Ukraine Conflicts Updates 2023

This page is a collection of ISW and CTP's Ukraine War updates from 2023. 

Thie list below also includes prominent warning alerts that ISW and CTP launched beyond our daily Ukraine Conflict Updates. These products addressed critical inflection points as they occurred.

Click here to see ISW's collection of reports from 2022

Click here to see ISW's interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map complements the static control-of-terrain maps that ISW daily produces with high-fidelity and, where possible, street-level assessments of the war in Ukraine.

Click here to see ISW's interactive timeline of the invasion. This high-definition interactive map is resource intensive. The performance and speed of the map correlate with the strength of your hardware. 

Click here to read about the methodology behind ISW and CTP's mapping of this conflict.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 31, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 31, 2023, 5:10pm ET 

Note: ISW and CTP will not publish a campaign assessment (or maps) tomorrow, January 1, in observance of the New Year holiday. Coverage will resume on Tuesday, January 2.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on December 31. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the January 2 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual New Year's address on December 31 to concretize Russian ideological priorities for 2024, notably omitting any mentions of the war in Ukraine and instead focusing on setting ideological conditions for the upcoming year. In stark contrast to last year's New Year's address, wherein Putin addressed the nation at the headquarters of the Southern Military District surrounded by uniformed military personnel and talked explicitly about Russia's goals in Ukraine, Putin's 2023 address shows him standing alone against the backdrop of the Kremlin, without a single mention of the "special military operation."[1] Putin instead opted to very briefly thank Russian military personnel for fighting for "truth and justice," and otherwise focused on emphasizing Russian national unity.[2] Putin also stated that 2024 will be the "Year of the Family," emphasizing that the Russian family is the backbone of "the multinational people of Russia," and that Russia is "one big country, one big family."

Putin has in recent weeks frequently discussed Russia's continued maximalist intentions for the war in Ukraine, and Putin likely sought to set more domestically-oriented ideological conditions during his New Year's speech.[3] Putin's invocation of 2024 as the "Year of the Family," as well as his emphasis on Russian "multinationalism," further serve to clearly delineate the Kremlin's ideological line going into 2024, orienting domestic policy around the preservation of traditional Russian family values and the protection of Russian multinationalism, which both fit into Putin's wider ideology of a Russian World (Russkiy Mir) inclusive of groups within and beyond Russia.[4] ISW has recently assessed that Putin is trying to re-establish the conception of the Russian World as the backbone of Russian domestic and foreign policy, and the 2023 New Year's address identifies Russian families and Russian multinationalism as pillars of this concretized Russian World.[5] The Kremlin's conceptions of the Russian World will undoubtedly impact Russian administrative, bureaucratic, and sociocultural priorities in occupied Ukraine, as well as military goals on the battlefield in the year to come.

Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 31, underscoring a notable recent increase in the percentage of Russian Shahed-136/131 drones penetrating or avoiding Ukrainian air defenses. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces struck Kharkiv City with six S-300 missiles and launched 49 Shahed drones primarily at Ukrainian frontline positions as well as civilian, military, and infrastructure facilities in Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhia oblasts on the night of December 30 to 31.[6] Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 12 missiles at targets in Ukraine on December 31, an unspecified number of which struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts.[7] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 21 of the Shahed drones, a notably lower rate of interceptions for Ukrainian air defenses than ISW has previously observed.[8] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian strikes on Ukrainian frontline positions with Shahed drones are “peculiar,” and it is possible that the lower interception rate is a result of Russian forces targeting frontline areas that have less air defense coverage or coverage less optimized for intercepting drones than population centers in the rear.[9] Ukrainian air defenses similarly had a lower-than-usual interception rate when Ukrainian forces shot down five out of 10 Shahed drones on December 30 and 27 out of 36 Shahed drones on December 29.[10] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 29 that Russian forces launched Shaheds that are harder to detect because they are painted black and partially absorb radio signals.[11] Ihnat previously stated on November 25 that Russian forces are beginning to use black paint and carbon fiber materiel on Shahed drones to complicate the work of Ukrainian air defense systems.[12] It is unclear if adaptations to the Shahed drones are decreasing the Ukrainians’ ability to intercept the drones or if the apparent trend in the decreased Ukrainian interception rate will continue.

Russian forces, particularly Russian airborne (VDV) Forces, are reportedly suffering heavy losses in simultaneous infantry-heavy Russian offensive operations on multiple fronts. A Russian milblogger claimed on December 31 that units of the Russian VDV forces are suffering heavy losses and are unable to rest and recover.[13] The milblogger claimed that experienced and trained VDV contract servicemen (kontraktniki) form a lower proportion of the VDV's personnel, and that the VDV has suffered high losses amongst experienced members of the command cadre that had previously made up the core of the VDV forces. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets assessed on December 31 that elements of the newly formed 104th VDV Division, particularly its 328th and 337th VDV Regiments, will have to withdraw from the Krynky area in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast for rest and replenishment after a month of almost continuous fighting in the area.[14] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) assessed on December 14 that elements of the 104th VDV Division likely suffered exceptionally heavy losses near Krynky due to inadequate air and artillery support and the inexperience of many of its personnel.[15] VDV Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky implied on December 23 that the Russian military command is deploying new VDV officers and troops directly from graduation from initial training to the frontlines without having them complete pre-combat training.[16] Teplinsky stated that some recent graduates of the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School will join the 104th Division in the Kherson direction.[17]

The high casualty rate, particularly among units such as the VDV that were considered elite before 2022, is largely a reflection of the fact that the Russian military command has chosen to pursue simultaneous offensive operations along the entire frontline, often prioritizing marginal gains at the cost of disproportionate losses. The UK MoD stated on December 30 that “the average daily number of Russian casualties in Ukraine has risen by almost 300 during the course of 2023” and that if the current casualty rate continues Russian forces will have lost over half a million personnel total in Ukraine by the end of 2024.[18] A declassified US intelligence assessment reportedly shared with Congress on December 12 stated that Russian forces have lost 315,000 personnel since the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[19] The current tempo and style of Russian offensives in Ukraine are reflective of these estimated casualty rates. Russian forces have conducted multiple waves of mass mechanized assaults and infantry-led assaults to capture Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, since October 10 despite heavy personnel losses, for example, and have rushed untrained VDV elements to defend against Ukrainian ground operations in the east bank of Kherson Oblast, where they have also taken heavy losses.[20] The Russian military leadership has undertaken extensive force generation measures as part of efforts to offset manpower losses, however, including partial mobilization since September 2022 and ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.[21] The current casualty rate should not be taken as permanent—the Russian military command could change the tempo and pace of offensive operations or take time to reconstitute its forces for more effective future offensive operations. Ukraine's Western partners must guard against complacency when assessing Russian losses and operational failures in Ukraine, as ISW has previously assessed.[22]

A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power in Russia while reiterating a common Russian information operation aimed at erasing Ukrainian identity. The milblogger claimed on December 31 that the illegal Russian annexation of occupied Luhansk Oblast as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), occupied Donetsk Oblast as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and occupied Crimea as the Republic of Crimea created three new republics that are specifically for “ethnic Russians.”[23] The milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power because there was not a republic dedicated to ethnic Russians prior to Russia‘s illegal annexation of the LNR, DNR and Crimea. The milblogger claimed that Russia has many republics dedicated to providing “statehood” to ethnic minorities such as the republics of Tatarstan, Karelia, and Dagestan.[24] The milblogger claimed that Russians instead have “territories,” likely referring to other designations for Russian federal subjects such as krais and oblasts. Russian republics, generally named after the ethnic minority inhabiting the area, are nominally allowed under Russian law to exercise more administrative autonomy than other Russian federal subjects.[25] The milblogger argued that Russia needs more "ethnic Russian" republics to promote the interests of ethnic Russians, reflecting the Russian pro-war ultranationalist community’s wider objective to eliminate non-Russian culture from Russian society. The milblogger’s argument rests on the long-running Russian information operation denying the existence of Ukrainian identity by falsely claiming that Ukrainians are ethnic Russians.[26] The milblogger’s argument also attributes coherence to DNR and LNR governance where ISW has consistently observed administrative disorganization and ineptitude.[27]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual New Year's address on December 31 to concretize Russian ideological priorities for 2024, notably omitting any mentions of the war in Ukraine and instead focusing on setting ideological conditions for the upcoming year.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 31, underscoring a notable recent increase in the percentage of Russian Shahed-136/131 drones penetrating or avoiding Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Russian forces, particularly Russian airborne (VDV) Forces, are reportedly suffering heavy losses in simultaneous infantry-heavy Russian offensive operations on multiple fronts.
  • A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power in Russia while reiterating a common Russian information operation aimed at erasing Ukrainian identity.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted positional engagements along the entire line of conduct, but there were no confirmed map changes on December 31.
  • Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko is spearheading efforts to consolidate sociocultural control of occupied areas of Ukraine via the information space.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 30, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 30, 2023, 6:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on December 30. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 31 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a large series of strikes against targets in Russia on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 30. Ukrainian security sources told Western and Ukrainian media that Ukrainian forces launched more than 70 drones on the night of December 29 to 30 at Russian military infrastructure and defense industrial facilities near Moscow, Belgorod, Tula, Tver, and Bryansk cities.[1] The Ukrainian security sources reportedly characterized these strikes as a response to the Russian strikes on December 29, which was the largest series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion.[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 32 Ukrainian drones in Bryansk, Orel, Kursk, and Moscow oblasts on the night of December 29 to 30.[3] The discrepancy between these Russian and Ukrainian figures may suggest that Ukrainian forces struck many of their intended targets, as Ukrainian security sources suggested to Western and Ukrainian media.[4] Ukrainian forces reportedly struck the Kreminy El Plant in Bryansk City, which is Russia’s second largest producer of microelectronics, 90 percent of whose manufactured products are reportedly components of Russian military equipment and systems.[5] Geolocated footage published on December 30 shows explosions over Bryansk City.[6] The Russian MoD stated that Russian air defenses shot down 12 Ukrainian MLRS rockets in Belgorod Oblast on December 29 and several more Ukrainian MLRS rockets near Belgorod City during the day on December 30.[7] Ukrainian security sources reportedly told Western and Ukrainian media that the Ukrainian strikes on December 30 targeted Russian military targets near Belgorod City.[8]

Russian forces conducted a lower number of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on December 30 following the large Russian strike series on December 29. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 10 Shahed-136/-131 drones at targets in southern Ukraine, an Iskander-M missile at Zaporizhzhia City, an unspecified number of Kh-59 missiles at Dnipro and Odesa cities, and six unspecified missiles at Kharkiv City.[9] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces intercepted five of the drones, the Iskander-M missile, and one of the Kh-59 missiles.[10] Russian forces reportedly struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv City, an enterprise in Odesa City, and the office of the Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner in Kherson City.[11] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 30 that the December 29 Russian strike series killed 39 people and wounded 159 and impacted hundreds of civilian objects.[12] The Economist reported on December 29 that a source in Ukraine’s defense industry stated that Russian strikes on December 29 predominately targeted defense industrial facilities in Ukraine, including those connected to Ukrainian missile and drone production.[13] Russian strikes against Ukrainian defense industrial facilities likely mean to prevent Ukraine from developing key capacities to sustain operations for a longer war effort and disrupt Ukrainian efforts to seek Western partnerships for joint production in Ukraine.[14]

Russian officials continued to clearly state that Russia is not interested in negotiating with Ukraine or the West in good faith and intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Galuzin stated in an interview with Russian state outlet RIA Novosti on December 30 that Russia will agree to a settlement when Ukraine is “neutral, non-aligned, and nuclear-free,” “demilitariz[ed],” and “denazi[fied]” — long-standing Russian demands for Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO and EU membership, the removal of Ukraine’s ability to defend its land and its people, and the replacement of the current elected Ukrainian government with a Kremlin-accepted government.[15] Galuzin also reiterated the Kremlin narrative that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — and not Russian President Vladimir Putin — is to blame for the absence of negotiations and claimed that Zelensky’s proposed peace plan “has nothing to do with peace” but “justif[ies] the continuation of hostilities.” Galuzin claimed that Russia has never refused to engage in dialogue with Ukraine, but that Russia has “no choice” but to complete all its "assigned tasks” — Russia’s maximalist objectives — in Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s recent public rhetoric about its maximalist objectives and imperial designs in Ukraine are permeating the Russian information space. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on December 30 that Western media is disseminating “rumors” about negotiations that would end the war in Ukraine by giving Russia unspecified parts of Ukrainian territory.[16] The milblogger stated that Russia is not interested in such “limited proposals,” suggesting that the milblogger believes that Russia’s war objectives extend beyond its currently occupied territory. The milblogger also claimed that Ukraine is not yet sufficiently demoralized and “exhausted” to accept a “catastrophic capitulation,” suggesting that the milblogger believes that Russia should only accept such a "catastrophic [Ukrainian] capitulation" and is calling on Russia to achieve these maximalist objectives in part through psychological means. Russian sources specifically amplified Deputy Chairperson of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev’s labelling of Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv as “Russian cities” on December 28. The prominent milblogger claimed on December 30 that the war will end when Ukraine allows Russia to take Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and other Ukrainian oblasts.[17] Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia Spokesperson Eduard Basurin claimed on December 30 that Russia’s task for the war in Ukraine was previously “blurry” and ”there was no understanding of where [Russian] borders should stop” but Medvedev’s statement makes it clear that Russia has determined that its borders should allow for ”complete [Russian] control“ of the Black Sea and should include Kyiv.[18] Basurin called Kyiv “the capital of [Russia’s] large empire” and the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy and the word “Rus” (in reference to Kyivan Rus). Basurin’s statements echo those of Putin, who featured similar claims in his July 2021 “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” essay and who has recently reverted to narratives about Kyivan Rus as part of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) to frame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a historically justified imperial reconquest.[19]

Russia continues to set information conditions aimed at destabilizing Moldova by framing Russia as a protector of allegedly threatened Russian-language speakers in Moldova. Russian state news wire TASS reported on December 27 that 19.1 percent of school children in Moldova choose to receive educational instruction in the Russian language.[20] TASS claimed that the Moldovan government’s refusal to recognize Russian as a state language in 1989 led to the war in Transnistria and the conflict with Gagauzia.[21] TASS further claimed that the ruling pro-European Moldovan Party of Action and Solidarity is exacerbating these alleged long-standing language divides by failing to grant Russian language the status of "a language of interethnic communication.”[22] Russian forces have occupied Transnistria since 1992, and Russia has continually supported pro-Russian actors in Moldova to promote political instability and division.[23] Claims that the Party of Action and Solidarity is threating Russian speakers in Moldova allow Russia to frame any potential Russian support for pro-Kremlin actors in Moldova as a humanitarian attempt to protect Russian speakers instead of an attempt to politically destabilize Moldova itself. The Kremlin used exactly this line of argument as one of the bases for its 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[24] Russia is likely attempting to justify any future actions in Moldova as an attempt to protect its “compatriots abroad,” a term that Russia has broadly defined to mean ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside of Russia regardless of their citizenship. Russia continues to justify its invasion of Ukraine, in part, by claiming Russia is protecting its “compatriots” in Ukraine and their right to use Russian language and will likely continue to use this narrative when discussing any future Russian attempts at imperial reconquests.[25]

Russia continues attempts to actively shape the Western information space to support Russian positions and undermine support for Ukraine while portraying these efforts as endogenous to the West. The Washington Post reported on December 30 that it obtained Kremlin documents from an unspecified European security service that show that Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko oversees Kremlin operations to undermine support for Ukraine and NATO in the French information space and through French politicians and activists.[26] The Kremlin documents reportedly listed specific narratives that the Kremlin sought to promote in France including arguments that Western sanctions against Russia have harmed the French economy, that the provision of French weapons supplies to Ukraine has degraded France’s ability to defend itself, that continuous support for Ukraine would lead to World War III, and that France should not fund a foreign war.[27] The Kremlin documents also reportedly show that Kremlin political strategists instructed a Russian troll farm employee to write a “200-character comment by a middle-aged French person” arguing that European support for Ukraine is a “stupid adventure” and that continued support for Ukraine is increasing inflation and lowering living standards.[28]

The Washington Post also reported that a six-month French government inquiry found that “Russia is conducting a long-term disinformation campaign in [France] to defend and promote Russian interests and to polarize [French] democratic society.”[29] The inquiry highlighted French far-right party National Rally’s links to the Kremlin and National Rally Party member and French politician Thierry Mariani's continued pro-Russian positions.[30] Mariani, previously under investigation for Russia-related corruption, is the Co-Chair of the Russian government-founded French think tank, the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association.[31] Russia reportedly employs similar information tactics in Ukraine, the West, and worldwide. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab) and the BBC’s Verify project recently found that Russian actors created thousands of fake accounts aimed at defaming former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and connected the effort to a previous Russian information campaign to discredit Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi in early 2023.[32] Independent social media monitor Graphika also found that Russian actors generated online content designed to appear as domestically generated to reduce Western support for NATO ahead of the July 2023 NATO summit.[33]

The Russian Ministry Foreign Affairs (MFA) emphasized Russia’s improving diplomatic relations with non-Western countries in way that suggests that the Kremlin is insecure about the possibility of diplomatic isolation against the backdrop of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Russian MFA published a list on December 30 outlining its accomplishments in gaining political and diplomatic support for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and expanding cooperation with countries and associations of the “world majority.”[34] Russia has previously defined the “world majority” as “a civilizational and cultural community that objectively opposes” the West and alleged that the world is divided into two camps: countries that support the United States and Ukraine and countries that are neutral or support Russia.[35] The MFA cited several accomplishments, such as improving relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America; having Sino-Russian relations reach an “unprecedented level”; bringing the Russian–North Korean relations to a new level; and developing Russian–Iranian relations. The MFA also claimed that Russia thwarted Western attempts to isolate Russia, responded to NATO’s and the European Union’s expansion, and withdrew from a series of treaties. It notably did not identify the expansion of NATO and the EU as the defeats for Russian diplomacy that they were. The Russian MFA has been trying recently to establish new diplomatic relations with African countries and even reopened its embassy in Burkina Faso for the first time since 1992 on December 28.[36] Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a bill in August committing Russia to reopen its embassy in Equatorial Guinea.[37] MFA Deputy Minister Yevgeny Ivanov announced on December 25 that Russia is planning to open additional embassies and diplomatic missions and claimed that while Western countries sent hundreds of Russian diplomats home, these diplomats were able to find other jobs within the MFA network.[38]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a large series of strikes against targets in Russia on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 30.
  • Russian forces conducted a lower number of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on December 30 following the large Russian strike series on December 29.
  • Russian officials continued to clearly state that Russia is not interested in negotiating with Ukraine or the West in good faith and intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin’s recent public rhetoric about its maximalist objectives and imperial designs in Ukraine are permeating the Russian information space.
  • Russia continues to set information conditions aimed at destabilizing Moldova by framing Russia as a protector of allegedly threatened Russian-language speakers in Moldova.
  • Russia continues attempts to actively shape the Western information space to support Russian positions and undermine support for Ukraine while portraying these efforts as endogenous to the West.
  • The Russian Ministry Foreign Affairs (MFA) emphasized Russia’s improving diplomatic relations with non-Western countries in way that suggests that the Kremlin is insecure about the possibility of diplomatic isolation against the backdrop of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made confirmed gains near Kreminna, Bakhmut and Avdiivka as positional engagements continued along the entire line of contact.
  • The Russian military command reportedly continued the dissolution of the “Kaskad” operational combat tactical formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) to support its efforts to formalize control over Russian irregular forces.
  • Russia continues efforts to integrate education systems in occupied Ukraine and expand education programs aimed at eliminating Ukrainian identity in occupied territories.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 29, 2023, 6:35pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on December 29. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 30 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted the largest series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion on the morning of December 29. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 36 Shahed-136/131 drones and over 120 missiles of various sizes at industrial and military facilities and critical infrastructure in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa cities and Sumy, Cherkasy, and Mykolaiv oblasts.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched a total of 160 projectiles at Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces downed 27 Shaheds and 88 Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-55 missiles.[2] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian forces first launched the 36 Shahed drones from the northern, southeastern, and western directions in the early hours of December 29.[3] Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian strategic aircraft and bombers later launched at least 90 Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-55 cruise missiles and eight Kh-22 and Kh-32 missiles.[4] Russian forces also struck Kharkiv City with modified S-300 air defense missiles and launched a total of 14 S-300, S-400, and Iskander-M ballistic missiles from occupied Crimea and Russia.[5] Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian forces also launched five Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, four Kh-31P anti-radar missiles, and one Kh-59 cruise missile at unspecified targets in Ukraine.[6] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that Russian forces struck civilian infrastructure such as a maternity hospital, educational institutions, a shopping center, a commercial warehouse, and residential buildings in cities throughout Ukraine.[7]

The strike package that Russian forces launched on December 29 appears to be a culmination of several months of Russian experimentation with various drone and missile combinations and efforts to test Ukrainian air defenses. Over the past several months, Russian forces have conducted a series of missile and drone strikes of varying sizes, using various combinations of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.[8] In most of the more recent strikes, Russian forces notably used either exclusively Shahed-136/131 type drones or a majority of Shahed drones accompanied by a smaller number of missiles.[9] In contrast, the December 29 strike package included 36 Shahed drones and 120 missiles of various sizes.[10] Ukrainian military officials, including Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat, have long noted that Russian forces frequently use Shahed-type drones to probe Ukrainian air defense and determine what strike routes most effectively circumvent Ukrainian air defense clusters.[11] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi also notably assessed on August 28 that Russian forces were likely employing strike packages comprised of more drones than missiles in order to determine flight paths that bypass Ukrainian air defenses and allow other projectiles to more reliably reach their intended targets.[12] ISW assessed on October 21 that Russian forces were likely diversifying the mix of missiles, glide bombs, and drones used in strike packages in order to determine weaknesses in Ukrainian air defense coverage to optimize a strike package such as the one that Russian forces launched on December 29.[13] Russia was likely deliberately stockpiling missiles of various sizes through the fall and early winter of 2023 in order to build a more diverse strike package and apply lessons learned over the course of various recent reconnaissance and probing missions—namely using Shahed drones to bypass Ukrainian air defenses while utilizing missiles to inflict maximal damage on intended targets.[14] Ukrainian forces notably did not intercept any of the Kh-22/Kh-32 missiles, ballistic missiles (S-300s and Iskander-Ms), Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles (Kh-47s), Kh-31P anti-radar missiles, or Kh-59 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched on December 29, which suggests that Russian forces have been able to successfully apply some lessons learned about effective strike package combinations and that the Shaheds that preceded the missiles may have distracted Ukrainian air defenses or otherwise enabled the strike.[15]

Russia will continue to conduct strikes against Ukraine at scale in an effort to degrade Ukrainian morale and Ukraine’s ability to sustain its war effort against Russia. Zaluzhnyi stated that Russian forces targeted critical infrastructure and industrial and military facilities in Ukraine on December 29.[16] Ukrainian officials indicated that Russian forces primarily struck residential buildings, transportation infrastructure, and industrial facilities, although this is not a comprehensive list of the Russian target set.[17] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Ukrainian defense industrial base (DIB) facilities and Ukrainian military infrastructure were the primary targets.[18]

Russian forces conducted an initial mass strike campaign in fall 2022 and winter 2022-2023 against Ukrainian energy infrastructure that was aimed at collapsing the Ukrainian energy grid during winter to degrade Ukrainian morale to the point of breaking the Ukrainian will to fight.[19] That effort failed, but Russian forces have conducted a consistent strike campaign in Ukraine that is still aimed at degrading Ukrainian morale and have also focused on inflicting compounding costs on Ukraine.[20]

Ukraine has pursued a concerted effort to expand its defense industrial base (DIB) in the past year, and the reported Russian strikes against industrial facilities likely mean to prevent Ukraine from developing key capacities to sustain operations for a longer war effort.[21] Ukraine has also sought Western partnerships for joint production in Ukraine, and Russian strikes on industrial facilities likely aim to increase risks for Western partners and companies above their current risk tolerance for operating in Ukraine.[22]

Russian forces will likely conduct intensified strikes in the coming days to coincide with the New Year Holiday as they did last year in an effort to degrade Ukrainian morale.[23] Russian forces may still decide to strike Ukrainian energy infrastructure at scale in the coming months, although ISW still assesses that a Russian effort to break Ukraine’s will to fight is very unlikely to succeed. Russian forces likely also intend for strikes on residential areas to stir up societal discontent in connection with routine information operations that aim to exploit and amplify Ukrainian social tensions.[24]

Current Russian missile and drone reserves and production rates likely do not allow Russian forces to conduct regular large-scale missile strikes, but likely do allow for more consistent drone strikes, which can explain the recent pattern of Russian strike packages. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on November 6 that Russian forces produced 115 long-range high-precision missiles in October 2023, including 30 Iskander-M cruise missiles, 12 Iskander-K cruise missiles, 20 Kalibr cruise missiles, 40 Kh-101 cruise missiles, 9 Kh-32 cruise missiles, and 4 Kinzhal ballistic missiles.[25] Skibitskyi also stated on November 6 that Russian forces had a total of 870 high-precision operational-strategic and strategic missiles in reserve in November and that this number increased by 285 missiles between August and November. Although Ukrainian officials have recently stated that Russian forces have partially restored their cruise missile stockpiles, Skibitskyi’s statements about recent Russian missile reserve totals and monthly production rates indicate that Russian forces are unable to sustain repeated large-scale missile strikes comparable to the December 29 strike series.[26] The December 29 strikes, which included five Kinzhal missiles, for example, used roughly one month’s worth of Russia’s reported production of that system. Russia is able to domestically produce Shahed-136/131 drones at a much higher rate, however, largely due to the creation and expansion of the drone production facility in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in the Republic of Tatarstan.[27] The Institute for Science and International Security reported on November 13 that even after a one-month delay in production the Alabuga facility planned to produce 1,400 Shahed-136 drones between February and October 2023 and plans to produce a total of 6,000 drones by September 2025.[28] Russian forces will therefore likely be able to conduct more consistent Shahed strikes than missile strikes, as Ukrainian officials have previously indicated.[29]

The Kremlin's efforts to sufficiently mobilize Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) in support of its wartime objectives, including large-scale strike series, may been more successful than Western officials previously assessed due in part to Russia’s ability to procure military equipment from its partners and the redistribution of Russia’s resources for military production purposes. Head of the German Ministry of Defense’s Special Staff for Ukrainian Issues Major General Christian Freuding stated during an interview on December 29 that the German Armed Forces did not expect that Russia would succeed in expanding its DIB and increasing its production capacity in the face of Western sanctions.[30] Freuding stated that Germany did not account for Russia’s ability to circumvent Western sanctions by procuring materiel from North Korea, China, and other countries.[31] Ukrainian outlet Ekonomichna Pravda, citing data from Forbes, reported that Russia’s December 29 strike cost Russia at least $1.27 billion, calculating that Russia spent over $720,000 to launch 36 Shahed-136/131 drones, over $5 million to launch five Kh-47 hypersonic missiles, and an estimated $1.17 billion on the over 90 Kh-101 missiles that it launched.[32] Forbes previously reported that Russian Kh-101 cruise missiles cost an estimated $13 million per missile compared to Kh-22 missiles that cost an estimated $1 million each and Iskander-M ballistic missiles that cost roughly $3 million each.[33] Russian forces notably appear to be using larger quantities of the more expensive Kh-101 cruise missiles to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and increase the chances of striking targets in Ukraine with smaller quantities of cheaper missile variants.

Russian opposition outlet Meduza estimated on December 29 that Russia’s economy will most likely grow by more than three percent by the end of 2023, largely due to the Russian DIB’s unprecedented levels of production that have bolstered Russian economic output.[34] Meduza, citing the Bank of Finland’s Institute for Emerging Economies, reported that Russia’s DIB generated 40 percent of Russian GDP growth in the first half of 2023 despite only accounting for six percent of Russian GDP.[35] Meduza credited the success of the Russian DIB to Russia’s significantly increased, and still increasing, defense budget and the redistribution of Russia’s civilian sector resources for military production purposes.[36] Meduza highlighted Russia’s Tambov Bakery, a bakery that began assembling 230 to 250 combat drones per month in March 2023, as an example of the Russian economy’s redistribution of money and resources towards military over civilian goods.[37] Meduza noted that the Russian DIB is unlikely to generate the same levels of economic growth in 2024, largely due to personnel shortages, already stretched production capacities, and its dependence on imported components and equipment.[38]

Russian forces have likely routinely attempted to draw and fix limited Ukrainian air defense systems away from the front, and the Russian strikes on December 29 follow recent indications that Ukrainian air defenses may be presenting significant challenges to Russian aviation operations along the frontline. Ukraine lacks the number of air defense systems required to provide even coverage to all of Ukraine, and Russian forces have likely conducted a consistent series of strikes, even if at a low intensity, in part to force Ukrainian forces to concentrate those air defense systems on protecting larger population centers far from the front instead of providing coverage for military operations.[39] Russian forces reportedly decreased their aviation activity after Ukrainian forces shot down three Russian Su-34s in southern Ukraine between December 21 and 22, which was subsequently followed by a notable decrease in the tempo of Russian ground operations on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.[40] Russian forces had been relying on the mass use of glide bombs dropped from manned aircraft to support operations in Kherson Oblast and in eastern Ukraine, likely due to the reported Ukrainian ability to suppress long-range Russian artillery and shoot down Russian rotary wing aircraft.[41] A Ukrainian capability to suppress Russian aviation activity even in limited areas of the front would likely pose significant operational constraints on Russian forces.

Ukrainian forces have recently expanded their use of mobile air defense strike groups in an effort to avoid expending air defense missiles on routine Russian strikes with Shahed-136/131 drones.[42] The recent months of Shahed-heavy strikes and the relatively smaller number of Russian missile strikes may have eased pressure on Ukrainian air defenses in rear areas and allowed Ukrainian forces to strengthen air defense coverage along the front. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 24 that Ukrainian forces can deploy air defense systems in any direction and not only in those where Russian forces have recently suffered aviation losses.[43] The Russian military’s increased use of missiles in the December 29 strike likely intends in part to reapply pressure on Ukraine’s limited air defense umbrella and prevent the Ukrainian command from redeploying air defense systems from the rear towards the front.

Western aid remains vital for Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian strikes, and the end of such aid would likely set conditions for an expanded Russian air campaign In Ukraine. Ukrainian air defenses, in part buttressed by Western-provided systems and missiles, are crucial for Ukraine’s ability to intercept Russian missiles and drones throughout Ukraine, especially as Ukrainian officials have indicated that Ukraine lacks enough air defenses to evenly cover the country. Ukrainian air defenses have proven successful at pushing Russian aircraft and glide bombs away from Ukrainian cities and even the frontline in some areas. Western–provided air defense systems have thus kept Ukraine’s cities safe from bombing raids, which the Russian military would almost certainly begin to devastating effect in the absence of such systems.[44] Russia’s inability to establish air superiority has helped Ukrainian forces prevent large-scale Russian advances along the entire line of contact. United Kingdom (UK) Defense Secretary Grant Shapps stated on December 29 that the UK would send about 200 air defense missiles to Ukraine following Russia’s large-scale strike.[45] Western aid packages have in part focused on air defense systems and missiles recently, and the continuation of such aid is vital for continued Ukrainian defense of its people and its territory. ISW continues to assess that the collapse of Western aid would likely lead sooner or later to the advance of Russian forces far to the west and likely all the way to western Ukraine along the border with NATO member states.[46]

Western leaders largely viewed the massive Russian strike as evidence that Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine remain unchanged, in line with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Putin is not genuinely interested in a ceasefire or any sort of negotiated settlement in Ukraine. US President Joe Biden stated that the large-scale Russian strikes on Ukraine are a reminder that Putin’s objective – to “obliterate Ukraine” and “subjugate its people” – remains unchanged.[47] Biden also stated that the stakes of the war in Ukraine affect the entirety of NATO and European security, as ISW has previously suggested.[48] United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas stated that the Russian strikes demonstrate that Putin intends to achieve his maximalist war aims of “eradicating freedom and democracy” and destroying Ukraine.[49] ISW has consistently assessed that, despite reports of Putin’s backchannel signals about his interest in ceasefire negotiations, Russia’s goals in Ukraine – which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender and which have been clearly stated in Kremlin public rhetoric – remain the same.[50]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted the largest series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion on the morning of December 29.
  • The strike package that Russian forces launched on December 29 appears to be a culmination of several months of Russian experimentation with various drone and missile combinations and efforts to test Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Russia will continue to conduct strikes against Ukraine at scale in an effort to degrade Ukrainian morale and Ukraine’s ability to sustain its war effort against Russia.
  • Current Russian missile and drone reserves and production rates likely do not allow Russian forces to conduct regular large-scale missile strikes, but likely do allow for more consistent drone strikes, which can explain the recent pattern of Russian strike packages.
  • The Kremlin's efforts to sufficiently mobilize Russia's defense industrial base (DIB) in support of its wartime objectives, including large-scale strike series, may been more successful than Western officials previously assessed due in part to Russia’s ability to procure military equipment from its partners and the redistribution of Russia’s resources for military production purposes.
  • Russian forces have likely routinely attempted to draw and fix limited Ukrainian air defense systems away from the front, and the Russian strikes on December 29 follow recent indications that Ukrainian air defenses may be presenting significant challenges to Russian aviation operations along the frontline.
  • Western aid remains vital for Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian strikes, and the end of such aid would likely set conditions for an expanded Russian air campaign In Ukraine.
  • Western leaders largely viewed the massive Russian strike as evidence that Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine remain unchanged, in line with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Putin is not genuinely interested in a ceasefire or any sort of negotiated settlement in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made recent confirmed advances northeast of Bakhmut and south of Avdiivka as positional engagements continued across the entire line of contact.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on December 29 that it has completed Russia’s autumn 2023 conscription cycle, which began on October 1.
  • Russia continues the forced integration of occupied areas of Ukraine into the Russian system using social services and infrastructure restoration projects.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 28, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov,

George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 28, 2023, 8pm ET 

The New York Times (NYT) published an oped by a member of its editorial board calling for Ukraine to engage in negotiations with and cede territory to Russia after reports emerged that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using backchannels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire. The oped largely ignores near-constant Kremlin public signaling of Russia’s continued maximalist goals in Ukraine. The oped argues that Ukraine should not “pass up” this opportunity to possibly achieve a ceasefire despite the fact that there are multiple reasons to believe that Putin’s pro-ceasefire signaling may not be sincere, such as Putin’s demonstrated untrustworthiness and the possibility that he may intend to use time spent on prolonged negotiations to his political and military benefit.[1] The piece argues that Ukraine does not need to regain all its territory to emerge victorious from the war, but that a “strong, independent, prosperous, and secure” Western-oriented Ukraine is also a victory. The piece appeals to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to engage in ceasefire negotiations and not see negotiations as a defeat, implicitly blaming Zelensky – not Putin – for the absence of serious negotiations.

The oped’s argument implicitly relies on the assumption that Putin’s reported backchannel communications more accurately reflect Putin’s thoughts and desires than his – and other Kremlin officials’ – constant public rhetoric. Kremlin rhetoric to both international and domestic audiences has repeatedly indicated that Russia is not interested in negotiating with Ukraine or the West in good faith and intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine – which are completely incompatible with a strong, independent, or secure Ukraine that is a part of the West. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview to Russian state outlet RIA Novosti on December 28, for example, in which he responded to a question about the possibility of negotiations in 2024 by stating that the war will continue and that Russia’s goals in Ukraine remain the “disarmament of Ukrainian troops” (alternative wording for the long-standing Russian demand for Ukraine’s “demilitarization”) and " the rejection by the current Ukrainian state of the ideology of neo-Nazism (alternative wording for the Kremlin’s repeated demands for Ukraine’s “denazification”).[2] Medvedev re-emphasized that the war would continue until Russia achieves regime change in Ukraine and also claimed that Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv (none of which Russia currently occupies) are “Russian cities” and complained that they are still marked as Ukrainian cities on maps. Medvedev’s comments reinforce copious other indications that Russia intends to annex or militarily occupy territory beyond the current line of contact and beyond the four (illegally) annexed oblasts and Crimea.[3] Medvedev also claimed that Russia has always been open to negotiations with Ukraine and that negotiations can continue up until the “complete defeat and capitulation” of Ukraine – in line with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Russia does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine in good faith and that Russia’s maximalist objectives, which are tantamount to Ukrainian and Western surrender, are unchanged.[4] The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, has consistently been working on its 10-point peace plan, and Zelensky stated on December 19 that Ukraine is preparing to be able to present the peace formula to Russia in the future.[5]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a number of statements on December 28 that also run contrary to the reported backchannel messaging on which the NYT oped and similar arguments rely. Lavrov claimed on December 28 in another interview with RIA Novosti that “hints and leaks” in the Western media show that the West wants to look for a way to end the war in Ukraine while still declaring a Ukrainian victory – possibly in response to Western reports about Russia’s willingness to negotiate.[6] Lavrov also claimed that Ukrainian demands for the return of its 1991 borders amount to “demands for genocide.” Lavrov claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, after which millions of Russians were left outside of the borders of the Russian Federation--echoing many statements that Putin has made.[7] Lavrov’s statements appear to invoke the Kremlin’s concept of “compatriots abroad” that is used to justify Russia’s definition of its “sovereignty” and right to defend ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders. The Kremlin has recently returned to its “compatriots abroad” narrative to justify its war in Ukraine and when discussing Russia’s imperial reconquests in and beyond Ukraine.[8]

The oped’s focus on the need for Ukraine to cede its land, finally, obscures the horrors that the Russian occupation is inflicting on the Ukrainian people living on that land. Russian forces and administrations have been engaging in large-scale and deliberate ethnic cleansing campaigns, forcibly and illegally deporting Ukrainians to Russia and replacing them with Russians and migrants to Russia.[9] Russian administrations have illegally deported tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia under various schemes, including causing Russian families to adopt them.[10] Russian administrations are systematically working to eliminate the Ukrainian language, culture, history, and ethnicity in the areas that Russian forces occupy, as ISW has repeatedly documented.[11] Many of these activities appear to violate the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and deserve at least a mention in discussions about how Ukraine’s president should cede Ukraine’s land and people to Russia.[12]

Russia has officially deployed a battalion formed of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) to the frontline in Ukraine, further confirming a myriad of apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Convention on POWs. Russian state-controlled outlets RIA Novosti and Rossiya-1 reported on December 28 that soldiers from the “Bogdan Khmelnitsky” battalion, formed of Ukrainian POWs and subordinated to the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) Ministry of Internal Affairs “Kaskad” formation, took part in their first engagement against Ukrainian forces near Urozhaine, western Donetsk Oblast.[13] Russian media had previously reported on October 27 that the battalion recruited around 70 Ukrainian POWs from penal colonies in Russia and sent them to train before deploying to the western Donetsk Oblast area in early November.[14] ISW continues to assess that the use of Ukrainian POWs in the “Bogdan Khmelnitsky” battalion is likely a violation of The Geneva Convention on POWs, which prohibits the use of POWs in military activities on the side of the power that has captured them and states that “no POW may at any time be sent to or detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone” and shall not “be employed on labor which is of an unhealthy or dangerous nature.”[15]

Recent incidents of apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Convention on POWs likely implicate elements of the now notorious 76th Guards Air Assault (VDV) Division in the abuse of POWs.[16] Drone footage from December 27 showed Russian forces executing three Ukrainian POWs near Robotyne, in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and footage from December 13 additionally showed Russian forces in this area using Ukrainian POWs as human shields.[17] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General verified the authenticity of the December 27 video on December 28 and suggested that elements of the Russian 76th VDV Division are likely responsible for the executions, considering that the 76th is the principal Russian formation operating near Robotyne.[18] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) similarly suggested that the December 13 footage implicates elements of the 234th VDV Regiment of the 76th VDV Division in the crime of using Ukrainian POWs as human shields in the same area.[19] Various independent investigations in 2022 confirmed that the 76th VDV Division, particularly its 234th Regiment, participated in a deliberate “cleansing operation” that massacred Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, Kyiv Oblast.[20] The exact composition of the 234th VDV Regiment has likely changed since the massacres at Bucha, the continued participation of this regiment in apparent war crimes suggests that the wider VDV command may be encouraging, or at least not actively working to prevent, such practices as part of its modus operandi.

The Russian military command will reportedly disband the "Kaskad" operational combat tactical formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) by December 31, 2023, likely as part of Russia's ongoing force formalization campaign. The DNR MVD formed Kaskad in 2017, and Kaskad has operated semi-independently as a Russian irregular formation since.[21] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on December 26 that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would disband one of “the most experienced, combat-ready, and well-coordinated units” in Donbas after the Russian General Staff ordered Kaskad to withdraw from its positions and disband by December 31.[22] The milblogger added on December 27 that the Russian military command had already begun withdrawing Kaskad elements from the frontlines, including 90 of its artillery systems and drone reconnaissance elements.[23] The milblogger added that Kaskad had 9,000 total personnel and claimed that Russian officials are trying to disband the formation ahead of the New Year holiday to deflect from their true intentions of seizing Kaskad’s property and assets. The milblogger claimed that many accused him of lying, but implied that he is in contact with Kaskad personnel and observed that Kaskad’s press service did not attempt to deny or downplay his original report. A Russian social media user, claiming to have connections with Kaskad elements, claimed that Kaskad is not being disbanded but rather reformed into a new structure that is not affiliated with the DNR MVD, which cannot have a police force fighting in armed combat on the frontlines according to Russian law.[24] The DNR’s “Vostok” battalion, which is part of the Kaskad formation and fighting on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border, also noted that officials are currently deciding Kaskad’s and Vostok’s fates and noted that Kaskad is fully dependent on Russian military logistics.[25] Vostok added that the question of Kaskad’s existence first emerged after Russia (illegally) annexed part of the occupied Donetsk Oblast, which required the dissolution of the DNR MVD as an independent entity in order to fully integrate into Russian security structures under Russian law. Another milblogger claimed that the dissolution of Kaskad is irrelevant because its elements hid behind regular forces near Velyka Novosilka area in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and were not combat effective on the battlefield.[26]

The dissolution of Kaskad is likely part of the Russian MoD’s and the Kremlin’s effort to formalize control over some irregular forces, such as proxy militias. Russia had undertaken similar efforts to restructure and integrate the DNR’s and Luhansk People’s Republic’s (LNR) 1st and 2nd Army Corps in early 2023, which in some cases meant eliminating individual units’ autonomy, replacing commanders, and installing rules and regulations observed by the Russian Armed Forces.[27] The Russian MoD may offer Kaskad personnel the option to sign military contracts to join formalized DNR units or offer these forces contract for volunteer military service. Both scenarios, however, will likely have implications for Kaskad’s ability to maintain its pre-formalization structure and may degrade its combat effectiveness.

Ukrainian military officials revealed that Russian forces launched about 7,400 missiles and 3,900 Shahed drone strikes against Ukraine since launching the full-scale invasion. Ukrainian Armed Forces Center for Strategic Communications (StratCom) stated on December 28 that Russia has launched about 7,400 missiles against Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, including around 2,470 S-300/400 missiles, 900 Iskander-M missiles, and 48 Kinzhal missiles.[28] Ukrainian StratCom also reported that Russian forces have launched about 3,700 Shahed drones against Ukraine, of which Ukrainian forces have destroyed about 2,900. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated on December 28 that three Russian Kalibr cruise missile carriers — including two unspecified submarines and the Admiral Makarov Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate — sortied in the Black Sea on December 28 and warned of an increased risk of Russian missile strikes because Russian missile carriers have not sortied in the Black Sea for “a very long time.”[29] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched eight Shahed-131/136 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, and that Ukrainian forces shot down seven drones over Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, and Zaporizhia oblasts on the night of December 27 to 28.[30]

Russian mines continue to threaten civilian vessels in the Black Sea but will likely not deter civilian vessel usage of the Black Sea Humanitarian Corridor. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported on December 28 that a Russian naval mine damaged a civilian vessel sailing under the Panamanian flag on the Black Sea while the ship was traveling to a Danube River port to pick up grain, causing a fire on the vessel and injuring two crew members.[31] The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that stormy weather often increases the risk of vessels hitting mines and noted the importance of continued international support for demining the Black Sea.[32] US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink reported that as of December 305 civilian vessels have transported over 10 million tons of grain and other cargo through the civilian corridor in the Black Sea, presumably since the first civilian vessel successfully departed from a Ukrainian port through the corridor on August 15.[33] Civilian ships will very likely continue to use the corridor despite the risks of Russian mines, but Russian militarization of the Black Sea continues to pose a risk to civilian ships that are carrying out critical grain transportation tasks. Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria reportedly plan to sign an agreement on demining Russian naval mines that drift into the western Black Sea in January 2024.[34]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a $250 million security assistance package for Ukraine on December 27.[35] The package includes additional air defense capabilities such as munitions for National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; artillery ammunition including 155mm and 105mm rounds and over 15 million small arms ammunition rounds; and anti-tank weapons such as Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems.[36]

Imprisoned Russian ultranationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin acknowledged the end of his presidential campaign after failing to register with the Russian Central Elections Committee (CEC) on December 27. The Russian Strelkov (Igor Girkin) Movement (RDS), which had been organizing Girkin’s campaign on his behalf due to his imprisonment, announced on December 27 that Russian authorities did not allow Girkin to meet with a notary to verify the signatures supporting his presidential nomination.[37] RDS published a statement from Girkin on December 28 in which he said that he “had no illusions” about succeeding in a “layered system of obstacles created by the system itself.”[38] Girkin claimed that Russia is approaching a time of troubles (likely referencing the Russian Time of Troubles political crisis in the early 17th century that preceded the rise of the Romanov dynasty) and that Russia’s ability to emerge from its hardships depends on its ability to unite and organize.[39] Girkin had announced his intent to run in the 2024 Russian presidential election on November 19.[40]

The Russian MoD rewarded prominent Russian milbloggers for their contribution to the “military-patriotic” and “military-political” sphere, mirroring previous Kremlin efforts to pander to and co-opt to the wider Russian milblogger community. Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov reported on December 28 that the Russian MoD gave awards to Rybar project head Mikhail Zvinchuk and creative director Valeria Zvinchuk for their efforts in military-patriotic education and military-political work for the Russian Armed Forces.[41] Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously given Zvinchuk the Russian Order of Merit of the Fatherland Second Class on November 16 for Zvinchuk's efforts in supporting the Russian war in Ukraine.[42] ISW assessed at the time that Putin's award to Zvinchuk, whose Rybar channel has amassed 1.19 million followers as of December 28, 2023, was likely an attempt to gain control over the often-critical milblogger information space.[43] The tone of Rybar's coverage has notably become more complacent towards Russian military failures in Ukraine and less overtly critical of the Russian MoD since the fall of 2022 when Zvinchuk began appearing as a featured military analyst on Russian state television.[44] The fact that Zvinchuk now holds both MoD and presidential awards suggests that the Russian leadership seeks to co-opt and control milblogger reporting on the war in Ukraine and hopes to use Zvinchuk's example to incentivize similar Kremlin-favorable reporting by other milbloggers.

Key Takeaways:

  • The New York Times (NYT) published an oped by a member of its editorial board calling for Ukraine to engage in negotiations with and cede territory to Russia after reports emerged that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using backchannels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire. The oped largely ignores near-constant Kremlin public signaling of Russia’s continued maximalist goals in Ukraine.
  • Russia has officially deployed a battalion formed of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) to the frontline in Ukraine, further confirming a myriad of apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Convention on POWs.
  • Recent incidents of apparent Russian violations of the Geneva Convention on POWs likely implicate elements of the now notorious 76th Guards Air Assault (VDV) Division in the abuse of POWs.
  • The Russian military command will reportedly disband the "Kaskad" operational combat tactical formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) by December 31, 2023, likely as part of Russia's ongoing force formalization campaign.
  • Ukrainian military officials revealed that Russian forces launched about 7,400 missiles and 3,900 Shahed drone strikes against Ukraine since launching the full-scale invasion.
  • Russian mines continue to threaten civilian vessels in the Black Sea but will likely not deter civilian vessel usage of the Black Sea Humanitarian Corridor.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a $250 million security assistance package for Ukraine on December 27.
  • Imprisoned Russian ultranationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin acknowledged the end of his presidential campaign after failing to register with the Russian Central Elections Committee (CEC) on December 27.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rewarded prominent Russian milbloggers for their contribution to the "military-patriotic" and "military-political" sphere, mirroring previous Kremlin efforts to pander to and co-opt to the wider Russian milblogger community.
  • Ukrainian forces made a confirmed advance near Bakhmut, likely within the past week.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances northwest of Avdiivka, near Marinka, and south of Hulyaipole.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on December 28 that Russia has over 640,000 contract servicemen (kontrakniki), the first Russian announcement about the number of kontrakniki in the Russian Armed Forces since the start of the full-scale invasion.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of medical necessity, despite an apparently growing number of cases of highly infectious diseases being transmitted among Ukrainian children en route to Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 27, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 27, 2023, 6:30pm ET 

Ukrainian drone footage published on December 27 showed another Russian execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[1] The geolocated video shows Russian servicemen shooting three Ukrainian soldiers whom Russian forces captured in a tree line west of Verbove (east of Robotyne). The video later depicts one Russian soldier shooting an already dead Ukrainian serviceman again at close range.[2] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General‘s Office announced that it opened an investigation into Russian forces violating the laws and customs of war in addition to premeditated murder.[3] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office stated this incident occurred on an unspecified date in December 2023.[4] ISW previously reported observing drone footage of Russian servicemen using Ukrainian POWs as human shields near Robotyne on December 13.[5] The killing of POWs violates Article III of the Geneva Convention on the laws of armed conflict.[6]

Russian forces recently advanced in western Zaporizhia Oblast and retook positions that Ukrainian forces had captured during the summer 2023 counteroffensive, likely after Ukrainian forces withdrew to more defensible positions near Robotyne for the winter. Geolocated footage published on December 14 and 27 indicates that Russian forces recently advanced west of Verbove (9km east of Robotyne).[7] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi stated in an interview with BBC published on December 27 that Russia’s leadership wants to retake Avdiivka at a minimum but has a more ambitious goal of capturing all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and recapturing the territory Russian forces lost in Zaporizhia Oblast during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[8] ISW assessed that the Ukrainian capture of nearby positions in August 2023 was tactically significant because it could have allowed Ukrainian forces to begin operating past the densest Russian minefields and subsequent Russian defensive layers but does not assess that the recapture of these positions by Russian forces is particularly significant at this time.[9] Recent Russian advances in western Zaporizhia Oblast nevertheless support ISW’s assessment that the current positional war in Ukraine is not a stable stalemate because the current balance can be tipped in either direction by decisions made in the West or in Russia, and limited Russian gains could become significant especially if the West cuts off military aid to Ukraine.[10]

The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam on June 6, 2023, reportedly postponed a Ukrainian crossing of the Dnipro River that was likely intended to support Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. The Associated Press published an interview with Ukrainian Special Operations Forces personnel on December 26 wherein Ukrainian personnel stated that they were prepared to conduct a crossing of the Dnipro River to the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast in late May 2023 but that the destruction of the KHPP dam and subsequent flooding postponed these plans.[11] The Ukrainian personnel reportedly conducted limited crossing attempts in July, August, and September 2023, but Ukrainian forces did not launch a larger crossing aimed at establishing a bridgehead on the east bank until mid-October 2023.[12]

Ukrainian operations in the east bank of Kherson Oblast in October 2023 drew Russian forces from other sectors of the front and would have likely had a similar or even more pronounced effect in June 2023 at the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.[13] Russian forces also transferred elements of the 7th Airborne (VDV) Division from Kherson Oblast following the destruction of the KHPP dam and proceeded to rely on them as critical elements of the Russian defense in western Zaporizhia Oblast and the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.[14] It is unlikely that the Russian command would have transferred these elements away from Kherson in the event of a Ukrainian crossing in June 2023. Significant Ukrainian ground operations in the left bank of Kherson Oblast coordinated with Ukrainian counteroffensive operations throughout southern Ukraine and near Bakhmut would have placed greater pressure on Russian forces and would likely have limited the Russian military’s ability to balance manpower and materiel requirements for defensive operations in four directions. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam thus likely played a role in the outcome of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi described continued Ukrainian battlefield challenges and requirements for future territorial advances during an interview with BBC published on December 27. Tarnavskyi stated that well-prepared Russian defenses, including superior Russian minefields, were one of the main factors that impacted the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but noted that he does not believe that the front is at an impasse.[15] Tarnavskyi reiterated that Ukrainian forces are facing ammunition shortages, particularly shortages of 122mm and 152mm shells and that Ukrainian forces need additional supplies of air defense missiles and electronic warfare (EW) systems to defend against Russian drones.[16] Tarnavskyi also reiterated the need for Ukrainian air superiority.[17] Tarnavskyi noted that both Russian and Ukrainian forces are adjusting their tactics to increasingly include radio-electronic operations, drone operations, and surveillance.[18]

Ukrainian officials highlighted the Ukrainian defense industrial base’s (DIB) increased production in 2023 and offered projections of Ukraine’s domestic drone production capabilities on December 27. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukraine produced three times as much equipment and weapons in 2023 as in 2022.[19] Zelensky added that Ukraine is systematically expanding its production of ordnance for drones and has significantly increased its production of projectiles and missiles.[20] Ukrainian Minister of Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin stated that Ukraine also increased the production of mortar rounds by a factor of 42, the production of artillery shells by a factor of 2.8, and the production of armored personnel carriers by a factor of five in 2023.[21] Kamyshin stated that Ukraine is capable of producing over one million first-person viewer (FPV) systems, over 10,000 medium range strike drones, and over 1,000 drones with a range of 1,000 kilometers within an unspecified timeframe, presumably within the next year.[22] Kamyshin added that Ukraine is also developing hybrid air defense systems and that so-called FrankenSAM systems that merge advanced Western air defense missiles with modified Soviet launchers or other missile launchers are already operating on the battlefield.[23]

Russian forces launched another series of Shahed-136/131 drone strikes against Ukraine overnight on December 27. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 46 Shaheds in several waves from the directions of Balaklava (occupied Crimea) and Primorsko-Akhtarsk (Krasnodar Krai, Russia).[24] Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 32 Shaheds, and Ukrainian air defense systems activated over Mykolaiv, Odesa, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Zaporizhia, Khmelnytskyi, and Kirovohrad oblasts. Ukrainian military officials reported that most of the drones that Ukrainian forces could not shoot down hit frontline areas, especially in Kherson Oblast.[25] Several Shaheds also fell without any consequences. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk reported that Russian forces have changed their tactics and are now attempting to direct Shaheds through residential areas, where Ukrainian forces reportedly cannot maintain stationary air defense systems.[26]

Satellite imagery from the successful December 26 Ukrainian strike on a Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) vessel in occupied Feodosia, Crimea indicates that the strike damaged the surrounding port infrastructure. Satellite imagery published on December 27 taken on December 26 indicates that the Ukrainian strike on the BSF’s Novocherkassk Ropucha-class landing ship also damaged a pier at the Feodosia port and a nearby warehouse.[27] The satellite imagery shows that most of the ship is heavily burned and mostly submerged.[28] Ukrainian Navy Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmitry Pletenchuk stated on December 27 that the strike may have killed up to 80 Russian personnel.[29] Russian opposition news outlet Astra reported that there were 77 Russian military personnel aboard the Novocherkassk at the time of the strike of whom 33 are missing and 19 are wounded.[30] A Russian sailor who reportedly served on the Novocherkassk told Astra that conscripts and contract servicemen (kontraktniki) were on the ship at the time of the strike.[31] Russian military officials have repeatedly stated that Russian conscripts would not deploy to Ukraine.[32] Russian conscripts were also aboard the BSF‘s flagship Moskva missile cruiser when Ukrainian forces destroyed it in April 2022.[33]

Russia maintains its maximalist objectives in Ukraine and is uninterested in good faith negotiations despite reports that Western officials are becoming more amenable to eventual Ukrainian negotiations with Russia to end the war. An unspecified Biden administration official and a European diplomat told Politico in an article published on December 27 that the Biden administration and European officials are shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s total victory over Russia to improving Ukraine’s position in presumed eventual negotiations with Russia to end the war.[34] Politico noted that such negotiations would likely force Ukraine to cede territory to Russia.[35] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on December 27 that the West intends to freeze the war in Ukraine then frame it as a victory and rhetorically asked what victories the United States achieved in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq after having attempted the same thing.[36] Lavrov’s references to US involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq suggest that Lavrov views the Western discussion about freezing the war and preparing for eventual Ukrainian negotiations with Russia as a Western willingness to accept Ukraine’s defeat. Lavrov’s statement is also consistent with recent Russian officials’ statements that Russia is not interested in freezing the war or engaging in honest negotiations and will continue to pursue its expansionist territorial goals and efforts to “demilitarize” Ukraine.[37] ISW previously assessed that a temporary ceasefire would likely provide the Russian military time to prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine and that Russia would still ultimately maintain the same maximalist objectives for that renewed aggression.[38]

The Russian state-owned Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) found that Russians are increasingly less trusting of Russian state TV and are turning to social media and the internet for news.[39] VCIOM conducted a study in December, which found that Russian public trust in state TV channels had declined from 46 percent to 26 percent in a span of seven years. VCIOM concluded that the TV audience in Russia has also shrunk from 42 percent to 40 percent since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. VCIOM observed that the Russian audience that reportedly trusts the internet as its primary source of information constituted 44 percent of respondents and exceeded the number of Russians who relied on state TV for the first time. VCIOM specified that of Russians who prefer the internet as their primary source 19 percent rely on news sites, 14 percent get their news from social media networks, and 11 percent prefer instant messaging platforms including Telegram. The study found that over the past two years Russians’ use of instant messaging platforms as their primary source of information increased almost threefold – likely reflecting the growing popularity of Russian milbloggers on Telegram over the nearly two years of Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. VCIOM also observed an increase in the number of Russians who do not trust any media or social networks from three percent prior to the full-scale invasion to eight percent in December 2023. These Russians reported preferring “kitchen conversations” for their information, which the Russian outlet The Moscow Times compared to information learning practices in the Soviet Union.

The decrease in Russian trust and reliance on state TV is likely partially reflected in changing technology and generational shifts, as well as public disillusionment with Russian TV propaganda since the start of the full-scale invasion. ISW previously reported on statistics that showed that the number of Russian bloggers on Telegram increased by 58 percent and that Telegram saw the highest percent increase of daily published content in the first eight months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[40] ISW assessed on November 20, 2022, that this increase of Telegram use for information purposes likely highlighted growing Russian distrust of Kremlin media.[41] The Kremlin, however, continues to support the expansion of the Russian ultranationalist online community and is attempting to lure key voices in the Russian information space to amplify state narratives to the growing internet-based audience.[42]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on December 27 in a likely effort to maintain Russia’s critical trade relationship with India.[43] Putin told Jaishankar that Russia knows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position on Russian-Indian relations and attitude towards complex processes and the “situation in Ukraine.”[44] Jaishankar stated that Modi intends to visit Russia in 2024. Lavrov stated that he and Jaishankar discussed Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation and the launch of the North-South International Transport Corridor.[45] Lavrov also stated that Russia is ready to help India produce military equipment in the framework of the Make India program.[46] Indian banks and officials have routinely insisted on settling payments for Russian oil and military goods in rupees, but Russia and India suspended a months-long effort to address the issue in May 2023.[47] The Kremlin likely seeks to reassure India about this dispute in their bilateral trade relationship due to India’s increasing importance as a customer for Russian oil exports and its potential as a partner in defense production. Russian oil exports to India rapidly grew in 2023 with India becoming the second largest buyer of Russian crude oil.[48] Bloomberg reported on December 20 that roughly five million barrels of Russian crude oil that were scheduled to reach Indian refiners in the past four weeks had not done so for unspecified reasons, however.[49] Oil revenues have buoyed Russian budgets in recent months, and the Kremlin continues to search for new ways to expand defense industrial cooperation with other countries in an effort to relieve pressures on Russia’s heavily sanctioned defense industrial base (DIB).[50]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian drone footage published on December 27 showed another Russian execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian forces recently advanced in western Zaporizhia Oblast and retook positions that Ukrainian forces had captured during the summer 2023 counteroffensive, likely after Ukrainian forces withdrew to more defensible positions near Robotyne for the winter.
  • The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam on June 6, 2023, reportedly postponed a Ukrainian crossing of the Dnipro River that was likely intended to support Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
  • Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi described continued Ukrainian battlefield challenges and requirements for future territorial advances during an interview with BBC published on December 27.
  • Ukrainian officials highlighted the Ukrainian defense industrial base’s (DIB) increased production in 2023 and offered projections of Ukraine’s domestic drone production capabilities on December 27.
  • Russian forces launched another series of Shahed-136/131 drone strikes against Ukraine overnight on December 27.
  • Satellite imagery from the successful December 26 Ukrainian strike on a Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) vessel in occupied Feodosia, Crimea indicates that the strike damaged the surrounding port infrastructure.
  • Russia maintains its maximalist objectives in Ukraine and is uninterested in good faith negotiations despite reports that Western officials are becoming more amenable to eventual Ukrainian negotiations with Russia to end the war.
  • The Russian state-owned Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) found that Russians are increasingly less trusting of Russian state TV and are turning to social media and the internet for news.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on December 27 in a likely effort to maintain Russia’s critical trade relationship with India.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Donetsk City, and Verbove as positional engagements continued along the entire line of contact.
  • A Russian insider source claimed that Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has created his own private military company (PMC).
  • The Ukrainian “Cyber Resistance” movement obtained information about a Russian deputy commander of the 171st Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment (51st Air Defense Division) committing sexual crimes against minors in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 26, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 26, 2023, 9:35pm ET 

 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 3:15pm ET on December 26 and covers both December 25 and December 26 due to the fact that ISW did not publish a Campaign Assessment on December 25 in observance of the Christmas holiday. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 27 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russia's likely capture of Marinka in Donetsk Oblast represents a limited Russian tactical gain and does not portend any operationally significant advance unless Russian forces have dramatically improved their ability to conduct rapid mechanized forward movement, which they show no signs of having done. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 25 and claimed that Russian forces completely captured Marinka (immediately west of Donetsk City).[1] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi stated on December 26 that combat has effectively destroyed Marinka, acknowledged that Ukrainian forces withdrew in part from Marinka, and stated that Ukrainian forces nonetheless are still operating in the northern outskirts of Marinka and have prepared a defensive line outside of the settlement.[2] Geolocated footage posted on December 25 indicates that Russian forces advanced in the northern sections of Marinka.[3] ISW assesses that Russian forces likely control most if not all of Marinka despite not yet observing visual confirmation of the complete Russian capture of Marinka as of December 26. Putin claimed that the Russian capture of Marinka will allow Russian forces to push Ukrainian combat units away from occupied Donetsk City and create a wider operational space for Russian forces.[4] Many Russian milbloggers acknowledged the capture of Marinka as a tactical victory and claimed that it will allow Russian forces to conduct offensive operations toward settlements up to 15km west of Marinka in the coming weeks and months, threatening nearby Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs).[5] Russian forces have attempted to capture Marinka since 2014 and have been conducting daily frontal assaults on the settlement since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, intensifying those assaults starting in early October 2023.[6] Both Russian and Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that fighting has completely destroyed Marinka, a small settlement with a pre-invasion population of roughly 9,000.[7]

A small and completely destroyed settlement does not offer Russian forces a secure operational foothold from which to launch further offensive operations. Marinka is located less than a kilometer from the pre-invasion frontline and Ukrainian forces have long fortified many of the surrounding settlements, which Russian forces have been similarly struggling to capture.[8] Russian forces have advanced roughly over three kilometers in depth into Marinka since February 24, 2022, and there are no indications that the rate of Russian advance to the next settlements identified as tactical Russian objectives will be any quicker, especially considering the rate of attrition that Russian forces suffered to capture a small settlement directly on the border of territory Russia has controlled since 2014. Russia's capture of Marinka follows several months of highly attritional marginal gains and is not the result of a sudden rapid mechanized Russian advance. Russian forces have not conducted any offensive operation that resulted in a rapid and mechanized forward advance since Spring 2022, and Russian capabilities to conduct the mechanized maneuver that would be required for such an advance have been severely degraded.[9] Russian forces have recently illustrated the lack of these capabilities in failed waves of mass mechanized assaults to capture Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, and those offensive operations resulted in further armored vehicle losses that have prompted the Russian command to transition to infantry-heavy ground attacks.[10]  Rapid maneuver warfare also requires combat effective mechanized units, and the Russian units that have participated in the effort to capture Marinka have largely been elements of poorly trained and less effective Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) units.[11] Russian forces are highly unlikely to make rapid operational advances from Marinka, and the reported Russian capture of the settlement at most sets conditions for further limited tactical gains.

Localized Russian offensive operations are still placing pressure on Ukrainian forces in many places along the front in eastern Ukraine, however, and can result in gradual tactical Russian advances. Zaluzhnyi stated that holding Ukrainian territory is important but that Ukrainian forces are prioritizing the preservation of their personnel.[12] Zaluzhnyi added that he believes that Russian forces can repeat “what happened in Bakhmut” (using high-casualty frontal attacks to force tactical gains over a protracted period) in Avdiivka in the next two to three months, which would force Ukrainian forces to retreat to save their personnel and retake the settlement at a later date.[13] Russian forces captured Bakhmut in May 2023 after months of gradual tactical gains during the Wagner Group’s infantry-heavy urban offensive operation to capture the city, which resulted in staggering Russian losses including the effective destruction of the Wagner Group following the abortive armed mutiny that those losses precipitated.[14] Russian forces are conducting similarly attritional ground assaults in localized offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine, although not at the scale that Wagner did during the battle for Bakhmut. These Russian offensive operations will continue to pressure defending Ukrainian forces and produce limited tactical gains. The accumulation of marginal Russian gains amid continued heavy fighting may produce tactical scenarios wherein the Ukrainian command may choose to withdraw forces from endangered positions of limited operational significance if it determines that the preservation of personnel is more expedient.

Ukrainian forces conducted a successful missile strike that destroyed a Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) vessel and potentially damaged port infrastructure in occupied Feodosia, Crimea on December 26. Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian air force aircraft conducted a strike on the BSF’s Novocherkassk Ropucha-class landing ship in occupied Feodosia with unspecified cruise missiles.[15] Geolocated footage from the strike shows that Ukrainian forces struck the Novocherkassk, causing most of it to burn and sink.[16] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the Novocherkassk suffered “damage” while “repelling” a Ukrainian strike.[17] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 26 that the Ukrainian strike possibly also damaged surrounding port infrastructure and other nearby Russian support vessels.[18] Ihnat noted that the only missiles that Ukrainian forces possess that are capable of conducting long-range strikes are SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles, heavily insinuating that one or the other of these kinds of missiles were used in the strike.[19] Ihnat also stated that Russian forces continue to use various short, medium, and long-range air defense systems and that Ukrainian pilots employ specific tactical techniques to ensure the maximum number of strikes reach their target.[20] A Russian milblogger claimed that units of the 31st Air Defense Division, which are operating S-400 air defense systems in Feodosia, failed to identify two Ukrainian cruise missiles.[21] United Kingdom Defense Secretary Grant Schapps stated that Ukrainian forces have destroyed 20 percent of the BSF over the past four months.[22] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian strikes on BSF assets have forced the Russian military to move BSF assets to the eastern part of the Black Sea on an enduring basis.[23]

Russian forces struck a train station in Kherson City where civilians were waiting for evacuation on December 26.[24] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in his nightly address on December 26 that Russian forces struck a railway station in Kherson City, and Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihor Klymenko clarified that Russian forces began shelling the railway station as 140 civilians were awaiting departure onboard an evacuation train.[25] Ukrainian media posted footage depicting the destruction in the aftermath of the strike and reported that the shelling killed at least one and wounded four.[26]

Russian forces conducted additional waves of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the nights of December 24-25 and December 25-26. Ukrainian military sources reported that overnight on December 24-25, Russian forces launched 31 Shahed-131/136 drones at Ukraine from Cape Chauda and Balaklava, occupied Crimea, a Kh-59 missile from the Zaporizhia Oblast direction, and a Kh-31P anti-radar missile from the direction of the Black Sea.[27] Ukrainian forces destroyed 28 of the Shaheds and both of the missiles.[28] Ukrainian military sources then reported on December 26 that overnight on December 25-26 Russian forces launched 19 Shahed drones from Balaklava and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, at Ukraine, 13 of which Ukrainian forces shot down over Odesa, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[29] Ukraine's Southern Operational Command noted that Russian forces struck an infrastructure object in Odesa Oblast and an industrial facility in Mykolaiv Oblast.[30]

Russian forces have reportedly decreased the tempo of their operations on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, likely in connection with decreasing Russian aviation activity after Ukrainian forces recently shot down several Russian aircraft. Ukrainian military officials reported on December 24 and 25 that Ukrainian forces shot down one Russian Su-34 aircraft in the Mariupol direction and one Russian Su-30SM over the Black Sea in addition to the three Su-34 aircraft that Ukrainian forces shot down over southern Ukraine between December 21 and 22.[31] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated on December 26 that Russian forces on the east bank Kherson Oblast are conducting half as many ground attacks against Ukrainian positions per day in comparison to the previous average of 30 assaults daily.[32] Humenyuk also reported that the destruction of several Russian aircraft has weakened Russian forces’ ability to conduct glide bomb strikes and that Russian forces have deployed high-caliber artillery and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to east bank Kherson Oblast in order to compensate for a lack of aviation support.[33] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat reported on December 25 that Russian forces stopped conducting active hostilities in the Kherson direction after Ukrainian forces shot down three Russian Su-34 aircraft in southern Ukraine.[34] A Russian milblogger claimed on December 25 that Russian aviation in Kherson Oblast has not been operating for the past three days due to the destruction of Russian Su-34 aircraft.[35] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on December 26 that the Russian military has not been able to restore its number of Su-34/34M aircraft to its pre-full-scale invasion amount and now must supplement Su-34/34M aircraft operations with the older Su-24 aircraft.[36] Mashovets reported that Russian forces rarely deploy Su-34/34M aircraft to Russian bases in occupied Crimea, likely in an attempt to keep them out of Ukrainian strike range.[37] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces may have recently intensified their use of glide bombs against Ukrainian forces on west (right) bank Kherson Oblast in part due to Ukrainian forces‘ successful suppression of Russian long-range artillery.[38] Russian forces may currently be opting to bring long-range artillery closer to the Dnipro River shoreline rather than risk the destruction of more aircraft, however. The potential deployment of Russian long-range artillery closer to the frontline may present an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to more easily target Russian long-range artillery systems and operate more freely and safely along the Dnipro River coast and in rear areas in west bank Kherson Oblast.

