dispatches
January 31

Sitrep for Jan. 29-31, 2024 (as of 9 a.m. UTC+3)

Frontline Situation Update

As expected, the Russian Armed Forces have not made any further advances in Avdiivka; they are still trying to gain a foothold in the residential neighborhood in the southeast of the town. We believe that capturing Avdiivka is unlikely before March, and by the end of that month, the muddy season will likely have already begun. In recent days, RuAF strikes on the town have intensified: on Jan. 29, a 59-year-old woman sustained fatal injuries, and on Jan. 30 another civilian was killed there. Despite the town having been on the frontline and under fire for more than nine years, a significant number of civilians continue to reside there.

One of the most notable news stories in recent days has been the rumor about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s supposed decision to dismiss the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Some Ukrainian and many Western media, such as The Economist, Financial Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and BBC, reported this, citing their sources. According to the media, the question of resignation has already been decided, but the announcement will be made later. Possible successors mentioned include Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, and General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces. However, both reportedly declined. Allegedly, Zaluzhnyi was offered positions as Ukraine’s ambassador to a country or Secretary of the National Security Council and Defense Council of Ukraine (currently held by Oleksiy Danilov), but he declined both offers. Subsequently, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine issued an official denial, but no more substantive official statement has been released.

It is worth noting that even mere rumors of the Commander-in-Chief’s resignation may have a negative impact on the morale of the Ukrainian Army. This may also affect the coordination of Western assistance, as representatives of the United States were expecting to receive a specific plan from Zaluzhnyi on countering the RuAF in the near future.

While information from unnamed sources can often be unreliable, the unanimity with which a significant number of media outlets reported on the resignation of the AFU Commander-in-Chief is alarming. Among them is The Economist, which published Zaluzhnyi’s essay a few months ago. The media outlet cited sources allegedly close to the Commander-in-Chief.

At this moment, it is difficult to determine whether this story is disinformation or fabricated by sources, or if it accurately reflects the actual situation. It is worth noting that rumors of complicated relations between Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy have been circulating for a long time.

Based on publicly available information about Zaluzhnyi, we consider him to be a competent military leader with a realistic assessment of the situation. A comprehensive assessment of some of his most controversial decisions can only be made after the end of the war. For instance, one such decision was to launch attacks in multiple directions in the summer of 2023, contrary to the opinion of Western advisers.

Budanov is known for several Main Directorate of Intelligence’s successful operations on the one hand and flag photo ops in Crimea that resulted in senseless victims on the other. Syrskyi is mostly known for leading the defense of Bakhmut, during which, as Western media also noted, many experienced commanders were lost. The rest of the Ukrainian generals are even less known to us, so we are not in a position to judge whether any of them can potentially replace Zaluzhnyi.

The Oko Gora Telegram channel has released a series of satellite images capturing the evolution of a specific area in the Belgorod region, located approximately 80 km [50 mi] from the Russian-Ukraine border. These images document the construction of a runway, with initial signs of development appearing on Sept. 8, substantial progress achieved by Oct. 5, and an expanded airport apron or heliport connected to the runway visible by Nov. 14. However, it appears that no accompanying infrastructure, such as hangars or aviation fuel stations have been constructed. Additionally, there are no known military bases or significant transport hubs in close proximity to this runway. Consequently, it seems unlikely that this airstrip can support large aircraft, and its intended purpose remains unclear. It is even possible that this runway may not be related to the war in Ukraine at all, though this also seems improbable. It could have been constructed to launch drones, such as the Shahed-136 (Geran-2) loitering munition, as, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, some have been shot down over the Kharkiv region, bordering the Belgorod region.

Ukraine has released a video, apparently filmed in the Zaporizhzhia region, showing an AFU drone dropping a Ukrainian flag in an open field. While this operation may initially appear to be entirely devoid of purpose, it draws parallels to successful flag photo ops on Snake Island. In those instances, the Russian command systematically ordered the bombing of the island to rid it of Ukrainian flags, expending far greater resources than the AFU invested in planting the flags.

The Russian Ministry of Defense-affiliated Zvezda TV channel, known for highlighting Russian military achievements and the deployment of cutting-edge tanks to the frontline, featured a report from the left bank of the Dnipro River showcasing a 1981 model T-55A tank belonging to the 810th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet. The tank, reportedly operating from a concealed firing position, engaged AFU positions on the right bank of the Dnipro using drone-assisted fire correction. It is worth noting that some propagandists had previously claimed these old tanks were being taken out of storage for dismantling or personnel training purposes.

Another very old Soviet tank, the T-62M, was spotted in the Avdiivka direction near Stepove. Despite earlier assurances that such outdated equipment would never be used in combat, this tank, apparently lacking explosive reactive armor, is positioned directly on the line of contact. It is firing at point-blank range and, at some point, is targeted by an FPV drone.

Western Assistance

In early January, reports surfaced that Kuwait intended to supply Ukraine with M-84 tanks. Originally slated for shipment to Croatia for repairs and modernization, the tanks, donned in desert camouflage, were unexpectedly spotted in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on January 30, even though such transfers typically take months.

Despite Russia's objections, Ecuador has chosen to ship Mi-8 helicopters, various MLRS, a 9K33 Osa surface-to-air missile system and other military equipment to the United States, which it had previously announced it would donate to Ukraine. In response to the Russian Foreign Ministry citing the end-user license agreement, which prohibits the export of Russian or Soviet equipment without authorization, Ecuador's President Noboa stated that these are no longer military vehicles but rather scrap metal, exempting them from such restrictions.

