February 22, 2022

Ukraine Invasion Updates

Maps on Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine and Main Russian Maneuver Axes

Recent Updates

February-August 2022 Updates

Related Reads

This page collects the Critical Threats Project (CTP) and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) updates on the invasion of Ukraine. In late February 2022, CTP and ISW began publishing daily synthetic products covering key events related to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. These Ukraine Conflict Updates replaced the “Indicators and Thresholds for Russian Military Operations in Ukraine and/or Belarus,” which we maintained from November 12, 2021, through February 17, 2022.

This list also includes prominent warning alerts that CTP and ISW launched outside the crisis update structure. These products addressed critical inflection points as they occurred.

Maps on Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine and Main Russian Maneuver Axes

This interactive map complements the static daily control-of-terrain maps that CTP and ISW produce with high-fidelity and, where possible, street level assessments of the war in Ukraine.

Previous versions of these static maps are available in our past publications.

The Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War are publishing a summary of the methodology of our map for those who would like to learn more about the tradecraft for mapping conventional military operations from the open source.

Recent Updates

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 30

September 30, 2022 | 8:30 pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not threaten an immediate nuclear attack to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensives into Russian-occupied Ukraine during his speech announcing Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. ISW analysts broke down Putin’s speech in a separate September 30 Special Report: “Assessing Putin’s Implicit Nuclear Threats after Annexation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the illegal Russian annexation of four Ukrainian territories on September 30 without clearly defining the borders of those claimed territories. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to specify the borders of the newly annexed territories in a September 30 conversation with reporters: "[the] Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics [DNR and LNR] were recognized by Russia within the borders of 2014. As for the territories of Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, I need to clarify this. We will clarify everything today.”[1] DNR head Denis Pushilin added that even the federal district into which the annexed territories will be incorporated remains unclear: “What will it be called, what are the borders—let's wait for the final decisions, consultations are now being held on how to do it right.”[2] Russian officials may clarify those boundaries and administrative allocations in the coming days but face an inherent problem: Ukrainian forces still control large swathes of Donetsk and Zaporizhia and some areas of Luhansk and Kherson oblasts, a military reality that is unlikely to change in the coming months.

Putin likely rushed the annexation of these territories before making even basic administrative decisions on boundaries and governance. Russian officials have therefore not set clear policies or conditions for proper administration. Organizing governance for these four forcibly annexed oblasts would be bureaucratically challenging for any state after Russian forces systematically killed, arrested, or drove out the Ukrainian officials who previously ran the regional administrations. But the bureaucratic incompetence demonstrated by the Kremlin’s attempted partial mobilization of Russian men suggests that Russian bureaucrats will similarly struggle to establish governance structures over a resistant and unwilling population in the warzone that is Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

Putin announced that Russia’s usual autumn conscription cycle will start a month late on November 1, likely because Russia’s partial mobilization of Russian men is taxing the bureaucracy of the Russian military commissariats that would usually oversee the semi-annual conscription cycle.[3] Putin’s September 30 decree calls for 120,000 Russian conscripts—7,000 fewer than in autumn 2021. Neither Putin’s decree nor subsequent official statements clarified whether Ukrainian civilians of conscription age (18-27) in Russia’s newly-annexed occupied Ukrainian territories will be liable for conscription. A representative of Russia’s Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate, Rear Admiral Vladimir Tsimlyansky, claimed that no autumn 2022 conscripts would fight in the “special operation” in Ukraine, a promise Putin also made (and broke) about the autumn 2021 and spring 2022 conscripts.[4] Russian conscripts are not legally deployable overseas until they have received at least four months of training unless Putin were to declare martial law.[5] Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied areas in Ukraine likely removes this problem within the framework of Russian Federation law, which may be part of the reason for Putin’s rush in announcing the annexation.

Russian officials could re-mobilize last year’s conscripts when their terms expire on October 1. Tsimlyansky emphasized on September 30 that all Russian conscripts whose terms have expired—meaning those conscripted in autumn 2021—will be released from service and returned to their residences “in a timely manner.”[6] Once released, autumn 2021 conscripts will technically become part of the Russian reserves, making them legally mobilizable under Putin’s September 21 partial mobilization order.

Putin invited some Russian milbloggers and war correspondents who have previously criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for a lack of transparency about Russian progress in Ukraine to attend his annexation speech in Moscow.[7] Russian state media has been increasingly featuring some milbloggers on federal television channels as well, which likely indicates that Putin is attempting to secure the support of these nationalist and pro-war figures rather than censor them. The milblogger presence in Moscow may also explain why several prominent Telegram channels had limited or no coverage of daily frontline news on September 29.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the illegal Russian annexation of four Ukrainian territories on September 30 without clearly defining the borders of those claimed territories.
  • Putin announced that Russia’s usual autumn conscription cycle will start a month late on November 1, likely because Russia’s partial mobilization of Russian men is taxing the bureaucracy of the Russian military commissariats that would usually oversee the semi-annual conscription cycle.
  • Russian officials could re-mobilize last year’s conscripts when their terms expire on October 1.
  • Ukrainian forces will likely capture or encircle Lyman within the next 72 hours.
  • Ukrainian military officials maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground maneuvers in Kherson Oblast but stated that Ukrainian forces continued to force Russian troops into defending their positions.
  • Russian troops continued ground assaults in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian authorities continued efforts to coerce Russian participation in mobilization efforts, but will likely struggle to coerce participation as Russians continue to flee Russia for border states who welcome them.
  • Russian officials are accepting bribes and engaging in other preferential treatment to prevent or ease the economic burden of mobilization on the wealthy.
  • Russian authorities are continuing to deploy mobilized personnel to Ukraine without adequate training or equipment, and personnel are unlikely to be able to afford to provide their own supplies.
  • Russian forces conducted a missile strike on a Ukrainian humanitarian convoy and attempted to blame the Ukrainian government.
Assessing Putin’s Implicit Nuclear Threats After Annexation

September 30, 2022 | 12:45pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not threaten an immediate nuclear attack to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensives into Russian-occupied Ukraine during his speech announcing Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. Putin announced Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts on September 30 even as Ukrainian forces encircled Russian troops in the key city of Lyman, Luhansk Oblast, immediately demonstrating that Russia will struggle to hold the territory it claims to have annexed. Putin likely intends annexation to freeze the war along the current frontlines and allow time for Russian mobilization to reconstitute Russian forces. The annexation of parts of four Ukrainian oblasts does not signify that Putin has abandoned his stated objective of destroying the Ukrainian state for a lesser goal. As ISW assessed in May, if Putin’s annexation of occupied Ukraine stabilizes the conflict along new front lines, “the Kremlin could reconstitute its forces and renew its invasion of Ukraine in the coming years, this time from a position of greater strength and territorial advantage.”[1]

Putin’s annexation speech made several general references to nuclear use that are consistent with his past language on the subject, avoiding making the direct threats that would be highly likely to precede nuclear use. Putin alluded to Russia’s willingness to use “all available means” to defend claimed Russian territory, a common Kremlin talking point. Putin stated that “the US is the only country in the world that twice used nuclear weapons, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Incidentally, they created a precedent.” Putin stretched his historical allusions, stating that the United States and the United Kingdom demonstratively and without a military need destroyed many German cities during World War II with the “sole goal, just like in the case of nuclear bombardments in Japan, to scare our country and the entire world,” attempting to portray Western states as the true aggressor. Putin did not directly articulate any new red lines or overtly threaten to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine if Ukrainian counteroffensives continue.

Putin is attempting to force Kyiv to the negotiating table by annexing Russian-occupied territory and threatening nuclear use.[2] He is following the trajectory that ISW forecasted he might on May 13. As ISW wrote at the time: “A Russian annexation would seek to present Kyiv with a fait accompli that precludes negotiations on territorial boundaries even for a ceasefire by asserting that Russia will not discuss the status of (illegally annexed through military conquest) Russian territory—the argument the Kremlin has used regarding Crimea since 2014.” Predictably, Putin demanded that Ukraine return to negotiations in his September 30 speech announcing annexation and precluded any discussion of returning illegally annexed Ukrainian territory to Kyiv’s control: “We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately cease all fire and hostilities and end the war it initiated in 2014 and return to the negotiations table. We are ready for it and have said that several times. But the decision of the people in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson we will not negotiate. This choice has been made and Russia will not betray it.”

Putin’s call for negotiations and implicit nuclear threats are aimed at both Ukraine and the West; he likely incorrectly assesses that his nuclear brinksmanship will lead the United States and its allies to pressure Ukraine to negotiate. As ISW wrote in May: “The Kremlin could threaten to use nuclear weapons against a Ukrainian counteroffensive into annexed territory to deter the ongoing Western military aid that would enable such a counteroffensive.” However, Ukraine and its international backers have made clear that they will not accept negotiations at gunpoint and will not renounce Ukraine’s sovereign right to its territories. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on September 20, “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”[3] Where does this leave Putin, then, and what are the actual prospects for the Russian use of nuclear weapons?

ISW cannot forecast the point at which Putin would decide to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision would be inherently personal, but Putin’s stated red lines for nuclear weapon use have already been crossed in this war several times over without any Russian nuclear escalation. Reported Ukrainian cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast and strikes against Russian-occupied Crimea could arguably meet the stated Russian nuclear use threshold of “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”[4] Putin framed Ukraine as posing an existential threat to Russian sovereignty repeatedly at the start of his full-scale invasion—a phrase that meets that stated threshold: “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. … It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line which we have spoken about on numerous occasions,” he said on February 24.[5] Formal Russian nuclear doctrine is evidently not a deciding factor for Putin, who has reportedly been micromanaging this war down to the operational level.[6]

Putin has set in motion two major means short of nuclear use through which he will try to achieve his objectives: partial mobilization to replace Russian losses, and wintertime energy pressures on Europe to deter European support. He likely intends Russia’s ongoing mobilization to stabilize Russian positions and enable the temporary freezing of the conflict. He is unlikely to succeed; rushing thousands of untrained and unmotivated Russian men to the front will not meaningfully increase Russian combat power, particularly in places like western Luhansk oblast where the Ukrainian counteroffensives are making significant progress. Putin intends his second approach, curtailing natural gas exports to Europe, to fracture the Western consensus around supporting Ukraine and limit Western military aid to Ukrainian forces. This too is unlikely to succeed; Europe is in for a cold and difficult winter, yet the leaders of NATO and non-NATO European states have not faltered in their support for Ukrainian sovereignty and may increase that support in light of Russia’s illegal annexation even in the face of economic costs.[7] European states are actively finding alternatives to Russian energy and will likely be far more prepared by winter 2023.[8] It is difficult to assess what indicators Putin will use to evaluate the success of either effort. But both will take considerable time to bear fruit or to demonstrably fail, time Putin will likely take before considering a nuclear escalation.

Putin would likely need to use multiple tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve his desired operational effect—freezing the front lines and halting Ukrainian counteroffensives. But the operational effect would need to outweigh the potentially very high costs of possible NATO retaliation. Putin might try a nuclear terror attack against one or more major Ukrainian population centers or critical infrastructure in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender or the West into cutting off aid to Ukraine.  Such attacks would be highly unlikely to force Ukraine or the West to surrender, however, and would be tremendous gambles of the sort that Putin has historically refused to take. Ukraine’s government and people have repeatedly demonstrated their will to continue fighting, and the West would find it very challenging simply to surrender in the face of such horrific acts because of the precedent such surrender would set. Putin is therefore far more likely to use nuclear weapons to change the operational environment, if he uses them at all. We assess Putin has two main tactical nuclear weapon use options: striking key Ukrainian ground lines of communication nodes and command centers to paralyze Ukrainian offensive operations, and/or striking major Ukrainian force concentrations near the line of contact. A single nuclear weapon would not be decisive against either of these target sets. Putin would likely need to use several tactical nuclear weapons across Ukraine to achieve significant effects and disrupt Ukraine’s ability to conduct counteroffensives. The scale of nuclear use likely required would raise the risks of Western retaliation, likely increasing the potential costs Putin would have to weigh against the likely temporary benefits the strikes themselves might provide.

