As Russia expands its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than five years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the US, NATO, and the European Union, DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
War crimes and human rights abuses
Additional units from Georgian breakaway regions join Russian offensive
On March 25, Vladimir Anua, de-facto defense minister of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, confirmed that Abkhazia would provide military support to Russia. The statement was released after Abkhazian leader Aslan Bzhania met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
On March 26, an additional 150 troops were sent to Ukraine from Tskhinvali, the occupied capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Over the past week, footage has emerged online depicting the movement of military units from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
On March 19, TikTok footage depicted the mobilization of military units from Russia’s 7th military base in Gudauta, Abkhazia. The DFRLab geolocated the footage to Gudauta central railway station, moving northwest towards Russia. The convoy appears to have arrived in Russia by March 24, as the Telegram channel ДвіЩ (“two” in Ukrainian) posted a video reportedly of the same convoy heading to Ukraine via Sochi, Russia.
The DFRLab geolocated the video to an area near the village of Chemitokvadzhe in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai region.
Images published by Yuriy Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist and editor at Censor.net, suggest that some units from Russia’s 7th military base were in Ukraine as of March 21. According to Butusov, documents from Russia’s 7th military base were discovered after a Ukrainian airstrike targeted Russian units near the villages of Pisky and Konstyantynivka in Mykolaiv Oblast.
Meanwhile, on March 26, footage appeared on South Ossetia Telegram channels and Facebook pages showing a military convoy leaving Russia’s 4th military base in Tskhinvali. That same day, a tank with an Ossetian flag was spotted in Melitopol, Ukraine. The Twitter user @visionergeo geolocated the footage to the city’s southern entrance. The tank is likely heading towards Mariupol or Huliaipole, according to Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team.
On March 27, another video allegedly depicting South Ossetian fighters appeared on Telegram channels. The video caption said that South Ossetian fighters fired a 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank guided missile at Ukrainian positions. The exact date and location of the alleged strike are unknown.
North Ossetian units are also fighting in Ukraine. North Ossetia is firmly part of Russia, while South Ossetia is a Georgian region that Russia recognized after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. The Ossetian tricolor flag is used by both North and South Ossetia. This means that it is challenging to attribute emerging footage to North or South Ossetian units without further details.
—Sopo Gelava, Research Associate, Tbilisi, Georgia
Ukraine Army claims units of Russian forces retreating and regrouping in Belarus
On March 27, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that Russian units in northern Ukraine were withdrawing to Belarus to regroup. According to the report, Russian units from the 35th Combined Arms Army of the Eastern Military District have retreated to Belarus through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The Ukrainian Army said Russian troops were regrouping and restoring armor capabilities because of “significant losses inflicted by Ukrainian forces.”
There is limited open-source evidence to confirm the Ukrainian Army’s statement. However, some civilian footage surfaced online on March 27, showing the Russian military moving toward Mazyr, Belarus, along the R-31 highway. These vehicles may be coming from Naroulya, a Belarusian town close to the border with Ukraine, but at the time of writing, the DFRLab could not confirm whether these units came from Ukraine or had remained in Belarus. Western media outlets, including The Hill and the New York Times, reported on the alleged Russian retreat.
—Lukas Andriukaitis, Associate Director, Brussels, Belgium
Russian military leaders not Luhansk separatist leader announces plans to hold referendum joining Russia in public for weeks
Leonid Pasechnik, head of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) said on March 27 that the republic plans to hold a referendum on the region joining Russia. However, after Pasechnik’s statement, his foreign policy advisor, Rodion Miroshnik, clarified that it could be challenging to conduct a referendum amid ongoing military activities. Miroshnik said that despite 90 percent of LNR territory being “liberated,” some large cities remain under the control of the Ukrainian army, and LNR authorities want all residents to have the opportunity to participate in the referendum, which at the moment seems to be impossible.
Russian officials have differed in their response to the supposed LNR referendum. Russian Senator Andrey Klishas argued that since Russia has recognized the LNR as an independent state, it has the right to make independent decisions based on its constitution. Meanwhile, Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the Duma’s committee on relations with the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, believes “it is not the right time” to hold a referendum in the LNR. He argued that holding a referendum was unwise because most of the population of LNR and the People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) had been evacuated.
On March 25, General Sergei Rudskoy, Deputy Chief of Russia’s General Staff, announced that Russia had completed the “first stage” of its military “operation” in Ukraine. Rudskoy said the focus would shift to “achieving the main goal – the liberation of Donbas.” He also shared the misleading claim that Russia attacked Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities to prevent Ukrainian forces from “strengthening their grouping in Donbas” until Russia could completely liberate the DNR and LNR. Russia may give the green light to hold a referendum if the separatists gain control of the Donbas territories currently under Ukrainian control.
Crimean authorities held a similar “referendum” in 2014 on the reunification of Crimea with Russia, which led to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. The Crimean referendum was declared illegitimate by Ukraine, and most countries have not recognized the results.
A 2019 poll conducted by the Centre for East European and International Studies found that 55 percent of people living in the separatist-held areas of Donbas expressed an interest in becoming part of Ukraine, while 27 percent preferred to join Russia but maintain a special autonomous status.
—Givi Gigitashvili, Research Associate, Warsaw, Poland
Russian officials, media propose going beyond Ukraine and target other countries, including NATO states
Deputy of the Moscow City Duma Sergei Savostyanov proposed that Russia should expand its “special operation for denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine” and include the Baltic countries, Poland, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. According to Savostyanov, “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” would improve security for the people of Russia, but targeting additional countries would ensure Russia’s security even more so.
