Ukraine Project

Target Russia’s Capability, Not Its Intent

US policy should recognize that the Kremlin’s intent regarding Ukraine is maximalist, inflexible, and will not change in the foreseeable future. The West should stop expending resources trying to change a reality it does not control and focus on what it can shape plenty: denying Russia’s ability to wage a war against Ukraine. Negotiations, ceasefires, and peace deals are not off-ramps but rather on-ramps for the Kremlin to renew its attack on Ukraine in the future under conditions that advantage Russia. They are means to the same ends—full control of Ukraine and eradication of Ukraine’s statehood and identity. The vital US interest in preventing future Russian attacks on Ukraine can be best achieved by denying Russia the capability to carry out those attacks. The immediate requirement is preserving Ukraine’s momentum on the battlefield—accounting for a possible renewed offensive from Russia this winter—to ensure that Ukraine secures the most advantageous position possible. The West should also eliminate Russia’s ability to attack Ukraine in the future, including by denying Russia a military foothold in Ukraine from which to launch attacks, resisting "peace" deals that the Kremlin will use to buy time to reconstitute its forces, not empowering the Russian defense industrial complex with access to Western markets, and committing to building Ukraine's defensive capabilities over the long term.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 19

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 17

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. 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. 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. One prominent milblogger even questioned whether “Putin finally showed public interest in the special military operation” at their suggestion to do so.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 16

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. The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed 37 of 40 missiles targeting Kyiv. Ukrainian officials also reported that Russian missiles struck nine energy infrastructure facilities and some residential buildings in Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts. 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. 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 Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 15

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.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 14

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. 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. 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.

Iran Crisis Update, December 13

The Iranian regime has replaced key clerics responsible for indoctrinating a significant portion of the security forces, possibly to improve efforts to ideologically control security officers. Senior Iranian cleric Abdollah Hajji Sadeghi appointed three new clerics to key leadership posts in the Basij Organization on December 13. Hajji Sadeghi is responsible for representing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 13

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). 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). Belarusian forces reportedly deployed 25 BTR-80s and 30 trucks with personnel toward Malaryta, Brest (about 15 km from Ukraine) on December 13. 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. Russia reportedly deployed three MiG-31K interceptors to the Belarusian airfield in Machulishchy on December 13. These deployments are likely part of ongoing Russian information operations suggesting that Belarusian conventional ground forces might join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. ISW has written at length about why Belarus is extraordinarily unlikely to invade Ukraine in the foreseeable future.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 12

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. 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. 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. These troop concentrations are likely significantly degraded and understrength.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 11

Russian officials consistently conduct information operations suggesting that Belarusian conventional ground forces might join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian leaders including Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sometimes play along with these information operations. The purpose of these efforts is to pin Ukrainian forces at the Belarusian border to prevent them from reinforcing Ukrainian operations elsewhere in the theater. Belarus is extraordinarily unlikely to invade Ukraine in the foreseeable future whatever the course of these information operations. A Belarusian intervention in Ukraine, moreover, would not be able to do more than draw Ukrainian ground forces away from other parts of the theater temporarily given the extremely limited effective combat power at Minsk’s disposal.

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