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.
New campaign seeks Russian National Guard recruits to fight in Ukraine
The Russian National Guard, a private Hungarian foreign legion, and the Convoy private military company have all launched campaigns recently that seek to recruit soldiers to fight in Ukraine. The National Guard campaign first appeared in an August 31 post by Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel Reverse Side of the Medal (RSOTM). The enrollment post appears to target members of military unit 3641, located in Akushkino, not far from Moscow. The post mentions the creation of a new Separate Operational Purpose Division, or ODON, entitled 116 ODON. It states that soldiers will relocate to Ukraine to support the war effort.
The DFRLab found further details posted on the Russian social media platform VKontakte relating to the creation of 116 ODON. On September 1, the account Ombudsman of the Police (Омбудсмен полиции) shared a document that claims the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian National Guard set out to establish 116 ODON. The document appears to have been signed on August 24 by the Russian defense ministry office in the region of Kalmykia. The DFRLab has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the document. A similar VKontakte post appeared in early August.
The DFRLab also reviewed a post recruiting soldiers for the Hungarian private battalion known as Saint Istvan Legion. The post reportedly promises Russian citizenship and veteran status to enrolled soldiers.
In addition, the open-source investigative project All Eyes on Wagner shared a screenshot of a Telegram post indicating that the Convoy private military company has launched a new recruitment campaign for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators in Ukraine and Africa. The Telegram post indicates that the organization founded by Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian governor of occupied Crimea, is looking to recruit operators of “Orion” and “Sirius” UAVs. Convoy reportedly falls under Wagner commander Konstantin Pikalov’s orders, according to an investigation by Ukrainska Pravda.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium
Wagner fighters reportedly denied state medical care, combat veteran status
According to an investigation by the independent Russian news outlet Mozhem Obyasnit (MO), Russian hospitals are denying medical care to wounded Wagner Group fighters. The report also claims that some fighters have found that their medical coverage was terminated.
MO noted that two days after Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s deadly plane crash in August 2023, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Wagner had received government funding. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin then stated that Wagner was entirely funded by the Russian state. MO obtained purported screengrabs from Telegram chats between Wagnerites and their family members in which the fighters complain about being pushed out of hospitals without medical care or documentation. In one of the screengrabs, the administrator of the chat asked chat members to contact a call center with a question about payments. “After the death of Prigozhin, it became impossible to get through,” MO reported.
In addition, the Russian outlet Tochka reported on Wagner fighters who fought in Ukraine being denied combat veteran status, state pardon documents, and military awards. This is particularly notable for Wagner fighters killed in action, as their status impacts the benefits received by the fighter’s family, which can include monthly payments, free transport and medication, communal services, and property tax concessions.
Earlier in 2023, the Russian parliament passed a law that grants combat veteran status to individuals participating in the war in Ukraine. This summer, the Russian government published a decree stating that all volunteers and anyone contracted with an organization contributing to fulfilment of tasks by the Russian army will receive a relevant certificate. State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who co-authored the law, confirmed that the law also applied to Wagner fighters. According to Tochka, however, the Kremlin has not implemented the decree.
—Eto Buziashvili, research associate, Tbilisi, Georgia
Two companies connected to Prigozhin reportedly begin liquidation procedures
Independent Russian news outlet Agenstvo reported that two companies connected to Prigozhin began liquidation procedures at the end of August. Maximum LLC and Andromeda LLC, both registered in Saint Petersburg, initiated liquidation one week after Prigozhin’s death in late August 2023.
According to Agenstvo, Andromeda’s operations are unclear, while Maximum reportedly engaged in information technology, generating around six million rubles ($61,000) in revenue in 2022.
Government contracts were the cornerstone of Prigozhin’s business operations. Agenstvo found 150 Russian legal entities connected to Prigozhin, whose reported total revenue in 2022 amounted to 75 billion rubles ($766 million), including 65 billion rubles ($663 million) earned via state contracts.
—Eto Buziashvili, research associate, Tbilisi, Georgia
US neo-Nazi support for Azov Battalion utilized to amplify anti-Ukraine narratives
A September 2 video of neo-Nazis marching in Orlando, Florida featured Christopher Pohlhaus, leader of the US neo-Nazi group Blood Tribe, chanting “heil Ukraine!” and “heil Azov!” in reference to the once-far-right Ukrainian Azov Battalion. Another marcher at the rally, Kent McLellan, aka “Boneface,” who in 2012 pleaded guilty to charges of paramilitary training, chanted “long live Ukraine” and “long live Azov” in Ukrainian. Many social media accounts, including on X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, Telegram, and TikTok, used the video to suggest that Ukraine is run by a Nazi regime, a false narrative Putin and many Kremlin-connected figures have repeatedly used to justify his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The DFRLab covered the neo-Nazi march earlier this week.
