THE BELL WEEKLY: Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Russia's war economy

The Bell

Hello! This week, our main story is a raft of legislation predicated on a long-running war adopted by the Russian parliament. We also look at the Russia-Africa summit and explain what a ban on Dozhd says about the Kremlin’s tactics against independent media.

Amid military escalation, Russia adopts laws “for a long war”

Last week witnessed a sudden escalation in the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Moscow gearing up politically and economically to address the situation. The Ukrainian military initiated a new phase of its counteroffensive, which has been underway since the start of the summer. Moscow twice came under drone attack. First, drones tried to hit buildings that house top-secret Russian military intelligence. Then, six days later, they attacked ministry offices in the capital’s business district. Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament adopted a raft of legislation predicated on a long-running war.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive

On July 27, Western media reported on the start of a new stage of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which had previously progressed slowly due to Ukraine’s strategic retention of Western-trained military personnel and limited use of advanced Western weaponry. However, though the Ukrainian military still has forces in reserve, the “majority” of its forces are now actively engaged in the counteroffensive, a U.S. official told CNN.

The primary direction of the latest phase is southeastern Ukraine, encompassing the partially occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, along with the Russian-annexed Donetsk and Luhansk “People's Republics.” Ukraine's military reported successful advances against Russian troops, though it faced hindrances such as minefields, artillery fire and air strikes. Having lost about one-fifth of the weapons and equipment provided by NATO at the start of the offensive, Ukraine is moving away from assault operations with armored landings in favor of large-scale use of its artillery, which has a greater range and is more powerful than Russia’s, the Financial Times wrote. This helps advance parties to progress and secure tactical successes without heavy losses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has achieved nothing, and that Ukraine’s forces have suffered great losses. Russia’s losses are far fewer, he said. These statements follow the Kremlin’s efforts to use Russian propaganda to paint the Ukrainian response as a failure — Putin is citing inflated figures for Ukrainian losses, as experts at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War have pointed out.

Attack of the drones

The war came to Moscow again last week, on two separate occasions. Early on July 24, drones attacked buildings in the city center, including those suspected of housing Russian military intelligence and a hacker group called Fancy Bear. Six days later, several drones attacked Moscow City, the capital’s high-rise business district. A powerful explosion knocked out four floors of windows in one of the skyscrapers, and a further blast shattered windows on the fifth and sixth floors. The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Ukraine for the attack and reported that one drone was shot down en route to Moscow.

As usual, Ukraine did not take direct responsibility for the strikes on Moscow. “Step by step, the war is returning to Russian territory, to its symbolic centers and military bases. This is an inevitable, natural and entirely just process,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during an address to mark 522 days of the war.

The attack on Moscow City is noteworthy because the district is home to the offices of several Russian ministries, as well as IT giant Yandex. The VChK-OGPU Telegram channel, which is believed to be connected to Russia’s security services, published photographs of damage sustained by offices at the Digital Development Ministry. Eyewitnesses also found documents from the Economic Development Ministry scattered on the street.

In addition to housing ministries and businesses, the district is home to Russia’s most expensive real estate: the Federation Tower skyscraper complex, which consists of a 65-story western tower and a 95-floor eastern tower. It is home to high-ranking officials, owners of burned-out banks and senior security officers.

Laws “for a long war”

Before the summer recess, deputies in Russia’s State Duma passed several significant laws “for a long war,” as described by Andrei Kartalopov, head of the Duma’s Defense Committee. There are no doubts that the president will sign these laws. They come as Russia’s losses through 16 months of combat in Ukraine could be at least 47,000 men.

In fact, deputies have completed the biggest, and probably most significant, reform of the army. They voted to raise the upper age limit for the draft to 30 (from 27), meaning an additional 2.3 million people could be called up. This reform was announced last year by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, but at the time he promised that the lower age limit would also be raised from 18 to 21. However, that has not happened.

In addition, the Duma approved new laws that significantly increase the fines for failing to report to a recruitment office and created a new offense: “failure to assist military registration and enlistment offices to notify citizens of their mobilization and obligation to report to recruitment points.” Lawmakers also approved new ways of issuing electronic call-up papers which, until now, officials say have not been used.

Why the world should care

Putin’s words and deeds can change. At the end of last year, he said that Russia’s aim was to end the war as soon as possible. Now he is saying that a ceasefire is impossible during the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Russian economy has to adjust to these mood swings while moving to a military footing, and it will be even harder for it to switch back again. You can read more about this here.

