The Kremlin continues to publicly challenge Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner Group forces were solely responsible for capturing Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on January 12. Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed the success on the frontlines to Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff plans when responding to a journalist’s question on January 15 regarding Russian advances in Soledar. Putin’s statement was aired live on state-controlled TV and was likely a deliberate effort to undermine Prigozhin’s influence within the Russian information space, given that Putin has previously refrained from commenting on tactical advances in Ukraine. Putin may have also sought to demonstrate he retains control over traditional Russian mass media, while Prigozhin continues to grow an audience on Telegram and other social media networks. The Russian MoD, in turn, also continued to report that Russian Southern Military District (SMD) assault detachments and Russian airborne troops are attacking Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut and likely deliberately excluded mentioning Wagner forces in its January 15 daily briefing.
Iranian protest organizers circulated calls on January 15 for the international community, and especially European parties, to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Many well-known protest groups—even those who occasionally seem to disagree with one another—circulated these calls in unison. The protest groups published these calls in Persian and English. This external messaging is consistent with and may reflect the priorities some protest organizers have set in recent days. The Iranian Neighborhood Youth Union emphasized its focus on expanding external outreach to the international community on January 13.
The Kremlin is belatedly taking personnel mobilization, reorganization, and industrial actions it realistically should have before launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 invasion and is taking steps to conduct the “special military operation” as a major conventional war. Russian President Vladimir Putin began publicly signaling preparations for a protracted war in early December 2022, pledging that Russia will improve upon the mistakes of its earlier military campaigns and setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin notably remarked on December 7 that the “special military operation” in Ukraine could be a “lengthy process” and made several further public appearances throughout December indirectly outlining his goals to: improve the Russian war effort’s mobilization processes, revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base, centralize the Kremlin’s grip over the Russian information space, and reinstate the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) authority.
Russian forces launched two waves of missile strikes targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure on January 14. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces conducted 50 missile and three airstrikes against Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kryvyi Rih, Dnipro, Vinnytsya, and unspecified settlements in western Ukraine. Russian missile strikes on Dnipro City damaged an apartment building, killing at least 5 people and wounding over 60. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces struck Ukrainian cities and settlements in two waves: first employing S-300 and S-400 systems in Belarus against ground targets in Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast in the morning and later launching 28 cruise missile strikes using Kh-101/Kh-555, Kh-22, sea-based Kalibr, and Kh-59 guided air missiles. The Ukrainian General Staff added that Ukrainian forces shot down 18 cruise missiles and three guided air missiles.
The Iranian judiciary announced on January 14 the execution of Alireza Akbari—a former deputy defense minister and British-Iranian dual national. The judiciary previously announced on January 11 that it had sentenced Akbari to death for espionage charges. Iranian officials and media have accused Akbari of providing information to British intelligence services. CTP has previously assessed that some elements of the security establishment are coopting Akbari’s case to force Ali Shamkhani from his position as Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) secretary. CTP is not prepared to assess the likelihood of Shamkhani’s departure, however.
