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.
Ukraine intensifies offensive attacks in Kharkiv Oblast, recapturing Balakliia
The situation on the front line in Ukraine is rapidly changing as the attacks intensify and the fighting becomes increasingly fierce. On September 6, the Ukrainian army launched several counteroffensives against Russian positions in the occupied areas of southern and eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are preparing to defend their positions in Izyum, while the Ukrainian army is regaining control of settlements in the Kharkiv region. Newly released footage documented several prisoners of war who had been reportedly captured during Ukraine’s counterattacks. Meanwhile, there are signs that entire Russian units were wiped out during the fight for control of Balakliia in the Kharkiv region. On September 7, the Ukrainian army announced that it had recaptured Balakliia. The DFRLab expects that Russian reinforcements will not arrive as quickly as Moscow had initially planned, given the circumstances on the ground and the fact that Ukraine has destroyed many logistical hubs in recent weeks. In addition, explosions were reported in Berdyansk and Mariupol, with Ukrainian forces most likely using artillery and drones to attack critical Russian infrastructure.
Ukrainian forces are also using drones to launch offensive attacks in their attempt to recapture Kherson; a video released on September 3 showed Bayraktar TB2 drones striking Russian equipment along the entire front. Also on September 3, images appeared online indicating that a bridge at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station in Kherson Oblast had partially collapsed due to intense missile strikes from Ukrainian forces, further hindering Russian troops in their logistical efforts. In the meantime, Russian forces are building more pontoon bridges to help improve transport links across Kherson Oblast.
Elsewhere, the city of Kupiansk in Kharkiv Oblast has become one of the epicenters of clashes between Russian and Ukrainian units, experiencing heavy shelling. It seems likely that Ukraine is attempting to add pressure from south of the Izyum axis, which has become a critical bastion for the Russian army since the invasion began. Kupiansk is crucial to both Russia and Ukraine as it is a major railway junction for the northeast frontline. The situation in Kharkiv Oblast remains fraught, but Russian forces are losing important equipment, such as the Strela-10 short-range SAM system that appears to have been captured by Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group confirmed that its fighters took part in the capture of the village of Kodema in Donetsk Oblast. Battles for the settlement have been ongoing since mid-summer. Taking control of Kodema would open the possibility of a Russian offensive launched from Zaitseve, in the south, to reach the city of Bakhmut, making it possible to storm the city from several directions.
As the DFRLab has previously reported, the Wagner Group generally does not promote its involvement in the Ukraine war. However, our research suggests that Wagner Group members are most likely directly under the command of the Russian military hierarchy. In Ukraine, the unit’s direct ties to Spetsnaz special operations forces and Russian military intelligence are visible. For example, with the support of Wagner and Spetsnaz units, the Russian army managed to stop an attempted attack on the strategic village of Pisky, also in Donetsk Oblast.
On September 8, Russian sources claimed military developments in the direction of Avdiivka, mentioning an “assault operation” in the Pisky area. The operation was carried out by the far-right Sparta and Somalia Battalions, the 11th Regiment, reservists, and units of the separatist Donetsk People’s Militia. This indicates that these irregular units, with links to Spetsnaz and composed of veterans and battle-hardened fighters who have been in the Donbas since 2014, are likely to play an extended role in the fighting in Donetsk as Russia experiences morale issues with its regular fighting forces. The Russian command will also likely continue to face problems such as the rising distrust among Luhansk separatist fighters who have not been paid regularly.
On September 3, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said that after sustained shelling in the area, the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine was disconnected from its last external power line, but was still able to run electricity through a reserve line. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said in a statement that the agency’s experts, who remained in Zaporizhzhia after arriving for an inspection last Thursday, were told by senior Ukrainian staff that the fourth and final operational line was down. IAEA experts also learned that the reserve line linking the facility to a nearby thermal power plant was delivering the electricity generated by the plant to the external grid, according to a statement. It added that the same reserve line could provide backup power to the plant if needed. Russian-backed authorities earlier said the plant had been knocked offline.
