Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 13
Karolina Hird, George Barros, Grace Mappes, Madison Williams, and Frederick W. Kagan
December 13, 6:30pm ET
Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.
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.
Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reiterated on December 13 that the situation in northern Ukraine near Belarus has not significantly changed and that Ukrainian authorities still have not detected Russian forces forming strike groups in Belarus. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service reported that the situation on the border with Belarus is under control despite recent Belarusian readiness checks.
Russian milbloggers accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of engaging in performative "excessive reporting" instead of addressing systemic issues with the Russian military and Russian operations in Ukraine. A prominent Russian milblogger discussed the "vicious practice of photo reports" in the Russian military and noted that Russian soldiers are often made to dress in statutory uniforms and appear on camera to propagate a sense of preparedness and professionalism instead of actually preparing for combat missions. The milblogger emphasized that such demonstrations are purely theatrical and create a false sense of coherency in the Russian Armed Forces without actually addressing substantive issues with logistics, communications, and basic provision of units. Several other milbloggers amplified this discussion and accused Russian authorities of engaging in "excessive reporting" in order to inundate the information space with photo and video artifacts that aim to "justify the existence" of the Russian MoD and create a guise of success for Russian operations in Ukraine. One source emphasized its discontent with such "excessive reporting" and called the Russian MoD "the Ministry of Camouflage and Selfies." Russian milbloggers continue to leverage their platforms and notoriety to launch nuanced critiques at the Russian MoD in a way that continues to indicate a growing rift between the bureaucratic practices of the MoD and the realities faced by Russian soldiers on the ground and reported on by a slate of Russian military correspondents. Such discourse allows prominent voices in the nationalist information space to advocate for substantive change while undermining the MoD establishment.
Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide Russia. Axios reported on December 12 that Iran fears international backlash from providing Russia with long range missiles to use in the war in Ukraine and noted that United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2231 passed in 2015 prevents the transfer or receipt of Iranian ballistic missiles with a range over 300 kilometers and a payload over 500 kilograms until October 2023. Axios noted that violating this resolution could result in a "snapback" mechanism that reimposes UN sanctions against Iran.
Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russian in the 1990s as part of an international agreement that Russia explicitly violated by invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. In a comment to The New York Times Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky said that Russian forces are using ballistic missiles and Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers that Ukraine transferred to Russia as part of the Budapest Memorandum, whereby Ukraine transferred its nuclear arsenal to Russia for decommissioning. Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom committed in return to "respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine." This agreement has generated some debate about whether or not it committed the United States and the United Kingdom to defend Ukraine, which it did not do. There can be no debate, however, that by this agreement Russia explicitly recognized that Crimea and areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts it occupied in 2014 were parts of Ukraine. By that agreement Russia also committed "to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine," among many other provisions that Russia has violated. Skibitsky noted that Russia has removed the nuclear warhead from these decommissioned Kh-55 subsonic cruise missiles, which are now being used to launch massive missile strikes on Ukraine.
US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine. The US officials expect to receive the necessary approvals from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden, and the Pentagon could make a formal announcement as early as December 15. CNN reported that it is unclear how many Patriot missile systems the Pentagon plan would provide Ukraine, but that a typical Patriot battery includes up to eight launchers with a capacity of four ready-to-fire missiles each, radar targeting systems, computers, power generators, and an engagement control station.
Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression. Independent Russian outlet Meduza noted on December 13 that Russia has been expanding the concept of terrorism under Russian legislation over the course of the last two decades, and as recently as December of this year the State Duma proposed new amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that equate sabotage with an act of terrorism. Meduza amplified an investigation by another independent Russian outlet, Novaya Gazeta, that noted that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has transitioned from focusing on defining Islamist militant activity in the Caucasus as terrorism to orienting terrorism around the concept of Ukrainian "saboteurs." FSB Head Alexander Bortnikov relatedly claimed on December 13 that there has been an increase in "terrorist" activity within Russia in 2022, which he related to Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) supposedly operating with Western support. Russian authorities seem to be weaponizing the backdrop of the war in Ukraine to justify expansions of terrorism legislation under the guise of protecting domestic security. Such measures likely afford Russian security authorities greater latitude in cracking down on domestic dissent. As ISW has previously reported, Russian authorities have taken similar steps to use legal frameworks to broadly define individuals and actions as dangerous to Russian security and have recently proposed new bills on expanding the definition of "foreign agents" and the punishment for crimes considered to be sabotage.