Russian nuclear use would therefore be a massive gamble for limited gains that would not achieve Putin’s stated war aims. At best, Russian nuclear use would freeze the front lines in their current positions and enable the Kremlin to preserve its currently occupied territory in Ukraine. Russian nuclear use would not enable Russian offensives to capture the entirety of Ukraine (the Kremlin’s original objective for their February 2022 invasion). Russian military doctrine calls for the Russian Armed Forces to be able to effectively fight on a nuclear battlefield, and the “correct” doctrinal use of tactical nuclear weapons would involve tactical nuclear strikes to punch holes in Ukrainian lines, enabling Russian mechanized units to conduct an immediate attack through the targeted area and drive deep into Ukrainian rear areas.[9] The degraded, hodgepodge Russian forces currently operating in Ukraine cannot currently conduct effective offensive operations even in a non-nuclear environment. They will be flatly unable to operate on a nuclear battlefield. DNR/LNR proxy units, Wagner Group fighters, BARS reservist units, and the depleted remnants of the Russian conventional units that actually exercised fighting on a nuclear battlefield in annual exercises—not to mention newly mobilized replacements shipped to the front lines with less than a week of training—will not have the equipment, training, and morale necessary to conduct offensive operations following nuclear use. NATO is additionally likely to respond to Russian nuclear weapon use in Ukraine with conventional strikes on Russian positions there.  Russian use of multiple weapons (which would be required to achieve decisive operational effects) would only increase the likelihood and scale of a Western conventional response.

The more confident Putin is that nuclear use will not achieve decisive effects but will draw direct Western conventional military intervention in the conflict, the less likely he is to conduct a nuclear attack.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 29

September 29, 2022 | 7:30 pm ET

The Kremlin continues to violate its stated “partial mobilization” procedures and contradict its own messaging even while recognizing the systematic failures within the Russian bureaucracy just eight days after the declaration of mobilization. Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged and deflected the blame for repeated “mistakes” during the first week of mobilization in his opening remarks at the Russian Security Council meeting on September 29. Putin recounted instances of mobilizing men without prior military experience, assigning servicemen to the wrong specializations, and unfairly mobilizing men with health conditions or large families. ISW has previously reported that Kremlin-state media began exploring similar complaints just days after Putin’s declaration of “partial mobilization.” Putin called on the Russian General Staff, Ministry of Defense (MoD), and federal subjects to fix the reported problems with mobilization, while noting that prosecutors and working groups within enlistment centers will monitor all complaints. Speaker of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin also announced that Russian men with a military registration cannot leave their permanent residence without the approval of enlistment centers. Volodin and the Kremlin’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov later retracted these statements, noting that the Russian MoD informed him that Russian officials may only restrict the movement of military-registered men in case of full mobilization. Republic of Dagestan Head Sergey Melikov also condemned a police car with a loudspeaker that ordered all men to appear at the enlistment center while driving around Derbente, Republic of Dagestan, stating that local authorities did not authorize such announcements.

The Kremlin’s contradictory statements and procedures demonstrate the fundamental nature of the systemic weakness of the Russian military establishment that have characterized the entire invasion. Russian officials continue to execute a supposed reservist call-up as a confused undertaking somewhere between a conscription drive and the declaration of general mobilization, likely issuing conflicting orders to already flawed bureaucratic institutions. CIA Director Williams Burns noted that even if the Kremlin manages to mobilize 300,000 men it will not be able to ensure logistic support or provide sufficient training and equipment to the newly-mobilized men. Ukrainian military officials noted that Russian forces have already committed mobilized men to Kharkiv Oblast who have since told the Ukrainian forces that they did not receive any training prior to their deployment around September 15.

The bureaucratic failures in the Russian partial mobilization may indicate that Putin has again bypassed the Russian higher military command or the Russian MoD. The deployment of mobilized men to centers of hostilities on the Kharkiv or Kherson frontlines may suggest that Putin is directly working with axis commanders on the ground who are likely clamoring for reinforcements, rather than following standard military practices (that are also required by Russian law) such as providing training to the mobilized prior to their deployment to the frontlines. ISW has previously reported that Putin bypassed the Russian chain of command on numerous occasions when making decisions regarding the progress of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine, likely because he had lost confidence in the Russian MoD. The contradictory and inconsistent narratives used by Kremlin officials and the Russian MoD about mobilization procedures could indicate that Putin, as the supreme commander, issued divergent or contradictory orders.

Belarus remains highly unlikely to become directly involved in the war in Ukraine on the part of Russia, despite statements made by Ukrainian sources on September 29 that Belarus is preparing to accommodate newly mobilized Russian servicemen. The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Belarus is preparing to accommodate up to 20,000 mobilized Russian men in existing civilian premises, warehouses, and abandoned agricultural facilities in Belarus. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Oleksiy Hromov, similarly stated that actions are being taken to expand the Luninets Airfield (50km from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border) and to repair storage and military infrastructure. Independent monitoring organization Belarusian Hajan Project also reported that Russia delivered Su-30 aircraft to the Baranavichy airfield in Belarus. These data points may indicate that Russia hopes to use Belarusian military facilities and infrastructure to hold and potentially train newly mobilized Russian forces, but it remains exceedingly unlikely that these are leading indicators of imminent Belarusian involvement in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf. Hromov also stated that there are no signs of Russian troops forming a strike group to target northern Ukraine, which suggests that Russian forces are unlikely to use Belarus as a launching pad for ground attacks into Ukraine despite reports of troop and equipment accumulations in Belarus. These reports more likely suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing to leverage his relationship with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in order to use Belarusian land for the development of Russian military capabilities. ISW has previously assessed that Lukashenko cannot afford the domestic ramifications of Belarusian involvement in Ukraine. ISW also assesses that Russia does not have the ability to form a ground strike force from scratch or from existing units in Belarus quickly.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin continues to violate its stated “partial mobilization” procedures and contradict its own messaging even while recognizing the systematic failures within the Russian bureaucracy just eight days after the declaration of mobilization.
  • Belarus may be preparing to accommodate newly-mobilized Russian servicemen but remains unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf.
  • Ukrainian troops have likely nearly completed the encirclement of the Russian grouping in Lyman and cut critical ground lines of communication (GLOCS) that support Russian troops in the Drobysheve-Lyman area.
  • Ukrainian military officials maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground maneuvers in Kherson Oblast but stated that Russian forces are deploying newly-mobilized troops to reinforce the Kherson Oblast frontline.
  • Ukrainian troops continued to target Russian logistics, transportation, and military assets in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian troops continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces have likely increased the use of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in southern Ukraine.
  • An independent Russian polling organization, the Levada Center, found that almost half of polled Russians are anxious about mobilization, but that support for Russian military actions declined only slightly to 44%.
  • Ukrainian officials reiterated their concerns that the Kremlin will mobilize Ukrainian citizens in occupied oblasts following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation announcement.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 28

September 28, 2022 | 7:30 pm ET

Russian milbloggers discussed Ukrainian gains around Lyman with increased concern on September 28, suggesting that Russian forces in this area may face imminent defeat. Several Russian milbloggers and prominent military correspondents claimed that Ukrainian troops advanced west, north, and northeast of Lyman and are working to complete the envelopment of Russian troops in Lyman and along the northern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in this area. Russian mibloggers stated that Ukrainian troops are threatening Russian positions and lines of communication that support the Lyman grouping. The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping in northern Donetsk and western Luhansk oblasts and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk Oblast border and in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area.

Russian military leadership has failed to set information conditions for potentially imminent Russian defeat in Lyman.  The Russian Ministry of Defense has not addressed current Russian losses around Lyman or prepared for the collapse of this sector of the frontline, which will likely further reduce already-low Russian morale. Russian military authorities previously failed to set sufficient information conditions for Russian losses following the first stages of the Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv Oblast, devastating morale and leading to panic among Russian forces across the Eastern axis. The subsequent ire of the Russian nationalist information space likely played a role in driving the Kremlin to order partial mobilization in the days following Ukraine’s initial sweeping counteroffensive in a haphazard attempt to reinforce Russian lines. Future Ukrainian gains around critical areas in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast may drive additional wedges between Russian nationalists and military leadership, and between Russian forces and their superiors.

The Kremlin could temporarily postpone announcing the annexation of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory to better prepare the Russian information space and administrative organization, although September 30 remains the most likely date for some kind of annexation announcement. ISW forecasted on September 27 that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely announce the Russian annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory on September 30 in his planned address to both houses of the Russian parliament. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on September 28 that Russia will “fulfill the aspirations of the residents of the LNR, DNR, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts to be together with Russia” in the “near future.” However, Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced on September 28 that the State Duma should hold its accession sessions to approve the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory on October 3 and 4. Latvian-based Russian-language opposition outlet Meduza quoted Kremlin sources on September 28 who claimed that the Kremlin decided ”not to rush things.” Those sources told Meduza that ”the PR effect from [annexation] will be almost zero” due to broad dissatisfaction with partial mobilization in Russia. Meduza reported that the Kremlin conducted a dissatisfactory closed public opinion poll that demonstrated broad Russian discontent and may be attempting to rectify public unhappiness with mobilization before announcing annexation.

Russian-appointed occupation administration leaders of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts each shared an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by September 28, asking Putin to recognize their sham referenda and welcome them to Russia. The Russian occupation leaders of each oblast will likely meet with Putin in the coming days to present their requests. Putin could announce those performative accession negotiations, rather than final annexation, in his September 30 speech.