The Ukrainian government continues efforts to systematize and increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term. The Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers submitted a set of proposed amendments to Ukraine’s mobilization, military registration, and military service laws on December 25, which include provisions to lower the conscription age for mobilization from 27 to 25 years old, discharge servicemen after they serve for 36 months provided there is no Ukrainian manpower crisis or a major escalation on the battlefield, and allow servicemen to rotate from the front every six months.[39] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi noted the complexity of legislating mobilization and service requirements during wartime on December 26, stating that war develops according to its own laws and that the situation along the front is dependent on the Russian military’s actions.[40] Zaluzhnyi added that Ukraine cannot predict what the war will look like in five to six months.[41]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a gracious Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, while contrasting his apparent attention to the Russian irregular forces’   with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) incompetence. Putin demonstratively ordered Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on December 25 to promote a Russian volunteer, Senior Lieutenant Alexander Troshin, to the rank of major for his efforts in fighting for Marinka (west of Donetsk City) - allowing Troshin to bypass the rank of captain.[42] Prior to the order, Putin asked Shoigu if he had any suggestions on how to best award Troshin, to which Shoigu responded that the only rank he can offer him is the rank of captain despite the fact that Troshin is a commander of a tank battalion – a role usually occupied by lieutenant colonels. Shoigu stated that although Troshin is a successful fighter and joined the war effort as a volunteer rather than a as an officer, the military command cannot promote him to a higher rank because of a presidential decree that prohibits such a promotion. Putin said that he is aware of the military service regulation on ranks but noted that “this regulation is approved by the presidential decree, so the president has the right to amend this regulation.” Putin notably ignored the regulation rather than amending it, however, suggesting that he sees himself not merely as the lawgiver but also as above the law. Putin concluded this discussion by stating that the Russian military command should support fighters like Troshin who want to become professional servicemen – likely in reference to those who want to become contract servicemen (kontrakniki) within the Russian Armed Forces. Putin’s discussion with Shoigu made it seem as though Putin was indirectly blaming Shoigu for failing to change the structure of the Russian Armed Forces to accommodate the new class of Russian servicemen – the volunteers (dobrovoltsy). Russian milbloggers have consistently complained that the Russian command does not award higher ranks to dobrovoltsy despite their combat experience, instead reserving these ranks for Russian professional servicemen.[43] Putin’s statement is likely part of an ongoing effort to blame the Russian MoD and the Russian General Staff for failing to address dobrovoltsy’s concerns while presenting himself as an involved war-time leader who is actively working on resolving these disparities.[44] Putin’s recent focus on defining and interacting with Russian irregular volunteer formations may also be indicative of Russia’s formalization efforts and possible integration of dobrovoltsy as a new but separate class of forces within the Russian Armed Forces.

Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states met during a series of meetings in St. Petersburg on December 25 and 26. The EAEU signed a full-scale trade agreement with Iran on December 25, replacing the temporary agreement approved in 2019.[45] Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan notably attended the meeting after refraining from attending equivalent Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) events for the past several months against the backdrop of deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.[46] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would have a "great opportunity" to speak during the meetings, and Putin was later pictured chatting with Pashinyan on December 26.[47]

Russian actors seized on ongoing protests in Serbia against Serbian President Alexander Vucic to blame Western actors for causing instability in Serbia, which Russia perceives as a long-term European ally. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that unspecified ”third parties,” including from abroad, are attempting to provoke unrest in Serbia.[48] Russian sources, including Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Bocan-Harchenko, accused the West of attempting to overthrow Serbia’s government and pursuing a “Maidan scenario,” referring to Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, which resulted in the removal of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych and which the Kremlin has consistently falsely characterized as a Western hybrid war against Russia.[49] The Russian information space will likely continue to exploit protests in Serbia to drive a wedge between Serbia and the West.

A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed that Finland is becoming a “second Ukraine,” creating rhetorical parallels between Russian narratives about Ukraine and Finland, and further suggesting that Russia maintains future ideological and territorial objectives that far exceed the war in Ukraine. The milblogger claimed on December 26 that the US now has access to a total of 35 military bases in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, including a Finnish base that is 137km from the Russian border.[50] The US has recently signed defense cooperation agreements with both Finland and Sweden that grant American troops access to 15 military installations in Finland and 17 in Sweden.[51] The milblogger additionally claimed that Finland is becoming a "second Ukraine" due to the purported prominence of Finnish neo-Nazi organizations and the alleged rise of Finnish nationalist movements, such as the Karelian National Battalion.[52] The milblogger's invocation of the concepts of neo-Nazism and nationalism echoes some of the major ideological justifications that the Kremlin has used to support its invasion of Ukraine, as ISW has previously reported.[53] Russia has recently undertaken several measures to posture against Finland militarily, namely through the recreation of the Leningrad Military District (LMD), which will have an area of operation largely along the Russo-Finnish border.[54] ISW has frequently assessed that Russia maintains maximalist aims in Ukraine.[55] The increasingly aggressive Russian rhetorical and military posturing towards Finland suggests that Russia maintains expansive goals beyond the battlefield in Ukraine, which is particularly relevant due to Finland's recent accession to NATO.[56] ISW does not assess that Russia has the current military capacity or intent to threaten Finland or any NATO member militarily at this time, but rhetoric setting conditions for future threats and tensions with NATO members is cause for concern about Russia‘s long-term aims.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russia's likely capture of Marinka in Donetsk Oblast represents a limited Russian tactical gain and does not portend any operationally significant advance unless Russian forces have dramatically improved their ability to conduct rapid mechanized forward movement, which they show no signs of having done.
  • Localized Russian offensive operations are still placing pressure on Ukrainian forces in many places along the front in eastern Ukraine, however, and can result in gradual tactical Russian advances.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a successful missile strike that destroyed a Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) vessel and potentially damaged port infrastructure in occupied Feodosia, Crimea on December 26.
  • Russian forces struck a train station in Kherson City where civilians were waiting for evacuation on December 26.
  • Russian forces have reportedly decreased the tempo of their operations on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, likely in connection with decreasing Russian aviation activity after Ukrainian forces recently shot down several Russian aircraft.
  • The Ukrainian government continues efforts to systematize and increase the sustainability of Ukrainian mobilization over the long term.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to portray himself as a gracious Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, while contrasting his apparent attention to the Russian irregular forces’   with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) incompetence.
  • Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states met during a series of meetings in St. Petersburg on December 25 and 26.
  • Russian actors seized on ongoing protests in Serbia against Serbian President Alexander Vucic to blame Western actors for causing instability in Serbia, which Russia perceives as a long-term European ally.
  • A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger claimed that Finland is becoming a “second Ukraine,” creating rhetorical parallels between Russian narratives about Ukraine and Finland, further suggesting that Russia maintains future ideological and territorial objectives that far exceed the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Kupyansk, Avdiivka, Marinka, and Robotyne as positional engagements continued along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a series of laws on December 25 to help further bolster Russia’s force generation capacity.
  • The Kremlin further formalized avenues to coerce residents of occupied Ukraine to receive Russian passports using maternity capital payments.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 24, 2023, 5:35pm ET 

Note: ISW and CTP will not publish a campaign assessment (or maps) tomorrow, December 25, in observance of the Christmas holiday. Coverage will resume Tuesday, December 26.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on December 24. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not interested in a limited territorial victory in Ukraine and will continue the war “until the final victory.”[1] Borrell reported on December 24 that Putin would not be satisfied with capturing a “piece” of Ukraine and allowing the rest of Ukraine to join the EU.[2] Borrell added that Putin will not “give up the war” and called on the West to prepare for a “conflict of high intensity for a long time.”[3] Borrell’s statements are consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russia is not interested in a ceasefire or good-faith negotiations with Ukraine but retains its maximalist goals of a full Russian victory in Ukraine.[4]

Russian forces are reportedly decreasing aviation activity and their use of glide bombs in Ukraine after Ukrainian forces shot down three Russian Su-34s in southern Ukraine between December 21 and 22. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 24 that Russian forces decreased their use of glide bombs and air strikes in southern Ukraine.[5] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated on December 24 that Russian forces are limiting their use of manned aviation near occupied Crimea, particularly in the northwestern Black Sea region.[6] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces may have recently intensified their use of glide bombs against Ukrainian forces on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River in part because Ukrainian forces reportedly suppressed Russian long-range artillery in the area.[7] Continued decreased Russian glide bomb strikes in Kherson Oblast may present an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to operate more freely in near rear areas in west bank Kherson Oblast and establish a safer position on the east (left) bank from which to conduct future operations if the Ukrainian high command so chose. Russian forces reportedly use glide bomb strikes so that Russian aircraft can remain 50 to 70 kilometers behind the line of combat engagement, and the decreased Russian use of glide bombs suggests that Russian forces are concerned about Ukrainian air defense capabilities following recent losses.[8] Ukrainian Ground Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated on December 23 that Russian forces also reduced their use of aviation and increased their use of strike drones in the Kupyansk and Bakhmut directions.[9] Ihnat also stated on December 24 that Ukrainian forces can deploy air defense systems in any direction, not only in those where Russian forces suffered aircraft loses.[10]

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 23 to 24. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 16 Shahed-131/-136 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai and that Ukrainian forces downed 15 drones over Mykolaiv, Kirovohrad, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[11] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces launched two missiles of an unknown type against civil infrastructure in Kherson City.[12] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that Russian forces continue to conduct strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure and that although Ukrainian forces down these projectiles, Ukrainian officials purposefully do not identify Ukrainian infrastructure objects that Russian forces target.[13] Yusov also stated that Russian forces are conducting strikes “more frugally” than in winter 2022 but noted that Russian forces are still capable of conducting powerful missile strikes.[14]

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov further detailed Ukraine’s efforts to establish a sustainable wartime force-generation apparatus and an effective defense industrial base (DIB) during an interview published on December 24. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne published an interview on December 24 wherein Umerov stated that Ukrainian military and civilian officials are developing a more transparent recruitment process for military service that will more clearly communicate to the Ukrainian public how one enters military service, undergoes training, receives leave, and concludes service during the war.[15] Umerov stated that there will be no “demobilization” until after the war is over but that Ukraine must find solutions that provide rest and partial release from military service.[16] Umerov added that Ukrainian officials are trying to improve bureaucratic force-generation systems by unifying draft databases and streamlining notification systems.[17]

Umerov stated that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) will soon submit a plan to address a Ukrainian military proposal to mobilize another 450,000 to 500,000 Ukrainians, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged on December 19.[18] Umerov did not disclose the nature of the plan or the number of Ukrainians whom the Ukrainian MoD will propose to mobilize.[19] Umerov commented that the Ukrainian MoD will propose a 25-to-60 draft-age range only if Ukrainian society accepts the arguments behind the proposal.[20] Ukraine’s current lower-end age limit for conscription is 27, which is high for a state fighting an existential war at the scale of the one that Ukraine is fighting. The current age limit likely aims to allow a generation of Ukrainians to continue receiving an education and provide critical human capital to Ukraine in the long-term. Developing and implementing a stable force-generation approach that addresses Ukrainian military requirements is a complicated political, social, and military issue — one that will continue to produce tensions normal for a society at war.

Umerov also stated that Ukraine has developed a strategy for domestic defense production and has launched programs to reduce the risk of shortages of ammunition, missiles, and other military equipment.[21] Umerov stated that the Ukrainian MoD is currently weighing the financial avenues for its DIB development strategy, including issuing contracts and developing joint ventures between Ukrainian and foreign enterprises.[22] Umerov stated that Ukraine is beginning to work with several hundred drone manufacturers to improve the “huge bureaucracy” involved in producing drones and plans to provide Ukrainian forces with an unspecified number of drones that Ukrainian officials have previously called for to be produced in 2024.[23] Zelensky stated on December 19 that Ukraine intends to produce a million drones in 2024.[24]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to portray himself as a gracious leader who cares about the well-being of Russian military personnel, while also presenting himself as an effective Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armed forces. Kremlin journalist Pavel Zarubin published footage on December 24 of a December 19 ceremony at the Russian National Defense Management Center where Putin spoke with Russian military personnel who said that they wanted to see their loved ones but that their commanders had to give them leave. Putin responded, “Let them rest! The commander has already decided. That’s me.”[25] Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, present at the time, said simply, “It is.”[26] Putin seemingly spontaneously granting Russian personnel leave is indicative of Putin’s continued effort to portray himself as an involved wartime leader who responds to his troops‘ requests and rewards those who are loyal to him, while reminding the Russian public that Gerasimov is subordinate to him.[27] The interaction between Putin and the Russian servicemen was likely staged in order to bolster Putin’s reputation and once again cast Gerasimov in the role of inefficient bureaucrat, as Putin began to do during his “Direct Line” session on December 14.[28]

Russia appears to be continuing its efforts to build out a military occupation force in Ukraine separate from its frontline units through the use of its newly formed Rosgvardia units. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on December 24 that the Russian command completed the deployment of the three newly formed regiments of Rosgvardia’s 116th Special Purpose Brigade — the 900th, 901st, and 902nd Special Purpose Regiments — to occupied Donetsk Oblast.[29] Mashovets stated that the Russian command based the 116th Special Purpose Brigade in Chystiakove (70km east of Donetsk City); the 900th Special Purpose Regiment in Melekyne (22km southwest of Mariupol); the 901st Special Purpose Regiment in Snizhne (80km east of Donetsk City); and the 902nd Special Purpose Regiment seven kilometers north of Chystiakove. Mashovets assessed that the 116th Special Purpose Brigade will perform “stabilization functions” in occupied Ukraine on a “permanent basis.” Russian local media reported that Rosgvardia began forming the 116th Special Purpose Brigade specifically for service in occupied Donetsk Oblast in early September 2023.[30] ISW later observed in late October that the 116th Special Purpose Brigade received a Russian T-80BV tank that Wagner Group fighters used in the June 2023 armed rebellion.[31]

The short timeframe and the deployment locations of the new Rosgvardia regiments indicate that the Kremlin is actively attempting to use these forces to solidify Russia’s control over occupied rear areas. Mashovets observed that Rosgvardia likely moved up to 6,000 troops from Russia to occupied Ukraine as part of the deployment of the 116th Special Purpose Brigade, increasing the number of Rosgvardia personnel in occupied Ukraine to 34,300 troops. While ISW cannot independently verify Mashovets’ number of deployed Rosgvardia personnel in occupied Ukraine, Russia’s recent efforts to legalize Rosgvardia’s access to recruiting volunteers, the Kremlin’s approval to provide Rosgvardia heavy military equipment, and the 116th Special Purpose Brigade’s basing in occupied Donetsk Oblast are indicators that Russia is attempting to expand Rosgvardia forces to establish a separate military occupation force.[32] Moscow is likely trying to recruit and deploy military occupation forces to further impede Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts, establish permanent control over occupied areas, and suppress partisan activity without fixing frontline troops in occupation duty indefinitely.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade edited its acknowledgement that its personnel are deliberately using chemical weapons in Ukraine in a likely effort to hide what could be evidence of an apparent violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is party. The 810th Naval Infantry Brigade stated on its Telegram channel on December 22 that the brigade is using a “radical change in tactics” against Ukrainian forces in Krynky (on the eastern bank of Kherson Oblast) by dropping K-51 grenades from drones onto Ukrainian positions.[33] K-51 aerosol grenades are filled with irritant CS gas (2-Chlorobenzalmalononitrile), a type of tear gas used for riot control (also known as a Riot Control Agent [RCA]), which the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits as a method of warfare.[34] Between the time of ISW’s data collection on December 23 and this December 24 update the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade’s Telegram edited the post to delete the specific reference to the K-51 grenade.[35] The original phrasing of the post, however, can be still observed on Russian social media accounts that posted screenshots of it, directly reposted the original acknowledgement (since edits to Telegram posts do not affect reposts of an unedited post), or archived the original post — all confirming that the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade did publish the use of K-51 grenades and then edited its post.[36] ISW has not determined when the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade made the edit. A Russian milblogger indirectly criticized the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade on December 22 for exposing a new tactic, which suggests that Russian forces may intend to deliberately use K-51s or other RCAs elsewhere along the front.[37] The Russian milblogger’s complaints or wider reporting about the acknowledgement may have prompted the 810th Naval infantry Brigade, or some Russian official to tell the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade, to edit the post.

Russia’s labor shortage, which is partially a result of the war in Ukraine, reportedly amounted to about 4.8 million people in 2023 and will likely continue to exacerbate struggling Kremlin efforts aimed at increasing Russian economic capacity. Kremlin-affiliated outlet Izvestiya reported on December 24 that according to the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) data indicates that the number of workers needed to fill vacant positions in mid-2023 was 6.8% of the total number of employed people, amounting to about 4.8 million people across Russia.[38] Russian President Vladimir Putin noted the connection between labor shortages and the development of Russia’s migrant policy on December 4.[39] ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin is struggling to reconcile inconsistent and contradictory policies that attempt to appease the Russian ultranationalist community by disincentivizing migrant workers from working in Russia while simultaneously trying to increase Russian industrial capacity and force generation.[40]

Key Takeaways:

  • European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not interested in a limited territorial victory in Ukraine and will continue the war “until the final victory.”
  • Russian forces are reportedly decreasing aviation activity and their use of glide bombs in Ukraine after Ukrainian forces shot down three Russian Su-34s in southern Ukraine between December 21 and 22.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 23 to 24.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov further detailed Ukraine’s efforts to establish a sustainable wartime force-generation apparatus and an effective defense industrial base (DIB) during an interview published on December 24.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to portray himself as a gracious leader who cares about the wellbeing of Russian military personnel, while also presenting himself as an effective Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armed forces.
  • Russia appears to be continuing its efforts to build out a military occupation force in Ukraine separate from its frontline units through the use of its newly formed Rosgvardia units.
  • The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade edited its acknowledgement that its personnel are deliberately using chemical weapons in Ukraine in a likely effort to hide what could be evidence of an apparent violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is party.
  • Russia’s labor shortage, which is partially a result of the war in Ukraine, reportedly amounted to about 4.8 million people in 2023 and will likely continue to exacerbate struggling Kremlin efforts aimed at increasing Russian economic capacity.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advanced near Kreminna and near Avdiivka as positional engagements continues along the entire line of contact.
  • The newly formed 337th Airborne (VDV) Regiment (104th VDV Division) operating in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast near Krynky is continuing to suffer losses.
  • Russian officials claimed that Russia’s handling of the situation at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) is sufficient, despite recent unsafe incidents during Russian occupation of the plant.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 23, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 23, 2023, 8:30pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on December 23. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The New York Times (NYT) - citing former and current senior Russian, US, and international officials - reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using back channels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire, despite Putin’s recent public statements to the contrary.[1] NYT reported that Western officials have been picking up renewed signals through backchannels since September 2023 that Putin is interested in a ceasefire that freezes the current frontlines, but noted that Western officials warned the backchannels could be “Kremlin misdirection” and may not reflect a “genuine willingness” to negotiate.[2] NYT suggested several possible motivations Putin may have for his reported interest in a ceasefire: the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential election, a desire to “keep his options open” regarding the war’s resolution and take advantage of perceived waning Western support for Ukraine, and the “distraction” of the Israel-Hamas war.[3] All these motivations reflect temporary reasons why Putin might pursue a temporary ceasefire that would benefit Russia by allowing Russia the time to prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine, as ISW has routinely assessed. The NYT noted that Putin’s public rhetoric, which has recently reasserted Russia’s maximalist objectives that are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender, is at odds with Putin’s reported private desire to “declare victory and move on.”[4] Neither the NYT nor its sources offered any reason to believe Putin’s backchannel communications would be more reflective of his goals than his public speeches addressing domestic, Ukrainian, and international audiences. The NYT report also failed to make clear whether Putin’s alleged interest in a ceasefire is for a temporary pause or a permanent end to the war.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the NYT that “Russia continues to be ready [for negotiations], but exclusively for the achievement of its own goals” in response to a question about Russia’s willingness to negotiate a ceasefire on the current lines.[5] Putin has recently reiterated that his maximalist objectives in Ukraine - “denazification,” “demilitarization,” and the imposition of a “neutral status” on Ukraine - remain unchanged, and Putin and senior Kremlin officials have increasingly expressed expansionist rhetoric indicating that Putin’s objectives do not preclude further Russian territorial conquests in Ukraine.[6]

The timing of Putin’s reported interest in a ceasefire is more consistent with Russia’s ongoing efforts to delay and discourage further Western military assistance to Ukraine, than with a serious interest in ending the war other than with a full Russian victory. ISW observed similar Kremlin efforts to mislead Western policymakers into pressuring Ukraine to negotiate with Russia in winter 2022-2023, and effectively redirecting Western focus onto hypothetical negotiations rather than ensuring that Ukraine has sufficient materiel before its spring-summer counteroffensive.[7] The Kremlin is likely using backchannels to achieve a similar effect amidst Western debates for further military aid to Ukraine.

Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky obliquely indicated that VDV forces are under significant pressure to conduct rapid offensive operations near Bakhmut and repel Ukrainian attacks on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast. Teplinsky published a prerecorded commencement speech on December 23 to congratulate the winter graduates of the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School in which he outlined the VDV’s involvement in ongoing combat operations in Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts.[8] Teplinsky claimed that VDV forces repelled the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Zaporizhia Oblast throughout the summer and fall of 2023 and added that elements of the Russian 98th Guards VDV Division and 106th Guards VDV Divisions began offensive operations on the Soledar-Bakhmut direction in November. Teplinsky carefully caveated his discussion of VDV operations with the observation that the VDV is deliberately maintaining a slow tempo of attacks in the Bakhmut direction to avoid high casualty rates and to prioritize attriting Ukrainian forces over pushing them out from their positions. Teplinsky’s emphasis on slow advances may be an attempt to message to the highest echelon of the Russian military command – such as Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov – that the command’s expectations of rapid advances near Bakhmut are unrealistic without significant VDV casualties and sacrifices. Teplinsky released a similar video in February 2023 in which he condemned the higher military command for committing VDV troops to senseless attacks to achieve minor tactical gains at a high manpower cost, likely in reference to VDV involvement in battles for Soledar in January 2023.[9]

Teplinsky also stated that elements of the newly formed 104th VDV Division are tirelessly fighting to repel Ukrainian forces from the east bank of the Dnipro River in occupied Kherson Oblast, despite the fact that these elements are not as combat effective as other (more experienced) VDV forces. Teplinsky stated that despite the VDV’s efforts Ukrainian forces are continuing to deploy additional reinforcements to the east bank but claimed that Russia’s victory is only a matter of time. ISW observed Russian President Vladimir Putin single out the tactical and operational situation in Krynky on the east bank during his "Direct Line" forum on December 14, which may have reflected Putin’s sensitivity to continued Russian information space neuralgia about Russian operations in the area.[10] ISW assessed that Putin’s comment highlighting Russian forces’ inability to oust Ukrainian forces from the east bank was likely also a critique of Teplinsky, whom he appointed to command Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces in late October 2023.[11] Teplinsky has repeatedly weaponized the Russian information space to his advantage and may have used this commencement speech to respond to the pressure from the Russian military command and the Kremlin.[12] Teplinsky specifically uses greeting videos addressed to Russian military personnel to indirectly voice his problems with the Russian military command, and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) notably even removed his August 2 VDV Day greeting after he revealed the total number of VDV casualties since February 2022.[13] Teplinsky may also be setting information conditions to retain support from other commentators who have repeatedly voiced concern about Russia’s inability to push Ukrainian forces to the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.[14]

Teplinsky also implied that the Russian military command is deploying new VDV officers and troops promptly to the frontlines without having them complete pre-combat training. Teplinsky stated that “unfortunately” the April graduates of the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School deployed to combat zones before their intended unspecified autumn deployment date. While Teplinsky did not specify why the April graduates deployed significantly earlier than their slated deployment date, it is likely that these VDV forces were meant to undergo some advanced individual or unit-wide training over a six-month period – a requirement that the Russian military command evidently neglected. Teplinsky added that April graduates have already suffered casualties on the frontlines in November in an unspecified direction. Teplinsky stated that many of the December graduates will join the ranks of the 104th VDV Division in the Kherson direction and noted that the graduates have hard work ahead of them to “speed up” Ukraine’s defeat. Teplinsky may have explicitly observed that the 104th VDV Division is less combat effective to resurface the issue of the Russian command sending recent graduates of military command schools to the frontlines. ISW has long assessed that the Russian military command is committing all available forces to immediately reinforce its war effort in Ukraine at the expense of combat effectiveness and long-term capacity building, and Teplinsky’s account further demonstrates that similar issues also plague formerly elite forces such as the VDV.[15]

Russia's Black Sea Fleet's 810th Naval Infantry Brigade confirmed that it is deliberately using chemical weapons against Ukrainian forces in an apparent violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a party. The 810th Naval Infantry Brigade published a long post to its Telegram channel on December 22 detailing a "radical change in tactics" that the brigade is using against Ukrainian forces in Krynky (on the eastern bank of Kherson Oblast).[16] The post claimed that elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade rotated into the Krynky area and are applying the new tactic of "dropping K-51 grenades from drones" onto Ukrainian positions to smoke Ukrainian forces out of their positions and expose them to fire from various arms.[17] The 810th Naval Infantry Brigade additionally published footage that apparently shows such a K-51 drop on a Ukrainian position, presumably in Krynky.[18] K-51 aerosol grenades are filled with irritant CS gas (2-Chlorobenzalmalononitrile), a type of tear gas used for riot control (also known as a Riot Control Agent [RCA]).[19] The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits the use of RCAs as a method of warfare, and Russia has been a state party to the CWC since 1997.[20] ISW previously observed that Russian forces used K-51 grenades against Ukrainian positions in Donetsk Oblast in November 2022.[21]

Russian forces conducted a series of Shahed-136/131 drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 22-23. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched nine Shahed drones from Balaklava, occupied Crimea and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai on the night of December 22 to 23 and that Ukrainian forces shot down all of the drones.[22]

Recent analysis by OSINT analyst MT Anderson confirms that while Russian forces have moved the bulk of Black Sea Fleet (BSF) assets away from occupied Sevastopol, the BSF maintains a limited naval presence in Sevastopol.[23] Anderson posted high-resolution satellite imagery from December 20 showing that two Bora-class corvettes, two Ropucha-class landing ships, one Krivak-class frigate, and the Matros Koshka bulk carrier remain at the otherwise empty BSF frigate pier in southern Sevastopol.[24] Anderson noted that it appears that Russian forces have rebuilt many of the defenses at the entrance of Sevastopol Harbor following a powerful Black Sea cyclone at the end of November.[25] Anderson also posted satellite imagery of the BSF headquarters in Sevastopol and noted that it does not appear to be undergoing renovations following a massive Ukrainian strike on the headquarters on September 22.[26] The satellite imagery additionally shows that one Ropucha-class landing ship, one Natya-class minesweeper, one Alexandrit-class minesweeper, and the Ivan Khurs Ivanov-class intelligence ship remain at the pier at Pivdenna Bay, but that the submarine pen is empty.[27] The satellite imagery confirms the absence of several major BSF naval assets, including specialized Kalibr cruise missile carriers, from the docks at Sevastopol, which supports ISW's assessment that Russia has moved many major BSF assets out of Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on an enduring basis.[28]

The Russian information space exploited news of a Ukrainian journalist’s decision not to return to Ukraine after an assignment abroad to amplify ongoing Russian information operations about resistance to full mobilization efforts in Ukraine that purposefully ignore the much more substantial Russian resistance to Russia’s partial mobilization of reservists in September 2022. Russian state media and milbloggers amplified news that a Ukrainian television journalist decided to stay in Brussels after covering the EU Summit there from December 14 to 15.[29] Russian milbloggers claimed that the Ukrainian journalist stayed in Brussels to avoid mobilization.[30] Russian outlets naturally did not mention that at least 700,000 Russians immediately left Russia when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists on September 21, 2022.[31] The unpopularity of Russia’s partial mobilization and ensuing mass emigration led Russian authorities to engage in crypto-mobilization efforts that continue today, including recruiting volunteers and forcibly conscripting migrants and newly naturalized Russian citizens.[32] Resistance to mobilization is to be expected in a protracted and bloody war, and the disproportionate amplification of a singular prominent Ukrainian citizen’s behavior is part of ongoing Russian information operations that attempt to paint a picture of widespread resistance to the full mobilization in Ukraine made necessary by Russia’s invasion.

Russian milbloggers used the granting of Russian citizenship to Palestinian refugees on December 23 to promote the idea of Russia’s “compatriots abroad” - an oft-used Kremlin justification for its war in Ukraine. Dagestani authorities granted 45 Palestinian refugees, including seven minors, Russian citizenship on December 23, after the refugees reportedly evacuated to Dagestan from Gaza.[33] Select Russian milbloggers, including Kremlin-appointed Russian Human Rights Council member Alexander “Sasha” Kots, expressed shock at the speed and ease of the refugees’ citizenship process and called for Russian authorities to apply this expedited citizenship process to the whole country and to Russian “compatriots” abroad who are “risking everything” to support Russia.[34] The Kremlin has intentionally and broadly defined “compatriots” as ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in the Russian sphere of influence, which is not limited to those with Russian citizenship or residing in Russia.[35] Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently renewed his rhetoric about the concept of “compatriots abroad” when discussing Russia’s "sovereignty,” the fiction of a “genocide in Donbas,” and Russia’s duty to protect these “compatriots” as part of justifications for Russia’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine.[36] The fact that Kots, who is notably one of the “trusted persons” who can campaign on Putin’s behalf, invoked the narrative about “compatriots abroad” in connection with news about Palestinian refugees – as opposed to other Kremlin narratives more directly related to the Israel-Hamas war, such as Putin’s recent anti-Israel rhetoric - suggests that the “compatriots abroad” narrative may be of particular importance to the Kremlin, or is perceived as such at least by important voices in the Russian information space.[37] Select Russian information space actors may continue to seize on the issue of Palestinian refugees in Russia to advocate for a more maximalist and holistic approach to Putin's Russian World (Russkiy Mir) ideology and the intensified integration of Russian “compatriots” into the Russian world. 

Key Takeaways:

  • The New York Times (NYT) - citing former and current senior Russian, US, and international officials - reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using back channels and intermediaries to signal his interest in a ceasefire, despite Putin’s recent public statements to the contrary.
  • The timing of Putin’s reported interest in a ceasefire is more consistent with Russia’s ongoing efforts to delay and discourage further Western military assistance to Ukraine, than with a serious interest in ending the war other than with a full Russian victory.
  • Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky obliquely indicated that VDV forces are under significant pressure to conduct rapid offensive operations near Bakhmut and repel Ukrainian attacks on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Teplinsky also implied that the Russian military command is deploying new VDV officers and troops promptly to the frontlines without having them complete pre-combat training.
  • Russia's Black Sea Fleet's 810th Naval Infantry Brigade confirmed that it is deliberately using chemical weapons against Ukrainian forces in an apparent violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a party.
  • Recent analysis by OSINT analyst MT Anderson confirms that while Russian forces have moved the bulk of Black Sea Fleet (BSF) assets away from occupied Sevastopol, the BSF maintains a limited naval presence in Sevastopol.
  • The Russian information space exploited news of a Ukrainian journalist’s decision not to return to Ukraine after an assignment abroad to amplify ongoing Russian information operations about resistance to full mobilization efforts in Ukraine that purposefully ignore the much more substantial Russian resistance to Russia’s partial mobilization of reservists in September 2022.
  • Russian milbloggers used the granting of Russian citizenship to Palestinian refugees on December 23 to promote the idea of Russia’s “compatriots abroad” - an oft-used Kremlin justification for its war in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made recent confirmed advances near Kupyansk and Kreminna, northeast of Bakhmut, southwest of Donetsk City, and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec subsidiary United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) Head Yuri Slyusar stated during a television interview on December 19 that UAC will increase its production of combat aircraft in 2024 and 2025, including its production of new types of aircraft.
  • Russian occupation authorities are building out electoral infrastructure in occupied Ukraine to set conditions for the upcoming presidential election.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment: December 22, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 22, 2023, 7:30pm ET

Ukrainian officials continue to warn that Russia maintains its maximalist objectives and additional goals for territorial conquest in Ukraine, despite recent comments made by Western officials suggesting that Russia is already defeated. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on December 22 that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has lost Ukraine altogether" and can "no longer achieve its war goals," which is a "major strategic defeat."[1] Stoltenberg also cautioned against expectations in the West of a rapid end to the war. Stoltenberg's comments echo comments made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on December 20, wherein Blinken stated that Russia has already failed to achieve its principal objective of erasing and subsuming Ukraine.[2] Deputy Chief of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Major General Vadym Skibitskyi, however, also stated on December 22 that even if Russia failed to achieve its operational-strategic objectives in 2023, Putin will simply shift Russia's objectives to the next year, suggesting that it is premature to talk about Russia's complete failure in the war thus far.[3] Skibitsky's statement is consistent with ISW's assessment that Russia continues to pursue Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine and that the current failure of Russian operations in Ukraine thus far is not a permanent condition.[4] A Russian source seized on Blinken's comment and similar statements made by Western officials to propagate the narrative that these comments aim to justify reducing Western support for Ukraine.[5] Russian information space actors will likely continue to exploit Western statements regarding the failure of Russian operations in 2023 and falsely frame such statements as indicators that Western leaders intend to stop supporting Ukraine.

Ukraine will very likely receive the first batch of F-16s before the end of 2023. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte confirmed on December 22 during a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the Dutch government will prepare an initial 18 F-16 fighter jets for delivery to Ukraine.[6] While Rutte did not confirm the timeline for F-16 delivery, a recent Estonian Ministry of Defense strategy document stated that the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Belgium have already committed to donating F-16s to Ukraine "before the end of the year [2023]."[7]

The Russia Aerospace Forces (VKS) reportedly lost three Su-34 attack aircraft in southern Ukraine between December 21-22. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian forces downed three Su-24 aircraft on December 22 in the southern direction, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian air defenses downed the Russian aircraft in the Kherson direction near Krynky.[8] Russian milbloggers responded to the isolated incident with great concern about Ukraine’s air defense capabilities in southern Ukraine.[9] The VKS previously lost two Mi-8 helicopters, a Su-34 bomber, and a Su-35 fighter during an incident in Bryansk Oblast on May 13, 2023, which Russian forces similarly seized on to voice anxiety over Ukrainian air defense capabilities.[10]

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) named Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close ally and Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, as the individual responsible for the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.[11] The WSJ, quoting Western intelligence officials and former Russian intelligence sources, reported that Patrushev, with Putin‘s permission, gave the order to ”dispose” of Prigozhin in early August 2023 by planting an explosive on the wing of Prigozhin’s jet. ISW had originally assessed on August 23 that Russian forces might have shot down Prigozhin’s jet on Putin’s orders, but evidence for that assessment was circumstantial, and ISW has no reason to doubt that the sources of the WSJ report are more reliable. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the WSJ of putting forward a ”pulp fiction” conspiracy theory about Prigozhin’s death, however.[12]

The WSJ reported that Patrushev and other Kremlin officials warned Putin against using parallel armies, but that Putin committed Wagner forces shortly after Russian regular forces failed to accomplish the Kremlin’s invasion plan in February 2022. Patrushev reportedly began to warn Putin about Prigozhin‘s intentions in summer 2022, but Putin reportedly disregarded those concerns as Wagner forces were achieving battlefield successes. ISW previously assessed on March 12, 2023, that Putin allowed Prigozhin to expand the Wagner Group in spring and summer 2022 to avoid ordering an unpopular mobilization after Russian regular forces failed to capture Kyiv and culminated in western Luhansk Oblast.[13] Prigozhin became bolder throughout the summer and early fall of 2022 and started openly criticizing the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the General Staff in hopes of installing pro-Wagner commanders and officials within the Kremlin establishment.[14] ISW has previously observed that Putin encourages competition among different factions within the Kremlin and likely permitted the continuation of conditions in which Prigozhin could attack the Russian MoD to balance Kremlin officials and ensure that different factions competed to please him by accomplishing his stated objectives.[15] Kremlin sources similarly told the WSJ that Putin stood by his long-term practice of allowing the feud between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD to continue despite Patrushev’s concerns.

A former Russian intelligence officer reported that Putin’s relationship with Prigozhin changed after Prigozhin scolded Putin over the Wagner Group’s shortage of supplies over a phone call, which Patrushev and other Kremlin officials overheard in October 2022. ISW reported in late October about the Putin-Prigozhin discussion of battlefield realities and observed Putin issuing an oblique warning to Prigozhin on October 5, 2022, in an odd allusion to the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great’s authority in the mid-1770s.[16] Patrushev reportedly seized on the phone call to convince Putin to distance himself from Prigozhin as Prigozhin showed disrespect to Putin’s authority – and Patrushev was ultimately successful in influencing Putin to cut communication with Prigozhin by December 2022. Putin’s trust in and affinity for Prigozhin may have also declined as Prigozhin failed to capture Bakhmut before the start of 2023 as he had likely previously promised to do. ISW assessed on March 12, 2023, that Putin likely allowed the Russian MoD to replace Wagner in Bakhmut in early January because Wagner had failed to capture Bakhmut by late December 2022. In March 2023, ISW observed Prigozhin publicly entertaining a claim that Patrushev and Putin were planning to ”neutralize” Wagner and Prigozhin given that there would be nothing remaining of Wagner in April or May 2023.[17] The claim that Prigozhin amplified also included Patrushev’s observation that Prigozhin would try to “unite the former and remaining active Wagner fighters under a far-fetched pretext,” arm them, and "send them to the territory of Russia in order to seize power in the regions bordering Ukraine with a possible advance inland” if Russian officials destroyed Wagner in Ukraine.[18] Prigozhin denied knowing about such claims at the time, and it appeared that the claim was falsely attributed to a Russian outlet.[19] Prigozhin’s engagement with the claim was likely deliberate, as he may have been attempting to obliquely signal to the public about Patrushev’s efforts to eliminate Wagner, 

The WSJ’s sources revealed that the Kremlin then announced plans to dismantle Wagner as a fighting force by forcing all fighters to register with the Russian MoD by July 1 – leading to Prigozhin’s armed rebellion on June 23 and June 24. Prigozhin reportedly wanted to confront Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Rostov-on-Don. Both of them were reportedly at the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters on the day of the mutiny before escaping as Wagner forces surrounded and seized the headquarters building. Patrushev reportedly took charge of the crisis and began arranging calls with Prigozhin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – who refused to assist Putin in quelling Prigozhin’s rebellion. Lukashenko reportedly presented Prigozhin with Patrushev’s proposal to allow Wagner to move to Belarus and to let Prigozhin operate abroad. Following the mutiny, the Kremlin let Prigozhin continue a seemingly normal life without punishment, and a US official noted that Kremlin officials were likely collecting information on Prigozhin and his allies prior to Patrushev’s assassination plan in August 2023.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 21 to 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed 24 of 28 Russian-launched Shahed-131/136 drones.[20] Ukraine's Southern Operational Command reported that Russian drones struck port infrastructure in Mykolaiv Oblast and targeted port infrastructure in Odesa Oblast.[21] Kyiv City Administration stated that Russian forces conducted a third series of drone strikes against Kyiv City in the last six days on the night of December 21 to 22, striking a multi-story residential building.[22] Russian sources claimed that Russian drones also struck targets in Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa oblasts.[23]

The Kremlin continues to position itself as a neutral arbitrator in the Israel-Hamas war despite its recent increasing anti-Israel rhetoric. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on December 22 to discuss issues related to the “unprecedented” escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, primarily in the Gaza Strip.[24] Putin reportedly informed Abbas about Russian efforts to deliver humanitarian aid, including medicines and medical equipment, to Gaza.[25] Putin and Abbas reportedly called for an end to fighting and the resumption of a political settlement between Israel and Palestine.[26] Russian officials proposed on December 22 that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) amend a humanitarian aid resolution to call for an ”urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities.”[27] The Kremlin has routinely postured itself as a neutral actor ready to alleviate human suffering and de-escalate the conflict since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.[28] The Kremlin has expressed a much more anti-Israel position in recent weeks, however, and this increasingly non-neutral framing signals potential increased support for Iranian interests in the region and a Russian willingness to antagonize Israel.[29]

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on December 22 granting the US Treasury Department the authority to impose sanctions on banks and other financial institutions that facilitate Russian sanctions evasion. The executive order allows the US Treasury Department to prohibit financial institutions facilitating Russian sanctions evasion from opening accounts in the US and to block all of a financial institution's current and future property and interests in the US.[30] The order stipulates that any bank or financial institution may face these measures if it conducts or facilitates transactions on behalf of a person or entity that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned for their involvement in the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) or in sectors that support Russia’s DIB.[31] US Treasury Secretary Jannet Yellen stated on December 22 that ”no one should doubt the resolve of the US and [its] partners when weighing the real risks” associated with support for Russian sanctions evasion.[32] The executive order also places sanctions on imports of Russian non-industrial diamonds, alcoholic beverages, and seafood.[33]

Russian officials continue to downplay deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations, possibly as part of a concerted campaign to improve the bilateral relationship amid concerns about Russia’s waning influence in the South Caucasus. Russian Ambassador to Armenia Sergei Kopyrkin stated during an interview with Kremlin newswire TASS on December 22 that Russia and Armenia remain “partners and strategic allies” united by common interests and history, despite “certain differences” in their bilateral and multilateral agendas.[34] Kopyrkin noted that the Armenian government maintains that it is not considering withdrawing from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the latter of which Armenia is scheduled to chair in 2024.[35] Kopyrkin stated that Russian and Armenian officials are negotiating new military-technical agreements and recently met to discuss the creation of ”operational communication channels” to resolve any disagreements in the bilateral relationship, specifically disagreements between Russian and Armenian media outlets.[36] Armenian TV and Radio Commission recently revoked the license of the Radio Tospa station, which is affiliated with Russian propaganda outlet Radio Sputnik, for 30 days due to derogatory comments made by Russian propagandists about Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Armenian people.[37] ISW has observed Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, similarly downplay the deterioration of Russian-Armenia relations as Armenia has distanced itself from Russia following Russia’s failure to support Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in fall 2023.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials continue to warn that Russia maintains its maximalist objectives and additional goals for territorial conquest in Ukraine, despite recent comments made by Western officials suggesting that Russia is already defeated.
  • Ukraine will very likely receive the first batch of F-16s before the end of 2023.
  • The Russia Aerospace Forces (VKS) reportedly lost three Su-34 attack aircraft in southern Ukraine between December 21-22.
  • The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) named Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close ally and Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, as the individual responsible for the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.
  • The Kremlin continues to position itself as a neutral arbitrator in the Israel-Hamas war despite its recent increasing anti-Israel rhetoric.
  • US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on December 22 granting the US Treasury Department the authority to impose sanctions on banks and other financial institutions that facilitate Russian sanctions evasion.
  • Russian officials continue to downplay deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations, possibly as part of a concerted campaign to improve the bilateral relationship amid concerns about Russia’s waning influence in the South Caucasus.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances northeast and southwest of Bakhmut and southwest of Avdiivka and continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • A Ukrainian intelligence official reported that Russian forces are intensifying force generation efforts to keep pace with the rate of Russian losses in Ukraine so that they can sustain ongoing offensive operations along the front.
  • Kremlin-appointment Commissioner on Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova outlined new social support measures meant to further integrate occupied Zaporizhia Oblast into Russia during a working visit to the occupied oblast on December 22.
 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 21, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 21, 2023, 7:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:15pm ET on December 21. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 22 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The failure of Russian operations in Ukraine to achieve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s maximalist objectives thus far is not a permanent condition, and only continued Western support for Ukraine can ensure that Putin’s maximalist objectives remain unattainable. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on December 20 that Putin has already failed to achieve his principal objective of “erasing [Ukraine] from the map and subsuming it into Russia.”[1] The Russian military has failed to force Ukraine to capitulate to Putin’s maximalist objectives to replace the Ukrainian government with one acceptable to the Kremlin under veiled calls for “denazification,” to destroy Ukraine’s ability to resist any future Kremlin demands under calls for “demilitarization,” and to prohibit Ukraine’s right to choose its own diplomatic and military partnerships under calls for Ukrainian “neutrality.”[2] The Kremlin has also pursued additional undefined objectives for territorial conquest in Ukraine that have resulted in the illegal annexation of parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts and the occupation of small parts of Kharkiv and Mykolaiv oblasts, none of which represents either a departure from or the full accomplishment of Putin’s initial “principal” objectives.[3]

Putin has recently re-emphasized that his maximalist objectives in Ukraine remain unchanged, and Putin and senior Kremlin officials have increasingly expressed expansionist rhetoric indicating that these objectives do not preclude further Russian territorial conquests in Ukraine.[4] Russian victory on Putin’s terms does not necessarily portend the full-scale annexation of Ukraine into Russia and the erasure of a Ukrainian state altogether, to be sure, but they certainly entail at least the destruction of the current Ukrainian state and its recreation into an entirely Russian-dominated entity, for which the full-scale Russian military occupation of Ukraine will very likely be required.

ISW has assessed that the collapse of Western aid would likely lead to the eventual collapse of Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian military and that the current positional war in Ukraine is not a stable stalemate because the current instable balance could readily be tipped in either direction by decisions made in the West.[5] Continued Western security assistance that empowers Ukrainian forces to repel ongoing and future Russian offensive efforts and to liberate more Ukrainian territory is the only course of action at this time that can make the Russian failure to achieve Putin’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine permanent.

US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated that the White House assesses that Russian forces will be able to conduct offensive operations more easily when winter weather conditions become more conducive for mechanized maneuver warfare (likely in January–February 2024) — an assessment that is consistent with ISW’s observations and assessments about the tempo of fighting in Ukraine during the winter. Kirby stated on December 20 that Russian forces intend to continue offensive operations, particularly around Avdiivka, and that the White House believes that it will be easier for Russian forces to conduct offensive operations when cold temperatures freeze the ground in the end of January and into February 2024.[6] The fall mud season has hampered ground maneuver for both Ukrainian and Russian forces since 2014, but periods of prolonged freezing temperatures that typically start in late December freeze the ground and allow armored vehicles to move more easily than in muddy autumn and spring months.[7] Weather is variable, however, and the upcoming period of hard freeze may come later in the year — or not at all if it is a mild winter — and presents a shorter window of favorable terrain for mechanized maneuver warfare. Russian forces have launched localized offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall–winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative rather than waiting for the hard freeze.[8] Russian forces will likely try to sustain or intensify these offensive operations regardless of weather conditions this winter, as Russian forces did in winter 2022–2023.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 20 to 21. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 35 Shahed-131/-136 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk in Krasnodar Krai, occupied Cape Chuada in Crimea, and Kursk Oblast targeting Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Cherkasy, Kherson, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, Khmelnytskyi, Sumy, Poltava, Chernihiv, and Kirovohrad oblasts.[9] The Ukrainian Air Force stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 34 Shaheds.[10]

Japan is reportedly preparing to revise its defense equipment export policy to backfill US stockpiles of Patriot missiles and UK artillery ammunition stores.[11] The Japanese government will reportedly meet on December 22 to finalize plans to allow for Japan’s first export of lethal military equipment since 1967, when Japan established its Three Principles on Arms Exports, which prohibits the export of defense equipment to countries party to a conflict.[12] The revision will reportedly allow Japanese manufacturers to export completed defense equipment to the country in which the manufacturing license for that weapon originated.[13] Japanese Patriot missiles exported to the US will help fill US stockpiles, allowing the US to send more Patriot missiles to Ukraine. The Financial Times (FT) reported on December 21 that Japan is also considering exporting 155mm artillery shells to the United Kingdom (UK) to indirectly aid Ukraine in a similar way.[14]

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) objected to military exercises in Japan involving the Japanese military, possibly in an effort to deter or respond to the Japanese government’s decision to change its defense equipment export regulations. The Russian MFA claimed on December 21 that it sent an official objection to the Japanese Embassy in Russia on December 18 about regular military exercises among Japan, the US, and Australia on Hokkaido Island, claiming that the exercises posed a potential security threat to Russia.[15] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on December 18 that Russia has “closed” all territorial disputes with Japan.[16] Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi disputed Lavrov’s claim on December 19, stating that Russia did not want to continue negotiations on its territorial disputes with Japan after Tokyo imposed sanctions on Russia.[17] The Yama Sakura 85 trilateral exercises with the US, Japan, and Australia occurred from December 4 to 12, and US Indo-Pacific Command stated that the exercises symbolize the participants’ commitment to the shared vision of a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, suggesting that the exercises are highly likely aimed at China, not Russia.[18] Russia’s insistence that exercises on Japanese territory involving the Japanese military threaten Russia, despite Russia’s alleged and self-proclaimed lack of territorial disputes with Japan, suggests that Russia wants to be seen as a Pacific power as part of the Kremlin’s pursuit of an equal defense partnership with China.[19] The MFA may also have announced its complaints about the exercises’ alleged threat to Russian security in an effort to deter Japan from making the reported possible changes to Japanese defense equipment export regulation policies.

The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned Russian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Oleg Malginov after Russian ultranationalist and former Russian State Duma Deputy Zakhar Prilepin suggested that Russia should annex part of Uzbekistan, likely demonstrating post-Soviet countries’ concerns about intensifying Russian imperial designs against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Prilepin stated that Russia should annex territory from which labor migrants in Russia originate, “for example, [territory] in Uzbekistan,” at a press conference on December 20.[20] Prilepin is a prominent Russian ultranationalist voice who has affiliations with Rosgvardia and led a Russian battalion to fight in Donbas prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[21] Prilepin also survived an alleged Ukrainian assassination attempt in May 2023.[22] The Uzbek MFA reported that it had summoned Malginov to a meeting regarding Prilepin’s statements and noted that “such rash statements” do not correspond with Uzbekistan and Russia’s strategic partnership.[23] Russian MFA Spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that Prilepin’s statements do not “even remotely” reflect the official Russian government position on its relations with Uzbekistan and claimed that Russia’s use of foreign labor migrants benefits both Russia and migrants’ countries of origin.[24] Prilepin’s statements likely reflect increasing public discontent in the Russian ultranationalist community about the role of migrants in Russian society.[25] The Uzbek MFA’s response likely indicates that the Uzbek government views Prilepin’s statements as sufficiently threatening to warrant a demand for an official Russian response. Central Asian governments have notably previously responded to statements from Russian officials questioning Central Asian states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty by summoning their respective Russian ambassador.[26]

An investigation by Africa-based French-language outlet Jeune Afrique highlights the Kremlin's ongoing efforts to maintain and expand Russia's influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Sahel while subsuming Wagner Group operations on the continent.[27] Jeune Afrique noted that since the Wagner Group's aborted June 24 armed rebellion and Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin's subsequent death in August, operatives of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU) have increasingly accompanied Wagner fighters in Mali as part of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)'s efforts to take control of former Wagner elements in Mali and other African states. Jeune Afrique cited an anonymous source reportedly close to French intelligence who claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to consolidate control over former Wagner operatives in Mali so as to not "create another Frankenstein's monster" by overly empowering Wagner's independent operations in Africa. The Jeune Afrique investigation also highlighted efforts by the Russian MoD and GRU to assure the leadership of the CAR, where Wagner has historically been particularly active, that the CAR–Russian partnership will continue to operate fruitfully even following Prigozhin's death. Jeune Afrique additionally emphasized that the Burkinabe junta is trying to expand relations with Russia for "military and security purposes” and that Russia is generally interested in working with the newly formed Alliance of Sahel States, comprised of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. CTP previously assessed that Russia is exploiting shifting power dynamics in Africa by strengthening partnerships with Sahelian juntas.[28] These partnerships allow Russia to evade Western sanctions levied against Russia due to the war in Ukraine and to spoil Western strategic influence on the continent.[29]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to formalize avenues for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of humanitarian services. Putin signed a decree on December 21 "on measures of social support for families with children affected by the aggression of Ukraine," which expands Russian control over occupied areas of Ukraine through financial coercion and includes a key provision that further formalizes an existing set of deportation schemes under medical pretexts.[30] The decree holds that the guardians of children who were under the age of 18 after February 2022 and suffered an injury while living in occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts are eligible to receive a one-time 100,000-ruble ($1,076) compensation payment. The financial support provision codifies social control of occupied areas of Ukraine in a threefold way—first, by generating financial dependence on Russian authorities for social support payments; second, by collecting personal information on Ukrainian children and their guardians; and finally, by framing the Ukrainian military as dangerous to Ukrainian civilians in a way that propagates a negative view of the Ukrainian state. The decree also stipulates that occupation authorities must refer children to "sanatorium-resorts" or otherwise provide children with the "opportunity to travel to a place of rest of treatment" in the case of certain "medical indicators." This provision of the decree essentially will allow Russian occupation officials to tabulate personal information on children who have been registered as injured and send those children to Russia for treatment and rehabilitation purposes. ISW has frequently reported that Russian occupation officials use the promise of various medical and psychiatric programs in Russia to justify the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.[31] The deportation of children on humanitarian and medical grounds is likely still a violation of international law because Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine created the conditions that endangered Ukrainian children in the first place.[32]

Kremlin-appointed Commissioner on Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova continues to implicate herself in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia against the backdrop of the death of a 12-year-old Ukrainian girl in Russian custody. Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported on December 21 that a 12-year-old girl from Sorokyne (Krasnodon), occupied Luhansk Oblast, died from an excessively high fever on a train that was traveling from the "Olympic" Children's camp in Tyumen Oblast back to occupied Luhansk Oblast.[33] Russian media reported that following the girl's death, Russian Railways stopped the train in Penza, Saratov Oblast, and the Russian Health Ministry reported that it hospitalized 86 children from the train with symptoms of Acute Respiratory Viral Infection (AFVI).[34] Lvova-Belova responded to the situation and emphasized that she is monitoring what is happening with the remaining children who are hospitalized in Saratov Oblast, acknowledging that the children from Sorokyne were on the train for "vacation" in Tyumen Oblast.[35]

Russian occupation officials have long used children's vacation and rest/rehabilitation camps to facilitate the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, while also using the camps to instill pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Ukrainian children, as ISW has frequently assessed.[36] It is notable that Lvova-Belova acknowledged that the Tyumen Oblast "Olympic" children's camp is part of the network of children's camps that figure into Russia's wider scheme of deporting Ukrainian children, which implicates her further in the overall deportation process. The Ukrainian girl’s death also further demonstrates an apparent violation of Russia's obligations under international law. Under international law, Russia, as the occupying power, must ensure the health and safety of "protected persons" that are part of a removed or deported population, including children.[37] The apparent rapid spread of AFVI and dangerous flu-like symptoms to up to 86 Ukrainian children, toward whom Russia has international legal obligations, represents a further case of Russia's contempt for international standards.

The US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a series of sanctions against oil traders with opaque ownership and a Russian-owned ship manager that have been helping Russia skirt the G7 price cap on Russian oil and petroleum products. OFAC announced on December 20 that it sanctioned a Russian-owned ship manager who managed a vessel that OFAC previously identified as having transported Russian crude oil above the $60 price cap under the cover of a US-based service provider.[38] OFAC also sanctioned two ship managers based in Hong Kong and one based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have reportedly made over 150 port calls to transport Russian oil above the price cap since summer 2023.[39] OFAC stated that it will strengthen review processes for service providers to better enforce the price cap in accordance with recent G7 commitments.[40]

Bloomberg reported on December 20 that roughly five million barrels of Russian crude oil that were scheduled to reach Indian refiners have not done so in the past four weeks for unspecified reasons.[41] Bloomberg reported that five ships that intended to deliver the Russian crude oil are idling several kilometers from their destination and belong to Russian state tanker company Sovcomflot PJSC, which owns six of the eight tankers that OFAC has previously sanctioned.[42] Another Sovcomflot-owned tanker reportedly loaded oil cargo on December 19 and still set course for delivery to Indian refiners scheduled for January 5, however.[43]

Key Takeaways:

  • The failure of Russian operations in Ukraine to achieve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s maximalist objectives thus far is not a permanent condition, and only continued Western support for Ukraine can ensure that Putin’s maximalist objectives remain unattainable.
  • ISW has assessed that the collapse of Western aid would likely lead to the eventual collapse of Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian military and that the current positional war in Ukraine is not a stable stalemate because the current instable balance could readily be tipped in either direction by decisions made in the West.
  • US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated that the White House assesses that Russian forces will be able to conduct offensive operations more easily when winter weather conditions become more conducive for mechanized maneuver warfare (likely in January–February 2024) — an assessment that is consistent with ISW’s observations and assessments about the tempo of fighting in Ukraine during the winter.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 20 to 21.
  • Japan is reportedly preparing to revise its defense equipment export policy to backfill US stockpiles of Patriot missiles and UK artillery ammunition stores.
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) objected to military exercises in Japan involving the Japanese military, possibly in an effort to deter or respond to the Japanese government’s decision to change its defense equipment export regulations.
  • The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned Russian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Oleg Malginov after Russian ultranationalist and former Russian State Duma Deputy Zakhar Prilepin suggested that Russia should annex part of Uzbekistan, likely demonstrating post-Soviet countries’ concerns about intensifying Russian imperial designs against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
  • An investigation by Africa-based French-language outlet Jeune Afrique highlights the Kremlin's ongoing efforts to maintain and expand Russia's influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Sahel while subsuming Wagner Group operations on the continent.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to formalize avenues for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia under the guise of humanitarian services.
  • Kremlin-appointed Commissioner on Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova continues to implicate herself in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia against the backdrop of the death of a 12-year-old Ukrainian girl in Russian custody.
  • The US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a series of sanctions against oil traders with opaque ownership and a Russian-owned ship manager that have been helping Russia skirt the G7 price cap on Russian oil and petroleum products.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka and continued positional meeting engagements along the entire frontline.
  • The Russian government continues efforts to digitalize and organize conscription through a unified digital register as part of ongoing attempts to improve the effectiveness of issuing military summonses and prevent draft dodging.
  • Russian authorities are using Rosgvardia to perform law enforcement functions and strengthen occupational control in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 20, 2023

click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 20, 2023, 6pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on December 20. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 21 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill made a series of anti-migrant and xenophobic remarks that directly contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to reestablish the inclusive Russian World (Russkiy Mir) ideology. During the Moscow Diocesan Assembly on December 20, Kirill blamed migrants for increasingly threatening interreligious and interethnic peace in Russia by refusing to integrate into Russian society and forming criminal and extremist organizations.[1] Kirill added that life for the ethnically Russian “indigenous population” is almost unbearable in some areas, including Moscow, claiming that if such trends continue then the Russian Orthodox people will “lose Russia.” Kirill’s statements contrast with Putin’s recent efforts to present himself as a centrist figure and to reestablish the concept of the Russian World, which includes all people of different ethnicities and religious affiliations who have lived or are living in geographical areas that belonged to Ancient Rus (Kyivan Rus), the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation.[2] Putin notably also stated during the Meeting of the Council of Legislators on December 20 that the Russian constitution and government are trying to ensure harmony in a diverse and large Russia – reemphasizing his efforts to present Russia as an inclusive and harmonious multicultural Russian state.[3]

Putin, on the one hand, has been increasingly reimagining himself as a modern tsar who is defending Russian sovereignty to justify his war in Ukraine and to appease his ultranationalist constituencies who tend to have more intolerant views on religion and Russian identity.[4] But Putin has, on the other hand, been trying to seem to be an inclusive leader to incentivize all religious and ethnic groups to support his regime and war efforts. ISW assessed on November 28 that Kirill’s anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric is more closely aligned with Russian government policies towards migrants and non-Russian ethnicities in Russia than Putin’s more inclusive rhetoric in the context of the Russian World.[5] These narratives and policies are thus contradictory and may ultimately complicate Putin’s efforts to appease different constituency groups in Russia and may trigger further interethnic and interreligious conflicts.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov explicitly stated that the Kremlin is uninterested in negotiations with Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin is moving away from its information operation meant to feign interest in negotiations. Peskov responded to a question on December 20 about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s December 19 statement that the issue of negotiations with Russia is currently “irrelevant,” stating that the Kremlin has repeatedly said that there is no “basis” or “foundation” for negotiations with Ukraine.[6] Peskov also stated that the “prerequisites” for negotiations are absent, likely referring to Russia‘s unchanged maximalist objectives in Ukraine - which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender.[7] ISW has long assessed that the Kremlin does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine or the West in good faith.[8] The Kremlin previously pushed information operations feigning interest in negotiations with Ukraine in order to cast itself as a responsible party and blame Ukraine for refusing “reasonable” Russian negotiations, but the Kremlin appears to be moving away from this information operation, as ISW suggested on December 15.[9]

Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 19 to 20. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 19 Shahed-131/136 drones at Ukraine from Chauda and Balaklava, occupied Crimea, and that Ukrainian forces shot down 18 of the drones over Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi, Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kirovohrad oblasts.[10] The Ukrainian Air Force also reported that Russian forces launched two S-300 missiles at Kharkiv Oblast from Belgorod Oblast.[11] The Kyiv City Military Administration noted that this is the fifth Russian air attack against Kyiv Oblast in the month of December.[12]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled Africa Corps announced a recruitment campaign targeting former and current Wagner Group personnel and people with combat experience in the war in Ukraine. The Africa Corps, a Russian MoD initiative to expand Russian military presence in the Middle East and Africa, announced that it started recruitment on December 20.[13] Africa-focused Russian media outlet African Initiative stated that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov is “supervising” the new unspecified leadership of the Africa Corps.[14] The Africa Corps claimed that its command staff consists of former combat commanders of elite units in the Russian military and unspecified private military companies (PMCs) - possibly referring to the Redut PMC (affiliated with the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff [GRU]).[15] The Africa Corps advertised an unspecified “high salary,” but noted that interested applicants who are currently fighting in the war in Ukraine cannot transfer to serve in the Africa Corps, though active-duty Russian military personnel not fighting in the war can transfer to serve in the Africa Corps.[16] The Africa Corps also clarified that an individual cannot transfer from Rosgvardia to the Africa Corps before completing their Rosgvardia contract.[17] The Africa Corps’ desire to clarify eligibility for service suggests that its advertisement campaign has successfully generated interest among former Wagner personnel given that some Wagner fighters signed contracts with the Russian MoD or Rosgvardia after the death of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023.[18] The Africa Corps suggested that it would operate in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso - areas consistent with ISW’s previous assessment of the Africa Corps' area of operations.[19]

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed bilateral economic cooperation with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 20. Mishustin stated that the previous two Russian-Chinese summits in March and October 2023 indicated the importance of further strengthening the “comprehensive partnership” and “strategic interaction” between the two countries.[20] Mishustin and Xi highlighted increased Russian-Chinese trade in 2023, which has reportedly already surpassed its goal of $200 billion, and Mishustin continued to claim that Russian and Chinese transactions are almost entirely done in national currencies (the yuan and ruble). China and Russia issued a joint communique on December 20 which stated that the “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two countries is in line with the two states’ interests, not aimed at third parties, and not subject to external influence.[21] The communique highlighted Russian-Chinese energy and investment cooperation and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The communique included Russian statements about Taiwan but did not mention Ukraine, which suggests that the Kremlin continues to be concerned with China’s reticence to participate fully in the no-limits partnership that Russia wants to establish, and that China continues to hold the upper hand in the Russian-Chinese relationship.[22]

Moscow State University (MGU) is reportedly ending its master's program in “information and hybrid warfare” aimed at teaching students how to create information operations and conduct hybrid warfare, generating outrage from Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. MGU Higher School of Telecommunications Dean Vitaly Tretyakov defended MGU’s decision to discontinue the master’s program on Solovyov’s show on December 18 because students graduating from the program would face difficulties finding employment abroad.[23] Tretyakov also argued that the master’s program, which offers a course in “special propaganda” (a Russian term for information and psychological operations), would threaten MGU’s reputation.[24] Solovyov dismissed Tretyakov’s explanations and questioned the patriotism of MGU’s students and faculty.[25] Solovyov praised the now-closing master’s program and noted that Russian universities need to teach “special propaganda” and combat Western narratives of history.[26] Former Duma Deputy Elena Panina echoed Solovyov’s support for the program and claimed that the Russian government should fund similar programs at various universities.[27] MGU announced the creation of the master’s program in 2022, the same year it admitted its first class of students, reportedly to teach and promote Russian objectives for the war in Ukraine.[28] MGU also is reportedly closing the program due to the low salaries of the professors teaching its courses and an ongoing scandal regarding faculty bribery.[29]

The Kremlin continues to set conditions to create a veneer of legitimacy over the upcoming March 2024 presidential election. Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairperson Ella Pamfilova reported on December 20 that the CEC has already received applications for 16 individuals who are running as presidential candidates and that 29 Russian federal subjects will use remote electronic voting for the first time during the presidential election.[30] ISW has long assessed that the Kremlin uses the remote electronic voting system to manipulate election results.[31] Russian State Duma Chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin claimed that Russia has developed all the necessary legal frameworks to ensure that the election is "competitive, open, and legitimate."[32] By contrast, a Russian insider source claimed that the CEC has been tasked with ensuring a voter turnout of 75 percent, 80 to 85 percent of which will reportedly vote for Putin.[33] While ISW cannot independently verify the veracity of the insider source's claim, the insinuation that the Kremlin is interested in creating the guise of Putin's legitimate election is consistent with ISW's assessment that Putin remains interested in engaging in legal theater to legitimize his regime.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill made a series of anti-migrant and xenophobic remarks that directly contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to reestablish the inclusive Russian World (Russkiy Mir) ideology.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov explicitly stated that the Kremlin is uninterested in negotiations with Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin is moving away from its information operation meant to feign interest in negotiations.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled Africa Corps announced a recruitment campaign targeting former and current Wagner Group personnel and people with combat experience in the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed bilateral economic cooperation with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 20.
  • Moscow State University (MGU) is reportedly ending its master's program in “information and hybrid warfare” aimed at teaching students how to create information operations and conduct hybrid warfare, generating outrage from Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
  • The Kremlin continues to set conditions to create a veneer of legitimacy over the upcoming March 2024 presidential election.
  • Russian forces made a confirmed advance north of Bakhmut and continued positional meeting engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian officials issued military summonses to migrants at a naturalization ceremony on December 20 as part of ongoing efforts to target naturalized migrants for crypto-mobilization efforts and to placate the Russian ultranationalist community.
  • Russian occupation administrators continue to use educational organizations to facilitate the temporary deportation of Ukrainians to Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 19, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 19, 2023, 8:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 3:15pm ET on December 19. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 20 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly invoking the Kremlin's pre-invasion pseudo-historical rhetoric to cast himself as a modern Russian tsar and framing the invasion of Ukraine as a historically justified imperial reconquest. Putin addressed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium on December 19 and largely reiterated boilerplate Kremlin rhetoric on the war in Ukraine by blaming NATO and the collective West for encroaching on Russia's borders and exculpated himself for issues faced by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine by deflecting the blame towards the Russian MoD bureaucracy.[1] Putin additionally lauded Russian battlefield operations and Russia's defense industrial base’s net output in 2023, furthering several of his standard talking points. Putin once again invoked the concept of "compatriots abroad" when discussing residents in "southeastern Ukraine" who, he asserted, have historical, cultural, and linguistic attachments to Russia, in order to justify the invasion of Ukraine on ideological grounds. ISW previously assessed that Putin rhetorically contextualized Russia's maximalist objectives in Ukraine within a wider framing of Russian "sovereignty" at Putin’s “Direct Line” event on December 14.[2] Putin notably claimed that while Russia is the sole guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia will also not interfere in "territorial disputes" in western Ukraine, where he claimed that many residents want to return to either Poland, Romania, or Hungary, concluding that "history will put everything in its place."

Putin's claim that Russia can be the only true guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty is not a new narrative. In a 2021 essay entitled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," Putin similarly claimed that "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible precisely in partnership with Russia."[3] In the same essay, Putin also utilized a pseudo-historical framework of Ukraine’s and Russia's relationship that essentially defines the lands of modern, sovereign Ukraine as either part of Malorossiya (Little Russia), Novorossiya (New Russia), or fragments of other historical empires.[4] This essay dismissed Ukraine's historical claim to its own sociocultural development, historical sovereignty, and territorial integrity, which the Russian Federation formally recognized and, indeed, guaranteed, in 1994.[5] During the December 19 Collegium Address, Putin further engaged with this pseudo-historical framing to suggest that western Ukraine is also not truly Ukrainian and claimed that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin "gave it away" to Ukraine from pieces of Poland, Romania, and Hungary following the Second World War.[6] Putin baselessly claimed that people living in western Ukraine want to return to their "historical homeland," suggesting that western Ukraine could feasibly return to 17th-century conceptions of state borders and become parts of Poland, Romania, or Hungary. This statement suggests that Putin is selectively weaponizing facets of Eastern and Central European history as they suit his ideological line to further rhetorically strip Ukraine of its internationally recognized sovereignty.