The German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall has announced the delivery of an air defense squadron to Ukraine, consisting of Skynex wheeled self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The squadron includes four guns, a command post and ground surveillance radars. It is worth noting that Skynex is one of the most modern air defense systems. Earlier reports had indicated the possibility of supplying Skynex to Ukraine.

Politico has reported that GLSDB high-precision munitions will arrive in Ukraine on Jan. 31. While the Pentagon confirmed the upcoming delivery, they declined to specify the exact dates. It was revealed that these munitions are not drawn from reserves but are specially produced for Ukraine, with delivery estimated from late 2023 to early 2024. A crucial question still remains unanswered: the quantity of GLSDB munitions to be delivered. Their range is up to 150 km, roughly equivalent to the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile currently in Ukraine’s possession, of which it seems very few were supplied. While awaiting the arrival of GLSDBs, analysts are marking their estimated targeting range on maps. Importantly, this includes Dzhankoi in Crimea, which is a key transport and logistics hub for the delivery of military vehicles and ammunition by rail.

The Financial Times has released an investigation into the circumvention of sanctions through the Dörtyol oil terminal in southern Turkey. At this terminal, Russian oil is blended with other crude, processed oils, and thereby exempted from sanctions. Between January and November 2023, Russia shipped 1.25 million tons of oil through this terminal, with approximately 85% destined for Europe, primarily for Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands. GTS, the Istanbul-based company owning the terminal, claims not to be involved in trading Russian oil. In July 2022, its owner sold a 40% stake to a Dubai-based company ultimately owned by Niels Troost, an oil trader with 30 years of experience. In December 2023, we reported on Bloomberg's investigation into methods of circumventing sanctions on oil sales.

On Jan. 30, a bill was introduced in the Turkish parliament allowing the liquefaction and resale of domestically extracted and "imported from various sources" gas, such as LNG, abroad. If passed, this legislation would facilitate the sale of Russian pipeline gas, providing another means to bypass sanctions.

Simultaneously, some Chinese banks are refusing to engage with Russian companies, fearing secondary sanctions following a recent decree signed by Joe Biden.

Conscription, Mobilization and Contract Military Service

In 2016, Dmitry Tomilin, a former policeman from the Moscow district of Zelenograd, along with his colleague Vitaly Tolpeko, shot a drunken female acquaintance. Following the shooting, they struck her in the head with a tire iron at least four times before disposing of her body in a technical well. In 2017, Tomilin was sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony, and Tolpeko received a 16-and-a-half-year sentence. New information has revealed that Tomilin left his penal colony to go to the war, returned from the frontline and now works as a trainer at a fitness center. Whether Tolpeko fought in the war remains unknown.

A criminal case has been initiated against a Russian soldier accused of murdering Nikolay G., a civilian from Liubymivka in the occupied part of the Kherson region, who went missing on Dec. 22, 2022. After a year of investigation, it was revealed that he had been killed by the deputy commander of a unit, D.E. He pleaded guilty and admitted to taking Nikolay to a landfill, shooting him, and burying his body the next day. D.E. suspected him of disclosing the locations of Russian troops to the AFU. This case is believed to be far from isolated, and each incident requires thorough investigation to identify the perpetrators. However, such incidents rarely become the subject of legal proceedings.

OSINT analyst Def Mon has explained why he has discontinued his regular sitreps. He says he can no longer afford to spend 6 to 10 hours a day monitoring various information channels. Additionally, he acknowledged the emergence of numerous independent teams, such as @geoconfirmed, @Deepstate_UA, @Black_BirdGroup and @UAControlMap, who excel at monitoring the frontline situation, making him no longer the sole source of unbiased information. Moreover, he noted that monitoring the current frontline situation has become less captivating, as it is now relatively predictable and is unlikely to change in the near future.

Def Mon has also asked his audience not to make hateful comments toward those presenting the situation objectively. He highlighted the trend where some pro-Ukrainian commentators have attacked pro-Ukrainian investigators pointing out issues within the AFU. He emphasized that recognizing the existence of a problem is the first step toward finding a solution.

He has also called on OSINT investigators to cooperate instead of competing with each other.  Emphasizing that the best way to counter Russia is through sharing information and sources, he stressed that exclusivity should be focused on analysis rather than public information obtained.

Following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, a new US Marine Corps doctrine, Force Design 2030, was adopted. According to this document, the US Marine Corps will get rid of tanks, numerous helicopters and tube artillery. Some retired generals oppose this shift and are urging Congress to conduct a review. In response, current and former Marines who support the new doctrine have written a collective appeal on the military portal War on the Rocks. In their statement, they defend the changes, asserting that they align with modern requirements and are substantiated, particularly by the experiences of the AFU.

CIA Director William Burns published an essay in Foreign Affairs, as reported by the New York Times, summarizing key points. Burns confirms that if Russian-language videos urging those who want to ‚Äútell the truth about Russia‚ÄĚ to contact the CIA were ineffective, they would not be filmed anymore and would not be so actively promoted. According to him, the current situation represents a rare opportunity to recruit new spies among influential individuals in Russia, which should not be missed.

Burns also acknowledged that concerns about nuclear escalation were valid but suggested they should not be exaggerated.

Moreover, he indirectly admitted that it was Putin who gave the order to kill Yevgeny Prigozhin, adding that many among the Russian elites did not like that Putin was delaying this decision.

According to Burns, it is necessary to continue to support Ukraine, as it would allow a strategic victory over Russia.