Kremlin media and commentators have previously suggested going beyond Ukraine and targeting NATO countries. On the TV show hosted by the Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyev, Kremlin commentators recently threatened Europe with a nuclear strike if NATO deployed a peacekeeping contingent to Ukraine.
—Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Washington DC
Russian independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta suspends operations after warnings from state censor
On March 28, Russian independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta announced it was suspending operations until the end of Russia’s “special operation on the territory of Ukraine” after Russian watchdog Roskomnadzor issued it a second warning for violating Russian law. Roskomnadzor stated that Novaya Gazeta was issued the second warning due to publishing a material on its website in which the outlet had failed to properly mark a non-profit organization listed as a “foreign agent” in Russia.
Roskomnadzor issued its first warning to Novaya Gazeta on March 22 for the same reason and demanded from the outlet to immediately edit text and identify an NGO as a “foreign agent” organization in accordance with Russian legislation. After receiving the first warning, Novaya Gazeta commented that they were not aware of what Roskomnadzor was referred to in its warning. According to Russian legislation, receiving two warnings from Russian watchdog within a one-year period can result in Roskomnadzor revoking an outlet’s publishing license. Novaya Gazeta has previously complied with Russian media restrictions and abstained from using the word “war,” replacing it with “special operation” in quotes in its coverage of the war in Ukraine.
On March 22, before the outlet received the first warning, Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief of Dmitry Muratov announced he was planning to auction his Nobel Peace Prize medal to support Ukrainian refugees. And the day prior to suspending operations, Muratov asked several Russian journalists interviewing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to ask a number of questions on behalf of himself and Novaya Gazeta. Roskomnadzor and Russia’s prosecutor’s office prohibited Russian media outlets from publishing Zelenskyy’s interview.
—Givi Gigitashvili, Research Associate, Warsaw, Poland
Spotify ends all service in Russia after a month of compromises
On March 25, the music streaming platform Spotify announced that it would be suspending all service in Russia. Spotify launched in Russia in July 2020. As of late 2021, the Spotify smartphone app was receiving more than 600,000 downloads per month in the country. Spotify cited Russia’s March 11 “fake news” law as the impetus for this decision, which criminalized speech against the Russian military with up to fifteen years in prison. Complying with this law would likely have required significant censorship of Spotify’s catalogue of music and podcasts.
This decision marks the end of a month-long balancing act in which Spotify had weighed mounting boycott pressures against its desire to maintain the “global flow of information” for Russian users. On February 26—two days after the invasion began—Spotify was still committed to establishing a legal entity in Russia in compliance with the demands of the Russian state censor. By March 3, Spotify had reversed course, closing its Russian office and removing RT and Sputnik content from its service globally. And on March 10, Spotify demonetized all Russian services in order to ensure compliance with US sanctions. With its March 25 announcement, Spotify has ceased streaming entirely.
In early March, Spotify emerged as an unlikely front in the information conflict between Russia and Ukraine. USA Today reported on the rise of seemingly pro-Russian playlists with titles like “Ukraine will have to be bombed” and “Songs that hit harder than Russia’s nuclear weapon in Ukraine.” The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, pressured Spotify to allow artists to re-upload their album covers with Ukrainian flags.
—Emerson T. Brooking, Resident Senior Fellow, Washington DC
Ukraine launches investigation into video alleged to show soldiers shooting Russian POWs
On March 27, a graphic video began to circulate on Telegram allegedly showing Ukrainian soldiers mocking and shooting Russian prisoners of war in the legs. The earliest instance of the video, identified by Mediazona, an independent Russian media outlet now banned in Russia, appeared on the subreddit Ukraine War Report at about 2am GMT.
Journalists working for Kremlin-owned media outlets, such as Aleksandr Kots, Yevgeny Poddubniy, and Andrey Medvedev, wrote about the video on their personal Telegram channels, describing it as a war crime conducted by “Ukrainian Nazis.” All three journalists published their opinions on March 27 between 9am and 10am Moscow time.
Later, the video was shared on Twitter by Maria Dubovikova, a pro-Kremlin political analyst. Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, quote-tweeted Dubovikova saying, “A very serious incident that will require further investigation, maybe the videos in this thread can be geolocated?” Twitter user @zcjbrooker geolocated the possible location to Malaya Rohan, a village close to Kharkiv. The user corroborated his assessments with open-source reports about the village’s liberation on March 25.
On March 27, the Investigative Committee of Russia launched an investigation into the possible war crime. The announcement on the committee’s website speculates that the video was filmed in Kharkiv Oblast.
On the evening of March 27, Valery Zaluzhny, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, wrote on Facebook that the video was “staged” and urged everyone to “consider the realities of information and psychological war.” Later, Oleksiy Arestovich, an advisor to the Ukrainian President’s Office, wrote on Telegram that the video was being verified. “If not fake, the guilty will be punished. If it’s fake, we’ll be more vigilant. Materials like this, and other kinds, have been seen already,” he wrote.
Julian Röpcke, the managing editor for politics at German tabloid BILD, said on Twitter that he believed the video to be real. Ropcke debunked the argument that there was no visible blood by sharing a segment of the footage where blood is clearly seen streaming from the injured men. Olga Skabeeva, the host of the Kremlin propaganda show 60 Minutes, cited BILD’s report and Ropcke’s Twitter account on her Telegram channel.
—Nika Aleksejeva, Lead Researcher, Riga, Latvia