Putin's MoD Collegium claims are rife with rhetorical contradictions and are dependent on tenuous historical allegories that fall apart when considered in different historical contexts. During a November 28 speech at the World Russian People's Council, Putin defined the concept of the "Russian World" (Russkiy Mir) as "all other peoples who have lived and are living in [Russia]," geographically defined as what belonged to Ancient Rus (Kyivan Rus), the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation, which suggests that Putin was broadly including parts of eastern European states such as Poland and Romania in this conception of the Russian World.[7] During the December 19 Collegium Address, however, Putin appeared to diverge from this maximalist interpretation of the Russian World by differentiating Poland, Romania, and Hungary as having their own historical claims to western Ukraine.[8] These contradictions emphasize the fact that Putin relies on historical narratives that intentionally ignore contemporary contexts when they are suitable to the Kremlin narrative. The contradictions also exhibit another known characteristic of Russian information operations, which is that Russian information operations often are not necessarily internally consistent with each other. Based on Putin's interpretation of eastern European history, the modern map of Europe could also ridiculously be redrawn with Poland and Sweden controlling the Baltic States and parts of Belarus and Russia, and the Russian borders extending to Alaska and the California coast.[9] One could also make an absurd and nonsensical argument that a revived Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania has rights to most of eastern Europe and parts of western Russia. Putin’s selective references to convenient historical “claims” reflect the facile nature of his narrative.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated during the Russian MoD Collegium on December 19 that the Russian MoD will prioritize continuing the war in Ukraine and training newly formed units and formations in 2024, while also reiterating threats against Finland and the wider NATO alliance. Shoigu stated that the Russian military is undergoing work to expand its combat power to 1.32 million personnel from 1.15 million in accordance with Putin’s December 1 decree.[10] ISW previously assessed that Russian this decree was likely a formal recognition of the Russian military’s current end strength and not an order to immediately increase the number of Russian military personnel, and Shoigu appears to be merely reamplifying Putin's original statement as opposed to outlining major changes in Russian end strength.[11] Shoigu stated that the Russian military formed two fully-equipped armies (likely in reference to the newly formed 18th and 25th Combined Arms Armies), a mixed aviation corps, four divisions, including 50 other units and formations of lower echelons, 18 brigades, and 28 regiments in 2023.[12] Shoigu initially outlined the creation of these new formations on paper at the MoD Collegium in December of 2022, the establishment of several of which ISW has independently confirmed.[13] It is highly unlikely that any of these new formations are "fully equipped" or operating at their doctrinal end strengths at this time, however.[14]

Shoigu reiterated that the Russian military is forming the Leningrad Military District (LMD) and Moscow Military District (MMD) in connection with Finland’s accession to NATO and the upcoming accession of Sweden.[15] Shoigu also announced that Russia will prioritize implementing operational and combat training measures to combat the “threats of further NATO expansion east” in 2024.[16] Shoigu’s attempt to present the creation of the LMD and MMD as a response to alleged "NATO expansion” echoes an ongoing Russian information operation aimed at shifting responsibility for the war in Ukraine away from Russia to the West by framing Russia’s actions as reactive. Finland and Sweden only applied to join NATO shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely fearing further Russian aggression on their borders.[17] Russia’s decision to reform the Western Military District (WMD) into the LMD and MMD is part of a long-term restructuring and expansion effort that aims to prepare Russia for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO while balancing the Russian operational requirements in Ukraine.[18]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an end-of-the-year press conference on December 19 during which he commented on Russia’s continued unwillingness to negotiate, his confidence in future Western aid provisions, Ukrainian domestic weapons production, and possible future mobilization in Ukraine. Zelensky stated that the Kremlin did not achieve its military objectives in Ukraine in 2023, likely referring to Russia’s inability to occupy the entirety of its illegally annexed territory, particularly by failing to reach the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.[19] Zelensky stated that Ukraine is working on a peace formula at international summits to possibly present to Russia in the future but that the issue of negotiations with Russia is currently “irrelevant” as Putin’s recent statements about Russia’s unchanged goals in Ukraine indicate that Putin does not want peace. (ISW has long assessed that Russia is unwilling to negotiate with Ukraine in good faith.)[20] Zelensky expressed confidence that the US and EU will provide aid to Ukraine in the near future.[21] Zelensky noted that Ukraine will domestically produce one million drones and increase production of artillery in 2024, and that Ukraine is working to produce unspecified projectiles and create the infrastructure needed to deliver domestically produced weapons to the front. Zelensky stated that financing issues have prevented him from making a decision on the Ukrainian General Staff’s proposal to mobilize an additional 450,000–500,000 military personnel. Zelensky also emphasized that he would not sign a possible future bill on the mobilization of women but that he may lower the mobilization age to 25.[22] Zelensky answered a question about the possible dismissal of Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, stating that he and Zaluzhnyi have a "working relationship."[23] Russian sources have increasingly been promoting reports about internal Ukrainian political-military tension in an effort to discredit Ukrainian leadership, sow domestic distrust between Ukrainian citizens and the government, and weaken Western support for Ukraine.[24]

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed Russian and Chinese economic cooperation and bilateral relations with Chinese Premier Li Quang in Beijing on December 19.[25] Mishustin claimed that Russia and China have “completely gotten rid of third-country currencies in mutual transactions” in 2023 and that both countries are strengthening their business contacts and increasing the share of national currencies in mutual transactions. Mishustin added that one of Russia's most important strategic objectives is to bring the trade and investment between Russia and China to a higher level.[26] Mishustin arrived in Beijing to attend the 28th regular meeting of heads of the Russian and Chinese governments and will also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the next two days.[27]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly invoking the Kremlin's pre-invasion pseudo-historical rhetoric to cast himself as a modern Russian tsar and framing the invasion of Ukraine as a historically justified imperial reconquest.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated during the Russian MoD Collegium on December 19 that the Russian MoD will prioritize continuing the war in Ukraine and training newly formed units and formations in 2024, while also reiterating threats against Finland and the wider NATO alliance.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an end of the year press conference on December 19 during which he commented on Russia’s continued unwillingness to negotiate, his confidence in future Western aid provisions, Ukrainian domestic weapons production, and possible future mobilization in Ukraine.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed Russian and Chinese economic cooperation and bilateral relations with Chinese Premier Li Quang in Beijing on December 19.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances northeast of Kupyansk, north of Bakhmut, and southwest of Avdiivka, and continued positional meeting engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the Russian military intends to recruit up to 745,000 contract personnel by the end of 2024 at the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium on December 19.
  • Russian authorities continued attempts to use military conscription in occupied Ukraine to augment force generation efforts and legitimize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 18, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 18, 2023, 6pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on December 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

A combination of artillery ammunition shortages and delays in the provision of Western security assistance is likely causing Ukrainian forces to husband materiel and may delay future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi stated in an interview with Reuters published on December 18 that Ukrainian forces have shortages of 122mm and 152mm shells along the entire frontline.[1] Tarnavskyi stated that the shortages are prompting Ukrainian forces to redistribute artillery ammunition and replan military tasks.[2] Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister General Ivan Havrylyuk also acknowledged on December 18 that Ukrainian artillery ammunition shortages will continue.[3] Tarnavskyi stated that Russian forces are also having issues with artillery ammunition, although Ukrainian and Western officials have reportedly assessed that the Russian forces are currently conducting artillery fire at a rate five to seven times greater than the Ukrainian forces.[4]

Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have likely expended large portions of their Soviet-era stocks of 122mm and 152mm artillery shells, forcing both to look abroad for other stocks of this artillery ammunition. Russia has recently received large quantities of these shells from North Korea, and Ukraine and its Western partners have engaged in efforts to source these shells from foreign stocks.[5] It is unclear what delays or impediments there may be in Ukrainian and Western efforts to source 122mm and 152mm shells and how any such delays may be contributing to current Ukrainian shortages. Ukrainian forces are increasingly using Western-provided 155mm artillery systems along the front, and possible delays in Western security assistance may impact available supplies of 155mm shells, although US assistance packages have recently included 155mm shells.[6] Havrylyuk stated that Ukraine is currently focusing on the domestic production of drones to offset artillery shortages and is planning to produce 155mm ammunition in Ukraine with Western companies in 2024.[7]

Artillery shortages and delays in Western security assistance will create uncertainty in Ukrainian operational plans and likely prompt Ukrainian forces to conserve resources, which may force Ukrainian forces to make tough decisions about prioritizing certain sectors of the front over sectors where limited territorial setbacks are least damaging. BBC’s Russian service reported that Ukrainian officials said that they make periodic changes to what could be considered rough operational plans for 2024 based on the situation at the front.[8] A Ukrainian official reportedly stated that it is difficult to make military calculations for these plans due to the significant reduction in Western aid to Ukraine since September 2023.[9] Tarnavskyi stated that Ukraine is preparing reserves for further large-scale actions.[10] Artillery shortages and delays in Western aid will very likely decrease Ukraine’s ability to plan and prepare for these actions. Delays in concrete Ukrainian operational planning and the materiel necessary for counteroffensive preparations will likely in turn delay 2024 counteroffensive operations.

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi declined to comment on recent Western reporting about Ukrainian counteroffensive and Russian offensive plans for 2024. Zaluzhnyi stated on December 18 that he would not comment on Ukraine’s military plans for 2024 and responded to BILD’s recent article about Russia’s strategic goals in Ukraine through 2026 by stating that German intelligence officers have a right to their opinion.[11]

Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 18 that Russian forces have enough drones to launch daily strikes against Ukraine from different directions.[12] Ihnat stated that Russian forces are also stockpiling cruise and ballistic missiles, including Iskander, S-400, Kh-101, and Kh-555 missiles.[13] Ukrainian military sources reported that Ukrainian air defenses downed five Russian-launched Shahed-131/136 drones and a Kh-39 missile over Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[14]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is reportedly forming four new military transport aviation (VTA) regiments, although these efforts are likely aimed at reorganizing existing VTA units in support of Russia’s force posturing rather than adding new capability in the short term. Kremlin-affiliated outlet Izvestia, quoting an unnamed Russian MoD official, claimed that the MoD decided to create and deploy four new VTA regiments to operate in the northern, southern, and western strategic directions and has already created the first of these regiments in the Russian Far East.[15] Izvestia claimed that Russian officials held an event in Ulan Ude, Republic of Buryatia on December 1 celebrating the reactivation of the 600th VTA Regiment.[16] The Soviet Union originally formed the 600th VTA in 1963, which was based in Shadrinsk, Kurgan Oblast until the regiment relocated to the Lithuanian Soviet Republic in 1965. Russia disbanded the 600th VTA in 1998 by merging the regiment with the 8th Guards VTA Regiment alongside other VTA formations. The reactivation of this unit suggests that the Russian MoD is restructuring its existing VTA forces more along Soviet-era lines. Izvestia added that the Russian MoD plans to base another VTA regiment in Tambov, Tambov Oblast by the end of 2023 and has been expanding local airfield infrastructure to support this basing. The Russian MoD source claimed that the VTA command will task the new regiments with transporting personnel, weapons, and military equipment, as well as supporting landings for airborne (VDV) troops and reconnaissance units. The Russian MoD source also claimed that the new VTA regiments will receive new and modernized Il-76 airlifters, An-26 transport aircraft, and possibly Mi-26 helicopters to help improve Russian logistics. Izvestia claimed that the Russian MoD began working on creating new VTA regiments in 2021 and aims to allocate more than 100 new and modernized Il-76s to the new regiments by the end of the decade – a goal that the Russian defense industrial base may struggle to fulfill. Izvestia also claimed that Russian An-124 and Il-76 aircraft conducted over 10,000 sorties since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian Government Commission on Legislative Activity supported a bill that would criminalize “Russophobia” abroad, likely as part of ongoing efforts to maintain and increase Russian influence in post-Soviet countries. Russian State Duma Deputy from the United Russia party, Irina Yarovaya, proposed a draft bill that would punish foreign citizens and stateless individuals who do not permanently reside in Russia for “Russophobia” outside of Russia.[17] The current law can only punish foreign officials, foreign citizens employed by international organizations, and foreign citizens using their official positions for spreading “Russophobia” publicly or committing “Russophobic” acts.[18] The law defines “Russophobia” as acts or public calls to commit discriminatory actions against Russian citizens or “compatriots.”[19] Russia has intentionally and broadly defined “compatriots” as ethnic Russians and Russian speakers and does not limit the definition to those holding Russian citizenship or residing in the Russian Federation.[20] Russian officials have routinely criticized efforts in the South Caucasus and Central Asia that promote indigenous languages and education at the perceived expense of Russian language and education.[21] Russian officials may use the proposed bill to threaten foreign officials with criminal proceedings for promoting indigenous language and education programs by labeling these initiatives “Russophobic.” Russian authorities may use this new bill to intensify criticisms against foreign citizens and officials by initiating criminal proceedings as part of ongoing efforts to enforce foreign compliance with Russian-supported and pro-Russian initiatives, programs, and narratives.

Russian officials simplified requirements to obtain Russian citizenship for Belarusian, Kazakh, and Moldovan citizens amid continued hostility towards migrants in Russian society. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on December 18 allowing Belarusian citizens to submit a citizenship application without proof of a prior long-term permanent residence in Russia or proficiency in Russian language, history, and civics.[22] Kazakh and Moldovan citizens must still provide proof of Russian language proficiency.[23] This distinction in requirements is in line with the fallacious Kremlin assertions that Belarusians and Ukrainians are actually Russians and that neither Belarus nor Ukraine has a distinctive language or culture.[24] Belarusians, Kazakhs, and Moldovans are also required to submit identifying documents and proof of their current residence in Russia.[25] Russian efforts to simplify citizenship for migrants appear hypocritical and inconsistent with ongoing migrant crackdowns aimed at coercing migrants into Russian military service and placating the xenophobic Russian ultranationalist community.[26] The simplification of Belarusian citizens’ citizenship requirements may be related to long-term efforts to absorb Belarus into Russia through the Union State structure and to pursue other objectives in Kazakhstan and Moldova.[27]

The European Union (EU) adopted its 12th sanctions package in connection with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The European Council (EC) adopted a sanctions package on December 18 that aims to weaken sources of funding for Russia’s war effort and degrade Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB).[28] The sanctions include measures banning the import of Russian diamonds, prohibiting the re-export of dual use goods and technologies, instituting strict export restrictions on 29 legal entities that directly support the Russian DIB, enforcing a transit ban for all goods that Russian forces use on the battlefield in Ukraine, and strengthening compliance rules for the G7 price cap on Russian oil and petroleum products.[29]

Key Takeaways:

  • A combination of artillery ammunition shortages and delays in the provision of Western security assistance is likely causing Ukrainian forces to husband materiel and may delay future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
  • Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi declined to comment on recent Western reporting about Ukrainian counteroffensive and Russian offensive plans for 2024.
  • Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 18 that Russian forces have enough drones to launch daily strikes against Ukraine from different directions.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is reportedly forming four new military transport aviation (VTA) regiments, although these efforts are likely aimed at reorganizing existing VTA units in support of Russia’s force posturing rather than adding new capability in the short term.
  • The Russian Government Commission on Legislative Activity supported a bill that would criminalize “Russophobia” abroad, likely as part of ongoing efforts to maintain and increase Russian influence in post-Soviet countries.
  • Russian officials simplified requirements to obtain Russian citizenship for Belarusian, Kazakh, and Moldovan citizens amid continued hostility towards migrants in Russian society.
  • The European Union (EU) adopted its 12th sanctions package in connection with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made a confirmed advance southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia Spokesperson Eduard Basurin claimed that more than 25,000 Russian personnel are serving with Cossack volunteer formations in Ukraine as of December 18.
  • Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova continues to deny Russian and Belarusian involvement in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied areas.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 17, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Christina Harward, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 17, 2023, 9:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2pm ET on December 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Finland and the wider NATO alliance in a statement ostensibly meant to dismiss concerns about the threat that Russia poses to NATO. Putin gave an extended interview with Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1 on December 17, wherein he attempted to deny US President Joe Biden’s December 6 warning that Russia would attack a NATO country in the future if it won the war in Ukraine.[1] Putin argued that Russia does not have any geopolitical, economic, military, or territorial reason to fight NATO and that Russia is interested in developing relations with NATO member states.[2] Putin followed this supposed reassurance with an accusation that NATO member states artificially created conflict between Russia and Finland and “dragged“ Finland into the NATO alliance.[3] Putin stated that “there will be problems” with Finland and that Finland’s NATO accession prompted Russian officials to start forming the Leningrad Military District (LMD) and concentrating military units in northwestern Russia.[4] The Russian military is currently redividing the Western Military District (WMD) to reform the LMD and the Moscow Military District (MMD) as part of a long-term restructuring and expansion effort that aims to prepare Russia for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO.[5] The WMD is responsible for the Russian border with NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland but has largely been committed to the fight in Ukraine, where it has incurred significant losses.[6] The restoration of the LMD and MMD is likely intended to balance Russian operational requirements in Ukraine with Russian military posturing along the Russian border with NATO.[7] Putin’s justification for the formation of the LMD, which will be responsible for an area bordering Finland, Sweden, and the Arctic, suggests that he sees the LMD as a military response to the “problems” of current and future NATO members in Scandinavia.

Putin’s reassurances about his peaceful intentions toward NATO ring hollow in the context of the threats he and Kremlin pundits have recently been making against NATO member states. Putin threatened Poland on July 21, stating that Russia would respond “with all the means” at its disposal after Warsaw sent troops to the Belarusian-Polish border due to the redeployment of Wagner Group fighters to Belarus.[8] Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev threatened on August 29 that Russia had “an opportunity to act within the framework of jus ad bellum against everyone in NATO countries” when commenting on Western support of Ukrainian strikes on occupied Crimea.[9] Medvedev similarly threatened Poland in November when he stated that Russia deems Warsaw to be a “dangerous enemy” that could lose its “statehood.”[10] A Russian propagandist suggested on Russian state TV on December 2 that Baltic states would be Russia’s next military target and that they would fall shortly after Ukraine.[11] Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, Medvedev, and other pundits consistently threaten to use nuclear weapons against the United States and other NATO countries.[12] These threats are part of long-standing Russian narratives about attacking NATO that predated Finland’s application and acceptance into the alliance on April 4.[13] The statements of Russian pundits do not pose a military threat to NATO countries, to be sure, but they are important context for Putin’s ostensible effort to calm the waters during his December 17 interview. Putin’s proclamation that Russia has no interest in invading NATO is also very similar to the Kremlin’s persistent claims in late 2021 and early 2022 — including right up to the eve of the invasion — that Russia did not intend to invade Ukraine.[14] The interview was likely a deliberate attempt to reamplify the Kremlin’s efforts to misrepresent the Russian military threat as an imaginary and artificial NATO invention.[15]

Putin has been seeking to curtail and weaken NATO for two decades and continually demands changes to the alliance that would amount to dismantling it Putin stated on December 17 that Russia does not have any “territorial disputes” with NATO countries in order to mask his actual long-standing objective to weaken Western unity and coerce NATO into abandoning its core principles, such as the “Open Door Policy,” which allows the alliance at its discretion to admit new members and is enshrined in the NATO Charter.[16] Putin has been consistently pursuing this goal throughout his regime and demonstrated his full commitment to it by ordering the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) to issue ultimatums to the US and NATO in December 2021 demanding “security guarantees” from NATO and commitments not to expand, among other things.[17]

Putin’s decades-long goal is to set conditions in which NATO would undermine its own global power, creating a structurally and ideologically defeated NATO that cannot resist Russia’s future objectives – which can include territorial conquests or the establishment of Russian suzerainty over states that Moscow deems to be in its proper sphere of control.[18] ISW has long assessed that growing friction between the United States and Europe and within NATO and other Western structures would weaken Western collective measures against the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior and allow Putin to develop a new web of coalitions to support Russia’s objectives.[19] Putin routinely reiterates his distaste for Western alliances, calling for the formation of a multipolar world order in which Russia has a veto over key global events.[20] Putin wants NATO to recognize Russia’s claims, demands, and perceived sphere of influence and has repeatedly indicated Russia’s intent to end “US hegemony.”[21] Putin had been largely using hybrid war efforts to weaken the West and its place in the world order before invading Ukraine in 2014 (apart from his 2008 invasion of Georgia), and his justifications for the full-scale invasion of 2022 did not rely on so-called territorial disputes.[22]

Putin’s interview indicated that he continues to perceive the West as weak, contrasting with his confidence in the growth of Russia’s power over the past two decades. Putin stated that he believes that the United States was interested in inflicting a “strategic defeat” on Russia 20 years ago but that this objective is not currently in the US national interest.[23] Putin responded to a journalist’s question about how Russia can find common ground with the United States, stating that the United States will need to be the one to find common ground as the United States will need to “reckon” with Russia, suggesting that Putin believes the US to be the weaker power and that Russia‘s perceived position of strength means that Russia has no need to find “common ground” or engage in serious diplomatic negotiations with the United States.[24] Both these statements can be perceived as thinly-veiled threats against the United States and NATO. Putin’s statements indicate that he continues to believe that the West has been weakening relative to Russia over the past two decades — a view Putin has been articulating since at least 2014.[25] ISW previously assessed that Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in part because he believed that NATO was weak — not because the Kremlin felt militarily threatened by NATO.[26] ISW also assessed that Putin only respects military might, which he anticipated the United States and NATO would not use to defend Ukraine, and may be anticipating that Western support for Ukraine will collapse.[27] Putin’s perception of Russia’s increased relative power aligns with his statement on December 14 continuing to stand by his maximalist objectives in Ukraine — which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender.[28] Kremlin officials have also recently made statements with expansionist rhetoric that emphasize the Kremlin’s confidence in its ability to fulfill its objectives in Ukraine with force.[29]

Putin is increasingly invoking a purposefully broad, vague, and pseudo-realist conception of Russian sovereignty in an effort to justify Russian goals to impose Putin’s will in Ukraine and beyond. Putin also addressed the United Russia Party Congress on December 17 in Moscow and argued that “being strong is a vital necessity for Russia” since Russia is either a sovereign, self-sufficient state or does not exist at all.[30] Putin made similar statements during his December 14 “Direct Line” Forum, where he stated that in his next term as Russian president, he would focus on protecting Russian external sovereignty, which he said encompasses Russia's defense capacity and external security environment.[31] Putin has long employed an expansive definition of Russia’s sovereignty that frames any efforts to challenge Russian power or ambitions as infringements of Russian sovereignty.[32] Russian national security and foreign policy documents also provide for Russia’s right to “protect the rights of compatriots abroad,” and Russia has intentionally defined “compatriots” in broad terms as ethnic Russians and Russian speakers and not just those holding Russian citizenship.[33] The Kremlin has intentionally obscured the definition of “ethnic Russians” to falsely include Ukrainians and Belarusians and is promoting the notion of a wider ”Russian world” (Russkiy Mir) that includes other ethnic groups in Russia and the former territory of the Soviet Union and Russian empire.[34] The vague conception of external Russian sovereignty and who falls under its protections is meant to justify the forceful imposition of Russia’s strategic objectives upon other countries as a legitimate expression of the duties and rights of the Russian state in defense of its sovereignty. Putin and Russian officials have routinely invoked these conceptions of Russian sovereignty to justify Putin’s maximalist objectives in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[35]

Putin’s focus on the ties between strength and sovereignty frames Russian aggressive efforts to achieve Russia’s strategic objectives and diminish perceived Western power as defensive measures protecting Russian sovereignty. This framing allows Putin to claim that any measures that increase Russian power are in defense of the Russian people, which he has a duty to protect.[36] The focus on power suggests that he views states that are unable to unilaterally impose their will upon others as devoid of sovereignty. Putin and other Russian officials have routinely characterized Ukrainian partnerships with the West as nullifying Ukrainian sovereignty, for example.[37] This view of sovereignty allows Russian officials to justify any Russian action against any state that Putin deems to be not strong enough to protect itself and illustrates that legitimate appeals to the protections of sovereignty as customarily defined by international law will continue to mean very little to Putin.

Putin continues to express a world view in which Russia must impose its will without any compromise or face existential consequences. Putin stated in his interview with Rossiya 1 that he was naive in the 2000s and thought that the West understood that there was no basis for confrontation with Russia.[38] Putin accused the West of continuing to fight Russia as it had done with the Soviet Union because it had not rethought the Cold War era structures that the West had constructed.[39] Putin also accused some in the West of pursuing the full destruction and balkanization of Russia, framing Putin’s perceived geopolitical confrontation with the collective West in existential terms.[40] Putin has built a world view over two decades of rule in which dissatisfaction with the West has grown into a hardened zero-sum view of Russian and Western power.[41] Putin has increasingly expressed a narrative alleging that there is a concerted decades-long Western effort to diminish Russian power and inflict a permanent strategic defeat upon it, and he has grouped any geopolitical setback however minor into that narrative.[42] Putin’s worldview suggests that Putin regards anything less than full Western surrender to Russian grand strategic objectives as insufficient.[43]

This zero-sum world view of geopolitics is indicative of Putin’s personal philosophy, which prizes power above all else and frames any compromise as defeat. Putin implied in the Rossiya 1 interview that he did not apologize to his mother as a child (despite her punishments and numerous requests for an apology) but held firm until she finally wavered in punishing him.[44] This anecdote, bizarrely intruded into a conversation about Russian strategic objectives, may have been an indirect reference to Putin’s commitment to force those opposed to him to capitulate. This view is also clearly seen in the key thesis of Putin’s quasi-auto-biography First Person, which argues that Putin concluded that it was necessary to impose his will upon the world, first himself and then Russia’s survival.[45]

The Kremlin's repeated rhetoric about its hostile intent towards NATO, coupled with Russia’s potential future military capabilities in the event of Russian victory in Ukraine, poses a credible — and costly — threat to Western security. If Russia were able to achieve its stated maximalist objective of full Ukrainian capitulation, likely leading to a Russian military occupation of Ukraine, Russia would be able to deploy forces right up to NATO’s border from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean.[46] ISW recently assessed that the sudden collapse of Western aid would likely lead sooner or later to the collapse of Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian military.[47] Given Russia’s demonstrated hostile intent towards NATO and its potential military capabilities along almost the entirety of NATO’s eastern border, the West would be obliged to prepare to defend against possible Russian action against NATO. The cost of these defensive measures would be astronomical and would likely be accompanied by a period of very high risk.[48] Support for Ukraine offers the West the best opportunity to avoid these costs and the expanded Russian threat.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drones strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 16 to 17. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched a Kh-59 missile from occupied Crimea and Kherson Oblast and an Iskander-M missile.[49] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces also launched 20 Shahed-136/131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai as well as Cape Chauda, occupied Crimea.[50] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down the Kh-59 missile and all of the drones over Odesa, Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[51] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 17 that Russian forces targeted Kherson City and Starokostyantyniv airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.[52] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 16 that Ukrainian forces have destroyed 104 out of 112 Russian Shahed drones launched at Ukraine in the past week.[53]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses shot down 35 Ukrainian drones over Lipetsk, Rostov, and Volgograd oblasts on the night of December 16 to 17 and in the morning of December 17.[54] Rostov Oblast Governor Vasily Golubev claimed on December 17 that Russian forces shot down ”most” of the drones.[55] Russian and Ukrainian sources stated that a Ukrainian drone damaged at least one Russian aircraft at Morozovk airfield in Rostov Oblast.[56]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Finland and the wider NATO alliance in a statement ostensibly meant to dismiss concerns about the threat Russia poses to NATO.
  • Putin’s reassurances about his peaceful intentions toward NATO ring hollow in the context of the threats he and Kremlin pundits have recently been making against NATO member states.
  • Putin has been seeking to curtail and weaken NATO for two decades and continually demands changes to the alliance that would amount to dismantling it.
  • Putin’s interview indicated that he continues to perceive the West as weak, contrasting with his confidence in the growth of Russia’s power over the past two decades.
  • Putin is increasingly invoking a purposefully broad, vague, and pseudo-realist conception of Russian sovereignty in an effort to justify Russian goals to impose Putin’s will in Ukraine and beyond.
  • Putin continues to express a world view in which Russia must impose its will without any compromise or face existential consequences.
  • The Kremlin's repeated rhetoric about its hostile intent towards NATO, coupled with Russia’s potential future military capabilities in the event of Russian victory in Ukraine, poses a credible - and costly - threat to Western security.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drones strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 16 to 17.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia on December 17 and advanced in some areas.
  • Relatives of Russian mobilized personnel continue to appeal directly to high-ranking Russian military and political officials about demobilization and the return of their relatives from Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin continues attempts to expand political infrastructure in occupied Ukraine in an effort to further integrate occupied territories into Russia.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 16, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 16, 2023, 8:10pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:00 pm ET on December 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces continue operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast amid reported difficult conditions in the area as part of an apparent effort to set conditions for future Ukrainian operations and the resettlement of west (right) bank Kherson Oblast. The New York Times published a series of interviews with Ukrainian military personnel operating on the east bank and along the Dnipro River on December 16, wherein the commander of a Ukrainian regiment stated that Ukrainian drone strikes have heavily suppressed Russian long-range artillery on the east bank in recent months.[1] Ukrainian officials previously stated that Ukrainian forces established several bridgeheads on the east bank as part of an operation that aims to push Russian forces out of artillery range of west bank Kherson Oblast.[2] The reported suppression of long-range Russian artillery may allow Ukrainian forces to operate more freely in near rear areas in west bank Kherson Oblast, which may partially explain intensified Russian glide bomb strikes against Ukrainian targets on the west bank.[3] The much more abundant 152mm tube artillery systems that Russian forces widely operate in Ukraine have an approximate range of 25km, although Russian forces are unlikely to deploy these systems to immediate frontline areas due to the threat of Ukrainian counterbattery fire.

The withdrawal of tube artillery beyond 25km from the west bank and the suppression of long-range Russian artillery would remove consistent threats to populated areas on the west bank and allow the many Ukrainians who fled the Russian occupation of west bank Kherson Oblast to return more safely. The reduction of Russian artillery fire on the west bank would also allow Ukrainian forces to operate more freely along ground lines of communication (GLOCs), deploy more critical counterbattery and air defense systems within the vicinity of the Dnipro River, and more securely launch operations across the Dnipro River. A bridgehead is meant to provide security for crossing forces to continue operations, and the withdrawal of Russian artillery further from the Dnipro River would establish a safer position from which to conduct future operations if the Ukrainian high command so chose.[4]

The Ukrainian commander also reportedly stated that Ukrainian operations on the east bank of the Dnipro River currently aim to draw Russian forces to the area and inflict heavy losses upon them.[5] The Ukrainian commander reportedly added that the effort to draw Russian forces to the area has been successful as the Russian command transferred unspecified Russian Airborne (VDV) elements from western Zaporizhia Oblast to east bank Kherson Oblast.[6] Russian officials have acknowledged that elements of the 7th VDV Division are operating in Kherson Oblast, and it is possible that limited elements of the 7th VDV division operating near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast (the 247th VDV Regiment, the 108th VDV Regiment, and the 56th VDV Regiment) have redeployed to defend on the east bank, although ISW has observed elements of those units still committed to defending and counterattacking in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[7] Ukrainian military officials previously reported that Ukrainian operations on the east bank between October 17 and November 17 killed 1,126 Russian personnel and wounded 2,217, suggesting that Ukrainian forces may be inflicting significant losses on Russian forces in the area.[8] Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly described Russian defensive operations on the east bank as an intentional attempt to lure and attrit Ukrainian forces, however, and ISW cannot currently assess if there is an asymmetrical attrition gradient in this sector of the front. The degradation of defending Russian forces on east bank Kherson Oblast may be an immediate operational objective, but one that can facilitate the wider stated operational objective of pushing Russian forces out of artillery range of west bank Kherson Oblast.   

The New York Times also published interviews with Ukrainian soldiers who have fought on the east bank who described difficult conditions in operating across the Dnipro River and in establishing positions on the east bank.[9] These difficulties are to be expected for what is an economy of force operation with limited positions on a riverbank and may continue until Ukrainian operations set conditions for a more secure Ukrainian bridgehead if the Ukrainian high command chooses to seek to establish one. The expressed Ukrainian objective to push Russian artillery away from the Dnipro River would partially address some of the difficult conditions that Ukrainian personnel described if fully achieved.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters formally nominated him as an independent candidate for the 2024 presidential elections on December 16, further solidifying Putin’s image as a figure above the Russian political system. The Russian “initiative group of voters” composed of over 500 politicians, actors, athletes, milbloggers, occupation officials, and even a Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) battalion commander, unanimously supported Putin’s decision to run as a self-nominated candidate during the elections.[10] Secretary of the United Russia Party’s General Council Andrey Turchak stated that Putin will be able to establish his election campaign headquarters after completing all procedures for self-nomination – such as registering the initiative group and gathering 300,000 constituents’ signatures – and that the United Russia Party fully supports Putin’s campaign.[11] Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin also stated that the entire Russian government is “Putin’s team” and that Putin’s decision to run in the presidential elections corresponds to constituencies’ demands.[12] Putin had previously run as an independent candidate in 2018, and ISW’s non-resident Russia fellow Nataliya Bugayova then assessed that Putin creates conditions in which most Russians believe that other Russians support him - an outcome that self-nomination is likely meant to simulate.[13] Bugayova also assessed in 2018 that Putin cares about the perceived legitimacy of the presidential elections, despite the fact that most Russians recognize the regime’s policy failures and the limitations it imposes on their civil liberties. The proclaimed support for Putin of the United Russia Party, other factions, and the government creates the illusion that Putin stands above the Russian political fray and establishes him as a unique figure uniting all of Russia.

Putin also met with faction leaders, Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko on December 15 to similarly portray himself as above Russian politics.[14] Putin told faction leaders that the presidential election must happen on a competitive basis and called on them to form their positions with a deep understanding of Russian national interests and their responsibility to the Russian public. Putin appears to be positioning himself as a referee able to speak to and guide Russian factions from above even as he nominally “runs” for an office he is certain to win. Putin likely seeks to portray himself as above Russian politics in an effort to distance himself from the controversies of some of these factions and appear as a singular candidate – a role-play that is likely increasingly important to Putin as the veneer of competitive elections in Russia becomes ever thinner.

Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitri Polyanskiy more clearly defined recent statements from high-ranking Russian officials that align with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Russia is unwilling to negotiate with Ukraine in good faith. Polyanskiy stated on December 16 that Ukraine missed its chance to negotiate a “favorable” settlement and that any possible "deal" between Russia and Ukraine would have to entail Ukrainian “capitulation.”[15] Polyanskiy’s statement more clearly explicates Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement of December 15, which said the same thing in slightly more coded language.[16] Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on December 14 that Russia’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine – which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender – are unchanged.[17]

Putin responded to a question from a French correspondent during Putin’s “Direct Line” forum on December 14 about Putin’s possible plans to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, stating that he and Macron used to enjoy a good working relationship but that Macron stopped this relationship.[18] Macron stated on December 15 that he would speak to Putin if Putin had any “serious proposals” for establishing peace in Ukraine.[19]

Russian forces launched another series of Shahed-136/131 drone strikes across Ukraine overnight on December 15 to 16. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 31 Shaheds from Bryansk Oblast, Primorsko-Akhtarsk (Krasnodar Krai), and Kursk Oblast  and that Ukrainian forces shot down 30 Shaheds over Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Chernihiv, Poltava, Cherkasy, Kherson, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[20] Ukraine’s Southern Military Command reported that 12 Shaheds targeted southern Ukraine.[21] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russian forces can launch Shahed drones from a vehicle and that Shahed launchers are mobile.[22] Ihnat added that Russian forces are trying to change Shahed routes by moving them five to 10 kilometers to the left or right to bypass Ukrainian air defenses and reiterated that Ukrainian mobile fire groups are actively destroying Russian drones. Ihnat also observed that Russian forces started launching Shaheds from that Balaklava area (south of Sevastopol) in occupied Crimea – making Balaklava the fifth Russian launching area for Shahed drones.[23]

The Financial Times (FT) reported on December 15 that the G7 may consider using frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine.[24] FT reported that US officials circulated a discussion paper about how G7 members and other states could seize Russian sovereign assets in a way “consistent with international law” as a “countermeasure to induce Russia to end its aggression” in Ukraine during G7 committee meetings. FT reported that the G7 could use a portion of the $300 billion worth of frozen Russian assets to fund assistance packages to Ukraine and that a US official stated that G7 leaders may discuss the proposal at their meeting in February 2024.

Russian actors continue information operations aimed at discrediting and dividing Ukraine’s military and political leadership, specifically Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov stated on December 16 that Russia is working to discredit Ukraine in the information space by creating artificial conflict within Ukraine’s leadership and a false illusion that Ukraine does not have the support of its Western partners.[25] The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab) and the BBC’s Verify project published a joint report on December 16 that details a Russian information operation that levied corruption accusations against former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov ahead of his resignation in September 2023.[26] DFRLab and Verify concluded that Russian actors created thousands of fake accounts aimed at defaming Reznikov and connected the effort to a previous Russian information campaign to discredit Zaluzhnyi in early 2023.[27] ISW has consistently observed Russian actors, including Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergei Naryshkin and Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, baselessly claim that high-ranking Western officials intend to “replace” Zelensky and that there is an unspecified conflict between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi.[28] Russian sources are increasingly promoting reports about internal Ukrainian political tension in an effort to discredit Ukrainian leadership, sow domestic distrust between Ukrainian citizens and the government, and weaken Western support for Ukraine.[29]

A Russian “Storm-Z” assault unit instructor implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin lied about the unregulated status of private military companies (PMCs) during his “Direct Line” forum on December 14 given the state’s significant administrative control over PMCs and other irregular formations.[30] The instructor quoted Putin’s claim that the state cannot account for elements of illegal PMCs fighting in Ukraine because these troops sign contracts directly with the PMCs, which complicates Russia’s ability to grant veteran statuses and provide state benefits. The instructor responded by stating that the Russian State Duma had already adopted a bill in April 2023 that allows the state to recognize all individuals that have fought in Ukraine as veterans, likely implying that the state already has the responsibility to provide veteran statuses to all combatants – even if PMCs are technically illegal.[31] The instructor’s statement was also likely in response to Putin’s concluding observation that Russia might need to adjust the law to account for PMC personnel.[32] The instructor noted that while PMCs, volunteer formations, and other irregular forces may appear as “a whole scattering of some murky and incomprehensible structures,” the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other Russian institutions account for these troops when they sign contracts or fill out certain questionnaires before being placed in irregular units. The instructor noted that Russia has documentation of most personnel entering volunteer formations under a voluntary contract and that Russian officials improved documentation after they began the formalization campaign in 2023. The instructor further challenged Putin’s claim that most PMC fighters received payments in cash for their service and noted that state structures determine monetary allowances for irregular forces. The instructor observed that the underlying issues are that the Kremlin did not task the MoD officials with ensuring that irregular forces receive their promised benefits, and that the Russian military enlistment system is struggling to account for Russian regular forces not including irregular forces.

The instructor also observed that Russia began to replenish volunteer formations – which operate as irregular forces alongside Russian Armed Forces – with contract servicemen (kontraknik), mobilized personnel, and convicts in 2023.[33] This observation further implies that Russia has notable administrative control over irregular forces, given that mobilized personnel and kontrakniki are part of the Russian Armed Forces and cannot serve in volunteer formations without a directive of the Russian MoD.[34] The Kremlin has to pardon convicts in order for them to serve in volunteer formations. The instructor’s observations not only invalidate Putin’s efforts to distance himself from his decision to expand irregular forces to support his war in Ukraine, but further confirm prior media investigations into the Kremlin’s control of irregular forces.[35] ISW has routinely assessed that Putin’s vast crypto-mobilization campaign that aimed to avoid declaring full-scale mobilization is committing Russia to a long-term financial responsibility - a responsibility that Putin is attempting to downplay.[36]

 

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces continue operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast amid reported difficult conditions in the area as part of an apparent effort to set conditions for future Ukrainian operations and the resettlement of west (right) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters formally nominated him as an independent candidate for the 2024 presidential elections on December 16, further solidifying Putin’s image as a figure above the Russian political system.
  • Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitri Polyanskiy more clearly defined recent statements from high-ranking Russian officials that align with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Russia is unwilling to negotiate with Ukraine in good faith.
  • Russian forces launched another series of Shahed-136/131 drone strikes across Ukraine overnight on December 15 to 16.
  • The Financial Times (FT) reported on December 15 that the G7 may consider using frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine.
  • Russian actors continue information operations aimed at discrediting and dividing Ukraine’s military and political leadership, specifically Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
  • A Russian “Storm-Z” assault unit instructor implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin lied about the unregulated status of private military companies (PMCs) during his “Direct Line” forum on December 14 given the state’s significant administrative control over PMCs and other irregular formations.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 16 and advanced in some areas.
  • A Russian milblogger claimed that Russia will have at least ten Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates in an unspecified time period.
  • Ukrainian Mariupol Mayoral Advisor Petro Andryushchenko and the Ukrainian Telegram channel Mariupol Resistance stated on December 16 that Ukrainian partisans recently blew up the car of the commander of an unspecified Russian unit from the North Caucasus in occupied Mariupol.
 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 15, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 15, 2023, 6:45pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly. 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00 pm ET on December 15. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 16 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment 

German outlet BILD stated on December 14 that unspecified intelligence findings and sources indicate that Russia plans to occupy Ukrainian territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed Ukrainian oblasts throughout 2024-2026. BILD stated that Russia plans to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and up to the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast by the end of 2024.[1] These reported goals are in line with ongoing localized Russian offensive operations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv oblasts. Russia also reportedly plans to take large parts of Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv oblasts, including Kharkiv City if possible, in 2025 and 2026. BILD reported that an insider source stated that Russia plans to occupy large parts of eastern Ukraine located east of the Dnipro River within the next 36 months. Russia is reportedly planning to hold the current front line in Kherson Oblast along the Dnipro River and is only concerned about preventing Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine from advancing towards occupied Crimea. BILD stated that Russia’s plans are based on mobilizing Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB), suffering annual casualties of around 100,000 military personnel in attritional offensive operations, and benefiting from the possible election of a US president in 2024 who dramatically reduces or stops military support to Ukraine. BILD reported that a source familiar with the intelligence findings stated that the Kremlin plans to rely on “sham negotiations” while continuing to conduct offensive operations similar to the way in which Russia negotiated the Second Minsk agreement in 2015 while the Russian military continued to occupy additional Ukrainian settlements. BILD previously published largely accurate intelligence findings about Russia’s plans for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in December 2021 which assessed that Russia would attack Ukraine from the south from Crimea, from Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and from the north in late January or early February 2022, although the Russian invasion as executed did not perfectly align with BILD’s reporting.[2]

ISW cannot independently authenticate BILD’s reporting, but Russia’s reported plans for the war in Ukraine through 2026 are in line with continued Russian preparations for a prolonged war effort. The Russian military command is pursuing long-term restructuring and expansion efforts to form strategic reserves, and Russia has been gradually mobilizing its DIB to sustain a long war.[3] Russia’s reported medium to long-term plans to occupy territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed territories are also plausible considering that Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have reverted to expansionist rhetoric recently, and Russian forces continue offensive operations to expand their positions in Kharkiv Oblast. Russian officials have issued statements about Russia’s intention to occupy and annex additional Ukrainian territory beyond the current front lines and the four (illegally) annexed territories.“[4] ISW recently assessed that the sudden collapse of Western aid would likely lead sooner or later to the collapse of Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian military, and Russian forces could ultimately push all the way to the western Ukrainian border in such a scenario.[5]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated in an interview published on December 14 that Russia currently has no intention of changing its plans for the war in Ukraine in 2025, however.[6] Budanov stated that Russia may develop a new plan if nothing changes on the front line by the end of 2024.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threateningly urged Ukraine to negotiate with Russia sooner rather than later in framing consistent with the ISW assessment that Russia intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine through military means. Lavrov said at a December 15 meeting of the collegiums of the Russian and Belarusian Foreign Ministries that the longer the war in Ukraine continues, the more difficult negotiating conditions will be for Ukraine.[7] Lavrov’s statement suggests that the Kremlin believes that the longer the war continues, the more territory Russia will be able to occupy and the course of the war will increasingly put Ukraine in a weaker negotiating position. Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated on December 14 that Russia’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine - which are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender - are unchanged.[8] ISW continues to assess that Russia does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine in good faith.[9] The Kremlin has repeatedly pushed information operations feigning interest in negotiations with Ukraine, and Lavrov’s statement is likely also an attempt to set conditions for Russia to move away from this information operation.[10]

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba published an op-ed entitled “There is a Path to Victory in Ukraine” on December 15, wherein he argues that Ukrainian military objectives remain feasible despite increasingly pessimistic discussions in the West. Kuleba stated in the op-ed published in Foreign Affairs that Ukrainian objectives are still attainable as long as three factors remain in place: an adequate level of Western military aid; the rapid development of industrial capacity in the US, Europe, and Ukraine; and a principled and realistic approach to the prospects of negotiations with Russia.[11] Kuleba acknowledged that the Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive did not achieve the ”lightning fast” liberation of Ukrainian territory but said that observers would be mistaken to make judgments about the entire course of the war based on one stage of fighting.[12] Kuleba pointed to Russian gains in eastern Ukraine in summer 2022 and the following successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts as an example of how one stage of fighting does not indicate how subsequent stages of fighting may develop.[13] Kuleba added that a negotiated ceasefire would allow Russia to reinforce positions, making it difficult for Ukrainian forces to liberate territory in the future while also giving Russia respite to launch a more intense offensive campaign in the following years.[14] ISW has routinely assessed that the Kremlin would leverage any pause or ceasefire to prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine.[15]

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 14 to 15. Ukrainian sources reported that Ukrainian air defenses downed 14 Shahed-131/136 drones, an S-300 missile, and a Kh-59 missile.[16] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched three Kinzhal missiles in the direction of Kyiv City, Kyiv Oblast and Starokostyantyniv, Khmelnytskyi Oblast on December 14 and that Ukrainian forces destroyed one Kinzhal over Kyiv Oblast.[17] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces struck targets in Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Khmelnytskyi, Kharkiv, Poltava, Kyiv, and Odesa oblasts on the night of December 14 to 15.[18]

Finnish authorities closed Finland’s border checkpoints with Russia again on December 15 amid continued Russian hybrid warfare efforts to orchestrate an artificial migrant crisis. The Finnish Ministry of the Interior announced on December 12 that Finland would reopen two border checkpoints with Russia on December 14 and warned that Finland would close the border again if Russia continued its "hybrid operation.”[19] The Finnish Ministry of the Interior announced on December 14 that Finland would close the two checkpoints on December 15 after a reported 36 asylum seekers arrived on the Finnish-Russian border several hours after the checkpoints re-opened.[20] Reuters reported that Finland typically received less than one asylum seeker per day prior to Russian efforts to artificially inflate the number of migrants seeking asylum in Finland.[21] Finnish Minister of the Interior Mari Rantanen stated that this is a sign that Russian authorities are continuing their hybrid operation against Finland.[22] Finland’s border checkpoints with Russia will remain closed until January 14, 2024.[23]

Germany announced new military and humanitarian aid packages to Ukraine on December 14. The German military aid package includes a Patriot air defense system and missiles, 40mm and 155mm ammunition, mine clearing systems, and drone detection systems.[24] The German government also announced an aid package valued at 6.1 million euros of winter humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, including generators, heaters, and tents.[25]

Key Takeaways:

  • German outlet BILD stated on December 14 that unspecified intelligence findings and sources indicate that Russia plans to occupy Ukrainian territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed Ukrainian oblasts throughout 2024-2026.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threateningly urged Ukraine to negotiate with Russia sooner rather than later in framing consistent with the ISW assessment that Russia intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine through military means.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba published an op-ed entitled “There is a Path to Victory in Ukraine” on December 15, wherein he argues that Ukrainian military objectives remain feasible despite increasingly pessimistic discussions in the West.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 14 to 15.
  • Finnish authorities closed Finland’s border checkpoints with Russia again on December 15 amid continued Russian hybrid warfare efforts to orchestrate an artificial migrant crisis.
  • Germany announced new military and humanitarian aid packages to Ukraine on December 14.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Kupyansk, northeast and near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made confirmed advances in several areas.
  • Kremlin newswire TASS reported on December 14 that “Grom” special units (elite anti-drug special units of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD]) will fully transition to being subordinated to Rosgvardia in early 2024.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted Russia’s intention to build high-speed railways in occupied Ukraine, likely hours after Ukrainian partisans damaged a key railway line in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 14, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 14, 2023, 10:25pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 3:00pm ET on December 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed notable confidence in publicly discussing Russia’s war on Ukraine during a joint event combining his annual press conference and “Direct Line” forum on December 14 but did not clearly define his envisioned end state for the full-scale invasion he launched on February 24, 2022. The “Direct Line” is an annual highly staged forum in which Putin answers pre-selected questions from the Russian public. Putin notably skipped the “Direct Line” in 2022, the first time he did not hold it since 2012. Putin routinely abstained from discussing the war in depth at high profile events throughout 2022, suggesting that he was uncertain about his ability to shape the Russian information space on this topic.[1] Putin used the December 14, 2023, event to discuss his objectives in Ukraine, specific operational and tactical situations along the front, and specific concerns from Russian military personnel and volunteers in a much more public and prolonged fashion than in his previous statements about the war since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s willingness to center large portions of the event on the war in Ukraine suggests an increased confidence in his ability to address the Russian public on the subject, which may be indicative of his own personal confidence in Russia’s prospects in Ukraine following the relatively successful Russian defensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and perceived wavering Western support for Ukraine. Putin did not offer a new approach to the war, describe how Russia intends to achieve victory in Ukraine or specify what a Russian victory would look like. Many of Putin’s statements on December 14 are similar to the boilerplate claims about the Russian war in Ukraine that he made during a speech at a Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium meeting almost a year ago, for example.[2]

Putin reiterated his maximalist objectives for the Russian war in Ukraine, which are likely purposefully opaque to be inclusive of additional goals that Putin may seek to pursue now or later. Putin responded to a question about whether Russia’s goals in Ukraine are the same as they were by stating that Russia’s goals have not changed and include the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine and imposing a “neutral status” on Ukraine.[3] Russian calls for “denazification” are thinly-veiled calls for regime change -- demands for the removal of the elected Ukrainian government and its replacement with a government acceptable to the Kremlin. Putin has not described what change to the Ukrainian Armed Forces would constitute “demilitarization,” although Russia’s goal is almost certainly to strip Ukraine of the means to defend itself and allow Russia to impose its will upon Ukraine through force whenever the Kremlin so chooses. Putin claimed that Ukrainian forces lost almost 750 tanks during the Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive and stated that this is “demilitarization,” acknowledging that the term encompasses a large-scale reduction in military capabilities.[4] Russian calls for Ukrainian “neutrality” are demands that Ukraine amend its constitution, which currently commits Ukraine to seeking NATO membership, and commit not to join NATO or the European Union (EU). They are part of a longer list of broader Russian objectives beyond Ukraine that include a permanent moratorium on NATO expansion (which would require a change in NATO’s charter that, in turn, would require the negotiation and ratification of a new treaty between NATO member states), a ban on the deployment of Western strike weapons near Russia, and the de facto withdrawal of NATO forces to their 1997 posture.[5]

Putin claimed that Ukrainian officials were open to Russian demands for “denazification” and “demilitarization” during negotiations in Istanbul in March 2022, likely in an effort to portray these objectives as reasonable.[6] Putin stated that Ukrainian officials withdrew from agreements about “demilitarization” and “denazification,” a departure from a recurring Russian information operation that falsely alleges that Western officials coerced Ukraine to reject an agreement favorable to Russia.[7] Putin once again expressed his unwillingness to engage in meaningful negotiations with Ukraine and stated that there will only be peace when Russia achieves its maximalist objectives.[8] ISW continues to assess that Putin’s maximalist objectives are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender.[9]

These maximalist objectives also do not exclude Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories or additional territorial conquests. The Kremlin appears to be returning to expansionist rhetoric last observed before the full-scale invasion about a “partitioned Ukraine” that rejects key components of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and which includes the stated intention of the occupation and annexation of additional Ukrainian territory.[10] This rhetoric does not set limits for further Russian expansion and may be aimed at allowing Putin to introduce new territorial objectives in Ukraine when he sees fit. Putin notably echoed this heightened expansionist rhetoric on December 14 by claiming that Russia historically controlled the entire Black Sea region and that the entire region, like Crimea, has nothing to do with Ukraine.[11] Russian control of the “entire Black Sea region” would encompass not just occupied Crimea and Kherson Oblast but also large parts of Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts.[12] Putin falsely claimed that Odesa City is a “Russian city,” a rhetorical line that Russian officials have often used to justify the Russian occupation of Ukrainian cities in eastern and southern Ukraine.[13] Putin stated that Ukraine’s alleged "pro-Russian” southeast, an area where Russia now occupies a large amount of territory, has always been important to Russia, although it is unclear how Putin views the boundaries of this "pro-Russian” southeastern Ukraine.

Putin attempted to rhetorically contextualize Russia's continued maximalist objectives in Ukraine within the wider conception of Russian "sovereignty," an ideological line that has been consistent in the Kremlin's framing of Russian national security and foreign policy since before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. "Direct Line" host and Russian journalist Ekaterina Berezovskaya asked Putin about his announcement to run for president again in 2024, including what Putin's main goals are for Russia domestically and abroad.[14] Putin responded to Berezovskaya's question by invoking the concept of Russian sovereignty (suvernitet), suggesting that his central policy as president is to protect and maintain Russian sovereignty. Putin clarified that the conception of sovereignty is informed by external sovereignty, meaning Russia's defense capacity and external security environment; public sovereignty, meaning the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens as facilitated by Russia's political system; and economic-technological sovereignty, which enables Russia to secure its own future. The concept of Russian sovereignty is not unique to rhetorical justifications for Russia's invasion of Ukraine—rather it has been enshrined in Russia's pre-war National Security Strategy (2021) and Russia's updated 2023 Foreign Policy Concept.[15] The National Security Strategy outlines Russia’s right to “protect the rights of compatriots abroad,” which Russia has intentionally defined in broad terms as ethnic Russians and Russian speakers abroad.[16] Russia also purposefully does not define “compatriots” as only those holding Russian citizenship.[17] As Putin continues to employ the concepts of "denazification" and the fiction of a "genocide in Donbas" of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers as justifications for the invasion of Ukraine, the idea of Russian sovereignty will become increasingly synonymous with Russia's grand-strategic objectives in Ukraine.[18]

Putin claimed that the Russian force grouping in Ukraine is far larger than even Russian officials have characterized, likely in an attempt to both address persistent Russian concerns about a new mobilization wave and to demoralize the West and Ukraine. Putin stated that there are 617,000 Russian personnel in the “combat zone” when discussing the length of the frontline, notably different from the 420,000 Russian military personnel that Ukrainian intelligence officials estimated were in Ukraine in September 2023.[19] Putin’s figure likely includes all military personnel such as mobilized personnel, contract soldiers (kontraktniki), and volunteers (dobrovoltsy) in irregular formations operating along the frontline and in the rear.[20] Russian authorities often use “combat zone” and “special military operation zone” interchangeably, which can include rear areas in occupied Ukraine and Russia.[21] Putin claimed that 244,000 mobilized personnel out of the 300,000 total personnel mobilized during partial mobilization are operating in Ukraine and that Russia recruited a total of 486,000 people in crypto-mobilization efforts since the beginning of 2023.[22] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev claimed on November 9 that the Russian military has recruited 410,000 contract, volunteer, and conscripted military personnel since January 1, 2023, then later claimed on December 1 that the Russian military recruited over 452,000 personnel since January 1, 2023.[23]

The difference in the reported numbers of Russian personnel involved in the war is likely due to different categorizations of Russian military personnel and does not reflect a significant increase in Russian personnel on the frontline, which Ukrainian forces have consistently been repelling. Putin notably offered these figures in response to a question about a second wave of mobilization and explicitly stated that these force generation figures show that there is no need for a subsequent mobilization wave. Putin also likely meant for the 617,000 number to scare the West and Ukraine with Russia’s force generation capabilities, although Putin’s figure is for the Russian army currently fighting in Ukraine and thus suggests that the Ukrainian military has been repelling offensive operations and conducting counteroffensive operations against a far larger enemy force than was previously reported.

Putin notably addressed the tactical and operational situation in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast but refrained from discussing active Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine. Putin stated that almost all Russian forces are in "the active stage of action,” a phrase notably different from his and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s previous characterization of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine as an “active defense.”[24] Putin acknowledged Russian operations attempting to repel Ukrainian forces from Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River) but framed Russian forces’ failure to push Ukrainian forces to west (right) bank Kherson Oblast as an operation to purposefully lure and attrit Ukrainian forces operating near Krynky.[25] Putin’s emphasis on the tactical situation near Krynky and his decision not to discuss any other sector of the frontline may reflect his sensitivity to continued Russian information space neuralgia about Russian operations on east bank Kherson Oblast. Russian milbloggers have been increasingly critical of the Russian failure to repel Ukrainian forces from the east bank of the Dnipro River.[26] Putin’s comment highlighting Russian forces’ inability to oust Ukrainian forces from the east bank is likely also a critique of Russian ”Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who may be struggling to establish a unified command for the grouping of forces.[27] The current Russian ”Dnepr” Grouping of Forces is comprised of disparate elements of recently transferred and degraded units and formations and at least two subordinate elements of the newly formed 104th Airborne (VDV) Division.[28] The UK Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported that elements of the 104th VDV Division suffered “exceptionally heavy losses” attempting to repel Ukrainian forces from east bank Kherson Oblast in early December 2023 during its combat debut.[29] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets also stated that elements of the Russian 328th and 337th VDV Regiments (104th VDV Division) suffered high equipment and personnel losses during five days of continuous attacks on the east bank.[30] These reported heavy losses among the 104th VDV Division challenge Putin’s description of a successful Russian operation effort to disproportionately attrit Ukrainian forces on the east bank.

Putin’s public discussions about issues at the front and about the Russian war effort in general may redirect public anger about problems in the war toward the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Putin has historically used his highly staged annual “Direct Line” event to create a clear divide between incompetent, corrupt, and overly bureaucratic Russian officials and himself as a capable and caring leader who can quickly resolve average Russians’ issues.[31] The Kremlin has often included highly personal calls for assistance in the event so that Putin can publicly resolve issues in front of a live audience. This year’s “Direct Line” event applied this highly personal model to specific issues that Russian military personnel and volunteers are facing along the front and with receiving benefits and promised support.[32] This year’s event, inadvertently or not, cast the MoD in the role of the incompetent, corrupt, and overly bureaucratic Russian authority, a characterization that Russian ultranationalist milbloggers have routinely levied at the MoD.[33] The Kremlin allowed Russian ultranationalists to express criticism against the MoD and Russian military leadership for Russian failures in Ukraine up until that ire expressed itself in the Wagner Group’s June 24, 2023, rebellion.[34] Since the Wagner rebellion Russian authorities have attempted to establish more control over the Russian information space through self-censorship efforts that largely achieved the intended effect of reducing public criticism of how the Russian military is conducting the war in Ukraine.[35] Putin also publicly backed the Russian military leadership following Wagner’s rebellion and has shown no indications that he intends to reverse course from his support for Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov.[36] Putin will likely face the risk of increasing public ire at the Russian MoD, possibly undoing some of the Kremlin’s work to reestablish the MoD as an organ worthy of deference and respect, if he desires to discuss specific issues about the war in public during his 2024 presidential campaign. Putin may intend to shift responsibility for Russian failures and issues with the war to the MoD during his presidential campaign but does so at the risk of emboldening the same widespread anti-MoD sentiments that prompted Wagner’s rebellion.

Putin also attempted to convince the Russian public that the Russian economy is resilient in the face of international sanctions and the fallout of the war in Ukraine. Putin stated that international observers and Russians were surprised that Russia had created the margin of economic and financial stability required to weather Western sanctions following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[37] Putin listed a series of statistics detailing the growth and stability of the Russian economy and only acknowledged that inflation may pose a problem for Russia in 2024.[38] Putin specifically claimed that Russians will see average increases in real wages and income, a talking point in line with previous reports that Putin would attempt to promote economic stability as a main component of his presidential campaign.[39] Putin later talked about specific issues with rising prices of consumer goods, strains on the Russian automobile market, and systemic issues with Russian civil aviation production, all contrasting with his earlier depiction of a strong Russian economy.[40] Putin has routinely attempted to assuage the Russian public’s concern that the war in Ukraine will have long-term economic impacts and he will likely continue to address Russian economic anxiety throughout his 2024 presidential campaign.[41]

Putin continued to express an increasingly anti-Israel position on the Israel-Hamas war, likely signaling a continuing decline in Russian-Israeli relations. In response to a question posed by a Turkish journalist, Putin called the situation in Gaza a "disaster," while praising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his attempts to find a resolution to the conflict.[42] Putin reiterated his support for a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and claimed that Russia discussed providing additional measures of humanitarian support to Gaza with several Arab countries, but that Israel rejected the suggestion.[43] Putin notably used his response to several questions unrelated to the Israel-Hamas war to indirectly criticize Israel.[44] A journalist also posed a question that would have allowed Putin to reiterate a Russian rhetorical line directly denouncing antisemitism, but Putin chose to focus on other aspects of the question.[45] Putin has continually expressed anti-Israel positions while feigning interest in being a neutral arbitrator for the conflict, most recently in a December 10 telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.[46]

Putin attempted to downplay deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations and extricate Russian peacekeeping forces from any responsibility for Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenia appears to be effectively abstaining from participating in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Putin claimed that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s absence from formal CSTO, Commonweath of Independent States (CIS), and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) events is due to Armenian domestic processes and not related to any intent to end its membership in any of these organizations. Putin also claimed that “it was not [Russia] who abandoned Nagorno-Karabakh" and claimed that Armenia did not inform Russia about its decision to “recognize that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan.”[47]

The European Union (EU) decided on December 14 to formally open EU accession negotiations to Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel announced that the European Council will open accession negotiations to both Ukraine and Moldova.[48] Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has notably consistently opposed talks on Ukraine's accession to the EU, responded to Michel's announcement and stated that Hungary did not participate in the decision, calling it a "bad decision."[49]

The US Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2024 on December 14, which notably includes an extension of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI). The NDAA approves $886.3 billion for defense and authorizes $300 million for the Ukrainian Security Assistance Initiative for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, while also extending the Initiative until the end of 2026.[50] The USAI is notably meant to fund the federal government to pay relevant industries directly to produce weapons and security assistance for Ukraine, as opposed to providing Ukraine with assistance from the US's existing stockpiles.[51]

Drone footage reportedly taken from western Zaporizhia Oblast shows Russian forces using Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) as human shields in an apparent violation of international humanitarian law. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) stated on December 13 that it received drone footage from Ukraine that shows Russian soldiers covering themselves behind Ukrainian POWs as they advance on Ukrainian positions near Robotyne.[52] The Ukrainian POWs in the video appear unarmed, while the Russian soldiers force them forward at gunpoint, and at some point, a Russian soldier fires at and apparently kills the Ukrainian POW as the POW tries to run away.[53] RFE/RL noted that elements of the 234th Airborne Assault (VDV) Regiment (76th VDV Division) are active in the Robotyne area, suggesting that the command of this regiment would be responsible for the apparent violations of international humanitarian law.[54] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office initiated criminal proceedings on the "violation of laws and customs of war" based on the video.[55] Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets responded to the video and called it an apparent violation of the Geneva Convention.[56] The Geneva Conventions prohibit the use of "protected persons" as human shields to protect against attacks or "prevent reprisals during an offensive," and POWs are specifically classified as protected persons under international law.[57]

Russian forces conducted another series of drone and missile strikes against port infrastructure in southern Ukraine on the night of December 13-14. Ukraine's Air Force reported on December 14 that Russian forces launched 42 Shahed-136/131s mainly at port infrastructure in Odesa Oblast from the directions of Balaklava and Chauda, occupied Crimea, as well as Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai.[58] Ukrainian military sources reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 41 of the 42 Shaheds--32 Shaheds over Odesa Oblast, two over Kherson Oblast, and five over Mykolaiv Oblast.[59] The Romanian Ministry of Defense also noted that one drone fell on an uninhabited area near Grindu, a small settlement in Romania on the Ukraine-Romania border.[60] Ukrainian military sources also stated that Russian forces fired six S-300 missiles from occupied Kherson Oblast at areas in Mykolaiv and Kherson oblasts in tandem with the wave of Shahed launches.[61]

Ardent Russian ultranationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin went on trial and pled not guilty to extremist charges in Moscow City Court on December 14.[62] Girkin’s lawyer, Gadzi Aliyer, stated that the trial was adjourned until December 20 after the Moscow Court read Girkin his charges and heard his plea on December 14.[63] Girkin’s other lawyer, Alexander Molokhov, told Russian opposition outlet Sota that Girkin testified about making an “emotional comment” after reading a complaint on May 25, 2022, which claimed that mobilized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) personnel did not receive compensation for their service.[64] Girkin’s comment read as follows: "citizens, it is not enough to shoot [officials] for something like this [lack of compensation for mobilized DNR personnel].” Girkin testified that this comment, which became the official reason for his criminal charge, was a figurative expression that was not meant to be taken literally. Girkin added that Russia needed to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2014, that Russia is fighting against the West, and that Russia needs to announce a country-wide martial law instead of freezing the war.[65]

Chairman of the Girkin-led “Angry Patriots Club” Pavel Gubarev publicly denounced Girkin on December 13, a day prior to Girkin’s first trial hearing. Gubarev had previously vaguely implied that he had a conflict with Girkin in September following Girkin’s arrest and announcement of his intent to run for president but has refrained from renouncing his ties with him.[66] Gubarev called Girkin a “lying hypocritical vile schemer and nonentity” on December 13 and claimed that he will release an essay exposing Girkin in the coming days.[67] Gubarev compared Girkin’s arrest to the political arrests of Belarusian opposition leaders and doubled down on his previous claims that the Kremlin imprisoned Girkin over his presidential ambitions.[68] Gubarev claimed that he intends to shatter the public perception of Girkin as a “noble principled warrior and hero” and expose him for being a myth in the information space and a psychopathic personality. Several Russian milbloggers that support the “Angry Patriots Club” claimed that Gubarev’s statement further confirmed that people should not work with Girkin on political issues and denounced Girkin’s presidential ambitions.[69] One milblogger claimed that many people thought that Russian, Ukrainian, or Israeli security and intelligence agents published Gubarev’s rants, but noted that Gubarev’s statements are rooted in a personal conflict with Girkin.[70] While it is unclear what prompted Gubarev to denounce Girkin a day before his trial, this statement and these essays will likely further alienate Girkin’s supporters and damage Girkin’s reputation in the ultranationalist community.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed notable confidence in publicly discussing Russia’s war on Ukraine during a joint event combining his annual press conference and “Direct Line” forum on December 14 but did not clearly define his envisioned end state for the full-scale invasion he launched on February 24, 2022.
  • Putin reiterated his maximalist objectives for the Russian war in Ukraine, which are likely purposefully opaque to be inclusive of additional goals that Putin may seek to pursue now or later.
  • These maximalist objectives also do not exclude Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories or additional territorial conquests.
  • Putin attempted to rhetorically contextualize Russia's continued maximalist objectives in Ukraine within the wider conception of Russian "sovereignty," an ideological line that has been consistent in the Kremlin's framing of Russian national security and foreign policy since before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • Putin claimed that the Russian force grouping in Ukraine is far larger than even Russian officials have characterized, likely in an attempt to both address persistent Russian concerns about a new mobilization wave and to demoralize the West and Ukraine.
  • The difference in the reported numbers of Russian personnel involved in the war is likely due to different categorizations of Russian military personnel and does not reflect a significant increase in Russian personnel on the frontline, which Ukrainian forces have consistently been repelling.
  • Putin notably addressed the tactical and operational situation in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast but refrained from discussing active Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • Putin’s public discussions about issues at the front and about the Russian war effort in general may redirect public anger about problems in the war toward the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Putin also attempted to convince the Russian public that the Russian economy is resilient in the face of international sanctions and the fallout of the war in Ukraine.
  • Putin continued to express an increasingly anti-Israel position on the Israel-Hamas war, likely signaling a continuing decline in Russian-Israeli relations.
  • Putin attempted to downplay deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations and extricate Russian peacekeeping forces from any responsibility for Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenia appears to be effectively abstaining from participating in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 13, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 13, 2023, 8:45pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on December 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Kremlin appears to be returning to expansionist rhetoric last observed before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an effort to resurface its claims that Ukraine is part of historically Russian territory and discuss the borders Russian leaders regard as appropriate for a rump Ukrainian state. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev misrepresented US President Joe Biden’s response to a media question about whether the United States’ policy is to win the war or help Ukraine to defend itself during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on December 12.[1] Biden stated that the United States wants to see Ukraine win and that “winning means Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation […] that can afford to defend itself today and deter further aggression.” Medvedev misrepresented Biden’s statements to suggest that the United States would be content if Ukraine simply existed as a country but does not care what Ukraine’s borders look like.[2] Medvedev claimed that Ukraine can still technically be a sovereign country if the whole country remains within the borders of Lviv Oblast, for example.[3] Medvedev also falsely claimed that Biden implied that the United States only supports Ukraine in defending itself but will not help Kyiv launch counteroffensives to liberate more of its land and people. Medvedev added that Ukraine could hypothetically “defend itself” as a rump state within the borders of Lviv Oblast.

Medvedev routinely and deliberately makes outlandish statements, but the timing of these statements and focus on the idea that Ukraine could exist only as a rump state within the territory of Lviv Oblast is consistent with earlier indicators that the Kremlin is returning to its domestic framing that Russia is fighting the war to “liberate its historic lands.” Medvedev’s comments follow shortly after Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s December 9 interview with AFP, which had likely marked an official rhetorical shift in the Kremlin’s framing of the war.[4] Zakharova reiterated the Kremlin’s maximalist demands for full Ukrainian political capitulation and Kyiv’s acceptance of Russia’s military terms and introduced a vague prerequisite that Ukraine must withdraw its troops from “Russian territory” to resolve the war. ISW assessed at the time that Zakharova was likely referring to the illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions – which are not fully under Russia’s occupation.[5] Zakharova’s statement, however, may have been purposely vague to allow Russia the freedom to define what it deems to be “Russian territories.” Medvedev‘s and Zakharova’s comments closely parallel Russia’s long-standing information operation that Ukraine could be partitioned into Russian-controlled “Malorossiya” (most of Ukraine) and a small rump Polish-controlled western Ukraine.[6] ISW observed Russian propagandists intensify this information operation in the lead-up to the full-scale invasion and its notable decrease from then until now.

The return of the Kremlin’s notion of a “partitioned Ukraine” is likely an organized effort to mislead the international community into rejecting key components of Ukraine’s sovereignty: its territorial integrity as defined in 1991 and its right to self-determination. ISW assessed that the Kremlin used similar information operations in late 2021 and early 2022 to create conditions for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine while misleading the West into the search for a diplomatic de-escalation.[7] Russia is still pursuing its maximalist objective of controlling all of Ukraine and is using these information operations to deter further military aid to Ukraine and to stall for time needed to rebuild its defense industrial complex (DIB) and reconstitute its military.

