By Can Kasapoğlu*
A. The Front Lines
Two noteworthy trends are informing the front lines in Ukraine. First, the Ukrainian military is now staging a series of small-to-medium-scale offensive actions. Second, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters are replacing Wagner units at an increasing rate.
1. The Ukrainian Military Conducts Offensive Skirmishes
A careful assessment of various sources, ranging from Russian and Ukrainian official announcements to open-source defense intelligence assessments, hints that the Ukrainian military has started to test the waters ahead of its long-awaited counteroffensive.
Several news outlets misreported these ongoing operations as a large-scale offensive push. The latest skirmishes are instead developing attacks and armored recon efforts—live-fire reconnaissance missions that presage follow-on offensives. The Ukrainian General Staff is likely conducting these rapid and calculated small maneuvers to test Russian defenses’ reaction times and force Russian combat formations to reveal their integrated fire plans. Ukrainian commanders are also trying to improve their understanding of Russian artillery planning in defensive combat operations. These factors remain critical to assessing the opposing force before launching a large-scale action.
In addition, the Ukrainian General Staff is looking for potential weak spots along the first lines of defense. Some of these probing actions could be designed to disguise the main effort, probably in the south. At the time of writing, a substantial portion of Ukraine’s offensive action is taking place in the east.
While the Ukrainian military’s increasingly assertive advances do not yet constitute the long-anticipated counteroffensive, they are harbingers of a large-scale offensive campaign.
2. Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechens Increase Participation in Combat Operations
Akhmat, the Chechen Special Forces loyal to strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, are becoming more involved in the Russian military campaign in Ukraine.
These units’ presence in the Russian effort is not new. Kadyrov’s battle-hardened fighters have participated in the campaign since the outset. In the spring of 2022, they assumed pioneering roles in the intense clashes to capture the Sea of Azov coastal city of Mariupol. But their role in the fighting had seen a gradual decline. They now seem to be making a comeback.
Kadyrov is likely seizing an opportunity to enhance his political standing following the withdrawal of Wagner units from several frontiers and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s flamboyant outbursts critical of the Russian high command. In early May, Kadyrov voiced his intentions to replace Wagner fighters in Bakhmut.
This follows on the heels of another important member of the pro-Kremlin Chechen elite, Adam Delimkhanov, engaging in a heated exchange with Prigozhin. Delimkhanov is no ordinary Chechen warlord, but a deputy of the Duma and a highly decorated Hero of the Russian Federation recipient following his command in the siege of Mariupol. Close allies of Kadyrov, the Delimkhanov family holds key roles in the Russian security apparatus. Adam Delimkhanov’s brother, Sharip, is the commander of the Rosgvardya(National Guard) in Chechnya.
Yet Kadyrov’s fighters are not the only Chechens seeing combat action. Several anti-Moscow Chechen battalions are operating alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In these diehard paramilitaries’ eyes, Ukraine is merely a stepping stone to their goal of overthrowing the Vladimir Putin-backed Kadyrov regime in Grozny. A key figure from General Dzhokhar Dudaev’s Chechen independence quest of the 1990s, Akhmed Zakayev, has been attempting to unite the anti-Russia Chechen paramilitary groups to that end. In May 2022, Zakayev traveled to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian officials. In October 2022, the Ukrainian Rada recognized the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as temporarily occupied by Russia. The parliament’s decision awaits President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s approval.
Ramzan Kadyrov knows that a decisive Ukrainian victory against the Russian Federation could trigger a catastrophic domino effect that would threaten his grip on power. This is why the Chechen strongman sees Ukraine as the first line of defense for his iron-fist rule in the Caucasus.
B. Behind the Front Lines
The area behind the front lines has also seen important developments. Anti-Putin Russian paramilitary groups are pursuing sensational prisoners of war (POW) exchanges. Meanwhile, divisions are deepening between Wagner and the Russian high command, with acts of violence replacing rhetorical showdowns.
While it would be speculative to claim that Russia stands on the brink of a civil war, these are not promising indicators for the nation’s future. In the event of a humiliating Russian defeat, NATO capitals should prepare for a prolonged conflict within Russian borders.
1. An Intra-Russian POW Crisis Unfolds
The Russian Volunteer Corps, an anti-Putin Russian paramilitary movement fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, claimed this week that it captured Russian military personnel following its sensational Belgorod raid. The corps later asserted that the governor of Belgorod Oblast, Vyacheslav Gladkov, failed to attend a proposed meeting despite the group’s intention to release the captured personnel as a gesture of goodwill. The Russian Volunteer Corps then claimed that Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was willing to agree to the conditions and proceed with the release of the Russian prisoners.
Regardless of whether the group’s claims about Prigozhin are accurate, the possibility of an intra-Russian POW exchange speaks volumes about the current state of the conflict. It indicates that the Russian Volunteer Corps, along with the Freedom of Russia Legion, will continue to put pressure on the Belgorod frontier in the coming weeks.
2. The Divide Grows Between Wagner and the Russian Military
On June 4, Prigozhin’s Telegram channels published a video showing Wagner’s interrogation of a reported Russian officer from the 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Roman Venevitin. In the video upload, Venevitin confessed that he ordered his unit to open fire on Wagner elements.
Worse, Prigozhin later claimed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have deliberately mined the withdrawal routes of Wagner combat formations exiting Bakhmut. Prigozhin then criticized the Russian high command for inefficiently responding to the raids targeting Belgorod. Wagner’s chief warned that unless the Russian military leadership takes necessary countermeasures, he would dispatch his fighters to Belgorod without Moscow’s consent.
The tone and the frequency of Wagner’s confrontations of the Russian high command, specifically of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, are coming to a crescendo. Wagner now openly claims that it interrogated a Russian officer, while boldly reporting clashes between the two sides. In a recent interview, Prigozhin even went so far as to demand firing squads for Shoigu and Gerasimov, calling the latter an alcohol abuser who becomes hysterical after consuming irresponsible amounts of vodka on the job.
It remains to be seen whether Prigozhin’s inflammatory remarks will spark larger-scale clashes between Wagner units and Russian combat formations.
*About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) at the Hudson Institute.
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute. This report first appeared as a part of Hudson’s Re: Ukraine newsletter series