Russian authorities continue to send newly-mobilized and undertrained recruits to directly reinforce severely degraded remnants of various units, including units that were previously considered to be Russia’s premier conventional fighting forces. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that newly-mobilized Russian men arrived to reinforce elements of the 1st Tank Regiment of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army in unspecified areas of Ukraine with no training at all. Social media footage from September 27 shows a Russian soldier mobilized into the 1st Tank Regiment explaining that he will be sent to fight in Kherson Oblast within two days without any basic training, as ISW reported yesterday. The 1st Guards Tank Army was considered Russia’s premier mechanized force prior to February 24, and that fact that its elements are being reinforced with poorly disciplined, untrained men is consistent with ISW’s previous assessments that even Russia’s most elite units have sustained substantial losses in Ukraine and are therefore increasingly degraded. The addition of newly mobilized forces to elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army is unlikely to lend these units any decisive combat power.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian military leadership has likely failed to set information conditions for the potential defeat of the Russian grouping in Lyman, despite increasingly concerned discourse among Russian milbloggers regarding the potential for a Ukrainian envelopment of Lyman.
  • The Kremlin could temporarily postpone announcing the annexation of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory to better prepare the Russian information space and administrative organization, although September 30 remains the most likely date for some kind of annexation announcement.
  • Russian authorities continue to send newly-mobilized and undertrained recruits to directly reinforce severely degraded remnants of various units, including units that were previously considered to be Russia’s premier conventional fighting forces.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued to make significant gains around Lyman on September 28, advancing from the north along the Zelena Dolyna-Kolodiazi arc and from the southeast around Yampil.
  • Ukrainian military officials largely maintained operational silence regarding specific Ukrainian actions in Kherson Oblast on September 28 but stated that Ukrainian troops are continuing positional battles in unspecified locations to consolidate and improve their positions along the Southern Axis.
  • Russian forces continued unsuccessful ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian military recruitment officials are openly contradicting the Kremlin’s publicly-stated guidelines for mobilization to meet quota requirements even as Kremlin propaganda is attempting to change the public perception of partial mobilization.
  • Russian authorities are beginning to restrict movement of Russian citizens into Russian border regions to cope with hundreds of thousands of Russian men attempting to flee the country.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 27

September 27, 2022 | 8:30 pm ET

Russian authorities in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts completed their falsified annexation “referenda” on September 27 and implausibly claimed that each sham referendum received between 87 and 99% approval from Ukrainian residents. Russian officials pre-ordained and falsified the approval ratings and alleged voter participation rates for the sham referenda while coercing Ukrainian civilians in occupied territories to performatively vote for Russian annexation, as ISW has previously reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely announce the Russian annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory on September 30. The completion of the performative referenda marks the last prerequisite for Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare the Russian annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory. The UK Ministry of Defense reported that Putin will likely make the declaration before or during an address to both houses of Russia's parliament on Friday, September 30. Putin followed a similar approach when he illegally annexed Ukrainian Crimea in 2014: a sham referendum, followed by a presidential decree of recognition and a treaty of accession that the Russian Federal Assembly formally approved within five days of the sham Crimean referendum. The Russian proxy leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Denis Pushilin, told Russian media on September 27 that he previously asked Putin to approve the results of the referendum before it was held and would travel to Moscow to sign an agreement. The head of Russia’s proxy Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), Leonid Pasechnik, announced on September 27 that the LNR will join Russia “very soon” and that he will travel to Moscow on September 27 or 28 to ask Putin in person to approve the results of the sham referenda. ISW previously forecasted that Putin will annex occupied Ukrainian territory by or soon after October 1 to enable the forced conscription of Ukrainian civilians into the Russian military in the normal autumn conscription cycle.

Russian forces are reportedly committing newly-mobilized Western Military District (WMD) men to the Kherson and Kharkiv Oblast frontlines without prior training. A mobilized servicemember of the 1st Tank Regiment of an unspecified unit recorded a video plea stating that his unit will not receive training prior to deploying to Kherson Oblast on September 29. RFE/RL’s Mark Krutov geolocated the serviceman’s surroundings to the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division’s base in Kalininets, Moscow Oblast. ISW previously reported that Russian forces have committed elements of the 147th Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division to Kherson Oblast in late August, and are likely attempting to reinforce units in the south (that have operated in Kyiv and Kharkiv Oblasts) in short periods with untrained, newly-mobilized men. Elements of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division previously based out of Izyum asked to leave their positions on August 30 due to moral exhaustion. Russian opposition outlet Mediazona also reported that mobilized men of the 237th Tank Regiment of the WMD’s 3rd Motor Rifle Division based out of Valuyki are deploying to Donbas frontlines after only one day of training. ISW cannot independently verify Mediazona’s report, but the 237th Regiment also operated around Izyum since late March. Mobilized men with a day or two of training are unlikely to meaningfully reinforce Russian positions affected by Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south and east.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely announce the Russian annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory on September 30 after Russian officials completed their falsified “referenda” on September 27.
  • Russian forces are reportedly committing newly-mobilized Western Military District (WMD) men to the Kherson and Kharkiv Oblast frontlines without prior training.
  • Ukrainian forces are consolidating their positions on the eastern bank of the Oskil river and made further gains on the outskirts of Lyman.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) as part of the southern counter-offensive interdiction campaign, particularly disrupting Russian efforts to build barge crossings.
  • Russian forces continued unsuccessful offensive operations around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City, increasingly leveraging penal units.
  • Russian forces inflicted severe damage on a Ukrainian airfield in Kryvyi Rih and continued routine air and missile strikes across southern Ukraine.
  • Russian authorities are establishing checkpoints at Russia’s borders to forcibly mobilize Russian men who are seeking to avoid forced mobilization by fleeing the country.
  • Russian officials are setting conditions to forcibly mobilize or conscript Ukrainian civilians in soon-to-be annexed areas of occupied Ukraine.
  • The Russian annexation of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk will likely exacerbate tensions within DNR and LNR forces, who regularly mutiny when asked to fight outside the borders of their own oblasts.
  • Russian officials may attempt to reframe their invasion of Ukraine and occupation of soon-to-be-annexed Ukrainian territory as a “counterterrorism operation.”
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 26

September 26, 2022 | 11:25 pm ET

The Kremlin is attempting to message its way out of the reality of major problems in the execution of its “partial mobilization,” but its narratives are unlikely to placate Russians who can perceive the real mistakes all around them. The Kremlin is deflecting blame for the Russian government’s failure to abide by its own stated criteria for mobilization and exemptions onto the failing bureaucratic institutions responsible for the mobilization. The Kremlin is downplaying the widespread violations of the mobilization law as individual errors of local authorities, claiming to correct these errors as citizens call attention to them. The violations are clearly too common to be merely the result of individual errors, however, and Russian citizens can see them all too clearly. Unlike Russian failures in Ukraine, which the Kremlin has been able to minimize or deflect because its citizens cannot see them directly, violations of the mobilization decree are evident to many Russians. Word of these violations does not even require access to media or social media, because they are occurring in so many locations and victims’ families can spread their anguish by word of mouth.

Russian state media has begun acknowledging social media complaints of persistent problems with the mobilization process, largely pinning the blame on the supposedly unmotivated and careless employees of the military recruitment centers.[1] Russian propagandists and heads of federal subjects are actively discussing instances of wrongful mobilization of men older than the maximum mobilizable age, those who had never served, and those who have medical conditions, as well as poor treatment of mobilized individuals. Omsk Oblast Governor Alexander Burkov declaimed that the bureaucracy is the “enemy of patriotism” and blamed bureaucrats for focusing on meeting unstated quotas rather than correctly fulfilling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order.[2] One state television host threatened to punish workers of military recruitment centers if they fail to abide by the limited reservist mobilization order.[3] The Kremlin’s media outlets and voices are increasingly sharing individual stories in which military recruitment centers released some men who were unfit for service following the involvement of local officials or with the help of Kremlin state media to suggest that errors are being corrected when called to the Kremlin’s attention.[4]

The Kremlin faces a daunting task in trying to calm the Russian people while still mobilizing enough men to keep fighting. The Kremlin’s current narrative aims to assuage its distraught and panicking population with the promise of fixing and punishing bureaucratic institutions for widespread “mistakes” in the mobilization campaign, but such messaging is unlikely to solve the Kremlin’s problems. Putin will have to fix (or convincingly appear to fix) the mobilization bureaucracy sprawling across 11 time zones while simultaneously getting it to meet the mobilization quotas he has set for it to support the war effort. These imperatives are likely mutually exclusive in a short period of time. The Kremlin also risks further undermining this critical bureaucratic institution during an important period by continuously blaming it for failures that are likely not entirely of its making. Some Russians are already directing their anger onto enlistment officials; a man who opposed mobilization shot the head of the Ust-Ilimsk military recruitment office in Irkutsk Oblast on September 26.[5]

The Kremlin’s efforts to calm the Russian population are struggling so far, as protests occurred in at least 35 settlements on September 25 and at least 10 settlements on September 26.[6] Russian police continue to suppress protests, notably detaining several hundred women in Yakutsk, Republic of Sakha.[7] Russian police also fired warning shots at anti-mobilization protestors in Endirei, a village of approximately 7,900 people in the Republic of Dagestan.[8] Russians set Russian military enlistment centers on fire in Uryupinsk, Volgograd Oblast and Ruzaevka, Mordovia Republic.[9] A detained student also attempted to set on fire a building that had a military registration and enlistment office sign in St. Petersburg even though the building itself was not a military enlistment office.[10] Some mobilized men harmed themselves to protest the mobilization, with one Russian man setting himself on fire in Ryazan Oblast.[11]

The Kremlin is executing a declared reserve partial mobilization as if it were partial conscription, exacerbating societal discontent. A normal selective mobilization of reserves would have the government call up reservists based on lists of those who have military experience (the primary prerequisite for membership in Russia’s less-than-formal reserve system) and are in the correct age bracket. The Kremlin, as well as nationalist Russian milbloggers, have repeatedly claimed that military enlistment centers throughout Russia are doing just that—using such preexisting lists of known reservists to mobilize eligible men.[12] A Russian milblogger cited a Russian Ministry of Defense source on September 26, however, who claimed that all Russian citizens are responsible for pre-emptively providing documentation of their ineligibility for mobilization to the military recruitment centers.[13] If they do not provide documentation, they risk being mobilized. That process is standard for conscription, but unorthodox for an alleged selective mobilization of reserves. The Kremlin has most likely set quotas for local officials to fill and emphasized meeting those quotas over abiding by the legal guidelines for mobilization eligibility, leading to the prioritization of numbers over adherence to the law and thus to the forced mobilization of men with no military experience or with other disqualifying health conditions.

Even a competently executed call up of Russia’s reserves would be unlikely to generate significant combat power in Ukraine in the near term. Financially motivated MoD reforms that reduced the term of conscripts’ service from two years to one in 2008 mean that those conscripted since 2008 were not trained to a level of competence that would make them useful force-multipliers for Russia’s current efforts without considerable additional training.[14] The MoD does not appear to have taken steps to render these new recruits useful, however. Russian reports from a Russian training center in Sergeyevsky claimed that newly mobilized men wandered around the center without training, equipment, or officers for four days.[15]

The Kremlin’s planned annexation of occupied Ukraine may take place before or shortly after October 1, the start of Russia’s normal fall conscription cycle, to enable the forced conscription of Ukrainian civilians to fight against Ukraine. If it does, the Kremlin will likely order the Russian Ministry of Defense to include Ukrainian civilians in occupied and newly annexed Ukrainian territory in the Russian conscription cycle, broadening the forced mobilization of Ukrainian civilians to fight against Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that one motivation for Putin to order mobilization and annexation in concert with one another is to broaden the forced mobilization of Ukrainian civilians, but those civilians do not meet the legal criteria for the Kremlin’s current partial mobilization order—almost none of them in the mobilizable age categories are likely to have experience in the Russian military.[16] As “Russian” citizens under Russian law, however, all Ukrainian men between 18 and 27 years old in annexed territories would become eligible for conscription.[17] A Russian milblogger claimed on September 26 that the Russian Ministry of Defense will build a branch of the Nakhimov Naval School in occupied Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, demonstrating the extent to which the Russian military intends to embed itself in occupied Ukrainian territory.[18]

Russian officials have already mobilized Ukrainian citizens to fight against Ukraine. The Russian-appointed occupation governor of Russian-annexed Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, claimed on September 25 that Russian authorities mobilized around 2,000 men in occupied Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Putin’s partial mobilization.[19] As ISW has previously reported, Russian occupation authorities have previously forcibly mobilized Ukrainian civilians from all occupied Ukrainian oblasts in smaller numbers.[20]

