The Kremlin may leverage an amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code increasing punishments for “discrediting” the war in Ukraine to promote further self-censorship among the critical ultranationalist community, prompting pushback from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and prominent milbloggers. Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin announced on March 1 that the Duma could ratify amendments to the Russian Criminal Code introducing harsher punishments for discrediting participants of the Russian “special military operation,” including “volunteers,” as soon as March 14. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) labels irregular armed formations fighting in Ukraine—specifically the Wagner Group—as volunteers. Volodin stated punishments would include a fine of up to five million rubles (about $66,450), five years of correctional or forced labor, or a sentence of 15 years in prison. Russian President Vladimir Putin previously stated on February 28 that Russia must “identify and stop illegal activities of those who are trying to weaken [Russian] society” and identify those who “use separatism, nationalism, neo-Nazism as a weapon.” Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has long called on the Kremlin to punish anyone who spoke poorly of Wagner under the guise of ensuring that all participants of the war are protected under existing laws against discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. However, Prigozhin released a suggested adjustment to the amendments in response to Volodin’s statement, arguing the amendment should not punish criticism of senior Russian MoD and Wagner Group commanders. Prigozhin argued constructive criticism “is necessary” to ensure Russian commanders use their powers “transparently and responsibly.” Prigozhin may be concerned that the Kremlin could use the expanded amendment to crack down on or, at minimum, promote self-censorship practices among ultranationalist milblogger communities who regularly criticize senior Russian commanders, and likely seeks to balance his desired protection of the Wagner Group with retaining the freedom for himself and friendly milbloggers to criticize the Russian military.
ISW assessed on February 26 that Putin has allowed the ultranationalist community to expand its influence at the expense of the Russian MoD so the Kremlin can leverage the community’s pre-established networks to recruit volunteers. The Kremlin likely seeks to mitigate further pushback from the pro-war ultranationalist community, which continues to look up to Putin as the facilitator of the war despite their criticisms of the conduct of the war. The State Duma will likely pass these amendments on March 14, given Volodin’s announcement. The Kremlin could use these amendments to promote self-censorship among select milbloggers whose constituencies are no longer needed for its force generation or crowdfunding campaigns, or whose criticisms have exceeded the Kremlin’s tolerance for open criticism. It is unclear to what extent such measures would scare Russian milbloggers into self-censorship, however. Former Russian officer (and avid critic of Putin) Igor Girkin mocked Volodin’s announcement, stating that he will start apologizing for his previous critiques of Russia’s military failures and sarcastically retracting his criticism. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger, however, celebrated the amendments, noting that Putin is attempting to prevent divisions in society to improve the war effort.
A New York Times (NYT) investigation into catastrophic Russian losses during the recent Russian offensive near Vuhledar indicates that the Russian military remains unable to rapidly fix the endemic challenges posed by severe personnel and equipment losses. NYT reported on March 1 that Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continued to make serious mistakes and advance tank columns into Ukrainian ambushes in the recent three-week Russian offensive near Vuhledar, which Ukrainian sources characterized as the largest tank battle of the war to date. NYT reported that Russian forces lost at least 130 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) during the three-week offensive, forcing them to resort in the last week to frontal infantry attacks. Ukrainian troops outlined their tactics to NYT, stating they lured Russian forces into kill zones before immobilizing Russian columns and channeling them into mine-laden road shoulders, before destroying them with artillery – including HIMARS, typically used against static, rear area targets. The Russian elements deployed to the Vuhledar area, primarily the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, are mainly staffed with poorly trained mobilized personnel who suffered massive losses in this area in October 2022 and again in February 2023. ISW previously reported on Russian losses near Vuhledar and assessed that they are emblematic of the Russian military‘s inability to learn from its failures. The NYT investigation supports ISW’s assessment that the continued recreation and reinforcement of Russian military failures will impede the Russian military’s ability to conduct effective offensive operations.
- The Kremlin may leverage an amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code increasing punishments for “discrediting” the war in Ukraine to promote further self-censorship measures among the critical ultranationalist community, prompting pushback from Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and prominent milbloggers.
- A New York Times (NYT) investigation into catastrophic Russian losses during the recent Russian offensive near Vuhledar indicates the Russian military remains unable to rapidly fix the endemic challenges posed by severe personnel and equipment losses.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a package of 16 documents that may facilitate Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese aid to Russia through Belarus.
- US officials continue to report that Ukrainian forces are properly using Western-provided weapons in Ukraine.
- Russian and occupation authorities may be attempting to further limit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presence at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to compel the de facto recognition of Russian ownership of the plant.
- Politico reported that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is seemingly reconsidering Serbia’s close ties to Russia during the war in Ukraine, spurred in part by ongoing Wagner Group recruitment and subversion efforts in Serbia.
- Russian forces are fortifying positions on the international border in Belgorod Oblast.
- Russian forces advanced within Bakhmut and continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
- Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continue defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities continue to struggle with the administrative management of occupied areas.