March 29, 2023
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on March 29 to review strategic and long-term cooperation agreements that will likely intensify Russia’s and Iran’s bilateral security relationship. Abdollahian stated that Russian and Iranian officials are in the final stage of signing a cooperation agreement. Lavrov promoted Iran’s “Hormoz Peace Plan” for security in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and stated that the Kremlin demands an immediate return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Abdollahian and Lavrov likely discussed continued Russian efforts to procure Iranian weapon systems for use in Ukraine and a finalized agreement for Russia to provide Iran with Su-35 attack aircraft. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on March 29 that Iranian Pouya Air Transport resumed regular flights between Tehran and Moscow on March 13 likely to support weapons transfers. The Ukrainian Resistance Center also reported that Iranian officials are planning to deliver Shahed-131 drones to Wagner Group personnel and that Wagner personnel have started training to operate the drones, although ISW has not observed confirmation that Wagner Group personnel have used Iranian-made drones in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that Russia is relying on Iran for military and technological support in Ukraine and that some Iranian personnel are likely in Ukraine directly supporting Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Iran is likely attempting to solidify a bilateral security relationship with Russia in which the two are more equal partners and will likely increase weapons transfers to Russia in pursuit of this goal.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the recent story of the sentencing of a Tula Oblast father for his 12-year-old daughter’s antiwar drawing to promote the Wagner Group’s reputation and ameliorate his own personal image. Prigozhin’s press service posted a letter on March 28 signed by Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, and Wagner-affiliated director of the “Liga” veteran’s organization Andrey Troshev addressed to Tula Oblast prosecutor Alexander Gritsaenko stating that the signatories consider Gritsaenko’s issuance of a two-year prison sentence to Aleksey Moskalev unfair. Moskalev was charged with “discrediting the armed forces” after his 12-year-old daughter Masha drew an antiwar picture with a Ukrainian flag in her school art class in April 2022. Masha was taken into state custody and now lives in a juvenile shelter, and Moskalev fled house arrest the night before his sentencing and was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia. Prigozhin’s letter suggests that Tula Oblast check the legality of Gritsaenko’s sentencing and recommends that Wagner-affiliated lawyers participate in the case on Moskalev’s side, noting that it is tragic that both Masha and children of dead Wagner fighters end up in orphanages. Prigozhin’s response to Moskalev’s sentencing is particularly ironic considering that Prigozhin was initially one of the biggest and loudest supporters of the law on punishing those who ”discredit” Russian forces. It is therefore likely that Prigozhin seized on the discourse surrounding Moskalev to further his own reputation and advocate for the Wagner Group, especially by choosing to highlight the plight of orphans of Wagner fighters who die in Ukraine. Prigozhin may seek to maintain his own domestic relevance by continuing to closely involve himself in such developing stories, especially by affiliating his newest campaign for relevance with Utkin and Troshev—two well-established and notorious Wagner-affiliated personalities. The letter attempts to portray Wagner leadership as a united front against elements of the Russian bureaucracy.
Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s demonstrative response to an attack on a police station in Chechnya suggests that he may be concerned about the stability of his authoritarian rule. Kadyrov claimed that Chechen authorities killed two unidentified men attempting to conduct an attack in Gudermes, Chechnya on the night of March 28, and Russian sources amplified footage purporting to show the two men shooting at a local police department. Kadyrov’s Special Forces University is in Gudermes, although it is not clear if the attack was connected to the facility. Kadyrov published footage of himself, his 15-year-old son, and an entourage of Chechen officials and security personnel visiting the scene of the attack and inspecting the mangled bodies of the assailants. Kadyrov likely meant this demonstrative inspection of the bodies to enhance his strongman image and signal to Chechens that any form of internal resistance to his rule will be eliminated. The fact that Kadyrov’s response to the attack was so immediate and heavy-handed suggests that he is concerned about the potential for internal resistance within Chechnya to undermine his authoritarian rule of the autonomous republic. Kadyrov recently meet with President Vladimir Putin on March 13 to promote Chechnya’s relevance in the Russian political and military sphere, and ISW assessed that Putin may seize upon Kadyrov‘s fears about falling out of favor with Putin to pressure Kadyrov into increasing the role of Chechen fighters in combat operations in Ukraine. Kadyrov likely sees any sign of internal instability in Chechnya as a threat to Putin’s continued favor.
Russian authorities arrested Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) naval department head Colonel Sergey Volkov for corruption-related charges. The 235th Garrison Military Court in Moscow arrested Volkov on March 29 for abuse of authority charges in connection with the sale of low-quality radar systems at heavily inflated prices, and an official investigation reportedly found that his actions amounted to damages of 395.5 million rubles (roughly $5 million). The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Rosgvardia recently launched a criminal case against the Deputy Commander of the Rosgvardia’s Central District, Major General Vadim Dragomiretsky, on March 20 for corruption-related charges. The recent criminal proceedings against two Rosgvardia commanders may suggest that Russian authorities are conducting a sweeping corruption probe within Rosgvardia. The criminal proceedings are notable because commanders of conventional Russian forces have not been fired, let alone arrested, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the same rate or in such high-profile circumstances as the Rosgvardia cases. It is highly unlikely that corruption in the Rosgvardia is more pronounced than it is in the Russian Armed Forces. The Rosgvardia notably includes elements responsible for Russia’s domestic regime security. Putin likely pays very close attention to the reliability and loyalty of some Rosgvardia personnel, apart from concerns he may have about corruption in that organization.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on March 27 that Ukrainian forces may be planning to launch a counteroffensive in April or May depending on weather conditions. In an interview with Estonian news outlet ERR, Reznikov stated that the Ukrainian General Staff might decide to use recently received Leopard 2 tanks in a possible spring counterattack. Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 tanks arrived in Ukraine on March 27, and US officials announced the acceleration of the deployment of Abrams tanks and Patriot missile systems to Ukraine on March 21. The arrival of equipment in Ukraine likely sets conditions for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, although a delay is likely between the arrival of new equipment Ukraine’s ability to use it in a counteroffensive.
- Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on March 29 to review strategic and long-term cooperation agreements that will likely intensify Russia’s and Iran’s bilateral security relationship.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the recent story of the sentencing of a Tula Oblast father for his 12-year-old daughter’s antiwar drawing to promote the Wagner Group’s reputation and ameliorate his own personal image.
- Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s demonstrative response to an attack on a police station in Chechnya suggests that he may be concerned about the stability of his authoritarian rule.
- Russian authorities arrested Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) naval department head Colonel Sergey Volkov for corruption-related charges.
- Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on March 27 that Ukrainian forces may be planning to launch a counteroffensive in April or May depending on weather conditions.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City front.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) for the second time.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to implement measures to integrate occupied territories into the Russian administrative and legal system.
- The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that planned activities are ongoing to call up those liable for military service for military training and to retrain reserve servicemen in military registration specialties.