Russian authorities have already set conditions to mobilize Ukrainian men in larger numbers after annexation is formalized. The Ukrainian advisor to the Kherson Oblast Military Administration, Serhiy Khlan, reported on September 25 that Russian occupation authorities are not allowing men under 35 years old to leave occupied Kherson.[21] The Ukrainian mayor of occupied Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, reported on September 26 that the Kremlin instructed the Russian Melitopol occupation administration to form a volunteer battalion of 3,000 members by October 10.[22] The Ukrainian head of the Luhansk Oblast Military Administration, Serhiy Haidai, reported on September 26 that Russian occupiers in Svatove, Luhansk Oblast issued mobilization orders to all men in the area and that Russian authorities in annexed Luhansk will similarly mobilize all Ukrainian men.[23]

Unconfirmed reports suggest Ukrainian forces may have destroyed a Russian drone control and training center that directed drone attacks against Ukraine, possibly killing Iranian trainers. Ukrainian journalist Andriiy Tsapienko claimed that Ukrainian forces avenged Russian drone attacks on Odesa by striking the Russian facility in Chulakivka on the Kinburn Spit of Kherson Oblast on September 26 and claimed that the Ukrainian strikes killed four dozen Russians and two dozen Iranian trainers teaching Russian forces how to use Iranian-made drones like the Shahed-136.[24] Russian forces have used Iranian-made Shahed-136 munitions to strike targets in Odesa in recent days, as ISW has previously reported. ISW cannot independently confirm Tsapienko’s reporting, and Ukrainian government sources did not report an attack on a drone command center. Ukraine’s Southern Operations Command reported on September 26 that Ukrainian forces conducted a strike on at least one ammunition warehouse in the Kinburn Spit but did not mention a drone center.[25] Ukraine’s Odesa Military Administration Spokesperson Serhiy Bratchuk also confirmed on September 26 that Ukrainian forces attacked unspecified targets in the Kinburn Spit.[26] The spit is the westernmost land the Russians still control in the Black Sea within 4 km of Ukrainian-controlled Ochakiv at its closest point, making it an excellent location for a drone command center from which Russia could direct attacks deep into unoccupied Ukraine.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin is attempting to message its way out of the reality of major problems in the execution of its “partial mobilization,” but its narratives are unlikely to placate Russians who can perceive the real mistakes all around them.
  • The Kremlin’s planned annexation of occupied Ukraine may take place before or shortly after October 1, the start of Russia’s normal fall conscription cycle, to enable the forced conscription of Ukrainian civilians to fight against Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make advances north of Lyman and on the eastern bank of the Oskil River.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) as part of the southern counter-offensive interdiction campaign.
  • Russian forces continued conducting offensive operations around Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued to use Iranian-made drones to strike Ukrainian forces and cities in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin may be considering formally closing its borders or more formally restricting the movement of fighting-age men within the country to better implement partial mobilization.
  • Russian occupation authorities began to announce that the results of their sham annexation referenda, citing flagrantly falsified turnout numbers.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 25

September 25, 2022 | 6pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to overcome fundamental structural challenges in attempting to mobilize large numbers of Russians to continue his war in Ukraine. The “partial mobilization” he ordered on September 21 will generate additional forces but inefficiently and with high domestic social and political costs. The forces generated by this “partial mobilization,” critically, are very unlikely to add substantially to the Russian military’s net combat power in 2022. Putin will have to fix basic flaws in the Russian military personnel and equipment systems if mobilization is to have any significant impact even in the longer term. His actions thus far suggest that he is far more concerned with rushing bodies to the battlefield than with addressing these fundamental flaws.

The Russian Armed Forces have not been setting conditions for an effective large-scale mobilization since at least 2008 and have not been building the kind of reserve force needed for a snap mobilization intended to produce immediate effects on the battlefield. There are no rapid solutions to these problems.

The problems Putin confronts stem in part from long-standing unresolved tensions in the Russian approach to generating military manpower. Russian and Soviet military manpower policies from 1874 through 2008 were designed to support the full mass mobilization of the entire Russian and Soviet populations for full-scale war. Universal conscription and a minimum two-year service obligation was intended to ensure that virtually all military-age males received sufficient training and experience in combat specialties that they could be recalled to active service after serving their terms and rapidly go to war as effective soldiers. Most Russian and Soviet combat units were kept in a “cadre” status in peacetime—they retained a nearly full complement of officers and many non-commissioned officers, along with a small number of soldiers. Russian and Soviet doctrine and strategy required large-scale reserve mobilization to fill out these cadre units in wartime. This cadre-and-reserve approach to military manpower was common among continental European powers from the end of the 19th century through the Cold War.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on September 25

ISW identified three small changes in control of terrain in the past 24 hours:

  • Ukrainian forces likely liberated the town of Shevchenko in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces likely control Maliivka in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces are contesting Russian positions around Karpivka, Nove, Ridkodub, and Novoserhiivka in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian sources claim that Russian forces hit Ukraine’s Operational Command South headquarters in Odesa with Shahed-136 drones on September 25. Ukrainian Operational Command South reported Russian Shahed-136 drone strikes in Odesa, but not that its headquarters was a target of any of them.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 24

September 24, 2022 |9:00pm ET

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s declarations about which categories of Russian males will be exempted from partial mobilization may not reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions or orders. A Russian media insider claimed on September 24 that officials of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reprimanded military commissars in person for negligence in carrying out mobilization and sending out summonses in “excess,” and contrary to the explicit MoD guidance regarding exemptions for age, disability, or other limiting factors. Another Russian source claimed that certain heads of federal subjects acknowledged that they have mobilized citizens who are technically ineligible.

Responsibility for the partial mobilization appears to be divided and complex, possibly contributing to confusion, disorganization, and violations of Shoigu’s commitments regarding exemptions. The mobilization decree specifies that Russian federal subjects are responsible for executing the mobilization while the MoD sets quotas and deadlines for filling them. A Russian milblogger, in fact, criticized the governor of Russia’s Belgorod Oblast for not being an active participant in the mobilization process and noted that the mobilization decree places the onus of carrying out mobilization orders on the heads of federal subjects and not on military commissars.  Military commissars likely work for the heads of federal subjects, however, rather than directly for the MoD, making both responsible for mobilization and creating a possible gap between them and the Defense Ministry.

The military commissars are generally acting as if they had received orders to prioritize getting bodies to training centers over adhering to Shoigu’s guidelines, and the seemingly confused chains of responsibility for executing the mobilization decree may be responsible for the divergence between Shoigu’s statements and commissars’ actions. Shoigu emphatically reiterated on September 21 that mobilization is partial and will only rely on those already in the reserve and with combat experience and military experience, but military commissars failed to adhere to Shoigu’s guidance, practically from the onset of the mobilization order. Continued reports of military commissars conducting chaotic distribution of mobilization summonses indicate that they feel significant pressure to carry out mobilization as quickly as possible. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian authorities are immediately mobilizing individuals in occupied areas of Ukraine after “rewarding” them with Russian passports for participating in sham referenda rather than waiting until annexation makes the mobilization of eligible males in Russian-occupied areas legal under Russian law.  This haste suggests that military commissars feel pressure to expedite mobilization which is not reflected in Shoigu’s statements. The MoD is evidently not in full control of mobilization, raising questions about which Russian males actually will be mobilized and how effective the mobilized force will be.

Positions held by senior Russian military leadership are continuing to change hands, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing to see systemic problems as the result of the personal failings of senior subordinates. The Russian MoD reported on September 24 that Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev has been appointed Deputy Defense Minister and will oversee logistics for the Russian Armed Forces, replacing Army General Dmitry Bulgakov. Mizintsev previously acted as head of the Russian National Defense Control Center and served during Russian operations in Syria, notably commanding troops on the operational-tactical level during the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol. The replacement of individual senior leaders is very unlikely to fix fundamental structural problems in the Russian military. It reflects Putin’s personality-driven approach to leadership and relative disdain for system-building—both factors that contributed to the overall failures of the Russian military in this war.

Russian forces may be preparing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) to fight for Russia, which would constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War.  Russian state media reported on September 24 that Ukrainian POWs detained at the Olenivka prison camp orally “requested” Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) authorities to allow them to fight in the DNR’s volunteer “Bohdan Khmelnitsky” Cossack Battalion. If Russian or Russian proxy forces coerced Ukrainian POWs into combat, it would be a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which stipulates that “no prisoner of war 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 labour which is of an unhealthy or dangerous nature.”

Key Takeaways

  • Local military commissars are carrying out mobilization orders in a way that suggests a possible disconnect between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s guidelines for partial mobilization and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands for haste.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely continuing to address systemic issues in Russian senior command by replacing individual senior subordinates.
  • Russia may be preparing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian prisoners of war in what may constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued to make gains along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and northwest of Lyman.
  • Ukrainian military officials indicated that the continued Ukrainian interdiction campaign in southern Ukraine is degrading Russian combat capabilities.
  • Russian sources identified three locations where Ukrainian troops conducted ground operations in Kherson Oblast- northern Kherson Oblast, western Kherson Oblast near the Inhulets River, and northwest of Kherson City near the Mykolaiv-Kherson Oblast border.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian authorities continue to coerce residents of occupied Ukrainian territory into voting in sham referenda.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 23

September 23, 2022 |10:00pm ET

The Russian mobilization system is struggling to execute the task Russian President Vladimir Putin set and will likely fail to produce mobilized reserve forces even of the low quality that Putin’s plans would have generated unless the Kremlin can rapidly fix fundamental and systemic problems. Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the Russian Armed Forces would mobilize combat-ready reservists to quickly stabilize the frontlines and regain the initiative on the battlefield.[i] Milblogger and social media reports, however, show that Russian military recruitment centers, enlistment officials, and local administrations are mobilizing men who do not meet the Kremlin’s stated criteria, especially Shoigu’s promise that mobilization would prioritize men with “combat experience.” Russian opposition outlets and Telegram channels leaked information suggesting that the Kremlin aims to complete this partial mobilization by November 10 and that the Kremlin is seeking to mobilize 1.2 million men instead of the publicly announced 300,000.[ii] ISW cannot verify these reports, but significant available information suggests that this mobilization campaign (the first in post-Soviet Russia) is overwhelming an ineffective and unmotivated bureaucratic system and could fail to generate the much-needed combat-ready reserve force in a short time or at all.

Russian pro-war milbloggers and social media users are raising concerns about unlawful mobilization practices and showcasing many serious Russian mobilization problems on the second day of the mobilization effort. Russian milbloggers reported receiving numerous complaints from social media users that older men, students, employees of military industries, and civilians with no prior military experience are receiving illegal mobilization notices. Shoigu and other officials have repeatedly stated that these categories of individuals would be exempt from this partial mobilization. Other sources reported that Russians are mobilizing airport and airline employees and workers from other industries. The Russian government FAQ portal also indicated that local mobilization-enforcing officials may mobilize part-time students, despite the Kremlin’s declaration that no students will undergo mobilization.

Some milbloggers noted that Russian enlistment personnel are assigning men with prior military service to very different specializations from those in which they served, while other sources recounted instances of military recruitment centers mobilizing men with chronic illnesses.

The quality of Russian bureaucrats and military trainers are also raising fears among the Russian pro-war crowd that the partial mobilization effort may not succeed. Milbloggers noted that employees of the military enlistment centers are unmotivated and underpaid, reducing their enthusiasm to adhere to the envisioned mobilization plan. Milbloggers also pleaded with officers and commanders in charge of preparing mobilized men for war to train them before deployment.

