Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine since his initial flawed invasion on February 24, 2022, indicate a likely disconnect between his maximalist objectives and his willingness to take the likely high-risk decisions necessary to achieve them. Putin likely operated under the flawed assumption that Russian forces could force Kyiv to capitulate without any significant military sacrifices and saw Russia’s invasion as a limited and acceptable risk. Captured Russian military plans, for example, revealed that the Kremlin expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv in days, Russian intelligence services reportedly expected the Ukrainian military to collapse, and Kremlin propagandists preemptively published a prewritten article extolling Russia’s “victory” on February 26, 2022. Reports that Putin dismissed the Russian Central Bank’s prescient warnings in February 2022 of the effect of a war in Ukraine on the future of the Russian economy under harsh Western sanctions likely suggest Putin wrongfully assumed the West would not impose major costs on his invasion. The failure of Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv—and with it the Kremlin’s war plan—forced Putin to face complex decisions as the Kremlin fought an increasingly costly and protracted conventional war. Putin, however, has remained reluctant to order the difficult changes to the Russian military and society that are likely necessary to salvage his war.
Russian decisive offensive operations are unlikely to target Zaporizhia City from the western Donetsk–Zaporizhia frontline as the Russian military continues to prepare for an offensive in western Luhansk Oblast. Advisor to the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andryushenko, stated that Russian soldiers in Mariupol are telling residents that the Russian military ordered offensive operations against Vuhledar, areas southwest of Bakhmut, Zaporizhia City and Zaporizhia Oblast. Andryushenko added that Russia is also building up forces at barracks and settlements on roads leading to frontline positions, and that Russia had brought an extra 10,000–15,000 troops to Mariupol and its outskirts. Andryushenko noted the Russian forces reportedly have 30,000 troops in the greater Mariupol area. ISW continues to assess that Russia is concentrating troops and military equipment to stage a decisive offensive on the western Luhansk Oblast and Bakhmut areas.
The Iranian regime is in a steady pattern of escalation with prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid, which risks stoking sectarian tensions in Iran. Abdol Hamid is an outspoken regime critic who has used his Friday sermons in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to inspire weekly demonstrations criticizing regime mistreatment of Iranian Baloch and mistreatment of protesters. Abdol Hamid began facilitating these demonstrations initially in response to the Bloody Friday event in Zahedan on September 30, in which security forces attacked protesters and killed around 100 individuals. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded by trying to organize an effort to discredit Abdol Hamid, according to a leaked Fars News Agency bulletin, and dispatching a personal delegation to meet with him in November 2022. Both efforts failed to silence Abdol Hamid and his supporters.
The Biden administration announced a new $2.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on February 3, including precision long-range missiles for HIMARS. The package includes Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDM) that will increase the range of HIMARS to 151km from roughly 80km. The package also includes Javelin anti-armor systems, two HAWK air defense firing units, regular HIMARS ammunition, and 120mm mortar and 155mm artillery rounds.
A group of pragmatic hardliners is continuing to cohere around calls for the regime to reconcile with its alienated population in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf—a hardline Iranian official and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General—urged the regime to examine its weaknesses on February 2, expounding on his February 1 comments about schisms between the Islamic Republic and its population. Ghalibaf warned that Iran’s enemies would exploit its weaknesses if the regime failed to probe them. Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei separately urged Iranian officials to rectify economic, livelihood, and social justice issues and stated that Iran’s adversaries would “seize this weakness,” rhetorically mirroring Ghalibaf’s warning on the same date. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi additionally stated that the regime must engage in constructive dialogue with activists who operate within the ideological framework of the Islamic Republic and stressed the importance of political participation on February 2. Vahidi is an IRGC Brigadier General and formed Quds Force Commander and was the Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Vahidi is currently an elected official of the ultra-hardline Raisi administration and oversees the Iranian Law Enforcement Command--which the regime mobilizes to violently suppress anti-regime demonstrations—making Vahidi’s calls for improving political engagement with the Iranian population particularly noteworthy. Vahidi previously acknowledged that the Mahsa Amini protest movement had created deep sociopolitical fissures between the regime and Iranian youth on January 26. Ghalibaf’s, Ejei’s, and Vahidi’s comments follow former President Hassan Rouhani’s February 1 statement implying that Iranian leadership had lost the support of its population.
