A false statement by Russia's Defense Ministry about the scale of the "retaliatory strike" on the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk — allegedly in response to a strike on Makiyivka — provoked criticism even in Russian pro-war circles, where they did not believe the official story, stated the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in a report published Jan. 8.
Attempts by the Russian Defense Ministry to claim that Russian troops allegedly carried out a "retaliatory operation" for a Ukrainian Armed Forces strike on a Russian barracks in Makiyivka has caused further discontent in the Russian information space, the ISW said. Reportedly, Russian forces carried out this alleged strike on Jan. 8 on forward Ukrainian positions in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, which the Russian Defense Ministry claimed killed more than 600 Ukrainian servicemen.
However, this claim is false: a Finnish reporter visited the site of the sup-posed strike and noted that the strike was on an empty school. Several Russian "military experts" reacted negatively to the Russian Defense Ministry's statement, pointing out that the ministry often releases falsified statements, and criticized the Russian military leadership for fabricating the whole story of "retaliation" for the strike on Makiyivka instead of hold-ing the Russian leadership responsible for these losses.
The spokesman of the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Serhiy Cherevatyi also exposed Moscow's lies about the alleged deaths of 600 Ukrainian servicemen in Kramatorsk.
"This information is as true as the information that they destroyed all our HIMARS,” Cherevatyi said.
“This is an information operation of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in response to the successful actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to destroy their large clusters of personnel, their warehouses, logistics with our high-precision destruction systems. They do not have such an opportunity.”
This is not the first time that the Russian Defense Ministry has used the phrase "retaliation" or similar wording — but it has only caused backlash from many representatives of the Russian military community, the ISW noted.
At the beginning of the massive campaign of strikes on Ukraine's critical infrastructure in October 2022, the Russian Defense Ministry similarly called them "retaliation" for an explosion on Kerch Strait bridge, connecting occupied Crimea to the Russian mainland. The Russian ministry tried to use this wording partly to mitigate new demands from the pro-war community to "take revenge" on Ukraine, but only provoked a slew of responses from "military leaders" describing other cases for which the Russian Ministry of Defense allegedly also had to "take revenge". Thus, the Russian Defense Ministry has created a "loop" of backlash, the ISW’s analysts write.
The UK Ministry of Defence also confirmed the Institute's earlier assessment that Russian forces are preparing for possible counteroffensives by Ukraine in Zaporizhzhya or Luhansk oblasts. According to the UK MoD, in recent weeks Russian troops have expanded defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhya Oblast along the Vasylivka-Orikhiv line and are maintaining a large grouping of troops in that area in a manner that suggests Russian commanders are concerned about the possibility of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
Russian troops are now facing two equally problematic scenarios for a counteroffensive, according to the UK’s MoD. The first is a breakthrough of the Zaporizhzhya line by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which could seriously question the "viability" of the Russian land bridge connecting Rostov Oblast with occupied Crimea. The second is a Ukrainian breakthrough in Luhansk Oblast, which could further undermine Russia's attempts to occupy the entire Donbas. The ISW has previously noted signs of Russian preparations for "decisive measures, presumably of a defensive nature" along the Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk Oblast and assessed that the location of Russian forces and the predominance of defensive installations in Zaporizhzhya Oblast suggest that the Russian army may be preparing for potential Ukrainian actions in that area.
Meanwhile, the ISW has speculated that the financial interests of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner mercenary company, may partially explains Wagner’s months-long and costly attempts to seize the town of Bakhmut. The ISW quoted sources in the White House cited by news agency Reuters as saying that Prigozhin's "obsession" with Bakhmut is linked to his desire to take control of the salt and gypsum mines in the area. The ISW has previously reported that Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov is similarly likely to seek business opportunities in occupied Mariupol.
At the same time, Prigozhin is also continuing his attempts to increase his influence and promote his personal interests in Russia, in particular through public activities involving Russian governors. Recently, the Governor of Kursk Oblast, Roman Starovoit, visited a training base used by Wagner mercenaries. After that, some Russian media presented Starovoit's visit to the training ground as an example of behavior for a Russian politician, which further strengthened Prigozhin's image "as a wartime leader in the Russian information space." Presumably, Prigozhin is trying to gain support for the legalization of Wagner in Russia, ISW analysts believe. Current Russian legislation fully outlaws the operation of mercenary companies, though Wagner has yet to face any legal issues despite this fact.
Other conclusions ISW conclusions as of Jan. 8:
- Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated on Jan. 8 that Russia plans to begin domestic production of Iranian-made drones;
- Russian forces continued counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on Jan. 8. Luhansk Oblast Head Serhiy Hayday stated on Jan. 8 that Russian forces transferred several battalions from the Bakhmut area to the Kreminna area;
- Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi stated on Jan. 8 that Russian forces do not control Soledar, and other official Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian forces captured Russian positions near Bakhmut;
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and along the western outskirts of Donetsk City;
- Chechen warlord Kadyrov claimed on Jan. 7 that 300 Chechen Akhmat-1 OMON personnel deployed to Ukraine;
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces used incendiary munitions to strike civilian infrastructure in Kherson City overnight on Jan. 7–8;
- Russian forces are continuing to intensify filtration measures to identify partisans in occupied territories. Russian occupation authorities claimed that likely Ukrainian partisans committed sabotage by mining a gas pipe-line in Luhansk Oblast on Jan. 8;
- Russian occupation authorities intensified passportization efforts in occupied territories on Jan. 8.