Medvedev’s musings and Zakharova’s statement considered in the context of the information operations the Kremlin used before the full-scale invasion cast serious doubt on the notion that Moscow would be satisfied even with all the territory of the four Ukrainian oblasts it has illegally annexed, let alone with where the front lines currently stand. It is also noteworthy that the Kremlin appears to be revising its explicit territorial aims upward as US support for Ukraine appears to waver and Western voices reportedly argue for pressing Ukraine to offer territorial concessions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 13 that Ukraine’s decision to transition to defensive operations is motivated by winter weather conditions and not a “crisis,” in response to a recent New York Times (NYT) article.[8] Zelensky stated during a joint press conference at the Ukraine-Northern Europe Summit in Oslo, Norway on December 13 that winter weather slows both offensive and defensive operations and added that there were no Russian victories in 2023.[9] Zelensky stated that the most important objective for Ukrainian forces is to hold and destroy the Russian military in Ukraine.[10]

Russian and Ukrainian sources continue to report on the impacts of challenging weather conditions on offensive and reconnaissance operations throughout the front, even as reported freezing and snowy winter conditions in eastern Ukraine offer the prospect of better conditions for maneuver. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated on December 13 that poor weather conditions are complicating Russian and Ukrainian combat operations in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.[11] Humenyuk stated that fog and other weather conditions prompted by temperature fluctuations are making it difficult to conduct offensive operations and use drones and artillery.[12] Ukrainian Luhansk Oblast Military Administration Head Artem Lysohor stated that poor weather conditions are affecting Russian air strikes and drone operations in the Kupyansk-Lyman direction.[13] A Russian milblogger claimed that mud, freezing rain, snow, and ice are impeding Ukrainian and Russian ground attacks north of Verbove in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[14] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces continued offensive operations near Bakhmut and Avdiivka despite “extremely unfavorable” weather conditions, including ice, which are negatively impacting Russian FPV and aerial reconnaissance drones.[15] One Russian milblogger suggested that a recent snowstorm improved the conditions for ground operations in occupied Luhansk Oblast, however.[16] It will likely take more than one snowstorm and continual below-freezing temperatures to harden the ground enough to restore maneuver combat. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces are taking advantage of the challenging weather conditions to conduct ground operations while Ukrainian reconnaissance drones cannot operate.[17] Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024 and to achieve informational effects in the United States and the West while Ukrainian forces establish and consolidate defensive positions to conserve manpower and resources for future offensive efforts.[18]

A Russian “Storm-Z” assault unit instructor complained that deputy commanders of Russian irregular armed formations are spreading illogical and false claims that present an overly optimistic view of the situation on the front in the Russian media and information space. The instructor stated that an unnamed Russian deputy commander of a “Russian Volunteer Corps” detachment "fooled” a “serious” media outlet by stating that volunteer units cut the last Ukrainian supply route near Bakhmut and Soledar (northeast of Bakhmut) and that taking control of this area would open up a route for Russian forces to advance to Kramatorsk.[19] The instructor stated that another deputy commander of a Volunteer Corps unit claimed that Ukrainian forces are abandoning their fortifications near Chasiv Yar (10km west of Bakhmut) and do not control the roads in the area and that these conditions will allow Russian forces to advance to Bohdanivka (5km northwest of Bakhmut) and create a “horseshoe” around Chasiv Yar. The deputy commander effectively claimed that Russian forces were threatening a settlement significantly further from their current lines to achieve a tactical victory in a contested area near Russian positions. The instructor stated that these various claims and forecasts were illogical and questioned if the deputy commanders had confused the names of settlements when making their assessments. The instructor compared the claims about creating a “horseshoe” around Chasiv Yar to repeated Russian claims that Russian forces have done the same around Avdiivka — claims which the instructor sarcastically noted have not prevented Russian forces from continually dying in the area. The instructor also referred to a December 13 post by a Russian milblogger, who, the instructor stated, usually provides adequate reporting from the front. The post highlighted a Russian serviceman from the Volunteer Corps operating near Bakhmut at the front who claimed that Bohdanivka is a “strategic” settlement that if captured will allow Russian forces to advance to Chasiv Yar and cut off Ukrainian logistics.[20] The instructor doubted the Volunteer Corps serviceman’s understanding of the word “strategic” and Ukrainian geography as the instructor stated that Russian forces would have to advance through several settlements in the lowlands to reach Chasiv Yar.[21]

The instructor’s complaint about Russian sources spreading unsubstantiated and maximalist claims largely aligns with ISW’s mapping practices. ISW’s “claimed Russian control over Ukrainian territory” map layer reflects all the claims of ISW’s regular sources, including the most maximalist and unlikely, which is why this layer is often significantly different from ISW’s “assessed Russian advances” map layer. This phenomenon is particularly clear in ISW’s most recent control of terrain maps showing Avdiivka and Donetsk City, where the “Russian claims” map layer is up to 3.5 kilometers closer to Avdiivka than the geolocated “assessed Russian advances” map layer.[22] ISW has chosen this mapping approach to accurately reflect even the most maximalist Russian claims and compare these claims to geo-confirmed Russian advances. ISW has previously observed Russian milbloggers criticize other actors in the Russian information space for distorting the reality of the Russian war efforts and overly positive reporting.[23] Russian milbloggers previously claimed that the Russian General Staff is increasingly requiring positive reports from frontline commanders, and the Russian military may be pressuring the commanders of irregular armed formations and other sources to provide similarly positive reports.[24]

The Russian MoD is likely using formalized irregular unit commanders as a conduit to spread incorrect information about Russian battlefield successes within the Russian information space in order to circumvent the MoD's responsibility. Kremlin state media is increasingly publishing interviews with servicemen and commanders of irregular formations, who appear to be making exaggerated claims about Russian successes on the battlefield.[25] The instructor observed that it is strange that sources who are not directly affiliated with the Russian MoD are making such exaggerated battlefield claims.[26] The Russian MoD has previously routinely spread exaggerated and absurd claims of Russian battlefield successes, which were subsequently quickly proven false, and Russian milbloggers have criticized the Russian MoD for this practice.[27] The Russian MoD has continually attempted to censor Russian milbloggers, and select milbloggers have exposed and complained about these efforts.[28] The Russian MoD is likely attempting to use irregular unit commanders and servicemen operating on the frontline to give a veneer of legitimacy to Russian MoD-controlled narratives because many Russians are likely unaware that numerous Russian irregular formations are indirectly controlled by the Russian MoD and other security forces.[29]

The Kremlin may also be using Russian milbloggers to promote irregular unit commanders’ incorrect information. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly considering the Russian milblogger who posted the alleged information from the Volunteer Corps serviceman near Bakhmut to be a “trusted person” in his presidential campaign, and ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin will likely use the March 2024 presidential election to leverage milblogger “trusted persons” to reestablish Kremlin dominance over the information space and conduct information operations.[30]

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes on the night of December 12 to 13. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 10 Shahed-131/136 drones from occupied Balaklava, Crimea and launched 10 missiles, likely Iskander-M ballistic or S-300/400 anti-aircraft guided missiles, targeting Kyiv City.[31] Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces downed all of the missiles and drones, but that missile debris injured civilians in Kyiv City.[32] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that the Russian military currently has a limited number of missiles and will not be able to conduct missile strikes en masse as Russian forces did in winter 2022 but will launch more Shaheds instead.[33]

A Russian hacker group reportedly linked to the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) and a Russia-aligned hacker group both claimed responsibility for the cyberattack on Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar. Pro-Russia hacker group Killnet claimed on December 12 that it conducted an attack on unspecified Ukrainian mobile operators and banks but did not offer any details or evidence of their involvement.[34] Russian hacker group Solntsepek claimed on December 13 that it “takes full responsibility for the cyberattack on Kyivstar” and posted screenshots allegedly showing Kyivstar databases and systems.[35] Solntsepek claimed that it conducted the cyberattack because Kyivstar provides communications to the Ukrainian military, government agencies, and law enforcement agencies.[36] Solntsepek claimed that it destroyed 10,000 computers and more than 4,000 servers including all cloud storage and backup systems, but Kyivstar denied these claims.[37] Solntsepek implied that it was able to access the Kyivstar systems through the company’s employees, and Kyivstar CEO Oleksandr Komarov stated on December 13 that hackers broke through Kyivstar’s cyber security via a compromised account of one of the company’s employees.[38] Ukrainian Head of the Rada Subcommittee on Cyber Security stated on December 13 that cyberattacks against Ukraine are constantly occurring and that the Ukrainian State Intelligence Service and private companies are regularly working to protect Ukrainian digital systems.[39] Solntsepek is reportedly known for claiming responsibility for attacks conducted by other groups and has reportedly been used as a front for GRU Military Unit 74455 “Sandworm.”[40] Kyivstar stated on December 13 that Kyivstar restored voice communications in Ukraine and is continuing work to restore other services.[41]

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) stripped naturalized Russian citizens of their Russian citizenship for the first time, likely as part of ongoing migrant crackdowns aimed at coercing migrants into Russian military service while placating the xenophobic Russian ultranationalist community. The MVD reported on December 13 that it stripped two naturalized Russian citizens of their Russian citizenship after Russian law enforcement arrested them on drug trafficking charges.[42] Russian opposition outlet Meduza noted that this is the first instance of Russian authorities stripping naturalized citizens of their Russian citizenship since the law, which expanded the list of crimes under which Russian authorities can revoke an individual’s citizenship, came into force in October 2023.[43] Russian reporting did not specify what Russian authorities intend to do with the two individuals stripped of their Russian citizenship, however. The Russian government may send the two individuals to a migrant detention center where Russian authorities routinely coerce migrants without Russian citizenship into signing contracts with the Russian military.[44] Russian state-controlled outlet RIA Novosti reported on December 13 that Russian authorities arrested the former Head of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast MVD Migration Office, Andrei Kolesnikov, on suspicion of complicity in “legalizing over 100,000 foreigners” in 2022.[45] The Russian government is likely trying to publicize Kolesnikov’s arrest in order to appease the Russian ultranationalist community, which supports the war in Ukraine and opposes the inclusion of migrants into Russian society while continuing to rely on migrants for crypto-mobilization efforts and to offset domestic labor shortages. ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin does not have a clearly defined policy regarding migrants as Russian authorities continue to pursue incoherent and competing efforts to restrict migrant work in Russia, coerce them into the Russian military, and exploit their labor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the second Ukraine-Northern Europe Summit in Oslo, Norway on December 13.[46] Zelensky met with the leaders of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland at the Ukraine-Northern Europe Summit who jointly published a letter in Financial Times on December 12 stating that “this is a critical time for Ukraine, Europe, and global security” and that “Russia is eager to exploit divisions.”[47] Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that Denmark will approve a military aid package to Ukraine including ammunition, tanks, and drones valued at about $1.1 billion.[48] Norwegian Prime Minister Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store announced that Norway would provide additional air defense equipment to Ukraine.[49] Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson stated that Sweden will approve a winter aid package to Ukraine to support civilian infrastructure.[50] Finnish President Sauli Niinisto announced that Finland is preparing its next aid package to Ukraine, which will consist of unspecified military equipment, and that Finland plans to double its ammunition production.[51] US President Joe Biden similarly announced on December 12 that Ukraine will receive a military assistance package valued at $200 million consisting of AIM-9M missiles, High-speed Anti-radiation (HARM) missiles; Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems, and artillery and small arms ammunition.[52]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin appears to be returning to expansionist rhetoric last observed before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an effort to resurface its claims that Ukraine is part of historically Russian territory and discuss the borders Russian leaders regard as appropriate for a rump Ukrainian state.
  • The return of the Kremlin’s notion of a “partitioned Ukraine” is likely an organized effort to mislead the international community into rejecting key components of Ukraine’s sovereignty: its territorial integrity as defined in 1991 and its right to self-determination.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 13 that Ukraine’s decision to transition to defensive operations is motivated by winter weather conditions and not a “crisis,” in response to a recent New York Times (NYT) article.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources continue to report on the impacts of challenging weather conditions on offensive and reconnaissance operations throughout the front, even as reported freezing and snowy winter conditions in eastern Ukraine offer the prospect of better conditions for maneuver.
  • A Russian “Storm-Z” assault unit instructor complained that deputy commanders of Russian irregular armed formations are spreading illogical and false claims that present an overly optimistic view of the situation on the front in the Russian media and information space.
  • The instructor’s complaint about Russian sources spreading unsubstantiated and maximalist claims largely aligns with ISW’s mapping practices.
  • The Russian MoD is likely using formalized irregular unit commanders as a conduit to spread incorrect information about Russian battlefield successes within the Russian information space in order to circumvent the MoD's responsibility.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes on the night of December 12 to 13.
  • A Russian hacker group reportedly linked to the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) and a Russia-aligned hacker group both claimed responsibility for the cyberattack on Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) stripped naturalized Russian citizens of their Russian citizenship for the first time, likely as part of ongoing migrant crackdowns aimed at coercing migrants into Russian military service while placating the xenophobic Russian ultranationalist community.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the second Ukraine-Northern Europe Summit in Oslo, Norway on December 13.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, north of and near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west of Donetsk City, along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in various sectors.
  • The Chuvash Republic is offering bonuses to foreigners who fight in the war in Ukraine, likely as part of efforts to recruit migrants to the Russian military.
  • Occupation authorities continue efforts to destroy Ukrainian national and historical identity.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 12, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 12, 2023, 7:35pm ET

US intelligence reportedly assessed that Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in fall 2023 and through the upcoming winter aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine instead of achieving any immediate operational objectives. The US intelligence community reportedly shared a declassified intelligence assessment with Congress on December 12 wherein US intelligence assessed that Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine but have only resulted in heavy Russian losses and no operationally significant Russian battlefield gains.[1] This assessment of high Russian losses and lack of operationally significant Russian gains is consistent with ISW’s assessment. US National Security Council Spokesperson Andrienne Watson reportedly stated that Russian forces have suffered more than 13,000 casualties and lost 220 combat vehicles along the Avdiivka-Novopavlivka axis (Avdiivka direction through western Donetsk Oblast) since launching offensive operations in October 2023.[2] Watson added that Russia appears to believe that a military “deadlock” through the winter will drain Western support for Ukraine and give Russian forces the advantage despite high Russian losses and persistent Russian shortages of trained personnel, munitions, and equipment.[3] ISW has assessed that Russian forces have been trying to regain the theater-level initiative in Ukraine since at least mid-November 2023 and have now likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative.[4]

Russian forces may be conducting costly offensive operations at a time unfavorable for ground maneuver to time the potential shift in battlefield initiative with ongoing conversations in the West about continued support to Ukraine. Russian forces launched a large offensive effort to capture Avdiivka on October 10 and subsequently intensified localized offensive operations elsewhere in eastern Ukraine while Ukrainian forces started to scale back counteroffensive operations on their own accord.[5] The Russian military command decided against waiting to prepare for offensive efforts later this winter or in spring 2024 following the decreased tempo of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, as they had done between the successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in summer and fall 2022 and the failed Russian winter-spring 2023 offensive.[6]  The Russian military command’s decision to launch offensive efforts in fall 2023 may have been an opportunistic reaction to a perceived wavering of Western support for Ukraine. The increased Western discussions about continuing military assistance to Ukraine following the relatively successful Russian defensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast was predictable and may have factored into the Russian command’s calculations. The Kremlin has been orchestrating long running information operations aimed at deterring Western security assistance to Ukraine, and the Russian command may have determined that those information operations were yielding increasing returns and that Russian military efforts to seize the initiative could prompt further Western debates about aid to Ukraine.[7]

Russian forces have routinely conducted military operations in Ukraine aimed at shaping Western behavior instead of achieving operational battlefield objectives, and the US intelligence assessment that ongoing Russian offensive operations do not have an immediate operational military objective is entirely plausible.[8] Russian forces have yet to seize the initiative throughout Ukraine, but Russian forces may attempt to pursue an immediate operational objective if they do seize the initiative. The Russian military command has also reportedly conducted offensive operations with domestic political goals in mind, and internal Kremlin dynamics may be influencing Russian military decisions about ongoing Russian offensive operations.[9] ISW is not offering an assessment of the primary intent of ongoing Russian offensive operations at this time but concurs with the US intelligence community assessment that Russia has absorbed very high losses without making operationally significant gains or setting conditions to make such gains.

US intelligence also assessed that the war in Ukraine has devastated the pre-war Russian military, although Russia has partially offset these losses and continues to prepare for a long war in Ukraine. The declassified intelligence assessment reportedly stated that Russian forces have lost 87 percent of the total number of their pre-war active-duty ground troops and two-thirds of the tanks in their inventory before February 24, 2022.[10] The declassified intelligence assessment reportedly stated that Russian forces lost 315,000 personnel out of the 360,000 personnel, 2,200 out of 3,500 tanks, and 4,400 out of 13,600 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers that participated in the  full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[11] The assessment reportedly stated that Russian ground forces have lost over a quarter of their pre-invasion stockpiles of military equipment as of late November 2023, reducing the complexity and scale of Russian offensive operations in Ukraine.[12]

The Russian leadership has undertaken extensive force generation measures to offset manpower losses, however, and Ukrainian intelligence reported in September 2023 that Russian forces had 420,000 personnel in occupied Ukraine.[13] Partial mobilization began in September 2022 and ongoing Russian crypto-mobilization efforts have very likely offset the Russian losses reported by US intelligence, although new Russian personnel likely have lower combat capabilities than those they replaced.[14] The Russian military command is also pursuing long-term restructuring and expansion efforts to form strategic reserves and prepare for a potential future large-scale conventional war against NATO, although short-to-medium-term manpower requirements in Ukraine are likely undermining these efforts.[15] Russia has been gradually mobilizing its defense industrial base (DIB) to address materiel losses in Ukraine and sustain a prolonged war effort, although there are no indications that Russia has made significant progress in offsetting armored vehicle losses in Ukraine.[16] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 11 during a speech at the US National Defense University that Russian President Vladimir Putin is shifting the Russian economy and society to a war-time footing.[17]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with various US officials, including President Joe Biden, and spoke to Congress about US military assistance to Ukraine in Washington, DC on December 12. Zelensky met with Biden, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown, House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other US officials.[18] Zelensky stated at a press conference with Biden that Ukraine has had important battlefield successes and thanked the US for its support and for fostering an effective partnership.[19] Biden announced that he approved a military assistance package valued at $200 million for Ukraine including air defense and artillery ammunition and reiterated continued US support for Ukraine.[20] Zelensky also met with various US defense manufacturers about joint Ukrainian-US production of artillery and air defense munitions and systems.[21]

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Ukraine on December 12. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 15 Shahed-131/136 drones from occupied Balaklava Raion, Crimea, and two Kh-59 missiles at targets in Ukraine, and that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed nine of the drones and both missiles.[22] Ukrainian military officials reported that the missiles targeted Zaporizhia Oblast and Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[23] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that a Russian drone strike damaged an administrative building in Odesa City.[24]

Ukrainian officials stated that Russian special services may have conducted the major cyberattack on Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar on December 12. Kyivstar CEO Oleksandr Komarov stated that a powerful cyberattack targeted Kyivstar on the morning of December 12 and caused technical failures but did not compromise subscribers’ personal data.[25] Komarov stated that the cyberattack partially destroyed Kyivstar’s IT infrastructure and that it is unclear how long restoration will take.[26] Ukrainian officials stated that the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office opened criminal proceedings and that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) is investigating the possible involvement of Russian security services in the attack.[27] Ukrainian Ground Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated that the cyberattack did not cause any major problems for Ukrainian forces on the front.[28] The cyberattack disrupted Kyivstar’s national roaming services in Ukraine; the ATMs of two major Ukrainian banks, PrivatBank and Oschadbank; streetlights in Lviv City; air raid warning systems in Sumy City, Kyiv Oblast, and Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast; and municipal hotlines in Rivne City and Dnipro City.[29]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that GUR cyber units recently conducted a successful cyber operation against the Russian Federal Tax Service (FNS). The GUR stated on December 12 that GUR cyber units broke into the FNS’s central servers and 2,300 regional services throughout Russia and occupied Crimea and conducted two cyberattacks on unspecified dates, eliminating the configuration files that allowed the Russian tax system databases to function.[30] The GUR reported that Russian authorities have been unsuccessfully attempting to restore the FNS for four days.[31] The GUR, citing unspecified experts, stated that the effects of the attack will continue to paralyze the FNS until at least January 2024 and that Russian authorities may not be able to fully resuscitate the tax system.[32] The FNS denied the GUR’s report that Ukrainian cyber units hacked the FNS and claimed that all tax services are operating normally.[33] Russian opposition outlet Meduza noted that the FNS reportedly informed a Russian Telegram channel that users may have problems accessing its online services but that the FNS refused to explain the reasons for the problems.[34]

Russian news outlet RBK reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has designated prominent Russian milbloggers as “trusted persons” in his presidential election campaign for the first time. RBK reported on December 12 that Putin has designated Russian ultranationalist Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter and Kremlin Human Rights Council member Alexander “Sasha” Kots as a “trusted person,” and is also considering designating milblogger Alexander Sladkov and WarGonzo Telegram channel founder Semyon Pegov as “trusted persons.”[35] Russian law allows presidential candidates to designate up to 600 individuals as “trusted persons” to campaign on behalf of a certain candidate and sometimes act on behalf of the candidate in certain cases.[36] RBK noted that Putin’s “trusted persons” will also include Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) ”Sparta” Battalion Commander Artem Zhoga, whom the Kremlin portrayed as asking Putin to run for re-election in 2024, as well as individuals from organizations that support the Russian war in Ukraine, including the state-run “Defenders of the Fatherland” Foundation and the Families of Soldiers of the Fatherland Committee.[37] ISW has previously observed Putin rewarding the loyalty of Kots, Sladkov, and Pegov, and Putin is likely using this “trusted persons” designation to further reward ultranationalist milbloggers who are loyal to him.[38] The Kremlin will likely use the March 2024 presidential election to leverage these and likely other milbloggers to reestablish Kremlin dominance over the information space and conduct information operations about Putin and the election.[39]

A St. Petersburg court sentenced three underage Uzbek migrants and their parents to deportation for extinguishing the Eternal Flame in St. Petersburg amid ongoing tension between Central Asian communities in Russia and Russian authorities. Russian authorities detained the three minors in St. Petersburg on December 10 and circulated footage of the children extinguishing the Eternal Flame, a memorial to Soviet servicemen killed in the Second World War, in St. Petersburg with snow.[40] Russian news outlet RBK reported on December 12 that Russian authorities are holding one of the children in a temporary detention center for juvenile offenders and will also fine and deport the children’s parents for failing to register with Russian migration authorities.[41] Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported that Russian authorities regularly detain people on administrative offenses for crimes against Eternal Flame memorials throughout Russia, but that criminal cases are not uncommon.[42] The Russian State Duma approved amendments allowing Russian courts to fine or assign compulsory work to migrants convicted of a crime in place of deportation on December 11, suggesting that the Kremlin’s migrant policy has yet to be defined clearly.[43]

Key Takeaways:

  • US intelligence reportedly assessed that Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in fall 2023 and through the upcoming winter aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine instead of achieving any immediate operational objectives.
  • Russian forces may be conducting costly offensive operations at a time unfavorable for ground maneuver to time the potential shift in battlefield initiative with ongoing conversations in the West about continued support to Ukraine.
  • US intelligence also assessed that the war in Ukraine has devastated the pre-war Russian military, although Russia has partially offset these losses and continues to prepare for a long war in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with various US officials, including President Joe Biden, and spoke to Congress about US military assistance to Ukraine in Washington, DC on December 12.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Ukraine on December 12.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian special services may have conducted the major cyberattack on Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar on December 12.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that GUR cyber units recently conducted a successful cyber operation against the Russian Federal Tax Service (FNS).
  • Russian news outlet RBK reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has designated prominent Russian milbloggers as “trusted persons” in his presidential election campaign for the first time.
  • A St. Petersburg court sentenced three underage Uzbek migrants and their parents to deportation for extinguishing the Eternal Flame in St. Petersburg amid ongoing tension between Central Asian communities in Russia and Russian authorities.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 12 and advanced in some areas.
  • The Russian State Duma adopted a series of laws on December 12 to help further bolster Rosgvardia’s and the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) force generation capacity.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to use the Kremlin-funded pseudo-volunteer “Dvizheniye Pervykh” (Movement of the First) youth organization to indoctrinate Ukrainian youth in occupied Ukraine with Russian and cultural national identities.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 11, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, and Mason Clark

December 11, 2023, 5:50pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:15pm ET on December 11. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 12 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on December 11 that Russia will conduct voting for the 2024 presidential election in occupied Ukraine, likely in an attempt to legitimize the Russian occupation and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule.[1] The CEC reported that it made the decision to hold the election in occupied territories – all of which except Crimea are under martial law – in consultations with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and occupation authorities.[2] Russian law notably requires the CEC to consult with these agencies when considering holding elections in areas under martial law, including occupied Ukraine.[3] Russia will likely use the March 2024 presidential election to further establish a veneer of legitimacy for its occupation of Ukraine as it has done during the illegal 2022 annexation referenda and the 2023 regional elections.[4] Russian CEC Chairperson Ella Pamfilova stated on December 7 that elections in occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts “will differ somewhat” in procedure from elections in Russia and occupied Crimea.[5] The CEC will likely use these differing procedures to falsify votes in Putin’s favor and claim a high voter turnout while falsely portraying occupied Ukraine’s participation in the election as legitimate to the international community.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 10 to 11. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 18 Shahed-131/136 drones from occupied Cape Chauda and Belbek, Crimea and eight ballistic missiles from Bryansk Oblast targeting Kyiv Oblast.[6] Ukrainian military sources reported that Ukrainian forces downed all 18 Shaheds and all eight ballistic missiles.[7] Ukrainian Eastern Air Command reported that Ukrainian forces shot down a Kh-59 cruise missile over Kryvyi Rih Raion, Zaporizhia Oblast on December 11.[8]

The United Kingdom (UK) and Norway will lead a coalition aimed at providing short-term and long-term assistance to the Ukrainian Navy as the UK announced additional maritime aid provisions to Ukraine. The UK announced on December 11 that the UK and Norway would lead the Maritime Capability Coalition to provide short-term assistance to Ukraine and help in long-term efforts aimed at making the Ukrainian navy more interoperable with NATO.[9] The Norwegian Defense Ministry reported that the Maritime Capability Coalition is one of several “Capability Coalitions” discussed during the most recent meeting of the 50-nation strong Ukraine Contact Group on November 22.[10] Ukrainian Navy Commander Oleksiy Neizhpapa stated that the coalition is designed to last until at least 2035.[11] UK Defense Minister Grant Shapps announced that the UK will provide Ukraine with 20 Viking amphibious armored vehicles and 23 raiding boats.[12] Shapps also announced that the UK transferred two Sandown-class minehunter vessels to Ukraine as part of a plan that predated Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[13] Neizhpapa stated that the two minehunters are currently in the UK and cannot yet be brought to Ukraine due to the Montreux Convention.[14] Turkey has used the Montreux Convention since February 28, 2022, to deny access to the Russian warships wishing to pass through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits per Article 19 which stipulates that “vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not...pass through the Straits.”[15] Russia has reportedly relied on civilian ships to bypass the Turkish use of the Montreux Convention to transport war materiel through the straits.[16]

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his intention to expand Russian naval capabilities in areas well beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe, likely in an effort to strengthen and expand Russia’s ability to threaten the West. Putin attended the flag-raising ceremony for two nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine carriers, the cruise missile carrier Krasnoyarsk (Yasen-M class submarine) and the intercontinental ballistic missile carrier Emperor Alexander III (Borei-A Class submarine)at the Sevmash shipbuilding plant in Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk Oblast, on December 11.[17] Putin stated that the two new submarines would join the Russian Pacific Fleet (Eastern Military District) to defend Russia’s far eastern borders.[18] Putin stated that Russia plans to quantitatively strengthen the Russian navy and strengthen Russian naval power in the Arctic and Far East and in the Black, Baltic, and Caspian seas.[19] Putin claimed that the Sevmash plant intends to transfer three more Borei-A class submarines and five more Yasen-M class submarines to the Russian navy in the coming years.[20] The construction and launch of new naval craft are expensive and time-consuming undertakings, and Putin’s interest in expanding Russian naval capabilities in all areas where Russia has naval basing suggests that the Russian leadership may intend to include naval expansion as part of its long-term force expansion effort.[21]

The Russian military’s long-term restructuring and expansion effort aims to prepare Russia for a future-large scale conventional war against NATO, and the commitment of expensive naval resources to areas beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe likely aims to threaten NATO and its allies across multiple regions.[22] The Kremlin has routinely stressed that Russia is a Pacific naval power in its pursuit of an equal defense partnership with China, and Russia engaged in naval posturing in the Sea of Okhotsk in May 2023 aimed at deterring further Japanese support for Ukraine.[23] Putin further emphasized Russian strategic interest in the Arctic later on December 11 at a meeting on the economic development of Russia’s Arctic zone, a region in which Russia may intend to strengthen naval capabilities given Finland's recent NATO accession and Sweden’s pending NATO accession.[24] It is unclear whether Russian naval manufacturers will be able to produce strategic naval craft at the Kremlin’s desired scale and quality in the coming years, although Russia continues efforts to gradually mobilize its defense industrial base (DIB) and may decide to focus these efforts on Russian naval manufacturers.

The Russian State Duma approved amendments allowing Russian courts to fine or assign compulsory work to foreigners who are convicted of crimes in Russia, likely as part of ongoing efforts to coerce migrants into Russian military service. The Russian State Duma Committee on State Construction and Legislation approved amendments that would allow Russian judges to issue 40,000 to 50,000 rubles (about $440 to $550) in fines or 150 to 200 hours of compulsory work to migrants convicted of a crime in place of deportation.[25] The amendment will allow Russian judges to determine if deportation is an “excessive” or “disproportionate” punishment based on the criminal record of the foreigner convicted.[26] The amendment likely aims to reduce the number of deportations so that Russia can continue to benefit from migrant labor amid labor shortages and continue wider efforts to coerce migrants, both with and without Russian citizenship, into Russian military service. Russian authorities have increasingly conducted mass detentions of migrants, during which Russian authorities have served those with Russian citizenship military summonses and have threatened to revoke Russian citizenship from naturalized migrants if they refuse to serve in the Russian military.[27] Russian authorities have also targeted migrants without Russian citizenship in crypto-mobilization efforts by proposing restrictions on the actions and job opportunities of foreign citizens in Russia, advertising Russian military contract service in Central Asian languages, and coercing migrants into contract service in exchange for Russian citizenship.[28] ISW assesses that the Russian government continues to struggle to reconcile the incoherent and competing objectives of exploiting migrant labor to alleviate Russian labor shortages and prioritizing crypto-mobilization efforts to send migrants to the frontline.[29] Russian authorities are also likely using these measures to appease Russian ultranationalists who generally oppose the inclusion of migrants into the Russian economy and society.

Russian National Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev announced on December 11 that the Russian government will make “targeted changes” to the Russian constitution. Medvedev emphasized that the Russian government must make amendments to the constitution very carefully and that there is currently no reason to discuss a new constitution altogether.[30] Medvedev did not specify what these “targeted changes” will be, and the nature and degree of these changes are currently unclear.[31] Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin called on November 22 for Russia to codify an unspecified state ideology, which would legally require an amendment to the Russian constitution, as Article 13 of the Russian constitution forbids Russia from proclaiming a state ideology and commits the Russian state to recognize ideological diversity.[32] Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1 reported on December 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Russian Constitutional Court judges in the coming week. Putin may use this meeting to articulate to the judges or publicly announce the specific constitutional changes Medvedev was referencing.[33]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet with US government officials in Washington, D.C. on December 12. Zelensky will meet with US President Joe Biden and members of Congress, including House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson.[34] ISW will cover these events on December 12.

Imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s team reported that Navalny has gone missing as of December 11, just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2024 presidential election campaign announcement. Navalny’s Press Secretary Kira Yarmysh reported on December 11 that authorities at Russian penal colony no.6 in Vladimir Oblast stated that Navalny is no longer registered to the penal colony after preventing Navalny’s lawyers from visiting him on December 8 and 11.[35] Yarmysh reported that authorities at penal colony no.7, also in Vladimir Oblast, told Navalny’s lawyers that Navalny is also not at penal colony no 7, and Yarmysh stated that Navalny’s current location is unknown.[36] Yarmysh reported that Navalny was in ill health when his lawyers last visited him.[37] ISW has no independent confirmation of Yarmysh’s statements. Navalny’s reported disappearance comes just days after Putin’s December 8 presidential campaign announcement and the Navalny team’s December 9 announcement of a presidential campaign strategy, which several other Russian opposition figures endorsed.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on December 11 that Russia will conduct voting for the 2024 presidential election in occupied Ukraine, likely in an attempt to legitimize the Russian occupation and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 10 to 11.
  • The United Kingdom (UK) and Norway will lead a coalition aimed at providing short-term and long-term assistance to the Ukrainian Navy as the UK announced additional maritime aid provisions to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his intention to expand Russian naval capabilities in areas well beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe, likely in an effort to strengthen and expand Russia’s ability to threaten the West.
  • The Russian State Duma approved amendments allowing Russian courts to fine or assign compulsory work to foreigners who are convicted of crimes in Russia, likely as part of ongoing efforts to coerce migrants into Russian military service.
  • Russian National Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev announced on December 11 that the Russian government will make “targeted changes” to the Russian constitution.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 11 and advanced in some areas.
  • Ukrainian military officials indicated that Russian forces recently intensified mechanized offensive operations near Avdiivka.
  • A Russian law went into effect on December 11 likely aimed at preventing Russian conscripts from fleeing military service.
  • Russia continued to illegally deport children from occupied Ukraine to Russia under the guise of rehabilitation and medical programs as Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova continued attempts to dispute this practice.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 10, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 10, 2023, 6pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45 pm ET on December 10. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 11 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova emphasized that Russia's maximalist objectives in Ukraine have not changed, repeating the Kremlin’s demand for full Ukrainian political capitulation and Kyiv’s acceptance of Russia’s military and territorial demands rather than suggesting any willingness to negotiate seriously. In a written interview with AFP on December 9, Zakharova claimed that a "comprehensive, sustainable, and fair resolution" in Ukraine can only happen if the West stops "pumping up the Armed Forces of Ukraine with weapons" and that Ukraine surrenders Russia’s claimed Ukrainian territory and "withdraws its troops," presumably from Ukrainian territory Russia claims to have annexed.[1] Zakharova emphasized the Kremlin's longstanding claim that Russia invaded Ukraine for "de-militarization," "denazification," and to "ensure the rights of Russian-speaking citizens" in Ukraine.[2] The Kremlin has consistently used the term “denazification” as code for the removal of the elected government of Ukraine and its replacement by some government the Kremlin regards as acceptable—i.e., regime change.[3] “De-militarization” would obviously leave Ukraine permanently at Russia’s mercy. Zakharova's comments clearly highlight the fact that the initial goals of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as set out by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24, 2022, have not changed, and that Putin does not intend to end the war unless his maximalist objectives have been accomplished.[4] ISW continues to assess that Russia does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine in good faith and that negotiations on Russia's terms are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender.[5]

Zakharova's demand that Ukraine withdraw its troops from "Russian territory" as a necessary prerequisite for the resolution of the war suggests that Russia's maximalist objectives include controlling the entirety of the four oblasts it has illegally annexed parts of. Russian forces currently militarily control portions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts, but Russia formally (and illegally) annexed the entirety of these oblasts in September of 2022.[6] Zakharova's suggestion that Ukrainian forces must entirely withdraw from territory that Russia has claimed through its sham annexation suggests that the Russian demands include the surrender of additional Ukrainian territory that Russian forces do not currently control up to the administrative borders of the four occupied oblasts. Calls for Ukraine's capitulation under the current circumstances of Russian control of Ukrainian territory up to the current frontline are already unacceptable from the standpoint of vital Ukrainian and Western national security interests, as ISW has previously assessed.[7] The Russian demand for an even more expansive surrender of Ukrainian-held territory that Russian forces could likely conquer only at the cost of tremendous additional blood, treasure, and time, if they can do it at all, indicates that Russia’s aims far transcend keeping the territory Russian forces have already seized. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that Russian forces continue to conduct offensive operations in eastern Kharkiv Oblast, which Russia has not claimed to have annexed, suggesting that Russia’s territorial aims may be even more expansive than those Zakharova laid out.

The Kremlin continues to express an increasingly anti-Israel position in the Israel–Hamas war despite feigning interest in being a neutral arbitrator in the conflict. NOTE: A version of this text appears in ISW-CTP's December 10 Iran UpdateRussian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a telephone conversation on December 10, which reportedly lasted for 50 minutes and heavily focused on the Israel–Hamas war.[8] Putin reportedly noted that there is a “disastrous humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip” and stressed that avoiding consequences for the civilian population while countering terrorist threats is just as important as rejecting and condemning terrorism.[9] Putin’s comments are noteworthy in light of the devastation the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to the civilian population there and Russia’s deliberate efforts to inflict suffering on Ukrainian civilians by attacking energy infrastructure going into winter. Putin reportedly reiterated the Kremlin’s initial rhetorical position on the Israel–Hamas war by claiming that Russia is ready to alleviate civilian suffering and de-escalate the conflict.[10] Putin has increasingly shifted away from this more neutral rhetoric to a much more anti-Israel position in recent weeks, notably claiming that the war is leading to the “extermination of the civilian population in Palestine.”[11] Netanyahu reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with Russian positions towards Israel that Russian officials have articulated at the United Nations (UN) and other multilateral organizations.[12] Netanyahu also reportedly criticized Russia for its “dangerous cooperation” with Iran, notably following Putin’s meeting with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Moscow on December 7.[13] Putin likely aimed to assuage Israeli concerns about Russian support for Hamas and the deepening Russian–Iranian security partnership, but Israeli and Russian rhetoric surrounding the conversation suggests that Putin likely failed to do so.[14] The Kremlin’s increasingly non-neutral framing of the Israel–Hamas war signals potential increasing support for Iranian interests in the region and increased willingness to antagonize Israel.[15]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Latin America on December 10 likely in order to secure Latin American support for Ukraine. Zelensky met with Paraguayan President Santiago Peña Palacios, Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou, and Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa to discuss Latin America’s involvement in the Ukrainian Peace Formula and a future Ukraine–Latin America summit.[16] Zelensky thanked all the presidents for their vocal support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s full-scale invasion.[17] Zelensky noted Uruguay’s prior participation in the Ukrainian Peace Formula and expressed hope that Uruguay and other Latin American countries will participate in the Peace Formula’s fourth meeting of national security and foreign policy advisors in January 2024.[18] Zelensky stated that it is important for Ukraine to have the support of Latin America during its fight for freedom and democracy.[19]

Russian military authorities in Armenia are likely attempting to maintain military power over Armenia amidst the continued deterioration of Armenian-Russian relations. The international human rights organization Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s Armenian branch in Vanadzor reported on December 8 that Russian military police at the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, detained Russian citizen Dmitri Setrakov on December 6 or 7 for desertion.[20] The Russian 519th Military Investigation Department, located in Armenia, subsequently opened a criminal case against Setrakov for unauthorized abandonment of his unit.[21] Setrakov reportedly served as a contract soldier in the Russian military before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine but refused to participate in Russian operations in Ukraine and moved to Armenia.[22] Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor Head Artur Sakunts told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenian Service Radio Azatuntyun that Armenian law enforcement was not involved in Setrakov’s arrest and stated Russian law enforcement does not have the right to arrest people, including Russian citizens, on Armenian territory.[23] Sakunts called the arrest an “attack on the Armenian legal system and against Armenia as a sovereign state.”[24] Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor called on the Armenian government, Prosecutor General’s Office, and other law enforcement agencies to protect Setrakov under Armenian law and initiate criminal proceedings against Russian military police in Armenia to prevent Setrakov's extradition.[25] Armenian government officials have not responded to Setrakov’s arrest or Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor’s statement at the time of this publication. Russian authorities’ arrest of Setrakov may generate criticism of Russia’s military presence in Armenia at the 102nd Military Base despite recent statements from Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Mnatsakan Safaryan that Armenia is not considering leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or discussing the withdrawal of Russia’s 102nd Military Base.[26] Armenia has effectively abstained from participation in the CSTO by not attending four recent high-level CSTO events and exercises.[27]

Russian forces conducted a small series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on December 9 and 10. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses downed a Kh-29 missile and Shahed-136 drone on December 9 and that Russian forces struck Velykyi Burluk, Kharkiv Oblast with two S-300 missiles on December 10.[28] The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense (UK MOD) assessed on December 10 that Russian forces likely conducted the first missile strike series of the anticipated winter strikes campaign against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of December 7.[29] ISW has observed preparations for Russia’s anticipated winter strikes campaign since October 2023 and has also noted relatively larger drone and missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure so far in December before the night of December 7.[30] ISW is not currently prepared to forecast a start date of the anticipated winter strike campaign.

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova emphasized that Russia's maximalist objectives in Ukraine have not changed, repeating the Kremlin’s demand for full Ukrainian political capitulation and Kyiv’s acceptance of Russia’s military and territorial demands rather than suggesting any willingness to negotiate seriously.
  • Zakharova's demand that Ukraine withdraw its troops from "Russian territory" as a necessary prerequisite for the resolution of the war suggests that Russia's maximalist objectives include controlling the entirety of the four oblasts it has illegally annexed parts of.
  • The Kremlin continues to express an increasingly anti-Israel position in the Israel–Hamas war despite feigning interest in being a neutral arbitrator in the conflict.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Latin America on December 10 likely in order to secure Latin American support for Ukraine.
  • Russian military authorities in Armenia are likely attempting to maintain military power over Armenia amidst the continued deterioration of Armenian-Russian relations.
  • Russian forces conducted a small series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on December 9 and 10.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to criticize the purported Russian military ban on the use of civilian vehicles for military purposes.
  • Russian authorities continue long-term efforts to indoctrinate Ukrainian students in occupied Ukraine by directing funding to educational institutions in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 9, 2023

Click here to read the full report with maps

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 9, 2023, 6pm ET

Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024. Russian forces are currently pursuing offensive efforts along much of the frontline in Ukraine, particularly along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, near Bakhmut, and towards Avdiivka as Ukrainian military officials have repeatedly noted, and Russian forces are also conducting continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[1] The current pace of fighting across the entire frontline in Ukraine is generally consistent with ISW's standing assessment that Russian forces have been trying to regain the theater-level initiative since at least mid-November 2023.[2] Recent Ukrainian military official statements further suggest that Russian forces have succeeded in seizing the initiative along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, near Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis, while Ukrainian forces maintain the initiative in key areas of southern Ukraine, as evidenced by continued Ukrainian counterattacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast and the sustained, larger-than-usual Ukrainian presence in east bank Kherson Oblast.[3]

It is noteworthy that Russian forces have made a concerted effort to regain the theater-wide initiative and initiate offensive operations during the period of the most difficult weather conditions for mechanized offensive operations in the fall, supporting ISW's long-standing assessment that poor weather conditions may slow but do not stop combat along the frontline.[4] Russian forces likely chose to attempt to regain the initiative during such poor weather because Ukrainian forces had largely deprived Russian forces of the ability to regain the initiative and conduct offensives during the summer period of weather much more conducive to military operations.[5] Russian concern over the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive even preceding the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in early June 2023 kept Russian forces in southern Ukraine in the first half of 2023 on the defensive, depriving them of the ability to pursue offensive opportunities in the south in that period.

Over the past several weeks, Russian forces have continued offensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border despite snow, frost, and mud in eastern Ukraine, and have conducted continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast despite muddy conditions and strong winds throughout most of the south.[6] Large areas of the frontline, particularly in northeastern and eastern Ukraine, are now transitioning into a period of hard freeze as the temperatures drop and the muddy ground freezes over, which will facilitate mechanized operations for both Russian and Ukrainian forces. The fact that Russian forces sought to seize the initiative and pursue offensive operations in early to mid-November 2023, during the most challenging weather conditions of the year, rather than waiting for the hard freeze suggests that Russian forces are under pressure to fully seize and maintain the initiative into the early months of 2024 prior to the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential elections. The Russian command may also have sought to cause the Ukrainian counteroffensive to culminate or to ensure that Ukrainian forces would be unable to resume it early this winter. The timing of events suggests, however, that Kyiv had decided to significantly scale back its counteroffensive operations of its own accord before the Russian offensive operations began.

It remains unclear whether current Russian offensive operations will set conditions for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the near future, however. Difficult weather conditions have likely slowed the rate of Russian advance along much of the frontline, increased Russian losses, and further damaged the morale of Russian soldiers. The rate of Russian losses along the entire frontline in Ukraine appear to be close to the rate of Russian force generation, as ISW has previously observed, likely indicating that Russian forces are not amassing uncommitted reserves in preparation for more extensive winter operations.[7]

Ukrainian forces, by contrast, appear to be using this period of challenging weather and ongoing Russian offensive operations to establish and consolidate defensive positions along the parts of the frontline where they have not been conducting counteroffensive operations, thereby conserving manpower and resources for future offensive efforts. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi recently signaled Ukraine's current intent to increase fortifications and defensive capabilities throughout the theater, particularly in the aforementioned areas of the front where Russian forces are pursuing offensive operations.[8] The establishment of Ukrainian tactical defensive positions will most likely strengthen Ukrainian forces' capabilities to defend against ongoing and costly Russian attacks with fewer forces of their own and/or while suffering fewer casualties in the defense. Furthermore, the establishment of Ukrainian tactical defensive positions may become a springboard for future Ukrainian offensive operations where and when Ukrainian forces choose to re-initiate offensive operations. The establishment of local defensive positions in areas Kyiv is not prioritizing for current or imminent counteroffensive operations is a prudent step and not an indication that Ukraine has abandoned all plans for future counteroffensives.

The Kremlin-backed United Russia party is spearheading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nomination as an independent candidate in the 2024 Russian presidential election, and Putin’s re-election campaign initiatives group includes people with a variety of backgrounds and constituencies to create the image of widespread support for Putin’s presidency. Putin’s re-election campaign initiatives group includes United Russia Secretary Andrei Turchak, Young Guard of United Russia Chairperson Anton Demidov, and other figures from the military, arts, medicine, and sports.[9] Turchak stated that the United Russia party and its All-Russian Popular Front social movement will organize the procedures necessary to nominate Putin, including collecting signatures and conducting his election campaign.[10] The re-election campaign initiatives group also includes Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Sparta” Battalion Commander and Speaker of the DNR Parliament Artem Zhoga, whom the Kremlin portrayed on December 8 in Putin’s presidential bid announcement as responsible for prompting Putin to run for re-election.[11] A Russian insider source claimed on December 9 that the Kremlin is considering Zhoga for several high political positions following the 2024 elections, including the Deputy Speaker of the Russian State Duma or the head of the DNR should current DNR Head Denis Pushilin resign or transfer to another position.[12] Zhoga’s rapid political advancement, if it occurs, may create tension in the Pushilin-Putin relationship, which may in turn impact aspects of Russia's occupation of Donetsk Oblast during the election cycle.

Multiple Russian political opposition figures have reportedly developed a common campaign strategy for the upcoming presidential campaign cycle aimed at compelling Putin to address topics he seeks to avoid and revealing the breadth of Russian opposition against Putin. Imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s team announced the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s (FBK) election strategy on December 7, which involves calling on Russians to advocate against Putin en masse for 100 days leading up to the election and voting for any candidate except for Putin.[13] Former FBK Chairperson Leonid Volkov noted in a statement to opposition outlet Meduza on December 9 that many outlets are misreporting the FBK’s strategy as simply voting against Putin and stated that the vote alone will not make an impact.[14] Volkov stated that the FBK aims to force Putin to confront difficult topics that he seeks to avoid, such as the Russian war in Ukraine, and noted that these topics are Putin’s “weak point.” Volkov noted that the FBK does not expect to oust Putin from office through this campaign strategy. Russian politician and opposition figure Maxim Kats stated to Meduza on December 9 that he approves of the FBK’s strategy and that the next step in this strategy is to develop a united campaign headquarters to combine resources and that many opposition entities have agreed to join and expressed hope that the FBK will also join.[15] Kats stated that this campaign aims to galvanize enough Russians to vote against Putin that they will protest when the Central Election Commission (CEC) falsifies votes in favor of Putin, ultimately revealing to the world, Russian elites, and even Putin himself how many Russians actually oppose Putin. Russian opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed support for the FBK’s strategy on December 7, encouraged Russians to boycott voting or cast protest votes as part of a “No to Putin” strategy, and stated that these efforts aim to show Putin that Russians are “tired” of him.[16] 

Select Russian milbloggers accused the Armenian government of promoting Russophobic policies that inspire violence against Russian media figures in Armenia on December 9.  Russian milbloggers seized on footage of an Armenian man assaulting a Russian social media figure in Yerevan on December 9, claiming that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “Russophobic policies” and “dehumanization” of Armenian men are inspiring violence against Russians.[17] One milblogger claimed that ethnic Armenians living in Russia should consider the dangers of Pashinyan’s policies and warned against the possibility of war between Russia and Armenia.[18] Russian sources, including ultranationalist milbloggers and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), previously expressed anger and accused Armenia of targeting Russians following the detention of a pro-Russian blogger in Armenia in September 2023.[19] Perceived crimes against Russian public figures may become a more prominent point of tension within the Russian ultranationalist information space amid the increasingly deteriorating Russia-Armenia relationship.[20]

The European Union (EU) will allow member states to restrict Russian gas imports in an effort to restrain Russian petroleum revenues. The EU Council and Parliament reached a provisional agreement regarding hydrogen and gas market regulations on December 8 that allows EU states to restrict imports of natural gas, including liquified natural gas (LNG), from Russia or Belarus.[21] Bloomberg reported on December 6 that Russia’s net oil revenue in October 2023 was the highest since May 2022 and that Russia’s domestic oil tanker fleet and “shadow fleet” allowed Russian officials to control exports and increase prices despite the G7’s and EU‘s price cap on Russian petroleum products in established December 2022.[22]

A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian decoy missiles failed to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses during December 8 missile strikes against Kyiv City. The milblogger claimed on December 9 that Russian forces used decoy Kh-55 cruise missiles, which closely resemble the modernized Kh-101 missile variant, to confuse Ukrainian air defenses.[23] The milblogger claimed that Russia’s use of decoy missiles explains why Russian missiles did not successfully strike any targets in Kyiv City.[24] The milblogger complained that it is “virtually impossible” for Russian forces to launch enough decoy Kh-55 missiles to overload Ukrainian air defenses due to Russia’s limited number of Tu-95 and T-160 bombers.[25] Russian forces previously used Kh-55 missiles along other missile and drone variants as decoys to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and compensate for dwindling high-precision missile stockpiles.[26] Ukrainian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Ukrainian forces do not have enough air defense systems to cover all areas of Ukraine to the same degree that Ukrainian air defenses currently protect Kyiv.[27] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets reported on December 8 that Russian forces are conducting increased aerial reconnaissance prior to launching large-scale long-range strikes against targets in eastern and southern Ukraine.[28] Mashovets stated that Russian forces conducted seven reconnaissance flights ahead of the December 8 missile strikes, a notable increase compared to one to two flights on the previous days.[29] Russian forces are likely attempting to counter Ukraine’s limited air defenses ahead of an anticipated large-scale winter strike campaign.[30]

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov highlighted Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts and preparations for the arrival of F-16 fighter jets in the near future on December 9. Umerov met with US Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General Robert Storch on December 9 and stated that Ukraine has already begun to work with the Office of the Inspector General on a system to control and prevent violations and crimes involving American security assistance to Ukraine.[31] Umerov also announced on December 9 that Ukraine will soon receive F-16 fighter jets and that Ukraine is already preparing infrastructure for the jets’ arrival.[32]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024.
  • Ukrainian forces, by contrast, appear to be using this period of challenging weather and ongoing Russian offensive operations to establish and consolidate defensive positions along the parts of the frontline where they have not been conducting counteroffensive operations, thereby conserving manpower and resources for future offensive efforts.
  • The establishment of local defensive positions in areas Kyiv is not prioritizing for current or imminent counteroffensive operations is a prudent step and not an indication that Ukraine has abandoned all plans for future counteroffensives.
  • The Kremlin-backed United Russia party is spearheading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nomination as an independent candidate in the 2024 Russian presidential election, and Putin’s re-election campaign initiatives group includes people with a variety of backgrounds and constituencies to create the image of widespread support for Putin’s presidency.
  • Multiple Russian political opposition figures have reportedly developed a common campaign strategy for the upcoming presidential campaign cycle aimed at compelling Putin to address topics he seeks to avoid and revealing the breadth of Russian opposition against Putin.
  • Select Russian milbloggers accused the Armenian government of promoting Russophobic policies that inspire violence against Russian media figures in Armenia on December 9.
  • The European Union (EU) will allow member states to restrict Russian gas imports in an effort to restrain Russian petroleum revenues.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian decoy missiles failed to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses during December 8 missile strikes against Kyiv City.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov highlighted Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts and preparations for the arrival of F-16 fighter jets in the near future on December 9.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Kreminna.
  • Relatives of mobilized Russian military personnel continued to appeal to the Russian government for the return of their relatives from the war in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Culture continues to orchestrate efforts to Russify Ukrainian children and facilitate their deportation to Russia.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 8, 2023

Click to read the full report with maps

Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 8, 2023, 7:30pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:30pm ET on December 8. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 9 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his presidential bid for 2024 on December 8 in an obviously staged effort to seem that he was running at the request of Russian servicemen. Putin announced that he would run for president in the 2024 elections in conversation with Russian military personnel after the presentation of Gold Star medals in the Grand Kremlin Palace on December 8.[1] Putin quietly announced his presidential campaign after Artem Zhoga, commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Sparta” Battalion, claimed that the people of Donbas want him to run in the elections.[2] Zhoga specifically emphasized that Russia needs Putin as president to integrate occupied Ukrainian territories and restore peace. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov absurdly claimed that Putin’s announcement was ”completely spontaneous” and was ”a reaction to people’s appeal.”[3] Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matvienko similarly framed Putin’s announcement as a response to requests from Russians.[4] Russian State Duma Deputy Chairman of the Federal Assembly Sergey Neverov stated that the leading United Russia party ”unconditionally supports” Putin’s nomination as a presidential candidate and ”will do everything for his victory.”[5] Russian ”Vostok” Battalion Commander Alexander Khodakovsky responded to Putin’s announcement, claiming that although the results of the elections are already known, the ”process needs to be arranged appropriately.”[6] Khodakovsky claimed that new Russian political energies are emerging - implying that some Russians want to oust Putin - but that Russia does not need such “political games“ during wartime. One Russian milblogger claimed that Russians are more concerned about the rising price of eggs than Putin’s announcement.[7]

Putin’s announcement of his presidential bid in a military setting indicates that his campaign may focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine more than ISW previously assessed, although the extent of this focus is unclear at this time. ISW previously assessed that Putin’s presidential campaign would likely not focus on the war in Ukraine and instead would focus on domestic stability and criticisms of the West.[8] Putin’s presidential bid announcement at a ceremony rewarding Russian military personnel fighting in Ukraine in a conversation with a DNR combatant suggests that the war in Ukraine may play a more significant role in his campaign strategy. These staged circumstances were possibly directed a very important constituency: Russians directly affected by the war in Ukraine including the roughly 2.2 million military personnel the Kremlin claims are currently under arms, personnel previously wounded, and their relatives (as well as relatives of those killed in action).[9] Relatives of Russian mobilized personnel have recently appealed to the Russian government and military for the release of their relatives from military service and for better treatment of mobilized servicemen in the Russian military, and the Kremlin has repeatedly attempted to censor these groups.[10] These Kremlin censorship attempts suggest that the Kremlin is concerned about the possible negative effects of these protests on Putin‘s image during the presidential campaign.[11] The Kremlin may be using Putin’s military-focused announcement in an attempt to convince this large group of voters that the Russian military writ large supports Putin. Putin’s announcement may alternatively aim to demonstrate that he has the support of the Russian military in order to make any further discussion of the war in Ukraine during his campaign unnecessary. The Kremlin may have tasked the Russian military with capturing Avdiivka, and possibly Kupyansk, before the March 2024 elections, and this exhibition of the military’s support for Putin’s candidacy is possibly meant as a hedging strategy should the Russian military be unable to meet these given deadlines.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 7 to 8. The Ukrainian Air Force reported on December 8 that Russian forces launched seven Shahed-131/136 drones and six S-300 missiles on the night of December 7 to 8 and 19 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles against Kyiv Oblast and infrastructure facilities in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on the morning of December 8.[12] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces also launched an Iskander-M ballistic missile against an unspecified target.[13] Ukrainian forces downed five Shahed drones and 14 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles.[14] Ukrainian Kharkiv Oblast Head Oleh Synehubov reported that Russian S-300 missiles struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv City, Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck targets in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[15] Kyiv City Military Administration Head Serhii Popko stated that the December 8 strike was the first Russian cruise missile strike launched from a Tu-95MC strategic bomber against Kyiv City since September 20, 2023 -- 79 days ago.[16] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat stated that Russia has ”somewhat restored” its cruise missile stockpiles by not launching large-scale strikes during the fall months.[17]

Imprisoned ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin forecasted on December 7 that there will be “no agreement” between Russia and Ukraine to end the war and ”no freeze” of the frontlines in Ukraine, marking a notable shift from Girkin’s prior claims that the Russian military intended to “freeze the frontline” until after the Russian presidential elections. Girkin stated during an interview with Russian news outlet Baza published on December 7 that the situation in Ukraine has ”radically worsened” and that Russia has entered a period of ”acute instability.”[18] Girkin added that Russia’s tactical successes during summer and fall 2023 do not “eliminate or balance” the facts that the war is entering its 21st month and that there is no end in sight. Girkin’s interview with Baza was almost certainly approved by the Kremlin, and the Kremlin thus likely put constraints on what Girkin could and could not say about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other topics such as his criminal case, his patron within the siloviki, and the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Girkin claimed in a letter on October 9 that he was ”99 percent” certain that the Kremlin will decide to ”freeze the frontline” until after the 2024 presidential elections and that Russian forces would continue conducting a strategic defense on the existing frontline.[19] Girkin has repeatedly claimed and expressed great concern that there is a faction within the Kremlin in favor of freezing the current frontline in Ukraine competing with another faction in favor of continued Russian offensive operations for influence over Russian President Vladimir Putin.[20] 

Girkin may be adjusting his forecast in response to private and/or public indications that Putin has sided with the latter faction. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on November 27 that the West is trying to “freeze” the war in Ukraine to rearm Ukraine for future attacks against Russia and advocated against negotiations, a likely Kremlin-sanctioned acknowledgement of the prolonged Russian war effort.[21] Lavrov also did not promote previous Kremlin information operations feigning interest in negotiations with Ukraine and freezing the war during his speech at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Council of Foreign Ministers on November 30.[22] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin may have strategically allowed Russian opposition party Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky to advocate for a ceasefire in Ukraine during an interview on December 5 to deter factions within the Kremlin that may want to freeze the frontline in Ukraine from publicly or privately voicing their opinions.[23] Girkin’s adjusted forecast is yet another indication that Putin retains his maximalist objectives and is unlikely to enter peace negotiations with Ukraine, except to buy time to reconstitute for future offensive operations.[24]

The Russian military has reportedly banned the use of civilian cars for military purposes likely as part of ongoing formalization efforts, sparking criticisms from Russian milbloggers. Russian milbloggers and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Deputy Information Minister Daniil Bezsonov circulated an image of a putative Russian military order stating that the Russian military command prohibited Russian forces from using personal and humanitarian vehicles and that any vehicles from civilian government entities need to be logged on a military unit’s balance sheet.[25] The order also allegedly bans Russian soldiers who are not mechanics or who lack driver’s licenses from driving the vehicles. This measure, if reports are accurate, likely supports Russian formalization efforts to centralize administrative control over Russian military supplies, especially those not provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). This measure would also impact grassroots Russian efforts to provide Russian frontline soldiers with supplies, including civilian or dual-use vehicles.

The Russian information space largely criticized these alleged reforms as unnecessary and harmful. Bezsonov and Russian milbloggers claimed that this order will hinder Russian military movement, supplies and ammunition deliveries, and casualty evacuations, and will thus ultimately demoralize military personnel. Bezsonov claimed that this order is unreasonable because some DNR personnel have been trying to register their cars with the Russian MoD for a year and instead called for the Russian military to eliminate bureaucracy to make solders’ lives easier.[26] A milblogger claimed that Russian military personnel do not want to register their cars with the Russian military because the command will not allow a soldier to deregister a car and will then commandeer the car as MoD property.[27] Russian milbloggers have resisted prior Russian formalization efforts that impose greater rules on Russian military personnel, including requiring soldiers to register personal cars with their units and establishing grooming standards about beards.[28]

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is expanding its ability to guard Russian officials and entities abroad likely to better surveil Russian and international actors outside of Russian territory. The FSB published amendments to its regulations on December 8 that allow it to offer protection services for various Russian representative offices and Russian companies in addition to the Russian diplomatic institutions to which the FSB already offers service.[29] The FSB would guard such entities, which could include trade and commercial entities, through a mutual agreement and at the entity’s expense.[30] The FSB claimed to have made the amendments in response to the “growing number of protests and demonstrations” in front of Russian government and business offices abroad.[31]

Russian occupation officials continue efforts to artificially alter the demographic composition of occupied Ukraine. The Ukrainian Helsinki Union on Human Rights – a union composed of 26 human rights-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – reported on December 6 that Russian authorities have resettled up to 800,000 Russian citizens in occupied Crimea and forced around 100,000 Ukrainian citizens to leave Crimea since 2014.[32] The Union reported that Russian authorities relied on policies such as preferential mortgage lending, relocation of Russian officials and their families, expulsion of Ukrainian citizens to mainland Ukraine, and ”encouragement” of Ukrainian citizens to move to Russia to free up residences in Crimea and encourage Russian citizens to resettle.[33] The Union reported that Russian occupation authorities in other areas are implementing similar repopulation efforts. The Union reported that Russian authorities are currently struggling to encourage Russians to resettle in occupied Crimea due to the high intensity of hostilities near Crimea, however.[34]

Ukraine’s partners continued to announce military and financial aid packages to Ukraine recently. Germany announced on December 7 that it delivered aid to Ukraine, including 1,750 155mm artillery shells, 10 reconnaissance drones, 70 grenade launchers, and 100,000 first aid kits.[35] Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also pledged $4.5 billion to Ukraine, including $1 billion in humanitarian aid to support Ukraine’s recovery efforts and $3.5 billion to fund credit guarantees for World Bank loans to Ukraine.[36]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his presidential bid for 2024 on December 8 in an obviously staged effort to seem that he was running at the request of Russian servicemen.
  • Putin’s announcement of his presidential bid in a military setting indicates that his campaign may focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine more than ISW previously assessed, although the extent of this focus is unclear at this time.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 7 to 8.
  • Imprisoned ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin forecasted on December 7 that there will be “no agreement” between Russia and Ukraine to end the war and ”no freeze” of the frontlines in Ukraine, marking a notable shift from Girkin’s prior claims that the Russian military intended to “freeze the frontline” until after the Russian presidential elections.
  • The Russian military has reportedly banned the use of civilian cars for military purposes likely as part of ongoing formalization efforts, sparking criticisms from Russian milbloggers.
  • The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is expanding its ability to guard Russian officials and entities abroad likely to better surveil Russian and international actors outside of Russian territory.
  • Russian occupation officials continue efforts to artificially alter the demographic composition of occupied Ukraine.
  • Ukraine’s partners continued to announce military and financial aid packages to Ukraine recently.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Udmurt Republic Head Alexander Brechalov announced on December 7 that the region formed and will soon deploy four new units to fight in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 8 that Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainian children’s connection to Ukraine and that swift intervention is necessary to maintain this connection during a speech at the first meeting of the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children.

We do not report in detail on Russian war crimes because these 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 the Ukrainian population and specifically on combat in Ukrainian urban areas. We utterly condemn Russian violations of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity even though we do not describe them in these reports.

  • Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine (comprised of two subordinate main efforts)
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and encircle northern Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis
  • Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
  • Russian Technological Adaptations
  • Activities in Russian-occupied areas
  • Russian Information Operations and Narratives

Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Luhansk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and northern Donetsk Oblast)

Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on December 8 and reportedly made unconfirmed advances. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced east of Petropavlivka (7km east of Kupyansk) and near Synkivka (9km east of Kupyansk) and Bilohorivka (13km south of Kreminna), although ISW has not observed visual evidence of these claims.[37] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks in the Kupyansk direction near Synkivka and Ivanivka (20km southwest of Kupyansk) and in the Lyman direction near Spirne (25km south of Kreminna) and Terny (17km west of Kreminna).[38] Ukrainian Ground Forces Command Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated that Russian forces are also attacking near Vesele (31km south of Kreminna).[39] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that Russian forces intensified offensive operations in the Lyman direction.[40] Mashovets stated that elements of the Russian 283rd Motorized Rifle Regiment (144th Motorized Rifle Division, 20th Combined Arms Army, Western Military District) unsuccessfully attacked east of Terny; elements of the 228th Motorized Rifle Regiment (90th Guards Tank Division, Central Military District) unsuccessfully attacked between Dibrova (6km southwest of Kreminna) and Kuzmyne (3km southwest of Kreminna); and elements of the 7th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] Army Corps) unsuccessfully attacked Bilohorivka from the southeast.[41] One Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are also attacking from Dibrova towards Yampolivka (17km west of Kreminna) and near the Serebryanske forest area (10km southwest of Kreminna).[42]

Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces unsuccessfully attacked along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on December 8. Russian Western Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Sergei Zybinsky claimed on December 8 that Russian forces repelled five Ukrainian attacks near Synkivka and Lake Lyman northwest of Synkivka, and Russian Central Grouping of Forces Spokesperson Alexander Savchuk claimed that Russian forces repelled two Ukrainian attacks near Yampolivka.[43]

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)

Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations near Bakhmut but did not make any claimed or confirmed advances on December 8. The Ukrainian General Stuff reported on December 8 that Ukrainian forces continued assault operations south of Bakhmut.[44] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces unsuccessfully attacked in the Bakhmut direction near Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut) on December 8.[45]

Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Bakhmut but did not make any confirmed advances on December 8. Russian milbloggers claimed on December 7 and 8 that Russian forces advanced to the eastern outskirts of Bohdanivka (6km northwest of Bakhmut); south of the Berkhivka reservoir (about 2km northwest of Bakhmut) and Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut); in the heights north of Klishchiivka; and towards Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut).[46] The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 8 that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Bohdanivka, Ivanivske, Klishchiivka, and Andriivka (10km southwest of Bakhmut).[47] A Russian milblogger claimed that elements of the Russian 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps [AC], Northern Fleet [NF]) are operating near Bohdanivka.[48] Another Russian milblogger claimed that elements of the Russian 98th Guards Airborne (VDV) Division and the 200th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade are operating near the Berkhivka reservoir.[49] Russian sources claimed that elements of the Russian 346th Spetsnaz Brigade (Russian General Staff Main Directorate [GRU]), 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] Army Corps), and Chechen ”Akhmat” Spetsnaz forces are operating near Klishchiivka.[50]

Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Avdiivka and made a confirmed advance on December 8. Geolocated footage published on December 8 indicates that Russian forces advanced to the sewage treatment plant south of Krasnohorivka (5km northwest of Avdiivka).[51] Russian sources claimed on December 7 and 8 that Russian forces advanced towards Novokalynove (13km northeast of Avdiivka), to the outskirts of the Avdiivka Coke Plant northwest of Avdiivka, and in the industrial zone southeast of Avdiivka.[52] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 8 that Russian forces are consolidating positions in Stepove (3km northwest of Avdiivka) and are clearing the settlement, whereas another Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces maintain positions on the eastern outskirts of Stepove.[53] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked east of Novobakhmutivka (9km northwest of Avdiivka); south of Tonenke (5km west of Avdiivka); and near Stepove, Avdiivka, and Pervomaiske (10km southwest of Avdiivka).[54] Russian sources claimed on December 7 and 8 that Russian forces also attacked north of the Avdiivka Coke Plant and near Ocheretyne (15km northwest of Avdiivka), Novokalynove, Sieverne (6km west of Avdiivka, and the industrial zone.[55] A Russian milblogger claimed on December 8 that positional battles are ongoing in the Vodyane (7km southwest of Avdiivka) and Tonenke directions.[56] A Russian source claimed that difficult weather conditions have slowed the tempo of both Russian and Ukrainian operations near Avdiivka.[57] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun stated that there are more than 40,000 Russian troops fighting in the Avdiivka direction and that Russian forces are redeploying reserves from Storm-Z units and mobilized personnel who lack training and provisions to the area in order to make up for losses.[58]

A Russian source claimed that Ukrainian forces unsuccessfully attacked west of Donetsk City in Marinka (on the western outskirts of Donetsk City) on December 8.[59]

Russian forces conducted offensive operations west and southwest of Donetsk City but did not make any claimed or confirmed advances on December 8. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Krasnohorivka (directly west of Donetsk City), Marinka, Pobieda (5km southwest of Donetsk City), and Novomykhailivka (10km southwest of Donetsk City).[60] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces do not completely control Marinka and that fighting is ongoing in the northwestern part of the settlement.[61]

Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)

Russian forces reportedly continued limited offensive operations in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area on December 8 but did not advance. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces attacked near Staromayorske and Urozhaine (both about 9km south of Velyka Novosilka) as well as Zolota Nyva (11km southeast of Velyka Novosilka).[62] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces did not conduct any ground attacks in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, however.[63]

Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 8 but did not make any claimed or confirmed advances. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks near Robotyne, west of Verbove (9km east of Robotyne), and west of Novofedorivka (21km southeast of Orikhiv).[64] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces also repelled Ukrainian attacks near Nesteryanka (11km southwest of Orikhiv) and Uspenivka (11km southeast of Orikhiv).[65] Some Russian milbloggers claimed that poor weather conditions prevent both Russian and Ukrainian forces from making significant advances or operating large reconnaissance drones in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[66]Russian forces continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 8 and recently advanced. Geolocated footage published on December 7 shows that Russian forces made an advance south of Robotyne towards Novoprokopivka (2km south of Robotyne).[67] The Ukrainian General Staff reported on December 8 that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian ground attacks near Robotyne and west of Verbove.[68] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that Russian forces are taking advantage of the reduced tempo of Ukrainian offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast to reorganize their force grouping and create operational reserves but noted that Russian forces currently cannot allocate significant resources to these reserves.[69]

Ukrainian forces continued ground operations in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast on December 8. Russian milbloggers claimed that fighting continues in Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River) and that Ukrainian forces have increased the tempo of operations in the area.[70] A milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces temporarily advanced south of Krynky before Russian artillery fire forced Ukrainian forces back again on December 7-8.[71] The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces thwarted multiple Ukrainian attempts to land sabotage and reconnaissance groups on the east bank between December 3 and 8.[72] Other milbloggers claimed on December 8 that Russian forces are increasing the intensity of glide bomb strikes against Ukrainian positions in this area.[73] Another milblogger claimed that Russian forces have changed defensive tactics in east bank Kherson Oblast and are now trying to exhaust Ukrainian personnel on the east bank with heavy air and artillery strikes.[74]

Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)

Udmurt Republic Head Alexander Brechalov announced on December 7 that the region formed and will soon deploy four new units to fight in Ukraine.[75] Brechalov stated that the newly-formed ”Yevgeniy Dragunov” Separate Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, the “Cheptsa” Anti-Aircraft Missile Division, the “Varmun” Motorized Battalion, and the ”Kama” Air Assault (VDV) Division will soon deploy to Ukraine. Brechalov claimed that Udmurt residents staffed these new units after signing unspecified contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). These units appear to be Russian irregular formations with unknown strengths that likely do not correspond with the doctrinal end strengths of their reported echelons. Authorities in the Republic of Udmurtia are likely recruiting local volunteers to staff these units to immediately reinforce the frontlines in Ukraine.

The Russian MoD claimed that Russia further simplified the procedure for issuing combat veteran certificates for participants of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Russian MoD announced on December 8 that Russian fighters will no longer need to apply to receive their veteran certificates because the MoD will automatically issue these certificates based on the already-available information about the combatant.[76] The simplification of this procedure may be part of an ongoing Russian formalization effort that seeks to reestablish Russia’s administrative control over irregular forces involved in the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russian regional authorities continued efforts to forcibly coerce migrants into military service. Russian opposition and local outlets reported that Udmurt military police raided a migrant community in Izhevsk and reportedly will force migrant men aged 18 to 27 into military service.[77] Udmurt officials are reportedly offering to allow migrant men older than 27 to sign a contract with the Russian MoD to fight in Ukraine. Vladivostok City officials reportedly conducted a similar raid on migrant taxi drivers and issued summonses to the military registration office to 10 detained migrants.[78] BBC’s Russia service reported that Russian officials also recruited detained migrants who attempted to cross the Russian-Finnish border to fight in Ukraine before returning some of these migrants to the Republic of Karelia from Rostov Oblast.[79] BBC’s Russia service reported that some migrants refused to deploy to Ukraine after realizing that Russia intended to commit them to battle in exchange for dropping their deportation cases.

