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THE BELL WEEKLY: Russia’s response to the Kakhovka catastrophe

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Hello! This week our top story is Russia’s muted response to the catastrophe that has followed the Kakhovka dam’s destruction. We then break down the first week of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Finally, we speak with experts on the Kremlin’s silence toward drone attacks on Moscow and raids in the border regions.

Russia struggles to respond to Kakhovka dam destruction

The first week of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive did not bring any tangible results, nor even any clear vision of how events might develop in the future. Instead, the big issue was the catastrophic destruction of the Kakhovka dam. Russian authorities accuse Ukraine of blowing the dam, but are struggling to provide a clear explanation of how this happened. At the same time, there is increasing evidence of Russian involvement. There are already dozens of dead among the residents of Russian-controlled territory on the left bank of the Dnipro River due to local and federal authorities’ inability to organize an evacuation.

  • It’s difficult to establish the death toll from the flooding in the Kherson region after the explosion at the Kakhovka dam. This is mostly due to a lack of reliable information from the Russian-held east bank. Official figures from both sides confirm 14 deaths — six on the west bank held by Ukraine, and eight on the Moscow-occupied east bank. The real figures are much higher: on Friday volunteers trying to evacuate people from the east bank said they had identified 20 deaths while a further 150 people were missing.
  • Russian independent media is focused on the failed attempts to evacuate Russian-held territory along the Dnipro. Multiple testimonies from volunteers (1, 2, 3, 4) suggest that the authorities failed to allocate adequate resources for an evacuation. In addition, volunteers on the ground face additional problems in their own attempts to help people. Access to the flood zone is closed, boats are requisitioned and Russian forces are shelling vessels trying to evacuate people to the Ukrainian-held bank. There are several reasons for this, including Russia’s general lack of organization, but a key one is the wartime paranoia gripping the local administration. That said, it’s likely that the main issue is the authorities’ reluctance to admit and display the full scale of the crisis.
  • The catastrophe unfolded on what Moscow considers to be legally its own territory. However, for several days, state television paid it relatively little attention. It was the third or fourth item in news broadcasts, and was discussed in terms more often used for seasonal flooding than a manmade disaster. The news reports primarily focused on Russian efforts to rescue civilians under fire from Ukraine. Russian propaganda says little about what destroyed the dam. It limits itself to quotes from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin, who accuse Ukraine of blowing it up but provide no evidence, however circumstantial. Rossiya TV’s weekly news roundup program, Vesti Nedeli, said a little more about the cause of the disaster: it counted the number of times Ukrainian troops shelled the hydroelectric power station and decided that this alone was the cause of the collapse. “Kyiv, with manic persistence, finished off the Kakhovka power station,” the report concluded.
  • It’s likely that by the end of the week, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Russia to sustain a credible story that cast its actions in a positive light. Immediately after the dam fell, Western media and the expert community were quick to suggest that the collapse was a result of poor maintenance by occupying Russian forces combined with military strikes from both sides. However, by the end of the week, more information emerged that suggested greater Russian involvement. First, Norwegian media published data from seismic stations close to the dam which indicated an explosion shortly before it collapsed. It’s hard to imagine an error in this information: the methodology was established decades ago and can distinguish the difference between rock shifts caused by seismic activity, conventional explosions and nuclear explosions. Then on Friday, The New York Times reported that U.S. spy satellites collected infrared traces of a thermal explosion, corresponding to a large explosion in the vicinity of the dam.

Why the world should care

Whatever the cause of the dam’s collapse, Russia bears immediate responsibility for the explosion’s aftermath, including the inadequate emergency response that has cost dozens of lives so far. Meanwhile, there are Russians who are trying to help – the Support Service organization, founded by exiled Russians, raised more than 150,000 euros to help victims on the Ukrainian side of the Dnipro.

The first week of Ukraine’s counteroffensive fails to deliver a clear outcome

The first week of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has not brought any tangible results, nor even any clear vision of how events might develop in the future. Russia’s Defense Ministry produces daily reports of how Ukrainian attacks are repelled and, more importantly, how much Western equipment was destroyed. However, military bloggers warn against premature celebrations.

