Ukraine Conflict Updates 2022

This page is a collection of ISW and CTP's Ukraine War updates from 2022. 

Thie list below 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.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 31

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, Madison Williams, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 31 7:45pm 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. 

Note: ISW and CTP will not publish a campaign assessment (or maps) tomorrow, January 1, in observance of the New Year's Holiday. Coverage will resume on Monday, January 2.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual New Year’s Eve address continued to illustrate that Putin is uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space and remains focused on justifying the war and its costs to his people. Putin stated that “Russia’s sovereign, independent, and secure future depends only on us, on our strength and determination” and that 2022 “was a year of difficult, necessary decisions, of important steps toward achieving the full sovereignty of Russia and the powerful consolidation of our society.”[1] He added that the events of 2022 “became the milestone that laid the foundation of our new common future, our new true independence.”  He continued: “That is what we are fighting for even today, we are defending our people on our own historical territories in the new Russian Federation Subjects [the illegally annexed territories of Ukraine].”  This speech continued Putin’s rhetorical claims not only that Russia has historical rights to Ukraine, but also that Russia’s independence and sovereignty depend on regaining control of Ukraine.  Putin thereby attempts to cast victory in the war as essential to Russia’s continued existence as an independent state.  

These comments were likely meant in part to justify the costly war and to appeal to the ultra-nationalist pro-war community that routinely cites the defense of illegally annexed territories as reason to pursue even more aggressive goals and to pay even higher prices for them in Ukraine.[2] They also indicate, however, that Putin remains unwilling to contemplate a meaningful peaceful resolution of the war he began other than on terms he dictates to Ukraine and the West.  Putin is unlikely to accept any lesser outcome unless Ukraine, with the help of its Western supporters, can inflict additional large-scale defeats on Russian forces and liberate considerably more of its occupied land.

Putin did not use his annual speech to make any announcements about how the Russian military intends to reverse its setbacks in Ukraine and achieve his maximalist goals. The banality of most of the speech is consistent with previous ISW assessments that Vladimir Putin may have postponed his annual address to the Russian Federation Assembly because he was uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space amidst increasing criticism of his conduct of the war.[3]

Putin delivered his address from the headquarters of the Southern Military District (SMD) as part of an ongoing effort to portray himself as an effective wartime leader actively in control of the war effort. Putin delivered his address from the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don with Russian military personnel in combat uniforms behind him.[4] Putin also reportedly presented battle banners to the Donetsk People‘s Republic (DNR) 1st  Army Corps and the Luhansk People’s Republic 2nd Army Corps, as well as state awards to Russian servicemembers who participated in combat missions in Ukraine.[5] Russian sources reported that Putin also awarded the Cross of Saint George to the commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin.[6] Putin likely staged these events at the SMD headquarters to bolster Kremlin efforts to portray Putin as being deeply involved in the conduct of the war and an effective wartime leader.[7] The award to Surovikin signals Putin’s continued support of the overall commander of the war despite the fact that Surovikin‘s tenure has not yet seen any significant territorial gains and the fact that the wide-scale deliberate attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure that Surovikin likely recommended and prepared have not brought Russia any closer to victory.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu used his New Year’s celebratory address to demonize Ukraine and to announce that Russian victory is as “inevitable” as the coming of the new year. Shoigu falsely credited Russian soldiers with defending civilians suffering “genocide and violence” for “the right to speak Russian,” which is an officially recognized national minority language in Ukraine. Shoigu further described the war as a struggle against neo-Nazism, terrorism, and those who idolize war criminals. Shoigu framed Russian victory as the way to prevent attempts to blot out Russia's “glorious history and great achievements” and to protect civilians freed from “Nazis” in an apparent attempt to motivate Russian soldiers. 

Russian forces are likely depleting their stocks of artillery ammunition and will struggle to support their current pace of operations in certain sectors of the frontline in Ukraine as a result. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov reported on December 31 that Russian forces in Ukraine are experiencing significant issues with artillery ammunition that will become more pronounced by March of 2023.[8] Budanov stated that Russian forces had previously used 60,000 artillery shells per day (as of some unspecified date) and now only use 19,000 to 20,000 shells.[9] Budanov stated that Russian forces have also removed all remaining artillery ammunition from Belarusian military warehouses to support their operations in Ukraine.[10] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on December 24 that Russian forces currently lack the necessary stockpile of artillery munitions to support large-scale offensive operations and that sustaining defensive operations along the lengthy frontline in Ukraine requires the Russian military to expend a significant number of shells and rockets daily.[11] ISW assesses the constraints on munitions will likely in part prevent Russian forces from maintaining a high pace of operations in the Bakhmut area in the near term.[12] The depletion of the Russian military’s artillery ammunition stocks will likely impact their ability to conduct a high pace of operations elsewhere in Ukraine as well. This Ukrainian report that the Russians have already depleted ammunition stockpiles in Belarus is a further indicator that a renewed large-scale Russian offensive from Belarus in the coming months is unlikely.

Russian forces launched another round of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure on December 31, but this round was of reduced intensity compared to previous rounds.[13] Official Ukrainian sources stated that Russian forces launched over 20 air-launched cruise missiles (of which Ukrainian air defenses reportedly shot down 12) and used 10 Shahed-136 drones and an Orlan-10 surveillance drone (all of which Ukrainian forces reportedly downed).[14] ISW cannot assess at this time whether the decreased intensity of this barrage resulted from Russian missile shortages or whether Russia can continue to conduct intense waves of strikes. Russian milbloggers continued to describe the scope of the attack using similar reporting and reactions as they used for previous rounds of missile strikes despite the reduced intensity and impact.[15] 

Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners on December 31, but reports differed on the number of prisoners exchanged. A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, posted that 140 Ukrainian soldiers returned to Ukraine and an unspecified number of Russian soldiers returned to Russia.[16] Several Russian sources claimed that 82 Ukrainian soldiers returned to Ukraine and 82 Russian soldiers returned to Russia.[17]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual New Year’s Eve address continued to illustrate that Putin is uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space and remains focused on justifying the war in Ukraine and its cost to his domestic audience.
  • Putin delivered his address from the headquarters of the Southern Military District (SMD) as part of his ongoing efforts to portray himself as an effective wartime leader.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu demonized Ukraine and announced that Russian victory is inevitable in his New Year’s Eve speech.
  • Russian forces are likely depleting their stocks of artillery ammunition and will struggle to support their current pace of operations in Ukraine as a result.
  • Russian forces launched another round of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure but at a reduced intensity compared to previously massive waves of strikes.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners but differed in their reporting on the number of exchanged personnel.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on December 31.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City on December 31.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) lost connection to its last functioning backup power line on the evening of December 29.
  • Russian forces continue operations in eastern Zaporizhia Oblast and along the southern axis.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on December 31 that he knew “for a fact” that the Kremlin plans to close its borders for men, declare martial law, and begin another wave of mobilization in “one week or so.”
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to intensify law enforcement crackdowns in occupied territories in response to Ukrainian partisan activities.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to create unbearable living conditions for residents of occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 30

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 30, 5:30 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 targeted Kyiv using Iranian-made drones on the night of December 29 to 30, a continuation of an increased pace of drone attacks in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force Command stated that Russian forces launched 16 Shahed-131 and -136 drones at targets in Ukraine on the night of December 29 to 30 and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all of them.[1] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched seven of the drones at targets in Kyiv and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down all of them, but one of the drones’ munitions hit an administrative building.[2] The Russian drone attacks follow a massive series of Russian missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure on December 29 during which Russian forces launched 23 drones, the majority of which were Shaheds.[3] The Russian military’s use of 39 drones in the past two days, its use of 30 Shahed 131 and -136 drones on the night of December 18 and 19, and its use of 13 Shahed drones on December 14 represent a significant increase in its recent use of these systems in Ukraine.[4] ISW assessed on December 10 that an increased pace of Russian drone attacks may indicate that Russian forces accumulated more Iranian-made drones after a three-week period (November 17 to December 7) of not using them or that Russia received or expected to receive a new shipment of drones from Iran.[5] Russian forces have likely further increased their pace of drone attacks in an effort to sustain their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure given their likely depleted stock of precision missiles.[6] Ukrainian air defenses have recently proven to be highly effective at shooting down Shahed drones and the Russian military’s use of these systems in attacks against civilian targets in rear areas is having diminishing impacts.[7] The Russian military will likely continue to commit an increased number of these systems to attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine in its misguided attempt to break the Ukrainian will to fight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the door for further institutionalized corruption through the manipulation of the Russian domestic legal sphere. Putin approved a decree on December 29 that exempts all Russian officials, including members of the military and law enforcement services, from the requirement to make income declarations public.[8] The decree extends to military officials, employees of Russian internal affairs organs, those serving in Rosgvardia and law enforcement positions, employees of the Russian penitentiary system and Investigative System, and individuals seconded to positions in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[9] The decree also notably lifts the ban on military officials receiving “charitable” gifts in connection with their participation in hostilities in Ukraine.[10] Russian independent newspaper The Insider noted that this decree could theoretically allow Russian officials involved in the war to seize the private property of Ukrainian residents of occupied areas because such property could be legally classed as “charitable gifts.”[11] ISW continues to report on Putin’s manipulations of domestic law to quash domestic opposition to the war and enable those who support it.[12]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces targeted Kyiv using Iranian-made drones on the night of December 29 to 30.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the door for further institutionalized corruption in the Russian Federation.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian forces struck Russian concentration areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Avdiivka area as well as in Bakhmut, where the pace of Russian offensive operations may have slowed compared to previous days.
  • A Russian source claimed that Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources continued to discuss whether and when an imminent second wave of mobilization in Russia will occur.
  • Russian officials continue to pursue the integration of occupied territories into the Russian Federation.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 29

Click here to read the full report.

Angela Howard, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 29, 5:30pm 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.

Russian forces conducted another massive series of missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure on December 29. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched 69 cruise missiles and 23 drones at Ukraine and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 54 of the missiles and at least 11 of the drones.[1] Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces struck targets, primarily infrastructure facilities, in Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Donetsk oblasts causing widespread disruptions to energy, heating, and water supplies.[2] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces also struck targets in Sumy, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytsky, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Poltava, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[3] The Belarusian Ministry of Defense claimed that Belarusian air defenses shot down a Ukrainian S-300 air defense missile during the wave of Russian strikes and that wreckage fell onto Belarusian territory.[4] It is currently unclear whether Ukrainian air defenses may have been responding to Russian missile launches from Belarusian territory, which Russian forces have used repeatedly in support of their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.[5]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) responded to ongoing Western assessments that it has severely depleted its stock of high-precision weapons systems amidst the massive strike against Ukraine by stating that it would never run out of Kalibr missiles.[6] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have significantly depleted their arsenal of high-precision weapons systems but will likely continue to threaten Ukrainian critical infrastructure at scale in the near term and cause substantial suffering to Ukrainian civilians.[7] Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated on December 26 that Russian forces had enough missiles to conduct two or three more large-scale strikes.[8] ISW assesses that the Russian campaign to break the Ukrainian will to fight through large-scale missile strikes against critical infrastructure will fail even if the Russians are able to conduct more barrages than Budanov estimated.[9]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated on December 29 Russia’s unwillingness to commit to genuine negotiations and to recognize Ukraine as an independent actor in negotiations. Lavrov stated in an interview with a prominent Russian news source that Russia will not accept Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s proposed peace plan and that the Kremlin will not talk to any Ukrainian negotiators under conditions that include the withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied Ukraine, Russian payment of reparations, and Russian participation in international tribunals.[10] Lavrov declared that he cannot determine whether an “adequate,” independent politician remains in Kyiv with whom Russia can negotiate.[11] Lavrov claimed that Zelensky’s refusal to pursue negotiations with Russia in April demonstrated the complete “lack of independence of [Zelensky] in making important decisions” and the manipulation of the West to continue hostilities.[12] Lavrov questioned whether an ”acceptable” politician would emerge under the "Kyiv regime,” apparently restating the Kremlin’s position that Zelensky is not a legitimate political leader or acceptable negotiating partner and recommitting Russia to its maximalist goal to drive regime change in Ukraine.[13]

Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that fighting in Ukraine is in a deadlock on December 29.[14] In an interview with BBC, Budanov stated that “the situation is just stuck” and that both Russian and Ukrainian troops lack the resources or ability to move forward.[15] Budanov stressed that Ukraine cannot defeat Russian troops "in all directions comprehensively” and reiterated that Ukraine is awaiting the supply of new and more advanced weapons systems.[16] Budanov’s statement is consistent with certain elements of ISW’s December 28 assessment, which suggested that the Russian offensive around Bakhmut may be culminating and that Russian forces in this area will likely be unable to make operationally significant gains.[17] However, ISW also noted indicators that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort (likely of a defensive nature) in Luhansk Oblast, which suggests that fighting writ large in Ukraine has not necessarily reached a stalemate.[18]

The Kremlin continues to manipulate Russian law to grant the state increasingly broad powers using vague language in order to eliminate dissent and threaten Ukrainian sympathizers. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a supplement to the Russian Criminal Code on December 29 that allows Russian authorities to sentence Russians to up to life imprisonment for “assistance to subversive activities” or for “undergoing training for the purpose of carrying out sabotage activities” and for “organizing a sabotage community” and between 5- and 10-years imprisonment for “participation in such a community.”[19] Putin also signed a law enabling Russian authorities to sentence any private citizen who "desecrates” the ribbon of Saint George (a prominent Russian military symbol especially associated with the war in Ukraine) with up to 3 years imprisonment or a fine of up to three million rubles (40,541 USD).[20] These laws follow a sequence of Russian policies targeting what remains of the Russian opposition and enhancing Kremlin control of Russia’s already-limited information space under the guise of preventing Russians from "discrediting” the military.[21]

Repeated Ukrainian strikes on legitimate military targets far in the Russian rear demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defenses against drones. Ukrainian forces attacked Engels Airbase with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on December 29, within three days of reports that air defense shot down a Ukrainian UAV over Engels and killed three Russian servicemen.[22] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on December 29 that it is “increasingly clear” that Russia “is struggling to counter air threats deep inside [its territory].”[23] The United Kingdom MoD assessed that Russian air defenses probably are struggling to meet the high demand for air defense for field headquarters near the front line in Ukraine while also protecting strategic sites, such as Engels Airbase.[24] The repeated strikes on Engels Airbase will likely exacerbate milblogger critiques that Russia cannot defend its own territory from Ukrainian strikes. A prominent Russian milblogger questioned how Ukrainian UAVs and missiles cross such distances and enter Russian territory with “such impunity” and questioned the honesty of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s response.[25] The milblogger joked that an undetected pilot landing in Red Square (referencing Matias Rust’s 1987 flight from Helsinki to Moscow) would certainly generate a response longer than a single sentence from the Russian government.[26] ISW reported on similar dissatisfaction among Russian milbloggers on December 26.[27]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces conducted another massive series of missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s unwillingness to commit to genuine negotiations with Ukraine.
  • Ukraine's Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated that fighting in Ukraine is in a deadlock.
  • The Kremlin continues to manipulate Russian law to grant the state increasingly broad powers under ambiguous conditions in order to eliminate dissent.
  • Repeated Ukrainian strikes on legitimate military targets in rear areas in the Russian Federation demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defenses against drones and exacerbate critiques that Russia cannot defend its own territory.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna while Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Avdiivka area as well as around Bakhmut, where the potential culmination of the Russian offensive is likely being expedited.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct defensive operations in Kherson Oblast.
  • The Kremlin’s mobilization working group met for the first time on December 29. The forum for criticism of mobilization implementation will likely create friction with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to intensify law enforcement crackdowns in unsuccessful attempts to stamp out partisan pressure in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 28

Click here to read the full report.

George Barros, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 28, 8:15pm 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 offensive against Bakhmut is likely culminating as ISW forecasted on December 27.[1] US military doctrine defines culmination as the "point at which a force no longer has the capability to continue its form of operations, offense or defense,” and “when a force cannot continue the attack and must assume a defensive posture or execute an operational pause.”[2] If Russian forces in Bakhmut have indeed culminated, they may nevertheless continue to attack aggressively. Culminated Russian forces may continue to conduct ineffective squad-sized assaults against Bakhmut, though these assaults would be very unlikely to make operationally significant gains.

Several indicators support the assessment that Russian forces around Bakhmut have culminated.

Senior Ukrainian officials are visiting frontline positions in Bakhmut unimpeded. Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) chief, Kyrylo Budanov, visited Bakhmut on December 27-28 and was geolocated to within at least 600 meters of the previously recorded Russian forward line of troops.[3] Budanov’s visit supports previous Ukrainian social media reports that Ukrainian forces conducted a tactical counterattack that repelled Russian forces from the outskirts of Bakhmut on December 21.[4] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Bakhmut on December 20.[5]

Recent combat footage supports ISW’s previous assessment that Russian forces are operating in squad-sized assault groups due to combat losses.[6] Combat footage posted on December 26 shows Ukrainian fire defeating squad-sized groups of 5-10 unsupported Russian infantry attempting a disorderedly assault on Novoselivske in Luhansk Oblast.[7] This footage, while not from Bakhmut, is consistent with a senior Ukrainian official’s report that Russian forces in the Bakhmut area are no longer operating as company and battalion tactical groups but are instead operating in smaller groups of 10 to 15 servicemembers (squad-size organizations) as of December 27.[8]

Russian airborne forces (VDV) are reportedly augmenting Wagner Group operations around Bakhmut. A Russian source reported that Wagner and VDV elements conducted joint operations in Bakhmut on December 27.[9] The report, if true, marks an inflection given that the Wagner Group has been conducting information operations to assert that the Wagner Group forces exclusively are operating in Bakhmut.[10] The conventional Russian military supporting Wagner Group elements in Bakhmut—after Wagner took efforts to emphasize it exclusively is responsible for the Bakhmut sector—would be consistent with indicators for the Wagner Group forces’ culmination. ISW has previously assessed that Wagner Group forces are serving a chiefly attritional role around Bakhmut and have therefore likely become degraded to a near-debilitating extent and need reinforcement from more conventional Russian elements.[11] High rates of attrition amongst the forces responsible for the offensive on Bakhmut may expedite the culmination unless notable numbers of regular Russian military units are sent to sustain the offensive and delay or avert its culmination.

Russian forces appear to be preparing for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast, although it is unclear whether for defensive or offensive operations. Russian forces continue accumulating equipment and forces in Luhansk. VDV elements that were likely previously operating in Kherson Oblast appear to have redeployed to Luhansk Oblast following the Russian withdrawal from west bank Kherson Oblast in November.[12] Social media images from late December increasingly show Russian equipment in transit in Luhansk Oblast.[13] Russian forces are operating military district-level thermobaric artillery assets in the Luhansk area of operations, which may indicate a prioritization of operations in this area.[14] Ukrainian intelligence reported on December 26 that the Russian military appointed a new Western Military District (WMD) commander who is commanding Russian forces out of a command post in Boguchar, Voronezh Oblast.[15] WMD elements (such as the 144th Motorized Rifle Division) are the principal forces operating in the Luhansk sector and a command change could indicate efforts to support a new decisive effort in this area. Senior Ukrainian officials have stated that Russian forces in Belarus and Zaporizhia are not forming strike groups as of late December, but notably have not made similar statements about Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast.[16] Russian forces have been establishing extensive trenches and field fortifications in Luhansk Oblast for several months—activity that could support a planned Russian decisive effort in the vicinity of Luhansk Oblast.[17] The aforementioned indicators may suggest that Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast are preparing for an offensive operation, as ISW has previously forecasted, but may also indicate preparation for larger spoiling attacks or a defensive counterattack to take advantage of Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts in the area that the Russians expect to stop.[18]

Russian forces appear less likely to conduct a new offensive in the Zaporizhia Oblast over the winter. Russian forces are likely establishing defenses against possible Ukrainian offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.[19] Russian forces likely destroyed a bridge over a river in Polohy on December 28.[20] A senior Ukrainian military official stated on December 28 that there are no signs of Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast forming strike groups despite some rotations and deployments there.[21] Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Deputy Vladimir Rogov claimed on December 27 that Ukrainian forces will conduct an offensive in Zaporizhia Oblast but that the offensive is not imminent because of muddy conditions.[22] Recent Russian mining and fortification efforts in Zaporizhia Oblast and the Dnipro River coastline indicate that Russian forces do not seek to conduct an offensive there.[23]

The Kremlin continues to systematically deny Ukrainian sovereignty and reiterate that Russia has no genuine intention to engage in negotiation with Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to the Ukrainian proposal to prepare a peace initiative at the United Nations in February and emphasized that no peace plan can exist for Ukraine without accounting for the entry of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts into the Russian Federation.[24] Peskov clearly indicated that the Kremlin has no genuine intent to compromise its demands, thus directly undermining the Kremlin’s own narrative that Russia is willing to talk but Ukraine is not.[25] ISW has continuously reported that Russia is using the discussion of negotiations as an information operation to force Ukraine into making massive concessions on Russia’s terms.[26] Russian leaders' insistence that Ukraine enter negotiations having accepted the illegal Russian annexation of more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian land emphasizes the lack of genuine interest in negotiations on the part of the Kremlin.

The Kremlin continues to present the US transfer of Patriot air defense systems and accompanying trainers to Ukraine as an escalation in US-Russia relations, despite the fact that the transfer is if anything less escalatory than previous Western military shipments to Ukraine because Patriot is a purely defensive system. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed in a televised interview on December 28 that US officials had guaranteed to not send Patriot air defense trainers to Ukraine in an effort to refrain from participating in the war.[27] The Kremlin has previously highlighted the US transfer of Patriot air-defense systems in accusations that the United States and the West are waging a proxy war in Ukraine with the intent of weakening or destroying the Russian Federation.[28] The Kremlin uses these accusations in support of information operations that aim to frame Ukraine as a Western puppet devoid of sovereignty and to weaken Western security assistance to Ukraine by stoking fears of Russian escalation.[29] The Kremlin could use any Western transfer of military equipment to Ukraine as support for these information operations. The Kremlin’s decision to react to the transfer of the Patriot air defense systems more strongly than to previous weapons transfers indicates that the Kremlin is more concerned with the effect Western help can have on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than with supposed Russian fears of putative Ukrainian offensive actions against the Russian Federation itself using Western systems. That observation is worth considering in the context of Western discussions of providing Ukraine with Western tanks, long-range attack systems, and other capabilities.

ISW forecasts with high confidence that Putin will not seek to engage NATO militarily at this time in response to the provision of any of the Western military systems currently under discussion. Russia is barely holding off the Ukrainian military at a fearful cost to itself and Russian forces in Ukraine could not survive a serious conflict with NATO at this time. The risks of deliberate Russian escalation to a major conflict with NATO in the foreseeable future are thus extremely low.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian offensive against Bakhmut is likely culminating.
  • Russian forces appear to be preparing for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast and appear less likely to conduct a new offensive in Zaporizhia Oblast in the winter of 2023.
  • The Kremlin continues to demonstrate that Russia has no genuine intention of engaging in negotiations with Ukraine by insisting that Ukraine accept Russia’s illegal annexations of Ukrainian land.
  • The Kremlin continues to present the US transfer of Patriot air defense systems as an escalation in US-Russia relations, but ISW forecasts with high confidence that Russia will not deliberately seek to escalate to a major conflict with NATO as a result.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations toward Kreminna, where Russian forces continued counterattacks to regain lost positions.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued defensive and rotational operations in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • The Kremlin has approved additional funds for the development of defensive fortifications and is attempting to staff fortification efforts in Russian border areas and occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 27

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 27, 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 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the Kremlin will continue to pursue a military solution to the war until the Ukrainian government capitulates to Russia’s demands. Lavrov stated in a December 27 interview with Russian state news wire TASS that Ukraine and the West are “well aware of Russia’s proposals on the demilitarization and denazification” of Ukrainian-controlled territory and that the Russian military will settle these issues if Ukraine refuses to accept these proposals.[1] Russian demands for “demilitarization” aim to eliminate Ukraine’s ability to resist further Russian attacks, while the demands for “denazification” are tantamount to calls for regime change in Ukraine.[2] Lavrov added that Ukraine and the United States must recognize Russia’s seizure of occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts. Lavrov stated that US-controlled Ukraine and the United States are responsible for prolonging the war as they could "put an end to [Ukraine’s] senseless resistance."[3] Lavrov’s invocation of a military settlement for the war in Ukraine that achieves Russia’s original war aims follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deliberately vague statements that Russia is open for negotiations on December 25.[4] ISW assessed that Putin’s comments were not an offer to negotiate with Ukraine and indicated that he has not set serious conditions for negotiations.[5]

Lavrov stated that Russia is unable to work on any agreements with the West due to its provocative actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. Lavrov stated that the United States and its NATO allies are pursuing “victory over Russia on the battlefield” in Ukraine “as a mechanism for significantly weakening or even destroying” the Russian Federation.[6] Lavrov nonsensically accused US military officials of planning a decapitation blow against the Kremlin that included killing Russian President Vladimir Putin.[7] Lavrov also accused the United States and NATO members of being de facto parties to the war in Ukraine and of engaging in dangerous nuclear signaling.[8] Lavrov argued that Russian officials are unable to maintain normal communications or work on any proposals or agreements with the United States under these conditions, as the United States seeks to inflict strategic defeat against the Russian Federation.[9] Lavrov stated that Russian officials are ready to discuss security issues in the context of Ukraine and in a broader, strategic plan, but only when American officials "realize the defectiveness of the current course” and return to "building mutually respectful relations on the basis of the obligatory consideration of legitimate Russian interests.”[10]

The Kremlin will likely continue to focus its grievances against the West and ignore Ukraine as a sovereign entity in support of ongoing information operations that seek to compel the West to offer preemptive concessions and pressure Ukraine to negotiate. The Kremlin routinely portrays Ukraine as a Western pawn that lacks any actual sovereignty in order to disqualify Ukrainian officials from future direct negotiations and instead frame negotiations with Russia as being the responsibility of Western officials.[11] The Kremlin routinely highlights its grievances with the West over the war in Ukraine instead of its grievances with Ukraine itself to capitalize on the Western desire for negotiations and create a dynamic in which Western officials feel pressed to make preemptive concessions to lure Russia to the negotiating table.[12] The Kremlin will routinely depict Ukrainian officials as needlessly prolonging the war while reiterating its war aims in an attempt to influence Western officials to pressure Ukraine to negotiate on terms more favorable to Russia.[13] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is not interested in serious negotiations that would produce a final settlement to the war in Ukraine, but instead seeks a temporary cessation of hostilities that would allow it to refit and replenish its military for further offensive campaigns against Ukraine.

The Kremlin is increasingly integrating select milbloggers into its information campaigns, likely in an effort to regain a dominant narrative within the information space. A prominent Russian milblogger involved in combat in occupied Donetsk Oblast gave a nearly 20-minute interview to a Russian federal channel pushing key Kremlin narratives on mobilization and support for the war effort.[14] The milblogger explained that Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) forces recruited him out of prison in Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast in 2014, and accused mobilized men who complain to their wives about mobilization and poor conditions on the frontlines of being weak. The milblogger also made a sexist remark that Russian women are making emotional appeals and urged them to refrain from complaining about their husbands’ problems. The milblogger criticized Russians who have left the country in protest of the war, stating that those Russians lacked respect for their society and its interests. The milblogger downplayed reports of poor frontline conditions, noting that these conditions are solely the fault of local commanders. These statements are consistent with recent acknowledgments by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of problems with mobilization and generating support for the war that likely aim to prepare the Russian society for a protracted war.[15] This milblogger had also previously revealed that the Kremlin is now offering to collaborate with the milbloggers.[16]

The Kremlin has also intensified its efforts to coopt prominent milbloggers by offering them positions of power, which in turn allows them to amplify some elements of official rhetoric. One Russian milblogger who Putin appointed to the Russian Human Rights Council amplified an official statement from the council claiming that it had not received any information about the forcible mobilization of prisoners to participate in the war.[17] A Russian milblogger who has received a place on Putin’s mobilization working group also expressed excitement over the prospect of delivering his concerns directly to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during the working group’s first meeting on December 28.[18] By offering these positions within the government, the Kremlin enforces self-censorship and introduces its narratives to some figures within the milblogger space. Putin’s appointment of these milbloggers to official positions also suggests his approval of their extreme and sometimes genocidal statements.

The Kremlin could significantly benefit from the integration of some prominent milbloggers’ voices into its information space, but Putin remains unlikely to domesticate the entire community. The Kremlin had partially integrated at least seven of the most prominent milbloggers into its information sphere who are generally not affiliated with other factions such as the Wagner Group, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, or Russian veteran communities. Russian outlets have started to rank milbloggers and their growing popularity, noting that there are at least 50 extremely influential milbloggers from different factions among thousands of milblogger Telegram channels.[19] A prominent Russian milblogger noted that the milblogger community had been rescuing the Kremlin’s poorly-implemented and outdated information campaign while simultaneously pointing out that it is “impossible to centralize” such a vast community.[20] Another milblogger noted that the Kremlin’s information efforts are so laughable that it had made the milblogger community "the only decent source of information.”[21] The milblogger also stated that some milbloggers still face censorship from the Kremlin, which can ignite tensions within the community.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Kremlin will continue to pursue a military solution to the war until the US accepts its demands and forcing Ukraine to do the same.
  • Lavrov stated that Russia is unable to work on any agreements with the West due to its supposed provocative actions.
  • The Kremlin will likely continue information operations to seek to compel the West to offer preemptive concessions and pressure Ukraine to negotiate.
  • The Kremlin is increasingly integrating select milbloggers into its information campaigns, likely in an effort to regain a dominant narrative within the information space.
  • Ukrainian forces have likely made more gains in northeast Ukraine than ISW has previously assessed.
  • Russian forces may be nearing culmination in the Bakhmut area amid continuing Russian offensive operations there and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
  • Russian forces are maintaining their fortification efforts in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin is continuing its efforts to publicly punish deserters and saboteurs.
  • Russian officials are intensifying efforts to deport children from occupied territories to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 26

 Click here to read the full report.

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

December 26, 11 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 did not offer to negotiate with Ukraine on December 25 contrary to some reporting. Putin, in a TV interview, stated that he does not think that the war is approaching a “dangerous line" and noted that Russia has no choice but to continue to defend its citizens, before stating that Russia “is ready to negotiate with all parties” involved in the conflict.[1] Putin did not explicitly state that Russia was ready to negotiate directly with Ukraine, instead maintaining his false narrative that Ukraine – which he simply called the “the other side” - had violated Russia’s pre-invasion diplomatic efforts. Putin’s discussions of negotiations have focused on putative discussions with the West rather than with Ukraine, and reflect his continual accusations that Ukraine is merely a Western pawn with no real agency.[2] This statement was not a departure from that rhetorical line. Putin also stated that he thinks Russia is “operating in a correct direction,” which indicates that he has not set serious conditions for negotiations and still wishes to pursue his maximalist goals.

Putin’s December 25 statement is a part of a deliberate information campaign aimed at misleading the West to push Ukraine into making preliminary concessions. The Kremlin did not publish the full transcript of Putin’s interview on its official website in contrast with its normal pattern, possibly to facilitate the misrepresentation of Putin’s full statement originally broadcasted in Russian and highlight his vague statement on negotiations.[3] The Kremlin’s use of the interview clip on the Christmas holiday may also be a response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent speech at the US Congress amidst the holiday season.[4] The Kremlin has been intensifying this information campaign throughout December.

Putin is likely concerned over the lack of support for his war in Ukraine among elites and may be setting information conditions for the nationalization of their property. Putin pointed out that there are people in Russia who act solely in their self-interest when responding to a relatively positive interview question on his sentiments toward Russians’ commitment to the war.[5] Putin added that 99.9% of Russians would sacrifice everything for the “motherland.” Putin’s instant criticism of some members of society suggests that he is focused on those who do not fully support the war rather than on those who do. Putin made similar statements last week, noting that some businessmen who drain Russia’s money aboard are a “danger” to Russia.[6] Putin’s statements are also consistent with the Russian State Duma’s preparations to introduce a bill to increase tax rates for Russians who had left the country after the start of the “special military operation,” likely as a form of punishment for evading the war effort.[7] The Kremlin will likely use funds generated through the tax to fund its war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian intelligence reported that a Wagner Group-linked Russian officer was appointed commander of the Russian Western Military District (WMD). The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on December 26 that former Chief of Staff of the Eastern Military District Lieutenant General Evgeny Valerivich Nikiforov was appointed as the new commander of the WMD and that Nikiforov is commanding the Russian western grouping of forces in Ukraine out of a command post in Boguchar, Voronezh Oblast.[8] The report states that Nikiforov replaced Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev as WMD commander (November – December 2022) because Nikiforov is a member of the internal Russian silovik alliance formed by Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ukrainian intelligence previously reported that Prigozhin formed an alliance with Surovikin and that both Prigozhin and Surovikin are rivals of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.[9]

Nikiforov has previous experience commanding Wagner Group elements in Donbas from 2014 to 2015. A Bellingcat investigation found that Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin reported to Nikiforov – among other Russian military intelligence officials – when Nikiforov was the Chief of Staff of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army in 2015.[10] A Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) investigation found that Nikiforov ordered Utkin and his Wagner Group to destroy a Ukrainian Il-76 transport plane on June 14, 2014.[11]

Ukrainian strikes on legitimate military targets far in the Russian rear continue to be points of neuralgia for the Russian milblogger community. Russian sources began reporting explosions near the Engels Airbase in Saratov Oblast on the night of December 25 and the morning of December 26.[12] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that Russian air defense shot down a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was approaching the Engels airfield at low altitude and that the wreckage of the UAV killed three Russian servicemen.[13] Several prominent Russian milbloggers latched onto the Russian MoD report on the incident as an opportunity to criticize domestic Russian air defense capabilities and question Russian authorities’ handling of and response to reported Ukrainian strikes deep in the Russian rear. One Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger questioned why Russian air defense only “miraculously” prevents strikes “exactly above the airfield/military unit” and noted that the Engels airfield is 500km into Russian territory.[14] Former militant commander and prominent Russian milblogger Igor Girkin sarcastically congratulated Russian air defense for activating before striking the airbase and questioned why Russia is allowing Ukrainian drones so deep into its territory.[15] Several Russian milbloggers also criticized the technical capabilities of Russian air defense and electronic warfare systems and voiced their concern over Russian authorities’ inability to protect critical Russian infrastructure.[16] Prominent voices in the pro-war information space will likely continue to seize on perceived attacks on Russian domestic security to criticize Russian military capabilities and leadership and call for escalated actions against Ukraine.

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin did not offer to negotiate with Ukraine on December 25 contrary to some reporting.
  • Putin is likely concerned over the lack of support for his war in Ukraine among elites and may be setting information conditions for the nationalization of their property.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that a Wagner Group-linked Russian officer was appointed commander of the Russian Western Military District (WMD).
  • Ukrainian strikes on legitimate military targets far in the Russian rear continue to be points of neuralgia for the Russian milblogger community.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian troops are fighting near Kreminna.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made limited gains northeast of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks on the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian military officials indicated that Russian forces may be concentrating some unspecified forces for offensive or demonstration operations in Zaporizhia Oblast and that Russian forces are attempting to conduct small-scale reconnaissance-in-force operations to reach right-bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian officials and nationalists began to criticize the Kremlin’s lenient migration and passportization policies for Central Asian migrants.
  • Russia is continuing efforts to consolidate control of occupied territories in Ukraine through the manipulation of citizenship procedures.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 24

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 24, 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.

Note: ISW and CTP will not publish a campaign assessment (or maps) tomorrow, December 25, in observance of the Christmas holiday. Coverage will resume Monday, December 26.

Russian forces’ rate of advance in the Bakhmut area has likely slowed in recent days, although it is too early to assess whether the Russian offensive to capture Bakhmut has culminated. Russian milbloggers acknowledged that Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut area have managed to slightly slow down the pace of the Russian advance around Bakhmut and its surrounding settlements, with one claiming that Ukrainian forces pushed back elements of the Wagner Group to positions they held days ago.[1] Ukrainian social media sources previously claimed that Ukrainian forces completely pushed Russian forces out of the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut around December 21.[2] ISW has also assessed that Russian forces made slightly fewer overall advances in the Bakhmut area in November and December combined as compared to the month of October.[3]

Russian forces will likely struggle to maintain the pace of their offensive operations in the Bakhmut area and may seek to initiate a tactical or operational pause. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on December 24 that Russian forces currently lack the necessary stockpile of artillery munitions to support large-scale offensive operations and that sustaining defensive operations along the lengthy frontline in Ukraine requires the Russian military to expend a significant number of shells and rockets daily.[4] The Ukrainian Joint Forces Task Force released an interview on December 24 with a Ukrainian servicemember in the Bakhmut area detailing that Russian forces have been conducting an extremely high pace of assaults on Ukrainian positions in the area with little corresponding progress.[5] The Wagner Group’s reported heavy losses in the Bakhmut area in recent weeks have also likely strained Russian forces’ current operational capabilities in the area.[6]

The Russian military’s personnel and munitions constraints will likely prevent it from maintaining the current high pace of offensive operations in the Bakhmut area in the near-term. Russian forces previously allocated significant resources in a meat-grinder effort to seize Severodonesk and Lysychansk in spring–summer 2022. Russian forces culminated after capturing Lysychansk in early July and failed to capture neighboring Siversk to the east or Slovyansk to the northeast. The Russian military’s fixation with conducting a highly attritional campaign to achieve the tactical objectives of capturing Severdonetsk and Lysychansk ultimately undermined the Russian military’s ability to achieve its larger operational objective to envelop Ukrainian forces in a cauldron along the E40 highway and eventually drive to Donetsk Oblast’s western administrative borders. Russia’s relentless and costly push on Bakhmut may also degrade Russia’s ability to pursue long-term objectives in the Donbas theater.

Russian siloviki may be setting information conditions to justify the nationalization of oligarchs' resources to sponsor Russia’s war effort. Wagner financier Yeveniy Prigozhin attended the funeral of a deceased Wagner Group mercenary in St. Petersburg on December 24, where he stated that Russia needs to confiscate luxury possessions and accommodations from elites who ignore or do not support the war effort out of fear of losing their privileged lifestyles.[7] Prigozhin added that these affluent individuals support a vision where ”Western curators” dominate Russia in return for the sponsorship of their lifestyles and compared today’s Russian oligarchy to Ukraine’s or to 1990s Russia. Prigozhin ignited a scandal regarding the burial of the Wagner serviceman in recent weeks to push his political objectives — such as the legalization of Wagner in Russia — and his statements advocating redistribution of wealth at the funeral gained significant traction on the Russian internet.[8] Wagner-affiliated milbloggers widely supported Prigozhin’s criticism of Russian officials and praised his support for the war effort.[9] Prigozhin may be using such populist proposals to elevate his authority in Russian society or influence a return of stricter nationalization measures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also indirectly attacked Russian oligarchs on December 22, however, stating that Russians who drain Russia’s money from abroad and do not have a connection with the country “represent a danger” to Russia.[10] Putin claimed that while the vast majority of Russian businessmen are patriots, there are some who do not share the sentiment. Putin concluded that "everyone strives not only to stay, to live and work in Russia but to work for the benefit of our country.” Putin previously nationalized big businesses in the early 2000s to consolidate his authoritarian kleptocracy and may be attempting leverage nationalization to coerce elites to support his war in Ukraine or seize their property to fund military expenses.[11]

Ukrainian intelligence continues to suggest that the Russian military is not following proper command structures or procedures. Chief of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Kyrylo Budanov stated that Prigozhin formed an alliance with the Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin.[12] Budanov noted that both Prigozhin and Surovikin are rivals of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and that Prigozhin used the alliance to his advantage to receive heavy weapons from Russian Armed Forces for Wagner forces. The allocation of military resources should in principle rest with the Minister of Defense rather than the theater commander, although Surovikin could have the authority to make transfers once equipment enters the theater. The Prigozhin–Surovikin alliance is plausible given that Prigozhin had previously praised Surovikin for his efforts to save the collapsing Soviet Union.[13]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces will likely struggle to maintain the pace of their offensive operations in the Bakhmut area and may seek to initiate a tactical or operational pause.
  • Russian siloviki may be setting information conditions to justify the nationalization of oligarchs' resources to sponsor Russia’s war effort.
  • Ukrainian intelligence continues to suggest that the Russian military is not following proper command structures or procedures.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Kreminna-Svatove line.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian SPETSNAZ are likely reconnoitering the Dnipro River delta to study Ukrainian defenses in right bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces struck a residential area of Kherson City with a Grad multiple launch rocket system, killing at least 10 and injuring 55.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church — a Kremlin-affiliated institution — asked the Kremlin for a mobilization exemption for its clergy, despite avidly supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
  • Russian officials are planning to take children from Horlivka, Donetsk to Belarus, possibly as a scheme to deport Ukrainian children.
  • ISW introduced a new section in the update to track daily observed indicators and counter-indicators consistent with the current assessed most dangerous course of action – a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 23

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 23, 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.

Moscow has been setting conditions for a new most dangerous course of action (MDCOA)--a renewed invasion of northern Ukraine possibly aimed at Kyiv--since at least October 2022.[1] This MDCOA could be a Russian information operation or could reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actual intentions. Currently available indicators are ambivalent—some verified evidence of a Russian buildup in Belarus makes more sense as part of preparations for a renewed offensive than as part of ongoing exercises and training practices, but there remains no evidence that Moscow is actively preparing a strike force in Belarus. Concern about the possibility that Putin might pursue this MDCOA is certainly not merely a Ukrainian information operation intended to pressure the West into supplying Kyiv with more weapons, as some Western analysts have suggested. ISW continues to assess that a renewed large-scale Russian invasion from Belarus is unlikely this winter, but it is a possibility that must be taken seriously.

Prominent Russian pro-war milbloggers are amplifying the possibility of the MDCOA over the winter-spring period. Former Russian military commander Igor Girkin, a prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger space, responded to ongoing discussions within the Russian information space on December 23 about Russia’s capacity to renew an assault on northwestern Ukraine from Belarus to sever ground lines of communication (GLOCs) between Kyiv and Europe.[2] Girkin broke the MDCOA into two possible sub-courses of action: Russia can invade from Belarus in an effort to capture territory or could alternatively conduct a diversionary operation to draw Ukrainian forces from other parts of the theater.[3] Girkin argued that the Russian military could not effectively conduct an offensive operation to capture territory, but that a diversionary operation to support a Russian offensive elsewhere in Ukraine would make military sense. Girkin also pointed out that public discourse about this MDCOA had spread throughout the Russian-language internet and noted that other prominent milbloggers have hypothesized different scenarios for the MDCOA.[4]

Some milbloggers have been speculating about the likelihood of a renewed Russian attack on northern Ukraine since at least October 2022. Prominent Russian Telegram channel Rybar, whose author is currently part of Putin’s mobilization working group, stated on October 20 that there were rumors of an “imminent” Russian offensive operation on Lviv, Volyn, Kyiv, Chernihiv, or Kharkiv.[5] Another milblogger claimed on October 20 that joint forces in Belarus are too small to attack Kyiv but stated that he would not object if Russian forces attacked Chernihiv City.[6]

Putin’s upcoming meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg on December 26-27 will advance the Russian information operation around the MDCOA even if it does not directly support preparations for it. Lukashenko’s office announced that Putin and Lukashenko will meet during a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) heads of state meeting in St. Petersburg on December 26-27.[7] This meeting will advance the Kremlin's existing information operation about the MDCOA, as Putin's December 19 visit to Minsk did, given the growing Russian military presence in Belarus.[8]

The Russian military continues to trip limited indicators for the MCDOA, reinforcing an information operation designed to establish the plausibility of the MDCOA or actual preparations for executing the MDCOA. The Russian Ministry of Defense ostentatiously announced on November 24 that it has a field hospital in Belarus.[9] The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 23 that Russian forces are planning to deploy at least one more field hospital in Belarus.[10] Field hospitals are not necessary for training exercises and could indicate preparation for combat operations. The appearance of field hospitals in Belarus in early 2022 was among the final indicators observed before Russia commenced its full-scale invasion.[11] Russia continues to deploy forces to Belarus under the rubric of training. Some Russian T-90 tanks, reportedly deployed to Belarus in late December 2022, were observed with winter camouflage.[12] Equipping tanks with winter camouflage is not wholly necessary for training activity and could indicate preparation for actual winter combat operations. The deployment of field hospitals and repainting tanks could also be parts of an information operation.

The Russian military has been much more clearly setting conditions for an offensive in northwestern Luhansk Oblast, however. The Ukrainian General Staff reported observing an increased volume of railway transport of personnel, military equipment, and ammunition to combat areas on December 23.[13] Geolocated footage published on December 23 also shows a train loaded with Russian T-90M and T-62M tanks heading toward Luhansk Oblast from Rostov Oblast.[14] ISW previously observed Russian forces transferring elite airborne troops and other elements that previously operated in the Kherson and Kharkiv directions to Luhansk Oblast.[15] The Kremlin continues to prioritize committing mobilized men to stabilize the Svatove-Kremina line over other areas of the front such as Bakhmut, Avdiivka, or western Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces are unlikely to attack across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast after just withdrawing from western Kherson, and Russian mining and fortification efforts in Zaporizhia Oblast indicate that Russian forces do not seek to conduct an offensive there. The Kremlin could also attempt a spoiling attack on southeastern Kharkiv Oblast from Luhansk Oblast to regain lost territories west of the Oskil River. It is far from clear whether Russian forces would be able to effectively conduct such an operation since the terrain advantages the Ukrainian defenders and Russian offensive capabilities are very limited.

The Russian military may nevertheless attempt to conduct a diversionary attack on the ground or in the information space against northern Ukraine, likely in an effort to divert Ukrainian forces from defending in Donbas or in conjunction with an offensive in Luhansk or, less plausibly, elsewhere. Chief of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Kyrylo Budanov stated on December 23 that Russia is trying to divert Ukrainian forces from the southeast by setting up a feint in Belarus, noting that military activity in Belarus is an element of a disinformation campaign.[16] The success of the Russian diversionary attack, however, relies on Russia’s ability to convince Ukraine of the plausibility of the threat of a deeper offensive operation. Ukrainian military officials continue to indicate that Ukrainian forces are prepared to defend their northern borders, and Ukraine’s fierce defenses around Bakhmut demonstrate that Ukrainian forces can hold off much larger numbers of Russian attackers.[17]

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.[18] ISW currently assesses the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as low, but possible. Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force. Ukrainian military officials noted that Russia had not created strike groups in Belarus.[19] Russian milbloggers also note that Russia has not fixed fundamental flaws in its military campaign such as the lack of new equipment, poor leadership, and insufficient forces to sustain a successful offensive operation.[20]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is reportedly preparing to present a peace plan in February 2023, which may be timed to exploit a failed Russian winter offensive. The Wall Street Journal, citing Ukrainian and European diplomats, reported on December 22 that Zelensky’s team is planning to present an unspecified peace plan in February 2023.[21] Zelensky laid out a 10-point peace plan at the G20 summit in November 2022 that requires Russia to make concessions, including withdrawing all its troops from Ukraine and respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity under international law.[22] Zelensky may be preparing to present this peace plan around an anticipated failed Russian military offensive in early 2023.

The Kremlin continues to deflect criticism about Russia’s military failures in Ukraine by rhetorically narrowing the definitions of its initial war objectives without formally changing them. When asked about the Russian invasion’s progress, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian forces achieved “significant progress” in its war objective of “demilitarization” of Ukraine on December 23.[23] Girkin lambasted Peskov’s response, sarcastically noting that Ukraine’s armed forces increased from about 250,000 personnel before the war to 700,000 personnel today and that Ukrainian forces are now equipped with advanced Western anti-tank ground missiles, precision artillery, and other systems that Ukraine did not have before Russia’s invasion.[24] ISW continues to assess that Russia’s maximalist war objectives have not changed despite Peskov’s floundering to save face with the Kremlin’s Russian domestic audience.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed public appearances likely indicate that he has become more concerned about his popularity and image in Russia. Putin has been seemingly making more public appearances in Russian cities and more frequently delivering vague statements about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent days compared to his marked absence from public activity outside the Kremlin throughout the first ten months of the war.[25] Putin visited the KBP Instrument Design Bureau in Tula Oblast (an arms manufacturing facility) on December 23 and reportedly also planned to visit the Uralvagonzavod machine-building factory in Nizhny Tagil on the same day before canceling the event at the last minute.[26] Such appearances are likely a part of the Kremlin’s effort to present Putin as a wartime leader and regain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space as Russia heads into the second year of the war.[27] Putin consistently relied on in-person appearances throughout his rule, which helped him to create an image of an all-seeing and ever-present ruler.[28] Putin may be attempting to set favorable conditions in the information space ahead of Russia's next presidential elections in early 2024. 

Key Takeaways 

  • ISW assesses that the Kremlin has been setting conditions for a new most dangerous course of action (MDCOA)—a renewed offensive from Belarus possibly aimed at Kyiv—since at least October 2022. The Kremlin may be conducting an information operation or may actually be preparing for this MDCOA, which ISW continues to assess to be unlikely but possible.
  • Prominent Russian pro-war milbloggers are amplifying the possibility of the MDCOA over the winter-spring period.
  • The Russian military continues to trip indicators for the MCDOA, reinforcing an information operation designed to establish the plausibility of the MDCOA or preparations to execute it.
  • The Russian military has more clearly been setting conditions for an offensive in northwestern Luhansk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is reportedly preparing to present a peace plan in February 2023, which could be timed to exploit a failed Russian winter offensive.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed public appearances likely indicate that he has become more concerned about his popularity and image in Russia.
  • Russian forces conducted at least two reconnaissance-in-force operations in northern and northeastern Ukraine on December 22-23.
  • Ukrainian forces likely made tactical gains east and south of Bakhmut City over the past 72 hours.
  • Russian forces are continuing to establish defensive positions in left-bank Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts and are conducting defensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin is intensifying its censorship efforts to silence concerns over an expansion of the Russian Armed Forces and a second mobilization wave.
  • Ukrainian partisans continued to target Russian officials in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 22

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 22, 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to refuse to treat Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an equal and sovereign counterpart, further indicating that Putin is not interested in serious negotiations with Ukraine. Putin did not react to Zelensky’s remarks to the United States Congress in Washington, DC on December 22, but instead oriented his December 22 press conference on US and Western influence over Ukraine.[1] Putin reiterated his boilerplate and false claims that the US and Western countries have intervened in Ukraine since the Soviet Union, driving a wedge in the supposed Russian-Ukrainian historic and cultural unity. Such statements are meant to suggest that Ukraine’s 1991 emergence as a sovereign state was a sham. Putin also restated Russia’s maximalist goal of “protecting” the Ukrainian people from their government, implying that Russia intends to force the Kyiv government to capitulate. Putin mentioned Ukraine as a state only to note falsely that Ukraine had barred itself from negotiating with Russia.

Putin’s rhetoric is a part of an ongoing Russian information operation that denies Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign state. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Zelensky’s speech to the US Congress and the US transfer to Ukraine of the Patriot air-defense systems only “proves” that the United States is fighting a proxy war in Ukraine, and that there are no signs of readiness for peace talks.[2] Putin also implied that Russia had hoped that the West would coach Ukraine into abiding by the Minsk Agreements but instead was fooled by Kyiv. Such framing aims to disqualify Ukraine from future direct negotiations under the false premises that Ukraine violated the Minsk Agreements and that Kyiv is not an independent actor. Putin‘s and Peskov’s framing are components of an effort to persuade the United States and NATO to bypass Ukraine and negotiate directly with Russia over Zelensky’s head. This effort is very unlikely to succeed given repeated statements by US and European leaders regarding their determination that Ukraine will decide its own course.  The Kremlin’s information operation is also likely meant to focus blame for ”protracting” the war on Zelensky’s supposed intransigence and thereby wear down US and European willingness to continue supporting Ukrainian efforts to liberate occupied Ukrainian land.

Putin amplified another existing Russian information operation designed to decrease Western security assistance for Ukraine. Putin falsely accused the United States of protracting the war in Ukraine by providing Patriot air defense systems and vaguely implied that these systems will not perform a defensive purpose.[3] Putin has been setting conditions for a protracted war long before the US decision to transfer Patriots to Ukraine, even stating on December 7 that the “special military operation“ would be a lengthy process.[4] The Kremlin has also long falsely framed any Western security assistance to Ukraine as an escalation.[5] The Patriot system will instead augment Ukraine’s ability to protect critical civilian infrastructure against Russia’s air and missile campaign, which is designed to inflict suffering on Ukraine’s civilian population. Patriot systems will interfere with Putin’s ability to hammer Ukraine into surrendering on his terms, which may be what Putin has in mind when he says that it protracts the war.

Putin is also doubling down on an effort to absolve himself of responsibility for conducting a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin made several statements that Russia seeks to end the war as soon as possible while simultaneously noting that Russia will not increase the pace of ”special military operation” because that would lead to ”unjustified losses.” Both statements are a part of the Kremlin’s consolidated effort to justify Putin’s costly war effort to Russian domestic audiences who are increasingly making greater sacrifices to fulfill the Kremlin’s unrealistic goals. The Russian military has not achieved any significant victories in Ukraine since the fall of Lysychansk on July 3. Putin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials have made numerous appearances and offered vague justifications for military failures in recent days, also likely in an effort to downplay the effects of the protracted war.

Putin’s use of the term “war” when regarding the invasion of Ukraine has prompted some confusion within the Russian information space. Putin had stated during the press conference that Russia seeks “not to spin this flywheel of a military conflict, but on the contrary - to end this war.” Putin used this word—war--instead of the phrasing “special military operation” when falsely accusing Ukraine of starting a war against its population in 2014. Putin’s mention of “war” prompted a few milbloggers to state that they have always used both terms interchangeably because “every thinking person knows that what is happening in Ukraine is a hot war,” despite the lack of an official declaration of war by Russia.[6] The confusion indicates that Putin’s limited war narrative may conflict with his presentation of the “special military operation” as a fight for Russia’s sovereignty while not being an official war.

The Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, attempted to revive a debunked Russian narrative that the Kremlin did not plan to invade Ukraine in an effort to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine. Gerasimov publicly reemerged to brief foreign military attaches on December 22, stating that Russia had to launch the “special military operation” in response to the growing “neo-Nazi ideology” in Ukraine, and Kyiv’s (non-existent) active military preparations to liberate Donbas and Crimea in early 2022.[7] US intelligence had exposed the Kremlin‘s elaborate plan to stage a series of false flag attacks in eastern Ukraine in early February, attacks that the Kremlin intended to trigger and justify a war.[8] Gerasimov may be attempting to revive this nonsensical information operation to help justify the war to a domestic Russian audience. Gerasimov also noted that Russian forces are focusing most of their efforts on seizing Donetsk Oblast, which also signals a return to the pre-war narrative in a likely attempt to regain public support for the war. This statement is also inaccurate—Donetsk Oblast is the site of the only active Russian offensive operation, but the majority of Russia’s combat power is in other parts of Ukraine.

The Kremlin had refrained from publicly showing Gerasimov for almost ten months until December 17 and is likely attempting to reintroduce him as another figure responsible for the war as it heads into the second year of the invasion.[9] Gerasimov continued Putin‘s and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s explanations for mobilization and even attempted to explain away Russia’s withdrawal from right-bank Kherson Oblast as a preventative measure because of the ”threat” of a Ukrainian high-precision strike on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant. Gerasimov also claimed that Russia had stabilized the frontline along an 815km stretch of land. Gerasimov’s appearance is likely a continuation of the Kremlin’s recent efforts to rationalize the cost of war in Ukraine, rally support for a protracted war, and reestablish its preferred narratives.[10]

The Kremlin found it necessary to claim that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited the frontlines in Ukraine for the second time in a week, likely to deflect criticism that Shoigu is not an involved wartime leader. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) posted a video on December 22 purporting to show Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspecting Russian troop positions near the front in Ukraine.[11] The Russian MoD is on the defensive in the Russian domestic information space. It does not have the informational initiative and is responding to popular criticisms about the Russian military’s shortcomings in the war in Ukraine. The Russian MoD likely felt it necessary to show Shoigu at the front lines because it had falsely claimed that Shoigu visited the frontline on December 18, when he actually visited Russian rear areas for a photo-op near the Crimea-Kherson border.[12] The matter became more embarrassing following Ukrainian President Zelensky’s real frontline visit to Bakhmut on December 20.[13]   

Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continues to seek to elevate the importance of the Wagner Group in Russian military operations in Ukraine in order to establish himself as the central figure of Russia’s ultra-nationalist pro-war community. US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby reported on December 22 that the Wagner Group received an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine and that this indicates that the Wagner Group’s role in the war may be expanding.[14] Kirby reported on November 2 that North Korea is covertly supplying artillery shells to Russia.[15] Prigozhin denied Kirby’s reporting and claimed that North Korea has not supplied weapons to Russia for a long time.[16] Kirby also reported that Prigozhin is spending more than 100 million US dollars per month to fund the Wagner Group’s operations in Ukraine and that the Wagner Group currently has 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.[17] Kirby stated that US intelligence believes that the Wagner Group plays a major role in offensive operations to capture Bakhmut and that more than 1,000 Wagner Group personnel have been killed in recent weeks in the Bakhmut area.[18]

Prigozhin is likely attempting to use his parallel military structures to provide the Russian military with capacities that the Russian military currently lacks in order to increase his influence. North Korea’s reported shipment of weapons to the Russian military using the Wagner Group as an intermediary may suggest that Prigozhin is attempting to use his private military company to secure foreign sources of weapons that would be more difficult for the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to officially procure. Prigozhin is also likely committing a substantial amount of personnel and resources to the Wagner Group’s operations in the Bakhmut area in hopes of providing the Russian military with an operational success that has eluded the Russian Armed Forces in the Bakhmut area as well as the wider theater in Ukraine. ISW assesses that Prigozhin likely has ambitious political goals and seeks to capitalize on the Kremlin’s need for more capable forces to accumulate influence and appeal to the ultra-nationalist constituency he hopes to leverage.[19] Prigozhin will likely continue to expand the Wagner Group’s outsized role in the war in Ukraine in pursuit of these political goals.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi held talks with Russian officials on the creation of a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Grossi traveled to Moscow and met with a Russian delegation that included Rosatom head Alexey Likhachev on December 22.[20] Grossi reiterated the IAEA’s position that a safety zone around the ZNPP should be established exclusively to prevent a nuclear accident.[21] Rosatom stated that talks with the IAEA will continue based on an ”understanding of the need to reach a mutually acceptable text as soon as possible.”[22] ISW assesses that Russian officials are attempting to use the negotiations for the creation of a safety zone around the ZNPP to force the IAEA to accept Russian control over the plant and de facto recognize the illegal Russian annexation of occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.[23] The IAEA Board of Governors has announced that it does not recognize the illegal Russian seizure and operation of the ZNPP, but the Kremlin will likely attempt to leverage the IAEA’s stated urgency to reach an agreement on the creation of a security zone to undermine that position.[24]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to refuse to treat Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an equal and sovereign counterpart, further indicating that he is not interested in serious negotiations with Ukraine.
  • Putin’s rhetoric is a part of an ongoing Russian information operation that denies Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign state.
  • Putin amplified an existing Russian information operation designed to decrease Western security assistance for Ukraine.
  • Putin is continuing to absolve himself of responsibility for conducting a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Chief of General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, attempted to revive a debunked Russian narrative that the Kremlin invaded Ukraine to preempt a fictitious planned Ukrainian attack on Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea.
  • The Kremlin claimed that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the frontlines in Ukraine for the second time in a week, likely to deflect criticism that Shoigu is not an involved wartime leader.
  • Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to seek to elevate the importance of the Wagner Group to establish himself as the central figure of Russia’s ultra-nationalist pro-war community.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi held talks with Russian officials on the creation of a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited counterattacks along the Kreminna-Svatove line and Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Kreminna area.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
  • Russian forces are increasing security measures in Kherson Oblast and Crimea out of fear of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
  • A senior Russian official denied claims of a second wave of mobilization amidst ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.
  • Ukrainian partisans continued to target Russian occupation authorities.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment December 21

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 21, 7:00 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 and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu presided over a Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium in Moscow on December 21 and made significant statements pertaining to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the strategic direction of the Russian military.

The Kremlin intensified its information operation accusing NATO expansion of presenting a military threat to Russia.[1] Shoigu stated that NATO’s military expansion near Russian borders, including Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership aspirations, necessitates an "appropriate" Russian response to establish a Russian force group in northwestern Russia.[2] Senior Kremlin officials said that the accession of the Nordic states to NATO would not threaten Russia in spring 2022. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would not present an existential threat to Russia in April 2022 and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would not make "much difference" in May 2022.[3]

Shoigu publicly presented a series of proposed Russian defense policy changes to significantly increase the size of the Russian military. Shoigu proposed that Russia reestablish the Moscow and Leningrad military districts, form a new army corps, and form 17 new maneuver divisions.[4] Shoigu suggested that Russia form a new army corps in Karelia, two new airborne assault divisions, three new motorized rifle divisions in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, and expand 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. Shoigu also proposed that Russia form five artillery divisions to support military districts.[5] He proposed increasing the strength of the Russian Armed Forces to 1.5 million servicemen, including 695,000 contract servicemen (Shoigu said in spring 2021 that 380,000 Russians were contract servicemen), gradually increasing the age of conscription for military service from 18 to 21 years and raising the age limit for conscripts from 27 to 30 years. Shoigu did not specify a timeline for these measures.

This is not the first time the Russian MoD has signaled its intention to reverse the 2008 Serdyukov reforms that largely disbanded Russian ground forces divisions in favor of independent brigades. The Russian MoD has been steadily reversing the Serdyukov reforms by restoring maneuver divisions across Russian military districts since 2013.[6]

The Kremlin is very unlikely to form such a large conventional force in a timeline that is relevant for Russia’s war in Ukraine, however. Forming divisions is costly and takes time. It took the Russian military over a year to reform the 150th Motorized Rifle Division (8th Combined Arms Army) between 2016 and 2017, for example.[7] Russia was unable to fully staff its existing brigades and regiments before the full-scale invasion and had not fully built out a new division it announced it was forming in 2020 before the start of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.[8] Russia’s economy is in recession, and its resources to generate divisions have significantly decreased since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[9] Russia’s net training capacity has likely decreased since February 24, in part because the Kremlin deployed training elements to participate in combat in Ukraine and these training elements reportedly took causalities.[10] Russia is reportedly leveraging Belarusian trainers to train mobilized forces and possibly contract soldiers and conscripts, indicating the limitations of Russian training bandwidth.[11] Russia’s officer corps has been eviscerated by casualties in this war.

Shoigu’s proposals could be an overture to placate the milblogger community who have accused the Kremlin of not conducting the war seriously or taking the measures necessary to win the war. It also sets information conditions for the Kremlin to conduct future mobilization waves under the rubric of staffing these formations and/or significantly augmenting Russia’s military strength in the long run.

The Kremlin can form a large conventional military along the lines Shoigu described that would be capable of posing a renewed and serious threat to NATO if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to fundamentally change Russia’s strategic resource allocation over the long run. Putin directly addressed Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov stating that Russia has no financial limitations and must provide everything the Russian Armed Forces request.[12] While Russia is unlikely to reform large divisions while continuing its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s military defeats in Ukraine may persuade Putin to change Russia’s strategic resource allocation for the Russian military. Putin can decide to appropriate Russian state funds in such a manner that allows the Kremlin to field a large conventional military at the expense of economic growth and consumer comforts as the Soviets did. Such a course of action would cost resources and time but is possible. Shoigu’s "recommendations," which he certainly presented to Putin privately before describing them publicly, along with Putin’s commitment to providing the Russian military with everything it needs and a number of other indicators suggest that Putin may have already decided to reconstitute a significant conventional Russian military threat to Europe once this war ends.

Putin and Shoigu demonstrated that Russia is not interested in reducing its war efforts or its war aims, despite the growing toll on Russian society. Putin reiterated that Russia will ensure the safety of all Russian territories including illegally-annexed territories in Ukraine while at the MoD Collegium.[13] Putin and Shoigu repeatedly rejected the idea of independent Ukrainian sovereignty and emphasized Russia’s need to keep Ukraine within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and defeat the Ukrainian "Nazi" regime.[14] Putin and Shoigu’s comments further illustrate that the Kremlin retains maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine that include: the recognition of illegally annexed territories, regime change of the Ukrainian government under the pretext of "denazification," control of Ukraine’s political and social character, and Western granting of Russia’s desired "security guarantees."

The reiteration of Putin’s February 24 goals indicates that the Kremlin is deciding to embrace the sacrifices of the war and attempt to push on to victory. The Kremlin will need to continue to ask for and justify great sacrifices from its people to pursue these unrealistic goals. Shoigu attempted to justify the societal cost of mobilization, acknowledging that mobilization was "a serious test" for Russian society necessary to defend newly acquired territories in Ukraine.[15] Putin likely believes that if he downscaled his maximalist set of goals or defined lesser short-term objectives he would incur widespread discontent from both the wider Russian public and the ultra-nationalist pro-war community for committing Russia to a costly war in pursuit of an inadequate reward. The Kremlin will likely continue to reiterate maximalist goals as it demands further sacrifices from the Russian public to support the war effort, whether through new force generation efforts, imposing the continued long-term economic impacts of international sanctions regimes, extracting from the populace the cost of rebuilding a powerful Russian military, or forcing the Russian people to continue to accept heavy Russian casualties in Ukraine.

Putin and Shoigu maintained the Kremlin’s information operation that seeks to coerce the West into pushing Ukraine to negotiate on Russia’s terms. Shoigu claimed during his speech that the Kremlin is always open to holding constructive, peaceful negotiations.[16]  Putin and Shoigu likely reiterated Russian maximalist goals at the Russian MoD Collegium at a time when Ukrainian officials are discussing the possibility of a renewed Russian large-scale offensive in the winter of 2023 and voices are rising in the West calling for Ukraine to initiate negotiations with Moscow to add further pressure on Ukraine to negotiate on Russian terms.[17] The Kremlin likely believes that it will be able to exact more preemptive concessions from Ukraine the more maximalist its stated goals for the war are as it also prepares what it is presenting as another large-scale offensive operation. The Kremlin’s effort to coerce Ukraine into negotiating or offering preemptive concessions is increasingly divorced from the battlefield reality in Ukraine where Ukrainian forces retain the initiative.[18]

Putin significantly intensified his efforts to make peace with the critical pro-war community in the past 48 hours. Putin admitted at the MoD collegium meeting that Russian forces had faced challenges with mobilization, lack of drones and new equipment, and signals.[19] Shoigu acknowledged similar concerns echoing criticism from prominent Russian milbloggers for 10 months of the war.[20] Putin then asked the Russian MoD "to be attentive" to all criticism and "hear those who do not hush up the existing problems," noting that the ministry will be in constant dialogue with such critics.

Putin also established a working group on December 20 that will address issues with mobilization and offer social and legal support for participants of the "special military operation," empowering some milbloggers.[21] Putin recruited several prominent milbloggers such as Mikhail Zvinchuk from Rybar, Evgeniy Poddubny, and Alexander Sladkov among others, as well as some state officials to compile a monthly report to be delivered directly to Putin. The working group has the authority to make proposals and review mobilization concerns.

Putin is likely seeking to preempt further criticism and regain control over the domestic narrative in support of a protracted war. Putin has exhibited a pattern in which he gradually grants a level of limited authority to select milbloggers following an increase in criticism. ISW observed that Putin first interacted with milbloggers in mid-June shortly following Russia’s failed crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River and general frustrations with Russia’s slow pace in Donbas.[22] Putin has since made several public statements in support of frontline and mobilization coverage and even appointed a prominent milblogger and correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda, Alexander (Sasha) Kots a member of the Russian Human Rights Council on November 20.[23] Kots previously operated in Kherson City, and his appointment followed Russia’s withdrawal from right-bank Kherson Oblast.  Putin likely that Putin intended to coopt Kots following that withdrawal.

Putin remains unlikely to persecute Russian milbloggers due to his commitment to continue this war and is likely attempting instead to introduce a culture of self-censorship within the milblogger community. The Kremlin has historically allowed for "domesticated opposition" - or figures who criticized the Russian government for issues such as corruption instead of opposing the nature of the regime – and it is likely that Putin is using a similar approach with controllable milbloggers.[24] Putin is attempting to disincentivize milbloggers from eventually turning on him by integrating them into his circle.

Putin may also attempt to recruit additional milbloggers from other nationalist factions in the information space. Putin’s mobilization group notably did not include figures closely affiliated with the Wagner Group or Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and instead targeted a group that has already gained some prominence on Russian state outlets. Putin has notably refrained from giving Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin an official position within the Russian government even though Prigozhin supposedly directly reports on Russia’s military failures to Putin and is contributing his forces to Putin’s war.[25] Prigozhin remains simply the de facto head of a nominally illegal mercenary group even as milbloggers secure formal, if sometimes ad hoc, official positions.

Putin’s ability to sustain his narrative is vulnerable to his inability to deliver on his maximalist goals and promises in the long run. Putin and Shoigu assured the collegium that Russia will learn from the mistakes of the "special military operation" and promised to implement several changes to remedy problems within the war effort. Russia, however, is unlikely to efficiently address the fundamental flaws of its military structure—certainly not in any short period of time—and that failure will likely revitalize criticism. Putin will also need to continue to deflect blame from himself for failing to deliver on such promises onto the Russian MoD without destroying the credibility of the MoD and the uniformed military in the eyes of the Russian population. Putin’s consistent appeasement of the milbloggers demonstrates that he recognizes their influence on the Russian people of whom he asks such tremendous sacrifices to sustain his war effort.

