As Russia continues 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 seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine—as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Russia briefly suspends grain deal cooperation after Ukraine attacks Black Sea fleet
On October 29, a video emerged of several unmanned surface vehicles striking at least one Grigorovich-class frigate ship in Sevastopol, Crimea. Other footage showed smoke rising near the port in Sevastopol. The extent of the damage is unclear. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed an attack took place against its Black Sea fleet but did not acknowledge any damage to a Grigorovich-class frigate ship. The Black Sea fleet has three Grigorovich-class frigates, all capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles. Later, Russia announced that it would indefinitely suspend its participation in the United Nations-brokered grain export deal with Ukraine due to the attack. Within several days, tough, the Kremlin reversed the decision and said it would restart its participation in the agreement.
Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported on October 28 that Russian officials began issuing eviction notices to Kherson residents. Russian forces have reportedly introduced intensified inspections and checkpoints at roadblocks on the evacuation routes to Russian-occupied Crimea. According to Ukraine’s army, Russian troops are continuing to evacuate civilians from Nova Kakhovka forcibly. Ukrainian forces also claimed that in Beryslav, Russian soldiers are changing into civilian clothing and moving into private residences. The DFRLab cannot confirm this claim at this time.
Russian forces continue to relocate artillery units and weapons from the west bank of the Dnipro River, most likely for redeployment in other directions. On November 3, Kherson’s occupation deputy, Kirill Stremousov, urged Kherson civilians to evacuate and said that Russian forces would most likely head to the east bank of the Dnipro River. Russian troops are likely continuing to prepare their positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River while setting up defensive positions northwest of Kherson and transporting additional forces there. Elite units are reportedly continuing to operate on the west bank of the Dnipro River.
Russian forces have made limited advances toward the strategic town of Bakhmut. On October 23, Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner ground operations there. Wagner fighters were deployed to the frontlines near Bakhmut earlier this year to support Russian forces. The Bakhmut and Donetsk fronts have become a focal point for Wagner’s activities. On October 24, Ukrainian forces recaptured a concrete factory on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut. There has been no significant movement of the Russian forces in that direction since then, but shelling continues. In Donetsk, Russia shelled the towns of Andriivka, Bakhmut, Bakhmutske, Bilohorivka, Verkhnokamyanske, Zelenopillya, Mayorsk, Opytne, Rozdolivka, Siversk, Soledar, and Spirne. Russian sources acknowledged on November 3 that Russian advances near Vuhledar are slow due to Ukrainian resistance and mud.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin publicly criticized Russian oligarchs and elites for living in a “state of comfort” and preventing a total mobilization in Russia. While private mercenary companies are technically illegal in Russia, Prigozhin announced the creation of a “PMC Wagner Center” in St. Petersburg, which he said is scheduled to open on November 4. Prigozhin challenged local government officials who opposed his center to raise their concerns in court. He suggested that he would establish new branches if the St. Petersburg branch is successful.
On November 3, Ukrainian armed forces reported that more than twenty settlements were targeted by Russia, which conducted three missile strikes, twenty-four airstrikes, and over eighty shellings with a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). The settlements include Kupiansk in Kharkiv, Kremenchuk in Poltava, Nevske in Luhansk, Smila in Cherkasy, Nova Kamianka in Kherson, Ternovi Pody in Mykolaiv, and Vodiane, Vuhledar, Krasnohorivka, and Nevelske in Donetsk.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian media reported that 107 Ukrainian servicemen returned home as a result of prisoner exchanges. Seventy-four of them participated in defending the Azovstal steelworks.
In addition, Ukraine’s military intelligence service reported that Iranian officials intend to ship more weapons to Russia, including more than 200 Shahed-136, Mohajer-6, and Arash-2 combat drones to Russia. Ukraine claimed that Iran would send disassembled drones, which Russia would assemble with Russian markings. Reports recently emerged that North Korea is also shipping weapons to Russia. United States intelligence services said North Korea is routing the shipments through the Middle East.
Ukroboronprom, the primary defense conglomerate of Ukraine, said that Ukrainian drones with a flight range of 1,000 kilometers are already being tested and could enter service before the end of the year. This will allow Ukraine to produce its own UAVs and other high-end equipment that can be used for military operations and intelligence gathering.