Russia reportedly continues to defend its border with Ukraine with a limited number of conscripts. A Russian conscript told Russian outlet Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) that there are almost no Russian border guards defending the Russian state border in Bryansk Oblast.[80] The conscript claimed that at least 10 conscripts had died as a result of shelling on the Russian-Ukrainian state border.

Russian Technological Adaptations (Russian objective: Introduce technological innovations to optimize systems for use in Ukraine)

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Russian forces are trying to copy Ukrainian naval drones that have been targeting the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF).[81] GUR Representative Andriy Yusov stated that Russian forces are collecting fragments of Ukrainian naval drones and are trying to improve their drone production.

A Ukrainian head of a volunteer organization stated that Russia is actively relying on automatic optical drone navigation and that Ukraine does not have a systematic way to counteract Russian automation.[82] Head of the Ukrainian ”Victory Drones” volunteer initiative (and director of the Aerointelligence Support Center) Maria Berlinskaya stated that Russia is increasingly trying to automate its drones, shift towards automatic optical navigation, and move to launching ”drone swarms” to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces have launched 3,083 Shahed 136/131 drones since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine based on data published by the Ukrainian General Staff.[83]

A Russian milblogger amplified footage purporting to show that Russian forces installed the first sets of “Soltik-BL” DMR AES256 radio communications systems for armored vehicles, which will allow these vehicles to receive a publicly available standard connection with relay capability.[84] The milblogger specified that volunteers produced the “Soltik-BL” DMR AES256 systems.

Radio Liberty’s Schemes project found that Russian security services spied on Ukrainian state and private infrastructures since 2014 via thousands of security cameras that operated on Russian “TRASSIR” software belonging to the Russian “DSSL” company.[85] Schemes found that the companies storing information from these security cameras are linked to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Activities in Russian-occupied areas (Russian objective: Consolidate administrative control of annexed areas; forcibly integrate Ukrainian citizens into Russian sociocultural, economic, military, and governance systems)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 8 that Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainian children’s connection to Ukraine and that swift intervention is necessary to maintain children's Ukrainian identity during a speech at the first meeting of the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children.[86] Zelensky stated that forced deportation is one of Russia‘s most ”cynical” war crimes and that Russian authorities are teaching children lies about Ukraine and the war. Zelensky noted that Russia’s crimes against Ukrainian children and families are ”organized” efforts to erase the national identity of young Ukrainians. ISW continues to assess that Russia’s forced deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children likely constitutes a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[87]

Russian state news wire RIA Novosti reported that Russian officials detained Russian “Donbas Railways” Director Vladimir Kabatsyi in Donetsk City on December 8 under suspicion of abuse of power.[88]

Russian Information Operations and Narratives

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Russia will not negotiate with Ukraine on Ukraine’s terms in response to US Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer on December 8. Finer stated that the US wants to position Ukraine in such a way that Russia will need to decide to negotiate on Ukraine’s terms or confront a stronger Ukraine by the end of 2024.[89] Peskov responded by stating that Finer’s comments are ”absolutely unrealistic.”[90] The Kremlin consistently signals that it is not interested in any negotiations that do not offer Russia full capture of Ukraine.

A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger criticized the Russian government for missing an opportunity to provide Kyrgyzstan with Russian school textbooks to further spread Russian ideology in Central Asia.[91] The milblogger commented on Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan Akylbek Japarov’s announcement that Kyrgyzstan will replace Soviet STEM and hard sciences textbooks with textbooks from Oxford and Cambridge.[92] The milblogger claimed that Kyrgyzstan is now increasingly advocating for the Kyrgyz language and national identity and noted that Russian officials’ inaction allowed the United Kingdom to occupy an ”extremely important niche” in the Kyrgyz education sphere.[93]

Significant activity in Belarus (Russian efforts to increase its military presence in Belarus and further integrate Belarus into Russian-favorable frameworks and Wagner Group activity in Belarus)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on December 8.[94] Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Al Nahyan on December 6.[95]

Belarusian military officials met with Egyptian officials on December 8 during the International Exhibit for Defense and Military Industries (EDEX-2023) in Cairo, Egypt. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that a Belarusian military delegation, headed by Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense Forces Commander Major General Andrei Lukyanovich, met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egyptian Air Force Commander Air Marshal Mahmoud Foaad Abd El-Gawad, and Egyptian Air Defense Forces Commander Lieutenant General Mohamed Hegazy Abdul Mawgoud in Egypt to discuss bilateral military cooperation and the modernization of air defense systems.[96]

Belarusian military officials, including Assistant to the Belarusian Defense Minister for International Military Cooperation Colonel Valery Revenko, attended the Commonwealth of Independent State’s (CIS) Coordination Meeting on International Military Cooperation in Moscow on December 8.[97]

A Russian milblogger claiming to be affiliated with the Wagner Group amplified footage on December 7 claiming to show elements of the Belarusian “Typhoon” Spetsnaz Detachment of military unit 5522 training with Wagner instructors.[98]

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.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 7, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 7, 2023, 6:45pm ET

Russian forces may be suffering losses along the entire front in Ukraine at a rate close to the rate at which Russia is currently generating new forces. Ukrainian Ground Forces Command Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated on December 7 that Russian forces lost almost 11,000 personnel (presumably killed or rendered hors de combat by injury) in the Kupyansk, Lyman, and Bakhmut directions in November 2023.[1] The operational tempo in the Kupyansk, Lyman, and Bakhmut directions is currently lower than in the Avdiivka direction. These reported losses suggest that the Russian casualty rate in the Avdiivka area may be even higher given the higher operational tempo there.  Ukrainian officials previously reported that Russian forces lost 5,000 personnel killed and wounded near Avdiivka and Marinka (west of Donetsk City) between October 10 and 26, when Russian forces launched two waves of heavily mechanized assaults to capture Avdiivka.[2] Russian forces are currently conducting mass infantry-led assaults to capture Avdiivka in an apparent effort to conserve armored vehicles despite the risk of even greater manpower losses.[3] Ukrainian officials have notably indicated that Russian defensive efforts are resulting in significant casualties as well, with Ukrainian forces reportedly killing over 1,200 Russian personnel and wounding over 2,200 on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast between October 17 and November 17.[4] Ukrainian forces continue counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and are likely inflicting similar losses on defending Russian forces in this sector of the front. ISW cannot confirm Ukrainian-provided Russian casualty figures, and reliable figures for Russian casualties in Ukraine are not available. If the Ukrainian-provided figures are generally accurate they suggest that Russian operations in Ukraine are highly attritional overall and that high Russian losses are not just the result of the costliest Russian offensive operations near Avdiivka.

Russian and Ukrainian officials have reported that Russian crypto-mobilization efforts produce roughly 20,000 to 40,000 personnel a month, a rate that could be lower than Russia’s current casualty rate in Ukraine.[5] Ukrainian officials reported in spring and summer 2023 that Russia recruits roughly 20,000 personnel through crypto-mobilization efforts per month.[6] Ukrainian officials have reported that the Russian force grouping along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast front has roughly not changed since summer 2023, suggesting that the commitment of new personnel to the area is offsetting Russian losses but not increasing the strength of that grouping.[7] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev previously claimed that the Russian military recruited 42,000 personnel between November 9 and December 1.[8] Ukrainian figures for Russian casualties along the front suggest that Russian monthly casualties could exceed the 20,000 monthly recruitment figure and may be even close to Medvedev’s much higher figure. Russian operations in Ukraine recently prompted the Russian military command to rush newly created and understrength formations to Ukraine to reinforce sectors of the front, impeding longer-term efforts to form operational and strategic reserves and restructure the Russian ground forces.[9] Both recruiting and casualty figures likely fluctuate over the course of the year, and all available figures are likely exaggerated. The reported numbers match observed battlefield conditions, however, as well as other Ukrainian reports that the Russian military has only been able to sustain its current manning level in Ukraine despite its reportedly high numbers of new recruits. High Russian casualties will likely prevent Russian forces from fully replenishing and reconstituting existing units in Ukraine and forming new operational and strategic reserves if Russian force generation efforts continue at current rates while the Russian military continues operations. Russia does appear able to continue absorbing such losses and making them good with new recruits, however, as long as President Vladimir Putin is willing and able to absorb the domestic consequences.

Russian forces conducted another series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 6 to 7. Ukrainian military sources reported on December 7 that Ukrainian forces downed 15 of 18 Russian-launched Shahed-131/136 drones that primarily targeted Khmelnytskyi and Odesa oblasts.[10] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian drones struck port infrastructure in Izmail Raion, Odesa Oblast, damaging a warehouse and a grain elevator.[11] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian drones also struck the Starokostyantyniv airfield, Khmelnytskyi Oblast and other targets in Odesa Oblast.[12] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated that Russian forces do not have enough resources to strike Ukrainian energy infrastructure on a larger scale than last winter.[13]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a new security assistance package and joint weapons production pledge to Ukraine against the backdrop of the International Forum for Defense Industries (DFNC1) in Washington, D.C. on December 6-7. The DoD announced a new aid package on December 6 that is valued at up to $175 million and includes: AIM-9M and AIM-7 missiles; High-speed Anti-radiation (HARM) missiles; Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems; artillery ammunition; and additional unspecified equipment.[14] The DoD also announced that the US and Ukraine signed a statement of intent regarding the joint production of critical weapons and the priority exchange of technical data.[15] US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that the partnership will allow Ukraine to produce spare parts for US-provided military equipment and return repaired equipment to the front lines faster.[16] The White House stated that the US will send an advisor to Ukraine’s Ministry of Strategic Industries to help accelerate Ukraine’s interoperability with NATO, combat corruption, and attract foreign investment in critical industries.[17] Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov met with Austin on December 7 and advocated for continued US support for Ukraine in 2024.[18]

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed developing Russian-Iranian economic relations with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Moscow on December 7. Putin stated that trade between Russia and Iran grew by 20 percent in 2023 and reached over five billion dollars.[19] Putin reported that Russia and Iran are constructing a railway line along an unspecified section of the North-South Corridor (a planned railway route that will connect Russia to the Indian Ocean via Iran).[20] Putin also announced that he and Raisi intend to sign an agreement establishing a free trade zone between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) at the end of December 2023.[21] The continued progress on the North-South Corridor and the planned establishment of an EAEU-Iranian free trade zone are likely part of continued Russian efforts to procure Iranian materiel support for Russian operations in Ukraine while facilitating both Russian and Iranian sanctions evasion efforts. Putin also noted the “importance [for him and Raisi] to exchange views on the situation in the region, especially in Palestine” and commended Iranian-Russian energy and education cooperation.[22] Putin met with Omani Crown Prince and Minister of Culture, Sports, and Youth Theyazin bin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said on December 7 on the sidelines of the “Russia Calling!” investment forum in Moscow, likely a continuation of bilateral meetings with Persian Gulf State leaders after Putin’s December 6 meetings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.[23]

Attacks on public figures in Russia have prompted officials to propose increased security measures for Russian political and public figures and some ultranationalists to call for the resurrection of Soviet security organizations. Russian Federation Council Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev announced on December 7 that the Federation Council will prepare proposals on the protection of Russian and political figures by December 13.[24] Kosachev’s announcement comes immediately after the assassination of former pro-Russian Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada deputy Ilya Kiva in Moscow Oblast on December 6, and Kosachev claimed that Russia and the international community need to prepare “much more systemic actions” to protect prominent Russians from Ukrainian attacks.[25] Kiva’s assassination is the latest in a series of attacks targeting high profile pro-Russian figures, including the assassinations of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tatarsky) in April 2023 and Daria Dugina, the daughter of Russian political commentator Alexander Dugin in August 2022.[26]

Some prominent ultranationalist voices have begun calling for Russia to bolster its counterintelligence agencies with powers reminiscent of SMERSH, the umbrella organization for three Soviet military counterintelligence agencies formed in the wake of the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Russian State Duma Deputy and former Southern Military District Commander Lieutenant General Andrei Gurulev has consistently claimed since August 2022 that Russia needs to “recreate” SMERSH within the bounds of existing counterintelligence organizations.[27] Gurulev claimed on December 3 that Russia has instituted an unspecified organization that “operates approximately in the same way [as SMERSH]” in occupied Ukraine but claimed that Russia still needs a similar organization to protect Russia itself.[28] Some prominent Russian milbloggers issued similar calls for Russia to recreate SMERSH and criticized Russian counterintelligence services for allowing attacks in Russia, including Kiva’s assassination, to occur.[29] Reestablishing SMERSH as it existed during the Soviet era would be a technically challenging undertaking, as the governmental structure of the contemporary Russian Federation is not comparable with that of Stalinist Russia. The reestablishment of SMERSH would require the Russian state to develop a pervasive Soviet-style counterintelligence and internal policing system that currently does not exist in Russia. Although the reestablishment of a Soviet-style SMERSH organization in Russia remains unlikely, the ultranationalists’ calls for reestablishing SMERSH is significant, as they demonstrate the ultranationalists’ advocacy for reestablishing elements of totalitarian Soviet-style governance that has not existed in Russia for decades.

The Russian Federation Council adopted a resolution confirming that the upcoming Russian presidential elections will occur on March 17, 2024, amid continued Kremlin efforts to legitimize the elections.[30] Russian state-owned polling institution All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) released a poll on December 7 detailing Russians’ interests in participating in the upcoming Russian presidential elections. VTsIOM claimed that 78 percent of total respondents stated that they will vote in the presidential elections, including 61 percent who stated “with full confidence“ that they will vote, while only eight percent of participants indicated that they are “not yet ready to vote.”[31] VTsIOM claimed that 36 percent of Russians could name the exact date, month, or time of year in which upcoming elections will occur, despite the recency of the Federation Council’s confirmation of the election date.[32] Independent Russian polling organization Levada Center published the results of a similar poll on December 7. The Levada Center reported that only 33 percent of participants “absolutely“ intend to vote in the upcoming Russian presidential elections, while 33 percent would “most likely vote.“[33] The Levada Center also reported that 20 percent of respondents stated that they would not vote.[34] The Russian government is likely attempting to set conditions to legitimize the upcoming presidential elections by reporting an inaccurately high percentage of voter interest that will likely correspond with a similarly fabricated high voter turnout.

Russian security organs conducted mass arrests targeting high-profile gangs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, including members and co-conspirators within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and other internal security organs. The MVD announced on December 6 that it detained MVD and Rosgvardia personnel who are members of a high-profile gang that had been committing crimes, including murders, kidnappings, and robberies, in Moscow and Kaluga oblasts and Krasnoyarsk Krai since 1998.[35] The MVD claimed that those arrested include Special Rapid Reaction Squad (SOBR) “Lynx” detachment Chief of Staff Alexey Alpatov and that the Moscow gang’s leader previously lived in Ukraine and would visit Russia to coordinate activities until his arrest in spring 2023.[36] A Russian source claimed on December 7 that SOBR forces conducted a search of the 59th MVD Department in Vyborg Raion, St. Petersburg, as part of an investigation into MVD patronage of an ethnic-based gang.[37] The source claimed some MVD personnel in the 59th Department were protecting members of an Azerbaijani criminal gang operating in St. Petersburg.[38] Russian milbloggers have expressed increasing hostility towards alleged Azerbaijani criminal gangs and other ethnic groups during a general period of heightened ethnic tensions within Russia. Both the Moscow and St. Petersburg raids allow Russian security organs to consolidate internal control against dissidents and corruption while setting informational conditions to portray foreigners – including those from Ukraine, the south Caucasus, and Central Asian states – as threats to Russian internal security that Russia must extinguish.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces may be suffering losses along the entire front in Ukraine at a rate close to the rate at which Russia is currently generating new forces.
  • Russia does appear able to continue absorbing such losses and making them good with new recruits, however, as long as President Vladimir Putin is willing and able to absorb the domestic consequences.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a new security assistance package and joint weapons production pledge to Ukraine against the backdrop of the International Forum for Defense Industries (DFNC1) in Washington, D.C. on December 6-7.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed developing Russian-Iranian economic relations with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Moscow on December 7.
  • Attacks on public figures in Russia have prompted officials to propose increased security measures for Russian political and public figures and some ultranationalists to call for the resurrection of Soviet security organizations.
  • The Russian Federation Council adopted a resolution confirming that the upcoming Russian presidential elections will occur on March 17, 2024, amid continued Kremlin efforts to legitimize the elections.
  • Russian security organs conducted mass arrests targeting high-profile gangs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, including members and co-conspirators within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and other internal security organs.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and marginally advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Russian authorities continue to rebuff appeals from the relatives of mobilized Russian military personnel.
  • Ukrainian partisans and residents in occupied territories continue to provide Ukrainian officials with targeting information.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 6, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 6, 2023, 6:50pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on December 6. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 7 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov credited Western security assistance for empowering Ukrainian forces to liberate half of the territory that Russia occupied since February 24, 2022.[1] Umerov credited Western security assistance for previous Ukrainian counteroffensive success during an interview with Fox News on December 5 and stated that the Ukrainian forces have a plan for 2024.[2] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on November 8 that the Ukrainian forces have planned for several paths of future advance in 2024 to liberate more of the occupied territories.[3] ISW continues to assess that Ukraine must liberate strategically vital areas still under Russian occupation to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security and economic viability.[4] Umerov also stated that Ukraine plans to conduct all calculations for procurement, acquisition, planning, and operations according to NATO standards and that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) first priority is Ukraine’s accession to NATO.[5] The adoption of NATO standards throughout the Ukrainian military and defense establishment will facilitate NATO oversight of current and future Western security assistance to Ukraine.

Russian forces conducted a notably large series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 5 to 6. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 50 Shahed-131/136 from Kursk Oblast and Cape Chauda in occupied Crimea and that Ukrainian air defenses downed 41 Shaheds.[6] Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down Russian drones in Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Khmelnytskyi, Kirovohrad, and Zhytomyr oblasts.[7]

Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia to meet with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in a series of bilateral meetings on December 6. Putin and Al Nahyan discussed Russia’s role in OPEC+, the construction of a Russian school in the UAE, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war, and other bilateral issues during a meeting in the UAE.[8] Putin stated during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia that Russian-Saudi relations reached a new level over the past seven years under the guidance of Mohammed bin Salman and his father.[9] Putin noted the “very good” political and economic relations between the two countries and the need to “exchange information and assessments” about what is happening in the region, likely referring to the Israel-Hamas War. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Putin and Mohammed bin Salman met for three hours and paid particular attention to the North-South transport corridor and energy issues.[10] Putin’s meetings in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and upcoming meeting with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi on December 7 are likely focused on strengthening Russia’s position with the Gulf States while continuing to solidify the deepening Russian-Iranian security partnership.

Russian oil revenues continue to increase due to a concerted Russian effort to skirt the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil and petroleum products. Bloomberg reported on December 6 that Russia made $11.3 billion in revenue from the sale of crude oil and petroleum products in October 2023, the highest level of Russian oil and petroleum revenue since May 2022 and above the monthly Russian oil and petroleum revenues in the year before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.[11] The October 2023 oil and petroleum revenues reportedly represented 31 percent of revenues in the Russian federal budget for the month.[12] The G7 and the EU introduced a $60 price cap on Russian crude oil and price caps for other Russian petroleum products in December 2022, and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported on December 5, 2023, that this cap immediately led to a 45 percent decrease in Russian oil and petroleum revenues in January 2023.[13] Russian officials undid the impacts of the G7 price cap in 2023 by increasingly relying on aging oil tankers with obscure ownership and insurance from unknown or non-Western sources in order to build a “shadow fleet” to transfer and sell crude oil and petroleum products above the price cap.[14] Bloomberg reported that Russia’s domestic oil tanker fleet and “shadow fleet” transferred over 70 percent of Russian oil cargoes in the first nine months of 2023, allowing Russian officials to exert more control over oil exports and progressively increase prices.[15] The Kremlin likely hopes that engagement with OPEC+ on agreed upon output cuts can allow Russian officials to further increase oil prices and continue to buoy federal budget revenues in an effort to manage the increasing Russian federal deficit associated with the war in Ukraine.[16]

Bloomberg added that ships with Greek ownership have transferred roughly 20 percent of Russian oil shipments in 2023, but did so under the G7 price cap.[17] Greek officials reportedly lobbied the EU to water down measures that would have resulted in more stringent restrictions on shipping companies' ability to trade with Russia.[18] Three major Greek shipping firms stopped transporting Russian oil in November 2023 following the initial imposition of US sanctions on third party shipping firms helping Russia to skirt the G7 price cap in October 2023.[19]

Russian society appears interested in discussing the outcome of the war in Ukraine despite the Kremlin’s increasing aversion to more in-depth public discussions of the war. Independent Russian polling organization Levada Center released a poll on December 5 detailing the questions Russians want to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin during the upcoming “Direct Line” forum on December 14. The Levada Center found that 21 percent of all questions in the open-ended poll pertained to the end and outcome of the war in Ukraine.[20] Levada Center reported that questions in this category included questions about the timeframe for an end to the war, the end of mobilization, and the possibility of peace or a Russian victory.[21] Levada Center noted that the second and third most frequent questions asked, accounting for 8 percent of responses each, pertained to pensions and social programs.[22] The poll indicates that the Russian public continues to have questions about the end and outcome of the war despite the Russian government’s attempts to silence anti-war rhetoric and protests to mobilization. The Russian public’s continued questions about the timeline for an end to the war and mobilization and the prospects for peace are consistent with recent independent Russian polling indicating that Russians increasingly support a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and showing that over half of Russian respondents believe that Russia should begin peace negotiations with Ukraine.[23] Putin will reportedly center his presidential campaign on Russia’s alleged domestic stability and increased criticism of the West instead of focusing on the war, so it is unclear if Putin intends to address questions about the war during the “Direct Line” event, which will likely serve as the launch of Putin’s 2024 presidential campaign.[24] The Kremlin also appears to be increasingly implementing measures to ensure that Putin’s actual electoral success does not depend on battlefield successes and domestic force generation efforts.[25]

Unspecified actors killed former pro-Russian Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada deputy Ilya Kiva in Moscow Oblast on December 6. The Russian Main Investigative Directorate for Moscow Oblast stated on December 6 that unspecified actors killed Kiva in Suponevo, Odintsovo urban raion, Moscow Oblast.[26] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne reported on December 6 that its sources in Ukrainian law enforcement agencies stated that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) conducted the operation that killed Kiva.[27] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov confirmed Kiva’s death and stated that “a similar fate will befall other traitors to Ukraine and henchmen of the Putin regime.”[28] Kiva, who defected to Russia at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, likely aided a Kremlin-backed COVID-19 disinformation campaign in Ukraine in 2020.[29] A Russian milblogger criticized Russian intelligence services for not preventing alleged SBU personnel from assassinating someone in Russia.[30]

Moscow’s 2nd Western Military District Court convicted two Russian air defense officers for negligence for failing to prevent a Ukrainian strike on Russian territory in April 2022, likely to set an example to improve discipline across the Russian military. Russian outlet Kommersant reported on December 5 that the court sentenced Russian Lieutenant Colonel Anatoly Bondarev and Major Dmitry Dmitrakov to four years in prison for violating article 340 of the Russian Criminal Code (violation of the rules of combat duty to repel a surprise attack on the territory of the Russian Federation).[31] Violations of the Russian rules of combat duty include unauthorized abandonment of a combat post or transfer of such post to anyone; performing combat duties without the permission of the commander on duty; reducing the readiness of military equipment and weapons; and consuming alcohol on duty.[32] The court tried the servicemen in connection with a Ukrainian Tochka-U strike against a Russian ammunition depot in Belgorod Oblast in April 2022, a relatively obscure strike that the Russian command may have chosen to litigate to avoid recalling attention to more high-profile Ukrainian strikes on Russian targets in occupied Ukraine and Russia.[33] Ukrainian forces conducted several drone strikes on Moscow City in July and August 2023, which likely resulted in the detention of the commander of the 1st Special Purpose Air and Missile Defense Army on corruption and bribery charges instead of dereliction of duty charges.[34] Kommersant, citing unspecified sources, reported that Russian authorities are conducting large-scale investigations into every successful Ukrainian strike on Russian territory since 2014 and any negligence on the part of the Russian servicemen involved in defending against these strikes.[35] The Russian military command likely intends for the case to set a precedent across the Russian military, and not just for Russian air defenders, to improve discipline among the Russian forces in Ukraine.

Russian officials are reportedly attempting to funnel migrants who have ended up in Russia due to Russia’s failed hybrid war tactics on the Russian-Finnish border into ongoing force generation efforts. BBC Russia Service reported on December 6 that Russian military officials are attempting to recruit migrants from the Middle East and Africa whom Russian authorities detained en masse along the Russian-Finnish border in mid-November following the closure of Russian-Finnish border crossings.[36] Russian officials are reportedly offering to stay deportations for these migrants if the migrants fight in Ukraine.[37] One migrant reportedly stated that Russian officials immediately transferred migrants who signed military contracts to the Russian-Ukrainian border.[38] Russia artificially created a migrant crisis on the Finnish border as a hybrid warfare tactic meant to destabilize NATO and the EU, but the Finnish response quickly caused the effort to fail.[39] Russian officials appear to be trying to salvage some benefit from the failed effort by recruiting migrants as a part of the widespread crypto-mobilization effort targeting migrants in Russia.[40]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov credited Western security assistance for empowering Ukrainian forces to liberate half of the territory that Russia occupied since February 24, 2022.
  • Russian forces conducted a notably large series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 5 to 6.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia to meet with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in a series of bilateral meetings on December 6.
  • Russian oil revenues continue to increase due to a concerted Russian effort to skirt the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil and petroleum products.
  • Russian society appears interested in discussing the outcome of the war in Ukraine despite the Kremlin’s increasing aversion to more in-depth public discussions of the war.
  • Unspecified actors killed former pro-Russian Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada deputy Ilya Kiva in Moscow Oblast on December 6.
  • Moscow’s 2nd Western Military District Court convicted two Russian air defense officers for negligence for failing to prevent a Ukrainian strike on Russian territory in April 2022, likely to set an example to improve discipline across the Russian military.
  • Russian officials are reportedly attempting to funnel migrants who have ended up in Russia due to Russia’s failed hybrid war tactics on the Russian-Finnish border into ongoing force generation efforts.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • The Russian State Duma will reportedly consider a bill allowing Russian conscripts to serve in the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Border Service.
  • Ukrainian partisans may have conducted an attack in occupied Luhansk City on December 6 that killed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) People’s Council Deputy Oleg Popov.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 5, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 5, 2023, 6:45pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:10pm ET on December 5. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 6 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian military targets in occupied Crimea on the night of December 4 to 5. Ukrainian media reported on December 5, citing sources in the Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) and Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), that GUR and SBU elements struck a Russian military oil terminal in Feodosia, a Nebo-M radar system near Baherove (13km west of Kerch), and a helicopter landing pad, P-18 Terek radar system, and a Baikal-1M anti-aircraft missile control system in unspecified areas of Crimea.[1] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Russian air defenses, electronic warfare (EW) systems, and small-arms fire downed up to 35 Ukrainian drones near Baherove, Feodosia, Cape Chauda, and over the Sea of Azov but did not say that any Ukrainian drones struck their intended targets.[2] Another group of Russian sources, including Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo, claimed that Russian air defenses downed up to 41 Ukrainian drones over northern Crimea and the Sea of Azov and claimed that Ukrainian forces attempted to strike Russian air defense systems and fuel storage facilities.[3] Ukrainian forces have been conducting an interdiction campaign against Russian military infrastructure in occupied Crimea, primarily Black Sea Fleet assets, since June 2023 to degrade the Russian military’s ability to use Crimea as a staging and rear area for Russian operations in southern Ukraine.[4]

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on the night of December 4 and 5. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 17 Shahed-136/-131 drones from Kursk Oblast and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, and six S-300 missiles at targets in Ukraine and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 of the drones.[5] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that the Russian missiles targeted civilian objects in Donetsk and Kherson oblasts.[6] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian drones struck civilian residences and infrastructure in Lviv Oblast and Izyum and Chuhuiv raions, Kharkiv Oblast.[7]

The Russian State Duma will reportedly consider a proposed bill that would recognize the Sea of Azov as an internal Russian body of water, likely setting conditions to coerce recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Crimea and Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk oblasts. Russian State Duma Deputy representing occupied Crimea Mikhail Sheremet stated on December 5 that the Duma will try to adopt a proposed bill that would formally designate the Sea of Azov as an internal water of Russia by the end of 2023.[8] Russia and Ukraine signed and ratified a treaty in 2003 and 2004 that included stipulations that the Sea of Azov is a historically internal water of both Russia and Ukraine and that vessels flying Ukrainian or Russian flags in the Sea of Azov enjoy freedom of navigation.[9] The Ukrainian Rada denounced the treaty in February 2023, stating that Russia had violated the stipulation that all issues concerning the Sea of Azov should be resolved by peaceful, bilateral means and that the treaty’s authorization of Russian warships to freely navigate the sea posed a threat to Ukrainian national security.[10] Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in June 2023 that also denounced the treaty, claiming that Ukraine lost its status as a littoral state of the Sea of Azov when Russia (illegally) annexed Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts in 2022.[11] The proposed bill likely portends a series of corresponding Russian administrative measures that would require maritime traffic en route to or from ports on the Sea of Azov to formally recognize the sea as a Russian internal body of water and, therefore, to de facto recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories.

Russian opposition party Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky advocated for a ceasefire in Ukraine as part of his presidential bid on December 5 likely in an attempt to distinguish himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin and give voice to Russians who support a ceasefire. Yavlinsky stated in an interview with Russian state outlet RBK published on December 5 that he believes that it is in Russia’s interest to sign a ceasefire agreement with Ukraine as quickly as possible.[12] Yavlinsky expressed doubt that recent Russian surveys claiming to show that Russians support the war in Ukraine are true given the scale of Russian propaganda, which he believes has created a widespread sense of fear in Russia in the past year and a half.[13] Yavlinsky stated that he is currently collecting the signatures needed to run in the 2024 presidential election and explained that his sequential presidential platform includes signing a ceasefire and exchanging prisoners of war (POWs) with Ukraine first, releasing political prisoners in Russia second, and beginning to reform the Russian judicial system third.[14] Yavlinsky advocated against Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022 and called for Russia to withdraw from the war in Syria during his 2018 presidential campaign.[15] Yavlinksy likely believes that these anti-war positions and the call for a ceasefire are the most direct way to oppose Putin and to garner support from the public. Recent Russian opinion polls indicate that more Russians support a withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine than do not and that a majority of Russians believe that Russia should begin peace negotiations with Ukraine.[16]

The Kremlin may be strategically allowing Yavlinsky to criticize the Russian government in order to preserve its veneer of electoral legitimacy and to delegitimize possible support for a ceasefire among factions in the Kremlin. A Russian insider source claimed on December 4 that Yavlinsky made an agreement with the Russian Presidential Administration that if he were allowed to participate in the 2024 presidential elections, he would criticize the Ukrainian government, especially Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.[17] The insider source claimed that the Presidential Administration is not against “moderate” criticisms of Russia’s war in Ukraine as this can demonstrate that there is a “pluralism of opinions” in Russian presidential elections.[18] The insider source claimed that the Kremlin would allow Yavlinsky to garner no more than one to 1.5 percent of the vote in the election, which is consistent with Yavlinsky’s results in the 2018 presidential elections.[19] Yavlinsky stated in the RBK interview that Russian authorities have sentenced or are investigating other members of the Yabloko party but that this occurs only at the regional level and that he is unsure why the federal government has not shut down Yabloko.[20] The Kremlin is likely refraining from punishing Yavlinsky and Yabloko at the federal level so as to maintain its carefully crafted façade of opposition, democracy, and electoral legitimacy.[21] The Kremlin is also likely allowing Yavlinsky to widely promote the idea of a ceasefire in a state media outlet so as to associate the idea with the “opposition,” thereby likely deterring factions within the Kremlin that may want to freeze the frontline in Ukraine from publicly or privately voicing their opinions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the benefits that migrants provide to the Russian economy, while promoting ongoing efforts to Russify migrants in Russia and citizens of post-Soviet countries at the Russian Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights meeting on December 4. Putin stated that Russian economic demands, including a labor shortage, largely shape policy regarding migrants and noted that Russia must maintain an “ethnocultural balance.”[22] Putin criticized migrants for creating “ethnic enclaves” in Russian cities and failing to register with the Russian military after they acquire Russian citizenship.[23] Putin also stressed that migrants must be linguistically and culturally prepared to work in Russia and must abide by Russian traditions and laws.[24] Putin claimed that 20 to 50 percent of children of migrants have a low level of Russian language proficiency or do not speak Russian at all and noted the Russian government is creating special programs and classes for these children to study the Russian language and integrate into the Russian educational system.[25] Putin also noted that Russia is working with Central Asian and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries to establish Russian schools and teach the Russian language in these countries.[26] The Russian government has continually promoted opening Russian and Russian-speaking schools and universities in post-Soviet countries and has criticized countries for promoting the use of their indigenous languages in educational institutions.[27] Russia likely uses these educational programs and institutions in Russia and abroad to promote Russian narratives and foster a Russian identity among youth.

Russian milblogger and Russian Human Rights Council member Alexander Kots criticized the Russian government for failing to help ethnic Russian citizens of Central Asian countries receive Russian citizenship while granting Russian citizenship to ethnically Central Asian citizens of Central Asian countries.[28] Kots praised the Russian government for granting citizenship to foreigners who served in the Russian military, however.[29] Kots further commended Russian State Duma Deputy Alexander Khinshtein for successfully requesting that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) grant Uzbek citizen Alexander Babkov temporary asylum in Russia with the future prospect of obtaining Russian citizenship.[30] Babkov, an ethnic Russian from Uzbekistan who allegedly fought in the Wagner Group near Bakhmut and Soledar, reportedly faced deportation to Uzbekistan in January 2024 and feared subsequent imprisonment.[31] An Uzbek court sentenced an Uzbek citizen to prison for fighting in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) military from 2014–2015, and a Kazakh court sentenced a Kazakh citizen who reportedly served in Wagner to prison on charges of mercenarism.[32] Khinshtein’s intervention on Babkov’s behalf may be a response to increasing calls for the Russian government to protect ethnic Russians abroad, particularly those who served in the Russian military.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on December 6 and will host Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Russia on December 7 — a bout of diplomatic outreach likely focused on strengthening Russia’s position with Gulf States while continuing to solidify the deepening Russian–Iranian security partnership. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stated on December 5 that Putin will exchange views on bilateral relations, international agendas, and regional agendas during his meetings with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.[33] Peskov responded to a question about Russian, Saudi, and Emirati oil cooperation and stated that discussions will occur within the OPEC+ framework.[34] OPEC+ members recently agreed on November 30 to cut oil output in early 2024 to stabilize oil prices.[35] Russian Presidential Assistant Yuri Ushakov stated that Putin intends to discuss the Palestinian–Israeli conflict; the war in Ukraine; and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan during his meetings in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[36] The Kremlin likely aims to use cooperation on oil output and diplomatic engagement on the Israel–Hamas war and other regional conflicts to strengthen engagement with Gulf States while balancing potential Saudi and Emirati concerns about Russia’s increasing reliance on its security partnership with Iran. Peskov and Ushakov stated that Putin will meet with Raisi on December 7, and the Iranian state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency stated that Putin and Raisi will also discuss the situation in Palestine.[37] Ushakov announced that Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) intend to sign a cooperation agreement by the end of 2023, likely to facilitate and expand Iran’s role in Russian sanctions evasion schemes and in the supply of weapons and critical components to Russia.[38]

Armenia appears to be effectively abstaining from participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Spokesperson for the Armenian Parliament Chairman, Tsovinar Khachatryan, confirmed on December 5 that Armenia will not send a representative to the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Moscow on December 19.[39] The CSTO Parliamentary Assembly meeting represents the fourth consecutive high profile CSTO event or exercise that Armenia has abstained from amid the backdrop of deteriorating Russian–Armenian relations.[40] Armenia did not participate in the CSTO Collective Security Council session in Minsk, Belarus on November 23; the CSTO’s summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on October 13; or the CSTO “Indestructible Brotherhood-2023" exercises in Belarus in early October.[41] Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Mnatsakan Safaryan reiterated on November 23 that Armenia is not considering leaving the CSTO or discussing the withdrawal of Russia‘s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia.[42] CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov stated on November 20 that Armenia asked the CSTO to remove provisions on assistance to Armenia from the agenda of the CSTO summit in Minsk.[43] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated in October that Armenia is currently in the process of diversifying its security partnerships, and Armenia signed a military cooperation agreement with France on October 23.[44]

The Kremlin continues to intensify censorship efforts, targeting prominent Russian messaging and social media app Telegram. A Moscow court fined Russian communications company Telegram Messenger Inc. four million rubles ($44,300) on December 5 for refusing to remove prohibited information at the request of Russian federal censor Roskomnadzor.[45] Moscow’s Tagansky Court previously fined Telegram four million rubles for failing to remove false information about the Russian Armed Forces and information aimed at destabilizing Russia on November 21, 2023.[46] These fines are likely a mild punishment for Telegram rather than a concerted effort by Russian authorities to shut down the app.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful drone strikes against Russian military targets in occupied Crimea on the night of December 4 to 5.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on the night of December 4 and 5.
  • The Russian State Duma will reportedly consider a proposed bill that would recognize the Sea of Azov as an internal Russian body of water, likely setting conditions to coerce recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Crimea and Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk oblasts.
  • Russian opposition party Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky advocated for a ceasefire in Ukraine as part of his presidential bid likely in an attempt to distinguish himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin and give voice to Russians who support a ceasefire.
  • The Kremlin may be strategically allowing Yavlinsky to criticize the Russian government in order to preserve its veneer of electoral legitimacy and to delegitimize possible support for a ceasefire among factions in the Kremlin.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the benefits that migrants provide to the Russian economy, while promoting ongoing efforts to Russify migrants in Russia and citizens of post-Soviet countries.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on December 6 and will host Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Russia on December 7 a bout of diplomatic outreach likely focused on strengthening Russia’s position with Gulf States while continuing to solidify the deepening Russian-Iranian security partnership.
  • Armenia appears to be effectively abstaining from participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
  • The Kremlin continues to intensify censorship efforts, targeting prominent Russian messaging and social media app Telegram.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Russian forces are reportedly quickly sending poorly trained convict recruits to reinforce assaults elements in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities are reportedly intensifying their seizure of Ukrainian property in occupied Berdyansk, Donetsk Oblast.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 4, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 4, 2023, 5:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on December 4. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 5 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russia continues to reckon with the economic ramifications of labor shortages partially resulting from the war in Ukraine. Russian state media outlets reported on December 4 that Russian consulting company Yakov and Partners has recorded increased labor shortages in domestic production that will likely grow to a deficit of two to four million workers by 2030, 90 percent of whom are likely to be semi-skilled workers in critical industries.[1] Yakov and Partners noted that this supply shortage will place upward pressure on workers’ wages that will outpace GDP growth and make Russian companies even less attractive to foreign investment.[2] Russian outlet RBK cited Russian economic experts who stated that this problem can only be resolved through improved interactions between Russian businesses and the state, including through dedicated programs to repatriate Russians who fled the country due to the war and programs to attract "highly-qualified" migrants from other countries.[3] ISW previously assessed that Russia continues to face shortages in both skilled and unskilled labor, a problem that is further compounded by the Kremlin's inconsistent and often inflammatory messaging about Russians who fled Russia because of the war and against migrant workers within Russia.[4] The Russian economy will likely continue to grapple with the Kremlin's competing desires to bolster Russia's force generation and industrial capacity while simultaneously disenfranchising key labor groups, which is likely to lead to continued concerns over Russian economic output and potential resulting social grievances.

Russian forces launched a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 3 to 4. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 23 Shahed-131/136 from Cape Chauda in occupied Crimea and one Kh-59 cruise missile from occupied Kherson Oblast and stated that Ukrainian forces shot down 18 Shaheds and the Kh-59 missile.[5] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that the Russian military has increased its production of Shahed drones, which are likely to be the main systems that Russian forces will use to target Ukrainian energy infrastructure throughout winter 2023-2024.[6] Ihnat also reported that Russian forces are increasing their "strategic stockpile" of missiles.[7]

Ukraine's Western partners continue efforts to provide Ukraine with military and economic support. German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall announced on December 3 that it won a contract to provide Ukraine with €142 million worth of 155mm artillery rounds, which Germany will deliver to Ukraine in 2025.[8] Rheinmetall stated that it will deliver around 40,000 rounds to Ukraine from a separate order in 2024. British outlet The Times highlighted Ukraine's use of British-provided Martlet lightweight missiles to deter a large-scale Russian Shahed drone strike on Kyiv City in late November 2023.[9] The Times noted that the British Army trained Ukrainian operators on Martlet systems in the UK earlier this year. Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov additionally met with his Belgian counterpart, Ludivine Dedonder, on December 4 to further develop the bilateral Ukrainian-Belgian relationship, particularly in regard to building out Ukraine's defense industrial base with Belgian support.[10] Head of the Ukrainian President's Office Andriy Yermak spoke with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan about the upcoming Ukrainian-American conference on arms production that will take place on December 6 and 7 in Washington, DC.[11]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed deepening Belarusian-Chinese relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on December 4. Lukashenko stated that the “historical increase in the level of [Belarusian-Chinese] relations” has created an impetus for further deepening bilateral cooperation.[12] Lukashenko reiterated Belarus’ role as a “reliable” partner to China and expressed support for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Chinese Community of a Common Destiny concept.[13] Lukashenko and Xi discussed strengthening strategic and economic cooperation, and their meeting reportedly lasted three times longer than planned.[14] Xi stated that he opposes unspecified external interference in Belarusian internal affairs and expressed support for strengthening cooperation with Belarus through the UN and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).[15] Chinese news outlet Xinhua stated that Lukashenko and Xi “exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis.“[16] Lukashenko and Xi signed several documents promoting industrial, technical, and scientific cooperation that may have facilitated Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese aid to Russia through Belarus during Lukashenko’s previous visit to China in March 2023.[17]

Kremlin-backed United Russia State Duma deputies and Federation Council senators proposed a bill to introduce criminal punishments for leaking personal data, likely as part of ongoing efforts to control the Russian information space ahead of the March 2024 Russian presidential elections. The United Russia legislators proposed a bill that would allow Russian authorities to sentence individuals to up to four years in prison for storing, transferring, or collecting personal data “obtained illegally,” and up to five years if the information contains unspecified “special categories of data” or personal biometric data.[18] The bill also stipulates that Russian authorities could punish someone with up to six years in prison for ”illegal use of personal data for selfish interest” and could punish someone with up to eight years in prison and a two million ruble (about $21,850) fine for transferring ”illegally acquired” personal data abroad.[19] Russian opposition outlet Agentstvo Novosti reported that the bill’s definition of personal data includes an individual’s first name, surname, patronymic, address, phone number, address, and email.[20] Agentstvo Novosti noted that the bill’s implementation would criminalize database analysis – one of the few tools left to independent Russian investigative journalists.[21] The Russian government has been prosecuting Russian internet service companies Yandex and Google under laws about illegal storing of personal data of Russian users likely to gain further control over internet companies operating in Russia to better track Russians’ personal information and online data ahead of the Russian 2024 presidential election.[22] The bill is also likely part of ongoing Russian government efforts to restrict Russian citizens’ access to information on the internet and the activities of opposition figures and media outlets.[23]

The Kremlin likely continues efforts to insert itself into power vacuums in several African countries as Wagner Group elements continue to operate in the Central African Republic (CAR). Nigerien state media stated that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Nigerien junta Defense Minister Lieutenant General Salifou Modi signed a document strengthening defense cooperation on December 4 after meeting on December 3 in Niamey, Niger.[24] Reuters reported on December 4 that the Nigerien junta also revoked its military partnership with the European Union (EU), further isolating post-coup Niger from the EU.[25] Yevkurov previously met with Malian junta head Assimi Goita, Malian junta Defense Minister Sadio Camara, and Modi on September 16 and with Burkinabe junta head Ibrahim Traore on September 1.[26] Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali previously created the Alliance of Sahel States, a collective defense pact, on September 16, following Yevkurov's visits with the junta heads in September.[27] A French open-source intelligence project assessed on December 4 that Russia is using two structures – the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)-controlled ”Africa Corps” and the newly formed, pseudo local media outlet called “African Initiative” that employs former Wagner Group fighters – to establish a foothold in Burkina Faso.[28] ISW previously reported that the Russian MoD has begun to publicly recruit for the ”Africa Corps,” which is aimed at subsuming Wagner operations in Africa after the MoD made failed attempts to directly recruit former Wagner personnel.[29] The New York Times also reported on November 26 that Wagner maintains a major presence in the Central African Republic (CAR) and controls the largest gold mine and over 1,000 personnel in the country, including personnel likely working as security for CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera and other senior personnel running the Russia House cultural center in Bangui.[30] The Kremlin is likely attempting to expand Russian MoD-controlled “Africa Corps” operations in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, as well as to expand Russian information operations on the continent in part to counter Wagner operations in the CAR.

Voronezh Oblast Governor Alexander Gusev confirmed on December 4 the death of Russian 14th Army Corps Deputy Commander Major General Vladimir Zavadsky in Ukraine.[31] Various Russian and Ukrainian sources claimed on November 28 and 29 that Zavadsky died after stepping on a mine in Kherson Oblast on November 28.[32]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russia continues to reckon with the economic ramifications of labor shortages partially resulting from the war in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine's Western partners continue efforts to provide Ukraine with military and economic support.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed deepening Belarusian-Chinese relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on December 4.
  • Kremlin-backed United Russia State Duma deputies and Federation Council senators proposed a bill to introduce criminal punishments for leaking personal data, likely as part of ongoing efforts to control the Russian information space ahead of the March 2024 Russian presidential elections.
  • The Kremlin likely continues efforts to insert itself into power vacuums in several African countries as Wagner Group elements continue to operate in the Central African Republic (CAR).
  • Voronezh Oblast Governor Alexander Gusev confirmed on December 4 the death of Russian 14th Army Corps Deputy Commander Major General Vladimir Zavadsky in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas on December 4.
  • Select Russian Duma deputies appear to be at odds over the issue of extending Russian conscript service.
  • Russian Presidental Administration Head for Domestic Policy Andrei Yarin reportedly visited occupied Ukraine as part of ongoing efforts to legitimize Russian authority over occupied Ukraine ahead of the March 2024 Russian presidential election.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 3, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 3, 2023, 5:25pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on December 3. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 4 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 1 decree is likely a formal recognition of the Russian military’s current end strength and not an order to immediately increase the number of Russian military personnel. Putin signed a decree on December 1 increasing the official end strength of the Russian military from 2.039 million personnel to 2.209 million personnel and total Russian combat personnel from 1.15 million to 1.32 million.[1] The increase of 170,000 Russian combat personnel between Putin’s previous August 25, 2022 decree and the December 1, 2023 decree is likely a formal acknowledgement of a net increase of 170,000 combat personnel between August 25, 2022, and December 1, 2023, and not a call to immediately increase the current number of combat personnel by an additional 170,000.[2] Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev claimed on November 9 that the Russian military has recruited 410,000 contract, volunteer, and conscripted military personnel since January 1, 2023, then later claimed on December 1 that the Russian military has recruited over 452,000 personnel since January 1, 2023.[3] The Russian government announced in September 2022 that the Russian military would mobilize 300,000 personnel under Putin’s partial mobilization decree.[4] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on November 29 that Russian forces have suffered over 300,000 casualties (killed and wounded personnel) in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.[5] Ongoing widespread crypto-mobilization efforts (such as volunteer recruitment and the coercion of migrants into the Russian military), partial mobilization, the number of Russian personnel concluding military service, and Russian casualties in Ukraine plausibly account for a net 170,000-combat personnel increase between August 25, 2022, and December 1, 2023.[6] Putin’s December 1, 2023 decree is thus likely establishing 2.209 million personnel as the new official end strength rather than ordering a significant new increase in the total size of the Russian military.

Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front line is reportedly incentivizing Russian forces to rely more heavily on remote strikes with glide bombs. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun stated on December 3 that Ukrainian forces shoot down Russian attack helicopters, such as Ka-52 and Mi-24 helicopters, as soon as they enter the range of Ukrainian air defense systems.[7] Shtupun stated that this Ukrainian air defense capability has prompted Russian forces to use Su-35 and Su-34 attack aircraft to launch remote strikes with glide bombs from 50 to 70 kilometers behind the line of combat engagement.[8] Russian forces effectively used helicopters to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast in summer 2023 but decreased the use of rotary wing aircraft following the downing of Ka-52 helicopters in the area in mid-August 2023.[9] Shtupun’s statements are consistent with these observations as well as with the increased Russian use of glide bombs throughout the frontline, particularly in southern Ukraine.[10]

Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on December 3 that Ukrainian air defenses are similarly prompting Russian forces to increase their use of KAB glide bombs because FAB glide bombs require Russian aircraft to fly within range of Ukrainian air defenses.[11] Ihnat added that KAB bombs are inaccurate and that Russian forces therefore launch a large number of the glide bombs to strike Ukrainian targets.[12] Ihnat stated that Russian aviation launches about 100 glide bombs on average at Ukrainian targets along the front line each day and stated that Ukraine needs long-range air defense systems and F-16 fighter jets to counter the current Russian aviation threat.[13]

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported that Russian air defense systems are also constraining Ukrainian operations along the front, specifically Russian SA-15 TOR short-range surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs).[14] The UK MoD reported that Russian forces use the SA-15 SAMs to provide cover for Russian ground forces at the front line and have effectively employed them to counter Ukrainian drone operations.[15]

Ukrainian officials appealed to international organizations to investigate video footage published on December 2 showing Russian forces killing surrendering and reportedly unarmed Ukrainian soldiers. A Russian source published footage on December 2 showing Russian forces shooting two Ukrainian soldiers after they surrendered near Stepove (3km northwest of Avdiivka).[16] Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to investigate this violation of international law, and Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun stated on December 3 that Ukrainian authorities will give the evidence of the war crime to the appropriate international institutions.[17] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office stated that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has begun a pre-trial investigation for criminal proceedings for violations of the Ukrainian Criminal Code.[18] A few Russian milbloggers dismissed the video and the accusations against the Russian forces.[19] Attacking soldiers recognized as hors de combat, specifically including those who have clearly expressed an intention to surrender, is a violation of Article 41 of the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.[20]

Russian forces launched a series of missile and drone strikes on the night of December 2 and 3. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 12 Shahed drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, and one Kh-59 missile from Belgorod Oblast and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 of the drones over Mykolaiv and Khmelnytskyi oblasts as well as the Kh-59 missile.[21] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched the drones in waves.[22] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian aviation, drones, missiles, and artillery struck a Ukrainian command post in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast; fuel depots near Myrhorod, Poltava Oblast and Khmelnytskyi City; and an ammunition depot in Mykolaiv Oblast.[23]

The Russian government is likely continuing attempts to censor relatives of mobilized Russian military personnel on social media out of concern about their protests’ possible negative effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s still unannounced 2024 presidential campaign. BBC Russia reported on December 3 that online bots using fake names and profile pictures accused the relatives of mobilized Russian personnel in their “Way Home” Telegram channel of having connections to imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation.[24] The “Way Home” group previously issued a manifesto on November 27 calling for the return of mobilized personnel and an end to “indefinite” mobilization.[25] Relatives of mobilized personnel have also repeatedly appealed to the Russian government and military for the release of their relatives from military service and for better treatment of mobilized servicemen in the Russian military, and the Russian government has made efforts to censor these demands and complaints and prevent relatives of mobilized personnel from protesting publicly.[26] Putin‘s presidential campaign will reportedly not focus on the war in Ukraine, and the Kremlin likely considers the relatives of mobilized personnel to be a social group that may pose one of the greatest threats to his campaign.[27]

A prominent Russian milblogger claimed to have given a “masterclass” to press heads and communications personnel at Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, likely in support of an effort that allows the Russian government to normalize the war without directly involving the Kremlin. The Rybar Telegram channel claimed that its founder, Mikhail Zvinchuk, gave the “masterclass,” which involved an analysis of 23 Telegram accounts of Russian enterprises and a discussion on the importance of Telegram and other social media to achieve results.[28] Zvinchuk recommended that Rostec increase coverage of its production processes, modernize its approaches to publicizing their products, and humanize the corporation. Many of Rostec’s subsidiaries are involved in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s efforts to ramp up DIB production to support Russia’s long war effort in Ukraine.[29] Rostec and its subsidiaries using Telegram to promote DIB products would help normalize the revitalization of Russia’s DIB and the Russian long war effort to the Russian public without directly attributing this normalization to the Kremlin. The Kremlin has consistently failed to bring Russian society to a wartime footing and is unlikely to do so in the near term as the Kremlin reportedly seeks to downplay the war as it prepares for the 2024 Russian presidential elections.[30]

The milblogger’s “masterclass” represents an avenue by which the Kremlin can further benefit from milbloggers and shows how possible financial incentives could temper milbloggers’ criticisms of the Russian leadership. The Kremlin has sought to appeal to select milbloggers, including Rybar, and Zvinchuk is the only prominent Russian milblogger to receive a state award from Russian President Vladimir Putin for war reporting.[31] The Kremlin has consistently struggled to conduct effective information operations inside Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion and may seek to use more milbloggers to help improve the Kremlin’s conduct of its information operations directed at domestic audiences.[32] Rybar publishes calls for donations multiple times per week and has also advertised companies affiliated with Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko and Russian media.[33] ISW previously assessed that milbloggers’ reliance on advertisements for an income provides a financial incentive to refrain from criticizing the Kremlin as attempted censorship and legal issues may deter advertisement deals.[34] Consultations with Russian officials on public messaging and information operations could become an additional source of income for select milbloggers, which would likely lead to further self-censorship.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 1 decree is likely a formal recognition of the Russian military’s current end strength and not an order to immediately increase the number of Russian military personnel.
  • Ukrainian air defense coverage along the front line is reportedly incentivizing Russian forces to rely more heavily on remote strikes with glide bombs.
  • Ukrainian officials appealed to international organizations to investigate video footage published on December 2 showing Russian forces killing surrendering and reportedly unarmed Ukrainian soldiers.
  • Russian forces launched a series of missile and drone strikes on the night of December 2 and 3.
  • The Russian government is likely continuing attempts to censor relatives of mobilized Russian military personnel on social media out of concern about their protests’ possible negative effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s still unannounced 2024 presidential campaign.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger claimed to have given a “masterclass” to press heads and communications personnel at Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, likely in support of an effort that allows the Russian government to normalize the war without directly involving the Kremlin.
  • The milblogger’s “masterclass” represents an avenue by which the Kremlin can further benefit from milbloggers and shows how possible financial incentives could temper milbloggers’ criticisms of the Russian leadership.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Russia continues to use the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to indoctrinate Russian children into Russian nationalism and set conditions for long-term force generation efforts.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to strengthen the Kremlin-backed United Russia party in occupied Ukraine ahead of the March 2024 Russian presidential elections.

We do not report in detail on Russian war crimes because these 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 the Ukrainian population and specifically on combat in Ukrainian urban areas. We utterly condemn Russian violations of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity even though we do not describe them in these reports. 

  • Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine (comprised of two subordinate main efforts)
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and encircle northern Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis
  • Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts
  • Russian Technological Adaptations
  • Activities in Russian-occupied areas
  • Russian Information Operations and Narratives

Russian Main Effort – Eastern Ukraine

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #1 – Luhansk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the remainder of Luhansk Oblast and push westward into eastern Kharkiv Oblast and northern Donetsk Oblast)

Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line on December 3 but did not make confirmed gains. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks northeast of Petropavlivka (7km east of Kupyansk) and near Synkivka (9km northeast of Kupyansk), Ivanivka (20km southwest of Kupyansk), Stelmakhivka (15km northwest of Svatove), and the Serebryanske forest area (10km south of Kreminna).[35] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces advanced toward Ivanivka, near Torske (15km west of Kreminna), and in the Serebryanske forest area on December 2 and 3.[36] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces continue attacking near Synkivka and Kyslivka (20km southeast of Kupyansk) but have not made substantial progress in the past several months.[37] The Russian “Russkiy Legion" (BARS-13) irregular armed formation claimed that Russian forces attacked south of Dibrova (7km southwest of Kreminna).[38] Footage published on December 3 purportedly shows elements of the 123rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] Army Corps) operating near Berestove (30km south of Kreminna).[39]

Ukrainian forces continued localized ground attacks near Kreminna on December 3 and recently made a confirmed advance. Footage published on November 29 and geolocated on December 2 indicates that Ukrainian forces recently advanced west of Dibrova.[40] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other Russian sources claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks near Synkivka, Yampolivka (17km west of Kreminna), Torske, and the Serebryanske forest area.[41]

Russian Subordinate Main Effort #2 – Donetsk Oblast (Russian objective: Capture the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, the claimed territory of Russia’s proxies in Donbas)

Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks near Bakhmut on December 3 but did not make any confirmed gains. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued assault actions south of Bakhmut.[42] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Klishchiivka (7km southwest of Bakhmut).[43]

Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Bakhmut but did not make any confirmed advances on December 3. Russian sources claimed on December 2 that Russian forces advanced south of the Berkhivka reservoir (about 2km northwest of Bakhmut), towards Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut), east of Klishchiivka, and near Andriivka (10km southwest of Bakhmut).[44] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Bohdanivka, Ivanivske, Klishchiivka, and Andriivka.[45] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces also attacked from Dubovo-Vasylivka (6km northwest of Bakhmut) towards Hryhorivka (9km northwest of Bakhmut).[46] A Russian source claimed that elements of the Russian 58th Spetsnaz Battalion (Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] 1st Army Corps) are operating in the Bakhmut direction.[47] Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that the “Shustryi” detachment of the Chechen ”Akhmat” Spetsnaz and elements of the Russian 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade (Luhansk People‘s Republic [LNR] 2nd Army Corps) are operating near Klishchiivka.[48]

Russian forces conducted offensive operations near Avdiivka on December 3 and recently made confirmed advances. Footage published on November 28 and geolocated on December 2 indicates that Russian forces advanced west of the railway north of Stepove (3km northwest of Avdiivka).[49] Additional geolocated footage published on December 2 indicates that Russian forces advanced southwest of Pervomaiske (10km southwest of Avdiivka).[50] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 2 and 3 that Russian forces advanced south and southeast of Stepove, with some Russian milbloggers claiming that Russian forces advanced 300 meters near the settlement.[51] Russian milbloggers also claimed on December 2 and 3 that Russian forces advanced south of Novokalynove (13km northeast of Avdiivka) and west of Krasnohorivka (5km northwest of Avdiivka) on Avdiivka’s northern flank as well as on the southern flank near Pervomaiske and Sieverne (6km west of Avdiivka).[52] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked east of Novobakhmutivka (9km northwest of Avdiivka) and Novokalynove; south of Tonenke (5km west of Avdiivka); and near Stepove, Avdiivka, Sieverne, and Pervomaiske.[53] Russian sources claimed on December 3 that Russian forces also attacked on the northern flank from Kamianka (5km northeast of Avdiivka) and on the southern flank near the industrial zone southwest of Avdiivka.[54] A Russian milblogger claimed on December 2 that Russian forces are conducting reconnaissance-in-force operations and are regrouping to resume assault operations near the industrial zone southeast of Avdiivka.[55] Ukrainian Avdiivka Military Administration Head Vitaliy Barabash stated on December 3 that Russian forces opened two additional directions of attack on the industrial zone southeast of Avdiivka and from Spartak (4km south of Avdiivka) during the third wave of assaults on Avdiivka in order to distract Ukrainian forces.[56] Barabash also stated that Russian forces are waiting for weather conditions to improve in order to use heavy equipment in assaults again.

Russian forces conducted offensive operations west and southwest of Donetsk City but did not make any confirmed advances on December 3. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked near Marinka (on the western outskirts of Donetsk City) and Novomykhailivka (10km southwest of Donetsk City) and southeast of Vuhledar (30km southwest of Donetsk City).[57] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces attacked in Marinka but that there were no significant changes.[58] A Russian source claimed that Russian forces are pushing Ukrainian forces out of the outskirts of Marinka, and another Russian source claimed that Russian forces have almost taken control of the settlement but must still overcome long-prepared Ukrainian defenses in the area.[59] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun stated that claims about Russian advances in Marinka are not true.[60]

 A Russian source claimed that Ukrainian forces counterattacked west of Donetsk City in Marinka on December 2 but did not specify an outcome.[61]

Russian Supporting Effort – Southern Axis (Russian objective: Maintain frontline positions and secure rear areas against Ukrainian strikes)

Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area on December 3 but did not make any confirmed advances. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian assault near Staromayorske (9km south of Velyka Novosilka).[62] A Russian milblogger posted footage purporting to show elements of the Russian 36th Combined Arms Army (Eastern Military District) striking Ukrainian forces in Urozhaine (9km south of Velyka Novosilka).[63]

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 3 but did not make any confirmed gains. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) direction.[64] Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Russian forces repelled small Ukrainian infantry assaults near Robotyne and Novoprokopivka (3km south of Robotyne) and northwest of Verbove (9km east of Robotyne).[65] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 2 and 3 that Ukrainian forces retain the initiative in the Robotyne area and that Russian forces are still conducting an elastic defense.[66]

Russian forces continued to counterattack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on December 3 but did not make any confirmed advances. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian counterattacks south of Robotyne, northwest of Verbove, and near Novopokrovka (12km northeast of Robotyne).[67] A Russian milblogger amplified footage purporting to show elements of the Russian 76th Airborne (VDV) Division capturing a Ukrainian stronghold near Robotyne.[68] A Russian milblogger claimed on December 2 that VDV assault groups pushed Ukrainian forces out of unspecified positions north of Verbove.[69]

Ukrainian forces continued ground operations in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast on December 3 but did not make any confirmed gains. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces maintain positions on the east bank and are conducting counterbattery fire in the area.[70] Russian milbloggers claimed that meeting engagements continued near Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River) but that the tempo of fighting has decreased due to fog and rain.[71] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 2 and 3 that Ukrainian forces continued attempts to transfer reinforcements and supplies to positions on the left bank of the Dnipro River.[72]

The consequences of the November 27 cyclone in the Black Sea continue to impact Russian military infrastructure in left bank Kherson Oblast and occupied Crimea. Ukrainian research group Center for Journalistic Investigations reported on December 2 that satellite imagery shows that recent storms washed away the spit connecting Dzharylhach Island to occupied Kherson Oblast in three places.[73] Ukrainian officials reported in May 2023 that Russian forces were filling the crossing to Dzharylhach Island with sand to create a more stable connection between occupied Kherson Oblast and the island, where Russian forces reportedly were forming a training ground for mobilized personnel.[74] Satellite imagery posted on December 2 shows that recent storms damaged several Russian fortifications at the entrance of the Sevastopol harbor in occupied Crimea.[75]

Russian sources claimed that Russian air defense intercepted two Ukrainian S-200 missiles targeting Krasnodar Krai over the Sea of Azov on December 2.[76] Krasnodar City Mayor Yevgeny Naumov claimed that there were two explosions in Krasnodar Krai far away from Krasnodar City.[77]

Russian Mobilization and Force Generation Efforts (Russian objective: Expand combat power without conducting general mobilization)

Russia continues to use the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to indoctrinate Russian children into Russian nationalism and set conditions for long-term force generation efforts. The ROC’s Moscow Patriarchate Publishing House is selling a children’s novel To Live: To Serve the Motherland that prepares children to serve in the Russian military using nationalist and religious ideals.[78] The book includes chapters about: “Holy Fathers on War, Peace, and the Russian Military;” “There is No Life in War without Digging;” “Combat Training: Strength, Bravery, and Dexterity,” and “Russian Land is All under God.”[79]

Russian Technological Adaptations (Russian objective: Introduce technological innovations to optimize systems for use in Ukraine)

Russian MLRS manufacturer NPO Splav, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, has patented a new MLRS projectile that reportedly has an extended range and is supersonic. Russian state newswire TASS reported that it obtained the patent, which claims that the new projectile has improved aerodynamic characteristics, accuracy, and firing range.[80] TASS did not report the exact specifications or name of the new projectile.

Russian forces on the frontline are likely employing new adaptations to protect themselves from Ukrainian drones and loitering munitions. Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov and a Russian milblogger amplified images on December 3 of Russian soldiers using mobile frame “cocoons” of thermal blankets camouflaged with grass, dirt, and tree branches in the Vuhledar direction in Donetsk Oblast.[81] Butusov and the milblogger claimed that the “cocoons” hide soldiers’ thermal signatures and protect against drone strikes.

Activities in Russian-occupied areas (Russian objective: Consolidate administrative control of annexed areas; forcibly integrate Ukrainian citizens into Russian sociocultural, economic, military, and governance systems)

Russian occupation officials continue to strengthen the Kremlin-backed United Russia party in occupied Ukraine ahead of the March 2024 Russian presidential elections. Kherson Oblast occupation head Vladimir Saldo participated in a conference for Kherson Oblast’s United Russia branch in occupied Henichesk on December 2 and claimed that there are 6,500 United Russia members and supporters in occupied Kherson Oblast, including 200 oblast-level and local-level officials.[82] The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on November 3 that Russian occupation officials are attempting to use United Russia activities in occupied Ukraine to generate support among locals and legitimize the Russian occupation.[83]

The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on December 3 that Russian occupation authorities forcibly deported 100 Ukrainians from occupied Kherson Oblast to Russia under evacuation schemes in November 2023.[84] Russian occupation officials routinely use the guise of evacuations, medical treatment, vacation opportunities, and educational programs to deport residents from occupied Ukraine to Russia.[85]

Russian Information Operations and Narratives

Pro-Kremlin actors are amplifying reports of Ukrainian social and governmental division, specifically those involving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to discredit Ukrainian leadership and weaken Western support for Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) and Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) warned about renewed Russian efforts to spread propaganda to reduce support for Ukraine and split Ukrainian society from within by fostering mistrust between government officials and between civilians and the government.[86] This effort is congruent with the erroneous pre-war Kremlin understanding of the Ukrainian government, namely that Ukrainians did not support their government and would welcome Russia’s attempt at regime change, that likely influenced Russian decision-making to conduct the 2022 full-scale invasion.[87] This new wave of Russian information operations is therefore part of an existing narrative line that Russian actors are promoting towards a new aim. The GUR and SBU reported that Russian sources specifically intend to sow mistrust in Ukrainian state bodies that organize prisoner of war exchanges (POWs) and hope to garner Ukrainian support for a negotiated settlement with Russia to freeze the frontlines. Domestic tensions are not unusual while sustaining a war effort, particularly in a free country with a robust civil society facing a protracted and difficult conflict like the one in Ukraine.

Significant activity in Belarus (Russian efforts to increase its military presence in Belarus and further integrate Belarus into Russian-favorable frameworks and Wagner Group activity in Belarus)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrived in Beijing, China on December 3 and will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 3 and 4 to discuss trade, economic investment, and international cooperation.[88]

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.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 2, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

December 2, 2023, 7:30pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:45pm ET on December 2. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 3 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Poor weather conditions continue to slow the pace of Ukrainian and Russian combat operations across the entire frontline but have not completely halted them. Ukrainian Ground Forces Command Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated that Russian forces actively use aviation in the Bakhmut direction when the weather permits it.[1] Fityo added that weather does not significantly affect Russian artillery fire in the Bakhmut direction. Russian milbloggers, claimed on December 1 that strong winds near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast prevented Russian forces from using drones and artillery over the past two days, however.[2] A Russian milblogger claimed that although light rain allows Russian forces to conduct aerial reconnaissance near Verbove (9km east of Robotyne) the muddy terrain makes it challenging for infantry and wheeled vehicles to advance in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[3] The milblogger added that Russian forces can only move on tracked vehicles and that Ukrainian forces continue intense artillery fire despite the poor weather conditions in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov amplified footage on December 2 that shows muddy roads on the Robotyne-Novoprokopivka-Verbove line in western Zaporizhia Oblast and claimed that these conditions have practically immobilized Ukrainian wheeled vehicles, forcing Ukrainian troops to conduct infantry-only attacks.[4] Rogov amplified additional footage showing an infestation of rats and mice in a Ukrainian trench in Zaporizhia Oblast, which he claimed was the result of the cold weather in the region.[5]

Russian forces launched another series of Shahed 136/131 drone and missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine overnight on December 1-2. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 11 Shahed drones from Cape Chauda in occupied Crimea and a Kh-59 cruise missile from the airspace over occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.[6] The Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 10 Shahed drones over Odesa Oblast and the Kh-59 cruise missile over Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[7] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that a Russian Shahed drone struck an unspecified infrastructure object in Odesa Oblast.[8] A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian Shahed drones targeted the Chornomorsk and Kiliya ports in Odesa Oblast.[9] The milblogger added that Russian forces also conducted missile strikes, including at least one Iskander ballistic missile strike, in Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia oblasts. ISW cannot verify the milblogger’s claims.

Ukrainian and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials reported that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) completely disconnected from all external power sources for five and a half hours on the night of December 1 to 2, marking the plant’s eighth complete black out — all under Russian occupation. The Ukrainian Energy Ministry and the IAEA reported on December 2 that the ZNPP lost connection with both of its operable external power lines from 0230 to around 0800 local time on December 2. The ZNPP, during the black out, automatically switched to diesel generators to cool its reactors and power essential functions.[10] The IAEA reported that the power loss disrupted the coolant pumps of reactor no. 4 and that the ZNPP is currently bringing the reactor back to a hot shutdown state to continue generating steam for ZNPP operations and provide heat for Enerhodar. Ukrainian nuclear energy operator Energoatom President Petro Kotin stated that Russia is not interested in the safety of the ZNPP, as evidenced by Russian authorities' failure to follow the norms and rules of nuclear and radiation safety.[11] The IAEA stated that an external grid failure far away from the ZNPP caused the power failure.[12] IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated that this most recent power outage is “yet another reminder” about the plant’s precarious nuclear safety and security situation.[13]

The ZNPP’s complete power outage occurred as Russia continued longstanding efforts to compel the IAEA and the international community to normalize Russia’s occupation of the ZNPP.[14] Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom claimed on December 2 that Rosatom Head Alexey Likhachev and Grossi agreed on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) Climate Conference to hold full-scale consultations about the safety and security of the ZNPP in early 2024.[15] Neither the IAEA nor Grossi have confirmed Rosatom’s claim of future consultations as of this publication.

