What are Kremlin's plans for 2023? ISW analyzes possible war scenarios

19 January, 02:00 AM
Ukrainian troops fire at enemy positions near Bakhmut, January 15, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Ukrainian troops fire at enemy positions near Bakhmut, January 15, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Russia is trying to rethink its approach to war, preparing for protracted hostilities while simultaneously planning large-scale operations in 2023, the US-based Institute for the Study of War said in its analysis on Jan. 15.

Analyzing the risks and threats that the Russian army poses, ISW stressed that even if these operations fail, the West should not weaken its support for Ukraine, also calling on the West to provide “quick and timely” help.

“Russian forces remain dangerous, and Ukraine (…) requires further and timely Western support to adequately prepare for the [outlined]... Russian courses of action for 2023,” ISW analysts said.

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“Ukraine’s Western allies will need to continue supporting Ukraine in the long run even if a Russian decisive action in 2023 fails, as the Kremlin is nonetheless preparing for a protracted war. The West must continue its support to Ukraine’s efforts to defeat Russia’s invasion — and must do so quickly. The Russian military, as the saying goes, retains a vote on the course of the war despite its weaknesses and is actively setting conditions for major operations as the war enters its second year.”

While Putin has not changed his objectives for the war, it is becoming obvious that he is changing fundamental aspects of Russia’s approach by undertaking several new lines of effort, ISW said.

They lay out five Russian lines of effort (LOEs) likely intended to support a decisive action in the next six months.

●       LOE 1. The Kremlin will intensify both short- and long-term force-generation efforts. Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)  announced plans to radically expand the conventional Russian military by forming new divisions, re-instating pre-2010 reform military districts in western Russia, and increasing the conscription age in order to recruit more capable soldiers. All of this indicates Russia’s intent (though not necessarily its ability) to reform its military to wage a large-scale conventional war. According to Ukrainian intelligence, the Kremlin intends to increase the size of its army to around 2 million (by an unspecified date) from its September 2022 level of approximately 1.35 million. For its part, Western intelligence  has observed that  Russian military command is “seriously preparing” for a possible second wave of mobilization. Putin himself signed orders that expand the eligibility for mobilization, in particular allowing the mobilization of convicts.

●       LOE 2. The Russian military is keeping some already-mobilized personnel in reserve for future use — a marked change from the Kremlin’s initial approach of sending untrained forces straight to the front in the fall of 2022. Putin stated on Dec. 7 that the Russian Armed Forces have not yet committed all mobilized personnel from the first mobilization wave to the front lines, likely taking time to train and equip these forces for a later, concentrated use. After a series of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in the summer and fall of 2022, regular Russian troops (as opposed to the Wagner Group and the 'DNR/LNR' proxy forces) did not participate in the latest massive offensive operations, maintaining mainly defensive positions, ISW experts said, noting that they have seen conventional Russian units regrouping and training in Belarus and in Russia.

●       LOE 3. “Russia is attempting to reinvigorate its defense industrial base (DIB). The Kremlin began placing a significant emphasis on the resurrection of the Russian DIB in December. Putin has held several senior meetings and visited defense enterprises throughout the country since December. Putin publicly acknowledged issues with supplies, such as the lack of reconnaissance drones, and notably demanded that one of his ministers issue state defense procurement contracts in a shorter-than-planned time frame. Putin and other Kremlin officials have also entertained vague discussions that Russian authorities may nationalize property to support the Russian war effort,” ISW analysts wrote.

●       LOE 4. Putin has tried to re-centralize control over the war in Ukraine by appointing Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov as the “theater” commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. The Kremlin is also reinstating those who originally planned the war and is belatedly trying to fix flaws in the command structure. The Kremlin is likely counting on Gerasimov and his newly-appointed deputies to prepare Russia for a protracted war and take command of major operations in 2023.

●       LOE 5. “The Kremlin is intensifying its conditioning of the Russian information space to support the war,” ISW experts said. The Kremlin is trying to revive support for the invasion by reactivating the narratives that dominated on the eve of Feb. 24. In addition, Russian authorities  are trying to regain control over the coverage of the war after previously ceding this space to numerous “independent actors.” “Kremlin officials resumed promoting a false narrative in late 2022 that the existence of an independent Ukraine threatens Russian sovereignty and culture, justifying Russia’s invasion and ongoing Russian sacrifices as inevitable and necessary ‘self-defense’ measures,” ISW explains. In this way, the invasion and Russian losses are rendered justified as inevitable and necessary measures of "self-defense." In addition, Kremlin propagandists have boosted the narrative of international legal consequences for Russia if it does not win the war – which is likely to stoke public fear of defeat and increase commitment to war. The Kremlin has also stepped up efforts to develop relations with the most influential pro-war bloggers, who have become a powerful informational alternative to Putin and the Russian MoD.

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Some of these Russian LOEs could support different courses of actions (COAs) that ISW laid out. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive. According to US military theory, a military can undertake a decisive action at every level of war to produce a definitive result and achieve an objective. Decisive actions can take place at the tactical, operational, or strategic level and can be either offensive or defensive.

●       COA 1: A major Russian offensive – most likely in Luhansk Oblast.  ISW experts point out that the complete capture of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts remains official Kremlin military goals and is among the theoretically most achievable (albeit very difficult) goals for Russia, given that Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts are logistically the easiest territories for Russia to capture. Russia has been deploying additional forces to Luhansk Oblast and undertaking other significant activities since 2022, which ISW assesses could support an offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast. ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are unlikely to conduct an offensive in southern Ukraine in Kherson or Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. The Dnipro River demarcates the front line in Kherson Oblast and is a serious obstacle to maneuver. Russia’s array of layered field fortifications in Kherson Oblast and extensive minefields in Zaporizhzhia Oblast indicate Russian forces are prioritizing defensive operations in both provinces.

●       COA 2: A Russian defensive operation to defeat and exploit a Ukrainian counteroffensive. In light of  many reports of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive, at the end of 2022, Russia transferred significant forces from the Kherson front to Luhansk Oblast, creating field fortifications in Luhansk Oblast, as well as in  Belgorod and Kursk Oblasts of the Russian Federation. ISW states that in Donbas, in particular in Luhansk Oblast, Russia will seek to avoid a repeat of its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast or its withdrawal from Kherson. The Russian forces may try to repulse a Ukrainian counteroffensive in such a way as to deprive Ukraine of  initiative and destroy a significant part of its mechanized forces, which would then theoretically allow the Russian army to develop its own counteroffensive, ISW analysts said.

●       The most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) – a Russian offensive against northern Ukraine –  remains unlikely, according to ISW experts. However, they believe the Kremlin is trying to maintain planning flexibility and is likely to expand its military presence in Belarus before deploying additional forces there as part of the Zapad 2023 and Union Shield 2023 exercises, scheduled for around September 2023. At this time, ISW continues to see no evidence that Russian forces in Belarus have established sufficient command and control structures necessary to support a task force. ISW considers the dispatch to Belarus of Oleg Salyukov, one of the three new deputies of Valery Gerasimov in his role as commander of forces in Ukraine, to be part of a Russian information operation.

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