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  • Satellite Evolution

Putin faces increased pressure as conflict in Ukraine escalates says Dragonfly security intelligence

With peace talks between Russia and Ukraine yesterday (28 February 2022) proving to be unproductive, Henry Wilkinson, Chief Intelligence Officer at security intelligence firm Dragonfly, anticipates a major escalation of violence and brutality in the coming days, including highly destructive attacks using banned weaponry and greater use of indiscriminate force from ballistic missiles and airstrikes:


“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost certainly not going to plan as far as President Vladimir Putin is concerned. This raises the stakes in the conflict as well as for him politically. It is now clear that the Kremlin’s initial plan for invading Ukraine and rapidly toppling the government has failed and the conflict is entering a dangerous new phase.


“Russian forces have seized fairly large swathes of territory on the south, mainly the key arterial roads east and north of Ukraine, but already at considerable cost and far slower than it seems the Russian military planned. The Russian forces have been met with robust resistance that has exceeded all expectations. There appears to be serious shortcomings in Russian strategy, tactics and logistics, leading to poorly coordinated operations, fuel shortages, and losses of territory, personnel and hardware. It has equally failed to secure air dominance yet, despite this being one of Russia’s greatest strengths relative to Ukraine.


“Russia and Ukraine met for apparently unproductive talks yesterday. In light of the developments so far, President Zelensky has said he will do what he can to end the conflict but equally probably has little motivation to negotiate a truce at this point, particularly one that involves concessions on Moscow’s key demands on NATO membership and demilitarisation. We also strongly suspect that he now judges all Kremlin officials to be negotiating in bad faith. Indeed, seemingly emboldened by the speed and scale of foreign support, Mr Zelensky has demanded a full withdrawal of Russian forces and a ceasefire.


Fear tactics and military escalation to maintain power likely

“It also seems the Russian president severely overestimated the ability of his own military to plan and execute an invasion of this scale and achieve his goals quickly. Russia has lost the initiative militarily and diplomatically and Mr Putin has already shown that his response to regain it is to escalate. The Russian doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ looks very likely to be played out in the coming days.


“Indeed, having lost the initiative, escalation now appears to be President Putin’s only plausible route forward. A ceasefire would leave him with limited territorial gains in return for unprecedented sanctions and a greater NATO presence in Eastern Europe. It would also give Ukraine more time to consolidate lethal foreign aid and further entrench defensive positions. As such, we assess that the Kremlin’s objectives, and the risk calculus behind them, are still the same; either force regime change in Ukraine or at the very least extract permanent concessions on NATO membership.


“Western intelligence agencies have warned of a major escalation in violence and brutality by the Russian forces as they strive to regain the initiative and overwhelm Ukraine’s dogged resistance. And indeed, Dragonfly forecasts that the Russian military will now try to bring to bear the full scale of its capabilities that it has built up near and in Ukraine. This is highly likely to include greater use of indiscriminate artillery fire and airstrikes, which appears to have already begun in Kharkiv. On the battlefield, this means more indiscriminate use of force, particularly artillery, ballistic missiles, airstrikes and highly destructive attacks using thermobaric weapons, including on the civilian population.


“It also looks likely that Belarusian forces will also be brought into the conflict to reinforce attempts to take the capital Kyiv, although it is unclear how these forces will be effectively integrated into the Russian effort given the coordination issues already affecting the Russian army itself. The arrival onto the battlefield of stinger missiles to Ukrainian forces and fighter jets, as well as other advanced weaponry from Western donors, will also present a real challenge to Russian forces. It will particularly threaten their ability to effectively deploy aerial and armoured assets.


“Off the battlefield, Putin has already shown he is willing to use brinkmanship to weaken international resolve to maintain pressure on his regime and punish it for mounting an illegal war on Ukraine. His public order to escalate Russian nuclear defence posture alongside reports that Belarus may nuclearise was plainly intended to rattle the world and apply pressure on the west, and portray a major threat to Russia to the Russian people. This posturing seems to be a direct response to the severe sanctions imposed upon his regime and attempt to reinforce his narrative of a NATO threat to justify his war rather than a genuine nuclear threat at this point, in our assessment.


Sanctions from Switzerland will have significant impact

“Mr Putin plainly underestimated Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight back, as well as the unity, speed and robustness at which the international community and the west specifically would respond with unprecedented sanctions. This now includes sanctions from Switzerland that will have a significant impact on Russia and its oligarchs given Switzerland holds around 30% of all Russian overseas deposits.


Possibility of a run on Russian banks rising sharply

“As Mr Putin’s plans continue to meet serious obstructions, it is unclear at this point how much he can continue to command the support of those he needs to stay in power. He has launched a high-stakes war that he cannot afford to lose against a more resolute population and defiant leader than he clearly expected. The raft of sanctions Russia now faces has already had a strong impact that he surely failed to put price into his plans, with the rouble collapsing by around 30% and the central bank imposing an interest rate hike of 20%. The possibility of a run on Russian banks is rising sharply.


“The Russian authorities have already issued warning notices to Russian media houses in a bid to limit their reporting on the conflict. And hundreds of arrests at a series of protests in cities across the country in recent days have done little to deter people turning out. Such a move to close down avenues of information makes for obvious censorship, and makes it all the more likely that more Russians will seek out information on the internet for themselves, particularly as they try to understand what the future holds as the economy sinks and hits living standards across Russia.


Questions arise over Mr Putin’s continued internal Russian support

“Mr Putin’s well cultivated image of a strong leader is also weakening. The contrast between President Zelensky and the shows of leadership, openness, physical courage and closeness of his team around him, contrast strikingly with the Russian President who remains aloof, threatening, inaccessible and physically distanced from his team. He has publicly humiliated key members of his national security council, and the at times timid input of senior figures at an extraordinary meeting on 21 February raises obvious questions about how much genuine loyalty he now commands. The coherence of government and military leadership will be vital if he is to avoid further missteps.


“The severity of sanctions applied to Russia and that they do not appear to predicate on any withdrawal from Ukraine will give all those around him little hope that they will see any relief while he remains in power. If Mr Putin is no longer able to deliver wealth as a reward he seems to have little else to offer except fear and a further tightening of suppressive control to keep a grip.


“This war has already yielded unprecedented developments that have taken many by surprise. While it may seem premature to warn that the next surprise in this conflict could be Putin’s removal, he has rarely looked more exposed to risk. History has shown that authoritarian leaders entrenched in power for decades more often than not get removed in coups precipitated by popular uprisings. Russia has some way to go to that point of regime threatening mass unrest, but in such a fast moving crisis that is slipping out of Mr Putin’s comfort zone of total control, such a future may be approaching much faster than mere wishful thinking may expect.”

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