles (13km) north of Donetsk city. While Russian sources have claimed this indicates that Russian forces are close to encircling the key city of Avdiivka, this is likely inaccurate, and other prominent Russian milbloggers have denied that the city is near encirclement. Nevertheless, Russian forces have been making slow gains at various points of the heavily fortified Donetsk front in recent weeks, and while Russia has failed to achieve any breakthrough on this front in over 12 months of heavy attritional fighting, all indicators point to Moscow continuing to prioritise attacking Ukraine where they are strongest, including along the fortified Donetsk front.
- OSKIL-KREMINNA: On 13 March, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk Oblast, Serhiy Haidai, reported that Russian forces continue prioritising operations around Kreminna and Bilohorivka, seven miles (12 km) south of Kreminna, with mentions of Russian T-72 tanks operating in the area. The Ukrainian General staff reported that Russian ground attacks remained unsuccessful on 12 and 13 March around Kreminna, as well as northeast of Kupiansk, reflecting the continued inability of Russian forces to generate any offensive momentum amidst worsening artillery rationing.
- SOUTHERN: On 13 March, Ukrainian Southern Operational Command spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk claimed that Ukrainian strikes aim to dislodge Russian artillery positions from the Kinburn spit. Although Russia can replace equipment, Humenyuk noted that Ukrainian strikes have reduced the Russian artillery fire rate from the Kinburn spit, though a full Russian withdrawal from the strategic peninsula remains unlikely at this time. Humenyuk also claimed that Ukrainian forces aim to drive Russian forces 20km away from the Dnipro River Bank to reduce the exposure of settlements on the right bank, including Kherson city, to Russian shelling.
- ECONOMY: On 13 March, Ukraine’s State Statistics Service revealed that the country’s GDP fell by 31.4% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2022, in comparison to a 30.8% drop in the third quarter. On the same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that an additional USD 13.5 bbn will be spent on boosting Kyiv’s military spending, including on salaries and drones. Ukraine’s Economy Ministry revised its forecast for 2023 on 6 March to indicate that GDP will grow by 1% as opposed to a previous projection of 3.2% growth based on an assessment that the war will continue beyond the middle of the year. Deputy Minister of Economy Oleksiy Sobolev said that inflation is gradually declining, which provided a modestly positive outlook for Kyiv. The recent statistics demonstrate the enduring impacts of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Ukraine’s economy, which will likely continue over the long term.
- SANCTIONS: On 13 March, Serbia’s Economy Minister Rade Basta stated that he supports the imposition of sanctions against Russia and urged the government to adopt a unified position on the matter. Basta’s comments come days after President Aleksandr Vucic stated that he could not ‘swear’ that Belgrade would not impose sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine. Serbia has so far refused to impose sanctions on Russia but is coming under growing pressure from the West to do so. In particular, the government’s EU accession bid has been further hampered by its refusal to join EU sanctions. Although Belgrade is increasingly willing to criticise Moscow, including over alleged Wagner Group recruitment in Serbia, it remains unlikely that it would fully adopt EU sanctions due to close business and cultural ties with Moscow. If the government nevertheless does adopt sanctions, this would elevate civil unrest risks due to widespread pro-Russian views among the population.
- WAR CRIMES: The International Criminal Court (ICC) has iseud a warant for the arraest of Valdimir Puitin (March 17) and is reportedly planning to open two war crimes cases related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seek arrest warrants for several people. A source told Reuters on 13 March that the ICC is expected to seek the arrest of Russian officials for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine and targeting civilian infrastructure. On 14 March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. Russia withdrew from the ICC treaty under a directive signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2016. While the reported opening of the cases is symbolically significant, Moscow will inevitably reject any arrest warrants against any of its officials, meaning that they will not face trial.
- CHINA: On 13 March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to speak with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The meeting will reportedly take place virtually after Xi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is reported to be as soon as next week. A direct conversation between Xi and Zelensky would be a significant step in Beijing’s attempts to act as a peacemaker in the conflict. The US and its allies in Europe have previously cast doubt on China’s 12-point position paper on the war, which was released to mark the anniversary of the invasion (see Sibylline Daily Ukraine Update – 24 February 2023). On 13 March, a senior unnamed US State Department official said that Beijing and Moscow have aligned on propaganda and disinformation relating to the war in Ukraine. This together with unconfirmed intelligence suggesting Beijing is preparing to supply lethal aid to Russia will undermine China’s nominal neutrality in the conflict.
- US: On 14 March, Governor of Florida and US Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis stated that becoming entangled in a ‘territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia’ is not a ‘vital national interest’ for the US. DeSantis furthermore stated that peace should be the objective in Ukraine and that the US should not provide assistance that would require the deployment of US forces or enable Ukrainian forces to conduct offensive operations outside its territory – this largely aligns with current US policy. He nevertheless ruled out transfers of F-16 jets and long-range missiles and raised concerns that the US’ critical ‘weapons arsenals’ are ‘rapidly being depleted’.
- US: DeSantis’ intervention places him closer to rival Donald Trump’s stance on Ukraine, meaning both leading Republican presidential hopefuls for the 2024 election now remain critical of an open-ended US commitment to supporting Ukraine. If the war protracts into an attritional conflict over many years, a Republican victory in the 2024 election could seriously threaten the level of US military support for Ukraine. This outcome likely features prominently in the Kremlin’s strategy, which considers time to be on its side.
GRAIN: On 14 March, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) has been extended for 60 days. However, an unnamed senior Ukrainian government official told Reuters that Kyiv will stick to the terms of a 120-day extension as the original agreement stipulated. Turkey has said that talks on its extension are still underway, clearly indicating that despite Russian claims the issue has not been resolved. On 13 March, Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov noted that Moscow’s position to extend the deal for just 60 days contradicts the agreement signed by Turkey and the UN. As Moscow has previously voiced grievances over elements of the initiative, it is possible that Russia proposed a shorter extension to push for concessions as a delaying tactic, or to set the grounds for backing out of the deal under the justification that Kyiv, not Moscow, refused to extend the deal. Our previous assessment was that Moscow would likely stall the renewal ahead of the 18 March deadline, which would threaten to drive up global food prices if no agreement was brokered. For further analysis on other risks relating to Russian delays or withdrawal from the BSGI.
- BAKHMUT: The situation in Bakhmut remains ‘difficult’ for Ukrainian forces amid continued Russian assaults, with limited progress being made towards the town centre over the weekend of 11-12 March. Russian sources claim that Wagner Group forces have crossed the Bakhmutka River which bisects the town, and that they are moving westwards towards the town centre (though this remains unconfirmed). The latest geolocated footage indicates that Wagner forces are situated less than one mile (1.6km) from the central administrative building, but that they are facing robust resistance. It remains likely that Wagner Group forces are currently assaulting the AZOM industrial zone in the north of the city. However, like the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol or the Azot industrial plant in Severodonetsk, the region remains highly defensible and will likely prove costly to take in direct frontal assaults.