- Belarusian forces remain unlikely to attack Ukraine despite a snap Belarusian military readiness check on December 13.
- Ukrainian officials continue to assess that Belarus is unlikely to attack Ukraine as of December 13.
- Senior Israeli officials stated that Iran seeks to limit the range of missiles it plans to provide to Russia in order to avoid triggering UN "snapback" sanctions.
- Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian forces are striking Ukraine with missiles that Ukraine transferred to Russia in the 1990s as part of an international agreement by which Russia recognized Crimea and all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as part of Ukraine and committed not to threaten or attack Ukraine.
- US officials stated on December 13 that the Pentagon is finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine.
- Russia continues to use concepts of terrorism as a legal framework for domestic repression.
- Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks near Svatove and Kreminna.
- Russian forces made marginal advances within Bakhmut and continued ground assaults near Avdiivka and Vuhledar.
- Russian forces may be withdrawing from certain areas south of the Dnipro River as they continue fortifying rear positions in occupied Kherson Oblast.
- Likely Ukrainian actors downed a bridge in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast amid increased reports of Ukrainian strikes against Russian military assets near Melitopol within the past few days.
- The Wagner Group is continuing efforts to use recruits from Russian prisoners to generate combat power.
We do not report in detail on Russian war crimes because those activities are well-covered in Western media and do not directly affect the military operations we are assessing and forecasting. We will continue to evaluate and report on the effects of these criminal activities on the Ukrainian military and population and specifically on combat in Ukrainian urban areas. We utterly condemn these Russian violations of the laws of armed conflict, Geneva Conventions, and humanity even though we do not describe them in these reports.
- Ukrainian Counteroffensives—Eastern Ukraine
- Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine (comprised of one subordinate and one supporting effort);
- Russian Subordinate Main Effort—Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
- Russian Supporting Effort—Southern Axis
- Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
- Activities in Russian-occupied Areas
Ukrainian Counteroffensives (Ukrainian efforts to liberate Russian-occupied territories)
Eastern Ukraine: (Eastern Kharkiv Oblast-Western Luhansk Oblast)
Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain positions northwest of Svatove on December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops unsuccessfully attacked toward Novoselivske and Stelmakhivka, both about 15km northwest of Svatove. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian troops northwest of Svatove are reinforcing positions in preparation for an anticipated Russian offensive in the area. Russian forces reportedly struck Kupyansk (45km northwest of Svatove) with S-300 surface-to-air missiles.
Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks west of Kreminna in order to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line on December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian troops repelled Russian attacks near Novoyehorivka (35km northwest of Kreminna), Makiivka (22km northwest of Kreminna), Chervonopopivka (5km north of Kreminna), and Bilohorivka (10km south of Kreminna). A Russian milblogger warned that Ukrainian forces are massing for a new offensive along the Svatove-Kreminna line and concentrating manpower and equipment in this area. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces west of Kreminna conducted unsuccessful ground attacks near Terny and Yampolivka. Another Russian source claimed that Russian troops are trying to push Ukrainian detachments back across the Zherebets River, also west of Kreminna.
Russian Main Effort—Eastern Ukraine
Russian Subordinate Main Effort—Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)
Russian sources claimed that Russian troops made marginal advances within Bakhmut on December 13. A Russian milblogger reported that Wagner Group forces broke through Ukrainian defensive lines in the eastern part of Bakhmut and established full control of the Bakhmut Champagne Winery and "Siniat" enterprise. Russian milbloggers also claimed that Russian troops are advancing down several streets in the southeastern and eastern sectors of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Ukrainian troops are continuing to repel Russian assaults northeast of Bakhmut near Verkhnokamianske, Soledar, Yakovlivka, and Bakhmutske and south of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka, Kurdiumivka, and Mayorsk. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian troops have established control of 90% of Opytne, 3km south of Bakhmut. Russian sources continue to emphasize heavy Ukrainian losses and claim that Ukrainian troops are rotating or entirely withdrawing from parts of Bakhmut.
Russian forces continued ground assaults in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area on December 13. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian troops unsuccessfully attacked in the areas of Avdiivka and Marinka (on the southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City). The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 11th Regiment posted footage of strikes on Ukrainian positions reportedly in Pervomaiske (10km southwest of Avdiivka), and a Russian milblogger claimed that the 11th Regiment and "Somalia" battalion are active in repelling Ukrainian counterattacks near Pervomaiske. Russian sources additionally claimed that Russian troops have taken control of the road that runs from Marinka to Krasnohorivka (5km north of Marinka), which they highlighted as a major blow for the Ukrainian grouping on the southwestern outskirts of Donetsk City. Geolocated footage shows that Ukrainian forces have retaken positions east of Druzhby Prospekt in central Marinka, suggesting that ground in Marinka’s city center is constantly contested. Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces are conducting limited counterattacks in the face of Russian advances southwest of Donetsk City in the Vuhledar area.