It seems that June 5 will be remembered as the date that Ukraine launched its counterattack. The previous night, Ukraine’s forces began “mass armed reconnaissance” in several directions and the next day Ukraine’s high command confirmed its offensive for the first time. The two main thrusts were as expected: Ukrainian soldiers are trying to break through Russian lines at Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region (which could open the way to Russia’s regional command center at Melitopol, cutting off the land corridor to Crimea) while also attacking Vuhledar in the Donetsk region (which also controls a route to the sea, towards Mariupol). In theory, both of these could prove to be a feint, but the bulk of Ukraine’s efforts were concentrated here in the first week.

Ukrainian forces did not enjoy any big successes in the first week, and that was also to be expected. Unlike summer 2022, when Ukraine quickly overcame tired troops in ill-defended positions in the Kharkhiv region, they are now taking on multi-layered defenses that the Russians have built up over the past six months.

Ukraine’s greatest successes to date have come around Vuhledar on the so-called Vremenievsky ridge (map here). On Monday afternoon, Russian military bloggers reported that Ukraine managed to break through the first line of Russian defenses here. But this is an advance of just a few kilometers, with the second and third lines of defense still ahead. Both Western analysts and Russian military bloggers agree that it’s impossible to draw any useful conclusions about the real successes and failures of the offensive. Too little time has elapsed, and too much remains shrouded in the fog of war.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, is issuing daily reports under the personal signature of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu which detail the failure of repeated Ukrainian attacks and list substantial losses inflicted on the enemy. Accounts of the destruction of Western equipment get a special mention in these statements. The military’s eagerness to boast of the destruction of Leopard or Patriot systems has led to some embarrassing errors: this week the Defense Ministry showed a burned-out tractor and claimed it was a Leopard II. However, by the end of the week there were genuine images of burned-out Western tanks.

It’s hard to say whether the Defense Ministry believes that the Ukrainian assault will quickly fail, or whether these events are unrelated. Nonetheless, this week the Russian military embarked on an operation that would end the independence of the Wagner Group’s mercenary forces. On Saturday, Shoigu signed a decree that obliges all “volunteer formations” to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry and assume formal obedience to its orders. To nobody’s surprise, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin made a show of refusing to sign up, and his subordinates launched an equally defiant campaign of posting footage showing how they provided regular soldiers with weapons and provisions. The conflict between Prigozhin and the ministry is ever more pointed.

Why the world should care

There is little point in expecting a quick outcome from the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Most likely, it will be at least a week before we have any idea of the extent of any advances.

Meanwhile, we wrote about the potential consequences of Ukrainian military success for the Russian economy here.

Why is the Kremlin quiet about drone attacks on Moscow and raids in the border regions?

In the first year or so since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war barely touched the home front. However, that has changed sharply since May: Ukrainian drones attacked Moscow and the surrounding region, while Ukrainian artillery fire forced the evacuation of Shebekino, a town of 40,000 people near the border. Federal authorities, at least publicly, have responded passively to this.

We asked political analysts Grigory Golosov and Kirill Rogov, plus sociologist and founder of the ExtremeScan independent research agency Elena Koneva, why the Kremlin is behaving this way.

Q: Over the past month we have seen many events that could be interpreted as symptoms of “instability in the power vertical.” Why is the Kremlin so passive in response? What’s the internal logic here? Or is there no logic, and simply paralysis?

Grigory Golosov: If we look at the media reaction, it’s clear that the main aim of these incursions into Russian territory is to attract the attention of Russia’s population, to disorient people and cause panic. Therefore, if the Russian authorities respond with active coverage they would, in fact, contribute to these aims. Thus there is no good reason, in principle, for the authorities to pay much attention to this in their coverage of events around Ukraine.

Prigozhin has his own agenda, and he is manipulating the situation in his own interests. The Russian authorities also play along with Prigozhin because, whether by accident or design, he is speaking more or less as one with Ukraine’s propaganda. For those who pay attention to him, the effect is the same: a sense that everything in Russia is falling apart. The Russian authorities want to avoid giving the population this impression.