- BAKHMUT: Russian forces are also continuing to make steady progress to the north-west of Bakhmut. While Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s leader, denied reports this weekend that Russia is in control of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, around seven miles (12km) to the north-west of Bakhmut, Russian forces have clearly pushed north-west along the M-03 (E-40) highway leading to Sloviansk.
- BAKHMUT: Politico reported on 12 March that differences over the war are growing between Ukraine and the US, including over Ukraine’s decision to continue defending Bakhmut despite the increasing costs. Citing unnamed US officials, numerous fresh points of tension are allegedly prompting disagreements, including the Nord Stream sabotage, Kyiv’s determination to retake Crimea and Zelensky’s decision to defend rather than withdraw from Bakhmut. The Biden administration will highly likely continue with its high levels of military, financial and political support for Ukraine, irrespective of these disagreements. However, the worsening attrition ratio between losses inflicted on Russian forces and losses sustained by Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut is a key area of divergence.
- OSKIL-KREMINNA: The Ukrainian General Staff reported on 11 March that Russian forces conducted unsuccessful attacks near Kupiansk. The General Staff also claimed that Russian forces are maintaining a significant military presence in the Kupiansk and Lyman directions to prevent Ukrainian forces from transferring personnel to other fronts. On 11 March, a Ukrainian media source claimed that Ukrainian forces made progress on an unspecified date around nine miles (14km) northwest of Svatove, though these advances remain unconfirmed.
- SOUTHERN: On 10 March, Ukrainian Southern Operational Command spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk claimed that Ukrainian forces destroyed seven Russian naval vessels trying to reach islands in the Dnipro River delta. This points to increasing Russian reconnaissance activity in the area. Humenyuk stated that controlling the islands is not a priority for Ukraine as these positions remain vulnerable to Russian attacks.
- STRIKES: Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Belgorod oblast (Russia), reported that four Ukrainian missiles were shot down over Belgorod and its administrative centre earlier on 13 March. Although the Ukrainian authorities never claim responsibility for strikes on Russian territory, this alleged attack follows a similar strike on Belgorod oblast on 6 March. This trend points to an increasing Ukrainian willingness to strike Russian soil.
- WAGNER GROUP: On 11 March, Prigozhin stated that his organisation will transform itself into an ‘ideological army’ if Bakhmut is captured. The Wagner Group is already ramping up recruitment efforts across Russian cities following the apparent end of the group’s ability to recruit en masse from Russian prisons earlier this year. New youth centres and recruitment facilities in schools clearly reflect the key demographic being targeted for recruitment. Wagner Group forces have suffered extremely high casualties in the attritional frontal assaults around Bakhmut in recent months. Given the ongoing and seemingly successful campaign by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) to centralise authority and curb the Wagner Group’s influence, it remains to be seen how the PMC will evolve if Bakhmut does fall. It is clear that Prigozhin intends to transform the group into an ultranationalist paramilitary formation. However, if taking Bakhmut proves to be a pyrrhic victory and a significant Russian offensive capability is not regenerated, the influence of the Wagner Group will likely be severely undermined given growing MoD resistance.
- INFIGHTING: Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova acknowledged publicly on 11 March that infighting between Kremlin ‘elites’ is preventing the centralisation and control of the domestic information space in Russia. Zakharova spoke at a forum titled ‘practical and technological aspects of information and cognitive warfare in modern realities’. This marked the first time a senior Russian official has publicly acknowledged infighting within the Kremlin. Although Zakharova has since claimed her comments were misrepresented, the development likely reflects widely differing opinions regarding the war effort among various factions, as well as President Vladimir Putin’s limited ability (or willingness) to control or dictate the narrative at this stage. Putin has always delegated and promoted autonomous decision-making across various sectors of the Russian state. However, his seeming reticence or inability to rein in dissenting voices and to control the information space likely reflects the deep-rooted factionalism within Russia’s government.
- AID: On 12 March, Swiss President Alain Berset doubled down on his support for Bern’s ban on providing Ukraine with Swiss-made weapons. Berset defended Switzerland’s neutral stance, stating that it does not equate to indifference and that adjustments can be made, referencing sanctions which Switzerland has placed on Russia. Berset’s comments come after reports on 11 March that Switzerland is decommissioning outdated Rapier surface-to-air missiles, which could have been exported to Kyiv. Switzerland has received requests from Denmark, Germany and Spain to re-export Swiss-made weaponry to Ukraine, including ammunition for the German-made Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. However, these requests have been rejected under the War Materiel Act. While Bern has followed the EU on imposing restrictive measures against Moscow, its ban on transferring Swiss-made arms to Ukraine will likely create deeper policy disagreements across Europe in the coming months. The issue is also likely to become increasingly divisive domestically. • BELARUS: On 12 March, the Commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces Serhiy Naiev stated that Belarusian training grounds are possibly ready to host additional Russian forces. According to Naiev, Belarusian camps at four training grounds intended to host additional forces are empty. Naiev asserted that the likelihood of Russian troops launching a ground offensive from Belarusian territory against Ukraine is currently low, which aligns with our assessment given Russia’s and Belarus’ limited offensive capabilities. Naiev’s remarks come after Ukrainian military intelligence warned on 9 March that Russian forces are possibly preparing a ‘large-scale provocation’ on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border (see Sibylline Daily Ukraine Update – 10 March 2023). Nevertheless, border provocations, cross-border artillery fire, incidents involving drones or false-flag raids remain possible going forward, though they are unlikely to trigger Minsk’s entry into the war.
- EU: On 13 March, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna stated that the first informal assessment regarding Kyiv’s compliance with fulfilling the EU’s candidate criteria will be presented in May. Stefanishyna also claimed that Ukraine will have completed almost all of the criteria by this point. However, she noted that tasks relating to implementing the law on national minorities will still need to be completed. The ethnic minorities bill, which was passed on 13 December 2022, has been criticised by the Romanian authorities and Ukraine’s Romanian community for allegedly failing to ensure the use of Romanian as a language of education. Stefanishyna’s assessment indicates that Kyiv is making headway on its formal goals of EU accession, though this will remain a remote prospect for the foreseeable future.
- CHINA: On 13 March, insiders informed Reuters that Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to travel to Russia to meet with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as early as next week. However, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that he could not comment on any such visit and that related information will be announced when the two parties are ready. A visit would take place amid Western concerns that Beijing will possibly supply Moscow with lethal aid to employ in Ukraine, a claim that has been rejected by China. On 24 February, Beijing outlined its position on the war in a 12-point plan which was dismissed by the US and EU as being one-sided and in Russia’s favour. Any trip by Xi to Russia will exacerbate suspicions among the US and its allies about Beijing’s proclaimed neutrality in the war.