Russian forces continue to use the plant as a shield against possible Ukrainian attacks against Russian positions in Zaporizhzhia and Enerhodar. The Insider obtained video of multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) shelling the area near the Zaporizhzhia plant on September 3. Preliminary geolocation indicates the shelling is coming from Russia-controlled territory near the power station. A few days later, Russia attempted to deny the IAEA report about Zaporizhzhia. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that there is no military equipment on the grounds of the plant, other than Rosgvardia elements. Rosgvardiya is the national guard of Russia and fulfills different roles in the context of Ukraine, serving as both occupation forces and military reinforcements.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Kremlin-controlled media blame NATO for private jet crash
Pro-Kremlin media outlets accused NATO of taking down a Cessna 551 private jet near Latvia. The private jet was expected to fly from Spain to Germany on September 4 but lost contact with air traffic controllers shortly after takeoff. After the plane went dark, fighter jets from Germany, Denmark, and Sweden intercepted the jet to make visual contact with the plane, but were unsuccessful in locating the crew. The plane later crashed in the Baltic Sea near Latvia. The jet was owned by private jet chartering company Quick Air.
Pro-Kremlin media were quick to suggest that NATO was behind the crash. Pravda.ru cited three possible reasons for the crash in a headline that read, “Cessna 551 crash: depressurization, NATO missile or crew poisoning.” Similarly, Tsargrad, the media outlet associated with Alexander Dugin, published an article with the headline, “Did NATO forces open fire? Plane crashed off the coast of Latvia.”
Other Kremlin-controlled media outlets, like Gazeta.ru, RBK, Rambler, and NTV, did not directly blame NATO for the plane crash but implied involvement by focusing on the fact that fighter jets belonging to NATO member states intercepted the plane. For example, Gazeta.ru wrote, “NATO fighters were lifted into the air. Following this, the aircraft began to lose speed and altitude. It was found off the coast of Latvia.”
Outlets such as RBK, Rambler, and NTV referenced a Reuters report that cited a Lithuanian Air Force spokesperson who confirmed “that fighter aircraft from the NATO Baltic Air Police mission in Amari airfield in Estonia had taken off to follow the plane.” RBK also cited Reuters when reporting, “NATO fighters based in Estonia were raised to intercept it.” Similarly, Rambler reported that “a private plane Cessna 551 crashed northwest of the city of Ventspils in Latvia; NATO fighters were raised to intercept the aircraft.”
—Nika Aleksejeva, Lead Researcher, Riga, Latvia
New Russian commercial threatens Europe with energy supply shutdown
In a newly released commercial, Russia appeared to threaten to cut Europe off from access to all Russian energy supplies this winter. The ad, which has gone viral on social media, includes a song with the lyrics, “Winter will be big, only twilight and snow.”
In the commercial, a man wearing the uniform of Gazprom, the Russian national gas company, seemingly shuts off a gas supply, and a pressure gauge is seen falling to zero. The footage also includes scenes showing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The next scenes show EU flags and European capitals covered in snow. The video also includes footage of windmills and solar panels, which may be an attempt to communicate that Europe will not be able to heat their cities in the winter using green energy.
Gazprom denied being involved in the creation of the commercial but commented that “the video is great.”
—Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Washington DC
Pushback against compulsory ‘patriotism’ lessons in Russian schools
On September 5, Russia launched compulsory patriotism lessons referred to as Razgovory o Vazhnom (“Conversations about the Important”) in schools across the country. The Telegram channel Mozhem Obyasnity (“We Can Explain”) reported that some parents kept their children at home to boycott the lesson. On September 3, Telegram channel Utro Fevralya (“February Morning”) reported that a mother in Yekaterinburg wrote a letter to her son’s teacher stating that she is “categorically against” the new program. “I’ve seen the lesson plans,” she continued. “I think there is no place for propaganda in school.” The teacher responded that the school administration had ruled that the son did not need to attend the class. Similarly, on September 6, Utro Fevralya reported that a father in rural Novokievskii Uval who demanded that his child be excused from the lesson was told by the school administration, “If the child does not like it, he may not listen, but he is obliged to attend.”
On August 30, the Russian Teachers’ Union and women’s rights organization Myagkaya Sila published an open letter condemning the new lesson and calling on parents to boycott the program by demanding their children not be taught propaganda. The letter cited a federal education law permitting students to choose their extracurricular courses; while the class is mandatory, it is technically extracurricular programming.
On September 5, the Mozhem Obyasnity Telegram channel reported that all course materials had been removed from their official website. On September 7, the materials reappeared, but mentions of Russia’s “special military operation” had been removed.
—Nika Aleksejeva, Lead Researcher, Riga, Latvia