Challenges and errors in the first days of executing a large-scale and demanding partial mobilization in the midst of a failing war are not necessarily surprising, although they suggest that the Russian military mobilization infrastructure was not better prepared for a major war than the Russian armed forces themselves. It is nevertheless conceivable that the Russian Ministry of Defense will address some of the worst problems and get the mobilization effort on track. It is also possible, moreover, that much of the partial mobilization is proceeding more or less as planned and that social media and the milblogger community are highlighting problems that are serious but not necessarily pervasive. Some of the reports suggest, however, that regional mobilization officials have been given quotas to fill and received pressure to fill them in ways that are more likely to cause errors than to reward adherence to the stated principles and the needs of an effective, combat-ready reserve force.

Divergences from the mobilization decree and from Putin’s and Shoigu’s statements about the categories of men who are exempt from mobilization are also causing anger and mistrust toward Russian federal subjects and the Kremlin itself. Some social media footage already shows mobilized men fighting with enlistment officers, arguing with mobilization representatives, and refusing to serve under unlawful orders. Some milbloggers claimed that some of the discontented men who have been wrongfully mobilized would have accepted their fate if they had actually met the mobilization criterium. The Kremlin is thus committing unmotivated and potentially angry men to war with the task of regaining the initiative in an offensive war in a foreign land on a battlefield far from home.

The highly nationalist and pro-war milblogger community is calling on the Kremlin to address these mobilization issues rapidly, but the Kremlin is unlikely to be able to meet their demands. Russian milbloggers express cautious optimism that partial mobilization will reinforce degraded combat units and allow Russian forces to advance in Donetsk Oblast, but are concerned that the Kremlin’s failures to enforce mobilization according to the law and stated policies will create political unrest. One milblogger stated that the Kremlin’s poor handling of the partial mobilization is giving rise to “separatist movements” and opposition media. Another milblogger noted that the Kremlin’s failure to fix mobilization practices within the military recruitment centers may shatter Russians‘ trust in the military-political leadership. A failed or badly flawed partial mobilization campaign may risk further alienation of the Russian nationalist crowd that has been supportive of the war and mobilization.

Disparate mobilization processes across different regions may exacerbate social tensions in Russia already raised by perceived inequalities in the creation of volunteer battalions. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated in a live TV broadcast that the Republic of Chechnya will not conduct mobilization because the Republic has already exceeded an unspecified force generation plan by 254 percent. Kadyrov added that Chechnya has already deployed 20,000 servicemen to war since February 24. Kadyrov threatened to mobilize any protesters in Chechnya and send them to the front, however. Kadyrov then seemingly modified his statements by encouraging those opposing mobilization to respect Russian sovereignty instead of using the constitution to avoid service. Kadyrov’s initial statement, addressed to the Chechen public, may be an attempt to both address and discourage criticism of mobilization, the war, and himself within the Chechen community. Kadyrov’s statement could also be a worrisome indicator for the Kremlin—if one of the war’s most vociferous and aggressive advocates feels the need to refuse to mobilize his people, at least publicly, that could indicate that even Kadyrov senses the popular resentment the partial mobilization will cause and possibly even fears it.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian partial mobilization efforts are suffering from serious and systemic problems in their first days, generating popular resentment and setting conditions to produce a mobilized reserve force incapable of accomplishing the tasks Russian President Vladimir Putin has set for it.
  • Protests, attacks against recruiting centers, and vandalism have occurred across Russia in the first 48 hours after the announcement of partial mobilization.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to advance north and northwest of Lyman.
  • Ukrainian forces continued their interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast and maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian progress on the axis.
  • Russian forces continued to launch unsuccessful assaults near Bakhmut and northwest of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down an Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone in an unspecified area of the Black Sea, likely near Odesa.
  • Russian occupation authorities began the voting period for their sham annexation referenda on September 23 with overt coercion and falsified turnout numbers.
  • Russian occupation authorities remained on high alert to prevent partisan attacks against sham election workers, polling stations, and government facilities.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 22

September 22, 2022 | 8:15pm ET

The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization may successfully meet the Kremlin’s internal quota of mobilized personnel but is unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain. Russian authorities are forcibly recruiting Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine on flimsy pretexts, violating the Kremlin’s promise to recruit only those with military experience. Russian authorities are also demonstrably mobilizing personnel (such as protesters) who will enter the war in Ukraine with abysmal morale. The Kremlin's heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization will likely exacerbate domestic resentment of a measure that would have been unpopular even if implemented without the harsh approaches observed in the last 24 hours.

The Kremlin is openly not adhering to its promised conditions for partial mobilization just 24 hours after its September 21 declaration Russian officials previously claimed that partial mobilization will only impact 300,000 men, and only those with previous military experience. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on September 22 that the practice of administering mobilization notices to detained protesters does not contradict the September 21 mobilization law. Peskov’s threat contravenes the Kremlin's claim that it will abstain from mobilizing men outside of composed reservist lists. Western and Russian opposition media outlets reported instances of Russian military commissars administering draft notices to protesters in Moscow and Voronezh.[i] Russian opposition outlets also reported on a bank IT specialist who had received a draft notice despite never having served in the army or attended military-education courses in university.[ii] The IT specialist is likely one of many Russian men who received mobilization notices despite not meeting the stated criteria for partial mobilization. A university student  in Buryatia released footage of Rosgvardia and military police pulling students from lessons, reportedly for mobilization, despite Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu repeatedly stating that Russian students will not be mobilized.[iii]

Kremlin quotas will likely force local officials to  mobilize any men, regardless of their military status, to meet quota numbers. The quota for mobilized men remains unverifiable, with Kremlin officials claiming that Russia will mobilize only 300,000 men and Russian opposition outlets’ sources suggesting that the number might reach a million.[iv] Regardless of the total quota, the Russian federal subjects executing the mobilization order will likely undertake recruitment measures outside of the outlined reservist call up. Some Russian federal subjects such as the Republic of Yakutia (Sakha) and Kursk Oblast are imposing laws restricting reservists from leaving their places of permanent residence.[v] Russian enlistment officers and police are also reportedly enforcing unscrupulous mobilization practices (as ISW previously observed during their crypto-mobilization campaigns) by calling up men by phone, issuing notices in the middle of the night, and notifying men of their mobilization via state social benefits websites.[vi]

The Kremlin will also likely mobilize ethnically non-Russian and immigrant communities at a disproportional rate. A member of the Kremlin’s Russian Human Rights Council, Kirill Kabanov, proposed mandatory military service for Central Asian immigrants that have received Russian citizenship within the last ten years, threatening to confiscate their Russian citizenship if they do not mobilize.[vii] Current Time reported that residents of Kurumkan, a village in the Republic of Buryatia, noted that Russian enlistment officers mobilized about 700 men of the total population of 5,500 people.[viii] If witness reports from Kurumkan are accurate, they would indicate that Russian officials mobilized about 25% of the male population from a single village in a majority ethnically Buryat district. An Armenian Telegram channel published a mobilization list from Tuapse, Krasnodar Krai that reportedly consists of 90% ethnically Armenian residents, despite the town’s total Armenian community being only 8.5% of the population.[ix]

The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to mobilization is prompting public anger and distrust across Russia. Independent Russian human rights outlet OVD-Info reported that protests took place in 42 cities across the country, including protests even in small villages in the Republic of Dagestan.[x] Unidentified assailants set fire to several military recruitment centers and local administration buildings in Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Tolyatti, and Zabailkalsky Krai.[xi] Tge Kremlin will likely subdue such protests in the coming days. However, declaration of partial mobilization and blatant disregard for even the government-dictated parameters for the mobilization may alienate concerned swathes of the Russian public who were previously more tolerant of the less personally impactful Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin likely attempted to downplay a prisoner swap with Ukraine that is deeply unpopular among Russian nationalists and milbloggers by undertaking the swap the same day Putin announced partial mobilization. The Kremlin exchanged 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), including captured foreign nationals and Azov Battalion leaders, for at least 55 Russian POWs and political prisoners, including Putin’s personal friend, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Medvechuk, on September 21.[xii] The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on September 22 that Russian and DNR and LNR POWs were in “mortal danger” in Ukrainian custody.[xiii] Far-right Russian milbloggers criticized the exchange and asked if the Kremlin had given up on the ”de-Nazification” of Ukraine, one of the stated goals of the Russian invasion.[xiv] Kremlin propagandists had heavily publicized the capture and planned prosecution of Azov personnel, accusing them of being Ukrainian Nazis. Other milbloggers criticized the Kremlin for enabling what they called Ukrainian information operations and ”allowing Kyiv to manipulate the mood in Russia.”[xv] Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov described the exchange as ”incomprehensible,” implied that Chechen forces tortured Azov prisoners in captivity, and implied that Russian forces who capture ”Nazis” should kill them rather than taking them as POWs if they will be traded back to Ukraine.[xvi] Torturing or killing POWs is a war crime and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it began negotiations to establish a nuclear safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Such negotiations are unlikely to significantly ameliorate the situation due to continued Russian efforts to stage provocations at the plant. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated on September 22 that the IAEA has begun “productive conversations” with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and French President Emmanuel Macron in order to establish a Nuclear Safety and Protection Zone at the ZNPP.[xvii] Despite the positive intentions of external negotiators, Russian forces may use negotiations as an opportunity to stage further provocations at the ZNPP and accuse Ukrainian troops of endangering safety of the plant, as they have repeatedly done in the past. As ISW has previously reported, Russian forces previously exploited the IAEA presence at the ZNPP in order to accuse Ukraine of disregard for nuclear safety and blame Ukrainian forces for shelling the plant, despite being unable to provide visual evidence to support their accusations.[xviii] Russian authorities may seek to leverage the IAEA negotiations to accuse Ukraine of nuclear irresponsibility in an attempt to degrade continued Western support to Ukraine. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization may successfully meet the Kremlin’s internal quota of mobilized personnel, but is unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain.
  • The Kremlin is openly not adhering to its promised conditions for partial mobilization.
  • Kremlin quotas will likely force local officials to mobilize any men, regardless of their military status, to meet quota numbers and will likely incentivize the mobilization of ethnically non-Russian and immigrant communities at a disproportional rate.
  • The Kremlin likely attempted to downplay a prisoner swap with Ukraine that is deeply unpopular among Russian nationalists and milbloggers by undertaking the swap the same day Putin announced partial mobilization.
  • IAEA negotiations around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant are unlikely to significantly improve the situation at the plant and may provide an information opportunity for Russian forces to stage provocations.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued limited counteroffensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and continued attacks toward Lyman on September 22.
  • Ukrainian military officials maintained their operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground attacks in Kherson Oblast on September 22 and reiterated that Ukrainian forces are conducting an operational-level interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the frontlines in Donetsk Oblast on September 22.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 22 and continued routine strikes throughout western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian occupation forces are hurriedly setting conditions to hold sham annexation referenda across occupied Ukraine from September 23-27.
  • Russian officials created polling stations in parts of Russia, ostensibly to enable displaced (in many cases meaning kidnapped) Ukrainian residents of occupied territories to “vote.”

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 21

September 21, 2022 | 9:30pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” on September 21 reflected many problems Russia faces in its faltering invasion of Ukraine that Moscow is unlikely to be able to resolve in the coming months. Putin’s order to mobilize part of Russia’s “trained” reserve, that is, individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service, will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months. It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear. It will occur in deliberate phases, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview on September 21, likely precluding any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war. Russia’s partial mobilization will thus not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter.

Putin and Shoigu emphatically said that only reservists who have completed their initial military service will be mobilized, making clear that Russia will not be expanding conscription. Shoigu also declared that students will not be affected and told them to go about their studies without concern. These comments were clearly intended to allay fears among the Russian population that “partial mobilization” was code for general conscription.