Kirill Rogov: These are not mutually exclusive. The logic is to avoid sharing bad news with the population, to keep it off the agenda, to ignore it.

There is also the situation where it is unclear who is responsible for setting the media agenda. We do not understand how this is organized. As long as the authorities can ignore what is happening, they will try to do so.

Meanwhile, Russia’s media space is divided into two segments that exist in parallel. There is no overlap. We have the television, which is the official media environment, and then we have Telegram and social media, like some kind of parallel reality. And there’s no overlap. You could live with your television and know nothing of what happens on Telegram, or vice versa.

Q: But state television channels are not completing hiding this news – we can get a good sense of the nature and scale of events. Why is propaganda allowed to discuss what’s happening if the government is trying not to inflame the situation?

Kirill Rogov: There are two reactions to the events in the Belgorod region. One suggests that an attack on Russia, a Ukrainian “invasion” into Russian territory, should have a mobilizing effect on the population. That is, people should be mobilized by it. After all, as Putin said, we are under attack.

But a second model suggests that these attacks might demoralize the public – the authorities are powerless, we’re losing again, where is our military, where is our strength? It is not yet clear which impulse will prove stronger, so the authorities are cautiously testing how the news will be perceived.

Grigory Golosov: These are somewhat different things. It’s one thing to let the media report on [the shelling of Shebekino]. It would be impossible to avoid that because, after all, we have the internet and other sources of information. Unchecked rumors can be more dangerous than media coverage. However, it’s a different matter when the authorities are seen to react to events, and that already grabs the public’s attention. Right now, the media agenda admits that things are happening but dismisses them as unimportant. It is not in the interests of the authorities to ramp up the importance of these events by issuing official statements about them.

Q: How do you interpret the current relationship between the authorities and Yevgeny Prigozhin? Logic suggests that his actions are currently permitted, but why?

Grigory Golosov: We often hear this logic and, to me, it seems to indicate that the control the authorities have over important and useful players such as Prigozhin is somewhat exaggerated. I think that in this case Prigozhin is acting more or less on his own initiative, on the assumption that he will not be punished [for kidnapping a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army]. In reality, he is getting away with it because it would be too damaging to punish him now.

Prigozhin has rendered significant service to the regime. He showed his value in the operation for Bakhmut. But he has his own agenda which, possibly, is already some distance away from the authorities’ agenda. He’s actively trying to promote himself as an energetic and politically effective figure.

Q: The federal government is not commenting on events in the border regions. How are people reacting there, and is there any danger of discontent?

Elena Koneva: People who live in the border regions say that they feel cut off from Russia, abandoned. They watch programs on state TV that shape their understanding of the real world. These people then see how their difficulties are reflected by national media reports, and they are not satisfied.

We have to understand that the war here began in the spring of 2021, when Russian troops started grouping on the Ukrainian border. At that time, military bases and fortifications started to appear in the border regions. If, at that time, you had asked local residents whether there would be a war, they would have said yes, without a doubt, we’re heading for war.

People judge the government’s actions by two parameters. First, locals want more nationwide coverage of what is happening in their region. And second, they want more budget funding to be allocated to them. But frustration with the federal government is not translated into dissatisfaction with Putin. He remains untouchable and beyond criticism. Putin’s continued silence over the events in the Belgorod region has yet to spark any doubts among the local population.

Men in the border regions say that as soon as they get their papers, they will be ready to defend their territory. Moreover, they add that “it’s high time to hand out weapons and get Prigozhin to teach us how to use them.” In the Belgorod region they have an interesting attitude towards Prigozhin. They have seen plenty of the official Russian army. We do not know the current mood in the military nor, therefore, what they are sharing with residents of the border areas, but Prigozhin’s position is clear. He freely criticizes the “leadership.” Locals see how he is different from the “personnel officers,” he recruits anyone and makes an army out of them. At the same time, these locals are not keen to join the Wagner Group because they have heard that the punishment for any disobedience, and especially flight from the battlefield, is execution.


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