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Isolated Russia turns to Africa

Last week, Russia hosted its second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. Although the Kremlin actively promoted the forum, only 17 of the continent’s 54 nations sent high-level delegations. It’s no surprise that this is far fewer than the number that attended the previous summit in 2019. Even though Russia needs Africa as a partner to strengthen its bulwark against the West, the war in Ukraine has impacted African countries through rising grain and energy prices, putting a strain on state budgets.

  • How important is Africa to Russia right now? Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, adopted in March 2023, featured a full section on the continent for the first time, as Africa specialist Vadim Zaitsev noted in his research for Carnegie. The document describes Russia and Africa as forces that strive together for “the establishment of a fairer, multipolar world.” In addition, Africa is the strongest regional voting bloc at the UN, Zaitsev said. Even if each resolution adopted on the war in Ukraine may seem pointless, it will have a bearing on any future peace process.
  • Russia also uses African countries to get around sanctions. For example, North African countries are buying up Russian diesel fuel and other oil products that are embargoed in Europe. Countries like Tunisia and Morocco then blend Russian fuels and “clean” them for buyers in Europe via a process described by The Wall Street Journal.
  • At the summit, Putin put his full energy into winning over African leaders. Russia has some unique advantages in Africa, dating back to the personal and economic ties established in the Soviet era, Zaitsev said. It’s no surprise, then, that Putin recalled the continent’s Soviet ties in a bid to remind the current generation who its real allies are. In addition, the Russian president mentioned how $23 billion in debt to Russia was written off.
  • However, it remains unclear how Russia intends to further develop is partnerships in Africa. The 2019 summit ended with the signing of hundreds of trade deals and memoranda of cooperation worth $15 billion. Four years later, this achievement was not repeated and two-way trade is instead in decline. Current, Russia accounts for just 1% of foreign investment in Africa, less than Switzerland or Singapore.
  • Friendship with Africa is unlikely to be well-received by Russian society, a third of which regards “natives of Africa” with contempt. According to a Levada Center poll, 33% of Russians said they would not allow Africans into the country.

Why the world should care

Faced with international isolation, Russia is returning to the Soviet playbook and seeking allies among countries that might join its battle against “Western hegemony.” However, there are questions about the viability of this “friendship”: Russia’s spending power is reduced because of the war and many African states have already condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s ban on Dozhd makes the Kremlin’s tactics against independent media clear

Last week, Russian authorities designated the Dozhd broadcaster as an “undesirable” organization. Anyone who works with it – and even appearing on screen as a guest constitutes working with it – could now face criminal charges. In effect, the authorities are changing their tactics against independent Russian media, which were previously universally listed as “foreign agents,” a status that imposed some restrictions but still enabled them to operate. Now the authorities are forced to ban any media that criticizes the war.

  • Restrictions on “undesirable” organizations are far stricter than those on foreign agents. Any work with an undesirable organization could bring fines and repeat offenses would trigger a criminal case. Moreover, even cooperation with an “undesirable” organization based abroad can be punished as of 2021.
  • Making a donation or republishing an “undesirable” organization’s material on social media could land you behind bars. In theory, punishments would apply to activity after an organization was declared “undesirable.” In reality, though, there are cases when laws have been applied retrospectively. There are examples of activists being charged for posts published before the organization in question was declared “undesirable.” Thus, if you live in Russia, it would be prudent to delete any posts referencing Dozhd’s work.
  • Dozhd is not the only large independent media outlet to fall on the “undesirable” list. Earlier, Meduza, Vazhnye Istorii and Novaya Gazeta Europa were targeted with this designation. The logic behind these designations is clear. The authorities are trying to snuff out independent media that report honestly about the war and the problems Russia is facing due to its invasion of Ukraine.
  • However, Dozhd is the first television channel to be placed on the list. While print and online media can conceal the identities of its sources and analysts with relative ease, it’s impossible for a TV station to do so. Dozhd will continue to broadcast, but is no longer able to accept donations from viewers in Russia.

Why the world should care

There is no doubt that by the end of the year, the list of “undesirable” organizations will encompass all the leading independent media outlets currently listed as “foreign agents.” On the other had, the undesirable label, despite its draconian restrictions, is not a death sentence. Every publication that was previously added to the list continues to operate.


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