Putin preparing to stretch war well into 2023, not planning nuclear strike, says ISW

31 October 2022, 07:37 PM
Putin at the training ground in the Ryazan region, October 2022 (Photo:Сputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Putin at the training ground in the Ryazan region, October 2022 (Photo:Сputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Russia is likely to continue the war against Ukraine through conventional means well into 2023, hoping to go on the offensive again in spring, rather than escalating to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its new report on Oct. 30.

Analyzing the Russia’s vision of the prospects for the course of the war in the next six months, ISW said the Kremlin would likely attempt to wait out the current stage of the war, in which Ukraine has seized the initiative.

“Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will most likely try to continue conventional military operations in Ukraine to hold currently occupied territories, gain new ground, and set conditions for the collapse of Western support for Ukraine that he likely expects to occur this winter,” ISW experts said.

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“Putin has likely not abandoned hopes of achieving his maximalist aims in Ukraine through conventional military means, which he is pursuing in parallel with efforts to break Ukraine’s will to fight and the West’s will to continue supporting Kyiv. Putin is unlikely to escalate to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, barring the sudden collapse of the Russian military, permitting Ukrainian forces to make uncontrolled advances throughout the theater,” ISW analysts said, noting that such a situation is “possible but unlikely.”

They also believe Putin is “extraordinarily unlikely to seek direct military conflict with NATO”, saying he would much rather continue to hint at the possibility of Russian tactical nuclear use and attacks on NATO as parts of his effort to break Western will to continue supporting Ukraine.

ISW analysts base this forecast on two assessments:

  • First, that Putin is setting conditions to continue throwing poorly prepared Russian troops directly into the fighting in Ukraine for the foreseeable future rather than pausing operations to reconstitute effective military forces
  • Second, that Putin’s theory of victory relies on using the harsh winter to break Europe’s will.

Russian force-generation efforts will occur over the course of several predictable time periods.

ISW analysts note that the “partial mobilization” of reservists has been declared complete. That declaration basically means that the Russian military will stop calling up reservists and instead focus on completing their brief training periods before sending them to fight in Ukraine.

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, the following reserve mobilization efforts will take the form of renewed efforts to recruit “volunteers,” likely into volunteer battalions – efforts that were largely halted during the “partial mobilization.” However, as ISW experts said, continued attempts to create “volunteer” units will likely generate little meaningful combat power and will be spread over an extended period of time.

The Russian military will begin its semi-annual conscription call-up on Nov.1, 2022 (a month later than usual). Normal Russian conscript training involves a period of roughly six months of individual basic and advanced training followed by the assignment of conscripts to combat units in which they complete their remaining six months of mandatory service. Russian law bans sending conscripts to combat operations abroad with fewer than four months of training. However, Putin can actually overcome this ban. The law specifies that conditions of war or martial law allow the Russian military to deploy conscripts to fight earlier than that. The annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts offers another possible basis for exemption, because Russian law does not preclude the use of conscripts in Russian territory regardless of how much training they have received.

Raw conscripts with no military experience and fewer than four months of training are likely to be “nearly useless on the battlefield in any case.” Putin may rush limited numbers of such conscripts to combat before their four-month training period is complete, but most will likely be held back until March 2023 at the earliest.

Six months after the draft, the Russian military will likely find it necessary to send these conscripts to units in Ukraine, as there are unlikely to be enough functional combat units at home stations in Russia to receive them. The Russian military has fully committed its available ground forces units to Ukraine in a series of force-generation efforts, as ISW has previously reported.

“The Russian military likely will be unable to keep called-up conscripts in training areas for more than six months, for the next semi-annual conscription call-up would normally begin around April 1, 2023. Conscripts called up beginning on Nov. 1, 2022, will thus likely be assigned to combat and support units in Ukraine and begin to arrive on the battlefield around May 2023,” ISW analysts said.

Therefore, the next window for a large-scale reserve mobilization would most likely open earlier than March 1, for the Russian Defense Ministry will not likely be able to conduct additional reserve call-ups as long as it is engaged in providing conscripts with initial training.

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Weather offers another likely periodization of Russian efforts that coincides well with the force-generation timelines that ISW analysts described above

Fall in Ukraine is generally wet and muddy but not usually so bad as to make mechanized offensives impossible. Winter, on the other hand, is usually the best season for mechanized warfare in Ukraine, ISW analysts highlighted. This is mainly because when most of the streams and some of the rivers also freeze, greatly facilitating cross-country mechanized advances. Spring is the nightmare season for fighting in Ukraine. The thaw swells rivers and streams and turns fields into seas of mud. Mechanized warfare in the spring muddy season is extremely difficult (although, again, not impossible for forces like Ukraine’s and, theoretically, Russia’s, that are properly equipped and trained for it), ISW analysts said.

Thus, current flowing of Russian partial mobilization forces into Ukraine is likely meant to stiffen Russian defenses and allow Russian forces to hold their positions through the rest of the fall and into winter period. If Putin intends to deploy Russian men about to be conscripted after four or six months of training, he could be setting conditions for Russian forces to resume offensive operations after the end of the spring thaw.

Putin’s goals in 2023

The Russian partial mobilization of reservists just completed strongly suggests that Putin intends to keep fighting into 2023 rather than expecting to secure some sort of ceasefire or to escalate in a way that could end the war on his terms,” ISW analysts believe.

He has paid “a very high domestic price” for this mobilization effort in the flight of hundreds of thousands of Russians to other countries, unprecedented protests, and equally unprecedented criticisms of the performance of the Russian military and the Russian government.

ISW analysts said that this price only makes sense if Putin intends to keep fighting and recognizes the need to get reinforcements to Ukraine right now in order to hold his positions long enough for fresh conscripts to arrive and turn the tide in his favor,as he might think. According to the ISW, it makes far less sense if he intends to escalate to the use of tactical nuclear weapons either in an effort to win the war or in hopes of securing a ceasefire or some other off-ramp on favorable terms.

Putin’s efforts to break Europe’s will by withholding Russian energy supplies over the winter offers yet another timeline that coheres well with the others. The theory underlying this Russian effort would be that freezing European populations will put such pressure on their governments that European states will begin to accept Putin’s demands to stop providing weapons and other forms of support to Ukraine, at least, and possibly to lift various sanctions on Russia as well.

Key conclusions:

  • Unconfirmed Russian reports claimed that Russian Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev (Commander of the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern Military District) replaced Colonel General Alexander Lapin as Central Military District (CMD) commander as of Oct. 30.
  • Ukrainian sources and geolocated reports indicate that Russian forces destroyed a bridge over the Chervona River in Chervonorichenske, Luhansk Oblast. Russian military bloggers accused Ukrainian forces of destroying the bridge;
  • Russian invasion forces are preparing to defend Kherson and surrounding areas;
  • Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces are preparing to withdraw artillery units from unspecified areas on the western bank of the Dnipro River to possibly reinforce other directions. Ukrainian military officials also reported that several hundred Rosgvardia servicemen deployed from the Republic of Chechnya to Kalanchak in southwestern Kherson Oblast;
  • Russian forces continued to shell Ukrainian positions in the Beryslav district, Kherson Oblast;
  • Russian sources reported that Russian forces captured Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast, (2 kilometers southwest of Vuhledar) on Oct. 30. The Ukrainian General Staff’s evening report did not report repelling Russian attacks in this area as it usually does, potentially indicating that the Russian claims are accurate.

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