Ukraine Conflict Updates

This page collects ISW and CTP's updates on the conflict in Ukraine. In late February 2022, ISW began publishing daily synthetic products covering key events related to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. These Ukraine Conflict Updates replaced ISW’s previous “Indicators and Thresholds for Russian Military Operations in Ukraine and/or Belarus,” which we maintained from November 12, 2021, through February 17, 2022.

This list also includes prominent warning alerts that ISW and CTP launched beyond our daily Ukraine Conflict Updates. These products addressed critical inflection points as they occurred.

Click here to see ISW's interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map complements the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW daily produces with high-fidelity and, where possible, street-level assessments of the war in Ukraine.

Click here to see ISW's interactive timeline of the invasion. This high-definition interactive map is resource intensive. The performance and speed of the map correlate with the strength of your hardware. 

Click here to read about the methodology behind ISW and CTP's mapping of this conflict.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2022.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 5, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko and Mason Clark

February 5, 9pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, February 5. This report focuses on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cautious approach to risk-taking after having thrown the dice on launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, an act he likely did not see as a risk. Putin’s hesitant wartime decision making demonstrates his desire to avoid risky decisions that could threaten his rule or international escalation—despite the fact his maximalist and unrealistic objective, the full conquest of Ukraine, likely requires the assumption of further risk to have any hope of success.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine since his initial flawed invasion on February 24, 2022, indicate a likely disconnect between his maximalist objectives and his willingness to take the likely high-risk decisions necessary to achieve them. Putin likely operated under the flawed assumption that Russian forces could force Kyiv to capitulate without any significant military sacrifices and saw Russia’s invasion as a limited and acceptable risk. Captured Russian military plans, for example, revealed that the Kremlin expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv in days, Russian intelligence services reportedly expected the Ukrainian military to collapse, and Kremlin propagandists preemptively published a prewritten article extolling Russia’s “victory” on February 26, 2022.[1] Reports that Putin dismissed the Russian Central Bank’s prescient warnings in February 2022 of the effect of a war in Ukraine on the future of the Russian economy under harsh Western sanctions likely suggest Putin wrongfully assumed the West would not impose major costs on his invasion.[2] The failure of Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv—and with it the Kremlin’s war plan—forced Putin to face complex decisions as the Kremlin fought an increasingly costly and protracted conventional war. Putin, however, has remained reluctant to order the difficult changes to the Russian military and society that are likely necessary to salvage his war.

Putin has consistently ignored, delayed, or only partially implemented several likely necessary pragmatic decisions concerning his invasion. Putin was reluctant to order full mobilization following the costly capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in June-July 2022 and several unsuccessful offensives that depleted much of his conventional military. Putin ignored repeated calls from the Russian nationalist community in May 2022 to mobilize reservists, declare war on Ukraine, implement martial law in Russia, and modernize the military call-up system.[3] Putin likely feared antagonizing Russian society and instead prioritized recruiting and committing relatively ineffective irregular armed formations over the summer.[4] Putin also attempted to maintain the façade of a limited war to shield much of Russian society from the scale and cost of the Russian war in Ukraine.[5] Putin also did not make many public appearances relating to the war effort from the start of the war until mid-December.[6] Putin additionally did not attempt to silence the large group of Russian pro-war and ultra-nationalist milbloggers and public figures who supported Putin's war aims but began to criticize what they perceived as a half-hearted Russian war effort.[7]


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 4, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 4, 7:15 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian decisive offensive operations are unlikely to target Zaporizhia City from the western Donetsk–Zaporizhia frontline as the Russian military continues to prepare for an offensive in western Luhansk Oblast. Advisor to the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andryushenko, stated that Russian soldiers in Mariupol are telling residents that the Russian military ordered offensive operations against Vuhledar, areas southwest of Bakhmut, Zaporizhia City and Zaporizhia Oblast.[1] Andryushenko added that Russia is also building up forces at barracks and settlements on roads leading to frontline positions, and that Russia had brought an extra 10,000–15,000 troops to Mariupol and its outskirts.[2] Andryushenko noted the Russian forces reportedly have 30,000 troops in the greater Mariupol area. ISW continues to assess that Russia is concentrating troops and military equipment to stage a decisive offensive on the western Luhansk Oblast and Bakhmut areas.

Western and Ukrainian military officials have repeatedly noted that Russian forces are likely setting conditions to reach the Luhansk and Donetsk oblast borders — an objective that Russian Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov had also outlined on December 22.[3] ISW continues to observe Russian transfers of military equipment and elite units and the preparations of logistics in occupied Luhansk Oblast that support Western, Ukrainian, and Russian forecasts for the western Luhansk Oblast–Bakhmut offensive.[4] Russian forces are also intensifying attacks on Bakhmut while neglecting frontlines around Donetsk City.[5] The Ukrainian military has reported that Russian forces have not massed a powerful enough strike group to conduct an offensive in the Zaporizhia direction.[6]

Russian sources have been claiming Russian forces have been making territorial gains in Zaporizhia Oblast in late January, claims that ISW assesses were likely an information operation aimed at dispersing Ukrainian forces ahead of the decisive offensive in the east.[7] Andryushenko had previously stated that Russian officials were restricting Mariupol residents from accessing non-Russian information and were misrepresenting the situation on the frontlines, so Russian forces spreading rumors about an attack on Zaporizhia City may be a continuation of such information operations.[8] Andryushenko has also consistently reported increases of Russian forces in Mariupol throughout different stages of the war and noted that Russian forces are using the city as a military base due to its proximity to Russia.[9]

Russia has not shown the capacity to sustain the multiple major offensive operations that would be necessary to simultaneously reach the Donetsk Oblast administrative borders and take Zaporizhia City. Andryushenko’s reported Russian troop concentration of 30,000 servicemen in the Mariupol area is not sufficient to attack Zaporizhia, a city of roughly three-quarters of a million people, while continuing offensive operations to encircle Bakhmut and launching a new major attack in Luhansk Oblast. Russian conventional forces, reserves, and Wagner forces have committed tens of thousands of troops to the effort to seize Bakhmut already, reportedly suffering many thousands of casualties in that effort.[10] Bakhmut had a pre-war population of slightly over 70,000.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has launched a series of efforts to restructure and consolidate the mismatched blend of irregular forces supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine into Russia’s conventional military forces. A Russian MoD map published on February 3 included occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts in the Southern Military District’s (SMD) area of responsibility.[11] The SMD press service also announced that the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias are integrating into the Russian Armed Forces.[12] The UK MoD assessed on February 4 that integration of occupied Ukrainian territories into the SMD zone likely follows Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu‘s January 17 reform announcement about the formation of “self-sufficient force groupings” in Ukraine.[13] The UK MoD further assessed that these integration efforts aim to integrate occupied territories into Russia's long-term strategic posture but are unlikely to generate an impact on combat operations in the near term. ISW has also previously assessed that the Kremlin’s effort to reconstitute the Russian Armed Forces is a long-term commitment in its preparations both for a protracted war and to rebuild Russia’s conventional military might generally.[14]

The Russian MoD might be taking some steps to integrate volunteer battalions into its framework. A prominent Russian milblogger stated on February 4 that the Union of Volunteers of Donbas military units elected to create a single Russian Armed Forces Volunteer Corps from Russian Armed Forces volunteer units.[15] A DNR Telegram channel claimed on February 2 that Russian officials coerced mobilized miners into taking military oaths to Russia despite months of prior service.[16] Russian media outlet TASS also reported on February 4 that the Russian government expanded military medical commissions’ mandate to provide care for volunteer formations as well.[17]

The Russian MoD may be rushing to integrate and professionalize irregular forces into its conventional structure while Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov has the favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.[18] Russian irregular forces in Ukraine include contract soldiers, mobilized soldiers, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics‘ (DNR and LNR) forces, volunteer battalions, Russian Combat Army Reserve (BARS) forces, Cossack and Chechen units, and Wagner Group mercenaries. These formations have different objectives, limitations, pre-requisites, hierarchies, and legal statuses. The Russian MoD has initiated several professionalization efforts since Gerasimov’s appointment as the Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine on January 11, and it is logical that the Russian MoD would seek to cohere the current odd mix of forces into a more traditional structure.[19] These integration efforts coincide with the launching of decisive offensive operations, however, and will likely generate short-term disruptions and pushback among units needed for those operations. Undertaking complex structural and administrative changes while launching major offensive operations is an unusual step, however appropriate the changes. Gerasimov likely feels that he has a limited window to make changes to Russian forces before the impossibility of achieving the grandiose objectives he has apparently been set causes him to lose Putin’s favor once again.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely overcompensating for his declining influence by continuing to frame himself as the sole victor in the Bakhmut area and attempting to leverage his remaining influence online. Prigozhin responded to a question on February 4 about rumors of a new Russian offensive by comparing Wagner Group forces’ battle strategy to a chess game in which players must “hit [their opponents’] head with a chessboard.”[20] Prigozhin also called for Russian authorities to investigate US-based Russian-language international media outlet RTVI for disseminating “slanderous information,” one of many recent calls for Russian officials to take action based on his demands alone.[21] Select Russian milbloggers no longer flock to Prigozhin’s defense, however. One Russian milblogger, for example, characterized Prigozhin as a “brilliant troll” and claimed that DNR and LNR mobilized forces suffer significant casualties on the entire Donbas frontline without sufficient support while Wagner Group forces concentrated their efforts around Bakhmut.[22]

Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner of war (POW) exchange on February 4, exchanging 63 Russian POWs for 116 Ukrainian POWs.[23] The Russian MoD claimed that the Russian POWs included personnel of an unspecified “sensitive category,” and the MoD credited the United Arab Emirates leadership for mediating the exchange. A Russian milblogger expressed continued frustration at uneven Russo–Ukrainian POW exchanges.[24]

Key Takeaways

 

  • A Russian decisive offensive operation is unlikely to target Zaporizhia City from the western Donetsk–Zaporizhia frontline.
  • Russian forces have not shown the capacity to sustain the multiple simultaneous large-scale offensive operations that would be necessary to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk Oblast and seize Zaporizhia City.
  •  The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has launched a series of efforts to restructure and consolidate the mismatched blend of irregular forces supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine into Russia’s conventional military forces.
  • The Russian MoD’s decision to undertake significant structural reform while preparing for a major offensive in eastern Ukraine likely represents an effort by Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to complete reforms while he has Russian President Vladimir Putin’s often fleeting favor.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is overcompensating for his declining influence by continuing to frame himself as the sole victor in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian and Ukrainian officials exchanged 63 Russian POWs for 116 Ukrainian POWs.
  • Russian forces conducted limited offensive operations northwest of Svatove and continued offensive operations around Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and Vuhledar but have slowed the pace of their offensives along the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to target Russian military assets in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian authorities are attempting to reinvigorate force generation efforts by drawing from broader pools of manpower.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 3, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

The Biden administration announced a new $2.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on February 3, including precision long-range missiles for HIMARS.[1] The package includes Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDM) that will increase the range of HIMARS to 151km from roughly 80km.[2] The package also includes Javelin anti-armor systems, two HAWK air defense firing units, regular HIMARS ammunition, and 120mm mortar and 155mm artillery rounds.[3]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against certain opposition voices in the domestic information space while continuing to platform critical nationalist milbloggers. Moscow authorities announced the arrest of Alexander Gusov, the alleged administrator of the Novyi Vek and VChK-OGPU Telegram channels, on charges of extortion on February 3.[4] Independent Russian outlet OVD Info claimed that Russian authorities also arrested Oleg Seliverov for charges relating to terrorism after Moscow authorities recently investigated Seliverov for ties to the Nexta Live opposition outlet.[5] Seliverov is an anti-war activist, and VChK-OGPU characterizes itself as exposing the “secrets of officials, oligarchs, gangsters, security officials.”[6] Gusov denied his affiliations with Novyi Vek and VChK-OGPU on January 26, and Seliverov denied associations with Nexta Live on January 28.[7]  VChK-OGPU condemned the arrests and claimed that Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov and Chemezov’s associates influenced the crackdowns.[8] Putin censored several large opposition outlets in late January 2023, as ISW has previously reported.[9] Putin likely aims to crack down against opposition outlets that directly oppose Putin’s regime or goals, including anti-war voices, while upholding voices such as nationalist milbloggers who support Putin’s regime and war even as the milbloggers criticize the regime for its poor execution of war aims they regard as insufficient.

Russian officials continue to perpetuate the information operation that the war in Ukraine is a direct threat to Russian security through legislative manipulations. Bryansk and Kursk oblasts announced on February 3 that they are extending the “yellow” level of terrorist threat indefinitely due to a need for enhanced measures to protect and defend Russian territory.[10] Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on January 31 that simplifies the process of implementing terror threat alerts in Russia and allows Russian regions classed as ”yellow level” of terrorist threat per Putin’s October 19 martial law decree to indefinitely introduce an elevated ”terrorist level.”[11] Bryansk and Kursk oblast officials will likely use this new ”terror level” regime to escalate law enforcement measures in order to crack down on domestic dissent, partially to present the war in Ukraine as directly threatening Russian domestic security in order to generate continued support for Russian operations.

Key Takeaways

  • The Biden administration announced a new $2.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on February 3, including precision long-range missiles for HIMARS.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against certain opposition voices in the domestic information space while continuing to platform critical nationalist milbloggers.
  • Russian officials continue to perpetuate the information operation that the war in Ukraine is a direct threat to Russian security through legislative manipulations.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line with an intensified pace of operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces did not make any confirmed territorial gains in southern Ukraine.
  • Western officials reportedly estimate that Russian forces have sustained almost 200,000 casualties in the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian officials continue to rely on government-organized non-governmental organizations operating in occupied territories to create the veneer of grass roots support for Russian occupation.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 2, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 2, 2023

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, George Barros, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 2, 7:15 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

A Ukrainian intelligence official stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA) for a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Chernyak told the Kyiv Post on February 1 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023.[1] Chernyak also stated that Russian forces are redeploying additional unspecified assault groups, units, weapons, and military equipment to unspecified areas of eastern Ukraine, likely in the Luhansk Oblast area.

Russian authorities blocked internet cell service in occupied Luhansk Oblast likely as part of an effort to intensify operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Luhansk Oblast. The only mobile cell service provider in Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast reported on February 2 that it would suspend mobile internet coverage in Luhansk Oblast starting on February 11 on orders from the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media.[2] The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Russian officials already disabled mobile internet in occupied Luhansk Oblast as of February 2.[3] Ukrainian citizens have used cell phones to collect information about Russian forces in occupied Ukraine and send targeting information to the Ukrainian military.[4] Russian forces may be learning from their previous operational security failures and adapting to protect Russian force concentrations in Luhansk Oblast ahead of the major offensive about which Ukrainian officials are increasingly warning.[5]

Putin may have overestimated the Russian military’s own capabilities again, as ISW previously assessed.[6] ISW has not observed any evidence that Russian forces have restored sufficient combat power to defeat Ukraine’s forces in eastern Ukraine and capture over 11,300 square kilometers of unoccupied Donetsk Oblast (over 42 percent of Donetsk Oblast’s total area) before March as Putin reportedly ordered. ISW previously assessed that a major Russian offensive before April 2023 would likely prematurely culminate during the April spring rain season (if not before) before achieving operationally significant effects.[7] Russian forces’ culmination could then generate favorable conditions for Ukrainian forces to exploit in their own late spring or summer 2023 counteroffensive after incorporating Western tank deliveries.[8]

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov supported ISW’s MLCOA assessment and possibly suggested that Russian forces have mobilized substantially more personnel for an imminent offensive. Reznikov stated on February 2 that Russian forces are preparing to launch an offensive, likely in eastern or southern Ukraine.[9] Reznikov stated that Ukrainian officials estimate that the number of mobilized Russian personnel is higher than the Kremlin’s official 300,000 figure.[10] Reznikov stated that the Kremlin mobilized 500,000 Russian soldiers, although it is unclear whether this figure refers to Russian force generation efforts following the start of partial mobilization in September of 2022 or the total number of forces that Russia has committed to the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated on January 31 that there are currently 326,000 Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, excluding the 150,000 mobilized personnel still at training grounds.[11] The total 476,000 personnel could be representative of Reznikov‘s figure, or the 500,000 figure could reflect an assessment that ongoing Russian crypto-mobilization efforts since the end of the first mobilization wave have generated a substantial number of additional forces. ISW has not observed indicators that crypto-mobilization efforts in past months have produced as many as 200,000 additional mobilized personnel, however, although it is possible. The mobilization of 300,000 Russian citizens generated far-reaching domestic social ramifications and provisioning challenges, and the further covert mobilization of another 200,000 personnel would likely produce similarly noticeable problems.

Russian officials are continuing efforts to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian audiences in order to set information conditions for a protracted war and maintain domestic support for continued military operations. In a February 2 speech at a concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi troops by the Red Army in the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia is once again facing a modern manifestation of Nazism that is directly threatening Russian security.[12] Putin falsely accused the collective West of forcing Russia to repel its aggression and remarked that Russia is “once against being threatened with German Leopard tanks” that are “going to fight with Russia on the soil of Ukraine with the hands of Hitler‘s descendants.” [13] Putin has previously similarly weaponized erroneous historical parallels to analogize the “special military operation” in Ukraine with the Great Patriotic War, partially in an effort to set long-term information conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.[14] German tanks, and Ukraine and the West more generally, are nowhere near attacking Russian borders. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly perpetuated the information operation that the war in Ukraine poses a tangible domestic threat to Russia on February 2 and claimed that Western-supplied long-range weapons necessitate efforts to drive Ukrainian artillery far enough away from Russian territory that Ukraine will no longer be able to strike these areas.[15] Lavrov is advancing an ongoing information operation that seeks to highlight the fictional threat of Ukrainian ground attacks on Russian territory to make the consequences of the war seem more salient to a domestic audience.

These efforts on the part of Russian officials are not succeeding in generating the likely desired effect of motivating Russians to want to participate in the war, however. Russian State Services announced that as of February 2, the acceptance of applications for new passports has been suspended.[16] Russian research and design joint-stock company Goznak (responsible for manufacturing security products such as banknotes and identity cards) responded with a statement that it has received an inundation of applications for the personalization of foreign passports, which require special embedded microchips.[17] The shortage of microchips for passports and subsequent suspension of passport applications are in part consequences of the mass application for foreign passports in 2022, partially due to the exodus caused by partial mobilization.[18] The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that it issued over 5.4 million passports in 2022, 40% more than in the previous year.[19] The increase in passport applications indicates that social conditioning efforts to bring the “special military operation” home to Russia and reinvigorate patriotic fervor are not having the desired effect. The Kremlin need not look further than passport statistics to poll domestic attitudes on the Russian population’s desire to fight Putin’s war.[20]

Key Takeaways 

  • A Ukrainian intelligence official stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA) for a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities blocked internet cell service in occupied Luhansk Oblast likely as part of an effort to intensify operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov supported ISW’s MLCOA assessment and possibly suggested that Russian forces have mobilized substantially more personnel for an imminent offensive.
  • Russian officials are continuing efforts to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian audiences in order to set information conditions for protracted war and maintain domestic support for continued military operations.  These efforts on the part of Russian officials are not succeeding in generating the likely desired effect of motivating Russians to want to participate in the war, however.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources suggested that Russian forces may be preparing offensive actions in the Svatove area.
  • Russian forces intensified ground attacks in the Kreminna area on February 2.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and southwest of Bakhmut.
  • Russian officials are likely trying to prepare the Russian military’s disciplinary apparatus for an influx of mobilized personnel.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities continue efforts to identify and arrest Crimean Tatars on allegations that they associate with extremist movements banned in Russia.
  • Russian federal subjects and occupation authorities continued announcing patronage programs to support infrastructure projects in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 1, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 1, 7:15 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Ukrainian officials are continuing to warn about Russia’s intention of conducting a decisive offensive operation in Donbas in February and/or March, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA). Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Yusov stated on February 1 that Ukraine is on the eve of an active phase of combat that will take place over the next two months.[1] Yusov noted that the poor state of Russian military equipment will force the Russian military command to mass forces to outnumber Ukrainian defenders in order to make gains. Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Hrabskyi stated that Russia does not have sufficient forces to conduct an attack along the entire 1,500km frontline in Ukraine and will concentrate its efforts on seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.[2] A prominent Russian milblogger observed that the prospect of a Russian offensive operation does not appear to be triggering panic among Ukrainian forces, who are continuing to build out their counteroffensive plans.[3] ISW reported on January 31 that Ukrainian military officials reiterated their intent to launch major counteroffensive operations by the summer of 2023.[4]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be setting conditions for further Russian cross-border raids into northeastern areas of Ukraine, likely in an effort to further domestic information operations and pin Ukrainian forces against northern border areas. Putin held a meeting on February 1 to discuss the restoration of residential infrastructure in Crimea, Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk oblasts following “shelling by Neo-Nazi formations.”[5] Putin noted that his administration is prioritizing the ending of Ukrainian shelling of border regions, but that this task is “the business of the military department.”[6] Putin’s focus on the supposed danger of Ukrainian shelling of border regions likely serves a two-fold purpose. It furthers an information operation intended to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian citizens in order to generate domestic support for a protracted war. ISW has reported on previous methods by which Russian authorities have engaged in this information operation.[7] Putin may also be setting conditions for escalated cross-border raids in order to distract and disperse Ukrainian forces from critical axes of advance by pinning them to northeastern border areas. ISW continues to assess that a Russian invasion from Belarus is exceedingly unlikely, and the ongoing information operation to pin Ukrainian troops against the northern Ukraine-Belarus border seems to be faltering as Ukrainian officials increasingly assess that this contingency is improbable.[8] The threat of cross-border raids from Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk oblasts into northern and northeastern Ukraine is likely an attempt to force Ukraine to deploy limited elements to these areas to protect against such attacks, thus dispersing Ukrainian troops to an extent in advance of a likely Russian offensive operation in the coming months. ISW has previously reported similar Russian distraction and dispersion operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.[9]

The Kremlin is likely seizing an opportunity to discredit Igor Girkin, a prominent critical voice within the Russian nationalist space and former Russian officer, following his altercation with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov accused Girkin of cowardice following his decision to retreat from Slovyansk, Donetsk Oblast, in July 2014.[10] This is a common criticism Girkin’s enemies direct at him. Solovyov’s remarks echo Prigozhin’s ongoing efforts to attack Girkin across the Russian information space, which ISW assessed was an attempt to undermine Girkin’s patronage networks and influence among Russian ultranationalists.[11] Wagner-affiliated milbloggers also portray Girkin as a coward through shared interviews with individuals claiming to be Girkin’s acquaintances.[12] ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin’s criticism of Girkin will likely benefit the Kremlin, who will seize this opportunity to discredit an avid critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.[13]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian officials are continuing to warn about Russia’s intention of conducting a decisive offensive operation in Donbas in February and/or March, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA).
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may be setting conditions for further Russian cross-border raids into northeastern areas of Ukraine, likely in an effort to further domestic information operations and pin Ukrainian forces against northern border areas.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and southwest of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions on the Svatove-Kreminna line on February 1.
  • Russian forces are continuing to carry out unsuccessful disruption missions on islands in the Dnipro River delta in Kherson Oblast in an effort to prevent Ukrainian forces from gaining ground on the islands.
  • Russian officials plan to propose a moratorium on the public procurement law to simplify spending procedures amid an increasingly costly war effort.
  • The Wagner Group’s prison recruitment efforts may have slowed in previous months.
  • Crimean partisans may have conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in occupied Crimea on January 30.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 31, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 31, 8:15 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city. The ISW December 27 forecast that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut was culminating was inaccurate.[1] The Wagner Group offensive culminated, as ISW assessed on January 28, but the Russian command has committed sufficient conventional Russian forces to the effort to reinvigorate it, thus forestalling the overall culmination of the offensive on Bakhmut, which continues.[2] The commander of a Ukrainian unit operating in Bakhmut, Denys Yarolavskyi, confirmed that "super qualified" Russian conventional military troops are now reinforcing Wagner Group private military company (PMC) assault units in an ongoing effort to encircle Bakhmut.[3] Another Ukrainian Bakhmut frontline commander, Volodymyr Nazarenko, also confirmed ISW’s observations that the Russian military command committed Russian airborne troops to the Bakhmut offensive.[4] Russian forces are continuing to conduct offensive operations northeast and southwest of Bakhmut and have secured limited territorial gains since capturing Soledar on January 12.[5]

ISW does not forecast the imminent fall of Bakhmut to Russian forces, although the Ukrainian command may choose to withdraw rather than risk unacceptable losses. It is extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces will be able to conduct a surprise encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut. Yaroslavskyi noted that the Ukrainian military command would conduct a controlled withdrawal of forces from Bakhmut to save Ukrainian soldiers’ lives, likely if the Ukrainian command assesses that the risk of an encirclement of the city is imminent.[6] Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty stated on January 31 that Ukrainian forces are still able to effectively supply units in Bakhmut and noted that the Ukrainian military command has developed several contingency plans to respond to Russian operations around Bakhmut.[7] Cherevaty added that Russian forces are continuing to suffer heavy casualties and noted that Ukraine’s previous defense and subsequent withdrawal from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk over the summer of 2022 exhausted Russian forces and disrupted their plans for an immediate attack on Bakhmut.

Russian officials are again overestimating Russian military capabilities to advance in Donetsk Oblast and in the theater in a short period of time. Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin stated on January 31 that the Russian capture of Bakhmut will allow Russia to advance to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, both approximately 40km northwest of Bakhmut.[8] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin previously claimed that the average pace of Russian advance around Bakhmut was about 100 meters per day, and it took Russian forces eight months to advance from occupied Popasna in Luhansk Oblast and Svitlodarsk to their current positions in the vicinity of Bakhmut (distances of 25km and 22km respectively).[9] Pushilin also claimed that the hypothetical Russian capture of Vuhledar would allow Russian forces to launch offensive operations on Kurakhove, Marinka, and Pokrovsk—despite the inability of Russian forces to capture Marinka since March 17, 2022, when the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) falsely claimed to have seized the settlement.[10] Pushilin had also claimed that Russian forces will seize Avdiivka, but has not provided any explanation of how Russian forces will break through almost nine years’ worth of Ukrainian fortifications around the settlement.[11] Pushilin’s expectations for Russia's hypothetical seizure of Bakhmut further demonstrate that Russians are continuing to face challenges in accurately assessing the time and space relationship with the account for Russian military capabilities.

Russian conventional forces may be replacing expended Wagner PMC forces by relocating them from Bakhmut to the frontlines in southern Ukraine.[12] The Head of the Ukrainian Press Center of the Defense Forces of the Tavrisk Direction, Colonel Yevhen Yerin, stated that Russian forces are conducting unspecified force rotations out of Kherson Oblast and that Ukrainian authorities are clarifying reports about Wagner Group forces arriving in the Zaporizhia operational direction.[13] Ukrainian officials first reported on Wagner forces arriving in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast on January 15, coinciding with the culmination of the Wagner offensive in Donbas with the capture of Soledar on January 12.[14] Russian forces may be rotating out the culminated and battle-weary Wagner forces in favor of Russian conventional units that have likely been resting and refitting since the Russian withdrawal to the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast in November.[15]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be attempting to fully supplant Wagner forces near Bakhmut and frame the traditional Russian military command structure as the sole victor around Bakhmut, assuming Russian forces eventually take the city. The Russian MoD and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin have made competing claims over recent Russian gains around Soledar and Bakhmut following the capture of Soledar.[16] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces captured Blahodatne just west of Soledar on January 31 after Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces seized the settlement on January 28.[17] Prigozhin is likely overcompensating for Wagner forces’ reduced combat capabilities and reliance on conventional forces by claiming territorial gains before the MoD can feasibly claim them for Russian conventional forces.[18] The Russian MoD likely aims to undermine the Wagner Group’s influence in Ukraine despite the MoD’s reliance on Wagner forces to sustain the Russian effort around Bakhmut since July and to take horrendous losses for minimal territorial gains.[19]

Ukrainian officials continue to support ISW’s assessment that an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action (MLCOA) and further suggested that Ukrainian forces plan to launch a larger counteroffensive. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated in a January 31 interview with Sky News that Russian forces are preparing for a "maximum escalation" in Ukraine within the next two to three months and may do so as soon as the next two to three weeks to coincide with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[20] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated in a January 31 interview with the Washington Post that Russian forces will focus on occupying a larger area of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian forces appear to be preparing for an imminent offensive in eastern Ukraine, particularly in Luhansk Oblast.[21] Budanov stated that there are currently 326,000 Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, excluding the roughly 150,000 mobilized personnel still in training grounds that Russian forces have reportedly not yet committed to hostilities.[22] The Russian military will likely continue to accumulate conventional forces in Luhansk Oblast and increase the deployment of remaining mobilized personnel to eastern Ukraine in support of an imminent decisive strategic effort in western Luhansk Oblast.[23] Danilov suggested that Ukrainian forces have their own plans for operations in the coming months, and Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces must return Crimea to Ukrainian control by the summer of 2023.[24] Budanov has recently stated that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring of 2023 "from Crimea to Donbas."[25]

Prominent Russian milbloggers continue to expose Russian military failures in Ukraine through increasingly public and elevated platforms. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on live Russian state TV that Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) lost 40-50% of their personnel between the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and September of 2022, although ISW cannot independently confirm the accuracy of the milblogger’s assessment.[26] The public reporting of this significant figure, regardless of its accuracy, notably undermines efforts from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to minimize Russian causalities reported in the Russian information space. The Kremlin has recently attempted to integrate some select milbloggers, including this one, into its narrative control by offering them platforms on Russian state broadcasters while also attempting to resurrect censorship efforts targeting the wider community of milbloggers that are critical of the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).[27] The Kremlin‘s effort to coopt a select group of milbloggers by giving them more public and elevated platforms may backfire as milboggers may seize the opportunity to appeal to the Russian ultranationalist community that has been increasingly critical of the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.[28]

Russia continues to weaponize counterterrorism laws to justify domestic repressions. Russian sources reported on January 31 that the Central Military District Court found Vladislav Borisenko guilty of a terrorist act and sentenced him to 12 years in prison for his role in a May 2022 Molotov cocktail attack on the Nizhnevartovsk military registration office in Khanty-Mansi Okrug.[29] This is notably the first instance of the perpetrator of an attack on a military registration office being officially charged with committing a terrorist act.[30] The apparent elevation of charges for such incidents from destruction of property and hooliganism indicate that the Russian judicial system is increasingly seeking to impose harsher punishments on acts of domestic dissent as the war in Ukraine continues, as ISW has previously assessed.[31] Russian President Vladimir Putin additionally signed a decree on January 31 that simplifies the process of implementing terror threat alerts in Russia.[32] The decree allows Russian regions to introduce an elevated "terrorist level" for an indefinite period, thus negating the previous 15-day limit.[33] The January 31 decree is an expansion of Putin’s October 19 martial law decree, which introduced varying levels of "martial law readiness" in occupied regions of Ukraine and Russian border regions.[34] The new decree will allow Russian regions operating on a "yellow level" of terrorist threat (as in Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk Oblasts) to stop and search vehicles on administrative borders to weapons and explosives, activities that were previously allowed only in "red level" regions.[35] The continued legislative manipulations of terrorism as a legal concept are allowing Russian authorities greater scope to crack down on domestic dissent and on any activities that are deemed contrary to Russian interests.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city. ISW's December 27 forecast that the Russian offensive against Bakhmut was culminating was inaccurate.
  • ISW does not forecast the imminent fall of Bakhmut, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces will be able to conduct a surprise encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut.
  • Russian military command is overestimating Russian military capabilities to advance rapidly in Donetsk Oblast and in the theater.
  • Russian conventional forces may be replacing expended Wagner PMC forces by relocating them from Bakhmut to the Zaporizhia Oblast front line.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be attempting to fully supplant Wagner forces near Bakhmut to frame the traditional Russian military command structure as the sole victor around Bakhmut, assuming Russian forces take the city.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to support ISW’s assessment that an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action (MLCOA) and further suggested that Ukrainian forces plan to launch a larger counteroffensive.
  • Prominent Russian milbloggers continue to expose Russian military failures in Ukraine through increasingly public and elevated platforms.
  • Russia continues to weaponize counterterrorism laws to justify domestic repressions.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on January 31.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • Russian forces are unlikely to benefit significantly elsewhere in eastern Ukraine from their localized offensive around Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces are likely prioritizing sabotage and reconnaissance activities over territorial gains in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov acknowledged Russian mobilization failures in an attempt to frame implementation failures and policy violations as resolved.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to use youth engagement and education programs to consolidate social control of occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 30, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 30, 8:30pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.  