- SANCTIONS: On 10 March, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU and the US are deepening efforts to prevent the circumvention and evasion of sanctions against Russia. Specifically, the EU wants to ramp up pressure on third-party countries – in particular Turkey and the UAE, as well as Central Asian and Eastern European countries – which have experienced an increase in imports of advanced technologies from the EU in tandem with a surge in shipments to Russia. There are widespread indications that Russia is using Western produced advanced technologies, such as semiconductors and integrated circuits, in its war against Ukraine, despite the current sanctions on these goods. Ultimately, the EU’s efforts to ramp up sanction enforcement will increase the risk of secondary sanctions against individuals and companies which are facilitating (either deliberately or inadvertently) the circumvention of sanctions.
- NEGOTIATIONS: Earlier on 13 March, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that the goals of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine can ‘be achieved only by military means’. This ultimately aligns with our assessment that Russia has no intention of entering into negotiations for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin is committed to an attritional war to achieve its objectives; it is unlikely to entertain the possibility of even a temporary ceasefire.
MOLDOVA: On 12 March, the Moldovan police reported that they had foiled a pro-Russia plot to cause unrest during an anti-government protest in the capital Chișinău. The head of Moldova’s police stated that an undercover agent had infiltrated groups of ‘diversionists,’ among whom were several Russian citizens. They were allegedly promised USD 10,000 to create mass disorder during the rally. The police stated that four bomb threats were identified on 12 March, including one at Chișinău International Airport (KIV), though this was later assessed to be a fake.
Anti-government rallies are a key element of Russia’s ongoing destabilisation campaign to undermine Moldova’s pro-Western government. They will likely continue in the coming months, increasing the risk of an attempted overthrow of the government. However, an overt military coup or invasion remains unlikely in the short term. The reported bomb scares align with our assessment that Moscow will continue using hybrid tactics to put pressure on Chișinău’s decision making as it continues to align with the West.
*Moldova: Pro-Russian protests and bomb scares likely to continue amid Moscow’s destabilisation campaign. On 12 March, Moldovan police reported that they had foiled a pro-Russian plot to cause unrest during an anti-government protest in the capital Chișinău. The head of Moldova’s police stated that an undercover agent had infiltrated groups of ‘diversionists,’ among whom there were some Russian citizens, who were allegedly promised USD 10,000 to create mass disorder during the rally. On 12 March, Moldovan police said four bomb threats had been identified, including one at Chișinău’s Int. Airport, which was found to be a fake alert following checks. These form a key element of Russia’s ongoing destabilisation efforts to undermine the pro-Western government and are likely to continue in the coming months, increasing the risk of an attempt to overthrow the government. The reported bomb scares align with our assessment that Moscow will continue using such tactics to put pressure on Chișinău’s decision-making as it continues to align with the West.
*Regional: Growing scrutiny of Russian sanctions evasion will increase the risk of secondary sanctions. On 10 March, after a meeting with President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU and the US are deepening efforts to prevent the circumvention and evasion of sanctions against Russia. Specifically, the EU seeks to step up pressure on third countries – in particular Turkey, UAE, Central Asian and Eastern European countries – that have seen an increase in imports from the EU of advanced technologies in parallel with a surge in shipments to Russia. There are indications that Russia is using Western-produced products, such as semiconductors and integrated circuits, in its war against Ukraine, despite current sanctions on these goods. Ultimately, the EU’s efforts to ramp up sanction enforcement will increase the risk of secondary sanctions against individuals and companies that are facilitating the circumvention of sanctions, even inadvertently given failures to conduct effective due diligence across their supply chains. (Source: Sibylline)
17 Mar 23. Slovakia has said it will join Poland in sending its Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, widening the west’s military contributions aimed at bolstering the country’s air defences against a barrage of Russian missile attacks. Prime Minister Eduard Heger said in a tweet on Friday that his country would send 13 MiG-29s to Ukraine, following Warsaw’s announcement that it would dispatch at least four of its own aircraft. The planes will be of use as additional aircraft and spare parts for Ukraine’s existing MiG fleet, but they fall short of Kyiv’s demand for western fighter jets such as the US-made F-16s. Before this week’s announcements, both Warsaw and Bratislava had said that the delivery of MiG-29 jets could only be made as part of a “coalition” of western countries, and backed up by pledges from other Nato states to replace those jets with western aircraft. Washington welcomed both Poland and Slovakia’s announcements, but the White House said it had not changed its mind on whether to send F-16s. The Biden administration has argued that sending them would be too costly and that they would take too long to reach the battlefield. “It doesn’t have any impact or effect on our own sovereign decision making when it comes to F-16s,” Kirby said Friday. Ukrainian forces know how to use the MiG-29s already, he said, and the US expects they “would be additive to the fighter aircraft capabilities that the Ukrainian air force has at their disposal.” Polish officials hope that their announcement and that of Slovakia will be a “mid-step” towards convincing Washington and other countries with more advanced fighter jets to change their minds. Several European countries have F-16s, but sending those to Ukraine would also require US approval. A Polish official said that while there was no explicit promise from Washington for new aircraft to replace the MiGs to be sent to Ukraine, Poland expected Washington would look more favourably upon its longer-term request for new US-made jets. The official added that if deployed to Ukraine, F-16s could play an important role in defending the country, given that its current air defences struggle to shoot down all incoming Russian missiles. Responding to the Polish and Slovak announcements, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that they illustrated an increased “direct involvement” of western countries in the war. He played down the impact of the additional MiGs supplied to Ukraine, saying they “could not affect the outcome” of the conflict. Recommended News in-depthWar in Ukraine Military briefing: does Ukraine need western fighter jets? “Of course, during the course of the ‘special military operation’, all this equipment will be subject to destruction,” Peskov added. “One has the feeling that these countries are engaged in the disposal of old and unnecessary equipment.” Slovakia had also reached an agreement with the US on deliveries of military material worth about $700mn, the government said. Arms deliveries to Ukraine are being reimbursed by the EU — in Slovakia’s case, up to €200mn. The Slovak MiG decision comes at a tense time in domestic politics and was met with strong opposition within the Slovak parliament. Heger is leading a caretaker administration after his government lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in December. The country will hold snap parliamentary elections in September. Heger’s decision was eased by the fact that Poland made the first move, but was risky since Heger bypassed parliament, providing “perfect ammunition for part of the radical opposition in Slovakia to go the streets”, said Milan Nič, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. In recent weeks, opposition lawmakers had insisted that a caretaker prime minister did not have the authority to hand over fighter jets without parliament’s approval. “For Poland, this is a fairly consensual decision while in Slovakia it has been exactly the opposite,” Nič said. In Bratislava, “this comes at a very fragile moment, not only for the government but also for the whole pro-western and pro-Ukraine camp.” (Source: FT.com)
16 Mar 23. UK won’t commit to sending arms to Moldova amid fears of Russian takeover. Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Moldova’s pro-Western government and its allies have feared it could be dragged into the conflict
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicu Popescu at a joint press briefing in Chisinau on March 16 CREDIT: Shutterstock
The best way to defend Moldova from attack by Russia is to protect Ukraine, Britain’s foreign minister said on Thursday, though he declined to commit to sending arms directly.
