Rumors about the dismissal of Russian Eastern Group of Forces (Eastern Military District) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov on March 27 generated a muted and cynical response in the Russian information space.The milbloggers claimed that Russian military authorities dismissed Muradov from his position as Eastern Group of Forces commander, but ISW cannot currently verify these claims. Muradov took command of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD) on October 6, 2022, and has overseen a series of disastrous offensive operations led by EMD elements in western Donetsk Oblast over the past five months. One milblogger claimed that Muradov is on “vacation,” which the milblogger noted is tantamount to resignation. Others claimed that Muradov’s removal is a positive step but stated that Muradov’s replacement is more important than his removal. Some milbloggers noted that Muradov was responsible for significant Russian military failures in western Donetsk Oblast, including the high casualties suffered in the assault against Pavlivka in October-November 2022 and the prolonged and failed effort to take Vuhledar. Independent Russian investigative outlet Vazhnye Istorii (iStories), citing sources close to the Russian General Staff, reported that the Russian General Staff accused Muradov of being inept due to battlefield failures and significant losses in western Donetsk Oblast, including the near obliteration of the Tatarstan ”Alga” volunteer battalion. One prominent milblogger claimed that military authorities are also considering dismissing Western Military District Commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov, whose forces operate along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line in eastern Ukraine.
ISW cannot confirm the rumors of either Muradov’s or Nikiforov’s dismissals, but it is noteworthy that Russian milbloggers are discussing potential dismissals of commanders associated with areas of operation in which Russian forces have been largely unable to secure substantial gains or have suffered major losses. Russian milbloggers do not appear to be hypothesizing about the removal of either the Central Military District (CMD) Commander Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev or Southern Military District Commander (SMD) Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev. Neither the CMD nor the SMD are heavily committed in critical areas of the front, and Mordvichev and Kuzovlev have therefore likely avoided becoming targets of Russian command skepticism because they are not currently responsible for significant failures. The muted information space response to the reported firings is additionally indicative of broader disillusionment with Russian military command, which milbloggers have argued for months needs systemic overhauls. Many milbloggers have consistently praised former Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin despite the fall of west (right) bank Kherson Oblast under his command, however. One milblogger claimed on March 27 that Surovikin may be responsible for defending against a future Ukrainian counteroffensive and claimed that Surovikin’s military strategy is better than that of Russian Chief of the General Staff and current Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Valery Gerasimov. Russian authorities and some milbloggers have fixated on identifying and punishing individual commanders for the failures of their troops, rather than interrogating and resolving endemic issues in Russian command and control, force structure, and deployment patterns.
Russian milbloggers also had a muted response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 25 announcement that Russia will deploy tactical nukes to Belarus, suggesting that Putin’s messaging is aimed at Western rather than domestic Russian audiences. Many milbloggers and news aggregators simply amplified various points from Putin’s March 25 interview that artificially inflate the capabilities of the Russian military and defense industrial base (DIB) to sustain a prolonged war effort, as well as the nuclear weapons deployment announcement itself. One milblogger correctly noted that deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus does not improve Russia’s military situation in Ukraine, claiming that Russian forces need to instead prepare for a future Ukrainian counteroffensive, and criticized continued Russian military command and organization issues. Another milblogger recognized that Putin targeted his nuclear weapons deployment announcement at the West and praised the prospect of being the ”nightmare” of the US.
Russian military leadership likely committed limited higher quality Wagner Group elements to the offensive on Avdiivka, potentially to reinforce recent limited tactical successes in the area. Ukrainian Tavriisk Defense Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivyskyi stated on March 25 that Ukrainian intelligence forecasts that Wagner may appear in the Avdiivka direction. A Russian VK user posted an obituary on March 26 announcing the death of Wagner Group fighter Yevgeny Malgotin in Avdiivka on March 20. The obituary claims that Malgotin had prior military experience and fought with the 2nd Russian Volunteer Detachment of the Army of Republika Sprska (commonly referred to as the Bosnian Serb Army) in 1992. Malgotin appears to have been a seasoned fighter, and likely represents the higher caliber of fighter that comprises Wagner’s special operations forces. While Wagner has heavily committed a majority convict-based force to operations near Bakhmut, there is likely a contingent of higher-quality operators at various locations in Ukraine. Russian military leadership may have decided to deploy certain Wagner elements to the Avdiivka area in recent weeks to support exhausted and lower-quality Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) elements in their efforts to take the settlement. If such Wagner fighters have been fighting near Avdiivka, their involvement may help explain the limited tactical gains made in the area over the past week.
Key inflections in ongoing military operations on March 27:
- Rumors about the dismissal of Russian Eastern Group of Forces (Eastern Military District) Commander Colonel General Rustam Muradov on March 27 generated a muted and cynical response in the Russian information space.
- Russian milbloggers also had a muted response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 25 announcement to deploy tactical nukes to Belarus, underscoring that Putin’s messaging is aimed at Western rather than domestic Russian audiences.
- Russian military leadership likely committed limited higher quality Wagner Group elements to the offensive on Avdiivka, potentially to reinforce recent limited tactical successes in the area.
- Russian forces made marginal gains around Svatove and Russian forces continue ground attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and made gains within Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Russia appears to be increasingly deploying elements of conventional formations in a piecemeal fashion along the entire frontline, including in southern Ukraine.
- Russian authorities continue forming new volunteer battalions subordinate to irregular formations.
- Ukrainian partisans conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against an occupation law enforcement officer in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast