May 23, 2023

Sitrep for May 22–23 (as of 10:00 a.m.)

Strikes on the Territory of Ukraine

On May 22, Russian forces hit a Ukrainian ammunition depot in Kramatorsk which is confirmed by videos filmed by eyewitnesses showing a secondary detonation.

Also on May 22, the Dnipropetrovsk region was attacked with loitering munitions and cruise missiles. At first the Ukrainian air defense was reported to have shot down 15 loitering munitions and four cruise missiles, later the data was updated: there were 20 drones and 16 missiles, some of which hit their targets — an industrial building and a fire station were significantly damaged. The pro-Russian Telegram channel Voenny Osvedomitel [Military Informant] noted that the burned-out pickup trucks are suspiciously similar to those used by the AFU. However, we believe that they actually belonged to the Ukrainian fire service — the same trucks can be seen in a photo taken earlier.

On May 22, the pro-Russian Telegram channel Fighterbomber (associated with the Russian Air and Space Forces) published information about a Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter shot down the day before. There is no visual evidence or obituaries confirming that fact, but according to indirect data published in the channel, we can conclude that the Russian aircraft was shot down over the Black Sea by a Ukrainian S-300 air defense system deployed near Odesa (despite the fact that a few days ago the coordinates of the latter fell into the hands of the RuAF, they did not have time to suppress it, which led to the "natural result," and the launcher "left safe and sound awaiting for state awards").

On the evening of May 22, there was a drone attack on Belgorod. It is reported that the targets of the strike were the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of the Interior. There is no information about any destruction yet. According to some reports, an air defense system was active in Belgorod, and the attacking drones were shot down.

Saboteurs Breakthrough into the Belgorod Region

First of all, it should be noted that, based on the analysis of all available data, we have found no evidence (except for unsubstantiated claims) of the involvement of the "Freedom of Russia Legion" in the breakthrough; we still have no confirmation of its existence as a fully-fledged combat unit. The only statement regarding this breakthrough was filmed by the "Legion" representatives apparently on the territory of Ukraine, and subsequently, they only published textual reports. All videos of the actions of the saboteurs on Russian territory (that are known to us) were filmed by members of the Russian Volunteer Corps only.

During the night, or early morning on May 22, a unit of the Russian Volunteer Corps crossed the Russian border and invaded the Belgorod region using combat vehicles (there is a video near a road sign in Bezlyudovka). This became possible because the border is primarily guarded by border guards and conscripts. The vulnerability of the border had already been exploited by the Russian Volunteer Corps during raids in the Bryansk region.

According to the Belgorod region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, border areas have been under fire from the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 9 a.m.

Videos of strikes at the Grayvoron checkpoint on the Russia-Ukraine border have emerged; there is also footage of a tank and HMMWVs arriving at this checkpoint, as well as military personnel from the Russian Volunteer Corps standing next to a killed border guard.

According to the pro-Russian Telegram channel Rybar, a total of two tanks, an armored personnel carrier and nine armored vehicles entered Russian territory at the Grayvoron checkpoint.

Having penetrated deeper into Russian territory, the saboteurs entered the villages of Kozinka and Glotovo and approached the settlement of Gora-Podol (i.e., the very edge of Grayvoron). Residents of Grayvoron recorded a video with sounds of shooting, reportedly from a BMP infantry fighting vehicle.

At 5 p.m., the Shot Telegram channel reported that 80 saboteurs on two tanks and two BTR armored personnel carriers were again present in the vicinity of Kozinka village, where Russian forces were pushing them away. It became known that a MaxxPro armored vehicle was abandoned during the withdrawal (it is unclear if it was damaged, as it is not visually noticeable). Also, a photo appeared showing a killed soldier in a trench (it is unknown where and how it was made, but it may be the second person killed as a result of the breakthrough), as well as a video with an allegedly captured soldier.

Various sources reported that many residents of the region were evacuating by car (creating traffic jams on exit roads) or by evacuation bus.

By 6 p.m., Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov declared a counter-terrorism operation in the region, which implies control of phone communications, restricted access to certain territories, requisition of vehicles, and other measures.

The VChK-OGPU Telegram channel [the name is a reference to the VCHK and OGPU, which were the intelligence and state security services in the early Soviet Union] published a list of Russian servicemen wounded in clashes with saboteurs. Military units to which some of these people relate belong to the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense (12th GUMO). We assume that these soldiers were the first to arrive at the spot simply because they were closer than other units and not at all because there was any real danger to a storage base for "mothballed" components of nuclear weapons located in the Grayvoronsky district.

The Baza Telegram channel claimed that 39 saboteurs had allegedly been killed by the evening of May 22. There is no evidence of this fact, and we are highly skeptical of these claims. (After this sitrep was recorded, the Russian Defense Ministry officially stated 70 killed saboteurs).

A video with a captured armored personnel carrier, which many journalists mistakenly called a tank, was published (note that it had a Russian Volunteer Corps marking on it, not a "Freedom of Russia Legion" one). We suppose that in the following video, where the representative of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Ilya Bogdanov, says, "The Russian Volunteer Corps is working," this APC is already moving in the direction of Ukraine. Since there is no objective evidence of ongoing fighting, we are inclined to believe that the saboteurs have already left Russian territory (this fact was later confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry).

According to Russian President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the sabotage purpose is to shift the focus away from the fighting for Bakhmut and "minimize" the political effect of its possible loss by Ukraine. Operations of entering Russian territory can be carried out any time, so now, when Yevgeny Prigozhin [Russian oligarch, confidant of Vladimir Putin and the owner of the Wagner Group] announces the complete capture of Bakhmut, it is undoubtedly the right time to turn attention to the new agenda.

In another version, the aim of the breakthrough into Russian territory is to pull the forces of the Russian Ministry of Defense from the front. In our opinion, it is quite plausible, but after the departure of the raid group, there is no urgent need to transfer troops, it is enough to deploy additional units of the Rosgvardia [the National Guard of Russia] and FSB border guards in the border settlements. On the other hand, the current situation in Russia can be described figuratively as follows: they built a fortress for ten billion rubles and forgot to lock the door. Any fortifications do not make any sense if they are at the disposal of a military unable to efficiently use them.

Presumably, the Russian authorities could use this raid to justify the second wave of mobilization, perhaps not very massive (one or several tens of thousands of people under 35 with the most demanded military specialties). It would also enable them to test a new mechanism with electronic draft notices and unified databases, and justify the need to "defend the Motherland" from the invasion of the "Nazis." However, as it can be seen from the reaction of federal media, they prefer not to advertise the incident.

One of the participants of the Russian Volunteer Corps captured in the video is Alexey Lyovkin, who is well-known in the far-right circles in the post-Soviet space. He is the leader of the Russian neo-Nazi black metal band M8L8TH (stands for "Molot Gitlera," meaning "Hammer of Hitler"). The Bellingcat team conducted an investigation that revealed his involvement in a group of neo-Nazis who engaged in acts of vandalism against Jewish and Muslim graves, several attacks, and at least four murders.

Another participant, Ilya Bogdanov (was spotted in the video with the captured BTR armored personnel carrier), used to serve in the Federal Security Service's Border Police and took part in counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus. In 2014, he came to Ukraine and joined the Ukrainian Right Sector Volunteer Corps, where he actively participated in military action, including the battle for the Donetsk airport. During that time, he also became known in Russia as a former FSB operative who defected to Ukraine. After the Russian Volunteer Corps crossed into the Bryansk region of Russia in March 2023, the Investigative Committee of Russia put out a search notice for Bogdanov for his participation in this sabotage attack.

One of the persons seen in the "Freedom of Russia Legion's" video has been identified as Aleksey Dolgov. He used to serve in the Russian Army and was later a resident of Pervomaisk (has been controlled by the so-called Luhansk People's Republic since 2014). After 2014, Dolgov used to visit Tolyatti, Russia, and he upvoted some publications of Russian pro-government journalists on social media. After that, he disappeared from social media for a while, until in 2022 he posted a photo of a Kyiv suburb in Odnoklassniki with a comment that this place "needs to be defended at the moment." As we can see now, he's fighting as part of some military unit on the side of Ukraine.

Mobilization Update

The Russian Ministry of Defense has announced the need to dismiss military personnel who are sick with "socially significant diseases," e.g., tuberculosis, HIV, or hepatitis B or C. We don't rule out the possibility that this announcement might give some ideas to Russian soldiers and officers unable to quit the army, which might lead to cases of deliberate self-infection with such diseases.

In Moscow, the police began to confiscate drones found during routine subway luggage inspections for further examination, despite the owners claiming that the drones had been bought to be donated to the Russian Armed Forces.

The Wagner Group came up with their own medals in honor of the battle of Bakhmut, the operation they call the "Bakhmut Meat Grinder." Perhaps by calling it a meat grinder Yevgeny Prigozhin was originally referring to high Ukrainian losses, but knowing that it was the Wagner Group who suffered the biggest losses because of their "meat assaults," the irony of the name becomes apparent.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced that the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets has already begun.