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 (EU)—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Ukrainian Armed Forces inflict heavy damage to Russian-controlled airfields in Berdyansk and Luhansk
The Special Forces of the Ukrainian Army confirmed in an October 17 Telegram post that they had successfully conducted coordinated attacks against two Russian-occupied airfields in Berdyansk, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and in Luhansk. Later that same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared that the armed forces used US Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS). The Telegram channel of the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces posted a video reportedly showing the launch of the ATACMS in use during the October 17 attack. These missiles, with a range of more than 186 miles, were reportedly secretly deployed earlier this week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal article also indicated that these missiles are critical for Ukraine to continue its counteroffensive efforts. According to CNN reporter Natasha Bertrand, the transfer occurred “quietly because [the United States] wanted to take the Russians by surprise.” In addition, ATACMS missiles can be launched by M152 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS, which the United States has supplied Ukraine with since June 2022, increasing Ukraine’s offensive capabilities.
Russian-language Telegram channel “Fighterbomber” also confirmed the heavy losses in an early morning post on October 17, calling the attack “one of the most serious blows of all time in the Northern Military District. If not the most serious.” The channel also alleged that “there [were] losses in both people and technology.” The Ukrainian Special Forces claim that at least nine helicopters, an antiaircraft missile launcher, an ammunition warehouse, as well as the airfields’ runways suffered damage from the attack. Planet.com satellite imagery showed a high concentration of Russian military helicopters on the occupied Berdyansk airport two days before the attack.
Footage shared on Russian-language Telegram channel “Turned on Z war 🇷🇺” (Повёрнутые на Z войне 🇷🇺), and “The All-Seeing Eye Ukraine” also showed explosions on the night of the attack against the Berdyansk airport. This information appeared consistent with heat signatures identified on the NASA FIRMS map, which showed fires breaking out at 2:22 a.m. local time, as identified by US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration satellites.
Additionally, photographs posted online by Russian-language Telegram channels “Two majors” and “War Donbass” showed debris indicating the potential use of M74 cluster submunitions and the frame of an MGM-140 ATACMS Block 1A missile. However, the “War Donbass” channel appeared to have spread a picture of a Russian ShoOAB-0.5 and miscaptioned it as an M74 cluster submunition allegedly found in Berdyansk. Using reverse image search, the DFRLab found the picture had been posted to a Ukrainian auction forum in 2020, on which the poster appeared to be selling what seems to be the empty shells of ShOAB-0.5 bullets.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium
Russian-language news outlet Meduza reported on October 17 that the Russian parliament passed a bill enabling the Russian national guard (Rosgvardia) to be comprised of volunteer formations. The bill was introduced on September 22, 2023, according to information posted on the Russian parliament’s website. The bill notably indicates that “volunteer formations can be created by the Russian Guard on the basis of a decision of the President of the Russian Federation.”
The bill also indicates that “Volunteer formations […] will be able to be involved in the implementation of individual tasks in the field of defense during the period of mobilization, martial law, and in conditions of armed conflict,” thus making these formations deployable to Ukraine under the current conditions of the partial mobilization. Meduza noted that, on the same day, the Russian parliament also passed another bill that will envision penal repercussions for the spread of “fake or discrediting [information]” against Rosgvardia troops.
The DFRLab also investigated claims by Meduza that former Wagner soldiers were already fighting alongside Rosgvardia forces in Ukraine. In its investigation, Meduza quoted a September 20 Telegram post by Russian online outlet Important Stories that highlighted how Rosgvardia had already been recruiting former Wagner soldiers. One user notably reshared an October 17 video from Telegram channel “Cyber front for Russia” (КИБЕР ФРОНТ 🇷🇺ZА Россию🇷🇺). In the video, Russian member of parliament Vasily Vlasov complains that former Wagner soldiers had not received “documents they are entitled to, such as veteran’s ID cards” before adding, “this stops [former Wagner soldiers] from continuing to serve in volunteer units and from signing a contract, including with the Russian Guard.” Additionally, the DFRLab found that members of the Telegram forum discussed how members of voluntary formations would receive the title of veteran of war if they joined the Rosgvardia troops, even though they would not be considered part of the enlisted military.
The DFRLab previously reported on the creation of additional Special Purpose Divisions in Moscow and in the republic of Kalmykia, that would be part of the Rosvgardia troops. The two drafts were adopted as Russia is organizing its annual autumn call for military service. Although Russia adopted a new e-conscription bill in April 2023, conscription notices will still be printed out on paper this year, according to information posted on September 22 by Russia information portal Obyasnyaem.
—Valentin Châtelet, research associate, Brussels, Belgium