Western, Ukrainian, and Russian sources continue to indicate that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive, supporting ISW’s assessment that an offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action (MLCOA).[1] NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg stated on January 30 that there are no indications that Russia is preparing to negotiate for peace and that all indicators point to the opposite.[2] Stoltenberg noted that Russia may mobilize upwards of 200,000 personnel and is continuing to acquire weapons and ammunition through increased domestic production and partnerships with authoritarian states such as Iran and North Korea.[3] Stoltenberg emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin retains his maximalist goals in Ukraine.[4] Head of the Council of Reservists of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Ivan Tymochko, relatedly stated that Russian forces are strengthening their grouping in Donbas as part of an anticipated offensive and noted that Russian forces will need to launch an offensive due to increasing domestic pressure for victory.[5] Stoltenberg’s and Tymochko’s statements support ISW’s previous forecast that Russian forces are setting conditions to launch an offensive effort, likely in Luhansk Oblast, in the coming months.[6] Russian milbloggers additionally continued to indicate that the Russian information space is setting conditions for and anticipating a Russian offensive. Milbloggers amplified a statement made by a Russian Telegram channel that the current pace and nature of Russian operations indicate that the main forces of the anticipated offensive and promised breakthrough have not yet “entered the battle.”[7] This statement suggests that Russian milbloggers believe that Russian forces have not yet activated the elements required for a decisive offensive effort.[8]

Russia and Iran continued efforts to deepen economic ties. NOTE: This item appeared in the Critical Threats Project (CTP)’s January 30 Iran Crisis Update. Iranian state media reported that Iran and Russia established direct financial communication channels between Iranian banks and more than 800 Russian banks on January 29.[9] Iranian Central Bank Deputy Governor Mohsen Karami announced that Iranian and Russian banks have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on financial messaging, effective immediately. Karami added that Iranian banks abroad were also included in the MoU and would be able to exchange standard banking messages with Russian banks.[10] Iranian officials and state-affiliated media outlets framed the MoU as a means to circumvent Western sanctions on Iran and Russia and compared the messaging system to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which serves as the world’s largest financial messaging system.[11] ISW has previously reported on the deepening of economic and military ties between Tehran and Moscow.[12] 

Key Takeaways

  • Western, Ukrainian, and Russian sources continue to indicate that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive, supporting ISW’s assessment that an offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action (MLCOA).
  • Iranian state media reported that Iran and Russia established direct financial communication channels between Iranian banks and more than 800 Russian banks on January 29.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks to regain lost positions west of Kreminna as Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations northwest of Svatove.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian force concentrations in rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • Russian forces continued to make marginal territorial gains near Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continued measures to professionalize the Russian military as it faces continued backlash against these measures.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities continue to target Crimean Tatars in an effort to associate anti-Russia sentiment with extremist or terrorist activity.

 

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros

January 29, 8:30 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, January 29. This report focuses on the impact of delays in sending high-end weapons systems to Ukraine on Ukraine’s ability to take advantage of windows of opportunity throughout this war.

Delays in the provision to Ukraine of Western long-range fires systems, advanced air defense systems, and tanks have limited Ukraine’s ability to take advantage of opportunities for larger counter-offensive operations presented by flaws and failures in Russian military operations. Western discussions of supposed “stalemate” conditions and the difficulty or impossibility of Ukraine regaining significant portions of the territory Russia seized in 2022 insufficiently account for how Western delays in providing necessary military equipment have exacerbated those problems. Slow authorization and arrival of aid have not been the only factors limiting Ukraine’s ability to launch continued large-scale counter-offensive operations. Factors endogenous to the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian political decision-making have also contributed to delaying counteroffensives. ISW is not prepared to assess that all Ukrainian military decisions have been optimal. (ISW does not, in fact, assess Ukrainian military decision-making in these updates at all. Yet, as historians, we have not observed flawless military decision-making in any war.) But Ukraine does not have a significant domestic military industry to turn to in the absence of Western support. Western hesitancy to supply weapons during wartime took insufficient account of the predictable requirement to shift Ukraine from Soviet to Western systems as soon as the West committed to helping Ukraine fight off Russia's 2022 invasion.

The military aid provided by the US-led Western coalition has been essential to Ukraine’s survival, and this report’s critiques illustrate the importance of that aid as well as its limitations. Western military advising before the February 24 invasion helped the Ukrainian military resist the initial Russian invasion. Western weapons systems such as the Javelin anti-tank missile helped Ukraine defeat that onslaught and throw the Russian drive on Kyiv back to its starting points. The provision of essential Soviet-era weapons systems and munitions by members of the Western coalition has kept the Ukrainian military operating throughout the war. The delivery of more advanced Western systems such as the US-produced 155mm artillery (in April) and then HIMARS (in June) facilitated the Ukrainian counter-offensives that liberated most of Kharkiv Oblast and then western Kherson Oblast.[1] The arrival of Western NASAMS air-defense systems in November helped blunt the Russian drone and missile campaign attacking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.[2]

 

The war has unfolded so far in three major periods. The Russians had the initiative and were on the offensive from February 24 through July 3, 2022, whereupon their attacks culminated. The Ukrainians seized the initiative and began large-scale counteroffensives in August, continuing through the liberation of western Kherson Oblast on November 11. Ukraine has been unable to initiate a new major counter-offensive since then, allowing the conflict to settle into positional warfare and allowing the Russians the opportunity to regain the initiative if they choose and to raise the bar for future Ukrainian counteroffensives even if they do not. The pattern of delivery of Western aid has powerfully shaped the pattern of this conflict.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 28, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 28, 6 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Conventional Russian forces are likely replacing exhausted Wagner Group forces to maintain the offensive in Bakhmut after the Wagner Group’s offensive in Bakhmut culminated with the capture of Soledar around January 12. The Wagner Group’s assault on Bakhmut has likely culminated with its surge on Soledar. Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut have not made significant gains since capturing Soledar around January 12. Conventional Russian units are now participating in fighting in Bakhmut to reinvigorate the Russian offensive there. Combat footage posted on January 20 indicates Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are operating around Bakhmut as the footage shows a Russian BMD-4M – niche mechanized equipment exclusively used by the VDV.[1] A Russian source reported that Wagner and VDV elements conducted joint operations in Bakhmut on December 27.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense has been increasingly reporting that Russian VDV are operating in the Bakhmut area since early January 2023, indicating conventional Russian forces are augmenting if not replacing likely culminated Wagner forces in the area.[3] Wagner Group forces - particularly convicts - have taken heavy causalities in Bakhmut since the fall of 2022. One anonymous US official reportedly stated on January 5 that the Wagner Group’s forces have sustained more than 4,100 deaths and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut.[4]

Ukrainian officials have maintained that the Russian offensive on Bakhmut has not culminated.[5] ISW has previously assessed that the Russian offensive on Bakhmut was culminating.[6] We continue to assess that the Wagner offensive has culminated, but now assess that the Russians are committing conventional units to continue the fight. The larger Russian effort against Bakhmut has likely thus not culminated.

Russian forces are attempting to prevent Ukraine from regaining the initiative possibly ahead of a planned decisive Russian offensive in Donbas. Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov stated on December 22 that Russian forces are focusing most of their efforts on seizing Donetsk Oblast, which likely entails Russian forces capturing key positions in western Luhansk Oblast and northeastern Donetsk Oblast to reach the oblasts’ administrative borders.[7] Russian forces have resumed ground attacks in the Vuhledar area (which they unsuccessfully attempted to reach in late October 2022) and are conducting small-scale assaults in Zaporizhia Oblast and around Donetsk City. Russian forces are conducting a large-scale offensive operation on the Bakhmut frontline as their current main effort and a defensive operation, for now, on the Svatove-Kreminna line.[8]

The localized attacks on Vuhledar and settlements in Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts are likely intended to disperse Ukrainian troops and set conditions for a decisive Russian offensive in western Luhansk Oblast, as ISW had previously assessed.[9] Russian forces may be attempting to disperse the Ukrainian grouping of forces on the Svatove-Kreminna line to enable a Russian recapture of Lyman, Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces could seek to use Lyman as a launching point for a decisive offensive to secure Donbas by conducting an offensive from Lyman in tandem with a drive on Bakhmut or from Bakhmut toward Slovyansk if the Russians succeed in capturing Bakhmut. The Russians may imagine that they can drive from their current positions directly to the Donetsk Oblast border along several independent lines of advance, although it is unlikely that they would not recognize the extreme improbability of success in such an attempt. The Russians more likely intend to pursue several phases of offensive operations culminating with securing the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. These phases would likely require anywhere from six to 12 months of Russian campaigning, if they are possible at all, extrapolating from past Russian operational patterns and assuming higher levels of Russian combat power and capability than ISW has observed since the start of the war.

Russian forces likely lack the combat power necessary to sustain more than one major offensive operation while fixing Ukrainian forces in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts. There is no open-source evidence to suggest that Russian forces have regenerated sufficient combat power from their losses in the early phases of the war to enable Russian forces to conduct simultaneous large-scale mechanized offensives in the next several months. The Russian military has not demonstrated the capability to conduct simultaneous combined arms offensive operations since early 2022. Russia’s most recent gains around Bakhmut relied on months of human wave attacks to secure territorial gains around Bakhmut by brute force at tremendous human costs. Russia’s earlier capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in summer 2022 also did not utilize combined arms but instead relied on large-scale rolling artillery barrages to methodically destroy Ukrainian positions. Russian forces are experiencing growing artillery ammunition shortages that would prevent them from repeating these tactics.[10] It is unlikely, moreover, that the conventional Russian military will be willing to take the kinds of horrific losses the human wave tactic has inflicted on Wagner’s convicts. The Russians’ ability to execute large-scale rapid offensives on multiple axes this winter and spring is thus very questionable.

The conventional Russian military still must undergo significant reconstitution before regaining the ability to conduct effective maneuver warfare. The Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) plans to significantly increase the size of Russia’s military with 12 new maneuver divisions will take at least until 2026, if this effort succeeds at all.[11] Western intelligence and defense officials have not issued any indications that Russia’s effective mechanized warfare combat power has recently increased, and ISW has not observed any indicators along those lines.

The Russian military leadership may once again be planning an offensive operation based on erroneous assumptions about the Russian military’s capabilities, however. Russia's military failures in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson oblasts have demonstrated time and again that Russian military leadership overestimates the Russian military‘s own capabilities. The degraded Eastern Military District naval infantry elements that are currently attacking Vuhledar will likely culminate even if they succeed in capturing the settlement.[12] The Ukrainian loss of Vuhledar, if it occurs, would not likely portend an immediate Russian breakthrough on multiple lines of advance in Donetsk or in the theater in general, therefore. Ukraine‘s spring rain season (which normally occurs around April) will degrade the terrain’s suitability for maneuver warfare. If Russian forces attempt simultaneous mechanized offensives in the next two months they would likely disrupt Ukrainian efforts to conduct a counteroffensive in the short term, but such a Russian offensive would likely prematurely culminate during the spring rain season (if not before) before achieving operationally significant effects. Russian forces’ culmination would then generate favorable conditions for Ukrainian forces to exploit in their own late spring or summer 2023 counteroffensive. Ukraine would additionally be seeing growing benefits from the incorporation of Western tank deliveries that have only just been pledged.

The Russians are thus very unlikely to achieve operationally decisive successes in their current and likely upcoming offensive operations, although they are likely to make tactically and possibly even operationally significant gains. Ukraine will very likely find itself in a good position from which to conduct successful counteroffensive operations following the culmination of Russian offensives before or during the spring rainy season—always assuming that the Ukrainians do not preempt or disrupt the Russian offensives with a counter-offensive of their own.

The Russian military’s decreasing reliance on Wagner forces around Bakhmut is likely reducing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s influence. ISW assessed on January 22 that the Kremlin likely turned to Prigozhin’s irregular forces to get through a rough period following the culmination of Russian conventional forces’ offensive in Luhansk Oblast over the summer of 2022, which misled Prigozhin into overestimating his importance in the Russian military and political spheres.[13] The Kremlin, however, will not need to appease Prigozhin if Russian conventional forces continue to take responsibility for the Bakhmut frontline. ISW has reported that the Kremlin likely has already been slowly terminating his privileges.[14] Gerasimov and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) have also embarked upon new efforts to professionalize the army, an effort that, if successful, would marginalize parallel military formations such as the Wagner Group.

Prigozhin is likely sensing and is overcompensating for his declining influence and has therefore begun to attack the nationalist veteran faction. The veteran faction has been demanding that the Russian military command fix flaws within its conventional campaign instead of focusing on ineffective and unconventional solutions since at least May 2022.[15] Prigozhin continued on January 28 to berate Igor Girkin – a prominent Russian nationalist voice and a former Russian officer who has connections with the Russian veteran community – with vulgar insults and accusations that he is responsible for Russian forces’ loss of Slovyansk in 2014.[16] Prigozhin accused Girkin, Russian State Duma Parliamentarian and Committee on Defense member Lieutenant General (Ret.) Viktor Sobolev, and Leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky of living in a past in which Russia relied on conventional forces.[17] Sobolev previously supported the Russian MoD effort to professionalize the military by enforcing grooming standards, and Slutsky avidly advocated for the Kremlin to declare mobilization to rectify the dire situation on the frontlines in early fall 2022.[18] Prigozhin went after these three individuals likely in an effort to undermine their credibility and advocacy for reforms and improvements within the military that further marginalize his undisciplined and brutal parallel military forces.

Prigozhin is also facing bribery accusations, which may further diminish his reputation regardless of their validity. Prigozhin responded to a media inquiry on January 27 regarding speculations that he receives bribes from convicts who do not then serve on the front lines but still receive a pardon for their “service.”[19] The allegations claimed that Prigozhin had recruited and soon released convicted Lipetsk Oblast Parliamentarian Andrey Yaitskiy (who some commentators speculated was physically unfit for military service), which granted him a pardon in exchange for a bribe.[20] Prigozhin attempted to deflect the accusations by claiming that Wagner discharged Yaitskiy with honors following his heavy injuries sustained on the frontlines and included purported testimony from Yaitskiy’s alleged commanders who portrayed him as a hero.[21] ISW cannot independently verify these bribery accusations against Prigozhin, however, their emergence is notable given that corruption and bribery is endemic in Russia and a hated cultural vice among Russians.

Key Takeaways 

  • Conventional Russian forces are likely replacing exhausted Wagner Group forces to maintain the offensive in Bakhmut after the Wagner Group’s offensive in Bakhmut culminated with the capture of Soledar around January 12.
  • Russian forces are attempting to prevent Ukraine from regaining the initiative possibly ahead of a planned decisive Russian offensive in Donbas.
  • Russian forces likely lack the combat power necessary to sustain more than one major offensive operation while fixing Ukrainian forces in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • The Russian military leadership may once again be planning an offensive operation based on erroneous assumptions about the Russian military’s capabilities
  • The Russian military’s decreasing reliance on Wagner forces around Bakhmut is likely reducing Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s influence.
  • Russian forces reportedly continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas. Russian forces continued a localized offensive near Vuhledar in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources did not report any Russian ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast for the second consecutive day on January 28.
  • Some Russian citizens continue limited efforts to sabotage Russian force generation efforts.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to set conditions for the long-term forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 27, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

 Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, George Barros, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 27, 7:40 ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Kremlin insiders reportedly told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive to regain the initiative that may begin as early as February or March 2023. Russian officials, Kremlin advisors, and other unspecified knowledgeable figures who spoke on condition of anonymity reportedly told Bloomberg that Putin seeks to conduct a new major offensive and that he believes that Russia’s tolerance to accept causalities will allow Russia to win the war in the long run despite Russian failures so far.[1] This report is consistent with ISW’s current assessment and forecast that the Kremlin is likely preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action—most likely in Luhansk Oblast—in the next six months intended to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes.[2] ISW previously assessed that the decisive strategic action in Luhansk Oblast could be either a major offensive or a Russian defensive operation to defeat and exploit a Ukrainian counteroffensive.[3]

Recent limited Russian ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast may be intended to disperse Ukrainian forces and set conditions for an offensive in Luhansk.[4] Russia is redeploying elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division from Belarus to Luhansk Oblast.[5] This recent development suggests that the planned Russian offensive referenced in the Bloomberg report is most likely aimed at Luhansk Oblast though it could also occur in the Vuhledar area in western Donetsk. This new offensive is extremely unlikely to target northern Ukraine from Belarus. There continues to be no indication that Russian forces are forming strike groups in Belarus; Russian elements in Belarus are largely using Belarusian infrastructure and training capacity for training rotations.[6] Russian milbloggers are also increasingly writing off the notion of a second attack against Kyiv as an information operation and are suggesting that the most likely target for a Russian offensive would be in eastern Ukraine or neighboring Kharkiv Oblast.[7]

The Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is issuing preemptive pardons for convicts who serve in Russian operations in Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 27 that he cannot provide additional information about presidential decrees on pardons because they are protected by "various classifications of secrecy."[8] Peskov’s statement confirms that Putin has been issuing preemptive presidential pardons to convicts, the majority of whom are likely recruited into the ranks of the Wagner Group. Russian Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva stated in early January that convicts recruited by Wagner are pardoned before their release from penal colonies.[9] ISW previously assessed that these preemptive presidential pardons may be driving further recruitment within penal colonies and likely empower Wagner to operate with greater impunity in the theater.[10]

A visual investigation by a Russian opposition outlet confirmed that Russian authorities are deporting children from occupied Kherson Oblast to occupied Crimea. Russian opposition outlet Verstka examined photos posted to an "Adoption in Moscow Oblast" website that showed 14 children aged two to five from Kherson Oblast at the Yolochka orphanage in Simferopol, occupied Crimea.[11] Verstka noted that the Yolochka orphanage is subordinate to the Crimean Ministry of Health and specializes in the care of children with nervous system issues, mental and behavioral disorders, hearing and vision problems, and HIV.[12] The Yolochka orphanage’s official work mandate provides for the education of its children with "patriotism and citizenship" on the grounds that "Crimea is located in the south of Russia" and the generation of "awareness of oneself as a citizen of multinational Russia."[13] Russian outlet RIA Novosti reported on Yolochka in 2020 and stated that children under Yolochka’s care were severely malnourished and neglected by orphanage leadership, prompting the intervention of the former Kremlin-appointed Commissioner on Children’s Rights Anna Kuznetsova (the predecessor of current Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova).[14] Verstka’s investigation confirms that elements of the Russian occupation infrastructure in occupied areas of Ukraine are actively involved in the deportation and handling of Ukrainian children, as ISW has previously assessed.[15] Head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi reiterated on January 27 that Russia is consistently in violation of "the fundamental principles of child protection" by putting Ukrainian children up for adoption.[16]

Russian officials denied the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report of explosions at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on January 26, without accusing Ukrainian forces of being responsible for these explosions. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reported on January 26 that IAEA observers at the ZNPP informed him about explosions and detonations near the facility that indicated nearby military activity.[17] The reference to military activity is notable as the IAEA routinely fails to comment on the Russian military’s activities on and near the ZNPP. Russian officials claimed that no explosions occurred near the plant and that the IAEA observers likely heard sounds of an artillery duel a considerable distance from the ZNPP.[18] Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Deputy Vladimir Rogov claimed that the IAEA was playing a political role to support Ukraine and amplified Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Head Sergey Naryshkin’s claim that Ukrainian forces are using nuclear power plants throughout Ukraine to store military equipment.[19] The fact that Russian officials did not frame the event as a Ukrainian provocative shelling of the plant diverges from the routine Russian response to reports of explosions near the ZNPP. Russian officials will likely continue to use interactions with the IAEA to push for it to recognize its ownership of the ZNPP, and de facto recognize its illegal annexation of Zaporizhia Oblast.

The Russian military command is likely attempting to restrict milbloggers’ frontline coverage to regain control over the Russian information space ahead of a possible new offensive. Alexander Kots—a member of the Russian Human Rights Commission under Russian President Vladimir Putin and a prominent milblogger—stated that there are rumors that Russian authorities will require war correspondents to wear bright blue press vests to identify themselves as journalists in the combat zone.[20] Kots and other milbloggers criticized the rumored decision, claiming that high-visibility vests will only help Ukrainian forces deliberately target war correspondents embedded in Russian units.[21] Some milbloggers even admitted that they have been hiding their "PRESS" labels for years and noted that this allowed hundreds of war correspondents to independently work on the frontlines without anyone’s formal orders.[22] The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) First Deputy Information Minister Danil Bezsonov also argued that generals who are introducing these regulations should be responsible for each war correspondent’s death after making them an easily visible target on the ground.[23] One milblogger accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of deliberately introducing new bureaucratic requirements that will limit the milbloggers’ ability to operate on the frontlines.[24]

These plans for restrictions—if they exist—are likely a part of the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers and nationalist figures had criticized the regulations introduced by the Russian military command requiring servicemen of Russian conventional forces to shave and banning them from using personal vehicles and cell phones on the frontlines.[25] Gerasimov and the Russian MoD are likely attempting to formalize guidance for embedded reporters in Russian units, which is a standard practice in professional militaries aimed at maintaining operational security on the frontlines. The Russian milbloggers’ reaction is likely rooted in their fear that these press vests are little more than a Russian MoD ruse to strip the milbloggers of their independence from Russian government oversight given that they will likely need to undergo complex bureaucratic procedures to receive the Russian MoD’s permission to operate on the front lines to acquire the vests.

The Russian military command may also be attempting to resurrect its previously unsuccessful censorship efforts targeting the critical milblogger community. ISW previously reported that the Russian MoD conducted several unsuccessful attempts to promote self-censorship among milbloggers from different nationalist factions—including Wagner-affiliated milbloggers—in summer and fall 2022.[26] Russian military command also previously attempted to promote self-censorship among milbloggers by pushing the narrative that Russian milbloggers have been violating Russian operational security by uploading combat footage or revealing Russian positions online.[27] It is unclear if Russian President Vladimir Putin is supporting these restrictions given that he had been appeasing pro-war milbloggers by meeting with them, allowing them to autonomously operate on the frontlines, and tolerating their criticisms.[28] The Kremlin is also continuing to integrate some select milbloggers by offering to let them host TV shows on Russian state broadcasters.[29] The Russian MoD may be conducting its own line of effort to silence the milbloggers independent of Putin. ISW will continue to monitor to see if Putin overrules the Russian MoD’s efforts to silence milbloggers.

The Russian MoD’s effort to restrict embedded milbloggers in conventional units will not silence all milblogger criticism online, however. A Russian milblogger observed that restrictive measures such as government-distributed press vests will further solidify Wagner Group as the dominant source of independent frontline information since Wagner will not abide by such restrictions. The Russian MoD’s tactic to suppress information from the frontlines would create a vacuum in the information space for Wagner-affiliated milbloggers, who have a significantly stronger distaste for the Russian MoD, to fill. Russia’s use of unconventional military formations will also undermine the effectiveness of such regulations.

Key Takeaways

  • Kremlin insiders reportedly told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive to regain the initiative that may begin as early as February or March 2023.
  • The Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is issuing preemptive pardons for convicts who serve in Russian operations in Ukraine.  
  • A visual investigation by a Russian opposition outlet confirmed that Russian authorities are deporting children from occupied Kherson Oblast to occupied Crimea.
  • Russian officials denied reported explosions near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on January 26.
  • The Russian military command is likely attempting to restrict mibloggers’ frontline coverage to regain control over the Russian information space ahead of the new offensive. These restrictions—if planned—are likely a part of the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna on January 26 and January 27.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, on the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources did not report that Russian forces continued localized offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast on January 27.
  • Russian officials claimed that the conscription age will not change in the upcoming 2023 spring conscription cycle.
  • Russian occupation authorities are continuing to intensify efforts to integrate occupied territories into the Russian legal and administrative structures.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 26, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 26, 9 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian forces launched another massive series of missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on January 26. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhnyi stated that Russian forces launched 55 air- and sea-based missiles, including Kh-101, Kh-555, Kh-47, and Kh-95 Kalibr and Kinzhal missiles at Ukraine from Tu-95, Su-35, and MiG-31K aircraft from the waters of the Black Sea.[1] Ukrainian air defense shot down 47 of the 55 missiles and all 24 Shahed 136 and 131 drones.[2] Several missiles struck critical infrastructure in Vinnytsia and Odesa oblasts.[3] Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov notably reported that Russian forces had 90 Iranian-made drones remaining as of January 7.[4] Russian forces have enough drones for only a few more large-scale strikes unless they have received or will soon receive a new shipment of drones from Iran. Russian Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on January 23 to expand bilateral cooperation efforts, conversations that may have included discussions on the provision of Iranian-made weapons systems to Russia.[5]

A recent altercation between Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and former Russian officer Igor Girkin is exposing a new domain for competition among Russian nationalist groups for political influence in Russia. Girkin accused Prigozhin on January 25 of deliberately misconstruing his criticism of Prigozhin’s political aspirations and exploitation of the information space as an attack on Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine.[6] Girkin claimed that Wagner-affiliated outlet RiaFan’s interview with an unnamed Wagner commander who blamed Girkin for abandoning positions in Donbas in 2014 was an effort to anonymously discredit him.[7] Girkin also accused Prigozhin of continuing to commit Wagner forces to support operations in Syria and African countries instead of deploying his mercenaries to win the war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin replied that he does not have political ambitions and stated that his team attempted to bribe Girkin in an effort to silence his criticism of Wagner forces which could have led to the imprisonment of his fighters for illegal mercenary activity.[8] Prigozhin also made a point of exaggerating his authority by claiming that he cannot withdraw Wagner from Africa because he “made a promise to several presidents” that he will “defend them,” claimed that Wagner “de-facto” won the Syrian war, and noted that Wagner was kicked out of Donbas in 2015.[9] Prigozhin reiterated that he founded, controls, and sponsors Wagner and sarcastically invited Girkin to join one of Wagner’s assault units in occupied Luhansk Oblast, which Girkin stated he would do if Prigozhin sent him a serious invitation.[10] Prigozhin further demeaned Girkin by stating that Wagner does not send out invitations and stated that Girkin would not be effective on the frontlines because he is only interested in promoting himself for financial benefit.[11]

Prigozhin and Girkin – both critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conduct of the war – are likely competing for influence and patronage among pro-war politicians disillusioned with the progress of the war. ISW assessed on October 4 that the Russian nationalists are split among three distinct groups that pursue different objectives while unilaterally criticizing the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD): Russian or proxy veterans, nationalists with their own private forces, and Russian milbloggers and war correspondents.[12] Girkin represents the veteran faction due to his connections with veteran organizations such as the All-Russian Officers Assembly, while Prigozhin is a self-proclaimed nationalist with access to a parallel military structure.[13] While both have avidly denied their political aspirations in Russia, they have continued to criticize the Russian MoD and the Kremlin in an effort to boost their prominence in Russian society against the backdrop of Russian military failures.[14] Prigozhin and Girkin are likely competing for favor with the same pro-war nationalist patronage networks within the Kremlin that are represented by outspoken nationalist politicians. Prigozhin, for example, is engaging members of the A Just Russia – For Truth Party and nationalist-leaning Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin to legalize Wagner mercenaries in Russia.[15] Girkin had broken with many officials with strong nationalist rhetoric like Volodin, however, and may be frustrated that he is unable to attain the same political power that he exerted in 2014 during the occupation of Crimea, and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.[16]

Prigozhin’s attack on Girkin may benefit Putin, however. Prigozhin is very prominent in the Russian information space, and many milbloggers accused Girkin of lacking combat experience and cowardice in response to this exchange.[17] Prigozhin may have attempted to undermine Girkin to gain influence in the nationalist space while simultaneously but not necessarily intentionally discrediting one of the most prominent Putin critics.

Prigozhin is likely attempting to maximize his influence to avoid Girkin’s fate. The Kremlin had seemingly rid itself of Girkin after his militants retreated from Slovyansk and following his involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014.[18] Girkin was removed from the position of Minister of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in August 2014 and has not resurrected his influence within the Kremlin since then. Prigozhin, however, is trying to build a support base within the Kremlin and in Russian society to solidify his presence in Russian domestic affairs even as Wagner struggles on the battlefield.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against critical and opposition voices by cracking down on several major opposition media outlets while continuing to platform highly critical Russian milbloggers. Putin signed a law on January 25 designating several major Russian language media and investigative outlets, including MeduzaImportant StoriesBellingcatThe Bell, and The Insider as undesirable organizations within Russia, outlawing the publication, distribution, or financial support of the organizations and their publications.[19] The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that the activities of Meduza and other outlets threaten the “foundations of the constitutional order and security” of Russia.[20] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin had notably called for the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to censor Meduza in July 2022, claiming that the outlet deliberately spread false information to split Russian society.[21] Putin has failed, however, to rein in highly critical Russian nationalist milbloggers who have long criticized and undermined the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), Kremlin, and even Putin himself, as ISW has previously reported.[22] Putin likely hopes to cultivate a group of loyal milbloggers to undermine other rising opponents, such as Prigozhin and Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov.[23]

The United States Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting the Wagner Group’s global support network, likely in response to the Wagner Group’s renewed efforts to support its operations outside of Ukraine. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 16 entities that support the Wagner Group’s military operations as sanctioned entities including a Russian-based technology firm, a Chinese-based satellite imagery company, a Central African Republic security company controlled by the Wagner Group, a United Arab Emirates-based aviation firm, and several Russian nationals.[24] OFAC redesignated the Wagner Group as a significant transnational criminal organization and cited its role in Russian operations in Ukraine and its involvement in serious criminal activity in the Central African Republic and Mali.[25] The announcement of secondary sanctions on specified entities outside of Russia and the focus on the Wagner Group’s activities in the Sahel suggests that the US Treasury Department is in part trying to constrain the Wagner Group’s likely renewed focus on conducting operations outside of Ukraine. The Wagner Group has likely renewed efforts to increase security capacity building and counterterrorism roles in African countries, roles that the Wagner Group had focused heavily on before committing serious resources to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[26]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces launched another massive series of missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on January 26.
  • A recent altercation between Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and former Russian officer Igor Girkin is exposing a new domain for competition among Russian nationalist groups for political influence in Russia against the backdrop of Russian military failures in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against critical and opposition voices by cracking down on several major opposition media outlets.
  • The United States Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting the Wagner Group’s global support network, likely in response to the Wagner Group’s renewed efforts to reinvigorate its operations outside of Ukraine.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces relaunched counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, on the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in the Vuhledar area.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are not conducting offensive operations at the size or scale necessary for a full-scale offensive.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces continued to conduct limited and localized ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Wagner Group likely experienced significant losses in attritional offensive operations in eastern Ukraine over the past few months.
  • Russian occupation officials are reportedly continuing to “nationalize” property and close places of worship belonging to the Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Christian communities in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast in an effort to establish the Kremlin-affiliated Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church as the dominant faith in the region.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 25, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 25, 9:45pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian forces may be engaging in limited spoiling attacks across most of the frontline in Ukraine in order to disperse and distract Ukrainian forces and set conditions to launch a decisive offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast. Russian forces have re-initiated offensive operations, namely limited ground attacks, on two main sectors of the front in the past few days—in central Zaporizhia Oblast along Kamianske-Mali Shcherbaky-Mala Tokmachka line and in the Vuhledar area of western Donetsk Oblast.[1] Ukrainian officials have noted that these attacks are conducted by small squad-sized assault groups of 10 to 15 people and are aimed at dispersing Ukrainian defensive lines.[2] The size and nature of these attacks suggest that they are more likely spoiling attacks that seek to distract and pin Ukrainian forces against discrete areas of the front than a concerted effort to relaunch offensive operations to gain ground in the central Zaporizhia and western Donetsk directions.