Additionally, multiple social media posts noted that McLellan claims to have fought in Ukraine with the Azov Battalion, which defended Mariupol until May 2022. McLellan previously commented in social media posts and videos that he fought in Mariupol. In August 2022, he gave an interview to Kremlin-controlled media saying that he was attracted to nationalism in Ukraine and alleged that it was the US Central Intelligence Agency that brought him to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, no evidence has so far come to light that McLellan was in Ukraine in 2022. Aiden Aslin, a British national who Russian forces detained in Mariupol and eventually freed, wrote on X that McLellan has most likely not been in Ukraine, as there are no verifiable clues of locations in Ukraine in photos and videos of him. Aslin added that McLellan couldn’t have escaped the Mariupol siege via evacuation helicopters, as the “only people allowed on those helicopters were [the] severe[ly] injured that needed to get to the hospital.” Additionally, freelance journalist Ron Brynaert pointed out that it is highly unlikely McLellan could have left Mariupol on May 23, 2022, given that he was arrested in Florida on April 1, 2022.
Meanwhile, a widely used photo of McLellan dressed in a military uniform with an Azov chevron contains the forensic hallmarks of the chevron having been digitally added after the fact, according to DFRLab error level analysis conducted via FotoForensics, a free online photo analysis tool.
Despite its proliferation on social media platforms, the video of the Orlando march did not garner much traction among Kremlin-controlled media outlets. The DFRLab identified only one article, published by September 5, 2023, on a fringe Russian-language media outlet.
—Nika Aleksejeva, resident fellow, Riga, Latvia
—Meghan Conroy, resident fellow, Washington, DC
Alleged Russian foreign policy paper raises questions in Moscow
On September 1, Russian news aggregator Newsland published a supposedly leaked report titled, “Problems and lessons of the recent history of domestic foreign policy (and opportunities for correction).” Newsland alleged that it was authored by Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics and other academics. Some independent academics have suggested that the report is fake, and one of the alleged authors denied involvement in a statement to Radio Liberty, which published a panel of experts debating its authenticity. At this point in time, there is no conclusive evidence to prove or disprove its provenance.
The paper noted what it considers to be prior missteps by Russia, including “orientation on the West and West-dominated international organizations.” It concluded that the only way forward in Russia-West relations is “confrontation, hybrid, mediated war” with “a high risk of direct confrontation.” The document added that Russia should “dictate” rather than “be involved in” the conflict. It also stated that mediation of the relationship between the United States and Russia could happen only after a “strategic loss of the United States that will force the United States to get back to isolationism,” adding that de-escalation efforts could be a façade because the only guarantors of Russian security are Russia and its close allies.
Another foreign policy error noted by the authors is the absence of “Russian ideology” promotion. According to the paper, the West’s fear of anti-European ideology motivates its interference in Russian affairs. The authors also suggest appropriating the work of nationals from post-Soviet countries and treating them as if they were Russian nationals. Notably, it claimed that non-Russian writers such as Taras Shevchenko (Ukrainian), Mukhtar Auezov (Kazakh), and Chynggyz Aytmatov (Kyrgyz) should be counted as Russians to publicly enhance the prestige of the Russian language.
In a section titled “Ukrainian failure,” the paper lamented “investing in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapse” with an “underestimation of Ukrainian nationalism.” The authors expressed regret that Russia did not launch its invasion two to three years earlier and suggested the use of “ideological processing” and “extrusion of nationalist elements” to solidify the occupation and fully integrate southern and eastern Ukraine into Russia. It also proposed that Russia disregard attempts to control the rest of Ukraine and instead focus on “destroying transport, energy, and industrial infrastructure” to “create a friendly buffer” between Russia and the West.
Another section of the report discussed nuclear nonproliferation policies, claiming they are ineffective and only beneficial to the United States. It described the potential presence of nuclear weapons in Germany, Poland, or Ukraine as problematic, but believe that it would be easy to prevent via “political measures or a preventive strike.” At the same time, the report noted that Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear weapons “with hidden Russian support” would decrease those nations’ dependence on the United States.
While the paper’s authenticity remains an open question, Radio Liberty noted that it demonstrated positions commonly held by members of Russia’s intellectual elite. The paper also offered insight into Russia’s potential motivations for invading Ukraine beyond the far-fetched and disconnected justifications offered by Putin and the Kremlin prior to the February 2022 invasion.
—Roman Osadchuk, research associate