James Cleverly was speaking on a visit to Moldova where he announced £10 million of British aid for economic and governance reforms, including in the energy sector.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Moldova’s pro-Western government and its allies have feared it could be dragged into the conflict. The nation of 2.5 million people borders Ukraine and has Russian peacekeepers stationed in the pro-Moscow breakaway Transdniestria region.
Moscow says that is a case of unjustified “Russophobia”.
Asked by reporters whether London planned military support to Moldova, Mr Cleverly said: “We strongly believe that one of the best ways of protecting Moldova from physical attack is helping the Ukrainians defend themselves against Russia.”
Kremlin accused of stoking anti-government protests
In recent months, Russian missiles aimed at Ukraine have entered Moldovan airspace while authorities have blamed the Kremlin for fuelling anti-government protests, which it denies.
Maia Sandu, the Moldovan president, also accused Moscow in February of planning a coup to overthrow the government.
The UK’s new financial pledge will be in addition to £12 million pledged to Moldova last year, which Mr Cleverly said helped it defend against cyber attacks, tackle Russian disinformation, reform its armed forces and fight official corruption.
In Moldova, police on Sunday said they foiled a plot by groups of Russia-backed saboteurs specially trained to cause mass unrest at protests against the country’s new pro-Western government. Days earlier, US intelligence officials had said that people with ties to Russian intelligence aimed to use the protests as a basis to try to topple Moldova’s government.
The protest was one of several held in recent weeks organised by a group called Movement for the People, which is backed by Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party that holds six seats in the country’s 101-seat legislature.
Ilan Shor, the Shor Party’s leader, is a Moldovan oligarch currently in exile in Israel who is named on a US State Department sanctions list as working for Russian interests. The UK also added Shor to a sanctions list in December.
16 Mar 23. Poland ‘dismantles Russian spy ring.’ Mariusz Kaminski says nine people ‘suspected of working for the Russian secret service’ have been arrested CREDIT: Piotr Nowak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A Russian spy ring gathering information on military equipment deliveries to Ukraine has been dismantled by Polish counter-intelligence, the EU country’s interior minister has revealed.
Mariusz Kaminski told reporters that the ABW counter-intelligence agency has arrested nine people “suspected of working for the Russian secret service”.
“The suspects had been conducting espionage activities against Poland and preparing acts of sabotage on behalf of Russian intelligence services,” he added.
Their goal had been to “paralyse the delivery of military equipment, arms, and Ukraine aid”, he said.
‘Whole network has been dismantled’
Six of the suspects have been provisionally charged with espionage and participation in an organised criminal group. The remaining three are still being questioned.
Mr Kaminski described them as “foreigners from across Poland’s eastern border” and said they had been tasked with “reconnaissance, surveillance and documentation of arms transports to Ukraine”.
He added that they had also been tasked with carrying out propaganda activity to destabilise Polish-Ukrainian relations, as well as fomenting anti-Nato sentiment in Poland.
Poland has evidence that the group’s members received regular payment from Russia’s secret services, he said.
Earlier, Mariusz Blaszczak, Poland’s defence minister, said: “The whole network has been dismantled.”
Private Polish radio station RMF was the first to report on the alleged spy ring operation, citing unnamed sources.
The station said that the suspects were arrested after hidden cameras on important railway routes and junctions, recording and transmitting data on traffic, were discovered.
It claimed “dozens of devices” of this type were installed – mainly on sections of railways leading to the south-east, but also at an airport that is one of the main transfer points for Ukraine-bound Western weapons and ammunition.
ABW agents seized electronic equipment, as well as GPS transmitters due to be installed on trains carrying aid to Ukraine.
Authorities are now on high alert and the security of railroads and strategic infrastructure has been reinforced, according to RMF.
Mr Blaszczak described the threat as “real”. (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)
16 Mar 23. US says video shows Russian jet intercepted spy drone near Ukraine.
- Moscow accuses US of direct participation in Ukraine war
- Attritional warfare drags on in eastern city of Bakhmut
- Some Russian actions in Ukraine are war crimes -inquiry
The Pentagon released a video on Thursday that it said provided evidence a Russian fighter jet clipped the propeller of a U.S. spy drone and caused it to crash into the Black Sea this week, despite Russia’s denial.
The 40-second-long video was filmed by the MQ-9 Reaper drone as it conducted regular reconnaissance in international airspace two days ago near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.
The video showed what the Pentagon said were two Russian Su-27 fighter jets swooping toward the drone and releasing jet fuel on it in harassing behaviour. After a second pass by the jets, the video cuts out then resumes with images of the drone’s damaged propeller.
U.S. officials have accused the Russian jets of acting in an unsafe manner. Russia has denied any collision took place and said the drone went down after making “sharp manoeuvres”, having “provocatively” flown close to Russian air space.
Highlighting the risk of a Russia-U.S. clash, Moscow contended the air encounter showed the U.S. was directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, something Washington has taken pains to avoid for fear of worsening tensions between the two nuclear powers.
The Pentagon said it had indications Russia was trying to recover debris from the drone, which would be difficult to recover in very deep water. Russia said on Wednesday it would try to retrieve the remains but appeared to acknowledge the challenges.
Washington has said the drone no longer carried any valuable intelligence.
China, which has not condemned Russia for invading Ukraine, said it was concerned about the war intensifying and hoped Moscow and Kyiv would hold peace talks.
WAR CRIMES PROBE
Investigations by an international panel said some of Russia’s actions since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, may be crimes against humanity. Russia dismissed the report released on Thursday, which said crimes included wilful killings and torture.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made no direct reference to the United Nations-mandated report in his nightly video address. He spoke in remembrance of those killed in the Russian bombing of a theatre in the southern city of Mariupol one year ago.
“Russian bombs destroyed the Mariupol theatre, a building used as a shelter. Women and children were inside. Some people were pregnant, others elderly,” Zelenskiy said.
No one knows the death toll for certain.
Moscow denies deliberately targeting civilians, though the conflict has killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverised Ukrainian cities, shaken the global economy and created a Cold War chill in international relations.
“The day will come when those guilty of war crimes against Ukraine will appear in the halls of the International Criminal Court and in national courtrooms,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy also made no direct reference to Bakhmut, the focal point for eight months of Russian attempts to advance through the industrial Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia.
Ukrainian forces were withstanding Russian assaults on the ruined city. Reuters reporters roughly 1.5 km (1 mile) from the front lines could hear the constant boom of artillery and the crackle of small arms fire.
Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier at the mortar position, said Ukrainian forces had been targeted by air strikes, mortar fire and tank shelling.
“You don’t always check on what’s flying over your head,” he added, crouching in a deep trench.
Bakhmut has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city’s eastern part but have so far failed to encircle it.
“The situation in the city of Bakhmut remains on the brink of critical,” Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military analyst, said in a YouTube presentation. “Russian forces are hitting the same areas over and over again.”
Another Ukrainian military expert Roman Svitan, told Ukrainian NV Radio: “There is no point in withdrawing from the city right now. There is no danger now of encirclement. So we should hold not just Bakhmut, but also the line associated with Bakhmut.”