These limited attacks are notably ongoing as the pace of Russian operations around Bakhmut, led by the Wagner Group, seems to be decreasing. Following the Russian capture of Soledar in mid-January, the attacks on Bakhmut and surrounding settlements have apparently dropped off, suggesting that the Russian offensive operation to take Bakhmut may be culminating. The Wagner Group has failed to deliver on its promise of securing Bakhmut and has been unable to progress beyond minor tactical gains in Soledar and other surrounding small settlements. Russian military leadership may have, therefore, decided to de-prioritize operations around Bakhmut after recognizing the low likelihood that Wagner will actually be able to take the settlement. As ISW has previously suggested, Russian sources may be pushing the narratives of claimed Russian offensive operations in central Zaporizhia and western Donetsk Oblast in order to inflate the Russian information space with positive narratives that compensate for abject failures around Bakhmut.[3] Both the information space effects and the attacks themselves may be intended to distract focus from the lack of gains in Bakhmut and draw Ukrainian forces to the areas in question.

The Russian military appears to be shifting its focus towards conventional forces and away from the non-traditional force structure of the Wagner Group, potentially in preparation for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast. On the strategic level, certain changes to Russian command reflect a gradual transition away from reliance on unconventional force groupings such as Wagner and towards supporting and empowering conventional Russian elements. The recent appointment of Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to overall theater command of Russian forces in Ukraine (and subsequent demotion of Wagner Group favorite Army General Sergey Surovikin) suggests that Russian military leadership is increasingly looking to the traditional and conventional military establishment that Gerasimov represents and leads. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has similarly engaged in efforts to reform and standardize the conventional military in line with Gerasimov’s appointment.[4] Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be empowering Gerasimov to take steps that undermine Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the unconventional force structure he represents.[5] The shift toward conventional forces is also increasingly apparent on the operational and tactical levels. Various conventional elements (namely from the 3rd Motor Rifle Division and Airborne Forces) have been arrayed across the Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk Oblast and are notably not supporting Wagner Group operations around Bakhmut, indicating that Russian military leadership may be allocating conventional forces to what they regard as a more promising axis of advance.[6] Ukrainian intelligence relatedly noted that elements of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District have withdrawn from Belarus and partially deployed to Luhansk Oblast.[7]

The array of conventional forces across the Luhansk Oblast frontline suggests that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort in this sector, supported by limited spoiling attacks elsewhere on the frontline to distract and disperse Ukrainian forces. ISW has previously discussed indicators of a potential decisive Russian effort in Luhansk Oblast.[8] Taken in tandem with a variety of intelligence statements that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive operation in the coming months, it is likely that a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast would be an offensive one.[9] The most probable course of a Russian offensive action in Luhansk Oblast would be premised on launching an attack along the Svatove-Kreminna line, supported by critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) that run into major logistics hubs in Luhansk City and Starobilsk, in order to reach the Luhansk Oblast administrative border and complete the capture of the remaining part of Luhansk Oblast that is still Ukrainian-controlled. Russian forces may hope to recapture critical ground in northern Donetsk Oblast around Lyman and use the Svatove-Kreminna line to launch further attacks into western Kharkiv and/or northern Donetsk Oblasts. Russian forces are exceedingly unlikely to be able to gain substantial ground on this axis even if they do launch a successful offensive operation on this sector, however.

The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers attempted to play down the Western provision of tanks to Ukraine, indicating that they likely find these systems threatening to Russian prospects. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 25 that the Western provision of Abrams and Leopard tanks to Ukraine is "quite a failure … in terms of technological aspects" and that there is a "clear overestimation of the potential that [these tanks] will add" to Ukrainian forces.[10] Some Russian milbloggers likely sought to reassure their domestic audiences by claiming that these systems do not pose a significant threat and that previous Western systems like HIMARS are a far more serious threat.[11] The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers previously framed the Western provision of purely defensive Patriot missile systems as a serious escalation between Russia and the West.[12] The fact that the Kremlin and Russian milbloggers did not frame the provision of armored vehicles that could actually aid future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations as escalatory suggests that the Kremlin and the Russian information space continue to selectively choose which systems to frame as an escalation. The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers seem more concerned in this case with calming potential fears of the impact of Western commitments to supply Ukraine with tanks than with feeding the escalation narrative in the West. The Kremlin and its allies are right to be concerned about these new Western commitments, which allow Ukrainian commanders to plan against replacements for tank losses they could expect in counter-offensive operations that might be launched even before the Western tanks begin to arrive.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces may be engaging in limited spoiling attacks across most of the frontline in Ukraine in order to disperse and distract Ukrainian fronts and launch a decisive offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast.
  • The Russian military appears to be shifting its focus toward conventional forces deployed to Luhansk Oblast and away from the non-traditional force structure of the Wagner Group and its focus on Bakhmut.
  • The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers attempted to downplay the Western provision of tanks to Ukraine, indicating that they likely find these systems threatening to Russian prospects.
  • Russian forces claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations near Svatove as Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces have likely made advances around Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Ukrainian forces withdrew from Soledar.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City area. Russian forces reportedly continued localized offensive operations near Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct small-scale ground attacks across the Zaporizhia Oblast front line, likely to attempt to fix Ukrainian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers are divided over the veracity of Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov’s ongoing, overblown information operation.
  • The Kremlin is attempting to downplay new restrictions on crossing the Russian border, likely in an effort to contain panic within Russian society about a likely second mobilization wave.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may be attempting to conduct another wave of mobilization discreetly out of concern for undermining his support among Russians.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 24, 9:30 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

A coalition of NATO member states reportedly will send Ukraine modern main battle tanks. The Wall Street Journal reported on January 24 that US President Joe Biden is preparing to send "a significant number" of Abrams M1 tanks to Ukraine and that the White House may announce the delivery as soon as January 25.[1] German newspaper Der Spiegel reported on January 24 that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to deliver at least one tank company (14 tanks) of Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine in an unspecified time frame.[2] Poland likely will send Ukraine Leopard 2 tanks following Germany’s decision. Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak stated on January 24 that Poland formally requested Germany grant permission to transfer Poland’s Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that Berlin would not interfere if Poland wanted to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.[3] British officials confirmed on January 16 that the United Kingdom would send Ukraine 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine.[4] French President Emmanuel Macron stated he would not rule out the possibility of France sending Ukraine Leclerc tanks on January 22.[5]

Western states’ provision of main battle tanks to Ukraine will help enable Ukraine to conduct mechanized warfare to defeat the Russian military and liberate Ukrainian territory. ISW previously assessed that the West has contributed to Ukraine’s inability to take advantage of having pinned Russian forces in Bakhmut by slow-rolling or withholding weapons systems and supplies essential for large-scale counteroffensive operations.[6] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny previously emphasized in December 2022 that Ukraine needs 300 main battle tanks (among other weapon systems) to enable Ukrainian counteroffensives.[7]

Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov continued efforts to portray himself and the traditional Russian military command structure as the true defenders of Russia. Gerasimov reiterated on January 23 that Russian President Vladimir Putin approved Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s plan to develop Russian forces’ ability to respond to "new threats to the military security" of Russia, and Gerasimov accused Ukraine and NATO states of aiming to threaten Russia.[8] Gerasimov invoked the Russian General Staff’s historical role in guiding and protecting Russia through several military crises, including the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Gerasimov claimed that "modern Russia has never known such a level and intensity of hostilities" and heavily implied that the current war in Ukraine presents the greatest threat to Russia since the Great Patriotic War, therefore necessitating the leadership and protection of the Russian General Staff under Gerasimov’s leadership. Gerasimov’s framing of the war and the General Staff’s ongoing revitalization efforts within the historical context of the Great Patriotic War is part of the continued campaign to counter the growing power and influence of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov, and their respective paramilitary structures, all of which threaten Gerasimov and the Russian General Staff as ISW has previously reported.[9] It also continues Putin’s efforts to reframe the current struggle as an effort like the Great Patriotic War to justify protracted demands for sacrifice and mobilization by the Russian people.[10] 

Russian outlet RBK claimed on January 23 that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev as the Southern Military District (SMD) commander and Lieutenant General Yevgeny Nikiforov as the Western Military District (WMD) commander.[11] RBK claimed that Nikiforov replaced Kuzovlev as WMD commander after Kuzovlev held the position from December 13, 2022, to January 23, 2023.[12] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appointed Kuzovlev WMD Commander in late October of 2022.[13]  RBK claimed that the Russian MoD had appointed Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov as WMD commander in October of 2022, however.[14] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on December 26, 2022, that Nikiforov left his position as Chief of Staff of the Eastern Military District (EMD) to replace  Kuzovlev as a part of the internal power struggles between Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Shoigu, and Gerasimov.[15] Nikiforov previously commanded Wagner Group fighters in Ukraine as commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army in 2014 and may have connections to Prigozhin.[16]  The conflicting reporting on the WMD and SMD command suggests that military district command dynamics remain opaque, indicating that the Russian military is struggling to institute sound command structures and maintain traditional command

Key Takeaways

 

  • A coalition of NATO member states reportedly will send Ukraine modern main battle tanks.
  • Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov continued efforts to portray himself and the traditional Russian military command structure as the true defenders of Russia.
  • Russian outlet RBK claimed on January 23 that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev as the Southern Military District (SMD) commander and Lieutenant General Yevgeny Nikiforov as the Western Military District (WMD) commander.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City area. Russian forces made marginal territorial gains near Bakhmut.
  • Russian sources claimed, likely to distract from the lack of progress in Bakhmut, that Russian forces launched an offensive around Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces likely continued to conduct limited and localized ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast but likely did not make territorial gains, further undermining Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov’s prior territorial claims.
  • Ukrainian special forces conducted a raid across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast on January 23-24.
  • Russian authorities are likely continuing efforts to mobilize ethnic minorities to fight in Ukraine.
  • Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) is reportedly increasing the production of drones and loitering munitions.
  • Ukrainian partisans targeted a member of the Zaporizhia occupation administration.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 23, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 23, 9:45pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Ukrainian intelligence assessed that Russian forces are preparing for an offensive effort in the spring or early summer of 2023, partially confirming ISW’s standing assessment that Russian troops may undertake a decisive action in the coming months. Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky stated on January 20 that the spring and early summer of 2023 will be decisive in the war and confirmed that the GUR has observed indicators that Russian troops are regrouping in preparation for a “big offensive” in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.[1] Skibitsky also reiterated that Russian forces are unlikely to launch an attack from Belarus or in southern Ukraine.[2] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort (of either offensive or defensive nature) in Luhansk Oblast and observed a redeployment of conventional forces such as Airborne (VDV) elements to the Svatove-Kreminna axis after the Russian withdrawal from Kherson Oblast.[3] ISW also maintains that it is highly unlikely that Russian forces are planning to relaunch a new offensive on northern Ukraine from the direction of Belarus.[4] Skibitsky’s assessments largely support ISW’s running forecasts of Russian intentions in the first half of 2023 and underscore the continued need for Western partner support to ensure that Ukraine does not lose the initiative to a renewed Russian offensive operation.

The Wagner Group’s outsized reliance on recruitment from penal colonies appears to be having increasing ramifications on Wagner’s combat capability. Head of the independent Russian human rights organization “Rus Sidyashchaya” (Russia Behind Bars) Olga Romanova claimed on January 23 that out of the assessed 50,000 prisoners that Wagner has recruited, only 10,000 are fighting on frontlines in Ukraine due to high casualty, surrender, and desertion rates.[5] ISW cannot independently confirm these figures, but they are very plausible considering Wagner’s model of using convicts as cannon fodder in highly attritional offensive operations.[6] The model Wagner has reportedly been using of retaining its highly trained long-serving mercenaries as leadership and Special Forces–type elements on top of a mass of untrained convicts also lends itself to high combat losses, surrenders, and desertions. The Wagner Group aim of reducing casualties among its non-convict mercenaries likely undermines its ability to retain and use effectively its large mass of convicts at scale and over time. ISW has previously reported on instances of relatives of Wagner group fighters receiving empty coffins after being told their loves ones died in Ukraine, suggesting that Wagner lacks the basic administrative and bureaucratic infrastructure to track and present its own losses, adding further credibility to the “Rus Sidyashchaya” estimate.[7]

Russia continues to deepen military and economic relations with Iran in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial sanctions evasion. NOTE: A version of this item appeared in the Critical Threats Project (CTP)’s Iran Crisis Update.[8] Russian Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin met with Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on January 23 to expand bilateral cooperation efforts.[9] Ghalibaf noted that Moscow and Tehran should strive to strengthen ties in the banking, energy, and commodity-trading sectors in the face of American sanctions, which Volodin credited for bringing the two countries closer together.[10] Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) sources additionally speculated on further military cooperation efforts between Tehran and Moscow. IRGC-affiliated outlet Tasnim News published an editorial arguing that a Russo-Iranian joint production deal could allow Iran to receive Russian Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters.[11] Both Tehran and Moscow are likely looking to these agreements to mitigate the pressure of sanctions levied against them by the US.

Key Takeaways 

  • Ukrainian intelligence assessed that Russian forces are preparing for an offensive effort in the spring or early summer of 2023, partially confirming ISW’s standing assessment that Russian troops may undertake a decisive action in the coming months.
  • The Wagner Group’s outsized reliance on recruitment from penal colonies appears to be having increasing ramifications on Wagner’s combat capability.
  • Russia continues to deepen military and economic relations with Iran in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial sanctions evasion.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces struck Russian concentration areas in occupied Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and on the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces likely conducted a failed offensive operation in Zaporizhia Oblast in the last 72 hours.
  • Russian forces have not made any confirmed territorial gains in Zaporizhia Oblast despite one Russian occupation official’s continued claims. The occupation official may be pushing a narrative of Russian tactical successes in Zaporizhia Oblast to generate positive narratives to distract Russians from the lack of promised progress in Bakhmut.
  • The Kremlin’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces are continuing to generate criticism among supporters of new Russian parallel military structures.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue efforts to integrate occupied territories into Russian social, administrative, and political systems and crack down on partisan dissent in occupied areas.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 22, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan

January 22, 8:30 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, January 22. This report focuses on the Kremlin’s recent marginalization of the Wagner Group following the culmination of the drive on Bakhmut and it’s the Kremlin’s return to reliance on conventional forces on the frontlines and the regular Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff apparatus. The report also analyzes the changing relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and its implications.

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s star has begun to set after months of apparent rise following his failure to make good on promises of capturing Bakhmut with his own forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin had likely turned to Prigozhin and Prigozhin’s reported ally, Army General Sergey Surovikin, to continue efforts to gain ground and break the will of Ukraine and its Western backers to continue the war after the conventional Russian military had culminated and, indeed, suffered disastrous setbacks.[1] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff, headed by Sergey Shoigu and Army General Valeriy Gerasimov respectively, had turned their attention to mobilizing Russian reservists and conscripts and setting conditions for improved performance by the conventional Russian military, but they had little hope of achieving anything decisive in the Fall and early Winter of 2022. Putin apparently decided to give Prigozhin and Surovikin a chance to show what they could do with mobilized prisoners, on the one hand, and a brutal air campaign targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on the other. Both efforts failed, as Prigozhin’s attempts to seize Bakhmut culminated and Surovikin’s air campaign accomplished little more than inflicting suffering on Ukrainian civilians while expending most of Russia’s remaining stocks of precision missiles. Prigozhin seems to have decided in this period that his star really was on the ascendant and that he could challenge Gerasimov and even Shoigu for preeminence in Russian military affairs. Those hopes now seem to have been delusional.

Putin appears to have decided to turn away from relying on Prigozhin and his irregular forces and to put his trust instead in Gerasimov, Shoigu, and the conventional Russian military once more. Putin began to re-centralize control of the war effort under the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) in early December.[2] He gave Gerasimov overall command of the Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine on January 11, subordinating Surovikin to Gerasimov along with two other deputies.[3] The Russian MoD announced large-scale reforms to expand and reconstitute the Russian Armed Forces on January 17.[4] Ukrainian intelligence and select Kremlin officials have also reported that Putin is preparing to launch a second wave of reserve mobilization to expand the Russian Armed Forces, and the Russian MoD has been attempting to improve the professionalism of its conventional forces and to test the effectiveness of its chains of command.[5] Such reforms and appointments mark a significant inflection in the Kremlin’s efforts to reconstitute its conventional military and a deemphasis of short-term mitigation efforts such as the use of irregular formations on the frontlines.

Putin’s decision to focus and rely on conventional Russian forces is marginalizing the Wagner Group and the siloviki faction that nevertheless continues to contribute to Russian war efforts in Ukraine. The siloviki faction is a small group of Russian businessmen and leaders with meaningful power bases and parallel military companies and includes individuals such as Prigozhin. Putin’s resubordinating to Gerasimov the Commander of the Aerospace Forces, Surovikin, whose October 8 appointment received widespread support from the siloviki faction, reversed a months-long trend of Putin’s efforts to placate the siloviki.[6] Ukrainian intelligence had previously reported that Prigozhin formed an alliance with Surovikin that enabled Wanger Group to receive heavy weapons from the Russian Armed Forces and that the two together rivaled Shoigu.[7] Surovikin’s demotion has likely disrupted Prigozhin’s ability to exploit his connections within the Russian military command to the benefit of himself and Wagner.

Putin is also attempting to rebuild the Russian MoD’s authority and reputation, both of which had been badly damaged by failures in 2022 and heavily attacked by the siloviki faction for many months. Putin’s turnabout became most evident when he pointedly did not credit Prigozhin or his Wagner forces for the capture of Soledar during a federal TV interview on January 15.[8] The Russian MoD also originally did not recognize Wagner as a participant in the Battle for Soledar, only to vaguely acknowledge Wagner assault units in a follow-up announcement on January 13.[9] Prigozhin and his allies had been fighting to claim credit for gains around Bakhmut and the capture of Soledar for some time, making Putin’s decision to walk back Russian MoD’s acknowledgment of Wagner a major defeat for Prigozhin.[10] 

Putin may have felt threatened by Prigozhin’s rise and tactless self-assertion. Putin began to reintroduce himself as an involved wartime leader in December, ostentatiously meeting with his commanders and appearing with troops.[11]  Prigozhin did not take the hint, if hint it was, but instead redoubled his efforts to assert himself by advertising the superiority and successes of his own troops.[12] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov may have indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately fueling the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner in public on January 16, another shot across Prigozhin‘s bow.[13] Putin had also been increasingly integrating State Duma officials whom Prigozhin had been heavily courting, such as Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Andrey Turchak, by appointing them to working groups aimed at addressing issues with mobilization among other things.[14]

Putin likely turned to Prigozhin’s irregular forces to get through the period following the Russian conventional military’s culmination after the reckless and costly push to seize Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Wagner forces have fought in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine since the first days of the war and played important roles in offensive operations such as that to seize Popasna, Luhansk Oblast (40km east of Bakhmut) in April-May 2022.[15] Wagner forces assisted other Russian troops in the Battle of Severodonetsk, serving as the main assault forces alongside Rosgvardia elements in late June 2022.[16] Wagner forces shifted their focus to Bakhmut in early July 2022 while simultaneously reinforcing their units with recruited prisoners.[17] Wagner had begun to make some advances in the vicinity of Bakhmut and took the lead for this axis in August 2022, likely relying on arriving convicts.[18] Prigozhin later began the ostentatious construction of a set of fortifications called the Wagner Line throughout Luhansk, Donetsk, and Belgorod oblasts in October 2022 and began training Belgorod and Kursk people’s militias.[19]

Russia’s pushes on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which followed the unsuccessful Russian drive on Kyiv and the bloody Battle for Mariupol, had consumed much of its offensive combat power in Donbas and southern Ukraine.[20] Russian forces paid dearly to seize the two remaining large cities in Luhansk Oblast and faced a significant troop shortage that prompted Putin to launch volunteer recruitment campaigns throughout the country.[21] Putin had likely allowed Prigozhin to expand his forces with prisoner recruits in an effort to mitigate these personnel shortages and maintain momentum on some select frontlines by unconventional means. Prigozhin may have won Putin over to his idea of recruiting prisoners into Wagner—something the conventional Russian military likely could not have undertaken at that time—due to Wagner’s contributions in seizing Popasna and Severodonetsk.

Prigozhin likely imagined that his efforts in Ukraine would continue to lend him military and political power in Russia. Prigozhin’s command over the Bakhmut direction and proximity to Putin likely gave him a false sense that he could use the victory in Bakhmut against the backdrop of Russian MoD’s military failures as a bargaining tool for his own commercial objectives such as the legalization of Wagner mercenary activity in Russia, expanding his political power within the Kremlin, or even displacing the authority of Shoigu. Western officials revealed in October that Prigozhin had harshly criticized the Russian MoD in a private conversation with Putin, claiming that Russian conventional forces were entirely reliant on Wagner forces.[22] Prigozhin had criticized former Commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, who was also responsible for the “central” group of forces in Ukraine, and Putin eventually dismissed Lapin.[23] Prigozhin had likely expected that further criticism of the Russian MoD and even Putin’s presidential administration would earn him a position near Putin.[24] The intensification of the Battle for Bakhmut in December and its subsequent culmination may also indicate that Prigozhin tried and failed to outshine the Russian MoD before the start of 2023.[25]

Prigozhin's recent apparent fall from grace and influence likely reflects the real limitations on his actual power. US and UK intelligence estimated that Prigozhin has approximately 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, of whom 40,000 are convicts and 10,000 contractors.[26] Prigozhin has been relentlessly throwing his fighters into bloody assault operations around Bakhmut at a high cost, while Putin has been conserving and training at least a portion of the men he mobilized into conventional Russian Army units.[27] Wagner Group is also likely relying on the Russian MoD’s logistical support and maintenance functions for its aviation and heavy military equipment.[28] Wagner’s forces are suffering from a lack of basic administrative organs and structures that are preventing Wagner from becoming an effective parallel military structure.[29] Prigozhin had likely believed in his own exaggerated view of the quality and importance of his largely convict force and his ability to outperform Russia’s conventional military, as well as his prospects of securing a spot in power nearer Putin. Certainly, his rhetoric and self-presentation had become overbearing and ostentatiously swaggering until things began to go south for him.

Putin had never fully given in to Prigozhin’s recommendations or demands throughout this transitional period and had likely always planned to put Prigozhin back into his place once the Russian conventional military improved enough to bear the burden of continuing the war. Putin had removed Lapin and appointed Surovikin—possibly on the advice of Prigozhin and his allies—but he did not grant most of Prigozhin’s desires. Prigozhin is still demanding that the Kremlin officially recognize the Wagner Group in Russia, even though Russian criminal law prohibits the operation of parallel military and mercenary formations.[30] Putin could have responded to numerous of Prigozhin’s requests and demands over many months and legalized Wagner’s operations in Russia, but he likely did not deem it necessary to weaken the Russian MoD and empower Prigozhin further to sustain a temporary force generation effort. Prigozhin had also called on the Russian State Duma and Prosecutor General’s office to fire and imprison St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov for treason, claiming that Beglov had hindered Russia’s war efforts.[31] Prigozhin’s efforts along these lines went nowhere. Putin, on the other hand, met with Beglov in St. Petersburg on January 18 making clear that Beglov had won this round.[32] Prigozhin has also run into several bureaucratic obstacles when opening his Wagner Center in St. Petersburg and constructing the Wagner Line in Belgorod Oblast, obstacles that Putin could likely have demolished had he so desired.[33]

Putin’s turn on Prigozhin has positive and negative implications for Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Putin is now marginalizing and distancing himself from a hard-to-control mercenary group composed predominantly of ill-disciplined convicts commanded in the most brutal manner. Prigozhin will likely continue to criticize the Russian MoD and the Kremlin and may even seek to turn the pro-war nationalist faction against Putin. But Prigozhin was already fueling the most extreme pro-war faction that had already been attacking the Russian MoD hammer and tongs and had even begun to come after Putin himself.[34] Prigozhin’s voice will likely carry less weight if Putin continues his marginalization, especially if Putin can convince the pro-war faction that he remains committed to his original notion of victory and intends to pursue it by more conventional means.

The marginalization of people like Prigozhin, who has had men executed with sledgehammers and hands out Wagner sledgehammers as gifts, is a good thing.[35] The return to prominence and influence of more professional military officers such as Gerasimov likely suggests a reduced likelihood that Putin will give in to the crazier demands of the far-right pro-war faction, possibly in turn further reducing the already-low likelihood of irrational Russian escalations. It can never be good to have people like Prigozhin near the center of power, so any indication that he is receding from power is positive. Prigozhin is not yet gone and will not likely leave Putin’s circle permanently. And he could rise again if Gerasimov and his cronies fail Putin once more. But Prigozhin is, for now, apparently an increasingly spent force in the Kremlin’s inner circles, and that is good.

But the re-emergence of the professional Russian military is also concerning. Prigozhin could never have established a formidable and sustainable national military apparatus. As long as Putin favored Prigozhin’s and others’ irregular approaches to continuing the war Putin postponed the day that Russian could re-establish a powerful conventional military. His re-embrace of Gerasimov and regular order has likely put Russia back on course toward rebuilding its military. NATO would do well to take note of this development as a matter of its own future security, beyond anything it might portend for Ukraine. 

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on January 22:

  • Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin made uncredible threats of nuclear escalation as part of an ongoing information operation aimed at deterring the Western provision of further military aid to Ukraine.[36] ISW continues to assess that Russia is very unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and extraordinarily unlikely to use them against the West.
  • Russian milbloggers on January 22 continued to discuss the potential of a pending major Russian or Ukrainian offensive and speculated as to which areas present the highest priority targets.[37]
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on January 22.[38] Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces struck an industrial facility in Kadiivka, Luhansk Oblast with HIMARS rockets.[39]
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and the Donetsk City-Avdiivka areas.[40]
  • Russian sources claimed on January 22 that Russian forces continued offensive operations in two directions in Zaporizhia Oblast, with their main efforts focusing on Hulyaipole and Orikhiv.[41] Head of the Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavrisk Direction Defense Forces Yevhen Yerin stated on January 22 that Russian forces are not conducting large-scale operations in the Zaporizhia direction.[42]
  • Russian occupation authorities continued commandeering civilian infrastructure in occupied territories at the expense of civilian health and safety on January 22.[43]

ISW will continue to report daily observed Russian and Belarusian military activity in Belarus.

ISW’s most dangerous course of action warning forecast about a potential major Russian offensive against northern Ukraine from Belarus appears increasingly unlikely. ISW currently assesses the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as very low. ISW will continue reporting observed indicators we are using to refine our assessments and forecasts, which we expect to update regularly.

Observed significant military activities in Belarus in the past 24 hours that indicates an attack from Belarus is more likely:

  • Nothing significant to report.

Observed significant military activity in Belarus in the past 24 hours that is ambiguous:

  • Nothing significant to report.

Observed significant military activity in Belarus in the past 24 hours that indicates that an attack from Belarus remains unlikely:

  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Yusov stated that there is currently no threat of a Russian offensive operation from Belarus, and that the GUR has not observed a grouping and readiness of Russian forces in Belarus that would allow for such an operation.[44]
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated that it has not observed Russian forces in Belarus forming a strike group as of January 22.[45]

Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.

 

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 21, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 21, 7:45 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is likely a strategically sound effort despite its costs for Ukraine. While the costs associated with Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut are significant and likely include opportunity costs related to potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere, Ukraine would also have paid a significant price for allowing Russian troops to take Bakhmut easily. Bakhmut itself is not operationally or strategically significant but had Russian troops taken it relatively rapidly and cheaply they could have hoped to expand operations in ways that could have forced Ukraine to construct hasty defensive positions in less favorable terrain.  One must also not dismiss the seemingly “political” calculus of committing to the defense of Bakhmut lightly—Russian forces occupy more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory including multiple Ukrainian cities and are inflicting atrocities on Ukrainian civilians in occupied areas.  It is not unreasonable for political and military leaders to weigh these factors in determining whether to hold or cede particular population concentrations.  Americans have not had to make such choices since 1865 and should not be quick to scorn considerations that would be very real to them were American cities facing such threats.

Ukrainian forces have previously employed a similar gradual attrition model to compel Russian operations in certain areas to culminate after months of suffering high personnel and equipment losses in pursuit of marginal tactical gains. Russian troops spent months attempting to grind through effective Ukrainian defenses in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the early summer of 2022 and captured Lysychansk only after a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the area.[1] The capture of Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast administrative border, however, quickly proved to be operationally insignificant for Russian forces, and the ultimate result of the Ukrainian defense of the area was the forced culmination of the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast, leading to the overall stagnation of Russian offensive operations in Donbas in the summer and fall of 2022. Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut will likely contribute to a similar result—Russian forces have been funneling manpower and equipment into the area since May 2022 and have yet to achieve any operationally significant advances that seriously threaten the Ukrainian defense of the area. ISW continues to re-evaluate its assessment that the Russian offensive on Bakhmut may be culminating but continues to assess that Ukrainian forces are effectively pinning Russian troops, equipment, and overall operational focus on Bakhmut, thus inhibiting Russia’s ability to pursue offensives elsewhere in the theater.

The West has contributed to Ukraine’s inability to take advantage of having pinned Russian forces in Bakhmut by slow-rolling or withholding weapons systems and supplies essential for large-scale counteroffensive operations.

Milblogger discourse surrounding the reported replacement of Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky with Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich as commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) has further emphasized the fracture between two main groups within the Russian MoD—the pro-Gerasimov camp, comprised of those who represent the conventional MoD establishment, and milblogger favorites who are less aligned with the MoD institution. A prominent milblogger announced Teplinsky’s replacement on January 20, triggering a wave of discontent among other milbloggers who voiced their confusion and concern over the situation.[2] Several milbloggers questioned why the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would replace a well-respected career VDV commander with an “academic” with no combat experience.[3] One milblogger remarked that the Russian MoD has now “removed” two of the “key” commanders of Russian operations in Ukraine—Teplinsky and former theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin (although Surovikin was merely demoted to a lower command position rather than removed from office).[4] Several milbloggers claimed that Teplinsky was dismissed following a disagreement with the Russian General Staff, most likely meaning the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, regarding the use of Russian paratroopers for planned offensive operations.[5] The staunch milblogger criticism of a move that was likely orchestrated by Gerasimov suggests that the Russian information space is increasingly viewing changes made within the Russian MoD in a binary with the pro-Gerasimov camp on one hand and those perceived as milblogger favorites on the other.

