Geopolitical Monitoring Report | January 13, 2023
Ukraine | Russia
Russia Claims First Victory in Ukraine since Kyiv’s Summer Offensives
Russian forces claim to have captured the city of Soledar in the Donetsk Oblast, marking what would be their first victory since Ukraine’s summer counter-offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts that reclaimed vast swathes of their territory. The capture of Soledar may mark another turning point in the war because it will enable Russian forces to intensify their assault on the city of Bakhmut, which has significant strategic importance due to its location.
While the hollowed-out city itself may have little value, capturing it would place immense pressure on Ukraine’s defensive line in Donetsk because it would enable Russian artillery to fire on the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. While Ukrainian sources contend that the capture of Bakhmut would not “immediately” be decisive, it is clear that at the very least it would be a major propaganda victory for Russian forces after a summer of retreats. The capture of Bakhmut may also foreshadow a new offensive from Belarus or elsewhere, as Russia will almost certainly look to capitalize on its momentum.
While the capture of the city marks a major victory for Russian forces, it also reveals an emerging divide between the regular Russian military and the private military company (PMC), Wagner Group. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the city’s capture on January 13 with no mention of Wagner Group, but Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had previously announced the city’s capture on the 10th and posted photographs of himself in the city’s famous salt mines. US intelligence officials state that Prigozhin focused on capturing the city for its mineral resources, a claim he denies.
The successes of Wagner Group might have played a role in Putin’s decision to bring in General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, as commander of their military operation in Ukraine. This marks the first time a Russian military commander of Gerasimov’s rank has directly commanded troops since Marshal Georgy Zhukov commanded the Soviet Army following the German invasion during World War 2 and likely sets the stage for further Russian escalation.
Social media platforms should be prepared for increased coordinated inauthentic behavior by Russian state actors, as they look to promote Russia’s first major victory in months. These actors are also likely to attempt to shape the narrative around the appointment of Gerasimov as the commander of Russian forces in the operation. These efforts will almost certainly intensify should Russia capture Bakhmut.
These victories also demonstrate that while Russia is still reeling from their losses this summer, their military still has the capability to score significant victories. This means that the war is almost certainly destined to drag on for longer, and disruptions to critical supply chains for things like fertilizer and grain shipments are almost certain to continue.
Online platforms should continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine and prepare for upticks in coordinated inauthentic behavior in the event of additional Russian successes in Donetsk or elsewhere. The opening of a new front from Belarus would likely result in a dramatic uptick in this type of activity.
Companies and organizations – especially those that operate in countries with low food security – should prepare for another year of less grain and fertilizer shipments from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine that will naturally result in rising food prices and has the potential to serve as a catalyst for political instability and civil unrest.
Ensuring that your organization has sufficient third party intelligence and open-source intelligence monitoring capabilities is essential for identifying these potential risks early and mitigating their impacts. Finally, with the war looking to drag on, Western nations will continue to attempt to sanction Russia’s economy and cut off the flow of funds and resources to their war effort. This will naturally result in increased enactment and enforcement of economic sanctions on Russia, which will require companies have ample third party due diligence capabilities to ensure they are not inadvertently engaging in business with sanctioned entities.
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