Moscow continues to leverage its relationship with Iran to provide military support for the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) intercepted audio on February 10 reportedly of two Shahed drone operators coordinating targets in what the GUR claimed was a “Kurdish dialect interspersed with Farsi words.” ISW cannot identify the dialect in the audio intercept with high confidence, but the fact that the individuals in the audio clip are Shahed operators indicates that they may be operators from Iranian Kurdistan who are likely affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is far less likely that Russia has been able to identify or import individual Kurdish militants with experience operating drones to conduct Shahed strikes on Ukraine. ISW has previously reported that IRGC-affiliated elements are likely supporting Russia’s use Shahed drones by acting as operators and trainers, and the operators in the GUR intercept are likely part of the same line of effort. UK outlet The Guardian relatedly reported on February 13 that Iran has smuggled at least 18 long-range drones to Russia using boats and Iranian state-owned aircraft. The Guardian found that these shipments include six Mohajer-6 drones and 12 Shahed-121 and 129 drones, which have air-to-ground strike capabilities and are designed to deliver a payload to the target and return to base, unlike the Shahed-131 and 136 loitering munition-type drones that Russian forces have widely used in Ukraine thus far. Russian milbloggers noted on February 13 that IRGC-affiliated Il-76 cargo aircraft routinely fly to Russia, suggesting that Tehran consistently provides Moscow with a variety of material using IRGC-affiliated planes. These data points, taken in tandem, suggest that Russia continues to rely on Iran for military and technological support in Ukraine and that some Iranian personnel are likely in Ukraine directly supporting Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, as ISW has previously reported.
The Wagner Group’s continued dissemination of deliberately brutal extrajudicial execution videos and generally graphic content is normalizing an increasing level of brutality and thuggishness within the domestic Russian information space. A Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram channel posted a video on February 12 showing the brutal execution of former Wagner fighter Dmitry Yakushchenko with a sledgehammer. Yakushchenko reportedly was convicted of robbery and murder in Crimea and was serving a 19-year sentence when he joined Wagner. The Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel accused Yakushchenko of defecting to Ukraine and posted a video reportedly of Yakushchenko expressing pro-Ukrainian sentiments while in Ukrainian captivity. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin later posted a video that appears to be of Yakushchenko alive and uninjured and thanking Wagner for forgiveness. Whether the videos of Yakushchenko’s execution or alleged proof-of-life are real—or in what sequence they might have been recorded—are less important than the wider issue highlighted by the creation and dissemination of such videos. Several prominent milbloggers responded positively to the execution video, claiming that such vicious and inhumane killing is an appropriate way for Wagner to deal with betrayal in its ranks. The Wagner-affiliated channel that originally circulated the video claimed that being accused of brutality during a war is like getting fined for speeding during a car race, which is the same remark made by the channel following the summary execution of ex-Wagner fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin in November 2022. The continued justification and glorification of such brutal tactics is symptomatic of the wider pathology that Wagner has come to represent—one where excessive and performative violence is taken as a necessary tactic of military practice. Many military justice systems, including America’s, include death penalties for various crimes, particularly in combat. Militaries fighting for healthy societies that are themselves professional and well-disciplined do not, however, conduct executions with sledgehammers nor do they glory in the vicious brutality of the capital punishments they execute. The Kremlin will likely need to balance its continued desire to use Wagner as a stop-gap measure in pursuing operations in Ukraine with the damage that the increasingly evident chaotic brutality that Wagner has come to institutionalize is inflicting on Russian society.
- Moscow continues to leverage its relationship with Iran to provide military support for the war in Ukraine.
- The Wagner Group’s continued dissemination of deliberately brutal extrajudicial execution videos and generally graphic content is normalizing an increasing level of brutality and thuggishness within the domestic Russian information space.
- Russian military command is facing challenges integrating irregular armed formations with conventional forces.
- Russian authorities are increasingly undertaking measures to promote self-censorship in Russia under the guise of countering increased information threats resulting from the invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly stand by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as his naval infantry continues to suffer catastrophic casualties around Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces made marginal territorial gains near Bakhmut and continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
- Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked Ukrainian positions in western Zaporizhia Oblast while continuing to fortify their positions in the region.
- Russian officials and regime-linked actors continue to exploit assets from captured Ukrainian cities for economic and military benefit.