Supporting Effort—Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)
Russian forces may be withdrawing from certain areas south of the Dnipro River as they continue fortifying rear positions in occupied Kherson Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 13 that Russian forces in the Kherson direction are rotating individual units and are withdrawing from Novomykhailivka (west of the R47 highway 23km west of Henichesk) and Mykhailivka (on the T2209 highway 45km northwest of Henichesk). Ukrainian officials have previously stated that they aim to prevent Russian forces from being able to approach the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River. Images posted on December 12 show Russian forces erecting dragon’s teeth anti-tank fortifications near Viazivka, Zaporizhia Oblast (just west of Melitopol on the E56 Kherson City-Melitopol highway) and Novotroitske (northwest of Henichesk on the R47 Nova Kakhovka-Henichesk highway), Kherson Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces continued to shell areas on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River, including Kherson City and its environs.
Likely Ukrainian actors downed a bridge in Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast amid increased reports of Ukrainian strikes against Russian military assets near Melitopol within the past few days. Images from December 13 show significant damage and fallen spans of the M14/E58 bridge across the Molochna River in Melitopol (roughly 100km behind the front lines), and Russian occupation officials claimed that Ukrainian "saboteurs" detonated 15-20kg of explosives to down the bridge overnight. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation officials claimed that Russian authorities will erect a temporary bypass bridge within two weeks and publicized alternate routes for ground transportation. Russian officials claimed that the bridge attack did not affect Russian logistics routes between Melitopol and Crimea, but some milbloggers claimed otherwise and criticized occupation officials for not guarding the bridge. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 13 that Ukrainian strikes destroyed the command post of the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army in Melitopol, and further strikes against Enerhodar, Tokmak, and Hulyaipole cumulatively wounded 150 personnel and destroyed three artillery installations and 10 pieces of equipment. A Russian milblogger noted that ongoing Ukrainian strikes against rear areas in Zaporizhia Oblast resemble the Ukrainian strategy in advance of the Kherson counteroffensive, and cautioned Russian forces to learn from military failures in Kherson Oblast.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on December 13 that it has made progress in negotiations regarding the demilitarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), and French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that both sides agreed to the removal of Russian heavy weapons from the ZNPP grounds (Ukraine has no weapons of any sort on the ZNPP grounds). Macron stated that negotiations are ongoing regarding the implementation of the removal of Russian heavy weapons from the ZNPP. Russian occupation officials and milbloggers balked at Macron’s announcement, falsely claiming that Macron’s statement included the removal of light weapons from the ZNPP grounds. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov claimed that Russian forces do not store heavy weapons at the ZNPP grounds and that the removal of light weapons, such as rifles, would compromise the physical security of the plant. ISW has previously reported on satellite imagery demonstrating that Russian forces have stored heavy weapons on and around the ZNPP grounds, including under ZNPP infrastructure. IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi stated that he is confident that all sides will reach an agreement regarding the ZNPP soon. An agreement regarding the demilitarization of the ZNPP remains unlikely to constitute a full or partial Russian military withdrawal from the ZNPP or Enerhodar, and would not eliminate the ongoing threat to the ZNPP, as ISW has previously assessed.
Russian forces continued to conduct routine fire west of Hulyaipole and in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv oblasts on December 12. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces shelled Nikopol and Marhanets, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and Ochakiv, Mykolaiv Oblast.
Note: ISW will report on activities in Kherson Oblast as part of the Southern Axis in this and subsequent updates. Ukraine’s counteroffensive in right-bank Kherson Oblast has accomplished its stated objectives, so ISW will not present a Southern Ukraine counteroffensive section until Ukrainian forces resume counteroffensives in southern Ukraine.
Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)
The Wagner Group is continuing efforts to use recruits from Russian prisons to generate combat power. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on December 13 that Wagner Group Financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin has sent over 23,000 Russian prisoners to the Ukrainian front lines as part of his extended effort to bolster his political influence and potentially position himself as Putin’s successor. The Ukrainian Resistance Center claimed that Russian society does not care about the fate of prisoners, allowing Prigozhin to use them as cannon fodder in high-risk and high-mortality operations while keeping Wagner Group leadership out of combat. Russian opposition outlet Meduza amplified a December 12 interview with a Wagner POW and Russian convict, Vyacheslav Izmailov, who stated that Wagner promised prisoner recruits a six-month contract, 200,000 rubles, privileges for their families, complete release from their criminal punishment upon completion of the contract, and a safer position in trenches along the second front line in Ukraine. Izmailov stated that Wagner did not keep any of these promises and, after two weeks of training, the prisoner recruits were immediately thrown into the front line where the mortality rate was extremely high. Izmailov stated that 70 Wagner convicts of his 90-person platoon were killed.
The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces have intensified forced mobilization in occupied territories. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces in Donetsk Oblast have intensified forced mobilization in an effort to replenish losses in the Russian 1st Army Corps (forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic). The report stated that Russian forces in Horlivka, Donetsk are subjecting residents to forced conscriptions, especially residents with previous armored unit experience.
Russian authorities are continuing efforts to facilitate the war using legislative measures. The Russian State Duma adopted the first reading of a draft law on December 13 which simplifies the transfer of military production from federal authorities to Russian nongovernment organizations as part of the State Defense Order. The initiative is designed to ensure that the production of military equipment—like weapons, ammunition, spare vehicle parts, special components, and devices—remains proactive and that all such state production tasks are accomplished in a timely manner by lessening bureaucratic restraints on production. A prominent Russian milblogger stated that this draft law is meant to eliminate the organizational and bureaucratic obstacles that slow down the efficiency of the war.
The Russian MoD, supported by various milbloggers, is attempting to establish a façade of attention to the needs of mobilized personnel. One Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are solving their problems and that professionalism and order among mobilized personnel are growing as the Russian forces become a "single organism." The milblogger claimed that the Russian MoD has supplied forces with new equipment and technology, such as anti-drone guns, and that Russian forces improved their warfighting tactics such as artillery target-to-fire time. Another Russian milblogger claimed that the Russian MoD responded to a video complaint from mobilized personnel concerning insufficient equipment by sending that unit new equipment. The milblogger stated that the Russian public should be proud of what the Russian MoD accomplished and that it is the "best in the world."
Russian forces continued to experience issues with basic equipment and provisions for mobilized recruits. An open-source intelligence aggregator amplified a report that mobilized conscripts at a training base in Siberia are falling sick with bronchitis and pneumonia en masse likely due to living in tents in –30*C (-22*F) temperatures. Open-source intelligence aggregators and a Ukrainian source also circulated photos of Russian dragon’s teeth barricades decaying in an unspecified location in Ukraine due to harsh weather conditions compared to a photo of dragon’s teeth made during World War II that appear less degraded despite their decades of age difference.
Activity in Russian-occupied Areas (Russian objective: consolidate administrative control of and annexed areas; forcibly integrate Ukrainian civilians into Russian sociocultural, economic, military, and governance systems)
Ukrainian partisans conducted an assassination attempt against a Russian occupation official on December 12. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Ukrainian partisans conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against Kherson Oblast occupation Deputy Head Vitaly Bulyuk in his car in Skadovsk, Kherson Oblast, killing the car’s driver and injuring Bulyuk. Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo condemned the assassination attempt, claiming that "Ukrainian terrorists" committed the attack. Saldo stated that Bulyuk’s resulting injuries are not life-threatening.
Russian authorities announced on December 13 that they are currently only integrating occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into the Russian judicial system. Russian State Duma Committee on State Construction and Legislation First Deputy Chairperson Irina Pankina stated that only legislation on the integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) into the Russian judicial system is "at a high stage of readiness," explicitly stating that the legislation "does not apply to Zaporizhia and Kherson" oblasts. Pankina did not state a reason for the delay in legislation for occupied Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts. A Russian milblogger claimed that Pankina's announcement is "alarming" given that Russia considers all four illegally occupied territories as "inalienable territories of the Russian Federation." Such disparate treatment of occupied territories may contribute to setting information conditions for the eventual territorial loss of some or all of Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, whether intentional or not, and suggests constant confusion in Russia’s annexation agenda.
Note: ISW does not receive any classified material from any source, uses only publicly available information, and draws extensively on Russian, Ukrainian, and Western reporting and social media as well as commercially available satellite imagery and other geospatial data as the basis for these reports. References to all sources used are provided in the endnotes of each update.
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