Russia may conduct new offensive against Ukraine in winter 2023, says ISW

16 December 2022, 05:33 PM
Training of the 120th Territorial Defense Brigade, which at the beginning of December conducted training near the border with Belarus (Photo:120 TDF Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Training of the 120th Territorial Defense Brigade, which at the beginning of December conducted training near the border with Belarus (Photo:120 TDF Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Russia may be setting conditions to conduct a new offensive against Ukraine – possibly against Kyiv – in winter 2023, the U.S. think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote in an update on the current situation in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine on Dec. 15.

First of all, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Ukraine have not changed, according to Ukrainian officials’ and ISW’s assessments based on Kremlin statements and actions. Putin continues to pursue maximalist goals in Ukraine using multiple mechanisms intended to compel Ukrainians to negotiate on Russia’s terms and likely make pre-emptive concessions highly favorable to Russia. This fundamental objective has underpinned the Kremlin’s various military, political, economic, and diplomatic efforts over the past 10 months, the ISW writes.

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ISW analysts noted that Putin is also using two simultaneous military efforts to pursue his ultimate objective of regaining control of Ukraine and securing major territorial concessions. Russia’s current offensive pushes in Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Bakhmut and in the Avdiyivka-Donetsk City area, and the ongoing campaign of massive missile strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure, are intended to create realities on the ground that Russia will likely demand Ukraine recognize as the basis for negotiations.

The ISW continues to assess that Putin has given the order for Russian troops to complete the capture of the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, and that current Russian offensive efforts around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast are part of the effort to execute that order.

However, according to ISW, these two military efforts are failing to coerce Ukraine into negotiating or offering pre-emptive concessions, and Ukraine has retained the battlefield initiative following its two successive counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. Putin may therefore be setting conditions for a third, sequential military effort in the likely event that these two efforts fail to secure his objectives by preparing for a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the winter of 2023.

As ISW has previously reported, there are a series of observed indicators that suggest that Russian forces may indeed be preparing for a new offensive operation – including the reconsolidation of force compositions along major axes of advance and the movement of heavy equipment to the frontlines.

Meanwhile, Russian forces may be setting conditions to attack from Belarus, though ISW continues to hold that a Russian invasion from Belarus is not imminent at this time.

It is emphasized the Ukrainian General Staff’s daily reports from Dec. 1 to Dec. 15 uniformly state that Ukrainian officials have not detected Russian forces in Belarus forming strike groups necessary to attack northern Ukraine.

“Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike group,” the ISW wrote.

In addition, the ISW believes that it remains extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces would be able to take Kyiv even if Russian forces again attack from Belarus.

“Russian forces have been unable to secure their gains across Ukraine and have lost over 70,000 square km of occupied territory since abandoning Kyiv,” the think tank noted.

“Russian forces in Bakhmut currently advance no more than 100-200 meters a day after concentrating their main efforts there. Russia has not established air superiority let alone air supremacy in Ukraine and has largely exhausted its precision-guided munitions arsenal.”

At the same time, Ukrainian forces, for their part, have prepared significant defenses in northern Ukraine and are better prepared to defend now than they were in February 2022. ISW says that the terrain near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border is not conducive to maneuver warfare and possible invasion routes from Belarus to Kyiv run through defensible choke points in the Chornobyl exclusion zone that Ukrainian forces now have experience defending.

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