It is not clear how much of the Russian reserve has already been deployed to fight in Ukraine. Western intelligence officials reportedly said in November 2021 that Russia had called up “tens of thousands of reservists” as part of its pre-war mobilization. Ukrainian military officials reported in June 2022 that Russian forces had committed 80,000 members of the mobilized reserve to fight in Ukraine. The Russian military likely called up the most combat-ready reserves in that pre-war mobilization effort, which suggests that the current partial mobilization will begin by drawing on less combat-ready personnel from the outset.

Russian reserves are poorly trained to begin with and receive no refresher training once their conscription period is completed. Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time. Shoigu referred to the intent of calling up reservists with “combat experience,” but very few Russian reservists other than those now serving in Ukraine have any combat experience.

Reports conflict regarding how much training reservists called up in the partial mobilization will receive.  Shoigu described a deliberate training process that would familiarize or re-familiarize mobilized reservists with crew, team, detachment, and then platoon-level operations before deploying them to fight. That process should take weeks, if not months, to bring reservists from civilian life to war readiness. Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security head Viktor Bondarev reportedly said that mobilized reservists would train for over a month before being deployed. A military commissariat in Kursk Oblast, on the other hand, reportedly announced that reservists under 30 would deploy immediately with no additional training.

Putin emphatically did not say that the Russian nuclear umbrella would cover annexed areas of Ukraine nor did he tie mobilization to the annexation. He addressed partial mobilization, annexation referenda in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war in his speech—but as separate topics rather than a coherent whole. The fact that he mentioned all three topics in a single speech was clearly meant to suggest a linkage, but he went out of his way to avoid making any such linkage explicit.

Putin framed his comments about the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons use in the context of supposed Western threats to use nuclear weapons against Russia. He claimed that Western officials were talking about “the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—against Russia.” He continued, “I wish to remind those who allow themselves such statements about Russia that our country also has various means of attack...”  His comment on this topic concludes by noting that Russia would use all means at its disposal in response to a threat to “the territorial integrity of our country, for the defense of Russia and our people.” That comment could be interpreted as applying in advance to the soon-to-be annexed areas of occupied Ukraine, but its placement in the speech and context do not by any means make such an interpretation obvious. Nor is Putin’s language in making this comment different from formal Kremlin policy or from previous statements by Russian officials. Putin’s speech should not be read as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.

Putin did not connect annexation with the partial mobilization either, defending the need for partial mobilization by referring to the length of the lines along which Russian forces are now fighting and Western assistance to Ukraine. He noted that the front lines now stretch for more than a thousand kilometers to explain why more Russian forces are needed. He and Shoigu also heavily emphasized the false narrative that Russia is fighting not Ukraine but NATO and the West. This narrative is not new. It is not even markedly different from the initial false justifications Putin offered before ordering the invasion in February. The formal Kremlin position has long been that NATO was pushing Ukraine to war with Russia, that NATO was preparing to give Ukraine nuclear weapons, and that NATO forces were taking up or preparing to take up positions in Ukraine. Putin’s and Shoigu’s repetitions of that line do not reflect an escalation in their rhetoric.

Russia’s partial mobilization will not transform the war this year and may or may not have a significant impact on Russia’s ability to continue operations at their current level next year.  Ukraine and the West should neither dismiss it nor exaggerate it. 

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announced “partial mobilization” will not materially affect the course of the war in the coming months.
  • Putin did not explicitly threaten to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues counter-offensive operations to liberate occupied areas after Russian annexation.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued offensive operations around Lyman.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted strikes north and east of Kherson City as part of an operational-level interdiction campaign against Russian logistics, military, and transportation assets in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources identified three areas of kinetic activity on September 21: northwest of Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border around Vysokopillya.
  • Russian federal subjects (regions) are continuing crypto-mobilization efforts regardless of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of partial mobilization.
  • Russian-appointed occupation administrators are likely increasing law enforcement and filtration measures in occupied areas of Ukraine in preparation for Russia’s sham annexation referenda.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 20

September 20, 2022 | 8:45pm ET

Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27.[1] The Kremlin will use the falsified results of these sham referenda to illegally annex all Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and is likely to declare unoccupied parts of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaphorizhia oblasts to be part of Russia as well.

The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely hopes to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war to “defend” newly claimed Russian territory. Putin and his advisors have apparently realized that current Russian forces are insufficient to conquer Ukraine and that efforts to build large forces quickly through voluntary mobilization are culminating short of the Russian military’s force requirements. Putin is therefore likely setting legal and informational conditions to improve Russian force generation without resorting to expanded conscription by changing the balance of carrots and sticks the Kremlin has been using to spur voluntary recruitment.

Putin may believe that he can appeal to Russian ethnonationalism and the defense of purportedly “Russian peoples” and claimed Russian land to generate additional volunteer forces. He may seek to rely on enhanced rhetoric in part because the Kremlin cannot afford the service incentives, like bonuses and employment benefits, that it has already promised Russian recruits.[2] But Putin is also adding new and harsher punishments in an effort to contain the risk of the collapse of Russian military units fighting in Ukraine and draft-dodging within Russia.  The Kremlin rushed the passage of a new law through the State Duma on September 20, circumventing normal parliamentary procedures.[3] This law codifies dramatically increased penalties for desertion, refusing conscription orders, and insubordination. It also criminalizes voluntary surrender and makes surrender a crime punishable by ten years in prison. The law notably does not order full-scale mobilization or broader conscription or make any preparations for such activities.

ISW has observed no evidence that the Kremlin is imminently intending to change its conscription practices. The Kremlin’s new law is about strengthening the Kremlin’s coercive volunteerism, or what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called “self-mobilization.”[4]

The Kremlin is taking steps to directly increase force generation through continued voluntary self-mobilization and an expansion of its legal authority to deploy Russian conscripts already with the force to fight in Ukraine.

  • Putin’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory will broaden the domestic legal definition of “Russian” territory under Russian law, enabling the Russian military to legally and openly deploy conscripts already in the Russian military to fight in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian leadership has already deployed undertrained conscripts to Ukraine in direct violation of Russian law and faced domestic backlash.[5] Russia’s semi-annual conscription cycle usually generates around 130,000 conscripts twice per year.[6] The next cycle runs from October 1 to December 31. Russian law generally requires that conscripts receive at least four months of training prior to deployment overseas, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that conscripts will be deployed to Ukraine.[7] Annexation could provide him a legal loophole allowing for the overt deployment of conscripts to fight.
  • Russian-appointed occupation officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts announced the formation of “volunteer” units to fight with the Russian military against Ukraine.[8] Russian forces will likely coerce or physically force at least some Ukrainian men in occupied areas to fight in these units, as they have done in the territories of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).
  • The Russian State Duma separately passed new incentives for foreign nationals to fight in Russia’s military to obtain Russian citizenship and will likely increase overseas recruitment accordingly.[9] That new law, which deputies also rushed through normal procedures on September 20, allows foreign nationals to gain Russian citizenship by signing a contract and serving in the Russian military for one year. Russian law previously required three years of service to apply for citizenship.
  • Putin’s appeals to nationalism may generate small increases in volunteer recruitment from within Russia and parts of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. However, forces generated from such volunteers, if they manifest, will be small and poorly trained. Most eager and able-bodied Russian men and Ukrainian collaborators have likely already volunteered in one of the earlier recruitment phases.
  • Local Russian administrators will continue to attempt to form volunteer units, with decreasing effect, as ISW has previously reported and mapped.[10]
  • Russian forces and the Wagner Private Military Company are also directly recruiting from Russian prisons, as ISW has previously reported.[11] These troops will be undisciplined and unlikely to meaningfully increase Russian combat power.

Putin likely hopes that increasing self-mobilization, and cracking down on unwilling Russian forces, will enable him to take the rest of Donetsk and defend Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts. He is mistaken. Putin has neither the time nor the resources needed to generate effective combat power. But Putin will likely wait to see if these efforts are successful before either escalating further or blaming his loss on a scapegoat. His most likely scapegoat is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Reports that Shoigu would accompany Putin while Putin gave a speech announced and then postponed on September 20 suggest that Putin intended to make Shoigu the face of the current effort.[12]

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely also intends to deter Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensives by annexing occupied Ukrainian territory and framing Ukrainian attempts to liberate occupied territory as attacks on Russia. Russian officials and propagandists such as Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev issued vague warnings on September 20 that “the infringement of Russian territory is a crime; committing this crime permits using all means of self-defense.”[13] Russian officials are demonstrably panicked over Ukrainian advances, as ISW assessed on September 19.[14] The Kremlin likely intends these vague warnings to exacerbate Ukrainian and global fears of nuclear escalation. However, Putin has already declined to enforce any territory-specific redlines in response to Ukrainian attacks on Russian-annexed Crimea, occupied territory he has controlled for eight years and declares to be Russian.

Ukrainian and Western leaders responded to reports of the impending referenda with renewed declarations of commitment to restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied Ukrainian territory.  Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on September 20 that “sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything ... Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”[15] NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 20 that “[sham referendums] will only further worsen the situation, and therefore we need to provide more support to Ukraine.”[16] US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on September 20 that the United States “will never recognize this territory as anything other than a part of Ukraine” and will continue to provide “historic support” to Ukraine.[17] German Chancellor Olaf Scholz emphasized on September 19 that “Ukraine has every right to defend the sovereignty and integrity of its own territory and its own democracy.”[18] French President Emmanuel Macron called the sham referenda a “parody” and a “provocation.”

Key Takeaways

  • Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27.
  • The Kremlin’s annexation plans are primarily targeting a domestic audience; Putin likely intends to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war ostensibly to defend newly-claimed Russian territory.
  • Ukrainian forces continued disrupting ongoing Russian efforts to reestablish ground lines of communications (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces are likely targeting Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts to threaten Ukrainian positions along the Siverskyi Donets River.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on September 20.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks west of Hulyaipole on September 20 and continued routine artillery strikes throughout Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian forces continue to degrade their force generation capabilities by cannibalizing training elements to fight in combat formations in Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 19

September 19, 2022 | 9pm ET

Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which is not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers. The legislatures of Russia’s proxies in occupied Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), each called on their leadership to “immediately” hold a referendum on recognizing the DNR and LNR as Russian subjects.[1] Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan spoke glowingly of the call, referring to it as the “Crimean scenario.” She wrote that by recognizing occupied Ukrainian land as Russian territory, Russia could more easily threaten NATO with retaliatory strikes for Ukrainian counterattacks, “untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”[2]

This approach is incoherent. Russian forces do not control all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Annexing the claimed territories of the DNR and LNR would, therefore, have Russia annex oblasts that would be by Kremlin definition partially ”occupied” by legitimate Ukrainian authorities and advancing Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian strikes into Russian-annexed Crimea clearly demonstrate that Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s illegally annexed territory do not automatically trigger Russian retaliation against NATO, as Simonyan would have her readers believe. Partial annexation at this stage would also place the Kremlin in the strange position of demanding that Ukrainian forces un-occupy “Russian” territory, and the humiliating position of being unable to enforce that demand. It remains very unclear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to place himself in such a bind for the dubious benefit of making it easier to threaten NATO or Ukraine with escalation he remains highly unlikely to conduct at this stage.

