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. 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. 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." 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. 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.
Protest coordinators and organizations are encouraging citizens to demonstrate more regularly and spontaneously rather than awaiting planned protests. The United Neighborhood Youth called for decentralized demonstrations and for protesters to “break the cycle of waiting.” The Karaj Neighborhood Youth published a graphic illustrating the protest activity that preceded the Iranian revolution in 1979 to argue that the movement must sustain itself through an extended period of spikes and lulls to gradually weaken the regime. These protest coordinators and organizations are likely trying to reverse a natural consequence of the growing cohesion within the movement. Many protesters may be increasingly awaiting calls for protests and other guidance rather than acting independently as the movement has developed more obvious leadership. But these protest coordinators and organizations have demonstrated that they cannot consistently generate significant surges in protest activity themselves, possibly due to mistrust toward them among demonstrators and/or the challenges of organizing under the tremendous pressure the regime is exerting against them. The persistence of protests has been a remarkable feature of this movement and has put great strains on the regime and its security forces. If the protesters can resume more decentralized and less predictable activities, they can add to that strain even with small numbers of demonstrators in the streets at a time.
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. 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. 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.
The Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of 22-year-old protester Mohammad Ghobadlou on December 24 after rejecting his appeal. The Judiciary convicted Ghobadlou of “corruption on earth” and sentenced him to death in October 2022. This charge—corruption on earth—is an extremely broad charge that the Judiciary often uses to justify executions. The Iranian penal code states that this charge can be brought against an individual who “extensively commits a felony against the bodily entity of the people, offenses against internal or international security of the state, spreads lies, disrupts the economic system of the state, commits arson or destroys properties, distributes poisonous and bacterial and dangerous materials, or [establishes, aids, or abets] places of corruption and prostitution.” The Supreme Court published earlier on December 24 that it had accepted the appeals of Ghobadlou and Saman Seyyedi Yasin—two protesters on death row—but later retracted that report and stated that it had accepted the appeal of Yasin but upheld Ghobadlou’s death sentence.
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. Ukrainian social media sources previously claimed that Ukrainian forces completely pushed Russian forces out of the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut around December 21. 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.
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. 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.
The Iranian regime is likely in a mounting confrontation with citizens in Izeh, Khuzestan Province. Izeh has seen weeks of violence since November 2022. Unidentified gunmen shot and killed at least six people and injured another 15 at a shopping center in Izeh on November 16. Iranian state media attributed the attack to the Islamic State, although the group has not claimed responsibility. Security forces conducted a direct-action raid in Izeh on December 20 targeting individuals for their alleged roles in the terror attack. Unconfirmed social media accounts have claimed that security forces have begun killing and mass arresting citizens in Izeh since the raid. Others have claimed that the regime has imposed a total internet blackout there and established checkpoints on the major roads leading into and out of the city. This most recent reported escalation suggests that citizens may have protested and reacted angrily to the raid. The information space remains incredibly murky, and obtaining reliable and verifiable information is thus difficult.
Social media accounts reported that Iranian security forces have begun violently killing and mass arresting citizens in Izeh, Khuzestan Province since December 21. Some accounts have claimed that the regime has arrested over 350 individuals thus far and completely disrupted internet services in the area. Others have claimed that the regime has established checkpoints on the major roads leading into and out of the city. CTP cannot verify these reports at this time, and the information space remains extremely muddy. We will provide more information on the situation in Izeh in future updates.
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. 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.
The ongoing anti-regime protests in Iran reached their three-month anniversary on December 16. Countrywide demonstrations and strikes are continuing to shake the Iranian regime, presenting it with one of the most existential threats it has faced since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The continuation of this popular uprising is particularly impressive given the immense effort the Iranian regime has made to brutally suppress the movement. Its resilience is a testament to the tremendous bravery, courage, and determination of the Iranian protesters. CTP has produced daily updates on these protests and their evolution since September 2022. We present here a series of visualizations produced from the open-source data that we have gathered over the past three months to further inform the public discourse on this important moment in Iranian history.