Russia has said it targeted Ukrainian infrastructure as part of what it calls its “special military operation” to degrade the Ukrainian military and remove what it says is a potential threat to its own security.
Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory from its pro-Western neighbour.
GRAIN EXPORT DEAL
The United Nations backed Turkey and Ukraine by calling for a 120-day rollover of an agreement allowing the safe export of grain from several Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
Russia has said it would only extend the pact for 60 days without specifically saying why, although it has complained its own food and fertilizer exports are being hindered by Western sanctions.
Russia also said it might take over Toyota’s (7203.T) St Petersburg plant, state-run TASS new agency reported, after the Japanese car maker decided last year to end vehicle production in Russia due to supply chain disruptions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
NAMI, Russia’s Central Automobile and Engine Research and Development Institute, has already snapped up plants from Renault and Nissan.
16 Mar 23. Poland has pledged to send four of its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine “in coming days”, in what would be the first shipment of combat aircraft marking a significant new level of western military support to Kyiv. Ukraine has made fighter jets a central demand from western allies since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, but Nato countries have so far been reluctant to provide them given the perceived risk of escalation from Moscow in response. Poland and Slovakia have previously said that they would be prepared to supply Kyiv with some of their Soviet-designed MiG-29 aircraft, but only as part of a “coalition” of western countries, and backed up by pledges from other Nato states to replace those jets. “In the coming days, we are handing over four aircraft in full working order,” Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said during a news conference with his Czech counterpart, Petr Pavel, adding that an unspecified number of additional jets would be sent later: “The rest are being serviced, prepared and will probably be handed over successively.” While Ukraine has asked for US-made jets, such as F-16s, allies have pointed out that the country’s pilots are trained to fly MiGs and that flying western aircraft would require months of training. The UK has pledged to train Ukrainian pilots on Nato-standard planes when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited London in February. Ukraine recently received Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range precision guided bombs, or JDAM-ERs, according to people familiar with the matter. The kits, provided by the US, can be bolted on unguided bombs, giving them a range of up to 45 miles. The long-range munitions, which US military officials said recently arrived in Ukraine, make fixed wing aircraft more useful on the battlefield, people familiar with the matter said, adding that the JDAM-ERs are being used on Ukraine’s existing MiG-29s, and could be used by the Polish jets if sent. Warsaw has 28 MiG-29s in its air force and plans to phase them out with future deliveries of US F-35s and South Korean FA-50s. Slovakia has around a dozen MiG-29s. Other Nato country air forces with the aircraft include Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. Poland first attempted to send jets to Ukraine a year ago but the plan fell apart after it was clear that Washington did not support the move. In addition to the training of pilots, western officials have cautioned that Nato-compatible aircraft requires additional refuelling, servicing and armament capabilities that would also need to be sent. The UK has previously suggested it is willing to send some RAF Typhoons and personnel to Poland and other Nato countries on the eastern flank to backfill any contributions made to Ukraine’s fleet of fighter jets — a point made most recently by James Heappey, the junior defence minister, at a parliamentary hearing last week. Asked if it was something the UK was looking at, Heappey replied: “Yes, absolutely it is . . . there are plenty of countries within Nato that still operate MiG-29s. And the ability to backfill into countries is very evident . . . It’s a very live debate.” Heappey added that when Zelenskyy visited London, “he made a very obvious focus on jets. We heard that. We understand the requirements.” Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, responded on Twitter to Duda’s remarks on Thursday with four fighter jet emojis after having announced on Monday that “great news” was “coming soon” from Poland. The Kremlin has previously said that discussions over providing Ukraine with fighter jets showed western countries were drawing closer to fighting a direct war against Russia. (Source: FT.com)
15 Mar 23. Canada to donate more missiles and ammunition to Ukraine. The package includes 12 air defence missiles, 8,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition, and 1,800 rounds of 105mm ammunition. The Canadian Ministry of National Defence (MND) has announced the donation of additional military equipment and weapon systems to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The announcement was made by Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand during the tenth Ukraine Defence Contact Group (UDCG) meeting, held virtually on 15 March.
The new tranche of defence articles will include a total of 12 air defence missiles, that can be used with the air defence systems deployed in Ukraine, and nearly 8,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition.
It will be delivered from the existing Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) inventory.
In addition, Canada will provide over 1,800 rounds of 105mm tank training ammunition to Ukraine, which can be used with the Leopard 1 main battle tanks (MBTs) that have already been donated by several nations, including Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Anand said: “We are strengthening our collaboration with our allies and partners and are continuing to respond to Ukraine’s military needs with comprehensive military aid. We will continue to do whatever it takes to safeguard freedom, democracy, and the rules-based international order.”
During the UDCG meeting, Anand also revealed that in February, the CAF started transferring four additional Leopard 2 MBTs that were previously announced as part of a previous military aid package for Ukraine.
So far, the country has confirmed it will provide a total of eight Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine.
The initial four MBTs, announced in January this year, have already been delivered to Poland, where a team of CAF personnel is training the Ukrainian troops on how to operate the tanks.
Eight MBTs, along with other ammunition, ancillary equipment, and armoured recovery vehicles announced earlier by the Canadian MND, are anticipated to reach Ukraine in the next few weeks. (Source: army-technology.com)
13 Mar 23. Pentagon keeps Ukraine aid out of budget, punting to divided Congress. Sending military aid to Ukraine has been one of the Defense Department’s highest profile focuses for more than a year, but defense officials left it out of the Pentagon’s new budget request and say the plan is to continue to seek emergency funding from Congress.
The notable exclusion of politically sensitive Ukraine contingency funding from the budget request suggests the Pentagon may be seeking to insulate its core programs against Capitol Hill cross-currents. House Republicans are divided on Ukraine aid, and some have also made an ambitious promise to slash discretionary spending by at least $130 bbn even as they seek to grow the overall defense budget.
But excluding Ukraine aid from the $842 bbn in Pentagon spending the Biden administration has requested for fiscal 2024 puts the onus on Congress — if it wants to continue to help Kyiv — to pass bbns of dollars more in supplemental appropriations.
Pentagon budget officials attributed the decision to rely on supplementals to the uncertain nature of the war.
“Ukraine support above the pre-conflict levels is not in this budget; the situation remains too fluid,” Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord told reporters at Monday’s budget rollout. “The way we’re handling this is the way we’ve handled every emerging situation in the last few years, and that’s supplementals.”
The Republican divide over whether to continue aid to Kyiv ― and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s vow not to grant Ukraine a “blank check” ― has prompted House GOP leaders to spotlight the extensive oversight on Ukraine aid and that U.S. weapons have not been diverted from their intended use.
But even some Democrats supportive of the aid have have begun to question the Biden administration’s reliance on extra-budgetary means. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., for instance, told Defense News he would rather include Ukraine aid as part of the defense budget.
“My personal preference would be to bake it into the base budget,” Whitehouse said. “That sends a very positive signal to Ukraine. But there are a lot of players in this world who have a voice on that. And I’m very comfortable following the lead of my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee as to what they think the best way to go would be.”
