The Kremlin appears to be setting information conditions for a false-flag attack in Belgorod Oblast, Russia, likely in an effort to regain public support for the war in Ukraine. Kremlin propagandists have begun hypothesizing that Ukrainian forces seek to invade Belgorod Oblast, and other Russian sources noted that Russian forces need to regain control over Kupyansk, Kharkiv Oblast, to minimize the threat of a Ukrainian attack. These claims have long circulated within the milblogger community, which had criticized the Russian military command for abandoning buffer positions in Vovchansk in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast following the Russian withdrawal from the region in September. Russian milbloggers have also intensified their calls for Russia to regain liberated territories in Kharkiv Oblast on November 22, stating that such preemptive measures will stop Ukrainians from carrying out assault operations in the Kupyansk and Vovchansk directions. Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov also published footage showcasing the construction of the Zasechnaya Line fortifications on the Ukraine-Belgorod Oblast border. Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin clarified that Wagner is building the Zasechnaya Line after having changed its name from Wagner Line because “many people in [Russia] do not like the activity of private military company Wagner.” Private military companies are illegal in Russia.
Two days of shelling caused widespread damage to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on November 20 and 21. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated on November 21 that there are no immediate nuclear safety and security concerns and that the integrity of all six nuclear reactors and the spent and fresh fuel storage facilities remain uncompromised despite the intense shelling. Russia and Ukraine both accused the other of conducting the artillery strikes on the ZNPP on November 20 and 21. One Russian milblogger referenced a video of the shelling taken by Chechen forces and stated that it appeared the shelling came from positions in Russian-controlled territory south of the ZNPP, not Ukrainian-controlled territory north of the ZNPP. Russian nuclear operator Rosatom Head Alexey Likhachev warned of a nuclear disaster at the ZNPP, and Russian milbloggers largely amplified his statements and called for the transfer of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants to Russian operation. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have staged false flag attacks against the ZNPP and previously reported on Russian forces’ unlawful militarization of the ZNPP. Artillery strikes themselves are unlikely to penetrate the containment units protecting each nuclear reactor and instead pose a greater threat to the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities, which could leak radioactive material and cause a radiological (as opposed to nuclear) disaster if compromised. The continued conflation of radiological and nuclear accidents and the constant discussion of the threat of disaster at the ZNPP is likely part of a wider Russian information operation meant to undermine Western support for Ukraine and frame Russian control of the plant as essential to avoid nuclear catastrophe in order to consolidate further operational and administrative control of Ukrainian nuclear assets and compel elements of the international community to recognize Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory at least obliquely.
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, November 20. This report discusses the rising influence of the milblogger (military correspondent or voenkor) community in Russia despite its increasingly critical commentary on the conduct of the war. The milblogger community reportedly consists of over 500 independent authors and has emerged as an authoritative voice on the Russian war. The community maintains a heavily pro-war and Russian nationalist outlook and is intertwined with prominent Russian nationalist ideologists. Milbloggers’ close relationships with armed forces – whether Russian Armed Forces, Chechen special units, Wagner Group mercenaries, or proxy formations – have given this community an authoritative voice arguably louder in the Russian information space than the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the milbloggers from MoD attacks and protected their independence even as he increases oppression and censorship throughout Russia.
Russian forces are reportedly beginning to reinforce their positions in occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts with personnel from Kherson Oblast and mobilized servicemen. The Ukrainian General Staff reported an increase in Russian military personnel in Luhansk City and noted that Russian forces are housing servicemen in abandoned homes in Krasne and Simeikyne about 30km southeast of Luhansk City. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai stated that Russian forces are transferring the remnants of the Russian airborne units from right (west) bank Kherson Oblast to Luhansk Oblast. Luhansk Oblast Military Administration added that a part of redeploying Russian troops is arriving in Novoaidar, approximately 55km east of Severodonetsk. Advisor to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko also noted the arrival of redeployed personnel and military equipment to Mariupol, stating that Russian forces are placing 10,000 to 15,000 servicemen in the Mariupol Raion. Andryushenko stated that newly mobilized men are deploying to the presumably western Donetsk Oblast frontline via Mariupol. Russian forces are reportedly attempting to disperse forces by deploying some elements in the Hulyaipole direction in eastern Zaporizhia Oblast. Russia will also likely commit additional mobilized forces in the coming weeks, given that mobilized units of the Russian 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Tank Army have finished their training in Brest Oblast, Belarus. Russian forces will likely continue to use mobilized and redeployed servicemen to reignite offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast and maintain defensive positions in Luhansk Oblast.