Russian leadership may be running out of ways to try to stop Ukrainian forces as they advance across the Oskil River CorrectionA previous version of the text incorrectly stated that the Oskil River is in Luhansk Oblast.and closer to Luhansk Oblast. The Kremlin may believe that partial annexation could drive recruitment of additional forces, both from within Russia and from within newly annexed Ukrainian territory. Russian forces are desperately attempting to mobilize additional forces from all potential sources to backfill their heavily degraded and demoralized units but have proven unable to generate significant combat power, as ISW has repeatedly written.[3]

This latest annexation discussion also omits other parts of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine in which the Kremlin was previously planning sham annexation referenda. A willingness to abandon the promise to bring all the occupied areas into Russia at the same time would be a significant retreat for Putin to make in the eyes of the hardline pro-war groups he appears to be courting. It remains to be seen if he is willing to compromise himself internally in such a fashion. The Kremlin’s proxies in Donbas regularly outpace Kremlin messaging, on the other hand, and may have done so again as they scramble to retain their occupied territory in the face of Ukraine’s successful and ongoing counter-offensive.

Recent Ukrainian counter-offensive successes are further reducing the already poor morale among Russian units that had been considered elite before February 24. Independent Belarusian media outlet Vot Tak posted images of intercepted documents left behind by Russian soldiers of Unit 31135 of the 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division as they fled Izyum en masse.[4] The signed documents (dated to August 30, prior to Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kharkiv on September 7) include written pleas to commanders of Unit 31135 to dismiss the letters’ authors due to persistent “physical and moral fatigue.”[5] Ukrainian intelligence claimed that 90% of the personnel of the 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment wrote damning reports on the state of morale as early as May 23, 2022.[6] The 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division is one of three divisions of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which, prior to the current war in Ukraine, was considered Russia’s premier mechanized force and was to be Russia’s key force in a large-scale conventional war with NATO.[7] The intercepted letters indicate pervasive morale issues among Russia’s most elite units and the degradation of Russia’s conventional capabilities against NATO.

Key Takeaways

  • Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which are not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers.
  • Ukrainian counter-offensive successes are degrading morale among Russian units that were regarded as elite prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces are likely continuing limited and localized offensive operations across the Oskil River and along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks south of Bakhmut.
  • Ukrainian forces are continuing to strike Russian military, transportation, and logistics assets in Kherson Oblast.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources identified three areas of kinetic activity on September 19: northwest of Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and in northern Kherson Oblast near Olhine.
  • The size of volunteer units Russia can generate is likely decreasing.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 18

September 18, 2022 | 9:35 pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on irregular volunteer and proxy forces rather than conventional units and formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. ISW has previously reported that Putin has been bypassing the Russian higher military command and Ministry of Defense leadership throughout the summer and especially following the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Putin’s souring relationship with the military command and the Russian (MoD) may explain in part the Kremlin’s increasing focus on recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units.

A prominent Russian milblogger reported that Russian forces have “already began the process of forming and staffing the 4th Army Corps, at least on a documentation level.” The report may be true given the recent Russia-wide push for the formation of more regional volunteer units among the Kremlin representatives following the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian federal subjects had previously begun advertising for contract service in volunteer units around the time of the formation of the 3rd Army Corps. Russian forces are also increasingly recruiting prisoners, involving Cossack units, deploying elements of Russian security services such as the Russian Federal Security Service and Rosgvardia, and covertly mobilizing men from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The continued focus on the formation of irregular units is receiving some criticism from retired Russian officers who are calling for proper conventional divisions rather than volunteer battalions.

The formation of such ad-hoc units will lead to further tensions, inequality, and an overall lack of cohesiveness between forces. Ukrainian and Russian sources have reported instances of Russian Armed Forces refusing to pay veteran benefits, one-time enlistment bonuses, or provide medical treatment to BARS (Russian Combat Army Reserve) servicemen. Some military formations offer financial incentives for every kilometer that the serviceman’s unit advances, an incentive that few soldiers will likely benefit from considering that Russian forces are on the defensive almost everywhere apart from the areas around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, where gains have been slow and very limited. Russian opposition publication Insider reported instances of ethnic discrimination within Chechen units, noting that the Chechen leadership deploys non-Chechens to the frontlines before committing Chechens to the battle. Professional military staff are likely to confront behavioral issues among recruited prisoners, especially considering the likely prevalence of prisoners convicted of violent crimes, narcotics, and rape. The Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR and DNR) have both previously refused to fight for each other’s territory. All these groups have different levels of military training, decentralized command structures, and different perceptions of the war and motivations to fight, which makes conflict and poor unit coordination more probable. The one thing they have in common is wholly inadequate training and preparation for combat.

The formation of irregular, hastily-trained units adds little effective combat power to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Forbes noted that the 3rd Army Corps rushed in to defend Russian positions around Kharkiv Oblast during the counteroffensive but failed to make any difference and “melted away.” The reported arrival of increasing numbers of irregular Russian forces on the battlefield has had little to no impact on Russian operations.

Russian forces are likely attempting to conduct a more deliberate and controlled withdrawal in western Kherson Oblast to avoid the chaotic flight that characterized the collapse of Russian defensive positions in Kharkiv Oblast earlier this month. The Russians have heavily reinforced western Kherson Oblast over the past several months including with airborne units and at least some elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army. These ostensibly more professional and well-trained and equipped units are concentrated in a small area in Kherson Oblast and were prepared for the expected counteroffensive. They appear to be performing significantly better than Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast. The Ukrainians destroyed a number of units of the 1st Guards Tank Army in Kharkiv Oblast, putting them to flight and capturing large amounts of high-quality equipment. The worse performance of professional Russian soldiers in Kharkiv Oblast compared with those in Kherson Oblast may be due to the thinner concentration of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast as well as the fact that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast appeared to surprise the Russian defenders.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is nevertheless making progress, and Russian forces appear to be attempting to slow it and fall back to more defensible positions rather than stop it cold or reverse it. Continuous Ukrainian attacks on Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) across the Dnipro River to western Kherson Oblast appear to be having increasing effects on Russian supplies on the right bank—recent reports indicate shortages of food and water in Russian-occupied Kherson City and at least a temporary slackening of Russian artillery fire. Poor-quality proxy units have collapsed in some sectors of the Russian front lines, moreover, allowing Ukrainian advances. Ukrainian forces remain likely to regain much if not all of western Kherson Oblast in the coming weeks if they continue to interdict Russian GLOCs and press their advance. Ukrainian gains may continue to be slow if the Russian troops can retain their coherence but could also accelerate significantly if Russian forces begin to break.

A prominent Russian milblogger also claimed that the Russian command issued a “no retreat” order last week for all units serving in Donbas, requiring that Russian forces operating on the axis hold their positions regardless of the unfolding situation in front of them. This order would be noteworthy in two ways if the report is accurate. First, Donetsk Oblast is the only area in Ukraine in which Russian forces are still attempting offensive operations. There have been sporadic reports of limited Ukrainian counterattacks, but no evidence that Ukraine is preparing a large-scale counteroffensive operation in this area. The order suggests that the Russian military may fear a Ukrainian counteroffensive into the teeth of their last offensive efforts, however. Second, it shows deep mistrust of the combat capabilities of the units receiving the order in contrast with the apparently higher confidence Russian commanders have in the units in western Kherson Oblast, where sensible efforts to conduct a controlled withdrawal appear to prevail.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be increasingly relying on irregular, poorly trained ad-hoc volunteer and proxy units rather than attempting to rebuild damaged or destroyed conventional Russian ground forces units.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to consolidate positions on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast despite Russian efforts to contain them.
  • Russian forces in western Kherson Oblast may be attempting to fall back to more defensible positions in a controlled withdrawal to avoid the chaotic retreat that characterized the collapse of Russian defenses in Kharkiv earlier in September.
  • Russian forces suffered devastating losses of manpower and equipment in their fight for eastern Ukraine and especially during the Ukrainian Kharkiv counter-offensive. Multiple Russian armored and mechanized units have likely been effectively destroyed according to assessments released on September 18.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 17

September 17, 2022 | 9:30 pm ET

Russian forces continue to conduct meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut instead of focusing on defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives that continue to advance. Russian troops continue to attack Bakhmut and various villages near Donetsk City of emotional significance to pro-war residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) but little other importance. The Russians are apparently directing some of the very limited reserves available in Ukraine to these efforts rather than to the vulnerable Russian defensive lines hastily thrown up along the Oskil River in eastern Kharkiv Oblast. The Russians cannot hope to make gains around Bakhmut or Donetsk City on a large enough scale to derail Ukrainian counteroffensives and appear to be continuing an almost robotic effort to gain ground in Donetsk Oblast that seems increasingly divorced from the overall realities of the theater.

Russian failures to rush large-scale reinforcements to eastern Kharkiv and to Luhansk Oblasts leave most of Russian-occupied northeastern Ukraine highly vulnerable to continuing Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Russians may have decided not to defend this area, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated declarations that the purpose of the “special military operation” is to “liberate” Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Prioritizing the defense of Russian gains in southern Ukraine over holding northeastern Ukraine makes strategic sense since Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts are critical terrain for both Russia and Ukraine whereas the sparsely-populated agricultural areas in the northeast are much less so. But the continued Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, which are using some of Russia’s very limited effective combat power at the expense of defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives, might indicate that Russian theater decision-making remains questionable.

Ukrainian forces appear to be expanding positions east of the Oskil River and north of the Siverskyi Donets River that could allow them to envelop Russian troops holding around Lyman. Further Ukrainian advances east along the north bank of the Siverskyi Donets River could make Russian positions around Lyman untenable and open the approaches to Lysychansk and ultimately Severodonetsk. The Russian defenders in Lyman still appear to consist in large part of BARS (Russian Combat Army Reserve) reservists and the remnants of units badly damaged in the Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensive, and the Russians do not appear to be directing reinforcements from elsewhere in the theater to these areas.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces continue to prioritize strategically meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut over defending against continued Ukrainian counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces liberated a settlement southwest of Lyman and are likely continuing to expand their positions in the area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to conduct an interdiction campaign in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct unsuccessful assaults around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
  • Ukrainian sources reported extensive partisan attacks on Russian military assets and logistics in southern Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian officials continued to undertake crypto-mobilization measures to generate forces for war Russian war efforts.
  • Russian authorities are working to place 125 “orphan” Ukrainian children from occupied Donetsk Oblast with Russian families.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 16

September 16, 2022 | 8pm ET

The revelations of mass graves of civilians and torture chambers in newly liberated Izyum confirm ISW’s previous assessments that the Bucha atrocities were not isolated war crimes but rather a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas. The Ukrainian General Staff published images on September 16 showing a mass burial site in Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and noting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the site contained more than 400 bodies showing signs of torture and brutality. The Ukrainian Ministry of Reintegration reported that the number of war crimes victims in Izyum may exceed those of Bucha. The head of Ukraine’s National Police, Ihor Klymenko, stated that Ukrainian officials have found 10 Russian torture chambers in Vovchansk, Kupyansk, Balaklia, and Izyum.  One torture chamber was reportedly located in the Balakliya police department, where “Russians wore masks and tortured civilians with bare electric wires,” according to Andriy Nebytov, the head of the National Police Main Directorate in the Kyiv region.

ISW Non-Resident Fellow Nataliya Bugayova had warned in April 2022 that “Bucha is an observable microcosm of a deliberate Russian terror campaign against Ukrainians. Similar intentional atrocities are happening throughout Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine.” Ukrainian officials will likely continue to find evidence of Russian war crimes and atrocities as Ukrainian forces liberate occupied areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to threaten increased attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure if reported Ukrainian attacks on Russian military positions in Russian Federation territory continue. Putin said that Russia has been “rather restrained in our response” to Ukrainian “terrorist acts [and] attempts to damage our civilian [sic] infrastructure” in a question-and-answer session with reporters following the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting on September 16. He continued “more recently, the Russian armed forces have dealt a couple of sensitive blows” that are “warning shots,” and threatened that more serious attacks could follow. Putin did not explicitly refer to the reported Ukrainian strikes on the base of the Russian 3rd Motorized Rifle Division near Valuyki that occurred on September 16, nor did he make clear which Russian actions he was referring to. But Russian forces have increased attacks on civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine over the past several weeks as Russian media personalities increase explicit calls for such attacks.