At a defense appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said the Biden administration needs to “do a better job of messaging on this long-term, especially over the next two years,” while Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, called on the Pentagon at the same hearing to “be totally honest with everybody about what this is all going to cost.”
“People need to know what this will cost and people need to consider how to fund it,” Case said. “We have colleagues that are good representatives of their constituents who want to increase, who want to decrease, who want to borrow more, who want to borrow less and we just need to know what it takes realistically to get through the assumption … that this war is going to continue.”
Emergency spending for the Pentagon is not new, but it grew increasingly controversial in the final years of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Funds were appropriated through Overseas Contingency Operations spending packages outside the base budget, which some lawmakers likened to a “budget gimmick.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, emergency funds made up 2% of the Pentagon’s budget between 1970 and 2000, but grew after Sept. 11, 2001 and peaked at 28% in 2007 and 2008. Overseas Contingency Operations spending averaged about $119 bbn per year before President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget request eliminated it.
Though the Biden administration has doubled down on using emergency Ukraine spending rather than starting to integrate it into the regular budget process, as recently as last month a senior Pentagon official testified that the Biden administration had started work on placing Ukraine assistance within the base budget.
“There is work ongoing to build it into a base budget, and we are not ruling out coming back to you for a supplemental,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on Feb. 28.
But on Monday, McCord said the Pentagon would rely on emergency supplementals. Though his office has not put together additional supplemental spending requests for fiscal 2023 or fiscal 2024, he said, the Pentagon was able to quickly draft four supplementals in 12 months.
“The spring offensives are not far along enough for us to draw any conclusions on that,” McCord said. “We can do them quickly, especially if we do them in short windows, but we’re not trying to prognosticate a whole year in advance.”
McCord noted some proposed funds that had gone into the base budget’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative would now go into the European Deterrence Initiative — for which the Biden administration has requested nearly $5bn in FY24.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget announced last week it was only seeking $6bn in Ukraine aid as part of its FY24 base budget, an amount roughly on par with funding for Kyiv before Russia’s invasion last year. That $6bn is also a small fraction of the $113bn in military and economic aid for Ukraine that Congress passed last year via four emergency supplemental packages. (Source: C4ISR & Networks)
14 Mar 23. Marin’s F-18 proposal fizzles, as a new Finnish NATO tack emerges. Finland’s center-left government is under fire from opposition leaders after Prime Minister Sanna Marin suggested Finland could donate an unspecified number of the Finnish Air Force’s (FAF) Boeing F/A-18C Hornet jets to aid Ukraine’s defense.
The service is primed to decommission 62 Hornets jets in its multirole frontline fighter fleet between 2025 and 2030. In December 2021, the FAF decided to spend $9.4 bbn on a deal to procure 64 F-35s from Lockheed Martin to replace the aging Hornets.
Opposition leaders and officials expressed concern that Marin’s surprise proposal, made during a weekend visit to Kyiv, was not discussed in advance with her coalition partners, opposition party leaders or FAF chiefs.
The impact and ripple effect of Marin’s comments happened as President Sauli Niinistö met, on March 12, with the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy to discuss the status of Finland’s entry application to NATO. Government officials here have been in negotiations with Turkey and Hungary, the two remaining alliance states that have yet to ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s membership bid.
The meeting on the accession process followed trilateral talks between Finland, Sweden and Turkey in Brussels on March 9.
The gateway to Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO is complicated by Ankara’s claim that the two non-aligned Nordic states have not done enough in the way of commitments to fight terrorism and restoring arms exports to Turkey.
Domestic tensions over the perceived slow pace of its application approval is causing more political leaders in Finland to review a “side-by-side jump” scenario with Sweden into NATO.
The two Nordic states presented their bids to join the alliance in May 2022, in the months after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Our information from Turkey is that Finland satisfies the conditions Ankara imposed to obtain its support for our membership application, but that further negotiations are necessary with Sweden,” said Pekka Haavisto (Green Party), Finland’s foreign affairs minister.
Finland’s new position suggests that if Turkey were to ratify the country’s application but defer or block Sweden, Helsinki would not withdraw its application.
Oscar Stenström, the head of Sweden’s NATO accession delegation, said that while some constructive advancements were made in meeting Ankara’s demands, no significant progress is expected before Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14.
Finland and Sweden hope to secure application approval from Turkey before the alliance’s July summit in Vilnius.
Although Hungary supports NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, the Budapest government has yet to set a date to ratify the applications of both states. Hungary has indicated that the applications might be ratified before the end of March, possibly as early as March 20.
Reacting to Marin’s visit to Kyiv, opposition leaders raised fears the warplane saga could further complicate Finland’s already fragile NATO talks with Turkey.
Petteri Orpo, the leader of the National Coalition Party (NCP), said the prime minister’s comments were “ill-considered” at a time when Finland needs to negotiate in good faith with Ankara and maintain a foreign and security policy that is both “transparent and unambiguous.”
“Finland’s foreign and security policy cannot be managed by going solo,” he added. “Her comments can be interpreted as a promise, and this is concerning given that Finland is in a delicate position in its foreign relations, and especially in our NATO accession ambitions,” Orpo said.
Marin made her comments at a media briefing in Kyiv. The prime minister said Finland was open to the possibility of providing Hornets to Ukraine. “There can certainly be a discussion about fighter jets. Other countries are examining their own capacities to deliver this kind of military support. I think this could also be discussed in Finland,” said Marin.
Juha-Matti Ylitalo, the Deputy Director of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, raised doubts that Finland had the capacity to supply Hornets to Ukraine based on the aging condition of the aircraft and high maintenance costs.
The logistics command oversaw the HX fighter procurement program that resulted in the F-35 pick, a process that took six years.
“There isn’t a lot left in the Hornets as regards their structural life. It’s unlikely they can deliver a top level competitive performance in to the 2030s,” said Ylitalo.
Finland’s Defense Minister, Antti Kaikkonen, conceded he had no “advance knowledge” about Marin’s Hornet statement, adding that the FAF would not currently be in a position to reduce its capability by donating the warplanes until replacement F-35s are in place by 2025.
“The Hornets we have are still needed, and will be for several years to come” said Kaikkonen.
Marin’s comments caused surprise to Finland’s security partners in Europe and the United States, said Mika Aaltola, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“Finland’s policy line on foreign matters needs to always be clear. It would have been wise if the prime minister had communicated with our cooperation partners before making the Hornet remarks,” Aaltola said.
Aaltola is supportive of a Finnish strategy to separate Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications. “Finland should communicate its ability to separate the applications because they’re politically tied to one another,” he said. (Source: Defense News)
15 Mar 23. France accused of delaying EU’s €2bn plan to replenish Ukraine’s artillery shell stocks. European sources told the Telegraph that Paris wants guarantees that a deal to jointly procure weapons will only benefit EU firms
France was on Wednesday accused of slowing down the European Union’s plans to replenish Ukraine’s dwindling artillery shell stocks by demanding the munitions be manufactured inside the bloc.