Elsewhere, Bulgarian parliament voted on November 3 to provide military aid to Ukraine. The caretaker government must submit a decision within thirty days and enter talks with NATO countries to acquire, receive, or deploy defense-enhancing capabilities. Bulgaria has significant stockpiles of Soviet weapons that the Ukrainian army can use on the front lines, including D-20 howitzer shells.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Kremlin-controlled media outlet rehashes claim that Poland plans to annex western Ukraine
On October 19, the pro-Kremlin Polish-language Independent Political Journal (Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny, or NDP) alleged that Poland was preparing to annex western Ukraine. The article claimed that Poland may deploy its army to western Ukraine and that the ruling Law and Justice party may hold a referendum on merging the western regions of Ukraine with Poland. The NDP article also asserted that Russia will take control of the south-eastern Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine in its “special military operation,” claiming that the Kremlin is not interested in taking western Ukraine. In April 2022, NDP’s website was blocked in Poland for spreading false information about the Ukraine war.
Polish media outlet Oko.press investigated NDP in 2021 and reported that the editor-in-chief, Adam Kamiński, was a fictional social media persona. Oko discovered that his Facebook account was using a photo stolen from a Lithuanian orthopedist named Andrius Žukauskas. According to some reports, NDP has used more than twenty inauthentic personas across a network of Polish-language websites, forums, blogs, and Western social media platforms. Marek Gałas is listed as the author of the NDP article about annexing western Ukraine; TV broadcaster Belsat reported that the persona is also fictional.
On October 26, the International Affairs Journal, owned by the Russian Foreign Ministry, reposted a shorter version of the NDP article. On October 27, the website Modern Diplomacy published an article titled, “Poland wants to occupy Western Ukrainian land,” citing the International Affairs Journal and NDP as sources. Modern Diplomacy removed the article after a few days. On October 29, Kremlin-controlled media outlet RIA Novosti published a story on the annexation, citing “Belgian portal Modern Diplomacy.” RIA Novosti did not mention that the original source of the claim was NDP, raising the possibility that RIA Novosti might be trying to obscure the original source of the claim. Claiming that a source is Western-affiliated is a tactic used by Kremlin media to add credibility to their stories.
Bellingcat Executive Director Christo Grozev reported on Twitter that Modern Diplomacy is a Greek-owned portal and that the articles published about Russia and Ukraine are written by authors who also write for pro-Kremlin websites. In May 2022, the DFRLab reported on the emergence of forged documents and fake images that claimed Poland intended to annex western Ukraine.
—Givi Gigitashvili, Research Associate, Warsaw, Poland
Russian media amplify claim that Finland will place nuclear weapons close to Russian border after joining NATO
On October 26, the Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a story with the headline, “The government’s proposal on NATO membership: no restrictions on nuclear weapons in Finland.” The article was picked up by multiple Kremlin-controlled media outlets, including RBC, MK, URA.ru, Life.ru, Inosmi.ru, RIA Novosti, Krasnaya Vesna, Gazeta.ru, Ekonomika Segodnya, RIAFAN.ru, News.ru, and REN.tv.
On November 1, Finnish public broadcaster YLE quoted Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who addressed the nuclear weapons rumor by saying, “We shouldn’t [make] any preconditions. This isn’t something that we are actively now discussing. We are waiting to become members and then these kinds of matters can be discussed.”
Nevertheless, some Russian-language media outlets continued to report that Finland will house nuclear weapons on its territory. For instance, Litovsky Kurer, a Kremlin-approved Russian-language newspaper in Lithuania, wrote an article with the headline, “Finland will allow NATO to deploy nuclear weapons on the border with Russia – media.” The body of the article hedged the claim, saying that “Finland may allow NATO to deploy nuclear weapons on the border with Russia if the country’s application to join the Alliance is ratified.” Similarly, StopKor, a Russian-language Ukrainian media outlet, published the headline, “Finland to deploy NATO nuclear weapons on border with Russia – media.” Yet, the body of the article stated, “The Finnish government is ready for full cooperation with NATO. If it is necessary to deploy nuclear weapons, then this will be done.” In addition, Krasnaya Vesna, a pro-Kremlin media outlet in Russia, published an article with the headline, “Media: Finland will allow NATO to place nuclear weapons on the border with Russia.” Krasnaya Vesna cited Newsweek as its source. Newsweek reported on the matter with the headline, “Finland may allow NATO to place nuclear weapons on border with Russia.”
—Nika Aleksejeva, Lead Researcher, Riga, Latvia