Statement on ISW Methodology

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) welcomes robust and rigorous debate on the issues ISW covers and is especially grateful for the interaction with and feedback from those who engage seriously with the methodological challenges of performing intelligence from publicly available information. ISW’s entire team shares a passion for sound tradecraft and a desire to engage openly regarding our methodology, including both our analytic and forecasting successes as well as our limitations. We seek to raise the general level of discussion of national security and especially military issues and are grateful for the aid of all who contribute to that effort. This post outlines a few key takeaways regarding ISW’s approach can help inform readers about ISW’s work and establish constructive topics for engagement:

Regime and Iranian Forces Launch Multi-Pronged Offensive in Aleppo

The Syrian regime and its allies launched a major, multi-pronged offensive in Aleppo Province on October 15 in order to bolster the regime's foothold in Aleppo City. Both Russia and Iran likely aim to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reassert control over Syria’s largest city given the heavy involvement of their military forces in these operations.

Iran Update, December 15, 2023

Iran and its so-called “Axis of Resistance” are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to demonstrate their capability to control a key maritime route and chokepoint in the Middle East. The Houthis have conducted almost daily drone and missile attacks against commercial vessels transiting the Bab al Mandeb since December 9.

The Order of Battle of Hamas’ Izz al Din al Qassem Brigades, Part 1: North and Central Gaza

The al Qassem Brigades are the military component of Hamas and the means by which Hamas seeks to destroy the Israeli state and form an Islamic state in Palestine. Hamas is a highly organized group that views terrorism and military action as the only method through which it can destroy the Israeli state. The al Qassem Brigades are commanded by Mohammad Deif and are subordinated to the overall Hamas political leadership responsible to Ismail Haniyeh. They coordinate closely with the Hamas political leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. Hamas defines itself as a "Palestinian national liberation and resistance movement” intent on establishing an Islamic Palestinian state that stretches “from the River the Mediterranean and from Ras al Umm al Rashrash.” It is also a member of Iran’s ”Axis of Resistance,” the regional coalition of states and groups that Tehran has built as part of its effort to destroy Israel and expel the United States from the Middle East. Hamas states that "armed resistance” is a "strategic choice” to protect the Palestinian people and rejects "any attempt to undermine [Hamas’] resistance.” Hamas is fighting alongside other Palestinian resistance groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with which it engages in operational and tactical coordination.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 9, 2023

Ukrainian forces made confirmed advances in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made claimed advances south of Bakhmut on September 9. Geolocated footage published on September 9 shows that Ukrainian forces advanced northwest of Novomayorske (18km southeast of Velyka Novosilka) along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border, where Russian sources claim fighting has intensified in recent days. Additional geolocated footage published on September 9 shows that Ukrainian forces also advanced northeast and east of Novoprokopivka (13km south of Orikhiv) and west of Verbove (20km southeast of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved unspecified successes south of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv). A Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces forced Russian forces to withdraw from Andriivka (9km southwest of Bakhmut), and another prominent milblogger claimed that Andriivka is now a contested “gray zone.” Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces also achieved unspecified success south of Klishchiivka.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 28, 2023

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the front and reportedly advanced near Bakhmut on July 28. Ukrainian military officials stated that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, and Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on July 27 that Ukrainian forces continued advancing south of Bakhmut. A Russian milblogger claimed on July 28 that Ukrainian forces advanced near Kurdyumivka and Andriivka. Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border near Staromayorske (9km south of Velyka Novosilka) and Urozhaine (9km south of Velyka Novosilka), and some milbloggers acknowledged that Ukrainian forces captured Staromayorske on July 27. A Ukrainian source claimed that Ukrainian forces have advanced to within 10-12 kilometers of the main Russian defensive line in the Berdyansk direction. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks near Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv), Verbove (17km southeast of Orikhiv), and Pyatykhatky (25km southwest of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian “Vostok” Battalion Commander Alexander Khodakovsky stated that Ukrainian forces can conduct strikes against the full depth of defending Russian forces and that these strikes are killing Russian commanders and degrading Russian command and control. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the 247th Guards Air Assault (VDV) Regiment (7th VDV Division) refused to go to combat near Staromayorske due to heavy Russian losses and Ukrainian battlefield victories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 30, 2023

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations in at least three sectors of the frontline on June 30. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) and Berdyansk (eastern Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. The Ukrainian General Staff added that Ukrainian forces achieved partial success on the Levadne-Pryyutne line on the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts and on the Mala-Tokmachka-Ocheretuvate line in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian forces also reportedly consolidated newly reached lines in the Pryvillia-Zalizyanske direction north of Bakhmut and are continuing to exert pressure on Bakhmut’s flanks. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported that Ukrainian forces are confidently advancing on Bakhmut’s flanks and that Russian forces have transferred a large number of troops to the area. Malyar added that Ukrainian forces are advancing with varying degrees of success in southern Ukraine, advancing one kilometer on some days and advancing less on others. Select Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces counterattacked around Kreminna and on the Donetsk City-Avdiivka frontline.

The Kremlin’s Pyrrhic Victory in Bakhmut: A Retrospective on the Battle for Bakhmut

Russia declared victory over Bakhmut on May 21, 2023, after fighting for the city for nearly a year. The battle marks the first claimed Russian victory over a large city since the capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the summer of 2022. The Battle for Bakhmut is still ongoing as Ukrainian forces regained the initiative and are counterattacking Bakhmut’s flanks north and south of the city. The Russian year-long drive began as part of a theoretically sensible but overly-ambitious operational effort but ended as a purely symbolic gesture that cost tens of thousands of Russian casualties.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 11, 2023

Ukrainian forces likely broke through some Russian lines in localized counterattacks near Bakhmut, prompting responses from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Russian forces retreated up to two kilometers behind Russian lines in unspecified sectors of the Bakhmut front. Syrskyi’s confirmation of Ukrainian gains prompted a response from Prigozhin, who claimed that Ukrainian forces have started the counteroffensive and recaptured three kilometers of ground in and around Bakhmut. The Russian MoD acknowledged the Ukrainian counterattacks uncharacteristically quickly, claiming that Russian forces repelled eight ground attacks and three reconnaissance-in-force efforts in the Donetsk direction but denied reports that Ukrainian forces broke through the Russian defensive lines. Prigozhin’s and the MoD’s responses are reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives and indicate increased concern among Wagner and Russian MoD leadership as well as reflecting Kremlin guidance to avoid downplaying Ukrainian successes.

ISW Policy Regarding Coverage Of Announced Upcoming Ukrainian Counter-Offensive Operations

ISW is aware of concern regarding the effect of ISW’s maps and assessments on Ukrainian operational security. Recent media coverage speculating about potential Ukrainian courses of action has used and in some cases misrepresented ISW assessments to make predictions in ways that are inconsistent with the intent of ISW’s products and do not reflect ISW’s institutional views. While our aim is indeed to enable informed reporting about the war by providing granular insights into the situation on the ground, the nature and purpose of our assessments is to evaluate the war as it unfolds and not to provide insight into Ukrainian planning. Inferring predictions of Ukrainian operations from ISW maps and assessments that do not explicitly offer such predictions is inappropriate and not in accord with their intended use.