The milblogger discourse on this issue additionally offers insight into internal Russian MoD dynamics that may have led to Teplinsky’s removal. The suggestion that Teplinsky was removed following an argument with the General Staff over the use of paratroopers in offensive operations suggests that Teplinsky may have resisted Gerasimov’s desires to use VDV forces to support operations in the Bakhmut area, where Russian offensive operations are largely focused. ISW previously observed that VDV forces took high losses in the early phases of the war and were likely held in reserve following the Russian withdrawal from the right (west) bank of Kherson Oblast in the fall of 2022. Teplinsky could have resisted committing VDV units to highly attritional offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast that have been largely led by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group on the grounds that traditional motorized rifle or tank units would have been more appropriate or for more purely parochial reasons.[6] He may have resigned or been fired over the disagreement. Gerasimov likely seeks to weaken the significant airborne mafia that has long protected the airborne troops (which are a separate service from the ground forces in Russia) from policies and reforms that applied to the ground forces by replacing Teplinsky with Makarevich, a ground forces officer with no VDV experience.[7] Milblogger discussion of this reported interaction suggests that Gerasimov is increasingly seeking to commit conventional Russian elements, including VDV elements, to operations in Ukraine, and the resulting pushback from the Russian information space indicates that his campaign to do so will not be well received.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched a series of information operations aimed at portraying himself as a sacrificial hero of Russia in a crusade against petty and corrupt Russian authorities. Prigozhin’s personal press service on January 21 amplified a letter from the family of a deceased Wagner PMC soldier that contrasted “indifferent” local officials, who did not help with the funeral of their son, with Prigozhin, who listens to their appeals.[8] The letter referred to Prigozhin as “the only Person [sic] who is not indifferent to the fate of the Defender of Russia and his family.”[9]  Prigozhin also responded to reports that the Mayoral Office of Kamyshlovsky Raion, Sverdlovsk Oblast denied a Wagner Group fighter a funeral with honors with the claim that “we,” likely showing solidarity with “the common man,” will “deal with this scum” and “pull their children by the nostrils” to participate in the war in Ukraine.[10] These statements set Prigozhin at odds with unpopular Russian officials who operate under a different set of rules from the majority of Russians and increase his appeal as a “hero” of the voiceless. They also support Prigozhin’s ongoing campaign to gain legal recognition – primarily in the forms of recognition and funerary honors for Wagner PMC soldiers – for Wagner PMC, as private military companies remain illegal in Russia.[11] Prigozhin is falsely portraying himself and Wagner Group as moral entities that will continue their moral acts despite prosecution. Prigozhin claimed on January 20 that he would not mind if someone brought a criminal case against him because he would be able to participate in Wagner PMC from prison and that international fighters seek out Wagner due to the “call of their conscience.”[12]

Prigozhin is simultaneously building his domestic power base and reputation as a significant international actor in an effort that is both fueled by and further fuels his information operations against the Russian government. Wagner-affiliated news outlet RIAFAN published staged footage of Wagner forces placing the bodies of supposed Ukrainian soldiers into coffins to send back to Ukraine, and Prigozhin claimed that he advocated sending 20 truckloads of bodies to Ukraine in a likely attempt to humanize Wagner Group and portray Wagner fighters as honorable while portraying Wagner Group as willing and able to act in place of the Russian state to return war dead to the opposing side.[13] Some Russian milbloggers notably amplified this narrative of human and honorable Wagner fighters, while another accused Wagner of staging the whole scene.[14] Prigozhin’s press service challenged US Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby to name the war crimes Wagner Group has committed in response to the US Treasury designation of Wagner as a transnational criminal organization.[15] Prigozhin even claimed that the US designation of Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization “finally” indicates that the US and Wagner Group are “colleagues,” implying that the US is also a transnational criminal organization.[16] Wagner Group continues to operate militia training centers in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts in a likely effort to provide military support for regions that the Russian MoD supposedly neglects to defend, although neither faces any risk against which Wagner Group could defend.[17]

The Sun reported that US intelligence estimates total Russian military casualties in Ukraine as 188,000 as of January 20, suggesting a possible 47,000 Russians killed in action in less than a year of fighting.[18] The historical ratio of wounded to killed in war is 3:1, suggesting that Russian casualties in Ukraine thus far are close to the total US deaths in the Vietnam War.[19] The US National Archives estimates that the total US battle deaths in Vietnam is roughly 58,000 across eight years of fighting.[20] Soviet forces suffered 15,000 deaths across nine years of war in Afghanistan, a threshold that the UK Ministry of Defense assessed Russian casualties surpassed in May 2022 after just three months of hostilities.[21]

Key Takeaways

  • The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is likely a strategically sound effort despite its costs for Ukraine.
  • Milblogger discourse surrounding the reported replacement of Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky with Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich as commander of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) has further emphasized the fracture between two main groups within the Russian MoD—the pro-Gerasimov camp, comprised of those who represent the conventional MoD establishment, and milblogger favorites who are less aligned with the MoD institution. The milblogger discourse on this issue additionally offers insight into internal Russian MoD dynamics that may have led to Teplinsky’s removal.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has launched a series of information operations aimed at portraying himself as a sacrificial hero of Russia in a crusade against petty and corrupt Russian authorities.
  • The Sun reported that US intelligence estimates total Russian military casualties in Ukraine as 188,000 as of January 20, suggesting a possible 47,000 Russians killed in action in less than a year of fighting.
  • Russian forces conducted a small ground reconnaissance into northeastern Sumy Oblast.

 

  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City. Russian forces are likely making incremental gains around Bakhmut.
  • Available open-source evidence as of January 21 indicates that Zaporizhia Oblast Russian occupation official Vladimir Rogov’s January 20 claims of a major territorial capture are likely part of a Russian information operation.
  • Complaints from Russian milbloggers indicate that Russian forces continue to rely on cell phones and non-secure civilian technologies for core military functions – serious breaches of operational security (OPSEC).

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 20, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 20, 8:00 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov continues to frame Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war in Ukraine on distinctly religious grounds, thereby building out his reputation and the reputation of his power base. Kadyrov responded to the recent list of guidelines for grooming standards in the Russian army and noted that a majority of Chechen fighters wear beards in accordance with the Sunnah, and additionally claimed that his Chechen fighters have been responsible for major gains in Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk.[1] Kadyrov questioned the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s justifications for these guidelines and said they would demoralize fighters who are "waging a holy war."[2] Kadyrov additionally amplified a sermon given by Chechen theologian Magomed Khitanaev on January 20 that claimed that the "special military operation" in Ukraine is aimed at eradicating Ukranian "satanism."[3] Kadyrov has repeatedly justified Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war on distinctly religious grounds, thus presenting himself as the protector of Muslim fighters and bridging the gap between Chechen forces and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s framing of the war on religious and moral grounds.[4]

Kadyrov also notably posted footage on January 20 of a group of Chechen theologians completing their training at the Russian Special Forces University in Grozny, Chechnya, and noted that over 300 qadis (magistrates and judges who implement sharia law) and imams are planning to undergo similar training and deploy into Ukraine.[5] The fact that Chechen qadis will supposedly be embedded in Chechen units that deploy to Ukraine is noteworthy—qadis typically serve a judicial role in criminal and civil matters, and their presence in Ukraine may suggest that Kadyrov intends Chechen forces to serve a basic governance function in occupied areas. ISW has previously reported on Kadyrov’s efforts to position himself and his Chechen powerbase as a parallel and complementary structure to the conventional Russian armed forces.[6] Kadyrov may hope to use qadis and imams in Ukraine to set social conditions for the long-term resettlement of Muslim populations from the Caucasus in occupied areas of Ukraine, although there is no independent evidence of any such plans. ISW has previously reported on Kadyrov’s efforts to import Chechen elements to Ukraine to fill administrative and law enforcement roles in occupied territories for similar purposes.[7]

The Wagner Group appears to be struggling to present itself as an effective parallel military structure, thus increasingly proving to be a parasitic paramilitary entity. Russian opposition outlet TV Dozdh reported on January 20 that a woman whose husband reportedly died fighting with Wagner in Ukraine received her husband’s sealed coffin, death certificate, and a medal of honor and buried what she thought was her husband before finding out that he was alive and in Ukrainian custody.[8] TV Dozdh claimed that it has collected many such stories and that Wagner representatives have essentially intimidated family members into not checking coffins to confirm the deaths of their relatives.[9] Moscow Duma deputy Evgeny Stupin relatedly noted appeals he has received from constituents claiming that once their relatives signed contracts with Wagner and deployed to Ukraine, they ceased to hear from their relatives entirely.[10] These reports suggest that Wagner lacks basic administrative organs to maintain records of individual servicemen and communicate properly with authorities. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin ironically has gone to great lengths to criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) establishment, which he has accused of being inept in precisely these ways.

The Wagner Group may additionally be relying on the Russian MoD for the use of military assets on the frontline. A prominent Wagner Group-affiliated Russian milblogger posted an infographic on January 20 reportedly showing the array of military assets that Wagner is using around Bakhmut, including a TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system (typically a military district-level asset), various self-propelled guns and mortar systems, several armored vehicles, and an Su-25 aircraft.[11] The use of these assets, particularly aviation assets such as the Su-25, suggests that Wagner is working with the Russian MoD to access and operate these systems. While Wagner servicemen can feasibly operate these systems independently, they likely continue to rely on the MoD for logistical support and maintenance functions. Taken in tandem with reports of pervasive administrative and communication failures within Wagner’s ranks, the use of MoD equipment suggests that Wagner is functioning more as a parasite attached to the Russian armed forces than as the entirely self-contained, parastatal organization that Prigozhin tries to present it as being.

US intelligence confirmed the rivalry between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group on January 20. National Security Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby stated that a rift is forming between Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian MoD officials as a result of an ongoing competition between conventional Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine.[12] Kirby added that Wagner "is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries" with its 50,000-strong group of forces in Ukraine consisting of 40,000 convicts and 10,000 contractors.[13] ISW continues to monitor the progression of the Wagner-Russian MoD conflict in the information space, with the Russian MoD again deliberately avoiding directly acknowledging Wagner troops’ participation in a claimed capture of Klishchiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on January 19.[14]

Prigozhin’s quest for legal recognition of Wagner Group may also trigger some factionalization within the Russian government—whether he intentionally sets out to do so or not. Chairman of the Russian socialist Just Russia—For the Truth party Sergey Mironov published a picture of himself with a Wagner sledgehammer that he said was a gift from Prigozhin.[15] Prigozhin had engraved the settlement names of Bakhmut and Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, likely to support his ongoing effort to advertise his forces as victors of the Battle for Soledar. Mironov also responded to a comment from a social media user asking if he intended to use this sledgehammer in combat, sarcastically implying that he is already on the front lines and in the trenches at his current position.[16] Mironov’s actions could suggest that he is a member of the pro-war faction that Prigozhin had previously referenced in his rants and may be advocating for the legalization of Wagner in Russia. Mironov had an exchange with a different commenter who had asked him to define Wagner and how the Kremlin regulates the group, to which he responded that the commenter was too late to the conversation.[17] That social media user, in turn, interpreted Mironov’s response as disregarding the Russian Criminal Code provisions against illegal military structures such as private military companies.[18] ISW previously reported that Prigozhin used Mironov’s likeness in his advertisements for the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg and is likely attempting to expand his group of backers within the Kremlin to support his commercial interests.[19]

The Kremlin is likely intensifying its efforts to present Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an existential war to set informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. Russian and social media sources circulated images on January 19 and 20 showing Russian officials installing air defense systems on the roof of the Russian Ministry of Defense building in Moscow and elsewhere near the city.[20] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the images, and State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Lebedev called them fake.[21] Some Russian milbloggers responded to these images with satisfaction that Moscow residents would finally be aware that Russia is involved in a "difficult war" in Ukraine.[22] The Kremlin likely deployed the air defense systems in Moscow to generate inflammatory images that portray the war as more threatening to the Russian public. It is unlikely, however, that the Kremlin believes that Ukraine would target Moscow and it likely engaged in this ostentatious play to support intensifying information operations to prepare the Russian domestic information space for a protracted war in Ukraine and further sacrifices.[23] This demonstration is also likely a part of the emerging information operation to contextualize the war in Ukraine in the Russian mythos of the Great Patriotic War, which is likely meant to increase Russian support for the war effort and further mobilization by absurdly portraying Ukraine as threatening Moscow and the rest of the Russian heartland in a way to the way Nazi Germany did during its invasion of the Soviet Union.[24]

Prominent Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Russian Commander of the Airborne Forces, Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, with First Deputy Head of the Russian General Staff Academy, Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich, on January 20.[25] A prominent Russian news source initially claimed on January 13 that Teplinsky was only on a temporary leave and denied milblogger reports about Teplinsky‘s dismissal.[26] Some milbloggers complained that Makarevich is the least suitable candidate to command the Russian Airborne Forces and called for Putin to instead appoint Colonel Vadim Pankov, current commander of the 45th Separate Guards Spetsnaz Brigade.[27] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not yet confirmed Teplinsky’s dismissal nor confirmed Makarevich’s appointment. Teplinsky replaced former Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, in mid-June 2022, as ISW previously reported.[28] Teplinsky visited rear areas in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast in late December.[29]

The Kremlin continues to promote information operations threatening escalation over Western military assistance to Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 20 that if Western defense ministers decided to provide Ukraine with heavy tanks at their meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, then this would only "add problems for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people."[30] The Kremlin seeks to undermine Western willingness to offer aid to Ukraine by stoking fears of an escalation, whether between Russia and the West or of the war in Ukraine itself, that Russia cannot execute.[31] The Kremlin will likely continue to respond to Western conversations about further military assistance to Ukraine with vague threats of escalation that have no corresponding action.

Russian President Valdimir Putin fired Russian Security Council Assistant Secretary Alexei Pavlov on January 20, likely in response to Pavlov’s antisemitic comments in Fall 2022. Pavlov had served as a subordinate to Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev since 2009. The Kremlin’s newswire TASS reported that Pavlov’s dismissal was in connection with his receiving a new unspecified position but did not provide the timeline for his next appointment.[32] Pavlov’s dismissal, however, likely relates to his highly publicized comments regarding the need to "desatanize" Ukraine in a Moscow government-owned outlet Argumenty I Fakty in October 2022.[33] Pavlov stated that there is a need for "desatanization" because there are many religious cults in Ukraine following Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, such as the Hassidic Jews. Pavlov’s antisemitic statement ignited criticism from Russian Hassidic Rabbi Berel Luzar and forced Patrushev to issue an apology promising that he would take appropriate measures to discipline the author of the piece.[34] It is unclear why Patrushev or Putin would have waited this long to take action. 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov continues to frame Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war in Ukraine on distinctly religious grounds, thereby building out his reputation and the reputation of his power base.
  • The Wagner Group appears to be struggling to present itself as an effective parallel military structure, thus increasingly proving to be a parasitic paramilitary entity.
  • US intelligence confirmed the rivalry between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group on which ISW has long reported.
  • Prigozhin’s quest for legal recognition of the Wagner Group may also trigger further factionalization within the Russian government.
  • The Kremlin continues to engage in demonstrative public actions aimed at setting informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Telegram sources claimed that Putin dismissed Russian Commander of the Airborne Forces Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, but these reports remain unconfirmed.
  • The Kremlin continues to promote information operations threatening escalation over Western military assistance to Ukraine in order to weaken Western support.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued offensive operations near Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations across the Donetsk Oblast front line. Russian sources continued to falsely claim that Russian forces are close to encircling Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are still likely preparing for a defensive operation in the long term despite recent claims of territorial gains.
  • Russian officials and sources continue to indicate that mobilization measures are ongoing despite numerous claims that mobilization has officially concluded.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue deporting Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

George Barros, Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 19, 8:30 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Senior Kremlin officials continue holding high-level meetings with Belarusian national leadership – activity that could be setting conditions for a Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarus, although not necessarily and not in the coming weeks. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin discussed unspecified bilateral military cooperation, the implementation of unspecified strategic deterrence measures, and “progress in preparing” the joint Russian-Belarusian Regional Grouping of Troops (RGV) in a January 19 phone call.[1] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk and discussed an unspecified Russo-Belarusian “shared vision” for Russia’s war in Ukraine on January 19.[2] Lavrov and Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergey Aleinik discussed how Russia and Belarus can defeat an ongoing Western hybrid war against the states and signed an unspecified memorandum of cooperation on “ensuring biological security.”[3] This memorandum could be a leading indicator of the intensification of an existing Russian information operation falsely accusing Ukraine of developing chemical and biochemical weapons in alleged US-funded biolabs in Ukraine that was part of the Kremlin‘s pretext for the February 2022 invasion.[4]

The most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a new Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarus in early 2023 seems less likely given current Russian military activity in Belarus. A new MDCOA of an attack from Belarus in late 2023 seems more likely. Russian forces currently deployed in Belarus are undergoing training rotations and redeploying to fight in eastern Ukraine.[5] There are no observed indicators that Russian forces in Belarus have the command and control structures necessary for the winter or spring 2023 attack against Ukraine about which Ukrainian issued warnings in late 2022.[6] It seems more likely that Russian forces may be setting conditions for a new MDCOA of attacking Ukraine from Belarus in late 2023 given recent Ukrainian intelligence reports that Russia and Belarus plan to conduct major exercises (Zapad 2023 and Union Shield 2023), likely in September 2023.[7] ISW is thus adjusting its forecast; the current assessed MDCOA is a Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarusian territory in late 2023. This is not simply a deferment of the timeframe for the previous MDCOA. It is an entirely new MDCOA given that it would occur in different circumstances. Russia will have completed the Autumn 2022 annual conscription cycle and be well into the Spring 2023 cycle, on the one hand, and may well have completed one or more additional reserve call-ups by Autumn 2023. A delayed timeline for this COA could allow Russia’s military industry to gear up sufficiently to provide a greater proportion of the necessary materiel for a renewed invasion from Belarus than Russia can provide this winter. ISW continues to assess that a Russian attack against Belarus remains a highly unlikely scenario in the forecast cone this winter and unlikely but more plausible in Autumn 2023.

Russia’s nationalist military bloggers continue to criticize the idea of Russian forces attacking Ukraine from Belarus. Russian milbloggers continue to react negatively every time the idea of Russian forces attacking Ukraine from Belarus resurfaces. One milblogger stated that it is a bad idea for Russia to significantly expand the front from Belarus because Russian forces’ battlefield performance improved after compressing the front following Russia’s withdrawal from upper Kherson.[8] This milblogger stated that Russian forces do not have the capability to project deep into Ukraine along multiple axes of advance as Russia attempted to do in early 2022 and advocated that Russia prioritize reestablishing a strong conventional military capable of fighting NATO.[9]

Lavrov attacked the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), underscoring the infeasibility of the Kremlin supporting a third Minsk-type agreement. Lavrov accused NATO and the European Union of using the OSCE against Russia and falsely claimed that the OSCE agreed to the Minsk agreements (the failed ceasefire accords that the Kremlin coerced Ukraine into accepting in 2014-2015, which stipulated major political concessions undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty) only to buy time to prepare for a war against Russia.[10] Lavrov accused unspecified OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff in Ukraine of aiding Ukraine in conducting military operations against civilians in Donbas.[11]

The OSCE was a key neutral party in implementing the first two Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015. Lavrov’s attack against the OSCE indicates Moscow’s unwillingness to engage in the future serious cooperation with the OSCE that would be necessary for another Minsk Accords-style ceasefire.[12] Lavrov’s attack may also be an attempt to justify Russian forces’ reported illegal commandeering of OSCE off-road vehicles to support Russian combat operations in Luhansk Oblast.[13]

Lukashenko continues to balance against the Kremlin by framing Belarus as a sovereign state within the Russia-dominated Union State. Lukashenko’s readout of his meeting with Lavrov stated that he and Lavrov identified unspecified areas of cooperation to “preserve the sovereignty of the two countries in all respects.”[14] This rhetoric is consistent with Lukashenko's longstanding efforts to avoid ceding Belarusian sovereignty to the Kremlin-dominated Union State structure.[15]

The Kremlin is intensifying its information operation to promote a false narrative that the war will escalate if Ukraine receives weapons capable of striking Russian forces in occupied Crimea. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded on January 19 to a New York Times report that US officials are considering providing Kyiv with weapons capable of striking Russian military infrastructure in occupied Crimea and southern Ukraine.[16] Peskov stated that Western provisions of long-range weapons to Ukraine that can threaten Russian forces in Crimea will bring ”the conflict to a new qualitive level, which will not go well for global and pan-European security.”[17] Peskov added that even the discussion of providing such weapons is ”potentially extremely dangerous,” but then noted that Ukraine already has weapons that it uses to strike occupied territories in Ukraine. Crimea is legally Ukrainian territory and Ukraine is within its rights under the laws and norms of armed conflict to strikes Russian military targets in Crimea. It would be within its rights under international law and norms to attack targets in Russia as well, as the invading country retains no right to sanctuary for military targets within its own territory.

Peskov’s threats are part of a Russian information operation designed to discourage Western support to Ukraine and do not correspond to Russia’s actual capabilities to escalate against the West. Kremlin officials have made similar threats regarding select Western security assistance in the past and will likely continue to do so in the future. Russia forces, however, do not have the capacity to escalate their conventional war effort in Ukraine and certainly are not capable of conducting successful conventional military operations against the West and NATO in their current state. Russia has severely weakened its military posture against NATO by deploying military units and equipment – including air defense systems  – away from NATO and to Ukraine and suffering horrific losses in men and materiel.[18] The Kremlin never assessed that it could defeat NATO in a conventional war, moreover, an assessment that was at the heart of its hybrid warfare doctrine.[19] The Kremlin seeks to minimize Western military aid to Ukraine by stoking fears of an escalation Russia cannot execute. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s theory of victory likely depends on Putin’s will to force his people to fight outlasting the West’s willingness to support Ukraine over time.[20] 

The Kremlin is also very unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and extraordinarily unlikely to use them against the West despite consistently leaning on tired nuclear escalation threats. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, in response to NATO Command’s planned January 20 meeting in Germany, stated on January 19 that Western officials do not understand that the “loss of a nuclear power in a conventional war can provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war.”[21] Medvedev argued that ”nuclear powers [like the Russian Federation] have not lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”[22] Medvedev routinely makes hyperbolic and inflammatory comments, including threats of nuclear escalation, in support of Russian information operations that aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine and that are out of touch with actual Kremlin positions regarding the war in Ukraine.[23] Medvedev’s consistently inflammatory rhetoric may suggest that the Kremlin has encouraged him to promote extremist rhetoric that aims to frighten and deter the West from giving further military aid to Ukraine over fears of escalation with Russia or that he is simply continuing a pattern of extremist rhetorical freelancing. ISW continues to assess that Russian officials have no intention of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere, and certainly not in response to the provision of individual weapons systems.[24]

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly siding with the adversaries of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, likely in an ongoing effort to degrade Prigozhin’s influence in Russia. Putin met on January 18, 2023 with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov – one of Prigozhin's overt enemies – for the first time since early March 2022 to discuss St. Petersburg’s role in the Russian war effort.[25] Beglov stated that his administration formed three volunteer battalions that support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine under the Russian Western Military District (WMD). ISW previously reported that Prigozhin had launched an intensive campaign petitioning Russian State Duma officials to remove Beglov from his office and had even called on the Russian Prosecutor General’s office to investigate Beglov for treason for failing to adequately support the Russian war effort.[26] Prigozhin-affiliated outlets also published exposés on Beglov over summer 2022, claiming that Beglov deliberately impeded the advertising efforts for recruitment into the three local volunteer battalions.[27] Prigozhin had also suggested that he assisted Beglov in campaigning for the governor role – claiming that he had made Beglov’s career and made several proposals to improve his administration.

Putin’s demonstrative meeting with Beglov and their specific discussion of Beglov’s contribution to the war effort directly challenges Prigozhin’s ongoing effort to assert his own authority over Beglov and St. Petersburg. Putin had also recently reappointed Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, former commander of the Central Military District (CMD) as the Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces despite Lapin receiving significant criticism from the siloviki faction of which Prigozhin is a prominent member.[28] Putin had also doubled down on the official rhetoric that only Russian forces contributed to the capture of Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, rejecting Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner forces had accomplished the tactical victory.[29] Putin is likely attempting to reduce Prigozhin’s prominence in favor of the re-emerging professional Russian military and Russian government officials.

Prigozhin nevertheless continues to use claims about the Wagner Group’s tactical success to elevate his position, likely deepening a conflict with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for influence in the Russian information space. Prigozhin claimed on January 19 that Wagner Group elements captured Klishchiivka, Donetsk Oblast, and emphasized that Wagner Group forces were exclusively responsible for the tactical advances south of Bakhmut.[30] This statement is the first time Prigozhin has personally broken news of a purported Russian tactical success and likely supports Prigozhin‘s effort to promote himself as an independently successful wartime leader.[31] Russian sources largely responded to Prigozhin’s claim as if it were an official confirmation that Russian forces took the settlement.[32]

Prigozhin’s announcement generated widespread conversation among Russian milbloggers about the operational significance of the Russian capture of the settlement.[33] The Russian MoD’s announcement concerning the capture of Sil, Donetsk Oblast near Soledar on January 18 generated far less conversation and excitement amongst Russian milbloggers.[34] The Russian Ministry of Defense previously tried to downplay the Wagner Group’s involvement in the capture of neighboring Sil by referring to Wagner Group fighters as ”volunteers of assault detachments” on January 18.[35] The Russian MoD has started to use more specific language for Russian units in its reporting on Russian operations likely in order to claim more responsibility for tactical advances and minimize Prigozhin’s ability to claim that Wagner Group forces are the only Russian forces that are able to secure tactical advances in Ukraine.[36] The Kremlin is likely aware that Prigozhin‘s recent use of the Wagner Group’s tactical success has had a greater effect in the Russian information space than its own efforts to portray the Russian military as an effective fighting force.

Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov reportedly declared that the Wagner Group does not belong in the structure of the Russian Armed Forces. Gerasimov allegedly responded to Moscow City Duma parliamentarian Yevgeny Stupin’s inquiry on the status of the Wagner Group and its “operational interaction” with the Russian Armed Forces in an official letter, dated December 29, 2022, that Stupin shared on his Telegram on January 19.[37] Stupin stated that he had received numerous complaints from his constituents who have relatives serving in Wagner detachments that they are unable to contact officials that would connect them with their family members on the frontlines. Gerasimov stated in the letter that “the organization [Stupin] referred to as PMC Wagner does not belong to the structure of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” and that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is not responsible for Wagner servicemen[38].” Stupin asserted that the letter is real, although ISW has no independent verification of his claim.

Clear evidence indicates that Wagner Group has operated under the direction of the Russian chain of command[39]. A Bellingcat investigation found that Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin reported to current Western Military District Commander Lieutenant General Evgeny [40] – among other Russian military intelligence officials – when Nikiforov was the Chief of Staff of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army in 2015. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently claimed on January 13 that Russian forces worked with the Wagner Group to capture [41]. ISW assesses that Gerasimov’s apparent letter is, at the very least, another pointed effort by the Russian government to undermine Prigozhin’s influence. Its release at this time is noteworthy in this respect. Gerasimov was appointed overall commander of the Russian war effort in Ukraine on January 11, for one thing, and Stupin’s publication of the nearly month-old correspondence comes in the midst of a concerted Kremlin campaign to clip Prigozhin’s wings, on the other.[42]

Key Takeaways 

  • Senior Kremlin officials continue holding high-level meetings with Belarusian national leadership – activity that could be setting conditions for a Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarus, although not necessarily and not in the coming weeks.
  • A new Russian attack against Ukraine from Belarus in early 2023 seems less likely given current Russian military activity in Belarus, although an attack from Belarus in late 2023 seems more plausible.
  • Ultranationalist Russian milbloggers continue to criticize the idea of Russian forces attacking Ukraine from Belarus.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attacked the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), underscoring the infeasibility of the Kremlin supporting a third Minsk-type agreement.
  • Lukashenko continues to balance against the Kremlin by framing Belarus as sovereign state within the Russian-dominated Union State.
  • The Kremlin continues to falsely promote a narrative that the war will escalate if Ukraine receives weapons with the capability to strike Russian forces in occupied Crimea.
  • An extremist Kremlin ally reintroduced nuclear escalation rhetoric aimed at scaring Western policymakers away providing additional military aid to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly siding with the enemies of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, likely in an ongoing effort to reduce Prigozhin’s influence in Russia.
  • Prigozhin’s continued use of the Wagner Group’s claimed tactical success to elevate his position is likely deepening a conflict with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for influence in the Russian information space.
  • Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov may have officially declared that the Wagner Group does not belong in the structure of the Russian Armed Forces and that the Russian military does not collaborate with Wagner despite ample evidence to the contrary.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations near Svatove, and Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces captured Klishchiivka amidst ongoing Russian offensive operations around Soledar, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted localized offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian officials are reportedly continuing to prepare for a second wave of mobilization.
  • Ukrainian partisans may have conducted an IED attack in Zaporizhia Oblast. 

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 18, 8:00 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech commemorating the Soviet forces’ breaking of the siege of Leningrad illustrated that he remains uncertain about his ability to significantly shape the Russian information space. Putin used his January 18 speech to reiterate standard and longstanding Kremlin rhetoric that falsely maintains that Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine to protect residents in the Donbas from neo-Nazis who, the Kremlin claims, seized control of the Ukrainian government in 2014.[1] Putin did not use the publicity of the event to make any announcements concerning the war in Ukraine, such as a new mobilization wave or a formal declaration of war, which some Russian milbloggers had floated.[2] Putin has notably declined to use several high-profile public addresses, including his annual New Year’s Speech and his canceled annual address to the Russian Federation Assembly, to make any notable new announcements about the war.[3] Putin likely reiterated standard Kremlin rhetoric because it has resonated well with the Russian ultra-nationalist pro-war community, elements of which have been increasingly critical of his conduct of the war.[4] Putin may seek to shape the Russian information space over time, but he appears to be unwilling or unable to attempt a dramatic speech that represents a significant inflection in his rhetoric.

Putin’s speech is likely part of a larger and relatively new informational effort to wrap the "special military operation" inside the greater Russian national mythos of the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) to increase Russian support for a protracted war and increasing mobilization. Putin’s speech was symbolically significant for the Russian domestic audience. Putin is fond of using symbolic dates and historical analogies to address the Russian people and delivered this speech in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Soviet forces breaking the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Putin said that Soviet forces defeated Nazi Germany’s "genocide of Leningrad" and drew comparisons with how contemporary Russia is fighting "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" in Donbas—where Putin previously accused Ukraine of conducting a genocide to justify his 2022 invasion.[5] Putin likely seeks to shape the information space over time to regenerate support for the invasion and for maintaining a protracted war by reintroducing pre–February 24 narratives about "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" and "genocide of Russians" to regain control over war coverage after having largely ceded this space to a variety of quasi-independent actors.[6]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov augmented these efforts to increase Russian support for a protracted war by explicitly claiming that Ukraine and the West are pursuing the genocide of the Russian people. Lavrov accused the West of assembling a coalition of European countries to use Ukraine as a proxy in a war that aims to solve the "Russian question" in the same way that Adolf Hitler had sought a "final solution" to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population.[7] Lavrov argued that Western officials’ desire for the strategic defeat of Russia is tantamount to the genocide of the Russian people.[8] Lavrov likely made the comments to set more explicit information conditions for a protracted war by framing the war in Ukraine as just as existential for Russians as Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Lavrov’s comments are far more noteworthy than Putin’s speech, which may suggest that the Kremlin is instructing high-ranking officials to attempt to substantially shape the Russian information space for a protracted war, and open themselves to criticism, instead of having Putin do so himself.

Lavrov’s equations of the West with Nazi Germany and its support for Ukraine with an effort to exterminate the Russian people are ludicrous and almost certainly aimed at a domestic Russian audience. Ukraine has never threatened to invade or seize territory beyond the internationally recognized borders of 1991. Neither NATO as an alliance nor any individual member state has threatened to invade Russia, let alone to pursue the destruction of Russians as a people. The purpose of Lavrov’s outrageous and absurd comparison was very likely meant to complement Putin’s rhetoric and other Russian efforts to persuade the Russian people that Ukraine and its Western backers pose a real and imminent threat to Russian territory and to the Russian people in their homes. Russian governments, the Wagner Private Military Company, and the Russian military have dug trenches and established militias in areas bordering Ukraine for months, ostensibly to defend against the nonexistent threat of a Ukrainian invasion.[9] These efforts, together with Putin’s and Lavrov’s statements wrapping themselves in the banners of the Red Army waging the Great Patriotic Special Military Operation, are meant to galvanize support for protracted mobilization and suffering in pursuit of Putin’s unprovoked aggression and search for territorial conquest.