The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three third party entities involved in the transport of Russian crude oil above the G7 price cap. OFAC announced on December 1 that it imposed sanctions on two United Arab Emirates-based and one Liberian-based shipping companies that own vessels that carried Russian crude oil above $70 barrel after the G7’s $60 price cap took effect in December 2022.[16] Russia relies on a “shadow fleet” of oil tankers without insurance from Western countries to skirt the G7’s price cap on Russian crude oil and petroleum products.[17]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled that it likely intends to continue relying on crypto-mobilization recruitment schemes for any potential increase in the size of the Russian military. The Russian MoD responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 1 decree increasing the size of the Russian military and stated that the Russian military is implementing the increase in stages “on account of citizens who express a desire to perform military service under a contract.”[18] This language may refer to volunteers, whom the MoD has courted through a widespread crypto-mobilization effort in Russia, and suggests that the MoD may use volunteer recruitment for long-term force generation.[19] The MoD clarified that Putin’s decree does not portend a significant increase in the number of conscripted Russians nor a second wave of mobilization.[20] Putin‘s decree, which formally increased the size of the Russian military from 2.039 million personnel to 2.209 million personnel and total Russian combat personnel from 1.15 million to 1.32 million, is likely an official acknowledgment of the actual end strength of the Russian military and not an order for an immediate increase.[21] Partial mobilization, ongoing widespread crypto-mobilization efforts, the number of Russian personnel concluding military service, and Russian casualties in Ukraine can plausibly account for the net gain of 170,000 Russian combat personnel between the August 22 decree on the size of the Russian military and the December 1 decree.

The Kremlin’s policy towards the role of migrants in bolstering Russia’s industrial capacity continues to be inconsistent. Kremlin newswire TASS reported on December 2 that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) is preparing a bill that will require Russian authorities to fingerprint and identify foreigners immediately upon entry to Russia and again upon exit.[22] Russian MVD Migration Affairs Head Valentina Kazakova previously stated that Russian officials will begin a trial run of fingerprinting and photographing migrants arriving at Moscow airports.[23] Russia already fingerprints and photographs migrants, although not immediately upon entry.[24] These new measures are not unusual immigration and travel policies but are notable in this case because they are likely a part of a wider set of anti-migration policies.[25] A Russian economic news aggregator claimed on December 2 that the Russian government has set a quota of 155,900 visa permits for skilled migrant workers in 2024, a 32,000 increase from 2023.[26] The economic news aggregator claimed that the Russian government is sending invitations and work permits to migrant workers, primarily those working in mining and construction.[27] This reported increase in migrant workers is at odds with a series of federal and regional policies in Russia that restrict migrants’ prospects for work.[28] The Kremlin increasingly appears to be pursuing mutually exclusive goals of relying on migrants to strengthen Russia’s strained industrial capacity while also pursuing force generation efforts and politically motivated anti-migration policies that reduce migrants’ ability to augment Russia’s labor force.[29]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s November 30 threat against Moldova may have emboldened certain pro-Russian actors to attempt to sow political instability and division in Moldova.[30] The pro-Russian head of Moldova’s Gagauzia region, Yevgenia Gutsul, claimed on December 1 that Moldovan state energy company Moldovagaz blocked Gagauzia from receiving gas from a Turkish supplier that the pro-Russian Gagauzia regional government had negotiated outside of state contracts.[31] Gutsul claimed that Moldovagaz sells gas at a higher price per cubic meter than the Turkish partner and accused Moldova of ignoring Gaguazia’s calls to provide its residents with cheap gas for the upcoming winter. Moldovan President Maia Sandu notably denied Gutsul’s request for a spot in her cabinet on November 13 because Gutsul is a member of the banned Shor political party, which Russia used to promote pro-Russian interests and political instability in Moldova until the Moldovan Constitutional Court banned the party in June 2023.[32] Shor Party head Ilhan Shor used the party to spark protests in September 2022-June 2023 ultimately aimed at toppling the current Moldovan government.[33] Moldovagaz Head Vadim Ceban stated that Moldovagaz does not have the physical or legal ability to block gas supplies at the Gagauzia border and that Moldovagaz has not received the necessary documentation to switch Gagauzia’s natural gas suppliers.[34] Sandu stripped Moldovan Party of Regions head Alexander Kalinin of his Moldovan citizenship on November 27 due to his extensive support of the Russian war in Ukraine, and Kalinin announced efforts on December 1 to recruit Moldovan volunteers to fight alongside the Russian military in Ukraine.[35] Russia conducted a likely campaign to destabilize Moldova in early 2023, and Russia may seek to revamp these efforts to distract international attention from the war in Ukraine.[36]

Key Takeaways:

  • Poor weather conditions continue to slow the pace of Ukrainian and Russian combat operations across the entire frontline but have not completely halted them.
  • Russian forces launched another series of Shahed 136/131 drone and missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine overnight on December 1-2.
  • Ukrainian and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials reported that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) completely disconnected from all external power sources for five and a half hours on the night of December 1 to 2, marking the plant’s eighth complete black out - all under Russian occupation.
  • The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three third party entities involved in the transport of Russian crude oil above the G7 price cap.
  • The Russia Ministry of Defense (MoD) signaled that it likely intends to continue relying on crypto-mobilization recruitment schemes for any potential increase in the size of the Russian military.
  • The Kremlin’s policy towards the role of migrants in bolstering Russia’s industrial capacity continues to be inconsistent.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s November 30 threat against Moldova may have emboldened certain pro-Russian actors to attempt to sow political instability and division in Moldova.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Radio Svoboda’s “Schemes” and “Systems” investigative projects published a joint investigation on December 1 detailing how the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) created the “Redut” private military company (PMC) to recruit thousands of Russians for irregular combat service in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian partisans reportedly conducted a partisan attack against Russian military personnel in occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast, on December 1.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 1, 2023

Click here to read the full report


Karolina Hird, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan


December 1, 2023, 7:15pm 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.

 

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

 

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1pm ET on December 1. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 2 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi signaled intent to increase Ukrainian defenses and fortifications around the Ukrainian theater, but notably did not include Zaporizhia Oblast in discussions of ongoing and future defensive measures. Zelensky stated on November 30 that Ukrainian forces will strengthen their fortifications in all critical directions of the front, including the Kupyansk-Lyman line, oblasts in northern and western Ukraine, and Kherson Oblast, but particularly emphasized the Avdiivka and Marinka directions and other areas of Donetsk Oblast.[1] Zelensky additionally met with various Ukrainian operational group commanders and discussed Ukrainian defensive operations in the Avdiivka and Marinka directions.[2] Zaluzhnyi spoke with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown to discuss Russian offensive operations in the Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka directions.[3] Zelensky’s and Zaluzhnyi's statements notably identified the areas of the front where Ukrainian forces are chiefly focusing on defensive operations such as the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border line (between Kupyansk and Lyman), most of Donetsk Oblast (likely in reference to Bakhmut and the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis) and Kherson Oblast, but notably did not mention the Zaporizhia Oblast axis—suggesting that Ukrainian forces have not gone over to the defensive in this area. These statements generally accord with ISW's assessment that Russian forces have been trying to regain the theater-level initiative in Ukraine since at least mid-November by conducting several simultaneous offensive operations in the areas where Ukrainian forces have transitioned to chiefly defensive actions.[4] In a separate interview with AP on December 1, Zelensky warned that in addition to the impacts that winter weather conditions are likely to have on the frontline, Russia will likely resume an intense air campaign against critical Ukrainian infrastructure.[5]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to falsely characterize Russian offensive efforts in Ukraine as part of an “active defense” in an effort to temper expectations about the Russian military’s ability to achieve operationally significant objectives. Shoigu stated on December 1 during a conference call with Russian military leadership that Russian forces are conducting an “active defense” in Ukraine and are capturing more advantageous positions in every operational direction.[6] Shoigu distinguished the 15th Motorized Rifle Brigade (2nd Combined Arms Army, Central Military District), 114th Motorized Rifle Brigade (1st Donetsk Peoples Republic [DNR] Army Corps), and the 4th and 123rd Motorized Rifle Brigades (both of the 2nd Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR] Army Corps) for their service.[7] All of these elements are reportedly or likely operating in areas where Russian forces are conducting offensive operations in eastern Ukraine and not defending against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.[8] Shoigu and Putin both previously called Russian offensive operations to capture Avdiivka an "active defense” following the failure of the first Russian mechanized push to achieve significant tactical gains in early October 2023.[9] Russian forces launched two subsequent large-scale pushes to capture Avdiivka since early October 2023 and continue a high tempo of attritional infantry assaults around the settlement.[10] Russian officials’ characterization of these offensives as being part of an "active defense” are intentionally misleading. Ukrainian forces have never conducted offensive operations at scale in the Avdiivka area since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Avdiivka has been a famously static Ukrainian defensive position since 2014. Russian leadership has nevertheless continued to falsely frame operations around Avdiivka as an ”active defense” likely to recontextualize the lack of any major Russian progress around Avdivka despite over two months of large-scale Russian attacks there.[11]

The Russian military command would have to pursue an identifiable operational objective if it acknowledged the operations to capture Avdiivka as an offensive effort. The "active defense” framing, therefore, allows the Russian military leadership to declare success as long as Russian forces prevent Ukrainian forces from making any significant gains, an entirely achievable objective considering that Ukrainian forces are not conducting and never have conducted counteroffensive operations in the area. The Russian command’s "defensive" framing of the offensive effort around Avdiivka as well as localized offensive operations elsewhere in eastern Ukraine suggests that it lacks confidence in the Russian military's ability to translate tactical gains into operationally significant advances.[12] Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently concerned about decreasing Russian support for the war ahead of the 2024 Russian Presidential elections, has likely chosen to downplay the scale of Russian operations to the Russian public.[13] The increasing disconnect between heavy Russian losses in these offensive efforts and the Russian command’s framing of these operations may nevertheless fuel discontent in the wider Russian information space.

Ukrainian intelligence reportedly damaged another train along a section of the Baikal-Amur Railway on December 1 in an apparent effort to degrade Russian logistics in the Russian Far East. Ukrainian media reported that Ukrainian intelligence sources stated that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) conducted a special operation that damaged another train carrying fuel as it passed over a bridge along an unspecified part of the northern bypass of the Baikal-Amur Railway.[14] The SBU reportedly planned the operation to coincide with the expected rerouting of train traffic following the November 30 explosions in the Severomuysky Tunnel that disrupted a section of the East Siberian Railway in the Republic of Buryatia and damaged a fuel train, which Ukrainian media also connected to the SBU.[15] Russian sources claimed that the explosions on December 1 also occurred in the Republic of Buryatia and that six fuel tanks were completely or partially damaged.[16] Russian outlet Baza reported that travel is still blocked through the Severomuysky tunnel.[17] Ukrainian media reported that Ukrainian intelligence observed the Russian military using the railway to transfer equipment and supplies, although there are no indications that the December 1 explosions damaged the bridge along the Baikal-Amur Railway and will cause long-term disruptions.[18] The Baikal-Amur Railway and the Eastern Siberian Railway are the two major railways in the Russian Far East and connect Russia to China and North Korea, both countries on which Russia is increasingly relying for economic and military support to sustain its war effort in Ukraine.[19]

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially changed the composition of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on December 1, removing several members and appointing a prominent anti-opposition media figure. Putin signed a decree on December 1 that officially removed Russian lawyers Genri Reznik and Shota Gorgadze, Novaya Gazeta journalist Leonid Nikitinsky, North Caucasus-based missing person's peacekeeping mission head Alexander Mukomolov, and Independent Expert Legal Counsel head Mara Polyakov.[20] Neither the text of the decree nor Russian media offered explanations for the removal of the aforementioned HRC members. The decree also notably nominates "public figure" Alexander Ionov to the HRC, along with several other Russian civil society figures.[21] Russian opposition media noted that Ionov has been a member of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service since 2021 and that Ionov lodged successful appeals against Russian opposition outlets Meduza and The Bell, after which the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the outlets as "foreign agents."[22] The US Treasury has sanctioned Ionov since July 2022 for his role in supporting "the Kremlin's global negative influence operations and election interference efforts."[23] Putin last changed the composition of the HRC in November 2022, which ISW assessed was an effort to stifle domestic opposition and give prominence to figures who propagate the Kremlin's major informational lines.[24]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that a second group of Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip arrived in Chechnya on December 1, possibly partially funded by his daughter’s ”Children of Chechnya - Children of Palestine” organization. NOTE: A version of this text appears in ISW-CTP's December 1 Iran Update. Kadyrov published footage claiming to show 116 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip, including 60 children, arriving in Chechnya and claimed that it is Chechnya’s "moral duty” to help the civilians of the Gaza Strip.[25] Kadyrov claimed that his daughter and head of the Grozny City Hall Preschool Education Department, Khadizhat Kadyrova, provided the children gifts through the ”Children of Chechnya - Children of Palestine” organization. Kadyrov announced Kadyrova‘s patronage of the organization in a Telegram post on November 11, encouraging his followers to purchase crafts made by Chechen preschoolers to fund humanitarian aid for Palestinian Muslims.[26] Regional outlet Caucasian Knot reported on November 15 that the organization raised more than 68 million rubles to purchase aid for Palestinians.[27] Caucasian Knot reported on November 16, citing unnamed Chechen government officials, that Kadyrov pressured Chechen officials to spend up to a third of their monthly salaries buying crafts from the "Children of Chechnya - Children of Palestine” organization.[28] Chechnya’s Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Development stated on November 18 that fundraisers for the organization are taking place "in all corners” of Chechnya.[29] ISW cannot independently verify this footage or any of Kadyrov’s claims, however. But if true, Kadyrov may be using the funds from this organization to at least partially finance the relocation of Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip, an effort that could help Kadyrov in his quest to balance his desire to curry favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin with the need to appeal to his own Chechen constituency.[30] Kadyrov posted footage on November 29 purportedly showing an initial group of 50 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip arriving in Chechnya.[31] Kadyrov’s claims and the alleged work of the ”Children of Chechnya-Children of Palestine” organization reflect the Kremlin’s shift to a much more anti-Israel positions in the Israel-Hamas war.[32]

Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s disproportionate allocation of drones among frontline units and poorly-executed grassroots drone production campaigns are impacting frontline unit effectiveness. Russian milbloggers complained on December 1 that some decentralized grassroots campaigns aimed at arming Russian frontline units with new drones are failing to design battlefield-effective drones, sometimes developing “toys” instead of weapons.[33] The milbloggers complained that Russian drone manufacturers base the development of new drones on stylized and cinematic battlefield footage of Russian kamikaze drones striking Ukrainian equipment, resulting in these ineffective “toy” drones that can produce cinematic effects but struggle to further tactical objectives. The milbloggers claimed that the strikes that such footage depict are often “pretty” but ineffective, and claimed that Russian frontline units must conduct such strikes and produce such footage for the Russian MoD and grassroots drone manufacturers to continue allocating drones to those units.[34] These complaints are indicative of the struggles that the Russian MoD and other states with a highly centralized system face when implementing and integrating technological advances onto the battlefield. ISW has observed no indications that these frontline drone struggles have significantly impacted Russian military capabilities in Ukraine. The Russian milbloggers largely appear to focus on reiterating common complaints about the MoD prioritizing idealized lies that obfuscate harsh battlefield realities at the expense of Russian military personnel.[35] One milblogger claimed that the worst impact of these ineffective drones was that their ineffectiveness threatens frontline Russian soldiers.[36]

Russian sources complained that Russian soldiers' continued use of personal electronics and messaging apps in frontline areas is jeopardizing Russian operational security (OPSEC). A prominent pro-Russian "hacktivist" released an alleged Ukrainian intelligence report on November 30 that shows Ukrainian intercepts of Russian personal communications from one day on one sector of the front.[37] The Russian source complained that this alleged report is relatively small compared to other such reports the source has obtained and complained that all WhatsApp and other messages that Russian military personnel send end up in Ukrainian interceptions, including documents, conversation screenshots, and media files.[38] One Russian milblogger responded to this post and claimed that neither warnings nor "detailed lectures" on the dangers of using WhatsApp and SMS systems in combat areas appear to affect Russian soldiers’ communication habits. The source concluded that "WhatsApp is killing" Russian personnel and that commanders need to crack down on Russian personnel’s use of these applications.[39] Another milblogger responded that Russian soldiers' use of WhatsApp informs Ukraine where Russian forces are going to attack.[40] Russian units have continually struggled with proper adherence to OPSEC principles in key frontline and rear areas throughout the war thus far, particularly pertaining to personal cellphone use in combat areas.[41] The Russian military command largely blamed Russian cellphone use for a devastating Ukrainian strike on a concentration area in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on New Years Eve 2022, and it appears as though Russian command has largely failed to remedy such issues over the course of the past year.[42]

Russian forces conducted another missile and drone strike against Ukraine on the night of November 30-December 1. The Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Russian forces launched 25 Shahed 131/136 drones and two Kh-59 missiles primarily targeting areas in eastern and southern Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces downed 18 of the drones and one of the missiles.[43]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi signaled intent to increase Ukrainian defenses and fortifications around the Ukrainian theater, but notably did not include Zaporizhia Oblast in discussions of ongoing and future defensive measures.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to falsely characterize Russian offensive efforts in Ukraine as part of an “active defense” in an effort to temper expectations about the Russian military’s ability to achieve operationally significant objectives.
  • Ukrainian intelligence reportedly damaged another train along a section of the Baikal-Amur Railway on December 1 in an apparent effort to degrade Russian logistics in the Russian Far East.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin officially changed the composition of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) on December 1, removing several members and appointing a prominent anti-opposition media figure.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that a second group of Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip arrived in Chechnya on December 1, possibly partially funded by his daughter’s ”Children of Chechnya - Children of Palestine” organization.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s disproportionate allocation of drones among frontline units and poorly-executed grassroots drone production campaigns are impacting frontline unit effectiveness.
  • Russian sources complained that Russian soldiers' continued use of personal electronics and messaging apps in frontline areas is jeopardizing Russian operational security (OPSEC).
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev claimed on December 1 that the Russian military has recruited over 452,000 personnel between January 1 and December 1, 2023.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to set conditions for the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia under various vacation schemes.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 30, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Riley Bailey, George Barros, and Frederick W Kagan

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:40pm ET on November 30. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the December 1 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

A recent Russian opinion poll indicates that the number of Russians who fully support the war in Ukraine has almost halved since February 2023 and that more Russians support a withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine than do not. Independent Russian opposition polling organization Chronicles stated that data from its October 17-22, 2023, telephone survey indicates that respondents who are “consistent” supporters of the war - those who expressed support for the war, do not support a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine without Russia having achieved its war aims, and think that Russia should prioritize military spending - decreased from 22 percent to 12 percent between February 2023 and October 2023.[1] Chronicles stated that 40 percent of respondents supported a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine without Russia having achieved its war aims, and that this number has remained consistent at about 39 to 40 percent throughout 2023. Chronicles stated that 33 percent of respondents did not support a Russian withdrawal and favored a continuation of the war and noted that this number has been consistently decreasing from 47 percent in February 2023 and 39 percent in July 2023. Recent polling by the independent Russian polling organization Levada Center published on October 31 indicated that 55 percent of respondents believed that Russia should begin peace negotiations whereas 38 percent favored continuing the war.[2]

The Russian war in Ukraine has created new social tensions and exacerbated existing ones within Russia, which remain highly visible in the Russian information space despite ongoing Kremlin censorship efforts. Relatives of mobilized personnel continue making widespread complaints and appeals for aid for mobilized personnel despite reported Russian efforts to censor such complaints.[3] Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii reported on November 29 that Russians have sent over 180,000 complaints about issues concerning the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to the Russian Presidential Office for Working with Citizens’ Appeals since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.[4] The majority of these complaints reportedly concern payments to soldiers, mobilization status, missing persons, and poor medical care.[5] The Kremlin has also been capitalizing on recent ethnic tensions in Russia to support ongoing force generation measures and appeal to Russian ultranationalists, establishing a cycle that keeps these tensions at the forefront of ultranationalist dialogue.[6] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that protest activity and social tension are increasing in Russia, particularly in western Russia, due to the war in Ukraine and that the top echelons of Russian leadership are discussing these tensions.[7] The GUR noted that increasing crime, alcohol abuse, inflation, and high consumer goods prices also contribute to rising social tensions, and many of these factors are likely exacerbated by the continued Russian war in Ukraine.[8] The Kremlin has consistently failed to place Russian society on a wartime footing to support the Russian war effort, and the shifting poll numbers and exacerbated social tensions indicate that this failure is having a tangible effect on Russian society ahead of the 2024 Russian presidential elections.[9]

The Kremlin is likely concerned about how changing Russian perceptions of the Russian war in Ukraine will affect the outcome of the March 2024 Russian presidential election and is implementing measures to ensure that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actual electoral support does not rest on Russian battlefield successes. Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly center his presidential campaign on Russia’s alleged domestic stability and increased criticism of the West instead of focusing on the war.[10] Putin and other Russian government officials have already signaled their intention to intensify censorship efforts by claiming that some Russian citizens who left Russia and others still in Russia have begun efforts to discredit the upcoming Russian presidential elections and that Russia will do “everything necessary” to prevent election meddling.[11] Russian authorities have also attempted to consolidate control over the Russian information space and have intensified measures encouraging self-censorship.[12] Russian milbloggers suggested that Russian political officials financing Telegram channels ordered milbloggers to cease debates and criticisms about the Russian military prior to the Russian presidential elections.[13] The Kremlin has likely attempted to shore up popular support for Putin throughout Russia by establishing a network of “proxies” to campaign on Putin’s behalf.[14]

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov confirmed on November 30 that Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold his annual live “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference in tandem on December 14.[15] Putin will likely use the tandem event to roll out his still unannounced presidential campaign following the official start of the Russian presidential campaign season on December 13.[16]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov notably did not promote Kremlin information operations feigning interest in negotiations during his speech at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in North Macedonia on November 30, and instead promoted escalatory rhetoric about Moldova. Lavrov claimed that the OSCE is turning into an appendage of NATO and the European Union (EU) and said that the organization is "on the brink of an abyss.”[17] Lavrov’s speech notably did not include a long-standing Russian information operation aimed at portraying Russia as willing to negotiate with Ukraine.[18] Lavrov previously claimed on November 27 that the West is currently trying to "freeze" the war to gain time and rearm Ukraine for future attacks on Russia.[19] The OSCE is meant to serve as a neutral platform in negotiations, among other functions, and would have provided an appropriate diplomatic forum for Lavrov to promote negotiations with the West, but Lavrov notably made no such overture. Russia previously weaponized the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine to support Russian information operations to obfuscate Russia’s participation in its initial hybrid war against Ukraine, which Russia began in 2014, and to support Russian operations.[20] Russian forces reportedly commandeered OSCE off-road vehicles to support Russian combat operations in Luhansk Oblast in January 2023.[21]  Lavrov’s criticism of the OSCE reflects Russia’s continuing unwillingness to engage in serious cooperation with the OSCE that would be necessary to start meaningful negotiations. Lavrov used his speech to threaten Moldova by claiming that it would become the “next victim in the West’s hybrid war against Russia.”[22]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov also argued that negotiations with Ukraine would be disadvantageous to Russia on November 29 due to Russia’s more "strategically and economically advantageous position.”[23] Kadyrov claimed that Russia must make Ukraine’s leadership surrender. Kadyrov does not speak for the Kremlin, but his statement reflects a wider shift in Russian rhetoric portraying a pause in Russian offensive operations as detrimental to the prospects for a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Russian forces conducted multiple series of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine that struck civilian infrastructure on November 29 and 30. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched eight S-300 missiles and 20 Shahed-131/136 drones on the night of November 29-30.[24] Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces downed 14 of the drones.[25] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed the first wave of Shahed drones over Odesa Oblast and that Russian forces then launched drones in several directions towards northern and western Ukraine, including Khmelnytskyi Oblast.[26] Ihnat continued to praise the work of Ukrainian mobile fire groups in shooting down Russian drones.[27] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command stated that a Russian drone damaged a historic preserved building in Odesa Oblast.[28] Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihor Klymenko stated that S-300 missiles struck residential buildings and police departments in Pokrovsk, Novohrodivka, and Myrnohrad in Donetsk Oblast.[29] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on November 29 that there were several explosions near the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant within a 20-minute period and warned that several nuclear sites in Ukraine are exposed to Russian strikes.[30] The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces launched seven Shahed drones during the day on November 30 and that Ukrainian forces shot down five of the drones.[31]

Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian military bureaucracy is impeding Russian drone usage and acquisition among Russian forces operating on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities on the east bank. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) warehouses storing various types of drones and electronic warfare (EW) equipment are full despite drone shortages among Russian forces operating on the left bank of Kherson Oblast.[32] The milblogger claimed that Russian authorities are not interested in reading through applications and filling out the paperwork associated with sending new drones to the frontline.[33] The milblogger also complained that Russian personnel have to “go through seven circles of hell” in order to request a replacement drone.[34] Another prominent milblogger outlined the seven pieces of information that Russian units need to submit to the Russian military to record the destruction of a drone and request a replacement, which include proving that the drone had been destroyed during normal weather conditions and that Russian forces were not using electronic warfare systems at the time of the drone’s destruction.[35] Other Russian milbloggers recently complained on November 25 that military bureaucracy at the brigade and division level is preventing Russian frontline soldiers from applying for drones directly from the MoD.[36] ISW has previously reported that Russian milbloggers have complained about various problems among Russian forces operating on the east bank of Kherson Oblast but has observed that these alleged problems do not necessarily translate into significant battlefield effects.[37] The founder of a Ukrainian drone company, Maksym Sheremet, told Forbes Ukraine in an article published on November 29 that Russian companies manufacture approximately 300,000 first-person viewer (FPV) drones per month.[38]

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) was reportedly involved in an explosion that caused disruptions on a section of the East Siberian Railway connecting Russia and China on the night of November 29. Russian Railways and the East Siberian Transport Prosecutor’s Office stated that a freight train caught fire in the Severomuysky Tunnel on the Itykit-Okusikan section of the East Siberian Railway in the Republic of Buryatia on the night of November 29.[39] Russian Railways stated that the fire did not interrupt train traffic, but Russian opposition outlet Baza stated that 10 trains were delayed.[40] Baza reported that two railway cars carrying diesel fuel detonated, igniting six total railway cars.[41] Several Ukrainian outlets reported that Ukrainian intelligence sources stated that four explosive devices detonated on the railway as part of an SBU operation and that the railway line, which is one of the two major railway lines between Russia and China and is used to transport military supplies, is “paralyzed.”[42] Russian opposition outlet Astra stated that Russia uses the railway to transport weapons from North Korea.[43] The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that disruptions in railway lines in Russia are becoming more frequent and are causing serious logistics complications due to the resulting delays.[44]

The Kremlin continues to advance its strategic slow-burn effort to absorb Belarus through the Union State structure. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development and Belarusian Ministry of Economy agreed to a new package of Union State integration measures for 2024-2026 to advance the Kremlin’s effort to absorb Belarus through the Union State on November 29.[45] Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will likely sign the integration package during an upcoming Union State Supreme State Council meeting, possibly in 2024.[46] Lukashenko has previously resisted the Kremlin’s efforts to further integrate Belarus into the Union State, although recent events, including the death of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the collapse of the June 24, 2023 agreement between Putin, Prigozhin, and Lukashenko that gave Wagner sanctuary in Belarus, have likely degraded Lukashenko’s ability to resist further Union State integration efforts.[47] Lukashenko recently portrayed himself as the guarantor of Belarusian statehood ahead of Belarusian parliamentary elections in 2024 and presidential elections in 2025, stating on November 10 that incoming young Belarusian leaders should ascend to office with the goal of “saving the country [Belarus].”[48]

Key Takeaways:

  • A recent Russian opinion poll indicates that the number of Russians who fully support the war in Ukraine has almost halved since February 2023 and that more Russians support a withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine than do not.
  • The Russian war in Ukraine has created new social tensions and exacerbated existing ones within Russia, which remain highly visible in the Russian information space despite ongoing Kremlin censorship efforts.
  • The Kremlin is likely concerned about how changing Russian perceptions of the Russian war in Ukraine will affect the outcome of the March 2024 Russian presidential election and is implementing measures to ensure that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actual electoral support does not rest on Russian battlefield successes.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov confirmed on November 30 that Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold his annual live “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference in tandem on December 14.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov notably did not promote Kremlin information operations feigning interest in negotiations during his speech at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in North Macedonia on November 30, and instead promoted escalatory rhetoric about Moldova.
  • Russian forces conducted multiple series of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine that struck civilian infrastructure on November 29 and 30.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian military bureaucracy is impeding Russian drone usage and acquisition among Russian forces operating on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities on the east bank.
  • The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) was reportedly involved in an explosion that caused disruptions on a section of the East Siberian Railway connecting Russia and China on the night of November 29.
  • The Kremlin continues to advance its strategic slow-burn effort to absorb Belarus through the Union State structure.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed advances.
  • A Ukrainian military observer stated that Russian authorities’ plan to form two tank battalions in about four months using equipment from two long-term weapons and equipment stores indicates a lack of combat-ready weapons and military equipment.
  • Occupation and Russian government officials continue efforts to militarize Ukrainian youth in occupied Ukraine.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 29, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, George Barros, and Frederick W Kagan

November 29, 2023, 7pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on November 29. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 30 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The apparent Russian failure to establish a cohesive command structure among forces defending on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast continues to degrade Russian morale and combat capabilities. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on November 29 that elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) operating near Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River) are refusing to conduct assaults on Ukrainian positions due to a lack of artillery coordination, tactical intelligence transmission, and proper communication about the location of Russian minefields.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that maps of the Russian minefields are classified and that Russian commanders have not properly coordinated with assault units about the locations of these minefields, leading to 50 casualties among elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade in the last month.[2] Elements of the 810th Naval Infantry brigade arrived in the Krynky area in early October 2023 and appear to have taken over responsibility for the immediate Krynky area from elements of the newly created 18th Combined Arms Army (CAA) following the start of Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank of the Dnipro in mid-October 2023.[3] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the 18th CAA’s 28th Motorized Rifle Regiment is currently operating in Pishchanivka (14km east of Kherson City and 3km from the Dnipro River).[4] Additional elements of the 18th CAA and the 7th Airborne (VDV) Division reportedly hold positions in near rear areas on the east bank, and the joint command of these formations is likely overseeing much of the current Russian response to the Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank.[5] The reported minefield incident suggests that the command of the 18th CAA did not share relevant tactical details with the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade’s command, suggesting that higher-level Russian commanders responsible for the defense of the east bank have yet to remedy this failure in coordination.

The Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces is increasingly comprised of disparate elements of recently transferred and degraded units and new formations, which may be contributing to this apparent lack of cohesive command structure. Elements of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade and 177th Naval Infantry Brigade (Caspian Flotilla) transferred to the Kherson direction likely after sustaining heavy casualties defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast in the summer of 2023.[6] The majority of the 7th VDV Division’s combat elements are currently still defending in western Zaporizhia Oblast, although the 7th VDV’s 171st Air Assault Battalion (97th VDV Regiment) and 104th Separate Tank Battalion are reportedly operating on the east bank of Kherson Oblast.[7] Elements of the 49th CAA (Southern Military District) have reportedly been operating in the Kherson direction since the Ukrainian liberation of Kherson City in November 2022, but some Russian and Ukrainian sources claim that the Russian command has since redeployed elements of at least one of its brigades to the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.[8] The newly created 18th CAA’s 70th Motorized Rifle Division and 22nd Army Corps (formerly of the Black Sea Fleet) are operating on the east bank.[9] Elements of the newly created 104th VDV Division’s 328th VDV Regiment are reportedly defending in the Krynky area, and Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets stated that additional elements of the 104th VDV Division are currently deploying to the Kherson direction.[10] ISW previously observed elements of the 80th Motorized Rifle Brigade (14th Army Corps, Northern Fleet) operating on the left bank in July 2023, and November 28 reports of 14th Army Corps Deputy Commander Major General Vladimir Zavadsky’s death in the Kherson direction suggests that these elements may still be in the area.[11] Elements of the 41st CAA (Central Military District) reportedly transferred from the Kupyansk direction to Kherson Oblast in early October and may be defending on the east bank.[12]

The Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces, therefore, appears to be comprised of elements of the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla, the Southern Military District, the Central Military District, the Northern Fleet, and the VDV. Russia’s other grouping of forces in Ukraine largely correspond with Russia’s military districts reinforced in some cases with VDV units, making the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces a notable aberration. The unnamed force grouping in charge of the Russian defense in western Zaporizhia Oblast is primarily comprised of elements of the 58th CAA (Southern Military District) reinforced with elements of several VDV regiments but has not suffered any of the apparent coordination issues that the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces has faced. The Russian military command should be able to form groupings of forces interchangeably between formations from different military districts and combined arms armies. Persistent Russian issues with sharing situational awareness between units and creating common operating pictures and coherent command structures throughout Ukraine have likely incentivized the creation of groupings of forces comprised of formations and units largely from the same military districts as mitigations.[13] The recent arrival of likely degraded, understaffed, and undertrained Russian elements to the Kherson direction and their immediate commitment to defensive operations has likely further complicated Russian efforts to create a coherent command structure for the disparate elements of the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces.[14] The Russian military command appointed VDV Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky as Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander on October 29, 2023, and one of Teplinsky’s main objectives is likely to establish a more unified command for the grouping.[15] The Russian military command is unlikely to remedy the “Dnepr” Grouping of Force’s command issues in the short term, however, and the continuation of Ukrainian ground operations on the left bank will likely only complicate these efforts. It is not yet clear if the command-and-control challenges facing Russian forces in Kherson will generate notable battlefield effects.

Russian forces launched a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 28 to 29. Ukrainian military sources reported on November 29 that Russian forces launched three Kh-59 missiles, primarily targeting Khmelnytskyi City, and 21 Shahed-131/-136 drones at targets in Ukraine.[16] Ukrainian air defenses destroyed two of the three Kh-59s and all of the Shahed drones over Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts. The Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that the third Kh-59 missile did not reach its target.[17] The Ukrainian General Staff later reported that Russian forces also launched a Kh-31 missile and two S-300 missiles targeting civilian infrastructure in an unspecified location.[18] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat reported that Russian forces are flying drones over riverbeds and highways to avoid Ukrainian mobile fire groups that have deployed throughout Ukraine.[19]

Russian authorities plan to extend criminal liability for crimes against the law on military service to participants in volunteer formations, a measure that would impact many irregular military formations and personnel on which the Russian military relies for manpower in Ukraine. Russian media reported on November 29 that the Russian State Duma adopted a bill in its first reading extending criminal liability for crimes against regular military service to volunteer servicemen.[20] Russian volunteer servicemen are currently exempt from existing legislation that holds Russian conscripts, contract servicemen, and reservists liable for crimes committed while performing combat missions. The new bill empowers Russian military courts to try volunteer servicemen for select crimes including desertion, failure to comply with an order, resistance to or violent actions against a superior, unauthorized leaving of a place of service, evasion of duties by feigning illness, and intentional or accidental destruction, damage, or loss of military property. Russian senators previously called for the introduction of criminal penalties for volunteer servicemen for “improper performance of their contractual duties” and desertion.[21] This legislation may impact the Kremlin’s ongoing volunteer recruitment efforts if the threat of criminal liabilities outweighs incentives for volunteer service such as high salaries and additional social benefits.[22]

Russian officials proposed laws that would restrict the actions of foreign citizens in Russia, likely to support continued efforts to coerce migrants into Russian military service. Russian Duma deputies Alexei Zhuravlev, Mikhail Matveev, and Dmitri Kuznetsov proposed a bill that would consider migration violations an aggravating circumstance in a criminal offense.[23] Zhuravlev, Matveev and Kuznetsov cited figures that Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin released on September 25 claiming that the number of serious crimes that foreign citizens committed in Russia increased by 32 percent from 2022 to 2023.[24] Kremlin newswire TASS reported on November 28 that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) proposed a bill that would require all foreigners entering Russia to sign a ”loyalty agreement” banning them from discrediting Russian domestic and foreign policy, denying Russian family values, or “disrespecting the diversity of regional and ethnocultural ways of life” in Russia among other restrictions.[25] The proposed measures likely seek to increase Russian law enforcement’s ability to investigate and arrest migrants with foreign citizenship as part of an effort to coerce them into Russian military service. Russian authorities are also continuing efforts to coerce migrants with Russian citizenship into the Russian military by threatening to revoke their citizenship and forcibly issuing them military summonses.[26]

The NATO–Ukraine Council (NUC) met at the foreign minister-level for the first time on November 29 and discussed steps to increase weapons and ammunition production. NATO reported that it is developing a roadmap for full Ukrainian interoperability with NATO and reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s democratic and security sector reforms “on its path toward future membership in NATO.”[27] Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that the NUC discussed increasing the production of weapons and ammunition and noted on the sidelines of the NUC that the European Union (EU) has provided Ukraine with 300,000 rounds of ammunition of the promised 1 million.[28]

Poland is reportedly considering sending military advisors to Finland in response to Russia's ongoing attempts to artificially create a migrant crisis on the Finnish-Russian border as part of a known Russian hybrid warfare tactic meant to destabilize NATO and the EU. Polish Secretary of State and Head of the Polish National Security Bureau Jacek Siewiera stated on November 28 that during Finnish President Sauli Niinistö's official visit to Poland, Niinistö requested "allied support" against the hybrid Russian attack on the Finnish border.[29] Siewiera reported that Poland intends to respond to the request by sending a team of military advisors to Finland to provide "on-site knowledge on border security" and other unspecified operational support.[30] Finnish authorities announced on November 28 that Finland will close the last open border checkpoint at midnight on November 30 until at least December 13, following Russia's artificial creation of a migrant crisis on the Finnish border that started on November 18.[31] Russian sources, including Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov and a prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger, responded negatively to Siewiera's announcement and claimed that it is "excessive" and meant to prepare Finland for a confrontation against Russia in the Arctic.[32] Poland has experienced the impacts of Russian hybrid warfare firsthand on its borders from a Russian-orchestrated migrant crisis on the Poland-Belarus border in fall of 2021, and Finland likely seeks to leverage Poland's knowledge of such crises to address the current situation on the Finnish border.[33] Poland and Finland both belong to a number of military, political, economic, and diplomatic organizations, including NATO, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) formally announced Russia’s termination of a nuclear reduction pact with Japan on November 28.[34] The Russian MFA stated that the bilateral agreement with Japan on cooperation in nuclear weapons reduction, initially signed in 1993, will terminate on May 21, 2024, six months after Russia’s formal notification of termination.[35] Kremlin newswire TASS reported on November 9 that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed an order approving Russia’s termination of the bilateral agreement with Japan.[36] Japanese news outlet the Japan Times reported that the agreement allowed Japan to support the decommissioning of weapons, including Russian nuclear submarines.[37] The Russian MFA claimed that Russia is withdrawing from the agreement against the backdrop of ”the openly anti-Russian policy of [Japanese Prime Minister Fumio] Kushida’s administration” including Japanese sanctions against Russia and alleged increasing Japanese military activity near the Japanese-Russian border.[38] The Japan Times also noted that Russia has withdrawn from several other bilateral negotiations and initiatives following the imposition of Japanese sanctions against Russia after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[39]

Russia's efforts to generate combat power via recruitment from Central Asian countries may become a source of tension in Russia's relationship with its Central Asian neighbors. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Central Asian service Radio Azattyk reported on November 28 that a Kazakh court sentenced Kazakh citizen Alexei Shompolov to six years and eight months in prison on charges of mercenarism.[40] Shompolov reportedly fought in a Wagner Group artillery unit near Bakhmut.[41] Shompolov's case represents the second charge of mercenarism pursued by a Central Asian country against a combatant who fought for Russia in Ukraine—an Uzbek court similarly sentenced an Uzbek man who fought with Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) troops in Ukraine in 2014–2015 on October 31.[42] Russian milbloggers responded to Shompolov's sentencing by criticizing Kazakh leadership for taking an "anti-Russian" stance and questioned if Kazakh authorities would similarly charge Kazakh citizens who fought in the Ukrainian army.[43] Russia's continued insistence on leveraging Central Asian populations for force-generation purposes, both within Central Asian countries and in Central Asian migrant communities in Russia itself, is likely to create friction between Russia and its neighbors as Central Asian countries use mercenarism laws to punish residents who fought for Russia.[44]

Adam Kadyrov, younger son of Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov, will reportedly “oversee” the newly formed “Sheikh Mansur” volunteer battalion in a new unspecified position, possibly further indicating Ramzan Kadyrov’s desire for Adam to succeed him as head of Chechnya. Chechen Republic Parliament Deputy Magomed Daudov claimed on November 29 that Adam will “oversee” the battalion but did not provide additional information regarding Adam’s official title, although the role may be more ceremonial than combat- or command-oriented given Adam’s age.[45] Daudov stated that Adam also received the star of the “Sheikh Mansur” Battalion award. Ramzan Kadyrov has previously appeared increasingly favorable to Adam in recent months, including appointing Adam to a prominent yet unspecified “important position” in the Chechen secret service.[46]

Key Takeaways:

  • The apparent Russian failure to establish a cohesive command structure among forces defending on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast continues to degrade Russian morale and combat capabilities.
  • The Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces is increasingly comprised of disparate elements of recently transferred and degraded units and new formations, which may be contributing to this apparent lack of cohesive command structure.
  • Russian authorities plan to extend criminal liability for crimes against the law on military service to participants in volunteer formations, a measure that would impact many irregular military formations and personnel on which the Russian military relies for manpower in Ukraine.
  • Russian officials proposed laws that would restrict the actions of foreign citizens in Russia, likely to support continued efforts to coerce migrants into Russian military service.
  • The NATO-Ukraine Council (NUC) met at the foreign minister-level for the first time on November 29 and discussed steps to increase weapons and ammunition production.
  • Poland is reportedly considering sending military advisors to Finland in response to Russia's ongoing attempts to artificially create a migrant crisis on the Finnish-Russian border as part of a known Russian hybrid warfare tactic meant to destabilize NATO and the EU.
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) formally announced Russia’s termination of a nuclear reduction pact with Japan on November 28.
  • Russia's efforts to generate combat power via recruitment from Central Asian countries may become a source of tension in Russia's relationship with its Central Asian neighbors.
  • Adam Kadyrov, younger son of Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov, will reportedly “oversee” the newly formed “Sheikh Mansur” volunteer battalion in a new unspecified position, possibly further indicating Ramzan Kadyrov’s desire for Adam to succeed him as head of Chechnya.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed advances.
  • Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Head and Duma Deputy Leonid Slutsky proposed a bill on November 28 that would grant war correspondents "combat veteran" status and associated social support benefits.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to erase Ukrainian culture and identity in occupied Ukraine. 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 28, 2023

click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Mason Clark

November 28, 2023, 7:45pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on November 28. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 29 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated a two-part conception of Russian identity in a speech on November 28: a “Russian nation” – claimed to include Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians – at the center of Russian identity; and a wider “Russian world” including other non-East Slavic ethnicities in both modern Russia and the former territory of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire. Putin made a lengthy speech on Russian identity at the World Russian People’s Council on November 28. Putin reiterated his previous false claims that the “Russian nation” and people are composed of ethnic Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who were artificially and violently divided via policy miscalculations during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, arguing Russia (the state) should unify this “Russian nation.”[1] Putin defined the concept of the Russkiy Mir as a union of people who feel a spiritual connection to the “Motherland,” consider themselves to be native Russian speakers, and are carriers of Russian history and culture regardless of their national or religious affiliation. Putin, however, pointed out that there cannot be Russia (as a state) or the Russkiy Mir without ethnic Russians and implied that current Russian citizens and “all other peoples who have lived and are living in [Russia]” make up Russia. Putin geographically defined the Russkiy Mir as the Ancient Rus’ (Kyivan Rus), the Kingdom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation, indicating that the Kremlin’s concept likely also includes “Russian compatriots” in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Putin also expanded his definition of “Western Russophobia” to include claimed aggression against other ethnicities such as Tatars, Chechens, Yakuts, and Buryats, in addition to ethnic Russians. Putin also called on Russian federal subjects to strengthen and protect Russia’s cultural and religious diversity. Putin previously outlined similar definitions of “ethnically Russian people” in his “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” essay in July 2021.[2] Putin’s November 28 speech draws a clear distinction between Putin’s vision of the Russian nation as a “triune people“ composed of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, while other regional identities in Russia make up Russia as a country and shared “Russian world.“ Putin’s articulation of a Russian nation (including Ukrainians and dominated by Moscow) reiterates longstanding Kremlin justifications for its invasion of Ukraine and aggression toward its neighbors, and Putin’s claim that “western Russophobia” affects all the ethnicities in the Russian state is likely intended to rally support among Russian citizens who are not ethnically Russian for Putin’s war.

Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow stated that Russia needs to “significantly adjust” its migration policies for the “preservation of Russian culture,” highlighting the perceived superiority of ethnic Russians to other regional ethnicities. Kirill argued during a speech at the World Russian People’s Council on November 28 that Russia’s current migration policies allow self-segregated migrant communities in Russia to create “closed ethnic enclaves” that “are a breeding ground for corruption, organized ethnic crime, illegal migration, terrorism, extremism, and tension within Russian society.”[3] Kirill stated that a migrant’s economic productivity or Russian citizenship does not free them from the requirement to respect Russian society, people, and traditions. Kirill warned that migrants are “changing the appearance of Russian cities” and “deforming” Russia’s singular linguistic, cultural, and legal traditions. Kirill added that Russian companies’ profits cannot be more important than the values of the Russian state. Kirill’s remarks follow several weeks of increasingly frequent anti-migrant rhetoric within Russian society and presentations of anti-migrant legislation by Russian officials.[4] Patriarch Kirill’s anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric is more closely aligned with Russian government policies towards migrants and non-Russian ethnicities in Russia than Putin’s claimed inclusivity under the ”Russian world.”

Russian officials appear to be attempting to further disenfranchise migrants living in Russia, likely to support ongoing efforts to coerce migrants into military service while also appeasing increasingly xenophobic Russian ultranationalists. Kremlin news wire TASS reported on November 28 that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) drafted a proposed bill that would create a “controlled stay” regime in Russia for migrants who do not have legal grounds for staying in the country, including those with expired or nullified migration documents and those who have illegally entered Russia.[5] The bill will reportedly propose the following restrictions on migrants in Russia on the controlled stay regime: a ban on the migrants’ ability to register legal entities and as individual entrepreneurs, engage in real estate transactions, purchase and sell vehicles, drive a car, obtain a driver’s license, open a bank account, transfer money, or get married.[6] The draft bill will reportedly require migrants living under the regime to notify authorities about their residence and travel from Russia and will subject migrants who violate the restrictions to deportation or detention in a special facility.[7]

The restrictions of the proposed migration status likely aim to further alienate large numbers of migrants from economic and social life in Russia and make military service one of the few avenues for remaining in the country. Russian authorities are engaged in an ongoing widespread effort to coerce both migrants and naturalized Russian citizens into signing military contracts by threatening deportation and loss of citizenship.[8] Russian authorities are also engaged in a parallel effort to compel migrants to fight in Ukraine in exchange for Russian citizenship.[9] The proposed bill also likely aims to appease Russian ultranationalists who have increasingly called for harsh crackdowns on migrant communities and have bemoaned Russian migration policies.[10] One Russian ultranationalist called the restrictions half-measures and urged Russian authorities to enact even more restrictive policies on migrants.[11] The Kremlin appears to be continuing to struggle to reconcile efforts to increase Russian industrial capacity while also coercing migrants into military service and disincentivizing them from working in Russia.[12] Efforts to appease Russian ultranationalists may explain the increasingly inconsistent and contradictory Kremlin policies concerning the coercion of migrants into military service and the growing strains on the Russian domestic labor force.[13]

The Kremlin continues to focus heavily on setting informational conditions for the upcoming 2024 Russian presidential elections and will likely formally commence Putin’s “campaign” on December 14. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 28 that Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko held a closed meeting in November 2023 with the heads of occupation administrations and unspecified Russian federal subjects during which he delivered directives for strengthening preparations for elections.[14] These directives reportedly include allocating social assistance to voters from regional budgets and the intensifying rhetoric about supposed positive trends in the Russian economy.[15] This reported focus on economic well-being is consistent with previous reports that the Kremlin intends to downplay the Russian war in Ukraine ahead of the elections.[16] Kiriyenko reportedly ordered occupation heads to issue Russian passports to 85 percent of residents in occupied Ukraine before the presidential elections in March 2024, likely to support efforts to falsely claim large voter turnout and legitimize the Kremlin’s control of occupied territories.[17] Russian Communist Party Head Gennady Zyuganov stated on November 28 that the Russian Federation Council will officially announce the start of the Russian presidential campaign on December 13, 2023.[18] Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly hold his annual live “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference in tandem on December 14, and the official start of the campaign on December 13 further suggests that the Kremlin plans to use the tandem event as the rollout for Putin’s presidential campaign.[19]

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on November 28 that unspecified actors poisoned GUR Head Kyrylo Budanov’s wife Marianna Budanova.[20] Yusov stated that Budanova is currently undergoing treatment and could not confirm or deny reports of the poisoning of GUR employees.[21] Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda reported, citing unspecified sources, that unspecified actors also poisoned other GUR employees who are now undergoing treatment.[22] An unspecified Ukrainian special services official told Ukrainian outlet RBK-Ukraine that Budanov had not been poisoned.[23]

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law significantly increasing Russian federal expenditures in 2024, reportedly including a record level of defense spending. Putin signed the law on the 2024 federal budget and the planned budgets for 2025 and 2026 on November 27.[24] The 2024 federal budget accounts for 36.66 trillion rubles ($412.5 billion) in state expenses and a budget deficit of 1.6 trillion rubles ($9.5 billion).[25] The Russian Finance Ministry estimated in October 2023 that 2023 budget expenditures amounted to 32.5 trillion rubles ($365.7 billion), suggesting that the 2024 budget will account for a roughly 13 percent increase in overall expenditures.[26] Russian business journalists Farida Rustamova and Maksim Tovkalyo stated on November 15 that Russian authorities plan to spend 14 trillion rubles ($157.5 billion) on defense and law enforcement, representing 39 percent of all federal government spending.[27] Reuters reported on October 2 that the 2024 budget would allocate 10.78 trillion rubles ($121.3 billion) to national defense, representing 29.4 percent of the national budget.[28] The Russian Finance Ministry reportedly allocated 6.41 trillion rubles ($72.1 billion) to defense in 2023, although this number is likely higher given that a substantial portion of the Russian federal budget is still classified.[29] The roughly third or more of the federal budget going to defense spending, if true, will represent a record level of Russian defense spending.[30] The federal budget does not amount to the entirety of Russian spending on defense, however, as the Kremlin has relied on regional budgets and private business entities to augment funding for the ongoing war effort.[31] The draft budgets for 2025 and 2026 have roughly just as large expenditures as the 2024 budget, 34.38 trillion rubles ($387.9 billion) and 35.59 trillion rubles ($400.4 billion) respectively, and suggests that the Kremlin is planning to allocate large portions of its expenditures to support a long war effort in Ukraine.[32]

A prominent Russian milblogger continued to highlight mid-level command problems among Russian forces operating on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast, amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities and the vulnerability of Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) on the east bank. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian personnel in smaller units such as the 1822nd Battalion did not know their commanding officers or details about their supervisory structure “for a long time.”[33] The Russian milblogger claimed that unspecified company commanders in the 1822nd Battalion continually ordered units to capture islands in the Dnipro River Delta despite suffering heavy losses and conducting minimal casualty evacuations and that the 1822nd Battalion’s personnel could not contact a higher-level commander to address their complaints.[34] The milblogger noted that the Russian military command ordered elements of the 1822nd Battalion to capture islands in the Dnipro River as a punishment while contract soldiers remain on the east bank, suggesting that the 1822nd is mainly staffed with mobilized personnel.[35] The milblogger claimed that ”respected authorities” are investigating problems in the 1822nd Battalion and that mid-level Russian commanders are attempting to identify the personnel who originally voiced their complaints.[36] The milblogger concluded that Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky “inherited a difficult legacy” in reference to persistent problems among Russian forces operating in the east bank of Kherson Oblast.[37]

A Russian insider source claimed on November 28 that Russian authorities detained at least three additional Moscow-based Federal Security Service (FSB) employees in connection with a 5-billion-ruble ($55.6 million) bribery case. The insider source claimed that Russian authorities detained “Ushakov” and two unnamed “Directorate M” employees.[38] The source claimed that Russian authorities are also holding two of the FSB’s “Directorate T” employees in a pre-trial detention center and are investigating other senior FSB employees as part of the same investigation. ISW reported on November 17 that Russian authorities detained several FSB employees on November 10 and 16 for accepting a bribe to dismiss a corruption case against the Merlion Group of Companies, a Russian IT company and technology distributor.[39] ISW cannot confirm the most recent detentions, but they are consistent with the previously reported detentions.

Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Mehdi Farhi announced on November 28 that Russia and Iran finalized the purchase of Russian aircraft.[40] Iranian news agency Tasnim, citing Farhi, reported that Russia will provide Iran with an unspecified number of Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 combat training aircraft. Iranian media and the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technology reported in early September that the Iranian Air Force had received Russian Yak-130s based on social media footage.[41] Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty observed that Iran last bought foreign aircraft from the Soviet Union in 1990.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated a two-part conception of Russian identity in a speech on November 28: a “Russian nation” – claimed to include Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians – at the center of Russian identity; and a wider ‘Russian world” including other non-East Slavic ethnicities in both modern Russia and the former territory of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire.
  • Head of the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill of Moscow stated that Russia needs to “significantly adjust” its migration policies for the “preservation of Russian culture,” highlighting the perceived superiority of ethnic Russians to other regional ethnicities.
  • Russian officials appear to be attempting to further disenfranchise migrants living in Russia, likely to support ongoing efforts to coerce migrants into military service while also appeasing increasingly xenophobic Russian ultranationalists.
  • The Kremlin continues to focus heavily on setting informational conditions for the upcoming 2024 Russian presidential elections and will likely formally commence Putin’s “campaign” on December 14.
  • Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on November 28 that unspecified actors poisoned GUR Head Kyrylo Budanov’s wife Marianna Budanova.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law significantly increasing Russian federal expenditures in 2024, reportedly including a record level of defense spending.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger continued to highlight mid-level command problems among Russian forces operating on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast, amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities and the vulnerability of Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) on the east bank.
  • A Russian insider source claimed on November 28 that Russian authorities detained at least three additional Moscow-based Federal Security Service (FSB) employees in connection with a 5-billion-ruble ($55.6 million) bribery case.
  • Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Mehdi Farhi announced on November 28 that Russia and Iran finalized the purchase of Russian aircraft.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Kupyansk and Avdiivka.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov announced on November 27 that Chechnya formed two new regiments and one battalion subordinated under the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and an operational battalion subordinated under Rosgvardia.
  • Occupation administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts signed an agreement to develop closer economic ties with Rostov and Voronezh oblasts on November 28.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 27, 2023

click here to read the full report

Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Mason Clark

November 27, 2023, 6:00pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on November 27. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 28 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

A cyclone in the Black Sea and southern Ukraine caused infrastructure damage in many areas of coastal southern Russia and occupied Ukraine and is impacting the tempo of military operations along the frontline in Ukraine, but has notably not stopped military activity entirely. Russian sources posted images and footage of the impact of the cyclone on civilian and transportation infrastructure in coastal areas of Krasnodar Krai, including near Sochi, Anapa, Gelendzhik, Novorossiysk, and Taupse.[1] Ukrainian and Russian sources also noted that coastal areas of occupied Crimea, occupied Kherson Oblast, and much of Odesa Oblast were heavily impacted by heavy snow and high winds, leaving large swaths of the population without electricity.[2] The Ukrainian Navy and Ukraine's Southern Operational Command notably reported that dangerous weather in the Black Sea forced Russia to return all of its naval vessels and missile carriers to their base points.[3] A prominent Russian milblogger warned that the threat of mines in the Black Sea will increase for both military and civilian vessels in the coming days because the storm has broken boom nets and dispersed minefields, causing mines to drift throughout the northwestern Black Sea.[4] Several sources also reported that the storm damaged rail lines in coastal areas, which may have logistical ramifications for Russian forces in occupied Crimea and southern Ukraine.[5]

Despite the challenging weather conditions, both Russian and Ukrainian forces are continuing ground attacks throughout Ukraine, albeit at a slightly slower pace due to snow and resulting poor visibility. Russian milbloggers noted that heavy snow and winds have reduced visibility and complicated aerial reconnaissance and artillery correction in the Kherson direction, but noted that Ukrainian forces have taken advantage of low visibility conditions to consolidate positions on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.[6] Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun reported that Russian forces in the Tavriisk direction (ranging from Avdiivka all the way through western Zaporizhia Oblast) have reduced artillery use by one and a half times and drone use six times due to the weather but emphasized that Russian forces continue to heavily use aviation in the Avdiivka direction.[7] Challenging winter conditions will force both sides to rely more heavily on infantry-led ground attacks in the absence of aerial reconnaissance and artillery correction capabilities.[8]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and several Russian milbloggers stated that Russia must maintain active operations in Ukraine and expressed worry over the prospect of further Western military support to Ukraine, though some milbloggers additionally expressed increased discontent with the perceived lack of articulated Russian war aims and stated Russia must clarify its war aims before discussing any pause or end to the war. Lavrov claimed on November 27 that the West is currently trying to "freeze" the war to gain time and rearm Ukraine for future attacks on Russia.[9] Several Russian milbloggers similarly claimed that any "truce" or pause in the war will only benefit Ukraine and allow Ukrainian forces to rest, refit, and relaunch offensive operations.[10] One prominent critical milblogger claimed that a pause in the war will allow Ukraine to conduct a "Minsk-3," alluding to the previous Minsk agreements that temporarily paused large-scale combat operations in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 but ultimately allowed Russia to prepare for the full-scale invasion in 2022.[11] The critical milblogger also observed that any discussions regarding pauses or negotiations in the war will be particularly harmful to Russia because Russia has failed to clearly define war aims or conditions necessary for a Russian victory.[12] The milblogger noted that the lack of a clear definition for victory has caused internal destabilization within Russia.[13] Other Russian milbloggers noted that Ukraine still controls several territories that Russia has claimed to have (illegally) annexed, arguing that Russia should not see any negotiations until or unless Russia can capture the rest of the four occupied oblasts (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts), as well as Odesa and Mykolaiv oblasts.[14]

Renewed discussion of hypothetical negotiations underlined Russia’s lack of clearly articulated war aims and are causing significant anxiety in the pro-war Russian information space. Some milbloggers claimed that Russia cannot even consider the possibility of pausing the war until they have fully captured the four occupied Ukrainian oblasts, while other milbloggers advocated for more maximalist aims such as the capture of Odesa and Mykolaiv oblasts, in which Russia currently has no presence (with the exception of a small Russian presence on the Mykolaiv Oblast side of the Kinburn Peninsula).[15] The apparent lack of consensus as to what exactly would constitute a Russian victory is compounding anxieties over the perceived pace of the war in the Russian information space —an anxiety that is increasingly reflected in the highest levels of the Russian government. ISW has previously reported that select voices in the Russian information space, namely deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, advocated for freezing the lines in Ukraine to afford Russian troops the ability to rest and reconstitute, but Lavrov's statement against any sort of pause in Ukraine is an explicit rejection of this argument, as well as a tacit acceptance of a protracted war in Ukraine.[16] Clear Russian concern about Ukraine's ability to rearm and relaunch offensives in the case of the pause highlights Russia’s concern over continued NATO and Western support for Ukraine. Russia is rapidly replacing losses and belatedly moving its economy to a war footing, and ISW continues to assess that the Kremlin would leverage any pause or ceasefire to prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine.[17] Ukraine's partners have the capability to sustain and accelerate aid to Ukraine and enable Ukraine to restore maneuver to the battlefield.[18]

Ukrainian National Defense and Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated that the Kremlin has activated a network of sleeper agents in Ukraine in the past few months to destabilize Ukrainian society. Danilov stated in an interview with the Times published on November 27 that these sleeper agents are embedded in public institutions and threaten Ukrainian security agencies, including the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).[19] Danilov stated that these sleeper agents aim to undermine Ukrainian unity by causing fractures between Ukrainian political and military leadership, as well as between Ukrainian civilians and the government. Danilov warned that these sleeper agents are specifically exploiting alleged tensions between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and are additionally targeting female relatives of Ukrainian soldiers to foment anti-government sentiments as part of these efforts to fracture Ukrainian society.

Russia’s attempt to artificially create a migrant crisis at the Finnish border appears to be failing due to Finnish authorities’ swift response. Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo stated on November 27 that the Finnish government will close the last border crossing with Russia “if necessary” and reported that the Finnish government is ready to take unspecified additional measures in response to Russia’s artificially generated migrant crisis.[20] Finland previously closed three checkpoints on the Finnish-Russian border on November 23, leaving only its northernmost border crossing open.[21] Several other Finnish government officials also signaled their support for closing the entire border with Russia.[22] A Russian insider source claimed that Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko instructed Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) Head Vladimir Kolokoltsev to gather migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and other regions to send them to the Finnish border.[23] The insider source complained that Finnish border authorities stopped most migrants from crossing into Finland and that Russian authorities must now settle the migrants in Russia.[24]

The Kremlin appears to be shifting responsibility for potential future austerity measures onto Russian occupation heads and the heads of four select Russian republics. Russian state news outlet Kommersant reported on November 27 that the Russian Ministry of Finance’s 2024 subsidy provision agreements will directly assign budget deficit responsibilities to the heads of the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Tuva and the heads of the four Russian occupation administrations in Ukraine.[25] The Russian Ministry of Finance reportedly plans to add additional obligations to the subsidy agreements with the four Russian republics and the four occupation administrations in order to reduce gaps between regional income and expenses and will withdraw federal subsidies if these regional and occupation administrations fail to lower budget deficits.[26] These additional obligations will ask republic and occupation heads to sign promises levels of targeted spending of federal money on social programs; increase the efficiency of their respective budgetary institutions; refuse to expand the number of state employees; and not increase state salaries above the inflation level.[27] The additional obligations will also reportedly require that the heads of these administrations increase state revenue collection and agree with the Ministry of Finance’s 2025 draft budget.[28] The heads of the republic and occupation administrations reportedly have until December 18, 2023, to sign the 2024 subsidy provision agreements with the new obligations or refuse subsidies for the upcoming year.[29] These obligations appear to amount to an austerity package as increases to state revenue collection will likely require tax hikes, while targeted spending for social programs may portend cuts to existing regional and occupation programs. 

The Russian Ministry of Finance reportedly selected the occupation administrations and the four republics because of their high ratio of federal subsidies to regional income.[30] The Russian government has heavily subsidized regions in the North Caucasus since the Chechen wars and has almost completely subsidized occupied territories in Ukraine following their illegal annexation into Russia.[31] Federal subsidies reportedly accounted for 54 percent of the Republic of Tuva’s budget revenue in 2020, making it the most subsidized Russian federal subject, followed by the republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia.[32] Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov stated on September 11 that Russia has a plan to reduce its overall budget deficit in the coming years amid continued significant spending on the war in Ukraine.[33] The potential austerity measures in the most subsidized Russian federal subjects and the almost entirely subsidized occupation administrations may represent the beginning of a wider set of measures to cut budget deficits while maintaining defense spending. The Kremlin may have instructed the Russian Ministry of Finance to shift responsibility for the measures directly onto the republic and occupation administrations to prevent the Kremlin from bearing the expected discontent for austerity. The Kremlin may have also chosen the occupied territories and four non-ethnic Russian republics to contain social discontent in non-ethnic Russian areas and existing areas of concern ahead of the 2024 Russian presidential elections.

The Kremlin may risk undermining Russian integration efforts in occupied territories and prompt discontent in federal subjects if it pursues significant austerity measures. Large-scale federal spending on infrastructure and social programs, as well as preferential tax codes and benefits, have been a central component of the Russian effort to establish economic and social control over occupied territories in Ukraine, and potential austerity measures may complicate these efforts. Concerns about domestic discontent in the North Caucasus have recently intensified alongside heightened ethnoreligious tensions in Russia, and economic strains may make this discontent more pronounced.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • A cyclone in the Black Sea and southern Ukraine caused infrastructure damage in many areas of coastal southern Russia and occupied Ukraine and is impacting the tempo of military operations along the frontline in Ukraine, but has notably not stopped military activity entirely.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and several Russian milbloggers stated that Russia must maintain active operations in Ukraine and expressed worry over the prospect of further Western military support to Ukraine.
  • Some milbloggers additionally expressed increased discontent with the perceived lack of articulated Russian war aims and stated Russia must clarify its war aims before discussing any pause or end to the war.
  • Ukrainian National Defense and Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated that the Kremlin has activated a network of sleeper agents in Ukraine in the past few months to destabilize Ukrainian society.
  • Russia’s attempt to artificially create a migrant crisis at the Finnish border appears to be failing due to Finnish authorities’ swift response.
  • The Kremlin appears to be shifting responsibility for potential future austerity measures onto Russian occupation heads and the heads of four select Russian republics.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and did not make confirmed advances.
  • Deputy Commander of the Russian Navy Lieutenant General Viktor Astapov confirmed on November 27 that the Russian navy is reorganizing naval infantry brigades into divisions in order to increase their combat capabilities.
  • Likely Ukrainian partisans continue to target Russian occupation elements throughout occupied Ukraine.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 26, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 26, 2023, 6:30pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:15pm ET on November 26. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 27 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted a series of Shahed drone strikes on Ukraine on the night of November 25-26. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched nine Shahed-136/131 from Primorsko-Akhtarsk direction and that Ukrainian air defenses shot down eight drones.[1] Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, like other Ukrainian officials on November 25, continued to praise the actions of Ukrainian mobile fire groups in intercepting Russian drones.[2] Nayev stated that mobile fire groups will receive foreign-made man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) in the near future.[3]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly conducted a large-scale drone strike on Russian territory, and Russian occupation officials accused Ukrainian forces of launching a strike on occupied Donetsk Oblast that resulted in widespread power outages. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses shot down 24 Ukrainian drones over Moscow, Tula, Kaluga, Bryansk, and Smolensk oblasts on the night of November 25-26 and on the morning of November 26.[4] Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin stated that one drone crashed into an apartment building in Tula City after Russian air defenses shot it down.[5] Ukrainian outlet Suspilne, citing its own unnamed sources, reported that the overnight Ukrainian drone strike on Russia was a GUR special operation.[6] Russian sources, including Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin, also claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a large artillery and HIMARS strike on power distribution substations in occupied Donetsk Oblast overnight, causing electricity outages in many settlements and cities, including Donetsk City, Mariupol, and Manhush.[7]

Russian forces reportedly complained about the vulnerability of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities on the east bank. A Russian milblogger claimed on November 26 that personnel of the Russian 70th Motorized Rifle Division (of the newly formed 18th Combined Arms Army) often write to him complaining about the vulnerability of Russian logistics in the east bank of Kherson Oblast near Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson Oblast and 2km from the Dnipro River) to Ukrainian drone strikes.[8] The milblogger also agreed with another Russian milblogger’s previous claims that Russian forces in this area struggle with unit coordination as well as commanders’ negligence at the company and battalion levels.[9] The milblogger suggested that Russian forces near Krynky should create a separate anti-drone company staffed by personnel of the separate reconnaissance battalion of the 70th Motorized Rifle Division to protect Russian GLOCs.[10] Russian GLOCs on left bank Kherson Oblast, such as the E58 Antonivka-Sahy highway (about 5-8km away from the Dnipro River), are located close to the Dnipro River shoreline, making them vulnerable to Ukrainian interdiction. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers have repeatedly complained about Russian forces near Krynky suffering from problems, such as insufficient fire support, unit coordination, electronic warfare (EW), counterbattery, and air defense, but has observed that these reported problems do not always translate into significant battlefield effects.[11] Russian sources have continually claimed that Russian forces are unable to push Ukrainian forces out of Krynky and that Ukrainian forces are currently unable to make operationally significant advances in the east bank area.[12]

Russia continues to face skilled and unskilled labor shortages amid inconsistent and contradictory Kremlin policies that disincentivize Russians who fled Russia and migrant workers from working in Russia while simultaneously trying to increase Russian industrial capacity and force generation. Russian State Duma Chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin claimed on November 25 that many Russians who left Russia because of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine are returning to Russia because they could not find work abroad.[13] Volodin warned that Russia is not “waiting with open arms” to accept returning Russians and claimed that they “committed treason against Russia, relatives, and friends.”[14] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger agreed with Volodin’s statements on November 26 but noted that Russia continues to face severe skilled labor shortages and characterized the number of returning Russians as “catastrophically small.”[15] The milblogger added that the labor shortages have increased the number of migrants seeking jobs in Russia and criticized Russian authorities for their “open door policy” on migration.[16] The Russian government appears to be struggling to reconcile incoherent and competing objectives by prioritizing crypto-mobilization efforts to send manpower to the frontline at the expense of Russia’s national labor force while simultaneously enforcing policies that restrict migrants’ prospects to work in Russia.[17] Russian law enforcement agencies are also coercing migrants both with and without Russian citizenship into Russian military service, further reducing the migrants’ ability to augment Russia’s labor force.[18] The Kremlin’s incoherent and contradictory policies seek to achieve mutually exclusive objectives of reducing negative shocks to Russia’s domestic labor force, while disincentivizing migrants from working in Russia and enticing Russians to return from abroad while not providing them opportunities to work and trying to recruit them into a war they fled. The poor implementation of these policies has not generated any apparent or imminent threats to the Russian economy or war effort at this time, however.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted a series of Shahed drone strikes on Ukraine on the night of November 25-26.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reportedly conducted a large-scale drone strike on Russian territory, and Russian occupation officials accused Ukrainian forces of launching a strike on occupied Donetsk Oblast that resulted in widespread power outages.
  • Russian forces reportedly complained about the vulnerability of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities on the east bank.
  • Russia continues to face skilled and unskilled labor shortages amid inconsistent and contradictory Kremlin policies that disincentivize Russians who fled Russia and migrant workers from working in Russia while simultaneously trying to increase Russian industrial capacity and force generation.
  • Russian forces continued attacks along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • The Russian Supreme Court ruled that certain Russian mobilized individuals have the right to serve in the Russian Alternative Civil Service (AKS) rather than on the front lines.
  • Russian occupation officials continue to establish programs aimed at indoctrinating Ukrainian children in occupied Ukraine into Russian national and cultural identities.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 25, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 25, 2023, 6:45pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:45pm ET on November 25. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 26 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces launched the largest drone strike against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion overnight on November 24 to 25 using a new modification of the Iranian Shahed 131/136 drones.[1] Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched 75 Shahed drones that mainly targeted Kyiv City from the southeast (Primorsko-Akhtarsk) and northeast (Kursk Oblast) and that Ukrainian forces shot down 74 drones.[2] Ukrainian military officials also reported that Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian Kh-59 cruise missile over Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and that air defenses activated in at least six regions, including Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, and Kirovohrad oblasts.[3] Ukrainian Air Force officials stated that mobile fire groups enabled Ukrainian forces to shoot down a significant number of drones.[4] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky observed that Russian forces launched the drone attack on the Ukrainian remembrance day of the 1932-1933 Holodomor man-made famine.[5]

Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat reported that Russian forces attacked Kyiv with a new modification of Shahed drones and noted that these drones were black in color and contained a material that absorbs radar signals, making them more difficult to detect.[6] Russian milbloggers similarly claimed that Russian forces used “black Geran” or “Feran” (the Russian name for Shaheds) drones for the first time and claimed that these drones are more challenging to detect in the night sky.[7] Iranian media published footage on November 19 showing the Iranian Ashura Aerospace University of Science and Technology presenting the new Shahed-238 jet-powered modification of the Shahed-136 drone.[8] The presented Shahed-238 appeared to be black in color, but it is unknown if Russian forces used the Shahed-238 modification during the November 25 strike.

Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to grapple with the challenges electronic warfare (EW) systems pose on the front. The Economist reported on November 23 that superior Russian EW systems are impeding Ukrainian reconnaissance, communication, and strike capabilities.[9] The Economist, citing Western experts, stated that Russia has placed a “huge focus” on producing and developing superior EW capabilities and that Ukraine is struggling to produce equivalent EW systems and EW-resistant weapons domestically. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi assessed in his essay “Modern Positional Warfare and How to Win It” that Ukrainian forces need to introduce necessary command and control (C2) processes for EW complexes, increase EW production capabilities, streamline engagements with volunteer organizations that provide smaller EW complexes to Ukrainian forces, improve Ukraine’s counter-EW measures, and develop new drones with EW in mind.[10] The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 25 that it is working to develop drone variants more resistant to Russian EW systems and produce successful variants at scale.[11] Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) Deputy Director of Analysis Margarita Konaev and CSET Fellow Owen Daniels reported on September 6, 2023, that Russian adaptations to the deployment of EW systems continue to present challenges for Ukrainian drones transmitting targeting information and securing Ukrainian signals.[12] Russian sources previously credited superior Russian EW capabilities for aiding Russian forces’ defense against Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine in June 2023.[13]

Russian sources have also repeatedly expressed concerns and complaints about perceived inadequacies in Russian EW systems, however.[14] Russian sources credited superior Ukrainian EW and aerial reconnaissance systems for Ukrainian advances south of Bakhmut in September 2023 and claimed that Ukrainian EW systems were significantly disrupting Russian communications in western Zaporizhia Oblast in August 2023.[15] ISW reported on November 25 that the effectiveness of Russian EW systems is inconsistent across the front, allowing the Ukrainians to continue to use drone-based reconnaissance-strike complexes to disrupt Russian offensive operations.[16] Russian milbloggers have been inconsistent in their assessments of which side has “superior” EW systems, indicating that neither Russia nor Ukraine currently has a decisive advantage over the other.[17] Western aid in support of Ukrainian efforts to destroy, disrupt, or bypass Russian EW systems would increase Ukraine’s ability to strike targets near the front precisely, disrupting Russian advances, and setting conditions for further Ukrainian offensive operations.[18]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on November 25 that Ukraine’s Western partners agreed to transfer warships to Ukraine to protect Ukraine’s grain corridor in the Black Sea.[19] Zelensky stated during a speech at the “Grain from Ukraine” conference in Kyiv that Ukraine and unspecified international partners reached an agreement to enable Ukraine to provide sea escorts for merchant ships transporting grain from Ukrainian ports in the near future. Zelensky added that Ukraine’s partners also agreed to provide “very powerful” air defense systems to defend Odesa Oblast. Zelensky noted that the “Grain from Ukraine” initiative has delivered more than 170,000 tons of grain to Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen in the past year.[20] Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics, Swiss President Alain Berset, and Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte also attended the conference and expressed their support for the initiative.[21]

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Russia has not fulfilled arms export deals to Armenia and offered an alternative arrangement that would allow Russia to keep the weapons against the backdrop of recent deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations. Pashinyan stated on November 24 that Armenia has paid Russia for arms shipments but that Russia has not delivered the weapons or returned the money to Armenia.[22] Pashinyan offered the reduction of Armenia’s outstanding debt to Russia in the amount of the arms purchase as a solution, possibly as a means to decrease Armenia‘s economic ties to Russia. The Defense Ministry of India similarly reported a delay in Russia’s delivery of an S-400 missile system due to the war in Ukraine in 2022.[23] The head of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev, stated on August 14 that Russia will deliver the S-400 system to India on time by the end of 2024, however.[24] 

Infighting among Russian ultranationalist milbloggers, likely exacerbated by ethnic tensions, has compelled a prominent milblogger to close his Telegram channel. The milblogger announced on November 25 that he is temporarily closing his Telegram channel on November 25, and another milblogger claimed that supporters of Chechen “Akhmat” Spetsnaz forces subordinate to Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov threatened the first milblogger’s parents and admonished the “full-time military bloggers and journalists” for making the threats.[25] The second milblogger later claimed that readers began threatening him to avoid repeating the “fate” of the first milblogger and that he will apologize “sooner or later,” and the milblogger also claimed that he is confident that Akhmat commanders are not behind the attacks but mid-level “sheep.”[26] A third milblogger responded in support of the other two milbloggers, claiming that another user offered him money to take down his post in support of the first milblogger but to “think hard” because he is a “good person.” The milblogger disdained the request as “dishonorable.”[27] The first milblogger first drew the wrath of the “public relations people of Akhmat and Kadyrov” in early November when he criticized rumors that Wagner Group personnel were transferring to Akhmat units, drawing some support from other milbloggers when the Akhmat-affiliates targeted this milblogger in a defamation campaign.[28] These attacks allegedly from supporters of Kadyrov come during a period of especially high ethnoreligious tensions in Russia and as Kadyrov is increasingly attempting to curry and display Russian Vladimir Putin’s favor.[29]

Other milbloggers attributed increased infighting among ultranationalist voices about the war in Ukraine to Russian politics and the coming 2024 Russian presidential elections. One milblogger claimed that the “war” on Telegram and in the Russian media will temporarily end as Russian political “towers” - or political officials financing Telegram channels to advance their political goals - temporarily stop feuding until after the Russian presidential elections in March 2024.[30] The milblogger claimed that the “towers” may sacrifice some overzealous “pawns” as bargaining chips and noted that milbloggers and other prominent voices will either need to stop fighting or move to the sidelines.[31] Another milblogger claimed that this infighting is the result of Russian leadership playing politics and that Russia is fighting an enemy that wants to win the war at any cost.[32]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces launched the largest drone strike against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion overnight on November 24 to 25 using a new modification of the Iranian Shahed 131/136 drones.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to grapple with the challenges electronic warfare (EW) systems pose on the front.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on November 25 that Ukraine’s Western partners agreed to transfer warships to Ukraine to protect Ukraine’s grain corridor in the Black Sea.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Russia has not fulfilled arms export deals to Armenia and offered an alternative arrangement that would allow Russia to keep the weapons against the backdrop of recent deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.
  • Infighting among Russian ultranationalist milbloggers, likely exacerbated by ethnic tensions, has compelled a prominent milblogger to close his Telegram channel.
  • Other milbloggers attributed increased infighting among ultranationalist voices about the war in Ukraine to Russian politics and the coming 2024 Russian presidential elections.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on November 25 and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian military commanders are reportedly ignoring frontline units’ requests for drones.
  • Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration reported on November 24 that over 13,500 Ukrainians returned to Ukraine from Russia via a humanitarian corridor in Sumy Oblast since its establishment in July 2023.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 24, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 24, 2023, 7:30pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:30pm ET on November 24, and covers both November 23 and November 24 due to the fact that ISW did not publish a Campaign Assessment on November 23 in observance of the Thanksgiving Day holiday. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 25 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces began a renewed offensive effort towards Avdiivka on November 22, although likely with weaker mechanized capabilities than in the previous offensive waves that occurred in October. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi reported on November 23 that Russian forces launched a “third wave” of assaults as part of the Russia offensive operation in the Avdiivka direction, and Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun stated that this “third wave” began on November 22.[1] Shtupun reported a 25 to 30 percent increase in Russian ground attacks near Avdiivka on November 22 and stated that Ukrainian forces repelled several Russian columns of roughly a dozen armored vehicles in total during assaults.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled at least 50 Russian assaults in the Avdiivka direction on November 23 and 24.[3] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces continued offensive operations on Avdiivka’s northern and southern flanks but did not characterize any Russian assaults as heavily mechanized.[4] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces continued to advance north of Avdiivka and made further gains in the industrial zone southeast of Avdiivka but did not make any territorial claims consistent with a successful renewed large-scale Russian offensive push.[5]

Shtupun stated that Ukrainian forces destroyed three Russian tanks and seven armored fighting vehicles on November 22, suggesting that Russian forces are currently conducting a smaller set of mechanized assaults than in October.[6] Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces lost 50 tanks and 100 armored vehicles in renewed assaults on Avdiivka on October 19 and 15 tanks and 33 armored vehicles during the initial large, mechanized assaults on October 10.[7] Russian forces have lost a confirmed 197 damaged and destroyed vehicles in offensive operations near Avdiivka since October 9, and the Russian military appeared to spend the end of October and all of November preparing for a wave of highly attritional infantry-led ground assaults to compensate for these heavy-equipment losses.[8] Large infantry-led ground assaults will likely pose a significant threat to Ukrainian forces defending in the Avdiivka direction but will not lead to a rapid Russian advance in the area.

High-ranking Russian officials may be engaged in a wider scheme of forcibly adopting deported Ukrainian children. BBC Panorama and Russian opposition outlet Vazhnye Istorii published investigations on November 23 detailing how Just Russia Party leader Sergei Mironov adopted a 10-month-old Ukrainian girl whom Russian authorities forcibly deported from a Kherson City orphanage in autumn of 2022 alongside over 40 other children.[9] The investigations found that Mironov's new wife, Inna Varlamova, traveled to occupied Kherson Oblast, where occupation authorities issued her a power of attorney to deport two children—a 10-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy.[10] Both BBC and Vazhnye Istorii noted that Varlamova falsely introduced herself to the leadership of the children's home as the "head of children's affairs from Moscow," a position which she does not hold and that still would not legitimize the deportations of the children under international law.[11] Russian court documents show that Mironov and Varlamova then adopted the girl in November 2022, changed her name from her Ukrainian birth name to a new Russian name and the surname Mironova, and officially changed her place of birth from Kherson City to Podolsk, Russia.[12] Neither investigation could confirm the whereabouts of the two-year-old boy. Mironov notably responded to the investigation and called it a "fake from Ukrainian special services and their Western curators" meant to discredit him.[13]

Mironov and his wife, who reportedly holds a low-level unspecified position in the Russian Duma, follow in the footsteps of Russian Commissioner on Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, who has also adopted at least one Ukrainian child from occupied Mariupol.[14] While ISW can only confirm that these two Russian officials have forcibly adopted deported Ukrainian children at this time, the adoptions may be indicative of a wider pattern in which Russian officials adopt deported children in order to legitimize the practice in the eyes of the Russian public. Russian politicians may be adopting deported Ukrainian children to set administrative and cultural precedents for wider adoptions of Ukrainian children to further escalate Russia's campaign to deport Ukrainians to Russia. ISW continues to assess that the forced deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children likely amounts to a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[15]

Ukraine’s Western allies declared their commitment to further develop Ukrainian air defense capabilities during the 17th Ramstein Group virtual meeting on November 22. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Germany and France will lead a coalition of 20 countries to further develop Ukraine’s air defenses, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov added that the coalition will help Ukraine further develop its ground-based air defense systems.[16] Zelensky noted on November 23 that improved Ukrainian air defenses will save lives and resources, allow Ukrainian citizens to return from abroad, and deprive Russia of the ability to terrorize Ukraine.[17] Ramstein Group members also agreed on issues such as additional equipment and weapons for Ukraine during the winter of 2023–24, mine trawling and other security measures in the Black Sea, Ukraine’s NATO Interoperability Roadmap, and additional security assistance packages from the US, Germany, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Finland, the Netherlands, and Estonia.[18]

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Collective Security Council session in Minsk, Belarus on November 23 against the background of Armenia’s continued absence from recent CSTO events and exercises. Putin attended the session alongside Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and the CSTO’s Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov.[19] The summit marked the end of Belarus’ chairmanship of the CSTO, and Lukashenko stated that Kazakhstan will hold the chairmanship beginning December 31, 2023. Putin thanked the session’s attendees for contributing to the regional defense structure and highlighted expanding military-technical cooperation between CSTO member states. Putin stated during his bilateral meeting with Rahmon that Russia will deliver two air defense divisions equipped with S-300 air defense systems to Tajikistan as part of the CSTO’s unified air defense system.[20] [Correction Note: The previous sentence incorrectly referenced two air defense divisions equipped with S-300s. It has been corrected to read two air defense "battalions."]

Russian sources widely noted Armenia’s absence from the CSTO summit on November 23.[21] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also did not attend the CSTO’s summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on October 13 after Armenian forces refrained from participating in the CSTO “Indestructible Brotherhood-2023" exercises in early October.[22] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stated on November 23 that the Kremlin regretted Armenia’s absence in Minsk but stated that Armenia remains “an ally and strategic partner” to Russia.[23] The Kremlin has previously attempted to dispel concerns about the deterioration of Russian-Armenian relations.[24] Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Mnatsakan Safaryan reiterated that Armenia is not considering leaving the CSTO or asking Russia to withdraw its forces from Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia.[25]

Chinese businesses, including a prominent state-owned Chinese construction firm, are reportedly working with Russian businessmen to plan the construction of an underwater tunnel that would connect Russia with occupied Crimea. The Washington Post reported on November 24 that it corroborated information in emails provided by Ukrainian intelligence services that detail the formation of a Russian-Chinese business consortium that aims to build an underwater tunnel along the Kerch Strait connecting Russia to occupied Crimea.[26] Vladimir Kalyuzhny, identified by the emails as the general director of the consortium, reportedly messaged the Crimean occupation representative to the Russian President, Georgy Muradov, and stated that he has a letter from Chinese business partners attesting to the Chinese Railway Construction Corporation’s (CRCC) readiness to participate as a general contractor for the tunnel project.[27] The CRCC is under the supervision of China’s state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and is one of China’s largest construction firms.[28] The emails reportedly indicate that the CRCC stipulated that its involvement would occur through an unaffiliated legal entity and that an unnamed Chinese bank was willing to convert dollar funds into rubles to fund the consortium's projects.[29] Kalyuzhny, Crimean occupation head Sergei Aksyonov, and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov denied the Washington Post’s reporting.[30] The reported Russian interest in the tunnel project, which would likely take years to complete, is an additional indicator of deep Russian concern about the vulnerability of ground lines of communication (GLOCs) between Russia and occupied Crimea along the Kerch Strait Bridge.

European states are responding to Russia's continued orchestration of an artificially created migrant crisis on its northwestern borders. The Finnish government announced on November 22 that Finland will close three more checkpoints on the Finnish-Russian border from November 23 to December 23, leaving only the northernmost checkpoint open.[31] Norwegian Prime Minister Johan Gahr Store stated on November 22 that Norway would also close its border to Russia “if necessary.“[32] Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur stated on November 23 that an increased number of migrants have also arrived at the Estonian-Russian border and that Russia is organizing the arrivals as part of an effort to “weaponize illegal immigration.”[33] Reuters reported on November 23 that the Estonian Interior Ministry stated that Estonia has undertaken preparations to close its border crossings with Russia if “the migration pressure from Russia escalates.”[34] Latvian Prime Minister Evika Silina stated on November 24 that Latvia has experienced a similar influx of migrants on its border with Russia, and Silina and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo stated that these are Russian and Belarusian “hybrid attacks.”[35] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Finland on November 22 of “stirring up Russophobic sentiments” and interrupting border services that were an integral part of Russian–Finnish cooperation.[36] ISW previously assessed that Russia is employing a known hybrid warfare tactic similar to Russia’s and Belarus’s creation of a migrant crisis on the Polish border in 2021 that is likely similarly aimed at destabilizing NATO.[37]

The Russian Strelkov (Igor Girkin) Movement (RDS) called prior Russian regional elections and the upcoming Russian presidential election illegitimate, likely in an effort to establish Girkin’s inevitable presidential election loss as a long-standing grievance.[38] The RDS Congress issued a resolution on November 24 in which it claimed that unspecified actors are doing everything possible to preserve the existing system of power in Russia regardless of the political situation or Russian citizens’ will.[39] The RDS Congressional resolution issued a list of demands for Russian election reform and claimed that the RDS would not recognize any future elections as legitimate if the Russian government does not meet these demands.[40]

Russian law enforcement reportedly detained about 700 migrants at a warehouse in Moscow Oblast and issued some military summonses, likely as part of an ongoing effort to coerce migrants into Russian military service.[41] Russian sources reported on November 24 that Russian police and Rosgvardia raided a Wildberries (Russia’s largest online retailer) warehouse in Elektrostal, Moscow Oblast looking for migrants who had recently acquired Russian citizenship.[42] Russian law enforcement reportedly took about 135 detained migrants with Russian citizenship and transferred them to military registration and enlistment offices.[43] An unspecified Russian law enforcement official told Russian news outlet Interfax that Russian law enforcement conducted the raid as part of “Operation Migrant,” which aims to ensure that all naturalized citizens are registered for military service and issue them military summonses.[44] A Russian source claimed that Russian law enforcement also conducted a raid near the Wildberries warehouse on November 23, fined 16 migrants for violating migration protocols, and deported three.[45] The Wildberries press service stated this mass detention of migrants interrupted company’s shipments and put billions of dollars at risk.[46]

The Kremlin is reportedly renewing attempts to control all video surveillance systems in Russia, likely as part of ongoing efforts to intensify its tools of digital authoritarianism to increase domestic repressions. The Russian Ministry of Digital Development proposed an initiative to create a unified platform for storing and processing footage from all video surveillance systems in Russia, which would reportedly cost 12 billion rubles (about $134 million).[47] Kommersant reported that there are about 1.2 million surveillance cameras in Russia, about half of which are currently accessible to the Russian government.[48] The Russian Ministry of Digital Development reportedly plans to increase the number of surveillance cameras across Russia to five million by 2030 and integrate all of them with facial and image recognition software.[49] Kommersant also noted that the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations attempted a similar initiative in 2020 to 2022 as part of the Hardware and Software Complex “Safe City” project aimed at standardizing and installing surveillance systems with artificial intelligence software in Russian regions but faced criticism from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and Russian Ministry of Economy.[50]

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces began a renewed offensive effort towards Avdiivka on November 22, although likely with weaker mechanized capabilities than in the previous offensive waves that occurred in October.
  • High-ranking Russian officials may be engaged in a wider scheme of forcibly adopting deported Ukrainian children.
  • Ukraine’s Western allies declared their commitment to further develop Ukrainian air defense capabilities during the 17th Ramstein Group virtual meeting on November 22.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Collective Security Council session in Minsk, Belarus on November 23 against the background of Armenia’s continued absence from recent CSTO events and exercises.
  • Chinese businesses, including a prominent state-owned Chinese construction firm, are reportedly working with Russian businessmen to plan the construction of an underwater tunnel that would connect Russia with occupied Crimea.
  • European states are responding to Russia's continued orchestration of an artificially created migrant crisis on its northwestern borders.
  • The Russian Strelkov (Igor Girkin) Movement (RDS) called prior Russian regional elections and the upcoming Russian presidential election illegitimate, likely in an effort to establish Girkin’s inevitable presidential election loss as a long-standing grievance.
  • Russian law enforcement reportedly detained about 700 migrants at a warehouse in Moscow Oblast and issued some military summonses, likely as part of an ongoing effort to coerce migrants into Russian military service.
  • The Kremlin is reportedly renewing attempts to control all video surveillance systems in Russia, likely as part of ongoing efforts to intensify its tools of digital authoritarianism to increase domestic repressions.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and marginally advanced in some areas.
  • The Russian aviation industry is likely under significant constraints due to international sanctions and demands from the Russian defense industrial base (DIB).
  • The Russian occupation authorities continue efforts to indoctrinate Ukrainian children in occupied Ukraine into Russian national and cultural identities.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 22, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 22, 2023, 7:30pm ET

Note: ISW and CTP will not publish a campaign assessment (or maps) tomorrow, November 23, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Coverage will resume Friday, November 24.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on November 22. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reframed the Kremlin’s stance on the Israeli-Hamas war to a much more anti-Israel position in an attempt to demonstrate the supposed hypocrisy of Western condemnations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin stated that attendees of the G20 summit who expressed shock at the continued Russian war in Ukraine should instead be “shocked” by the “bloody” 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent war that the “Kyiv regime waged against its own people” in Donbas and by the “extermination of the civilian population in Palestine, in the Gaza sector.”[1] Putin’s November 22 statement on the Israel-Hamas war referring to the “extermination of the civilian population of Palestine” was a departure from previous Kremlin framing that largely focused on calling for peace and claiming that the Israel-Hamas war will distract from the provision of Western military aid to Ukraine.[2] Putin’s November 22 framing of the Israeli-Hamas war continues to exploit that war to undermine Western support for Ukraine, as ISW has previously assessed, and also signals potentially increasing support for Iranian interests in the region and an increased willingness to antagonize Israel.[3]

Putin also reiterated boilerplate rhetoric falsely portraying Russia as willing to engage in meaningful negotiations, likely to pressure the West into prematurely pushing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. Putin stated that the world must “think about how to stop this tragedy [the Russian-initiated war in Ukraine],” falsely signaling a willingness to engage in meaningful peace negotiations in Ukraine.[4] Putin and other Russian officials have routinely falsely claimed that the Kremlin is ready to negotiate to end the war while signaling that the Kremlin maintains its maximalist objectives, including territorial claims and regime change.[5] Kremlin officials have pushed this narrative while claiming that Ukraine is unwilling to negotiate with Russia, likely to coerce Western officials into prematurely offering concessions favorable to Russia rather than engage in meaningful, good faith negotiations.[6] Ukrainian officials have routinely expressed their willingness to negotiate with Russia as soon as Russia removes its forces from Ukraine’s internationally-recognized territory, including Donbas and Crimea.[7] ISW has observed no indications that Putin does not retain his maximalist objectives and continues to assess that a premature cessation of hostilities in Ukraine greatly increases the likelihood of renewed Russian aggression on terms far more favorable to the Kremlin in the near future.[8]

US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on November 21 that Iran is supplying Russia with glide bombs and that Iran may be preparing to transfer short-range ballistic missiles to Russia.[9] ISW has observed Russian forces increasingly using glide bombs, particularly modified FAB-500, KAB-500, and RPK-500 aerial bombs equipped with glide bomb structures, in the Lyman and Kherson directions.[10] It is unclear whether Kirby meant that Iran is supplying Russia with glide bomb components or with fully constructed glide bombs. The Critical Threats Project (CTP)-ISW’s Iran Update reported on August 14 that Iran produces a variety of glide bombs domestically, such as the Ghaem glide bombs, Yasin long-range glide bombs, Sadid glide bombs, and Balaban glide bombs.[11] Iran commonly uses these bombs with its various drone platforms, likely including the Shahed-131/136 drones that Iran supplies to Russia. A Russian milblogger previously amplified claims that Russian Su-25 aircraft may be compatible with Iranian glide bombs.[12] Iran presented several glide bomb variants at the Russian Army-2023 Forum in Moscow in August 2023 and possibly during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Tehran in September 2023.[13] Kirby added that Iran also continues to supply Russia with drones and artillery ammunition.[14] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi stated on November 6 that Iran may continue to send small batches of Shahed-131/136 drones to Russia despite increased Russian efforts to produce Shahed drones domestically and Iran’s fulfillment of its first Shahed supply contracts with Russia.[15] CTP-ISW previously assessed that Iran and Russia may conclude a drone and missile sale agreement following the expiration of UN missile restrictions against Iranian missile and missile-related technology exports on October 18, 2023.[16]

The Kremlin appears to be inexplicably concerned about the outcome of the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential elections, despite apparent widespread Russian approval of Putin. Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairperson Ella Pamfilova stated on November 21 that some Russian citizens who left Russia and others still in Russia have already begun efforts to discredit the upcoming Russian presidential elections.[17] Pamfilova’s statement suggests that the Russian government will continue to intensify censorship efforts under the guise of fighting attempted internal election meddling ahead of the presidential elections. Putin also stated on November 15 that the Russian government will suppress any foreign or domestic election interference at a meeting with Russian election commission representatives.[18] Two unnamed sources from Russian federal and regional authorities told Russian opposition outlet Verstka in an article published on November 22 that the Kremlin instructed Russian regional authorities to stop relatives of mobilized personnel from protesting by paying them.[19] The sources added that the Kremlin advised Russian regional governments to “make every effort” to ensure that the governments issue payments to the relatives of mobilized personnel and address other complaints about poor treatment of mobilized personnel in response to rising dissatisfaction among the relatives.[20] The sources also told Verstka that the Kremlin considers the relatives of mobilized personnel a social group that may pose one of the greatest threats to the beginning of Putin’s still unannounced presidential campaign.[21]

The Kremlin may also be concerned about a perceived lack of support for Putin from the Russian veteran community.[22] This veteran community is a subsection of the Russian ultranationalist community and has routinely argued in favor of full mobilization and continued Russian offensive operations in Ukraine, as opposed to freezing the current frontlines.[23] The Kremlin’s apparent concern about Putin’s support is odd given that the Levada Center - an independent Russian polling organization - found that 82 percent of Russians approve of Putin's performance as of October 2023.[24] The Kremlin may also want Putin to receive an even higher percentage of the vote and may be attempting to placate specific groups that vocally express dissatisfaction with Putin’s decisions.

Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin called for Russia to codify an unspecified state ideology in the Russian constitution, suggesting that some Russian officials may want to explicitly end nominal constitutional protections for civil rights, democratic pluralism, and ethnic equality. Bastrykin made the call on November 22 during a conference about the Russian constitution at the Russian Ministry of Justice in Moscow and argued that dismissing his call would not work.[25] Bastrykin previously called on Russian Constitutional Court Chairperson Valery Zorkin to look into ways of establishing an unspecified state ideology in May 2023, although Zorkin rebuffed Bastrykin by noting that the current constitution contains a set of values that protect civil society.[26]  The Russian constitution declares that Russia is a democratic state in which Russia’s multinational people should exercise power directly and that the “supreme direct expression” of that power are referendums and free elections.[27] The constitution establishes that the Russian state’s obligation is to recognize, observe, and protect human and civil rights.[28] Article 13 of the Russian constitution notably forbids Russia from proclaiming a state ideology and commits the Russian state to recognize ideological diversity, political diversity, and a multi-party system.[29] Bastrykin's calls would require Russian officials to amend or even repeal Article 13 of the Russian constitution, and possibly would require more extensive amendments depending on the potential new state ideology. Russia adopted its current constitution in 1993 and laid out codified state protections for multiethnic democratic pluralism and human and civil rights to mark a definitive break with the Soviet system of autocratic one-party ideological rule. Bastrykin, who has previously advocated for Stalinist-era domestic policies, may hope that a new ideology enshrined in the Russian constitution would further weaken or outright cancel Russia’s existing constitutional commitment to democratic pluralism and human and civil rights.[30] Bastrykin may be voicing this position on behalf of a wider group of Russian officials wishing to end these nominal constitutional projections, but the Kremlin has shown no indication that it wishes to do away with the veneer of legitimacy that these nominal constitutional protections offer.[31]

Bastrykin has yet to detail what a potential Russian state ideology should be, although the Kremlin’s support for Russian ultranationalism would likely heavily influence any potential Russian state ideology. The Kremlin has heavily courted the Russian ultranationalist community against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, a community that supports Russian imperial goals, efforts to Russify and ethnically cleanse occupied territories, and nationalist demands to protect ethnic Russian communities.[32] The focus on protecting and enforcing the Russian ethnic identity would likely be a key component of any state ideology should the Kremlin entertain Bastrykin’s calls. Bastrykin himself may have had this Russian ultranationalism in mind when he called for a state ideology given that he has heavily sought to capitalize on heightened ethnic tensions in Russia and is increasingly casting himself as a prominent anti-migration figure.[33] Bastrykin and the Russian Investigative Committee have reportedly directly engaged in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the forced placement of Ukrainian children into Russian military training programs — parts of a campaign to destroy Ukrainian ethnic identity and Russify Ukraine.[34] The Kremlin’s support for Russian ultranationalism is also heavily focused on promoting Russian Orthodoxy and appeals to “traditional” social values. Putin most recently signed a decree on November 22 declaring 2024 the “Year of the Family” to focus on preserving traditional family values.[35] ISW has previously assessed that the war in Ukraine is likely exacerbating an emerging identity crisis within Russian society resulting from tensions between Russian identity and Russian nationalism.[36] This crisis as well as pronounced ethnoreligious tensions will likely worsen if the ultranationalist Kremlin decides to pursue codifying a state ideology. Putin and elements of the Kremlin, highly aware of the potential for these ethnic, religious, and national tensions to prompt instability and discontent, are unlikely to support Bastrykin’s calls to codify an explicit state ideology in the short term.

Bloomberg reported on November 21 that the European Union (EU) proposed a plan to strengthen security commitments from EU member states to Ukraine.[37] Bloomberg reported, citing a draft proposal, that the EU’s proposal would build on existing bilateral agreements established within the framework of the Group of Seven’s (G7) declaration on security guarantees for Ukraine. The proposal reportedly includes mechanisms for: long-term military aid; training of Ukrainian forces; cooperation with Ukraine’s domestic defense industrial base (DIB); strengthening Ukraine’s ability to counter cyber and hybrid threats; demining assistance; support for Ukraine’s reform agenda as part of the EU accession process; assistance for Ukraine’s energy transition and nuclear safety efforts; and the sharing of intelligence and satellite imagery. EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell stated on November 13 that Ukraine is the EU’s top priority and that the EU’s commitment to Ukraine will not waiver.[38] Bloomberg reported that EU member states are expected to consider the EU’s draft proposal in December 2023.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 21 to 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down all 14 Shahed-131/136 drones that Russia launched at Ukraine.[39] Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces also launched two missiles, of which one Kh-22 cruise missile fell in an unpopulated area in Zaporizhia Oblast.[40] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on November 21 that Russian forces have paused their use of cruise and ballistic missiles and began using KAB glide bombs and Kh-59 and Kh-31 missiles to conduct strikes against Ukraine.[41]

Russian milbloggers appear to be focusing renewed complaints against the Russian military command for what milbloggers perceive as poor choices that contribute to Russian casualties. Russian milbloggers expressed anger on November 21 and 22 after a Ukrainian HIMARS strike on Kumachove, Donetsk Oblast (37km southeast of Donetsk City and 61km from the frontline) allegedly killed over 25 and injured over 100 personnel of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) who were attending a concert for a Russian military holiday on November 19.[42] The milbloggers largely focused on poor security measures, criticizing the Russian command for allowing a large gathering of people within HIMARS range of the frontline in violation of operational security principles.[43] The milbloggers largely called for the Russian military to ban such events and expressed frustration that the Russian military command has not learned this lesson despite nearly two years of war and multiple instances in which publicly available information facilitated Ukrainian strikes.[44]

Though this strike does not affect the battlefield situation in Ukraine, the Russian milbloggers’ reaction to this strike reflects the Russian ultranationalist community’s continued frustration with the Russian military command’s management of the war. Russian milbloggers have recently begun to complain about the Russian military command following a period of self-censorship likely prompted by the death of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the arrests of highly critical Russian ultranationalist milbloggers in summer 2023.[45] The milbloggers’ complaints have largely focused on how the Russian military command’s poor conduct of the war and poor discipline have led to poor treatment of Russian military personnel and casualties instead of focusing on the success or failure of Russian military operations. Russian milbloggers have routinely complained that the Russian military command’s orders to use "meat assaults” to push Ukrainian forces from positions on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast have led to extensive Russian casualties, for example.[46]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reframed the Kremlin’s stance on the Israeli-Hamas war to a much more anti-Israel position in an attempt to demonstrate the supposed hypocrisy of Western condemnations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Putin also reiterated boilerplate rhetoric falsely portraying Russia as willing to engage in meaningful negotiations, likely to pressure the West into prematurely pushing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia.
  • US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on November 21 that Iran is supplying Russia with glide bombs and that Iran may be preparing to transfer short-range ballistic missiles to Russia.
  • The Kremlin appears to be inexplicably concerned about the outcome of the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential elections, despite apparent widespread Russian approval of Putin.
  • Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin called for Russia to codify an unspecified state ideology in the Russian constitution, suggesting that some Russian officials may want to explicitly end nominal constitutional protections for civil rights, democratic pluralism, and ethnic equality.
  • Bastrykin has yet to detail what a potential Russian state ideology should be, although the Kremlin’s support for Russian ultranationalism would likely heavily influence any potential Russian state ideology.
  • Bloomberg reported on November 21 that the European Union (EU) proposed a plan to strengthen security commitments from EU member states to Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 21 to 22.
  • Russian milbloggers appear to be focusing renewed complaints against the Russian military command for what milbloggers perceive as poor choices that contribute to Russian casualties.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, northwest of Horlivka, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and advanced east of Synkivka.
  • The Russian Federation Council approved the Russian 2024-2026 federal budget on November 22, and Russian officials continue to emphasize social spending over defense expenditures.
  • The Russian government and occupation authorities continue to forcibly deport children in occupied Ukraine to Russia under medical treatment schemes.

 

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 21, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 21, 2023, 7:15pm ET 

Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to conduct offensive operations in eastern and southern Ukraine despite rainy and snowy weather conditions. Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Military Administration Advisor Serhiy Khlan stated on November 20 that Russian shelling of the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast had decreased due to poor weather conditions.[1] Ukrainian 14th Mechanized Brigade Spokesperson Nadiya Zamryha stated on November 21 that Russian forces continue to conduct assaults in the Kupyansk direction despite the snow and frost.[2] Zamryha added that the number of Russian attacks will likely decrease due to weather conditions but that Russian forces will not stop offensive operations completely. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized the need to strengthen Ukrainian capabilities before the winter period during a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on November 20.[3] Russian milbloggers claimed on November 20 and 21 that both Russian and Ukrainian forces are struggling to operate drones, including for artillery fire adjustment, in the poor weather conditions throughout the front.[4] Russian milbloggers also claimed that muddy conditions are complicating vehicle movements but that both Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to maneuver and operate in all directions.[5] ISW continues to assess that freezing weather conditions during the winter will likely prompt the resumption of more active combat operations, and ongoing rainy weather is unlikely to halt Ukrainian or Russian attacks.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Russian officials are struggling to subdue Russian hysteria around Ukrainian operations in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu addressed the Russian MoD Collegium on November 21 and claimed that Russian forces prevented all Ukrainian attempts to conduct successful “amphibious operations in the Kherson direction.”[6] Shoigu further claimed that Russian forces are inflicting “colossal” losses on Ukrainian forces.[7] Shoigu’s statement is likely an attempt to downplay some Russian milbloggers’ concerns over Russia’s inability to decisively repel Ukrainian attacks on the east bank of the Dnipro River but is unlikely to calm the ever-growing complaints in the Russian information space.

Russian milbloggers continue to acknowledge a Ukrainian presence in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and complain that Russian forces are unable to suppress Ukrainian operations in the area.[8] A Russian milblogger claimed on November 21 that Ukrainian forces killed an entire Russian assault group near Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River).[9] A Russian insider source claimed on November 17 that a Ukrainian strike killed 76 Russian personnel in the 1st Battalion of the 35th Motorized Rifle Brigade (41st Combined Arms Army, Central Military District) attempting to conduct a “distraction maneuver” in Skadovskyi Raion, east bank Kherson Oblast on November 10.[10] A Russian soldier reportedly in the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) operating near Krynky claimed in a video amplified on November 21 that the Russian military is forcing personnel who are still recovering from wounds to conduct assaults and that there are three Ukrainian drones for each Russian soldier operating in the Krynky area.[11] A Russian milblogger published a letter purportedly from a Russian soldier operating near Krynky on November 21 who claimed that Russian forces in the Krynky area lack reconnaissance drones, slowing their movements and putting them at risk of Ukrainian attacks.[12] The purported Russian soldier claimed that Russian forces in the Krynky area also lacked fire support because artillery and mortar units quickly changed locations after firing “a few shots” in order to evade counterbattery fire.[13] The Russian soldier claimed that his unit has practically no interaction with other Russian units operating nearby and that the Russian command headquarters in the Kherson direction devises unsuccessful plans because the headquarters receives incorrect and delayed information.[14] The Russian soldier also claimed that the Russian command in the Kherson direction had failed to implement changes resulting in increased Ukrainian attacks.[15] A milblogger claimed that some Russian Telegram channels are unsuccessfully attempting to focus criticism of Russian operations in the Kherson direction toward Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky.[16] The milbloggers do not appear to be responding to Shoigu’s claims nor has ISW observed any significant changes in Kherson Oblast that would prompt these milblogger complaints.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes overnight on November 20-21 and on November 21 targeting port and civilian infrastructure, including a hospital in Donetsk Oblast. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched 10 Shahed-131/136 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk; one Iskander-K ballistic missile from Dzhankoi, occupied Crimea; and four S-300 missiles in the Donetsk direction on the night of November 20-21.[17] Ukrainian forces shot down nine Shahed drones and the Iskander missile.[18] Ukrainian officials reported that the overnight Russian strike hit the civilian Central City Hospital in Selydove, Donetsk Oblast; the Kotlyarevska mine in Novohrodivka, Donetsk Oblast; and other civil infrastructure.[19] Ukrainian military officials also reported that Russian forces also launched an unspecified number of Kh-31P medium-range supersonic anti-radiation missiles on November 21, which struck port infrastructure and administrative buildings in Odesa City and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Raion, Odesa Oblast.[20]

US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on November 21 that the Wagner Group is preparing to provide an air defense system to either Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah or Iran.[21] Kirby stated that the Wagner Group would provide the system to either Lebanese Hezbollah or Iran under the Russian government’s direction but did not specify the origin or type of system.[22] ISW previously observed Russian claims that the Russian MoD is using the Syrian government’s agreements to supply weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah to subsume the remnants of the Wagner Group in Syria and seize their air defense systems.[23]

Imprisoned ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s presidential campaign announcement has generated some discourse in the Russian information space, but most Russian milbloggers refrained from discussing Girkin’s campaign likely due to self-censorship. A Russian milblogger who previously amplified praise of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Head Alexander Bortnikov and Foreign Intelligence Service (FSB) Head Alexander Bastrykin praised Girkin’s decision to run in the 2024 Russian presidential campaign.[24] The milblogger claimed that Girkin will not become president but that he may become a “[bright energetic figure] in the Russian political arena” who at best could galvanize a new healthy political opposition within Russia, but that Girkin’s decision to run is at minimum interesting.[25] Another milblogger who has been critical of the Russian conduct of the war amplified Girkin’s campaign announcement.[26] Mainstream Russian milbloggers have largely not acknowledged Girkin since the arrest of Girkin and Andrei Kurshin, the “Moscow Calling” Telegram channel administrator who frequently amplified Girkin’s complaints, on July 21 and August 31 respectively, and are likely self-censoring to avoid a similar fate.[27] Girkin’s presidential platform may provide him a chance to reenter the broader Russian information space. Girkin’s wife, Miroslava Reginskaya, also acknowledged Girkin’s presidential campaign announcement on November 21 and stated that she supports Girkin as his wife but that she has her own goals, including freeing Girkin from prison and supporting Russian frontline soldiers in Donbas.[28] Reginskaya’s response likely reflects the risk associated with opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin and danger to her ability to secure Girkin’s release if she maintains a strong association with this opposition.

Washington, D.C.-based analytics company Gallup found that Russian society’s confidence in the Russian military has marginally decreased in 2023. Gallup observed that 75 percent of Russians interviewed in the summer of 2023 expressed confidence in the Russian military compared to 80 percent of Russians who expressed a similar opinion in the early months of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[29] Gallup added that Russians’ confidence in the police, financial institutions, and the judicial system has increased, however – making confidence in the Russian military the only observed decline in public trust among all surveyed age, gender, and financial status groups. Gallup concluded that the root of Russians’ waning faith may be a result of the growing disconnect between the perception of the Russian military and the political leadership, noting that confidence in the Russian military remained at around 90 percent among Russians who approve of their political leadership but decreased to 40 percent among Russians who disapprove of the Russian political leadership – the lowest approval rate since 2006. Gallup noted that overall approval of leadership in Russia remained high and stable at 68 percent, which is on par with the 66 percent approval rate in 2022. Gallup stated that the survey indicates that support for the Russian military is still high despite the five percent decline. ISW has observed some Russian milbloggers and ultranationalists express low confidence in Russian military leadership throughout the full-scale invasion, which may have impacted how certain Russians who closely monitor the progress of the war feel about trusting the Russian military.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced a new military aid package to Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv on November 21. Pistorius announced that the package valued at 1.3 billion euros includes four IRIS-T SLM air defense systems; 20,000 155mm artillery shells, and anti-tank mines.[30]

The Armenian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied Russian allegations that Armenia is planning to supply Ukraine with weapons. Russian sources have recently alleged that Armenia is planning to provide Ukraine with missiles and missile launchers, and Armenian MoD Spokesperson Aram Torosyan officially denied these claims on November 21.[31]

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accused the West of destabilizing the South Caucasus region by supplying weapons to Armenia. Aliyev claimed at the “Decolonization: Women’s Empowerment and Development” international conference in Baku on November 21 that France is arming Armenia and that this is destabilizing the South Caucasus, “encourag[ing] revanchist forces in Armenia,” and “prepar[ing] the ground for the start of new wars in [the] region.”[32] Russian sources have also recently alleged that France supplied Armenia with ACMAT Bastion armored personnel carriers, which Ukraine had rejected due to the vehicles’ deficiencies.[33] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan previously stated on November 18 that he believes that Azerbaijan’s rhetoric indicates that Azerbaijan is organizing a new round of military activity against Armenia.[34]

A former Russian Investigative Committee departmental head who was serving sentences for accepting bribes from the Russian mafia died in prison on the night of November 20-21, allegedly by suicide. BBC Russia reported on November 21 that Russian authorities found the former head of the Department of Interdepartmental Cooperation and Internal Security of the Russian Investigative Committee, Mikhail Maksimenko, dead in a prison colony.[35] A Russian law enforcement source told Russian state outlet TASS that authorities found Maksimenko’s body in a storage room in Correctional Colony 11 in Bor, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.[36] Russian state outlet RBK reported that a source close to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service stated that Maksimenko committed suicide on the night of November 20-21 in the psychiatric hospital in which he was receiving treatment following a previous suicide attempt.[37] Russian authorities sentenced Maksimenko to 13 years in prison in April 2018 for accepting a $500,000 bribe in return for his assistance in the release of Andrei Kochuykov, an assistant to Russian mafia boss Zakhary Kalashov.[38] Russian authorities also sentenced Maksimenko to 14 years in prison in March 2020 for accepting a one million dollar bribe from Russian businessman Dmitry Smychkovsky, who was also working to release Kochuykov.[39] A member of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, Yeva Merkachyova, stated that Maksimenko’s death was “strange” and that Maksimenko had previously told her that he would not commit suicide under any circumstances.[40] A Russian insider source claimed that Maksimenko had recently filed a petition to serve the remainder of his sentence in a correctional labor camp but that the decision-making commission instead issued a penalty on November 20 that would deny his request.[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to conduct offensive operations in eastern and southern Ukraine despite rainy and snowy weather conditions.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Russian officials are struggling to subdue Russian hysteria around Ukrainian operations in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes overnight on November 20-21 and on November 21 targeting port and civilian infrastructure, including a hospital in Donetsk Oblast.
  • US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby reported on November 21 that the Wagner Group is preparing to provide an air defense system to either Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah or Iran.
  • Imprisoned ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin’s presidential campaign announcement has generated some discourse in the Russian information space, but most Russian milbloggers refrained from discussing Girkin’s campaign likely due to self-censorship.
  • Washington, D.C.-based analytics company Gallup found that Russian society’s confidence in the Russian military has marginally decreased in 2023.
  • German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced a new military aid package to Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv on November 21.
  • The Armenian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied Russian allegations that Armenia is planning to supply Ukraine with weapons.
  • Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accused the West of destabilizing the South Caucasus region by supplying weapons to Armenia.
  • A former Russian Investigative Committee departmental head who was serving sentences for accepting bribes from the Russian mafia died in prison on the night of November 20-21, allegedly by suicide.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on November 21 and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu addressed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium on November 21 and announced the that the Russian MoD is increasing its military training efforts across Russia.
  • US Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller commented on November 20 about a report that found that Russian officials in collaborations with Belarusian officials transported more than 2,400 Ukrainian children between ages six and 17 to Belarus.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 20, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 20, 2023, 5:30pm ET 

Russia appears to be employing a known hybrid warfare tactic to artificially create a migrant crisis on the Finnish border. Finnish authorities closed four border checkpoints on Finland’s southeastern border with Russia on November 18 after the Finnish Border Guard reported that an influx of about 300 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, had arrived at the Finnish border from Russia since September 2023.[1] Finnish Border Guards recorded 89 migrant crossings during a two-day period between November 7 and 14 — a sharp increase from the 91 crossings recorded from mid-July to November 12.[2] Four checkpoints currently remain open on Finland’s northeastern border with Russia with only two open for asylum applicants.[3] Reuters reported on November 19 that dozens of migrants arrived at the closed Finnish Nuijamaa and Vaalimaa crossings on November 18 and gathered around a campfire in sub-zero temperatures.[4] Finnish outlet Iltalehti reported on November 20 that Finnish authorities are considering closing the entire border with Russia on the night of November 21.[5] Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo stated on November 14 that Russian border guards are escorting or transporting migrants to the Finnish border, and the Finnish government stated on November 16 that there are indications that “foreign authorities or other actors” have played a role in helping people illegally cross the border.[6] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported on November 19 that Jouko Kinnunen, head of the Finnish Vartius checkpoint that currently remains open, stated that Russian border guards pushed migrants to the Finnish side of the barrier and then closed the Russian border barriers behind them.[7] It is unlikely that these migrants would continue to remain at the Finnish border in sub-zero temperatures of their own volition after Finnish border authorities denied their entrance into Finland, suggesting that Russia is likely involved in the situation in some way.

The Kremlin has denied Finland’s accusations about Russia’s involvement in creating an artificial influx of migrants. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded on November 17 to the announcement of the closure of the four checkpoints, stating that Finland had chosen a path of confrontation, which Peskov labeled as a “big mistake.”[8] Peskov also stated on November 20 that Finland’s possible decision to close the entire border “causes nothing but deep regret” and claimed that Finland’s “Russophobic” position has harmed Finnish-Russian relations of the past.[9]

Russia’s apparent hybrid warfare tactic on the Russian-Finnish border is similar to Russia’s and Belarus’ creation of a migrant crisis on the Polish border in 2021 and is likely similarly aimed at destabilizing NATO. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin enabled, or possibly directly controlled, Belarus’ artificial creation of a migrant crisis on its border with Poland in 2021, when Belarusian security personnel aided thousands of Middle Eastern migrants in crossing the Belarusian border to Poland.[10] The Kremlin exploited the manufactured crisis in 2021 to falsely accuse NATO of aggression against Belarus.[11] Peskov responded to Finland’s accession into NATO on April 4, threatening that Russia would take any “countermeasures [deemed necessary] to ensure [Russia’s] own security.”[12] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs similarly stated on April 4 that Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory measures” and that Finland’s accession to NATO “cannot but have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish bilateral relations.”[13] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin may be attempting to set information space conditions to destabilize the NATO states on Russian borders and distract from the war in Ukraine.[14] ISW has also consistently assessed that one of Putin’s goals in launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was to break up NATO – a goal he continues to pursue.[15]

Russian milbloggers expressed continued anger at deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations as Armenia appears to distance itself further from Russia while entering further agreements with Western governments. Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov claimed in Minsk on November 20 that Armenia asked to remove provisions on assistance to Armenia from the agenda of the upcoming CSTO Summit’s agenda.[16] Russian media also reported that Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannisyan and the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Armenia Vassilis Maragos signed an agreement that increases “legal certainty” surrounding the EU Mission to Armenia (EUMA)’s “rights and obligations” within Armenia, and creates easier conditions for EUMA observers to operate in the country.[17] Russian milbloggers latched onto Tasmagambetov’s claim and the Armenia-EU agreement, reamplifying a thus-far unsubstantiated claim from November 19 that Armenia is preparing to leave the CSTO and provide missiles and missile launchers to Ukraine.[18] The milbloggers accused Armenia of “betrayal” for growing closer to the West and distancing itself from Russia and expressed bitterness at Armenia’s alleged provision of weapons to Ukraine while doing nothing “besides throwing mud” at Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.[19] ISW has observed no indications to substantiate the milblogger claim of Armenia providing missiles and missile launchers to Ukraine.[20]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reportedly started public recruitment for the Russian “Africa Corps” aimed at subsuming Wagner Group operations in Africa after alleged failed MoD attempts to directly recruit former Wagner personnel. A Russian milblogger posted an advertisement for contract service in the Russian “Africa Corps” on November 20.[21] The milblogger claimed that the Russian MoD decided to form the Russian “Africa Corps” in Libya after Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov met with Libyan National Army Commander Marshal Khalifa Haftar, likely referencing their August 22 meeting.[22] The milblogger claimed that the formation of the Russian “Africa Corps” in Libya is part of wider Russian-Libyan agreements established at the Moscow International Security Conference and Army-2023 Forum.[23] The milblogger claimed that the starting salary for “Africa Corps” personnel is 280,000 rubles (about $3,160), significantly higher than the salaries that the Russian MoD reportedly offered former Wagner fighters and that the Wagner Group offered recruits for its operations in Africa in 2023.[24] ISW previously observed a Russian insider source’s claim that the Russian MoD unsuccessfully attempted to recruit former Wagner Group personnel to Russian MoD operations in Africa.[25] The need to publicly advertise recruitment into the Russian “Africa Corps” supports the insider source’s claim that the MoD's attempt to directly recruit former Wagner personnel for operations in Africa were largely unsuccessful.

The Russian Strelkov (Igor Girkin) Movement (RDS) predictably backed Girkin’s November 19 formal announcement of his intent to run in the 2024 Russian presidential election. The RDS stated on November 20 that its first congress as an official political movement began in Moscow on November 18 and reiterated that its current main priority is to secure Girkin’s release from prison and the dismissal of all charges against him. The RDS also emphasized that the RDS Congress fully supports Girkin’s nomination and is creating an organizing committee to support Girkin’s campaign.[26] The RDS reiterated its main political tenets that it first announced on June 26, which center around supporting the Russian military and veterans and pursuing military and governmental reforms.[27] Girkin’s wife, Miroslava Reginskaya, has not yet acknowledged Girkin’s presidential campaign or the RDS’ support of the campaign as of this publication.[28]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues efforts to distinguish himself in the Russian information space, infringing on the generally accepted boundaries between Russian federal subject (region) heads and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During a video conference on the renewal of the Russian public transport fleet in the Russian regions, Kadyrov publicly invited Putin, who was also on the call, to visit Chechnya.[29] Kadyrov told Putin that Chechen elders had “scolded” Kadyrov because Putin has not visited Chechnya in a long time.[30] Putin did not directly respond to the invitation and instead thanked Kadyrov and the Chechen people for their hard work in restoring the republic. Kadyrov’s public invitation to Putin, who has notably not visited Chechnya since 2011, places Putin in a difficult position, as he either ignores the invitation and risks snubbing Kadyrov, or he accepts the invitation and risks looking as though he is amendable to Kadyrov’s pressure.[31] This implicit veiled challenge to Putin in a public forum is unusual and represents a clear attempt at informational posturing on the part of Kadyrov, who has recently tried to balance an apparent desire to curry favor with Putin while also appealing to his own Chechen constituency.[32]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a new security assistance package to Ukraine during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's visit to Kyiv on November 20. Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov and reiterated long-term US support for Ukraine.[33] The new DoD package contains military equipment valued at up to $100 million, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; one HIMARS system and additional ammunition; Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems; and artillery and small arms rounds.[34]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russia appears to be employing a known hybrid warfare tactic to artificially create a migrant crisis on the Finnish border.
  • Russia’s apparent hybrid warfare tactic on the Russian-Finnish border is similar to Russia’s and Belarus’ creation of a migrant crisis on the Polish border in 2021 and is likely similarly aimed at destabilizing NATO.
  • Russian milbloggers expressed continued anger at deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations as Armenia appears to distance itself further from Russia while entering further agreements with Western governments.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reportedly started public recruitment for the Russian “Africa Corps” aimed at subsuming Wagner Group operations in Africa after alleged failed MoD attempts to directly recruit former Wagner personnel.
  • The Russian Strelkov (Igor Girkin) Movement (RDS) predictably backed Girkin’s November 19 formal announcement of his intent to run in the 2024 Russian presidential election.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues efforts to distinguish himself in the Russian information space, infringing on the generally accepted boundaries between Russian federal subject (region) heads and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a new security assistance package to Ukraine during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's visit to Kyiv on November 20.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and marginally advanced in some areas.
  • A Russian federal subject (region) and occupation officials are reportedly planning to work together to provide drones to Russian forces.
  • A Ukrainian official reported that Ukraine successfully returned 45 Ukrainian children whom Russian authorities forcibly deported to Russia in the past six months.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 19, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Kateryna Stepanenko, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 19, 2023, 6:15pm 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.

Click here to see ISW’s 3D control of terrain topographic map of Ukraine. Use of a computer (not a mobile device) is strongly recommended for using this data-heavy tool.

Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 2:00 pm ET on November 19. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 20 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian and Russian forces are continuing combat operations in eastern and southern Ukraine, although the rainy weather will likely continue to slow the pace of combat operations until winter conditions fully set in. A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces continue to defend against a strong group of Russian forces attacking near Avdiivka and that Ukrainian forces maintain the initiative in southern Ukraine.[1] The milblogger added that it is premature to declare any Russian victories to avoid creating any false impressions about the situation on the battlefield. Another Russian milblogger observed that poor weather is impeding the use of armored vehicles in western Zaporizhia Oblast but that Ukrainian forces are still attacking Russian positions with infantry units.[2] The United Kingdon (UK) Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed on November 18 that neither side has achieved any substantial progress in the Kupyansk and Avdiivka directions, or in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast — where the most intense battles are ongoing.[3] The UK MoD added that there are fewer immediate prospects of major changes on the frontlines as colder winter weather begins to set in. Ukrainian military officials anticipate that Russia will launch a third wave of assaults on Avdiivka.[4] Freezing weather conditions during the winter will likely prompt the resumption of more active combat operations, and ongoing rainy weather is unlikely to halt Ukrainian or Russian attacks.

Russian forces conducted another series of drone strikes primarily targeting Kyiv, Poltava, and Cherkasy oblasts on the night of November 18 to 19. The Ukrainian Air Force reported on November 19 that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed 15 of the 20 Russian Shahed-131/-136 drones.[5] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated the strike series did not result in any casualties or critical damages and that this was an “excellent result.”[6] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces struck Ukrainian ammunition depots in Kirovohrad City, Kirovohrad Oblast and Olshanytsya, Kyiv Oblast and a fuel storage facility at the Kanatove airfield, Kirovohrad Oblast.[7]

Ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin formally announced his intent to run in the 2024 Russian presidential elections despite his imprisonment. Girkin acknowledged that his August 30 post claiming that he is better than Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed to attract attention before formally announcing his intent to run for president as an independent candidate.[8] Girkin claimed that the current Russian government fears his nomination because it would disrupt the Kremlin’s plans to have sham candidates run against Putin, as Putin is the “only winner [of the presidential election] already known in advance.” Girkin acknowledged that running in the Russian presidential election is “like sitting down at a table to play with cheaters” but that bringing like-minded “patriots” together through the election is a defeat for the Russian officials living on the delusional “planet of the pink ponies.” Girkin appealed to the Russian Strelkov (Girkin) Movement (RDS), which has supported Girkin’s defense against his criminal case for allegedly discrediting the Russian military, to help canvas to receive the necessary number of signatures to run as an independent candidate.

Girkin’s presidential announcement indicates a possible rift between the RDS and his wife, Miroslava Reginskaya. Reginskaya has been the first to transcribe Girkin’s prior letters from prison to post on Telegram but did not claim to post Girkin’s presidential campaign announcement on November 19 and has not yet acknowledged Girkin’s presidential announcement on her own Telegram channel.[9] Reginskaya has been a staunch advocate for Girkin’s release since the first day of his imprisonment in July 2023 and appears to maintain ties with Russian veterans who support Girkin’s release, so her silence regarding Girkin’s most recent announcement is notable.[10] Reginskaya and the RDS contradicted each other on November 8 when the RDS called for character witnesses to speak for Girkin at his trial, but Reginskaya stated that witness recruitment on ”other channels and by other persons is not coordinated with the general defense and can be dangerous for Igor [Girkin].”[11] The RDS announced on November 15 that it had found several such witnesses for Girkin, despite Reginskaya’s November 8 statement.[12]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be censoring irregular Russian armed formations as part of its ongoing efforts to formalize Russia’s irregular forces and establish greater control over the Russian information space. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion claimed on November 19 that the DNR's Internal Affairs Ministry issued a censorship order, prohibiting the battalion from “showing its life and work.”[13] The “Vostok” Battalion is currently serving in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area and provides near-daily updates on the situation in their sector of the front.[14] The DNR Internal Ministry may be administering the censorship order as part of the Russian MoD’s ongoing efforts to formalize the DNR/Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) People’s Militias into the Russian armed forces, which has previously trigger backlash within the Russian information space.[15] ISW has extensively reported on the Kremlin’s ongoing censorship efforts targeting Russian milbloggers and state media.[16]

Ukrainian officials announced on November 19 that Bohdan Yermokhin, a teenage Ukrainian whom Russian authorities forcibly deported from occupied Mariupol to Russia and attempted to conscript, returned to Ukraine.[17] Ukrainian Presidential Administration Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak stated that Yermokhin’s return occurred within the framework of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “Bring Kids Back UA” program.[18] Yermak and Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets stated that Qatar and UNICEF mediated the return, and Lubinets noted that this was the first time UNICEF was involved in efforts to return Ukrainian children back from Russia.[19] Russia dictated that Yermokhin travel to a third country to meet a relative once he turned 18 years old, and Yermokhin turned 18 on November 19 and met his sister in Belarus before returning to Ukraine.[20] Kremlin-appointed Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova continued attempts to dispute Russia‘s practice of illegally deporting Ukrainian children to Russia and claimed on November 19 that the Russian military found Yermokhin “neglected” in Mariupol in 2022 and took him to “safety” with a Russian foster family.[21]

A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger expressed anger on November 19 about Armenia’s decisions to distance itself from Russia against the backdrop of recent deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces used a Tochka-U missile to strike Belgorod Oblast on November 19, and a prominent Russian milblogger used the opportunity to allege that Armenia, possibly with assistance from the US, agreed to give Tochka-U launchers and missiles to Ukraine.[22] The milblogger offered no evidence in support of this allegation, and ISW has not observed anything to substantiate it. The milblogger speculated about the number of weapons Armenia could possibly transfer to Ukraine but did not offer any specifics or the sourcing of his information. The milblogger also claimed that the Armenian government has begun to prepare to withdraw from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). ISW has not observed any confirmation of the milblogger’s claim that Armenia is planning to leave the CSTO, and Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanyan told journalists on November 9 that Armenia is not discussing the legal process of leaving the CSTO.[23] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated on November 18 that Armenia and Azerbaijan were able to agree on the basic principles for a peace treaty but that the two countries are speaking “different diplomatic languages” and that there is an atmosphere of mistrust.[24]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian and Russian forces are continuing combat operations in eastern and southern Ukraine, although the rainy weather will likely continue to slow the pace of combat operations until winter conditions fully set in.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of drone strikes primarily targeting Kyiv, Poltava, and Cherkasy oblasts on the night of November 18 to 19.
  • Ardent nationalist and former Russian officer Igor Girkin formally announced his intent to run in the 2024 Russian presidential elections despite his imprisonment.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may be censoring irregular Russian armed formations as part of its ongoing efforts to formalize Russia’s irregular forces and establish greater control over the Russian information space.
  • Ukrainian officials announced on November 19 that Bohdan Yermokhin, a teenage Ukrainian whom Russian authorities forcibly deported from occupied Mariupol to Russia and attempted to conscript, returned to Ukraine.
  • A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger expressed anger on November 19 about Armenia’s decisions to distance itself from Russia against the backdrop of recent deteriorating Armenian-Russian relations.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and reportedly advanced in some areas on November 19.
  • Regional Russian officials continue to fear the emergence of localized protests in response to the Russian military’s refusal to return some mobilized personnel from the frontlines.
  • Occupation authorities continue efforts to indoctrinate Ukrainian children in occupied Ukraine into Russian national and cultural identities.

Click here to read the full report  

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:45pm ET on November 18. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 19 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 17 to 18. Ukrainian military sources reported on November 18 that Ukrainian air defenses downed 29 of 38 Russian-launched Shahed-131/136 drones over multiple unspecified oblasts.[1] The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command reported that Russian Shaheds struck an energy infrastructure facility and administrative building in Odesa Oblast.[2] The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command reported that Russian Shaheds also damaged infrastructure facilities in Chernihiv Oblast.[3] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck an oil depot in Altestove, Odesa Oblast, the Starokostyantyniv airfield in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, and Kyiv City, Kyiv Oblast.[4]

A Kyrgyzstan government official called on the Russian government to help Kyrgyz migrants in Russia against the backdrop of recent proposals from Russian government officials to decrease migrant work opportunities in Russia. Deputy Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Edil Baisalov met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy, Labor, Health, and Pension Provision Tatyana Golikova on November 17 and reiterated the importance of Russia providing families of Kyrgyz citizens working in Russia with compulsory health insurance in accordance with Eurasian Economic Union standards.[5] Baisalov stated that this would help create favorable conditions for Kyrgyz citizens in Russia. Prominent voices in the Russian ultranationalist information space responded to Baisalov’s statements by complaining that the Russian government’s migrant policy is too lenient and that Russian government officials either are not aware of the problem or do not want to fix it.[6]

Russian federal subjects and government officials have been increasingly introducing and proposing bills restricting migrants’ rights in the fall of 2023. Deputy Chairperson of the Russian State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy proposed a measure on November 14 that would restrict work opportunities for migrants from countries that have not designated Russian as a state language.[7] Russian political party A Just Russia-For Truth introduced three bills to the Duma on November 15 that would abolish work certificates for foreign workers, require Russian organizations to obtain permission from the Russian government to hire foreign workers, and require foreign workers to acquire a separate Russian work permit.[8] A Just Russia head Sergei Mironov stated that these measures will create order and ensure that the government “clearly understand[s] who is on the territory of the Russian Federation and why they are there.”[9] Several Russian federal subjects have banned migrants from driving minibuses and taxis, offering catering services, and selling alcohol and tobacco in Russia.[10]

Courts in the Republic of Dagestan reportedly continue to charge participants of the October 29 antisemitic riots with minor administrative crimes, while select Russian ultranationalists call for increased government control in order to curb the alleged spread of Islamic extremism in Dagestan. Russian authorities have reportedly charged 412 people for violating various articles of the Russian Administrative Code, including 394 people charged with violating procedures on holding assemblies and 18 people charged with organizing a mass gathering in public places.[11] A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on November 17 that a radical Salafi preacher spoke about the unrest in Dagestan and alleged that there are over 100,000 supporters of Salafism in Dagestan – an allegation that the milblogger rejected.[12] The milblogger also claimed that radical ideologues have become more active on the internet following the riots in Dagestan and that extremists are attempting to take advantage of the confusion caused by the spontaneity of the unrest.[13] Another Russian milblogger added that the Russian government needs to establish strict control over Dagestan in order to curb future unrest.[14] ISW previously assessed that the Russian leadership is likely avoiding more serious punishments for antisemitism in the North Caucasus out of concerns that they will inflame discontent towards the Kremlin.[15] Russian authorities also recently detained a Dagestani government official on corruption charges, likely in an effort to placate those calling for an increased federal government response to the unrest.[16]

The Russian government continues efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the internet and to strengthen its control over the Russian information space. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree on November 17 allowing the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) to block sites that publish information about methods to bypass sites blocked by the Russian government.[17] The Russian State Duma previously adopted a bill on October 17 that stipulates that presidential election campaign materials cannot be shown on sites restricted by Roskomnadzor, and the November 17 decree is likely in part related to controlling the Russian information space before the 2024 presidential elections.[18]

The European Commission will reportedly include sanctions on the sale of petroleum tankers to Russia in an upcoming sanctions package in an effort to curb Russian schemes to skirt the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil and petroleum products. Reuters reported on November 17 that the European Union’s upcoming sanctions package against Russia will ban the sale to Russia of tankers for crude oil and other petroleum products and will stipulate contractual clauses in the sale of tankers to third countries prohibiting the re-sale of tankers to Russia and the transfer of Russian crude oil and petroleum products that violate the G7’s price cap.[19] The Financial Times reported on November 14 that Western officials stated that Russia is likely currently selling almost all of its crude oil at or above the G7’s $60 per barrel price cap.[20] The Financial Times added that Russian export data for crude oil suggests that Russia sold crude oil at an average of roughly $80 a barrel in October.[21] Only 37 of the 134 vessels that reportedly ship Russian oil held insurance from Western countries, and Russia has reportedly increasingly relied on aging oil tankers with obscure ownership to build a ”shadow fleet” to sell crude oil and petroleum products above the G7 price cap.[22] European economic think tank Bruegel reported on October 11 that by July 2023 over 60 percent of tankers carrying Russian crude oil were covered by insurance from an unknown country of origin, whereas less than 20 percent of the tankers carrying Russian crude oil had been covered by unknown insurance at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[23]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 17 to 18.
  • A Kyrgyzstan government official called on the Russian government to help Kyrgyz migrants in Russia against the backdrop of recent proposals from Russian government officials to decrease migrant work opportunities in Russia.
  • Courts in the Republic of Dagestan reportedly continue to charge participants of the October 29 antisemitic riots with minor administrative crimes, while select Russian ultranationalists call for increased government control in order to curb the alleged spread of Islamic extremism in Dagestan.
  • The Russian government continues efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the internet and to strengthen its control over the Russian information space.
  • The European Commission will reportedly include sanctions on the sale of petroleum tankers to Russia in an upcoming sanctions package in an effort to curb Russian schemes to skirt the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil and petroleum products.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russia has reportedly frozen prisoner of war (POW) exchanges with Ukraine since the summer of 2023.

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 17, 2023, 7:15pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on November 17. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 18 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces have established bridgeheads on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and are conducting ground operations aimed at pushing Russian forces out of artillery range of the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River. The Ukrainian Marine Corps Command and the Ukrainian General Staff stated on November 17 that Ukrainian marines have secured several “bridgeheads” on the east bank following successful actions and are conducting actions to expand these positions.[1] US military doctrine defines a bridgehead as “an area on the enemy’s side of the water obstacle that is large enough to accommodate the majority of the crossing force, has adequate terrain to permit defense of the crossing sites, provides security to crossing forces from enemy direct fire, and provides a base for continuing the attack.”[2] The doctrinal definition of a bridgehead does not stipulate a certain size for the crossing force, the extent of the secured positions, or the ability to transfer and operate heavy military equipment from those positions. The necessary size of a bridgehead depends on the operations it is meant to support, and the official Ukrainian acknowledgment of these positions as bridgeheads indicates that the Ukrainian command assesses that these positions are sufficient for continuing ground operations on the east bank.

The Ukrainian General Staff stated that one of the main operational objectives for Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank is to prevent Russian shelling of Ukrainian civilians on the west bank of Kherson Oblast, particularly near Kherson City. The 152mm tube artillery systems that Russian forces widely operate in Ukraine have an approximate range of 25km, although Russian forces are unlikely to deploy these systems to immediate frontline areas due to the threat of Ukrainian counterbattery fire. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces on the east bank are conducting diversionary actions, raids, and reconnaissance and are particularly surveilling Russian positions for intelligence on Russian logistics and ammunition concentrations.[3]

Russian forces appear to be applying lessons learned from attempts to man Russian multilayered defenses in western Zaporizhia Oblast during the Ukrainian counteroffensive to current Russian defensive operations in Kherson Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff acknowledged that Russian forces have a “fairly serious” line of fortifications in Kherson Oblast.[4] A Ukrainian soldier operating on the left (east) bank of Kherson Oblast characterized Russian defensive positions as “elaborate dugouts that [Russian forces] constructed over months” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published on November 15.[5] The WSJ also reported that Russian forces heavily mined the area around Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River), where Ukrainian forces currently maintain positions.[6] Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets noted that Russian forces are not deploying their forces in a “pillar formation” at the immediate frontline on the east bank, likely in an effort to protect concentrations of Russian forces from Ukrainian artillery fire and drone strikes.[7]  Mashovets claimed on November 12 that the Russian command in the Kherson direction has refused to commit additional forces of the 70th Motorized Rifle Division (of the newly formed 18th Combined Arms Army) and 7th Air Assault (VDV) Division beyond elements of single regiments and battalions to the frontline, opting instead to maintain the remainder of these formations in near rear areas and secondary echelons of defense.[8]

This tactical deployment of forces in Kherson is reminiscent of changes that Russian forces made to Russian tactical defensive deployments in western Zaporizhia Oblast. ISW observed Russian forces concentrating personnel along the defensive layer closest to Ukrainian offensive operations at the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[9] ISW observed a shift in Russian defensive operations as Ukrainian forces began penetrating Russian defensive layers in mid-September, wherein Russian forces shifted personnel away from manning immediate frontline defensive positions in order to man defensive layers further from the frontline from which more combat effective forces would counterattack.[10] Russian forces have not constructed extensive visible defensive fortifications similar to those that Russian forces established in western Zaporizhia Oblast prior to the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and appear to have opted for more discrete fortifications set further from the frontline. The discrete fortifications located away from the frontline in Kherson Oblast will likely only be fully effective if they remain concealed, however. Fall and winter weather conditions may reveal some concealed positions as foliage and natural ground cover die.

Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces have suffered roughly a brigade’s worth of casualties since Ukrainian forces started ground operations on the east bank of Kherson Oblast on October 17, reportedly forcing Russian forces to transfer combat power from elsewhere in Ukraine to Kherson Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces have killed 1,216 Russian personnel and wounded 2,217 since starting “measures” on the east bank.[11] These manpower losses are roughly equivalent to a brigade’s worth of personnel, although these losses are likely spread out across the Russian formations and units operating in the Kherson direction. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukrainian forces have destroyed 24 Russian tanks, 48 armored combat vehicles, 89 artillery systems, 29 ammunition warehouses, and 14 aircraft since starting "measures” on the east bank.[12] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces have transferred unspecified units from other unspecified sectors of the front to Kherson Oblast due to these losses.[13] ISW previously assessed that the Russian military command will likely struggle to redeploy combat-effective reinforcements at scale to respond to ongoing Ukrainian operations in Kherson Oblast while conducting defensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and sustaining other offensive efforts in eastern Ukraine.[14] The scale of Russian reinforcements required, however, depends heavily on how much effort Ukrainian forces put into the Kherson direction and how much progress they make.

Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 16 to 17. Ukrainian military sources reported on November 17 that Russian forces launched 10 Shahed-131/136 drones primarily targeting Khmelnytskyi Oblast and several S-300 missiles in the Donetsk direction.[15] Ukrainian military sources reported that Ukrainian air defenses downed nine Shahed drones over Mykolaiv, Odesa, Zhytomyr, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.[16] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces struck targets in Khmelnytskyi, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, and Kharkiv oblasts.[17]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the Israel-Hamas war has negatively affected Ukraine’s shell supplies. Zelensky stated during an interview with Bloomberg on November 16 that Israel has sought large quantities of the global supply of 155mm artillery shells and that this has slowed deliveries of artillery shells to Ukraine at a critical moment.[18]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov attempted to dismiss criticisms of the Russian government and the war in Ukraine as inevitable yet unfounded and urged Russian citizens to self-censor. Putin stated at the International Cultural Forum in St. Petersburg on November 17 that people who are critical of the war have the right to their own point of view.[19] Putin added that “the head is not only a tool for speaking but is also for thinking before you say something.”[20] Putin commented that many educated, knowledgeable, and talented adults do not follow or understand what is happening, presumably in Ukraine, but acknowledged that “the mood in society and the opinion of a country’s people...is an objective factor that no one can escape.”[21] Peskov similarly stated in a video interview published on November 17 that there should be a level of censorship during wartime that would be unacceptable during peacetime.[22] Peskov stated that the line between criticizing the Russian military and discrediting the Russian forces is very thin and advised those who want to “indiscriminately” speculate about and criticize the Russian military to “think ten times” before doing so.[23]

Peskov also stated that he believes Putin will announce his presidential campaign and that he "does not doubt” that Putin will win the 2024 presidential elections.[24] Peskov also responded to a question about Russian leadership after Putin and the characteristics that Putin’s eventual successor should have, stating that Putin’s successor should be someone exactly like Putin.[25]

Russian authorities detained several Federal Security Service (FSB) employees on November 16 for accepting a five-billion-ruble ($55.6 million) bribe in connection with the dismissal of a corruption case. Russian outlet RBC reported that the FSB employees were involved in the dismissed investigation into the Merlion Group of Companies, a Russian IT company and technology distributor that the FSB previously investigated for corruption.[26] Russian authorities also arrested former head of the Russian Investigative Committee for the North-Western District of Moscow Sergei Romodanovsky, current head of the Russian Investigative Committee’s Khoroshevsky Investigative Department Rustam Yusupov, and former investigator Andrei Zhiryutin in connection to the case’s dismissal on November 10.[27] RBC reported that Russian authorities suspect that additional FSB employees, Romodanovsky, Yusupov, and Zhiryutin accepted a five-billion-ruble bribe to dismiss the case against the Merlion Group. A Russian insider source claimed on November 17 that Russian authorities are also investigating former Director of Russia’s Federal Migration Service Konstantin Romodanovsky (father of Sergei Romodanovsky), who has connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and suggested that Russian authorities may intend to blame Konstantin Romodanovsky for Russia’s migration issues to appease Putin’s ultranationalist base.[28]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces have established bridgeheads on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and are conducting ground operations aimed at pushing Russian forces out of artillery range of the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian forces appear to be applying lessons learned from attempts to man Russian multilayered defenses in western Zaporizhia Oblast during the Ukrainian counteroffensive to current Russian defensive operations in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces have suffered roughly a brigade’s worth of casualties since Ukrainian forces started ground operations on the east bank of Kherson Oblast on October 17, reportedly forcing Russian forces to transfer combat power from elsewhere in Ukraine to Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 16 to 17.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the Israel-Hamas war has negatively affected Ukraine’s shell supplies.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov attempted to dismiss criticisms of the Russian government and the war in Ukraine as inevitable yet unfounded and urged Russian citizens to self-censor.
  • Russian authorities detained several Federal Security Service (FSB) employees on November 16 for accepting a five-billion-ruble ($55.6 million) bribe in connection with the dismissal of a corruption case.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in several sectors of the front.
  • The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on November 17 that the Russian military is likely using updated surveillance aircraft due to concerns over Ukraine deploying Western-provided combat aircraft.
  • Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab (Yale HRL) reported on November 16 that Russian and Belarusian authorities have forcibly deported at least 2,442 Ukrainian children between the ages of six and 17 to Belarus via Russia since February 24, 2022.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 16, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 16, 2023, 8:45pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on November 16. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 17 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of November 15 to 16. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 18 Shahed-131/136 drones of which Ukrainian forces destroyed 16.[1] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched S-300 missiles targeting Kharkiv Oblast and that Ukrainian forces destroyed a Kh-59 cruise missile over Poltava Oblast on the evening of November 15.[2] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat reported on November 16 that Russian forces changed the timing of the November 16 drone attack from their normal strike pattern by conducting the drone strikes until around 9:30am local time, as opposed to conducting the attacks at their usual time from around 10:00pm to 3:00-4:00am.[3] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that the Russian military has concentrated over 800 missiles, including Kalibr and Onyx missiles, in occupied Crimea and intends to use all of them against Ukrainian energy infrastructure in winter 2023.[4]

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev announced on November 16 that Russian authorities are strengthening Russian air defense over Russia’s Central Federal Okrug, likely in response to Ukraine’s recently implied intent to conduct an interdiction campaign against Russian supply routes in rear areas during the winter. Patrushev also announced that Russian authorities have organized patrols to protect critical infrastructure facilities to prevent attacks and that the Russian government is funding the creation of “territorial defense lines” for oblasts bordering Ukraine.[5] Patrushev added that Russian authorities are updating a list of all critical infrastructure facilities – including fuel and energy facilities and important transportation objects – that require protection from unspecified threats.[6] The Central Federal Okrug consists of 18 federal subjects including Bryansk, Kursk, and Belgorod oblasts, which border Ukraine.[7] Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk stated on November 13 that Ukraine needs additional air defense systems and long-range missiles to strike Russian rear areas.[8] Ukrainian Ground Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated on November 12 that Ukrainian forces’ current main task is to disrupt Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs).[9]

Russian milbloggers continued to criticize actors in the Russian information space for distorting the reality of the Russian war effort, highlighting an emerging cyclical dynamic in the Russian information space in which the majority of Russian sources coalesce around a particular predominant narrative and, in turn, a subset of different sources coalesces to criticize the majority’s prevailing opinion. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed on November 16 that Russian state media may have falsely convinced the Russian people that “everything is fine” in Russia’s war in Ukraine.[10] The milblogger claimed that he does not understand why Russian state media devotes so much time to promoting narratives about the “imminent collapse of Ukraine" and portrays the Russian war effort so positively that Russian viewers think that signing a military service contract is unnecessary. Another Russian milblogger who previously served throughout the front in Ukraine and correctly assessed Russia’s foundational problems in Kharkiv Oblast in spring 2022 criticized several unnamed Russian milbloggers for their recent overly positive reporting about Russian counterattacks on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.[11] The milblogger claimed that the other milbloggers preemptively claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian attacks on the east bank and criticized them for setting unrealistic expectations for Russian forces. The milblogger noted that such overoptimistic claims are forcing Russian servicemen to “catch up” to these Russian politicians’ and commanders’ unrealistic expectations of Russian battlefield successes. The milblogger’s complaint suggests that the situation in Kherson Oblast remains very ambiguous and is dynamic. The milblogger’s complaint mirrors recent reports that the Russian General Staff uses battlefield maps that differ from tactical reality and that local Russian commanders order Russian forces to conduct routine assaults to make gains that align with the Russian General Staff’s inaccurate maps.[12] Disjointed Kremlin efforts to consolidate control over the Russian information space and report overly optimistic news are likely creating these cycles of coalescence and backlash among Russian sources. The Russian information space may grow increasingly volatile as the rift between the Kremlin optimists and their critics expands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded a prominent Russian milblogger who was previously critical of Russia’s military performance during its full-scale invasion with a prestigious state honor, continuing the Kremlin’s long-standing effort to coopt milbloggers and make them loyal to the Kremlin. Putin awarded founder of Rybar Telegram channel, Mikhail Zvinchuk, the Russian Order of Merit of the Fatherland Second Class for his efforts supporting the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on November 16.[13] Other Russian milbloggers congratulated Zvinchuk and praised him for launching the first awarded Telegram channel in Russia.[14] Putin had previously engaged Zvinchuk by recruiting him to join the Kremlin working group on mobilization problems on December 20, 2022, which ISW assessed was Putin’s first concerted attempt to regain control over the segment of Russia’s domestic audience that turned to the Telegram information space for war coverage independent of Russian state media.[15]

Zvinchuk’s Rybar project amassed an audience of over 1.2 million followers by covering Russian military operations in Ukraine and is frequently cited by Russian and Western media alike (including ISW). Russian investigative outlet The Bell reported that Rybar was originally a personal blog from its creation in 2018 until Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin reportedly began sponsoring the channel from 2019 to 2021.[16] The Bell observed that Rybar frequently published posts that may have advanced Prigozhin’s business interests in Syria during their partnership. Rybar frequently published contradictory posts since the start of the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Rybar’s posts and tone used to loudly criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) only to then defend disgraced Russian Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin against attacks on his command from Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov and Prigozhin.[17] The Bell also found that Rybar amplified numerous videos that supported the Russian MoD’s information operation efforts to present partial mobilization in Russia in a more favorable light. Rybar claims to sustain its four million ruble ($44,800) monthly production cost via donations, although the channel also profits from showing advertisements for companies associated with First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko and Russian state media.[18]

ISW had observed a significant shift in the style and focus of Rybar’s war coverage since the Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts in fall 2022 during which Russian state propagandists were unable to explain away Russia’s military failures and a deeply unpopular mobilization of 300,000 reservists.[19] Zvinchuk began appearing on Russian state television and the Russian state media began heavily relying on Zvinchuk’s content at this time. Rybar’s coverage since fall 2020 has significantly reduced its criticism of the Russian MoD. This observed content and tonal shift is significant and is likely the result of Putin’s efforts to coopt prominent Russian milbloggers to reestablish Kremlin dominance over the Russian language online information space, carry out information operations against Western audiences, and prevent other influential Russian officials from buying milbloggers’ loyalties. Zvinchuk’s award also likely serves as an effort to incentivize other milbloggers to offer their loyalty to the regime in exchange for accolades and Kremlin recognition.

Ukraine stated that the continued Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has resulted in equipment and maintenance failures that threaten the plant’s security. Ukrainian nuclear energy operator Energoatom reported on November 16 that Russian ZNPP authorities transferred reactor no. 5 to a hot shutdown state from a cold shutdown state in violation of Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory orders, resulting in a leak of a boric acid solution that entered all the reactor’s steam generators.[20] Energoatom reported that Russian ZNPP authorities’ “incompetence” in bringing reactors from cold shutdowns to hot shutdowns has resulted in a radioactive coolant leak from the first to second circuit of reactor no. 4 and a similar situation involving reactor no. 6.[21] Energoatom also reported that unspecified “incompetent” Russian actions resulted in reactor no. 6 experiencing a temporary blackout on November 14, forcing the reactor to rely on emergency diesel generators.[22] Energoatom stated that equipment at the ZNPP is constantly degrading and that the frequency of such dangerous instances are increasing.[23]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not yet commented on these incidents but expressed concern on November 13 over the extent and effectiveness of maintenance on ZNPP safety systems and its own ability to monitor ZNPP operations.[24] The IAEA reported that these maintenance issues became apparent in July and August 2023 when the steam generator of reactor no. 4 experienced a leak that contaminated the reactor’s safety systems that had to be recleaned. The IAEA reported that ZNPP operators have not granted its contingent at the ZNPP access to all six reactor turbine halls to assess their safety and that operators restricted IAEA access during recent walkthroughs of the halls in October and on November 10. The IAEA reported that the ZNPP planned maintenance of transformers of reactors no. 4, 5, and 6 after recently completing maintenance of transformers of reactors no. 1, 2, and 3 and noted that reactors no. 4 and 5 are in hot shutdown mode in violation of the Ukrainian regulatory agency’s orders.

The Ukrainian and IAEA reports indicate that Russia’s presence and exclusive control over the ZNPP is increasing, suggesting that similar failures may escalate under continued Russian occupation. The IAEA announced on November 13 that its staff visited a Russian training center for the ZNPP on November 7 and that Russian nuclear regulatory agency Rostekhnadzor is establishing a permanent presence at the ZNPP.[25] This announcement indicates the normalization of the Russian occupation of the ZNPP despite Russian forces’ documented reckless conduct near the plant.[26] In addition to the recent equipment and mechanical failures, Russian forces deployed military equipment on and inside ZNPP facilities in summer-fall 2022 to protect these assets from Ukrainian strikes, while setting conditions to blame Ukrainian forces for any incidents at the ZNPP.[27] The ZNPP has completely lost access to external power sources seven times during its service history – all seven incidents occurring while under Russian occupation.[28]

Cyprus has reportedly been complicit in helping Russian elites, sanctioned for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, launder money. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on November 14 that Russians who have been under Western sanctions since 2014 owned or controlled almost 800 companies and trusts secretly registered in various countries and territories including Cyprus, Lichtenstein, the British Virgin Islands, and Hong Kong.[29] The ICIJ also stated that Cypriot professional services firms have worked on behalf of 25 Russians sanctioned after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and on behalf of an additional 71 Russians sanctioned after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.[30] The ICIJ found that the Cypriot branch of an international professional service firm helped a Russian billionaire transfer a $1.4 billion in investments out of his name to evade European Union (EU) sanctions.[31] The ICIJ cited figures from the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, Bulgaria, reporting that Russian businessmen have “invested” over $200 million in Cyprus as of 2020, comprising half of all Russian investments in Europe, and that about 300 Russian-owned companies constituted 80 percent of Cyprus’ wealth at one point in time.[32]

Gazprom Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, announced on November 16 that it acquired the majority share of a large Russian blogger agency, likely in an effort to expand its already extensive control over the Russian media space. Gazprom Media Holdings announced that it bought 51 percent of shares in Insight People, reportedly the largest blogging agency in Russia.[33] Gazprom Media Holdings already owns Russian video streaming platform RuTube, Russian social media network VKontakte, and several prominent Russian TV channels and radio stations.[34] Gazprom Media is headed by Alexander Zharov who previously served as the head of Russian state censor Roskomnadzor from 2012 to 2020.[35] Long-time Gazprom Head Alexei Miller notably has associates throughout various power structures, and Gazprom Media's recent media acquisitions indicates a possible rise in Miller’s influence. Miller is a long-time associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and likely has ties to former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Head and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, as Patrushev’s sons previously held senior positions at Gazprom.[36]

Russian authorities discovered former Russian 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army Commander Lieutenant General Vladimir Sviridov dead in his home in Stavropol Krai on November 15. Russian sources reported that authorities found Sviridov dead with a woman, likely his wife, and suggested that the couple likely died around November 9. Russian sources reported that Russian authorities have not yet determined Sviridov’s and the woman’s cause of death but have ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning and “violent” deaths.[37] Sviridov reportedly resigned from his position as commander of the 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army in 2009.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of October 15 to 16.
  • Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev announced on November 16 that Russian authorities are strengthening Russian air defense over Russia’s Central Federal Okrug, likely in response to Ukraine’s recently implied intent to conduct an interdiction campaign against Russian supply routes in rear areas during the winter.
  • Russian milbloggers continued to criticize actors in the Russian information space for distorting the reality of the Russian war effort, highlighting an emerging cyclical dynamic in the Russian information space in which the majority of Russian sources coalesce around a particular predominant narrative and, in turn, a subset of different sources coalesces to criticize the majority’s prevailing opinion.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded a prominent Russian milblogger who was previously critical of Russia’s military performance during its full-scale invasion with a prestigious state honor, continuing the Kremlin’s long-standing effort to coopt milbloggers and make them loyal to the Kremlin. 
  • Ukraine stated that the continued Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has resulted in equipment and maintenance failures that threaten the plant’s security.
  • The Ukrainian and IAEA reports indicate that Russia’s presence and exclusive control over the ZNPP is increasing, suggesting that similar failures may escalate under continued Russian occupation.
  • Cyprus has reportedly been complicit in helping Russian elites, sanctioned for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, launder money.
  • Gazprom Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, announced on November 16 that it acquired the majority share of a large Russian blogger agency, likely in an effort to expand its already extensive control over the Russian media space.
  • Russian authorities discovered former Russian 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army Commander Lieutenant General Vladimir Sviridov dead in his home in Stavropol Krai on November 15.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, near Robotyne, and northeast of Vasylivka and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • The Russian Ministry of Education issued a draft order establishing a course called “Fundamentals of Security and Defense of the Motherland” for Russian middle and high school students starting in September 2024.
  • The Russian government and Russian occupation authorities continue to forcibly deport children in occupied Ukraine to Russia under the rubric of educational programs.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 15, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, Nicole Wolkov, Kateryna Stepanenko, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 15, 2023, 7:45pm ET 

The European Union (EU) appears poised to ban the export of precision machine tools and key weapons manufacturing equipment components to Russia. The ban, if enacted and effectively enforced, could deal a significant blow to Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) given precision machine tools’ importance in industrial manufacturing. Bloomberg reported on November 15 that the EU’s 12th sanctions package proposes a ban on the export of precision machine tools and machinery parts that Russia uses to make weapons and ammunition, such as welding machines, lithium batteries, thermostats, motors, and drone motors.[1] Bloomberg reported that Russia has been importing precision machines and precision machine tools from Europe to sustain its ammunition production and other DIB production efforts. Bne Intellinews reported in June 2021 that Russia’s near total reliance on European- and US-produced precision machine tools makes Russia particularly vulnerable to such sanctions and noted that at the time Russia imported almost all of the precision machines it required.[2]

Russia has been increasingly attempting to develop import substitution solutions for sourcing Western-made precision machine tools in 2023, likely in preparation for Western sanctions targeting this vulnerability. The Russian government approved in May 2023 the “Concept of Technological Development until 2030,” which encourages domestic production of high-tech products such as precision machine tools and mandates that domestic enterprises produce at least 75 percent of Russia’s high-tech products by 2030.[3] Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec reported in August 2023 that Russia’s STAN group, the country’s largest domestic precision machine manufacturer, which Rostec purchased in 2019, is a major element of Russia’s import substitution program.[4] Rostec subsidiary RT-Capital’s head, Semyon Yakubov, told Kommersant on October 26 that Rostec hopes to use the STAN Group to meet Russia’s “great need” for modern precision machines in the absence of Western imports.[5] Yakubov stated that Western sanctions and the war in Ukraine have sharply increased Russia’s military and civilian demand for domestically produced machine tools. Yabukov noted that STAN was unable to meet even a third of the total volume of Russia’s orders for precision machines in 2023, worth around six billion rubles (approximately $67.1 million). Yabukov stated that Russia’s demand for precision machines is “much greater” than its current production abilities.

Denmark will reportedly start inspecting and potentially blocking Russian oil tankers in an effort to enforce a price cap on Russian oil and the European Union’s (EU) insurance regulations. The Financial Times (FT) reported on November 15 that the EU proposed measures that would allow Denmark to inspect and block Russian oil tankers traveling through the Danish straits. These measures are part of an EU effort to enforce a G7 cap demanding that Western insurers only provide coverage to Russian shipments where oil is sold for less than $60 per barrel.[6] An unnamed senior European government official told FT that “almost none“ of the Russian maritime oil shipments in October 2023 were below the $60 barrel price cap.[7] FT also reported that the EU is concerned that Russian tankers are violating EU regulations by frequently traveling with falsified financial statements or non-Western insurance.[8]

The Ukrainian government reached a deal with international insurers that will provide affordable coverage to vessels carrying grain and other critical food supplies through the Black Sea corridor for civilian vessels, amid continued Russian efforts to deny navigation through the corridor. The Financial Times (FT) reported on November 15 that the Ukrainian government reached a deal with insurance broker giant Marsh McLennan to provide up to $50 million in hull and liability insurance from Lloyd’s of London firms for each vessel carrying agricultural goods.[9] Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated that this agreement would allow Ukraine to “provide vital food supplies to the world at the same time as supporting the Ukrainian economy and keeping the Black Sea open for international trade.”[10] Russian forces have continually conducted strikes on Ukrainian port infrastructure and mined areas in the Black Sea to deny freedom of navigation in the corridor.[11]

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated during a meeting with Russian election commission representatives on November 15 that the Russian government will suppress any foreign or domestic election interference. Putin stated that the Russian government will “continue to do everything necessary to prevent any illegal intrusion into electoral processes.”[12] Putin notably did not specifically reference the March 2024 presidential elections, nor did he announce his announce his presidential campaign.

Recent Russian opinion polls indicate that roughly half of Russians maintain support for the war in Ukraine and for Russia to engage in peace negotiations. The Levada Center – an independent Russian polling organization – reported on October 31 that 55 percent of respondents to a recent poll believe that Russia should begin peace negotiations while 38 percent favor continuing to conduct the war.[13] The Levada Center observed that while these numbers slightly increased between September and October by four percent, they have largely remained consistent since July 2023.[14] The Levada Center added that support for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine remained high with 76 percent of respondents stating that they support Russian military operations in Ukraine. The Levada Center reported that 62 percent of surveyed Russians believe that the full-scale invasion is progressing well, while 21 percent of respondents believe that the war is going reasonably or very poorly for Russia.[15] The Levada Center reported on November 14 that two-thirds of respondents believe that Russia is headed in the right direction and of those who believe the opposite, 45 percent cited the war in Ukraine.[16] Opposition-leaning Russian research organization Russian Field reported similar numbers supporting negotiations on November 15, noting that 48 percent of respondents said that Russia should engage in peace negotiations and that 74 percent would support Russian President Vladimir Putin if he signed a peace agreement “tomorrow.”[17] Russian Field stated that 36 percent of respondents believe that the war is going well for Russia whereas 25 percent believe that the war is going poorly for Russia and that respondents who trust Telegram channels are twice as likely to believe that the war is going poorly for Russia as those who rely on Russian television.[18]

Yandex NV - the Dutch holding company of Russian internet technology company Yandex - reportedly aims to sell all its Russian assets by the end of 2023, allowing the Russian government to further increase its hold over the Russian information space. Reuters and Bloomberg reported on November 14, citing sources familiar with the matter, that Yandex NV likely aims to sell all its Russian assets, not just a controlling stake, by the end of 2023.[19] One of Reuters’ sources claimed that Yandex NV seeks a complete break from Russia while another source stated that a complete exit is likely but undecided. Reuters and Bloomberg reported that Yandex NV will host a board meeting on the deal in late November and hopes to finalize a deal by December 2023.[20] The Kremlin has been attempting to crypto-nationalize Yandex through coercive measures since at least the summer of 2023 and reportedly approved a prior deal to sell Russian Yandex holdings to an affiliate of Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergey Kiriyenko.[21] The Yandex crypto-nationalization effort likely supports the Kremlin’s preparations for the 2024 Russian presidential elections.

Key Takeaways:

  • The European Union (EU) appears poised to ban the export of precision machine tools and key weapons manufacturing equipment components to Russia.
  • Denmark will reportedly start inspecting and potentially blocking Russian oil tankers in an effort to enforce a price cap on Russian oil and the European Union’s (EU) insurance regulations.
  • The Ukrainian government reached a deal with international insurers that will provide affordable coverage to vessels carrying grain and other critical food supplies through the Black Sea corridor for civilian vessels, amid continued Russian efforts to deny navigation through the corridor.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin stated during a meeting with Russian election commission representatives on November 15 that the Russian government will suppress any foreign or domestic election interference.
  • Recent Russian opinion polls indicate that roughly half of Russians maintain support for the war in Ukraine and for Russia to engage in peace negotiations.
  • Yandex NV - the Dutch holding company of Russian internet technology company Yandex - reportedly aims to sell all its Russian assets by the end of 2023, allowing the Russian government to further increase its hold over the Russian information space.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • A Russian insider source claimed that Kremlin-created Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation, which presented a limited number of former Wagner fighters with the certificates of their combat veteran status, is coercing former Wagner fighters into signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Russian and occupation authorities continue efforts to indoctrinate Ukrainian students in occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 14, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Christina Harward, Nicole Wolkov, Grace Mappes, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 14, 2023, 6:20pm ET 

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 12:30pm ET on November 14. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 15 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian forces are likely trying to regain the theater-level initiative in Ukraine by conducting several simultaneous offensive operations in eastern Ukraine, although it remains unclear if Russian forces will be able to fully regain the initiative as Ukrainian forces maintain pressure on critical areas of the front. Several Ukrainian officials noted that the situation along the frontline is complex but that Ukrainian forces maintain control of the battlespace.[1] Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi stated on November 13 during a conversation with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown that the Avdiivka, Kupyansk, and Marinka directions are the most intense but noted that Ukrainian forces are continuing offensive actions in unspecified sectors of the front.[2] Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi emphasized that Russian forces are pursuing simultaneous offensive actions in several directions and trying particularly to regain the initiative north and south of Bakhmut.[3] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are reporting an increase of Russian assaults in the Kupyansk, Avdiivka, and Donetsk directions.[4]

Ukrainian officials’ statements about the current tempo of Russian operations along the frontline are consistent with ISW's assessment about ongoing Russian offensive operations, particularly in the Kupyansk, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka directions.[5] Russian forces will likely struggle to fully regain the initiative across the theater, however, and Ukrainian forces are continuing their own offensive operations and making tactical-level gains along the front, particularly in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.[6] The Russian military command will likely have to decide whether to keep certain Russian elements on certain sectors of the front to defend against ongoing Ukrainian offensive operations or to redeploy them to support offensive operations elsewhere that will likely culminate without reinforcements. These choices will likely hinder Russia's ability to fully regain the initiative in the coming weeks.

Ukrainian President's Office Head Andriy Yermak stated on November 13 that Ukrainian forces have established a "foothold" on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.[7] In a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, Yermak emphasized that despite the challenging battlefield situation, Ukrainian forces have "gained a foothold on the left bank of the Dnipro" and continue counteroffensive operations in unspecified sectors of the front.[8] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian forces have been conducting larger-than-usual ground operations on the east bank of Kherson Oblast since mid-October 2023 and that Ukrainian forces appear to be able to maintain and supply their current positions on the Russian-controlled side of Kherson Oblast.[9] Geolocated footage published on November 13 shows that Ukrainian forces recently advanced in Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson Oblast and 2km from the Dnipro River).[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin approved amendments to the Russian federal election law on November 14 that increase the Kremlin's control over the conduct of elections and reduce election transparency ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.[11] The amendments allow the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) to control the specifics and conduct of elections in areas under martial law, which notably includes occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts, and stipulates that voting in these areas will only occur following coordination among the regional occupation administrations, the CEC, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), and Federal Security Service (FSB). The amendments also restrict media access to polling places and election commission meetings exclusively to Russian-accredited journalists and media organizations. Russian-accredited journalists who seek access to polling areas in the jurisdiction of Russian military units require the approval of the unit’s commander to visit the areas. The amendments also necessitate that any actor legally designated as a “foreign agent” who speaks during a campaign event must announce that designation at the start of the speech and further prohibits presidential campaigning on blocked online platforms, such as opposition outlets Meduza and Vazhnye Istorii. These amendments allow the Russian federal government to increasingly control election campaigning and coverage of polling in Russian media to set conditions for additional Kremlin controls over Russian elections to help re-elect Putin in 2024. The Russian government may also postpone or cancel presidential elections in occupied Ukraine depending on the frontline situation and their ability to convincingly portray Putin as the winning candidate in these areas.

Russian forces conducted another wave of missile, air, and drone strikes against Ukrainian rear areas on the night of November 13–14. The Ukrainian Air Force reported on November 14 that overnight Russian forces launched nine Shahed-131/-136 drones from the direction of Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai; an Iskander-M ballistic missile from the direction of Dzhankoi, occupied Crimea; and Kh-35 cruise missiles from the direction of occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.[12] Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down seven of the nine Shaheds.[13] Ukraine's Southern Operational Command clarified that a ballistic missile, presumably the Iskander-M, struck an open area near Chornobaiivka, Kherson Oblast, and Russian forces launched Kh-59s at Mykolaiv and Kherson oblasts.[14] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian forces are using ballistic missiles more frequently because they are more challenging for Ukrainian air defenses to intercept.[15] Russian sources claimed that Russian strikes hit military assets and critical infrastructure in Cherkasy, Vinnytsia, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Kirovohrad oblasts, as well as the Shebelinsky gas processing plant in Kharkiv Oblast, although ISW has not observed visual evidence for all of these strikes.[16]

Ukraine's Western partners announced new efforts to continue providing Ukraine with military and financial aid. Germany announced a new aid package to Ukraine on November 13 that includes 10 Leopard tanks, 14 Bandvagn 206 tracked all-terrain vehicles, and 1,020 155-mm shells, and Reuters reported on November 12 that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition has agreed in principle to double Germany’s military aid to Ukraine next year to €8 billion.[17] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on November 13 that Ukrainian pilots began training at the F-16 training center in Romania.[18] NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized on November 14 that sustained NATO support for Ukraine is important as the current situation on the battlefield is difficult.[19] EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell stated on November 13 that Ukraine is the EU’s top priority and that the EU’s commitment will not waver.[20] Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba highlighted the importance of speeding up the EU’s plan to supply Ukraine with one million shells by March 2024 during a meeting with the EU Council of Foreign Ministers on November 13, but Politico reported on November 14 that German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius expressed doubt that the EU would be able to meet this target.[21] Politico also reported that Borrell stated that the European defense industry is exporting about 40 percent of its current production to third countries and urged European countries to shift exports to Ukraine as “priority one.”[22] Borrell stated that the EU’s ability to supply Ukraine with one million shells “will depend on how quickly orders come to the industry and how quickly the industry reacts.”[23] Stoltenberg also reiterated on November 14 that NATO has put in place framework contracts worth €2.4 billion, including €1 billion worth of firm orders, and stated that NATO countries are increasing production in order to reach the target of one million shells by March 2024.[24] Politico reported that Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur also announced that Estonia offered five European companies a procurement offer for €280 million worth of 155-mm artillery ammunition.[25]

The Russian government is likely attempting to force Google to cease operations in Russia. The Moscow Magistrate’s Court fined Google 15 million rubles (roughly $165,745) on November 14 for the repeated failure to localize the personal data of Russian citizens in Russia.[26] Russian state censor Roskomnadzor requires foreign internet-based services to localize databases of Russian users as of July 1, 2021, and Russian courts previously fined Google 15 million rubles in June 2022 for failing to adhere to this law.[27] The Russian government has previously fined Russian internet giant Yandex for also failing to adhere to Russian laws regarding disclosing users’ personal data to the government, likely forcing Yandex to split its Russian entity from its international entity to adhere to Russian laws and allowing the Russian government to exercise increased control and surveillance over Russians’ usage of Yandex.[28] The Russian government previously banned certain Western social media sites and demanded that Google remove “false information” about the Russian war in Ukraine in early 2022.[29] The Russian government likely aims to force Russians to utilize search engines and other internet services of Russian companies that the government can control better than international entities like Google.

Armenia continues to distance itself from Russia amid deteriorating Russian–Armenian relations. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan informed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on November 14 that he would not participate in the Russian-led Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) meeting in Minsk on November 23.[30] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded to Pashinyan’s announcement, stating that the Kremlin understands that heads of state have their own events in their work schedules but that this is regrettable as meetings like the CSTO meeting are a “very good occasion for exchanging opinions” and coordinating ideas.[31] Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanyan told journalists on November 9 that Armenia is currently not discussing the legal process of leaving the CSTO.[32]

Deputy Chairperson of the Russian State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy suggested a measure that would restrict work opportunities for migrants from countries that have not designated Russian as a state language, likely as part of an ongoing effort to coerce migrants into Russian military service. Tolstoy proposed restricting migrants from working in service sector jobs if they are not citizens from a country that designates Russian as a state language at a Federation Council meeting on state policy in the field of preservation, protection, and development of Russian language on November 14.[33] Tolstoy claimed that post-Soviet countries are teaching English and “trying to supplant Russian with their national language.”[34] If Tolstoy’s measure is officially proposed and passed, it would allow Russian authorities to limit work opportunities for migrants from Central Asia and the south Caucasus, potentially making it easier for Russian authorities to coerce migrants into serving in the Russian military due to a lack of other labor alternatives. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan designate Russian a state language while the titular languages are their state languages.[35] Tajik law designates Russian as a language of “interethnic communication.”[36] The Russian language does not have a legally designated status in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, or Armenia.[37] Russian authorities may also be attempting to pass laws restricting migrant work in Russia in an effort to placate Russian ultranationalists who are often critical of migrants working in Russia ahead of the Russian presidential elections in 2024.

Key Takeaways:

 

  • Russian forces are likely trying to regain the theater-level initiative in Ukraine by conducting several simultaneous offensive operations in eastern Ukraine, although it remains unclear if Russian forces will be able to fully regain the initiative as Ukrainian forces maintain pressure on critical areas of the front.
  • Ukrainian President's Office Head Andriy Yermak stated on November 13 that Ukrainian forces have established a "foothold" on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin approved amendments to the Russian federal election law on November 14 that increase the Kremlin's control over the conduct of elections and reduce election transparency ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
  • Russian forces conducted another wave of missile, air, and drone strikes against Ukrainian rear areas on the night of November 13–14.
  • Ukraine's western partners announced new efforts to continue providing Ukraine with military and financial aid.
  • The Russian government is likely attempting to force Google to cease operations in Russia.
  • Armenia continues to distance itself from Russia amid deteriorating Russian-Armenian relations.
  • Deputy Chairperson of the Russian State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy suggested a measure that would restrict work opportunities for migrants from countries that have not designated Russian as a state language, likely as part of an ongoing effort to coerce migrants into Russian military service.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on November 14 and advanced in some areas.
  • The Russian government discussed amendments that would more strictly penalize those who evade mobilization as well as volunteer servicemen who “improperly” perform their duties.
  • Russian occupation officials are beginning to announce that occupied areas of Ukraine will not hold significant public Christmas and New Years’ celebrations due to security concerns.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 13, 2023

Christina Harward, Karolina Hird, Riley Bailey, Nicole Wolkov, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 13, 2023, 6:55pm ET

Click here to read the full report

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on November 13. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 14 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Russian state media released and later retracted reports about the "regrouping" of Russian forces on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast to positions further east of the Dnipro River, suggesting that the Russian command and/or Russian state media apparatus has failed to establish a coordinated information line for the Russian response to ongoing Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank. Kremlin press wire TASS and Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti published reports claiming that the command of the Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces (currently active in east bank Kherson Oblast) decided to transfer troops to unspecified “more advantageous positions” east of the Dnipro River and that the Russian military command would transfer elements from the “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces to other directions for offensive operations following the regrouping.[1] TASS and RIA Novosti withdrew the reports within minutes and TASS later issued an apology wherein it claimed that it had “erroneously” released its report.[2] Russian state-affiliated outlet RBK reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) called the reports of a regrouping on the east bank of Kherson Oblast “false” and a ”provocation.”[3] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to a question about the situation in Kherson Oblast by stating that only the Russian military can and should comment on the situation.[4]

The Russian MoD has not acknowledged persisting Ukrainian positions on the east bank or ongoing larger-than-usual Ukrainian ground operations in recent weeks. Russian milbloggers have increasingly reported on Ukrainian activity on the left bank, however, sharply contrasting with the continued lack of acknowledgement from Russian state media and Russian officials.[5] The Russian command has previously struggled to establish a coordinated informational approach to developments in Ukraine, particularly when the Russian command failed to set informational conditions for defeats during the Kharkiv 2022 counteroffensive.[6] Previous failures to set coordinated informational approaches have led to chaotic fractures and pronounced discontent in the Russian information space, and the Russian command risks repeating these incidents with the situation on the east bank, which has drawn notable concern from Russian ultranationalists.[7] The reports‘ references to Russian “offensives“ elsewhere on the front suggests that the uncoordinated informational approach may be more widespread than the east bank, since the Russian command has not explicitly recognized any current Russian operations in Ukraine as an offensive effort.[8]

The now-retracted reports of a Russian regrouping on the east bank of Kherson Oblast may be indicative of actual discussions taking place in the high echelons of Russian military command that may have prematurely entered the information space before being officially released by the Russian military. Russian media outlet RBK reported that the original TASS and RIA Novosti reports stated that the commander of the joint Russian group of forces in Ukraine (unnamed in the article, but in reference to Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov) heard and agreed with arguments from the "Dnepr" group command (also unnamed in the article, but known to be Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky) and ordered the "Dnepr" group to redeploy and free up forces for offensive operations in other unspecified directions.[9] The suggestion that two high-ranking military commanders would have a discussion on reallocating Russian forces away from a certain sector of the front to another is not outlandish or improbable. RBK’s report further suggests that the Russian military command has assessed that the situation in Kherson Oblast is not overtly threatening to Russian forces. Despite near-constant anxiety about the Kherson direction on the part of milbloggers, the Russian military command itself seems to be preoccupied with other sectors of the front, namely the Avdiivka direction, where Russian forces are pursuing renewed offensive operations.[10] Gerasimov and Teplinsky may have weighed the costs of maintaining frontline units in Kherson Oblast with the benefits of redeploying these units to other areas of the front and decided that the current Russian grouping in rear areas of Kherson is sufficient to defend against Ukrainian operations on the east bank. Ukrainian military observer Konstantyn Mashovets remarked on November 12 that the Russian command in the Kherson direction has refused to commit to the front lines additional forces of the 70th Motorized Rifle Division (of the newly formed 18th Combined Arms Army) and 7th Air Assault (VDV) Division beyond the elements of single regiments and battalions, opting instead to maintain the remainder of these formations in near rear areas and secondary echelons of defense.[11] Mashovets noted that the Russian presence in frontline areas of Kherson Oblast is "limited."[12] The suggestion that Russian forces have a stronger rear-area presence in Kherson Oblast largely tracks with purported discussions between Gerasimov and Teplinsky to free up these frontline elements and commit them to other areas of the front.

Alternatively, the Russian military command may have instructed state media to release and then retract these reports as part of an information operation that aims to have Ukrainian forces underestimate available Russian manpower on the east bank of Kherson Oblast. The Ukrainian Resistance Center stated on November 13 that Ukrainian officials have not observed any Russian forces withdrawing from positions on the east bank and that the TASS and RIA Novosti reports are a part of a Russian information operation to distract Ukrainian forces.[13] Ukrainian forces are very unlikely to make any operational-level decisions based on limited media reports of a Russian regrouping, however, and if the reports are a part of an information operation, they will likely fail to deceive the Ukrainian command.

It is unlikely that an outside source posing as the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) provided information about the reported “regrouping” of Russian forces on the left bank of Kherson Oblast to Russian state media outlets. Several Russian sources suggested that an unspecified actor posing as the Russian MoD from a fake account could have provided the information to Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti.[14] It is very unlikely that an outside actor posing as the Russian MoD could deceive Russian state media outlets as Russian state media is closely connected to Russian government bodies including the Russian MoD.

Regardless of the causes and circumstances of the TASS and RIA Novosti reports, the reaction to them suggests that events in Kherson Oblast continue to be highly neuralgic in the pro-war information space and emphasizes that the Russian media space still has not coalesced around a singular rhetorical line about what is happening on the east bank of the Dnipro. The published reports use relatively neutral language and notably do not announce a "retreat" or "withdrawal," instead discussing a "transfer" and "regrouping."[15] The Russian media frenzy that followed, including the immediate retraction of the statements, a direct response from the Kremlin, and emphatic milblogger refutations, reflects the fact that any mention of the Russian grouping in Kherson Oblast generates near-immediate information space neuralgia.[16] It also appears that the Russian information space has not yet determined how to discuss the operational situation on the east bank of the Dnipro, and that any inflection in the situation there can generate an informational shock.  The Russian MoD falsely framed the Russian retreat from Kharkiv Oblast in early September of 2022 as a "regrouping," and that word and general concept apparently remains highly neuralgic for the Russian information space.

Ukrainian and Russian sources noted that weather conditions are impacting the battlespace but not halting operations. Ukrainian Ground Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo noted on November 13 that rain and mud in Donbas impede the speed of ground maneuver advances.[17] Ukrainian 14th Mechanized Brigade Spokesperson Nadiya Zamryha stated on November 12 that fog and rain complicate both Russian and Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance efforts and lead to reduced numbers of attacks.[18] Zamryha added that the falling leaves complicate efforts to hide equipment and personnel. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian aviation has been less active in southern Ukraine due to weather conditions and that Russian forces are attempting to launch as many glide bombs as possible with each sortie.[19] A Ukrainian reserve officer assessed that mud will make many roads near Avdiivka impassable, complicating logistics for both sides.[20] Russian milbloggers claimed that recent heavy rains led to reduced shelling and that strong winds and rain interfere with Russian drone operations and complicate offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[21] Russian sources also circulated footage purporting to show mud and rain filled Ukrainian trenches.[22] ISW continues to assess that fall weather conditions will decrease the tempo of Russian and Ukrainian operations but not halt them entirely, and that fighting will continue on both sides throughout the winter months as it did in the winter of 2022-2023 and in the years between 2014-2022.[23]

Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukraine will likely conduct an interdiction campaign against Russian supply routes in the upcoming winter. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk responded on November 13 to the forecasted large-scale Russian strike series against Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the upcoming winter and stated that Ukraine is preparing air defense capabilities and needs additional air defense systems and long-range missiles, such as ATACMS, to hit Russian rear areas.[24] Ukrainian Ground Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Fityo stated on November 12 that Ukrainian forces’ current main task is to disrupt Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs) and that these disruptions, coupled with the onset of inclement weather, will “freeze” Russian offensive operations.[25] Fityo also stated on November 13 that Ukrainian disruptions of Russian GLOCs will create issues for the supply of food, water, ammunition, and winter materials to Russian forces.[26] Ukrainian forces have been conducting an interdiction campaign against Russian military infrastructure in occupied Crimea, primarily Black Sea Fleet assets, since June 2023 to degrade the Russian military’s ability to use Crimea as a staging and rear area for Russian operations in southern Ukraine, and Ukraine may intend to intensify and widen this interdiction campaign in the coming months.[27]

A Russian milblogger called on actors in the Russian information space to more widely amplify Russian strikes on Ukrainian military assets as opposed to Ukrainian strikes on Russian rear areas, indirectly highlighting a unique dynamic wherein the majority of reported Russian strikes seem to affect Ukrainian civilian objects, whereas the majority of reported Ukrainian strikes affect Russian military assets. A Russian milblogger claimed that all types of Russian units work together to identify, record, direct, and confirm Russian strikes on Ukrainian targets.[28] The milblogger complained that the Russian information space barely covers these events, which creates a “false impression of [Russian forces’] inaction.” The milblogger claimed that the Russian information space instead devotes more coverage to Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory and that Russian milbloggers have to search for information about the alleged Russian strikes on their own. The milblogger urged other milbloggers and “ordinary pro-Russian residents of Ukraine” to offer “brighter” coverage of Russian strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and military targets in order to “create the spirit of victory in the media space.” The milblogger offered an example of the alleged insufficient coverage, claiming that Russian forces struck five unspecified Ukrainian railway junctions on an unspecified date in response to the Ukrainian operation that derailed a Russian freight train in Ryazan Oblast on November 11. The milblogger did not report on these five alleged Russian strikes previously but did report on the Ukrainian operation in Ryazan Oblast.[29] The wider Russian information space has also not reported on these alleged five retaliatory strikes, and the Russian milblogger did not specify where they got this information.[30]

Russian forces have used many of their long-range weapons to target Ukrainian critical and civilian infrastructure and have recently increased glide bomb strikes against populated areas of the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast.[31] One critical Russian milblogger, whom Russian authorities later arrested, complained in July 2023 that the Russian strike campaign was more “retaliatory” than “operationally sound” and blamed the Russian General Staff for wasting Russian efforts on striking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure rather than military infrastructure.[32] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on November 12 that Ukraine will focus on responding to the large-scale Russian series of strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure that are likely to occur in the winter, and Ukrainian officials have signaled their intent to strike military and energy targets within Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.[33]

US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink stated that the 100th civilian ship departed the Black Sea corridor for civilian vessels on November 13, amid continued Russian efforts to deter usage of the corridor. Brink also stated that Ukraine has used the corridor to export 3.7 million tons of food and other goods, presumably since the first civilian vessel successfully departed from a Ukrainian port through the corridor on August 15.[34] Russian forces have continually conducted strikes on Ukrainian port infrastructure and mined water areas to disrupt and discourage civilian maritime traffic through the corridor.[35]

Former Wagner Group personnel are reportedly rejecting Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) recruitment attempts aimed at subsuming Wagner operations in Africa. A Russian insider source claimed on November 13 that the Russian MoD, led by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and members of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU), has been attempting to recruit former Wagner personnel at the former Wagner base in Molkino, Krasnodar Krai, to Russian MoD operations in Africa since September 2023.[36] The insider source claimed that the Russian MoD is offering former Wagner personnel 110,000-ruble (about $1,200) salaries, “promising” positions and ranks, and the formation of a separate unit capable of operating in Libya, Syria, Mali, and Burkina Faso.[37] The insider source also claimed that the reported leader of Redut private military company (PMC), Konstantin Mirzoyants, denied the MoD’s offers on November 8 and claimed that the Russian MoD would not form a separate unit and that all personnel would go to Burkina Faso, which caused over 120 former Wagner personnel to reject contracts with the Russian MoD and leave Molkino.[38] ISW cannot confirm any of the insider source’s claims.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian state media released and later retracted reports about the "regrouping" of Russian forces on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast to positions further east of the Dnipro River, suggesting that the Russian command and/or Russian state media apparatus has failed to establish a coordinated information line for the Russian response to ongoing Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank.
  • There are three hypotheses of varying likelihood for the release of the now-retracted reports of a Russian regrouping on the east bank of Kherson Oblast: They may be indicative of actual discussions taking place in the high echelons of Russian military command that may have prematurely entered the information space before being officially released by the Russian military; the Russian military command alternatively may have instructed state media to release and then retract these reports as part of an information operation that aims to have Ukrainian forces underestimate available Russian manpower on the east bank of Kherson Oblast; or an outside source posing as the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) provided information about the reported “regrouping” of Russian forces on the left bank of Kherson Oblast to Russian state media outlets.
  • Regardless of the causes and circumstances of the TASS and RIA Novosti reports, the reaction to them suggests that events in Kherson Oblast continue to be highly neuralgic in the pro-war information space and emphasizes that the Russian media space still has not coalesced around a singular rhetorical line about what is happening on the east bank of the Dnipro.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources noted that weather conditions are impacting the battlespace but not halting operations.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukraine will likely conduct an interdiction campaign against Russian supply routes in the upcoming winter.
  • A Russian milblogger called on actors in the Russian information space to more widely amplify Russian strikes on Ukrainian military assets as opposed to Ukrainian strikes on Russian rear areas, indirectly highlighting a unique dynamic wherein the majority of reported Russian strikes seem to affect Ukrainian civilian objects, whereas the majority of reported Ukrainian strikes affect Russian military assets.
  • US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink stated that the 100th civilian ship departed the Black Sea corridor for civilian vessels on November 13, amid continued Russian efforts to deter usage of the corridor.
  • Former Wagner Group personnel are reportedly rejecting Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) recruitment attempts aimed at subsuming Wagner operations in Africa.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas of the frontline.
  • Ukrainian officials continued to discuss Russian forced mobilization of Ukrainian civilians in occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation officials continued to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under vacation schemes.


Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 12, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 12, 2023

Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 12, 2023, 3:55pm ET 

Ukraine appears to be intensifying attacks against Russian military, logistics, and other high-profile assets in rear areas in occupied Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on November 12 that Ukrainian partisans attacked a Russian military headquarters in occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast on November 11, killing at least three Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Rosgvardia officers.[1] The GUR’s November 12 announcement follows a Ukrainian partisan attack against a former Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) People’s Militia head on November 8; strikes against a Russian military base in occupied Skadovsk, Kherson Oblast and Black Sea Fleet assets in Crimea on November 9; and three rear-area strikes and partisan attacks in Russia on November 11.[2] Ukrainian forces have conducted a strike campaign specifically targeting occupied Crimea since summer 2023.[3]

The Russian government is attempting to downplay the extent of its efforts to strengthen control over the Russian information space. The Russian Ministry of Digital Development claimed on November 12 that it will only block specific virtual private network (VPN) services that an “expert commission” identifies as threats, likely aiming to prevent Russians from bypassing Russian censorship efforts and anonymizing themselves online.[4] The Ministry of Digital Development had responded to an inquiry from the “Novyi Lyudi” faction expressing concern over the Russian government’s efforts to restrict access to information on the internet and fears that the Russian government will simply identify all VPN services as threats and block them.[5] The Russian government recently announced a ban on services that provide virtual and temporary mobile numbers starting on September 1, 2024, and Russians can use these mobile numbers in conjunction with VPN services to form anonymous online personas to evade Russian censorship efforts.[6] The Russian government is very unlikely to allow any VPNs to operate within Russia that would allow Russians to bypass censorship efforts and remain anonymous from the Russian government.

Russia continues to posture itself as a prominent security guarantor for authoritarian countries in Africa. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin stated during a television interview with the “Voyennaya Priemka” program on November 12 that Russia will sign military cooperation agreements with six additional African countries in the near future.[7] Fomin stated that Russia currently has military agreements with 30 of the 54 African countries and added that Russia is “very active” on the African continent. Fomin did not specify which African countries Russia will sign agreements with, although Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov have met with delegations from Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Libya in recent months.[8] French-language outlet Jeune Afrique reported on November 11 that a group of Russian servicemen arrived in Burkina Faso to protect President Ibrahim Traore from future coup attempts, which Russian sources credited as an outcome of Shoigu’s November 7 meeting with Burkinabe Minister of Defense and Veteran Affairs Brigadier General Kassoum Coulibaly.[9] The Kremlin appears to be using military agreements with Sahelian juntas to insert itself into the power vacuums created by the withdrawal of Western actors from the region, such as the UN's withdrawal from Mali.[10]

Russian forces conducted a limited series of missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine on November 12. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces launched two Kh-59 cruise missiles and an Iskander ballistic missile at targets in southern Ukraine.[11] Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Ukrainian air defenses intercepted a Kh-59 cruise missile over Mykolaiv Oblast and that the second Kh-59 missile and the Iskander missile struck unpopulated areas.[12]

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine appears to be intensifying attacks against Russian military, logistics, and other high-profile assets in rear areas in occupied Ukraine and Russia.
  • The Russian government is attempting to downplay the extent of its efforts to strengthen control over the Russian information space.
  • Russia continues to posture itself as a prominent security guarantor for authoritarian countries in Africa.
  • Russian forces conducted a limited series of missile strikes targeting southern Ukraine on November 12.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces made a marginal gain on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast on November 12 amid ongoing ground operations.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 11, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 11, 2023, 6:15pm ET 

Russian forces launched a large-scale missile and drone strike series against Ukraine on the night of November 10 to 11, targeting Kyiv Oblast for the first time in 52 days. Ukrainian military sources reported on November 11 that Russian forces launched 31 Shahed 131/136 drones, two Kh-59 missiles, one Kh-31 missile, one P-800 Onyx anti-ship missile, and an S-300 missile against various targets in Ukraine, and specifically targeted Kyiv Oblast with either an Iskander-M or an S-400 missile.[1] Ukrainian air defenses downed 19 Shaheds (primarily targeting front line areas), one Kh-59 missile, and used a Patriot air defense system to destroy the ballistic missile targeting Kyiv Oblast.[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces were targeting an air defense system at the Boryspil Airport near Kyiv City.[3] The Kyiv City Administration stated that it has been 52 days since Russian forces last launched a missile strike against Kyiv Oblast.[4]

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) was reportedly involved in at least one of three strikes on Russian territory on November 10-11. Ukrainian outlet Suspilne Crimea reported that sources in the GUR stated that the GUR orchestrated an explosion of railway tracks in Ryazan Oblast that caused 19 railroad cars of a freight train to derail on the morning of November 11.[5] The GUR source stated that the explosion will complicate Russian military logistics for the near future. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that the train was carrying mineral fertilizer.[6] Moscow Railways stated that the situation did not affect passenger and commuter trains and that Russian Railways created a headquarters to coordinate any disruptions caused by the derailment.[7] Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti stated that the derailment was due to an “intervention of unauthorized persons.”[8] The Main Directorate of the Ministry of Emergency Situations for Tambov Oblast also stated that a fire covering 300 square meters broke out in a gunpowder factory near Kotovsk on the night of November 11.[9] Eyewitnesses reportedly heard explosions before the fire ignited.[10] BBC Russia stated that this is the second such incident at this gunpowder factory after a fire there killed five people in June 2023.[11] GUR spokesperson Andriy Yusov stated on November 11 that he cannot officially confirm or deny information about events in Russia, such as the explosion at the gunpowder plant near Tambov or the train derailment but that such strikes will continue.[12] Geolocated footage published on November 10 also shows smoke coming from a building in Kolomna, Moscow Oblast.[13] Russian sources claimed that locals heard explosions near the Machine-Building Design Bureau, a Rostec state corporation in Kolomna that specializes in missile systems.[14] Russian sources also claimed that Russian forces downed one or more drones over the Machine-Building Design Bureau, and a Russian insider source claimed that a drone crashed into the building.[15] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses shot down two Ukrainian drones over Smolensk and Moscow oblasts on the night of November 10, and a prominent Russian milblogger similarly claimed that Russian air defenses intercepted several air targets over Smolensk Oblast and Kolomna, Moscow Oblast in the night.[16] Ukrainian officials have not commented on the Kolomna strike as of the time of this publication. Ukrainian Minister of Energy Herman Halushchenko notably stated in an interview published on November 11 that Ukraine would answer Russian strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the winter with reciprocal strikes on Russian energy infrastructure, including oil and gas infrastructure.[17]

Continued Russian milblogger discussion of widespread Russian infantry-led frontal assaults highlights the challenges Russia will face in using massed infantry assaults to offset the problems contributing to the current positional warfare identified by Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. One milblogger emphasized on November 11 that the Russian practice of conducting tactical assaults intended to storm Ukrainian fortified positions in forest areas of Donbas will not translate into a wider operational breakthrough anywhere on the front.[18] The milblogger noted that there is no way to train enough Russian personnel for the intensive frontal assaults required for significant advances in Ukraine.[19] Another milblogger claimed that the Russian military is about to experience a "real renaissance of infantry combat" because there are fewer tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and armored personnel carriers (APCs) close to the frontline.[20] A critical milblogger responded to the "infantry renaissance" comment and remarked that the comment is a negative reflection of Russian equipment losses and poor frontline coordination that has created a reliance on assault tactics.[21] A Russian Spetsnaz-affiliated Telegram channel additionally complained that the reliance on infantry-led frontal assaults is heavily attriting all Spetsnaz elements that have deployed to Ukraine because the Russian command has reportedly been using Spetsnaz forces for frontal assaults since the beginning of the war.[22] Spetsnaz forces are not meant to conduct such infantry-led assaults like standard Russian motorized rifle infantry, and some Russian sources are clearly frustrated with the ramifications of the misapplication of such Spetsnaz elements.

ISW has previously observed that Russian forces are increasingly relying on such infantry-led frontal assaults, likely to compensate for a lack of adequately trained personnel and due to widespread equipment losses.[23] The Russian General Staff appears to be relying heavily on frontal assaults as the predominant tactic in Ukraine as an important part of the Russian solution to the problems of "military parity" laid out by Zaluzhnyi's essay on the issue of "positional warfare."[24]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to be increasingly sidelining his eldest son, 18-year-old Akhmat Kadyrov, in favor of his younger son Adam Kadyrov. Ramzan Kadyrov quietly indicated on November 9 that he appointed Akhmat Deputy First Minister of the Chechen Republic for Physical Culture, Sports, and Youth Policy.[25] This appointment follows Akhmat’s 18th birthday on November 8, when Ramzan Kadyrov praised Akhmat for success in his “chosen business“ as head of the Chechen “Movement of the First“ youth movement.[26] Ramzan Kadyrov’s quiet acknowledgment of Akhmat’s new position stands in contrast to the recent praise and appointments of his other children, including his appointment of his younger son, Adam, to the Chechen security service position that Ramzan Kadyrov held prior to succeeding his own father.[27] The reason for Ramzan Kadyrov’s apparent snubbing of his eldest son is unclear. Akhmat Kadyrov notably met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early March 2023 while rumors about Ramzan Kadyrov’s declining health circulated, fueling speculation that Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmat, and Putin may have been preparing for Akhmat to succeed his father.[28]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces launched a large-scale missile and drone strike series against Ukraine on the night of November 10 to 11, targeting Kyiv Oblast for the first time in 52 days.
  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) was reportedly involved in at least one of three strikes on Russian territory on November 10-11.
  • Continued Russian milblogger discussion of widespread Russian infantry-led frontal assaults highlights the challenges Russia will face in using massed infantry assaults to offset the problems contributing to the current positional warfare identified by Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to be increasingly sidelining his eldest son, 18-year-old Akhmat Kadyrov, in favor of his younger son Adam Kadyrov.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Avdiivka.
  • Russian authorities have reportedly launched another large-scale crypto-mobilization wave.
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to fill out the workforce and artificially alter the demographics of occupied Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 10, 2023

Click here to read the full report.

Christina Harward, Grace Mappes, Kateryna Stepanenko, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 10, 2023, 8:30pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 3:00pm ET on November 10. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 11 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that Ukrainian surface attack drones sank two Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) small landing ships in occupied Crimea on November 10. The GUR published satellite imagery and reported that the Ukrainian surface attack drone strike on Uzka Bay near Chornomorsk, occupied Crimea sunk one Project 1176 Akula-class small landing ship and one Project 11770 Serna-class small landing ship.[1] The GUR reported that the Serna-class ship was carrying a crew and was loaded with armored vehicles, including BTR-82 armored personnel carriers, and that Russian forces previously used Serna-class ships to provide cover for Russian BSF ships during raids when Russian forces lacked naval air-defense equipment.[2] A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted the strike on Uzka Bay with four unmanned boats and that it was one of three series of Ukrainian strikes on occupied Crimea on November 10.[3] The milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces also attempted to conduct a drone strike on an oil depot in Feodosia and a Neptune cruise missile strike on BSF and Federal Security Service (FSB) bases in Chornomorsk.[4] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian air defenses shot down a Neptune missile over the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea and intercepted two drones over Crimea.[5] ISW continues to assess that Ukrainian forces have been conducting an interdiction campaign against Russian military infrastructure in occupied Crimea, primarily BSF assets, since June 2023 to degrade the Russian military’s ability to use Crimea as a staging and rear area for Russian operations in southern Ukraine.[6]

Russian milbloggers continue to overreact to the Russian failure to push Ukrainian forces from positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast. A prominent Russian milblogger reiterated common complaints about inadequate Russian counterbattery fire, electronic warfare, air defense, and assault operations along the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.[7] The milblogger especially complained about improper usage of the Russian 10th Spetsnaz Brigade (Main Military Intelligence Directorate [GRU]) to conduct frontal assaults like standard infantry against Ukrainian positions on the east bank even though these frontal assaults are ineffective in this area. The milblogger expressed concerns about possible future Ukrainian operations in the Kherson direction, but other milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces are currently unable to achieve a breakthrough in this direction.[8]

Russian milbloggers are likely hyperfocusing on east bank Kherson Oblast due to the significant Russian information space neuralgia about Russian military issues in the area. Some Russian milbloggers appear to be less concerned about the possible near-term threat of Ukrainian operations on the east bank and are more upset about the poor Russian conduct of the war and mistreatment of military personnel.[9] A Russian milblogger complained that Russian forces struggle with the “ossification” of poor habits and conduct within the Russian military. These habits include poor communications, lack of proper preparations before or support during assault missions, conducting rotations in columns, Russian commanders selling frontline aid, and uninterest in learning from military mistakes and acknowledging poor battlefield realities.[10] The milblogger specifically emphasized the importance of Russian military professionalism and becoming the best army in the world. Other Russian milbloggers reiterated standard complaints about Russian military capabilities in Kherson Oblast but claimed that Russian forces still inflict high casualties on Ukrainian forces operating on the east bank.[11] Another prominent milblogger claimed that the situation near Krynky, Kherson Oblast is a “tactical problem” for Russian forces but not a strategic threat.[12]

Russian forces are launching significantly smaller and less frequent drone strikes against Ukraine in the past month than in previous months ahead of an anticipated large-scale winter strike campaign. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated on November 10 that Russian forces attacked Ukraine with 500 Shahed-131/-136 drones in September 2023 and several hundred drones in October 2023 but are currently launching drone strikes with fewer Shaheds almost every night.[13] Russian milbloggers noted on November 9 that Russian forces conducted large-scale Shahed strikes against Ukraine almost every night from the end of summer until mid-October 2023.[14] The milbloggers claimed that Russia’s Shahed strikes have been notably smaller and less frequent in the past month due to Russian forces planning to synchronize a new wave of intense combined strikes with the beginning of future large-scale ground operations. Ukrainian military sources reported on November 10 that Russian forces launched six Shaheds, a Kh-31 missile, and a Kh-59 missile at targets in Ukraine on the night of November 9 to 10.[15] Ukrainian air defenses downed five of the six Shaheds and the Kh-59 missile. Ihnat reported that the Kh-31 missile did not strike its target.[16]

Russian President Vladimir Putin again visited the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don on November 10, possibly in an effort to portray himself as an involved wartime leader ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in March 2024. Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and other unnamed commanders briefed Putin on the progress of the invasion and presented new models of Russian military equipment.[17] Russian state outlets published footage of Shoigu and Gerasimov showing Putin the Desertcross 1000-3 all-terrain vehicle.[18] Russian opposition outlet Meduza observed that an information stand displaying data about the Desertcross 1000-3 in the video claimed that the all-terrain vehicle is intended for patrol, reconnaissance, raid, search, and rescue operations, alongside transporting materiel in difficult road conditions.[19] The information stand also claimed that Russian forces are already using 537 Desertcross 1000-3 vehicles in combat and that Russia plans to purchase an additional 1,590 Desertcross vehicles in December 2023 and in the first quarter of 2024. Meduza noted that US-registered brand Aodes (which is headquartered in China) manufactures the Desertcross vehicles and advertises them as vehicles for hunters, farmers, and forestry workers.

Russian milbloggers have been consistently complaining about the lack of military equipment and vehicles in the Kherson direction, and it is possible that Putin is trying to appeal to Russian personnel fighting in this direction by providing them with hunting and farming vehicles rather than dedicated military vehicles.[20] A prominent Russian milblogger, for example, celebrated the news that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) would provide Russian servicemen with light frontline vehicles.[21] Putin’s November 10 visit marks his fifth visit to the SMD headquarters since December 2022 after he last visited the headquarters on October 19.[22]

Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly hold his annual live “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference in tandem on December 14, and the event will likely serve to promote his presidential campaign. Russian news outlet RBK stated on November 10 that sources familiar with the matter indicated that the “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference will likely occur in tandem on December 14.[23] Russian opposition media outlet Verstka stated that sources within the Federation Council indicated that the upper chamber will announce the beginning of the campaign period for the 2024 Russian presidential elections on December 13, as required by Russian law.[24] Verstka stated that presidential candidates have 25 days to complete the nomination procedures after the Federation Council’s announcement.[25] Although it is unclear when Putin will announce his presidential campaign, he will likely use the “Direct Line” forum and press conference to promote his candidacy and platform, which a Russian opposition source has indicated will widely avoid highlighting the war in Ukraine.[26] The Kremlin likely decided to hold the two events at once in order to more tightly control and regulate the questions asked. Putin has consistently run as an independent candidate despite his affiliation with the United Russia party, and Russian law dictates that independent candidates must gather at least 300,000 signatures in order to submit their candidacy.[27] Russian opposition media outlets stated on November 10 that the United Russia party is preparing to collect signatures to demonstrate its support for Putin’s candidacy and asked employees of the Kursk Oblast Multifunctional Service Center, a state and municipal service provider, to fill out a survey with their personal information and up to three suggestions about how to improve IT services in Russia.[28] The employees reportedly received a letter with the survey stating that they could write one suggestion three times but to fill out the form by hand.[29]

Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets announced on November 10 that Bohdan Yermokhin, a 17-year-old Ukrainian whom Russian authorities forcibly deported from occupied Mariupol to Russia and attempted to conscript, will return to Ukraine.[30] Russian opposition outlet Meduza reported that Russian authorities forcibly deported Yermokhin from Mariupol after Russian forces took occupied the city in May 2022 and placed him with a foster family in Moscow Oblast.[31] Yermokhin’s lawyer published a video on his behalf on November 9 pleading for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s help after Yermokhin received a summons for military service on November 8, weeks ahead of his 18th birthday.[32] Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova claimed that Yermokhin testified in writing in August 2023 that he did not plan to return to Ukraine, but Yermokhin’s lawyer stated that Russian authorities forced the teenager to write the statement.[33] Meduza reported that Yermokhin previously attempted to escape Russia in March 2023, but that Russian border guards detained him.[34] Lubinets stated that Ukrainian authorities will reunite Yermokhin with his sister in Ukraine in the coming days.[35]

The United Kingdom–led Operation Interflex has achieved its goal of training 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers between June 2022 and December 2023. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Operation Interflex, which initially included the United Kingdom but has added Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, and Sweden as partners since its launch in summer 2022, achieved its goal of 30,000 Ukrainian military personnel trained ahead of time on November 10.[36]  The Ukrainian General Staff and UK government stated that the UK has trained over 52,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2014.[37] The UK government stated that Operation Interflex is the largest military training program on UK territory since the Second World War.[38]

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) stated that Ukrainian surface attack drones sank two Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) small landing ships in occupied Crimea on November 10.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to overreact to the Russian failure to push Ukrainian forces from positions in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces are launching significantly smaller and less frequent drone strikes against Ukraine in the past month than in previous months ahead of an anticipated large-scale winter strike campaign.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin again visited the Southern Military District (SMD) headquarters in Rostov-on-Don on November 10, possibly in an effort to portray himself as an involved wartime leader ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in March 2024.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly hold his annual live “Direct Line” forum and annual press conference in tandem on December 14, and the event will likely serve to promote his presidential campaign.
  • Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets announced on November 10 that Bohdan Yermokhin, a 17-year-old Ukrainian whom Russian authorities forcibly deported from occupied Mariupol to Russia and attempted to conscript, will return to Ukraine.
  • The United Kingdom-led Operation Interflex has achieved its goal of training 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers between June 2022 and December 2023.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations on November 10 along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in western Donetsk Oblast, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas.
  • Russian forces continue to struggle with low morale and poor discipline.
  • Ukrainian Telegram channel Mariupol Resistance and Ukrainian Mariupol City Advisor Petro Andryushchenko reported on November 10 that Ukrainian partisans detonated a police car in occupied Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 9, 2023

Click here to read the full report

Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Grace Mappes, Angelica Evans, Amin Soltani, and Frederick W. Kagan

November 9, 2023, 6:55pm ET

Note: The data cut-off for this product was 1:30pm ET on November 9. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the November 10 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.

The Russian military command will likely struggle to redeploy combat effective reinforcements to respond to ongoing Ukrainian operations in eastern Kherson Oblast while conducting defensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast and sustaining other offensive efforts in eastern Ukraine. Russian milbloggers claimed on November 9 that Ukrainian forces established control over new positions in Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River) and conducted assaults towards Russian positions south and southwest of the settlement.[1] A Russian milblogger claimed that there are reports that Ukrainian forces advanced to forest areas south of Krynky.[2] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces also attacked near Poyma (12km east of Kherson City and 4km from the Dnipro River), Pishchanivka (13km east of Kherson City and 3km from the Dnipro River), and Pidstepne (17km east of Kherson City and 4km from the Dnipro River) and are trying to establish positions between Pidstepne and Kozachi Laheri (23km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River).[3] Ukrainian military observer Konstyantyn Mashovets stated that Ukrainian forces have established continuous control of positions from the Antonivsky railway bridge north of Poyma to the Antonivsky roadway bridge north of Oleshky (7km south of Kherson and 4km from the Dnipro River) as of November 9 and have cut the Oleshky-Nova Kakhovka (53km northeast of Kherson City) road in at least two areas.[4]

 

Elements of the Russian 18th Combined Arms Army’s (CAA) 22nd Army Corps (formerly of the Black Sea Fleet) and 70th Motorized Rifle Division as well as the 177th Naval Infantry Regiment (Caspian Flotilla) appear to be the main Russian forces responding to Ukrainian ground operations on the east bank of Kherson Oblast.[5] The Russian military reportedly formed the 18th CAA from other units previously operating in the Kherson direction, and it is unlikely that new units of the 18th CAA are comprised of fresh forces or staffed to doctrinal end strength.[6] Elements of the 177th Naval Infantry Regiment previously defended positions in western Zaporizhia Oblast for almost the entirety of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and have likely suffered significant casualties.[7] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on November 5 that unspecified elements of the 7th Guards Airborne (VDV) Division are operating in the Kherson direction, although the bulk of the 7th VDV Division appears to be committed to defensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.[8] Mashovets claimed on November 2 and 9 that elements of the 7th VDV Division's 171st Air Assault Battalion (97th VDV Regiment) are operating near Pishchanivka and Poyma, but it is unclear if these reported elements have been present in the Kherson direction since the start of the counteroffensive or recently redeployed to the area.[9] Elements of the 49th CAA (Southern Military District) have reportedly been operating in the Kherson direction since the Ukrainian liberation of Kherson City in November 2022, but some Russian and Ukrainian sources claim that the Russian command has since redeployed elements of at least one its brigades to the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area.[10] Mashovets claimed that elements of the 49th CAA still comprise the Russian “Dnepr” Grouping of Forces in the Kherson direction, and elements of the 49th CAA’s 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade appeared to be operating on the left bank as of late August 2023.[11]

 

The Russian command will likely face significant challenges in redeploying units from other sectors of the front should relatively combat ineffective Russian formations and currently uncommitted Russian forces in the Kherson direction prove insufficient to respond to the Ukrainian operations on the east bank of the Dnipro. Redeployments of considerable elements of the 7th VDV Division or other VDV formations and units in western Zaporizhia Oblast would likely disrupt Russian defensive operations there. Ru