Putin and Shoigu continued to use descriptions of heightened nuclear readiness to appease domestic nationalist audiences and intimidate Western audiences without enunciating new policies or any fundamental changes in Russia’s nuclear posture or capabilities.[26] Putin stated that Russian forces will continue to develop Russia’s nuclear triad as the main guarantor of Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity.[27] Putin and Shoigu claimed that modern weapons compose 91.3% of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, that Russian forces are fielding Avangard hypersonic warheads, and that Russian forces will soon introduce Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles into active service.[28]

Such descriptions are extremely unlikely to represent enhanced Russian willingness to use nuclear weapons. The Kremlin routinely uses nuclear rhetoric to project strength to the far-right Russian community, which has accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of failing to take sufficiently aggressive steps to support the war in Ukraine and to demand that the West reduce its "escalatory" provision of aid to Ukraine and to pursue negotiations on Russian terms by hinting at the possibility of nuclear escalation. ISW has extensively reported on previous incidents in which Russian officials have referred to nuclear weapons to influence Western and domestic audiences and assessed that Russian officials have no intention of actually using nuclear weapons on the battlefield.[29]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Washington, DC to meet with US leaders on December 21. This is Zelensky’s first trip outside Ukraine since the escalation of Russia’s war on February 24.[30] ISW will report on the details of Zelensky’s visit and Russian reactions to the visit on December 22. Russian officials, media sources, and milbloggers have continuously expressed concern over the closeness of the Ukraine-US relationship and demoralization over the effectiveness of US and Western aid to Ukraine. The recent finalization of US plans to provide Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine sparked a flurry of Russian discussions over the likely significant effects that Patriots will have on the war and the attack opportunities that Russia missed before the US agreed to provide Patriot systems.[31] ISW has noted similar Russian responses to the US provision of HIMARS systems to Ukraine.[32]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu proposed a series of expansive reforms and goals for Russian force generation that Russia is highly unlikely to complete in time to be relevant to the current conflict.
  • Putin and Shoigu reiterated maximalist Russian aims for the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has intensified efforts to make peace with the critical pro-war nationalist community. Russian failures to achieve Putin’s stated goals jeopardize Kremlin efforts to regain control over the domestic narrative and to set conditions for the second year of the war.
  • Russian nuclear rhetoric is most likely an attempt to appease domestic audiences and intimidate Western audiences and not an indicator of preparation to use nuclear weapons.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Washington, DC on December 21. ISW will report on the details of Zelensky’s visit and Russian reactions to the visit on December 22.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Donetsk City areas.
  • A Ukrainian official confirmed that Russian forces unsuccessfully attempted to establish control over the Dnipro delta islands.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu boasted about the growing Russian Young Army Cadets National Movement (Yunarmia) movement.
  • Russian officials intensified law enforcement crackdowns to deter partisan activities and target partisan sympathizers.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 20

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 20, 8 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.

Intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus is degrading Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s maneuver room to avoid making concessions to the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long game to reestablish suzerainty over Belarus is making progress separate and apart from Putin’s efforts to get Belarus more actively involved in his invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenko confirmed that Russia “gave” Belarus an unspecified number of S-400 air defense systems during his meeting with Putin in Minsk on December 19, confirming ISW’s 2021 forecast that Russian-made S-400 systems would begin operating in Belarus.[1] Lukashenko had previously rejected S-400 systems operating in Belarus in 2020.[2] Lukashenko is likely delaying acceding to Putin’s larger demands - such as committing Belarusian forces to join the invasion against Ukraine - by making smaller concessions that he has stonewalled for years.  

Russian military personnel will likely operate the Belarus-based S-400 systems. Russian personnel may operate the S-400 systems from the so-called joint Russian-Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense Forces training center in Grodno, Belarus – a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus that the Kremlin established in the spring of 2021.[3]

ISW continues to observe indicators consistent with the most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a renewed Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.[4] Ukrainian military officials continue to warn about a growing Russian threat from Belarus. Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Serhiy Nayev stated on December 20 that Russian elements in Belarus have military potential “currently sufficient” to create an unspecified threat to Ukraine and that these elements can conduct unspecified “tactical actions.”[5] Nayev’s statement marks an inflection in Ukrainian officials’ characterization of the growing Russian forces in Belarus; previous Ukrainian descriptions of Russian forces in Belarus did not ascribe to them tactically significant capacities.[6] Independent Belarusian sources continue to report growing Russian mechanized forces in Belarus.[7] About 30 Russian T-80 tanks were reportedly deployed to Belarus around December 20.[8]

These indicators support the MDCOA forecast, but that course of action remains unlikely at this time. A Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus is not very likely imminent. Nayev reiterated that Ukraine’s defense is prepared to defend northern Ukraine.[9] The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated that it has not observed Russian forces forming strike groups in Belarus as of December 20.[10] ISW will continue to monitor the situation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s frontline visit to Bakhmut on the 300th day of war is undermining an ongoing Kremlin information operation intended to present Russian President Vladimir Putin as an involved war leader. Zelensky made a surprise visit to Ukrainian troops serving on the intense Bakhmut front on December 20 and presented awards.[11] In contrast, Putin held a senior-level award ceremony where he celebrated Russian occupation and Kremlin officials such as proxy leaders from occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts, Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, and Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov among other state officials.[12] ISW has previously assessed that Putin has intensified his efforts to extricate himself and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) from persistent criticism by making public appearances relating to various undertakings aimed at improving the Russian war effort. This award ceremony further indicates Putin‘s fixation with presenting himself as an involved wartime leader.[13] Putin likely seeks to deflect blame for Russian military failures in Ukraine by maintaining a façade that paints Putin in a positive light but absolves him of responsibility for the war.

Putin’s decision to award members of his circle who have not even been directly involved in fighting in contrast with Zelensky’s visit near the front lines in Bakhmut sparked some criticism among Russian nationalist voices. A former Russian militant commander and critical voice in the Russian information space, Igor Girkin, noted that Putin is awarding “his heroes in the Kremlin” but not Russian and proxy servicemen who are engaged in combat on the frontlines.[14] Other milbloggers speculated that the Kremlin made a secretive political decision for a Russian ceasefire, allowing Zelensky to walk around Bakhmut.[15] Another milblogger reiterated that Putin had not visited the occupied territories and stated that Russian forces would not be able to effectively conduct a precision strike in time against Zelensky.[16]Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut upstaged Putin’s efforts to establish himself as a wartime commander-in-chief and turned Putin’s own information operation into an embarrassment even within parts of the pro-war Russian information space.

Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin further undermined Putin, possibly inadvertently, within the Russian information space by attempting to boost his standing against the backdrop of Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut. Prigozhin published a series of videos claiming he arrived at the frontlines near Bakhmut to speak to Zelensky regarding the control of territories in the area.[17] Prigozhin’s “offers” to negotiate with Zelensky are neither serious nor authoritative, since he does not hold any official position in Russia. Prigozhin, however, continues to pose as a prominent political and military figure in Russia. Such farcical comments are likely a response to Zelensky‘s repeated offers to negotiate directly with Putin after Russia withdraws its forces from Ukraine. Prigozhin’s appearance on the frontline further weakens Putin’s presentation of himself as a wartime leader, since Putin has not even visited Russian-occupied territories, let alone gone anywhere near the front lines. Social media users additionally exposed that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu did not actually visit the frontlines on December 17 - as he claimed - by geolocating the videos the Russian MoD posted of Shoigu‘s trip in Armyansk, Crimea.[18] While Prigozhin did not directly criticize Putin for his inability to directly address Zelensky or arrive on the frontlines, his and Zelensky’s visits to the frontlines threaten to make Putin’s posing as a wartime commander in chief humiliating rather than effective.

The Kremlin’s efforts to improve the reputation of the Russian MoD may have prompted Prigozhin to double down on his efforts to legalize Wagner in Russia. Russian state media outlet RT – likely affiliated with Wagner - published a 10-minute report on Wagner describing Prigozhin’s establishment of the paramilitary organization as an attempt to support “Russian interests” and defend the “Russian world.”[19] Such a portrayal suggests that Prigozhin is trying to rid Wagner of the mercenary stigma and instead re-introduce the group as a legitimate military formation in Russia that supports Russian national interests. RT also introduced prominent Kremlin officials like the Chairman of the Fair Russia - For Truth Party Sergey Mirnonov who criticized the Russian government for not seizing the initiative to recognize Wagner troops’ ”heroism” in Ukraine or granting Wagner official status under Russian law. Private military companies such as Wagner are notably illegal in Russia.  The RT report also supported a long-standing ISW assessment that Prigozhin is strategically growing his influence on the Russian internet, noting that the newly-opened Wagner Center in St. Petersburg is a working space for “patriotic” media outlets and bloggers to resist the information war against Russia. Prigozhin will likely continue his efforts to establish himself and his Wagner Group in Russia by promoting himself on Telegram and Wagner-affiliated media, which may further diminish the Kremlin’s attempts to minimize criticism of its defense leadership.

The Kremlin will likely continue efforts to portray Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as effective leaders of the war in Ukraine when Putin holds the Russian MoD board meeting on December 21. The Kremlin press service announced on December 20 that Putin will hold an expanded version of the Russian MoD board meeting on December 21, which will reportedly include a summary of the activities of the Russian Armed Forces in 2022 and a setting of tasks for the Russian military in 2023.[20] The Kremlin press service announced that Russian Defense Minister Shoigu will deliver the main report on the progress of the “special military operation” in Ukraine at the meeting.[21] The Kremlin press service stated that the commanders of military districts and services of the Russian Armed Forces, the heads of central military authorities, and representatives of federal executive bodies will attend the expanded meeting.[22] The Kremlin press service also stated that 15,000 Russian military officials will attend the meeting via video conference.[23]  Putin is likely holding a larger-than-usual Russian MoD board meeting to present the Russian military as an organized and formidable fighting force and to demonstrate that his control over that force remains unquestioned despite its pronounced military failures in its invasion of Ukraine. Shoigu will likely deliver a main report on the war in Ukraine that minimizes the Russian MoD’s responsibility for failures at the front and offers an optimistic forecast for what Russian forces will be able to achieve operationally in Ukraine in 2023. The Kremlin will likely publicize aspects of the event to augment the Kremlin’s continuing efforts to present Putin and the Russian MoD as competent managers of the war in Ukraine and to shield Putin and the Russian MoD from the criticism of the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.[24] The event shows that Putin is taking increasing pains to surround himself with military uniforms, possibly hoping to evoke recollections of Joseph Stalin engaging with the Soviet STAVKA during World War II and to separate himself from the famous pictures of Putin separated by a very long table from Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian pressure against Belarus is degrading Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s maneuver room to avoid making concessions to the Kremlin.
  • ISW continues to observe indicators consistent with the least likely but most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a renewed Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Bakhmut undermines an ongoing Kremlin information operation to present Russian President Vladimir Putin as an involved war leader.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin undercut Putin’s efforts to portray himself as a wartime leader within the Russian information space, possibly inadvertently.
  • The Kremlin’s efforts to improve the reputation of the Russian MoD may have prompted Prigozhin to increase his efforts to legalize Wagner Group in Russia.
  • The Kremlin will likely continue efforts to portray Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as effective leaders when Putin holds an expanded annual Russian MoD board meeting on December 21.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
  • Russian forces are expanding defensive fortifications on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • A Kremlin official deflected questioning surrounding a Moscow Oblast military recruitment officer’s December 17 claim that Russian authorities will extend the service period for conscript soldiers.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Russian security services intensify their efforts to counter pro-Ukrainian partisan activity.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 19

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 19, 9:30pm 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.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko likely deflected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to coerce Belarus into further Russian-Belarusian integration concessions during a meeting in Minsk on December 19. Putin and Lukashenko refrained from publicly discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with both leaders noting that Belarus still faces a Western threat.[1] Putin announced that he may consider training Belarusian combat aviation crews for the use of “munitions with special warheads” due to the “escalating” situation on the Union State’s external borders.[2] ISW has previously assessed that Lukashenko uses the rhetoric of defending Belarusian borders against the West and NATO in an effort to avoid participating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[3] Lukashenko had also used similar hints about the possible deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus on February 17 in the context of claimed Western aggression.[4] Lukashenko noted that Russia will deliver S-400 air defense complexes and Iskander complexes, while Putin stated that both leaders discussed the formation of a united defense space.[5] ISW continues to assess that Belarus’ participation in Putin’s war against Ukraine remains unlikely. The fact that Putin appears to have accepted Lukashenko’s talking points without persuading Lukashenko to adjust them indirectly supports this assessment. Lukashenko would likely adjust his rhetoric to create some plausible explanation to his own people about why he was suddenly turning away from the fictitious NATO invasion threat he has manufactured to join Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin has also attempted to conceal Putin’s likely original intentions to pressure Lukashenko into further concessions regarding integration with the Russian Federation. Putin notably stated that “Russia is not interested in absorbing anyone,” when referring to Belarus.[6] This statement followed Lukashenko’s reiteration of Belarusian independence and full sovereignty on December 16 and appears to be a defensive reaction to Lukashenko’s comments.[7] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also stated that Putin did not go to Belarus to convince Lukashenko to join the war, noting that such speculations are unfounded and “foolish.”[8] Peskov had avidly denied Putin’s intention to invade Ukraine days before the start of offensive operation in a similar fashion, to be sure, but this denial is more likely an attempt to cover up Putin’s desperation to involve Lukashenko in the war and apparent failure—again—to do so.

Russian forces targeted Kyiv with Shahed-131 and -136 kamikaze drone strikes overnight on December 18–19. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 30 Russian Shahed drones, including 10 over southern Ukraine and 18 over Kyiv.[9] Kyiv City Military Administration Head Serhiy Popko stated that Russian strikes did manage to hit an unspecified infrastructure object in Kyiv, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian strikes targeted energy infrastructure.[10] Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov assessed that Russian forces have enough missiles left to conduct three or four more rounds of strikes and then would have to acquire more missiles from Iran, which Ukraine would struggle to defend against; but he noted that Ukrainian forces know how to defend against Shahed kamikaze drones.[11] Russian milbloggers continued to criticize Russian forces for striking operationally insignificant targets that do not forward Russia’s military goals in Ukraine.[12]

Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, shared a Russian volunteer’s harsh critique of the Russian military’s overall performance in the war on December 19.[13] The volunteer framed his critique around Russian failures to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensives; the circumstances that led to those failures; and Russian leadership, media, and milbloggers’ failure to address the situations and decision to focus on false positivity.[14] Girkin himself has been a profound critic of the Kremlin and Russia’s military failures, especially following his claimed two-month stint fighting in Ukraine, as ISW has previously reported.[15] The volunteer forecasted that Russian forces will have to surrender more cities and even full oblasts to Ukraine as they will be unable to defend against a possible winter counteroffensive, and Girkin’s amplification of such a forecast suggests he may agree with it. Girkin’s own extremely pessimistic forecasts have been surprisingly accurate, including his critiques of the failure to effectively generate Russian military volunteers in May that has carried over to current mobilization efforts, of the disproportionately high Russian price paid for the limited gain of the capture of Lysychansk in July, and of Russian logistics lines’ continued vulnerability to HIMARS strikes across the theater.[16] Other prominent Russian milbloggers largely ignored the rant that Girkin amplified on December 19 (unlike Girkin's own December 6 rant following his return to Russia and Telegram), instead continuing to report on Russian activity around Bakhmut in the same performative nature that portrays operationally insignificant gains as huge victories—a framing that the volunteer’s rant spent hundreds of words condemning.[17]

The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is reportedly clashing with other pro-Russian authorities about basic administrative functions, suggesting a lack of cohesion between occupation administrations throughout various areas of occupied Ukraine. Russian-backed Crimean chairman of the Association of Freight Carriers and Freight Forwarders, Anatoly Tsurkin, posted a public appeal to DNR Head Denis Pushilin on December 18 calling for Pushilin to regulate the “illegal, groundless actions that are carried out on the territory of the DNR” by employees of various DNR military, administrative, law enforcement, and bureaucratic organs.[18] Tsurkin claimed that DNR employees in the areas of Nikolske and Manhush (transport hubs west of Mariupol that have access to the M14 Mariupol-Berdyansk-Melitopol highway that leads to the E105 Melitopol-Dzankoi highway that links occupied Zaporizhia Oblast with occupied Crimea) are detaining trucks traveling from Crimea for no special reason and with tenuous justifications in order to confiscate drivers’ personal documents and illegally confiscate cars.[19] Tsurkin’s complaints likely come partially as a result of increased pressure on Russian authorities to find alternative logistics routes from Russia to Crimea due to damage to the Kerch Strait Bridge. They are additionally emblematic of growing friction between the DNR and other Russian-affiliated factions, on which ISW has previously reported.[20] The lack of administrative cohesion in Pushilin’s regime is apparently being ill-received by other Russian and Russian-backed authorities, which broadly suggests that Pushilin is not communicating effectively with other occupation organs and therefore complicating logistics between the DNR and other occupied territories.

The Wagner Group has likely built its offensive model around tactical brutality in order to accommodate for and take advantage of its base of poorly trained and recently recruited convicts. The UK Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on December 19 that the Wagner Group is continuing to play a major role in attritting Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut and that the group has developed its distinct set of tactics around the fact that its recruit base is primarily composed of former convicts with little to no training.[21] UK MoD noted that Wagner Group command takes advantage of the tendency of recruits to engage in brutal behavior because it protects high-value leadership assets at the expense of low-value recruits.[22] ISW has extensively reported on the fact that the Wagner Group uses convicts to build out its fighting force and that Wagner Group forces are serving a largely attritional role in operations near Bakhmut, failing to take significant ground but effectively pinning Ukrainian forces in the defense of surrounding territory.[23]

Key Takeaways

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko likely deflected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to coerce Belarus into Russian-Belarusian integration concessions on December 19.
  • Russian forces targeted Kyiv with Shahed-131 and 136 kamikaze drone strikes overnight on December 18-19.
  • Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, wrote a harsh critique of the Russian military’s overall performance in the war.
  • The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) reportedly clashed with other Russian occupation authorities regarding basic administration procedures, suggesting tensions between the various occupation administrations in Ukraine.
  • The Wagner Group has likely built its offensive model around tactical brutality in order to accommodate for and take advantage of its base of poorly trained and recently recruited convicts.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line as Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces targeted Russian rear positions in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces reportedly lost positions south of Bakhmut on December 18 and continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are pulling back some elements from areas along the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continued efforts to establish the Wagner Group as a legitimate parastatal organization by petitioning notoriously nationalist elements in the Kremlin.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to restrict movement within occupied territories and employ societal intimidation tactics.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 18

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 18, 2pm 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, December 18. This report discusses recent efforts by Russian military leadership to address Russian failures in Ukraine, the planned December 19 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and continued efforts by Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to legitimize the Wagner Group and bolster his own reputation.

Russian military leadership is engaged in a campaign to present itself as part of an effective wartime apparatus in an effort to address the public perception of Russian failures in Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) posted footage on December 18 reportedly of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on a working trip to the Southern Military District (SMD) and inspecting the Russian force grouping in the combat zone in Ukraine.[1] Shoigu reportedly received briefings from field commanders and spoke directly with personnel on the frontline paying “special attention to the organization of comprehensive support for the troops, the conditions for deploying personnel in the field, as well as the work of medical and rear units.”[2] The Russian MoD posted footage on December 17 of Shoigu attending a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and Commander of the Joint Group of Forces in Ukraine Sergei Surovikin to discuss near and mid-term proposals for Russian operations in Ukraine.[3] Shoigu’s recent engagements suggest that the Russian MoD is attempting to bolster its reputation as an effective military organ in the face of consistent criticism of its conduct of the war by the pro-war community. The recent concerted efforts by Russian military officials to present themselves as actively engaged in planning and controlling the war effort, especially in the absence of tangible military victories in Ukraine, may suggest that Russia is preparing for a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the coming months. Shoigu’s visit to the SMD—with its focus on sustainment and medical support—is likely part of an effort to show that the military leadership is fixing the Russian military’s devastating failures in those areas that have been the subject of constant angry commentary by milbloggers and protests by soldiers and their families.

Putin’s planned December 19 meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely part of the same effort to present proactivity as well as an effort to set information conditions for a new phase of the war. Commander of the Ukrainian Combined Forces Serhiy Nayev commented on the upcoming Putin-Lukashenko meeting and noted that it comes after Putin’s December 17 meeting with the Russian military command to discuss both immediate and mid-term goals for the war.[4] Nayev reported that the Ukrainian government believes Putin will discuss the wider involvement of Belarusian forces in further Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is consistent with ISW’s forecast for the meeting.[5] Taken in tandem, Putin’s meeting with the Russian command, Shoigu’s purported frontline visit, and the Putin-Lukashenko meeting suggest a new phase in the presentation, planning, and conduct of the war and may presage renewed offensive operations against Ukraine in the coming months.

The capacity of the Russian military, even reinforced by elements of the Belarusian armed forces, to prepare and conduct effective large-scale mechanized offensive operations in the next few months remains questionable, as other analysts have observed.[6] The manpower Russia is generating from mobilized reservists and from the annual fall conscription cycle will not be sufficiently trained to conduct rapid and effective mechanized maneuver this fall. Russia’s struggles to keep the forces it currently has fighting in Ukraine equipped with tanks, artillery, long-range strike, and other essential materiel are very unlikely to be resolved in time to equip a large new force for offensive operations this winter. Putin may nevertheless order renewed large-scale offensive operations later this winter, but it is important not to overestimate the likely capabilities of Russian or combined Russo-Belarusian forces to conduct them successfully. ISW continues to assess that it is unlikely that Lukashenko will commit the Belarusian military (which would also have to be re-equipped) to the invasion of Ukraine.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued efforts to legitimize the Wagner Group as a parastatal armed force and increase his own power base by lobbying for increased state benefits for Wagner Group personnel who fought in Ukraine. Prigozhin complained on December 18 that the local St. Petersburg authorities refused to bury a Wagner Group fighter in burial grounds for participants of the “special operation” and instead intend to relegate private military company (PMC) fighters to a separate section, which Prigozhin called humiliating.[7] Prigozhin released a letter appealing to Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairperson Andrey Kartapolov to extend combat veteran status to Wagner Group fighters.[8] Some Russian milbloggers expressed support for this measure, claiming that any Russian citizen who fights and dies in Ukraine deserves to be buried with full military honors.[9] Prigozhin’s appeal does not include fighters of other PMCs, however.[10] Prigozhin previously expressed his support for a similar measure on November 8 when the State Duma considered and passed a bill extending combat veteran status to Russian military volunteers.[11] Prigozhin has notably feuded with Russian regional authorities in Belgorod Oblast and St. Petersburg, as ISW has previously reported.[12]

Prigozhin’s bid for increased recognition comes as reports of systematic executions within Wagner forces emerge, suggesting that Wagner leadership is willing to go to great lengths to preserve the Wagner Group’s image as a highly disciplined force.[13] Russian opposition outlet The Insider reported on December 16 that Wagner forces routinely execute deserters and those who refuse to fight, especially those recruited from penal colonies.[14] The Insider reported that Wagner has its own internal security forces to conduct the executions and that one commanderwho commanded executed POW Yevgeny Nuzhinpersonally witnessed several executions.[15] Prigozhin previously expressed public support for Nuzhin’s execution, as ISW has previously reported.[16] Such reports also indicate that Wagner Group forces struggle with morale and discipline issues among new recruits similar to those of conventional Russian forces but combat it with harsh punishments rather than the obfuscation and attempts to appease dissatisfied recruits that characterize the Russian MoD’s general approach.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on December 18:

  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Andriy Yusov reported that the Russian military received a new batch of Iranian-made drones and continues to negotiate with Iran on the acquisition of ballistic missile systems.[17]
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that positional fighting continued along the Svatove-Kremmina line.[18]
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources reported ongoing fighting in the outskirts of Bakhmut and to the northeast and south of the city.[19] The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces captured Yakovlivka, Donetsk Oblast, northeast of Soledar.[20]
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces dislodged Russian forces from long-held positions near Bakhmut.[21]
  • A Ukrainian official stated that Russian forces are redeploying units from the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast and that it is too early to tell whether Russian forces are withdrawing.[22] Russian and Ukrainian forces continued routine artillery and rocket strikes across the Dnipro River.[23]
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces struck two Russian force concentrations and two ammunition depots in Zaporizhia Oblast on December 16, injuring 150 personnel and destroying 10 pieces of equipment.[24] Ukrainian Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov stated that Russian forces are placing dragon’s teeth anti-tank defenses in Melitopol.[25]
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities continue to struggle to address a severe shortage of medical personnel and supplies.[26]

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 17

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 17, 5:30 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 Kremlin is likely attempting to depict Russian President Vladimir Putin as a competent wartime leader and to rehabilitate the image of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) by publicizing Putin’s meeting with the joint headquarters of the Russian Armed Forces. The Kremlin announced on December 17 that Putin worked at the joint headquarters of the services of the Russian Armed Forces throughout the day, heard reports on the progress of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, and held a meeting with the joint headquarters and a separate meeting with commanders.[1] The Russian MoD and media published footage of the meeting with the joint headquarters that showed that Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu, and the Commander of the Joint Group of Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergei Surovikin were in attendance.[2] Images and video of the event provided by the Russian MoD preclude the identification of other notable officers (such as military district or army commanders) present, however. The Kremlin likely publicized the meeting to present Putin as being thoroughly engaged with the planning and execution of the war in Ukraine following recent prominent criticism of his role in leading the war effort by figures in the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.[3] One prominent milblogger even questioned whether “Putin finally showed public interest in the special military operation” at their suggestion to do so.[4]

The Kremlin also likely publicized Putin’s meeting with the joint headquarters to rehabilitate the image of the Russian MoD in response to the pro-war community’s routine criticism of the Russian MoD. The Kremlin likely consciously publicized Gerasimov’s, Shoigu’s, and Surovikin’s attendance at the meeting with Putin to present the Russian MoD as an organized, unified, and effective war-fighting institution and to shield the top commanders of the Russian Armed Forces from further criticism. The Russian MoD has taken great care in the past months to affirm Gerasimov’s continued role as Chief of the General Staff for a similar reason- in the absence of tangible Russian victories against Ukraine, Russian military leadership seeks to present a picture of a functional and seamless chain of military command.[5] The Kremlin is likely attempting to rehabilitate the image of the Russian MoD to counterbalance the growing influence of pro-war ultra-nationalist figures, primarily that of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, and their parallel military structures. The Kremlin will likely continue to attempt to shield the Russian MoD from criticism while still facilitating the growing influence of these ultra-nationalist pro-war figures. This effort is unsustainable and will likely continue to generate conflict between the Russian MoD and the ultra-nationalist pro-war community.

The Kremlin likely aims to portray Putin as a leader in touch with the Russian people by publicizing Putin’s participation in meaningless events like the grand opening of a turkey farm. Independent Russian news outlet The Moscow Times reported that the Kremlin has instructed leaders of certain state-owned corporations and regional governors to prepare a “positive agenda” of news and events in which Putin can participate.[6] The Moscow Times noted that Putin’s calendar already includes small events, such as the grand opening of a turkey breeding center, commemorating the anniversaries of state corporations, and reopening a repaired highway.[7] The Moscow Times cited Kremlin officials who said that the social well-being of the Russian people is declining while war fatigue is growing and that Putin needs to be seen as a “herald of good news.”[8] Such efforts likely aim to remind the Russian people that Putin is not just a military leader in wartime but also a civilian leader with close ties to the people. However, amplifying pithy events while canceling opportunities for the public to meaningfully engage with Putin on the state of the war and the country will not likely meaningfully improve Putin’s image, and, as ISW previously assessed, may undermine Putin’s populist appeal.[9] Russian pro-war nationalists have recently criticized the Russian MoD for similar performative messaging that ignores Russia‘s wartime realities by branding the MoD with the epithet “Russian Ministry of Camouflage Selfies,” as ISW has previously reported.[10]

New York Times (NYT) investigation of Russian military documents supports ISW’s longstanding assessments about how flawed Russian planning assumptions and campaign design decisions plagued Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from its onset. ISW has long assessed that faulty Russian planning assumptions, campaign design decisions, and Russian violations of Russia’s own military doctrine undermined Russian operations. The NYT acquired and published logbooks, timetables, orders, and other documents of elements of the 76th Airborne Division and 1st Guards Tank Army related to the early days of the war on December 16.[11] The documents demonstrate that Russian military planners expected Russian units to be able to capture significant Ukrainian territory with little to no Ukrainian military opposition. The documents indicate that elements of the 76th Airborne Division and Eastern Military District were ordered to depart Belarus and reach Kyiv within 18 hours against little resistance; Russian planners placed OMON riot police and SOBR Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) special police elements (essentially a Russian SWAT equivalent) within the first column of a maneuver element of the 104th Air Assault Regiment of the 76th Airborne Division.[12] Riot police are not suitable lead elements for a large maneuver force in a conventional force-on-force war because they are not trained to conduct combined arms or mechanized warfare. The decision to place riot police in the lead column is a violation of Russian (or any normal) doctrine and indicates that Russian planners did not expect significant organized Ukrainian resistance. A separate set of orders indicates that Russian planners expected unsupported elements of the Russian 26th Tank Regiment (of the 47th Tank Division, 1st Guards Tank Army) to conduct a mostly uninhibited, 24-hour dash from Ukraine’s border with Russia to a point across the Dnipro River, about 400 kilometers away.[13] Ukrainian forces destroyed elements of the 26th Tank Regiment in Kharkiv Oblast, hundreds of kilometers short of its intended destination on March 17.[14]

The NYT investigation also supports ISW’s assessments that Russian strategic commanders have been micromanaging operational commanders' decisions on tactical matters and that Russian morale is very low. The investigation supported existing reporting that Russian soldiers in Belarus did not know they were going to attack Ukraine until February 23—the day before the invasion—and that some soldiers did not know about the invasion until one hour before the invasion began.[15] A retired Russian general told the NYT that the lack of a unified Russian theater command meant there was “no unified planning of actions and command [and control].”[16] A Ukrainian pilot told the NYT he was amazed that Russian forces did not conduct a proper air and missile campaign at the beginning of the war to target Ukrainian airfields—as Russian doctrine prescribes. The NYT reported a Russian tank commander deliberately destroyed a Rosgvardia checkpoint in Zaporizhia Oblast over an argument and that many Russian soldiers sabotaged their own vehicles to avoid combat.[17] The NYT's findings support ISW’s assessments and body of research on why the Russian military has been experiencing significant failures since the beginning of the invasion.

Ongoing Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut are further driving a wedge between forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group troops. DNR Head Denis Pushilin claimed on December 17 that both DNR and Wagner units are closing the “pincers” on Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut.[18] Several milbloggers responded to Pushilin’s claim and categorically denied that DNR troops have anything to do with fighting in Bakhmut, emphasizing that offensive efforts in this area are exclusively led by the Wagner Group.[19] The disparities between Pushilin’s claims, which represent the official DNR line, and statements made by Prigozhin and other prominent voices in the Russian information space suggest that there is a continued and growing divide between the DNR and the Wagner Group. During battles for settlements south of Bakhmut in October, Prigozhin denied any involvement by DNR or conventional Russian troops in the capture of Ivanhrad.[20] Prigozhin has also previously been remarkably clear-eyed about the slow and grinding pace of Wagner advances in the Bakhmut area, which directly contrasts with exaggerated claims made by Pushilin and other Russian sources.[21] Wagner’s role in operations around Bakhmut will likely continue to contribute to divides between various factions in the Russian military and discredit DNR authorities and the forces that they command.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assesses that the Kremlin is not serious about negotiations with Ukraine, agreeing with a longstanding ISW assessment. CIA Director William Burns told PBS NewsHour on December 16, “Most conflicts end in negotiations, but that requires a seriousness on the part of the Russians in this instance that I don't think we see... it's not our assessment that the Russians are serious at this point about a real negotiation.”[22] ISW has consistently assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not interested in negotiating seriously with Ukraine and retains maximalist objectives for the war.[23]

Putin has consistently weaponized invocations of the negotiation process to isolate Ukraine from partner support. Putin has routinely framed Ukraine as refusing concessions and likely seeks to use any ceasefire and negotiation window to allow Russian troops time to reconstitute and relaunch operations, thus depriving Ukraine of the initiative. A ceasefire agreement that occurs soon enough to allow Russian forces to rest and refit this winter is extremely unlikely. Russia and Ukraine are currently opposed to one another on the terms of any such agreement, and it is highly unlikely that Russian and Ukrainian officials will agree to a ceasefire, let alone implement one, for some months.  Russian forces will likely not have the opportunity to pause Ukrainian winter counter-offensives and reset before spring.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Kremlin is likely attempting to increase perceptions of Putin’s competence and of that of the Russian Ministry of Defense by publicizing Putin’s meeting with the joint headquarters of the Russian Armed Forces and Putin’s appearances at non-military events.
  • New York Times investigation of Russian military documents from early in the war supports ISW’s longstanding assessments about how flawed Russian planning assumptions and campaign design decisions plagued Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from its onset.
  • Ongoing Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut are further driving a wedge between forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group troops.
  • The US Central Intelligence Agency assesses that the Kremlin is not serious about negotiations with Ukraine, agreeing with a longstanding ISW assessment.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counterattacks near Svatove and Kreminna and continue to strike Russian rear areas.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian officials warned that Russian forces may be attempting to draw Ukrainian forces into a trap on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russia may be conducting an information operation falsely connecting ongoing negotiations on the demilitarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to a prospective future Ukrainian counteroffensive in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Several Russian sources denounced a military commissar's claim that Russian authorities will extend the service period for conscript soldiers. An extension of the legal mandatory service period would not be necessary to keep current conscripts in the field, however, as all former conscripts are reservists, and all reservists are already eligible for mobilization.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 16

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Riley Bailey, Katherine Lawlor, Layne Phillipson, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 16, 6:00 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 forces conducted their ninth large-scale missile campaign against critical Ukrainian energy infrastructure on December 16 and carried out one of the largest missile attacks on Kyiv to date. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhny stated that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 60 of 76 Russian missiles, of which 72 were cruise missiles of the Kh-101, Kalibr, and Kh-22 types, and four guided missiles of the Kh-59 and Kh-31P types.[1] The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed 37 of 40 missiles targeting Kyiv.[2] Ukrainian officials also reported that Russian missiles struck nine energy infrastructure facilities and some residential buildings in Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[3] Ukrainian military officials noted that Russian forces launched most of their missiles from the Black and Caspian seas and the Engels airfield in Saratov Oblast.[4] Russian forces are likely intensifying their strikes on Kyiv to stir up societal discontent in the capital, but these missile attacks are unlikely to break Ukrainian will.

Russian strikes continue to pose a significant threat to Ukrainian civilians but are not improving the ability of Russian forces to conduct offensive operations in Ukraine. Ukraine’s state electricity transmission system operator Ukrenergo stated that restoration of electricity may be delayed by the December 16 strikes and announced a state of emergency aimed at electricity market suppliers.[5] Ukrenergo added that Ukraine’s United Energy System had to cut more than 50% of energy consumption as a result of the strikes.[6]

Russian National Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev made inflammatory but irrelevant comments in support of ongoing information operations that aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine. Medvedev published on December 16 a list of what he described as legitimate military targets, which included "the armed forces of other countries that have officially entered the war" in Ukraine.[7] Medvedev rhetorically questioned whether Western military aid to Ukraine means that NATO members have entered the war against Russia.[8] Medvedev did not explicitly state that the armed forces of NATO members are legitimate military targets nor that he was stating an official Russian position on legitimate targets in the war in Ukraine.[9] Medvedev likely made the comments in coordination with the large-scale Russian missile strikes in an attempt to weaken Western support for Ukraine by stoking fears of escalation between the West and Russia. Medvedev has previously made purposefully inflammatory comments in support of other information operations with the same aims.[10] Medvedev's past and current inflammatory rhetoric continues to be out of touch with actual Kremlin positions regarding the war in Ukraine. Russian forces have and will likely continue to target Western military equipment that Ukrainian forces have deployed in Ukraine, of course, but there is nothing surprising or remarkable in that fact.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for Russian-Belarusian integration concessions at an upcoming December 19 meeting in Minsk—Putin’s first meeting with Lukashenko in Minsk since 2019.[11] Lukashenko and Putin reportedly will discuss Russian-Belarusian integration issues, unspecified military-political issues, and implementing Union State programs.[12] The Union State is a supranational agreement from 1997 with the stated goal of the federal integration of Russia and Belarus under a joint structure. The Kremlin seeks to use the Union State to establish Russian suzerainty (control) over Belarus.[13]

Lukashenko is already setting information conditions to deflect Russian integration demands as he has done for decades.[14] Lukashenko stressed that "nobody but us is ruling Belarus," and that Belarus is ready to build relations with Russia but that their ties "should always proceed from the premise that we are a sovereign and independent state."[15] It is unclear whether Putin will be successful in extracting his desired concessions from Lukashenko. Lukashenko has so far largely resisted intensified Russian integration demands and has refused to commit Belarusian forces to join Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s visit to Minsk could indicate that Putin is trying to set conditions for the newly assessed most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) that ISW reported on December 15: a renewed offensive against Ukraine—possibly against northern Ukraine or Kyiv—in winter 2023.[16] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin signed an unspecified document to further strengthen bilateral security ties—likely in the context of the Russian-Belarusian Union State—and increase Russian pressure on Belarus to further support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Minsk on December 3.[17] 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 a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as low, but possible. Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force. It is far from clear that Lukashenko would commit Belarusian forces to fight in Ukraine even alongside Russian troops. There are still no indicators that Russian forces are forming a strike force in Belarus.[18]

Putin and Lukashenko’s meeting will—at a minimum—advance a separate Russian information operation that seeks to break Ukrainian will and Western willingness to support Ukraine, however. This meeting will reinforce the Russian information operation designed to convince Ukrainians and Westerners that Russia may attack Ukraine from Belarus. Russia’s continued strikes against Kyiv, constant troop deployments to Belarus, and continued bellicose rhetoric are part of (and mutually reinforce) this information operation. The Kremlin is unlikely to break the Ukrainian will to fight. The Kremlin likely seeks to convince the West to accept a false fait accompli that Ukraine cannot materially alter the current front lines and that the war is effectively stalemated. ISW assesses that such a conclusion is inaccurate and that Ukraine stands a good chance of regaining considerable critical terrain in the coming months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ignored warnings about worst-case economic scenario assessments from senior Kremlin financial advisors prior to launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Unnamed sources told the Financial Times (FT) that the head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and the head of Sberbank, German Gref, briefed a 39-page assessment to Putin outlining the long-term damage to the Russian economy if Russia recognized the independence of proxy republics in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts a month prior to the full-scale invasion.[19] FT sources noted that both Nabiullina and Gref spoke to Putin of their own initiative but were not brave enough to tell Putin that Russia risked a geopolitical disaster when he interrupted the brief to ask how Russia can prevent a worst-case scenario. Nabiullina and Gref specifically warned Putin that Western sanctions would set the Russian economy back by decades and negatively impact the Russian quality of life. Both Nabiullina and Gref reportedly were shocked when Putin launched the invasion on February 24 and indirectly expressed some discontent to their inner circles, despite implementing provisions to mitigate some negative impacts of sanctions during the first weeks of the war.

The report, if true, indicates that Putin had received some prognosis of the war’s risks and costs but decided to ignore them in favor of his maximalist goal of seizing Ukraine. It is unclear if Putin received and subsequently ignored similar reports from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), but his engagement with Nabiullina and Gref shows that he had some awareness of the potential long-term risks of the war. Nabiullina's and Gref's reported hesitance to dissuade Putin also demonstrates the unbalanced power dynamic that may have prompted some Russian officials to play along with Putin’s bad decisions rather than remonstrating with him.

Russia is continuing to endure some economic challenges as a direct result of Putin’s war in Ukraine. FT reported that Nabiullina was able to protect the Russian economy from the worst-case scenario by undertaking provisions such as regulation of the exchange control during the first day of the war, but some war costs are likely catching up to the Kremlin. Russia’s Central Bank announced on December 16 that mobilization had sparked increasing manpower shortages across several industries in Russia.[20] The Central Bank report added that Russia has limited possibilities to expand its production as a result of shortages in the state labor market and noted that "unemployment hit a historic low." The costs of Putin’s war, including the human and labor cost of his force generation efforts, will continue to have a long-term effect on Russia’s economy, as ISW has previously assessed.[21] 

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted another set of large-scale missile strikes throughout Ukraine and one of the largest missile attacks against Kyiv to date.
  • Russian strikes continue to pose a significant threat to Ukrainian civilians despite generating no improvement in the Russian ability to conduct offensive operations.
  • Dmitry Medvedev made inflammatory but irrelevant comments in support of ongoing information operations that aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to support the Russian war in Ukraine further at a December 19 meeting in Minsk.
  • Lukashenko is already setting information conditions to deflect Russian integration demands.
  • Putin’s upcoming visit to Minsk could indicate that he is setting conditions for a new offensive from Belarusian territory.
  • Putin and Lukashenko’s meeting will likely advance a separate Russian information operation that seeks to break Ukrainian will and Western willingness to support Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ignored worst-case scenario assessments of potential damage to the Russian economy prior to launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia is continuing to face economic challenges as a direct result of the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted counterattacks in the Svatove and Kreminna areas.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas.
  • Russian forces continued to undertake defensive measures on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian officials will likely struggle to recruit additional contract servicemembers despite ongoing efforts to do so.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued seizing civilian infrastructure to treat wounded Russian servicemen and aid Russian forces operating in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 15

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 15, 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.

Russia may be setting conditions to conduct a new offensive against Ukraine— possibly against Kyiv—in winter 2023. Such an attack is extraordinarily unlikely to succeed.  A Russian attack from Belarus is not imminent at this time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Ukraine have not changed according to Ukrainian officials’ and ISW’s assessments based on Kremlin statements and actions. Putin continues to pursue maximalist goals in Ukraine using multiple mechanisms intended to compel Ukrainians to negotiate on Russia’s terms and likely make preemptive concessions highly favorable to Russia. This fundamental objective has underpinned the Kremlin’s various military, political, economic, and diplomatic efforts over the past 10 months in Ukraine.

Various Ukrainian defense officials continue to assess that Putin maintains maximalist goals and seeks to compel Ukraine to enter negotiations and/or accept a ceasefire to advance Russian objectives. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on December 15 that the ultimate goal of Russia is the “complete conquest and control over Ukraine,” and noted that recent Russian information operations have been aimed at compelling Ukraine to enter negotiations with Russia.[1] Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated that Russia seeks to force Ukraine into negotiations in order to generate a strategic pause that would afford Russian troops time to regroup and regain strength.[2] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny emphasized that Russia is seeking to temporarily force Ukraine to agree to stop fighting in order to gather renewed resources and prepare for renewed future offensive operations.[3]

Putin is using two simultaneous military efforts to pursue his ultimate objective of regaining control of Ukraine and securing major territorial concessions. Russia’s current offensive pushes in Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Bakhmut and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and the ongoing campaign of massive missile strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure are intended to create realities on the ground that Russia will likely demand Ukraine recognize as the basis for negotiations.[4] Russian troops have reinforced their efforts throughout Donetsk Oblast with freed-up combat power following the withdrawal from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast and have been consistently pursuing territorial objectives, albeit unsuccessfully. ISW continues to assess that Putin has given the order for Russian troops to complete the capture of the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, and that current Russian offensive efforts around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast are part of the effort to execute that order. Ukrainian officials reiterated that the immediate focus of Russian efforts is securing territorial gains in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.[5] Putin likely hopes that these offensive operations will threaten Ukraine‘s ability to further defend territory and cause significant damage to Ukrainian combat power so that Ukraine will have no choice but to negotiate a ceasefire, concede on Russia’s terms, and ultimately allow Russian troops the time to reconstitute and relaunch new offensive operations in the future. The massive Russian missile strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure are Putin’s second military effort to compel Ukraine to surrender or enter negotiations on Putin’s terms. Over the course of the last two months, Russian forces have used missiles and drones to systematically target civilian and energy infrastructure in a way that generates disproportionate psychological impacts but does not achieve significant military objectives.

These two military efforts are failing to coerce Ukraine into negotiating or offering preemptive concessions, and Ukraine has retained the battlefield initiative following its two successive counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. Putin may therefore be setting conditions for a third, sequential military effort in the likely event that these two efforts fail to secure his objectives by preparing for a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the winter of 2023. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny suggested that such an offensive could take place as early as January, in the worst-case scenario, and March, in the best case.[6] Zaluzhny additionally observed that this new offensive could take the form of another mechanized attack against Kyiv from Belarusian territory.[7] As ISW has previously reported, there are a series of observed indicators that suggest that Russian forces may indeed be preparing for a new offensive operation—including the reconsolidation of force compositions along major axes of advance and the movement of heavy equipment to the frontlines.[8]

The winter 2023 timeframe suggested by Ukrainian officials for such a potential offensive is consistent with ISW’s long-standing assessment that the winter will facilitate Ukrainian and Russian offensive operations and is consistent with the current projected timeline for the completion of Russian force generation efforts.[9] Putin announced the beginning of mobilization in late September 2022.[10] Putin stated that Russia fielded 150,000 mobilized men of the initial 300,000 mobilized recruits in Ukraine on December 7—about two months after beginning mobilization—and that 150,000 mobilized men continue to train in Russia to prepare for deployment.[11] The remaining 150,000 mobilized men in training should deploy to Ukraine around February to March 2023 if the training and deployment rate remains uniform and as Putin described. Zaluzhny noted that Russia is currently preparing 200,000 troops for deployment—an expanded estimate which likely incorporates servicemembers from the autumn 2022 conscription cycle who are training alongside the remaining mobilized recruits.[12] The combination of ongoing training efforts for both mobilized recruits and the Fall 2022 conscript class, alongside indications that Russia is preparing for another wave of “partial” mobilization, indicate that Russia is trying to generate the combat capability for a renewed offensive in the early months of 2023.[13]

Russian forces may be setting conditions to attack from Belarus, though ISW continues to assess a Russian invasion from Belarus is not imminent at this time. The Ukrainian General Staff’s daily reports from December 1 to 15 uniformly state that Ukrainian officials have not detected Russian forces in Belarus forming strike groups necessary to attack northern Ukraine.[14] There are no observed open-source indicators that Russian forces are forming strike groups within Belarus as of December 15. Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike group.[15]

The following indicators support a forecast cone that Russia may be setting conditions to attack Ukraine from Belarus in winter 2023. ISW will continue to monitor the situation and provide updated assessments.

-          Russia’s military presence in Belarus has been growing since fall 2022. Multiple official Ukrainian and independent Belarusian sources have reported a growing Russian military presence in Belarus since October 2022.[16] Hromov stated on December 15 that Russia most recently deployed one battalion's worth of tanks to the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest and one battalion’s worth of tanks to the Losivdo Training Ground in Vitebsk during the week of December 4-11.[17] A senior Ukrainian intelligence official stated on October 24 that Russia deployed about 3,200 personnel to Belarus.[18] These numbers alone are not sufficient to support an invasion of Ukraine but could indicate an effort to again accumulate a large Russian force in Belarus.

-          Ukrainian officials claim that Russian forces in Belarus do not have specific plans to return to Russia after completing their training. Hromov stated that the Russian military has not given Russian trainees in Belarus any indication about their future tasks or whether they will deploy back to Russia, remain in Belarus, or attack Ukraine.[19] Russian commanders may be keeping options open for a potential attack against Ukraine from Belarus in winter 2023.

-          Senior Ukrainian officials are increasingly warning that Russian forces may attempt to attack Kyiv. Zaluzhny said that Russian forces may attempt to attack Ukraine from Belarus between January and March 2023 and stated “I have no doubt [Russian forces] will have another go at Kyiv” on December 15.[20] Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on December 13 that Russia may be preparing for a large-scale offensive in January and February 2023.[21]

-          Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army—in principle the Russian military’s most elite heavy formation that could form the core of a strike force—are reportedly training in Belarus as of December 15. Hromov stated that elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army are training in Belarus.[22] All maneuver elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army have taken heavy losses near Kharkiv, Sumy, and eastern Kyiv Oblast, making its “elite” status and effective combat power even after reconstitution with mobilized reservists and/or conscripts questionable.

It remains extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces would be able to take Kyiv even if Russian forces again attack from Belarus again. Russian forces are extremely unlikely to be more successful at attacking northern Ukraine in the winter of 2023 than they were in February 2022. Russia’s conventional forces are badly degraded and lack the combat power that they had when Russia attempted (and failed) its full-throated effort to capture Kyiv in February 2022. Russian forces have been unable to secure their gains across Ukraine and have lost over 70,000 square km of occupied territory since abandoning Kyiv. Russian forces in Bakhmut currently advance no more than 100-200 meters a day after concentrating their main efforts there.[23] Russia has not established air superiority let alone  air supremacy in Ukraine and has largely exhausted its precision-guided munitions arsenal. Ukrainian forces, for their part, have prepared significant defenses in northern Ukraine and are better prepared to defend now than they were in February 2022. The terrain near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border is not conducive to maneuver warfare and possible invasion routes from Belarus to Kyiv run through defensible chokepoints in the Chernobyl exclusion zone that Ukrainian forces now have experience defending.[24]

Key Takeaways

  • Russia may be setting conditions to conduct a new offensive against Ukraine—possibly against Kyiv—in winter 2023. Such an attack is extraordinarily unlikely to succeed.  A Russian attack from Belarus is not imminent at this time.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Ukraine have not changed.
  • Putin is using two simultaneous military efforts to pursue his objective of conquering Ukraine and securing major concessions.
  • Putin is likely setting conditions for a renewed offensive before spring of 2023 to coerce Ukraine into offering concessions.
  • Russian forces may be setting conditions to attack from Belarusian territory, although ISW continues to assess that the Belarusian military will not join the fighting in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations south of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.
  • The Russian officer corps continues to suffer heavy losses in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian partisans conducted a sabotage attack on a power transformer substation in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 14

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 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 President Vladimir Putin’s alluded decision to postpone his annual address to the Russian Federation Assembly indicates he remains uncertain of his ability to shape the Russian information space amidst increasing criticism of his conduct of the invasion of Ukraine. The Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly to the Russian State Duma and Federation Council is an annual speech introduced to the Russian constitution in February 1994, roughly equivalent to the US President’s annual State of the Union address. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Putin may deliver his address to the Federation Assembly in 2023 and called on Russians to stop "fortune-telling with coffee grounds" regarding the timing of the next address.[1] An unnamed government source told the Russian state newswire TASS that the countdown for the new address starts from the date of the previous address, noting that the address is unlikely to take place in 2022.[2] Putin held his last address in late April 2021, discussing his initiatives for the year following the first crisis he caused with the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border in early 2021.[3]

The Russian withdrawal from Kyiv Oblast and northern Ukraine in April 2022 likely spoiled Putin’s plans to declare victory during the Federation Assembly address. Putin had previously seized the opportunity in March 2014 to deliver the "Crimean Speech," wherein he announced the illegal annexation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.[4] Putin likely anticipated a similar outcome in early spring only to indefinitely postpone the address, likely as a result of Russian military failures, his announced annexation of territories Russian forces did not control, and public dissatisfaction with mobilization. Putin may be still waiting and hoping to deliver a grandiose victory speech in 2023 or postponing the moment when he will have to admit that Russia cannot achieve his frequently restated maximalist aims in Ukraine.

Putin may not be confident in his ability to justify the cost of his war upon Russian domestic and global affairs when addressing the Russian public and elites. The unnamed TASS source noted that the address requires significant preparation by the president and his staff as it normally addresses plans for all aspects of Russian society—economy, education, military, global partnerships, etc. A victory in Ukraine could have allowed Putin to obfuscate Russian human and financial losses as it did in 2014, but Russia has not had any significant victories since the Russian occupation of Lysychansk in early July. Putin had previously attempted to sell the annexation of partially occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts on September 30 as a major victory, only to reportedly generate further grumbling among Russian elites and undermine state propaganda narratives.[5] Putin’s most recent appearances on December 7 and December 9 offered vague responses to a few concerns over the length of the war, a second mobilization wave, and a claimed Ukrainian threat to Russian territory but also generated some criticism and confusion within the Russian pro-war community.[6] The Russian withdrawal from Kherson City had also angered prominent nationalist ideologists who had begun to question Putin’s commitment and ability to establish "Greater Russia."[7]

Putin has already canceled his annual press conference with the members of the Russian public, likely in an attempt to avoid answering questions about Russia’s military failures without resorting to excessively obvious manipulation of questioners and questions. Peskov announced on December 12 that Putin will not hold his live press conference with Russians, which he had been hosting for ten years.[8] Putin appears to be increasingly turning to scripted and pre-recorded appearances such as his meeting with 18 hand-picked, politically affluent women on November 25 who falsely introduced themselves as mothers of mobilized servicemen.[9] Putin is likely attempting to preempt the risks associated with having to respond to a complex question. The cancellation of the press conference, however, may undermine Putin’s populist appeal as a ruler in touch with his population.

Ukrainian officials are forecasting that Russia may attempt to launch a large-scale offensive in the early months of 2023. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on December 13 that indicators such as Russian mobilization efforts, the announcement of conscription, and the movement of heavy weaponry suggest that Russia may be preparing for a large-scale offensive in January and February 2023.[10] Kuleba’s statement is consistent with ISW’s long-standing assessment that the winter months will increase the pace of operations on both sides and that conditions on the ground throughout Ukraine will likely be conducive to offensive operations.[11]

Russian forces could most readily relaunch offensive operations along two main axes of advance in the coming months—along the Kharkiv-Luhansk border in northeastern Ukraine, or in Donetsk Oblast. Russian troops appear to be moving heavy equipment from rear areas in Luhansk Oblast to areas near the current frontline along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and have reshaped and reconsolidated their force grouping along this line, as ISW has recently reported.[12] Ukrainian and Russian sources have recently reported that Russian troops are conducting limited offensive operations along this line, particularly to regain lost positions west of Kreminna.[13] A recent drop in temperatures in this area to consistently below-freezing has allowed the ground to solidify, likely setting conditions for increasing the pace of offensive operations.

Russian combat power that was freed up following the withdrawal from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast has redeployed to various areas in Donbas, reinforced by mobilized reservists. Russian forces may additionally hope to launch an offensive in western Donetsk Oblast to build on marginal advances made in the Vuhledar-Pavlivka area in November.[14] ISW continues to assess that Russian forces seek to complete the capture of the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, and potential future offensives in western Donetsk Oblast may be intended to complement ongoing offensive drives on the western outskirts of Donetsk City and around Bakhmut to accomplish this wider territorial objective. However, despite the potential for new offensive operations, ISW continues to assess that Russian combat capability remains degraded and that Russian troops are highly unlikely to be able to take strategically-significant territory in the coming months.

Ukrainian air defense units shot down all the Shahed drones that Russian forces launched at Ukraine on December 14. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 13 Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 drones at critical infrastructure facilities in Ukraine, including areas of Kyiv Oblast, and that Ukrainian air defense forces shot down all the drones.[15]

Ukrainian sources reported that 64 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), including one American civilian, returned to Ukraine on December 14.[16] The Ukrainian Ministry of Reintegration announced the exchange but did not specify how many Russian soldiers were part of the deal.[17] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) notably has not commented on the exchange as of the time of this publication, which may draw criticism from prominent voices in the Russian milblogger information space who have called for increased transparency from the Russian MoD in its handling of prisoner exchanges.[18]

The Kremlin will likely intensify existing information operations accusing Ukraine’s government of oppressing religious liberty in Ukraine. Prominent Pro-Russian Telegram Channel Readovka made a post to its 1.5 million subscribers claiming that Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) raided Russian Orthodox churches in nine Ukrainian oblasts and accusing the SBU of conducting arbitrary "terror" searches to detain Russian Orthodox clergy on December 14.[19] This narrative contains elements of several observed Russian information operations designed to falsely portray Ukraine as oppressing Russian religious minorities.

Ukraine is not attacking religious liberty or Eastern Orthodoxy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree to impose personal sanctions against representatives of religious organizations associated with the Russian government on December 2.[20] This decree targets Kremlin-linked elements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). The UOC MP is not an independent religious organization. The UOC MP is the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church’s subordinate branch in Ukraine.[21] The UOC MP materially supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and continues to support Russia’s current invasion.[22] Ukrainian authorities convicted a Moscow Patriarchate priest in Severodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast, for providing information about Ukrainian forces to Russian forces since April 2022, for example.[23]

The UOC MP is not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, despite some inaccurate Western reporting characterizing it as "the Ukrainian Orthodox Church."[24] The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a separate entity that gained autocephaly (official independence) from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2019.[25] The UOC MP is a small element within Ukraine’s religious demography. Multiple surveys conducted in 2022 found that only four percent of Ukrainians identify as members of the Moscow Patriarchate, whereas over 50 percent of Ukrainians identify as members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.[26] More than double of the UOC MP’s current adherents identified as Greek Catholics (8.8 percent) in 2021.[27]

The Kremlin will likely intensify information operations accusing Ukraine of attacking freedom of the press within the next three months. Ukraine’s parliament passed a media law on December 13 to satisfy a European Union membership prerequisite.[28] This law expands the powers of Ukrainian state censors over media organizations—including online media, forbids spreading Russian propaganda or information that disparages the Ukrainian language or defends the Soviet regime that ruled from 1917-1991, and establishes regulatory ratios for Ukrainian-language content versus Russian-language content on radio stations. These policies do not outlaw Russian-language media or the use of the Russian language in Ukraine but take steps to preserve the use of the Ukrainian language against the Kremlin’s campaign of cultural genocide that seeks to eradicate the notion of a unique Ukrainian cultural identity.[29] The Kremlin intensified information operations that Ukraine attacked freedom of the press in early 2021 after Ukraine banned three prominent pro-Russian television channels linked to key Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk.[30] Ukraine’s new media law will enter into force three months after its ratification.[31]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly postponed his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly, indicating that the Kremlin is not confident that it can continue to shape the Russian information space.
  • Ukrainian officials are forecasting that Russian forces may attempt to launch a large-scale offensive at the beginning of 2023.
  • Ukrainian air defenses shot down all drones that Russian forces launched in attacks on December 14.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that 64 POWs returned to Ukrainian-held territory.
  • The Kremlin will likely intensify information operations aimed at presenting the Ukrainian government as oppressing religious liberties and freedom of the press.  
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and Russian forces conducted counterattacks in the Svatove and Kreminna areas.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations south of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Kremlin officials admitted to receiving complaints about mobilization despite mobilization’s "de facto end."
  • Ukrainian partisans continue to aid Ukrainian forces in identifying valuable Russian targets. 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 13

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 13, 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.

Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine despite a snap Belarusian military readiness check on December 13. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a snap comprehensive readiness check of the Belarusian military on December 13. The exercise does not appear to be cover for concentrating Belarusian and/or Russian forces near jumping-off positions for an invasion of Ukraine. It involves Belarusian elements deploying to training grounds across Belarus, conducting engineering tasks, and practicing crossing the Neman and Berezina rivers (which are over 170 km and 70 km away from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, respectively).[1] Social media footage posted on December 13 showed a column of likely Belarusian infantry fighting vehicles and trucks reportedly moving from Kolodishchi (just east of Minsk) toward Hatava (6km south of Minsk).[2] Belarusian forces reportedly deployed 25 BTR-80s and 30 trucks with personnel toward Malaryta, Brest (about 15 km from Ukraine) on December 13.[3] Russian T-80 tanks reportedly deployed from the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest, Belarus, to the Brest Training Ground also in Brest (about 30 km from the Belarusian-Ukrainian Border) around December 12.[4] Russia reportedly deployed three MiG-31K interceptors to the Belarusian airfield in Machulishchy on December 13.[5] These deployments are likely part of ongoing Russian information operations suggesting that Belarusian conventional ground forces might join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[6] ISW has written at length about why Belarus is extraordinarily unlikely to invade Ukraine in the foreseeable future.[7]

Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated on December 13 that the situation in northern Ukraine near Belarus has not significantly changed and that Ukrainian authorities still have not detected Russian forces forming strike groups in Belarus.[8] The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service reported that the situation on the border with Belarus is under control despite recent Belarusian readiness checks.[9]

Russian milbloggers accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of engaging in performative "excessive reporting" instead of addressing systemic issues with the Russian military and Russian operations in Ukraine. A prominent Russian milblogger discussed the "vicious practice of photo reports" in the Russian military and noted that Russian soldiers are often made to dress in statutory uniforms and appear on camera to propagate a sense of preparedness and professionalism instead of actually preparing for combat missions.[10] The milblogger emphasized that such demonstrations are purely theatrical and create a false sense of coherency in the Russian Armed Forces without actually addressing substantive issues with logistics, communications, and basic provision of units.[11] Several other milbloggers amplified this discussion and accused Russian authorities of engaging in "excessive reporting" in order to inundate the information space with photo and video artifacts that aim to "justify the existence" of the Russian MoD and create a guise of success for Russian operations in Ukraine.[12] One source emphasized its discontent with such "excessive reporting" and called the Russian MoD "the Ministry of Camouflage and Selfies."[13] Russian milbloggers continue to leverage their platforms and notoriety to launch nuanced critiques at the Russian MoD in a way that continues to indicate a growing rift between the bureaucratic practices of the MoD and the realities faced by Russian soldiers on the ground and reported on by a slate of Russian military correspondents. Such discourse allows prominent voices in the nationalist information space to advocate for substantive change while undermining the MoD establishment.

Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide Russia. Axios reported on December 12 that Iran fears international backlash from providing Russia with long range missiles to use in the war in Ukraine and noted that United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2231 passed in 2015 prevents the transfer or receipt of Iranian ballistic missiles with a range over 300 kilometers and a payload over 500 kilograms until October 2023.[14] Axios noted that violating this resolution could result in a "snapback" mechanism that reimposes UN sanctions against Iran.[15]

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russian in the 1990s as part of an international agreement that Russia explicitly violated by invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. In a comment to The New York Times Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky said that Russian forces are using ballistic missiles and Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers that Ukraine transferred to Russia as part of the Budapest Memorandum, whereby Ukraine transferred its nuclear arsenal to Russia for decommissioning.[16] Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom committed in return to "respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine." This agreement has generated some debate about whether or not it committed the United States and the United Kingdom to defend Ukraine, which it did not do. There can be no debate, however, that by this agreement Russia explicitly recognized that Crimea and areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts it occupied in 2014 were parts of Ukraine.  By that agreement Russia also committed "to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine," among many other provisions that Russia has violated. Skibitsky noted that Russia has removed the nuclear warhead from these decommissioned Kh-55 subsonic cruise missiles, which are now being used to launch massive missile strikes on Ukraine.[17]

US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine. The US officials expect to receive the necessary approvals from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden, and the Pentagon could make a formal announcement as early as December 15.[18] CNN reported that it is unclear how many Patriot missile systems the Pentagon plan would provide Ukraine, but that a typical Patriot battery includes up to eight launchers with a capacity of four ready-to-fire missiles each, radar targeting systems, computers, power generators, and an engagement control station.[19]

Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression. Independent Russian outlet Meduza noted on December 13 that Russia has been expanding the concept of terrorism under Russian legislation over the course of the last two decades, and as recently as December of this year the State Duma proposed new amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that equate sabotage with an act of terrorism.[20] Meduza amplified an investigation by another independent Russian outlet, Novaya Gazeta, that noted that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has transitioned from focusing on defining Islamist militant activity in the Caucasus as terrorism to orienting terrorism around the concept of Ukrainian "saboteurs."[21] FSB Head Alexander Bortnikov relatedly claimed on December 13 that there has been an increase in "terrorist" activity within Russia in 2022, which he related to Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) supposedly operating with Western support.[22] Russian authorities seem to be weaponizing the backdrop of the war in Ukraine to justify expansions of terrorism legislation under the guise of protecting domestic security. Such measures likely afford Russian security authorities greater latitude in cracking down on domestic dissent. As ISW has previously reported, Russian authorities have taken similar steps to use legal frameworks to broadly define individuals and actions as dangerous to Russian security and have recently proposed new bills on expanding the definition of "foreign agents" and the punishment for crimes considered to be sabotage.[23]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine despite a snap Belarusian military readiness check on December 13.
  • Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13.
  • Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide to Russia in order to avoid triggering UN "snapback" sanctions.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russia in the 1990s as part of an international agreement by which Russia recognized Crimea and all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as part of Ukraine and committed not to threaten or attack Ukraine.
  • US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine.
  • Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made marginal advances within Bakhmut and continued ground assaults near Avdiivka and Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces may be withdrawing from certain areas south of the Dnipro River as they continue fortifying rear positions in occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Likely Ukrainian actors downed a bridge in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast amid increased reports of Ukrainian strikes against Russian military assets near Melitopol within the past few days.
  • The Wagner Group is continuing efforts to use recruits from Russian prisoners to generate combat power.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 12

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, George Barros, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 12, 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.

Russian forces are continuing to shape and consolidate their force composition in eastern Ukraine to bolster defenses against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives near the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and support limited offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast. An independent Ukrainian analytical organization, the Center for Defense Strategies, noted on December 12 that the Russians are centralizing and systematizing the command and control of Western Military District (WMD) troops in the Kharkiv-Luhansk direction.[1] The Center noted that the 20th Combined Arms Army of the WMD is currently operating in this area in three general groupings: elements of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division near Svatove; elements of the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division on the Kreminna-Rubizhne line; and elements of the 18th Motorized Rifle Division of the 11th Army Corps in northwestern Luhansk Oblast near Troitske.[2] The Center also reported that elements of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps (troops of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, respectively), 76th Air Assault Division and 106th Airborne Division, and up to three BARS (Combat Reserve) detachments, amounting up to 15 to 17 battalions, are concentrated in this general area.[3] These troop concentrations are likely significantly degraded and understrength.

ISW has previously observed WMD elements operating throughout Kharkiv Oblast prior to the sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensives in September that ultimately drove Russian troops back to the current line along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border.[4] Russian and Ukrainian reporting has additionally suggested that there is a high concentration of mobilized personnel operating on this axis, likely in order to fill gaps in WMD units that have been degraded over the course of ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives in northeastern Ukraine.[5] BARS-13 and BARS-16 detachments have been particularly active along the Svatove-Kreminna line.[6] Elements of the Central Military District (CMD) have previously been observed in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area.[7] The observation that elements of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are operating in Luhansk Oblast suggests that they redeployed away from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast, where ISW previously reported they were operating prior to the massive Russian withdrawal from the right bank.[8] The current force composition of the Russian contingent in eastern Kherson is unclear. Elements of the Russian Southern Military District (SMD) likely maintain a presence in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts.[9]

Wagner Group fighters, supported by elements of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps, are largely responsible for driving offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Bakhmut and the western outskirts of Donetsk City. ISW has previously reported the role of Wagner Group forces in securing minor gains around Bakhmut over the last few months.[10] Troops of the 6th Regiment of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) 2nd Army Corps have been active northeast of Bakhmut in the Soledar area.[11] ISW has additionally observed the prevalence of groupings of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 1st Army Corps in the Donetsk City–Avdiivka area, particularly the “Sparta” and “Somalia” battalions, which have claimed gains along the western outskirts of Donetsk City in areas such as Pisky, Vodiane, and Marinka. DNR elements have notably been active in this area since 2014. Russian sources reported that DNR troops, elements of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD), and the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade and 40th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet were responsible for costly offensive operations southwest of Donetsk City in the Vuhledar-Pavlivka area in November.[12]

The cost of the Russian war in Ukraine will likely continue to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical campaigns worldwide. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on December 11 that Putin signed a law allocating over nine trillion rubles (approximately $143 billion) for defense, security, and law enforcement for the 2023 budget. That amount is about 8 percent of Russia’s 2021 gross domestic product according to the World Bank.[13] The UK MoD assessed that Russia’s defense spending significantly increased and will represent over 30% of Russia’s entire 2023 budget.[14] Putin is thus continuing to drain his budget into his war in Ukraine and may need to defund other international or domestic campaigns in the process. ISW has long assessed that Russian forces have been moving equipment and personnel from other conflict zones such as Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh and may deprioritize other combat and soft-power engagements in favor of sustaining a protracted war in Ukraine.[15]

Putin is seemingly still unwilling to sacrifice his geopolitical initiatives in the short-term, however, and risks facing a financial predicament in which he will not be able to balance maximalist goals in Ukraine with his global power projection campaigns. Putin, for example, has continued attempts to reestablish Russia’s position in Central Asia by unsuccessfully proposing to create a trilateral union among Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in late November and during a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 9.[16] Putin’s continued spending on regional soft-power initiatives has already upset a few prominent pro-war milbloggers, who had criticized the Kremlin for reportedly allocating almost six billion rubles (about $95.5 million) for the development of Russian-language schools in Tajikistan while failing to provide for Russian forces on the battlefield.[17] The milbloggers added that the Kremlin is not effectively leveraging its soft power in Tajikistan, which further brings the necessity of such spending into question.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially denied rumors that Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov has been or soon will be replaced, although it stopped short of offering the kind of credible support for this denial that it has provided that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu is still on the job. A prominent Russian media aggregator circulated a claim on December 11 that Gerasimov may soon be replaced.[18] The claim reportedly originated with unidentified Russian milbloggers, and some Russian sources either amplified the claim or cautioned their audiences to not engage with such rumors.[19] The Russian MoD directly denied Gerasimov’s resignation or replacement, called the claims a Ukrainian “fake,” and provided links to images that supposedly show Gerasimov carrying out official duties over the last few weeks.[20] The Russian MoD has previously displayed similar sensitivity to reports of Gerasimov either resigning or being replaced and directly responded to refute such claims, as ISW reported in July.[21] This concerted effort to prove Gerasimov is still functioning as Chief of the General Staff suggests that Russian MoD is attempting to present Russian military leadership as present and engaged in Russian military affairs and to counteract reports of massive disruptions and incoherencies in Russian command structure due to widespread failures in Ukraine.[22] Despite this apparent interest in maintaining Gerasimov’s reputation, the Russian MoD has failed to provide video evidence of his activities, which it has consistently done with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and should be able to do easily for the chief of the general staff.[23]

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated that Ukraine intends to continue counteroffensives in winter 2022–2023 after the hard freeze enables maneuver warfare, supporting an ISW assessment.[24] Reznikov stated on December 11 that Ukraine will resume counteroffensives after the “ground is firmer” during the winter when responding to a question about US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines’s forecast that Ukraine is likely to conduct counteroffensives in the spring rather than the winter.[25] Reznikov previously stated on December 6 that Ukraine needs artillery ammunition, armored vehicles, tanks, and combat aircraft to support Ukrainian counteroffensives.[26]

Senior US government officials may be correcting their assessments about Ukraine’s ability and intent to conduct counteroffensive operations this winter. Voice of America National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin reported that an unnamed senior US military official stated that, “We know the Ukrainians can fight and fight well under these [winter] conditions" on December 12.[27] DNI Haines previously mistakenly identified the optimal window of opportunity for Ukraine to conduct more counteroffensives as the spring rather than winter on December 3.[28] ISW previously assessed that Ukraine likely seeks to conduct successive operations through the winter of 2022–2023.[29]

The UK MoD assessed that Russia still likely aims to retain control over all its occupied Ukrainian territory, supporting ISW’s recent assessment that the Kremlin likely maintains its maximalist objectives in Ukraine.[30] The UK MoD assessed that Russian military leadership still intends to make additional advances within Donetsk Oblast but that current Russian military strategy is highly unlikely to allow Moscow to accomplish that goal.[31] ISW previously assessed that Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s December 8 statements defining Russian territorial goals as controlling all of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts remain maximalist given his restatement of Putin’s February 24 goals of “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, which would inhibit Ukraine’s ability to resist future Russian military or subversion campaigns.[32]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces are continuing to shape and consolidate their force composition in eastern Ukraine to bolster defenses against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives near the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and support limited offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast.
  • The cost of the Russian war in Ukraine will likely continue to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical campaigns worldwide.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially denied rumors that Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov has been or soon will be replaced, although it stopped short of offering the kind of credible support for this denial that it has provided that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu is still on the job.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated that Ukraine intends to continue counteroffensives in winter 2022–2023 after the hard freeze enables maneuver warfare, supporting an ISW assessment.
  • Senior US government officials may be correcting their assessments about Ukraine’s ability and intent to conduct counteroffensive operations this winter.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Svatove and Kreminna as Ukrainian forces struck rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka–Donetsk City areas and conducted defensive operations southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian military assets and logistics hubs along critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are fortifying the northern beaches of Crimea along the Black Sea coast.
  • Russian forces may lack sufficient infrastructure to support their troops in Crimea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 10

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 10, 6:40 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.

An unnamed US defense source told The Times that the Pentagon is no longer insisting that Ukraine should not strike military targets within Russia.[1] The source noted that the Pentagon has changed its perspective on this matter following the recent intensification of Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure over the last few months and that the Pentagon has become less concerned regarding the risk of escalation, including nuclear escalation, with Russia.[2] The Times suggested that this development is a “green light” for Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian territory.[3] Ukrainian commitments to Western partners previously stipulated that Ukraine had the right to use force to regain all its territory, including territory seized by Russia in 2014.[4] The US has previously not made an effort to prevent Ukraine from striking legitimate military targets located on sovereign Ukrainian territory, and the alleged statement made by the undisclosed US source is an extension of the previous policy. International law allows Ukrainian forces to strike legitimate targets even in Russian territory, especially targets from which Russian forces are launching attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

Russian forces conducted attacks against critical infrastructure targets in southern Ukraine using a significantly higher number of Iranian-made drones than in previous weeks. Ukrainian Air Force Command reported on December 10 that Russian forces conducted 15 attacks with Shahed-136 and 131 drones in Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa oblasts and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 of the drones.[5] Ukrainian Presidential Office Deputy Head Kyrylo Tymoshenko stated that one of the successful Russian drone strikes severely impacted critical infrastructure facilities in Odesa City and that restoration efforts would take longer than usual.[6] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces still pose a threat to the Ukrainian energy grid and civilian population despite Ukrainian air defenses’ high rates of shooting down Russian high-precision weapons systems.[7] ISW also previously assessed that Russian forces likely modified the drones for cooler weather and resumed using Iranian-made drones to strike Ukrainian cities for the first time in three weeks on December 7.[8] Russian forces have not used a higher number of Iranian-made drones in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure since October 23.[9] The increased pace of Russian attacks using Iranian-made drones follows a December 9 NBC News report that senior US officials stated that Russia is providing an unprecedented level of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Iranian-made weapons systems, including drones.[10] The increased pace of Russian drone attacks may indicate that Russian forces accumulated more drones over the three-week period of not using them or that Russia has recently received or expects soon to receive a new shipment of drones from Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is risking the loss of support from former proxy republic leaders and veterans due to Russian forces’ failure to push Ukrainian forces further west of Donetsk City and to “defend” Donbas. A former Defense Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Igor Girkin, who had also led the siege of Slovyansk in 2014, directly criticized Putin for failing to push Ukrainian forces near Donetsk City out of artillery range even though Putin had identified the protection of Donbas civilians as one of the objectives of the Russian “special military operation.”[11] Girkin specifically criticized Putin’s December 9 statement, which characterized the progress of the special military operation as “stable,” stating that only Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) see the war as successful. Former DNR Security Minister Alexander Khodakovsky noted emerging criticism of Putin, observing that Putin’s long reign has not completely been successful.”[12] Khodakovsky also noted emerging discussions of the need to change the state of affairs, alluded to corruption schemes surrounding the reconstruction of Mariupol, and added that Putin had inherited a rather corrupt society that he cannot fix by removing Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov (which Putin has not yet officially done). A prominent Russian milblogger also accused the Russian Armed Forces of failing to conduct counterbattery fire in defense of Donetsk City, despite never having failed to do so during the previous eight years of war.[13]

Girkin’s and Khodakovsky’s critiques are unprecedentedly direct compared with their previous attacks on the Kremlin. These explicit attacks on Putin may reflect a rift between the pro-war DNR and veteran communities and Putin. The Russian veteran and proxy community had long warned the Kremlin about the design flaws of its military campaign but had rallied behind Putin in the belief that his war – at the very least – would lead to the Russian occupation of Donbas.[14] ISW had previously also observed video footage of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) refusing to fight for territory in the DNR following the Russian capture of Lysychansk, and it is likely that proxy commanders and ideologists sought to prioritize the occupation of Donbas prior to embarking on Putin’s maximalist goal of conquering all of Ukraine.[15] Putin, however, had not delivered on his February 24 rhetorical goal of “saving” people in Donbas by forcing the Kyiv government to capitulate, nor has he accomplished localized military objectives in Donbas. Putin’s conditions-setting for a protracted war may further challenge his efforts to appease the ever-growing milblogger community that represents and speaks to important nationalist factions and interests.

Russian authorities are increasingly importing Chechen elements into occupied Ukraine to shape administrative regimes of occupied areas. Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov stated on December 8 that a Chechen delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Ibragim Zakriev visited Kherson Oblast and met with Kherson occupation Head Vladimir Saldo.[16] Saldo praised the Chechen Republic for being an example of economic well-being, resilience, and growth following years of devastating conflicts and stressed that he hopes to learn from the Chechen experience in developing a model of administration for Kherson Oblast.[17] Ukrainian Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov similarly noted that Kadyrov appointed a Chechen official to “share the experience of the formation of the [Chechen] republic.”[18] Fedorov emphasized that this official is largely meant to maintain control over local pro-Russian collaborators and terrorize the civilian population.[19] The same Chechen delegation also met with the Zaporizhia Oblast occupation administration to discuss cooperation and development measures.[20] The Chechen Republic and affiliated officials notably have a history of brutality and are not well-renowned for administrative capabilities, but Chechen detachments have played a significant law enforcement role and acted as security services in Russian rear areas in occupied portions of Ukraine throughout the war.[21] It is therefore likely that Russian occupation administrators seek to integrate Chechen officials into their occupation structures to consolidate their administrative control by capitalizing on Chechen expertise in oppression and security functions. This suggests that dissent and Ukrainian partisan activities are challenging the ability of occupation regimes to govern effectively, and the integration of Chechen models of administration is likely meant as a mitigating factor.

Key Takeaways

  • The Times reported that an unnamed US Defense source stated that the Pentagon is no longer insisting that Ukraine refrain from striking military targets in Russia given the ongoing Russian campaign of systematically destroying Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
  • Russian forces conducted attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure using a higher number of Iranian-made drones than in previous weeks.
  • Putin risks losing support from proxy leaders in Donetsk Oblast due to Russian forces’ failure to push Ukrainian forces out of artillery range of Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities are increasingly importing Chechen officials and forces to man administrative regimes of occupied areas.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations toward Svatove, and Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued attempts to advance toward Bakhmut and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and to defend their positions in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian authorities plan to launch programs in Russia and occupied Ukrainian territories to prepare children for military service.
  • Russian forces in occupied Donetsk Oblast are reportedly commandeering civilian utility equipment to construct defensive structures.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 9

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 9, 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 continues to discuss negotiations with Ukraine as a means of separating Ukraine from its Western supporters by portraying Kyiv as unwilling to compromise or even to engage in serious talks. During a news conference at the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 9, Putin clarified his December 7 statements wherein he suggested that Russia was preparing for a “lengthy” war and stated that he meant the settlement process would be protracted.[1] Putin emphasized that the settlement process will be challenging and take time, and that all participants will need to agree with realities on the ground in Ukraine (by which he presumably means recognizing Russian control of any territories it has annexed), but that at the end of the day, Russia is open to negotiations.[2] Putin also criticized statements made by former German chancellor Angela Merkel that the 2014 Minsk Agreements were an attempt to “buy time for Ukraine” and accused Merkel and the West of propagating distrust in negotiating future settlements.[3] Putin remarked that based on this understanding of the Minsk Agreements, perhaps Russia should have begun military operations earlier.[4] Despite the constant employment of adversarial rhetoric regarding the settlement process, Putin continued to claim that Russia remains open to the possibility of negotiations.[5]

Putin has consistently weaponized invocations of the negotiation process to isolate Ukraine from partner support by framing Ukraine as refusing concessions and likely seeks to use any ceasefire and negotiation window to allow Russian troops time to reconstitute and relaunch operations, thus depriving Ukraine of the initiative. A ceasefire agreement that occurs soon enough to allow Russian forces to rest and refit this winter is extremely unlikely, however. Negotiating a protracted, theater-wide ceasefire takes time. Russia and Ukraine are extremely far apart on the terms of any such agreement, and it is almost impossible to imagine a ceasefire being agreed to, let alone implemented, for some months, which would deprive Russia of the opportunity to pause Ukrainian winter counter-offensives and reset before spring.

Putin may be overly optimistic about the prospects for a more immediate cessation of hostilities, but that is also unlikely given his rhetoric as well as statements by Ukrainian leaders and the West, of which he is well aware. It is more likely that Putin is fanning discussions of a ceasefire primarily as part of an information operation designed to expand cleavages between Ukraine and its backers by portraying Kyiv as unwilling to talk. Putin is likely secondarily setting conditions for actual negotiations sometime in 2023, presumably after Russian forces have secured more of the territory he claims to have annexed.

Putin’s positioning in the Russian information space continues to oscillate between supporting the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and backing the nationalist and pro-war milblogger community. Putin stated that the Russian MoD “behaves transparently” and properly reflects the “stable” progress of the “special military operation” in its daily reports.[6] Putin, however, then proceeded to undermine the Russian MoD when responding to a question about persistent problems with supplying the army and mobilization, noting that the Russian MoD informed him that the Russian Armed Forces has solved most of its debilitating issues.[7] Putin also told journalists: “You cannot trust anyone. You can only trust me,” when responding to a question about whether Russians should trust Russian MoD or sources operating on the frontlines.[8] Putin’s statements seemingly indicate that he is distancing himself from the milblogger community, which largely reports or obtains information from the frontlines. Putin’s statement on the transparency of the Russian MoD briefs—which the Russian milblogger community heavily criticizes for its inaccuracies and censorship—may aim to blunt such critiques or could be an effort to deflect the blame for military failures in Ukraine onto the Russian MoD, or both.

Putin likely attempts to preserve the position he has tried to occupy throughout his reign, in which he is seemingly aware of all Russian problems while not being directly responsible for them. Putin has long established the Russian MoD as a scapegoat for his failures, but the quasi-official milblogger community may pose a threat to his pretense of ignorance of problems. Putin remains in a predicament in which he relies on the support of the nationalist community to rally support behind his war in Ukraine, but must also mitigate the risk of angering the nationalists by failing to deliver their unrealistic and unattainable visions for the Russian military campaign. Putin, thus, needs to continue to play the part of the ultimate arbiter of the truth to manage the prominence of the quasi-official sources while simultaneously appealing to them in critiquing his very own security institutions. He remains unlikely to shut down the independent milblogger community but equally unlikely to commit fully to supporting it or pursuing its preferred extremist courses of action.

An independent open-source investigation by BBC’s Russia service and independent Russia outlet Mediazona offered a series of observations on the nature of losses suffered by Russian troops in Ukraine. The BBC confirmed the deaths of 10,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine based on open-source records and noted that over 400 of the deceased were soldiers called up by partial mobilization.[9] This number notably does not encapsulate the actual scale of Russian losses in Ukraine and reflects only those whose deaths are confirmable in the open source. The BBC investigation found that Russia’s Krasnodar Krai had the highest number of confirmed losses (428 dead), followed by Dagestan (363 dead), and Buryatia (356 dead).[10] In comparison, BBC only found 54 confirmed deaths from Moscow, which by itself makes up 9% of the population of Russia.[11] BBC concluded that although citizens of national republics (such as Dagestan, Buryatia, Altai, and Bashkortostan) are sent to the front and die in combat at higher rates than citizens of ethnically Russian regions, in absolute terms, ethnic Russians comprise the majority of Russian military deaths, and their proportion of the military dead is approximately equal to their proportion in the overall Russian population.[12] BBC concluded that this finding suggests that discrepancies in Russian force generation efforts therefore fall along regional and territorial lines as opposed to predominantly ethnic lines and noted that military service is seen as the only lifeline in regions on Russia‘s economic periphery where social mobility is greatly restrained.[13] As ISW has previously observed, the impacts of force generation have been firmly siloed on a regional basis, which further breaks down along overlapping ethnic and socioeconomic lines.[14] The BBC investigation partially contradicts ISW’s previous assessments that the Kremlin was attempting to shield the ethnic Russian population from the war by drawing disproportionately on minority regions. ISW has no basis for questioning this conclusion.

The BBC investigation also found that both elite units and officers have suffered substantial losses in Ukraine. The BBC reported that the Special Forces of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU Spetznaz) has suffered 250 confirmed losses, nearly 25% of whom were officers, which in the case of some individual Spetsnaz units exceeds cumulative losses over 10 years of Russian operations in Chechnya.[15] The BBC additionally identified 1,509 confirmed officer deaths - or 15% of the 10,002 identified losses.[16] The losses accrued by elite units and the Russian officer cadre will have significant and generational ramifications for the Russian military.

Russian officials continue efforts to place legislative controls on domestic dissent. Independent Russian outlet Meduza reported on December 9 that Russian State Duma deputies proposed a bill introducing new crimes and charges related to financing, inducing, recruiting, training for, organizing, or engaging in sabotage activities.[17] In all cases, except for complicity in sabotage, the proposed law introduces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Life imprisonment is currently the maximum sentence only in the case of deaths resulting from sabotage actions.[18] As ISW has recently reported, Russian officials have been taking similar measures to expand legislative oversight of domestic affairs in an attempt to further stifle domestic dissent. The Russian Ministry of Justice, for example, expanded the list of “individual foreign agents” on November 27, and Russian media began reporting that the Russian government is taking steps to broaden the definition of foreign agents, as well as imposing additional restrictions on the activities and movements of those deemed to be foreign agents.[19] Such legislative efforts suggest that the Kremlin continues to fear domestic friction resulting from the effects of its conduct of the war in Ukraine.

Senior US officials stated that Russia is providing an unprecedented level of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Iranian-made weapons systems. NBC News reported on December 9 that senior US presidential administration officials stated that Russia may be providing Iran with advanced military equipment and components, including helicopters and air defense systems, in exchange for Iranian-made high-precision weapons systems that Russia has used and intends to use in the war in Ukraine.[20] The officials specified that Russia may send Iran Su-35 aircraft within the next year and that Russia is possibly seeking to establish a joint Russian Iranian production line for drone systems in the Russian Federation.[21] US intelligence officials stated on November 19 that Russian and Iranian officials finalized a deal in early November to manufacture Iranian drones on Russian territory.[22] A Russian milblogger claimed on December 9 that air traffic monitors show that Iranian Air Force cargo planes resumed flights to Moscow on December 8 following a short break in such flights.[23] ISW assessed that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Fomin met with Iranian Armed Forces General Staff Chief General Mohammad Bagheri in Tehran on December 3, likely to further discuss the sale of Iranian drones and missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine.[24] ISW has previously assessed that the Russian military is increasingly reliant on Iranian-made weapons systems due to the depletion of its arsenal of high-precision weapons systems.[25]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to discuss negotiations with Ukraine as a means of separating Ukraine from its Western supporters by portraying Kyiv as unwilling to compromise or even to talk seriously.
  • Putin’s positioning in the Russian information space continues to oscillate between supporting the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and backing the nationalist and pro-war milblogger community.
  • An independent open-source investigation by the BBC’s Russia service and independent Russia outlet Mediazona found that members of Russian national republics deploy to Ukraine at disproportionately higher rates than ethnically Russian oblasts, but that ethnic Russians are dying at a rate proportional to their representation in the Russian Federation population, contrary to previous ISW assessments.
  • Russian officials strengthened existing legislation to stifle domestic dissent.
  • Senior US officials stated that Russia is providing an unprecedented level of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Iranian-made weapons systems.
  • Russian forces established defensive lines near Svatove, and Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces may have established positions on an island west of Kherson City in the Dnipro River.
  • Ukrainian forces’ interdiction campaign against Russian military assets and logistics hubs in southern Ukraine has likely degraded Russian forces, their logistics lines, and broader Russian morale.
  • Putin doubled down on claims that Russia will not conduct a second wave of mobilization amidst persistent concerns within Russian society.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to strengthen physical, legal, and social control over occupied territories.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 8

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 8, 6:40 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.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz stated that the risk of Russian nuclear escalation is currently low, partially supporting ISW’s previous assessments. Scholtz stated that “Russia stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons” because an international "red line” contributed to "putting a stop" to Russian nuclear escalation threats on December 8.[1] ISW has always assessed that Russian nuclear escalation in Ukraine was unlikely.[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Russia’s official position on nuclear weapons, including Russia’s non-first-use policy, on December 7.[3] Both Scholtz’s and Putin’s statements support ISW’s previous assessment that while Russian officials may engage in forms of nuclear saber-rattling as part of an information operation meant to undermine Western support for Ukraine, Russian officials have no intention of actually using them on the battlefield.[4]

The Kremlin likely has not abandoned its maximalist objectives in Ukraine despite Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s first-time acknowledgement that Moscow’s current territorial objective is to fully seize four partially occupied Ukrainian oblasts. Peskov took an opportunity to further capitalize on the Western desire for negotiations on December 8 when expanding upon Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 7 remarks regarding the acquisition of “new Russian territories.”[5] Peskov stated that one of the main goals of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine was to “protect residents of southeastern Ukraine and Donbas” when responding to a journalist‘s question regarding the Kremlin’s original objectives for war.[6] Peskov also noted that there are no talks about annexing new territories that are currently not under Russian partial occupation as there is “still a lot of work to be done” to fully occupy Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts. Peskov, however, reiterated that the Kremlin is still pursuing its “demilitarization” and “denazification” objectives in Ukraine, which confirm that Russia is still pursuing regime change (“denazification”) and the elimination of Ukraine’s ability to resist future Russian attacks or pressure (“demilitarization”). The Kremlin’s objectives, in other words, continue to remain unchanged from those set following the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv. Peskov’s comments were not an inflection in Russian war aims or demands.

Putin’s invocation of Russian imperial history on December 7 and his recent remarks regarding Russia’s role as the only “guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty” are further indicators that the Kremlin is setting conditions for a protracted war aimed at eradicating Ukrainian sovereignty.[7] The Kremlin’s deliberately inconsistent messaging is part of a persistent information operation intended to mislead the West into pushing Kyiv to negotiate and to offer preemptive concessions.[8]

The Kremlin’s Western-oriented messaging is continuing to anger the pro-war milblogger community that is increasingly accusing the Kremlin of deviating from its original war goals in Ukraine, however. A prominent milblogger stated that “the annexation of Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts was not among the declared goals of the special military operation on February 24.”[9] Less prominent milbloggers claimed that Putin does not have the capacity to continue pursuing his maximalist goals following numerous withdrawals and unsuccessful offensive campaigns, forcing the Kremlin to accept protracted war as the means to wear down Ukraine.[10] The Kremlin’s deliberately inconsistent rhetoric may have further ramifications on the appeal to Russians of Putin’s vision for the war in Ukraine.

Putin may be deliberately distancing his rhetoric from nationalists’ unrealistic demands for the Russian war efforts in Ukraine. Putin stated on December 8 that in order to help Russia complete its war goals Russians should stop engaging in confrontations on the information front and suppress their impulses to believe fake and leaked information.[11] Putin added that there is “a lot of noise” within the information space regarding Russia’s missile campaign against Ukrainian energy infrastructure and falsely implied that Russian strikes are retaliatory measures following the claimed Ukrainian attack on Kerch Strait Bridge, shelling of the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant, and Ukraine’s uninterest in providing water to Donetsk City. A prominent milblogger — who had been calling on Putin to retaliate for Ukraine’s liberation of Russian-occupied territories and claimed Ukrainian strikes against Russia — found Putin’s comments disappointing and angrily interpreted Putin’s statements to mean that the Kremlin had not planned to strike Ukrainian infrastructure if the attack against Kerch Strait Bridge did not occur.[12]

The Kremlin has been increasingly attempting to reorient public opinion to favor its official messaging, and Putin’s December 8 statement may aim to diminish or marginalize the milbloggers to re-establish the perception that the Kremlin maintains a “moderate” and authoritative position. Putin has previously publicly associated himself with nationalist milbloggers but still drawn criticism for failing to fully ideologize Russia.

Putin may be attempting to get the milblogger community under control by attacking its credibility and encouraging self-censorship. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on November 6 that Russians must listen to information about mobilization from Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) when responding to a question regarding Telegram channels.[13] While Putin may also be considering actually censoring the milbloggers, such measures remain unlikely given Putin’s ongoing efforts to retain relations with select milbloggers. Putin’s December 8 statement may also be an example of poor messaging discipline that failed to account for Russian milbloggers’ growing complaints about Moscow’s failures to address the perceived Ukrainian threat against Russia.

On the other hand, a senior Kremlin official explained why the Kremlin tolerates criticism from the pro-war Russian milblogger community for the first time. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to a question concerning the discrepancies between the Kremlin’s and milbloggers’ coverage of the war at the “Voenkors [milbloggers] as a New Information Powerhouse” panel on December 7.[14] Zakharova implied that the Kremlin permits divergent coverage of the war in order to maintain a uniform political view — likely referring to the milbloggers’ ongoing support for Putin’s vision for seizing all of Ukraine. Zakharova also suggested that the Kremlin is not interested in enforcing “absolutist” information policies as the divergent voices allow the Kremlin to monitor different opinions and their influence in society. Zakharova hypothesized that if the Kremlin attempted to force scripted slogans upon shapers of the Russian information space it would not deprive them of their opinions or influence but only remove these figures from the Kremlin’s eye.

Zakharova’s statements are a candid acknowledgement of the Kremlin’s desire to appeal to the wider nationalist audiences at the expense of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) credibility, as ISW has long assessed. The convening of the panel itself further confirms that the Kremlin is cognizant of its inability to strip the milbloggers of their influence at this stage of the war, granting milbloggers growing credibility in the Russian information space. The Kremlin, however, continues to intensify censorship against Russian opposition bloggers that criticize the Russian government, analyze combat footage, and voice concerns similar to those of nationalist milbloggers’ about mobilization and frontline problems. Russian officials have announced a search for famous Russian YouTube personality Dmitry Ivanov (1.7 million viewers) who had analyzed the ground situation during the siege of Mariupol and has criticized Zakharova, for example.[15]

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley stated that fighting in Ukraine may intensify this winter despite the recent fighting tempo decrease from autumn, partially supporting ISW’s assessments and forecasts.[16] Milley told the Wall Street Journal on December 7 that frontlines in Ukraine are currently “stabilizing[,] and as winter rolls in,” he acknowledged the “potential opportunity for offensive action” from either Russian or Ukrainian forces during "the depth of the winter because of the weather and the terrain.“[17] Milley’s assessment diverges from US Director for National Intelligence Avril Haines’ December 3 forecast that the pace of the war in Ukraine will slow over the winter so that fighting can resume in spring 2023.[18] Milley’s statement supports ISW’s assessment that Ukrainian forces will be able to exploit the weather conditions as the hard freeze approaches in late December since winter is conducive for mechanized warfare in Ukraine.[19] ISW assesses Ukrainian forces likely are preparing to take advantage of frozen terrain to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months and that Ukraine’s continued operational successes depend on Ukrainian forces’ ability to continue successive operations through the winter of 2022–2023 without interruption.[20]

Ukrainian officials stated on December 8 that Russian forces further militarized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Ukrainian state nuclear energy agency Energoatom reported on December 8 that Russian forces transferred several Grad MLRS systems near reactor number 6 and the dry storage fuel area at the ZNPP.[21] Energoatom stated that Russian forces most likely plan to use the Grad systems to strike Nikopol and Marhanets, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast - near daily targets of Russian shelling already.[22] ISW has reported on prior footage confirming that Russian forces have stored military equipment, including ammunition, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns, and other armaments on the ZNPP grounds.[23] New equipment deployments to the ZNPP may be an attempt to placate ongoing speculation among Russian nationalist milbloggers of a possible Russian withdrawal from the ZNPP, which the Kremlin has denied twice within the past 10 days.[24]

Key Takeaways 

  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that the risk of Russian nuclear escalation is low.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley stated that fighting may intensify in Ukraine during the winter.
  • The Kremlin has likely not abandoned its maximalist goals in Ukraine despite Dmitry Pskov’s comments on Russian territorial objectives.
  • The Kremlin’s Western-orientated messaging continues to anger the pro-war milblogger community.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may be distancing his rhetoric from nationalists’ unrealistic demands for the Russian war in Ukraine.
  • A senior Kremlin official admitted that the Kremlin tolerates criticism from the pro-war milblogger community out of a desire to appeal to the wider nationalist community.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces further militarized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Russian forces reinforced positions near Svatove and conducted counterattacks near Kreminna amid continued Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka–Donetsk City areas.
  • A Russian government official implied that Putin’s word is law when it comes to the military mobilization of Russian citizens.
  • Russian occupation officials increased security measures in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 7

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, George Barros, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 7, 7:00 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 is setting conditions for a protracted war of conquest in Ukraine. During a meeting with the Russian Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC), Putin remarked that the “special operation” in Ukraine can be a “lengthy process” and that the acquisition of new territory is a significant result of this process for Russia.[1] Putin compared himself favorably with Russian Tsar Peter the Great by noting that Russia now controls the Sea of Azov, which Peter the Great also fought for.[2] This invocation of Russian imperial history explicitly frames Putin’s current goals in Ukraine as overtly imperialistic and still maximalist. Putin is conditioning Russian domestic audiences to expect a protracted, grinding war in Ukraine that continues to seek the conquest of additional Ukrainian territory.

The Russian information space responded positively to Putin’s assertions and set further conditions for the protraction of the war, with one milblogger comparing Ukraine to Syria and noting that Russian forces did not start meaningfully experiencing victories on the battlefield until years into the operation.[3] ISW has previously observed that the Kremlin has been setting information conditions for the protraction of the war in Ukraine since the summer following Russian forces’ dismal failures to secure and retain their primary objectives.[4] This informational conditioning is fundamentally incompatible with any discussions regarding a ceasefire or negotiations. Putin seems unwilling to risk losing domestic momentum by halting his offensive operations even briefly, let alone to pursue an off-ramp short of his full objectives, which, as he is making increasingly clear, appear to include the reconstitution of the Russian Empire in some form.

Putin notably is using the Russian HRC as a means to consolidate political power in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with basic principles of international human rights law. As ISW previously reported, Putin changed the composition of the HRC on November 17, removing Russian human rights activists who were critical of Kremlin censorship and installing political and proxy officials as well as a prominent Russian military correspondent.[5] The use of a domestic human rights body to advocate and set conditions for the perpetuation of a genocidal war in Ukraine undermines statements made by the Kremlin on Russia’s purported commitment to human rights.  Putin’s comment accusing the West of using human rights to violate state sovereignty undermines a central premise of the international effort to protect human rights.[6]

Putin reiterated Russia’s formal position on the use of nuclear weapons in a statement to the Russian HRC on December 7 with no noteworthy changes. Putin claimed that the threat of nuclear war is growing, but that Russia will not be the first to employ nuclear weapons.[7] Putin added, however, that if Russia is not the first to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons, it will also not be the second to do so, because the “possibility of using [a nuclear weapon] in the event of a nuclear strike on [Russian] territory are very limited.”[8] Putin reiterated that Russian nuclear doctrine is premised on self-defense and stated that any Russian nuclear use would be retaliatory. Putin also emphasized that Russia is not “crazy” and is acutely aware of the power of nuclear weapons but will not “brandish” them. Putin’s statements support ISW’s previous assessment that while Russian officials may engage in forms of nuclear saber-rattling as part of an information operation meant to undermine Western support for Ukraine, Russian officials have no intention of actually using them on the battlefield.[9]

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russian military seeks an operational pause in winter 2022-2023 to regain the initiative and conduct a counteroffensive in spring 2023, partially supporting ISW’s prior assessment.[10] Stoltenberg told the Financial Times on December 7 that Russia seeks to “freeze” the fighting in Ukraine “at least for a short period of time so they can regroup, repair, recover... [a]nd then try to launch a bigger offensive next spring.”[11] Stoltenberg‘s statement supports ISW’s assessment that an operational pause would favor Russia by depriving Ukraine of the initiative. An operational pause this winter would likely prematurely culminate Ukraine’s counter-offensive operations, increase the likelihood that Ukraine loses the initiative, and grant degraded Russian forces a valuable three-to-four-month reprieve to reconstitute and prepare to fight on better footing.[12]

Putin continues to seem unwilling to pursue such a cessation of fighting, however. The Russian military is continuing offensive operations around Bakhmut and is—so far—denying itself the operational pause that would be consistent with best military practice. Putin’s current fixation with continuing offensive operations around Bakhmut and elsewhere is contributing to Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative in other parts of the theater. Ukraine’s continued operational successes depend on Ukrainian forces’ ability to continue successive operations through the winter of 2022-2023 without interruption.[13]

Russian forces used Iranian-made drones to strike Ukrainian cities for the first time in three weeks, likely as a result of Russian forces having modified the drones for colder weather. Ukrainian Air Force Command Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 7 that Russian forces resumed the use of Iranian-made loitering munitions after a three-week break and suggested that Russian forces had faced complications using the drones due to icing issues in colder weather.[14] Ukrainian Southern Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk stated on December 7 that Russian forces resumed the use of the Iranian-made drones intending to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses in various areas of activity and open areas of the front in Ukraine.[15] Russian and Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces deployed Shahed-136 drones in attacks on Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Zhytomyr, and Zaporizhia Oblasts.[16] Russian forces have likely modified the drones to operate in colder weather conditions and will likely increase their use in Ukraine in the coming weeks in support of their campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. ISW has previously reported that Russian forces are increasingly reliant on Iranian-made weapon systems due to the depletion of the Russian military's high-precision weapons arsenal.[17]

Russian efforts to pressure Belarus into joining the war in Ukraine may be causing internal friction in the Belarusian military. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 7 that soldiers of the Belarusian border service and the Belarusian Armed forces are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the activities of the Belarusian military-political leadership due to the threat of Belarus entering the war in Ukraine.[18]  ISW has previously assessed that Russian Defense Minister Army General Shoigu met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Belarusian Defense Minister Major General Viktor Khrenin on December 3 to place further pressure on Belarus to support Russia‘s offensive campaign in Ukraine.[19] ISW has also previously reported that Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and Khrenin, have used rhetoric to support an ongoing Russian information operation aimed at fixing Ukrainian forces on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border with the threat of Belarus entering the war.[20] Russian pressure and the participation of Belarusian officials in the ongoing Russian information operation may be causing unease among Belarusian military personnel. ISW continues to assess that Belarus is highly unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine due to domestic factors that constrain Lukashenko’s willingness to do so.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is setting conditions for a protracted war of conquest in Ukraine.
  • Putin is using Russia’s Human Rights Council to consolidate power while rejecting principles of international human rights law.
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made comments supporting ISW’s previous assessments that an operational pause in the winter of 2022-2023 would favor Russia.
  • Russian forces used Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine for the first time in three weeks.
  • Russian efforts to pressure Belarus into joining the war in Ukraine may be causing friction in the Belarusian military.
  • Russian forces are likely increasing the pace of their counterattacks in eastern Kharkiv and western Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations and the reorientation of their forces in eastern Kherson Oblast.
  • Independent Russian media sources indicated that mobilization efforts will continue despite statements from Russian officials to the contrary.
  • Russian occupation authorities are likely transforming Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, into a rear military and logistics base for Russian forces.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 6

Click here to read the full report.

Angela Howard, Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 6, 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.

The Kremlin directly responded to Russian rumors of a second wave of mobilization in an apparent effort to manage growing societal concern and recentralize information about the war with the Russian government and its authorized outlets. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov on December 6 urged Russians to rely on communications from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the president and to ignore the “provocative messages” published on social media platforms such as Telegram regarding a second wave of mobilization.[1] Peskov’s statement is likely aimed at discrediting the growing influence of both Russian opposition and pro-war Telegram channels that have been consistently reporting on indicators of the Kremlin’s intention to resume mobilization in 2023.[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin is also increasing measures to prevent mobilized men and their families from complaining about mobilization problems. Putin, for example, signed a law banning rallies in government buildings, universities, schools, hospitals, ports, train stations, churches, and airports—likely to suppress riots and protests among mobilized men and their families.[3]

The Kremlin seems to be departing from the limited war messaging it has been using to reduce concerns among the general Russian public about the war, likely in an effort to condition the public for future mobilization waves. Belgorod and Kursk oblasts have announced the formation of territorial defense units, exposing many civilians to the war under the absurd premise of the threat of a Ukrainian ground assault on Russia’s border regions.[4] ISW previously reported that Kremlin propagandists have started propounding similar implausible theories about a Ukrainian ground threat to Russian territory.[5] Moscow officials even plastered advertisements for the special military operation throughout the city, which ISW has previously observed only in remote cities and settlements during the summer of 2022 amidst Russia’s volunteer recruitment campaigns.[6] However, these information conditions are likely insufficient to convince the Russian population at large of the necessity for additional mobilization given the underwhelming response to volunteer recruitment advertisement efforts over the summer. The Kremlin risks further harming its credibility by announcing mobilization that has been predicted by unofficial sources but not discussed by Russian officials. Russian officials face major challenges balancing Russian force generation needs, which require the enthusiastic support of the milblogger community, and control of the Russian information space.

Putin’s decision to order a second wave of mobilization, general mobilization, or even announce a formal declaration of war with Ukraine will not fix the inherent constraints on Russian military power available for the war in Ukraine in the short term. The Russian MoD can only simultaneously train about 130,000 conscripts during a bi-annual conscription cycle in peacetime and has struggled painfully to prepare a larger number of mobilized men over a shorter period.[7] The Ukrainian Commander of the Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, noted that Russian mobilized men who are now arriving at the frontlines are better trained than those mobilized men who had arrived at the frontlines immediately after Putin’s partial mobilization order on September 21.[8] The Kremlin took almost three months to prepare some of these units, while it prematurely committed other ill-prepared and poorly supplied mobilized elements to the frontlines. The Kremlin’s sham announcement of the end of mobilization call-ups on October 28 is also an indicator that the Russian MoD acknowledges that it lacks the capacity to sustain reserve mobilization and conscription simultaneously. The Kremlin’s force generation efforts remain contingent on its ability to invest time and supplies into its personnel, requirements that are badly at odds with the Kremlin’s lack of long-term strategic planning.

Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, returned to Telegram following a nearly two-month stint in Ukraine and used his return to offer a vitriolic first-hand account of the situation on the frontlines. Girkin posted on Telegram on December 6 to speak on his experiences in Ukraine for the first time since he announced he was leaving to join the Russian army to fight in Ukraine in October.[9] Girkin detailed his multiple and unsuccessful efforts to register and join various units and contentious interactions with Russian and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) commanders and noted that he finally joined a DNR battalion illegally, which allowed him to deploy to the Svatove area in Luhansk Oblast.[10] Girkin concluded that based on his experience on the frontline, it is clear that Russian forces are suffering from a “crisis of strategic planning” due to the fact that troops are relying only on tactical inertia and not cohering around a wider strategic goal.[11] Girkin also noted that the Kremlin will be unsuccessful in igniting protests in Ukraine with its missile campaign against critical energy infrastructure, further noting that winter weather will not stop Ukrainian forces from advancing.[12] Several other prominent milbloggers amplified Girkin’s story and conclusions, emphasizing Girkin’s past leadership role in hostilities in Donbas in 2014.[13] This scathing critique of the Russian military leadership from one of the most vocal and well-known figureheads of the hyper-nationalist information space, who has now reportedly acquired first-hand experiences of the nuances of frontline life, is likely to exacerbate tension between Russian military leadership and milbloggers and may reignite fragmentation within the ultra-nationalist community itself.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Kremlin directly responded to Russian rumors of a second wave of mobilization in an apparent effort to manage growing societal concern and recentralize information about the war with the Russian government and its authorized outlets, but there are several indicators that Russia still intends to conduct a second wave of mobilization.
  • Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, returned to Telegram following a nearly two-month stint in Ukraine and used his return to offer a vitriolic first-hand account of the situation on the frontlines.
  • Ukrainian forces likely made recent gains in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian forces conducted limited attacks and defended against Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces made marginal territorial advances near Bakhmut, but Russian forces have not succeeded in their efforts to surround the city.
  • Russian authorities are very likely conducting an information operation to convince Russians of the security and integrity of the Kerch Strait Bridge following repairs to the bridge span.
  • Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Maria Zakharova denied rumors on December 5 that Russia is preparing to withdraw from or transfer control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to another actor.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to strengthen security measures in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 4

Click here to read the full report.

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

December 4, 6:15pm 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 have indicated that Ukrainian forces plan to continue offensive operations over the coming winter to capitalize on recent battlefield successes and prevent Russian forces from regaining the battlefield initiative. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Eastern Group Serhii Cherevatyi stated on December 4 that frozen ground enables heavy wheeled and tracked vehicles to advance and that Ukrainian forces are preparing such vehicles for winter operations.[1] Cherevatyi also stated that low-quality mobilized recruits and Wagner Group personnel recruited from Russian prisoners are unprepared for combat in the winter.[2] The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on November 20 that those who suggest the winter will pause hostilities “likely never sunbathed in January on the southern coast of Crimea,” suggesting that Ukrainian forces intend to continue counteroffensive operations over the coming winter that contribute toward the goal of retaking Crimea.[3] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov stated on November 18 that Ukrainian forces will continue to fight in the winter because any type of pause will allow Russian forces to reinforce their units and positions.[4] Ukrainian officials’ prior statements on ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive actions in Kherson Oblast are further evidence that these official statements on winter counteroffensive actions are indicators of continuing counteroffensive operations.[5]

Senior US government officials are mistakenly identifying the optimal window of opportunity for Ukraine to conduct more counteroffensives as the spring rather than winter, despite Ukrainian officials’ statements to the contrary. US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines assessed on December 3 that the pace of the war in Ukraine will slow over the winter so both sides can refit, resupply, and reconstitute, despite evidence that conditions on the ground favor a renewed offensive and despite the demonstrated tendency of Ukrainian forces to initiate new counteroffensive efforts relatively quickly after the previous effort has culminated.[6]

Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative and continue the momentum of its current operational successes depends on Ukrainian forces continuing to conduct successive operations through the winter of 2022-2023. Russia lost the initiative in summer 2022 after its offensive in Donbas culminated.[7] Ukrainian forces gained and have retained the initiative since August 2022 and have been conducting a series of successful successive operations since then: Ukraine liberated most of Kharkiv Oblast in September, Kherson City in November, and is currently setting conditions for more Ukrainian pushes elsewhere this winter.[8] Successive operations are a key part of Ukraine’s campaign design. A series of successive Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts demonstrates the Ukrainian military‘s remarkable operational planning skill and knowledge of the strengths of Soviet operational art. Soviet operational art emphasizes that militaries can only obtain their strategic objectives through the cumulative operational success of successive operations ideally conducted without operational pauses between them.[9] Recent official Ukrainian statements make clear that Ukraine’s campaign design is designed to allow a series of successive operations to deprive Russia of the initiative, defeat the Russian military, and liberate more Ukrainian territory.

Weather conditions in winter 2023 likely will dictate a timeframe in which Ukraine can conduct maneuver warfare and continue its string of operational successes with minimal pauses that would increase the risks of Ukraine losing the initiative. The fall mud season in November hampered maneuver warfare, as ISW previously noted.[10] Both Russia and Ukraine nevertheless continued aggressive offensive and counter-offensive operations throughout this muddy period despite some Western predictions that the mud would suspend operations. As the hard freeze approaches in late December, Ukrainian forces will be again able to exploit the weather conditions. Winter is usually the best season for mechanized warfare in Ukraine whereas spring is the nightmare season for fighting in Ukraine.[11] The thaw swells rivers and streams and turns fields into seas of mud.[12] Ukrainian forces likely are preparing to take advantage of frozen terrain to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months.[13]

If Ukraine’s allies and partners do not support Ukrainian forces to conduct large-scale decisive counteroffensive operations this winter—as the DNI’s statements might be construed to suggest – then Ukrainians‘ ability to conduct maneuver warfare will be constrained until likely at least after the spring mud season in March 2023.[14] Such a course of action will likely prematurely culminate Ukraine‘s current momentum and grant shattered Russian forces a valuable three-to-four-month reprieve to reconstitute and prepare to fight on a better footing.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian officials have indicated that Ukrainian forces will continue counteroffensive operations over the upcoming winter.
  • Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative depends on Ukrainian forces continuing counteroffensive operations in the winter of 2022-2023.
  • Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the directions of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Groups of mobilized Russian soldiers continue to disrupt Russian force generation efforts with refusals to fight, insubordination, and defiance.
  • Russian forces likely publicly executed residents in occupied Luhansk Oblast on accusations of partisan activity.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 3

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, George Barros, Karolina Hird, Nicholas Carl, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 3, 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.

Ukrainian forces reportedly reached the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River across from Kherson City. The Ukrainian “Carlson” volunteer special air intelligence unit posted footage on December 3 of Ukrainian servicemen traversing the Dnipro River in boats, reaching a wooden marina-like structure on the east bank, and raising a Ukrainian flag on a tower toward near the shore.[1] Special Unit “Carlson” reported that this is the first instance of a Ukrainian flag flying over the east bank of the Dnipro River and emphasized this operation will provide a springboard for subsequent Ukrainian operations on the east bank.[2] If confirmed, this limited Ukrainian incursion onto the east bank could open avenues for Ukrainian forces to begin to operate on the east bank. As ISW has previously reported, observed Russian fortifications on the left bank indicate Russian forces are anticipating Ukrainian offensive actions on the east bank and have been constructing defensive lines south of the Dnipro River.[3] The establishment of positions along the eastern riverbank will likely set conditions for future Ukrainian offensive operations into occupied Kherson Oblast, if Ukrainian troops choose to pursue this line of advance in the south.

French President Emmanuel Macron amplified Russian information operations about the West’s need to discuss Russian “security guarantees” in a televised interview on December 3.[4] Macron stated that the West should consider how to address Russian security guarantees if President Vladimir Putin agrees to negotiations about ending the war in Ukraine: “That topic will be part of the topics for peace, so we need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table.”[5] ISW has extensively documented how the Kremlin demanded “security guarantees” and declared  “lines” as part of the ultimatum it presented the US and NATO before launching the February 2022 invasion.[6] Russia’s demanded security guarantees entail partially dismantling NATO by returning NATO to its 1997 borders, and grants Russia a veto on future NATO expansion by demanding NATO suspend its “Open Door” policy.[7]  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to these precise demands on December 1, as ISW previously reported.[8]  The Russian demand for supposed “security guarantees” is part of a larger Russian information operation that portrays NATO as having provoked the 2022 Russian invasion by threatening Russia. The security guarantees that Ukraine, NATO, and the rest of Europe would accept from Russia following the Kremlin’s unprovoked and brutal war of conquest against Ukraine might be a more appropriate topic of conversation for Western leaders considering negotiations with Moscow.

Independent Russian polling data indicates that Russian citizens still support Russia’s military operations in Ukraine despite growing war weariness over the past six months. Independent Russian polling organization Levada Center found that 74 percent of Russians support Russian forces’ actions in the war in Ukraine in a November poll published on December 2.[9] The poll found that 42 percent of respondents “strongly support” and 32 percent “somewhat support” Russian forces’ actions in Ukraine.[10] The poll also found that only 41 percent of respondents favored Russia continuing military operation in Ukraine, however, whereas 53 percent said that Russia should begin peace negotiations.[11] Levada Center polling between July and November 2022 shows small but consistent erosion in support for the war among Russians.[12] Levada Center findings are similar to a reported internal Kremlin-commissioned poll from November that found that 55 percent of Russians favor peace talks with Ukraine and only 25 percent favor continuing the war.[13]

Both polls indicate that a shrinking but still significant portion of Russian citizens support—and are even enthusiastic about—continuing the war in Ukraine despite Russian military failures. Russian morale and political support for the war will likely further degrade with time if current trends hold. The longer the war continues to produce Russian casualties while Ukrainian forces gain ground the more the socio-political dynamics will likely continue to turn against the Kremlin. An operational pause under the guise of peace negotiations could alleviate growing political pressure on the Kremlin and allow Russia to reconstitute its forces for subsequent renewed offensive operations. 

Conditions in eastern Ukraine are reportedly becoming more conducive for a higher pace of operations as winter sets in. A Russian milblogger claimed on December 3 that the ground has frozen along the Kreminna-Svatove line and that he expects that Ukrainian forces will likely increase the pace of their counteroffensive operations in the area as a result.[14] Luhansk Oblast Head Serhiy Haidai also stated on December 2 that weather is finally changing on the Kreminna-Svatove line and that he expects that Ukrainian forces will soon be able to improve their counter-offensive maneuver operations as mud in the area fully freezes.[15] ISW has previously assessed that the overall pace of operations is likely to increase in the coming weeks as consistent cold weather allows the ground to freeze throughout the theater, especially in eastern Ukraine where operations on both sides have been bogged down by heavy mud.[16] Neither Russians nor Ukrainians will likely suspend offensive operations in one of the most optimal times of year for mechanized maneuver warfare in this region.

The Russian and Belarusian Ministers of Defense met in Minsk likely to further strengthen bilateral security ties between Russia and Belarus. Russian Minister of Defense Army General Sergei Shoigu met with Belarusian Minister of Defense Major General Viktor Khrenin and signed amendments to the Agreement on the Joint Provision of Regional Security in the Military Sphere.[17] Shoigu also met with Belarusian President Aleander Lukashenko during which Lukashenko stated that Belarusian and Russian forces continue to train together on Belarusian territory so that the “Union State [can] repel any aggression.[18] Shoigu likely met with Khrenin and Lukashenko in an attempt to place pressure on Belarus to further support Russia’s offensive campaign in Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that Belarus is highly unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine due to domestic factors that constrain Lukashenko’s willingness to do so.[19]

Iranian Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri reportedly met with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Fomin in Tehran on December 3.[20] The two discussed unspecified military cooperation, according to official readouts from Iranian state media. They may have discussed the sale of Iranian drones and missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine. Bagheri is Iran’s chief of defense and responsible for military policy and strategic guidance. The meeting has not been reported in Russian media as of this writing.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces reportedly reached the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River across from Kherson City.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron amplified Russian information operations about the need for NATO to consider “security guarantees” to be given to Russia during putative negotiations in a televised interview on December 3.
  • Conditions in eastern Ukraine are likely becoming more conducive to a higher pace of operations as winter sets in.
  • The Russian and Belarusian Ministers of Defense met in Minsk likely to further strengthen bilateral security ties between Russia and Belarus.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continue to advance northwest of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area, and in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian authorities reportedly evacuated Russian collaborators from Oleshky.
  • The Russian National Guard’s (Rosgvardia) Organizational and Staff Department confirmed that mobilization continues despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the formal end of partial mobilization on October 31.
  • Russian authorities are continuing to use judicial measures to consolidate administrative control of occupied territories.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 2

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 2, 9:30 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.

Russia is attempting to capitalize on the Western desire for negotiations to create a dynamic in which Western officials feel pressed to make preemptive concessions to lure Russia to the negotiating table. Russian President Vladimir Putin held an hour-long telephone conversation with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on December 2 in which Putin falsely stated that Western financial and military aid to Ukraine creates a situation in which the Ukrainian government outright rejects talks between Moscow and Kyiv and called upon Scholz to reconsider Germany’s approach regarding developments in Ukraine.[1] Scholz stated that any diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine must include the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.[2] The Putin-Scholz call corresponded with a diplomatic overture from US President Joe Biden on December 1 in which Biden stated that he is prepared to speak with Putin if the Russian president is looking for a way to end the war, although Biden acknowledged that he has no immediate plans to do so.[3]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to Biden’s comments on December 2 stating that Biden seems to be demanding the removal of Russian forces from Ukraine as a precondition for negotiations and said that the “special military operation” would continue.[4] Peskov added that America’s reluctance to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories significantly complicates the search for common ground in possible negotiations.[5]

Putin’s and Peskov’s statements regarding negotiations follow Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s December 1 comments in the context of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) repeating precisely the same demand the Kremlin had made of the US and NATO before the February 24 invasion. Lavrov said that Russian officials will be ready to talk with Western officials if the West shows its willingness to discuss the documents Russian officials proposed in December of 2021.[6] The Russian Foreign Ministry published a draft of its “security guarantees” demands of the US and NATO on December 17, 2021, which called for an expansive list of concessions on NATO and Western military actions in Europe, including, as ISW noted at the time, "a moratorium on NATO expansion, a revocation of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit Declaration that Ukraine and Georgia are eligible to become NATO members, a moratorium on establishing military bases on the territory of former Soviet and current non-NATO states, not deploying strike weapons near Russia, and rolling back NATO to its 1997 posture when the Russia­–NATO Founding Act was signed.”[7] The Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a statement on February 17 threatening to take “military-technical measures” in response to the refusals by the US and NATO to negotiate on this basis—those military technical measures were the “special military operation” that began a week later.

ISW has previously assessed that Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric indicates that he is not interested in negotiating seriously with Ukraine and retains maximalist objectives for the war.[8] It is likely that Putin, Lavrov, and Peskov made these statements regarding negotiations to create a perception among Western officials that Russia needs to be lured to negotiate. The Kremlin likely intends to create a dynamic in which Western officials offer Russia preemptive concessions in hopes of convincing Russia to enter negotiations without requiring significant preliminary concessions of Russia in return. Putin’s, Lavrov’s, and Peskov’s statements highlight what some of those desired preemptive concessions may be: decreased Western financial and military aid to Ukraine, recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, and restrictions on NATO and Western military actions in Europe. The Kremlin has also kept its language about the subject of negotiations vague, likely in order to convince Western officials to begin negotiation processes without a clear definition of whether negotiations are in pursuit of a ceasefire, a peace process, or a final peace agreement.

Russia would benefit from a temporary agreement with Ukraine and Western countries that creates a pause in hostilities that allows Russia to strengthen the Russian Armed Forces for future military operations in pursuit of maximalist goals in Ukraine.[9] Putin has shown little interest in such a ceasefire, however, and the Kremlin continues to make demands that are tantamount to full Western surrender, suggesting that Putin remains focused on pursuing military victory.

Western leaders rebuffed the Kremlin’s efforts and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine. Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in a joint press conference on December 1 reiterated their commitment to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.[10] Biden’s and Macron’s joint show of support for Ukraine and Scholz’s insistence on the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine indicate that France, Germany, and the US are not prepared to offer Russia significant preemptive concessions at this time. Biden added that “the idea that Putin is ever going to defeat Ukraine is beyond comprehension.”[11]

Russia may be trying to use its coordinated missile-strike campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure and the associated humanitarian situation in Ukraine to add pressure on Western officials to offer preemptive concessions. Putin falsely stated in his call with Scholz that Russia has been left with no choice but to conduct missile strikes on targets in Ukrainian territory.[12] Russia may be relying on causing undue human suffering, possibly to generate another wave of refugees, to pressure Western officials to offer preemptive concessions because the Russian military has been unable to achieve strategic success.

Russia still poses a threat to the Ukrainian energy grid and civilian population despite Ukraine air defense forces’ high rates of shooting down Russian missiles and drones at the current level of Ukrainian air defense capabilities. Ukrainian General Staff Deputy Chief Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov stated that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 72% of 239 Russian cruise missiles and 80% of 80 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones launched throughout November.[13] Ukrainian Air Force Command Spokesperson Yuriy Ignat also noted that Ukrainian and Western-provided air defense systems have been “exhausting” Russian missile stockpiles and forcing the Russians to compensate for dwindling high-precision missiles by using inert Kh-55 designed solely to carry nuclear warheads as decoys.[14] Ignat, however, stated that the use of Kh-55 missiles alongside other missiles and drones is also wearing down Ukrainian air defenses. The small percentage of Russian strikes getting through Ukraine’s air defenses are nevertheless having significant effects on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stating that recent strikes had left six million Ukrainians without power ahead of winter.[15]

Russia will likely continue to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure at least as long as enough Russian weapons can get through to achieve effects. The UK Ministry of Defense assessed that Russia’s Destruction of Critically Important Targets (SODCIT) strategy is not as effective as it would have been during the earlier stages of the war, given that Ukrainians have successfully mobilized society.[16] ISW continues to assess that Russian strikes on critical infrastructure are unlikely to break Ukrainian will.

Additional Western-provided air defense systems are prompting the Russian pro-war community to question the long-term sustainability of the Russian missile campaign. Several prominent Russian milbloggers noted that the “build-up” of Western air defense systems in Ukraine is complicating Russia’s ability to conduct missile strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure and demanded that the Kremlin speed up its missile campaign.[17] A milblogger even reiterated Western assessments that current Russian missile strikes will have little effect on the frontlines unless “Russians drop their foolishness” and finish the campaign soon.[18] ISW previously reported on similar milblogger concerns over US-provided HIMARS systems, which have allowed Ukrainian forces to conduct successful interdiction campaigns.[19] Such panic among Russian milbloggers highlights the vulnerability of the Russian missile campaign if the West continues to enhance Ukraine’s air- and missile-defense capabilities.

Russia is setting conditions to negotiate the demilitarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in return for a Ukrainian guarantee of the continued flow of gas to Europe through the Druzhba pipeline, but Russia would likely violate any such agreement and blame Ukraine for not upholding it. Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom head Alexei Likhachev stated that international negotiations to establish a safety and security zone around the ZNPP in Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast continue, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi stated that he hopes that the IAEA, Russia, and Ukraine will reach an agreement by the end of the year – now less than 30 days away.[20] Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on December 2, citing its sources within the Kremlin, that Russia is preparing to withdraw from the ZNPP without withdrawing from the area of Zaporizhia Oblast that surrounds the plant but did not specify whether the withdrawal would only apply to military units or would include occupation administrators.[21] Such an agreement would likely at least include military personnel and equipment.

The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 1 that Russia is pulling forces and occupation authorities from various parts of occupied Zaporizhia Oblast, and Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on December 2 that there are only 500 Russian military personnel at the ZNPP and that withdrawing Russian personnel-planted 300 mines in the industrial zone of Enerhodar.[22] Meduza reported that the Kremlin expects that Ukraine would guarantee the uninterrupted pumping of gas through the Druzhba pipeline, which will become Russia’s main method of transporting gas to Europe on December 5 when the European Union’s embargo against water-transported Russian gas comes into effect.[23] However, as ISW has previously reported, Russia and its proxies have a long history of violating peace deals brokered with Ukraine and other states, then subsequently blaming the other party and leveraging the blame to fail to uphold Russia’s own obligations.[24]

Demilitarizing the ZNPP without a withdrawal of Russian forces from broader western Zaporizhia Oblast would not eliminate or diminish the ongoing threat to the ZNPP. Even if Russia did withdraw both its forces and occupation administration from Enerhodar, Russian forces would still control the surrounding area and would retain the ability to strike all the areas they are currently able to strike, including the ZNPP itself. Rather, so long as the military situation remains unchanged in southern Ukraine, Russia would most likely accuse Ukrainian forces of violating the terms of their agreement and use such accusations to justify a remilitarization of the ZNPP and set longer-term information conditions to falsely undermine Ukraine’s ability to safely operate the ZNPP and commit to any future ceasefire or peace agreements.

Key Takeaways

  • Russia is attempting to capitalize on the Western desire for negotiations to create a dynamic in which Western officials feel obliged to make preemptive concessions to lure Russia to the table.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated as the basis for negotiations precisely the same demands that the Russian Foreign Ministry had made before the February 24 invasion, and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitrii Peskov added the further demand that the West recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
  • Russian forces still pose a threat to Ukrainian energy infrastructure despite the success of Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Additional Western air defense systems are prompting the Russian pro-war community to question the Russian air campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.
  • Russian officials are setting conditions to negotiate the demilitarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), an agreement upon which Russia would likely renege and that would not eliminate or diminish the ongoing threat to the ZNPP.
  • Ukrainian forces made localized breakthroughs southwest and northwest of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to make minimal advances in the Bakhmut area and conduct offensive operations in the Avdiivka–Donetsk City area.
  • Russian forces may be struggling to properly allocate and deploy forces in rear areas in southern Ukraine due to Ukrainian strikes.
  • Poor logistics, unruly mobilized personnel, and domestic protests continue to prevent the Kremlin from achieving the goals of partial mobilization.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to attempt to mask military development projects in occupied territories for no obvious reason.

The Long-Term Risks of a Premature Ceasefire in Ukraine

Click here to read the full article.

By Frederick W. Kagan, Director of the Critical Threats Project and Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

The following article was originally published by CriticalThreats.org. The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute supports ISW's daily reporting on the war in Ukraine. CTP Director Frederick W. Kagan leads this supporting effort.

The wise-seeming counsel of seeking compromise with Russia at a point of high leverage for Ukraine is a dangerous folly now.  It merely puts off and makes even more dangerous the risks we fear today.  It might make sense to buy time in this way if time favored us.  But it does not—time favors our adversaries.  Accepting risk now to reduce the risk of worse disaster in the future is the wisest and most prudent course of action for the US, NATO, and Ukraine.

The West faces a choice: it can accept the short-term risks of continuing to support Ukraine’s effort to achieve a sustainable and enduring resolution to the current Russian invasion, or it can push for a premature cessation of hostilities that greatly increases the likelihood of renewed Russian aggression on terms far more favorable to Moscow. 

The path forward should be clear—the West must prioritize reducing Russia’s ability to renew a war that the Kremlin is more likely to win and that would carry the same escalation risks as the current war by helping Ukraine use its position of relative advantage now to set conditions to deter future conflict.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 1

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 1, 9:00 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.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continued to set informational conditions to resist Russian pressure to enter the war against Ukraine by claiming that NATO is preparing to attack Belarus. Lukashenko blamed Ukraine and NATO for a growing number of provocations near the Belarus-Ukrainian border and stated that Ukraine is trying to drag NATO forces into the war.[1] Lukashenko stated that Belarusian officials managed to deter a potential adversary from using military force against Belarus and that NATO is building up forces and intensifying combat training in neighboring countries.[2] The Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin stated that there is no direct preparation for war and that Belarus will only defend its territory.[3] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky reported that there are no signs of the formation of a strike group on Belarusian territory.[4] Lukashenko and Khrenin likely made the comments to bolster what ISW has previously assessed as an ongoing information operation aimed at fixing Ukrainian forces on the border with Belarus in response to the threat of Belarus entering the war.[5] Lukashenko and Khrenin also likely focused the information operation on supposed NATO aggression and provocative activities along the Belarusian border to suggest that the Belarusian military needs to remain in Belarus to defend against potential NATO aggression, and thus set informational conditions for resisting Russian pressure to enter the war in Ukraine. ISW continues to assess that Belarusian entry into the Russian war on Ukraine is extremely unlikely.

Key Takeaways 

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continued to set informational conditions to resist Russian pressure to enter the war against Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to make incremental gains around Bakhmut and to conduct offensive operations in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct defensive measures and move personnel on the east bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian military movements in Zaporizhia Oblast may suggest that Russian forces cannot defend critical areas amidst increasing Ukrainian strikes.
  • Russian forces are holding reserves in Crimea to support defensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast and on the east bank of the Dnipro River.
  • The Kremlin’s financial strain continues to feed domestic unrest.
  • Evidence persists regarding the continuation of partial mobilization in the face of low morale and high desertion rates amongst Russian troops.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continued attempts to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation.
  • Russian occupation officials continued efforts to integrate occupied territories into the Russian financial and legal spheres.
  • Russian forces continued to exploit Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure in support of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 30

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 30, 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 efforts around Bakhmut indicate that Russian forces have fundamentally failed to learn from previous high-casualty campaigns concentrated on objectives of limited operational or strategic significance. Russian forces have continually expended combat strength on small settlements around Bakhmut since the end of May; in the following six months, they have only secured gains on the order of a few kilometers at a time.[1] As ISW has previously observed, Russian efforts to advance on Bakhmut have resulted in the continued attrition of Russian manpower and equipment, pinning troops on relatively insignificant settlements for weeks and months at a time.[2] This pattern of operations closely resembles the previous Russian effort to take Severodonetsk and Lysychansk earlier in the war. As ISW assessed throughout June and July of this year, Ukrainian forces essentially allowed Russian troops to concentrate efforts on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, two cities near the Luhansk Oblast border of limited operational and strategic significance, in order to capitalize on the continued degradation of Russian manpower and equipment over the course of months of grinding combat.[3] Russian troops eventually captured Lysychansk and Severodonetsk and reached the Luhansk Oblast border, but that tactical success translated to negligible operational benefit as the Russian offensive in the east then culminated. Russian efforts in this area have remained largely stalled along the lines that they reached in early July. Even if Russian troops continue to advance toward and within Bakhmut, and even if they force a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the city (as was the case in Lysychansk), Bakhmut itself offers them little operational benefit. The costs associated with six months of brutal, grinding, and attrition-based combat around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage that the Russians can obtain from taking Bakhmut. Russian offensives around Bakhmut, on the other hand, are consuming a significant proportion of Russia’s available combat power, potentially facilitating continued Ukrainian counteroffensives elsewhere.

Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom stated that the former chief engineer of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has become the new director of the ZNPP. Rosatom advisor Renat Karchaa announced on November 30 that Yuriy Chernichuk has become the new ZNPP director and the first deputy general director of the Joint Stock Company “Operating Organization of the ZNPP,” which is the entity that Rosatom formed on October 3 to essentially replace Ukrainian company Energoatom as the plant’s operator and to oversee the “safe operation” of the ZNPP and manage personnel activities within the plant.[4] Karchaa also noted that the entire management company of the ZNPP is formed of existing members of ZNPP staff who have signed a new employment contract.[5] Rosatom‘s direct role in appointing and overseeing ZNPP management is consistent with previous efforts to install and maintain Russian control of the ZNPP in a way that is likely intended to force the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to de facto accept Russian claims over the plant by interacting with Russian-controlled ZNPP staff.[6]

The Kremlin continues efforts to stifle domestic dissent through legislation that broadens the definition of “foreign agents” and those amenable to foreign influence. Russian media began reporting on November 23 that the Russian government approved new restrictions on the ability of those deemed “foreign agents” to post materials created by foreign-influenced sources and conduct public activities, which will enter into effect on December 1.[7] The Russian Ministry of Justice expanded the list of “individual-foreign agents” on November 27 on the basis of those individuals conducting unspecified political activities.[8] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) also noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved amendments to the 2012 ”Foreign Agents Law” that extends the original definition of ”foreign agents” to anyone who is under undefined ”influence or pressure” from foreign actors.[9] The amendments also afford the Russian Ministry of Justice the purview to publish the personal details of designated foreign agents, opening them up to public harassment.[10] These measures are likely intended to crack down on increasing instances of domestic dissent about the Kremlin’s conduct of the war. By broadening the definition of those classified as foreign agents, the Kremlin can expand its weaponization of this designation to ratchet up censorship measures and exert increased control over the information space.

The Belarusian Minster of Defense made comments likely in support of ongoing information operations, and some Russian sources reframed those comments so as to place further pressure on Belarusian officials to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Belarusian Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Viktor Khrenin stated on November 30 that the actions of bordering NATO members suggest that preparations are underway to conduct military operations in the eastern direction (i.e., against Belarus).[11] While Khrenin’s comments incorporate several possible types of military operations, Russian media and a milblogger reported his comments as saying explicitly that NATO is preparing for offensive operations in the eastern direction (which is a nonsensical accusation).[12] Khrenin likely made the comments about NATO military activities on the borders with Belarus in support of what ISW has previously assessed is an ongoing information operation aimed at fixing Ukrainian forces on the border with Belarus in response to the threat of Belarus entering the war.[13] ISW has also previously assessed that Belarus is highly unlikely to enter the war.[14] Russian sources likely framed Khrenin’s comments to be more inflammatory in order to support the information operation about Belarus entering the war but also to set more escalatory information conditions that may place more pressure on Belarusian officials to further support the Russian offensive campaign in Ukraine.

Russian opinion polling suggests that the Russian public may be tiring of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russian opposition media outlet Meduza reported on November 30 that it had gained access to the results of an opinion poll commissioned by the Kremlin for internal use that shows that 55 percent of Russians favor peace talks with Ukraine and 25 percent favor continuing the war.[15] Russian independent polling organization Levada’s October polling shows a similar breakdown with 34 percent favoring continuing military actions in Ukraine and 57 percent favoring negotiations.[16] Internal Kremlin polling reportedly placed the percentage of Russians supporting negotiations with Ukraine at 32 percent in July and the percentage favoring the continuation of the war at 57 percent.[17] Meduza reported that the director of the Levada Center Denis Volkov stated that the share of Russians likely to support peace talks with Ukraine began to grow rapidly following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization decree.[18] Disruptions associated with partial mobilization and Russian setbacks on the battlefield have likely contributed to an increasing war weariness among the Russian public, as reflected in the polling. 

Key Takeaways 

  • The Russian military’s efforts around Bakhmut suggest that Russian forces failed to learn from previous costly campaigns focused on operationally insignificant settlements.
  • Russian state nuclear company Rosenergoatom appointed a new director for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
  • The Kremlin continues efforts to stifle domestic dissent through an expansion of measures ostensibly aimed against “foreign agents.”
  • Russian opinion polling suggests that the Russian public may be growing tired of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russia forces continued to make incremental gains around Bakhmut and to conduct offensive operations in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
  • A Ukrainian official acknowledged that Ukrainian forces are conducting an operation on the Kinburn Spit.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources indicated that Russian officials are continuing to conduct partial mobilization measures.
  • Russian officials’ ongoing efforts to integrate illegally annexed territories into the Russian Federation are likely very disorganized.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 29

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Angela Howard, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 29, 6:30 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 made marginal gains around Bakhmut on November 29, but Russian forces remain unlikely to have advanced at the tempo that Russian sources claimed. Geolocated footage shows that Russian forces made marginal advances southeast of Bakhmut but ISW remains unable to confirm most other claimed gains around Bakhmut made since November 27.[1] Some Russian milbloggers made unsubstantiated claims that Russian forces broke through the Ukrainian defensive line south of Bakhmut along the T0513 highway to advance towards Chasiv Yar, which would cut one of two remaining main Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Bakhmut, but such claims are likely part of a continuing Russian information operation and are premature, as ISW has previously assessed.[2] ISW continues to assess that the degraded Russian forces around Bakhmut are unlikely to place Bakhmut under threat of imminent encirclement rapidly.[3]

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 29 that Russian forces have likely stopped deploying battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the past three months.[4] The UK MoD stated that the BTGs‘ relatively low allocation of infantry, decentralized distribution of artillery, and the limited independence of BTG decision-making hindered their success in Ukraine.[5] ISW assessed starting in April that Russian BTGs were degraded in various failed or culminated Russian offensives, including the attacks on Kyiv, Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk, and later efforts to reconstitute these BTGs to restore their combat power have failed.[6] Russian forces have likely since thrown their remaining combat power and new personnel, including mobilized personnel, into poorly trained, equipped, and organized ad hoc structures with low morale and discipline.[7] The structure of BTGs and the way the Russian military formed them by breaking up doctrinal battalions, regiments, and brigades likely deprived the Russians of the ability to revert to doctrinal organizations, as ISW has previously assessed, so that the Russians must now rely on ad-hoc structures with mobilized personnel.[8]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces made marginal gains around Bakhmut on November 29, but Russian forces remain unlikely to have advanced at the tempo that Russian sources claimed.
  • The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Russian forces have likely stopped deploying battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the past three months, supporting ISW’s prior assessments.
  • Russian forces continued to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Svatove as Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations around Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks west of Kreminna to regain lost positions.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Siversk and Avdiivka, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued strengthening defensive positions in eastern Kherson Oblast as Ukrainian forces continued striking Russian force concentrations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued to struggle with outdated equipment and domestic personnel shortages amid official actions indicative of a probable second wave of mobilization.
  • An independent investigation found that Russia may have transported thousands of Ukrainian prisoners from penal colonies in occupied Ukraine to Russia following the withdrawal from the west bank of Kherson Oblast.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 28

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Layne Philipson, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 28, 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.

Recent claims of Russian gains around Bakhmut on November 27 and 28 do not portend an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut. Geolocated imagery shows that Russian forces likely captured Ozarianivka (a village about 15km southwest of Bakhmut) around November 27 and 28.[1] Multiple Russian sources claimed that Russian forces also captured Kurdiumivka (13km southwest of Bakhmut), Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut), Andriivka (10km southwest of Bakhmut), Zelenopillia (13km south of Bakhmut), Pidhorodne (5km northeast of Bakhmut) and Spirne (30km northeast of Bakhmut) with the intention of encircling Bakhmut from the south and east.[2] There is no open-source evidence supporting these claims at this time. Russian sources have notably propagated spurious claims regarding gains around Bakhmut as part of a continued information operation since October, and recent unsubstantiated territorial claims may be part of this continued information operation.[3] However, even if Russian forces have indeed succeeded in taking control of settlements south of Bakhmut, these gains do not threaten the critical T0513 (Bakhmut-Siversk) and T0504 (Bakhmut-Kostyantynivka) routes that serve as major Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut. There is also a network of smaller village roads that connect to Bakhmut via the city’s northwest. The claimed Russian positions closest to Bakhmut in Klishchiivka and Pidhorodne lead directly into prepared Ukrainian defenses in Bakhmut and its western and northern satellite villages. Russian forces in Klishchiivka, in order to advance any further, would have to cross three kilometers of fields with little cover and concealment. Russian troops, in their current degraded state, are likely unable to be able to accomplish this task quickly. Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin himself observed in October that Wagner forces operating in the Bakhmut area advance only 100–200 meters a day.[4] Russian claimed advances around Bakhmut over the course of November 27 and 28 are thus unlikely to generate operational-level effects and certainly not quickly.

Recent Russian force deployments to Belarus in November 2022 are likely part of a Russian effort to augment Russian training capacity and conduct an information operation targeted at Ukraine and the West — not to prepare to attack Ukraine from the north again. Satellite imagery from mid-November indicates an increase in Russian equipment, particularly main battle tanks, at the 230th Combined Arms Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest, Belarus, including at least one brigade’s worth of equipment observed at the training ground on November 20.[5] Independent Belarusian monitoring organization The Hajun Project reported on November 28 that Russian forces transferred 15 Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems and 10 pieces of unspecified engineering equipment towards Brest.[6] These deployments likely support Russian training efforts and are not preparing for combat from Belarus. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on November 28 that it assesses Russian forces will transfer unspecified elements ("some units”) from Belarus to an unspecified area after the units “acquire combat capabilities.”[7] This statement supports several ISW assessments that combat losses among Russian trainers and the stresses of mobilization have reduced Russia’s training capacity, likely increasing Russia’s reliance on Belarusian training capacity.[8] The Ukrainian General Staff additionally noted on November 28 that it has not observed indicators of Russia forming offensive groups near Ukraine’s northern border regions.[9]

The Kremlin also likely seeks to use these Russian force deployments in Belarus as an information operation to promote paralysis in Kyiv and fix Ukrainian forces around Kyiv to prevent their use in the south and east. Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine as ISW has assessed.[10] Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate representative Andrii Yusov stated on November 28 that the Kremlin is spreading information about an alleged forthcoming Belarusian attack on Ukraine.[11]

Russian milbloggers widely criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) decision to place severe customs limits on the import of dual-use goods, demonstrating their continued and pervasive discontent with the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war in Ukraine. Various milbloggers noted on November 27 that the Russian MoD has instituted tighter customs controls on a variety of dual-use goods (goods with both non-military and military function that can be purchased by civilians) such as quadcopters, heat packs, sights, clothing, and shoes, all of which are items that Russian civilians have been crowdfunding and donating to Russian soldiers in the wake of widespread issues with adequately equipping of mobilized recruits.[12] Russian sources noted that this puts Russian troops in a bad position because it undermines the ability of civil society organizations to fill the gap left by the Russian MoD in providing troops with basic equipment.[13] While the customs limits are reportedly intended to centralize and consolidate government control and oversight of the provision of dual-use goods, the decision ultimately undermines campaigns led by elements of Russian civil society, as well as many prominent Russian milbloggers, to provide direct support to Russian recruits, thus further putting the MoD at odds with prominent social actors.

Russian forces are likely preparing to launch a new wave of missile strikes across Ukraine in the coming week, but such preparations are likely intended to sustain the recent pace of strikes instead of escalating it due to continued constraints on Russia’s missile arsenal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in his nightly address on November 27 that Russian forces are preparing a new wave of strikes.[14] Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command Nataliya Humenyuk relatedly noted that an additional Russian missile carrier went on duty in the Black Sea on November 28, which Humenyuk stated is an indicator of preparations for a renewed wave of massive missile strikes over the course of the coming week.[15] Russian milbloggers also claimed that the current Russian aviation and sea grouping means Russian forces will mount another series of missile strikes in the coming days.[16] However, due to the continued degradation of the Russian missile arsenal over the course of previous strikes, it is likely that Russia seeks to sustain, as opposed to escalate, the current pace of strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

Increased speculation in the Russian information space about Russian preparations to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) prompted a Kremlin response on November 28. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied claims on November 28 that Russian forces were preparing to leave the ZNPP following statements by the head of Ukrainian nuclear energy agency Energoatom, Petro Kotin, on November 27 that Russian forces are preparing to leave, but that it is too soon to tell whether they will leave the plant.[17] The Enerhodar Russian occupation administration also denied these rumors and claimed that Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom‘s plan to build an alternate energy source for the ZNPP is an indicator of long-term occupation.[18] Such responses from both the occupation administration and the Kremlin itself indicate the pervasiveness of this narrative and the value the Kremlin places on countering it.

Key Takeaways 

  • The Russian-claimed capture of several small villages around Bakhmut on November 27 and 28 does not portend an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.
  • Recent Russian force deployments to Belarus in November 2022 are likely part of a Russian effort to augment Russian training capacity and conduct an information operation.
  • Russian milbloggers widely criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) decision to place severe customs limits on the import of dual-use goods, indicating a continued and pervasive discontent with the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing to launch a new wave of missile strikes across Ukraine in the coming week, but such preparations are likely intended to sustain the recent pace of strikes rather than increase it.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Svatove as Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops continued counteroffensive west of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made incremental gains south of Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued to strengthen fortified positions and establish security measures in eastern Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian military assets and along critical logistics lines in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continue to face issues with adequate training and equipment and challenges with morale and discipline as Russian military failures have significant domestic social impacts.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued efforts to facilitate the integration of educational systems in occupied Ukraine into the Russian system.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 27

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes and Frederick W. Kagan

November 27, 5:30 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, November 27. This report evaluates the defensive positions Russian forces are establishing in eastern Kherson Oblast and what those positions suggest about Russian expectations for future operations in this area.

The Russian military clearly assesses that Ukrainian forces could cross the Dnipro River and conduct counter-offensive operations in eastern Kherson Oblast, possibly threatening all of the critical ground lines of communications (GLOCs) from Crimea to the mainland. Russian forces have been digging trenchlines and concentration areas in eastern Kherson since early October 2022 in obvious preparation for the withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River and Kherson City.[1] Russian troops are preparing either to defend in depth or to conduct operational or strategic delay operations. Russian forces clearly do not expect to be able to prevent Ukrainian forces from getting across the river, nor are the Russians prioritizing defensive positions to stop such a crossing. The Russian military is setting conditions for a protracted defense in eastern Kherson Oblast that could allow the establishment of a solid Ukrainian lodgment on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. The assessment that follows examines the Russian defensive laydown and evaluates the expectations for the flow of operations likely guiding that laydown exclusively. This assessment makes no effort to determine whether Ukrainian forces intend to cross or are capable of crossing the Dnipro River in this region and offers no forecast about whether or not they will make any such attempt. 


 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 26

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 26, 3:45pm ET 

The overall pace of operations along the frontline has slowed in recent days due to deteriorating weather conditions but is likely to increase starting in the next few weeks as temperatures drop and the ground freezes throughout the theater. Ukrainian and Russian reporting from critical frontline areas throughout eastern and southern Ukraine, including Svatove, Bakhmut, and Vuhledar, indicates that operations on both sides are currently bogged down by heavy rain and resulting heavy mud.[1] Temperatures are forecasted to drop throughout Ukraine over the next week, which will likely freeze the ground and expedite the pace of fighting as mobility increases for both sides. The temperature in areas in Ukraine’s northeast, such as along the Svatove-Kreminna line, will dip to near-or-below-freezing daily highs between November 28 and December 4. It will likely take the ground some days of consistent freezing temperatures to solidify, which means that ground conditions are likely to be set to allow the pace of operations to increase throughout Ukraine over the course of the weekend of December 3-4 and into the following week. It is unclear if either side is actively planning or preparing to resume major offensive or counter-offensive operations at that time, but the meteorological factors that have been hindering such operations will begin lifting.

Russian officials are continuing efforts to deport children to Russian under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes and adoption programs. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on November 26 that the Russian occupation administration in Luhansk Oblast conducted medical examinations of 15,000 children between the ages of two and 17 and found that 70% of the children (10,500) are in need of “special medical care” that requires them to be removed to Russia for “treatment.”[2] The Resistance Center stated that Russian officials intend these forced deportation schemes to lure children’s families to Russia to collect their children after the children receive treatments, at which point the Resistance Center assessed Russian officials will prevent those families from returning home to Ukraine. The Center‘s report is consistent with ISW’s previous assessment that Russian officials are conducting a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied Ukrainian territories.[3]

Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova additionally posted an excerpt from a documentary film chronicling the story of the children she adopted from Mariupol.[4] Lvova-Belova has largely been at the forefront of the concerted Russian effort to remove Ukrainian children from Ukrainian territory and adopt them into Russian families, which may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention as well as a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign.[5] Lvova-Belova's documentary is likely meant to lend legitimacy to the ongoing adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, just as the guise of medical necessity is likely intended to justify mass deportations of Ukrainian children to Russian territory.

Russian officials may be attempting to counterbalance the influence of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin through the promotion of other parallel military structures. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 26 that Russian officials appointed a Viktor Yanukovych-linked, pro-Kremlin businessman, Armen Sarkisyan, as the new administrator for prisons in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine and that Sarkisyan intends to use the role to create a new “private military company.”[6] The GUR reported that Sarkisyan modeled his effort to create a new private military company on the Wagner Group’s recruitment of prisoners in the Russian Federation and that Russian-Armenian businessman Samvel Karapetyan is sponsoring the effort.[7] Karapetyan is the owner of Tashir Holding company, a longtime subcontractor for Russian stated-owned energy company Gazprom.[8] The GUR reported that Sarkisyan’s attempt to create a new private military structure is an attempt to create a counterweight to Prigozhin’s de facto monopoly in the field of Russian private military companies.[9] It is likely that high-ranking Russian officials have approved Sarkisyan’s efforts as private military companies are illegal in Russia.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov reported that he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 25 and claimed that they discussed the participation of Chechen units in the war in Ukraine and the creation of new Russian military and Rosgvardia units comprised of Chechen personnel.[10] ISW has previously reported that Kadyrov routinely promotes his efforts to create Chechen-based parallel military structures.[11] Russian officials may be further promoting Kadyrov’s existing parallel military structures and Sarkisyan’s efforts to create a private military company to counteract the growing influence of Prigozhin, whom ISW has previously assessed uses his own parallel military structures to establish himself as a central figure in the Russian pro-war ultranationalist community.[12]

Russian forces are likely using inert Kh-55 cruise missiles in their massive missile strike campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure, further highlighting the depletion of the Russian military’s high precision weapons arsenal. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 26 that Russia is likely removing nuclear warheads from ageing Kh-55 missiles and launching the missiles without warheads at targets in Ukraine.[13] The UK MoD suggested that Russian forces are likely launching the inert missiles as decoys to divert Ukrainian air defenses.[14] Ukrainian officials have previously reported that Russian forces have extensively used the non-nuclear variant of the missile system, the Kh-555, to conduct strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure since mid-October.[15] The Russian military’s likely use of a more strategic weapon system in the role of a decoy for Ukrainian air defenses corroborates ISW’s previous reporting that the Russian military has significantly depleted its arsenal of high-precision missiles.[16] The use of more strategic weapons systems in support of the campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure suggests that the Russian military is heavily committed to the strike campaign and still mistakenly believes that it can generate strategically significant effects through that campaign.

Key Takeaways 

  • The overall pace of operations in Ukraine is likely to increase in the upcoming weeks as the ground freezes throughout the theater.
  • Russian officials are continuing efforts to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.
  • Russian officials may be trying to counteract Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s growing influence through the promotion of other parallel Russian military structures.
  • Russian forces are likely using inert Kh-55 missiles designed solely to carry nuclear warheads in its campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure, highlighting the Russian military’s depletion of high-precision weapons.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the directions of Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces continued establishing fortifications in eastern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian tactical, logistical, and equipment failures continue to decrease morale of Russian troops and drive searches for scapegoats.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 25

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 25, 9:00pm 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.

Reports of poorly staffed, provisioned, and supplied Russian mobilized personnel are dividing the Russian information space, exposing the tension between milblogger mobilization narratives, Wagner Group narratives, and actual Russian efforts to alleviate morale issues. Mobilized personnel from Serpukhov, Moscow Oblast, claimed on November 23 that the Russian military command sent them into battle without proper training, uniforms, or protective gear, leading them to suffer mass casualties. These personnel also claimed that command only feeds the mobilized personnel once a day despite having enough food to provide more meals.[1] A Russian source reported that the Serpukhov mobilized personnel now face a military tribunal for desertion, but the men later released a second video denying that they are deserters and stating they are willing to serve on the second and third lines of defense rather than the front line.[2]

Russian milblogger responses split between calling for compassion for the mobilized personnel and punishment only for leadership, and punishment for the entire unit. A Russian milblogger claimed that these Russian personnel abandoned their positions in Makiivka, Luhansk Oblast, and left other members of their unit to be executed when surrendering to Ukrainian forces (an accusation that the Ukrainian government is investigating).[3] Some Russian milbloggers, including at least one channel affiliated with the Wagner Group, sympathized with the Serpukhov personnel and criticized the Russian training and command issues that led to this situation.[4] These milbloggers also criticized other Russian milbloggers who, they say, wrongfully condemned the Serpukhov personnel for Russian military command, training, and provisioning issues out of their control. One Russian milblogger even claimed that military personnel do not refuse to fight, but that they do not want to be “cannon fodder.”[5] Alexander “Sasha” Kots, a milblogger whom Russian President Vladimir Putin recently appointed to the Russian Human Rights Council, called for objectivity when viewing the video and said he would raise the issue with Putin in his new position on the Human Rights Council.[6] However, some milbloggers still criticized Kots for being too soft on the Serpukhov personnel and called for increasingly harsh penalties.[7] The mixed responses from milbloggers with various Kremlin and external affiliations about ongoing mobilization issues further illustrates the extent of the erosion of Russian morale and the increase in confusion among the pro-war Russian nationalist community resulting from poorly-executed mobilization and other force generation efforts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely presented a meeting with 18 hand-picked women holding influential positions in the Russian political sphere as an open discussion with the mothers of mobilized personnel on November 25, two days before Russian Mother’s Day.[8] Russian media publicized the meeting in an apparent attempt to assuage discontent from relatives of the mobilized and appeals from genuine mothers’ and wives’ groups.[9] Putin used the meeting to pledge to improve conditions for the mobilized, to call on Russians to distrust unfavorable media reports surrounding mobilization, and to display solidarity with the families of Russian soldiers.[10] Meanwhile, the calls of relatives of Russian soldiers have reportedly not received a response. A Russian news channel posted a video on November 24 in which a Russian woman claims that authorities will not meet with her even though she has been looking for her soldier son who disappeared in March.[11] The Council of Mothers and Wives posted that unidentified individuals began to surveil their members following their November 21 announcement of a roundtable discussion to consider the problems facing conscripts.[12] YouTube channel Moms of Russia posted a video appeal to Putin in which several mothers asked Putin to prevent the mobilization of their only child.[13] ISW saw no evidence of a response to the video from Putin. The Council of Mothers and Wives reportedly also expressed the belief that the invitation to Putin’s meeting of mothers only applied to specially selected individuals.[14]

An investigation by Forbes’ Ukrainian service revealed the extent of the financial strains that the war in Ukraine has imposed on Russia’s annual budget. Forbes found that Russia has spent $82 billion dollars on the first nine months of the war in Ukraine, amounting to one quarter of its entire 2021 annual budget of $340 billion.[15] The investigation emphasized the impact that mobilization had on military-related expenditures since October and observed that providing for the 300,000 mobilized cost an additional $1.8 billion per month in addition to the increased costs of providing ammunition, equipment, and salaries to mobilized recruits, which in total amounted to a $2.7 billion increase following mobilization. ISW has previously reported on the detrimental effects of mobilization and the Kremlin’s overall war effort on the Russian federal budget.[16] In addition to the massive impact the first nine months of the war have had on the federal budget, ISW has also observed that local Russian administrations on the regional level have disproportionately borne the brunt of mobilization in a way that will continue to have reverberating social and financial impacts into 2023.[17]  

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may have increased the frequency of prisoner of war (POW) exchanges in an attempt to soothe discontent in the information space regarding its prior failures to negotiate the return of Russian POWs. Russian and Ukrainian sources reported three concurrent POW exchanges between November 23 and 25. Russian and Ukrainian officials exchanged 35 Russian POWs for 35 Ukrainian POWs on November 23, 50 Russian POWs for 50 Ukrainian POWs on November 24, and nine Russian POWs for nine Ukrainian POWs on November 25.[18] The frequency of POW exchanges over the past few days is an inflection in itself- the Russian MoD has been notably restrained in the conduct of such exchanges and has faced significant criticism over its apparent lack of regard for Russian POWs in recent months.[19] The increased frequency of POW exchanges is likely meant partially to address discontent from Russian milbloggers, who reported on the most recent series of exchanges with a relatively neutral tone and emphasized the equal ratio of exchange.[20]

A Ukrainian official confirmed that Ukrainian forces killed Iranian advisors in Russian-occupied Crimea in October and stressed that Ukraine would target any Iranian military presence on Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov confirmed that Ukrainian forces killed the Iranian military advisors in a November 24 interview with the Guardian.[21] Danilov did not specify how many Iranian advisors Ukrainian forces killed, but an October 10 Jerusalem Post report put the figure at 10 Iranian military advisors.[22] US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby confirmed on October 20 that Iranian military personnel are in Russian-occupied Crimea to assist Russian forces in operating Iranian-made drone in attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure.[23] Danilov also threatened that Ukrainian forces would target any Iranian military presence on Ukrainian territory.[24] The confirmation and threat will likely not dissuade Iran from continuing to support Russia through the provision of high-precision weapons systems. ISW has previously assessed that Iran may be supplying drones and potentially ballistic missiles to the Russian Federation to more clearly establish an explicit bilateral security relationship with Russia in which they are more equal partners.[25]

Russian leadership may be distributing a document among Russian servicemembers stating that Russia needs to mobilize five million personnel to win the war in Ukraine, an impossible task for the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian General Staff Deputy Chief Oleksiy Hromov stated on November 24 that the military-political leadership of the Russian Federation has prepared a document titled “Conclusion of the War with NATO in Ukraine” and has begun distributing it among Russian servicemembers.[26] The document reportedly identifies shortcomings of the Russian Armed Forces and notes the need for Russia to mobilize five million Russians to win the war in Ukraine.[27] It is unclear whether Russian leadership considers the five million figure a possible target or whether it is an unreachable projected force requirement, reasonable or not, that suggests that they cannot achieve their objectives in Ukraine. Russia’s chaotic and ineffective conduct of partial mobilization with the target of 300,000 mobilized personnel suggests that the mobilization of five million Russians is an impossible task for the Russian Federation. Russian leadership may have drafted and distributed the document in the fashion of Soviet-style after-action reports that deflect responsibility from the overarching strategic leadership failures of the war and place culpability for failure on the operational and tactical failures of the Russian military. Hromov, however, provided no additional details and ISW has been unable to obtain any corroboration or independent reporting about the document.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Reports of a group of understaffed and ill-supplied mobilized personnel are dividing the Russian information space.
  • President Vladimir Putin falsely presented a meeting with hand-picked women as an open discussion with mothers of mobilized personnel.
  • An investigation by Forbes’ Ukrainian service revealed that the war in Ukraine has had a serious financial impact on the Russian Federation’s annual budget.
  • The Russian MoD may have increased the frequency of POW exchanges to soothe discontent in the Russian information space.
  •  A Ukrainian official confirmed that Ukrainian forces killed Iranian military advisors in Russian-occupied Crimea and threatened to target Iranian military presence on Ukrainian territory.
  • Russian military leadership may be circulating a document stating that Russia needs to mobilize five million personnel to win the war in Ukraine, which Russia cannot do.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks to regain lost positions northwest of Svatove and Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations toward Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas, and influential Russian figures may be setting informational conditions to deflect blame for a lack of progress in the Bakhmut area.
  • Russian forces continued to establish defenses south of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast and around critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) connecting Crimea to southern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian sources and officials continue attempts to shape the narrative around a likely second partial mobilization while denying the potential for general mobilization.
  • Russian officials are continuing efforts to stimulate demographic change in occupied areas of Ukraine by deporting Ukrainian residents and replacing them with imported Russian citizens.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 23

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 23, 6:45 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 military conducted another set of massive, coordinated missile strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure in a misguided attempt to degrade the Ukrainian will to fight. Ukrainian Air Force Command reported on November 23 that Russian forces launched 70 cruise missiles and five drones at Ukrainian critical infrastructure targets.[1] Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 51 of the Russian cruise missiles and all five drones.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces struck residential buildings, thermal power plants, and substations in the city of Kyiv as well as in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Lviv, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[3] Ukrainian, Russian, and social media sources claimed that Russian forces also struck targets in Ivano-Frankivsk, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Cherkasy, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Poltava, Kirovohrad, and Kharkiv oblasts.[4] Ukrainian officials reported widespread disruptions to energy, heating, and water supplies as a result of the Russian strikes.[5] ISW has previously assessed that the Russian military is still able to attack Ukrainian critical infrastructure at scale in the near term despite continuing to deplete its arsenal of high-precision weapons systems.[6] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that the Russian military mistakenly believes that the destruction of energy infrastructure will direct Ukrainian efforts to protect rear areas and divert Ukrainian attention away from the front in eastern and southern Ukraine.[7] Malyar stated that Russia’s campaign against critical infrastructure will not weaken the motivation of Ukraine’s civilian population, and the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov asserted that Russian missile and drone strikes will not coerce Ukraine into negotiations.[8]

Prominent Russian politicians continue to promote openly genocidal rhetoric against Ukraine. Moscow City Duma Deputy and pro-Kremlin journalist Andrey Medvedev posted a long rant to his Telegram channel on November 23 wherein he categorically denied the existence of the Ukrainian nation, relegating Ukrainian identity to a “political orientation.”[9] Medvedev called Ukraine a pagan cult of death that worships prisoner executions and called for the total “liquidation of Ukrainian statehood in its current form.”[10] This rhetoric is openly exterminatory and dehumanizing and calls for the conduct of a genocidal war against the Ukrainian state and its people, which notably has pervaded discourse in the highest levels of the Russian political mainstream. As ISW has previously reported, Russian President Vladimir Putin has similarly employed such genocidal language in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with calls for negotiations.[11]

The Kremlin has not backed down from its maximalist goals of regaining control of Ukraine but is rather partially obfuscating Russia’s aims to mislead Western countries into pressuring Ukraine to sue for peace. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on November 21 that changing the current government in Ukraine is not a goal of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine, observing that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has already spoken about this.”[12] Putin had said on October 26 that Ukraine has “lost its sovereignty” and come fully under NATO’s control.[13] Putin’s speech at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 27 again rejected Ukraine’s sovereignty, noting that Russia “created” Ukraine and that the “single real guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty” can only be Russia.[14] Putin has also consistently upheld his talking point that Ukraine is a Nazi state that must be “denazified.”[15]  Putin’s demands amount to a requirement for regime change in Kyiv even if he does not explicitly call for it in these recent statements. The fact that Peskov refers back to these comments by Putin makes reading any serious walking-back of Russian aims into Peskov’s comments highly dubious.

The Kremlin’s obfuscation of its aims likely intended for a Western audience is nevertheless confusing Russian war supporters. Peskov’s statement likely aimed to mitigate the effects of Vice-Speaker of the Russian Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev’s pro-war rant declaring that Russia can only normalize relations with Ukraine following the capitulation of the Ukrainian government.[16] The two contrasting statements confused the pro-war community. A Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger sarcastically observed that Russia is aimlessly fighting a war without a clear goal in response to Peskov’s statement.[17] ISW has reported on similar reactions to the Kremlin’s decision to exchange Ukrainian prisoners of war from Mariupol, whom Kremlin officials and propagandists vilified as “Nazis” and ”war criminals.”[18]

The Kremlin’s hesitance to publicly commit fully to an extreme nationalist ideology and to the war is also bewildering propagandists who preach such ideology to the Russian masses. Russian political and military “experts” on a Russian state TV show pushed back against Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s claim that Kherson Oblast is fully Russian, which would justify the use of nuclear weapons.[19] The “experts” said that the use of nuclear weapons to defend territory that is not fully occupied is irrational and even said that NATO poses no threat to Russia. Russian propagandists have been making outlandish nuclear threats and accusing NATO of planning to attack Russia throughout Putin’s regime and especially before and during the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine; such dismissal of common Kremlin talking points in such a forum is unprecedented.[20] ISW has also previously reported that Russian extreme nationalist ideologist Alexander Dugin accused Putin of not fully committing to the pro-war ideology.[21] Putin has generally sought to balance extreme nationalist talking points to gather support from the nationalist-leaning community and a more moderate narrative to maintain the support of the rest of the Russian population. Russian military failures and the increasing sacrifices Putin is demanding of the Russian people to continue his disastrous invasion are bringing his deliberate obfuscation of war aims and attempts to balance rhetorically into sharp relief, potentially fueling discontent within critical constituencies.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian military conducted another set of massive, coordinated missile strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
  • Russian politicians continue to promote openly genocidal rhetoric against Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin continues to pursue its maximalist goals and is likely issuing vague statements about its intent to mislead Western Countries into pressuring Ukraine into negotiations.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the directions of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • The Kremlin is continuing crypto-mobilization efforts at the expense of other Russian security services.
  • Russian forces and occupation officials continued to forcibly relocate residents and confiscate their property.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 22

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Nicholas Carl, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 22, 8:30 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 appears to be setting information conditions for a false-flag attack in Belgorod Oblast, Russia, likely in an effort to regain public support for the war in Ukraine. Kremlin propagandists have begun hypothesizing that Ukrainian forces seek to invade Belgorod Oblast, and other Russian sources noted that Russian forces need to regain control over Kupyansk, Kharkiv Oblast, to minimize the threat of a Ukrainian attack.[1] These claims have long circulated within the milblogger community, which had criticized the Russian military command for abandoning buffer positions in Vovchansk in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast following the Russian withdrawal from the region in September.[2] Russian milbloggers have also intensified their calls for Russia to regain liberated territories in Kharkiv Oblast on November 22, stating that such preemptive measures will stop Ukrainians from carrying out assault operations in the Kupyansk and Vovchansk directions.[3] Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov also published footage showcasing the construction of the Zasechnaya Line fortifications on the Ukraine-Belgorod Oblast border.[4] Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin clarified that Wagner is building the Zasechnaya Line after having changed its name from Wagner Line because “many people in [Russia] do not like the activity of private military company Wagner.”[5] Private military companies are illegal in Russia.

Russian claims of an imminent Ukrainian attack on Belgorod Oblast are absurd and only aim to scare the general public to support the war. Ukraine has no strategic interest in invading Russia and no ability to do so at such a scale. Ukrainian forces are continuing to liberate occupied settlements in western Luhansk Oblast following their victory in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[6] Support for Russia’s nonsensical invasion is declining among Russian residents of border regions and the rest of the country as a result of mobilization and military failures. Russian opposition outlets reported that relatives of mobilized men have ignited protests in 15 Russian regions since the end of October, with the most notable ones taking place in regions bordering Ukraine.[7] A Russian opposition outlet, Meduza, citing two unnamed sources close to the Kremlin, reported that the Russian Presidential Administration carried out an internal survey in different regions where many expressed apathy toward the war.[8] While ISW cannot independently verify Meduza’s report, emerging calls for demobilization among relatives of mobilized men suggest that Russian propaganda is ineffective in countering the real-life consequences of the war on the society.[9]

These ridiculous speculations about a fantastical Ukrainian invasion of Russia may also be part of the Kremlin’s effort to acknowledge and appease the Russian pro-war nationalist community. Russian milbloggers have repeatedly accused the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of failing to defend Russia, including the newly annexed territories.[10] The Kremlin, however, will unlikely be able to reinvade Kharkiv Oblast as demanded by these nationalist figures.

Prigozhin is also using fearmongering about a fictitious Ukrainian invasion threat and the construction of the Zasechnaya Line to solidify his power in Russian border regions and Russia. Belgorod Oblast officials previously halted the construction of the Wagner Line, and the line’s rebranding alongside other Prigozhin projects in St. Petersburg and Kursk Oblast signifies that he will continue to establish himself in Russia while ostensibly supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.[11]

The Russian military has significantly depleted its arsenal of high-precision missiles but will likely still be able to attack Ukrainian critical infrastructure at scale in the near term. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov released figures on November 22 detailing that the Russian military has only 119 Iskanders missiles, 13 percent of its initial February 2022 arsenal.[12] Reznikov’s figures also show that Russian forces have significantly depleted other key high-precision weapons systems with only 229 Kalibr missiles (45 percent of the initial February 2022 stock), 150 Kh-155 missiles (50 percent of the initial February 2022 stock), and 120 Kh-22/32 missiles (32 percent of the initial February 2022 stock) remaining. Reznikov’s figures show that Russian forces have substantially depleted stocks of 3M-55 “Onyx”, S-300, Kh-101, Kh-35, and Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles as well.[13]

Ukrenergo head Volodymyr Kudrytsky stated on November 22 that Russian forces have damaged almost all thermal power plants, large hydropower plants, and Ukrenergo hub substations in Ukraine.[14] Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated on November 18 that more than half of the Ukrainian power grid has failed as a result of Russian missile strikes.[15] DTEK CEO Maxim Tymchenko urged Ukrainians to leave the country, if possible, on November 19 to ease demand on the Ukrainian power grid, and YASNO CEO Serhiy Kovalenko stated on November 21 that regular power outages will likely last at least until the end of March 2023.[16] Russian forces will likely be able to continue to reduce the overall capacity of Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the near term given the current state of the Ukrainian power grid. The depletion of the Russian military’s high-precision missile arsenal will likely prevent it from conducting missile strikes at a high pace, however. ISW continues to assess that the Russian military will fail to achieve its goal of degrading the Ukrainian will to fight through its coordinated campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.

The Russian military is likely experiencing problems in replenishing its arsenal of high-precision weapons systems. Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ignat stated on November 21 that Russia is experiencing problems with the supply of Iranian missiles to the Russian Federation.[17] Ignat speculated that diplomatic resources, negotiations, or other countries’ influence may have impacted Iran’s ability or willingness to supply Russia with ballistic missiles.[18] ISW has previously assessed that Russia is increasingly dependent on Iran for the provision of high-precision weapons systems.[19] Ignat also reported that Russia lacks the necessary components produced abroad to support the manufacturing of the number of missiles it needs for its campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.[20] Reznikov stated that Russia manufactured 120 Kalibr and Kh-101 missiles and 360 Kh-35 missiles since February 2022, allowing the Russian military to partially offset the heavy use of these weapons systems in massive strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure.[21] Russia likely significantly strained the existing capacity of its military industry in producing these missiles.

Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko has traveled to Iran to discuss economic cooperation and possibly security ties. Golovchenko met with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and will likely meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials in the coming days.[22] Golovchenko’s visit to Tehran follows the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence reporting on November 17 that Iran may help Belarus produce artillery shells.[23]

Russian military movements suggest that Russian forces are likely reinforcing positions in eastern Zaporizhia and western Donetsk oblasts. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on November 22 that Chechen and Wagner Group formations deployed to Debaltseve, Donetsk Oblast, and that Russian forces are regrouping individual units in the area of Molchansk, Zaporizhia Oblast (just northeast of Melitopol).[24] Social media sources posted images on November 21 showing Russian trucks and vehicles in Melitopol moving from the south to the north throughout November.[25] Geolocated images show Russian military vehicles moving through Bezimenne and Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast carrying a notable amount of military equipment.[26] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have begun reinforcing positions in eastern Zaporizhia Oblast with personnel from Kherson Oblast and mobilized personnel.[27] Russian forces may be reinforcing positions in eastern Zaporizhia and western Donetsk oblasts to prepare for perceived threats of future Ukrainian operations or to support the effort to restart the Donetsk offensive.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin may be setting information conditions for a false-flag attack in Belgorod Oblast.
  • The Russian military has significantly depleted its arsenal of high-precision missiles but will likely still threaten Ukrainian infrastructure.
  • The Russian military is likely struggling to replenish its arsenal of high-precision weapons systems.
  • The Belarusian prime minister traveled to Iran to discuss economic cooperation and possible security ties.
  • Russian military movements suggest that Russian forces are likely reinforcing positions in eastern Zaporizhia and western Donetsk oblasts.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Crimean occupation officials demonstrated heightened unease—likely over Ukrainian strikes on Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in the peninsula and ongoing military operations on the Kinburn Spit.
  • The Kremlin continues to deflect concerns about mobilization onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Russian sources continue to tout the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 21

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 21, 7:45pm 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.

Two days of shelling caused widespread damage to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on November 20 and 21. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated on November 21 that there are no immediate nuclear safety and security concerns and that the integrity of all six nuclear reactors and the spent and fresh fuel storage facilities remain uncompromised despite the intense shelling.[1] Russia and Ukraine both accused the other of conducting the artillery strikes on the ZNPP on November 20 and 21.[2] One Russian milblogger referenced a video of the shelling taken by Chechen forces and stated that it appeared the shelling came from positions in Russian-controlled territory south of the ZNPP, not Ukrainian-controlled territory north of the ZNPP.[3] Russian nuclear operator Rosatom Head Alexey Likhachev warned of a nuclear disaster at the ZNPP, and Russian milbloggers largely amplified his statements and called for the transfer of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants to Russian operation.[4] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have staged false flag attacks against the ZNPP and previously reported on Russian forces’ unlawful militarization of the ZNPP.[5] Artillery strikes themselves are unlikely to penetrate the containment units protecting each nuclear reactor and instead pose a greater threat to the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities, which could leak radioactive material and cause a radiological (as opposed to nuclear) disaster if compromised. The continued conflation of radiological and nuclear accidents and the constant discussion of the threat of disaster at the ZNPP is likely part of a wider Russian information operation meant to undermine Western support for Ukraine and frame Russian control of the plant as essential to avoid nuclear catastrophe in order to consolidate further operational and administrative control of Ukrainian nuclear assets and compel elements of the international community to recognize Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory at least obliquely.

The Russian government is continuing to increase its control of the Russian information space as a Russian milblogger noted that Russian efforts to shape the information space “look like a kitten against a rhinoceros” compared with foreign “think tanks,” non-profit organizations, and “independent media.”[6] Russian news outlet Kommersant reported on November 21 that the Russian State Duma may consider a bill before the end of 2022 on the regulation of online “recommender” algorithms that would ultimately allow the government to turn off specific algorithms.[7] The bill is reportedly being developed by Duma Deputy on Information Policy Anton Gorelkin and will include the regulation of social media networks, online cinemas, search engines, and internet marketplaces.[8] Kommersant noted that this bill will require the owners of all sites and platforms to ensure the government’s ability to fully or partially block the participation of specific users and that these provisions appeared before the beginning of the war in October 2021 to specifically target Western outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube due to the risk of “social conflict.”[9] Certain Russian milbloggers responded to the speculation regarding the bill and noted that such recommender algorithms make it harder for nations to disperse propaganda due to the prevalence of accessible and personally tailored information available on the internet.[10]The Duma is likely considering this bill in an attempt to address a consistent point of neuralgia in the Kremlin’s ability to present and defend the war to domestic audiences and to establish a direct means of countering both internal and external sources of online dissent.

The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) additionally took steps to codify control over the information space and signed a decree on November 4 that approved a list of military and military-technical activities, which if received by foreign sources, can be used against the security of the Russian Federation.[11] The decree essentially codifies types of information relating to Russian military operations that the FSB regards as threats to Russian security that are not technically classified as official state secrets and includes a broad list of provisions relating to informational coverage of the war such as “information on the assessment and forecasts of the development of the military-political, strategic (operational) situation,” and “information about the observance of rule of law and the moral and psychological climate” of Russian troops.[12] This decree represents an extended effort on the part of the FSB to broadly ban a wide range of information on the Russian military, which would ostensibly place tighter controls on discourse among Russian milbloggers and other such sources who frequently discuss and criticize tactical, operational, and strategic dimensions of the war in Ukraine.

Both the proposed Duma bill and the FSB decree indicate that the Russian government is scrambling to take control of the information space as it is increasingly inundated by criticisms of the Russian military that are levied both internally and externally. Russian officials likely seek to consolidate censorship measures to crack down on the prevalence of foreign voices and domestic critiques by applying legislative pressure to fundamental algorithms and presenting a wide range of activities that can be considered detrimental to Russian state security.

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian special services are planning false flag attacks on Belarusian critical infrastructure in an attempt that would likely fail to pressure the Belarusian military to enter the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 20 that Russian special services are planning to conduct several false flag terrorist attacks on Belarusian critical infrastructure facilities, particularly on the “Ostrovets” Belarusian nuclear power plant.[13] GUR also reported that Russian special services will blame the attacks on Ukrainian and NATO member states to accelerate the Belarusian military’s involvement in Russia‘s war in Ukraine.[14] ISW has previously assessed that Belarus’ entry into the war remains highly unlikely due to the heavy domestic risk that involvement would pose to the survival of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and that Russian and Belarusian highlight their bilateral defense cooperation to perpetuate an ongoing information operation that the Belarusian military will enter the war.[15] Potential false flag attacks remain unlikely to change the domestic factors that ISW continues to assess constrain Lukashenko’s willingness to enter the war on Russia’s behalf.

A Ukrainian official acknowledged on November 21 that Ukrainian forces are conducting a military operation on the Kinburn Spit, a location which would allow Ukrainian forces to better conduct potential operations on the left (east) bank in Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian Southern Defense Forces spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk stated on November 21 that Ukrainian forces are conducting a military operation on the Kinburn Spit and called for operational silence to be respected.[16] Humenyuk emphasized that the Kinburn Spit is the last piece of territory that Russian forces occupy in Mykolaiv Oblast.[17] The Kinburn Spit is only 4km across the strait from Ochakiv and allows for control of the entrance to the Dnipro and Southern Bug rivers as well as the Mykolaiv and Kherson city ports. Russian forces used positions on the Kinburn Spit to conduct routine missile and artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions in Ochakiv, southern Mykolaiv Oblast, and other areas along the Ukrainian-controlled Black Sea Coast.[18] The Kinburn Spit is also out of the 25km range of 152mm artillery that Russian forces have accumulated on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Control of the Kinburn Spit would allow Ukrainian forces to relieve Russian strikes on the Ukrainian-controlled Black Sea coast, increase naval activity in the area, and conduct potential operations to cross to the left (east) bank in Kherson Oblast under significantly less Russian artillery fire compared to a crossing of the Dnipro River.

The November 18 video of a Russian soldier opening fire on a group of Ukrainian servicemen while Russian troops were surrendering has served as a catalyst for further division between the Kremlin and prominent voices in the Russian information space. As ISW reported on November 18, a video widely circulated on social media shows a Russian soldier fire on Ukrainian troops as Ukrainian soldiers were taking prisoners in Makiivka, Luhansk Oblast, resulting in the deaths of the Russian prisoners. Open-source analysts and later a New York Times independent investigation confirmed that the Russian serviceman was the first to open fire but did not offer conclusions about how the Russian prisoners died.[19] While Russian officials responded to the video by adamantly accusing Ukraine of war crimes and calling for an investigation into the identities of the Ukrainian soldiers, several Russian milbloggers capitalized on the content of the video to criticize the Russian military and mobilization practices. One milblogger noted that the Makiivka shooting video is a clear example of how mobilized recruits lack the basic morale and discipline to properly fight for their beliefs and claimed that it is ridiculous that so many Russian soldiers even surrendered to Ukrainian troops in the first place.[20] The divide between milbloggers criticizing the Makiivka shooting is emblematic of Russian military failures, and the Kremlin’s using it to further an information operation against the Ukrainian military may further fragment the information space.

Key Takeaways

  • Two days of shelling caused widespread damage to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
  • The Russian government is continuing to escalate control over the Russian information space.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian special services are planning false flag attacks on Belarusian critical infrastructure in an attempt that would likely fail to pressure the Belarusian military to enter the war in Ukraine. ISW continues to assess that it is unlikely Belarusian forces will enter the war.
  • A Ukrainian official acknowledged that Ukrainian forces are conducting a military operation on the Kinburn Spit, Mykolaiv Oblast.
  • The November 18 video of a Russian soldier opening fire on a group of Ukrainian servicemen while Russian troops were surrendering has served as a catalyst for further division between the Kremlin and prominent voices in the Russian information space.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine amid worsening weather conditions.
  • Russian forces continued ground assaults near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces continued conducting defensive measures and establishing fortifications in Kherson Oblast south of the Dnipro River as Ukrainian forces continued striking Russian force accumulations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian mobilized personnel continue to protest and desert as their relatives continue to publicly advocate against mobilization issues.
  • Russian occupation authorities intensified filtration measures and the incorporation of occupied territory into Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 20

Click here to read the full report.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, November 20. This report discusses the rising influence of the milblogger (military correspondent or voenkor) community in Russia despite its increasingly critical commentary on the conduct of the war. The milblogger community reportedly consists of over 500 independent authors and has emerged as an authoritative voice on the Russian war. The community maintains a heavily pro-war and Russian nationalist outlook and is intertwined with prominent Russian nationalist ideologists. Milbloggers’ close relationships with armed forces – whether Russian Armed Forces, Chechen special units, Wagner Group mercenaries, or proxy formations – have given this community an authoritative voice arguably louder in the Russian information space than the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the milbloggers from MoD attacks and protected their independence even as he increases oppression and censorship throughout Russia.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on November 20:

  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 20 that Russian special services are planning false flag attacks on Belarusian critical infrastructure facilities to pressure the Belarusian military to enter the war in Ukraine.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff added that Ukrainian officials have not observed the formation of any Belarusian assault groups. ISW continues to assess that it is unlikely that Belarusian forces will invade Ukraine.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported ongoing fighting along the Svatove-Kreminna line on November 20. Russian sources noted that deteriorating weather conditions are impacting hostilities.
  • A Ukrainian military official stated that Ukrainian forces have liberated 12 settlements in Luhansk Oblast since the start of the eastern counteroffensive.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed to strike a Ukrainian troop concentration in the area of Novoselivske, Luhansk Oblast. The Russian MoD previously claimed to repel Ukrainian attacks on the settlement, and this claim might indicate that Ukrainian forces advanced to the settlement.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and western Donetsk directions.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continued to transfer some forces from the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River to other operational directions, but still maintain a significant force presence in southern Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that shelling damaged the infrastructure of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). One Russian milblogger claimed that the shelling came from Russian-controlled territory south of the plant, but most Russian sources accused Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation officials may have purged the occupation Mayor of Enerhodar Alexander Volga. Some Russian sources claimed that Volga received a promotion within the occupation administration.
  • Russian military officials continued mobilization measures amid reports of ongoing resistance and poor conditions.

 

·       

 



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 19

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 19, 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.

Russian forces are reportedly beginning to reinforce their positions in occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts with personnel from Kherson Oblast and mobilized servicemen. The Ukrainian General Staff reported an increase in Russian military personnel in Luhansk City and noted that Russian forces are housing servicemen in abandoned homes in Krasne and Simeikyne about 30km southeast of Luhansk City.[1] Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai stated that Russian forces are transferring the remnants of the Russian airborne units from right (west) bank Kherson Oblast to Luhansk Oblast.[2] Luhansk Oblast Military Administration added that a part of redeploying Russian troops is arriving in Novoaidar, approximately 55km east of Severodonetsk.[3] Advisor to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko also noted the arrival of redeployed personnel and military equipment to Mariupol, stating that Russian forces are placing 10,000 to 15,000 servicemen in the Mariupol Raion.[4] Andryushenko stated that newly mobilized men are deploying to the presumably western Donetsk Oblast frontline via Mariupol. Russian forces are reportedly attempting to disperse forces by deploying some elements in the Hulyaipole direction in eastern Zaporizhia Oblast.[5] Russia will also likely commit additional mobilized forces in the coming weeks, given that mobilized units of the Russian 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Tank Army have finished their training in Brest Oblast, Belarus.[6] Russian forces will likely continue to use mobilized and redeployed servicemen to reignite offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast and maintain defensive positions in Luhansk Oblast.

US intelligence officials stated on November 19 that Russian and Iranian officials finalized a deal in early November to manufacture Iranian drones on Russian territory.[7] The US officials stated that the deal could allow Russia to “dramatically increase its stockpile” of Iranian drones. The Washington Post reported that Russian forces have launched 400 Iranian kamikaze drones since first using them in the Ukrainian theater in August, and Ukrainian officials have previously stated that Ukrainian forces down 70% of drones before they can strike their targets.[8] The US officials stated that it is unclear what assistance Russia will provide to Iran in return for the drones.[9] The deepening relationship between Russia and Iran, specifically in the provision of long-range munitions such as kamikaze drones and precision missiles, may allow Russian forces to sustain their campaign against Ukrainian energy infrastructure for a longer period than their diminishing stockpile of munitions would otherwise allow. This report also suggests that Russia can somehow circumvent Western sanctions to acquire the microchips needed to program the drones it plans on manufacturing. A Russian milblogger claimed that the deal allows Russian officials to claim they build Russian drones—thus providing an informational win—having previously stated that the domestic manufacturing of Iranian drones on Russian territory humiliates Russia.[10]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces are reportedly beginning to reinforce their positions in occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts with personnel from Kherson Oblast and mobilized servicemen.
  • US intelligence officials stated that Russian and Iranian officials finalized a deal in early November to manufacture Iranian drones on Russian territory.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces maintained their offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and west of Donetsk City despite reports of high losses around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued efforts to fortify areas around ground lines of communication in southern Ukraine while struggling with the partial loss of the use of the Kerch Strait Bridge.
  • Russian media sources continued active discussions of an impending second wave of mobilization.
  • The number of Russian prisoners appears to have dropped by about 6.5% since January of 2022 likely due to intensive Wagner Group recruitment.
  • Russian authorities are working to establish control over the information space in occupied territories and identify Ukrainian partisans.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 18

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 18, 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.

Russian officials are preparing for further covert mobilization efforts even as the fall conscription cycle is underway, likely further flooding the already overburdened Russian force generation apparatus in such a way that will be detrimental to the development of mobilized and conscripted servicemen. Russian Telegram channels actively discussed indicators on November 18 that the Kremlin is preparing for a second mobilization wave and circulated an image of a draft summons received by a citizen of St. Petersburg who was reportedly told to appear for mobilization in January 2023 despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the formal end of partial mobilization on October 31.[1] Nationalist milbloggers additionally circulated claims that general mobilization will begin in December or January.[2] An independent Russian outlet published an investigation on November 18 showing that state structures and enterprises are continuing to prepare their employees for mobilization by sending them to various training programs and mobilization-related educational courses.[3] Another Russian outlet noted that the Odintsovo garrison military court in Moscow Oblast inadvertently confirmed that mobilization is continuing despite its formal end.[4] The court reportedly accused a mobilized soldier of beating his commander on November 13 “during the performance of his duties of military service or in connection with the performance of these duties during the period of mobilization,” which indicates that the court is operating on the legal basis that mobilization is still very much underway.[5] The Kremlin has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has no need to sign a decree formally ending the mobilization period, as ISW has previously reported.[6]

The continuation of covert mobilization efforts and potential preparations for another mobilization wave in tandem with the current fall conscription cycle are likely adding substantial strain to an already over-burdened Russian force generation apparatus. As ISW previously assessed, Putin likely ordered the end of partial mobilization in order to free up bureaucratic and administrative capacity for the November 1 conscription class.[7] However, it is evident that Russian authorities never fully halted mobilization efforts, which means that a limited number of mobilized recruits are still being forced through the training system at the same time as conscripts are going through their own training cycle. This will likely lead to even lower quality training for both mobilized recruits and conscripts as they compete for insufficient training capacity. Another wave of mobilization in the coming months will only worsen the situation and likely degrade the overall quality of the Russian troops that will be funneled to the frontline in Ukraine.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it does not recognize the illegal Russian seizure and operation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) or the illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory, a sharp escalation in IAEA rhetoric. The IAEA’s Board of Governors issued a statement on November 17 that called on Russia to “immediately abandon its baseless claims of ownership of the plant” and to withdraw “military and other personnel” from the ZNPP due to “grave concerns” over the ZNPP’s integrity.[8] The IAEA issued a statement on November 18 that Russian strikes on November 17 partially or completely cut power to Ukraine’s Khmelnytskyy Nuclear Power Plant and Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, and IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi stated that these strikes demonstrate “the potential nuclear safety and security risks facing all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities during this terrible war, not just the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.”[9] ISW recently assessed that the IAEA’s rhetorical shift suggests that Russian physical control and operational authority over the ZNPP alarms the IAEA.[10] Russian forces’ ongoing threats to both the ZNPP and Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) in unoccupied territory indicate that Russia is an unsuitable caretaker of the ZNPP, even though the Russian government relies on claims that it is a responsible operator of the ZNPP to legitimize its ongoing presence at the plant.[11]

Social media footage circulated on November 18 shows a Russian soldier opening fire on Ukrainians as other Russian soldiers were surrendering. The graphic footage shows Ukrainian troops in Makiivka, Luhansk Oblast, taking a group of Russian soldiers prisoner when one Russian soldier emerges from a house holding a gun and opens fire.[12] Drone footage shows the bodies of the deceased Russian soldiers after the incident.[13] Open-source analysts concluded that the Russian soldier opened fire initially, but it is unclear who killed the Russian prisoners, when, and under what circumstances.[14] However, the Russian information space immediately responded to the footage by widely accusing Ukrainian forces of a ”mass execution” of the Russian prisoners.[15] The Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Ukrainian Armed Forces and is reportedly trying to identify the Ukrainian servicemen in the video.[16]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian officials are preparing for further covert mobilization efforts even as the fall conscription cycle is underway, likely further diminishing the development of quality mobilized and conscripted servicemen.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it does not recognize the illegal Russian seizure of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) or the illegal annexation of other occupied Ukrainian territory, a sharp escalation in IAEA rhetoric.
  • Social media footage circulated on November 18 shows a Russian soldier opening fire on Ukrainians as other Russian soldiers were surrendering.
  • Russian forces reinforced rear areas in Luhansk Oblast and attempted to regain lost positions as Ukrainian troops continued counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground assaults near Bakhmut and Avdiivka and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian occupation officials and military leadership are seemingly increasingly concerned about subsequent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Russia continues to face exceedingly low morale and poor discipline among its forces against the backdrop of ongoing domestic backlash to partial mobilization.
  • Russian occupation officials and forces continued to intensify filtration measures in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine and to undermine the Ukrainian national identity.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 17

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 17, 7:45pm 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 conducted another massive wave of missile strikes across Ukraine on November 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops launched five airstrikes and 25 cruise missile strikes at civilian infrastructure objects in Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv oblasts throughout the day.[1] Ukrainian Air Force Command noted that Ukrainian air defense forces destroyed four cruise missiles, five Shahed-136 drones, and two Kh-59 guided missiles.[2] Russian forces conducted the largest missile attack since the start of the war on November 15, and as ISW has previously assessed, such missile campaigns are consuming Russia’s already depleted store of precision munitions.[3]

Russian forces in eastern Kherson Oblast are likely partially vulnerable to a Ukrainian interdiction campaign such as the one Ukrainian forces successfully exploited to retake western Kherson Oblast. Several major ground lines of communication (GLOCs) run through eastern Kherson Oblast into other Russian-controlled areas in southern Ukraine: the southern T2202 Nova Kahkovka-Armiansk route, the southeastern P47 Kakovkha-Henichesk route, and the M14 highway that runs eastward into Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Mariupol. Geolocated satellite imagery indicates that Russian troops are establishing defensive positions along some of these critical GLOCs, and social media reporting indicates that Ukrainian strikes have already begun targeting Russian concentration areas and military assets on these routes.[4] The limited number of high-quality roads and railways in this area, particularly connecting Crimea to the mainland, creates potential bottlenecks that could be vulnerable to Ukrainian interdiction efforts that would gradually degrade the Russian ability to continue supplying its grouping in eastern Kherson Oblast and other areas of southern Ukraine. ISW previously reported the targeting of similar bottlenecks along key GLOCS--not just the bridges across the Dnipro River--during Ukraine’s Kherson counteroffensive in late August to mid-October culminated in the Russian withdrawal from the west bank of Kherson Oblast to positions further south of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian forces will likely find it harder to achieve such dramatic effects in eastern Kherson but may be able to disrupt Russian efforts to solidify and hold their new defensive lines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree changing the composition of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on November 17.[5] The decree notably expels four Russian human rights activists, including Ekaterina Vinokurova, who wrote a piece criticizing the rise of “patriotic” Telegram channels and nationalist milbloggers who have cornered the information space against opposition outlets who deviate from the predominant Kremlin line of the war in Ukraine.[6] Russian media previously reported that Vinokurova and other members of the HRC appealed to the Russian Investigative Committee to look into the widely circulated video of the execution of a former Wagner Group fighter who reportedly defected to Ukraine.[7] Putin’s new appointees to the HRC include a slate of Russian political and proxy members and notably Sasha Kots, a prominent milblogger and war correspondent who has been heavily involved in covering Russian operations in Ukraine.[8] Kots most recently called for Russia to maintain massive missile strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure on November 17.[9] This decree likely represents the Kremlin’s wider effort to stifle domestic civil opposition by continuing to platform prominent voices in the information space that propagate the Kremlin’s line on the war in Ukraine.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian forces conducted another massive wave of missile strikes across Ukraine on November 17
  • Russian forces in eastern Kherson Oblast are likely partially vulnerable to a Ukrainian interdiction campaign such as the one Ukrainian forces successfully exploited to retake western Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree changing the composition of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on November 17.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian troops are conducting counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian troops continued targeting Russian military assets and concentration areas on the east bank of Kherson Oblast and in the rear areas of Zaporizhia Oblast on November 17.
  • Russian authorities continue to face discontented mobilized personnel and low morale on the front lines.
  • Russian occupation officials continued to destroy Ukrainian culture in Russian-occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 16

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 16, 6:45pm 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 sources and proxy officials are flagrantly touting the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. Prominent Russian milbloggers began circulating a multi-part documentary series on November 9 featuring several Ukrainian children from Donbas after being adopted into Russian families.[1] The documentary series claims that Russian officials have evacuated over 150,000 children from Donbas in 2022 alone.[2] It is unclear exactly how Russian sources are calculating this figure, and Ukrainian officials previously estimated this number to be 6,000 to 8,000.[3] Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov additionally stated he is working with Russian Federation Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova to bring “difficult teenagers” from various Russian regions and occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to Chechnya to engage in “preventative work” and “military-patriotic education.”[4] Lvova-Belova has continually advocated for deportations and adoptions of Ukrainian children and herself adopted a child from Mariupol.[5] Forced adoption programs and the deportation of children under the guise of vacation and rehabilitation schemes likely form the backbone of a massive Russian depopulation campaign that may amount to a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and constitute a wider ethnic cleansing effort, as ISW has previously reported.[6]

Ukrainian sources continued to clarify the damage caused by the massive November 15 Russian missile strike across Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff stated on November 16 that Russian forces launched over 90 Kh-101 and Kalibr cruise missiles and 11 drones over the course of November 15 and targeted critical infrastructure in a number of oblasts.[7] Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Ukrainian air defense and ground forces shot down 75 missiles and 10 Shahed-136 drones.[8] US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted on November 16 that the US-provided National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) had a 100% success rate in intercepting Russian missiles.[9] As ISW previously reported, Russian forces likely used a substantial portion of their high-precision weapon systems in the November 15 attack.[10]

The Russian information space largely followed the official Kremlin framing of the missile strike on Polish territory as a Western provocation. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on November 16 that Ukrainian and other foreign officials' statements about Russian missiles in connection with the strike on Polish territory constitute a “deliberate provocation with the aim of escalating the situation.”[11] Russian Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev accused the West of moving closer to world war by waging a hybrid attack against Russia following the strike on Polish territory.[12]  Russian milbloggers widely accused Western and Ukrainian officials of trying to falsely blame Russia for the strike in order to justify increased support to Ukraine and further escalation in Eastern Europe.[13] Some Russian sources also asserted that Ukrainian and Western officials were trying to use the incident to either pressure Russia to end its coordinated missile campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure or to justify sending “better” air defenses to Ukraine.[14] The Russian milbloggers’ support of the Kremlin framing of the strike as a Western provocation is to be expected of a Russian information space that widely views the conflict in Ukraine as a Western operation aimed at degrading Russia as a regional and global power.

Wagner financer Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing to establish himself as a central figure in the pro-war ultranationalist community, likely in pursuit of ambitious political goals. Russian opposition media outlet Meduza reported on November 16 that two sources close to the Kremlin stated that Prigozhin is thinking about creating a “conservative movement” that may become a political party.[15] Meduza’s sources reported that Prigozhin has established an information campaign of constant anti-elite rhetoric modeled after jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s social media campaign against Russian corruption, but to a very different effect.[16] Meduza’s sources reported that Prigozhin intends to simultaneously use the anti-elite social media campaign to cast himself as a populist figure while currying favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin by intimidating elites that may be viewed as insufficiently loyal to Putin.[17] ISW has previously reported that Prigozhin is attempting to appeal to a constituency in Russia that is both interested in Russia’s claimed national superiority and Soviet brutalist strength and opposed to Russian elite corruption.[18] Prigozhin has previously denied that he is attempting to cast himself as a politician or that he intends to create a political party or movement.[19] ISW has previously reported that Prigozhin is also pursuing the creation of parallel military structures to advance his influence in the ultranationalist pro-war community.[20] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Andriy Chernyak reported on November 15 that Prigozhin initially began constructing parallel military structures to suppress potential uprisings in Russia but capitalized upon the Kremlin’s need for more capable forces in Russia's offensive campaign in Ukraine.[21] ISW has previously assessed that Prigozhin’s personal army serves his own personal political goals first and the Russian war effort in Ukraine second.[22] Prigozhin will likely continue efforts to establish parallel military structures and form an anti-elite campaign to cement himself as the central figure of an ultranationalist pro-war political movement in Russia. 

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian sources and proxy officials are flagrantly touting the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families.
  • Ukrainian sources continued to clarify the damage caused by the massive November 15 Russian missile strike across Ukraine.
  • The Russian information space largely followed the official Kremlin framing of the missile strike on Polish territory as a Western provocation.
  • Wagner Group financer Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing to establish himself as a central figure in the pro-war ultranationalist community likely in pursuit of ambitious political goals.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the directions of Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and Avdiivka, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian forces and logistics nodes in southern Ukraine.
  • Multiple reports indicate that the morale and psychological state of Russian forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts are exceedingly low.
  • Russian officials continued their efforts to replace proxy officials in occupied territories with Russian officials, forcibly relocate residents, and integrate occupied areas with Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 15

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 15, 10:30 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 conducted the largest set of missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure since the start of the war. Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ignat reported on November 15 that Russian forces launched about 100 Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, primarily against Ukrainian critical infrastructure facilities.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces targeted Ukrainian infrastructure with ten drones.[2] Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Russian forces struck targets in Kyiv as well as in Rivne, Zhytomyr, Lviv, Khmelnytskyi, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Vinnytsia, Odesa, Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Volyn, and Kharkiv oblasts.[3]

The Russian military likely used a substantial portion of its remaining high-precision weapon systems in the coordinated missile strikes on November 15. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 73 Russian cruise missiles and all drones on November 15.[4] Ukrainian air defenses had previously shot down 43 cruise missiles out of 84 and 13 drones out of 24 during the October 10 coordinated Russian missile strikes.[5] Ukraine‘s increased shoot-down percentage illustrates the improvement in Ukrainian air defenses in the last month, and the Ukrainian General Staff attributed this improvement to the effectiveness of Western-provided air defense systems. ISW also assesses that Russian forces are greatly depleting their stock of high-precision weapons systems and will likely have to slow the pace of their campaign against critical Ukrainian infrastructure.[6] Russian missile strikes continue to pose a threat to the Ukrainian civilian population with Ukrainian Deputy Head of the Presidential Office Kyrylo Tymoshenko stating that the energy situation is rather “critical” in Ukraine.[7] Damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is unlikely to break Ukrainians’ spirit, however, given Ukraine’s improving air defenses and recent ground victories in Kherson Oblast.

Polish officials announced that a likely “Russian-made missile” landed in Poland within six kilometers of the international border with Ukraine. Western officials have yet to make definitive statements regarding the incident. The Polish Foreign Ministry stated on November 15 that a “Russian-made missile” killed two Polish citizens in the border village of Przewodow.[8] Polish President Andrzej Duda noted that Poland does not currently have information regarding the actor responsible for firing the missile but noted that the missile was “most probably Russian-made.”[9] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied Russia’s involvement in striking any targets near the Ukraine-Polish border and claimed that the incident is a “provocation.”[10] Russian forces, however, did target energy infrastructure in Lviv City, about 72km south of Przewodow.[11] US President Joe Biden stated that according to preliminary information it is unlikely that the missile was fired from territorial Russia but emphasized that the investigation is still ongoing as of the time of this publication.[12] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of staging a “serious provocation” on NATO territory.[13] ISW will continue to monitor the situation.

The Kremlin had prepared today’s massive missile campaign before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented his 10-point peace proposal at the G20 summit on November 15. Zelensky reiterated that Ukraine will negotiate with Russia if the Kremlin totally withdraws its forces from Ukraine, restores Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and ensures punishment for war crimes among other provisions on nuclear, energy, and food security.[14] The Kremlin likely deliberately planned a massive missile strike campaign on Ukraine in anticipation of Zelensky’s speech at the G20 summit given that a multi-direction missile campaign requires significant military preparation. The Russian pro-war community on Telegram claimed that the Kremlin retaliated for Zelensky’s “Russophobic” statements shortly after his speech, but the impossibility of launching such a massive attack on short notice highlights the Kremlin’s disinterest in setting the stage for negotiations with Ukraine.[15]

The Kremlin’s official narrative surrounding the G20 summit further confirms Russia’s disinterest in the prospect of peace negotiations with Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not appear at the summit and instead signed numerous decrees granting honorary titles to Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities.[16]  Putin’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia will continue its “special military operation” in Ukraine, accusing Zelensky of unwillingness to negotiate with Russia.[17] Lavrov called Ukraine’s conditions “unrealistic and inadequate,” which has been the Kremlin’s recurrent position throughout the war.[18] Peskov also made a point to emphasize that Russia will still treat liberated Kherson City as the capital of Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast, and Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev repeated the original false narratives used to justify the invasion that Russia needs to defend Donbas and that Ukrainian “Nazis” failed to comply with the Minsk agreements.[19]

Russian military commanders reportedly ignored existing plans for offensive operations in the Vuhledar direction and committed poorly trained reinforcements to costly assaults on Pavlivka out of impatience. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) military commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky claimed on November 15 that Russian forces initially planned to attack in the Vuhledar area from two directions but that he and other commanders realized that the poor training of reinforcements and their inability to contact brigade commanders made such plans impossible.[20] Khodakovsky claimed that brigade commanders changed the plan completely and committed all Russian forces in the area to an attack on Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast.[21] ISW had previously reported that Russian forces prematurely impaled an insufficient concentration of mobilized personnel on offensive pushes aimed at seizing Pavlivka leading to extensive losses, particularly among the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet.[22]  Russian military officials likely abandoned their initial plans and committed poorly trained reinforcements to the assault on Pavlivka due to a sense of politically-driven urgency to restart the Donetsk offensive campaign before the planned Russian withdrawal from Kherson City.

The high costs associated with the Russian offensive push on Pavlivka continue to generate criticism of Russian military leadership. Khodakovsky claimed that Russian military leadership is trying to blame the “miserable results” on the commander of the 40th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet for not properly supporting the Russian 155th Naval Infantry Brigade.[23] Khodakovsky argued that the brigade commanders are guilty of the high costs of the assault and that the commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin, should not allow an “innocent” commander to take the blame for the poor planning of Russian military leadership.[24] ISW previously assessed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued a rare statement on November 7 in response to the extensive Russian milblogger outcry concerning the losses associated with the Pavlivka offensive operation.[25] Khodakovsky’s criticisms of the Russian military command indicate that the Russian MoD likely failed to address the outrage fully and that Russian pro-war figures and milbloggers will continue to criticize Russian military commanders.

Russians are increasingly turning to various platforms on social media to express their dissatisfaction with mobilization problems, a phenomenon that has the ingredients to ignite organized online-based movements in Russia. Sixteen anti-war groups in Russia launched a petition demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin demobilize all mobilized Russian men.[26] The petition has already garnered almost 38,000 signatories as of the time of this publication. About 1,500 mothers of disabled children and mothers with more than three children in their households also petitioned Putin to exempt their husbands from mobilization.[27] Russian opposition and non-governmental organizations such as Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg had voiced concerns with the Russian Armed Forces prior to the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine but did not receive significant attention within the Russian information space.[28] Grievances over mobilization issues, however, reached the milblogger community that was already critical of the Russian Ministry of Defense and that has been discussing issues with the execution of mobilization since the second day of the order.[29] These grievances are increasingly influencing both the opposition and the pro-war communities, which is a new phenomenon. While Russian police have consistently suppressed small-scale protests throughout the country the Kremlin has yet to regulate platforms such as Telegram that allow Russians across the country to share their discontent and demand action from local officials with the backing of prominent milbloggers.

Russian officials continued to set conditions to force the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to recognize Russian control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and thereby de facto recognize the Russian annexation of occupied Ukraine. The IAEA announced on November 14 that Russian ZNPP authorities rejected a Ukrainian proposal to bring two reactors to a low power state from a hot shutdown state and that Russian officials are increasingly making “significant operational decisions,” noting that IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi expressed concern at “open contradictions” in decision making at the ZNPP.[30] The IAEA and Ukraine’s Resistance Center reported that Russia is increasingly importing technical staff from Russian nuclear power plants to the ZNPP.[31] The IAEA’s reporting and concerns about the decision-making hierarchy at the ZNPP is an inflection in the IAEA’s usual communications and suggests that Russian physical control and operational authority over the plant is increasing to a point that is alarming the IAEA.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted the largest set of missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure since the start of the war, likely using a substantial portion of their remaining high-precision weapon systems.
  • Polish officials announced that a likely “Russian-made missile” landed in Poland within six kilometers of the international border with Ukraine.
  • Russian military commanders reportedly ignored existing plans for offensive operations in the Vuhledar direction and committed poorly trained reinforcements to costly assaults on Pavlivka out of impatience, generating continued criticism of Russian military leadership.
  • Russian officials continued to set conditions to force the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to recognize Russian control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and thereby de facto recognize the Russian annexation of occupied Ukraine.
  • Russians are increasingly turning to various platforms on social media to express their dissatisfaction with mobilization problems, which could ignite organized online anti-war movements in Russia.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensives in the direction of Svatove and Kreminna, and Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian logistics to the rear of Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.
  • Premature reports of Ukrainian forces capturing territory on the left bank of the Dnipro River provoked backlash in the Russian information space.
  • Russian logistics routes from Crimea into southern Ukraine are likely highly degraded.
  • Russian forces are continuing to supply their diminishing supplies with Belarusian military equipment.
  • Russian officials continued to minimize the role of proxy officials in occupied territories in favor of Russian officials.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 14

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Layne Philipson, Angela Howard, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 14, 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.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) escalated claims of Russian territorial gains in Donetsk Oblast on November 13 and 14, likely to emphasize that Russian forces are intensifying operations in Donetsk Oblast following withdrawal from the right bank of Kherson Oblast. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces completed the capture of Mayorsk (20km south of Bakhmut) on November 13 and of Pavlivka (45km southwest of Donetsk City) on November 14 after several weeks of not making claims of Russian territorial gains.[1] As ISW assessed on November 13, Russian forces will likely recommit troops to Donetsk Oblast after leaving the right bank of Kherson Oblast, which will likely lead to an intensification of operations around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.[2] Russian forces will likely make gains in these areas in the coming days and weeks, but these gains are unlikely to be operationally significant. The Russian MoD is likely making more concrete territorial claims in order to set information conditions to frame Russian successes in Donetsk Oblast and detract from discontent regarding losses in Kherson Oblast.

Russian milbloggers seized on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s November 14 visit to Kherson City to criticize Russian military capacity more substantively than in previous days during the Russian withdrawal from the right bank of Kherson Oblast. Russian milbloggers largely complained that Zelensky arrived in Kherson City and was able to move around with relatively little concern about Russian strikes in his vicinity and questioned why Russian forces did not launch strikes on Zelensky.[3] One prominent milblogger noted that this shows that Russia does not want to win the war and criticized Russian forces for allowing Zelensky to step foot on “Russian territory.”[4] Russian milbloggers have notably maintained a relatively muted response to the Russian loss of the right bank in the past days, as ISW has previously reported.[5] The clear shift in rhetoric from relatively exculpatory language generally backing the withdrawal as a militarily sound decision to ire directed at Russian military failures suggests that Russian military leadership will likely be pressured to secure more direct gains in Donetsk Oblast and other areas.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continues to establish himself as a highly independent, Stalinist warlord in Russia, becoming a prominent figure within the nationalist pro-war community. Prigozhin commented on a Russian execution video of a reportedly exchanged Wagner prisoner of war, Yevgeniy Nuzhin, sarcastically supporting Nuzhin’s execution and denouncing him as a traitor to the Russian people.[6] Most sources noted that Wagner executed Nuzhin following a prisoner exchange on November 10, but a few claimed that Wagner kidnapped the serviceman via Prigozhin’s connections to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian General Staff.[7] Prigozhin claimed that Nuzhin planned his escape to free Ukraine and used the opportunity to compare Nuzhin to Russian elites who disregard the interests of the Russian people and fly away from Russia‘s problems in their personal business jets.[8] The Russian nationalist community overwhelmingly welcomed the public punishment of the supposed deserter, noting that the Wagner command is undertaking appropriate military measures to discipline its forces.[9] Some milbloggers even compared the execution to Joseph Stalin’s “heroic” execution of Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky who had also fled Bolshevik Russia, further confirming Prigozhin’s appeal among the proponents of Stalin’s repressive legacy.[10] Prigozhin is taking actions that will resonate with a constituency interested in the ideology of Russia’s national superiority, Soviet brutalist strength, and distasteful of the Kremlin’s corruption, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has used as a political force throughout his reign.

Prigozhin is steadily using his participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine to consolidate his influence in Russia. One milblogger voiced a concern that the integration of Wagner mercenaries into Russian society is “the destruction of even the illusion of legality and respect for rights in Putin’s Russian Federation.”[11] The milblogger added that Prigozhin is seizing the initiative to expand Wagner’s power in St. Petersburg while Russian security forces are “asleep.” Such opinions are not widespread among Russian nationalists but highlight some concerns with Prigozhin’s rapid expansion amid the Russian “special military operation” and its implications on the Putin regime. Prigozhin, for example, has requested that the FSB General Prosecutor’s office investigate St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov for high treason after St. Petersburg officials denied a construction permit for his Wagner Center in the city.[12] He had also publicly scoffed at the Russian bureaucracy when asked if his forces will train at Russian training grounds, likely to further assert the independence of his forces.[13] Prigozhin’s unhinged antics in the political sphere are unprecedented in Putin’s regime.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) escalated claims of Russian territorial gains in Donetsk Oblast on November 13 and 14, likely to emphasize that Russian forces are intensifying operations in Donetsk Oblast following their withdrawal from the right bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers seized on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s November 14 visit to Kherson City to criticize Russian military capacity more substantively than in previous days during the Russian withdrawal from the right bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continues to establish himself as a highly independent, Stalinist warlord in Russia, becoming an even more prominent figure within the nationalist pro-war community.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the Svatove-Kreminna line and clashed with Russian troops near Bilohorivka.
  • Russian forces unsuccessfully attempted to regain positions in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian forces intensified offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast and claimed to have gained territory around Bakhmut and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops launched an unsuccessful raid onto the Kinburn Spit.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed additional decrees refining mobilization protocols and expanding military recruitment provisions, likely in an ongoing effort to reinforce Russian war efforts.
  • Russian occupation officials continued to drive the “evacuation” and forced relocation of residents in occupied territories and took efforts to move occupation elements farther from the Dnipro River.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 13

Click here to read the full report.

Frederick W. Kagan

November 13, 3:30 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, November 13. This report discusses the likely evolution of the war following Ukraine’s operational success in regaining control of western Kherson Oblast. The Russians are not setting conditions for a relaxation of hostilities for the rest of the fall and into the winter but rather are launching a new offensive in Donetsk Oblast. The Ukrainians will likely use combat power recouped from the liberation of western Kherson to reinforce their ongoing counter-offensive in Luhansk Oblast or to open a new counter-offensive drive elsewhere. This is not the time to slow down aid or press for ceasefires or negotiations, but rather the time to help Ukraine take advantage of its momentum in conditions that favor Kyiv rather than Moscow.

Ukraine has won an important victory in the campaign that liberated western Kherson Oblast, culminating in the withdrawal of Russian forces completed on November 11.[1]  Russian President Vladimir Putin had been determined to hold this key terrain, possession of which would have allowed him to renew his invasion of unoccupied Ukraine from positions on the west bank of the Dnipro River. That consideration was likely more important in Putin‘s calculations than the symbolic value of retaining the only oblast capital his forces had seized since February 24, 2022. (Russia had already taken Luhansk City and Donetsk City in its 2014-2015 invasion.) Putin had committed substantial Russian forces to the defense of western Kherson, including many of the remaining elite airborne units available to the Russian military.[2]  He also committed reinforcements generated by the partial mobilization of reservists he had ordered on September 21.[3]  Those forces had dug in and fought hard to hold their ground, taking many losses. Ukraine’s success despite this Russian determination and allocation of scarce elite units is in many respects even more impressive than its victory in Kharkiv Oblast in mid-September.[4]

Ukraine’s success resulted in large part from the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ (UAF’s) innovative use of the US-provided HIMARS precision rocket system to disrupt Russian supply lines. The HIMARS munitions the US has given Ukraine are not suitable for destroying bridges—their warheads are too small and are not optimized for such strikes. The UAF developed a tactic to work around that limitation by conducting multiple precision strikes across the key Antonivskiy Bridge and the road that ran atop the Kakhovka Dam in such a way as to break the roadways in a line across them, rendering them unusable without actually destroying the bridges’ infrastructure (or badly damaging the dam).[5]  The UAF continued to strike the bridges as the Russians sought to repair them, targeting the repair equipment as well as the roadways until the Russians finally gave up. The Russians attempted to construct a pontoon bridge under the Antonivskiy Bridge as a mitigation, but the UAF attacked that effort as well, causing the Russians to abandon it.[6] The Russians were left at the end with barges ferrying supplies, equipment, and reinforcements from the east to the west bank.[7]  The UAF attacked the barges and landing areas as well, but the ferry system was in any case insufficient to supply the 20,000-some Russian mechanized troops trying to hold their lodgment on the western bank of the river.[8] 

It was clear that the Russians would be unable to defend that lodgment by the time Russian Army General Sergey Surovikin took command of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on October 8.[9]  Surovikin signaled his intention to withdraw from western Kherson almost immediately and likely began setting conditions to retreat within a couple of weeks.[10]  It is not clear whether Putin authorized Surovikin to abandon western Kherson fully at that time or whether Surovikin had to continue working to persuade Putin of the hopelessness of any effort to hold on in western Kherson. However that may be, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu met with Surovikin on November 9 in a staged, public setting and ordered him to withdraw, which Surovikin promptly did.[11]

Putin likely elevated Surovikin and let him withdraw from western Kherson on condition that he take the rest of Donetsk Oblast using Russian forces recouped from western Kherson as well as newly-arriving mobilized servicemen.[12] This observation offered by Andriy Zagorodnyuk, chairman of the Ukrainian Center of Defense Strategies, is the likeliest explanation for the resumption in the intensity of Russian offensive operations first around Bakhmut and then to the southwest around the Vuhledar area that began on October 28.[13] These offensive efforts otherwise make little operational sense. They are far from operationally significant locations apart from Bakhmut and were launched during a difficult muddy time by inadequately prepared mobilized servicemen before Russian commanders in the area had amassed enough combat power for decisive operations.[14] Surovikin likely ordered them to start when they did as an earnest sign of his commitment to Putin.

Russian offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast will intensify in the coming weeks as additional mobilized servicemen arrive along with forces withdrawn from western Kherson. Ukrainian forces in the area will find themselves hard-pressed, and Kyiv will very likely have to divert troops to defend against these renewed Russian offensives. The Russians are not likely to make operationally significant gains despite their renewed efforts, although they could conceivably take Bakhmut over time at enormous cost. Russian mobilized servicemen have shown themselves to be inadequately trained, poorly equipped, and very reluctant to fight.[15] They are not arriving in cohesive units but rather are being sent largely as individual or small unit replacements to units that have been fighting without rest for nine months, have suffered devastating losses in men and equipment, and are largely demoralized themselves.

Russian forces operating in Donetsk Oblast include conventional units of the regular Russian Armed Forces, mobilized servicemen, Wagner Private Military Company troops, BARS (Russian volunteer reserve) formations, militia units from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, soldiers from Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen units, and volunteer battalions.[16]  This bizarre congeries of combat forces will have considerably less effective combat power than would a grouping of regular units of similar size. It is extremely unlikely that Surovikin will be able to forge it into a force able to conduct large-scale offensive mechanized maneuver warfare, particularly since he is not even taking (or being allowed to take) the time to build a coherent strike force before hurling it into the attack. This weird mix of forces will likely make some gains through sheer weight of numbers, but Ukrainian defenders, likely reinforced, will most probably force it to a halt over the next few months not far from its starting points.

Ukraine will also likely recoup combat power from western Kherson and redeploy it to other areas for both defensive and counter-offensive operations. The UAF could conceivably try to chase the Russians across the Dnipro River at various points but is unlikely to do so because the logistics of supporting a Ukrainian lodgment on the eastern bank are very daunting. The UAF is therefore more likely to consolidate its control of the western bank, leave enough force to deter any Russian attempt to cross the river again, and reallocate forces to other areas. The Russian offensive in Donetsk Oblast will likely require the UAF to divert some forces to defend in that area, but the UAF will likely send at least part of the recouped combat power either to reinforce its ongoing counter-offensive in Luhansk Oblast or to open another counter-offensive somewhere else (we will not speculate about where that might be).

Ukrainian forces have continued to make limited gains in Luhansk Oblast and will likely be able to make more gains if they are reinforced by troops from western Kherson. The Russians are also reinforcing their defensive positions in Luhansk Oblast, to be sure, but the UAF has been grinding forward nevertheless, and there is no reason to forecast that the ill-trained, ill-equipped, and low-morale Russian reservists will be able to stop Ukrainian troops, buoyed by their victories, from advancing.

A cessation or prolonged slowing of combat operations over the next few months is therefore very unlikely. The Russians are emphatically not attempting to establish and strengthen defensive positions all along the line but are rather renewing offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast.[17] The Ukrainians will almost certainly continue their counter-offensive operations already underway. Both sides are already fighting in very muddy conditions. They will not likely stop fighting when winter freezes the ground and makes it even more conducive to large-scale mechanized maneuver warfare. Combat is more likely to intensify than to slacken as temperatures drop.

Any attempt at a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities at this time would overwhelmingly favor Russia. Putin should desire such a ceasefire in his own interest. He should recognize that he needs to give his forces time to recover and allow the reservists flowing into the theater time to integrate into their units, train up, and prepare for serious combat. He should want to stop the Ukrainians from capitalizing on the emotional lift of their recent victories. The fact that Putin continues to whip his generals to offensives in these circumstances is thus a grave error from a military perspective. It likely results from whatever psychological factors led Putin to order the invasion in the first place but also increasingly from Putin’s need to show his toughness to the hardline faction led, at least in public, by Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Putin is unlikely to be willing to seek a ceasefire, therefore, unless it is accompanied by tremendous Ukrainian or international concessions.

Napoleon famously quipped:  Never interrupt your enemy whilst he is in the midst of making a mistake. That aphorism has never been truer—Ukraine and its backers should take advantage of Putin’s error by continuing to press the counter-offensive in circumstances far more favorable to Kyiv than to Moscow.

Ukraine has by no means liberated the minimum territory essential to its future security and economic survival even with the victory in western Kherson, finally. The city of Melitopol and surrounding areas, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, land on the east bank of the lower Dnipro River, and territory in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are all vital terrain for Ukraine, as ISW has previously argued.[18]  Discussions about the future of Crimea and other Ukrainian lands illegally occupied by Russia after 2014 are premature. Ukraine must liberate tens of thousands of square kilometers short of those areas if it is to be able to defend itself against future Russian attacks and reestablish a functional economy.

Ukrainians and the West must bend every effort to enabling the liberation of those lands as rapidly as possible before worrying about what lies beyond them. Momentum is an important factor in war. Ukraine has it now. Kyiv and its partners must make the most of it.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on November 13:

  • Wagner Group Financer Yevgeny Prigozhin asked the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to open a case against St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov for high treason amid viral footage of Wagner forces murdering one of their own.[19] Prigozhin and Russian nationalist milbloggers largely supported the murder of the alleged traitor.[20]
  • The Russian military grouping stationed in Belarus continues to generate social tensions among Belarusians.[21]
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.[22]
  • Ukrainian forces continued to consolidate control over the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.[23] Ukrainian forces struck a Russian military base in Chaplynka, Kherson Oblast, 50km south of Beryslav on the eastern bank of the Dnipro.[24]
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations in the directions of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.[25] The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces captured Mayorsk, southeast of Bakhmut.[26]
  • Russian forces continued routine indirect fire against frontline settlements in Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts.[27] Russian forces struck Zaporizhzhia City with an Iskander missile.[28]
  • Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the demobilization of mobilized students in Russian-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, likely as part of an ongoing effort to integrate proxy forces into the Russian Armed Forces.[29]
  • Russian forces and occupation officials are forcibly mobilizing men in Russian-occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast, and forcing them to construct trenches and defensive fortifications in the city.[30]
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces are withdrawing from the left bank of the Dnipro River and concentrating forces and equipment in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast, and Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast.[31]
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed an amendment to a draft law that would allow Russian officials to revoke Russian citizenship for disseminating “false” information about the Russian military, participating in extremist or undesirable organizations, or calling for violations of Russian “territorial integrity.”[32]

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 12

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 12, 7:30 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.

Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson City is igniting an ideological fracture between pro-war figures and Russian President Vladimir Putin, eroding confidence in Putin’s commitment and ability to deliver his war promises. A pro-war Russian ideologist, Alexander Dugin, openly criticized Putin—whom he referred to as the autocrat—for failing to uphold Russian ideology by surrendering Kherson City on November 12.[1] Dugin said this Russian ideology defines Russia’s responsibility to defend “Russian cities” such as Kherson, Belgorod, Kursk, Donetsk, and Simferopol. Dugin noted that an autocrat has a responsibility to save his nation all by himself or face the fate of “king of the rains,” a reference to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough in which a king was killed because he was unable to deliver rain amidst a drought. Dugin also downplayed the role of Putin’s advisors in failing to protect the Russian world and noted that the commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin was not responsible for the political decision to withdraw from Kherson City. Dugin noted that the autocrat cannot repair this deviation from ideology merely with public appearances, noting that “the authorities in Russia cannot surrender anything else” and that “the limit has been reached.” He also accused the presidential administration of upholding a “fake” ideology because of its fear of committing to the “Russian Idea.” Dugin also made a reference to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which he vaguely stated was “the end” and proceeded to note that overdue Russian changes to the military campaign have not generated any effect to change the course of the war.  He also suggested, however, that Russia must commit to the Russian Idea rather than pursuing the “stupid” use of nuclear weapons.

Putin is having a harder time appeasing parts of the highly ideological pro-war constituency due to his military’s inability to deliver his maximalist goals of overthrowing the Ukrainian government and seizing all of Ukraine, as ISW has previously assessed.[2] Putin’s nationalist-leaning propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov are increasingly demanding that the Kremlin and higher military command to fully commit to their goals in Ukraine, and Solovyov even called for full mobilization and the firing of incompetent officials following the Russian surrender of Kherson City.[3] Select milbloggers have previously criticized Putin for his failure to respond to the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge on October 9, while others noted that Putin has failed to uphold the ideology of Russian superiority since 2014.[4] Direct criticism of Putin within the pro-war community is almost unprecedented, and Dugin’s high-profile and unhinged attack on Putin may indicate a shift among the Russian nationalist ideologues.[5] Putin needs to retain the support of this community and has likely ordered some of his propagandists to suppress any critiques of the Russian withdrawal from Kherson City, since many state TV news programs have been omitting or downplaying the aftermath of withdrawal.[6] The ever-increasing doubts among extreme Russian nationalists about Putin’s commitment to Russian ideology reduce Putin’s appeal to the nationalist community, while mobilization and high casualties will likely continue to upset members of the Russian society.

Wagner-affiliated channels are also turning on the Kremlin following the loss of Kherson Oblast, which may further elevate the influence of the siloviki faction. Some milbloggers implied that the Kremlin has betrayed Kherson City by “selling out,” while others noted that the Kremlin has consistently surrendered its territories without asking the Russian people.[7] Other milbloggers further questioned the legitimacy of the claimed 87% support rate for Russian annexation of Kherson Oblast.[8] Wagner Group financier Yevheny Prigozhin and some milbloggers have previously discussed the possibility of “Russia’s civil society” stepping up to defend Russia.[9] The growing criticism of the decision to withdraw from western Kherson contrasts with the general support for the decision among the milblogger community before today.

Russian officials are increasingly normalizing the public and likely illegal deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova publicized the illegal kidnapping of 52 medically fragile Ukrainian children from Kherson Oblast to an unspecified “safe” area in Russia on November 12, likely under a medical relocation scheme that Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ambassador to Russia Rodion Miroshnik confirmed had started on November 5.[10] High level Kremlin officials, including Lvova-Belova and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin have publicly acknowledged and praised the relocation of thousands of Ukrainian children to live with Russian families or in Russian facilities in recent weeks.[11] Russian Zaporizhia Oblast occupation officials have made public statements in recent weeks about the planned forced relocation of over 40,000 Kherson Oblast children to Russia and acknowledged on November 12 that their systems for caring for Ukrainian children are inadequate.[12] Russian and Ukrainian sources have previously reported that Russian and occupation officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia under education, vacation, and other schemes within the past 10 days.[13] Such frequent and public acknowledgements are a stark contrast to the first Russian official confirmation of such actions on August 23, when Krasnodar Krai authorities deleted an announcement about the arrival of 300 adoptable Ukrainian children from Mariupol and denied ever issuing the statement.[14] As ISW has noted and will continue to observe, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia represents a possible violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[15]

Russian military leadership is trying and largely failing to integrate combat forces drawn from many different organizations and of many different types and levels of skill and equipment into a more cohesive fighting force in Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian officials stopped the distribution of Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) documents, including documents regarding the participation of DNR and LNR forces in combat, on November 11.[16] Russian authorities also ordered Southern Military District commanders to centralize payments to DNR and LNR fighters through Russian financial institutions and offered DNR and LNR soldiers the option to continue their service as contract servicemembers under Russian law.[17]  These efforts will likely increase friction between Russian officials and LNR and DNR officials due to the exclusion of DNR and LNR officials from the process. DNR and LNR servicemembers reportedly feel pressured to accept Russian contracts and have expressed fears that refusal of the new Russian contracts would lead to the annulment of their documents and termination of DNR/LNR benefits.[18] ISW has previously reported bureaucratic conflict between DNR, LNR, and Russian authorities over administrative structures in occupied areas.[19]

The lack of structure inherent in the combination of DNR forces, LNR forces, Russian contract servicemembers, Russian regional volunteer servicemembers, Russian mobilized servicemembers, and Wagner Group Private Military Company (PMC) forces creates an environment that fosters intra-force conflict. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on November 12 that tense relations between mobilized soldiers and Chechen volunteer soldiers triggered a brawl in Makiivka that injured three.[20]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson City is igniting an ideological fracture between pro-war figures and Russian President Vladimir Putin, eroding confidence in Putin’s commitment to and ability to deliver on his war promises.
  • Russian officials are increasingly normalizing the public and likely illegal deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia.
  • The Russian military leadership is trying and failing to integrate ad hoc military formations into a more cohesive fighting force in Ukraine. 
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to liberate settlements on the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the direction of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.
  • Russian officials may be trying to avoid providing military personnel with promised payments.
  • Russian forces and occupation officials continue to endanger residents and subject them to coercive measures.  

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 11

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 11, 6pm 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 forces are completing the liberation of the western (right) bank of Kherson Oblast after the Russians retreated from it. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces completed the withdrawal to the eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River at 5am local time on November 11.[1] While contingents of Russian soldiers likely remain on the west bank, they are likely scattered throughout the Oblast and attempting to retreat as Ukrainian forces push towards the Dnipro River, although some may have remained behind to attempt to conduct partisan activities in small groups. It is unclear how many Russian soldiers remain on the west bank at this time. Russian sources noted that the withdrawal lasted three days and claimed that 20,000 Russian personnel and 3,500 units of military equipment moved across the Dnipro River.[2]

Satellite imagery corroborates statements made by both Ukrainian and Russian sources that Russian troops destroyed the Antonivsky Bridge and Railway Bridge (near Kherson City) and the Nova Kakhovka dam bridge (east of Kherson City near Nova Kakhovka) over the Dnipro River and the Darivka Bridge (northeast of Kherson City) over the Inhulets River in a final attempt to block Ukrainian advances towards central Kherson Oblast (see images in-line with text).[3] Geolocated satellite imagery also indicates that Russian troops have prepared first and second lines of defense south of the Dnipro River and will likely continue efforts to consolidate positions on the left bank in the coming days.[4]

Overview of the damage to the Antonivsky Bridge on November 11. Source: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Overview of damage to the Antonivsky Railway Bridge on November 11. Source: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Overview of damage to the Darivka Bridge on November 11. Source: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Closer view of damage to the damaged section of the Nova Kakhovka dam on November 11. Source: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Ukrainian troops made major territorial gains throughout Kherson Oblast on November 11 and will continue consolidating control of the western bank in the coming days. Geolocated footage and imagery shows that Ukrainian forces have advanced into Kherson City likely along the T1501 highway from the west and M14 from the north and have taken control of Kherson City and several surrounding settlements along these roads.[5] The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) notably confirmed that Ukrainian troops advanced into Kherson City, and geolocated social media footage shows civilians greeting Ukrainian troops in the center of Kherson City.[6] Ukrainian troops also notably took control of Kyselivka and Chornobaivka, two critical settlements along the M14 northwest of Kherson City.[7] Geolocated social media additionally shows that Ukrainian troops have advanced south along T1505 highway from positions in Snihurivka (northeast of the Kherson-Mykolaiv Oblast border) and liberated several settlements on this line, including Lymanets and Inhulets.[8] Ukrainian forces entered Beryslav (60km east of Kherson City), and social media footage provides evidence of Ukrainian troops in settlements along the P47 highway that runs westward from the Beryslav area towards Kherson City.[9] Footage posted to Telegram notably shows Ukrainian troops in Tiahynka, a settlement between Kherson City and Beryslav, directly on the western shore of the Dnipro River.[10] Ukrainian forces will continue to drive down major roads towards the Dnipro River and liberate additional settlements in the coming days.

ISW has recoded all western Kherson Oblast as liberated based on our high confidence assessment that the Russians have deprived themselves of the ability to hold terrain on the right bank of the Dnipro. Ukrainian forces will complete the liberation of any areas not yet under their control rapidly.

Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian MoD’s statements about the Russian withdrawal to the left bank but generally took a more muted attitude to Ukrainian gains on November 11. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces did not leave a single piece of equipment behind during the withdrawal period, which certain milbloggers directly refuted as blatantly untrue.[11] Many milbloggers, however, presented a relatively matter-of-fact overview of the situation in Kherson Oblast, largely confirmed Ukrainian gains, and emphasized that the retreat itself was a militarily-sound and necessary choice.[12] As ISW previously reported, Russian military leadership, namely Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin, have been developing informational cover to set conditions for the loss of the right bank.[13] The generally muted milblogger response to such a massive Russian defeat is consistent with ISW’s previous observations of informational mitigations carried out by Surovikin and suggests that milbloggers will continue to focus their discontent on the Russian MoD establishment while backing Surovikin — at least for now.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces are completing the liberation of the western (right) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian troops have made major territorial gains throughout Kherson Oblast on November 11 and will continue consolidating control of the western bank in the coming days.
  • Russian milbloggers criticized the Russian MoD’s statements about the Russian withdrawal to the left bank but generally took a more muted attitude to Ukrainian gains.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations towards Kreminna and Svatove, Luhansk Oblast, and Ukrainian forces targeted Russian logistics in rear Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground assaults around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian force concentrations in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financer Yevgeny Prigozhin continued to form parallel military structures in Belgorod and Kursk oblasts, even though there is no threat of a Ukrainian ground invasion into Russian territory.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) subpar conduct of partial mobilization continues to generate social tension.
  • Ukrainian partisans continued to target Russian occupation authorities.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 10

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Katherine Lawlor, and Mason Clark

November 10, 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.

Ukrainian forces steadily advanced in Kherson Oblast on November 10 as Russian forces conduct a withdrawal to the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian military officials and geolocated social media footage confirm that Ukrainian troops have made gains northwest, west, and northeast of Kherson City in the past 24 hours and advanced up to 7km in some areas.[1] Russian forces so far appear to be withdrawing in relatively good order, and Ukrainian forces are making expected gains without routing Russian forces, as they did in the Kharkiv counteroffensive. Ukrainian strikes since August have successfully degraded Russian supply lines on the west (right) bank to force Russian forces to withdraw and will liberate Kherson Oblast to the Dnipro River in the coming days or weeks. The Russian withdrawal will take some time to complete, and fighting will continue throughout Kherson Oblast as Ukrainian troops advance and come up against pre-prepared Russian defensive lines, especially around Kherson City.

ISW does not assess the fighting in Ukraine will halt or enter a stalemate due to winter weather, despite faulty Western assumptions. NBC News reported on November 9 that some US and Western defense officials are eyeing an “expected winter slowdown in fighting as an opportunity for diplomacy to begin between Russia and Ukraine.”[2] Autumn and springtime mud can slow or halt military advances, as can faulty or insufficient wintertime equipment. Some military equipment may need to be adapted for colder weather, and shortages of equipment or ammunition could slow advances due to logistical difficulties — not winter weather.[3] Winter weather could disproportionately harm poorly-equipped Russian forces in Ukraine, but well-supplied Ukrainian forces are unlikely to halt their counteroffensives due to the arrival of winter weather and may be able to take advantage of frozen terrain to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months. If fighting does halt this winter, it will be due to logistical challenges and the culmination of several campaigns on both sides. The Russian campaigns to capture all of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts all culminated months ago (despite the repeated insistence of Russian forces on launching ineffective attacks), and Russian forces are firmly on the defensive across most of the frontline.

Ukraine holds the initiative and is in the process of securing a major victory in Kherson. A ceasefire would provide the Kremlin with the pause it desperately needs to reconstitute Russian forces. The major Ukrainian victory underway in Kherson Oblast will not be Ukraine’s last. Fighting will continue on the southern axis; in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast (the only place Russian forces are still attempting meaningful offensives); and in northern Luhansk Oblast as Ukrainian forces continue counteroffensive operations. Russian officials are busy attempting to train 120,000 conscripts to deploy to the frontlines in the spring.[4] Ukrainian forces likely aim to liberate as much occupied territory as possible before those Russian reinforcements arrive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on November 7 that Ukraine is unwilling to negotiate with Russian forces until certain conditions are met, including the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the prosecution of Russian war criminals, payment for war damages, and promises that Russia will not again invade Ukraine.[5] A wintertime ceasefire would only benefit Russian forces, who would use that opportunity to bolster their faltering defenses and continue their genocidal campaign to eradicate Ukrainian identity in occupied parts of Ukraine.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin is increasingly wrestling with St. Petersburg officials over expanding Wagner Group operations in the city. Prigozhin’s press service stated that St. Petersburg officials refused to provide a permit for the newly opened Wagner Center in St. Petersburg on a technicality.[6] The press service noted that St. Petersburg officials are deliberately refusing to issue the permit based on their "ideological” differences, given that Wagner received the permission to construct the center in July.[7] The press service added that Wagner had petitioned the court and will take the issue further if the court recognizes St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and his government have committed any “crimes.”[8] Prigozhin also accused Beglov and other St. Petersburg “liberal” businessmen of financially supporting Ukrainian “nationalists” and betraying Russia in response to the situation.[9] Prigozhin has previously accused Beglov of failing to support the Russian war effort and demanded his resignation, likely as a result of resistance from Beglov on expanding Wagner’s presence in St. Petersburg.[10] ISW also reported that a Russian nationalist outlet Pravda.Ru, which consistently reports on Prigozhin-related news, published a defamatory piece on Beglov’s uninterest in creating volunteer battalions in August.[11] Prigozhin is increasingly weaponizing his role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine to push his business aspirations.

Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ignat stated that Russian forces will likely further reduce the pace of their campaign to strike Ukrainian critical infrastructure, likely enabling Ukrainian authorities to address most of the damage to infrastructure. Ignat announced on November 10 that on the night of November 9 to 10 Russian forces did not conduct any air or cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure facilities.[12] Ignat stated that Russian forces have begun to stockpile high-precision weapons systems to launch a future massive campaign reminiscent of the October 10 strikes, because small numbers of daily cruise missile and drone strikes are now generating few results.[13] Ignat stated Russian forces spent months accumulating the high-precision weapons systems they used in the October campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.[14] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have greatly depleted their arsenal of high-precision weapons systems and have suffered significant aviation losses and therefore would struggle to maintain the pace of their campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.[15] It will likely take Russian forces months to accumulate the number of high-precision weapons systems needed to return to the pace of strikes it conducted in mid-October despite Ignat’s reporting that Russian factories are drastically increasing the manufacturing of cruise missiles.[16] Ukrainian officials have previously stated that they could restore energy supplies to communities in Ukraine within a matter of a few weeks if the pace of the Russian campaign dramatically slowed.[17] ISW also assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have ordered the campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure to curry favor with the Russian pro-war nationalist camp that has been consistently demanding escalation in Ukraine.[18] A reduced pace in the campaign will likely contribute to renewed criticisms from the pro-war nationalist camp. Russian forces likely retain the capability to damage Ukrainian critical infrastructure and impose costs on Ukrainian civilians in the winter but are unlikely to be able to inflict decisive — and lasting — damage.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces steadily advanced in Kherson Oblast on November 10 as Russian forces conduct a withdrawal to the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • The Russian withdrawal will take some time to complete, and fighting will continue throughout Kherson Oblast as Ukrainian troops advance and come up against pre-prepared Russian defensive lines, especially around Kherson City.
  • ISW does not assess the fighting in Ukraine will halt or enter a stalemate due to winter weather, despite faulty Western assumptions.
  • Ukraine holds the initiative and is in the process of securing a major victory in Kherson. A ceasefire would provide the Kremlin with the pause it desperately needs to reconstitute Russian forces.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin is increasingly wrestling with St. Petersburg officials over expanding Wagner Group recruitment in the city.
  • Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ignat stated that Russian force will likely slow the pace of their campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations on the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and in western Donetsk.
  • Russian forces began constructing second line fortifications in Crimea and southern Ukraine.
  • Russian citizens continue to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine through protest, social media dissent, and desertions from the military.
  • Russian mobilization efforts are channeling personnel to the Wagner group.
  • Russian occupation officials are continuing efforts to erode Ukrainian national identity while mobilizing residents in Russian-occupied territories.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 9

Click here to read the full report. 

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Nicholas Carl, and Mason Clark

November 9, 9:15 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 Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) ordered Russian forces on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River to begin withdrawing to the east (left) bank on November 9. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops across the Dnipro River during a highly staged televised meeting with Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin on November 9. During the televised meeting, Surovikin recommended the withdrawal and Shoigu accepted his decision, giving Surovikin the task of ensuring the “safe transfer of personnel, weapons, and equipment” to the east (left) bank.[1] Shoigu and Surovikin’s statements mark the beginning of a steady, fighting withdrawal by Russian troops across the Dnipro to prepared positions on the east (left) bank to preserve the combat power of Russian units, including elements of the 76th and 106th Airborne Assault Divisions and 22nd Army Corps.[2] Surovikin notably stated that half of the troops withdrawn from the west bank of the Dnipro will be redeployed to other areas of Ukraine. The entire Russian contingent will take some time to withdraw across the Dnipro River and it is still unclear if Russian forces will be able to conduct the withdrawal in relatively good order under Ukrainian pressure. The battle of Kherson is not over, but Russian forces have entered a new phase—prioritizing withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson direction since August—a coordinated interdiction campaign to force Russian forces to withdraw across the Dnipro without necessitating major Ukrainian ground offensives—has likely succeeded. As ISW has observed over the previous months, Ukrainian forces engaged in a purposeful and well-executed campaign to target Russian concentration areas, military assets, and logistics nodes throughout Kherson Oblast to make continued Russian positions on the west bank untenable without having to conduct large-scale and costly ground maneuvers to liberate territory.[3] Ukrainian troops launched constant attacks on bridges across the Dnipro River and targeted supply centers and ammunition depots on the east bank of the Dnipro that degraded the ability of Russian forces to supply the grouping on the west bank; Ukrainian forces combined these strikes with prudent and successful ground attacks on key locations such as Davydiv Brid. This campaign has come to fruition. Surovikin directly acknowledged that Russian forces cannot supply their grouping in Kherson City and the surrounding areas due to Ukrainian strikes on critical Russian supply lines to the west bank.[4] Russian sources noted that the withdrawal is a natural consequence of targeted and systematic Ukrainian strikes that cost the Russian grouping on the west bank its major supply arteries, which gradually attritted their overall strength and capabilities.[5]

The Russian withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro is unlikely to be a trap meant to lure Ukrainian troops into costly combat near Kherson City, as some Ukrainian and Western sources have suggested.[6] ISW has previously observed many indicators that Russian forces, military and economic assets, and occupation elements have steadily withdrawn from the west bank across the Dnipro River, and Russian officials have been anticipating and preparing for withdrawal in a way that is incompatible with a campaign to deceive and trap Ukrainian troops.[7] Russian commanders will certainly attempt to slow Ukrainian advances to maintain an orderly withdrawal, and some forces may remain to delay Ukrainian troops in Kherson City itself—but this fighting will be a means to the end of withdrawing as many Russian units as possible in good order.

The Russian information space predictably reacted to the announcement of the withdrawal with varying degrees of ire and concern. Several Russian milbloggers emphasized that the withdrawal is the natural consequence of systematic failures within Russian military and command structures and framed the withdrawal as an inevitable result of political nuances beyond the realm of military control.[8] Russian sources also emphasized that this is a major defeat for Russian forces because they are losing territory that Russia annexed and claims as its own.[9]

However, many prominent voices in the milblogger space sided with Surovikin and lauded the decision as a necessary one, indicating that Russian leadership has learned from the information effects of the disastrous Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv Oblast in mid-September.[10] A prominent Russian milblogger that has previously stridently criticized the conduct of Russian operations stated that Surovikin “got the inheritance he got” managing operations in Kherson Oblast, and implied that Surovikin did the best he could under the circumstances, so he ultimately cannot be blamed.[11] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin voiced his support for the withdrawal and called it the “greatest achievement” made by Surovikin due to Surovikin’s stated desire to preserve the safety of Russian troops.[12] Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov agreed with Prigozhin’s assessment and claimed Surovikin saved thousands of lives and is seeking more advantageous positions.[13] These responses, particularly from Kadyrov and Prigozhin, are markedly different from scathing critiques previously leveled at Commander of the Grouping of Russian forces “Center” in Ukraine Colonel General Alexander Lapin following massive Russian losses in eastern Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts.[14] Surovikin has steadily established an informational cover for his decision-making and the eventual Russian withdrawal from positions in Kherson Oblast since the announcement of his appointment as theatre commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine. Surovikin stated that Russian leadership will need to make “difficult decisions” regarding Kherson Oblast as early as October 19.[15] The Kremlin and senior Russian commanders appear to have learned informational and military lessons from previous failures and will likely apply these to the presentation and conduct of this withdrawal. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented on the withdrawal as of this publication, suggesting that the Kremlin is framing the withdrawal as a purely military decision.

Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran on November 9, likely to discuss the sale of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia and other forms of cooperation. Patrushev met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani.[16] The SNSC is Iran’s highest defense and security policy body and reports directly to the supreme leader. Iranian readouts of Patrushev’s meetings largely focused on economic and political cooperation, while Russian readouts emphasized that the discussion focused on security affairs.[17] Patrushev and Shamkhani discussed “measures to counter interference by Western secret services in the two countries’ internal affairs,” according to Russia’s TASS. Iranian officials have repeatedly accused the United States and its allies of stoking the ongoing protests throughout Iran.[18] Patrushev’s visit to Tehran notably comes amid reports that Iran is seeking Russian help with protest suppression, although it is unclear whether Patrushev discussed such cooperation.[19] Patrushev likely sought to secure additional Iranian precision munitions to replenish Russia’s dwindling stocks.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) ordered Russian forces on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River to begin withdrawing to the east (left) bank on November 9.
  • The battle of Kherson is not inherently over, but Russian forces have entered a new phase— prioritizing withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely.
  • Many prominent voices in the Russian milblogger space sided with Surovikin and lauded the decision as a necessary one, indicating that Russian leadership has learned from the information effects of the disastrous Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv Oblast in mid-September.
  • Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran on November 9, likely to discuss the sale of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia and other forms of cooperation
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported continued fighting along the Svatove-Kremmina highway and Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces made territorial gains northeast of Kherson City and continued their successful interdiction campaign.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian federal subjects are struggling to pay mobilized personnel, and the Russian military is struggling to provision them.
  • Relatives of mobilized personnel continue to protest lack of payment and poor conditions.
  • Russian occupation deputy head of Kherson Oblast Kirill Stremousov was killed in a claimed car accident in rear Kherson Oblast the day Russian forces announced their withdrawal from the west bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Occupation authorities in rear areas are likely increasing law enforcement crackdowns and filtration measures amid fears of Ukrainian counteroffensives after the November 9 withdrawal announcement

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 8

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, Nicholas Carl, and Mason Clark

November 8, 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.

Iranian state-run outlet Nour News Agency reported that Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev arrived in Tehran on November 8, likely to discuss the potential sale of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia.[1] Nour News Agency announced Patrushev’s arrival in an English-language tweet, stating that Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani invited Patrushev and noted that Patrushev will also meet with other high-ranking Iranian political and economic officials to discuss Russo-Iranian cooperation.[2] Nour News Agency is affiliated with the SNSC. The SNSC likely announced Patrushev’s arrival in Iran to highlight the deepening cooperation between Moscow and Tehran to an international audience (rather than domestically), as well as to implicitly highlight that a high-ranking Russian official turned to Iran for help in Ukraine. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani notably traveled to Moscow in 2015 to appeal to Russia to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. Tehran is likely eager to publicly signal this rebalancing of its strategic partnership with Moscow, especially to regional Iranian adversaries with which the Kremlin occasionally cooperates, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.[3] Patrushev’s visit to Iran notably comes amid reports that the Iranian regime is seeking Russian help with protest suppression, although it is unclear if this will be discussed by Patrushev and his Iranian counterpart.[4]

The Kremlin is continuing efforts to covertly acquire munitions for use in Ukraine to mitigate the effects of international sanctions and backfill Russia’s ongoing depletion of domestic munitions stockpiles. British outlet Sky News reported on November 8 that the Kremlin flew 140 million euros in cash and a selection of captured British-made NLAW anti-tank missiles, US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, and a Stinger anti-aircraft missile to Tehran on August 20 in exchange for 160 additional Shahed-136 drones for use in Ukraine.[5] The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on November 8 that Tehran continues to supply Moscow with Mohajer, Arash, and Shahed-type drones by air and sea via both Iranian state-owned and privately-owned entities.[6] The Ukrainian Resistance Center additionally reported that due to failures of the Russian military-industrial complex, Russian military leaders are continuing their efforts to procure dual-use (military and non-military use) goods such as computer chips, quadcopters, night vision devices, and bulletproof vests from Turkey and are using cryptocurrency transactions to avoid purchase tracking.[7] Taken in tandem, these reports indicate that the Kremlin seeks to circumvent sanctions by engaging in quid-pro-quo and under-the-table negotiations with foreign actors.

Wagner Group forces are continuing to exaggerate their claimed territorial gains in Donbas to further distinguish themselves from proxy and conventional Russian forces. Russian sources began reporting on November 7 that a detachment of Wagner forces and troops of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) 6th Cossack Regiment broke through Ukrainian defensive lines in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast.[8] On November 8, however, Russian coverage largely shifted and Russian milbloggers began claiming that reports of the 6th Cossack Regiment’s involvement in operations near Bilohorivka are false and that Wagner troops were solely responsible for purported gains.[9] As ISW has previously observed, Wagner has taken sole credit for Russian gains around Bakhmut in order to bolster their own reputation as the Kremlin’s favored strike force, despite not being the only force deployed in the area.[10] Wagner will likely use Bilohorivka to accomplish a similar effect.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Iranian sources announced—without Russian confirmation—that Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev arrived in Tehran on November 8, likely to discuss the potential sale of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia. Iran likely announced Patrushev’s arrival to highlight the deepening cooperation between Moscow and Tehran to an international audience, as well as to implicitly highlight that a high-ranking Russian official turned to Iran for help in Ukraine.
  • Wagner Group forces are continuing to exaggerate their claimed territorial gains in Donbas to further distinguish themselves from proxy and conventional Russian forces.
  • Ukrainian forces likely made marginal gains northwest of Svatove, Luhansk Oblast, and Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces intensified offensive operations toward Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian authorities attempted to counteract Russian authorities’ continued efforts to strengthen control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • The disproportionate financial burden of Russian force generation efforts continues to fall primarily on Russian regional governments’ budgets, prompting public backlash.
  • Financial and bureaucratic issues are continuing to hinder Russian efforts to replenish formerly elite units defending critical areas of the front line, potentially threatening the integrity of Russian defenses in occupied parts of Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast may be trying to force residents out of the western part of the oblast by cutting communications on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 7

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, and Mason Clark

November 7, 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.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued a rare statement on November 7 in response to extensive Russian milblogger outcry on November 6 about reported extensive losses and poor command within the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet. Russian milbloggers published and circulated a letter that claimed Russian military leadership “threw” the brigade into an “incomprehensible offensive” near Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast, where it suffered losses amounting to over 300 killed, wounded, and missing and lost half of its equipment, all within four days. The letter explicitly blamed Eastern Military District Commander Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, 155th Naval Infantry Brigade Commander Colonel Zurab Akhmedov, and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the brigade’s losses and called on Primorsky Krai Governor Oleg Kozhemyako to conduct an independent review of the actions of the officers involved in planning and conducting the recent Russian offensive push in western Donetsk Oblast.[1] The tone of many Russian milblogger responses to the letter resembles the response following the destruction of a Russian motorized rifle brigade crossing the SIverskyi Donets River on May 11, after which many pro-war milbloggers increased their direct criticism of the Russian military.[2]

The Russian MoD issued a rare response on November 7 to the outcry on and claimed that less than one percent of the brigade was killed and less than seven percent was wounded within the past 10 days, and that Ukrainian forces suffered high losses instead.[3] Kozhemyako also sought to address the outcry and claimed that the brigade’s losses are greatly exaggerated and (without providing evidence) speculated that the letter was a product of Ukrainian special services.[4] Kozhemyako stated that he contacted the brigade’s command and referred the case to the Russian military prosecutor.[5] Some Russian milbloggers agreed, claiming that Russian losses could not be as high as the brigade claimed, even calling the brigade’s letter exaggerated or fake.[6] The Russian MoD has remained remarkably tight-lipped about milblogger critiques of Russian failures throughout the war in Ukraine — unlike the Kremlin, which will occasionally indirectly address milblogger narratives. The MoD’s public response to milblogger outcry indicates that some Russian milbloggers have considerable leverage to shape MoD interactions in the information space and additionally suggests that the situation in Pavlivka is dire enough to warrant a response.

Discourse regarding the widespread failures of the Russian military establishment has pervaded beyond the milblogger information space and is increasingly coloring social dynamics. Russian milbloggers stated that women, presumably relatives of Russian military and mobilized personnel, have been calling attention to the failing state of the war by reaching out to milbloggers and local government officials.[7] ISW has observed multiple instances of Russian military personnel’s wives and mothers advocating for their relatives serving in the military by reaching out to local officials and prominent Russian milbloggers since the beginning of partial mobilization in late September.[8] The Russian MoD’s failure to properly address these systemic issues and their root causes will likely exacerbate these societal tensions throughout the war.

The Russian pro-war siloviki faction is increasing its influence in part to advance personal interests in Russia and occupied Ukraine, not strictly to win the war. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin confirmed on November 6 that Wagner is opening training and management centers for people’s militias in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts that will function outside of the Russian Armed Forces.[9] ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin is undertaking efforts to strengthen his independent power base following his reported meeting with Kursk Oblast businessmen on the creation of regional people’s militia that symbolically occurred on Russia’s Unity Day (November 4).[10] Prigozhin emphasized that Russian officials must assign regional businesses the responsibility to supply the militia rather than relying on the Kremlin. Prigozhin’s Unity Day media appearances also captured the same notion of cooperation between the Russian government and business, which likely indicates that he is attempting to grow his Wagner-focused power base in Russia while undercutting unified Russian operations in Ukraine. Prigozhin also started construction of an independent fortification dubbed the “Wagner Line” in Belgorod Oblast in late October.[11] Prigozhin consistently defames St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, and the recent grand opening of the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg on Unity Day may suggest that Prigozhin is attempting to infiltrate the city’s business sphere.[12]

Another member of the siloviki party, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, is also reportedly attempting to secure business opportunities on the back of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Resistance Center noted that Kadyrov and his field commanders are growing business networks in the occupied territories, and Ukrainian officials previously claimed that Kadyrov’s men received loot from Mariupol for their participation in the seizure of the city in March­–April.[13] ISW cannot independently verify the validity of these Ukrainian statements, but Kadyrov is behaving in line with Prigozhin by advertising enlistment into his forces and undermining the formal Russian Armed Forces.[14] Kadyrov, for example, advertised his provision of military equipment to a proxy unit in occupied Donetsk Oblast on November 7; and Prigozhin similarly provided equipment to a Russian unit prior.[15]

Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov remain independent figures within Russia due to Putin’s dependency on their forces in Ukraine. Russian journalists often ask Prigozhin about his ambitions for the Kremlin, which despite his repeated denials, show that he has created a public perception of his possibly entering a position of power.[16] Such discussions deviate from Putin’s decades-long positioning of himself as the only viable leader for Russia. Prigozhin also likely maintains his access to key Kremlin officials, and the Ukrainian Resistance Center even reported that he had an unofficial meeting with Putin’s administration head Anton Vaino.[17] Prigozhin and Vaino allegedly discussed Putin’s negative influence over the Russian military campaign and distaste for Russian higher military command. The existence of this meeting is impossible to confirm in open sources, but Western officials previously confirmed that Prigozhin directly addressed Putin regarding military failures in Ukraine in October.[18]

Prigozhin is continuing to pose himself as a Russian strongman within foreign affairs by promoting his own engagement in election interference. Prigozhin sarcastically acknowledged Bloomberg reports regarding his involvement in the US 2022 midterm elections, telling US government–funded outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere and we will interfere.”[19] Prigozhin’s admission to a US publication a day prior to US elections on November 8 likely intends both to undermine public perception of the validity of election results and promote Prigozhin to a Russian audience as a capable actor — in line with Prigozhin’s previous public admittance that he finances the Wagner Group, which he previously denied for years.

Russian forces have greatly depleted their arsenal of high-precision weapons systems and have suffered significant aviation losses and will likely struggle to maintain the current pace of the Russian military’s coordinated campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Valeryi Zaluzhnyi stated on November 3 that Ukrainian forces have destroyed 278 aircraft compared to the Soviet Union’s loss of 119 aircraft during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.[20] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 7 that Russian forces are unlikely to replace these aviation losses in the next few months because they likely significantly outstrip Russian capacity to manufacture new airframes.[21] Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skitbitsky stated in a comment to the Economist on November 7 that Russian forces have used more than eighty percent of their modern missiles in the coordinated campaign to strike Ukrainian infrastructure and that Russian forces only have 120 Iskander missiles left.[22] ISW previously assessed that Russia has depleted its arsenal of high-precision weapon systems in its campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure, which is intended to degrade Ukrainian popular will (but is highly unlikely to succeed).[23] Ukrainian sources reported on November 7 that Ukrainian officials and engineers could restore power supplies to normal levels in a few weeks if the pace of Russian strikes on critical infrastructure dramatically slowed.[24] Skitbitsky also reported that Russian officials have reached an agreement with Iranian officials to purchase Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missile systems.[25] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces are increasingly reliant on Iranian-made weapon systems to support its coordinated strike campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.[26]

Russian occupation authorities are likely beginning a new phase of evacuations from Kherson Oblast. Kherson occupation deputy Kirill Stremousov stated that November 7 will be the last day of organized evacuations from the west bank of the Dnipro River.[27] A Russian milblogger similarly noted that November 7 is the end of centralized evacuations in Kherson Oblast and that private evacuates will continue from November 8.[28] Russian sources reported that the last boat transporting civilians from Kherson City to the east bank of the Dnipro departed on November 8 due to concerns of “increased threats to the civilian population.”[29] The purported shift from centralized to privatized evacuation efforts suggests that Russian occupation officials have completed evacuation under formal guidelines and will increasingly continue evacuations from areas in Kherson Oblast on a more ad hoc and case-by-case basis. Russian officials may also be setting further information conditions to accuse Ukrainian forces of endangering civilian life by framing the end of centralized, administration-led evacuations as necessary to protect civilians.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued a rare statement on November 7 in response to extensive Russian milblogger outcry about reported extensive losses and poor command within the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet.
  • The Russian pro-war siloviki faction (including Yevgeny Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov) is increasing its influence in part to advance personal interests in Russia and occupied Ukraine, not strictly to win the war.
  • Russian forces have greatly depleted their arsenal of high-precision weapons systems and have suffered significant aviation losses and will likely struggle to maintain the current pace of the Russian military’s coordinated campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
  • Russian occupation authorities likely began a new phase of evacuations from Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian troops continued efforts to fix Ukrainian troops against the international border in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops continued counteroffensive operations in the Svatove direction.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian troops conducted limited counterattacks to regain lost positions west of Kreminna.
  • Russian sources widely claimed that proxy and Wagner Group troops entered the outskirts of Bilohorivka.
  • Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops are massing in the Kherson Oblast direction.
  • Russian troops continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited interdiction efforts against Russian concentration areas in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to make public statements and signed additional decrees to portray himself as taking steps to fix fundamental problems with partial mobilization in Russia.
  • Russian and occupation officials continue to abduct Ukrainian children, intimidate civilians, and escalate filtration measures. 

Kateryna Stepanenko and Mason Clark

Click here to read the full report.

November 6, 7:30pm 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. 

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, November 6. This report discusses the recent reduction of nuclear threats by key Kremlin figures and the likely role of Russia’s military leadership and the international community in prompting this change, and the risks of further Russian nuclear saber rattling.

Key Kremlin officials began collectively deescalating their rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons in early November. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement on “the prevention of nuclear war” on November 2, stating that Russia “is strictly and consistently guided by the postulate of the inadmissibility of a nuclear war in which there can be no winners, and which must never be unleashed.” The Russian MFA also stated that it is committed to the reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons.[1] Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on October 27 that Russia has no need to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and claimed Russia has never discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons, only “hinting at the statements made by leaders of Western countries.”[2] The deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has similarly increasingly downplayed the fiery nuclear rhetoric he used throughout October and is now focusing on promoting Russian unity in the war in Ukraine.[3]

Putin and key Kremlin officials had increased their references to the use of nuclear weapons from Putin’s September 30 annexation speech and throughout October, likely to pressure Ukraine into negotiations and to reduce Western support for Kyiv. Putin made several general references to nuclear weapons in his September 30 speech but avoided directly threatening the use of nuclear weapons.[4] Putin’s rhetoric during this speech and throughout October was consistent with his previous nuclear threats and failed to generate the degree of fear within the Ukrainian government that the Kremlin likely intended.[5] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated on October 24 that the Russian nuclear threat has remained at the same level even prior to the start of the war.[6] The Kremlin also escalated its nuclear rhetoric after Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast and during Ukrainian counteroffensives in Lyman and northern Kherson Oblast in early October. The Kremlin likely continued its thinly veiled nuclear threats to deflect from their military and mobilization problems and to intimidate Ukraine’s Western partners.

The Kremlin’s rhetorical shift indicates that senior Russian military commanders and elements of the Kremlin are likely to some extent aware of the massive costs for little operational gain Russia would incur for the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO. The New York Times, citing senior US officials, reported that senior Russian defense officials discussed the conditions for nuclear use against the backdrop of growing nuclear narratives in mid-October.[7] The meeting reportedly did not involve Putin. Putin’s illegal September 30 annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts, much of whichRussian forces do not occupy, likely overcomplicated existing Russian military doctrine. Russian nuclear doctrine clearly allows for nuclear weapons use in response to “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy,” which the Kremlin could conceivably apply to Ukrainian advances into claimed ”Russian” territory in Ukraine.[8] All of the current frontlines fall within claimed Russian territory, andPutin has not publicly defined what now constitutes an attack on Russian territory. It is possible that senior Russian military officials are equally confused about the application of Putin’s annexation order to existing military doctrine. ISW previously reported that Putin’s annexation order was likely a polarizing issue that ignited a fracture within the Kremlin, creating pro-war and pro-negotiations factions.[9] US officials also noted that they have not observed any indicators that Russia has moved its nuclear weapons or undertaken any preparatory steps to prepare for a strike.[10]

Kremlin-run television shows still air the occasional nuclear threat, which are common in Russia’s jingoistic domestic information space. For example, Russia’s State Duma Committee Chairman on Defense, Andrey Kartapolov, briefly discussed nuclear threats on Russian state TV on November 5 despite the general softening of the Kremlin’s narrative.[11] Russian state TV (alongside some populist figures) have previously amplified nuclear threats prior to Russian military failures in the autumn, and their rhetorical flourishes should not be misconstrued as indicators of the Kremlin’s official position. Figures such as the late Russian ultra-nationalist and then leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky made regular and outlandish nuclear threats on Russian state broadcasts for years, even threatening to drop a ”little” nuclear bomb on the residence of then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2018.[12] The Russian milblogger community largely did not interact with these nuclear narratives and continued to criticize that Russian military command for its conventional battlefield failures. Russian propagandists will continue to make these threats as a way of reminding domestic audiences of Russia’s might amidst clear military failures on the frontlines.

The Kremlin likely privately clarified its nuclear policies to deescalate with the United States and its allies. US and allied officials reported that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been in contact with Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in an effort to reduce the risk of nuclear use.[13] The Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Andrey Kelin, also noted on October 26 that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu made several calls to his counterparts, reportedly assuring them that Russia is uninterested in using nuclear weapons in the war.[14] China might have also played a role in pressuring the Kremlin to reduce its nuclear threats. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated on November 4 that “the international community should… jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia.”[15] Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe likely expressed a similar notion to Shoigu during an October 26 call.[16]

The Kremlin may conduct future rhetorical nuclear brinksmanship in an effort to prompt the United States and its allies to pressure Ukraine to negotiate; the Kremlin will be unable to directly force Kyiv to negotiate through nuclear threats. ISW continues to assess that Russian nuclear use in Ukraine remains unlikely and that the Kremlin is currently taking steps to deescalate its nuclear rhetoric. The Kremlin’s nuclear threats failed to undermine Ukrainian political and societal will to continue to oppose Russia’s invasion. As ISW wrote on September 30, “Ukraine and its international backers have made clear that they will not accept negotiations at gunpoint and will not renounce Ukraine’s sovereign right to its territories.”[17] The United States and its allies should not undermine Ukraine’s continued dedication to recapturing all Russian-occupied territory and halting Russia's genocidal invasion.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on November 6:

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin confirmed on November 6 that the Wagner Group is creating training and management centers for local “people’s militias” in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts.[18]
  • Russian milbloggers amplified reports that the Russian 155th Naval Infantry Brigade sustained severe losses during the recent offensive push towards Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast.[19]
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Svatove and Kreminna.[20]
  • Russian opposition sources reported that Ukrainian shelling near Makiivka, Luhansk Oblast may have killed up to 500 Russian mobilized personnel in one day.[21]
  • Russian forces continued establishing defensive positions on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.[22] Ukrainian forces continued their interdiction campaign against Russian logistics in Kherson Oblast.[23]
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.[24] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces broke through Ukrainian defenses near Bakhmut, made marginal gains south of Avdiivka, and remained impaled near Pavliivka in western Donetsk Oblast.[25]
  • Ukrainian personnel repaired two external power lines to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on November 5, resuming the supply of electricity to the ZNPP after shelling deenergized the facility on November 3.[26]
  • Russian occupation officials continued to cite the threat of a Ukrainian strike on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station to justify the continued forced relocation of civilians in Kherson Oblast.[27]
  • Russian occupation officials continued to forcibly transfer Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine to Russia under the guise of “vacation” schemes.[28]
  • Russian forces continued to struggle with domestic resistance to and poor provisioning of ongoing mobilization efforts.[29]

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 5

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 5, 6:30 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.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seeks to obfuscate his efforts to strengthen his independent power base with an appeal to the concept of Russia’s historic unity. Prigozhin provided a vague response to a media inquiry regarding his recent visit to Kursk Oblast on Russia’s Unity Day (November 4), during which he had indirectly implied that Wagner forces are involved in upholding Russia’s unity.[1] Prigozhin stated that Russian people, businesses, government, and army need to come together to fight for Russia’s sovereignty and its great future while deflecting from the journalist’s question regarding Prigozhin’s reported meeting with Kursk businessmen about the organization of an unspecified people’s militia – outside of formal Russian military command structures. Prigozhin also noted that Russia has all the ingredients to achieve its goals including a strong president, cohesive army, and great nationhood, which he concluded with an out-of-place greeting from Wagner fighters. Prigozhin later claimed in a follow up media response that his “independence” does not contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics as some audiences have interpreted.[2]

Prigozhin’s rather sarcastic statements have several underlying implications for his perception of his power within Russia. ISW previously reported that Kursk Oblast officials announced the construction of second and third lines of defenses in the region, and if Prigozhin’s meeting with local businessmen took place, may indicate that he is attempting to expand his influence in the region.[3] Prigozhin’s comment on Russia’s “cohesive army” next to Putin was likely thinly-veiled sarcasm, given that Prigozhin has repeatedly criticized the Russian Armed Forces on numerous occasions.[4] Prigozhin also directly recognized that he is an independent entity, which as ISW previously assessed, relieves him of some obligations to the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).[5] Putin’s dependency on Prigozhin’s forces around Bakhmut also allows Prigozhin privileges such as voicing his criticisms of the Kremlin or the Russian Armed Forces without significant ramifications. Prigozhin has also coincidentally opened his Wagner Center in St. Petersburg on Russia’s Unity Day.[6] However, Prigozhin is notably shielding his efforts to build an independent power base and shape the conduct of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with language focused on Russian Unity – likely both to appeal to Russian nationalists and civilians and to deflect criticism of his fairly overt efforts to build an independent power base.

Prigozhin continues to rely on ineffective convicts to staff his forces. Prigozhin declined to comment on a reporter’s question regarding ongoing recruitment drives at Krasnoyarsk Krai penal colonies, despite previously openly discussing prisoner participation in the war with Russian outlets like RiaFan.[7] Russian opposition outlet The Insider, however, found that over 500 prisoners recruited into Wagner units have died in the past two months.[8] The publication added that Wagner lost between 800 and 1,000 mercenaries in Ukraine, indicating convicts comprise a large proportion of Wagner’s forces in Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence officials also previously reported that many prisoners suffering from infectious diseases infected Wagner troops, to which Prigozhin responded that he does not discriminate on the basis of illness.[9]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian confirmed that Iran sent Russia combat drones. Amir-Abdollahian stated on November 5 that Iran “gave a limited number of drones to Russia months before” the war in Ukraine.[10] Amir-Abdollahian also claimed that if Ukrainian officials could prove that the Russian military has used Iranian-made drones in Ukraine then Iranian officials would “not be indifferent” to the concern - falsely and ridiculously implying that Russia has not used the drones that he admitted Iran has provided.[11] Iran’s confirmation of the drone shipments further supports ISW’s previous assessments that Russia is sourcing Iranian-made weapons systems to address the depletion of its high-precision munitions arsenal.[12] ISW previously assessed that Iran is likely already exploiting Russian reliance on these Iranian-made weapons systems to request Russian assistance with its nuclear program.[13] The nuclear assistance requests and the recognition of the drone shipments are both indicators that Iranian officials may intend to more clearly establish an explicit bilateral security relationship with Russia in which they are more equal partners.

Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Security Minister and current DNR military commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky claimed on November 5 that Russian friendly fire may have caused up to 60% of total Russian losses since the end of Russian offensive operations in Mariupol in mid-May.[14] Even if this statistic is exaggerated, the fact that a Russian commander is publicly speculating on such a damning indicator of Russian and proxy competency indicates the deep challenges Russian forces face. Friendly fire typically does account for a limited number of losses in war but ordinarily nowhere near 60% of total casualties, which demonstrates a lack of communication and command and control coordination between Russian forces. Russian and Ukrainian sources also reported that a Russian rotation returning to its base near Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast on November 5 drove into a ditch constructed by army subcontractors without prior discussion or warning, further demonstrating a widespread lack of cross-training and coordination between Russian troops.[15] The frequent replacement of Russian military leaders, promotion of inexperienced soldiers, and cobbled-together Russian force composition including Russian contract soldiers, Russian mobilized soldiers, DNR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) forces, and Wagner Group forces exacerbate the fragmented nature of the Russian chain of command and ineffectiveness of Russian forces and likely contributes to frequent friendly fire incidents.

Key Takeaways 

  • Wagner Group financier Yevheniy Prigozhin seeks to obfuscate his efforts to strengthen his independent power base with an appeal to the concept of Russia’s historic unity.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian confirmed that Iran began providing Russia drones before February 24, but strangely denied that Russian forces have used them in combat.
  • DNR military commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky claimed that Russian friendly fire may have caused up to 60% of total Russian losses since mid-May.
  • Ukrainian troops reportedly continued counteroffensives along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued to set up defensive positions along the Dnipro River.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian logistics and transportation in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to attack around Bakhmut and claimed unspecified advances.
  • Russian forces continued unsuccessful offensive operations in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and in western Donetsk.
  • Continued poor conditions for mobilized soldiers catalyzed a large-scale protest in Kazan.
  • Unknown actors reportedly attempted to assassinate high-profile Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Supreme Court Judge Aleksandr Nikulin.
  • Russia continues to deploy personnel to staff administrative positions in occupied areas.
  • Russian forces continued forced evacuations in Kherson Oblast. Over 80% of Kherson residents reportedly have evacuated.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 4

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Madison Williams, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 4, 9:15 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 Russian military is likely trying to use mobilized personnel to restart the Donetsk offensive but will likely still fail to achieve operationally significant gains. Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported on November 4 that Russian forces have tripled the intensity of hostilities in certain sections of the front with up to 80 daily assaults.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are currently focusing those offensive operations in the direction of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and western Donetsk Oblast.[2] The Ukrainian Eastern Group of troops spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi stated on November 4 that Russian forces are likely trying to seize Bakhmut and Soledar in Donetsk Oblast so that Russia can declare some type of success by announcing the “liberation” of the Donbas (even though those gains would not give Russia control over the entire region).[3] Cherevatyi also noted the presence of mobilized men in the Bakhmut direction, an area that should not in principle see many mobilized personnel given the extensive presence in this area of Wagner Group and proxy units that should not be receiving large numbers of Russian reservists.[4] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces prematurely impaled an insufficient concentration of mobilized personnel on offensive pushes near Bakhmut and Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast on November 3.[5] The apparent intensification of Russian assaults in Donetsk Oblast likely indicates that Russian forces are repeating that mistake throughout this section of the front. The increased quantity of personnel at frontline positions may allow Russian forces to achieve some gains in Donetsk Oblast, but poor training, logistics, and command will continue to prevent Russian forces from making operationally significant gains that would materially affect the course or outcome of the war.

Russian forces are setting conditions for a controlled withdrawal in northwestern Kherson Oblast, likely to avoid a disorderly rout from the right (west) bank of the Dnipro River. Russian forces will likely need to engage in a fighting withdrawal to prevent Ukrainian forces from chasing them onto the left (eastern) bank. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command corrected social media reports from November 3 regarding the destruction of civilian boats and piers along the Dnipro River.[6] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated that Russian forces are purposefully destroying civilian vessels and are restricting civilian use of watercraft and access to the shore. The corrected story likely corresponds with the reports of Russian forces preparing defensive positions on the left bank and the withdrawal of certain elements and suggests that Russian forces are eliminating ways for Ukrainian forces to chase them across the river during or after a withdrawal. Local Ukrainian sources also shared geolocated footage that reportedly showed the aftermath of the recent Russian destruction of a pedestrian bridge over the Inhulets River in Snihurivka (about 60km east of Mykolaiv City), which may also indicate Russian efforts to slow Ukrainian advances amidst a Russian withdrawal.[7]

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely setting conditions to continue covert mobilization, which suggests that partial mobilization did not generate sufficient forces for Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine despite Putin’s claims to the contrary. Putin announced on November 4 that Russian forces mobilized 318,000 men of the 300,000 authorized due to the recruitment of volunteers during the mobilization period.[8] Putin added that Russia had already committed 49,000 men to combat missions. Putin’s claims of a successful and completed mobilization are inconsistent with his November 4 decree that allows Russian officials to mobilize citizens with outstanding convictions for some serious crimes.[9] Putin also signed decrees extending the status of servicemen to men serving in volunteer formations and outlining mobilization exemptions for citizens undergoing alternative service.[10] Such decrees likely indicate that Putin is preparing to continue covert mobilization in Russia by attempting to incentivize volunteer service or setting conditions to mobilize convicts—given that he has yet to sign an order terminating mobilization as of November 4.[11] Provisions authorizing the mobilization of prisoners may also indicate that Putin is trying to preempt social tensions by setting conditions to mobilize convicts instead of civilian Russian men.

Russian opposition and online outlets have reported that Russian authorities and businesses are preparing for a second mobilization wave by modernizing military recruitment centers and preparing lists of eligible men.[12] Rostov, Kursk, and Voronezh Oblast governors have also previously spoken about conducting a second wave of mobilization, and a few men reported receiving summonses for 2023.[13] While it is unclear if the Kremlin will double down on covert mobilization or initiate another mobilization wave, Putin’s decrees are indicative of the persistent force generation challenges that have plagued the Russian military campaign.

Russia’s costly force generation efforts will continue to weigh on the Russian economy and could ignite social tensions if the Kremlin does not fulfill its financial obligations to the participants of the “special military operation.” Putin signed a decree granting a one-time payment of 195,000 rubles (about $3,150) to mobilized men and individuals who had signed a contract after the declaration of partial mobilization on September 21.[14] By committing to pay mobilized men and giving the status of servicemen to volunteers the Kremlin is adding another financial burden to Russia’s economy.[15] Russian governors are already releasing statements attempting to justify delays in compensating mobilized men and their families citing budget issues and the need to finance supplies for Russian servicemen.[16] Failures to make payouts to mobilized men are already causing social tensions in Chuvash Republic, for example, where 1,800 men are demanding that the region immediately pay the promised 400 million rubles (about $6.5 million) to the mobilized population.[17]

Iran is likely already exploiting Russian reliance on Iranian-made weapons systems to request Russian assistance with its nuclear program. CNN reported on November 4 that unspecified US intelligence officials believe that Iranian officials have been asking Russia for help in acquiring additional nuclear materials and with nuclear fuel fabrication.[18] Nuclear fuel could allow Iran to shorten the breakout period to create a nuclear weapon depending on the kind of fuel and the kind of reactor for which it is being requested. CNN reported that it was unclear whether Russian officials had agreed to Iranian requests.[19] ISW has previously reported that Iranian plans to send more combat drones and possibly ballistic missile systems to Russia will likely strengthen Russia’s growing reliance on Iranian-made weapons systems.[20]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Andriy Yusov stated on November 4 that GUR has not received information confirming that Iranian missile systems have arrived in Russia despite intelligence that confirms the contract for the transfer of those systems.[21] Yusov also stated that another shipment of 200 Iranian-made combat drones to Russia is currently underway.[22] Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov reported on November 4 that Russian forces have almost completely used up the first set of 300 combat drones from Iran.[23] Reznikov reported that Russia currently has contracts to receive 1,500 to 2,400 more Iranian-made combat drones, assuming Iran can fill the orders.[24] Russia’s growing reliance on these systems allows Iran to exert greater influence on Russian officials, and Iranian officials have already likely started to exploit that influence in support of its nuclear program. The Iranian requests for Russian assistance with its nuclear program may be an indicator of an intensifying Russian Iranian security partnership in which Iran and Russia are more equal partners.

Russian forces may be deploying extreme measures against deserting personnel in an attempt to respond to severe morale issues. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 4 that Russian forces in Ukraine probably have started deploying “barrier troops” and “blocking units”, units that threaten to shoot their own retreating personnel to compel offensives.[25] The UK MoD reported that Russian generals likely want their subordinate commanders to shoot deserters, including possibly authorizing personnel to shoot to kill their own deserting servicemen.[26] Desertion in the face of the enemy is a capital offense in many militaries, including America’s.[27] The deployment of designated units or individuals behind friendly lines to shoot deserters is nevertheless indicative of just how low the morale, discipline, and cohesion of Russian military forces in parts of Ukraine have become. 

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian military is likely trying to use mobilized personnel to restart its Donetsk offensive but will likely fail to achieve operationally significant gains.
  • Russian forces are setting conditions for an orderly withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River to avoid a rout in Kherson Oblast.
  • President Vladimir Putin is likely setting conditions to continue mobilization covertly despite claims that partial mobilization produced sufficient forces.
  • Russia’s costly force generation measures will likely continue to weigh on the Russian economy and generate social tensions.
  • Iran is likely exploiting Russian reliance on Iranian-made weapon systems to request Russian assistance with its nuclear program.
  • Russian forces may be deploying extreme measures against deserting personnel in an attempt to respond to severe morale issues.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued to prepare existing and new defensive lines in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued forced evacuation measures in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian and occupation officials continued to set measures for the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 3

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Yekaterina Klepanchuk, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 3, 9:15 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 forces are continuing to withdraw some elements from northwestern Kherson Oblast, but it is still unclear if Russian forces will fight for Kherson City. Kherson City occupation deputy Kirill Stremousov stated on November 3 that Russian forces “will most likely leave for the left (eastern) bank” of the Dnipro River urging civilians to evacuate from Kherson City “as quickly as possible.”[1] ISW has observed that Russian forces are continuing to prepare fallback positions on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River while continuing to set up defensive positions northwest of Kherson City and transporting additional mobilized forces there, despite Stremousov’s statement.[2] Some Russian elite units — such as airborne forces and naval infantry — are reportedly continuing to operate on the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River and their full withdrawal from northern Kherson Oblast would be a clearer indicator that Russian forces will not fight for Kherson City or settlements on the right bank.[3] Stremousov also hypothesized about the probability of fighting in Kherson City and northern Kherson Oblast in the next two weeks, which may suggest that he anticipates some battles for Kherson City despite his comments about withdrawal.[4] Stremousov is also an unreliable source who has consistently issued contradictory statements and made emotional responses to events, and his public statements may be clouded by personal fears of losing his position within the occupation government.

Ukrainian and Russian sources also extensively discussed the reported closure of some Russian checkpoints in the vicinity of Kherson City, the theft of city’s monuments, and the removal of a Russian flag from the Kherson Oblast Administration building as indicators of an ongoing Russian withdrawal from the city.[5] A Russian outlet claimed that Russian officials removed the flag because the occupation administration moved to Henichesk by the Crimean border.[6] While the relocation of the Kherson Oblast occupation government may suggest that Russian forces are preparing to abandon Kherson City, it may equally indicate that they are setting conditions for urban combat within the city. Similar reports may arise in coming days given the ongoing forced evacuation of civilians from both right and left banks of the Dnipro River but may not indicate an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Kherson City. The disposition of Russian airborne forces remains the best indicator of Russian intentions.

Russian forces prematurely impaled an insufficient concentration of mobilized personnel on offensive pushes near Bakhmut and Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, wasting the fresh supply of mobilized personnel on marginal gains towards operationally insignificant settlements. Ukrainian General Staff Deputy Chief Oleksiy Hromov stated on November 3 that one or two Russian motorized rifle companies with artillery and tank support conducted ground attacks within the past week to seize Pavlivka in an effort to reach Vuhledar, but that Russian forces have suffered losses due to Ukrainian defenses.[7] Russian sources also acknowledged on November 3 that the rate of Russian advances near Vuhledar is slow due to Ukrainian resistance and mud.[8] Hromov stated that Russian forces continue ground attacks at the expense of mobilized personnel, private military company forces, and former prisoners, and that the Russians conducted over 40 ground attacks in the Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and western Donetsk Oblast areas in the past 24 hours, sustaining over 300 casualties (100 killed) in just one direction.[9] ISW has previously reported on the slow Russian rate of advance in Donetsk Oblast and injudicious allocation of resources on the front lines.[10] Russian forces would likely have had more success in such offensive operations if they had waited until enough mobilized personnel had arrived to amass a force large enough to overcome Ukrainian defenses despite poor weather conditions. Russian attacks continuing current patterns are unlikely to generate enough momentum to regain the battlefield initiative. ISW offers no hypothesis to explain Russian forces’ impatience or their continued allocation of limited military assets to gaining operationally insignificant ground in Donetsk Oblast rather than defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensives in Luhansk and Kherson oblasts.

Russian outlets continued to publish confused reports regarding the dismissal and replacement of Colonel General Alexander Lapin from either his role as the commander of the Central Military District (CMD) or as the commander of the Russian “central” forces in Ukraine. The CMD press service told Kremlin-affiliated outlet Kommersant that the head of the organizational and mobilization department of the CMD, Major General Alexander Linkov, will temporarily replace Lapin as the CMD commander.[11] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not officially announced Lapin’s dismissal or replacement, and the CMD did not specify if Linkov will also take charge of the “central” forces in Ukraine. Unnamed Russian MoD sources had previously told other Kremlin-affiliated outlets that Commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District (SMD) Lieutenant-General Andrey Mordvichev would command “central” forces while Lapin is on a three-week medical leave.[12] Milbloggers with ties to the Russian state media also recently claimed that Mordvichev will also command the CMD.[13] Such incoherent announcements by Russian MoD officials about the possible replacement of the second most-senior Russian commander in Ukraine is highly unusual for a professional military during a critical period of a war.

Russian authorities may be setting conditions to imminently transfer the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to the Russian power grid following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) November 3 statements affirming that Ukrainian authorities are not misusing nuclear materials.[14] The IAEA also stated on November 3 that shelling damaged external powerlines to the ZNPP in Ukrainian-held territory at points 50-60km away from the plant, completely cutting power to the ZNPP just one day after Ukrainian authorities transferred two reactors to a hot shutdown mode to generate heat for Enerhodar.[15] This timing suggests that Russian authorities seek to force the transfer of the ZNPP to the Russian power grid by painting Russian control as the only viable option to provide electricity to the ZNPP and heat to Enerhodar and the surrounding area. The IAEA stated that backup generators are powering the ZNPP and have enough fuel for 15 days; Russian occupation authorities may transfer the ZNPP to the Russian power grid within this 15-day timeline.[16] Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev claimed on November 3 that Russian authorities prevented a Ukrainian “terrorist attack” at the ZNPP, further suggesting that Russian authorities intend to paint themselves as the only safe operator of the ZNPP contrary to the IAEA’s findings of no indications of undeclared Ukrainian nuclear activities.[17]

Key Takeaways

  • It is still unclear whether Russian forces will defend Kherson City despite the ongoing withdrawal of some Russian elements from northwestern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces prematurely deployed newly mobilized personnel to offensive operations in western Donetsk Oblast in the pursuit of minimal and operationally insignificant territorial gains.
  • Russian outlets continued to publish contradictory and confusing reports about the dismissal of Colonel General Alexander Lapin from the position of CMD commander or commander of the Russian “central” forces.
  • Russian authorities may be setting conditions to imminently transfer the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to the Russian power grid.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • The Russian military continues to face pronounced issues in the supply of critical military equipment.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense is likely continuing mobilization efforts covertly.
  • Russian occupation officials continued forced evacuations in Kherson Oblast. 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 2

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 2, 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.

Russian force generation efforts combined with Western sanctions are having long-term damaging effects on the Russian economy, as ISW has previously forecasted. Financial experts told Reuters that the Kremlin will face a budget deficit that will “drain Moscow’s reserves to their lowest level in years” due to projected decreases in energy revenue, sanctions, and the cost of Russian mobilization.[1] One expert predicted that payouts to mobilized men including social benefits may cost the Kremlin between 900 billion rubles and three trillion rubles (around $14.6-$32.4 billion) in the next six months. The number does not account for payouts to other categories of servicemen within the Russian forces such as BARS (Combat Army Reserve), volunteer battalions, and the long-term commitment to veterans' payments to contract servicemen, volunteers, non-military specialists who moved to occupied territories, and proxy fighters.[2] ISW previously estimated that one volunteer battalion of 400 servicemen costs Russia at least $1.2 million per month excluding enlistment bonuses and special payments for military achievements.[3]

The Kremlin is continuing to rely heavily on financially incentivizing Russians to fight in Ukraine, which will likely continue to strain the Russian economy for decades. Russian officials have been promising salaries to volunteers and mobilized men that are more than twice the average Russian civilian salary before and during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[4] The Kremlin has been attempting to deflect part of the cost of the force generation effort onto Russian federal subjects but will likely need to tap into the federal budget more heavily soon. United Russia Party Secretary Andrey Turchak, for example, stated that Russian servicemen from all regions must receive uniform benefits and noted that the federal government must cover the difference if the federal subject is unable to fully compensate all participants of the “special military operation.”[5] Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin even acknowledged that there are insufficient measures in place to support mobilized personnel and their families in occupied Donetsk Oblast during a United Russia meeting.[6]

The Kremlin is already facing challenges in delivering promised compensation, challenges that are increasing social tensions within Russian society. Russian Telegram channels released footage of mobilized men in Ulyanovsk protesting payment issues.[7] Other footage from the Chuvashia Republic shows a presumably Russian local official yelling at protesting mobilized men that she had not promised them a payment of 300,000 rubles (about $4,860).[8] Families of mobilized men publicly complained to Voronezh Oblast Governor Alexander Guseyev that they have not received promised compensation of 120,000 rubles (about $1,945).[9] The Kremlin will need to continue to pay what it has promised to maintain societal control and some resemblance of morale among Russia’s ad hoc collection of forces. ISW has also reported that the Kremlin is igniting conflict within Russian military formations amalgamated from different sources by offering different payments, benefits, and treatment.[10] Social media footage from October 31, for example, showed a physical fight between contract servicemen and mobilized men reportedly over personal belongings and military equipment.[11]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calls for a competitive Russian military industry are divorced from the reality of Russian supply chain and defense industrial base issues. Putin stressed on November 2 during a meeting of the Coordinating Council for the Russian Armed Forces that it is important that the Russian government ensures active competition between Russian military arms manufacturers.[12] Putin’s calls contrast with recent reporting that Russia has purchased weapons systems from Iran and North Korea to support its war effort in Ukraine.[13] US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby announced on November 2 that the American intelligence community believes that North Korea is covertly supplying Russia with artillery shells.[14] ISW previously reported that Iranian shipments of drones and possible ballistic missiles to Russia will likely further increase Russian reliance on Iranian-made weapons systems.[15] Russia has likely negotiated the weapon shipments with Iran and North Korea because it has significantly depleted its stock of munitions in air, missile, and artillery strikes over the course of the war in Ukraine and cannot readily restock them. Russia’s reliance on isolated and heavily sanctioned states for critical weapons systems does not support Putin’s demand that the Russian military industry becomes highly competitive and meet the needs of the Russian Armed Forces in any short period of time.

Russian officials announced that occupation authorities began integrating the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) into the jurisdiction of Russian nuclear power plant operator Rosenergoatom on November 2.[16] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko claimed that ZNPP personnel who are “critical for the work of the ZNPP” signed contracts with Rosenergoatom and that Russian authorities are exploring the creation of a security zone around the ZNPP.[17] Ukraine’s Energoatom stated on October 28 that only 100 of the 6,700 Ukrainian personnel remaining at the ZNPP plant have signed new contracts with Russian energy agency Rosatom (out of 11,000 personnel before February 24).[18] The Ukrainian State Inspectorate of Nuclear Regulation stated that Russian forces built an unknown structure at one of seven spent nuclear fuel storage sites at the ZNPP in violation of nuclear safety standards.[19] As of this publication, the IAEA has not issued a statement condemning the formally announced illegal Russian takeover of the operation of the ZNPP or addressed the likelihood that Russia will demand formal IAEA recognition of Russian control over the ZNPP and thereby de facto recognition of the Russian annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory.

Russian and Belarusian officials continue to highlight bilateral defense cooperation between Russia and Belarus as a means of perpetuating the long-standing information operation that Belarus will enter the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia. Belarus’ entry into the war remains highly unlikely, as ISW has previously assessed. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced on November 2 that Russia and Belarus held the annual meeting of the Joint Board of the Ministries of Defense with the purpose of strengthening the “joint military potential” of the Russia-Belarus Union State to counter “challenges and threats of a military nature” posed by NATO.[20] Khrenin’s statement is likely meant to signal continued Belarusian loyalty to Russia and present an image of Belarusian-Russian military unity to the West. As ISW has previously assessed, the likelihood of a Belarusian invasion of the war remains highly unlikely due to the array of domestic ramifications such an action would have on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, as well as limited Belarusian military capabilities.[21] The meeting of the Joint Board of the Ministries of Defense is therefore a continuation of a concerted effort on the part of both Belarus and Russia to perpetuate an information operation that presents the threat of the Union State as imminent in order to pin Ukrainian troops against the northern border and pollute the information space.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian force generation efforts combined with Western sanctions are having long-term damaging effects on the Russian economy, as ISW has previously forecasted.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calls for a competitive Russian military industry are divorced from the reality of Russian supply chain and defense industrial base issues.
  • Russian officials announced that occupation authorities began integrating the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) into Russian jurisdiction.
  • Russian and Belarusian officials continue to perpetuate the long-standing information operation that Belarus will enter the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, but Belarus’ entry into the war remains highly unlikely, as ISW has previously assessed.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations in the directions of Svatove and Kreminna, and Russian forces conducted offensive operations to constrain Ukrainian forces.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations along the Dnipro River while Ukrainian forces continued their interdiction campaign.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground assaults near Bakhmut and Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued mobilization efforts and advertising for volunteer battalions while struggling with low morale.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to forcibly relocate Kherson Oblast residents, nationalize Ukrainian enterprises in occupied territory, and forcibly deport Ukrainian children to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 1

Click here to read the full report.

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

November 1, 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.

Iran plans to send more combat drones and new ballistic missile systems to Russia for use in Ukraine, likely further strengthening Russia’s reliance on Iranian-made weapon systems. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 1 that Iranian officials intend to send a shipment of more than 200 Shahed-136, Mohajer-6, and Arash-2 combat drones to Russia.[1] The GUR reported that Iran will send Russia the drones in a disassembled state and that Russian personnel will assemble them with Russian markings.[2] CNN reported on November 1 that unnamed officials from a western country that closely monitors Iranian weapons programs stated that Iran plans to send a thousand weapons to Russia by the end of the year, including surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles and combat drones.[3] This would be the first confirmed instance of Iran sending Russia advanced precision-guided missiles. Russia likely negotiated the additional Iranian shipment of weapons systems due to the depletion of its stockpile of cruise missile and drone systems over the course of the war in Ukraine, particularly during the Russian campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. The GUR reported that Ukrainian air defenses have shot down more than 300 Shahed-136 drones since Russia starting using them in Ukraine on September 13.[4] Russia will likely continue to use drone attacks and missile strikes against critical infrastructure to try to offset the failures and limitations of its conventional forces on the frontline. Russian dependence on Iranian-made systems, and therefore on Iran, will likely increase.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) started its semi-annual fall conscription drive on November 1, amidst reports of continuing covert mobilization throughout the country. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that 2,700 draft committees across 85 federal subjects began the fall conscription call-up of 120,000 men.[5] Shoigu also stated that partial mobilization in Russia concluded. Head of the Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate of the Russian General Staff, Yevgeniy Burdinsky, reiterated that Russia is conscripting 7,500 fewer men than in previous years and noted that partial mobilization postponed the conscription cycle by one month.[6] Burdinsky claimed that conscripts will not serve in occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, or Zaporizhia oblasts this year and will not participate in combat. Head of the 4th Directorate of the Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate of the Russian General Staff Vladimir Tsimlyansky added that most recruits will deploy to training formations and military units where they will train for five months, while others will receive specializations based on their skills and education level.[7] The Russian MoD has conducted semi-annual conscription call-ups for decades and should be able to execute this process effectively and efficiently.  Any problems with the execution of the fall call-up would likely indicate that partial mobilization and the war in Ukraine have complicated a standard procedure.

Numerous Russian sources reported that Russian enlistment officers are continuing to mobilize men despite Shoigu’s previous announcements of the conclusion of partial mobilization and transition into the conscription period on October 28. Local Russian outlets reported instances of men receiving mobilization notices in Tyumen and St. Petersburg as of October 31.[8] The Russian Central Military District (CMD) reportedly told journalists of a Russian outlet that mobilization processes will continue across Russia until Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a decree ending the mobilization period.[9] Ukrainian Melitopol and Mariupol authorities also reported that Russian occupation authorities are continuing to coerce Ukrainians into volunteer battalions and territorial defense units.[10]

Commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District (SMD) Lieutenant-General Andrey Mordvichev reportedly replaced Colonel-General Alexander Lapin as commander of the Central Military District (CMD). Several Russian milbloggers—including some who appear on Russian state television—noted that Mordichev has replaced Lapin in this position, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not officially announced Mordichev’s appointment nor Lapin’s dismissal as of November 1.[11] A Russian local outlet citing an unnamed official within the Russian MoD claimed that Mordichev will only replace Lapin as the commander of the “center“ forces in Ukraine for the duration of Lapin’s supposed three-week medical leave.[12] A milblogger who frequently appears on Russian state media claimed that the Commander of the Russian Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin, personally appointed Mordichev to replace Lapin due to his commitment to objective frontline reporting.[13] If reports of Mordichev’s appointment are true, then the Kremlin may be attempting to appease the pro-war milblogger community that has been demanding transparency and more honest reporting. The milblogger added that Mordichev reportedly has “warm working relations” with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and that Kadyrov called Mordichev “the best commander” during their meeting in mid-March.[14] Mordichev’s appointment may therefore indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to appease the siloviki faction—composed of Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin—that has publicly criticized Lapin as well.[15]  Lapin’s dismissal may have also been Surovikin’s recommendation as well, however, given that both commanders operated in the Luhansk Oblast area to seize Lysychansk and its surroundings in June.[16] ISW cannot independently verify milblogger or Russian local outlet reports at this time.

Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin is likely attempting to address critiques against his parallel military structures following Lapin’s reported dismissal. Prigozhin defended his mercenaries against unspecified “tens of thousands of critics,” stating that his Wagner mercenaries are dying while critics are refusing to go to the frontlines.[17] Prigozhin has been responding to numerous inquiries in recent days regarding Wagner units suffering losses or facing outbreaks of infectious diseases among prisoner recruits, but his attacks against Lapin have prompted some within the pro-war community to publicly question his authority.[18] Many Russian milbloggers who had defended Lapin heavily criticized Prigozhin’s comments about the  Russian higher military command, with one milblogger stating that “shepherds and cooks,” sarcastically referring to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Prigozhin, could not assess Lapin’s performance.[19] ISW has also previously noted that Prigozhin’s units have not made significant gains around Bakhmut since June.[20]

Prigozhin is likely attempting to reduce the appearance that he might become too powerful, stating that he has no plans to hold political office and would refuse such a position if offered.[21] Prigozhin also added that he does not consider himself to be a leader of public opinion and does not engage in “showdowns” with Russian officials, despite continuing to publicly attack St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and repeatedly calling for his resignation.[22] Prigozhin added that he is not competing with Beglov in the St-Petersburg business sphere.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Planned Iranian shipments of drones and ballistic missiles to Russia will likely further strengthen Russian reliance on Iran and Iranian-made weapons systems.
  • The Russian MoD started its semi-annual fall conscription cycle despite reports of Russian authorities covertly continuing mobilization measures.
  • Commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District (SMD), Lieutenant-General Andrey Mordvichev, reportedly replaced Colonel-General Alexander Lapin as commander of the Central Military District (CMD).
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin is likely attempting to address critiques against his parallel military structures following Lapin’s reported dismissal.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations in the directions of Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued defensive preparations while Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations around Bakhmut and around Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued to strengthen Russian control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
  • Russian military structures are reportedly expanding training capabilities.
  • Russian occupation officials continued to set conditions for the long-term and permanent relocation of residents from the east bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.

Interactive Map and Assessment: Verified Ukrainian Partisan Attacks against Russian Occupation Forces

Click here to read the full report.

Date: November 1, 2022

George Barros and Noel Mikkelsen

Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of verified Ukrainian Partisan Attacks. ISW will update this map as we confirm more attacks.

Key Takeaway: Effective Ukrainian partisan attacks are forcing the Kremlin to divert resources away from frontline operations to help secure rear areas, degrading Russia’s ability to defend against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives, let alone conduct their own offensive operations. Poor Russian operational security has enabled Ukrainian partisan attacks. Russia’s increasing manpower shortages are likely degrading Russian forces’ ability to effectively secure Russian rear areas against partisan attacks and simultaneously defend against Ukrainian counteroffensives. The Kremlin still has not effectively countered Ukraine’s organized partisan movement and is unlikely to have the capabilities to do so. 

Note on methodology: This curated list of confirmed Ukrainian partisan attacks contains only events that ISW can verify with high confidence using visual evidence, remotely sensed data, or Russian and Ukrainian source corroboration. This list only includes events that official Ukrainian government entities have claimed or discussed. ISW has observed several reported partisan attacks that have not met this high-confidence threshold. This dataset is likely a small subset of all actual Ukrainian partisan attacks. This list does not include Ukrainian partisan reconnaissance or fire adjustment tasks. This list does not jeopardize Ukrainian operational security as Russian and Ukrainian government sources have discussed them publicly.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 31

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 31, 9:00 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 forces conducted another massive wave of missiles strikes targeting critical Ukrainian infrastructure across the country on October 31, likely in an attempt to degrade Ukraine’s will to fight as temperatures drop. Russian forces fired over 50 Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles from the northern Caspian Sea and the Volgodonsk region of Rostov Oblast, targeting critical Ukrainian energy infrastructure.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 44 out of over 50 Russian missiles.[2] Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal reported that the strikes damaged 18 mostly energy-related targets across 10 Ukrainian regions.[3] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian strikes cut off water to 80% of Kyiv residents on October 31 and left hundreds of thousands without power.[4]

Russian occupation officials once again shifted their rhetoric regarding the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) and are likely setting information conditions to continue to drive evacuations from the west bank of the Dnipro River and provide rhetorical cover for a Russian withdrawal from the area. Kherson Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo announced on October 31 that his administration is expanding the evacuation zone by 15km from the Dnipro River and cited information that Ukraine is preparing for a “massive missile attack” of the Kakhovka HPP dam, which Saldo alleged will cause massive flooding and destruction of civilian infrastructure.[5] Saldo previously claimed on October 26 that it would be “practically impossible” to destroy the dam and that even in case of a breach, the water level of the Dnipro River would only rise 2 meters.[6]

The apparent oscillation in Saldo’s position on the Kakhovka HPP indicates that his administration is likely using threats of breach and flooding to perpetuate an information operation with a two-fold purpose: to drive evacuations from the west bank and to explain away a future Russian withdrawal from the west bank. These is no scenario in which it would be advantageous for Ukraine to blow the dam. The ramifications that such an action would have on the safety of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), which relies on the water in the Kakhovka reservoir for coolant, and the economic and social implications of flooding over 80 settlements and destroying civilian homes and viable land, entirely preclude the possibility that this is a contingency Ukraine may pursue. Blowing the dam would also make it much harder for Ukrainian forces to achieve their stated aims of liberating the remainder of Kherson Oblast and other territories east of the river. Saldo’s statements are likely therefore meant to encourage residents of the west bank to promptly evacuate and may also establish informational cover for a Russian withdrawal from the west bank. Saldo could be framing the dam explosion as an inevitable and insurmountable obstacle that Russian forces could only avoid by abandoning the west bank and retreating further into Kherson Oblast. Russia’s ability or willingness to physically damage the dam is relatively immaterial—the informational effects of accusing Ukraine of preparing to blow the dam could be sufficient to create rhetorical cover to explain away any future Russian withdrawals.

Russian forces are likely continuing to move troops and military assets across the Dnipro River in anticipation of Ukrainian advances towards Kherson City. Ukrainian military sources reported on October 30 that Russian forces are preparing to move artillery units and weapons from the west bank of the Dnipro River for possible redeployment in other directions.[7] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command additionally noted on October 31 that Russian forces are preparing to evacuate individual units and military equipment from the west bank and have collected watercraft to facilitate the evacuation.[8] Russian-backed Kherson occupation deputy Kirill Stremousov stated that on October 30 Russian forces also began engineering positions in Bilozerka (6km due west of Kherson City) and Chornobaivka (1km north of Kherson City), which is corroborated by imagery posted by reported Russian collaborators of barbed wire defenses in these areas.[9] The fact that Russian collaborators are preparing to defend Chornobaivka is particularly noteworthy, as Chornobaivka is the last settlement along the M14 north of Kherson City. The current frontline lies less than 20km northwest of Chornobaivka, and active efforts to bolster defense here indicate concern for an imminent Ukrainian advance. The simultaneous evacuation of military assets from the west bank and preparations for the defense of critical areas around Kherson City indicate serious anxiety over Russian control of the west bank.

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continued his efforts to increase his status among Russian elites and his presence in St. Petersburg by attacking local officials and announcing the creation of a PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg on October 31. Prigozhin reportedly requested on October 31 that the Russian Prosecutor General’s office open a criminal investigation into the “fact” that St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov organized a “criminal community” in St. Petersburg.[10] Prigozhin alleged that Beglov’s criminal network intends to plunder the state budget and enrich corrupt officials. Prigozhin is likely using his criticism of Beglov and other St. Petersburg politicians to enhance his own reputation—and his campaign may be working. The publication Petersburg Vestnik characterized Prigozhin’s popularity as “skyrocketing” on October 31 and asked if he had any plans to form a party or go into politics, to which Prigozhin replied “I do not strive for popularity. My task is to fulfill my duty to the Motherland, and today I do not plan to create any parties, let alone go into politics.”[11]

Prigozhin may or may not create his own political party, but he is establishing himself as a political force, using his popular status and his affiliation with Wagner to critique his opponents within elite circles and to institutionalize his own authority. Prigozhin criticized Russian “oligarchs” and “elites” on October 31 for living in a “state of comfort” and preventing the full mobilization of Russian society: “until [elites’] children go to war, the full mobilization of the country will not happen.”[12] Prigozhin also announced the creation of a “PMC Wagner Center” in St. Petersburg on October 31, which he said is scheduled to open on November 4.[13] Prigozhin described the center as “a complex of buildings in which there are places for free accommodation of inventors, designers, IT specialists, experimental production, and start-up spaces” with the intention of creating a “comfortable environment for generating new ideas in order to increase the defense capability of Russia, including information.” Prigozhin noted that he did not inform the local St. Petersburg administration of the center’s creation because the local government is not a “sufficiently representative structure to interfere with the work of the PMC Wagner Center.” Prigozhin challenged local government officials who have problems with his center to take them up in court and suggested that he will establish new branches if the St. Petersburg branch is successful. Private military companies like Wagner are illegal per the Russian constitution.[14]

Key Takeaways                

  • Russian forces launched another massive wave of strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure, further damaging the power grid and leaving much of Kyiv without water.
  • Russian officials again changed their minds about the risk of Ukrainian forces destroying the Kakhovka dam, ordering evacuations of areas that could be flooded. There is no scenario in which Ukraine would benefit from destroying the dam, and this rhetoric is likely meant to speed evacuations and provide informational cover for Russian withdrawals from the west bank.
  • Russian forces are continuing to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River even as they set conditions to fight for positions around Kherson City.
  • Wagner Private Military Company financier Evgeniy Prigozhin sought to bring charges against the St. Petersburg mayor for corruption and announced the imminent opening of the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. Prigozhin also attacked “oligarchs” and “elites” for living in comfort and preventing the full mobilization of Russia.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian troops conducted counter-offensive operations in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast and along the Svatove-Kreminna line on October 30 and 31.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces continued counter-offensive operations in Kherson Oblast on October 30 and 31.
  • The Ukrainian interdiction campaign is reportedly damaging Russian forces exfiltrating across the Dnipro River.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut on October 30 and 31.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian troops made incremental gains in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area on October 30 and 31, but ISW cannot verify these claims.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is likely attempting to prevent draft dodging by trying to deceive the Russian population into believing that autumn conscripts will not be sent to fight in Ukraine.
  • The MoD also announced the end of partial mobilization on October 31, executing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to end mobilization by the end of October
  • Local Russian governments remain responsible for even basic provisions to mobilized personnel, demonstrating the inefficiency of crowdfunding efforts and uncoordinated supply lines to support a modern military.
  • Russian occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast announced that they would allow the use of Ukrainian hryvnias alongside Russian rubles, demonstrating the failure of their monthslong rubleization efforts in Kherson.
  • Russian officials continue to create poor conditions in occupied parts of Kherson Oblast, likely to drive local inhabitants to evacuate.

 


RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE CAMPAIGN ASSESSMENT, OCTOBER 30

Click here to read the full report.

Frederick W. Kagan

October 30, 5:00 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.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, October 30. This report forecasts that Russia will continue to conduct conventional military operations well into 2023 rather than escalating to the use of tactical nuclear weapons or scaling back its objectives in pursuit of some off-ramp. It considers the timelines of Russian force generation and deployment, of weather effects, and of Moscow’s efforts to freeze Europe into surrender. It includes a summary of battlefield activities that will be described in more detail in tomorrow’s update.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will most likely try to continue conventional military operations in Ukraine to hold currently occupied territories, gain new ground, and set conditions for the collapse of Western support for Ukraine that he likely expects to occur this winter. Putin has likely not abandoned hopes of achieving his maximalist aims in Ukraine through conventional military means, which he is pursuing in parallel with efforts to break Ukraine’s will to fight and the West’s will to continue supporting Kyiv.[1] Putin is unlikely to escalate to the use of tactical nuclear weapons barring the sudden collapse of the Russian military permitting Ukrainian forces to make uncontrolled advances throughout the theater.[2] Such a situation is possible but unlikely. Putin is extraordinarily unlikely to seek direct military conflict with NATO. Putin is very likely to continue to hint at the possibility of Russian tactical nuclear use and attacks on NATO, however, as parts of his effort to break Western will to continue supporting Ukraine.

This forecast rests on two assessments. First, that Putin is setting conditions to continue throwing poorly prepared Russian troops directly into the fighting in Ukraine for the foreseeable future rather than pausing operations to reconstitute effective military forces. Second, that Putin’s theory of victory relies on using the harsh winter to break Europe’s will. These assessments offer a series of timelines that support the forecast.

Russian force-generation efforts will occur over the course of several predictable time periods. Putin has declared that the “partial mobilization” of reservists is complete.[3] That declaration means that, in principle, the Russian military will stop calling up reservists and instead focus on completing their brief training periods before sending them to fight in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that most of the remaining called-up reservists will arrive in the theater of war over the next few weeks.[4]

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that continued reserve mobilization efforts will take the form of renewed efforts to recruit “volunteers,” likely into volunteer battalions—efforts that were largely shelved during the “partial mobilization.”[5] Russia will likely struggle to fill out new “volunteer” units rapidly following the reserve call-ups and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Russians who feared those call-ups. Continued attempts to create “volunteer” units will thus likely generate little meaningful combat power and will be spread over an extended period of time.

The Russian military will begin its semi-annual conscription call-up a month later than usual on November 1, 2022. Russia’s conscription cycle offers a set of predictable timelines. Normal Russian conscript training involves a period of roughly six months of individual basic and advanced training followed by the assignment of conscripts to combat units in which they complete their remaining six months of mandatory service.[6] Russian law bans sending conscripts to combat operations abroad with fewer than four months of training, although it specifies that conditions of war or martial law allow the Russian military to deploy conscripts to fight earlier than that. Putin has declared martial law states of varying degrees of urgency throughout the Russian Federation and could use that declaration to trigger the exemption from the mandatory training period.[7] The annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts offers another possible basis for exemption, because Russian law does not preclude the use of conscripts in Russian territory regardless of how much training they have received.[8]

Raw conscripts with no military experience and fewer than four months of training are likely to be nearly useless on the battlefield in any case. Putin may rush limited numbers of such conscripts to combat before their four-month training period is complete, but most will likely be held back until March 2023 at the earliest.

The Russian military will likely find it necessary to send these conscripts to units in Ukraine at the end of their six-month period of initial training in any case, however, as there are unlikely to be enough functional combat units at home stations in Russia to receive them. The Russian military has fully committed its available ground forces units to Ukraine in a series of force-generation efforts, as ISW has previously reported.[9] The partial mobilization and volunteer battalion recruitment efforts are further evidence that the Russian military has no remaining uncommitted ground forces to send. The Russian military likely will be unable to keep called-up conscripts in training areas for more than six months, however, because the next semi-annual conscription call-up would normally begin around April 1, 2023. Conscripts called up beginning on November 1, 2022, will thus likely be assigned to combat and support units in Ukraine and begin to arrive on the battlefield around May 2023.

The Russian Defense Ministry will not likely be able to conduct additional reserve call-ups as long as it is engaged in providing conscripts with initial training. The next window for a large-scale reserve mobilization would thus likely be not earlier than March 1.

The combination of the just-completed partial reserve mobilization and the annual conscription cycle thus creates two likely waves of Russian troops flowing into Ukraine—one moving in over the next few weeks, and the other starting to flow in spring 2023.

Weather offers another likely periodization of Russian efforts that coincides well with the force-generation timelines discussed above. Fall in Ukraine is generally wet and muddy but not usually so bad as to make mechanized offensives impossible. Winter, on the other hand, is usually the best season for mechanized warfare in Ukraine. Ukrainian land is among the most fertile on earth in part because of the dense network of rivers and streams that irrigate it. That network also breaks up the land and can inhibit mechanized advances by canalizing them along roads (although both Russian and Ukrainian troops are, in principle, trained and equipped to operate on this terrain in any season, Ukrainian troops have been far more successful, in general, in doing so.) When the ground freezes hard, however, most of the streams and some of the rivers also freeze, greatly facilitating cross-country mechanized advances. Spring is the nightmare season for fighting in Ukraine. The thaw swells rivers and streams and turns fields into seas of mud. Mechanized warfare in the spring muddy season is extremely difficult (although, again, not impossible for forces like Ukraine’s and, theoretically, Russia’s, that are properly equipped and trained for it).

The Russian partial mobilization is thus flowing forces into Ukraine now in a way that is likely meant to stiffen Russian defenses and allow Russian forces to hold their positions against expected Ukrainian counter-offensive operations through the rest of the fall and into the dangerous winter period. If Putin intends to deploy Russian boys about to be conscripted after four or six months of training, he could be setting conditions for Russian forces to resume offensive operations after the end of the spring thaw.

The Russian partial mobilization of reservists just completed strongly suggests that Putin intends to keep fighting into 2023 rather than expecting to secure some sort of ceasefire or to escalate in a way that could end the war on his terms. He has paid a very high domestic price for this mobilization effort in the flight of hundreds of thousands of Russians to other countries, unprecedented protests, and equally unprecedented criticisms of the performance of the Russian military and the Russian government.[10] This price makes sense if Putin intends to keep fighting and recognizes the need to get reinforcements to Ukraine right now in order to hold his positions long enough for fresh conscripts to arrive and turn the tide in his favor, as he might think. It makes far less sense if he intends to escalate to the use of tactical nuclear weapons either in an effort to win the war or in hopes of securing a ceasefire or some other off-ramp on favorable terms. It could make sense as part of a non-escalatory effort to pursue negotiations for some off-ramp had Putin not accompanied his announcement of the end of partial mobilization with repetitions of his maximalist claims regarding the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state and the artificiality of the Ukrainian ethnos that are incompatible with serious negotiations.

Putin’s efforts to break Europe’s will by withholding Russian energy supplies over the winter offers yet another timeline that coheres well with the others. The theory underlying this Russian effort would be that freezing European populations will put such pressure on their governments that European states will begin to accept Putin’s demands to stop providing weapons and other forms of support to Ukraine, at least, and possibly to lift various sanctions on Russia as well. This theory will not really be falsifiable until well into 2023, however. European governments have ostentatiously prepared their populations for a difficult winter, stocked up as best they can on energy supplies, and set conditions to reduce energy usage even at significant economic cost. These actions signal that European leaders are ready for the kinds of pressures they are likely to encounter early in the cold season. Putin can hope that they will not be able to withstand those pressures all through the winter, but the validity of that hope will not be clear until the coldest weather has had a chance to build them. This timeline thus also coincides with the likely availability of the next wave of Russian forces in spring 2023—Putin will have been able to observe the effect of winter on European will and choose whether to commit his conscripts or pursue some other course of action.

These timelines are likely more significant in shaping Putin’s thoughts and decisions than in shaping effects on the ground. Roughly one-third of the mobilized reservists have already arrived in Ukraine, according to Putin, and they have made relatively little difference on the battlefield.[11] The UK Ministry of Defense noted that they are reinforcing combat units that were in some cases effectively destroyed—reduced to 10 percent of their normal complements.[12] The arrival of hastily mobilized and untrained reservists into such units will not render them combat effective. The deployment of raw conscripts after four or six months of training in 2023 will likely have similarly nugatory effects on the battlefield. But Putin does not appear to recognize these facts and seems rather to expect the reserves called up at such surprising cost to make a real difference. 

Putin is thus setting conditions to continue waging conventional war for the foreseeable future rather than preparing to try to end the war by escalation or by making for some “off-ramp.” He could always change his mind, to be sure. But Ukraine and the West should be operating on the assumption that Ukraine will continue to have many months in which to regain control of strategically vital terrain, for which it will also continue to require continued large-scale Western support.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces conducted further offensive operations in northeastern Ukraine, and Russian forces continued to set conditions for a withdrawal from Kherson. Those developments are summarized briefly and will be covered in more detail tomorrow.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on October 30:

  • Unconfirmed Russian reports claimed that Russian Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev (Commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District) replaced
    Colonel General Alexander Lapin as Central Military District (CMD) commander as of October 30.[13] Russian sources continue to make contradictory reports about whether Lapin was fully relieved of command of the CMD or just relieved of command of the Russian operational “Central Group of Forces” operating in Ukraine.[14]
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian assaults on Pershotravneve, Tabaivka, and Berestove in Kharkiv Oblast.[15]
  • Ukrainian sources and geolocated reports indicate that Russian forces destroyed a bridge over the Krasna River in Krasnorichenske, Luhansk Oblast.[16] Russian milbloggers accused Ukrainian forces of destroying the bridge.[17]
  • A Russian occupation official stated that Russian force are preparing to defend Kherson City by engineering defenses in Bilozerka and Chornobaivka.[18] Ukrainian military official also noted that Russian officials continued to prepare defenses around Kherson City.[19]
  • Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces are preparing to withdraw artillery units from unspecified areas on the western bank of the Dnipro River to possibly reinforce other directions.[20] Ukrainian military officials also reported that several hundred Rosgvardia servicemen deployed from the Republic of Chechnya to Kalanchak in southwestern Kherson Oblast.[21]
  • Russian forces continued to shell Ukrainian positions in Beryslav Raion, Kherson Oblast, and both Ukrainian and Russian sources provided limited information regarding the situation on the Kherson Oblast frontline.[22]
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces captured Vodyane, Donetsk Oblast, (4km northwest of Donetsk International Airport) on October 30.[23] The Ukrainian General Staff’s evening report did not report repelling Russian attacks in this area as it usually does, potentially indicating that the Russian claims are accurate.
  • Russian sources reported that Russian forces captured Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast, (2km southwest of Vuhledar) on October 30.[24] Some Russian sources claim that Russian forces control only half of Pavlivka as of October 30.[25] The Ukrainian General Staff’s evening report did not report repelling Russian attacks in this area as it usually does, potentially indicating that the Russian claims are accurate.
  • Russian forces launched Kh-59 cruise missiles at Ochakiv, Mykolaiv Oblast.[26] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces targeted and destroyed military infrastructure in Ochakiv.[27]
  • Mobilized men from Republic of Komi appealed to Russian authorities with complaints of insufficient military equipment and body armor.[28]
  • Russia announced its intention to supply 500,000 tons of grain to the “poorest countries” following its withdrawal from the deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain.[29] Ukraine announced that it intends to export agricultural products to maintain global food security.[30]
  • Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces continued to create conditions in Nova Kakhovka to drive local inhabitants to evacuate.[31]
  • Occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast announced a dual currency system that allows the use of both rubles and hryvnya, unwinding a months-long effort to enforce rubleization in the oblast.[32]


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 29

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 29, 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.

Likely Ukrainian forces conducted an attack against a Grigorovich-class frigate of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) near Sevastopol with unmanned surface vehicles on October 29. Social media footage documented an unknown number of unmanned surface vehicles striking at least one Grigorovich-class frigate in Sevastopol on October 29.[1] Footage also showed smoke near the port in Sevastopol and what appeared to be Russian air defense in Sevastopol engaging air targets.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces used seven autonomous maritime drones and nine unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct a “terrorist attack” against the BSF and civilian targets in Sevastopol.[3] Attacks on military vessels in wartime are legitimate acts of war and not terrorist attacks. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces destroyed all air targets, destroyed four maritime drones on the outer roadstead, and three maritime drones on the inner roadstead. A similar unidentified unmanned surface vehicle first appeared on the coast of Crimea on September 21.[4]

Damage to Black Sea Fleet vessels is unclear at this time. The Russian MoD claimed that the attack inflicted minor damage against BSF minesweeper Ivan Golubets and a protective barrier in the south bay.[5] Russian officials did not acknowledge any damage to a Grigorovich-class frigate, similar to how the Russian MoD denied any damage to the cruiser Moskva when Ukrainian forces sunk it on April 14. Ukrainian officials have not claimed responsibility for the attack as of this publication.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia indefinitely suspended its participation in the United Nations-brokered grain export deal with Ukraine due to the attack on October 29.[6]  Russia had been setting rhetorical conditions to withdraw from the deal for some time, however.

The Black Sea Fleet has three Grigorovich-class frigates, all of which are capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles. A Ukrainian decision to target Kalibr-capable frigate at this time makes sense given the intensified Russian drone and missile strike campaign targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure. If Kyiv ordered this attack, it would have been a proportionate, even restrained, response to the extensive Russian strategic bombing campaign attacking civilian targets throughout Ukraine over the past few weeks.

The Kremlin reportedly relieved the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel General Alexander Lapin, of his position as the commander of the “central” group of forces in Ukraine. The Kremlin has not officially confirmed Lapin’s relief as of October 29, prompting the rise of contradictory reports across Kremlin-sponsored outlets and Telegram channels. Kremlin-sponsored outlets cited reports from Chechnya-based TV channel “Grozny,” milbloggers, and other unnamed official sources that Lapin no longer commands Russian forces in northern Luhansk Oblast.[7] Some Russian milbloggers claimed that Lapin resigned on his own initiative, while others claimed that he was unfairly terminated.[8] A Wagner-affiliated milblogger claimed that Lapin lost his position due to his devastating failure to deploy and organize mobilized men in his zone of responsibility, and ISW has previously reported on the poor treatment of untrained mobilized men on the Svatove-Kreminna frontline under Lapin’s command.[9]

It is unclear whether Lapin was also relieved of his command of the Central Military District. Some milbloggers implied that Lapin is no longer the CMD commander as well, however, there is no clear reporting or evidence. [10] Local Russian outlet Ura claimed that Lapin is taking a three-week-long medical leave citing an unnamed Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) source.[11]

ISW cannot independently confirm the reports of Lapin’s dismissal, but the deluge of conflicting reports may indicate that the Kremlin is struggling to control the narrative regarding its higher military command. The Kremlin had previously refrained from discussing command changes before the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in Lyman, after which Russian President Vladimir Putin formally replaced the commanders of the Western and Eastern Military Districts (WMD and EMD). Putin likely publicly reshuffled district commanders to use them as scapegoats for Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman.[12] The increasing transparency within the Russian information space—spearheaded by the siloviki Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and the pro-war community—is likely making it more challenging for the Kremlin to conceal and explain away any command changes in public. Kadyrov and Prigozhin both have publicly attacked Lapin on several occasions, leading some milbloggers to point out that other Russian district commanders did not receive any criticism despite their own failings (and firings).[13] The reports of Lapin’s dismissal, whether true or false, indicate that the Russian siloviki faction is gaining dominance in the information space that allows it to damage the image of the Russian higher military command that the MoD would likely prefer to present.

Reports of Lapin’s dismissal further highlighted the fragmentation within the Russian pro-war community. A milblogger who had defended Lapin stated that unspecified “lobbyists” had finally removed Lapin from his post acting in their own self-interest, going against the pro-Lapin group of milbloggers.[14] Kremlin-leading Russian outlets also emphasized that a group of milbloggers supported Lapin, indicating the ever-growing influence of milbloggers in the information space.[15] The milblogger added that he and other pro-Lapin milbloggers faced criticism accusing the milbloggers of being on Lapin’s payroll and producing propaganda in support of him. A pro-Wagner milblogger, in turn, stated that overwhelming cries in support of Lapin did not conceal his numerous military failures.[16] Milbloggers from both sides are effectively focusing on failures of Russian military command from either side of the argument, which further undermines the reputation of the Russian Armed Forces and the Kremlin.

Russian pro-war milbloggers have recognized that Western-provided HIMARS halted Russian offensive operations in northwestern Kherson Oblast in July. Some Russian milbloggers commented on satellite imagery of an empty Russian military base at the Kherson International Airport Chornobaivka (northwest of Kherson City) obtained from the private US company Satellogic. The milbloggers noted that Russian forces withdrew their “contingent,” military equipment, and aviation from Chornobaivka between May and September in an effort to protect their equipment against Ukrainian strikes on the base.[17] One milblogger noted that while Russian forces withdrew some aviation elements from the base between May and June due to Ukrainian Tochka-U strikes, the introduction of HIMARS forced Russian command to establish a withdrawal plan from the base that concluded in September.[18] Another milblogger noted that the satellite images further confirmed that the situation on the northwestern Kherson Oblast frontline has not changed in two months and that withdrawn detachments did not return to their positions.[19] Previous satellite imagery from the August-September period showed at least 16 main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers at Chornobaivka, which indicates that the total Russian withdrawal from the Kherson International Airport is fairly recent.[20]

Russia is likely expediting efforts to forcibly depopulate areas of Kherson Oblast along the Dnipro River and repopulate them with Russian soldiers, some out of uniform in violation of the law of armed conflict. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported on October 28 that Russian officials gave residents of Kherson City a two-day eviction notice and that Russian forces have introduced intensified inspection and verification checkpoints at roadblocks on the “evacuation” routes to Russian-occupied Crimea.[21] The Ukrainian General Staff also stated on October 29 that Russian forces are continuing to forcibly evacuate civilians from Nova Kakhovka and that in Beryslav, Russian soldiers are changing into civilian clothes and moving into private residences en masse.[22] International law considers the “simulation of civilian status” to constitute a resort to perfidy, which is a violation of the laws of armed conflict.[23] Russia may be using resort to perfidy tactics to depopulate areas of Kherson Oblast and repopulate them with soldiers in civilian dress in order to set conditions to accuse Ukraine of striking civilian targets when attacking Russian military positions.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is likely responding to pressure levied by milbloggers regarding its treatment of Russian prisoners of war (POWs) and the conduct of prisoner exchanges. The Russian MoD announced on October 29 that Russia negotiated the release of 50 Russian prisoners of war but did not provide further details on the identities of the POWs or the terms of exchange. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin stated that seven of the POWs are DNR servicemen and that two are servicemen of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).[24] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that in exchange 52 Ukrainian POWS returned from Russia.[25] The Russian MoD’s announcement of the exchange is particularly noteworthy in light of recent milblogger criticism of the Russian MoD’s previous handling of POWs and POW exchanges. As ISW reported on September 22, the Russian MoD faced substantial criticism for a POW exchange wherein 215 Ukrainian soldiers, including commanders of the Azov Regiment, were released in exchange for 55 Russian soldiers and political prisoners.[26] Russian sources additionally previously complained that the Russian MoD has neglected to contact and adequately care for Russian POWs and demanded that Russian authorities do more to secure the safety of POWs.[27] The Russian MoD is likely attempting to mitigate public pressure over the handling of POWs by presenting a more proactive approach to POW exchanges.

Key Takeaways      

  • Likely Ukrainian forces conducted an attack against a Grigorovich-class frigate of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) near Sevastopol with unmanned surface vehicles on October 29.
  • The Kremlin reportedly relieved the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel General Alexander Lapin, of his position as the commander of the “central” group of forces in Ukraine.
  • Russia is likely expediting efforts to forcibly depopulate areas of Kherson Oblast along the Dnipro River and repopulate them with Russian soldiers, some of them out of uniform in violation of the law of armed conflict.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is likely responding to pressure levied by milbloggers regarding its treatment of Russian prisoners of war (POWs) and the conduct of prisoner exchanges.
  • Ukrainian forces consolidated gains and continued counteroffensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Ukrainian intelligence indicated that the highest quality Russian troops are still responsible for the defense of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to establish defensive positions on the western bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian forces likely slowed the pace of offensive operations in the Bakhmut area due to a Ukrainian strike.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian troops launched an offensive in the Vuhledar area.
  • Russian troops likely made marginal gains around Donetsk City.
  • The Kremlin reportedly instructed Russian judges to not grant prisoners parole but instead to direct them toward recruitment in unspecified private military companies (PMCs).
  • The Kremlin is likely conducting an information operation to reduce tensions between Christians and Muslims in Russia to cater to religious minority groups within the Russian armed forces.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 28

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Riley Bailey, Katherine Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 28, 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.

Russian forces are not making significant progress around Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast or anywhere else along the front lines. A Russian information operation is advancing the narrative that Russian forces are making significant progress in Bakhmut, likely to improve morale among Russian forces and possibly to improve the personal standing of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose forces are largely responsible for the minimal gains in the area. Russian forces have made limited advances towards the Ukrainian strongpoint in Bakhmut but at a very slow speed and at great cost. Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner Group ground operations around Bakhmut on October 23 and stated that Wagner forces advance only 100-200m per day, which he absurdly claimed was a normal rate for modern advances.[1] Ukrainian forces recaptured a concrete factory on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut around October 24.[2] Ukrainian military officials stated on October 16 that Russian forces had falsely claimed to have captured several towns near Bakhmut within the past several days, but Ukrainian forces held their lines against those Russian attacks.[3] Russian forces are likely falsifying claims of advances in the Bakhmut area to portray themselves as making gains in at least one sector amid continuing losses in northeast and southern Ukraine. Even the claimed rate of advance would be failure for a main effort in mechanized war--and the claims are, in fact, exaggerated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the end of Russian military mobilization on October 28. Shoigu stated that military commissariats will recruit only volunteers and contract soldiers moving forward.[4] Shoigu stated that Russia mobilized 300,000 men, 82,000 of whom are deployed in Ukraine and 218,000 of whom are training at Russian training grounds.[5] Putin stated that 41,000 of the 82,000 servicemen in Ukraine are serving in combat units.[6] Putin acknowledged that Russian forces experienced logistical and supply issues with mobilized forces but falsely asserted that these problems affected only the ”initial stage” of mobilization and that these problems are now solved.[7] Putin stated Russia must ”draw necessary conclusions,” modernize ”the entire system of military registration and enlistment offices” and ”think over and make adjustments to the structure of all components of the Armed Forces, including the Ground Forces.”[8]

Putin likely ended mobilization in Russia to free up administrative and training capacity in time for the delayed start of the Russian autumn conscription cycle, which will begin on November 1.[9] Russia’s military likely does not have the capacity to simultaneously support training 218,000 mobilized men and approximately 120,000 new autumn conscripts.[10] It is unclear how autumn 2022 conscripts will complete their training, moreover, since the usual capstones for Russian conscripts‘ training involves joining a Russian military unit—which are already fighting in Ukraine and badly damaged.   

Russia‘s now-completed mobilization is unlikely to decisively impact Russian combat power. Putin described a 50-50 split between mobilized personnel in combat and support roles in Ukraine. If that ratio applies generally, it suggests that a total of 150,000 mobilized personnel will deploy to combat roles in Ukraine after training is complete, likely sometime in November. Russia’s deployment of 41,000 poorly trained combat personnel to Ukraine may have temporarily stiffened Russian defensive lines, although these reservists have not yet faced the full weight of a major and prepared Ukrainian counteroffensive thrust. The deployment has not significantly increased Russian combat power. The deployment of an additional 110,000 or so mobilized men to combat units therefore remains unlikely to change the trajectory of the war.

Putin may be attempting to reestablish Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s authority in the Russian information space to balance the growing influence of the Russian pro-war siloviki faction. The Russian siloviki faction refers to people with meaningful power bases within Putin’s inner circle who are fielding combat forces in Ukraine. Putin could have announced the end of mobilization himself instead of in a meeting with Shoigu or could have tasked Shoigu with concluding the flawed mobilization effort on his own. Their staged public meeting is consistent with the recent surge in Shoigu’s media appearances. For example, Shoigu held several publicized calls with his Turkish, Chinese, and Western counterparts between October 23 and 26.[11] These high-profile meetings differentiate Shoigu and the Russian higher military command from the siloviki, who do not hold the same rank or authority despite their popularity in the Russian information space. Shoigu had made very limited public appearances over the spring and summer.[12]  Shoigu’s presence in the information space depends on the approval of the Kremlin, since Putin can control when and whether Shoigu speaks publicly. Shoigu’s siloviki rivals control their own Telegram channels and speak freely to the media.

The growing influence of the siloviki faction – led by Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin – is further fracturing the Russian pro-war community. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for the second time criticized the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel General Alexander Lapin, for his management of the Svatove-Kreminna line on October 27.[13] Kadyrov contrasted his harsh criticisms of Lapin with high praise for Prigozhin and Wagner units, even calling Prigozhin a ”born warrior.” Kadyrov has resumed his criticisms of the progress of the Russian invasion and Russian higher military command since October 25, likely in response to a Ukrainian strike on Chechen units in northeastern Kherson Oblast.[14] Kadyrov has since announced that the Ukrainian strike killed 23 Chechen fighters and wounded 58 troops.[15]

Kadyrov accused Lapin of failing to communicate with Chechen leaders, claiming that he had unsuccessfully attempted to reach Lapin to discuss Ukrainian breakthroughs around Lyman. Kadyrov added that no one could locate Lapin or his subordinates when one of Lapin’s units redeployed from Rubizhne to reinforce the frontlines.[16] Kadyrov claimed that Chechen units had to hold Russian defensive positions without Lapin’s support, stated that soldiers are increasingly deserting from Lapin’s units, and insinuated that Lapin will soon lose Svatove.[17] Kadyrov previously attacked Lapin on October 1 for moving his headquarters far from the frontlines and for his military failures, and Prigozhin publicly agreed with Kadyrov’s statement at that time.[18] Kadyrov’s praise of Prigozhin further demonstrates that siloviki are increasingly promoting their parallel military structures at the expense of the reputation of the Russian Armed Forces.

Kadyrov’s accusations have once again created a rift among pro-war Russian milbloggers and exposed concerns over the growing influence of the siloviki faction within the pro-war community. Some milbloggers expressed their support for Lapin, noting that his failures – such as large losses of military equipment in Chernihiv Oblast or the devastating failure at the Siverskyi Donets river crossing in Bilohorivka – were not as severe as other failures of some Russian military commanders even though these same milbloggers had indirectly criticized Lapin for these incidents.[19] Most pro-Lapin milbloggers blamed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for abstaining from publicly defending Lapin against the likes of Kadyrov and Prigozhin. A milblogger even noted that it is unacceptable for any Russian governor or regional head to criticize the Russian Armed Forces as such critiques can lead ”to the direct road to the erosion of the very essence of the Russian state.”[20] Kadyrov’s only formal position is head of the Chechen Republic. The milblogger noted that Russian commanders cannot defend their actions on Telegram – unlike Prigozhin and Kadyrov – and stated that such critiques only ignite internal conflicts. Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels, by contrast, amplified reports of dire conditions on the Svatove-Kreminna frontline, discussing the high number of deserters, low morale, poor living conditions, and command cowardice.[21]

Kadyrov’s second critique of Lapin indicates a further fragmentation within the pro-war community that may allow Priogozhin to accrue more power in the long-term. Putin will need to continue to appease the siloviki faction while attempting to support his disgraced higher military command and retain favor with the milbloggers that respect some conventional Russian military commanders such as Lapin and the Commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin.

Key Takeaways            

  • Russian forces are not making significant progress around Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast or anywhere else along the front lines.
  • President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the end of partial mobilization.
  • Putin may be attempting to rehabilitate Shoigu’s image in the information space to counter the growing influence of the pro-war siloviki faction.
  • The growing influence of the siloviki faction is continuing to fracture the Russian pro-war community.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued to deploy mobilized personnel to and establish defensive positions on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian occupation authorities completed their "evacuation” of parts of occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian occupation authorities reportedly plan to force Russian citizenship on Ukrainian civilians in occupied parts of Ukraine by October 30, likely in part to legalize the forced mobilization of Ukrainian civilians as part of the November 1 autumn conscription cycle.
  • Russian occupation authorities are continuing their attempts to erase Ukrainian history, culture, and national identity in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 27

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 27, 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 President Vladimir Putin continues to reject the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with serious negotiations. Putin continued to reject Ukrainian sovereignty during a speech at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 27. Putin stated that the “single real guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty” can only be Russia, which “created” Ukraine.[1] Putin reiterated that it is a “historical fact” that Ukrainians and Russians are fundamentally “one people” that were wrongly separated into “different states.”[2] Putin stated on October 26 that Ukraine has “lost its sovereignty” and become a NATO vassal.[3]

Putin’s statements reject the legal fact that Ukraine is a fully sovereign state, that the Russian Federation recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty, and that the Ukrainian people exist as a distinct nation. Putin’s perpetuation of the narrative that Ukraine and Russia are a single people separated into different states by arbitrary historical circumstance indicates his continued objective to destroy the Ukrainian state and erase the notion of a Ukrainian people. He added during the question-and-answer period that “if some part of that single ethnicity at some moment decided that it had reached such a level as to consider itself a separate people, then one could only respond with respect.”[4]  The many conditionals in this comment underscore Putin’s rejection of the idea that there is currently any independent Ukrainian national identity. These statements, along with many Russian actions, must cause serious reflection on the question of whether Russia’s war against Ukraine is a genocidal action since genocide is legally defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”[5]

A senior Russian official threatened that Russia could target Western commercial satellites supporting Ukraine. Russian Foreign Ministry Deputy Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Konstantin Vorontsov told the United Nations that the United States and its allies were trying to use space to enforce Western dominance and that "quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike."[6] Reuters reported that US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated that the United States will meet any attack on US infrastructure “with a response.”[7] 

Key Takeaways                

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to reject Ukrainian sovereignty in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with serious negotiations.
  • A senior Russian official threatened that Russia could target Western commercial satellites supporting Ukraine.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast and along the Kreminna-Lysychansk line.
  • Russian forces are continuing to make defensive preparations along the east bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground assaults in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Russian military sent mobilization notices to foreign citizens working in Russia.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s Wagner Group may be further developing its air warfare capabilities and fielding more complex equipment on par with the conventional Russian military.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials began seizing residents’ cell phones in Russian-occupied territories to support law enforcement and operational security measures.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 26

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 26, 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.

Reuters investigation of a document trove found in an abandoned Russian command post in Balakliya, Kharkiv Oblast, supports ISW’s longstanding assessments about the poor condition of Russian forces. ISW has long assessed that the conventional Russian military in Ukraine is severely degraded and has largely lost offensive capabilities since the summer of 2022, that Russian strategic commanders have been micromanaging operational commanders' decisions on tactical matters, and that Russian morale is very low. Reuters’ investigation found that Russian units near Balakliya were severely understrength, with a combat battalion at 19.6-percent strength and a reserve unit at 23-percent strength.[1] The investigation found that poor morale, bad logistics, and overbearing commanders contributed to Russian forces’ poor performance.[2] The report found that the Russian Western Military District explicitly forbade a subordinate from withdrawing from an untenable position in the small village of Hrakove (which has an area of less than three square kilometers).[3] Ukrainian forces defeated Russian forces in Balakiya and routed Russian forces in eastern Kharkiv Oblast around September 8-10.[4]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric indicates that he is not interested in negotiating seriously with Ukraine and retains maximalist objectives for the war. Putin stated that Ukraine has “lost sovereignty” in a meeting with Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) security officials on October 26.[5] Putin stated that the United States is using Ukraine as a “battering ram” against Russia, the Russian-Belarusian Union State, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the CIS. Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin amplified this narrative, stating that “Ukraine has lost the ability to exist as a state,” “Ukraine is occupied by NATO,” and “[Ukraine] has become a colony of the US” on October 26.[6] This language is incompatible with negotiations on an equal basis for a ceasefire, let alone a resolution to the conflict that Russia began. It instead strongly suggests that the Kremlin still seeks a military victory in Ukraine and regime change in Kyiv that would affect the permanent reorientation of Ukraine away from the West and into Russia’s control. It also indicates that Putin’s aims transcend the territory he has claimed to have annexed, let alone the areas his forces actually control.

Russian occupation officials in Kherson Oblast are attempting to mitigate the informational consequences of the chaos of the initial Russian withdrawals from the west bank of the Dnipro River. Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo stated on October 26 that it would be “practically impossible” to completely destroy the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant (HPP) and that even the destruction of the dam locks at the HPP would only cause the water level of the Dnipro River to rise less than 2 meters.[7] Saldo’s statement directly contradicts his own prior statements and the warnings made by Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin on October 18 that Ukraine is planning to strike the Kakhovka HPP and cause flood damage along the Dnipro River.[8] Saldo’s apparent retraction of his own warnings may suggest that he seeks to quell anxiety accompanying the mass movement of civilians and Russian military and occupation elements across the Dnipro in order to preserve his own ability to rule. Saldo also issued assurances about the provision of basic utilities and financial services that he claimed will continue even as evacuations to the east bank are ongoing.[9] Saldo’s statements indicate that his administration is attempting to mitigate panic in the information space, likely in order to maintain control of the population of Kherson Oblast against the backdrop of ongoing evacuations.

Russian forces conducted an assault on Ternova, Kharkiv Oblast, likely to fix Ukrainian forces there and prevent them from reinforcing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations elsewhere. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 26 that Ukrainian forces repelled an attack on Ternova (40km northeast of Kharkiv city) which is well removed from areas encompassed by the eastern Ukrainian counteroffensive.[10] Russian forces likely do not intend to regain limited territory in border areas of Kharkiv Oblast but instead likely hope to keep Ukrainian forces in the area that otherwise could join counteroffensive operations. Russian forces are likely hoping for a similar outcome in northwestern Ukraine with their deployment of forces to the joint grouping of forces in Belarus and the messaging around it.

Russian officials continued to admit that Russia is deporting children to Russia under the guise of adoption and vacation schemes. Russian media reported on October 26 that the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, adopted a Ukrainian child who was deported from Mariupol to Russia.[11] Lvova-Belova claimed that Russian officials have brought 31 children from Mariupol to Russia and that her office is working to “rehabilitate” Ukrainian children from active combat zones. As ISW has previously reported, 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.[12]

Russia is also continuing to use the excuse of recreational trips to deport Ukrainian children to Russia and Russian-occupied territory. Member of the Zaporizhia occupation administration Vladimir Rogov reported on October 26 that over 500 children from Enerhodar went on “vacation” in Yevpatoria, Crimea and Anapa, Krasnodar Krai this year alone.[13] Rogov claimed that the children received “new knowledge” as part of the “educational program.”[14] Russian-appointed governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhaev similarly claimed that children from occupied Kherson City and Enerhodar took part in “excursions” in Sevastopol.[15] These reports are consistent with ISW‘s previous observations that Russian officials have used the veneer of such recreation and rehabilitation programs to justify the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russian-controlled territory and areas of the Russian Federation.[16]

On October 26, Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin denied ISW’s report that Prigozhin confronted Putin and other siloviki factions in the Kremlin regarding the progress of the Russian war in Ukraine.[17] Prigozhin explicitly denied ISW’s October 25 assessment and falsely insinuated that ISW receives classified intelligence. 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.  ISW specifically does not receive information from Prigozhin’s deceased mother-in-law, as he (ironically) suggested.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Reuters investigation of Russian documents from Balakliya supports previous ISW assessments about the poor conditions of Russian forces.
  • Putin stated that Ukraine has “lost its sovereignty” in an October 26 speech indicating that Russia likely retains its maximalist objectives in Ukraine and remains resistant to negotiations.
  • Russian occupation officials in Kherson Oblast are attempting to mitigate the informational consequences of the Russian withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian forces are attempting to fix Ukrainian forces on Ukraine’s northern border.
  • Russian officials continued to acknowledge that Russian authorities are deporting Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of adoption and vacation schemes.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin denied a previous ISW assessment that stated he confronted Putin and other siloviki factions regarding the progress of the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations west of Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued to prepare defensive positions on the west and east banks of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations in northwest Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Russian military is reportedly attempting to recruit foreigners to support its war effort in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation officials in Kherson Oblast continued to relocate residents from the west bank of the Dnipro River.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 25

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 25, 7:00 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.

Members of the Russian siloviki faction continue to voice their dissatisfaction with Russian war efforts in Ukraine, indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to struggle to appease the pro-war constituency in the long term. The Russian siloviki faction refers to people with meaningful power bases within Putin’s inner circle who are fielding combat forces in Ukraine. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov complained that the Russian response to claimed Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory have been “weak,” noting that Russia must “erase Ukrainian cities from the earth.”[1] Kadyrov also claimed that Russia is now engaged in a war with Ukraine instead of a “special military operation,” given that Ukrainian forces are fighting on “Russian territory.” Kadyrov noted that he is unhappy with the lack of Russian retaliation despite the establishment of martial law. Kadyrov had remained relatively quiet throughout October.

Kadyrov’s statement indirectly criticizes the scale of the Russian missile campaign against Ukrainian energy infrastructure and is in line with milblogger critiques that followed days after the first massive campaign on October 10.[2] ISW has previously assessed that that Putin’s missile campaign is unlikely to satisfy the pro-war nationalist camp in the long term, given that Putin cannot fix the many flaws within the Russian military campaign in Ukraine nor can he deliver his maximalist promises.[3] Kadyrov’s rant also highlights Putin’s error in annexing four Ukrainian oblasts before Russian forces reached the oblasts’ borders, which has created confusion about where “Russian territory” begins. ISW has previously reported that Putin’s annexation of Ukrainian territories has likely triggered criticism within the Kremlin elite, which will likely intensify as Putin loses more occupied territories.[4]

Russian siloviki have also directly confronted Putin regarding the progress of the Russian war in Ukraine, which further highlights their significance within Russian power structures. The Washington Post, citing US intelligence, revealed that Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin sharply criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) in a private conversation.[5] Prigozhin reportedly accused the Russian MoD of heavily relying on Wagner forces while failing to finance the group or provide necessary resources, which is consistent with his numerous public statements.[6] Prigozhin has denied ever criticizing the Russian Armed Forces in response to The Washington Post report—a denial that is patently false given his repeated public attacks on the MoD.[7]

The criticism revealed by The Post further supports ISW’s assessment that Prigozhin holds a unique position that allows him to reap the benefits of Putin’s dependency on Wagner forces without having formal responsibility for any axis or area in Ukraine and while wielding considerable influence in the information space. Prigozhin is accumulating a following on Telegram (with some Wagner-affiliated channels having over 300,000 followers), is directly interacting with online publications, and is reportedly financing the RiaFan (Federal News Agency) media conglomerate.[8] Prigozhin is likely using a growing number of platforms to accrue power and has even previously engaged RiaFan in promoting his September prisoner recruitment drive to Russian audiences.[9] Putin’s regime is largely dependent on Putin’s monopolization of the state information space, but Prigozhin is increasingly challenging that monopoly.

Prigozhin’s influence in the information space is evident through the positive portrayal of Wagner forces, despite their failure to make significant advances in the Bakhmut area. Wagner forces have yet to reach Bakhmut despite fighting there since early summer and are reportedly suffering significant losses.[10] Prigozhin himself admitted that Wagner forces advance only 100-200 meters a day, which he absurdly and falsely claimed is the norm for modern warfare.[11] Wagner forces are plagued with the same supply and troop quality issues that Prigozhin‘s criticizes the Russian MoD for allowing to occur within the Russian Armed Forces. Prigozhin, for instance, denied seeing a video in which Wagner troops complained about the lack of food and supplies.[12] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) also noted that Wagner prisoner recruits suffer from serious infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, and that Russian doctors are refusing to assist a growing number of infected troops when they are wounded in combat.[13]

Prigozhin is able to shape the narrative within Russian milblogger community by consistently deflecting attention from his forces by demeaning the Russian higher military command. He will likely retain his upper hand despite his forces’ lack of advances given the Russian information restrictions on the Russian MoD. Prigozhin’s close interactions with the media and online community allows him to address any criticism or unfavorable narratives in real time, unlike the Russian MoD or the Kremlin. Prigozhin, for example, denied his involvement with Russian war criminal Igor Girkin less than a day after Russian milbloggers suggested that Girkin is forming a Wagner-based volunteer battalion.[14]

Russian officials are increasingly attempting to rhetorically align Russia’s war in Ukraine with religious concepts ostensibly accessible to both Christians and Muslims, likely in order to cater to religious minority groups within the Russian armed forces. Assistant Secretary to the Russian Security Council Alexei Pavlov amplified statements made by Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov on October 25 that the goal of the war in Ukraine should be “complete de-Satanization.”[15] Pavlov claimed that Ukrainian society is defined by “fanatics” who seek to abandon values held by the Russian Orthodox church, Islam, and Judaism.[16] Kadyrov also declared that the war on Ukraine is now a jihad against Ukrainian “Satanism.”[17] These statements may represent a desire to deflect dissent among religious minority groups in the Russian Armed Forces. As ISW previously reported, recent schisms between Muslim and non-Muslim servicemen have caused violent outbursts in Russia ranks.[18] The invocation of war on religious but not overtly Christian grounds is likely an attempt to transcend religious divides and set information conditions for continued recruitment of ethnic and religious minorities to fight in Ukraine.

Russian occupation officials continued to indicate that efforts to “evacuate” civilians in Kherson Oblast to the east bank of Dnipro River are part of a wider resettlement scheme. Kherson occupation deputy Kirill Stremousov claimed on October 25 that occupation officials have moved over 22,000 people from the west bank of the Dnipro to the east bank and that the administration’s “resettlement program” (программа переселения) is designed to accommodate 60,000 people.[19] Stremousov’s statement seemingly admits that Russian occupation officials view the evacuations as precursors to the permanent resettlement of a large population of Ukrainians. It is unclear where Russian officials intend to “resettle” those who move from the west bank. The implication of a permanent program designed to resettle Ukrainians in other Russian-occupied territories, and even within Russia itself, may amount to a violation of international law.[20] According to international law, an occupying power has the right to evacuate civilians for their safety with the necessary stipulation that such evacuations are temporary.[21] The implication of a “resettlement program” seems to suggest that Russian officials intend to permanently resettle large parts of Kherson Oblast’s population.

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a coordination council meeting on October 25 in which Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin expressed a need to enact additional security measures in border oblasts, likely indicating that the Kremlin intends to utilize recent martial law decrees.[22] Putin also said that the Russian government needs to work at a high pace and according to an extremely realistic assessment of the national security situation. Sobyanin indicated that Russian officials are proceeding with planned security measures throughout the Russian Federation. These comments indicate that the Kremlin intends to utilize recent martial law declarations to ease mobilization and military efforts occurring within the Russian Federation.

Russian independent polling organization Levada posted survey results on October 25 showing that the number of Russians desiring change has declined despite recent societal stresses introduced by sanctions, mobilization, and the war in Ukraine.[23] The Levada surveys conducted in late September show that the percentage of Russians who believe that Russia needs decisive, full-scale changes decreased from 59 percent in July 2019 to 47 percent in October 2022. The surveys show that the percentage of the Russian public that believes Russia needs only minor changes increased from 31 percent in July 2019 to 36 percent in October 2022 as did the number of Russians who said that Russia needs no change whatsoever, from 8 percent to 13 percent. The Levada surveys show that of those Russians desiring full-scale change, only 11 percent desire a change of government in some fashion. The Levada surveys also show that of those Russians desiring full-scale change, 10 percent desire that the war in Ukraine ends and that Russia begins negotiations with Ukraine. Many changes that Russians wish for are primarily focused on domestic economic issues.  

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian siloviki factions continue to voice dissatisfaction with the Russian war effort in Ukraine, likely indicating that President Vladimir Putin will struggle to appease the pro-war faction.
  • Direct confrontations between Putin and siloviki members regarding the war in Ukraine illustrate the significance of siloviki factions in Russian power structures.
  • Russian officials are likely rhetorically realigning the war in Ukraine with religious ideals ostensibly accessible to both Christians and Muslims to cater to religious and ethnic minorities.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to claim that the evacuations in Kherson Oblast are a part of a larger resettlement program.
  • Levada polling surveys suggest that the Russian public’s sentiments toward the Russian government have not fundamentally changed despite societal pressures associated with the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks west of Svatove and on Kreminna on October 25.
  • Russian forces continued to establish fallback and defensive positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian forces conducted unsuccessful ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Russian military continues to mobilize personnel in violation of recruitment policies. Russian mobilization efforts also are placing strains on the Russian labor market.
  • Ukrainian partisans conducted an attack targeting the occupation head in Russian-occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 24

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Angela Howard, and Fredrick W. Kagan

October 24, 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.

The Kremlin intensified its information operation to accuse Ukraine of preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb for a second day in a row on October 24. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov separately called his counterparts from the United Kingdom and United States about the “situation connected with Ukraine’s possible use of a dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material that is not a nuclear weapon) on October 24.[1] Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made similar calls with his counterparts from the United Stated, United Kingdom, France, and Turkey on October 23.[2] The Chief of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Forces, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, gave a lengthy briefing accusing Ukraine of planning a dirty bomb false-flag provocation to accuse Russia of detonating a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine on October 24.[3] Russian military bloggers are amplifying this information operation.[4] ISW assesses the Kremlin is unlikely to be preparing an imminent false-flag dirty bomb attack.[5]

Russian forces conducted air, missile, and drone strikes against targets in Ukraine at a markedly slower tempo than in previous days. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 24 that Russian forces conducted 2 missile and 28 air strikes, and Ukrainian forces shot down 16 Shahed-136 drones on October 23.[6] The slower tempo of Russian air, missile, and drone strikes possibly reflects decreasing missile and drone stockpiles and the strikes’ limited effectiveness of accomplishing Russian strategic military goals.

Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, stated on October 24 that the impact of Russian terrorist strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure is waning as Russian forces further deplete their limited arsenal of cruise missiles.[7] Budanov stated that Russian forces have stopped targeting Ukraine’s military infrastructure, instead aiming for civilian infrastructure to incite panic and fear in Ukrainians. Budanov noted, however, that Russian forces will fail as Ukrainians are better adapted to strategic bombing than at the beginning of the war. Budanov claimed that Russian forces have used most of their cruise missile arsenal and only have 13 percent of their pre-war Iskander, 43 percent of Kaliber, and 45 percent of Kh-101 and Kh-555 pre-war stockpiles left, supporting ISW’s prior reports on dwindling Russian precision-guided munition stockpiles.[8] Budanov noted that Russian cruise missiles lack precision, as a missile likely intended to hit the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building in Kyiv missed its target by 800 meters. Budanov stated that Russia’s dwindling supply of cruise missiles is forcing the Russian military to rely on Iranian drones but that Iranian suppliers only send 300 drones per shipment and that the drones take a long time to manufacture. Budanov stated that Ukrainian air defenses shoot down 70 percent of all Shahed-136 drones, including 222 of the 330 Russia has used so far. It is impossible to assess the degree to which ongoing unrest and growing strikes in Iran might interfere with Tehran’s ability to manufacture and ship drones to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts on September 30 ignited a schism within the Kremlin, which will likely intensify as Ukraine liberates more territories, according to Budanov. Budanov stated that Kremlin elites largely did not support Putin’s decision to annex Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts prior to securing those territories, prompting many officials to contact their Western counterparts to express their disinterest in continuing the war in Ukraine.[9] Budanov claimed that some Kremlin officials began advocating for negotiations with Ukraine to their Western counterparts while the Russian military-political command plotted missile strikes to scare Ukrainians into negotiations. Budanov‘s statement is consistent with the influx of Western reports about direct criticism of Putin within the Kremlin less than a week after the annexation announcement around October 6.[10] Wagner Group­–affiliated Telegram channels also noted the emergence of the pro-war and pro-negotiations factions within the Kremlin within the same timeframe.[11] Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin has been consistently referencing the factionalization within the Kremlin since, even explicitly stating that he is part of the “war until victory” faction.[12] These observations raise the possibility that hints from insiders of a Kremlin readiness to engage in serious negotiations may not reflect Putin’s own views or any decisions he has taken but may instead be part of efforts by those who have lost the internal argument with him to persuade the West and Ukraine to offer concessions in hopes of bringing him around to their point of view.

Prigozhin continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces, which may come to pose a threat to Putin’s rule — at least within the information space. Russian milbloggers reported that Prigozhin is sponsoring the formation of a Wagner-based volunteer battalion recruited by a Russian war criminal and former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin.[13] Girkin is an avid critic of the Russian higher military command and a prominent figure among the Russian ultra-nationalists who participated in the annexation of Crimea or the illegal Russian seizures of Ukrainian territory in Donbas in 2014. Milbloggers noted that the structure of the Russian Armed Forces has long prevented Girkin from forming his own volunteer battalion due to lack of supplies and other bureaucratic restrictions, while Prigozhin has the luxury to operate Wagner forces without the direct supervision of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Milbloggers also noted that the Prigozhin-Girkin collaboration is likely making a large nationalist constituency accessible to Prigozhin in support of his maximalist goals for the war in Ukraine.[14]

Prigozhin holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space that allows him to expand his constituency in Russia more readily than the disgraced Russian higher military command. Prigozhin can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.[15] Putin depends on Wagner forces in Bakhmut and is likely attempting to appease Prigozhin despite the fact that Prigozhin is undermining the conventional Russian military. Prigozhin, for example, sarcastically stated in an interview that he is constructing the “Wagner Line” in an effort to make Russian Armed Forces that “hide behind Wagner’s backs” feel safe.[16] Prigozhin also frequently levies his critiques of the Russian military in interviews with Russian online publications and among Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels, which allow him to reach and interact with audiences inaccessible to the Russian MoD, which is restricted in its public statements and means of communication. Prigozhin also benefits from holding no formal position of responsibility. He is not in command of any axis in Ukraine nor in charge of any major bureaucratic effort. He can critique those who are in positions of authority freely without fear that anyone can point to something he was specifically responsible for that he failed to achieve.

Prigozhin has seemingly distanced himself from a fellow strongman, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, after their joint critiques of the Russian higher military command on October 1 drew much attention.[17] This rhetorical shift may indicate that Kadyrov is losing influence and standing and may fear losing his control over the Republic of Chechnya amid the Chechen public’s growing disapproval of his demands in support of Putin’s war.[18]

Racism and bigotry continue to plague the Russian Armed Forces, increasing the likelihood of ethnic conflicts. Russian social media footage showed a Russian officer beating a Muslim soldier for attempting to pray at a certain time.[19] While Russian milbloggers denied the authenticity of the footage, previous instances of violence along religious or ethnic lines, such as the shooting on a Belgorod Oblast training ground on October 15, indicate that such problems will intensify throughout time.[20] Racial and religious tensions may also help explain Kadyrov’s relative quieting and Prigozhin’s apparent separation from him.

Russian forces are likely preparing to defend Kherson City and are not fully withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast despite previous confirmed reports of some Russian elements withdrawing from upper Kherson.[21] Budanov stated on October 24 that Russian forces are not retreating from Kherson City but are instead preparing the city for urban combat.[22] This report is consistent with indicators that ISW has observed in late October.[23] Recent reporting about Russian military operations in Kherson have not always distinguished clearly enough between activities in Kherson City and those in western Kherson Oblast generally. Russian forces have begun a partial withdrawal from northwestern Kherson Oblast even while preparing to defend Kherson City. They have not launched into a full withdrawal from the city or the oblast as of this report.

The Russian position in upper Kherson Oblast is, nevertheless, likely untenable; and Ukrainian forces will likely capture upper Kherson Oblast by the end of 2022. A Russian milblogger stated that Russia’s surrender even of Kherson City is overdue, as an attempt to hold the city will likely result in defeat.[24] This milblogger argued that if Russia’s military command decides to wage the war in Ukraine to a successful end, then the surrender of Kherson City is “nothing terrible” in the long run. The Russian military likely has not prepared the information space for a military defeat in Kherson Oblast as of October 24. A Russian milblogger wrote that his Russian military contacts in Kherson Oblast do not want to nor plan to retreat.[25] Russian media has not discussed the possibility of a major military loss in Kherson Oblast besides promoting information operations about a Ukrainian false-flag attack against the Kakhova Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) Dam.[26]

Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces have not yet laid enough explosives to fully destroy the HPP Dam as of October 24.[27] Budanov observed that the Russians have prepared parts of the dam for limited explosions that would not unleash the full force of the reservoir’s waters. The Russians may seek to damage the top portion of the dam, including the road that runs across it, to prevent the Ukrainians from following after retreating Russian forces if and when the Russians abandon the western bank of the Dnipro River.

Key Takeaways 

  • The Kremlin intensified its information operation to accuse Ukraine of preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb for a second day in a row.
  • Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Major General Kyrylo Budanov stated on October 24 that the impact of Russian terrorist strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure is waning.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts on September 30 ignited a schism within the Kremlin, which will likely intensify as Ukraine liberates more territories according to Budanov.
  • Prigozhin continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces, which may come to pose a threat to Putin’s rule – at least within the information space.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing to defend Kherson City and are not fully withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast despite previous confirmed reports of some Russian elements withdrawing from upper Kherson Oblast.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff confirmed that Ukrainian forces captured Karmazynivka, Miasozharivka, and Nevske in Luhansk Oblast and Novosadove in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Kursk Oblast Govenor Roman Starovoit announced the completion of the construction of two reinforced defense lines on the border with Ukraine on October 23 — likely an act of security theater designed to target a domestic Russian audience since there is no danger whatsoever of a Ukrainian mechanized invasion of Russia.
  • Wagner Group financer Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner Group ground operations around Bakhmut as Russian forces continued to lose ground near the city.
  • Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian force concentrations near the Zaporizhia Oblast front line on October 23–24 and struck a Russian force and equipment concentration in the vicinity of Enerhodar on October 22.
  • Hurried Russian mobilization efforts to fix personnel shortages on the front lines have cannibalized the Russian force-generation staff and diminished Russia’s ability to effectively train and deploy new personnel and to staff domestic industries.
  • Occupation administration officials have taken down communications systems in Kherson City in an attempt to limit civilian reporting on Russian positions to Ukrainian forces ahead of anticipated Ukrainian advances.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 23

Click here to read the full report.

By Mason Clark

October 23, 5:30pm 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.

ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, October 23. This report focuses on Russian Defense Minister Shoigu's several calls with his western counterparts and preposterous claims that Ukraine is preparing a false-flag “dirty bomb” attack against Russia, likely to pressure Ukraine into concessions and intimidate NATO. On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces conducted further offensive operations in northeastern Ukraine, and Russian forces continued to set conditions for a withdrawal from Kherson. Those developments are summarized briefly and will be covered in more detail tomorrow.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu likely sought to slow or suspend Western military aid to Ukraine and possibly weaken the NATO alliance in scare-mongering calls with several NATO defense ministers on October 23. Shoigu separately called his counterparts from France, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States on October 23, claiming that Ukraine is preparing to conduct a false-flag attack using a dirty bomb (a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material that is not a nuclear weapon) to accuse Russia of using weapons of mass destruction.[1] Russian state media amplified this false and ridiculous claim.[2] Russian Ministry of Defense reports on the calls contain slight differences; they state that Shoigu discussed a claimed “steady tendency towards further, uncontrolled escalation” in Ukraine in the call with his French counterpart; discussed the “situation in Ukraine” and made false claims that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb in his calls with the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey; and simply discussed the situation in Ukraine without reference to a dirty bomb in his conversation with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Shoigu last spoke with Secretary Austin on October 21. Representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, and Ukraine categorically denied and condemned Shoigu’s false allegations, and US Secretary Austin called his UK counterpart, Ben Wallace, following the calls with Shoigu.[3] France and Turkey have not issued formal statements as of this writing.

The Kremlin is unlikely to be preparing an imminent false-flag dirty bomb attack. Shoigu’s claims further a longstanding Russian information campaign. The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that Western states will help Ukraine conduct a false-flag WMD attack since the earliest stages of its invasion of Ukraine in February. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed it had information the US was “preparing provocations to accuse the Russian Armed Forces of using chemical, biological, or tactical nuclear weapons” in April.[4] Putin claimed in his pre-invasion speech on February 24 that Ukraine was preparing for a nuclear attack against Russia, and Russian state disinformation outlets repeatedly claimed Western states were supporting Ukraine’s development of nuclear weapons and planning false-flag attacks.[5]

Shoigu’s claims likely do not portend Russian preparations to use non-strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine either. ISW previously stated on September 30 that “ISW cannot forecast the point at which Putin would decide to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision would be inherently personal, but Putin’s stated red lines for nuclear weapon use have already been crossed in this war several times over without any Russian nuclear escalation.”[6]  Russia does not “need,” under formal Russian nuclear doctrine, a further event to justify nuclear weapons use.[7] Ukraine is not apparently on the verge of tripping some new Russian redline, on the other hand, that might cause Putin to use non-strategic nuclear weapons against it at this time. Shoigu’s comments are thus unlikely to presage a nuclear terror attack against one or more major Ukrainian population centers or critical infrastructure in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender or the West into cutting off aid to Ukraine. Such attacks would be highly unlikely to force Ukraine or the West to surrender, as Ukraine’s government and people have repeatedly demonstrated their will to continue fighting, and the West would find it very challenging simply to surrender in the face of such horrific acts because of the precedent such surrender would set.

Shoigu’s calls—and Russian state media’s amplification of false dirty bomb threats—are therefore likely intended to intimidate Western states into cutting or limiting support for Ukraine as Russia faces continued military setbacks and the likely loss of western Kherson by the end of the year. ISW has assessed since May that Putin seeks to force Ukraine to accept his terms and deter continued Western support for Ukraine through nuclear brinksmanship.[8] The recipients of Shoigu’s calls are also notable. The Kremlin has repeatedly framed the United States and the United Kingdom as Ukraine’s primary backers and the enablers of what it claims are aggressive policies toward Russia, while France and Turkey have (to varying degrees) framed themselves as mediators in the conflict. Shoigu’s round of calls was likely further Russian saber-rattling to intimidate Ukraine’s Western supporters and possibly widen fissures within the NATO alliance, not condition setting for imminent nuclear use.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on October 23:

  • Russian authorities likely cut internet access in Kherson City on October 22 to limit local reporting of Russian evacuations to the east bank of the Dnipro River.[9] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks in northwestern Kherson Oblast.[10]
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources reported fighting near Siversk, Soledar, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka in eastern Ukraine.[11] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast.[12]
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.[13]
  • Russian forces struck Zaporizhzhia City, Mykolaiv City, and other areas in Mykolaiv Oblast with Shahed 136 drones and S-300 missiles.[14] Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces targeted Nikopol and Marhanets with multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) strikes.[15]
  • A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command claimed that Ukrainian forces have shot down a total of 273 Iranian-provided Shahed-136 drones since Russia began using them in Ukraine on September 13.[16]
  • A Ukrainian government source reported that Iranian instructors in Belarus (in addition to previously reported instructors in Crimea) aided Russian forces in the coordination of previous Shahed-136 drone strikes against Kyiv Oblast and northern and western oblasts in Ukraine.[17]
  • Russian outlets continued to set conditions to blame Ukraine for the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, which Russian forces will likely destroy to slow advancing Ukrainian forces[18][19]
  • Russian sources widely discussed the construction of defensive positions in Kursk Oblast.[20]
  • A Ukrainian source reported that Russian authorities in Krasnodar Krai have “indefinitely” extended the “vacations” (meaning forced abductions as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign) of children from Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast.[21]
  • Russian sources reported that private businesses are offering to train mobilized men on privately owned military and medical equipment in exchange for money.[22] Another Russian fighter aircraft crashed into a two-story building in Novo-Lenino, Irkutsk Oblast.[23]

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 22

Click here to read the full report.

Katherine Lawlor, Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, Angela Howard, and Mason Clark

October 22, 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.

Russian forces continued to withdraw from western Kherson Oblast while preparing to conduct delaying actions that will likely be only partially effective. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces have completely abandoned their positions in Charivne and Chkalove (both approximately 33km northwest of Nova Kakhovka), and Russian officers and medics have reportedly evacuated from Beryslav.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff added that Russian forces are also removing patients from the Kakhovka Hospital on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, likely to free up hospital beds for Russian military casualties that may result from the withdrawal across the river.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that some Russian elements are preparing Kherson City for urban combat, while other servicemembers continue to flee the city via the ferry operating in the vicinity of the Antonivsky Bridge.[3] The UK Ministry of Defense reported on October 22 that Russian forces completed construction of a barge bridge alongside the damaged bridge and forecasted that the barge bridge would become a critical crossing point for Russian forces as Ukrainian forces advance toward Kherson City.[4] A large part of the Kherson City population has also reportedly left the city.[5]

Russian forces are preparing a series of delaying actions with mixed efficacy. Russian forces are likely preparing to destroy the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP), flooding and widening the Dnipro River to delay any Ukrainian advances.[6] Russian occupation authorities in Nova Kakhovka are likely attempting to moderate the resultant flooding; Nova Kakhovka Occupation head Vladimir Leontyev said on October 22 that Russian authorities are lowering the volume of water from the reservoir behind the dam to minimize damage in case the KHPP is destroyed but stayed true to the false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, would blow the dam.[7] Ukraine has no interest destroying the dam and every interest in preserving the energy supply in newly-liberated parts of Kherson Oblast. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reiterated that Russian military leadership has moved their officer corps across the river but left newly-mobilized men on the western bank of the Dnipro River as a detachment left in contact.[8] Using such inexperienced forces to conduct a delaying action could prompt a Russian rout if Ukrainian forces choose to press the attack, as ISW previously assessed.[9] One Russian milblogger noted that the situation in Kherson Oblast is dire for Russian troops, noting that it is ”virtually impossible” for Russia to evacuate troops from the first lines of defense and that only two questions remain: how to withdraw the final front line of forces, and how to explain the withdrawal to the Russian population.[10]

Russian occupation authorities ordered the forcible “evacuation” of civilians from Kherson City on October 22. The Russian Kherson Occupation Administration announced that “all citizens of Kherson must immediately leave the city” and said that all civilians and “all departments and ministries of civil administration must now cross over to the [east] bank of the [Dnipro River].”[11] The occupation administration cited the “tense” situation at the front, “increased danger of massive shelling of the city and the threat of terrorist attacks” and provided instructions for where evacuees can find boats to take them across the river. The occupation administration encouraged evacuees to bring clothes, valuables, and documents, indicating that they do not expect a rapid Russian or civilian return to western Kherson. Russian forces expect to leave the city and are therefore likely trying to depopulate parts of the oblast that Ukraine will recapture, damaging the long-term social and economic viability of southern Ukraine. Russian authorities are likely also making initial efforts to evacuate at least those civilians who are willing to cooperate with Russian occupation authorities and would otherwise be in the path of flooding resulting from the blown Kakhovka dam.

Russian forces conducted massive missile and drone attacks to degrade Ukrainian energy infrastructure in nine oblasts on October 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 22 that Russian forces launched 40 missile strikes and 16 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones at Ukrainian infrastructure and that Ukrainian forces shot down 20 Russian cruise missiles and 11 Russian drones.[12] Russian strikes hit Ukrainian energy infrastructure in Volyn, Rivne, Kharkiv, Khmelnytskyi, Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Zaporizhia, Odesa, and Mykolaiv oblasts. Ukrenergo, the Ukrainian state energy company, announced on October 22 that the scale of Russian strikes on October 22 met or exceeded the scale and effect of Russian strikes on October 10-12, which Russian President Vladimir Putin had falsely implied were a discrete response to Ukraine’s October 8 attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge.[13] Instead, Russian forces are likely attempting to degrade Ukraine’s will to fight and to force the Ukrainian government to apply additional resources to protecting civilians and energy infrastructure in lieu of channeling those resources toward Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the east and south.

Ongoing Russian strikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure are extraordinarily unlikely to erode the Ukrainian will to fight but will increasingly pose an economic and humanitarian challenge for Ukraine as temperatures drop. Russian shelling and strikes have damaged approximately 30% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in recent weeks, prompting rolling blackouts across the country, not just along the front lines.[14] Blackouts combined with cold winter weather and damaged civilian buildings will likely increase the suffering of Ukraine’s civilian population this winter. Russia’s campaign of targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure is creating a humanitarian tragedy without meaningfully altering the battlefield situation, and Russian excuses for such strikes are wearing increasingly thin. The Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nevenzya, claimed on October 22 that Russian drones are only hitting civilian targets in Ukraine because Ukrainian defensive fire requires the drones to change course, a bizarre admission of culpability.[15]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to create rifts within the Russian government by publicizing the so-called “Wagner line” of fortifications in northeastern Ukraine, which appears misaligned with Kremlin-led narratives on the course of the war. Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels announced that Russian regional officials paused the extension of the Wagner Line fortifications that run behind the line of contact in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and into Russia’s Belgorod Oblast.[16] Prigozhin accused the Russian bureaucracy—which he characterized as ”bureaucrat-enemies”—of ”directly opposing the interests of the population” and not protecting the Russian population by supporting the construction of the line. The Russian nationalist community has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of failing to defend the Belgorod Oblast border, and Prigozhin may be attempting to amplify their demands. The Kremlin is likely attempting to maintain its limited framing of the war, which will likely continue to upset the nationalist community that is seemingly concerned by the lack of defenses around Belgorod Oblast. Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels previously indicated that there is an ongoing schism within the Kremlin’s power circles between officials that are hesitant to continue the war due to personal interest and those in favor of Russian total victory.[17]

Russian maps show that Prigozhin’s proposed Wagner Line extension would defend the border between Belgorod Oblast and Ukraine’s Sumy, Kharkiv, and Luhansk oblasts, but notably would not cover northern Luhansk Oblast up to the line of contact, placing it at odds with Kremlin promises to defend all of Luhansk.[18] Other maps show that the Luhansk-Donetsk Wagner Line segment will largely only defend the territory of Luhansk Oblast that Russian proxy forces controlled prior to their February 24 full-scale invasion. The line covers some newly occupied settlements like Lysychansk, Zolote, and Popasna, but excludes Kreminna and Severodonetsk.[19] Prigozhin and Wagner commanders are likely preparing to defend the positions they think they can realistically hold, not the present extent of Russian lines or all of the territory the Kremlin claims to have annexed, and are likely not confident in Russia’s ability to defend settlements north of Lysychansk such as Kreminna and Svatove.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces continued large-scale strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. Ongoing strikes are unlikely to erode Ukrainian will to fight but will pose economic and humanitarian challenges throughout the winter.
  • Russian forces continued to withdraw from western Kherson Oblast while preparing for delaying actions that will likely be only partially effective.
  • Occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast ordered civilians to evacuate east on October 21. Evacuations from Kherson City will support likely Russian plans to blow up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Plant (HPP) dam to cover their withdrawal.
  • Prigozhin-led efforts to build a “Wagner Line” of defensive fortifications extend through central Luhansk Oblast and in limited capacity into Belgorod.
  • Prigozhin’s efforts and messaging, including the creation of the “Wagner Line,” are increasingly out of line with Kremlin rhetoric and are critical of what Prigozhin claims are slow-moving “bureaucrat-enemies.” Such activism endears Prigozhin to Russian nationalists, who are dissatisfied with limited Kremlin escalation and MoD disorganization.
  • Russian sources reported Ukrainian counteroffensives in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove on October 22.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks with no confirmed advances to regain lost territory in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk oblasts on October 22.
  • Crimean occupation authorities banned filming of infrastructure and military logistics likely due to continued Ukrainian strikes targeting Russian supply hubs and lines.
  • ISW identified additional reports on October 22 that Russian mobilization has not met force generation goals and will likely continue in alternative forms.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continued to forcibly relocate residents in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine as of October 22.
  • Russian and occupation officials continued to restrict the movement of residents living in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and increase the checkpoint controls as of October 22.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 21

Click here tor ead the full report.

Katherine Lawlor, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 21, 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 withdrawal from western Kherson Oblast has begun. Russian forces likely intend to continue that withdrawal over the next several weeks but may struggle to withdraw in good order if Ukrainian forces choose to attack. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated on October 21 that Russian forces are “quite actively” transferring ammunition, military equipment, and some unspecified units from the Dnipro River’s west bank to the east bank via ferries.[1] The Southern Operational Command added that Russian forces deployed 2,000 mobilized men to hold the frontlines and are continuing to shell Ukrainian positions, likely in an effort to cover their withdrawal.[2] Ukrainian military officials reported that the Russian occupation administration is preparing the evacuation of imported Russian specialists, Ukrainian collaborators, and Kherson’s banking system.[3] Russian occupation administration in Beryslav and humanitarian facilities in Kherson City also reportedly ceased operations.[4]

The Russian withdrawal from western Kherson requires that a Russian detachment left in contact hold the line against Ukrainian attack, covering other Russian forces as they withdraw. Such a detachment must be well-trained, professional, and prepared to die for its compatriots to effectively perform that duty. The deputy chief of the Main Operational Department of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, assessed on October 20 that that Russian military leadership may withdraw “the most combat-capable units” from the west bank part of the region to the east bank of the Dnipro River and leave mobilized soldiers in contact to cover the withdrawal.[5] Russian milbloggers seized on Hromov’s assessment on October 21 and claimed that Ukrainian officials falsely said that elite units like the VDV and marines are being replaced by untrained mobilized men in Kherson.[6] If Hromov’s assessment is correct, then Russian forces would be setting conditions for a Russian withdrawal to become a rout. Russia’s poorly trained, newly mobilized reservists are very unlikely to stand and resist a Ukrainian counterattack if Ukrainian forces chose to attack them and chase the withdrawing forces. The collapse of a mobilized reservist detachment left in contact would likely lead to a Ukrainian rout of Russian forces on the same scale as Ukraine’s rout of Russian forces in Kharkiv.

Russian officials have remained cagey about whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a withdrawal from Kherson and are likely continuing to prepare the information space for such a collapse, as ISW has previously assessed.[7] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dodged a direct question from reporters addressing the likely withdrawal and directed reporters to the Ministry of Defense on October 21.[8] One Russian milblogger noted on October 21 that Russian forces “will receive bad news from Kherson Oblast” in the coming week and that “November will be very, very hard.”[9] A Russian war correspondent told Russian state-controlled television on October 19 that Ukrainian forces outnumber Russian forces by four to one and that "there will be no good news in the next two months, that’s for sure … severe territorial losses are likely in these two months, but defeat in one battle does not mean losing the war.”[10]

Russian forces will likely attempt to blow up the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) to cover their withdrawal and to prevent Ukrainian forces from pursuing Russian forces deeper into Kherson Oblast. Russian forces will almost certainly blame Ukraine for the dam attack, as ISW has previously assessed.[11] Ukraine has no material interest in blowing the dam, which could flood 80 Ukrainian cities and displace hundreds of thousands of people while damaging Ukraine’s already-tenuous electricity supply. Russia, however, has every reason to attempt to provide cover to its retreating forces and to widen the Dnipro River, which Ukrainian forces would need to cross to continue their counteroffensive. Any claims that Russian forces would not blow the dam due to concerns for the water supply to Crimea are absurd. Crimea survived without access to the canal flowing from the Dnipro since Russia illegally invaded and annexed it in 2014 through the restoration of access following Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Russian officials have demonstrated their ability to indefinitely supply Crimea with water without access to the canal. Russian forces will try to hold eastern Kherson Oblast not for the water, but rather to provide a buffer zone that enables the defense of Crimea and prevents Ukrainian forces from getting into artillery range of the peninsula. Russian decisionmakers may believe that blowing the dam will enable them to retain that buffer zone. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on October 21 that blowing the dam could cut water supplies to much of southern Ukraine and would pose a serious risk to the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), which lies upstream of the dam.[12] The ZNPP relies on water from the Kakhovka reservoir to cool its facilities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is setting conditions for Russia to continue a protracted high-intensity conventional war in Ukraine, not a negotiated settlement or off-ramp. The information conditions that the Kremlin has set to enable the Kherson withdrawal, the preparations to blow the dam, and the preparations for additional mobilization and conscription all demonstrate that Putin is not seeking offramps in the near term. Instead, he is setting conditions for improved Russian combat capability over the winter and well into 2023. Putin signed a decree on October 21 creating a Russian government “coordination council” to "strengthen coordination of federal executive branch organs and the federal subjects’ executive branch organs” during the war in Ukraine.[13] The council’s responsibilities include coordinating federal and regional authorities to meet the needs of the Russian military; resolving military supply issues, forming plans to supply the military; defining the volume and direction of the Russian state budget to support the military; and creating working groups on select issues, among other things.[14] Putin’s creation of the coordination council is a continuation of Putin’s October 19 declaration of martial law readiness standards, which the Kremlin seeks to use to expand Russian government authorities as way of further transiting Russia to a wartime footing.[15] A prominent Russian milblogger stated that the creation of this council is overdue and that its creation in spring 2022 would have prevented Russia’s logistics and supply problems from becoming so acute.[16] This milblogger stated that Putin’s creation of the council was a “step in the right direction” nonetheless.[17] It is a step that Putin need not take if he were seeking to wrap the war up soon or were looking for some sort of off-ramp or pause that he expected to end major combat operations. The creation of this new coordinating body instead sets conditions for a high level of mobilization of the Russian state, economy, and society for continued high-intensity conventional military operations for the foreseeable future. Putin continues to show his willingness to pay a high price in domestic discontent to pursue a military resolution of the war he initiated on his terms, showing through his actions a marked disinterest in any serious concessions or ceasefire negotiations that could lead to sustainable peace.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Russian withdrawal from western Kherson Oblast has begun. Russian forces likely intend to continue that withdrawal over the next several weeks but may struggle to withdraw in good order if Ukrainian forces choose to attack.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is demonstrably setting conditions for Russia to continue a protracted war in Ukraine, not for a negotiated settlement or offramp.
  • Russian forces will likely attempt to blow up the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) to cover their withdrawal from Kherson City and to prevent Ukrainian forces from pursuing Russian forces deeper into Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on October 21 creating a Russian government “coordination council” to improve wartime federal coordination.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported fighting northeast of Kharkiv City along the international border, on the Svatove-Kreminna frontline, and west of Lysychansk.
  • Ukrainian military officials offered a limited overview of the situation on the frontline.
  • Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command emphasized that Russian forces are using Ukrainian civilians as human shields when transporting military equipment across the Dnipro River, while Russian sources released footage showing a line of civilians awaiting the ferry from Kherson City.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast and routine fire west of Hulyaipole and in Mykolaiv Oblast.
  • Russian authorities are attempting to maintain the façade of sustainable and strong logistics in southern Ukraine while accelerating measures to compensate for the Kerch Strait Bridge attack.
  • Fissures between regional Russian officials, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and military commissariats, and the Russian civilian population from which mobilization draws will likely intensify in the coming months.
  • Russian authorities are preventing Ukrainians in Russia from leaving Russia with complex residency and permit requirements to cross international borders.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued the mass forced removal of civilians from the west bank of the Dnipro River under the guise of civilian “evacuations.”

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 20

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, Riley Bailey, George Barros, Nicholas Carl, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 20, 7:00pm 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.

Russia is likely continuing to prepare for a false flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on October 20 that Russian forces mined the dam of the Kakhovka HPP and noted that the HPP holds over 18 million cubic meters of water, which would cause massive and rapid flooding of settlements along the Dnipro River, including Kherson City.[1] Zelensky emphasized that the flooding would impact hundreds of thousands of people.[2]  Russian sources, however, continued to accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling the Kakhovka HPP and have widely circulated graphics depicting the flood path in the event of a dam breach.[3] As ISW reported on October 19, Russian sources are likely setting information conditions for Russian forces to blow the dam after they withdraw from western Kherson Oblast and accuse Ukrainian forces of flooding the Dnipro River and surrounding settlements, partially in an attempt to cover their retreat further into eastern Kherson Oblast.[4] Continued Russian preparation for a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka HPP is also likely meant to distract from reports of Russian losses in Kherson Oblast.

Russian forces are likely setting conditions to remove military and occupation elements from the west bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of imminent Ukrainian advances. Kherson City Telegram accounts claimed on October 20 that Russian forces disbanded and looted a fire station in Kherson City and ferried fire trucks, stolen civilian cars, and other miscellaneous household items across the Dnipro River to Hola Prystan.[5] ISW cannot independently confirm those reports. The Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty also reported on October 20 that Russian forces are moving military equipment from the west bank to the east bank of the Dnipro River in the face of recent Ukrainian advances, and posted satellite imagery that shows a Russian cargo ferry traveling across the Dnipro River from Kozatske (west bank) to Nova Kakhovka (east bank).[6] Radio Liberty noted that the ferry is fully loaded when it arrives at Nova Kakhovka and empty when it returns to Kozatske and suggested that this movement has been ongoing since early October.[7] Taken in tandem, these reports indicate that Russian troops are likely deliberately removing large amounts of personnel and equipment from the west bank of the Dnipro River. Russian forces have likely learned, at least in part, from their failures during the panicked Russian retreat from Kharkiv Oblast in the face of a previous Ukrainian counteroffensive. The militarily sensible thing would be to remove men and equipment in good order to avoid another devastating rout. Such a rout in Kherson could trap Russian forces and equipment on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

The White House confirmed on October 20 that Iranian military personnel are in Russian-occupied Crimea, Ukraine, to assist Russian forces in conducting drone attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that “a relatively small number” of Iranian personnel are in Crimea to train Russian personnel in the use of unfamiliar Iranian-made drones.[8] Kirby emphasized that “Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine” and warned that Russia and Iran will continue to lie about their partnership. Russian officials have continued to deny their purchase of Iranian drones, but the existence of the deal is increasingly common knowledge even within Russia. A member of the Russian Ministry of Defense Public Council, Ruslan Pukhov, believed he was not being recorded when he told a Russian television host live on air on October 20 that “we won’t rock the boat too much, so I ask you not to [focus] too much on those Iranian [drones], like that classic story: ‘you have an ass but no word for it.’ We all know that they’re Iranian, but the authorities are not admitting that.”[9] Iranian officials have also denied the sales despite the widespread Russian use of Iranian drones in Ukraine since mid-September, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei boasted on October 19 that ”a few years ago, when pictures of [Iran’s] advanced missiles & drones were published, they said they’re photoshopped pictures! Now they say Iranian drones are dangerous [and ask] why do you sell them to so & so?”[10]

Iran is providing military support to Russian forces in Ukraine despite new international sanctions likely in part because Iranian leaders believe that they need Moscow’s help to upend the US-led global order. The European Union imposed additional sanctions on Iranian officials and the manufacturer of the Shahed-136 drones that Iran has sold to Russia for use in Ukraine on October 20.[11] Senior Iranian officials and state media frequently argue that Tehran must expand strategic relations with Russia and China to cooperate toward countering US global influence.[12] Iranian leaders may worry that a Russian failure in Ukraine would seriously disrupt this vision and possibly threaten Vladimir Putin’s hold on power and, therefore, Iran’s security. Iran could further expand its military support to Russia in the coming months.

The risk of a Russian offensive from Belarus into northern Ukraine remains low despite a prominent Ukrainian official’s October 20 warning that the risk of a Russian offensive from Belarus is “growing.” The deputy chief of the Main Operational Department of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated that the risk of a renewed offensive from Russian forces against northern Ukraine is growing.[13] Hromov stated that Russian forces may attack northwest Ukraine to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines from Western partner countries. Such a course of action remains unlikely in the coming months given that Russian forces lack the capability even to interdict Ukrainian supply lines from the west with a ground offensive. The nearest Ukrainian east-west rail line is 30 km from the Belarusian border, and the Pripet Marshes in northern Ukraine and Belarus make maneuver warfare across the international border in Volyn and Rivne oblasts exceptionally difficult. Ukraine’s road and rail network has sufficient nodes with Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary that a Russian incursion from Belarus could not seriously degrade Ukrainian logistical lines without projecting deeper into Ukraine than Russians did during the Battle of Kyiv, when Russian forces were at their strongest. Those forces are now significantly degraded. A Russian milblogger reiterated on October 20 that the Russian force group in Belarus is too small to threaten Kyiv.[14] White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby reiterated on October 20 that Belarus may concentrate manpower on the border to fix Ukrainian forces in northern Ukraine and prevent their deployment to the active area of operation in southern and eastern Ukraine, as ISW has assessed.[15]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russia is likely continuing to prepare for a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP).
  • Russian forces are likely setting conditions to remove military and occupation elements from the west bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of imminent Ukrainian advances.
  • The White House confirmed on October 20 that Iranian military personnel are in Russian-occupied Crimea, Ukraine to assist Russian forces in conducting drone attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  • Iran is providing military support to Russian forces in Ukraine despite new international sanctions likely in part because Iranian leaders believe that they need Moscow’s help to upend the US-led global order.
  • Iran is providing military support to Russian forces in Ukraine despite new international sanctions likely in part because Iranian leaders believe that they need Moscow’s help to upend the US-led global order.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Russian forces are consolidating limited regained positions in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast on October 20 despite Ukrainian reports that Ukraine has liberated all but 1.8% of Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian sources indicated that Ukrainian troops have advanced in northern Kherson Oblast as Ukrainian forces continued their interdiction campaign.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground assaults in Donetsk Oblast but Russian sources contradicted their own claims on control of Bakhmut. Russian forces are likely continuing to falsify claims of advances in the Bakhmut area to portray themselves as making gains in at least one sector amid continuing losses in northeast and southern Ukraine.
  • Russian regional governments and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continue to blame each other for military administrative failures.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 19

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 19, 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 authorities are likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian retreats and significant territorial losses in Kherson Oblast. Commander of Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin reported during an appearance on Russian television that the Russian military leadership has to make “difficult decisions” regarding Kherson Oblast and accused Ukraine of planning to strike civilian and residential infrastructure in Kherson Oblast.[1] Kherson Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo relatedly noted that his administration is evacuating the west bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of a “large-scale” Ukrainian offensive.[2] Surovikin‘s and Saldo’s statements are likely attempts to set information conditions for a full Russian retreat across the Dnipro River, which would cede Kherson City and other significant territory in Kherson Oblast to advancing Ukrainian troops. Russian military leaders have evidently learned from previous informational and operational failures during the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast and are therefore likely attempting to mitigate the informational and operational consequences of failing to defend against another successful Ukrainian advance.

Russian forces are also setting information conditions to conduct a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP). The Russian military may believe that breaching the dam could cover their retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro River and prevent or delay Ukrainian advances across the river. Surovikin claimed on October 18 that he has received information that Kyiv intends to strike the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP), which he alleged would cause destructive flooding in Kherson Oblast.[3] Saldo echoed this claim and warned that Ukrainian forces intend to strike dams upstream of Kherson City.[4] Russian authorities likely intend these warnings about a purported Ukrainian strike on the Kakhovka HPP to set information conditions for Russian forces to damage the dam and blame Ukraine for the subsequent damage and loss of life, all while using the resulting floods to cover their own retreat further south into Kherson Oblast. The Kremlin could attempt to leverage such a false-flag attack to overshadow the news of a third humiliating retreat for Russian forces, this time from western Kherson. Such an attack would also further the false Russian information operation portraying Ukraine as a terrorist state that deliberately targets civilians.

Russia continues to use the guise of civilian “evacuations” as a cover for the mass forced removal of civilians from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Saldo’s announcement of a mass withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River is likely intended in part to evacuate Russian occupation officials, collaborators, and other occupation organs in anticipation of imminent Ukrainian advances, but Russian officials are likely also using the façade of humanitarian necessity to deport large populations of Ukrainians to Russia, as ISW has previously reported. Russia does not appear to reap any economic benefits from resettling tens of thousands of unwilling Ukrainians in Russia, suggesting that the purpose of such removals is both to damage Ukraine’s long-term economic recovery as it retakes its territory and, more importantly, to support Russia’s ethnic cleansing campaign, which is attempting to eradicate the Ukrainian ethnicity and culture.[5]  The Russians may also intend to press “evacuated” Ukrainians into their armed forces, offsetting the losses and failures of the partial mobilization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s October 19 declaration of martial law readiness is largely legal theater meant to legitimize activities the Russian military needs to undertake or is already undertaking while creating a framework for future mobilization and domestic restrictions.[6] Putin declared varying levels of “martial law readiness” across Russia and in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. These declarations outline four levels of readiness, ranging from “maximum” (full-scale martial law in Russian-occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) to “basic” (across all of Russia).[7]

 

Putin did not formally declare martial law outside of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts, but instead directed areas outside Ukraine to build out the legal framework necessary to support Russian mobilization.[8] Putin’s speech framed the declaration of martial law in four Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine as a continuation of the wartime status quo, adjusted to Russian legal frameworks after Russia’s illegal annexation of those territories.[9] Putin’s decree did not spell out immediate next steps under martial law or elevated readiness levels but granted sweeping emergency powers to regional governors and gave local authorities until October 22 to develop and submit specific proposals for those next steps. Additional information will become apparent as regional governors and law enforcement submit and implement those proposals, which will likely be directed at least in part by the Kremlin but laundered through local authorities. Putin also left himself a path to expand his declarations of martial law, noting that “If necessary, in the Russian Federation during the period of martial law, other measures provided for by the [federal law covering martial law] may be applied.”[10] That language leaves open the door for future declarations and expansions of government authorities.

Putin’s decrees identified several sectors in which the Russian state will be exerting increasing control:

  • In areas of maximum and medium readiness, the decree calls for unspecified “mobilization measures in the economic sphere,” likely to provide economic and industrial support to Putin’s so-called “partial” mobilization of at least 300,000 Russian men.
  • In all areas, the decree makes provisions for government control of transportation and communications infrastructure as well as increased security around government buildings and other critical infrastructure.
  • In areas of maximum application of martial law (Russian-occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk), the decree calls for the establishment of “territorial defense” headquarters with unspecified roles.
  • In areas of medium and elevated readiness, the decree enables regional leaders to take measures for territorial defense and civil defense.
  • In areas of medium readiness, the decree enables governments to forcibly “temporarily resettle” civilians.
  • The decree also includes vague language for each category, authorizing local authorities to “implement measures to meet the needs of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other troops, military formations, bodies and needs of the population.” Such language could be used to legalize almost any government action.
  • In areas of elevated, medium, and maximum readiness, the decree allows for restricting movements of people and vehicles. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Ivanov claimed on October 19 that the government does not currently intend to restrict movement out of the country.[11] However, Putin’s decree would likely provide legal cover for the implementation of such restrictions without passing additional decrees.

These moves closer to full-scale martial law are unsurprising but disordered—a competent modern military should implement economic mobilization, secure lines of transportation, and coordinate territorial defense before or as initial mobilization for war begins, not as follow-on reserve mobilization nears its completion (Putin announced on October 14 that his “partial” mobilization would end by early November).[12] These moves are likely necessary to fulfill basic military requirements, such as feeding, housing, equipping, and transporting mobilized and conscripted troops to the front lines; forcing defense contractors or other private businesses to align with government production requirements; and more easily controlling both the Russian population and the Ukrainian civilian populations in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Putin has slow-rolled his introduction of legal concepts and frameworks like military and economic mobilization, annexation, and martial law to the Russian population since September, attempting to normalize these concepts and limit domestic dissent. Putin likely understands that these measures are unpopular but may be counting on an upswell of fatalistic patriotism as more Russian families and businesses become tied to, and implicated in, the war in Ukraine. By gradually introducing additional measures, he likely also intends to work out likely unsolvable bureaucratic flaws in the Russian system, creating a more competent bureaucracy to implement the autumn conscription cycle (beginning November 1) as well as likely future waves of mobilization.

Putin also may be setting conditions for a less orthodox kind of under-the-radar mobilization: the creation of Ukrainian-style Territorial Defense Forces. Putin ordered local authorities to create a “territorial defense headquarters” in the four occupied Ukrainian oblasts and empowered local governors to undertake unspecified “territorial defense activities” in medium and elevated readiness areas (largely territories that border or are near Ukraine). This preparation likely serves at least two purposes: creating a legal framework for the forcible mobilization of Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied territories, as ISW has forecasted, and at least experimenting with a new kind of Russian military force.[13] Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces played a critical role in the defense of Kyiv and the recapture of other key Ukrainian cities. Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces are composed of a core of veterans and part-time reservists, largely officers, but can be built out by civilian volunteers in wartime who are then led by the officer corps.

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may also be driving Putin toward unconventional methods of continuing the war. Prigozhin announced on October 19 that he sent senior Wagner commander Andrey Bogatov to Belgorod Oblast within the last two weeks to “create a people’s militia.” Prigozhin claimed that Wagner instructors will teach this “people’s militia” to “defend the borders of the oblast.”[14] The term he used for “people’s militia” (narodnoe opolcheniye) has a long history in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union but is essentially an irregular and untrained force that fights behind the frontlines or beside a conventional army. Prigozhin may be attempting to draw upon the historical notion of a people’s militia fighting a great patriotic war to reinvigorate Russian enthusiasm for the invasion of Ukraine, a notion that may appeal to the historically-minded Putin. However, Prigozhin’s proposed Belgorod People’s Militia is not apparently similar to the more structured Territorial Defense Forces and uses different language, suggesting at least rhetorical tension between the Kremlin’s and Prigozhin’s visions.

Prigozhin is also continuing efforts to set himself and Wagner Group forces apart from conventional Russian military elements. The Russian outlet RIA claimed that Wagner engineering units are actively building a fortified “Wagner Line” that runs adjacent to territories in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts.[15] Prigozhin reportedly stated that the construction of the “Wagner Line” is meant to protect other elements of the Russian Armed Forces while Wagner units capture more territory in Donetsk Oblast.[16] Prigozhin’s statements indicate that he is likely continuing to promote Wagner units as superior to conventional Russian Armed Forces in a bid to increase his influence among Kremlin officials. Russian outlet RIA published a supposed map of the “Wagner line” that suggests that Prigozhin and Wagner forces may expect the Russian military to lose considerable territory in Luhansk Oblast, putting Prigozhin’s publicity of the line at odds with the specious Kremlin narrative that Russia will hold all of Luhansk Oblast.[17]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian authorities are likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian retreats and the loss of significant territory in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces are setting information conditions to conduct a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP); the Russian military may believe that breaching the dam could cover their retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro River and prevent or delay Ukrainian advances across the river.
  • Russia continues to use the guise of civilian “evacuations” as a cover for the mass forced removal of civilians from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s October 19 declaration of martial law readiness is largely legal theater meant to legitimize activities the Russian military needs to undertake or is already undertaking while creating a framework for future mobilization and domestic restrictions.
  • Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is continuing efforts to set himself and Wagner Group forces apart from conventional Russian military elements.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited assaults to recapture lost territory in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued to conduct assaults in the Kreminna-Svatove area.
  • Russian sources widely claimed that Ukrainian troops conducted another offensive push in northwestern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a decree on October 19 seeking to address Russian military personnels’ ongoing concerns about timely payments and setting the blame on Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov for future payment issues.
  • The Russian parliament proposed legal measures that would allow Russian authorities to minimize the domestic impacts of partial mobilization in potential future mobilization waves.
  • Russian military officials continued to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian residents of Russian-occupied territories to labor or fight on behalf of the Russian military.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 18

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 18, 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.

Russian forces continued to target critical Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with air, missile, and drone strikes on October 18. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 19 missile strikes and 68 air strikes against over 10 areas, including Kyiv, Zhytomyr City, Kharkiv City, Dnipro City, Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia City, Mykolaiv City, Odesa City, and other areas in Donetsk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv Oblasts.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces targeted unspecified areas with 43 kamikaze drones, 38 of which Ukrainian forces shot down.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces continued to strike Ukrainian infrastructure and military command facilities.[3] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on October 18 that Russian strikes between October 10 and October 18 destroyed 30% of Ukrainian power stations in a likely attempt to demoralize Ukrainian civilians that is unlikely to succeed.[4]

Current and former US officials confirmed to the New York Times on October 18 that members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are in Russian-occupied Crimea to train Russian forces on how to use the Iranian drones they purchased, thereby enabling likely Russian war crimes.[5] ISW had assessed on October 12 that any Iranian personnel in Ukraine were likely IRGC drone trainers.[6] The New York Times reported that it remains unclear whether Iranian trainers are flying the drones themselves, or merely teaching Russian forces how to do so. Russian forces have directed dozens of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones against civilian targets in Ukraine since mid-September, prioritizing creating psychological terror effects on Ukrainian civilians rather than achieving tangible battlefield effects.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unequal implementation of partial mobilization is causing social fractures that are driving the Russian information space to further marginalize ethnic minority communities. As ISW has previously reported, an October 15 shooting at a Belgorod Oblast training ground was likely a natural consequence of the Kremlin’s continued policy of using poor and minority communities to bear the brunt of force generation efforts while protecting ethnic Russians and wealthier Russian citizens.[7] Russian sources blamed that shooting on two ethnically Tajik Russian citizens who had been forcibly mobilized.[8] The Russian information space has largely responded with virulently xenophobic rhetoric against Central Asian migrants and other peripheral social groups. “A Just Russia” Party Chairperson Sergey Mironov posted a long, xenophobic critique of Russia’s migration policy on October 18, claiming that mobilization exposed systemic fractures within the Russian immigration system.[9] Mironov blamed military commissars for allowing people who pose a threat to Russian security into the Russian Armed Forces and accused military commissariats of keeping their doors wide open for individuals from Central Asia. Mironov proposed a moratorium on granting Russian citizenship to citizens of Tajikistan.[10] Mironov’s calls for immigration reform demonstrate the role that partial mobilization has seemingly played in catalyzing ethnic divisions, racism, and xenophobia in the Russian domestic space, especially against ethnic minorities.

Belarus continues to provide its territory and airspace to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine but remains highly unlikely to enter the war on Russia’s behalf. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 18 that Belarus continues to allow Russia to use Belarusian military infrastructure and airspace to launch missile, air, and Shahed-136 drone attacks on Ukraine.[11] Geolocated social media footage shows Russian military hardware moving through Belarus by rail, which is consistent with ISW’s previous assessments that Belarus will continue to engage in the war as a co-belligerent without Belarusian forces directly participating in combat operations.[12] The Russian Armed Forces are almost certainly too degraded to reopen a northern front against Ukraine from Belarusian territory in the coming months. The Ukrainian General Staff also noted that Belarusian Armed Forces are conducting covert mobilization under the guise of training sessions, although mobilization in Belarus is likely an attempt by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to demonstrate his support to Putin rather than a tangible indicator of Belarusian military involvement in Ukraine.[13]

Russian troops conducted a limited ground attack in northern Kharkiv Oblast on October 18, seemingly suggesting that Russian forces may retain territorial aspirations in Kharkiv Oblast despite massive losses during recent Ukrainian counteroffensives. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian troops repelled a Russian attack on Ohirtseve, a settlement 2km south of the international border and about 50km northeast of Kharkiv City.[14] The nature of this limited incursion is unclear, but it may suggest that Russian troops are continuing offensive operations near the border. Considering the current, constantly degrading state of Russian offensive capabilities in Ukraine, Russian troops are very unlikely to make any gains in this area.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces continued to target critical Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with air, missile, and drone strikes.
  • Russian troops conducted a limited ground attack in northern Kharkiv Oblast, seemingly suggesting that Russian forces may retain territorial aspirations in Kharkiv Oblast despite massive losses during recent Ukrainian counteroffensives.
  • Current and former US officials confirmed that members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are in Russian-occupied Crimea to train Russian forces on how to use the Iranian drones they purchased, thereby enabling likely Russian war crimes.
  • Belarus continues to provide its territory and airspace to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine but remains highly unlikely to enter the war on Russia’s behalf.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast to regain lost positions.
  • Russian sources stated that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations across the entire frontline in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) and ammunition depots in central Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian authorities are struggling to cope with their reduced logistics capacity through Crimea following the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge.
  • Russian occupation authorities kidnapped Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) personnel, likely to strengthen physical control over the ZNPP’s operations.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed that mobilization ended on October 17 in Moscow Oblast, and Russian civilians continue to express their dissatisfaction with Russian mobilization.
  • Russian occupation officials are attempting to incentivize Ukrainian citizens under Russian control in northern Kherson Oblast to flee to Russia as Ukrainian forces advance, and occupation authorities may increasingly force Ukrainian civilians to relocate further behind the frontlines or to Russia in the coming days.

 


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 17

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 17, 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.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against residential areas and critical infrastructure throughout Ukraine on October 17. Russian troops struck Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia City, and areas in Vinnytsia, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv Oblasts and launched nine missile strikes and 39 air strikes on October 17.[1] Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat noted that Russian forces launched 43 drones from southern Ukraine, 37 of which Ukrainian troops destroyed and the majority of which were Iranian Shahed-136 drones.[2] Five Shahed-136 drones struck infrastructure in the Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv, including the UkrEnergo (Ukrainian electricity transmission system operator) building.[3]

The October 17 drone attack on residential infrastructure in Kyiv is consistent with the broader pattern of Russian forces prioritizing creating psychological terror effects on Ukraine over achieving tangible battlefield effects. US military analyst Brett Friedman observed on October 17 that a Shahed-136's payload is 88 pounds of explosives, whereas a typical 155mm M795 artillery round carries 23.8 pounds of explosives, which means that one Shahed-136 drone carries about three shells worth of explosive material but without the consistent pattern of fragmentation.[4] Friedman suggested that the five Shahed-136s that struck Kyiv had the effect of 15 artillery shells fired at a very large area.[5] Such strikes can do great damage to civilian infrastructure and kill and wound many people without creating meaningful military effects. This analysis suggests that Russian forces are continuing to use Shahed-136 drones to generate the psychological effects associated with targeting civilian areas instead of attempting to generate asymmetric operational effects by striking legitimate military and frontline targets in a concentrated manner.[6]

A fratricidal altercation between mobilized servicemen at a training ground in Belgorod Oblast on October 15 is likely a consequence of the Kremlin’s continual reliance on ethnic minority communities to bear the burden of mobilization in the Russian Federation. Russian sources reported that the shooting took place after mobilized servicemen from Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and Adyghe complained to their commander that the war in Ukraine is not their war to fight, to which the commander responded that they are fighting a “holy war” and called Allah a “coward,” causing a fight to break out between Muslim and non-Muslim servicemen.[7] Russian sources then claimed that three mobilized Tajik servicemen opened fire at the training ground, killing the commander and both contract and mobilized soldiers.[8] Eyewitnesses claimed that the shooters told Muslim servicemen to stand aside as they opened fire.[9] The Russian information space immediately responded to the incident with racialized rhetoric against Central Asians and called for the introduction of a visa regime in Russia.[10]

Much of the Kremlin’s campaign to avoid general mobilization has fallen along distinct ethnic lines, and ethnic minority enclaves have largely borne the brunt of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s force generation efforts.[11] ISW previously reported on the prevalence of volunteer battalions formed in non-Russian ethnic minority communities, many of which suffered substantial losses upon deployment to Ukraine.[12] This trend continued following Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization, after which authorities continued to deliberately target minority communities to fulfill mobilization orders.[13] ISW also previously noted that the asymmetric distribution of mobilization responsibilities along ethnic lines led to the creation of localized and ethnically based resistance movements, which ISW forecasted could cause domestic ramifications as the war continues.[14] The Belgorod shooting is likely a manifestation of exactly such domestic ramifications. Ethnic minorities that have been targeted and forced into fighting a war defined by Russian imperial goals and shaped by Russian Orthodox nationalism will likely continue to feel alienation, which will create feed-back loops of discontent leading to resistance followed by crackdowns on minority enclaves.

Wagner Group financier Yevheny Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated social media outlets are increasingly commenting on the ineffectiveness of traditional Russian military institutions and societal issues, which may indirectly undermine the Kremlin’s rule. Prigozhin reiterated that only Wagner troops are operating in the Bakhmut direction, seemingly denying the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) claims DNR forces are operating in the area.[15] Prigozhin also emphasized that he fully sponsors all of the equipment for his troops when responding to a question about whether the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) assists Wagner with supplies. Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels published footage in which elements of the 126th Separate Guards Coastal Defense Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet thanked Wagner for providing them with military equipment.[16] ISW had previously reported that the 126th Coastal Defense Brigade issued a video appeal regarding its lack of military equipment on the Kherson frontline.[17] Prigozhin additionally offered a realistic portrayal of the situation in Bakhmut, noting that Ukrainians are unwilling to surrender. Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels commented on the Belgorod training ground shooting incident, noting that a “quiet civil war” is currently ongoing in Russia due to the Russian government’s long-term inability to restrict migration presumably from Central Asian countries.[18]

Prigozhin’s narratives have the ingredients to appeal to the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist constituency that has long called for oligarchs to finance supplies for the armed forces, demanded transparency about what is really going on at the front, and criticized Russian higher military institutions for their failures on the frontlines. While Prigozhin does not directly oppose or criticize Putin, his growing notoriety within the nationalist community may undermine Putin’s “strongman” appeal by comparison. The emerging discussions about a civil war in Russia may further disrupt the Kremlin’s narratives about the national, ethnic, and religious unity within Russia.

Russia is continuing to leverage its relationship with Iran to obtain drones and missiles, likely to compensate for its increasingly attritted missile arsenal. The Washington Post reported on October 16 that Iran will likely supply additional missiles, including the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles, to Russia in addition to Shahed-136, Mohajer-6, and Arash-2 drones.[19] Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani, however, claimed on October 17 that Iran has not provided weapons to “either side,” despite ample reporting by Russian, Iranian, Ukrainian, and Western sources to the contrary.[20] A Russian Telegram channel noted that the recent Russian use of Iranian munitions, particularly the Shahed-136s, is likely reflective of the fact that Russia has nearly exhausted most of its domestic stock of operational-tactical weapons.[21] The channel claimed that Shahed-136s fulfil the role of cruise missiles but allow Russia to circumvent sanctions while maintaining its ability to conduct deep operational strikes.[22]

A Russian Su-34 crashed near an apartment building in Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai on October 17. Russian sources claimed that the Su-34 crashed due to an issue with one of its engines.[23] The Su-34 crashed carrying ammunition that detonated on impact causing a fire that engulfed the nearby apartment building.[24] A Russian source claimed that the crash killed one person and seriously injured three others.[25]

Key Takeaways 

  • Russian forces conducted drone and missiles strikes against residential areas and critical infrastructure facilities throughout Ukraine on October 17.
  • Russian drone strikes against residential areas in Kyiv on October 17 are indicative of Russian forces prioritizing psychological terror over tangible battlefield gains.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin and affiliated Telegram channels are increasingly commenting on the ineffectiveness of traditional Russian military institutions, which may be undermining the Kremlin.
  • A fratricidal altercation between mobilized servicemen at a training ground in Belgorod Oblast on October 15 is likely a consequence of the Kremlin’s continual reliance on ethnic minority communities to bear the burden of mobilization in the Russian Federation.
  • Russia is continuing to leverage its relationship with Iran to obtain drones and missiles, likely to compensate for its increasingly attritted missile arsenal.
  • A Russian Su-34 crashed near a residential building in Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai on October 17.
  • Russian sources continued to discuss potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations northwest of Svatove on October 16 and 17.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian Forces are conducting counteroffensive operations in Kherson Oblast on October 16 and 17.
  • Russian forces conducted ground assaults in Donetsk Oblast on October 16 and 17.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian concentrations of manpower and equipment in Zaporizhia Oblast on October 16 and 17.
  • Russian authorities continued measures to exert full control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Moscow City officials announced the completion of partial mobilization in the city on October 17, likely in an effort to subdue criticism among Moscow residents of reports of illegal mobilization in the city.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continue to promote “vacation” programs to residents of Russian-occupied territories likely as pretext for the deportation of Ukrainian citizens and the resettlement of Russian citizens.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 16

Click here to read the full report

This campaign assessment special edition focuses on the specific parts of Ukrainian territory currently under Russian occupation that are important for the long-term viability of an independent Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are currently conducting a counteroffensive push in Kherson Oblast as of October 16. We will update our maps after information about the new front lines unambiguously enters the open-source environment.

Ukraine must regain certain specific areas currently under Russian occupation to ensure its long-term security and economic viability. Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against a future Russian attack requires liberating most of Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts. Ukraine’s economic health requires liberating the rest of Zaporhizia Oblast and much of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, including at least some territory Russia seized in 2014. Ukraine’s security would be materially enhanced by liberating Crimea, which would also benefit NATO’s ability to secure its southeastern flank.

Ukraine has every right to fight to liberate all the territory Russia has illegally seized, particularly in light of the continued atrocities and ethnic cleansing Russia is perpetrating in the areas it occupies. Kyiv’s insistence on regaining control of Ukrainian territory to the internationally-recognized borders is not an absolutist or extremist demand—it is the normal position of a state defending itself against an unprovoked attack as part of a war of conquest. It is also the default position of the international community under international law, as it should be. Nothing in the following discussion should be construed as supporting any attempt to encourage, let alone coerce, Ukraine to abandon either its claims or its efforts to free all its land and people.

However, Ukraine also requires the liberation of the areas mentioned above for purely strategic military and economic reasons. ISW continues to assess that Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine are unlikely to change whether or not a ceasefire or some other settlement occurs. The Kremlin would use any suspension of hostilities to consolidate its gains and freeze the frontline in the best configuration Putin can get to prepare for future coercion and aggression against Ukraine. Those seeking enduring peace in Ukraine must resist the temptation to freeze the lines of combat short of Ukraine’s international borders in ways that set conditions for renewed conflict on Russia’s terms. The purpose of this brief essay is to consider why specific parts of Ukrainian territory still under Russian occupation are so important for the long-term viability of an independent Ukraine that is not a financial ward of the international community and can effectively defend itself against a renewed Russian invasion.

The Dnipro River is a formidable obstacle for its entire course in Ukraine. Any military would struggle to cross it in the face of prepared defenders. The current Russian lodgment on the west bank in Kherson Oblast is therefore a vital piece of terrain. If a ceasefire or any sort of agreement suspends fighting with the Russians still in possession of that lodgment, the prospects for a renewed Russian offensive in southern Ukraine would be vastly improved. If Ukraine regains control of the entire west bank of the river, on the other hand, the Russians would likely find ground attacks against southwestern Ukraine extraordinarily difficult. The long-term defensibility of Mykolayiv, Odesa, and the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast thus rests in no small part on the liberation of western Kherson.

Parts of Kherson Oblast on the east bank of the Dnipro are also strategically critical, however. The oblast follows the line of the river to its mouth and then juts out into the Black Sea, coming to within about 40 miles of Odesa. The tip of the Kinburn Spit, the northwesternmost point of this part of Kherson Oblast, is less than 2.5 miles from the city of Ochakiv on the west bank of the Dnipro. Russian military positions in these areas allow Russian forces to bring artillery, drone, and missile fire against much of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast from many short-range systems without having to use expensive longer-range capabilities that will always be in shorter supply. These short distances also make the prospect of amphibious operations far more plausible and easier to support by fire than if the Russians had to conduct them from bases in Crimea. Ukraine’s hold on its entire western Black Sea coast will remain tenuous as long as Russia holds territory in southwestern Kherson much further north than the 2014 lines.

Tracing defensible lines requires constantly referring to the roughly 25-kilometer maximum effective range of the 152mm artillery system. All modern armies have ground-based systems with much longer ranges, to be sure. But 152mm guns are relatively easy and inexpensive to mass produce, as are the rounds they fire. They are also effectively impossible to defend against when used at scale. Systems exist that can shoot down individual artillery rounds (as well as missiles and drones), but not that can shoot down thousands of them at a time. The Russians showed how effective massed bombardments by such weapons can be in their seizures of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, where they pounded Ukrainian troops with artillery and enabled relatively weak Russian ground forces to advance. Planners must assume that Ukrainian positions within 25 kilometers of Russian lines may be subjected to massive artillery barrages from the outset of a renewal of hostilities.

Sound military doctrine also teaches that one does not attempt to defend a position by standing on it—reliable defenses must be established well forward of the points or lines that must be held. The Dnipro River should not be Ukraine’s first line of defense, but rather its last. Contested river crossings are very difficult but can be made easier if the attacker can make all preparations right at the river, including establishing protected artillery positions, pre-positioning bridging equipment, amassing necessary supplies, and generally laying in all the infrastructure needed to get across a wide river while the defenders fight back. The river is most reliable as a defense if the Russians must first advance to it and then prepare to cross it while Ukrainian defenders disrupt their efforts.

Ukraine must therefore be able to establish and hold positions on the eastern bank of the river. Those positions cannot be in a narrow strip along the river, however. They must be far enough away from the river that a concerted Russian attack cannot easily throw them back against the river itself—a potentially disastrous position for the defender. They must also be far enough east to keep the Russians out of artillery range (about 25 kilometers) of the west bank to prevent the Russians from bombarding Ukrainian defenders on that bank from the outset of a renewed invasion. The 2014 line of contact north of Crimea was close to the limit of how far Russian forces can be allowed to hold ground in the south without beginning to put the Ukrainian defense of the Dnipro and what lies behind it at risk. The distance from the northwesternmost part of those lines to the river at closest approach is about 70 kilometers, which is far enough to allow Ukraine to establish front-line defenses at the line of contact and then a main defensive area out of tube artillery (152mm) range, from which Ukrainian defenders could retreat some distance if necessary while still keeping the Russians out of artillery range of the river and avoiding finding themselves pressed right up against the river.

Consideration of key terrain in eastern Kherson and western Zaporizhia Oblasts must integrate security and economic concerns because of the location of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) at Enerhodar. The plant provided a significant proportion of Ukraine’s electricity before the 2022 invasion, and its loss would require considerable investment to replace the generating capacity and possibly redesign elements of Ukraine’s electrical grid. The liberation of Enerhodar in a way that allows the plant to come back online is therefore central to containing the costs in time and money of the restoration of Ukraine’s economy, which is in turn central to allowing Ukraine to avoid becoming an expensive ward of the international community.

Russia’s demonstrated irresponsibility toward nuclear facilities in Ukraine also makes restoring the ZNPP to Ukrainian control essential from a security perspective. Russian forces damaged the inactive Chernobyl facilities, kicking up radioactive dust and irradiating themselves in the process. Russian false-flag operations and the use of the ZNPP grounds as a base for conventional military operations show a similarly cavalier attitude toward the dangers of bringing war to a massive nuclear power plant. Allowing Moscow to retain control of the ZNPP puts Ukraine and all Black Sea states at permanent risk of the downstream consequences of Russia’s willingness to play with nuclear fire. The Russians must therefore also be kept out of artillery range of Enerhodar. Taking an approach to calculating required positions similar to the one used above would bring the line required to allow Ukrainian forces to reliably defend the ZNPP about 50 kilometers south of Enerhodar in principle. That line would be about 40 kilometers northwest of Melitopol, the next major geographical feature to consider.

Melitopol is a critical junction of roads that run from the Dnipro around the Nova Kakhovka Dam to the Sea of Azov coast and ultimately Mariupol on the one hand and that run from Crimea north to the city of Zaporizhia on the other. If the Russians retain control of Melitopol and the roads running south and east of it, they can and likely will turn it into a major militarized base from which to launch mechanized attacks across the largely flat steppe land to its north and west. Such a base, which could come to be similar to Belgorod, Russia, in the extent of military facilities and capabilities it houses, would be a permanent threat to the ZNPP, Ukrainian positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River, and the major cities of Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk as well. If Ukraine regains control of Melitopol, on the other hand, the Russians would be confined to Crimea and the narrow and vulnerable road and rail connections across the Perekop Isthmus that separates Crimea from the mainland. Defense against such an attack is far easier than would be a defense against an attack that could use Melitopol as a well-stocked and fully prepared forward base.

Further east the weight of consideration becomes more economic. The Donbas—the area of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts divided by the line of control since 2014—had been a single integrated economic unit for centuries. Its mineral deposits were extracted and sent by rail to the port of Mariupol, on the one hand, and to Ukrainian industries in the west on the other. The 2014 Russian seizure of large parts of Donetsk Oblast disrupted this economic activity to Ukraine’s detriment. Permanently removing the entire Donbas would do far more serious economic damage to Ukraine. The reconstruction of a viable Ukrainian economy that does not require large amounts of long-term international financial assistance requires restoring the Donbas economic region to Kyiv’s control.

The military requirement for that restoration includes the Ukrainian liberation of Mariupol and the road and rail networks north via Volnovakha toward Donetsk City and to the west toward Melitopol and Zaporizhia City. Establishing secure Ukrainian control over Mariupol requires liberating at least some of the land the Russians had seized in 2014. The line of control resulting from that invasion was too close to the city to allow its defenders to avoid encirclement in the face of determined attacks. The same calculations used above regarding 152mm artillery ranges would argue that Ukraine must actually recapture all its land to the internationally recognized border, in fact.

Similar economic arguments hold for the historically industrial cities of Donetsk, Severodonetsk, and Luhansk. In the remaining areas of occupied northeastern Ukraine, the balance of concern shifts primarily to the agricultural sector. Grain plays such a critical part in Ukraine’s economy that one could straightforwardly calculate the cost of each lost hectare and consider the requirements to offset that loss over the long term as part of the price of ceding any of this land to Russia.

Northeastern Ukraine does contain some strategically important areas, however. The towns of Svatove, Starobilsk, and Bilovodsk sit on major road junctions, control of which determines in part which bases in Russia proper the Russians can use to support future attacks in Ukraine directly. Russia has major mechanized bases at Valuiki and Boguchar to the northwest and northeast of Luhansk Oblast. Russian forces have been flowing from their bases around Belgorod via Valuiki into northern Luhansk Oblast on the road that runs to Starobilsk and thence westward via Svatove to Kharkiv Oblast. The railway that runs from just north of Luhansk via Starobilsk to the Russian border is particularly important because Russian forces are heavily dependent on rail to move equipment and supplies. The base at Boguchar can also flow forces into Ukraine along a road that runs through Bilovodsk, however. Allowing Russia to retain control of these key junctions and the road and rail networks on which they sit would give Moscow a significant advantage in building up for a renewed invasion from the northeast.

The Crimean Peninsula, finally, is strategically important for NATO as well as Ukraine. Russian possession of the peninsula allows Russia to base anti-air and anti-shipping missiles 325 kilometers further west than it could using only the territory it legally controls. It lets Russia position aircraft in Sevastopol, about 300 kilometers further west than airbases on the territory of the Russian Federation. These differences matter greatly to the scale and scope of the air and missile threat Russia can pose to NATO’s southeastern flank as well as to Russia’s ability to prepare and support future invasions of Ukraine. Of all the Ukrainian lands NATO should desire Ukraine to regain for NATO’s own interests, Crimea should be at the top of the list. 

Principled legal, moral, and ethical considerations require supporting Ukraine’s efforts to regain its lost lands and people and should not be dismissed. The aim of this essay has been to show that purely military realities and strategic considerations lead to the same conclusion. If Ukraine is to emerge from this war able to defend itself against a future Russian attack and with a viable economy that does not rely on long-term international financial support, it must liberate almost all its territory.

 



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 15

Click here to read the full report

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

October 15, 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.

Russia continues to conduct massive, forced deportations of Ukrainians that likely amount to a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign in addition to apparent violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin stated on October 14 that “several thousand” children from Kherson Oblast are “already in other regions of Russia, resting in rest homes and children’s camps.”[1] As ISW has previously reported, Russian authorities openly admitted to placing children from occupied areas of Ukraine up for adoption with Russian families in a manner that may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[2]

Russian authorities may additionally be engaged in a wider campaign of ethnic cleansing by depopulating Ukrainian territory through deportations and repopulating Ukrainian cities with imported Russian citizens. Ethnic cleansing has not in itself been specified as a crime under international law but has been defined by the United Nations Commission of Experts on violations of humanitarian law committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” and “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”[3] According to the UN definition, ethnic cleansing may be carried out by forcible removal, among other methods.[4] These definitions of ethnic cleansing campaigns are consistent with reports of the forcible deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children, as well as reports by Ukrainian sources that reconstruction projects in Mariupol are intended to house “tens of thousands of Russians” who will move to Mariupol.[5]

Prominent Russian milbloggers who yesterday announced the existence of “hit lists” reportedly originating with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and targeting milbloggers for their coverage of operations in Ukraine walked back their claim on October 15. As ISW reported on October 14, prominent Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov of the WarGonzo Telegram channel accused “individual generals and military commanders” of the Russian MoD of developing a “hitlist” of Russian milbloggers whom the MoD intends to prosecute for “discrediting” the MoD’s handling of the war in Ukraine.[6] Pegov’s claim was amplified by several other milbloggers and generated substantial panic about censorship in the hyper-nationalist Russian information space.[7]

Pegov announced on October 15, however, that “there are no more lists”, and that the issue of lists has been removed from the agenda and congratulated his following and the wider milblogger community for being untouchable in the face of attempted crackdowns.[8] Pegov also reiterated that he has been aware of the list for weeks and knew that administrative and political power structures had already begun working on investigations of individual channels. Pegov claimed that he has learned who the author of the list was and praised his followers and colleagues for supporting him. Other prominent milbloggers amplified Pegov’s statements and stated that milbloggers continue to lead the fight for truth in the information space.

As ISW has previously assessed the announcement of mobilization served as a catalyst for a breakdown in the Russian information space that put the increasingly alienated MoD further at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the cohort of milbloggers that he has periodically supported and empowered.[9] The Russian milblogger community may have strategically weaponized the rumors of MoD hit lists against the MoD itself by exposing the information and appearing to defeat the MoD attacks against it—whether or not they were real in the first place. The discourse surrounding the existence of these lists indicates continued structural fractures between the MoD establishment, the milbloggers, and the Kremlin.

The Wagner Group Private Military Company is likely continuing efforts to assert its supremacy over the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and conventional Russian ground forces. A video posted to social media on October 13 shows servicemen of the 126th Coastal Defense Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet in an unspecified location in Kherson Oblast complaining that they have been fighting in the area since the beginning of the war without breaks or troop rotation.[10] The servicemen asserted that they are being “crushed” by Ukrainian forces and emphasized that they have one BTR (armored personnel carrier) for 80 people, which is greatly restricting their maneuverability.[11] After the video circulated, a Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram channel announced on October 14 that Wagner Group leadership decided to transfer four off-road vehicles to the 126th Coastal Defense Battalion in support of their efforts to hold the frontline in Kherson Oblast.[12] This exchange is noteworthy in light of ISW’s previous assessment that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is actively attempting to curry favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin and set Wagner Group forces apart from conventional MoD forces.[13] The move to donate basic equipment to a detachment of conventional Russian ground forces may be an implicit critique of the MoD’s apparent inability to provide such necessities to its own soldiers.

Russia may have signed a new contract with Iran for the supply of Arash-2 drones. Ukrainian and Russian Telegram channels reported “leaked” information from unspecified Iranian sources that Russia has purchased an unknown number of Arash-2 drones, which are purportedly faster and more destructive than the Shahed-136 drones that are currently in use by Russian forces.[14]  Commander of the Iranian Ground Forces Brigadier General Kiomars Heydari previously claimed in early September that the Arash-2 drones have unique long-range capabilities and could target cities in Israel such as Tel Aviv and Haifa from bases in Iran.[15] Reports that Moscow is continuing to rely on Tehran for destructive munitions are consistent with a report from the US Treasury Department that suggests Russia is rapidly expending its supply of microelectronics that are critical for the military-industrial complex because it cannot replace key components unavailable because of sanctions.[16] Russia will likely continue to leverage its relationship with Iran to circumvent sanctions, although it is very unlikely that Russian forces will use the Arash-2 to any greater effect than they have used the Shahed-136 model.[17]

Key Takeaways

  • Russia is conducting forced deportation of Ukrainians that likely amount to a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign in addition to apparent violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
  • Prominent Russian milbloggers who yesterday announced the existence of “hit lists” reportedly originating with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and targeting milbloggers for their coverage of operations in Ukraine walked back their claim on October 15.
  • The Wagner Group Private Military Company is likely continuing efforts to assert its supremacy over the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and more conventional Russian ground forces.
  • Russia may have signed a new contract with Iran for the supply of Arash-2 drones.
  • Russian forces continued counterattacks west of Kreminna.
  • Russian milbloggers widely discussed the likelihood of a Ukrainian counteroffensive on Kreminna and Svatove.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops launched a general counteroffensive in northern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces likely struck Russian military assets situated along Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Zaporizhia Oblast and southern Donetsk Oblast.
  • Mobilized Russian forces engaged in a fratricidal altercation at a training ground in Belgorod Oblast.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continued to enact restrictions on movement and conduct strict law enforcement activities in Russian-occupied territories

 



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 14

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 14, 7:00 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 likely attempted to make a virtue of necessity by announcing that his “partial” mobilization will end in “about two weeks”—the same time the postponed fall conscription cycle is set to begin. Putin told reporters on October 14 that “nothing additional is planned” and that "partial mobilization is almost over."[1] As ISW previously reported, Putin announced the postponement of Russia’s usual autumn conscription cycle from October 1 to November 1 on September 30, likely because Russia’s partial mobilization is taxing the bureaucracy of the Russian military commissariats that oversee the semiannual conscription cycle.[2] Putin therefore likely needs to pause or end his partial mobilization to free up bureaucratic resources for conscription. Putin ordered the conscription of 120,000 men for the autumn cycle, 7,000 fewer than in autumn 2021. However, Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukraine changes the calculus for conscripts. Russian law generally prohibits the deployment of conscripts abroad. Russian law now considers Russian-occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts to be Russian territory, however, ostensibly legalizing the use of conscripts on the front lines.

Putin may intend for mobilized personnel to plug gaps in Russia’s frontlines long enough for the autumn conscripts to receive some training and form additional units to improve Russian combat power in 2023. Putin confirmed on October 14 that mobilized personnel are receiving little training before they are sent to the frontlines. Putin announced that of the 220,000 people who have been mobilized since his September 21 order, 35,000 are already in Russian military units and 16,000 are already in units “involved in combat missions.”[3] Putin also outlined the training these mobilized forces allegedly receive: 5-10 days of “initial training,” 5-15 days of training with combat units, “then the next stage is already directly in the troops taking part in hostilities.” This statement corroborates dozens of anecdotal reports from Russian outlets, milbloggers, and mobilized personnel of untrained, unequipped, and utterly unprepared men being rushed to the frontlines, where some have already surrendered to Ukrainian forces and others have been killed.[4] Even the 10 days of training that mobilized personnel may receive likely does not consist of actual combat preparation for most units; anecdotal reports suggest that men in some units wandered around training grounds without commanding officers, food, or shelter for several days before being shipped to Ukraine.[5] Many would-be trainers and officers were likely injured or killed in Ukraine before mobilization began.[6] Russian training grounds are also likely understaffed, a problem that will likely persist into the autumn conscription cycle. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 14 that Russian military officials in Krasnodar Krai suspended sending mobilized persons to the training grounds in Primorsko-Akhtarsk until November 1 because Russian training grounds are not ready to accommodate, train or comprehensively provide for a large number of personnel.[7]

Ukrainian and Western officials continue to reiterate that they have observed no indicators of preparations for a Belarusian invasion of Ukraine, despite alarmist reports in the Belarusian information space that President Alexander Lukashenko has introduced a “counter-terrorist operation” regime.[8] Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gave an interview to Russian outlet Izvestia on October 14 wherein he claimed that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko introduced a ”counter-terrorist operation regime” after a meeting with several law enforcement agencies.[9] Makei cited concern that unspecified neighboring states were planning provocations related to seizure of areas of Belarusian territory.[10] This claim was amplified by several Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian sources, who claimed that as part of the ”counter-terrorist operation regime,” Lukashenko began deploying groups of Belarusian forces supplemented by Russian troops.[11] Belarusian opposition outlet Nasha Niva claimed that as part of this regime, Belarusian forces are conducting covert mobilization under the guise of combat readiness checks.[12] However, Lukashenko emphasized in a comment to the press that there has been no introduction of a ”counter-terrorist operation regime” and that he has instead introduced a ”regime of a heightened terrorist threat.”[13]

Despite the contradicting claims of an escalated preparatory regime in Belarus, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told Voice of America that there are no indicators that Belarusian troops are preparing to enter Ukraine.[14] ISW continues to assess that joint Belarusian and Russian forces will not invade Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. Russian forces continue to attrit their own combat capabilities as they impale themselves on attempts to capture tiny villages in Donbas and simply do not have the combat-effective mechanized troops available to supplement a Belarusian incursion into northern Ukraine and certainly not to conduct a mechanized drive on Kyiv. As ISW has previously reported, Lukashenko remains unlikely to enter the war on Russia’s behalf due to the domestic risks this would pose for the continued viability of his regime, as well as the low quality of Belarusian Armed Forces.[15] Russian President Vladimir Putin is more likely weaponizing concerns over Belarusian involvement in the war to pin Ukrainian troops against the northern Ukraine-Belarus border.

Russian authorities are continuing to engage in “Russification” social programming schemes that target Ukrainian children. A local news outlet from Russia’s Novosibirsk Oblast reported on October 13 that 24 orphans from Luhansk Oblast arrived in Novosibirsk for placement with Russian foster families.[16] Ukrainian Mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov similarly reported that Russian occupation authorities in Melitopol and other occupied regions are deporting Ukrainian children to Russian-occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Tula and Volgograd Oblasts under the guise of “children’s trips” and “further education” programs.[17] As ISW has previously reported, such forced deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia and Russian-occupied territory may constitute violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[18] Occupation authorities in Russian-occupied Mariupol are also reportedly pressuring Ukrainian teenagers to join the “Youth Guard,” a children’s paramilitary organization that encourages anti-Ukrainian sentiments. Mariupol Mayoral Advisor Petro Andryushchenko reported on October 14 that uniformed members of the Youth Guard visited a Ukrainian school and gave children one week to consider joining the group.[19] The coerced engagement of Ukrainian children in youth militarization programs fits into wider Russification schemes intended to erase Ukrainian identity in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on October 14 that there is currently no additional need for further massive strikes against Ukraine. Putin claimed that Russian forces struck 22 of their 29 intended targets and that there are now unspecified “other tasks” for Russian forces to accomplish.[20] Putin’s statement was likely aimed at mitigating informational backlash among pro-war milbloggers who oppose curtailing the costly missile campaign; Russian milbloggers had largely praised the resumption of strikes against Ukrainian cities but warned that a short campaign would be ineffective. Putin’s statement supports ISW’s previous assessment that Putin knew he would not be able to sustain high-intensity missiles strikes for a long time due to a dwindling arsenal of high-precision missiles.[21] Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov claimed on October 14 that Russian forces have 609 high-precision missiles left from the pre-war stockpile of 1,844.[22] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces continued cruise missile, aviation, kamikaze drone, and anti-aircraft missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in Kyiv Oblast, Zaporizhzhia City, Mykolaiv City, and other areas in Mykolaiv Oblast on October 14.[23] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on October 14 that Russian forces targeted Ukrainian command and control elements and energy infrastructure in Kyiv and Kharkiv oblasts with sea-based missiles.[24] These reports demonstrate a lower tempo of strikes than the 84 cruise missile strikes reported on October 10.[25]

A prominent Russian milblogger accused unspecified senior officials within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of preparing to censor Russian milbloggers on October 14. Prominent Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov (employed by Telegram channel WarGonzo) accused “individual generals and military commanders” of developing a “hitlist” of Russian milbloggers that the MoD seeks to criminally prosecute for “discrediting” the Russian MoD’s activity and the Russian special military operation in Ukraine.[26] Russian news aggregator Mash reported on October 14 that Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov personally signed an order instructing Russian state media censor Roskomnadzor to investigate prominent Russian milbloggers Igor Girkin (also known as Igor Strelkov), Semyon Pegov (WarGonzo), Yuri Podolyaka, Vladlen Tatarsky, Sergey Mardan, Igor Dimitriev, Kristina Potupchik, and authors of the Telegram channels GreyZone and Rybar. Unspecified Russian authorities detained the manager of several milblogger Telegram channels linked to Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on October 5.[27] Moscow police previously arrested and released Pegov under unusual circumstances (reportedly for drunkenly threatening a hotel administrator) in Moscow on September 2.[28]  The situation will likely become clearer in the coming days. A key indicator for the status of a crackdown on Russian milbloggers will be any status update from former Russian militant commander and nationalist milblogger Igor Girkin. Girkin has not posted since October 10—a significant change in his behavior given that he usually posts multiple times daily.[29]

There has been no official confirmation of an investigation or prosecution of these milbloggers as of October 14. Senior Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan responded to Pegov’s claim on October 14 and implied that prosecuting military bloggers is not only a bad idea but impossible to implement.[30] Many milbloggers expressed outrage at the prospect that elements of the Russian government would seek to censor ardent patriots who seek to hold the MoD accountable and expressed hopes that ”rumors” about the milblogger hitlist are untrue.[31] The interests of the Kremlin do not intrinsically align with the MoD in this situation: Putin has overtly courted the support of the milblogger community in recent months, as ISW has extensively covered, and has used the milbloggers to frame senior MoD officials and the MoD as a whole as possible scapegoats for military failures in Ukraine.[32] Nor did the milbloggers blame the Kremlin for the alleged hitlist; Pegov emphasized that this sort of alleged censorship was likely not Putin’s intention when he opened dialogue with milbloggers in June and called for reporters and journalists to tell the truth about the “special military operation.”[33]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his “partial” mobilization will end in “about two weeks”—likely to free up bureaucratic bandwidth for the normal autumn conscription cycle that will begin on November 1.
  • Putin may intend for mobilized personnel to plug gaps in Russia’s frontlines long enough for the autumn conscripts to receive some training and form additional units to improve Russian combat power in 2023.
  • Ukrainian and Western officials continue to reiterate that they have observed no indicators of preparations for a Belarusian invasion of Ukraine, despite alarmist reports in the Belarusian information space that President Alexander Lukashenko has introduced a “counter-terrorist operation” regime.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on October 14 that there is currently no additional need for further massive strikes against Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities are continuing to engage in “Russification” social programming schemes that target Ukrainian children.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger accused unspecified senior officials within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of preparing to censor Russian milbloggers on October 14, but there is no official confirmation of an investigation or prosecution of these milbloggers.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces are conducting counteroffensive operations in northeast Kharkiv Oblast east of Kupyansk.
  • Russian troops conducted limited ground attacks west of Kreminna in order to regain lost positions.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in northwestern Kherson Oblast in order to regain lost positions.
  • Russian troops continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities expressed increasing concern over Ukrainian strikes against Russian rear logistics lines in southern Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian occupation authorities are continuing to consolidate control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) through strengthened security measures amid negotiations to establish a nuclear safety and protective zone at the plant.
  • Russian officials continued to brand their movement of populations out of Kherson Oblast as recreational “humanitarian trips” rather than evacuations.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 13

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 13, 9:15 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.

Public reports of the first deaths of ill-prepared mobilized Russian troops in Ukraine have sparked renewed criticism of the Russian military command. Russian media reported that five mobilized men from Chelyabinsk have already died in combat in Ukraine just three weeks after President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of partial mobilization on September 21.[1] The report led many pro-war milbloggers to claim that the number of dead and wounded among mobilized servicemen is likely higher than this due to lack of promised training, equipment, unit cohesion, and commanders, as well as repeated instances of wrongful mobilization.

Russian milbloggers claimed that Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District (SMD), Mikhail Zusko, ordered the immediate deployment without any pre-combat training of newly mobilized servicemen of the 15th Regiment of the 27th Motor Rifle Brigade from Moscow City and Moscow Oblast to the collapsing frontline around Svatove around October 2nd and 3rd.[2] Ukrainian outlets had previously reported that the Kremlin has arrested Zusko due to combat losses, and it is unclear why an SMD commander would issue orders pertaining to a unit within the Western Military District (WMD).[3] Milbloggers noted that relatives found half of the 15th Regiment personnel wounded in a Belgorod Oblast hospital after the unit got caught in heavy artillery fire when attempting to reach the Svatove frontline. Milbloggers noted that the regiment had no orders, military command supervision, signal, or supplies, and that the other half of its personnel is still at the Svatove frontline. Another milblogger noted witnessing the coffins of mobilized men arrive in Chelaybinsk, Moscow, and Yekaterenburg, and claimed that many mobilized men are surrendering to Ukrainian forces.[4] One Russian milblogger complained on October 13 that newly mobilized men are being deployed in a haphazard way that will lead to 10,000 deaths and 40,000 injuries among them by February 2023.[5]

Russian mobilization structures are continuing to face bureaucratic challenges, which may further undermine the combat effectiveness of mobilized personnel. Milbloggers claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) did not set proper conditions to integrate and monitor the deployment of mobilized men at the frontlines.[6] Russian military units reportedly disperse mobilized men among different units without keeping proper records of their deployed locations on the frontlines, causing families to complain to military leadership. Russian military officials are also continuing to assign men with previous military experience to units that do not match their expertise. One milblogger even warned that Russian MoD’s inability to properly update families of the whereabouts of their relatives will lead mothers and wives to form human rights groups that “will break Russia from within.”[7]

ISW cannot independently verify milblogger claims, but the community has been proactive in highlighting the Kremlin’s mobilization since the day of its declaration in hopes of improving the prospects of the Russian war in Ukraine.[8] ISW has also previously reported on a video of mobilized men from Moscow Oblast in Svatove who complained about their lack of equipment and deployment to the frontlines without proper training, which corroborates some milblogger reports.[9] The persistence of such complaints supports ISW’s assessment that the mobilization campaign will not produce enough combat-ready Russian personnel to affect the course of the war in the short term. The Kremlin’s rapid deployment of mobilized servicemen to the Kreminna-Svatove line may also indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to throw away the lives of mobilized men in a desperate effort to preserve a collapsing frontline.

The Kremlin continues to struggle to message itself out of the reality of mobilization and military failures. The Kremlin continued its general pattern of temporarily appeasing the nationalist communities by conducting retaliatory missile strikes on Ukraine in an effort to deflect from persistent mobilization problems. Renewed milblogger critiques about mobilization again show how ephemeral the Kremlin’s successes are at deflecting attention from them. The nationalist community resumed its calls on the Kremlin to replace senior officials and commanders and declare war, which some had anticipated would be the Kremlin’s response to the Kerch Strait Bridge explosions, broken mobilization process, and loss of most of Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman.[10] The Kremlin remains trapped in a cycle of appeasing its pro-war constituencies but retaining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a limited war in Ukraine that is incompatible with their demands and expectations.

Russian forces continued to launch strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure on October 13. Ukraine’s Western Air Command noted that Russian forces launched Kalibr cruise missiles at infrastructure in western Ukraine, four of which Ukrainian troops destroyed.[11] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops launched missile strikes on critical infrastructure and civilian objects in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv Oblasts throughout the day on October 13.[12] Ukrainian military sources also reported that Russian troops continued drone attacks all over Ukraine, and that Ukrainian troops shot down four drones over Vinnytsia and Cherkassy on October 12.[13] Social media footage additionally shows explosions in Rivne, Ternopil, Lviv, Chernivitsi Oblasts following the activation of Ukrainian air defense systems.[14]

Russian forces are likely continuing to use Iranian Shahed-136 drones to support massive strike campaigns against critical Ukrainian infrastructure due to their low efficacy in active combat situations. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command Spokesperson, Nataliya Humenyuk, claimed on October 13 that Russian forces are employing Shahed-136s primarily to strike buildings and infrastructure because the drones have limited efficacy against troop concentrations.[15]  Humenyuk cited various sources who stated that Russia has received between 300 to several thousand Shahed-136s and is using them in areas as far away as 1,000km from the launch point, which is why Shahed-136 use has been densely concentrated around southern Ukraine.[16] Russian forces are also increasingly trying to launch the drones from the northern border area. Humenyuk’s statement, and the pattern of recent Shahed-136 strikes against infrastructure in Ukrainian rear areas, supports ISW’s previous assessment that Shahed-136s will not generate asymmetric effects for Russian forces because they are not being used to strike areas of critical military significance in a way that directly influences the frontline.[17]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is likely continuing efforts to distinguish himself and Wagner Group forces from more conventional Russian and proxy troops. Prigozhin emphasized in a comment to Russian outlet RIA FAN that Wagner Group forces singlehandedly took control of Ivanhrad, a settlement just south of Bakhmut, on October 13.[18] However, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Territorial Defense Force claimed that Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and DNR joint forces took control of Ivanhrad and the nearby settlement of Opytne, apparently contradicting Prigozhin’s statement that “not a single person from other units, except for employees of the Wagner Private Military Company” was in Ivanhrad at the time of its capture.[19] Prigozhin additionally rebutted the claim that Russian forces have taken Opytne and stated that fierce fighting is ongoing on its outskirts.[20] The disconnect between Prigozhin’s and the DNR Territorial Defense’s claims, as well as Prigozhin’s apparent desire to have Wagner Group fighters receive sole credit for the capture of Ivanhrad, is consistent with ISW’s previous observations that Prigozhin is jockeying for more prominence against the backdrop of his recent harsh critiques of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) establishment.[21]

Increasingly degraded morale, discipline, and combat capabilities among Russian troops in combat zones in Ukraine may be leading to temporary suspensions in offensive operations in limited areas. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that, particularly in Donetsk Oblast, certain Russian units are receiving orders from commanders to temporarily halt offensive operations due to extremely low morale, psychological conditions, high rates of desertion, and non-execution of combat orders.[22] The General Staff statement is likely a reflection of the fact that Russian detachments are becoming increasingly degraded as they impale themselves on relatively small and insignificant settlements throughout Donetsk Oblast, especially around Bakhmut and the Donetsk City area. As these units become more degraded, they are likely reconstituted ad hoc with disparate combat elements, which leads to further demoralization and incoherence in the conduct of offensive operations. However, the apparent suspension of offensive operations in areas of Donetsk Oblast, nearly the only areas in Ukraine where Russian troops are engaged in offensive operations, will further complicate Russian efforts to take additional territory and likely further contribute to poor morale and overall attrition of combat capabilities.

Key Takeaways

  • Public reports of the first deaths of ill-prepared mobilized Russian troops in Ukraine have sparked renewed criticism of the Russian military command.
  • Russian forces continued to launch strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure on October 13.
  • Increasingly degraded morale, discipline, and combat capabilities among Russian troops in combat zones in Ukraine may be leading to temporary suspensions in offensive operations in limited areas.
  • Ukrainian forces made gains northwest of Svatove.
  • Russian forces are continuing defensive operations in anticipation of potential Ukrainian attacks towards Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Russian troops are attempting to recapture positions in northern and northwestern Kherson Oblast.
  • Damage to the Kerch Strait Bridge continues to impede the movement of Russian supplies and personnel to southern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast and claimed to make marginal advances south of Bakhmut.
  • Russian incompetence continues to take its toll on mobilized personnel before they ever reach the front lines, likely exacerbating already-low morale.
  • Russian officials are likely increasingly limiting freedom of movement in Russia to preserve additional mobilizable populations and prevent them from fleeing the country.
  • Russian occupation officials called for the evacuation of civilians from occupied Kherson Oblast.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 12

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 12, 7:45pm 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.

Russia has seemingly intensified its information operation to falsely portray Ukraine as a terrorist state, likely to set information conditions to counter efforts to designate Russia as a terrorist state. Several Russian sources made unverified claims that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers detained Ukrainian citizens for allegedly planning “terrorist attacks” in Sverdlovsk, Moscow, and Bryansk oblasts on October 12.[1] Russian milbloggers relatedly amplified rhetoric accusing Ukraine of being a terrorist state and calling for Russian authorities to enhance “counterintelligence” procedures and formally designate Ukraine as a terrorist state.[2] Claims of preparations for alleged and subversive Ukrainian activity in Russia align with a wider attempt to set information conditions to respond to Ukrainian attempts to formally designate Russia a terrorist state, especially in the wake of recent massive attacks on critical Ukrainian infrastructure and residential areas. The Russian information space may also be setting conditions to justify further massive strikes on Ukrainian rear areas; although, as ISW has previously assessed, these tactics are part of the Russian way of war and will likely be utilized regardless of informational conditions.[3]  Russian authorities may also be setting conditions for false-flag attacks against Russia framed as Ukrainian-perpetrated acts of terrorism.

Russian forces may have brought Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated personnel to occupied areas in Ukraine to train Russian troops in the use of Shahed-136 drones. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on October 12 that Russian forces brought an unspecified number of Iranian instructors to Dzankoi in Crimea and Zalizniy Port and Hladivtsi in Kherson Oblast to teach Russian forces how to use Shahed-136 attack drones.[4] The Resistance Center stated that the Iranian instructors directly control the launch of drones on civilian targets in Ukraine, including in Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts.[5] The IRGC is notably the primary operator of Iran‘s drone inventory, so these Iranian instructors are likely IRGC or IRGC-affiliated personnel.[6]

Key Takeaways

  • Russia is intensifying efforts to set information conditions to falsely portray Ukraine as a terrorist state to deflect recent calls to designate Russia as a terrorist state.
  • Russian forces may have imported Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated personnel to occupied areas in Ukraine to train Russian troops in the use of Shahed-136 drones.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops continued counteroffensive operations toward Svatove and Kreminna. Russian forces are continuing defensive operations in this area.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces are conducting ground attacks in northwestern and western Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces are likely reinforcing the frontline in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian military continues to face problems equipping individual Russian soldiers with basic personal equipment.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continue to employ coercive measures against residents in Russian-occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 11

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 11, 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.

Russian forces conducted massive missile strikes across Ukraine for the second day in a row on October 11. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Russian forces fired nearly 30 Kh-101 and Kh-55 cruise missiles from Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers and damaged critical infrastructure in Lviv, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts.[1] Ukrainian air defense reportedly destroyed 21 cruise missiles and 11 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).[2] Social media footage shows the aftermath of strikes throughout Ukraine.[3] Russian forces additionally continued to launch attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure with Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.[4] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defense destroyed eight Shahed-136 drones in Mykolaiv Oblast on the night of October 10 and 11.[5]

Army General Sergey Surovikin’s previous experience as commander of Russian Armed Forces in Syria likely does not explain the massive wave of missile strikes across Ukraine over the past few days, nor does it signal a change in the trajectory of Russian capabilities or strategy in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative, Andriy Yusov, linked the recent strikes to Surovikin’s appointment as theatre commander and stated on October 11 that “throwing rockets at civilian infrastructure objects” is consistent with Surovikin’s tactics in Syria.[6] However, Surovikin has been serving in Ukraine (as the Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces and then reportedly of the southern grouping of Russian forces) since the beginning of the war, as have many senior Russian commanders similarly associated with Russian operations in Syria.[7] Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, who was appointed in April to the role that Surovikin now holds, similarly commanded Russian forces in Syria between 2015-2016 and became known for deliberately and brutally targeting civilians.[8] Colonel General Aleksandr Chayko, the former commander of the Eastern Military District who took an active part in the first stages of the war in Ukraine, also served as Chief of Staff of Russian forces in Syria from 2015 and into 2016.[9] As ISW noted in April, all Russian military district, aerospace, and airborne commanders served at least one tour in Syria as either chief of staff or commander of Russian forces, and Russian forces deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure including hospitals and breadlines throughout the period of Russia’s active engagement in that war.[10] Disregard for international law and an enthusiasm for brutalizing civilian populations was standard operating procedure for Russian forces in Syria before, during, and after Surovikin’s tenure.  It has become part of the Russian way of war.

Surovikin’s appointment will not lead to further “Syrianization” of Russian operations in Ukraine because the battlespace in Ukraine is fundamentally different from the battlespace in Syria, and direct comparisons to Surovikin’s Syrian “playbook” obfuscate the fact that Russia faces very different challenges in Ukraine. Russia cannot further “Syrianize” the war largely because of its failure to gain air superiority, which precludes its ability to launch the kind of massive carpet-bombing campaigns across Ukraine that it could, and did, conduct in Syria. ISW has previously assessed that Russian air operations would have been markedly different if conducted in contested airspace or a more challenging air-defense environment, as is the case in Ukraine.[11] It is therefore highly unlikely that Surovikin’s role as theatre commander will cause a fundamental change in Russian air and missile operations in Ukraine as long as Ukraine’s Western backers continue to supply Kyiv with the air defenses needed to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority.

Russian military officials may instead have coordinated Surovikin’s appointment and the October 10 cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure to rehabilitate the perception of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Whoever was appointed as theatre commander would have overseen the October 10 cruise missile strikes, which Ukrainian intelligence reported had been planned as early as October 2 (and which Surovikin certainly did not plan, prepare for, and conduct on the day of his appointment).[12] Russian milbloggers have recently lauded both the massive wave of strikes on October 10 and Surovikin’s appointment and correlated the two as positive developments for Russian operations in Ukraine. This narrative may be aligned with ongoing Russian information operations to rehabilitate the reputation of Central Military District Command Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin following Russian failures around Lyman as part of a wider campaign to bolster public opinion of the Russian military establishment. The Russian MoD is evidently invested in repairing its public image, and the informational effects of the October 10 missile strikes and the appointment of Surovikin, a hero in the extremist nationalist Russian information space, are likely intended to cater to the most vocal voices in that space.

The Russian Federation is likely extracting ammunition and other materiel from Belarusian storage bases—activity that is incompatible with setting conditions for a large-scale Russian or Belarusian ground attack against Ukraine from Belarus. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on October 11 that a train with 492 tons of ammunition from the Belarusian 43rd Missile and Ammunition Storage Arsenal in Gomel arrived at the Kirovskaya Railway Station in Crimea on an unspecified recent past date.[13] The GUR reported that Belarusian officials plan to send an additional 13 trains with weapons, equipment, ammunition, and other unspecified materiel from five different Belarusian bases to the Kamenska (Kamensk-Shakhtinsky) and Marchevo (Taganrog) railway stations in Rostov Oblast on an unspecified future date. Open-source social media footage supports this report. Geolocated footage showed at least two Belarusian trains transporting Belarusian T-72 tanks and Ural military trucks in Minsk and Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile launchers in Orsha (Vitebsk Oblast) on October 11.[14] Belarusian equipment movements into Russia indicate that Russian and Belarusian forces likely are not establishing assembly areas in Belarus. Belarusian equipment and supply movements to Crimea and Rostov Oblast indicate that Russian forces are less confident about the security of Russian ground lines of communication running through northern and western Luhansk Oblast given the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there. Ukraine’s General Staff reiterated that it monitors Belarus and has not observed indicators of the formation of offensive groups in Belarus on October 11.[15] Russian and or Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine from Belarus, as ISW has previously assessed.[16]

Belarus remains a co-belligerent in Russia’s war against Ukraine, nonetheless. Belarus materially supports Russian offensives in Ukraine and provides Russian forces with havens from which to attack Ukraine with precision munitions. Russian forces struck Kyiv with Shahed-136 drones launched from Belarusian territory on October 10.[17] The GUR additionally reported that Russia deployed 32 Shahed-136 drones to Belarus as of October 10 and that Russia will deploy eight more to Belarus by October 14.[18]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted massive missile strikes across Ukraine for the second day in a row.
  • Army General Sergey Surovikin’s previous experience as commander of Russian Armed Forces in Syria is likely unrelated to the massive wave of missile strikes across Ukraine over the past few days, nor does it signal a change in the trajectory of Russian capabilities or strategy in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Federation is likely extracting ammunition and other materiel from Belarusian storage bases, which is incompatible with the notion that Russian forces are setting conditions for a ground attack against Ukraine from Belarus.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensives east of the Oskil River and in the direction of Kreminna-Svatove.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops continued ground attacks in northern and western Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces are continuing an interdiction campaign to target Russian military, technical, and logistics assets and concentration areas in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground assaults in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian reporting of explosions in Dzhankoy, Crimea, indicated panic over losing further logistics capabilities in Crimea following the Kerch Strait Bridge explosion.
  • Russian federal subjects are announcing new extensions and phases of mobilization in select regions, which may indicate that they have not met their mobilization quotas.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continue to conduct filtration activities in Russian-occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 10

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 10, 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.

Russian forces conducted a massive missile strike attack against over 20 cities, including Kyiv, on October 10. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched over 84 cruise missiles and 24 drone attacks, 13 of which were carried out with Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.[1] Ukrainian air defense shot down 43 cruise missiles, 10 Shahed-136 drones, and 3 unspecified drones. Russian forces launched missiles from 10 strategic bombers operating in the Caspian Sea and from Nizhny Novgorod, Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems, and 6 missile carriers in the Black Sea.[2] Russian forces launched the Shahed-136 drones from Crimea and Belarus.[3] Ukrainian media reported that Russian missile strikes hit 70 targets, including 29 critical infrastructure facilities, 4 high-rise buildings, 35 residential buildings, and a school.[4]

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have ordered the missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure in retaliation for a “terrorist act” at the Kerch Strait Bridge, likely in part to curry favor with the Russian pro-war nationalist camp that has been demanding such retaliation.[5] Putin accused Ukraine during his meeting with the Russian Security Council of conducting terrorist acts against Russian civilian and critical infrastructure, namely against the Kerch Strait Bridge, the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), and segments of the Turkish Stream gas transmission system.[6] Ukrainian officials have not formally taken responsibility for the explosion at the Kerch Strait Bridge.[7] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) also reported that Putin has been planning this attack prior to the Kerch Strait Bridge explosion, and if true, could indicate that Putin planned this attack for the deflection of the Kharkiv-Izyum-Lyman failures.[8]

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also attended the meeting despite speculations that Putin would force him to resign, which may suggest that Putin settled on responding to only one of the pro-war community’s demands at this time.

Putin emphasized that he would conduct proportional escalation in any future retaliatory actions. He stated that if Ukraine continues to carry out “terrorist attacks against [Russian] territory, then Russian responses will be harsh, and their scale will correspond to the level of the threat to the Russian Federation.” This declaration of proportionality suggests that Putin intends to continue climbing the escalation ladder rung by rung and cautiously rather than jumping to more dramatic measures such as the use of nuclear weapons. Putin may also mean to message the Russian pro-war camp that they should manage their expectations of an ongoing daily bombardment of Ukraine similar to the one conducted today.[9] Russian milbloggers, for their part, have overwhelmingly welcomed the strikes and amplified Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev’s statement that more attacks against Ukraine will follow soon.[10] Ukrainian and Western intelligence have previously reported that Russia has spent a significant portion of its high-precision missiles, and Putin likely knows better than Medvedev or the milbloggers that he cannot sustain attacks of this intensity for very long.[11]

The October 10 Russian attacks wasted some of Russia’s dwindling precision weapons against civilian targets, as opposed to militarily significant targets. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces successfully completed the mission of striking Ukrainian military command centers, signal infrastructure, and energy systems in Ukraine.[12] Social media shows that Russians instead hit a children’s playground, a park, a German consulate, and a business center among other non-military targets.[13] Ukrainian air defenses also shot down half of the Russian drones and cruise missiles. Russian attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid will not likely break Ukraine’s will to fight, but Russia’s use of its limited supply of precision weapons in this role may deprive Putin of options to disrupt ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson and Luhansk Oblasts.

Russian and Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine from the north despite Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's October 10 announcement that Belarus and Russia agreed to deploy the Union State’s Regional Grouping of Forces (RGV) —a strategic formation of Russian and Belarusian units tasked with defending the Union State. Lukashenko stated that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on October 7 on an unspecified “deployment” of the Russian-Belarusian RGV in “connection with the escalation on the western borders of the Union State” but did not clearly define the deployment’s parameters.[14] Lukashenko stated that over a thousand Russian personnel will deploy to Belarus and that a Russian-Belarusian group began forming on October 8.[15] The Russian component of any RGV formations in Belarus will likely be comprised of low-readiness mobilized men or conscripts who likely will not pose a significant conventional military threat to Ukraine.

The Russian component of the RGV is comprised of elements of the 1st Guard Tank Army, 20th Combined Arms Army, and airborne units– formations that have all sustained heavy combat losses in Ukraine and have a severely reduced combat capacity.[16] A Kyiv Post reporter claimed that Russian soldiers are deploying to Belarus en masse via cattle railcars without mechanized equipment on October 10—a characterization consistent with ISW's assessment.[17] ISW has previously assessed that Ukrainian reports from late September of Belarus preparing to accept 20,000 mobilized Russian men indicate that Russia hopes to use Belarusian military facilities and infrastructure to hold and potentially train newly mobilized Russian forces, but that it remains exceedingly unlikely that these are leading indicators of imminent Belarusian involvement in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf.[18] The Kremlin may seek to use additional Russian forces in Belarus to fix Ukrainian forces near Kyiv and prevent their redeployment elsewhere to participate in counter-offensives. ISW has previously assessed that Lukashenko cannot afford the domestic ramifications of Belarusian involvement in Ukraine.[19] ISW also assesses that Russia does not have the ability to form a ground strike force from scratch or from existing units in Belarus quickly. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that it has not observed indicators of Russian forces forming offensive groups in Belarus and explicitly stated “there is no threat of an attack from the territory of the Republic of Belarus as of October 10.”[20]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted massive, coordinated missile strikes on over 20 Ukrainian cities.
  • President Vladimir Putin claimed that the coordinated missile strikes were in retaliation for the explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge, likely in part to curry favor with “pro-war” factions.
  • Russian and Belarusian ground forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory to the north.
  • Ukrainian forces have likely liberated over 200 square kilometers of territory in western Luhansk Oblast as of October 10.
  • Russian forces continued unsuccessful attempts to regain recently lost territory in northwest Kherson Oblast while reinforcing nearby positions with damaged and hastily mobilized units.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials are setting conditions to move up to 40,000 residents out of Kherson Oblast to Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian Federation.
  • Russian forces cannot supply mobilized forces, likely due to years of supply theft by contract soldiers and commanders. 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 9

Click here to read the full report

Special Edition on Russian Domestic Responses to the Kerch Strait Bridge Explosion

Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan

October 9, 9:35 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.

This campaign assessment special edition focuses on Russian domestic responses to the Kerch Strait Bridge explosion on October 9 and changes within the Russian chain of command. Ukrainian forces continued to make advances towards Svatove-Kreminna highway on October 9. Those developments are summarized briefly and will be covered in more detail tomorrow.

The attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge, coupled with recent Russian military failures and partial mobilization, is generating direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin from the Russian pro-war nationalist community. Some milbloggers, who represent and speak to that community on Telegram, criticized Putin’s and the Kremlin’s failure to address major events forthrightly, noting that it is challenging to rally behind Putin when his government relies on secrecy.[1] Others noted that Putin has consistently failed to address incidents such as the sinking of the cruiser Moskva or the prisoner exchange of Azovstal fighters whom the Kremlin had consistently demonized since the Battle of Mariupol.[2] Some milbloggers said that Putin must retaliate for the explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge lest his silence be perceived as ”weakness.”[3] Milbloggers who did not criticize Putin instead criticized Russian Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev’s silence following the explosion after he had made several public claims that an attack on the Crimean Bridge was a Russian “red line.”[4] Direct criticism of Putin from this community is almost unprecedented. Milbloggers and other nationalist figures continue to express overwhelming support for Putin’s goals in Ukraine and have hitherto blamed failures and setbacks on the Russian military command or the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).

These critiques from the pro-war camp may indicate rising doubts about Putin’s ability to deliver on his promised goal of “denazifying” Ukraine and may undermine Putin’s appeal within his core constituency. Putin’s stated objectives for the invasion he launched on February 24 deeply resonated with the nationalist community, which firmly subscribes to the ideology of Russia’s historic and cultural superiority and right to control over the territories of the former Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Recent military failures have caused some milbloggers to become concerned about Putin’s commitment to that ideology, however, with some milbloggers even accusing him of failing to uphold the ideology even prior to the full-scale invasion in February 2022. One milblogger noted on October 7 his disgust with the Russian political elite, including Putin, for consistently failing to seize Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 and for conducting an “ugly special military operation” that only further united Ukrainians and the West against Russia.[5]

Key inflection in ongoing military operations on October 9:

 

·         Ukrainian forces continued to advance east of the Oskil Rver in the direction of Luhansk Oblast and have entered Stel’makhivka (about 18km west of Svatove).[27] Russian forces launched unsuccessful assaults on Burdaka on the Kharkiv Oblast-Russian border, and Terny northeast of Lyman.[28]

·         Russian sources reported that Russian forces attempted to attack in the direction of Ternovi Pody (approximately 30km northwest of Kherson City)[29] Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces continued to target newly liberated settlements in northern Kherson Oblast with artillery, MLRS, and aviation.[30]

·         Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian forces repelled over 30 attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.[31] Russian forces launched an unsuccessful assault southwest of Donetsk City.[32]

·         Russian forces targeted residential areas of Zaporizhzhia City with cruise missiles.[33]

·         A Russian milblogger accused North Ossetia and Vladikavkaz of failing to fulfill mobilization orders due to carelessness and the personal interests of regional officials.[34]

·         Ukrainian sources reported that Russian occupation authorities are moving their families from Kherson Oblast to Crimea, and from Starobilsk to Luhansk City.[35]


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 8

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 8, 10:30 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 large-scale explosion damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge that links occupied Crimea with Russia on October 8. Maxar satellite imagery shows that the explosion collapsed one lane of the road bridge and damaged the nearby railway track.[1] The Russian Investigative Committee stated that a truck exploded on the bridge and ignited seven fuel tanks on the railroad.[2] A small fraction of Russian milbloggers speculated that Ukrainian saboteurs used a boat to detonate the bridge from the sea, though there is no visible evidence for such a conclusion.[3] The Kremlin refrained from accusing Ukraine of sabotage or attack, echoing similar restraint following the sinking of the cruiser Moskva and the Ukrainian strike on Saky airfield in Crimea.[4] Ukraine did not claim responsibility for the incident, but The New York Times reported that an unnamed senior Ukrainian official stated that Ukrainian intelligence participated in the explosion.[5] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a government commission composed of government officials, security services, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations to investigate the ”emergency.”[6]

The explosion will not permanently disrupt critical Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Crimea, but its aftermath is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time. The road bridge appears at least partially operational, and the railroad bridge did not suffer significant structural damage according to Russian reports that generally seem plausible based on the available video evidence. Russian footage shows people walking on the damaged road bridge and a train moving on the railroad bridge.[7] The Head of occupied Crimea Sergey Aksyonov claimed that the remaining lane of the road bridge opened to cars and buses after a rigorous security check, but that trucks must move by ferry.[8] The collapsed lane of the road bridge will restrict Russian military movements until it is repaired, forcing some Russian forces to rely on the ferry connection for some time. Russian forces will likely still be able to transport heavy military equipment via the railroad. Russian officials will likely intensify security checks on all vehicles crossing the bridge, however, adding delays to the movement of Russian military equipment, personnel, and supplies to Crimea. Putin has already signed a decree strengthening the security protocol on the bridge under the supervision of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).[9]

The Kremlin is likely continuing to frame the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as the scapegoat for the Kerch Bridge explosion and other Russian military failures to deflect the blame from Putin. The Russian MoD has not issued an official statement regarding the incident as of this publication.[10] Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported that the Russian Presidential Administration sent out a guide to Russian mass media on the appropriate way to downplay the severity of the damage to the bridge, and it is possible that the Kremlin has ordered the Russian MoD to remain quiet regarding the situation.[11] Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov stated that Russia must initiate a strike campaign on critical Ukrainian infrastructure instead of listening to Russian MoD promises.[12]

Some nationalist voices noted that Putin and his close circle are failing to immediately address the attack on a symbolic bridge, voicing direct criticism of Putin for the first time. A milblogger warned that if Putin fails to undertake retaliatory actions it “will be mistaken for the weakness of the president himself.”[13] Another milblogger noted that it is hypocritical for the Kremlin to call on Russians to rally behind Putin if he is unable to comment on significant events such as the Moskva sinking, prisoner exchanges including Azovstal fighters, or the collapse of the Kharkiv frontline.[14] Others criticized the silence of Russian Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev regarding the explosion, given that Medvedev had made several statements defining any attacks on the Kerch Bridge as a violation of Russian ”red lines.”[15] Russian milbloggers and propagandists alike called on the Kremlin to resume strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and notably did not make any calls for Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Russian sources claimed that the Kremlin targeted some higher military command figures following the Kerch Bridge explosion, but these reports remain unverified as of this publication. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Kremlin detained, arrested, and blocked unspecified military officials and ordered the units of the elite Dzerzhinsky Separate Operation Purpose Division to enter Moscow on October 8.[16] Milbloggers who favor the Wagner Group claimed that the Kremlin has replaced Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov supposedly with Tula Governor Alexey Dyumin and the deputy commander-in-chief of the ground forces, Lieutenant General Alexander Matovnikov, respectfully.[17] ISW cannot independently verify either of these reports at this time.

The Kremlin named the Russian Commander of the Aerospace Forces, Army General Sergey Surovikin, the new commander of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and this appointment has generated positive feedback within the nationalist community. Sorovikin previously commanded the “southern” group of forces in Ukraine and was reportedly responsible for the capture of Lysychansk in July.[18] Milbloggers shared their excitement regarding Surovikin’s appointment, noting that Surovikin has the “tough” character necessary to regain the initiative in Ukraine.[19] Wagner financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin extravagantly praised Surovikin because he “got into a tank and rushed to save” the Soviet Union during the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow.[20] Prigozhin’s interview further confirmed reports of a fissure between pro-war and “liberal” factions within the Kremlin, which ISW will consider in more detail in subsequent reports.

Key Takeaways 

  • A large-scale explosion seriously damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge that links occupied Crimea with Russia.
  • The Kremlin named the Russian Commander of the Aerospace Forces, Army General Sergey Surovikin, the new commander of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and this appointment has generated positive feedback within the nationalist community.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblasts.
  • Russian forces continued establishing defensive positions in northern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to attack settlements around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly continued to shoot down Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.
  • Russian federal subjects are facing financial challenges in funding mobilization.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continued measures to remove Ukrainian children from their homes in Russian-occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 7

Kateryna Stepanenko, Katherine Lawlor, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 7, 9:15 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.

Western and Russian reports of fractures within the Kremlin are gaining traction within the Russian information space, undermining the appearance of stability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Washington Post reported that US intelligence obtained information that a member of Putin’s inner circle directly criticized Putin’s “extensive military shortcomings” during the war in Ukraine, and other Western and Kremlin-affiliated officials noted rising criticism of Putin’s mishandling of the war and mobilization.[1] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that there have been debates in the Kremlin regarding mobilization in a statement to The Washington Post but denied all allegations of a member of the Kremlin confronting Putin. ISW cannot verify any of these reports are real or assess the likelihood that these arguments or fractures will change Putin’s mind about continuing the war, let alone if they will destabilize his regime. Word of fractures within Putin’s inner circle have reached the hyper-patriotic and nationalist milblogger crowd, however, undermining the impression of strength and control that Putin has sought to portray throughout his reign.

Some Russian milbloggers have begun speculating that there are two factions within the Kremlin following Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Private Military Company financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s harsh criticism of the Russian higher military command.[2] A milblogger told his nearly one million readers that Kadyrov and Prigozhin are part of the faction that seeks to continue the war and accomplish its ideological goals regardless of cost. The milblogger noted that the faction opposed to them consisted of government officials who wish to negotiate with the West to save their assets and residences in the West but are too afraid to confront Putin directly. The milblogger expressed hope that the pro-war faction will defeat the faction that fails to see that Russia cannot afford to end the war.

The presentation of fundamental disagreements within Putin’s inner circle and challenges to his decisions, even if quiet, within the Russian nationalist space risks depicting Putin as weak and not fully in control of his government. The truth or falseness of that presentation is less important than its injection into the audiences on which Putin most relies for continued support in his war. Putin himself may have externalized his own concerns about this break in the façade of his power and of the unanimity of his trusted senior officials in an odd exchange with a teacher on October 5.[3] Putin asked the teacher how he taught his students about the causes of the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great in the mid-1770s.[4] The teacher, from Izhevsk, one of the towns that Pugachev captured during his revolt, offered answers that did not satisfy Putin, including the observation that the rebellion had occurred because of the appearance of “a leader who could capitalize on a wave of dissatisfaction,” and that the lesson to be drawn from that episode of history was “that it is necessary to respect the views of other members of society.” Putin offered his own answer: “The leader [Pugachev] claimed to be tsar. And how did that arise? Why was that possible?...Because of the element of weakening of the central power.”[5] The exchange was bizarre and fascinating since there is no reason Pugachev’s Rebellion should have been on Putin’s mind at this time, nor any reason for him to worry about someone else “claiming to be tsar.”—unless, of course, Putin himself perceives a weakening of the central power, i.e., himself.[6]

Kadyrov and Prigozhin will likely attempt to make minor ground advances in Donetsk Oblast to maintain their prominence and reputation in the nationalist and proxy information spaces. Russian forces have been making incremental advances around Bakhmut and Avdiivka between October 6 and October 7, likely with the support of Wagner and Kadyrov’s elements in the area. Some milbloggers and Ukrainian officials reported that Prigozhin committed 1,000 of his troops to strengthen positions in Lysychansk to secure Russian frontlines following the collapse of the Lyman frontline.[7] Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin even awarded Kadyrov the title of hero of the DNR.[8] The claims about Kadyrov and Prigozhin making gains and preparing to save the day coincides with Kremlin efforts to improve the reputation of the Commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin whom they both attacked earlier.[9] Milbloggers even reported meeting Lapin, who is now reportedly commanding the Svatove-Kreminna frontline in Luhansk Oblast.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have waited to announce that he had replaced Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Aleksandr Chaiko until Putin could use Chaiko as a scapegoat for Russian military failures in Kharkiv and Lyman. Russian media reported on October 7 that Putin replaced Chaiko with Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov. Chaiko is the second military district commander to be replaced since the Russian lines in Kharkiv collapsed—Putin replaced the Western Military District commander on October 3, as ISW previously reported.[11] Oddly, Russian milbloggers first reported that Muradov had replaced Chaiko on September 4, but the Kremlin has yet to formally confirm the appointment.[12] State-run and independent media outlets quoted the governor of Dagestan congratulating Muradov on his appointment and cited an entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities to confirm the replacement.[13] Muradov had previously commanded the eastern grouping of Russian forces in Ukraine, which is likely comprised of elements of the EMD, as of July.[14]

Key Takeaways

 

  • Western and Russian reports of fractures within the Kremlin are gaining traction within the Russian information space, undermining the appearance of stability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may have waited to announce that he had replaced Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Aleksandr Chaiko until he needed to use Chaiko as a scapegoat for Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued counteroffensive operations along the Kreminna-Svatove road in western Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to establish defensive positions in northern Kherson Oblast, and Ukrainian and Russian sources reported ongoing battles north and northwest of Kherson City.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Anecdotal reports of poor conditions for mobilized personnel in the Russian information space are continuing to fuel the accurate narrative of Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) incompetence.
  • Russian officials offered basic concessions for mobilized men and their families on October 7 but continue to rely on local governments and other non-federal institutions to provide support, including food and training, to newly mobilized men.
  • Russian occupation authorities in Donetsk Oblast are continuing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian civilians, belying Russian claims that residents of newly-annexed territories will not be mobilized.
  • Ukrainian officials in newly liberated Kharkiv Oblast continue to uncover Russian torture chambers and other human rights abuses.
  • Russian occupation officials have likely failed to repair necessary civilian infrastructure in occupied and illegally-annexed parts of Ukraine in time for winter as temperatures drop.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 6

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, Riley Bailey, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 6, 6:15pm ET

Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones is not generating asymmetric effects the way the Ukrainian use of US-provided HIMARS systems has done and is unlikely to affect the course of the war significantly. The deputy chief of the Main Operational Department of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated on October 6 that Russian forces have used a total of 86 Iranian Shahed-136 drones against Ukraine, 60% of which Ukrainian forces have already destroyed.[1] As ISW reported yesterday, Russian forces do not appear to be focusing these drones on asymmetric nodes near the battlefield. They have used many drones against civilian targets in rear areas, likely hoping to generate nonlinear effects through terror. Such efforts are not succeeding. Ukrainian Air Force Command Spokesperson Yuri Ignat stated that the Russian army is increasingly using the Iranian-made drones to conserve its stock of high-precision missiles.[2] Russian forces have likely used a non-trivial percentage of the Shahed-136 supply so far if the claims of an anonymous US intelligence official at the end of August were correct that Iran would likely provide ”hundreds” of drones to Russia.[3]

The Wagner Private Military Company announced the creation of its own private Telegram channel on October 6, indicating that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may want a voice that is clearly his own to compete with milbloggers and possibly Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who all have their own Telegram channels. A Telegram channel affiliated with Prigozhin shared the invitation to the Wagner channel, “Peacekeeper.” The Russian-language invitation reads “We arrived from Hell. We are WAGNER - our business is death, and business is going well.”[4] In addition to Peacekeeper, the channel suggested that followers subscribe to the “Novorossiya Z Project,” another private channel. The creation of a group for Wagner to share “uncensored materials from the front” may be in part a recruitment tool but is likely also an attempt to establish a formal means for Prigozhin and his allies to directly influence the information space in much the same way that Kadyrov and the Russian nationalist milbloggers use Telegram. 

Key Takeaways

  • Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones is not generating asymmetric effects the way the Ukrainian use of US-provided HIMARS systems has done and is unlikely to affect the course of the war significantly.
  • The Wagner Private Military Company announced the creation of its own private Telegram channel on October 6, indicating that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin may want a voice that is clearly his own to compete with milbloggers and possibly Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who all have their own Telegram channels.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued counteroffensive operations in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast near Kupyansk and operations to threaten Russian positions along the Kreminna-Svatove road in western Luhansk Oblast on October 6.
  • Russian troops are likely establishing defensive positions in upper Kherson Oblast following the collapse of the Russian line in northeast Kherson.
  • Russian troops continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on October 6 and likely made incremental gains around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct routine artillery, air, and missile strikes west of Hulyaipole, and in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv Oblasts on October 6.
  • Local Russian officials appear to be frantically looking for ways to fund their mobilized units as the Kremlin increasingly expects local administrations to pay for the war effort from their own budgets.
  • The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on October 6 that Russian forces began the forced mobilization of Ukrainian citizens in Russian-occupied Kremmina and Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 5

Click here to read the full report.

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

October 5, 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.

Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv counteroffensive has not yet culminated after one month of successful operations and is now advancing into western Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainian forces captured Hrekivka and Makiivka in western Luhansk Oblast (approximately 20 km southwest of Svatove) on October 5.[1] Luhansk Oblast Head Serhiy Haidai reported that Ukrainian forces have begun liberating unspecified villages in Luhansk Oblast on October 5.[2] Ukrainian forces began the maneuver phase of their counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast— which has now reached Luhansk Oblast—on September 6.[3] Russian forces have failed to hold the banks of the Oskil and Siverskyi Donets rivers and leverage them as natural boundaries to prevent Ukrainian forces from projecting into vulnerable sections of Russian-occupied northeast Ukraine. The terrain in western Luhansk is suitable for the kind of rapid maneuver warfare that Ukrainian forces used effectively in eastern Kharkiv Oblast in early September, and there are no indications from open sources that the Russian military has substantially reinforced western Luhansk Oblast. Ukraine’s ongoing northern and southern counteroffensives are likely forcing the Kremlin to prioritize the defense of one area of operations at the expense of another, potentially increasing the likelihood of Ukrainian success in both.

Russian forces conducted a Shahed-136 drone strike against Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast, on October 5, the first Russian strike in Kyiv Oblast since June.[4] Footage from the aftermath of the strike shows apparent damage to residential structures.[5] Russian milbloggers lauded the destructive capability of the Shahed-136 drones but questioned why Russian forces are using such technology to target areas deep in the Ukrainian rear and far removed from active combat zones. That decision fits into the larger pattern of Russian forces expending high-precision technology on areas of Ukraine that hold limited operational significance.[6]

Russian President Vladimir Putin took measures to assert full Russian control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Putin issued a decree transferring control of the ZNPP to Russian state company Rosenergoatom on October 5.[7] The ZNPP’s current Ukrainian operator Energoatom announced that its president assumed the position of General Director of the ZNPP on October 5.[8] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian officials are coercing ZNPP workers into obtaining Russian passports and signing employment contracts with Rosenergoatom.[9] International Atomic Energy Agency General Director Rafael Grossi plans to meet with both Ukrainian and Russian officials this week in Kyiv and Moscow to discuss the creation of a “protective zone” around the ZNPP.[10] Russian officials will likely attempt to coerce the IAEA in upcoming discussions and negotiations into recognizing Rosenergoatom’s official control of the ZNPP, and by implication Russia’s illegal annexation of Zaporizhia Oblast.

The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that Putin awarded him the rank of colonel general on October 5.[11] This promotion is particularly noteworthy in the context of the recent controversy surrounding Kadyrov and his direct criticism of Central Military District (CMD) Colonel General Aleksander Lapin, which ISW has previously analyzed.[12] Although ISW has not found official confirmation of Kadyrov’s promotion, Putin may have made the decision to elevate Kadyrov’s rank in order to maintain the support of Kadyrov and Chechen forces while simultaneously pushing back on the Russian Ministry of Defense and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, from whom Putin seems to be rhetorically distancing himself. Kadyrov’s new rank may be a sign that Putin is willing to appease the more radical and vocal calls of the siloviki base at the expense of the conventional military establishment.

Increasing domestic critiques of Russia’s “partial mobilization” are likely driving Putin to scapegoat the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and specifically Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Putin deferred mobilization for all students, including part-time and masters students, via a decree on October 5.[13] Putin told Russian outlets that because “the Ministry of Defense did not make timely changes to the legal framework on the list of those who are not subject to mobilization, adjustments have to be made.”[14] That direct critique of the MoD is also an implicit critique of Shoigu, whom Putin appears to be setting up to take the fall for the failures of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The chairperson of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee, Colonel General (Ret.) Andrey Kartapolov, also criticized the MoD on Russian state television on October 5. Kartapolov said that all Russians know the MoD is lying and must stop, but that message is not reaching “individual leaders,” another jab at Shoigu.[15] One Russian milblogger claimed that Kartapolov’s comments demonstrate that Shoigu will soon be “demolished” and “recognized as the main culprit” of Russia’s military failures. The milblogger reminded his readers that it was the Russian MoD and its head that made an “invaluable and huge contribution to the fact that we are now on the verge of a military-political catastrophe.”[16] Another milblogger defended Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov for criticizing the MoD, applauding them for driving necessary change.[17] Kadyrov’s announcement that Putin awarded him the rank of Colonel-General is similarly indicative that Putin is willing to appease the siloviki base that has taken continued rhetorical swings at the MoD establishment.

Putin will likely hold off on firing Shoigu for as long as he feels he can in order to continue to blame Shoigu for ongoing military failures and to build up support among other factions. Shoigu’s replacement will need to take responsibility for failures that occur after his tenure begins. Putin is already working to improve his support among the nationalist milbloggers and the siloviki such as Prigozhin and Kadyrov. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov old reporters on October 5 that Prigozhin “makes a great contribution within his capabilities” to efforts in Russia and Ukraine and declined to answer questions surrounding Prigozhin’s critiques of government officials.[18] A milblogger emphasized on October 5 that Putin “regularly hosts military correspondents, carefully reads their reports, asks the right questions, and receives objective answers,” implicitly contrasting that relationship with the dishonest way in which milbloggers believe the MoD interacts with Putin.[19]

Russian authorities detained the manager of several milblogger telegram channels on October 5, indicating that the Kremlin is likely setting limits on what criticism is allowed in the domestic Russian information space. Alexander Khunshtein, the deputy secretary of the General Council of Putin’s political party, United Russia, published footage on October 5 showing Russian authorities detaining Alexei Slobodenyuk.[20] Slobodenyuk is an employee of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Patriot media group and the manager of several milblogger telegrams, the most prominent of which are “Release Z Kraken” and “Skaner.” The telegram channel “Skaner” has featured criticism of major state officials and military personnel, the most prominent of whom are Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. Russian authorities detained Slobodenyuk on accusations of fraud. His detention suggests that the Kremlin is attempting to set boundaries for which criticism is allowed in the information space and on which high-ranking officials milbloggers and journalists can criticize—Defense Minister Shoigu, Putin‘s likely scapegoat-in-waiting, now appears to be fair game, whereas officials close to Putin such as Lavrov and Putin’s spokesperson are off-limits.

Key Takeaways

 

  • The Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in Kharkiv Oblast has not yet culminated and is actively pushing into Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin took measures to assert full Russian control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Russian forces conducted the first strike on Kyiv Oblast since June with a Shahed-136 drone.
  • The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that Putin awarded him the rank of Colonel-General.
  • Increasing domestic critiques of Russia’s “partial mobilization” are likely driving Putin to scapegoat the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and specifically Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
  • Ukrainian troops likely consolidated positions and regrouped in northern Kherson Oblast after making major gains over in the last 48 hours.
  • Russian sources reported Ukrainian offensive preparations northwest, west, and northeast of Kherson City.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on October 5.
  • Russian milbloggers continued to criticize the implementation of the Russian “partial mobilization” on October 5.
  • Russian citizens who are economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority Russian communities continue to bear a disproportionate burden in mobilization rates and casualty rates according to investigative reports, suggesting that Russian authorities may be deliberately placing poor and minority Russian citizens in more dangerous positions than well-off or ethnic Russians.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin completed the final formality in the process for illegally annexing Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories on October 5.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 4

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Katherine Lawlor, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 4, 10:00 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.

Ukrainian forces continued to make significant gains in Kherson Oblast while simultaneously continuing advances in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts on October 4. Ukrainian forces liberated several settlements on the eastern bank of the Inhulets River along the T2207 highway, forcing Russian forces to retreat to the south toward Kherson City. Ukrainian forces also continued to push south along the Dnipro River and the T0403 highway, severing two Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in northern Kherson Oblast and forcing Russians south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border toward the Beryslav area. Ukrainian military officials noted that the Ukrainian interdiction campaign is crippling Russian attempts to transfer additional ammunition, reserves, mobilized men, and means of defense to frontline positions.[1] Ukrainian forces also continued to advance east of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian sources claimed that battles are ongoing near the R66 Svatove-Kreminna highway.[2]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization is having more significant short-term impacts on the Russian domestic context than on the war in Ukraine, interacting with Russian battlefield failures to exacerbate fractures in the information space that confuse and undermine Putin’s narratives. Ukrainian sources have rightly observed that the partial mobilization is not a major threat in the short term because the Ukrainian counteroffensive is moving faster than the mobilization can generate effects.[3] Ukrainian Intelligence Chief Kyrylo Budanov even stated that mobilization in Russia is a “gift” to Ukraine because the Kremlin is finding itself in a “dead end,” caught between its failures and its determination to hold what it has seized.[4] The controversies surrounding the poorly executed partial mobilization, coupled with significant Russian defeats in Kharkiv Oblast and around Lyman, have intensified infighting between pro-Putin Russian nationalist factions and are creating new fractures among voices who speak to Putin’s core constituencies.[5]

Putin is visibly failing at balancing the competing demands of the Russian nationalists who have become increasingly combative since mobilization began despite sharing Putin’s general war aims and goals in Ukraine. ISW has identified three main factions in the current Russian nationalist information space: Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki—people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own. Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions. Milbloggers present Putin’s vision to a pro-war audience in both Russia and the proxy republics. The veteran community is helping organize and support force generation campaigns.[6] The siloviki are providing combat power on the battlefield. Putin needs all three factions to sustain his war effort, but the failures in Ukraine combined with the chaotic partial mobilization are seemingly disrupting the radical nationalist community in Russia. Putin is currently trying to appease this community by featuring some milbloggers on state-owned television, allowing siloviki to generate their own forces and continue offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, and placating veterans by ordering mobilization and engaging the general public in the war effort as they have long demanded.

Russian failures around Lyman galvanized strong and direct criticism of the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Alexander Lapin, who supposedly commanded the Lyman grouping, as ISW has previously reported.[7] This criticism originated from the siloviki group, spearheaded by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Kadyrov and Prigozhin represent an emerging voice within the regime’s fighting forces that is attacking the more traditional and conventional approach to the war pursued by Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and the uniformed military command. The chaotic execution of Putin’s mobilization order followed by the collapse of the Lyman pocket ignited tensions between the more vocal and radical Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, who attacked the MoD and the uniformed military for their poor handling of the war.[8] Putin now finds himself in a dilemma. He cannot risk alienating the Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, as he desperately needs Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.[9] Nor can he disenfranchise the MoD establishment, which provides the overwhelming majority of Russian military power in Ukraine and the institutional underpinnings needed to carry out the mobilization order and continue the war.

The Kadyrov-Prigozhin incident sparked a rift between the siloviki and the milbloggers, with the milbloggers defending Lapin. Milbloggers are criticizing Kadyrov’s attack on Lapin, claiming that it stems from competition between Lapin and Kadyrov-Prigozhin.[10] The Kremlin did not punish Kadyrov or Prigozhin for their direct attacks on Lapin and the Defense Ministry but has instead deflected blame for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast onto the Western Military District (WMD). Kremlin-affiliated outlets have even interviewed milbloggers who have painted Lapin as a hero for saving the stranded WMD units in Lyman, likely in an effort to divert responsibility for the Russian defeat there onto recently fired WMD Commander Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlev.[11] Milbloggers, who had frequently complimented Kadyrov or Prigozhin before this incident, are now more skeptical of the siloviki community, attacking it for being too self-interested.

Fractures are emerging within the Russian milblogger community itself, moreover. Milbloggers have begun increasingly questioning each other's military credentials and rights to offer recommendations for the Russian Armed Forces.[12] One milblogger complained that commentators without appropriate military experience have been improperly criticizing current military commanders and should be focusing on simply portraying the situation on the frontlines without editorializing.[13] These critiques have been largely aimed at the milblogger discourse following the Russian defeat in Lyman and the Kadyrov-Prigozhin incident.[14] These attacks on some milbloggers’ credentials have drawn responses from milbloggers who have met with Putin himself and are being featured on Kremlin-controlled television channels, who now declare that they are the ones who have shown the true shortcomings of the Russian forces to Putin so that he can address them.[15]

The veterans’ community is dissatisfied with the execution of Putin’s mobilization. ISW reported in May that an independent Russian veterans’ organization, the All-Russian Officers Assembly, published an open letter calling on Putin to declare war on Ukraine, announce partial mobilization, and form new war-time administrations to execute the mobilization order.[16] Those new administrations would likely have improved or supplanted the military commissariats that have been mishandling the current partial mobilization. The Assembly also encouraged Putin to recognize that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine, not Ukrainians, long before this narrative gained prominence in the Kremlin’s justifications for its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman. This elder nationalist military community has long been warning Putin of the limitations of his forces, problems in the Russian military-industrial complex, and the failings of the Russian mobilization system. Putin has refused to order general mobilization or declare war against Ukraine, and the partial mobilization has likely been executed as poorly as those who had recommended fixing the mobilization system had feared. Former Deputy Commander of the Russian Southern Military District Andrey Gurulev stated that the Russian military command must disclose its inability to mobilize 300,000 combat-ready reservists and broaden the mobilization criteria if Russia is to have any hope of regaining the initiative in this war.[17] Gurulev even expressed his support for Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s attack on Lapin, highlighting the growing fractiousness of the nationalist information space.

The fragmentation of the Russian nationalist information space could have significant domestic impacts and could even affect the stability of Putin’s regime. Putin will be unable to meet the mutually exclusive demands of various groups. Kadyrov and Prigozhin are pushing for a change in the way Russia fights the war to one more suited to their unconventional modes of mobilizing personnel and fighting.  The veterans have been pushing for a more traditional overhaul of the Russian higher military command and MoD and for putting Russia on a conventional war footing and the Russian MoD. Russian milbloggers are currently defending the Kremlin’s selection of uniformed commanders while continuing to attack the MoD and making a variety of extreme demands and recommendations of their own—all the while reporting on Russia’s frontline failings in detail even as the MoD tries to silence them. Putin cannot afford to lose the support of any of these groups, nor can satisfy them all as the war wears on and Russian troops continue to sustain losses. The shocks of the Kharkiv and Lyman defeats, energized by the partial mobilization and its poor management, have exposed these deepening fissures within Putin’s core constituencies to the view of all Russians. They could even begin to seed the notion that Putin is not fully in control of his own base. The ramifications of such a development for his regime are hard to predict.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian forces continued to make significant gains in Kherson Oblast while simultaneously continuing advances in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization is having more significant short-term impacts on the Russian domestic context than on the war in Ukraine, catalyzing fractures in the information space that confuse and undermine Putin’s narratives.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make substantial gains in northern Kherson Oblast on October 4, beginning to collapse the sparsely-manned Russian lines in that area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make gains in eastern Kharkiv Oblast west of Svatove on October 4, pushing past the Oskil River and increasingly threatening Russian positions in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct artillery, air, and missile strikes west of Hulyiapole and in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv Oblasts on October 4.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on October 4.
  • The Kremlin effectively ordered local Russian administrations and non-Ministry of Defense institutions to fund a significant part of the mobilization effort from local budgets.
  • Russian security officials are attempting to maintain their domestic security apparatus as Putin’s partial mobilization drains the Russian security sector to generate additional forces to fight in Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 3

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Katherine Lawlor, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 3, 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.

Ukrainian forces continued to make substantial gains around Lyman and in Kherson Oblast in the last 48 hours. Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops made significant breakthroughs in northern Kherson Oblast between October 2 and 3.[1] Geolocated footage corroborates Russian claims that Ukrainian troops are continuing to push east of Lyman and may have broken through the Luhansk Oblast border in the direction of Kreminna.[2] As ISW has previously reported, the Russian groupings in northern Kherson Oblast and on the Lyman front were largely comprised of units that had been regarded as among Russia’s premier conventional fighting forces before the war.[3] Elements of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division of the 20th Combined Arms Army reportedly withdrew from Lyman to rear positions near Kreminna before October 2.[4] Russian sources previously reported that elements of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), especially the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, are active in Kherson Oblast.[5] Both the 144th Motorized Rifle Division and the 76th Guards Air Assault Division were previously lauded as some of Russia’s most elite forces, and their apparent failures to hold territory against major Ukrainian counter-offensive actions is consistent with ISW’s previous assessment that even the most elite Russian military forces are becoming increasingly degraded as the war continues. This phenomenon was also visible in the collapse of the 4th Tank Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army earlier in the Kharkiv counter-offensive.[6]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be continuing efforts to redirect blame for recent Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast. Russian outlet РБК (RBK), citing sources within the Russian regime, reported on October 3 that Lieutenant-General Roman Berdnikov has replaced Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlev as commander of the Western Military District (WMD).[7] As ISW previously assessed, WMD units have been largely operating in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast over the last few months but without a clear commander. Zhuravlev has not been seen for some time, and Putin cycled through two commanders of the “western grouping of forces" in two weeks. Putin may be attempting to redirect the growing anger for Russian losses in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman by assigning a new face prominently to the WMD.[8] This announcement may also be an effort to shield Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District (CMD), from widespread criticism for recent Russian failures around Lyman.[9] Putin may seek to shift the blame for future Russian losses in Kharkiv and possibly Luhansk Oblasts to Berdnikov. Criticism of Lapin in recent days has served as a catalyst for wider breakdown within the Russian nationalist information space, and Berdnikov’s appointment may be intended to distract and redirect that growing dissatisfaction.

Russian officials released Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) director Ihor Murashov from detention and are likely continuing to undermine Ukrainian control of the plant. Energoatom reported that the Russian military detained Director General of the ZNPP Ihor Murashov on September 30 and released him into Ukrainian-controlled territory on October 3 following talks with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Raphael Grossi.[10] Russian officials will likely not allow Murashov to return to his position at the ZNPP. Russian officials will likely attempt to use their physical removal of Murashov to assert further control over the nuclear power plant.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces have made substantial gains around Lyman and in northern Kherson Oblast over the last 24 hours. The Russian units defeated on these fronts were previously considered to be among Russia’s premier conventional fighting forces.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may use the appointment of Lieutenant-General Roman Berdnikov to the command of the Western Military District to redirect blame for recent or future Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian officials released the director of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, whom they had illegally detained, and are likely continuing to undermine Ukrainian control of the plant.
  • Ukrainian forces made advances on the Oskil River-Kreminna line towards the Luhansk oblast border.
  • Ukrainian forces advanced in northern Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is introducing punitive measures to target the Russian bureaucratic institutions responsible for the execution of partial mobilization.
  • Russian officials acknowledged that the Kremlin intends to invade, occupy, and illegally annex additional Ukrainian territory in the south and east and may alter the claimed borders of its occupied territories.
  • The Russian State Duma approved the Kremlin’s illegal accession treaties on October 3 and laid out the administrative timeline for integrating illegally annexed Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation. 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 2

Click here to read the full report.

Special Edition on Russian Information Space Following the Defeat in Lyman

Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan

October 2, 10:15 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. 

This campaign assessment special edition focuses on dramatic changes in the Russian information space following the Russian defeat around Lyman and in Kharkiv Oblast and amid the failures of Russia’s partial mobilization. Ukrainian forces made continued gains around Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, and have broken through Russian defensive positions in northeastern Kherson Oblast.  Those developments are summarized briefly and will be covered in more detail tomorrow when more confirmation is available.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 1

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 1, 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 forces inflicted another significant operational defeat on Russia and liberated Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, on October 1. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Lyman to “more advantageous positions” to avoid the “threat of encirclement” in the settlement.[1] Social media footage and Ukrainian military officials confirmed that Ukrainian forces have entered Lyman and are likely clearing the settlement as of October 1.

The Russian information space – composed of Kremlin propagandists, pundits, and milbloggers – registered the defeat as the result of the Russian military command’s failure to send reinforcements in a timely manner, while openly criticizing repeated bureaucratic failures during the mobilization.[2] Russian commentators overwhelmingly expressed their hopes that partial mobilization would generate enough force to resume offensive operations and regain the initiative. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, apparently devastated by the defeat in Lyman, called on Russia to continue to fight to ”liberate” the four annexed territories with all available means including low-yield nuclear weapons.[3]

Kadyrov’s rant is similar to the disorganized and often hyperbolic milblogger rants that call for the Kremlin to continue the war in Ukraine, and his call for the use of nuclear weapons was not representative of the discourse within the Russian information space. Russian federal TV channels and ultra-hawkish milbloggers have often discussed Russian nuclear capabilities as part of their efforts to stoke patriotic sentiments among Russian domestic audiences, and Kadyrov’s statement was not especially noteworthy in this context.