Putin and Lavrov continue to deny Ukrainian sovereignty and outright reject direct negotiations with Ukraine. Putin emphasized in his speech that Russia is fighting to protect people who live in its "historical territories" in Ukraine, a continuation of Kremlin rhetoric that rejects Ukrainian sovereignty and seeks to justify Putin’s maximalist goals of territorial acquisition in Ukraine.[10] Lavrov explicitly stated that "there can be no talk of negotiations with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky" and argued that Western insistence on Ukraine’s involvement in negotiations is "nonsense" as the West is in charge of making decisions in Ukraine.[11] Lavrov stated that the Kremlin would respond seriously to any noteworthy proposals from the United States.[12] Lavrov’s and Putin’s statements are indicative of ongoing Russian information operations that aim to reject Ukraine’s sovereignty and delegitimize Kyiv’s right to negotiate, shifting the onus for negotiations onto Western officials, whom the Kremlin believes to be more willing to offer concessions that Ukraine could not accept and could seek to compel Ukrainian officials to negotiate on terms more favorable to Russia.[13]

Putin continues efforts to reinvigorate Russia’s defense industrial base to support a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin visited workers at the Obukhov State Plant—part of the Almaz-Antey Russian state-owned defense industrial company—on January 18.[14] Putin stated that the Russian defense industry currently can produce more than it could previously in an unspecified past time frame and stated that Russia will achieve the defense industrial production level that Russia needs.[15] Putin acknowledged that workers at the Obukhov factory work three shifts a day and reiterated that defense industry workers were exempted from mobilization, likely because Putin needs to keep specialized workers in Russia’s defense industrial base.[16] Putin also used this visit to draw historical parallels between the Great Patriotic War and the current war in Ukraine. Putin and Obukhov workers discussed how over 6,500 workers at the Obukhov plant died during the Great Patriotic War and how Russia is "absolutely justified" in fighting against neo-Nazis in Ukraine today.[17]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming increasingly bold in his verbal attacks against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Prigozhin criticized the MoD’s new guidelines for Russian troops in Ukraine that restrict the use of certain personal electronic devices in combat zones and set stricter guidelines for men’s grooming standards on January 18.[18] Prigozhin defended Russian line soldiers who do not adhere to grooming standards (Prigozhin observed that beards are customary for many Muslim and Orthodox Christian fighters) and claimed that soldiers’ use of smartphones and tablets is necessary for modern warfare.[19] Prigozhin stated that "war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven who turned in phones to the warehouse."[20] Prigozhin further criticized out-of-touch Russian MoD officials who must "develop along with the development of modern warfare, learn how to effectively kill the enemy and seize territories," and not "comb everyone under your ridiculous rules, principles and whims."[21] Prigozhin’s statement was the latest of several designed to undermine confidence in the MoD and promote Prigohzin as the face of the Russian "special military operation" in Ukraine.[22] Prigozhin’s comments reflect a cowboy approach to war that is unsuited to the development and maintenance of an effective large-scale and disciplined modern military.

Prigozhin directly attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration and insinuated that some officials working there are traitors who want Russia to lose the war in Ukraine—one of Prigozhin’s boldest attacks against the Kremlin to date.[23] Prigozhin weighed in on an ongoing Russian policy debate about banning YouTube and stated that some officials in the Kremlin presidential administration oppose banning YouTube because it would undermine their effort to have the United States and Russia reestablish relations after Russia loses the war in Ukraine.[24] Prigozhin stated that such officials think that the United States will "forgive [Russia] its sins" of supporting "pro-Russian interests" and "supporting Putin" if Russia begs for Western forgiveness after losing the war.[25] Prigozhin called these officials "traitors of the people" who proclaim exalted pro-Russian values but nevertheless live and vacation abroad and "support the West in every possible way."[26]

Prigozhin and other notable voices in Russia are carving out a new space to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin without fear of retribution. Prigozhin and other prominent Russian nationalists such as Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, have been opening a new sector in the Russian information space where certain figures can criticize Putin and the highest echelons of the Russian government without any apparent retribution. Igor Girkin heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office in his most direct criticism of Putin to date on January 10, for example.[27] Putin has decided to not censor these voices for far.

A helicopter transporting Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs officials crashed in a residential area in Brovary, Kyiv Oblast on January 18. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service announced that the crash killed 16, including Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky and three children, and injured 30, including 16 children.[28] The crash damaged a local kindergarten and a large residential building.[29] Ukrainian authorities have not yet specified the cause of the crash.[30]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech commemorating the siege of Leningrad continued to illustrate that Putin remains uncertain about his ability to significantly shape the Russian information space.
  • Putin’s speech is likely part of a larger informational effort to wrap the "special military operation" inside the greater Russian national mythos of the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) to increase Russian support for a protracted war and mobilization.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov augmented these efforts to increase Russian support for a protracted war by explicitly and ludicrously claiming that Ukraine and the West are pursuing the genocide of the Russian people.
  • Putin continues efforts to reinvigorate Russia’s defense industrial base to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin and Lavrov continue to deny Ukrainian sovereignty and outright reject direct negotiations with Ukraine.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming increasingly bold in his verbal attacks against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin.
  • Prigozhin and other notable voices in Russia are carving out a new space to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin without fear of retribution.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Soledar, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • The Russian MoD continues to attempt to downplay the role of the Wagner Group in claimed tactical advances in the Soledar area.
  • Ukrainian officials have indicated that Russian forces are concentrating in Zaporizhia Oblast, possibly for a large defensive or offensive effort.
  • Russian forces’ increasing use of incendiary munitions to conduct what appear to be otherwise routine strikes in southern Ukraine supports ISW’s recent assessment that Russian forces likely face a shortage of conventional artillery rounds.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources continued to indicate that Russian authorities are likely preparing for a second wave of mobilization.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 17, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 17, 8:00 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced on January 17 that he will implement Russian President Vladimir Putin’s directive to conduct large-scale military reforms between 2023-2026 to expand Russia’s conventional armed forces, likely in preparation for a protracted war in Ukraine and also to set conditions to build a significantly stronger Russian military quickly. Shoigu stated that Putin ordered Russian authorities to increase the number of Russian military personnel to 1.5 million (from the current 1.35 million). Shoigu outlined that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will institute unspecified “large-scale changes” in the composition, complement, and administrative divisions of the Russian Armed Forces between 2023-2026.[1] Shoigu noted that Russia also needs to strengthen the key structural components of the Russian Armed Forces. Shoigu announced that Russia will reestablish the Moscow and Leningrad military districts, form a new army corps in Karelia (on the Finnish border), form new self-sufficient force groupings in occupied Ukraine, and form 12 new maneuver divisions.[2] Shoigu added that Russia needs to increase its capabilities to adequately prepare its forces by developing more training grounds and increasing the number of trainers and specialists. Shoigu first foreshadowed aspects of this reform at the Russian MoD Collegium meeting on December 21 when he proposed that Russia form two new airborne assault divisions, three new motorized rifle divisions, and reform seven existing brigades of the Northern Fleet and Western, Central, and Eastern Military districts into seven new motorized rifle divisions while expanding five existing naval infantry brigades into five naval infantry divisions.[3] It appears that Shoigu did not include the reformation of five naval infantry brigades into divisions in his January 17 statement. It is unclear if that part of the plan has been dropped.

These reforms demonstrate Russia’s intent to reform the Russian military to conduct large-scale conventional warfighting in general and not just for the current war against Ukraine, as ISW has previously assessed.[4] It is unclear if the Russian military will be able to grow as Shoigu described within three years.[5] Russia can nominally form new divisions but it remains unclear if Russia can generate enough forces to fully staff them to their doctrinal end strengths amid an ongoing war. Shoigu made previous announcements about Russian military reforms that never came to fruition, such as in May 2022 when he called for the formation of 12 new Western Military District (WMD) units of unspecified echelon by the end of 2022 and for the Russian MoD to recruit 100,000 reservists in August 2021.[6] Russia has previously faced challenges with fully staffing existing brigades and regiments, lacking sufficient trainers, and fully forming one new division it announced in 2020 before the start of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.[7] The restructuring of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (8th Combined Arms Army) took over a year.[8] Russia will also continue to face economic problems, which may continue to strain the Russian military command’s ability to supply its forces.

Russia’s ability to generate large-scale rapid change in its military capacity depends on President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to redirect large portions of the federal budget to a military buildup and putting Russia on something like a war footing for several years. There are signs that Putin might be willing to do so. Reform and expansion on the scale Shoigu outlined will not happen in time to affect the war in Ukraine materially for many months, but it could change the correlation of forces going into 2024, and it could establish conditions for a much more formidable Russian military threat to its neighbors, including NATO, in the coming years. Ukraine likely continues to have a window of opportunity into and through the summer if the West provides it the support it needs.[9]

Putin may announce a second mobilization wave to expand his army in the coming days—possibly as early as January 18. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced on January 17 that Putin will deliver a speech in St. Petersburg on January 18 in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Soviet forces breaking the Nazi siege of Leningrad, Putin’s hometown.[10] Putin is fond of using symbolic dates to address the Russian people, and some Russian pro-war milbloggers noted that he will seize this opportunity to either declare mobilization or war with Ukraine.[11] Ukrainian and Western intelligence also repeatedly warned of Putin’s mobilization preparations scheduled for mid-January.[12]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is trying to improve professionalism within the Russian armed forces and likely test and improve the effectiveness of its chains of command down to the small unit level. Several milbloggers commented on a reported list of guidelines for Russian troops in Ukraine that restricts the use of personal vehicles and certain personal electronic devices in the combat zone and sets stricter guidelines for the grooming standards of men on the frontlines.[13] The Russian MoD is likely attempting to institute these measures to instill greater professionalism in Russian troops and potentially gauge the ability of lower-level commanders to execute orders to standard, two issues that were brought to light in the wake of the December 31 Ukrainian strike on a Russian concentration area in Makiivka that killed up to 400 mobilized Russian servicemen. Following the Makiivka strike, the Russian MoD highlighted the lack of sound operational security (OPSEC) practices among Russian servicemen and blamed personal cellphone use—among other factors—for enabling the strike.[14] These guidelines likely are part of the ongoing Russian MoD line of effort to conduct widespread military reforms and bolster the overall professionalism of the Russian armed forces in order to avoid further failures such as the Makiivka strike.

The Russian MoD may have additionally issued these guidelines in an attempt to gauge the effectiveness of Russian commanders in executing orders. The issue of grooming on the frontlines, as ISW previously reported on January 16, has been a sticking point between lower-level commanders and undisciplined troops who refuse to obey orders to shave.[15] While the basic presentation of frontline troops may seem like a trivial matter, in reality, adherence to or disregard for such standards can indicate the professionalism or lack thereof of conventional forces. In poorly performing and demoralized units, failure to adhere to such standards can fuel demoralization and poor performance. Attempting to enforce those standards even in the circumstances facing the Russian military in Ukraine today, therefore, makes sense. The order to enforce such standards is also a way for higher echelons of the Russian command to test the ability of lower-level commanders to execute a relatively straightforward order on the individual soldier level.

Several prominent voices in the pro-war information space, including Russian and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) officials, seized on these guidelines to support further criticisms of the Russian MoD, suggesting that the Russian MoD will likely face stiff resistance in continued attempts at professionalization and modernization. Moscow City Duma Deputy Andrei Medvedev complained that the Russian MoD is ignoring real issues on the front and instead banning the movement of personal vehicles in combat zones, which, Medvedev noted, restricts the ability of volunteers to provide servicemen on the frontline with crowdfunded vehicles and supplies that the MoD has failed to procure for them.[16] Medvedev and Deputy DNR Information Minister Daniil Bezsonov both noted that the prohibition of certain personal electronics will impede soldiers’ ability to control quadcopters and store terrain maps offline.[17] These responses suggest that Russian military leadership will struggle to institute meaningful and sustainable reforms as long as they continue to place the onus for change on an individual basis. While these suggested changes are sound and prudent decisions in principle, the Russian MoD will likely struggle to effectively implement them due to continued fragmentations in the information space that skew strongly against the conventional MoD apparatus. The MoD faces a challenge using improved enforcement of standards to raise the quality of the Russian Armed Forces with such a significant trust deficit.

Serbian President Alexander Vucic called on the Wagner Group to cease recruitment in Serbia on January 16. Vucic posed a rhetorical question, asking why Wagner is violating Serbia’s laws.[18] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that Wagner does not operate in Serbia and claimed that no Serbian nationals are enlisted in Wagner detachments because “Serbs themselves are doing an excellent job at handling their problems.”[19] Prigozhin’s statement may be a form of sarcasm, given recent tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.[20] Russian sources posted footage on January 17 purporting to show Serbian volunteers serving in a Russian volunteer battalion deployed to Zaporizhia Oblast, although ISW has not observed any Serbian nationals serving in Ukraine as a part of the Wagner Group.[21]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced on January 17 that he will implement Russian President Vladimir Putin's directive to conduct large-scale military reforms between 2023-2026 to expand Russia's conventional armed forces, likely in preparation for a protracted war in Ukraine and also to set conditions to build a significantly stronger Russian military quickly.
  • Putin may announce a second mobilization wave in the coming days, possibly as soon as January 18.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is trying to improve professionalism within the Russian armed forces and likely test and improve the effectiveness of its chains of command down to the small unit level.
  • Several prominent voices in the pro-war information space seized on these guidelines to support further criticisms of the Russian MoD, suggesting that the MoD will likely face stiff resistance.
  • Serbian President Alexander Vucic called on the Wagner Group to cease recruitment in Serbia.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited counterattacks near Kreminna as Ukrainian officials continued to suggest that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive actions across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • The Russian information space is struggling to portray tactical Russian gains around Soledar as operationally significant.
  • Russian forces in Kherson Oblast continue to struggle to maintain their logistics efforts in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast due to Ukrainian strikes.
  • A Russian occupation official claimed that Putin will make an "important statement" pertaining to the war in Ukraine on January 18.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to establish the Wagner Group as a legal entity in Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 16, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Angela Howard, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Mason Clark

January 16, 7:15 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The Kremlin continues to publicly challenge Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner Group forces were solely responsible for capturing Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on January 12. Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed the success on the frontlines to Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff plans when responding to a journalist’s question on January 15 regarding Russian advances in Soledar.[1] Putin’s statement was aired live on state-controlled TV and was likely a deliberate effort to undermine Prigozhin’s influence within the Russian information space, given that Putin has previously refrained from commenting on tactical advances in Ukraine. Putin may have also sought to demonstrate he retains control over traditional Russian mass media, while Prigozhin continues to grow an audience on Telegram and other social media networks. The Russian MoD, in turn, also continued to report that Russian Southern Military District (SMD) assault detachments and Russian airborne troops are attacking Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut and likely deliberately excluded mentioning Wagner forces in its January 15 daily briefing.[2]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov possibly indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately exposing the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner in the Russian information space. Peskov attempted to dispel reports of an ongoing conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD, stating on January 16 that these reports are “products of information manipulations.”[3] Peskov, however, added that while most of such manipulations come from Russia’s ”enemies,” the Kremlin has ”friends” who also behave in a similar way. Peskov’s statement may have been tacitly aimed at Prigozhin, whose criticism of the Russian MoD is growing increasingly brazen. Peskov also continued Putin’s efforts to undermine Wagner’s effort to advance a narrative that only Wagner forces were responsible for capturing Soledar, noting that Russians will remember both Russian servicemembers and Wagner forces for their achievements.

Prigozhin is continuing his efforts to undermine faith in the Russian MoD and in Putin-aligned actors. Prigozhin directly responded to Peskov’s statement in an interview question about the MoD-Prigozhin conflict, stating that he has no reason to not trust Peskov.[4] Prigozhin could have easily disproved reports of the conflict by simply denying them, but continued his tactic of using deliberately vague messaging in order to generate more discussion within the Russian information space, ultimately aimed at undermining confidence in the MoD and Putin. Prigozhin also presented medals to Wagner forces for the capture of Soledar on January 15, including symbolically awarding a fighter who previously received a medal of courage from Putin.[5]

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russo-Ukrainian War is in a “decisive phase” on January 15.[6] Stoltenberg told German news outlet Handelsblatt on January 15 that NATO countries recognize the current situation and must “provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win.”[7] Stoltenberg’s statement supports ISW’s January 15 assessment that the Kremlin likely intends to take decisive strategic action in 2023.[8] Stoltenberg’s statement does not entail that the war is in its final phase or that Russian forces are planning to employ all available resources in impending actions. Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications representative Andriy Yusov remarked on January 15 that Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognized that Russian forces cannot take Ukraine quickly and is considering waging a drawn-out war of attrition.[9] ISW noted on January 15 that the Kremlin retains its long-term maximalist goals to seize Ukraine and is likely considering multiple courses of action to achieve those goals.[10]

Stoltenberg dismissed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s repeated concerns that the Western provision of weapons to Ukraine could cause a nuclear escalation. Stoltenberg stated that “this risk of using nuclear weapons is low” and that countries including China conveyed to the Kremlin that “nuclear weapons must not be used.”[11] Stoltenberg’s statements align with continuous ISW assessments that the Kremlin is extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.[12]

A prominent milblogger revived pre-February 2022 discussions of Kremlin intent to return close Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk to power in Ukraine. Igor Girkin, a former Russian officer and prominent nationalist voice, claimed on January 16 that the Kremlin hopes to place Medvedchuk at the head of an alternative Ukrainian government.[13] Girkin and Kremlin-linked milblogger Sasha Kots critiqued Medvedchuk’s suitability and the feasibility of him ever taking such a position.[14] This conversation resembles prior media speculation of a potential Kremlin plan to install disgraced former Ukrainian former president Viktor Yanukovych as the leader of Ukraine in early 2022.[15]

The appointment of the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, as theater commander of Russian forces in Ukraine notably did not spark a significant wave of criticism within the Russian nationalist milblogger discourse. Milbloggers largely claimed that Gerasimov’s appointment signifies that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is retaking responsibility for the war.[16] The milbloggers connected Gerasimov’s appointment to several ongoing issues including internal MoD tensions; conflict between the MoD and the Wagner Group; and the poor state of the war.[17] Milbloggers adopted a defeatist stance regarding Gerasimov’s appointment, noting that the fate of Gerasimov’s own military career rests on the long-term outcome of the war.[18] Some more critical nationalist voices stated that Gerasimov’s appointment is an example of the Kremlin’s inability to learn from its historic defeats, given that Gerasimov failed to keep occupied territories in northern Ukraine at the start of the war, but such discourse has been limited.[19] Milbloggers have largely expressed hope that Gerasimov will continue to cooperate with his predecessor (now his deputy commander), Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces Army General Sergey Surovikin, and continue missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure.[20] The mixed hopeful but apathetic milblogger response may indicate their hopes that the Russian MoD and the Kremlin are beginning to realistically envision the war in Ukraine by introducing a centralized command structure to take charge of the military campaign.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin continues to challenge Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s claims that only Wagner forces seized Soledar, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov possibly indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately exposing the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner in the Russian information space.
  • Prigozhin continued his efforts to undermine faith in the Russian MoD and Putin-aligned actors.
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russo-Ukrainian War is in a “decisive phase," which does not entail that the war is in its final phase or that Russian forces are planning to employ all resources in impending actions.
  • A prominent milblogger revived pre-February 2022 discussions of Kremlin intent to return close Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk to power in Ukraine.
  • The appointment of Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov as theater commander of Russian forces in Ukraine notably did not spark a significant wave of criticism within the Russian nationalist milblogger discourse.
  • Russian forces continued to launch localized assaults to regain lost positions around Svatove and in the Kupyansk direction as Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations around Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made additional territorial gains north of Bakhmut and may be intensifying attacks south of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to accumulate manpower in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and to develop new logistic routes between Russia and southern Ukraine.
  • Low discipline among Russian forces continues to directly endanger Russian soldiers and limit force effectiveness.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 15, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Mason Clark

January 15, 7:45 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, January 15. This report focuses on Russia’s likely preparation to conduct a decisive strategic action in 2023 intended to end Ukraine’s string of operational successes and regain the initiative.

The Kremlin is belatedly taking personnel mobilization, reorganization, and industrial actions it realistically should have before launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 invasion and is taking steps to conduct the “special military operation” as a major conventional war. Russian President Vladimir Putin began publicly signaling preparations for a protracted war in early December 2022, pledging that Russia will improve upon the mistakes of its earlier military campaigns and setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.[1] Putin notably remarked on December 7 that the “special military operation” in Ukraine could be a “lengthy process” and made several further public appearances throughout December indirectly outlining his goals to: improve the Russian war effort’s mobilization processes, revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base, centralize the Kremlin’s grip over the Russian information space, and reinstate the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) authority.[2]

The Kremlin is likely preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action in the next six months intended to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes. Russia has failed to achieve most of its major operational objectives in Ukraine over the past eleven months. Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and to maintain gains in Kharkiv Oblast or hold the strategic city of Kherson. The Russian air and missile campaign targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure under Army General Sergey Surovikin in late 2022 also failed to generate significant operational effects or demoralize Ukrainian society, as the Kremlin likely intended. Putin and senior Kremlin officials continue reiterating that Russia has not abandoned its maximalist objectives despite Russian defeats on the battlefield.[3] While Putin has not changed his objectives for the war, there is emerging evidence that he is changing fundamental aspects of Russia’s approach to the war by undertaking several new lines of effort.

ISW has observed several Russian lines of effort (LOEs) likely intended to support a decisive action in the next six months.

LOE 1: The Kremlin is intensifying both near- and long-term force-generation efforts. Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced plans to drastically expand the conventional Russian military by forming new divisions, reinstating pre-2010 military districts in western Russia, and increasing the conscription age — all indicating Russian intent (though likely not actual capability) to reform the Russian military to conduct large-scale conventional warfighting.[4] Ukrainian intelligence reported that the Kremlin seeks to raise the number of military personnel to two million by an unspecified date (from about 1.35 million personnel as of September 2022), while Western intelligence officials noted that Russian military command is in “serious preparations” for a potential second wave of mobilization.[5] Some Kremlin officials have begun discussing proposals to expand eligibility protocols for conscription, active mobilization, and the mobilization reserve, while Russian state structures are attempting to resolve past problems issuing mobilization summonses.[6] Putin himself signed orders that expanded eligibility for mobilization by allowing the mobilization of convicts on November 4.[7]

LOE 2: The Russian military is conserving mobilized personnel for future use — an inflection from the Kremlin’s initial approach of rushing untrained bodies to the front in fall 2022. Putin stated on December 7 that the Russian Armed Forces have not yet committed all mobilized personnel from the first mobilization wave to the frontlines, likely to take time to train and equip these forces for a later, concentrated use.[8] Conventional Russian forces (as opposed to the Wagner Group and the DNR/LNR proxy forces) have not conducted major offensive operations and have mostly maintained defensive positions since the series of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in summer and fall 2022. ISW has monitored conventional Russian units regrouping and training in Belarus and in Russia.[9]

LOE 3: Russia is attempting to reinvigorate its defense industrial base (DIB): The Kremlin began placing a significant emphasis on the resurrection of the Russian DIB in December. Putin has held several senior meetings and visited defense enterprises throughout the country since December.[10] Putin publicly acknowledged issues with supplies, such as the lack of reconnaissance drones, and notably demanded that one of his ministers issue state defense procurement contracts in a shorter-than-planned timeframe.[11] Putin and other Kremlin officials have also entertained vague discussions that Russian authorities may nationalize property to support the Russian war effort.[12]

LOE 4: Putin is re-centralizing control of the war effort in Ukraine under the Ministry of Defense and appointed Russia’s senior-most uniformed officer, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, as theater commander. The Kremlin is also reinstating the original planners of the war and belatedly attempting to correct command-structure deficiencies. Army General Sergey Surovikin and previous Russian theater commanders failed to achieve the decisive operations Putin — likely unrealistically — intended them to achieve. The Kremlin appointed Gerasimov as the Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine on January 11 after previously sidelining Gerasimov throughout the full-scale invasion.[13] The Russian MoD also appointed three deputies to closely work with Gerasimov on the expanded scale of tasks pertaining to the “special military operation.” The Kremlin likely intends Gerasimov and his newly appointed deputies to both prepare Russia for a protracted war and take command of a major effort in 2023.

LOE 5: The Kremlin is intensifying its conditioning of the Russian information space to support the war. The Kremlin is shaping the information space to regenerate support for the invasion by reintroducing pre–February 24 narratives and undertaking measures to regain control over war coverage, after previously ceding this space to a variety of independent actors. Kremlin officials resumed promoting a false narrative in late 2022 that the existence of an independent Ukraine threatens Russian sovereignty and culture, justifying Russia’s invasion and ongoing Russian sacrifices as inevitable and necessary “self-defense” measures.[14] Kremlin propagandists have also intensified narratives about the international legal consequences awaiting Russia if it does not win the war, likely to stoke fears of defeat and motivate rededication to the war.[15] The Kremlin has intensified efforts to develop relations with and co-opt prominent pro-war milbloggers who have emerged as a powerful alternative to Putin and the Russian MoD’s deliberately vague war coverage.[16]

The Kremlin’s effort to prepare for a likely intended decisive strategic action in 2023 is not mutually exclusive with the Kremlin’s efforts to set conditions for a protracted war. ISW is not forecasting a “last ditch” Russian effort to win the war in Ukraine. The war will not end, and Russia will not necessarily lose, if any of the possible actions discussed below fail. Russia’s rapid attempt to capture Kyiv and conduct a regime change within the first two weeks of the war was a failed strategic decisive action, for example. Many of the aforementioned indicators — such as the Russian MoD’s proposal to create many new Russian divisions — are almost certainly in part intended to support a long-term effort beyond any decisive action planned for calendar year 2023. However, ISW does not assess the Kremlin is simply staying its course as it prepares for a protracted war.

Russia’s decisive strategic action in 2023 can manifest itself in multiple possible courses of action (COAs) that are not mutually exclusive. According to US military doctrine, a military can undertake a decisive action at every level of war to produce a definitive result and achieve an objective.[17] Decisive actions can be at the tactical, operational, or strategic level and can be either offensive or defensive.[18]

COA 1: A major Russian offensive, most likely in the Luhansk Oblast area. Russian forces may seek to conduct a major offensive in the Luhansk Oblast area. The full capture of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts remain the Kremlin’s official war goals and are among Russia’s most achievable (though still highly challenging) objectives given Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are logistically the easiest territories for Russia to capture. Russian forces have been deploying additional forces to Luhansk Oblast and undertaking other significant activities since 2022, which ISW assesses can support an offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast.[19] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are unlikely to conduct an offensive in southern Ukraine in Kherson or Zaporizhia oblasts.[20] The Dnipro River separates the frontline in Kherson Oblast and is a serious obstacle to maneuver. Russia’s layered field fortifications array in Kherson Oblast and extensive mining in Zaporizhia Oblast indicate Russian forces are prioritizing defensive operations in both provinces.[21]

COA 2: A Russian defensive operation to defeat and exploit a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Kremlin redeployed significant military units from the southern (Kherson) direction to Luhansk Oblast in late 2022 and established field fortifications in Luhansk Oblast, as well as in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts in Russia.[22] ISW has reported on many observed indicators that Ukrainian forces seek to conduct counteroffensives in 2023.[23] Ukrainian officials have long been publicly signaling their intent to conduct counteroffensives in 2023.[24] Russian milbloggers have also been long warning about Ukrainian counteroffensives.[25] Russia seeks to secure Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts — territories the Russian government has (illegally) claimed as Russian territory — and to avoid another significant defeat like the rout in Kharkiv Oblast or the withdrawal from Kherson City. These were both significant events that degraded Russian morale and the perception of Russian forces’ ability to secure their larger objectives for the full “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. Russian forces may seek to successfully defeat a Ukrainian counteroffensive and deprive Ukraine of the initiative by destroying a significant proportion of mechanized Ukrainian forces. Such a successful Russian decisive action could then enable Russian forces to develop a counteroffensive to exploit disorganized and exhausted Ukrainian forces.

Many of the aforementioned Russian lines of effort could support both COA 1 and COA 2; these scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Russian forces could be preparing for a major offensive operation or, alternatively, larger spoiling attacks short of a general offensive operation. The indicators could also support a counterattack to take advantage of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that Russian forces expect to stop.

The most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a Russian offensive against northern Ukraine remains unlikely at this time. However, the Kremlin is creating planning flexibility and will likely expand Russia’s military presence in Belarus in the period leading up to planned major exercises (which could possibly support a combat operation) in September 2023. ISW continues to track Russian and Belarusian activities that could in time support a new Russian attack on Ukraine from Belarus. Russia will likely deploy more forces to Belarus under the rubric of the Zapad (West) 2023 and Union Shield 2023 exercises that will likely occur in September 2023.[26] The Kremlin deployed a senior Russian officer, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov — one of Gerasimov’s three newly appointed deputies — to Belarus on January 12.[27] Salyukov may be intended to create command-and-control structures necessary for a Russian operational strike group. These are anomalous activities that intensify the information operation that Russia will attack Ukraine from Belarus and could support an offensive, though ISW assesses an offensive is still a low-likelihood scenario at this time. There continues to be no evidence that Russian forces in Belarus have created the command-and-control structures necessary for an operational strike group as of this publication.[28]

The Kremlin retains its maximalist goals to seize all of Ukraine, despite its poor conduct of the war to date. The Kremlin has been slow to effectively fix its flawed invasion for almost a year and has repeatedly opted for short-term solutions such as: repeatedly cycling through theater commanders and retaining a fragmented command structure, introducing crypto-mobilization campaigns as opposed to full-scale mobilization, failing to control the Russian information space by allowing different pro-war factions to partition the information space, and consistently disrupting the Russian military’s chain of command. The Kremlin’s apparent new attention to Russian military failures will not allow the Kremlin to fix its conduct of the war in the immediate term if at all, and the flaws in Russia’s original campaign design — and the subsequent losses incurred — will be difficult to replace.

Russian forces remain dangerous, and Ukraine requires sustained support. Ukraine requires further and timely Western support to adequately prepare for the Russian COAs for 2023 outlined above. Ukraine’s Western allies will need to continue supporting Ukraine in the long run even if a Russian decisive action in 2023 fails, as the Kremlin is nonetheless preparing for a protracted war. The West must continue its support to Ukraine’s efforts to defeat Russia’s invasion — and must do so quickly. The Russian military, as the saying goes, retains a vote on the course of the war despite its weaknesses and is actively setting conditions for major operations as the war enters its second year.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on January 15:

  • Ukrainian officials specified that a Russian Kh-22 missile struck a residential building in Dnipro City on January 14, killing at least 25–30 civilians.[29] Ukrainian officials clarified inaccurate reporting that Ukrainian air defenses may have caused the destruction to the building, noting that Ukraine does not have the capability to shoot down Kh-22 missiles.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin awarded medals to Wagner Group forces for the capture of Soledar, likely in an ongoing effort to frame the capture of Soledar as a Wagner accomplishment rather than a joint effort with the Russian Armed Forces, as the Russian Ministry of Defense previously claimed.[30]
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian ground assaults near Makiivka and Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast.[31] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are transferring Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) off-road vehicles from Russia to Luhansk Oblast, possibly for use in combat.[32]
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces finished clearing Soledar and attacked Ukrainian positions to the north, west, and southwest of the settlement.[33] A Ukrainian source reported that Russian forces captured a mine west of Soledar near Dvorichchia on January 15.[34]
  • Russian forces continued to attack Bakhmut and areas to the north, east, south, and southwest of the city.[35] Russian forces made marginal territorial gains southwest of Bakhmut near Andriivka.[36]
  • Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Military Advisor Serhiy Khlan stated that Russian forces increased their presence in occupied Kherson Oblast and that some Wagner Group forces arrived in Kherson Oblast.[37] Russian occupation head of Kherson Oblast Vladimir Saldo claimed that the restoration of the Henichesk-Arabat Spit bridge improved Russian logistics into occupied Kherson Oblast.[38]
  • A Russian servicemember reportedly detonated a grenade in a building where Russian soldiers quartered in Belgorod Oblast, Russia, possibly in a fratricidal act of resistance against mobilization.[39] A Russian source reported that the grenade attack killed three and injured 10 mobilized personnel.[40]

ISW will continue to report daily observed indicators consistent with the current assessed most dangerous course of action (MDCOA): a renewed invasion of northern Ukraine possibly aimed at Kyiv.

ISW’s December 15 MDCOA warning forecast about a potential Russian offensive against northern Ukraine in winter 2023 remains a worst-case scenario within the forecast cone. ISW currently assesses the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as low, but possible, and the risk of Belarusian direct involvement as very low. This new section in the daily update is not in itself a forecast or assessment. It lays out the daily observed indicators we are using to refine our assessments and forecasts, which we expect to update regularly. Our assessment that the MDCOA remains unlikely has not changed. We will update this header if the assessment changes.

Observed indicators for the MDCOA in the past 24 hours:

  • Nothing significant to report.

Observed ambiguous indicators for MDCOA in the past 24 hours:

  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported on January 15 that unspecified Russian and Belarusian military units continue to perform unspecified tasks near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.[41]
  • Radar data indicates that Belarusian forces may have erected new structures around Velykiy Bokov airport near Mazyr, Belarus, 58km north of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.[42]

Observed counter-indicators for the MDCOA in the past 24 hours:

 

  • The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated that it has not observed Russian forces in Belarus forming a strike group as of January 15.[43]

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 14, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, and Mason Clark

January 14, 7:30 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian forces launched two waves of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure on January 14. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces conducted 50 missile and three airstrikes against Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kryvyi Rih, Dnipro, Vinnytsya, and unspecified settlements in western Ukraine.[1] Russian missile strikes on Dnipro City damaged an apartment building, killing at least 5 people and wounding over 60.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces struck Ukrainian cities and settlements in two waves: first employing S-300 and S-400 systems in Belarus against ground targets in Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast in the morning and later launching 28 cruise missile strikes using Kh-101/Kh-555, Kh-22, sea-based Kalibr, and Kh-59 guided air missiles.[3] The Ukrainian General Staff added that Ukrainian forces shot down 18 cruise missiles and three guided air missiles.

Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ignat stated that Russian forces used missiles fired with a sharp ballistic trajectory, possibly modified S-300 and S-400 missiles or Iskander-M systems, to strike Kyiv, noting that Ukrainian forces cannot currently shoot these missiles down when fired from short-range.[4] Ignat explained that S-300 and S-400 missiles launched from Belarus can hit Kyiv in less than two minutes. Ignat stated that Ukraine can only effectively prevent these strikes by destroying Russian S-300 complexes with Ukrainian long-range systems. Ignat added that Russian forces have previously used these modified systems to target Ukrainian infrastructure in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv oblasts.

The Kremlin continues to falsely claim that Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia to reject Ukrainian offers of a peace summit and retain Putin’s original maximalist goals. Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Security Council Vassily Nebenzya responded to Ukrainian proposals for a peace summit on January 13 with a series of false claims framing Ukraine as an aggressor that was, ludicrously, “about to attack Moscow.”[5] Nebenzya stated that Russia’s war in Ukraine will only end “when the threat to Russia no longer comes from the territory of Ukraine” and when “the discrimination [against] the Russian-speaking population” in Ukraine ends.[6] Kremlin claims of discrimination against Russian speakers in Ukraine are a longstanding information operation seeking to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[7] Nebenzya reiterated the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukraine’s refusal to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories and relationships with the West threaten Russia and claimed that Ukrainian ties with the West (rather than Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine) undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and cultural identity.[8] Nebenzya claimed Ukraine is not interested in negotiations and is no more than a NATO paramilitary company—both longstanding claims that the Kremlin intends to delegitimize Ukraine as an independent actor and shift the responsibility for negotiations onto Western officials, who the Kremlin likely believes Russia can pressure into preemptive concessions.[9] Nebenzya asserted that if the Kremlin cannot achieve its maximalist goals through negotiations, it will achieve them through military means.[10] Nebenzya’s speech again demonstrates that the Kremlin has not abandoned its maximalist goals in Ukraine, false justifications for its unprovoked war of aggression, and will seek to coerce the West to negotiate over Ukraine’s head.[11]

The Kremlin continues to use long-standing false narratives that the Ukrainian government is oppressing religious liberties as moral justification for its refusal to negotiate with Ukraine, likely in the hopes of turning international public opinion against Ukraine. Nebenzya claimed in his address that the “Zelensky regime” is an “authoritarian dictatorship” that desires “to destroy the canonical church in Ukraine—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”[12] Nebenzya likely deliberately misrepresented the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP)—a Kremlin-affiliated institution—as the official Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is a separate entity from the UOC MP. Nebenzya argued that such an “authoritarian dictatorship” represents a major obstacle to peace talks and requested a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss alleged state persecution of the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”[13] Ukrainian officials are not persecuting religious liberty or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, however. Russian officials are intentionally misrepresenting Ukrainian efforts to prosecute Kremlin-linked elements of the UOC MP as persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an independent entity that continues to operate in Ukraine, while the UOC MP is a non-independent subordinate branch of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church, which has fiscally and rhetorically supported Russia’s war in Ukraine.[14]

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to leverage the Wagner Group’s role in capturing Soledar to elevate his political stature and indirectly criticize the conventional Russian military. Prigozhin published footage on January 14, which he claimed was filmed in Soledar, promoting Wagner’s claimed role in capturing the town.[15] Prigozhin introduced the Wagner Group commander who oversaw the capture of the settlement and extolled Wagner’s capabilities compared to the conventional Russian military.[16] Prigozhin stated the Wagner Group succeeded due to its wealth of experience, its independence, its effective military equipment, and its superior management system.[17] Prigozhin claimed the Wagner Group’s management system incentivizes commanders and subordinates to work closely together on the ground and allows the complaints of regular fighters to be heard.[18] Prigozhin likely highlighted these elements, true or not, to distinguish the Wagner Group from the conventional Russian military and likely advertise for further recruitment and denigrate conventional Russian forces, lobbying for an increased role for Wagner Group—and himself—in the war in Ukraine.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces launched two waves of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure on January 14.
  • The Kremlin continues to falsely claim Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia to reject Ukrainian offers of a peace summit and retain Putin’s original maximalist goals.
  • The Kremlin continues to use long-standing false narratives that the Ukrainian government is oppressing religious liberties as moral justification for its refusal to negotiate with Ukraine and likely in the hopes of turning international public opinion against Ukraine.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to leverage the Wagner Group’s role in capturing Soledar to elevate his political stature and indirectly criticize the conventional Russian military.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Soledar as well as in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas. Ukrainian forces are highly unlikely to still hold positions within the settlement of Soledar itself.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations and reinforced frontlines positions on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Western officials are increasingly joining Ukrainian authorities in warning that Russia is preparing for an imminent second wave of mobilization.
  • Russian occupation officials in Kherson continued measures to forcibly relocate residents to Russia.
  • Ukrainian partisan attacks continue to disrupt Russian rear security efforts.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 13, 2023

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, Madison Williams, and Mason Clark

January 13, 8:45 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 13 that Russian forces seized Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on the evening of January 12. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces can now form a “cauldron” around Bakhmut and threaten Ukrainian supply lines running southwest of Soledar that support Ukrainian troops in the city.[1] The Russian MoD notably praised assault and army aviation, missile and artillery troops, and Russian airborne forces for seizing Soledar, without acknowledging Wagner Group’s participation in the fighting for the city. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov maintained that the situation around Soledar is difficult and noted that it is unclear if Russian forces control the settlement at this time. At the same time, other Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces continued to fight in Soledar during the night of January 12-13.[2] Ukrainian forces may still occupy some positions on the northwestern borders of Soledar but are unlikely to control significant territory within the settlement itself. ISW assessed on January 12 that Russian forces had likely captured Soledar on January 11, but such a victory is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.[3]

The announcement sparked a significant backlash within the Russian information space due to the Russian MoD’s failure to acknowledge the Wagner Group's participation in the capture of Soledar. The Russian MoD issued a follow-up announcement six hours later recognizing Wagner volunteers and assault detachments as participants in the Battle for Soledar and noting that the Russian MoD received numerous inquiries regarding its original commemoration of select Russian forces.[4] The Russian MoD attempted to justify their snub of Wagner by claiming that a Russian “heterogeneous grouping of troops” executed a “joint plan” in the Soledar direction and attributed the assault against residential areas to Wagner forces. Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin vaguely responded to the Russian MoD’s omission of Wagner, stating that he cannot comment on the situation and noting that journalists’ questions about the matter expose their concern over commemorating Wagner’s “heroic capture of Soledar.”[5]

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin staged conditions for such backlash by personally visiting Soledar days prior to its capture and taking his cadre of Wagner-affiliated milbloggers to commemorate Wagner forces’ daily advances on Russian social media platforms.[6] Prigozhin likely attempted to preempt the announcement on January 12 by accusing unnamed bureaucrats and government officials of “constantly trying to steal victory from [the] Wagner private military company” and belittling its merits.[7] Milbloggers independent or affiliated with Wagner subsequently generated a series of criticisms calling out the Russian MoD for its misrepresentation of the claimed capture of Soledar.[8]

The Russian MoD’s announcement highlighted the existing conflict between the Wagner Group and the Russian MoD – a dynamic that ISW has previously observed and assessed. Several prominent milbloggers – including those affiliated with the Kremlin – stated that there is an ongoing conflict between the Russian MoD and Prigozhin behind closed doors and within the information space.[9] Some noted that Prigozhin has overpowered the Russian MoD‘s deliberately vague rhetoric, forcing the Russian MoD, and by extension the Kremlin, to end its long-standing policy of refraining from recognizing Wagner and its war efforts.[10] A Kremlin-affiliate milblogger, in turn, claimed that Prigozhin and the Russian MoD are both equally attempting to undermine each other and accused Prigozhin of refusing to recognize the  Russian Armed Forces as a participating force on the battlefield.

Former Russian officer and prominent nationalist voice, Igor Girkin, condemned the “acute conflict” between traditional military command and unofficial forces (referring to Wagner) during a time of war and claimed that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov seek to disband private military companies like Wagner and incorporate its elements into the MoD structure.[11] Girkin stated that Soledar has exposed a major dilemma for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he framed as having the options of either intensifying his efforts to appease both the Russian MoD and Prigozhin; doubling down on either side at risk of losing support for his war; or becoming an arbitrator and the commander-in-chief. ISW had previously assessed that Putin’s efforts to balance the at times mutually exclusive lines of effort of retaining Russian MoD support for his war, publicly distancing himself from military failures, and exploiting Prigozhin’s parallel military forces, may have ramifications on his power.[12]

Prigozhin likely seeks to use the victory in Soledar as a bargaining tool to elevate his authority in Russia. The Russian MoD’s subsequent mention of Wagner forces in response to public outcry signals a significant victory for Prigozhin, solidifying him as a crucial actor in this war. Reznikov stated that Prigozhin needed a victory in Soledar to deliver proof to Putin that his forces are better than the conventional army.[13] Prigozhin also publicized a journalist’s question about his reported upcoming meeting with Putin to discuss victory in Soledar, singling out the question amidst an array of other similar questions on his response to the Russian MoD’s announcement.[14] Prigozhin told the journalist to read his original statement on Soledar instead of “doing nonsense,” despite his comment stating that questions on Russian MoD’s exclusion of Wagner will “need answers but not now.” Prigozhin, who has used intentionally vague messaging in the past, also noted that everyone will soon understand why he withheld comment. While ISW cannot confirm that Prigozhin will have a meeting with Putin, he had previously offered his critiques to Putin on the progress of the war and will likely seize this opportunity to his benefit.[15]

Putin may be taking measures to cultivate a cadre of milbloggers loyal to Putin and the Russian MoD to undermine Prigozhin’s effort to elevate himself. United Russia Party Central Executive Committee Head Alexander Sidyakin, United Russia State Duma parliamentarian Artyom Turovyi, and Donetsk People Republic Head and Putin ally Denis Pushilin met with several milbloggers on January 13.[16] These senior Putin allies presented a group of over 10 milbloggers – including Alexander Sladkov and a journalist who works for Wargonzo – an official certificate of thanks signed by Secretary of the General Council of the United Russia Party Andrey Turchak.[17] This is the latest event in a string of Kremlin efforts to cultivate ties with select milbloggers.[18] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin undertook efforts to co-opt Sladkov, Wargonzo lead milblogger Semen Pegov, and other milbloggers who were willing to sell out in exchange for political prestige.[19] Putin may seek to cultivate ties with these Kremlin-pliant milbloggers to marshal their media reach against the Prigozhin-aligned milbloggers’ efforts to promote Prigozhin and damage Putin’s reputation in the Russian information space.

High-ranking Ukrainian officials continue to forecast that Ukrainian and Russian operations will likely intensify in the spring of 2023, while a Russian offensive from Belarus remains unlikely. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov stated in a January 13 interview with the BBC that “spring is the best period to refresh [military] movement for all sides” and that Ukrainian officials understand that Russian forces will be ready to start a higher pace of operations in the spring and therefore Ukrainian forces need to be ready to do so as well.[20] Reznikov also stated that the Russian military could be trying to accumulate forces, ammunition, and weapons for an offensive from areas it already occupies in southern and eastern Ukraine.[21] Reznikov’s statement follows Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov’s statement that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring.[22] ISW has still not observed any indicators that Ukrainian forces intend to halt currently ongoing counteroffensive operations this winter in favor of conducting a major counteroffensive this spring. Ukrainian forces may instead use ongoing counteroffensive operations to set conditions for a potential larger counteroffensive operation this spring.[23] Reznikov’s forecast of a higher pace of Russian operations in the spring partially supports ISW’s assessment that Russian forces are likely preparing for an intended decisive military effort in 2023.[24]  

Reznikov also stated that it “would take a lot of time” for Russian forces to prepare an offensive from Belarus and that the Russian military currently “has no resources” to support such an effort.[25] Ukrainian officials continue to routinely state that Russian forces are unlikely to invade Ukraine from Belarusian territory.[26] ISW continues to assess that the most dangerous course of action (MDCOA), a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus, remains unlikely and that Belarusian forces are highly unlikely to join the fighting in Ukraine.  

Disagreement over how to respond to Russians who have fled abroad risks dividing Russian officials and exposing the gap between the Kremlin and certain extreme nationalist actors. Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin proposed on January 12 that Russia amend its criminal code to confiscate the property of Russians who fled the country.[27] Occupation Head of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov praised Volodin’s proposal to punish the “scoundrels” who “betrayed” Russia.[28] A prominent Russian milblogger amplified Volodin’s proposal and polled his subscribers, finding that the majority supported or strongly supported Volodin’s proposal.[29] Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov opposed Volodin’s proposal, however.[30] Peskov claimed that Russian citizens who left the country “are all our citizens, all equally, and could have different reasons for leaving” and stated that Russian authorities should create conditions to entice Russians abroad to return.[31] The Kremlin may support the return of Russians abroad in hopes of solving growing labor shortages and demographic challenges, avoiding the ostracizing of more moderate Russian audiences, or distancing itself from the demands of the nationalist community. The Kremlin has rhetorically distanced itself from the prevalent nationalist milblogger demands by re-appointing widely criticized and favored military officials and may be attempting to regain control over the Russian information space.[32]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ordered Russian occupation authorities to deport Ukrainian children to Russia using medical schemes at a meeting with members of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on December 7. The Kremlin published a list of official orders on January 12 that Putin gave to HRC members on December 7. The document includes an order for Russian occupation officials to take unspecified measures to “meet healthcare system needs” in occupied Ukraine.[33] Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Deputy Vladimir Rogov stated on January 12 that Putin personally ordered occupation authorities to administer preventative medical examinations to children in occupied Ukraine and that over 110,000 Ukrainian students have undergone medical examinations in occupied Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts.[34] Rogov stated that over 450 Russian “specialists” from Crimea and Adygea are conducting these examinations and are discovering thousands of children with undiagnosed medical conditions and sending them – possibly to Russia – for “treatment.”[35] Putin previously thanked Russians for their efforts to send children from occupied Ukrainian territory on “holidays” in Russia in his annual New Year’s speech.[36] ISW has previously reported instances of Russian officials using the guise of “holidays” and vacation schemes to justify the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.[37] ISW maintains that the forced deportation of Ukrainian children represents a possible violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 13 that Russian forces seized Soledar on the evening of January 12.
  • The MoD’s initial announcement (which did not mention the Wagner Group) sparked a significant backlash within the Russian information space, forcing the MoD to issue a second announcement crediting Wagner.
  • Prigozhin likely seeks to use the victory in Soledar as a bargaining tool to elevate his authority in Russia.
  • Putin may be taking measures to cultivate a cadre of milbloggers loyal to Putin and the Russian MoD to undermine Prigozhin’s effort to elevate himself.
  • High-ranking Ukrainian officials continue to forecast an intensification of Ukrainian and Russian operations in the spring of 2023 and that a Russian offensive from Belarus remains unlikely.
  • Russian officials’ responses to Russians who have fled abroad risks dividing the Kremlin and the ultra-nationalist pro-war community even further.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ordered Russian occupation officials to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under medical relocation schemes.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line while Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Soledar, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka.
  • Ukrainian Intelligence reported that Russian forces seek to raise personnel numbers to two million by an unspecified date.
  • Ukrainian partisan attacks continue to divert Russian resources away from the frontline to rear areas in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 12, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Karolina Hird, and Mason Clark

January 12, 7pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian forces’ likely capture of Soledar on January 11 is not an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage posted on January 11 and 12 indicates that Russian forces likely control most if not all of Soledar, and have likely pushed Ukrainian forces out of the western outskirts of the settlement.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks against Sil in Donetsk Oblast—a settlement over a kilometer northwest of Soledar and beyond previous Ukrainian positions.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff and other senior military sources largely did not report that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian assaults against Soledar on January 12 as they have previously.[3] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces are still clearing Soledar of remaining Ukrainian forces as of January 12.[4] Russian milbloggers posted footage on January 12 of Wagner Group fighters freely walking in Soledar and claimed that they visited the settlement alongside Russian forces.[5] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not announced that Russian forces have captured Soledar, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov congratulated Russian forces for successful offensive operations in the settlement.[6] All available evidence indicates Ukrainian forces no longer maintain an organized defense in Soledar. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s January 12 statement that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in Soledar may be referring to defensive positions near but not in Soledar.[7]

Russian information operations have overexaggerated the importance of Soledar, which is at best a Russian Pyrrhic tactical victory. ISW continues to assess that the capture of Soledar—a settlement smaller than 5.5 square miles—will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term.[8] Russian forces likely captured Soledar after committing significant resources to a highly attritional tactical victory which will accelerate degraded Russian forces’ likely culmination near Bakhmut.[9] Russian forces may decide to maintain a consistently high pace of assaults in the Bakhmut area, but Russian forces’ degraded combat power and cumulative exhaustion will prevent these assaults from producing operationally significant results.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely seeks scapegoats for the Russian defense industrial base’s struggle to address equipment and technological shortages. Putin publicly criticized Russian Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov for aviation industry enterprises not receiving state orders during a cabinet of ministers meeting on January 11.[11] Putin stated that some enterprises have yet to receive state orders for 2023 and are not hiring more staff or preparing to increase output for potential orders in the future. Putin also interrupted Manturov’s explanation that the ministry had already drafted orders for civil and military industries, leading Manturov to admit that Russia had not issued a portion of documents for aircraft manufactures that would approve state funding for their projects. Putin argued that the enterprise directors informed him that they had not received any state orders amidst current “conditions” in Russia and urged Manturov to not “play a fool.” Manturov attempted to soften the demand by stating that the ministry will “try to do everything possible,” to which Putin responded that he should not try his best but instead complete the task within a month. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov later downplayed the altercation as “a normal workflow.”

This incident is likely part of an ongoing Kremlin information campaign to elevate Putin’s image as an involved wartime leader. The Kremlin could have cut out the disagreement from its official transcript (as it often does for most of Putin’s meetings, which are heavily edited and stage managed), but chose to publicize Putin’s harsh response, possibly to identify other officials within the Kremlin as the culprits for Russian defense industrial base’s challenges and possibly to threaten other officials. ISW previously reported that Putin began making more public appearances—including visiting defense industrial enterprises—in December and January, despite previously limiting his engagements throughout the span of the war in Ukraine.[12] Putin is also likely attempting to appease Russian milblogger critiques regarding the lack of advanced military equipment and Russia’s inability to task its defense industrial base to accommodate the war effort. ISW had also previously reported that some private armament manufacturers have criticized the Kremlin for failing to arrange any state contracts with their firms on their Telegram channels, feeding in their critiques into the milblogger discourse.[13]

Manturov’s attempts to soften Putin’s timeline indicate his uncertainty that the Kremlin has the capacity to administer these contracts in a short time period. Manturov tried to explain to Putin that the ministry will authorize additional contracts “based on the opportunities that are formed by the budget, including the preferential program of the National Wealth Fund,” highlighting the differences between the Russian financial reality and Putin’s unrealistic objectives for a short-term revitalization of the Russian defense industrial sector.

Ukrainian intelligence confirmed that senior Russian military leadership is preparing for significant military reforms in the coming year, though ISW continues to assess Russia will struggle to quickly—if at all—implement planned reforms. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated on January 12 that Russian military leadership plans to increase military personnel to 1.5 million (from roughly 1.35 million as of September 2022) and form at least 20 new military divisions in 2023, which Hromov noted indicates “the Kremlin's intentions to engage in a long-term confrontation and preparations for conducting large-scale hostilities.”[14] Hromov stated that Russia’s significant personnel, weapons, and equipment losses; the effects of international sanctions; and structural weaknesses in the Russian military apparatus have reduced Russia’s force generation capabilities and ultimately raise doubts about whether Russian forces can implement these reforms within undisclosed deadlines.[15] Hromov’s statements come the day after the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced a major restructuring of the senior command structure for Russian operations in Ukraine and suggest that the Russian military apparatus writ large is engaged in a concerted campaign to reform and restructure multiple tactical, operational, and strategic aspects.[16] ISW has also previously reported that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed the expansion of the size of the Russian military and the formation of 17 new maneuver divisions at a Russian MoD Collegium in Moscow on December 21, 2022—it is unclear what additional 3 divisions Hromov is referring to.[17] ISW assessed that the Russian MoD has been steadily reversing the 2008 Serdyukov reforms (which sought to streamline the Russian ground forces and move to a brigade-based structure) by restoring maneuver divisions across Russian military districts since 2013, but that the Kremlin is unlikely to implement these reforms on a timeline that is relevant for Russia’s war on Ukraine.[18]  Restructuring of senior command structures, coupled with efforts to expand the military base in 2023, suggest that Russia is setting conditions for a long-term, concerted effort in Ukraine. The Russian MoD may also hold highly unrealistic expectations of its own ability to quickly restructure its ground forces.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces have likely captured Soledar on January 11, but this small-scale victory is unlikely to presage an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin likely seeks scapegoats for the Russian defense industry base’s struggle to address equipment and technological challenges, and retains unrealistic expectations of Russian capacity to rapidly replace losses.
  • Ukrainian intelligence confirmed that senior Russian military leadership is preparing for significant military reforms in the coming year, though ISW continues to assess Russia will struggle to quickly—if at all—implement planned reforms.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities may be preparing for the mass deportation of Ukrainian citizens from occupied territories to the Russian Federation.
  • Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defense Andrei Kartapolov announced that Russian military recruitment offices may increase the age of eligibility for conscription as early as this spring’s conscription cycle.
  • Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, Oleg Salyukov (who was appointed as one of Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s three “deputies” as theater commander in Ukraine), arrived in Belarus to take control of combat coordination exercises for the joint Russian-Belarusian Regional Grouping of Forces (RGV).

 

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 11, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, George Barros, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark

January 11, 8:00 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 11 that Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov will take over as theater commander as part of a major reshuffle of the Russian command structure for the war in Ukraine. The Russian MoD officially announced Gerasimov as Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces and named three deputies under Gerasimov’s command: previous theater commander in Ukraine from October 8 to January 11 Army General Sergei Surovikin, Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces; Army General Oleg Salyukov, Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces; and Colonel General Alexei Kim, Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff.[1] Surovikin has served as commander of the Aerospace Forces since October 2017 and commanded the "Southern" group of forces in Ukraine from June to October 2022, before his appointment as overall theater commander.[2] Salyukov has served as commander-in-chief of the Russian Ground Forces since 2014, and Kim has served as Deputy Chief of the General Staff since September 2022 following several positions in Russian military higher education institutions.[3]

The Russian MoD’s public announcement of this restructuring framed the change as necessary to both improve Russian command and control and to intensify Russian operations in Ukraine. The official MoD readout of the appointment states that these changes were made in association "with the expansion of the scale of tasks solved in [the special military operation’s] implementation, the need to organize closer interaction between the services and branches of the Armed Forces, as well as improving the quality of all types of support and the effectiveness of command and control."[4] Putin’s decision to have the Russian MoD publicly announce the changes and their intent, unlike several previous changes to the Russian command structure that were not officially announced, indicate the Kremlin intends Gerasimov’s appointment as a major shift—both in actual conduct of the war, as well as the framing of the Russian MoD’s role. Gerasimov’s appointment and the overall command restructure are likely in part intended to signal, both internationally and domestically within Russia, the Kremlin’s dedication to the traditional power structures of the Russian MoD and Putin’s willingness to fight a long war in Ukraine.

Gerasimov’s appointment as theater commander likely advances two Kremlin efforts: an attempt to improve Russian command and control for a decisive military effort in 2023, and a political move to strengthen the Russian MoD against challenges from the Russian millbloggers and siloviki, such as Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, who have criticized the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.

Gerasimov’s appointment is likely intended to support an intended decisive Russian military effort in 2023, likely resumed Russian offensive operations. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated he misunderstands the capabilities of Russian forces and has not abandoned his maximalist war aims in Ukraine. Putin may have appointed Gerasimov, the highest-ranking officer in the Russian military, to succeed a series of theater commanders to oversee a major offensive that Putin—likely incorrectly—believes Russian forces can accomplish in 2023. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces appear to be preparing for a decisive military effort, possibly in Luhansk Oblast.[5] ISW has also forecasted a most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus into northern Ukraine, though this remains a worst-case scenario within the forecast cone.[6] Ongoing Russian force generation efforts are likely intended to support some form of further offensive operations, and Gerasimov, who approved and did not push back on Russia’s disastrous February 2022 war plan, is unlikely to begin resisting Putin now.[7] Putin may alternatively (or additionally) perceive the threat of further Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2023 and intend for Gerasimov to strengthen Russian forces against these likely attacks.

The elevation of Gerasimov and the Russian MoD over Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin and the siloviki faction, is additionally highly likely to have been in part a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle. The Russian MoD and the siloviki faction, often most publicly represented by Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, have feuded throughout 2022 on Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war since late 2022.[8] Igor Girkin, former commander of Russian militants in Donbas and a prominent milblogger heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office in his most direct criticism of Putin to date on January 10.[9] Surovikin, the previous theater commander in Ukraine, was a public favorite of Prigozhin, and Ukrainian intelligence reported Surovikin is a rival of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.[10] It is unclear why Putin implicitly demoted Surovikin in favor of Gerasimov, unlike previously replaced Russian theater commanders who were blamed for battlefield setbacks. Gerasimov’s elevation is likely in part a political move to weaken the influence of the broadly anti-MoD siloviki faction and a signal for Prigozhin and other actors to reduce their criticism of the MoD.

Putin’s elevation of Gerasimov and the highly criticized Russian MoD may prompt siloviki like Prigozhin to further carve up the Russian information space and push back on the Kremlin’s conduct of the war, however. Prigozhin has relentlessly promoted the Wagner Group at the expense of the Russian MoD’s reputation and may double down on his flashy advertisements on Russian social media and state-affiliated outlets to assert the superiority of his forces.[11] Gerasimov's centralizing efforts will additionally likely face resistance from Prigozhin and other actors eager to retain their private stakes in the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin may have known of Putin’s decision to reappoint these commanders and attempted to preempt this news by amplifying information about Wagner’s efforts to seize Soledar in the past several days to claim a victory.[12] Putin’s decision to elevate the MoD may also signal Putin’s departure from attempts to appease siloviki-affiliated milbloggers in an effort to regain control over the dominant narrative. ISW will continue to monitor the sentiment among different milblogger factions regarding their ability to criticize the Russian MoD or Russian military commanders.

Gerasimov is unlikely to rapidly revitalize and reform Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine to achieve Putin’s maximalist objectives. Gerasimov signed off on Putin’s fundamentally flawed initial invasion plans before February 24 and largely faded into obscurity following the collapse of Russia’s flawed initial planning assumptions. Gerasimov is highly unlikely to successfully meet Putin’s unrealistic expectations for his performance. The Russian MoD announcement of the command restructure did not specify how the command chain under Gerasimov will function other than to name Gerasimov’s three "subordinates" and the Russian command structure will likely remain fractured without a considerable pause to adjust Russia’s conduct of the war. Gerasimov will likely preside over a disorganized command structure plagued by endemic, persistent, and self-reinforcing failures that he largely set into motion in his initial role before the invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian defense industrial base’s inability to address munitions shortages will likely hinder the ability of Russian forces to sustain offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in 2023. US and Ukrainian officials told CNN on January 10 that Russia’s daily rate of artillery fire has decreased in some areas by 75%, a historic low since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.[13] These officials noted that Russian forces may be rationing artillery shells as a result of dwindling supplies, or could be reassessing their tactics. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Russian forces previously depleted their reserves of 122mm and 152mm artillery shells and other reserves over the summer of 2022 under an assumption that excessive artillery fire would lead to faster results.[14] Cherevaty noted that Russian forces must now transfer additional shells from rear areas in Russia and purchase additional munitions from foreign countries to counteract such shortages, resulting in a reduced rate of fire. Cherevaty added that Ukrainian strikes against Russian ammunition depots and logistics have also inhibited Russia’s ability to unload munitions close to the frontlines, reducing the intensity of Russia’s artillery fire.[15]

Russian sources are increasingly also acknowledging that Russia’s ammunition and supply shortages are decisively impeding the ability of Russian forces to advance. A prominent Russian milblogger (and member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization working group) stated on a federal TV program that Russian force generation efforts such as mobilization are not sufficient, noting that Russia’s success on the frontlines is contingent upon its economy and military-industrial complex.[16] ISW had previously assessed that the Kremlin’s force generation campaigns are unlikely to decisively affect the course of the war unless Russia addresses its fundamental problems with supplying its war effort in Ukraine. Russian forces achieved some victories in the first stages of the invasion due to Russia’s rapid use of its manpower and reliance on artillery superiority, and the Kremlin’s inability to replace expended personnel and munitions may further undermine its ability to wage protracted combat.

Russian forces have not yet fully captured Soledar despite recent Russian advances, and the possible capture of Soledar is unlikely to enable Russian forces to capture Bakhmut. ISW assesses that Russian forces have not yet captured Soledar, despite numerous claims from Russian sources.[17] Russian claims about Russian advances in Soledar continue to generate discussion amongst Russian sources about the likelihood of Russian forces capturing Bakhmut.[18] Some Russian sources have begun discussing an implausible collapse of the current Ukrainian frontline and a Ukrainian retreat as far back as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.[19] The Russian discussion about the imminent capture of Bakhmut and the collapse of Ukrainian defensive lines are divorced from the current operational reality in the Bakhmut area, where Russian forces remain far from severing Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) needed to encircle Bakhmut.[20] Russian offensive operations to capture Bakhmut have likely culminated due to degraded operational capabilities.[21]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly issued secret and preemptive pardons to Russian convicts fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine, potentially further empowering Wagner to operate with impunity in the theater. Russian Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva told Russian outlet RIA Novosti on January 9 that prisoners recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine receive pardons before they are released from penal colonies for deployment.[22] Under the Russian Criminal Code and Article 89 of the Russian Constitution, only the Russian President may issue a pardon.[23] Merkacheva stated that the presidential decree on pardoning convicts who participated in combat in Ukraine contains information that is classified as an official state secret per existing Russian legislation.[24] Prigozhin earlier announced pardons for the first group of Wagner Group returnees on January 5, and ISW noted at the time that Prigozhin has no legal authority under Russian constitutional or criminal law to grant such pardons himself.[25] However, the existence of the secret presidential pardons suggests that Prigozhin announced the pardons for merely performative reasons, to continue to promote the Wagner Group, and to legitimate its recruitment practices.

Preemptive presidential pardons are likely further driving Wagner Group recruitment within penal colonies and empowering Wagner Group fighters to operate with a large degree of impunity in Ukraine. The promise of a legal pardon for criminal activity likely incentivizes convicts to sign contracts with the Wagner Group, knowing that if they survive operations in Ukraine, they will be released back into Russian society following their deployment with clean records. ISW has previously observed that Wagner Group fighters recruited from prisons are deployed to the frontline in Ukraine chiefly as an expendable attritional force, and often show incredibly lax discipline in the theater. A Russian milblogger circulated imagery on January 10 of Wagner Group fighters in Soledar wearing Ukrainian uniforms in what likely constitutes a resort to perfidy in violation of international law.[26] Wagner continues to build out its reputation as a brutal and attritional fighting force through instances such as this apparent war crime, and Prigozhin is likely empowering Wagner Group forces to continue similar conduct in the expectation that if they survive, they will return to Russia as free and respected men and without accruing further criminal records through actions in Ukraine. Putin’s guarantee of a legal carte blanche for Wagner Group fighters will likely allow Prigozhin to use the promise of a pardon to drive recruitment efforts, therefore lending more untrained and unprofessional personnel as an attritional force that often perpetrates atrocities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a renewed Russian offensive operation from Belarus remains highly unlikely. Zelensky stated during a coordination meeting on the security of Ukraine’s northwestern borders on January 11 that Ukraine does not see any inflections in Belarus "apart from strong statements."[27] Zelensky noted that Ukraine needs to prepare its northwestern borders and regions on the Ukraine-Belarus border for any situation. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukraine had not observed any formation of assault groups in Belarus on January 11, after deviating from its normal reporting pattern on Russian forces in Belarus on January 10.[28] ISW continues to assess that a renewed invasion of northern Ukraine possibly aimed at Kyiv remains unlikely.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 11 that Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov will take over as theater commander as part of a major reshuffle of the Russian command structure for the war in Ukraine.
  • Gerasimov’s appointment is likely intended to support an intended decisive Russian military effort in 2023, likely in the form of resumed Russian offensive operations.
  • The elevation of Gerasimov and the Russian MoD over Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin and the siloviki faction, is additionally highly likely to have been in part a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle.
  • Gerasimov will likely preside over a disorganized command structure plagued by endemic, persistent, and self-reinforcing failures that he largely set into motion in his initial role before the invasion of Ukraine.
  • The Russian defense industrial base’s inability to address munitions shortages will likely hinder the ability of Russian forces to sustain offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in 2023.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a renewed Russian offensive operation from Belarus remains highly unlikely.
  • Russian forces have not yet fully captured Soledar despite recent Russian advances, and the possible capture of Soledar is unlikely to enable Russian forces to capture Bakhmut.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly issued secret and preemptive pardons to Russian convicts fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine, potentially further empowering Wagner to operate with impunity in the theater.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks near Svatove as Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna and struck rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian claims about Wagner Group and conventional Russian military formations’ operations in the Soledar area likely reflect competing claims over the responsibility for the most recent notable Russian tactical advances in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast frontline.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are withdrawing key assets and restructuring logistics networks in southern Ukraine due to Ukrainian strikes.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a plan to improve the Russian defense industrial base.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 10, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, George Barros, Katherine Lawlor, and Mason Clark

January 10, 8:00 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian media reported on January 10 that Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, former commander of the Central Military District (CMD) and Russian forces in eastern Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts, has been appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces. Russian outlet URA, citing unidentified Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) sources, reported that Lapin took over from Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov as Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces on January 9.[1] It is unclear why Tonkoshkurov was removed from this position and what his next role will be. While official Kremlin and MoD sources have not confirmed the claim, it was widely circulated and responded to as fact among military commentators in the Russian information space.[2] Lapin’s appointment is notably to the position of Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces (also known as the Russian Army), not the Russian Armed Forces as a whole. Army General Valery Gerasimov likely remains Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The Chief of Staff of the Russian Army is not a frontline command position, and while Lapin’s specific duties (in the currently fragmented Russian command structure) are unclear, he is unlikely to directly command troops in Ukraine.

Lapin’s previous role as commander of the "Central" group of Russian forces in Ukraine and commander of the Russian Central Military District (CMD) was checkered with controversy following the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that retook large swaths of territory in eastern Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts in September 2022. The Russian MoD confirmed Lapin’s appointment as commander of the "Central" grouping on June 24, 2022, and noted he was responsible for operations in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area and likely the broader Luhansk-Donetsk Oblast border area.[3] Lapin went on to receive a "Hero of Russia" medal on July 4 for his role in the Russian capture of Lysychansk.[4] Lapin was also the commander responsible for Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, and received strong criticism from prominent voices in the Russian information space for his claimed responsibility for massive Russian losses following successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in mid-September of 2022 that pushed Russian forces to the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border.[5] Following the disastrous Russian loss of most of Kharkiv Oblast and the critical settlement of Lyman, the Kremlin reportedly removed Lapin from both command of the "Central" grouping and CMD.[6] The pro-war information space’s response to Lapin’s perceived command failures served as a catalyst for a fracture between a faction led by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin—the siloviki—and the Russian MoD establishment that milbloggers widely claimed Lapin represented.[7] Kadyrov’s staunch and pointed criticism of Lapin at the time demonstrated that the siloviki faction saw itself as fundamentally at odds with the conventional Russian MoD and associated elements.[8]

Lapin’s appointment as army Chief of Staff may be intended to serve as a counterbalance to the growing prominence of the siloviki. Prigozhin and Kadyrov both have largely private armed forces at their disposal (Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group) and are capitalizing on the gains made by these forces to promote themselves politically, as ISW has frequently reported.[9] As the anti-Russian MoD voices gain more relevance and support throughout the Russian pro-war information space, which perceives this faction as generally more competent, motivated, and effective than the Russian MoD, Russian military leadership may seek to rehabilitate and bolster Lapin’s reputation to establish the Russian MoD as a competent and structured wartime apparatus and balance out the growing influence of the Kadyrov-Prigozhin faction. Additionally, considering that the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army is more of a logistical and organizational oversight role than a command position, the Russian MoD may be using Lapin’s appointment to posture a commitment to the sound structuring of Russian ground forces in response to continued criticisms of the efficacy of the Russian army. While the Kremlin has at times distanced itself and even blamed the Russian MoD for military failures in Ukraine, the Kremlin likely maintains a vested interest in bolstering public perceptions of the MoD’s efficacy. The Russian military apparatus writ large likely benefits from the public perception that it is an appropriately managed wartime instrument. ISW has previously reported on the Kremlin’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the Russian MoD and affiliated elements, including prior efforts to rehabilitate Lapin’s reputation.[10]

Lapin’s appointment may alternatively suggest that the Russian MoD increasingly must fill important leadership positions with previously disgraced—or at minimum heavily publicly criticized—general officers. Former Russian Eastern Military District (EMD) commander Colonel-General Alexander Chaiko, who led failed Russian efforts to take Kyiv in the early stages of the war, went on to serve as commander of Russian Armed Forces in Syria after he was replaced following the Kharkiv counteroffensive.[11] Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, former commander of the Russian airborne forces (VDV) who was reportedly dismissed due to the poor performance of Russian paratroopers, now appears to have replaced Chaiko as commander of the Russian grouping in Syria.[12] The Russian MoD appears to be using previously disgraced and unpopular general officers to fill other, non-frontline command roles, suggesting that there is a systemic lack of general officers more suited to these positions.

The news of Lapin’s appointment generated further schisms in the already-fragmented pro-war Russian information space. Former militant commander and prominent milblogger Igor Girkin stated that Lapin’s new role must be a "misunderstanding" because Russian forces under Lapin’s command suffered major losses in Kharkiv Oblast.[13] Girkin concluded that Lapin represents a "boorish" attempt by the MoD to demonstrate their invulnerability.[14] A Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram group claimed that Lapin was also responsible for the disastrous May 5, 2022, Bilohorivka river crossing and additionally blamed Lapin for the loss of Lyman.[15] Other milbloggers responded more neutrally or even positively, with one suggesting that it was not Lapin but Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov who was responsible for the loss of Lyman.[16] A pro-Kremlin milblogger credited Lapin with stabilizing the front after the collapse of Russian operations in Kharkiv Oblast.[17] The lack of consensus on who commanded the Lyman front among the Russian milblogger community further indicates the convoluted state of the Russian chain of command. Lapin’s new role will likely further the divide between the siloviki and affiliated milbloggers and milbloggers who have historically been more favorable to the Kremlin and the Russian MoD. This decision will likely open to Russian MoD to more criticism of its intentions and capabilities instead of addressing these concerns. 

Russian forces have not captured the entirety of Soledar despite several false Russian claims that the city has fallen and that Bakhmut risks imminent encirclement. Several Russian sources claimed that Wagner Group forces advanced into the west of Soledar on January 10.[18] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin refuted these claims, remarking that Wagner Group forces are still fighting against concerted Ukrainian resistance.[19] ISW has only observed visual confirmation of Wagner Group forces in central Soledar as of January 10.[20] The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obfuscated by the dynamic nature of urban combat, however, and Russian forces have largely struggled to make significant tactical gains in the Soledar area for months. Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut. Control of Soledar will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut, as ISW has previously assessed.[21]

Igor Girkin, former commander of Russian militants in Donbas and a prominent milblogger, heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office, his most direct criticism of Putin to date. Girkin criticized Putin for appointing and refusing to remove Russian military leaders who oversee frequent and disastrous military failures, in reference to Lapin’s appointment.[22] Russian milbloggers have historically criticized Russian military leaders and MoD officials while upholding Putin as an effective wartime leader, as ISW has previously reported.[23] Girkin extended his criticisms to non-military Putin appointees and advisors whose decisions negatively impacted Russia’s war performance and effort, noting that the common factor between these leaders is Putin’s decision to appoint them.[24] Girkin caveated his criticisms with an implied loyalty to the Russian state, softening his call for Putin to leave office by stating he is against a change of presidential leadership during the war, as it would lead to military and civil "catastrophe."[25] Girkin’s criticisms, which he said he hopes will spark change even if they have "suicidal" consequences, indicate that growing frustration with the state of the war may be reaching a boiling point after nearly a year of hostilities among some milbloggers, prompting some milbloggers to reduce their self-censorship.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian media reported on January 10 that Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, former commander of the Central Military District and Russian forces in Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts during Russia's significant losses in September 2022, has been appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces.
  • The news of Lapin’s appointment is generating further schisms in the already-fragmented pro-war Russian information space.
  • Igor Girkin heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office, suggesting that a willingness to reduce self-censorship and directly criticize Putin may be growing among some milbloggers.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff deviated from its normal reporting pattern about Russian forces in Belarus and near Ukraine’s northern border on January 10, an indicator of possible Russian preparations for an offensive in northern Ukraine, though ISW assesses this course of action remains unlikely at this time.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make gains along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast frontline and made gains around Soledar but have not captured the settlement, despite false claims.
  • The Kremlin continues to deny that Russian authorities are preparing for another wave of partial mobilization.
  • Russian occupation authorities are struggling to contain an effective partisan movement in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 9, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark

January 9, 6:30pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force. Wagner Group forces claimed to capture territory within Soledar over the past few days, and many Russian sources have discussed the gains as indicators that Wagner Group forces may soon encircle Bakhmut.[1] Combat footage widely circulated on social media on January 9 shows Wagner Group fighters engaging in fierce small arms combat near the city administration building in central Soledar.[2] Several Russian milbloggers remarked on January 8 and 9 that Wagner Group forces are responsible for block-by-block advances in Soledar and other critical settlements northeast of Bakhmut, as well as within Bakhmut.[3] Prigozhin emphasized on January 9 that “exclusively” Wagner Group units are taking ground in Soledar, and noted that Wagner fighters are currently engaged in “fierce battles for the city administration building.”[4] Prigozhin will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains, as ISW has previously reported.[5]

Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted a bill setting conditions for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through domestic legislative manipulations. Putin submitted a bill to the Russian State Duma on January 9 denouncing the Council of Europe’s Criminal Law Convention on Corruption and withdrawing Russia from the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).[6] Putin submitted the bill on the grounds that the Council of Europe terminated Russia’s GRECO membership, thus removing Russia’s ability to vote but requiring them to cooperate on several obligations.[7] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that this move does not undermine Russian legislative capacity to fight corruption and emphasized that corruption has not been eradicated anywhere in the world.[8] ISW has previously reported on Putin’s efforts to institutionalize corruption through various legal manipulations, and Russia’s discontinued membership in GRECO would likely serve as another means by which Putin can institute legislation supporting and enabling corrupt practices without facing international legal mechanisms to hold him to account.[9]

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev likely gauged the willingness of the Russian information space to accept increased censorship of opposition voices in a Telegram message on January 8. Medvedev posted a message on Telegram on January 8 which he framed as a response to discussions in the Russian information space about “traitors who have gone over to the enemy.” Medvedev stated that a serious conversation began “between the bosses” (likely in reference to Russian leadership) on whether to respond with rule of law or with justice.[10] Medvedev noted that “quiet groups of impeccably inconspicuous people” operated in Russia to enforce “special rules of wartime” during World War II with great success, likely alluding to internal censorship.[11] Some Russian milbloggers appeared to understand Medvedev’s implied censorship and agreed, noting that Soviet security and counterintelligence organizations were highly effective at censorship and that “ideological people” are willing to assist these efforts.[12] Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have recently intensified efforts to silence Russian milbloggers who criticize the Russian government, as ISW has previously reported.[13]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to open the door for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through domestic legislative manipulations.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev likely gauged the willingness of the Russian information space for the censorship of figures deemed as pro-Ukrainian sympathizers, garnering some acceptance from the nationalist milblogger community.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian partisans may be targeting Russian critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in rear areas of Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast frontline and made gains around Soledar and Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued to reinforce positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to construct defensive fortifications and transport military equipment in Zaporizhia Oblast amid continued concerns over a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources indicated that a second wave of mobilization may be imminent or ongoing.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 8, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, and Mason Clark

January 8, 3:45 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, January 8. This report discusses the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) attempts to claim that Russian forces responded to the December 31 Ukrainian strike on Russian positions in Makiivka; the Russian MoD’s use of a grievance-and-retaliation framework and the resulting creation of negative feedback loops in the pro-war Russian information space; Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s potential attempts to financially exploit Ukrainian natural resources around Bakhmut; and the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense’s (UK MoD) assessment that Russian forces may be preparing for Ukrainian counteroffensive actions along the Zaporizhia and Luhansk oblast frontlines.

The Russian MoD’s attempts to claim Russian forces responded to the December 31 Ukrainian strike against Russian positions in Makiivka are generating further discontent in the Russian information space. The Russian MoD announced on January 8 that Russian forces conducted a “retaliation operation” against Ukrainian forces for the December 31 strike on Makiivka that killed up to 400 mobilized soldiers due to Russian command failures and poor personnel dispersal practices.[1] The Russian MoD falsely claimed the retaliatory strike targeted several temporary Ukrainian deployment points in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, and killed over 600 Ukrainian personnel.[2] This claim is false — a Finnish reporter visited the site of the strike in Kramatorsk on January 8 and noted that it hit an empty school.[3] Several Russian milbloggers responded negatively to the Russian MoD’s claim, pointing out that the Russian MoD frequently presents fraudulent claims and criticizing Russian military leadership for fabricating a story to “retaliate” for the Makiivka strike instead of holding Russian leadership responsible for the losses accountable.[4]

The Russian MoD application of a grievance-and-retaliation framework to many of its operations has created a negative feedback loop with prominent members of the pro-war Russian information space. At the beginning of the massive campaign of strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in October 2022, the Russian MoD employed a similar framing of “retaliation” against claimed Ukrainian strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge and other Russian infrastructure.[5] The Russian MoD partially used this framing to mollify escalated demands from the pro-war community to “avenge” Ukrainian actions but provoked an array of responses from milbloggers outlining other instances that the Russian MoD should equally “retaliate” for.[6] The Russian MoD has thus created a negative feedback loop, wherein it attempts to respond to Ukrainian offensive successes with a discrete, retaliatory, offensive action, which then opens the MoD up to continued criticism from discontented Russian milbloggers highlighting their beliefs that the MoD is responding in the wrong manner or to the wrong event. The Russian MoD’s response to the Makiivka strike is a clear continuation of this grievance-and-retaliation model that has once again opened Russian military leadership to staunch criticism of their conduct of the war.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may be attempting to financially exploit Ukrainian natural resources around Bakhmut and is using the war in Ukraine to connect his military forces with Russian regional officials. An unnamed White House official stated on January 5 that the United States believes Prigozhin seeks to extract salt and gypsum from mines in the Bakhmut area for monetary gain.[7] Prigozhin attempted to justify the importance of mines around Bakhmut and Soledar (which Russian forces have struggled to capture from Ukrainian defenders) on January 7, stating that these mines have “unique and historic defenses” that act as a “network of underground cities.”[8] Prigozhin added that these mines can house personnel and military equipment up to a depth of 80 to 100 meters and claimed that these mines are stocked with weaponry from World War I. Prigozhin’s statements are likely an attempt to both explain the slow pace of Wagner’s advances around Bakhmut but may also partially explain his months-long and costly determination to establish control of the area. A former Russian officer and milblogger criticized Prigozhin and Russian commanders, stating that everyone knew about the existence of these mines when developing an offensive plan and dismissed the claim of the presence of historic weapons in the area.[9] The milblogger also noted even if Russian forces and Wagner troops seize Soledar, Prigozhin and the Russian military will lose strategically due to committing their best forces to an attritional battle.[10] ISW had previously reported that another Russian silovik, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, is reportedly attempting to secure business opportunities in occupied Mariupol.[11]

Prigozhin is also continuing to publicly align himself with select Russian governors in an effort to increase his influence and advance his personal interests in Russia, as opposed to strictly winning the war. Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoit visited the Wagner training facility for the Kursk Oblast People’s Militia on January 8 and reportedly trained alongside Prigozhin and “real men” who are patriots during his visit.[12] Russian outlets claimed that Starovoit even received an offer to sign a contract with Wagner, which he declined due to his public duties.[13] Some Russian outlets even framed Starovoit’s visit to the training ground as model behavior for a Russian politician, further boosting Prigozhin’s image as a patriotic wartime leader in the Russian information space.[14] Prigozhin is likely attempting to rally up support for the legalization of Wagner Group in Russia.

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) confirmed ISW’s previous assessments that Russian forces are preparing for the possibility of future Ukrainian counteroffensives in Zaporizhia or Luhansk oblasts. The UK MoD reported on January 8 that in recent weeks, Russian forces have expanded defensive fortifications in Zaporizhia Oblast along the Vasylivka-Orikhkiv line and are maintaining a large force grouping in this sector in a way that suggests that Russian commanders are concerned by the possibility of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive push in southern Ukraine.[15] The UK MoD suggested that Russian forces are facing two equally exigent counteroffensive scenarios: A Ukrainian breakthrough on the Zaporizhia line that could seriously challenge the viability of the Russian land bridge linking Rostov Oblast with occupied Crimea, or a Ukrainian breakthrough in Luhansk Oblast that could further unhinge the Russian offensive objective of occupying the entirety of Donbas.[16] ISW has previously noted indicators of preparations for a Russian decisive effort (likely of a defensive nature) along the Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk Oblast and assessed that the Russian force posture and prevalence of defensive structures in Zaporizhia Oblast suggest that Russian forces may be preparing for potential Ukrainian efforts against this sector.[17]

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on January 8:

  • Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated on January 8 that Russia plans to begin domestic production of Iranian-made drones.[18]
  • Russian forces continued counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on January 8.[19] Luhansk Oblast Head Serhiy Haidai stated on January 8 that Russian forces transferred several battalions from the Bakhmut area to the Kreminna area.[20]
  • Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty stated on January 8 that Russian forces do not control Soledar, and other official Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian forces captured Russian positions near Bakhmut.[21] Prominent Russian milbloggers expressed divergent opinions of the potential for the Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and along the western outskirts of Donetsk City.[22]
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed on January 7 that 300 Chechen Akhmat-1 OMON personnel deployed to Ukraine.[23]
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces used incendiary munitions to strike civilian infrastructure in Kherson City overnight on January 7–8.[24]
  • Russian forces are continuing to intensify filtration measures to identify partisans in occupied territories. Russian occupation authorities claimed that likely Ukrainian partisans committed sabotage by mining a gas pipeline in Luhansk Oblast on January 8.[25]
  • Russian occupation authorities intensified passportization efforts in occupied territories on January 8.[26]

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 7, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 7, 5:45pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Recent Russian gains in Soledar do not portend an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut, contrary to claims made by Russian sources. Even at the most generous interpretation of Russian milblogger narratives, which claim that Russian forces are fighting on the outskirts of Razdolivka (about 6km northwest of Soledar), Russian forces are still far from being within striking distance of an operational encirclement of Bakhmut.[1] In order to effectively cut Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut, Russian forces would have to establish control of the T0513 Siversk-Bakhmut highway (currently 7km west of the furthest point of confirmed Russian advances in the Soledar area) and reach the E40 Slovyansk-Bakhmut highway (13km from the furthest point of confirmed Russian advance in the Soledar area) at least. Considering that the recent rate of gains in this area has been on the order of a few hundred meters a day, at most, it is highly unlikely that Russian forces will be successful in cohering a mechanized push towards these GLOCs and move towards encircling Bakhmut.[2] Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut would still have GLOCs available even if the Russians cut the E40, moreover, making the entire discussion of an encirclement at this point bizarre.

Russia continues to weaponize religion to perpetuate long-standing information operations and discredit Ukraine. Russian milbloggers responded to footage posted on January 7 of uniformed Ukrainian servicemen attending Orthodox Christmas services at the Kyiv-Perchesk Lavra and decried it as a reprisal and open war on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).[3] Several milbloggers referred to the footage as evidence that the Lavra has been “captured” by “heretics and schismatics.”[4] The milblogger vitriol at the footage of Christmas services at the Lavra follows the decision by the Ukrainian government to take back control of the main cathedral of the Kyiv-Perchesk Lavra from the UOC MP and allow the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) to hold Orthodox Christmas services at the Lavra on January 7.[5] The Russian response to the Ukrainian government’s decision to transfer control of the Lavra to the OCU exemplifies Moscow’s continued weaponization of religion in order to frame Ukraine as evil and position Russia as the protector of Orthodox Christian values, as ISW has previously reported.[6]

The Ukrainian government has not disrupted the ability of observers to celebrate Orthodox Christmas in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers falsely presented the legal transfer of the Kyiv-Perchesk Lavra from the UOC MP, which the Ukrainian government maintains has explicit links to the Kremlin and has provided material and spiritual support to the Russian war in Ukraine, to the OCU as an attack on the ability of observers of Orthodox tradition to celebrate Christmas. Orthodox services continued through Ukraine, including in the Kyiv-Perchesk Lavra, throughout the course of the day on January 7.[7] The Ukrainian government position that elements of the UOC MP, from which Kyiv removed control of the Lavra, is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued association with the Russian Orthodox Church. In his speech on Orthodox Christmas, Putin thanked the ROC for its continued support for Russian troops in Ukraine.[8] Ukraine is not suppressing the religious liberties of Orthodox Christians, contrary to the Russian information operation, and is instead taking the steps it deems necessary to distance Ukrainian cultural heritage from religious elements it asserts are linked to the Kremlin and its conduct of the war.

Russian forces reportedly continue to deplete their missile arsenal but will likely continue to be able to threaten Ukrainian critical infrastructure and civilians at scale in the near term. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov published an infographic on January 6 detailing that Russian forces have expended roughly 81 percent of their strategic missile stocks and 19 percent of their tactical missile stocks.[9] Reznikov reported that Russian forces reportedly have remaining of their pre-war and post-invasion production stocks:

92 Iskander 9M723 missiles (11 percent),
52 Iskander 9M728/9M729 missiles (44 percent),
118 Kh-101 and Kh-555/55SM missiles (16 percent),
162 Kh-22/32 missiles (44 percent),
53 Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles (84 percent), and
59 sea-based Kalibr missiles (9 percent).[10]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that it would never run out of sea-based Kalibr missiles while conducting a massive series of missile strikes on December 29, 2022.[11] Russian forces last used sea-based Kalibr missiles in Ukraine during their ninth large-scale series of missile strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure on December 16.[12] Although the Russian military’s tactical missile stock is less expended, S-300 and 3M-55 Onyx missiles are less precise systems than Russian strategic missiles, which is likely why Russian forces have not used these systems extensively in large-scale missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

Reznikov reported that Russia has managed to produce since the February 2022 invasion:

290 Kh-101 and Kh-555/55SM missiles (65 percent of the pre-war stock),
150 Kalibr missiles (30 percent of the pre-war stock),
36 Iskander 9M723 missiles (5 percent of the pre-war stock),
20 Iskander 9M728/9M729 missiles (20 percent of the pre-war stock),
and 20 Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles (47 percent of the pre-war stock).[13]

The Russian production of strategic missiles since the start of the invasion of Ukraine in comparison to the Russian military's pre-war stock highlights that Russia has not mobilized its military industry to support Russian military operations in Ukraine. A country would normally increase the production of missile, rocket, and other weapons systems and munitions before embarking on a major war and would normally put its military industry on a war footing once the war began.  Russia has done neither.  Putin’s failure to mobilize Russian industry to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine may result from fears that further economic disruptions could produce further domestic discontent in Russia because Western sanctions regimes have placed significant constraints on Russian military industry, or because of inherent limitations of Russian industry and military industry—or some combination of these factors. The current level of the Russian military’s depletion of strategic missile systems may constrain how often and at what scale Russian forces conduct future massive series of missile strikes in Ukraine, but Russian forces will be able to continue their campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure at scale in the near term and threaten the lives of Ukrainian civilians.

Russian forces have also reportedly depleted their arsenal of Iranian-made drones following an increased pace of drone attacks in Ukraine in the past month. Russian forces have reportedly expended 88 percent of their stock of the Shahed-131 and –136 drones that they have so far received from Iran, with only 90 Iranian-made drones remaining according to Reznikov.[14] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces increased their use of Shahed drones in attacks on Ukraine over the past month in order to maintain the pace of their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure without further depleting their more valuable missile stocks.[15] Russia’s contract with Iran reportedly stipulates that Iran will send an additional 1,000 Shahed drones to Russia.[16] Russian forces will likely be able to conduct only a handful of massive drone attacks in Ukraine in the near term until Russia receives from Iran another delivery of drones, which reportedly come in batches of 200 to 300.[17]

Key Takeaways

  • Recent Russian gains in Soledar do not portend an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.
  • Russia continues to weaponize religion to perpetuate long-standing information operations and discredit Ukraine.
  • Russian forces reportedly continue to deplete their missile arsenal and stock of Iranian-made drones but will likely continue to threaten Ukrainian infrastructure at scale in the near term.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations near Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made marginal confirmed advances in Soledar amid continuing Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut and along the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continue efforts to establish further control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Ukrainian and European officials continue to warn that Russia is preparing for an imminent second wave of mobilization.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to transport Ukrainian children to Russian territory under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 6, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 6, 8:45 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian officials and milbloggers largely did not react to the US announcement of more than $3.75 billion in new military assistance to Ukraine, further highlighting that the Kremlin and the Russian information space selectively choose when to portray Western military assistance as an escalation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on January 6 that the assistance would provide Ukraine with Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, artillery systems, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, and ammunition.[1] Russian officials and milbloggers scarcely reacted to the latest announcement of military assistance,  even though the Kremlin most recently portrayed the transfer of purely defensive Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine as an escalation.[2]

The lack of Russian reaction to the US announcement of military assistance that Ukrainian forces could use to support counteroffensive operations supports ISW’s previous assessment that the Kremlin is more concerned with its information operations and the effect that Western military aid can have on specific Russian military operations in Ukraine than with any particular weapons systems, red lines, or the supposed Russian fears of putative Ukrainian offensive actions against the Russian Federation itself using Western systems.[3] The Kremlin selectively responds to Western military shipments and assistance to Ukraine to support information operations that aim to frame Ukraine as lacking sovereignty and to weaken Western willingness to provide further military assistance by stoking fears of Russian escalation.[4] The Kremlin and the Russian information space will likely seize upon future Western military aid that they believe can support these information operations rather than as a reflection of any actual Kremin red lines or specific concerns about the potential threat Western weapons systems may pose. ISW has previously noted that these observations are worth considering in the context of the Western discussion of providing Ukraine with Western tanks, long-range attack systems, and other capabilities.

Russian officials and milbloggers continued to respond negatively to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 5 ceasefire announcement as hostilities continued in Ukraine on January 6. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin remarked that a ceasefire does not mean that Russian troops will stop responding to "provocations by Ukrainian troops," or else Russian forces run the risk of affording Ukraine the opportunity to improve their positions in critical areas of the front.[5] Pushilin’s statement was an implicit criticism of the ceasefire announcement and exemplifies the fact that the announcement was poorly received by Russian military leaders. Former commander of militants in Donbas in 2014 and prominent milblogger Igor Girkin called the ceasefire "a bold and decisive step towards defeat and surrender" for Russian forces and criticized Russian leadership for failing to learn from the outcomes of previous ceasefires over the last eight years.[6] Other prominent milbloggers seized on the ceasefire announcement to criticize the Kremlin’s conduct of the war and accuse Russian leadership of directly placing Russian soldiers in harm’s way.[7] The ceasefire announcement will likely continue to serve as a point of neuralgia for voices in the information space that have historically enjoyed a mutually reinforcing relationship with Putin.

While many voices in the Russian information space strongly criticized the ceasefire announcement, certain hardline elements seized on Putin’s statement to continue to propagate the narrative that Putin is a protector of religious values and morals. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Security Council Dmitry Medvedev stated on January 6 that Putin offered "the hand to Christian mercy" to Ukraine and that Ukraine rejected it because Ukraine lacks faith.[8] Commander of the Chechen Akhmat Special Forces, Apti Alaudinov, responded to the ceasefire with glowing praise for Putin, whom he called a "true believing Christian," noted that Jesus is a revered prophet in Islam, and accused Ukrainian "Satanism" of being the reason why Kyiv refused to accept the truce.[9] Alaudinov‘s praise of the ceasefire on religious grounds is part of a specific and long-running Kremlin information operation that seeks to cater to various religious minority groups in the Russian Armed Forces by framing Ukraine as an immoral enemy whose lack of faith transcends offends Christians and Muslims alike.[10]

Prominent Russian milbloggers continued to use their platforms to advocate for the eradication of Ukrainian cultural and ethnic identity. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) commander Alexander Khodakovsky claimed on January 6 that Russia and Ukraine share a "common gene pool" and "spiritual space" that Ukraine is destroying as the war continues.[11] Khodakovsky’s statement is a clear rejection of the Ukrainian people as sovereign and distinct from Russia. Similarly, another prominent milblogger claimed that the idea of a Ukrainian ethnicity has never existed and was manufactured by Ukrainian "nationalists."[12] The milblogger invoked the concept of "Malorossiya"- the imperial Russian ideation of Ukrainian territory as entirely part of and subordinate to Russia.[13] Another Russian war correspondent amplified the pre-February 24 fiction that Ukraine is oppressing Russian speakers and claimed that the war must continue in order to restore the Russian language to the "territory of the soon-to-be-former Ukraine."[14] These prominent and widely followed voices in the Russian information space continue to openly advocate for the dehumanization and destruction of the Ukrainian people. So long as the Kremlin continues to provide space for such voices as it ruthlessly censors views that stray from its own information lines, the intent behind Putin’s war remains clear.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian officials and milbloggers largely did not react to the US announcement of more than $3.75 billion in new military assistance to Ukraine.
  • Russian officials and milbloggers continued to respond negatively to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 5 ceasefire announcement as hostilities continued in Ukraine on January 6.
  • Certain hardline elements of the Russian information space seized on Putin’s statement to propagate the narrative that Putin is a protector of religious values.
  • Prominent Russian milbloggers continue to use their platforms to advocate for the eradication of Ukrainian cultural and ethnic identity.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations near Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made gains in Soledar as Russian offensive operations continued around Bakhmut and the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
  • Russian authorities and military leaders continue to face backlash for their responses to the December 31 Ukrainian strike on a Russian base in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities are continuing to target Ukrainian children to consolidate social control in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 5, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 5, 8pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will conduct a 36-hour ceasefire between January 6 and January 7 in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas is likely an information operation intended to damage Ukraine’s reputation. Putin instructed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to initiate a ceasefire from 1200 January 6 to 2400 January 7 along the “entire line of contact between parties in Ukraine” and called on Ukraine to accept the ceasefire to allow “a large number of citizens of citizens professing Orthodoxy” to attend services on the day of Russian Orthodox Christmas.[1] Putin’s announcement was ostensibly in response to an appeal by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church) for a temporary ceasefire in observance of Christmas Eve and the Day of the Nativity of Christ.[2] Ukrainian and Western officials, including US President Joe Biden, immediately highlighted the hypocrisy of the ceasefire announcement and emphasized that Russian forces continued striking Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure on December 25—when many Orthodox Ukrainians celebrate Christmas—and New Year’s.[3]

Putin could have been seeking to secure a 36-hour pause for Russian troops to afford them the ability to rest, recoup, and reorient to relaunch offensive operations in critical sectors of the front. Such a pause would disproportionately benefit Russian troops and begin to deprive Ukraine of the initiative. Putin cannot reasonably expect Ukraine to meet the terms of this suddenly declared ceasefire and may have called for the ceasefire to frame Ukraine as unaccommodating and unwilling to take the necessary steps towards negotiations. This is an intentional information tactic that Russia has previously employed, as ISW has reported.[4] Ceasefires also take time to organize and implement. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notably said on December 14 that Russia has no plans for a ceasefire for Russian Orthodox Christmas, so Putin’s sudden January 5 announcement was surprising.[5] The date of Russian Orthodox Christmas in 2023, after all, has been known for centuries. Had Putin been serious about a religiously motivated ceasefire he had ample time to prepare for it. The announcement of a ceasefire within 24 hours of when it is meant to enter into force suggests that it was announced with the intention of framing Ukrainian forces who continue to fight throughout the timeframe of the ceasefire as unwilling to work towards peace and wanting to fight at all costs.