European sources told the Telegraph that Paris wanted guarantees that a €2bn deal to jointly procure weapons would only benefit firms based in the EU.
The demand came during talks over a new Brussels-led scheme to purchase one million 155mm artillery shells to bolster supplies to Kyiv and fill depleted national armouries.
Under the scheme, member states would be given cash incentives to centralise and coordinate procurement among themselves in the hope of placing orders large enough to convince arms manufacturers to ramp up production.
French officials argued only defence firms based in the EU should be allowed to access the lucrative new contracts.
Critics of the French demand warned that this risked slowing down support for Ukraine because production capacity could be readily available outside the bloc.
“Many member states presented different opinions to that of France,” an EU diplomat told The Telegraph.
“If we want to act immediately, which is necessary, allowing non-EU companies into the scheme is very important.”
“Paris clearly favours the EU spending on its own industries over supporting Ukraine,” a European source added.
So far, EU countries have only provided Ukraine with 350,000 155mm artillery shells, which Kyiv says it desperately needs more of to maintain its defensive lines and launch its anticipated spring counter-offensive.
Brussels has so far reimbursed its member states €450m for the donations, at an estimated cost of €1,285 per shell.
Kyiv’s forces are firing an estimated 6,000 artillery rounds every day, according to Western intelligence, whereas Russia fires 20,000 a day – the same amount manufactured by European defence producers each month.
While Ukraine has backed the EU’s plans to jointly procure one m shells, Oleksiy Reznikoz, its defence minister, last week warned it wouldn’t be enough to fuel the fight against Russia’s invasion.
At a meeting of EU defence ministers, Mr Reznikov said Ukraine needed at least 100,000 155mm rounds each month to ease battlefield shortages.
EU nations were on Wednesday still wrangling over a final deal to purchase enough shells for Ukraine.
The initial proposal saw €1bn in EU funding set aside to reimburse member states that can immediately donate ammunition from their own stockpiles to Ukraine.
A further €1bn from the bloc’s financial coffers would be used to jointly purchase new munitions on the open market in the hope larger orders will mean a lower price per shell.
‘Centralised arms procurement may create bureaucratic barriers’
Britain and other non-EU Nato allies have privately raised concerns that centralised arms procurement by Brussels could create bureaucratic barriers within the alliance and be a threat to interoperability.
Similar fears were outlined during the EU talks over joint procurement, but France was said to have refused to have backed down on the grounds it is seeking greater “strategic autonomy” for the bloc.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has long pushed for the EU to become completely independent from Nato and Washington on the military, energy, economic and technological fronts.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Paris to re-think its strategy in the short term, focusing instead on strengthening defences as part of Nato. Greece and Cyprus, a source said, backed France’s bid to keep non-EU businesses out of the procurement scheme to prevent Turkish firms from bidding for contracts. Norway could become the only non-EU nation allowed to produce ammunition for the scheme because it is a member of the European Defence Agency, which will coordinate the purchases. Any final deal will need to be signed off later this month when European leaders hold a summit in Brussels. (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)
14 Mar 23. Russian jet, US drone crash over Black Sea, US military says. An American intelligence drone crashed after colliding with a Russian fighter over the Black Sea on Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force’s European headquarters said in a release.
The MQ-9 Reaper drone was flying a routine surveillance mission in international airspace when it crossed paths with two Su-27 fighters around 7 a.m. local time, according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
The Russian jets began antagonizing the unmanned aircraft, repeatedly dumping fuel on and buzzing in front of the much smaller Reaper, the Air Force said. One Su-27 drew close enough to hit the drone’s tail propeller, causing its remote operators to lose control of the plane.
“Because of the damage, we were in a position to have to essentially crash it into the Black Sea,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters at a briefing Tuesday afternoon. “It was unflyable and uncontrollable, and we took it down.”
He declined to answer whether the drone was armed at the time.
The incident resulted in a “complete loss” of the MQ-9 and nearly caused the Su-27 to crash as well, USAFE Commander Gen. James Hecker said in a release. The command declined to answer further questions on Tuesday.
Ryder said the Russians have not recovered the MQ-9, referring questions about American efforts to find the aircraft to the U.S. Navy. The Navy referred questions to U.S. European Command, which said it had no further details to offer.
Ryder confirmed that the Russian pilot landed after the collision, but did not say where. The Defense Department is working to declassify imagery of the incident.
It’s the first time an unsafe interaction with Russian aircraft has downed a U.S. drone, according to John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
“U.S. and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely,” he said.
American and European air forces routinely intercept Russian aircraft that encroach on NATO airspace and push the limits of risky maneuvers. MQ-9 drones — known for their “eye in the sky” role in counterterrorism operations — have been a key part of U.S. efforts to surveil Russia’s war in Ukraine for more than a year. The U.S. has flown Reapers from Poland, Romania, Greece and Estonia.
“These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” USAFE said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not talked to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, about the collision, Ryder told reporters. The State Department said it would personally complain to Anatoly Antanov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan earlier in the day, Kirby told reporters.
“This MQ-9 was operating in international airspace over international waters and posed a threat to nobody,” Kirby said.
While Kirby acknowledged that intercepts between American and Russian aircraft over the Black Sea are common, especially in recent weeks, he said Tuesday’s run-in was “unique” and “noteworthy” for its disregard for safety and professionalism.
The U.S. has been consistently flying over the Black Sea’s international airspace and will continue to do so, Kirby said.
In 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance—Demonstrator drone, a version of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting then-U.S. President Donald Trump to consider a retaliatory strike. He later backtracked, citing potential civilian casualties. The two countries made contradictory claims, and U.S. military officials ultimately downplayed the incident.
The same year, the U.S. military alleged Libyan forces using Russian air defenses brought down a drone near Tripoli. (Source: Defense News)
14 Mar 23. Netherlands to give Ukraine minesweepers, drone radars – Defence ministry. The Netherlands will give Ukraine two minesweepers, drone radars, and an M3 amphibious bridge-bulding system, Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren said on Tuesday in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
Ollongren was speaking at a news conferenec with her Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov.
The drone radars and the M3 system will be acquired directly from the industry, a press statement said. The two minesweepers will be delivered to Ukraine in 2025 as the ships are intended to look for mines in the Black Sea after the war.
The Netherlands, together with Belgium and possibly other allies, will give Ukrainian crew training on how to use the minesweepers starting in the second half of 2023. (Source: Google/Reuters)
14 Mar 23. Russia forced to start ‘rationing ammunition.’
Russia has been forced to start rationing shells on the front line and is using old munitions stock that are “unfit for use”, according to British military intelligence.
“Extremely punitive shell-rationing” is in force on many parts of the front, the Ministry of Defence said.
“This has almost certainly been a key reason why no Russian formation has recently been able to generate operationally significant offensive action,” they added.
“Russia has almost certainly already resorted to issuing old munitions stock which were previously categorised as unfit for use.”