Russian officials are preparing for further covert mobilization efforts even as the fall conscription cycle is underway, likely further flooding the already overburdened Russian force generation apparatus in such a way that will be detrimental to the development of mobilized and conscripted servicemen. Russian Telegram channels actively discussed indicators on November 18 that the Kremlin is preparing for a second mobilization wave and circulated an image of a draft summons received by a citizen of St. Petersburg who was reportedly told to appear for mobilization in January 2023 despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the formal end of partial mobilization on October 31. Nationalist milbloggers additionally circulated claims that general mobilization will begin in December or January. An independent Russian outlet published an investigation on November 18 showing that state structures and enterprises are continuing to prepare their employees for mobilization by sending them to various training programs and mobilization-related educational courses. Another Russian outlet noted that the Odintsovo garrison military court in Moscow Oblast inadvertently confirmed that mobilization is continuing despite its formal end. The court reportedly accused a mobilized soldier of beating his commander on November 13 “during the performance of his duties of military service or in connection with the performance of these duties during the period of mobilization,” which indicates that the court is operating on the legal basis that mobilization is still very much underway. The Kremlin has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has no need to sign a decree formally ending the mobilization period, as ISW has previously reported.
Russian forces conducted another massive wave of missile strikes across Ukraine on November 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops launched five airstrikes and 25 cruise missile strikes at civilian infrastructure objects in Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv oblasts throughout the day. Ukrainian Air Force Command noted that Ukrainian air defense forces destroyed four cruise missiles, five Shahed-136 drones, and two Kh-59 guided missiles. Russian forces conducted the largest missile attack since the start of the war on November 15, and as ISW has previously assessed, such missile campaigns are consuming Russia’s already depleted store of precision munitions.
Negotiations cannot end the Russian war against Ukraine; they can only pause it. The renewed Russian invasion in February 2022 after eight years of deadly “ceasefire” following the first Russian invasions of 2014 demonstrates that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not rest until he has conquered Kyiv. Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion this year shows that Ukrainians will not easily surrender. The conflict is unresolvable as long as Putinism rules the Kremlin. Negotiations won’t change that reality. They can only create the conditions from which Putin or a Putinist successor will contemplate renewing the attack on Ukraine’s independence. Before pressing Ukraine to ask Russia for talks we must examine the terms Ukraine might offer Russia, the dangers of offering those terms, and, more importantly, the likelihood that Putin would accept them.
Protest activity continued to surge on November 16, occurring in at least 29 cities in 19 provinces. Protests will likely continue throughout Iran on November 17—the final day of the three-day commemoration of the Bloody Aban protest wave in November 2019—and concentrate in Sistan and Baluchistan on Friday, November 18. Security forces are continuing to crack down and use lethal force but are not using their full capabilities, likely to avoid angering protesters further and creating more 40-day commemoration ceremonies around which demonstrators will rally. The regime continues to seem like it does not have a coherent theory about how to address the protests, likely due to disagreements within the political and security establishment.
Russian sources and proxy officials are flagrantly touting the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. Prominent Russian milbloggers began circulating a multi-part documentary series on November 9 featuring several Ukrainian children from Donbas after being adopted into Russian families. The documentary series claims that Russian officials have evacuated over 150,000 children from Donbas in 2022 alone. It is unclear exactly how Russian sources are calculating this figure, and Ukrainian officials previously estimated this number to be 6,000 to 8,000. Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov additionally stated he is working with Russian Federation Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova to bring “difficult teenagers” from various Russian regions and occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to Chechnya to engage in “preventative work” and “military-patriotic education.” Lvova-Belova has continually advocated for deportations and adoptions of Ukrainian children and herself adopted a child from Mariupol. Forced adoption programs and the deportation of children under the guise of vacation and rehabilitation schemes likely form the backbone of a massive Russian depopulation campaign that may amount to a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and constitute a wider ethnic cleansing effort, as ISW has previously reported.
Russian forces conducted the largest set of missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure since the start of the war. Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ignat reported on November 15 that Russian forces launched about 100 Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, primarily against Ukrainian critical infrastructure facilities. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces targeted Ukrainian infrastructure with ten drones. Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Russian forces struck targets in Kyiv as well as in Rivne, Zhytomyr, Lviv, Khmelnytskyi, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Vinnytsia, Odesa, Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Volyn, and Kharkiv oblasts.