Putin’s framing of the ceasefire on religious grounds additionally reinforces another two-fold Russian information operation that frames Ukraine as suppressing religious groups and positions Putin as the true protector of the Christian faith. As ISW has previously observed, the Kremlin has weaponized discussions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to accuse Kyiv of oppressing religious liberties in Ukraine.[6] Russian sources have recently picked up on raids carried out by the Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) against Russian Orthodox churches and clergy members and Ukrainian sanctions against Kremlin-linked elements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP).[7] These measures are not efforts to suppress religious liberties in Ukraine but rather are aimed at explicitly pro-Kremlin elements of the Russian Orthodox Church that have materially, politically, and spiritually supported Russian aggression against Ukraine.[8] The invocation of a ceasefire on distinctly religious grounds in line with Russian Orthodox Christian tradition is a subcomponent of this information operation. Suddenly announcing a ceasefire with Ukraine that should have been negotiated well in advance in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas will allow Russia to frame Ukraine as infringing on the right of believers to celebrate the holiday as hostilities will likely continue into January 6 and 7. This information operation can support the baseless Kremlin narrative that Ukraine was persecuting Orthodox Christians and Russian speakers, a narrative that Putin has repeatedly advanced as justification for his illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The ceasefire announcement positions Putin as the guarantor of Christian values and beliefs. Putin and other Russian officials have frequently framed the war in Ukraine as a religious war against “Satanic” and “fanatical” elements of Ukrainian society that seek to undermine traditional religious values and morality.[9] Putin’s proposed ceasefire supports false Russian information operations that Russia is fighting a holy war against an immoral Ukrainian society and its secular Western overseers. In actuality, Russian forces have suppressed religious freedom in occupied Ukrainian territory since 2014.[10]

The pro-war Russian milblogger information space responded to the ceasefire announcement with vitriolic discontent. Several prominent milbloggers emphasized that Russian soldiers do not want a ceasefire at all and remarked that it is a useless, defeatist ploy that is unlikely to succeed in the first place.[11] One milblogger who was previously embedded with Russian units in Bakhmut and attended the annexation ceremony at the Kremlin in September employed overtly genocidal, dehumanizing rhetoric in response to the ceasefire and stated that Russian soldiers do not want compromise: They “want to kill every person dressed in the uniform of the enemy army, regardless of gender and the circumstances that forced the subhuman [sic] to wear this uniform.”[12] This level of vitriol originating from milbloggers who are typically fairly aligned with Putin’s line on the war is noteworthy and undermines Putin’s ability to present Russia as the party that is willing to negotiate. Putin’s continued association with this milblogger community, especially those who frequently openly call for genocide, continues to demonstrate the fact that Putin has not decided to compromise his aims in Ukraine.

Putin reiterated his maximalist objectives in a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on January 5. Putin emphasized that Moscow remains open to negotiations with Kyiv as long as such negotiations “take into account new territorial realities.”[13] Accounting for “territorial realities” in the context of negotiations means hammering Ukraine into making concessions that directly undermine its territorial sovereignty.[14] NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg also noted on January 5 that there are no indicators that the Kremlin’s ambitions have changed.[15]

The use of a ceasefire as an information operation, coupled with Putin’s continued propagation of maximalist goals in Ukraine, continues to indicate that Putin has no desire to actually negotiate with Ukraine. Additionally, Putin’s continued alignment with and decision to platform milbloggers who routinely use openly genocidal language and call for unrestrained hostilities offer clear indicators of his intentions along these lines. If and when Putin becomes serious about seeking compromises that Ukraine and the West could seriously contemplate accepting, he will have set conditions with the vocal and prominent nationalist community he is currently empowering and courting. He could threaten, marginalize, de-platform, co-opt, or cajole the pro-war milbloggers into accepting more limited objectives, but such activities would be apparent in the information space. As long as Putin continues to give air and prominence to such extremists, however, it will remain clear that he does not intend to abandon his maximalist aims.

Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that prisoners who volunteered with the Wagner Group in Ukraine received pardons, likely in a bid to inflate his influence and political power. Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported that Prigozhin told reporters that two dozen former prisoners completed six-moth contracts with the Wagner Group fighting in Ukraine and received pardons.[16] Russian sources published footage of Prigozhin holding a ceremony for the Wagner Group personnel at a rehabilitation center in Anapa, Krasnodar Krai, in which he awarded the former prisoners state medals and pardon papers.[17] ISW has not observed any official Russian government source comment on whether the Wagner personnel did indeed receive these pardons. Under the Russian Criminal Code and Article 89 of the Russian Constitution, only the Russian President may issue a pardon to an individual, although regionally based pardon commissions and individuals may petition the Russian President to pardon specific individuals.[18] It is possible that Prigozhin submitted petitions to pardon the former prisoners on their behalf. It is also possible that Prigozhin is claiming that the former prisoners received pardons when in actuality a Russian court may have issued them a “Release from Punishment” (a commuting of a prison sentence and/or other criminal punishment) or the State Duma of the Russian Federation granted the former prisoners amnesty.[19] ISW has not observed any official Russian sources report that a Russian court or the State Duma has taken either of these legal actions on behalf of these former prisoners, although it is perfectly possible that they did. Previous reporting suggested that the Wagner Group promised prisoners “full exemption from their criminal punishment” and not necessarily that prisoners would receive pardons.[20]

Prigozhin is likely using the ambiguity of the legal status of these former prisoners to create the impression that he is influential enough to be able to secure pardons for Wagner Group personnel. Prigozhin likely publicized the granting of the pardon papers to reflect this supposed influence in support of ongoing efforts to cast himself as the central figure in the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.[21] By appearing to take public credit for pardoning these criminals Prigozhin risks seeming to arrogate to himself powers that only Putin actually wields.

Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to strengthen the Wagner Group’s ongoing recruitment of prisoners and to assuage current Wagner Group personnel’s possible concerns about promised legal rewards. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on December 22, 2022, that the Wagner Group currently has 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.[22] Kirby reported that over 1,000 Wagner Group personnel died in Ukraine in a month, and Russian opposition outlet The Insider reported on November 5 that 500 former prisoners volunteering with the Wagner Group died in Ukraine in two months.[23] The Wagner Group likely needs to replenish its forces after heavy losses, predominantly of former prisoners, and Prigozhin likely publicized the supposed pardons to augment the Wagner Group’s recruitment campaign in Russian prisons. Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to reassure the reportedly 80 percent of deployed Wagner Group personnel in Ukraine who have been promised some type of legal reward for their participation in hostilities. Prigozhin has increasingly pinned his standing in the Russian ultra-nationalist pro-war community on the Wagner Group’s ability to capture territory and, particularly, on its offensive on Bakhmut.[24] Prigozhin likely intends to further motivate Wagner personnel and generate new paramilitary forces in a misguided and implausible effort to reverse the culmination of the Bakhmut offensive.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will conduct a 36-hour ceasefire in observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas is likely an information operation intended to damage Ukraine’s reputation.
  • Putin’s framing of the ceasefire on religious ground reinforces another Russian information operation that falsely frames Ukraine as suppressing religious groups and positions Putin as the true protector of the Christian faith.
  • Putin has not changed his fundamental maximalist objectives in Ukraine.
  • Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that prisoners who volunteered with the Wagner Group in Ukraine received pardons, likely in a bid to inflate his influence and political power, strengthen Wagner Group’s prisoner recruitment, and reassure Wagner Group criminals in uniform.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line, and Russian forces claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the area.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a successful counterattack as Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued to operate sabotage and reconnaissance groups on the Dnipro River and reinforce positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed recent Russian successes in Zaporizhia Oblast, likely to distract from the slow Russian offensive around Bakhmut that may be culminating.
  • Mobilized Russian servicemembers likely continue to represent an outsized portion of Russian military casualties in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 4, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 4, 7:30 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

The Russian milblogger information space continues to seize on official responses to the Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka to criticize endemic issues in the Russian military apparatus. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) released an official response to the strike on January 4 and attributed it to the "presence and mass use by personnel, contrary to prohibitions, of mobile telephones within range of enemy weapons systems."[1] The Russian MoD also claimed that the death toll of the strike is now 89, including a deputy regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bachurin.[2] The clear attempt by the Russian MoD to blame the strike on individual mobilized servicemen, as ISW assessed the Russian MoD would likely do on January 2, drew immediate ire from Russian milbloggers.[3] One milblogger emphasized that it is "extremely wrong to make mobile phones guilty for strikes" and concluded that "it is not cell phones and their owners that are to blame, but the negligence of the commanders."[4] Several milbloggers noted that the use of cell phones on the frontline in the 21st century is inevitable and that efforts to crack down on their use are futile.[5] The milblogger critique of the Russian MoD largely converged on the incompetence of Russian military command, with many asserting that the Russian military leadership has no understanding of the basic realities faced by Russian soldiers on the frontline and is seeking to shift the blame for its own command failures on the "faceless masses" of Russian mobilized recruits.[6]

The Russian milblogger response to the Russian MoD deflection of blame onto individual servicemen accurately identifies the endemic unwillingness or inability of the Russian military apparatus to address systemic failures. Cell phone use may have aided the Ukrainian strike to some degree, but the Russian MoD’s fixation on this as the cause of the strike is largely immaterial. An appropriately organized and properly trained and led modern army should not permit the convergence of the factors that contributed to the Makiivka strike in the first place. The Russian command was ultimately responsible for the decision to pack hundreds of mobilized men into non-tactical positions within artillery range of the frontline and near an ammunition depot.[7] The Russian MoD is likely using the strike to further deflect blame for its own institutional failures in the conduct of the war onto mobilized forces, whose own conduct is additionally emblematic of the Russian force generation failures.[8]

The continued construction of Russian units using solely mobilized recruits will not generate combat power commensurate with the number of mobilized personnel deployed. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin remarked in the wake of the Makiivka strike on January 4 that some of the officers of the targeted regiment were mobilized servicemen.[9] Pushilin’s indication that certain Russian units are relying on newly mobilized and poorly trained recruits for leadership roles, as opposed to drawing from the combat-hardened officer cadre, adds further nuance to the poor performance of and high losses within units comprised of mobilized recruits. Mobilized servicemen with minimal training and degraded morale in the role of officers are likely contributing to poor operational security (OPSEC) practices and lack the basic acumen to make sound tactical and operational decisions.

The Russian MoD has again shifted the rhetoric and format of its daily situational reports (SITREPs) likely to flood the information space with insignificant claimed successes and distract from its significant military failures. The Russian MoD instituted this shift on January 3, doubling the length of its previous SITREPs and focusing on claimed strikes against Ukrainian military assets that often lack operational significance rather than on its largely unsuccessful ground attacks.[10] These SITREPs focus on small settlements and group strikes by target type rather than location, making it difficult for its audience to geographically orient the SITREP and verify the claimed strikes. The Russian MoD also dedicated multiple Telegram posts to featuring a new missile carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, that is very unlikely to conduct operations supporting Russian forces in Ukraine, a performative measure similar to those that Russian milbloggers have recently criticized, as ISW has previously reported.[11] The Russian MoD had previously attempted to emulate the Ukrainian General Staff’s SITREPS in response to widespread milblogger criticism of the lack of transparency in official war coverage following Russia’s military failures in the fall of 2022.[12]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring of 2023. Budanov stated in an interview with ABC News published on January 4 that he expects fighting to be the most intense in March of 2023 and that the Ukrainian military is planning a major push in the spring that will liberate territory "from Crimea to Donbas" and deal "the final defeats to the Russian Federation."[13] Ukrainian officials have previously indicated that Ukrainian forces will attempt to maintain the initiative through a series of ongoing and subsequent counteroffensive operations in the winter of 2023.[14] This reportedly planned major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the spring of 2023 would not be mutually exclusive with Ukrainian counteroffensive operations continuing this winter, as Ukrainian forces could use ongoing and subsequent counteroffensive operations this winter to set conditions for a larger counteroffensive operation in the spring. ISW has not observed any indicators that Ukrainian forces intend to halt counteroffensive operations this winter in order to conduct a major counteroffensive this spring. Budanov stated that there would be further strikes "deeper and deeper" inside Russia but declined to comment on Ukraine’s involvement in previous strikes on Russian rear areas in Russia.[15]

Russian forces are increasingly reliant on Iranian-made drones in their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure and have likely significantly depleted their current stock of these systems. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky reported on January 4 that Russian forces have used about 660 Iranian-made Shahed-131 and -136 drones in Ukraine since their first use in September of 2022.[16] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces have increased the pace of drone attacks against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the past month primarily using Shahed drones.[17] Ukrainian Air Force Command Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat reported on January 4 that Russian forces use Shahed drones because they can better evade detection on radar because of how low they fly to the ground, particularly along the Dnipro River in attack routes focused on targets in Kyiv.[18] Ihnat reported that Ukrainian air defenses have shot down 540 Russian strike drones but stated that even at a 100 percent shoot-down rate Shaheds are still able to damage Ukrainian cities as their warheads do not necessarily always explode when intercepted by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles and can detonate upon falling to the ground.[19] Skibitsky reported that Russian forces use massive swarms of Shahed drones to break through Ukrainian air defenses and noted that Russian forces could not achieve similar results if they use five to 10 drones at a time.[20] Russian forces, as a result, are running through a significant number of these drones that arrive from Iran in batches of 200 and 300 units.[21]

Skibitsky reported that Russia’s contract with Iran stipulates the transfer of 1,750 drones and that Russian forces currently need to replenish their stocks following a high use of these systems in previous days.[22] Skibitsky also reported that the GUR has intelligence that suggests that Russia will receive another shipment of Iranian-made drones on an unspecified date.[23] Russian forces have likely become reliant on the use of Iranian-made drones because they are a cheap alternative to more conventional high-precision missiles, the stock of which the Russian military has likely significantly depleted.[24]

Russia will likely seek further bilateral cooperation with Iran in order to secure a greater number of high-precision weapons systems for use in Ukraine. An Iranian state-run media source claimed on December 28 that Iran will soon receive 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia likely in exchange for Iranian-made drones and ballistic missiles.[25] A Russian milblogger claimed that these high-precision weapon systems will allow Russian forces to more effectively target Ukrainian rear areas defended by Western anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems than their current manned aircraft.[26] Senior US officials reported on December 9 that Russia is providing an unprecedented level of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Iranian-made weapons systems.[27]

Russian forces would use all the pledged 1,750 Iranian-made drones in Ukraine by May 2023 if they consume them at the same rate as between September and December 2022. Russia will therefore likely look to secure further agreements with Iran on the provision of Iranian-made high-precision weapons systems in order to augment its campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. The Iranian government’s Islamic Republic News Agency claimed on January 1 that Russia and Iran are building a new transcontinental trade route to bypass sanctions and "foreign interference."[28] Russian and Iranian officials may be negotiating a trade route in part to support more consistent arms transfers between the two countries. ISW has previously assessed that Iran may be supplying drones and potentially ballistic missiles to the Russian Federation to more clearly establish an explicitly bilateral security relationship with Russia in which Iranians are more equal partners.[29]

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian milblogger information space continues to seize on official responses to the Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka to criticize endemic issues in the Russian military apparatus and its unwillingness to address systemic failures.
  •  The continued construction of Russian units using solely mobilized recruits will not generate combat power commensurate with the number of mobilized personnel deployed.
  • The Russian MoD has again shifted the rhetoric and format of its daily situational reports (SITREPs) likely to flood the information space with insignificant claimed successes and distract from its significant military failures.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces intend to launch a major counteroffensive throughout Ukraine in the spring of 2023.
  • Russian forces are increasingly reliant upon Iranian-made drones to strike Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and Russia will likely seek further bilateral cooperation with Iran in order to secure a greater number of high-precision weapons systems for use in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line as Ukrainian strikes reportedly damaged Russian military logistics in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut amid continued indicators that the broader offensive may be culminating.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations on the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued to rebuild force capability and conduct defensive operations in Kherson Oblast on January 4.
  • Select Russian private armament manufacturers are continuing to criticize the Russian military campaign.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to take measures to resolve administrative issues associated with consolidating Russian control of occupied territories on January 4.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 3

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, George Barros, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 3, 6:45 pm ET

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a series of instructions for Russian agencies and high-level officials on January 2 likely to address criticisms of the Kremlin’s treatment of military personnel and portray the Kremlin as an involved war-time apparatus.[1] These instructions are ostensibly an effort to address grievances voiced by mothers of servicemen during a highly staged November 25 meeting with Putin.[2] The 11 instructions direct several high-ranking members of the Russian government—including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin—and government agencies (including the Russian Ministry of Defense) to collaborate with other agencies and non-government organizations to generate a list of recommendations for addressing and improving supply, benefits, and healthcare processes for military personnel.[3] Putin instructed the Ministry of Culture to assist the nongovernmental organization “Committee of the Fatherland Warrior’s Families” to help create documentaries and other material to showcase the “courage and heroism” of Russian forces in Ukraine and to screen domestic documentaries to “fight against the spread of neo-Nazi and neo-fascist ideology.” These instructions are unlikely to generate significant changes and will likely take significant time to implement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia is using a variety of social schemes to justify the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. In his annual New Year's speech, Putin thanked Russians for their efforts to send children from occupied Ukrainian territory on “holidays.”[4] ISW has previously reported instances of Russian officials using the guise of “holidays” and vacation schemes to justify the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.[5] Putin’s list of instructions also directs Russian Commissioner for the Rights of the Child Maria Lvova-Belova and the occupation heads of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts to "take additional measures to identify minors...left without parental care” in occupied areas to provide them with ”state social assistance” and ”social support.”[6] The Kremlin may seek to use this social benefit scheme to tabulate the names of children it deems to be orphans to identify children for deportation to Russia and potentially open avenues for their adoption into Russian families. ISW continues to note that the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[7]

Systemic failures in Russia’s force generation apparatus continue to plague personnel capabilities to the detriment of Russian operational capacity in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers claimed on January 3 that the Russian military has sent recently mobilized personnel trained as artillerymen and tankers following their mobilizations to infantry divisions in Ukraine with no formal infantry training.[8] Although the use of personnel in non-infantry branches in infantry roles is not unusual, the Russian military’s practice in this case is likely very problematic. The Russian Armed Forces devoted too little time to training mobilized personnel for use in the branches they had previously served in before sending them to the front lines. They certainly did not have time to train them in additional specialties.

Russian forces have suffered significant losses of artillery systems and armored vehicles in operations in Ukraine since the start of partial mobilization in September of 2022, and, therefore, likely have excess personnel trained in the use of specific military equipment.[9] Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhii Cherevaty reported that Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are currently firing artillery shells at roughly one-third the rate of the summer of 2022.[10] The reduced rate of Russian artillery fire is likely a result of the depletion of ammunition stocks, given reports that Russian forces are deliberately transferring ammunition from one sector of the front to another.[11] Putting poorly-trained artillerymen into infantry units without training them for infantry combat operations will likely make them little more than cannon fodder.

Degraded Russian military personnel capabilities will likely further exacerbate Russian milblogger criticism of Russian force generation efforts and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). One Russian milblogger argued that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s proposals to create five new artillery divisions and the recent creation of an artillery division in the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) 2nd Army Corps will be a waste of personnel and artillery munitions if the Russian MoD continues to train these personnel in just an artillery capacity without infantry training.[12] Another Russian milblogger argued inaccurately that putting a tanker or an artilleryman in service as a simple infantryman is a war crime that even Soviet commanders did not commit in the most difficult months of the Second World War in 1941.[13] (It certainly is not any sort of crime to allocate individuals with certain specialties to perform different roles and missions in war, and tankers and gunners in all armies at war have sometimes fought as infantry when their systems were destroyed or unavailable.) The Russian milblogger compared the current situation to a similar incident in 2015 when the Russian deployment of an artillery unit as infantry in the operation to capture Debaltseve, Donetsk Oblast, led to the death of 80 percent of the unit to argue that Russian commanders who make such decisions should face criminal prosecution.[14] Russian milbloggers have routinely criticized the Russian MoD for the poor conduct of partial mobilization and will likely continue to do so as Russian force generation efforts produce degraded personnel capabilities that will likely further constrain the Russian military’s ability to achieve any operational success in Ukraine. The hyperbole of milblogger criticism of the MoD’s personnel practices highlights the ever-increasing hostility toward and skepticism of the MoD among elements of the milblogger community.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to justify the Wagner Group’s lack of progress in Bakhmut, partially supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian forces in Bakhmut are culminating.[15] Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti amplified a December 31 interview with Prigozhin on January 3 in which Prigozhin stated that Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut are unable to break through Ukrainian defenses in Bakhmut.[16] Prigozhin stated that Wagner's offensive operations in Bakhmut are highly attritional because each house in Bakhmut is a “fortress,” that Ukrainians have defensive lines every 10 meters, and that Russian forces must clear building-by-building.[17] This is a significant inflection for Prigozhin and the first time he has framed Wagner forces in Bakhmut as making effectively no gains. Prigozhin previously stated in October 2022 that Wagner forces operating in the Bakhmut area advance 100–200 meters a day.[18] The Wagner Group conducted information operations to assert that Wagner Group forces exclusively made gains in Bakhmut without the assistance of other Russian elements in December.[19]

Prigozhin is likely setting information conditions to blame Wagner Group's failure to take Bakhmut on the Russian Ministry of Defense or the Russian industrial base. Wagner Group soldiers told Prigozhin that they were unable to break through Ukrainian lines in Bakhmut due to insufficient armored vehicles, ammunition, and 100mm shell supplies during a likely scripted segment in the clip. This statement seeks to absolve the Wagner Group and Prigozhin of personal responsibility by attributing their failure to capture Bakhmut to the larger Russian resource allocation problems that Russian and Ukrainian sources have been increasingly discussing since late December.[20]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a series of instructions for Russian agencies and high-level officials likely aimed at appeasing widespread criticisms of the provisioning and payment of benefits to Russian military personnel and propagandizing the war.
  • Putin confirmed that Russia is using a variety of social schemes to justify the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.
  • Systemic failures in Russia’s force generation efforts continue to plague Russian personnel capabilities to the detriment of Russian operational capacity in Ukraine.
  • Degraded Russian military personnel capabilities will likely further exacerbate Russian milblogger criticism of Russian force generation efforts and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to justify the Wagner Group’s lack of progress in Bakhmut, partially supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian forces in Bakhmut are culminating.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line as Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian military logistics in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut and Avdiivka and may be reinforcing their grouping in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces have reportedly established positions on the Velikiy Potemkinsky Island in the Dnipro River delta as of January 2.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that promises additional benefits to Russian forces personnel and Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) who defend the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, January 2

Click here to read the full report.

George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angela Howard, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

January 2, 7 pm ET 

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.

Ukrainian air defenses reportedly intercepted all drones from two consecutive nights of Russian drone strike attacks against Ukraine on December 31 – January 2. Ukraine’s air force reported on January 1 that Ukrainian air defense forces shot down all 45 Russian Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that Russia fired at Ukraine on New Year's Eve.[1] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesman Yuriy Ignat stated on January 1 that Ukrainian forces used the US-provided NASAMS air defense system to shoot down these drones.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported on January 2 that Ukrainian forces intercepted all 39 Shahed-136 drones launched against Ukraine between the night of January 1 and 2.[3] The Ukrainian General Staff again reported on January 2 that Ukrainian forces shot down all 27 Shahed-136 drones that Russian forces launched against Ukraine on January 2, though it is unclear if this figure includes the previously reported intercepts from the night between January 1 and 2.[4] Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky reiterated on January 1 that Russian forces only have enough cruise missiles to conduct two to three more large-scale missile attacks against Ukraine.[5]

Russia’s air and missile campaign against Ukraine is likely not generating the Kremlin’s desired information effects among Russia’s nationalists. Russian forces conducted a cruise missile strike against an object in Khmelnytskyi Oblast — reportedly a base of the Ukrainian 8th Separate Special Forces Regiment — on December 31.[6] A Russian milblogger stated that the strike, while well-executed and a good information operation, is too little too late.[7] The blogger argued that Russia needed to systematically conduct such strikes earlier on in the war, that the strike should have had follow-up strikes to ensure maximum damage, and that the timing of this strike was inopportune since Ukrainian elements were unlikely to be at the base on New Year’s Eve.[8] The blogger noted that this was not the first time that Russian forces failed to deliver effective strikes due to an absence of secondary strikes and that Russia should generally be more thorough in its destruction.[9]

A devastating Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on December 31 generated significant criticism of Russian military leadership in the Russian information space. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that a Ukrainian precision strike on a Russian manpower and military equipment concentration point in Makiivka destroyed up to 10 pieces of equipment but did not release an official casualty number as of January 2.[10] The Department of Strategic Communications of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stated on January 1 that the strike killed 400 mobilized personnel and injured 300.[11] Geolocated footage published on January 1 also placed the aftermath of the strike at the Vocational School No. 19, fewer than 13km east of the frontline.[12] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged the strike, claiming that four of the six rockets killed 63 Russian servicemen.[13] Samara Oblast Governor Dmitry Azarov confirmed that among the deceased servicemen are residents of the oblast, and some Russian sources claimed that 600 servicemen of a mobilization regiment were in the school building at the time of the strike.[14] Some milbloggers claimed that the death count was about 110, with over 100 wounded personnel.[15]

The Russian MoD is likely attempting to deflect the blame for its poor operational security (OPSEC) onto Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) officials and mobilized forces. DNR law enforcement officials told Russian state wires that the strike occurred when Russian servicemen violated operational security by using personal cell phones, allowing Ukrainian forces to conduct a precision strike at the base.[16] Kremlin-leaning outlets and some milbloggers amplified the claim, stating that Russian forces should not underestimate the Ukrainian ability to exploit poor OPSEC practices on the frontlines and called on the Kremlin to introduce stricter guidelines on cell phone use among servicemen.[17] Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Deputy Interior Minister Vitaly Kiselyov amplified milblogger reports that military commanders are demanding the resignation of DNR Head Denis Pushilin.[18] Some DNR public officials have also called for the punishment of the official who had decided to use the school.[19] The Russian MoD may have deliberately relied on the DNR officials to blame OPSEC violations on mobilized servicemen for the attack in an effort to make the DNR the responsible party.

The Russian MoD’s vague acknowledgment of the strike generated criticism towards the Russian military command, however. Wagner-affiliated milbloggers stated that Russian military command had made it easy for the Ukrainian forces to strike several hundred servicemen in one location, calling the DNR explanation of cell phone usage a “lie.”[20] A former Russian officer had also stated that Russian forces stored ammunition in the school’s basement, enabling the devastating strike.[21] Other milbloggers stated that the Russian command witnessed similar strikes throughout the past 11 months but were “criminally negligent” and failed to disperse the Russian forces quartered in Makiivka into smaller groups further in the rear.[22] Several milbloggers referred to a Putin statement about the necessity for the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to take accountability and listen to criticism on December 21 while calling on the Kremlin to punish the commander responsible for the OPSEC failures.[23] Wagner financier and avid critic of the Russian military command, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, offered an uncharacteristic and vague comment about the situation — stating that he could not reveal how Wagner prevents similar OPSEC problems.[24] ISW previously reported on two other instances of mass milblogger criticism: the failed Russian river crossing in Bilohorivka in May 2022 and the botched Russian offensive operation on Pavlivka in October 2022.[25]

Such profound military failures will continue to complicate Putin’s efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space. Russian sources claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military and the Investigative Committee to investigate the incident in Makiivka by January 6.[26] Putin’s inability to address the criticism and fix the flaws in Russia’s military campaign may undermine his credibility as a hands-on war leader.

Russian sources responded lukewarmly to Russian President Vladmir Putin’s staged New Year’s address, while Russian milbloggers lauded Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s appearances on the frontlines over the New Year’s holidays. Several Russian milbloggers amplified social media criticisms that Putin used background actors rather than standing with real soldiers during his address.[27] These criticisms and a chain of Putin’s canceled public appearances and meetings with ordinary citizens may show Putin as out of touch. One pro-Kremlin milblogger acknowledged the debate via an editorial in a popular Russian newspaper in which he vehemently denied that Putin used actors at his speech.[28] Former militant commander and prominent Russian milblogger Igor Girkin drew a direct comparison between Putin and Prigozhin.[29] Girkin posted that he would not comment on Putin’s speech but that Prigozhin decided to fight bureaucracy and corruption and gave a sensational New Year’s speech.[30] Meanwhile, several Russian sources praised Prigozhin for a series of appearances with real Russian soldiers on the frontlines in Ukraine on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.[31]

Prigozhin used reporting on deceased Wagner Group mercenaries and his prominence in New Year’s features to continue to push for legal recognition of Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) and to criticize bureaucrats not favorable to Wagner PMC. Prigozhin continues to seek increased legitimization of and state benefits for Wagner forces, although private military companies are illegal in Russia.[32] Prigozhin told a reporter who questioned why Wagner soldiers’ relatives are not receiving the bodies of their deceased soldiers that Wagner forces took care of the dead even on New Year’s while the Russian government, which is supposed to provide death certificates, has “[rested] since the beginning of the war.”[33] Prigozhin accused bureaucrats of desecrating the memory of the dead by treating dead servicemembers as objects in plastic bags.[34] Prigozhin publicly visited a Wagner-specific cemetery and memorial and the main base of the Wagner Group in Krasnodar Krai on January 1.[35] Prighozhin has previously complained that Russian authorities refuse to allow for the burial of Wagner mercenaries in Russian military cemeteries, as ISW has reported.[36]

The Kremlin is likely co-opting some Russian milbloggers who are willing to sell out in exchange for political prestige. Prominent Russian milbloggers Alexander Sladkov and Yevgeniy Poddubny attended the Kremlin primetime New Year’s Eve television show Goluboy Ogonek 2023 in Moscow on December 31.[37] This program airs immediately after Putin’s annual New Year's Eve speech and is attended by Putin and Kremlin political and cultural elites. Sladkov and Poddubny have both criticized the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine. The creators of the prominent Telegram channel Rybar had also stated that they received offers to create an open-source intelligence (OSINT) program to benefit Russian private businesses and force structures.[38] Rybar added that they already gave a lecture at the elite Russian state-run Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and are continuing to work in Putin’s “special military operation” working group.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian air defenses reportedly intercepted all drones from two consecutive nights of Russian drone strike attacks against Ukraine on December 31 ­– January 2.
  • Russia’s air and missile campaign against Ukraine is likely not generating the Kremlin’s desired information effects among Russia’s nationalists.
  • A devastating Ukrainian HIMARS strike on a Russian base in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on December 31 generated significant criticism of Russian military leadership in the Russian information space.
  • The Russian MoD is likely attempting to deflect the blame for its poor operational security (OPSEC) onto Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) officials and mobilized personnel.
  • Russian sources responded lukewarmly to Russian President Vladmir Putin’s staged New Year’s address, while Russian milbloggers lauded Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s appearances on the frontlines over the New Year’s holidays.
  • Russian forces continued to carry out unsuccessful attempts to improve their tactical positions northwest of Svatove after reportedly conducting a tactical pause.
  • The Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies reported that Russian forces are continuing to deploy personnel on the Kharkiv-Siversk frontline.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are redeploying along the eastern axis while struggling to maintain their pace of artillery strikes.
  • Russian forces attempted limited offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast and continued efforts to reinforce defensive structures.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to extend financial promises made to Russian soldiers as Ukrainian officials continue to warn of an impending wave of Russian mobilization.

 

ISW and CTP did not publish a report on January 1 in observance of the New Year.

Click here to see our collection of reports from 2022.

 

 

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