A Ukrainian intelligence official stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA) for a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Chernyak told the Kyiv Post on February 1 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023. Chernyak also stated that Russian forces are redeploying additional unspecified assault groups, units, weapons, and military equipment to unspecified areas of eastern Ukraine, likely in the Luhansk Oblast area.
Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham likely made a strategic choice to decrease its attacks in some areas of Iraq to enable their use as transit zones. ISIS continues to use Ninewa province in northwestern Iraq to move supplies and personnel to support its attack cells in eastern Iraq. Iraq’s government is attempting to limit ISIS movements, though Ninewa’s geographic and demographic features challenge this effort. ISIS likely retains some access to rural Arab communities due to Yazidi-Arab tensions stemming from the aftermath of ISIS atrocities and subsequent retribution attacks in the 2014–17 period.
Somalia. The Islamic State is leveraging networks across multiple continents to sustain both new and established affiliates. A US military raid in northern Somalia killed a key ISIS facilitator in northern Somalia. This facilitator oversaw a sprawling financial and logistical support network from Somalia that coordinated trainers and funding to Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique. His death may temporarily disrupt these activities.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) significantly escalated its attack campaign against the Pakistani state with a major suicide bombing targeting police in northwestern Pakistan on January 30. Conflicting TTP responses to the attack could demonstrate internal TTP divisions over strategy and ideology. These divisions, as well as tensions between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP faction that conducted the attack, could lead this faction to ally itself with the Islamic State’s branch in the region. Afghan Taliban support for the TTP will continue to strain the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan and increases the likelihood of Pakistani military action against TTP havens in Afghanistan.
Iranian officials across the political spectrum are cohering around different lessons the regime should draw from the protest movement and how to best respond. Former reformist president Hassan Rouhani criticized the regime for marginalizing moderate and reformist actors in the political sphere in an interview on February 1. Rouhani implied that Iranian leadership had lost the support of the Iranian population and acknowledged the existence of deep societal fissures following the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Rouhani urged Iranian officials to address protester grievances by enforcing corresponding cultural and political changes, although he did not specify the nature or content of these changes. Rouhani framed deepening divides between Iranian leadership and its population as a serious threat to the legitimacy and preservation of the regime, stating: “we have no choice but to preserve and fix the regime […] we must bring the people who have turned away from us back into the fold.” Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf—a hardline Iranian official and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General—echoed Rouhani’s warnings of schisms between the regime and its people on February 1. Ghalibaf stressed the importance of Iranian leadership maintaining a dialogue with the population and stated that “the Islamic Revolution has no meaning without the participation of the people […] the people are the foundation of the revolution.”
Ukrainian officials are continuing to warn about Russia’s intention of conducting a decisive offensive operation in Donbas in February and/or March, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA). Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Yusov stated on February 1 that Ukraine is on the eve of an active phase of combat that will take place over the next two months. Yusov noted that the poor state of Russian military equipment will force the Russian military command to mass forces to outnumber Ukrainian defenders in order to make gains. Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Hrabskyi stated that Russia does not have sufficient forces to conduct an attack along the entire 1,500km frontline in Ukraine and will concentrate its efforts on seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. A prominent Russian milblogger observed that the prospect of a Russian offensive operation does not appear to be triggering panic among Ukrainian forces, who are continuing to build out their counteroffensive plans. ISW reported on January 31 that Ukrainian military officials reiterated their intent to launch major counteroffensive operations by summer 2023.
Iranian officials have threatened Ukraine and unnamed regional states for allegedly cooperating with Israel in response to the reported Israeli drone strike on a military munitions factory in Esfahan on January 28. An unidentified source told Nour News Agency, which is affiliated with the Supreme National Security Council, on January 31 that Tehran may reevaluate its relationship with Kiev and changes its ostensibly neutral policy toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The source was responding to Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Mykhailo Podolyak suggesting that the Israeli strike was retaliation for Iranian military support to Russia. Nour News Agency characterized Podolyak’s statements as tantamount to an admission of responsibility for the attack. There is no evidence that Ukraine was informed of or complicit in the attack. CTP does not assess that Tehran will escalate against Ukraine for Podolyak’s comments but rather that Iran will continue to provide military support to Russia.