It comes after President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had killed “more than 1,100” Russians in Bakhmut over the past week. (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)
13 Mar 23. Switzerland’s president has ruled out the re-export of Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine, in an attempt to draw a line under an increasingly tense domestic debate on the country’s longstanding neutrality. “Swiss weapons must not be used in wars,” President Alain Berset — who is also the country’s interior minister — said in an interview on Sunday, accusing opponents of engaging in “war frenzy” and calling for a rapid diplomatic solution to Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. Berset’s declaration will confound those who had hoped for the beginnings of a change in Switzerland’s position. Diplomats from Germany, France and the Netherlands have all lobbied intensively in recent months to allow stocks of Swiss-made weapons they hold in their own countries’ armouries to be sent onwards to support Ukraine’s war effort. Under current laws, weapons made by Swiss manufacturers can be re-sold or re-gifted only with the Swiss government’s permission, and may not be sent into active war zones. As pressure on Bern has mounted — particularly over vital stocks of anti-aircraft shells used by Gepard flak cannons — some Swiss politicians have asked for a change in their country’s stance. Two initiatives have been wending their way through Switzerland’s complex parliamentary process — one to modify the country’s highly restrictive War Materials Act by allowing weapons re-exports under situations with UN approval, and another to create a special “Lex Ukraine” for an urgent one-off transfer of material to Kyiv. A poll published at the beginning of the month, meanwhile, found that 55 per cent of Swiss citizens supported the re-export of arms to help Ukraine defend itself. But the president brushed off calls for a change in his country’s position. “To claim that Europe’s self-defence depends on the re-export of weapons from Switzerland and to demand that we disregard our existing law does not strike me as appropriate,” Berset told the NZZ newspaper on Sunday. He took aim at critical recent comments from France’s ambassador to Bern over the country’s position on weapons exports, who had said that, if the Alpine country continued to block the re-exporting of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, it posed “a problem for Europe”. “It is precisely because we are neutral and do not allow the transfer of weapons to war zones that we can do a great deal for this continent,” he said. “Pacifism has a bad reputation right now, but warfare is not part of the Swiss DNA.” He also accused German politicians of targeting Switzerland in order to distract from their own poor political record on delivering lethal aid to Ukraine. Berset, a social democrat, is one of Switzerland’s seven federal councillors that constitute the executive arm of the government. The presidency rotates between them annually. Not all of his colleagues agree with him. Defence minister Viola Amherd, from the Centre party, told Swiss army officers in a speech this weekend that Switzerland could no longer afford to militarily “stand on the sidelines”. Berset’s staunch, and now publicly declared opposition to any weapons delivery, makes a change in the status quo highly unlikely, however. The federal council rules by strict consensus, and parliament is still months away from agreeing to any change in the law. Even if it does, a national referendum would need to be called on the issue, a process that could take up to a year to organise. (Source: FT.com)
13 Mar 23. UK could supply Typhoons to fellow NATO country to enable MiG-29 Ukraine provision. The Ukrainian Government has called for the provision of UK fighters to aid it in its ongoing war against Russia.
The UK could send a small quantity of Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters to a third-party NATO country, in turn freeing Russian-design platforms such as the MiG-29 still in service to be granted as aid to Ukraine.
Air power has become the latest high-profile requirement being sought by authorities in Kyiv, with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky calling for “powerful English jets” in a landmark speech to UK lawmakers at the Houses of Parliament recently. Presenting a gift of the flight helmet of a Ukrainian fighter ace, Zelensky called for fast jet provision in what has been dubbed the “wings for freedom” speech.
To this end, debate since has centred on whether the UK could accommodate such a request, given the complexity of integrating and operating such platforms during wartime. The UK operates the Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon as its Quick Reaction Alert platform, effectively responsible for air defence of the country.
It is understood that around 30 Tranche 1 fighters are left in the UK inventory, with 12 of these currently stored in reserve.
Giving evidence to the UK House of Commons Defence Committee on 7 March, UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said that the UK could “absolutely” provide a quantity of Tranche 1 Typhoons to a third country, which in turn could enable the recipient to donate MiG-29 or other aircraft already operated or understood by Ukraine.
However, the provision of Tranche 1 Typhoon to Ukraine in the near term was unlikely, officials told the Committee, due to the complex nature of the platforms and the significant logistical train that would be required to operate the aircraft.
NATO member states Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia all operate the MiG-29 fighter, which is also used by Ukraine. The Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav on 9 March said that the country could supply its fighters to Kyiv.
For its part, Poland has been looking to provide some type of air dominance platform to Ukraine, mindful that it is in effect NATO’s frontline to the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, which has seen the return to large-scale conventional conflict return to the European continent.
The UK also recently agreed to begin training Ukrainian pilots to NATO standards, with a view towards potential providing Typhoons to Kyiv at a later date, potentially after the cessation of the war.
The Tranche 1 Eurofighters are limited to air defence operators only due to software and hardware limitations, rather than the multi-role Tranche 2 also operated by the Royal Air Force, and as such would be unable to conduct ground-attack operations against Russian forces. The entire fleet of Tranche 1 fighters are scheduled to be retired from UK service in 2025. (Source: airforce-technology.com)
12 Mar 23. Norway will provide Ukraine with more NASAMS air defence units. Norway will provide Ukraine with two Kongsberg/Raytheon NASAMS air defence systems, in cooperation with the USA.
“NASAMS have proved to be an effective air defence system,” according to a Norwegian government statement. “Adding two more firing units will significantly improve Ukraine’s ability to protect its cities and critical infrastructure from Russian missile attacks. Norway will also train Ukrainian personnel in the maintenance and operation of the system.
“Norway has previously contributed equipment and training to US donations of NASAMS to Ukraine. These donations have been highly valued and contributed to defeat missile attacks. Continuing Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure highlight the need to further improve Ukraine’s air defence.”
The Kongsberg/Raytheon NASAMS Air Defence System features net centric architecture, multiple simultaneous engagements, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capabilities, closely integrated and adapted to a country’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD), says a Kongsberg website. “NASAMS has since the introduction in Norway been on a path of continuous evolution. The current NASAMS customer base consists of twelve (12) countries, Air Force and Army customers combined. A total of fifteen (15) nations have acquired the KONGSBERG command and control solution adapted to their requirements.”
For more information: https://www.kongsberg.com/kda/what-we-do/defence-and-security/integrated-air-and-missile-defence/nasams-air-defence-system/
13 Mar 23. Partisans destroy railway used by Putin’s forces. Pro-Ukrainian guerrillas destroyed a stretch of railway in occupied Kherson in a logistical blow to Russian forces.
The Atesh partisan movement claimed responsibility for the apparent strike, which they said would hinder the supply of Russian troops in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
“We work around the clock for the destruction of the occupying forces and the liberation of Ukraine,” the group said alongside a video of the explosion,
Partisans have played a supporting role in Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion, often softening up Moscow’s forces before Kyiv launches counter-offensives. (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)
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