One should never rule out a false flag by Moscow, but the Russian city of Belgorod is close enough to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the northeast that it’s plausible Ukrainian forces might reach it with some sort of air asset.
Is Zelensky going on offense?
Unconfirmed reports that a Russian Military Munitions Depot has Exploded in the Belgorod Region of Western Russia near the Ukrainian Border, it is unclear what the Explosion was caused by but from the looks of it the Depot appears to be a Complete Loss. pic.twitter.com/0H65yHWXhV
— OSINTdefender (@sentdefender) March 29, 2022
Two things make this unlikely to be a Russian false flag. First, it happened after the Russian withdrawal from around Kiev had already begun:
So far so good. Clear signs of repatriation of Russian troops from the Kyiv – Sumy axis back to Russian territory, our colleagues from @CITeam_en tell us
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) March 29, 2022
If Russia was planning to blow up Belgorod’s weapons depot itself, one would think they would have done so before the retreat from Kiev. “We were planning to withdraw, but now that the Ukrainians are attacking our people we have no choice but to redouble our efforts.”
Second, a weapons depot is a legitimate military target, something you’d expect the Ukrainian military to try to neutralize in order to disrupt the attacks on Kharkiv. It’s *not* the sort of target you’d expect in a false flag operation. Russia would want to maximize civilian casualties for something like that to make the Ukrainians seem monstrous, part of the “neo-Nazi” narrative.
Maybe it’s just another case of Russian incompetence at work. Given how they’ve operated on the battlefield, would anyone be surprised if there’d been a terrible accident at the depot in which some Russian inadvertently touched off an explosion?
⚡️BREAKING: Armed Forces of Ukraine used “Tochka-U” missile to hit and destroy ammunition depot in the village of Oktyabrskoe near #Belgorod, #Russia – according to Yuri Butusov.#UkrainianVictory #Russianlosses #RussianAggression #RussiaInvadedUkraine #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/a8l0rHw0MY
— Walter Lekh🇺🇦 (@walterlekh) March 29, 2022
If that’s accurate, then to the extent there’s a “message” behind this attack, maybe it’s this: “Just because you’re moving troops away from Kiev and towards the east, don’t expect us to stop fighting and accept whatever peace terms you offer.” Whatever the cause of the explosion, says Phillips O’Brien, ammunition is a precious commodity to Russia given its logistical problems. Having an entire depot go up like a fireworks barge short-circuiting is a bad development for Moscow.
There’s more news today about Russia beginning to adopt a defensive posture in the war, although it’s less a matter of hard fact than one of surmising and speculation. Christo Grozev, an investigator with the open-source intelligence site Bellingcat, is watching flight patterns in Russia and is convinced that top officials like Putin and defense minister Sergei Shoigu have abandoned Moscow for … bunkers. Remember those strange flights two weeks ago in which Russian government planes were seen departing for far-flung parts of the country before returning to the capital? Maybe there was something meaningful to their movements.
Grozev – who has links to British investigative outlet Bellingcat – said: “I am absolutely sure that Shoigu is in a bunker.
“Tracking the movement of his plane, we see very frequent flights to Ufa.
“Knowing that there are also protected bunkers in this region, this gives an obvious answer about his place of residence.”…
He believed Putin had another bunker elsewhere: “Most likely he is elsewhere, because we are seeing other flights, and they are more classified than the flight that goes to Ufa.
“These are state planes, and they switch off their transponders somewhere around Surgut.”
Shoigu’s daughter recently posted to social media from Ufa, another clue that he might be in the area. Russian analyst Valery Solovey also thinks it’s plausible that Putin and/or his family have moved to a bunker owned by the Russian energy company Gazprom in Surgut, located in western Siberia. “In fact, it is not a bunker, but a whole underground city, equipped with the latest science and technology” and a power plant capable of supporting a small city, according to Solovey. This may at last explain why Shoigu and military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov haven’t been seen publicly lately, or at least not in easily identifiable locale. If they’ve relocated to bunkers, they’re obviously indisposed.
The question is why. Why relocate?
The doomsday scenario is that they’re planning to take this conflict nuclear and are pre-positioning themselves to be far away from Moscow when NATO retaliates. Maybe that means Russia nukes Kiev — which could explain the decision to redeploy Russian troops from around the capital — or uses tactical nukes elsewhere in Ukraine, then braces for the counterpunch.
But I doubt it. Putin hasn’t even struck NATO (yet). One would expect nukes to be used at the end of a series of incremental escalation, not as a giant leap from conventional warfare to global crisis overnight. In fact, when his spokesman was asked if Putin would go nuclear in response to a third party joining the fight in Ukraine, he replied, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.” So that’s … reassuring? Sort of?
Assuming Grozev is right about the Russian leadership relocating, I’d guess it’s more of a just-in-case thing, wanting to be safely removed from major cities given the small but real chance that the war intensifies and spirals. Biden’s comments about regime change may have spooked them too: Putin may be paranoid enough to believe that American agents are on the loose in Russia, looking to take him out. Or maybe this is all a feint aimed at spooking American intelligence, knowing that they’ll be tracking Russian government flights like Grozev did and drawing assumptions from them. Mysterious trips to Ufa and Surgut might be read by the CIA as evidence that Putin is getting serious about WMD, putting pressure on them to convince Zelensky to deescalate.
Or maybe this has nothing to do with America. Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and others may not trust those around them or even each other as the war goes bad and figure they’ll be safer in assorted compounds across Russia than hanging around Moscow, waiting for Russian assassins to take them out.
I’ll leave you with this from a Russian diplomat, showing how far Putin’s government has come from the early days of “denazification” in Kiev. I don’t think what he says is pure face-saving either. If Russia really does want out of this war soon, it needs Zelensky alive to sign off on the eventual peace deal. No successor will have as much moral authority as he does among Ukrainians in getting that deal to stick.
Medinsky says Russia doesn’t want to “put Kyiv at any military risk” because the “people who make the decisions” about peace talks are there.
Quite a change from all the missile strikes, huge convoy, and special forces hit squads sent to take out Zelensky pic.twitter.com/QnmGHdkUgP
— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 29, 2022