Some protest organizers in Iran are trying to push the protest movement into a new phase—one that could include more militant activity against the Iranian regime. The Karaj Neighborhood Youth has argued in recent days that the movement has entered a “new phase” and “second wave” as protest turnout has continued to decline. The Karaj group has described this new period as featuring greater centralization and cohesion within the movement, external outreach, and insurgent activity. The Karaj group stated on January 4 that the movement has “intensified” its coordination and is making unified decisions regarding “approaches, fighting methods, assistance, etc.” The Karaj group rebranded entirely on January 13, labeling itself as the international communications wing of the Iranian Neighborhood Youth Union (INYU)—a coalition of protest groups that formed in December 2022. The Karaj group under its new name announced that the INYU is pursuing two efforts: “1. Building cohesion and cooperation among militant groups inside Iran [and] 2. Connecting with the international community (individuals, organizations, and media).” The group added that the first effort "is currently underway, and soon most militant groups in the field will gather together.” It is unclear how much real influence the INYU has over the protest movement and to what extent its efforts will succeed, especially given the challenges that it has had in generating protest turnout previously. Infighting over leadership within the protest movement could seriously hinder these efforts. It is also unclear to what extent the INYU will continue trying to coordinate overt acts of political defiance, such as demonstrations and strikes.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 13 that Russian forces seized Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on the evening of January 12. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces can now form a “cauldron” around Bakhmut and threaten Ukrainian supply lines running southwest of Soledar that support Ukrainian troops in the city. The Russian MoD notably praised assault and army aviation, missile and artillery troops, and Russian airborne forces for seizing Soledar, without acknowledging Wagner Group’s participation in the fighting for the city. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov maintained that the situation around Soledar is difficult and noted that it is unclear if Russian forces control the settlement at this time. At the same time, other Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces continued to fight in Soledar during the night of January 12-13. Ukrainian forces may still occupy some positions on the northwestern borders of Soledar but are unlikely to control significant territory within the settlement itself. ISW assessed on January 12 that Russian forces had likely captured Soledar on January 11, but such a victory is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.
Deteriorating relationships between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local communities will likely advantage the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) as it seeks to expand its shadow governance in eastern Syria. Tensions have spiked over reported SDF human rights abuses in communities it suspects of harboring ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor province. ISIS is likely taking advantage of the SDF’s abuse of civilians by retaliating against the SDF to promote itself as an alternative, while also using threats and intimidation to recruit local allies. Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, is attempting to push back an effort by Somali government and local forces to oust the group from positions in central Somalia. Somali forces, with US support, have removed al Shabaab from several strongholds in central and south-central Somalia. Al Shabaab is retaliating with attacks intended to pin Somali forces in their positions and intimidate local militias. The group is likely not pursuing negotiations with the Somali government, despite media reports of talks. An escalating insurgency in Pakistan is straining relations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has increased attacks in Pakistan since November 2022. The TTP has ties to the Afghan Taliban and maintains havens inside Afghanistan. The relationship between the Afghan Taliban government and Pakistan has deteriorated over the past few months due to increasing border clashes and the Taliban government’s failure to reign in TTP attacks targeting Pakistan. The Pakistani government is now likely considering a renewed military effort against the TTP to include strikes in Afghan territory. The Taliban government will seek to avoid open military conflict with Pakistan but will remain either unable or unwilling to restrict TTP operations targeting Pakistan from Afghanistan.
CTP recorded no protests in Iran for the second consecutive day on January 12, 2023. Some protest organizers called for demonstrations to commemorate executed protesters, but CTP did not record indications that these demonstrations materialized. Regular expressions of anti-regime sentiment are continuing throughout Iran, however. Protest groups have also called for demonstrations on January 19—20, which coincide with scheduled university exams. Gathering students in-person to take the tests could catalyze demonstrations. Regime officials have discussed issuing localized or possibly countrywide internet shutdowns on these dates ostensibly to prevent cheating on the exams, as CTP previously reported, and could use such measures to facilitate protest suppression.
Russian forces’ likely capture of Soledar on January 11 is not an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage posted on January 11 and 12 indicates that Russian forces likely control most if not all of Soledar, and have likely pushed Ukrainian forces out of the western outskirts of the settlement. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks against Sil in Donetsk Oblast—a settlement over a kilometer northwest of Soledar and beyond previous Ukrainian positions. The Ukrainian General Staff and other senior military sources largely did not report that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian assaults against Soledar on January 12 as they have previously. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces are still clearing Soledar of remaining Ukrainian forces as of January 12. Russian milbloggers posted footage on January 12 of Wagner Group fighters freely walking in Soledar and claimed that they visited the settlement alongside Russian forces. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not announced that Russian forces have captured Soledar, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov congratulated Russian forces for successful offensive operations in the settlement. All available evidence indicates Ukrainian forces no longer maintain an organized defense in Soledar. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s January 12 statement that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in Soledar may be referring to defensive positions near but not in Soledar.