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.
Revamped Russian cruise missile warship sets sail from Black Sea port operations
Ukrainian media outlet 24TV.ua reported on August 28 that Russia has deployed one of its biggest warships from the port of Novorossiysk in the Black Sea.
The DFRLab compiled satellite imagery evidence and security assessments shared by open-source researchers on social media supporting the claim that the frigate left the harbor. Open-source researcher MT Anderson posted Planet satellite imagery of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which stationed warships and patrol vessels in Novorossiysk. Their post indicated an Admiral Grigoriovich class frigate, the Admiral Essen, was docked next to a patrol vessel on August 24.
🇷🇺BSF: NOVOROSSIYSK🇷🇺— MT Anderson (@MT_Anderson) August 24, 2023
0.5M📷 from 24 Aug 2023 (11:37UTC) of Novorossiysk. Observations⬇️
– Admiral Essen in port
– 4x Pr. 22160 in port
– 3x Improved KILOs
– 1x Ivan Gren
– 2x Ropucha Class (+1 in dry dock)
– 1x Pr 21631
– Weapons Runner SPARTA IV & PIZHMA pic.twitter.com/70bbr1hhiE
On August 28, MT Anderson posted new Planet satellite imagery collected on August 28 showing that the frigate was no longer located in the harbor’s perimeter.
According to open-source maritime monitoring outlet Naval News, the Russian navy reportedly attempted to “camouflage” the Admiral Essen by painting its bow and stern in a darker shade to protect the warship and deflect maritime drone attacks. This apparent paint job is visible on satellite imagery as well. Ukraine conducted multiple drone attacks and missile launches targeting Crimea in July and August 2023, including the use of forty-two maritime drones, according to Reuters. On August 4, Ukraine’s Security Service conducted an attack against the Russian warship Olenogorsky Gornyak, located in Novorossiysk, also using maritime drones.
The Admiral Essen frigate serves as a cruise missile launch platform and can carry up to eight Kalibr missiles, according to the press agency Ukrainian National News. Natalya Humeniuk, Ukraine’s security and defense press secretary, stated that the Admiral Essen is currently the only Russian cruise missile warship deployed to the Black Sea. Its specific location is currently unknown.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium
Finland arrests neo-Nazi battalion chief Yan Petrovsky, sparking extradition rumors
On August 25, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported on Finland’s arrest and possible extradition of a Russian battalion commander wanted in Ukraine for “terrorist crimes.”
Yan Petrovsky, who uses the aliases “Vojislav Torden” and “Slav,” was reportedly apprehended in Finland on July 20, according to Finnish media outlet MTV Uutiset. This is consistent with a message posted to the Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel Grey Zone.
The US Treasury sanctioned Petrovsky in September 2022 and named him as a leader of the neo-Nazi paramilitary group Rusich. An August 25 post on Rusich’s Telegram channel claimed that the group will cease combat missions until Petrovsky is extradited to Russia. “If [our] country cannot protect its citizens, why should citizens protect their country?” the post concluded. The following day, the group posted another message, which claimed, “The contracts ended a long time ago, we fulfilled our obligations during this time.”
Helsingin Sanomat reported that Petrovsky was detained for entering the country on an expired visa. Helsinki’s Itän-Uudenmaa district court reportedly extended Petrovsky’s detention to process his extradition case. It remains to be seen whether Petrovsky will be extradited to Ukraine, where he is wanted for alleged “terrorist crimes” committed in the Donbas between June 2014 and August 2015.
According to an August 26 post on the Telegram channel of the Russian embassy in Finland, Petrovsky is detained at a prison in the city of Vantaa. The post added that the embassy launched negotiations for consulate workers to visit and assist Petrovsky.
On Telegram, the Rusich group has called on subscribers to send donations for Petrovsky’s legal fees and additional expenses. It claimed that it had already collected 853,957 rubles ($8,800).
In 2017, Petrovsky was deported from Norway, where he reportedly joined the nationalist anti-immigrant “Soldiers of Odin” group and participated in a far-right paramilitary group that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium
Russian blogger spreads false rumor claiming destruction of Wagner cemeteries
Sergey Trifonov, a Russian blogger primarily known for ice swimming, filmed a Wagner cemetery in Nikolaevka, Samara Oblast, purportedly being “leveled to the ground” on August 25. He expressed outrage in his video, which he cross-posted to his accounts on Telegram, TikTok, VKontakte, and Yandex Dzen. The same day, the video was re-posted by other social media users, not only on platforms like Telegram and TikTok, but also on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. Pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels, including the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, also republished Trifonov’s video, which likely contributed to the video spreading to other social media channels that support Ukraine.
Trifonov’s claim that the cemetery was being destroyed proved to be incorrect, however. According to the BBC Russian Service, which spoke with local residents, the cemetery is actually being renovated. France24 and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Mark Krutov also debunked the video. Notably, Wagner-affiliated channels and Russian media pushed back on the claim as well. For example, the Wagner Orchestra channel corroborated the renovation efforts, while Russian regional media outlet 63.ru posted an image purportedly showing what the cemetery will look like once renovation is completed. The Ukrainian outlet New Voice also noted that similar improvements had already been made at a cemetery in Bryansk, Krasnodar Oblast. Trifonov’s readers noted the renovation efforts in the comment sections of his social media posts.
Eventually, Trifonov acknowledged his error in another video, explaining that “it was a normal human reaction” to think that the cemetery was being demolished.
—Nika Aleksejeva, resident fellow, Riga, Latvia
Public polling suggests Russians are uncertain about Prigozhin’s death
Russia Watcher, a relatively new polling initiative based at Princeton University, conducted a survey of two thousand Russians to gauge their opinions on the death of Yevgeniy Prigozhin. The survey results, collected from August 24 to August 28, found that most ordinary Russians were uncertain about what had happened to Prigozhin, with 40 percent of respondents choosing the option “Don’t know/no answer.”
What do Russians think happened to Prigozhin? We asked respondents beginning the day after news broke about the Wagner head's alleged death in a plane crash in Tver oblast. The predominant response among ordinary people seems to be uncertainty: 🧵 1/ pic.twitter.com/s16A4UK8F4— Russia Watcher (@russia_watcher) August 28, 2023
Among the 60 percent of respondents who answered, 14 percent believed Prigozhin’s death was staged and that he is not actually dead. An additional 13 percent attributed the crash to operator error or aircraft malfunction, while 10 percent thought the plane may have been shot down by Russian air defenses. Nine percent of respondents pointed to foreign sabotage, while 8 percent believed it was a “Ukrainian terrorist attack.” Only 5 percent believed there was sabotage by a “Russian actor,” though the question avoided mentioning the Kremlin or Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia Watcher also noted that Putin’s approval rating remained steady in the week following the incident, though accurately gauging public opinion is notoriously difficult in Russia.
—Victoria Olari, research assistant, Moldova