Putin’s comments are likely in part a response to criticism by Russian milbloggers, who attacked the Kremlin for failing to protect Russian territory and for failing to respond adequately. One milblogger asked if the Kremlin still regards Belgorod Oblast as part of Russia, part of the “special military operation” zone, or part of Ukraine. Another blamed the reported Ukrainian attack on Valuyki on the so-called “regrouping” of Russian forces (referring to the initial language the Russian Ministry of Defense used to describe the rout of Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast) and warned that another “regrouping” could allow Ukrainian forces to attack other critical Russian areas. Putin has increasingly shown a determination to appease the milbloggers and the constituencies they speak to and on behalf of, even at the expense of the uniformed Russian military and the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The Ukrainian Resistance Center warned on September 16 that Russian forces are planning to conduct false flag attacks against civilian population in Russian-occupied Ukraine and urged Ukrainians in occupied areas to avoid public places between September 17 and September 20. The Resistance Center suggested that such false flag attacks could be attempts to “divert the attention of the world community from the defeat in Kharkiv and the discovery of Russian war crimes” in liberated areas.

Key Takeaways

  • The discovery of mass graves and torture chambers in liberated Izyum confirm previous ISW assessments that the Bucha atrocities were emblematic of Russian activities in occupied areas rather than an anomaly.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently threatened to expand Russia’s attacks on civilian Ukrainian infrastructure if Ukraine continues reported attacks on military facilities in Russia.
  • The Ukrainian Resistance Center warned that Russian forces may conduct false flag attacks in occupied areas between September 17 and September 20.
  • Ukrainian forces captured all of Kupyansk City on September 16, continuing offensive operations east of the Oskil River.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly shelled targets in Valuyki, Belgorod Oblast, Russia, overnight on September 15-16.
  • Ukrainian forces struck Russia’s occupation headquarters in Kherson, likely using HIMARS, and are continuing ground maneuvers in three areas of Kherson Oblast as part of the ongoing southern counteroffensive.
  • Russian administrative officials are rallying around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s call for “self-mobilization” at a local level to provide additional forces to the Russian military.
  • Forced Russian mobilization campaigns are likely depleting male populations in parts of the claimed territory of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) along the front lines.
  • Immediate and coordinated Russian information responses suggest that Ukrainian partisans may not be responsible for the September 16 assassination of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Prosecutor General and his deputy.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 15

September 15, 2022 | 9:30pm ET

Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine, increasingly pressuring Russian positions and logistics lines in eastern Kharkiv, northern Luhansk, and east Donetsk Oblasts. Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground operations CorrectionA previous version of the text incorrectly stated "southwest."southeast of Izyum, near Lyman, and on the east bank of the Oskil River, reportedly compelling Russian forces to withdraw from some areas in eastern Ukraine and reinforce others.[1] Russian forces in eastern Ukraine will likely struggle to hold their defensive lines if Ukrainian forces continue to push farther east.

The Kremlin is responding to the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast by doubling down on crypto-mobilization rather than setting conditions for general mobilization. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on all federal subjects to initiate “self-mobilization” and not wait on the Kremlin to declare martial law.[2] Kadyrov claimed that each federal subject must prove its readiness to help Russia by recruiting at least 1,000 servicemen instead of delivering speeches and conducting fruitless public events. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan echoed the need for Russians to volunteer to join the war effort, and several loyalist Russian governors publicly supported Kadyrov’s speech.[3] The Russian-appointed head of occupied Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, announced the formation of two volunteer battalions on the peninsula in support of Kadyrov’s calls.[4]

The defeat around Kharkiv Oblast prompted the Kremlin to announce a Russia-wide recruitment campaign. Kremlin officials and state media had not previously made country-wide recruitment calls but had instead tasked local officials and outlets to generate forces ostensibly on their own initiative. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov vaguely welcomed the creation of the battalions on July 12, while 47 loyalist federal subjects advertised and funded the regional volunteer battalion recruitment campaign.[5] A prominent Russian milblogger and a supporter of general mobilization praised officials such as Kadyrov for taking the recruitment campaign from the ineffective Russian Ministry of Defense; this recruitment revamp is likely to secure more support for the Kremlin among nationalist figures who are increasingly critical of the Russian MoD, even if the drive does not generate large numbers of combat-effective troops.[6]

The Kremlin has likely abandoned its efforts to shield select federal subjects from recruitment drives, which may increase social tensions. ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin attempted to shield Moscow City residents from reports of the formation of the Moscow-based “Sobyaninsky Polk” volunteer regiment.[7]  Russian opposition outlet The Insider noted that several groups in the republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tyva, and Yakytia (Republic of Sakha) are publicly opposed to the Kremlin's emphasis on recruitment on an ethnic basis.[8] Simonyan’s statement about “self-mobilization” prompted numerous negative comments among Russians calling on Russian oligarchs to pay for and fight in the war.[9]

The Kremlin has almost certainly drained a large proportion of the forces originally stationed in Russian bases in former Soviet states since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, likely weakening Russian influence in those states. A Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) investigation reported on September 14 that the Russian military has already deployed approximately 1500 Russian personnel from Russia’s 201st Military Base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began and plans to deploy 600 more personnel from facilities in Dushanbe and Bokhatar, a southern Tajik city, in the future.[10] RFE/RL additionally reported on September 13 that Russia has likely redeployed approximately 300 Tuvan troops from the Russian Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan to fight in Ukraine at varying points since late 2021.[11]

The withdrawals from the Central Asian states are noteworthy in the context of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards exchanged fire in three separate incidents on September 14, killing at least two people.[12] The uptick in violence between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which are members of the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comes alongside renewed aggression by Azerbaijan against CSTO member state Armenia. Russian forces also withdrew 800 personnel from Armenia early in the war to replenish losses in Ukraine, as ISW has previously reported.[13]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin is responding to the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast by doubling down on crypto-mobilization, rather than setting conditions for general mobilization.
  • The Kremlin has almost certainly drained a large proportion of the forces originally at Russian bases in former Soviet states since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, likely weakening Russian influence in those states.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported Ukrainian ground attacks northwest of CorrectionA previous version of the text incorrectly stated "Kharkiv City."Kherson City, near the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River, and south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border.
  • Russian-appointed occupation officials and milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted a landing at the CorrectionA previous version of the text listed all listings of "Kinburn" as "Kinsburn."Kinburn Spit (CorrectionA previous version of the text incorrectly stated "a narrow peninsula of the Crimean Peninsula."a narrow peninsula in Kherson Oblast).
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults and are reinforcing positions on the Eastern Axis.
  • The Russian proxy Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is likely attempting to stop its administrators from fleeing ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, demonstrating the bureaucratic fragility of the DNR.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 14

September 14, 2022 | 8:15pm ET

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant.[1] A Russian milblogger noted that Prigozhin is introducing a “Stalinist” method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society.[2] Milbloggers have been consistently praising Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some even said that he should replace the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom milbloggers and Kremlin pundits blame for the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast.[3] Russian military correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) claimed to have spoken to Prigozhin about the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the area.[4] The Prigozhin-Fomin meeting, if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command. Prigozhin is Putin’s close confidant, and his developing relationship with milbloggers may help retain milblogger support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin has changed its information approach to address the demands of the Russian milbloggers and nationalists’, suggesting that Putin seeks to win back the critical milblogger community alienated by Russian failures.[5]

Russian forces likely targeted Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on September 14 to interfere with Ukrainian operations across the Inhulets River. Ukrainian sources reported that eight Russian cruise missiles struck unspecified targets in Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and caused extensive flooding in areas of Kryvyi Rih.[6] Russian sources identified the target location as the Karachun Dam, which sits along the Inhulets River on the western outskirts of Kryvyi Rih.[7] Footage of the aftermath of the strike shows a 2.5m increase in the water level of the Inhulets River, which runs south of Kryvyi Rih and is an important geographical feature for the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive along the Kherson-Mykolaiv border.[8] Russian forces likely targeted the Karachun Dam to damage Ukrainian pontoon bridges further downstream, especially in light of recent reports that Ukrainian troops are attempting to expand their bridgehead over the Inhulets River near Davydiv Brid as part of the ongoing Kherson counteroffensive.[9]

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces likely targeted Ukrainian hydrotechnical infrastructure in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in order to interfere with Ukraine’s ability to operate across the Inhulets River
  • The Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Kharkiv Oblast continues to degrade Russian forces and threaten Russian artillery and air defenses.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported Ukrainian ground attacks in northern Kherson Oblast, western Kherson Oblast, and northwest of Kherson City but did not report any major gains.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and northwest and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Funding volunteer battalions is likely placing financial strain on Russian cities and oblasts.
  • Russian occupation authorities shut off mobile internet in occupied Luhansk Oblast on September 14, likely to preserve Russian operational security and better control the information environment as Russian forces, occupation officials, and collaborators flee newly-liberated Kharkiv Oblast for Russian and Russian-controlled territories.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 13

September 13, 2022 | 10:15pm ET

The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin officials and state media propagandists are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, a marked change from their previous pattern of reporting on exaggerated or fabricated Russian successes with limited detail. The Kremlin never admitted that Russia was defeated around Kyiv or, later, at Snake Island, framing the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas and the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill.” The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup, but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online. The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the defeat is part of an effort to mitigate and deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the uniformed military command.

Kremlin sources are now working to clear Putin of any responsibility for the defeat, instead blaming the loss of almost all of occupied Kharkiv Oblast on underinformed military advisors within Putin’s circle. One member of the Kremlin’s Council for Interethnic Relations, Bogdan Bezpalko, even stated that military officials who had failed to see the concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment and disregarded Telegram channels that warned of the imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast should have their heads ”lying on Putin’s desk.” ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin delayed Putin‘s meeting with Russian defense officials immediately after the withdrawal of troops from around Kharkiv, increasing the appearance of a rift between the Kremlin and the Russian MoD. The Kremlin’s admission of defeat in Kharkiv shows that Putin is willing and able to recognize and even accept a Russian defeat at least in some circumstances and focus on deflecting blame from himself.

Several members of the Russian State Duma expressed concern about the dire situation on the frontlines in Ukraine during the Duma’s first plenary meeting of its autumn session on September 13. Leader of the Russian Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov stated that Russia needs to announce full mobilization because the Russian “special military operation” is a war. Zyuganov said that one can end a “special military operation” at any time, but that a war can end only in victory or defeat, and “we have no right to lose” this war.  Leader of the “Fair Russia—For Truth” Party Sergey Mironov called for social “mobilization,” in which regular Russians would pay attention more to the war in Ukraine, rather than for full military mobilization. Leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky also noted that Russia will continue to fight in the geopolitical “scrum” with the West. All three MPs had publicly advocated for Putin to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) before the February invasion and were instrumental in setting information conditions for the invasion itself. The MPs also discussed a December date for the next hearing on a bill that will simplify the delivery of the semiannual conscription notices. The bill, which is likely to pass, will allow Russian military recruitment centers to send out conscription notices via mail instead of presenting them in person and will oblige men who have not received a notice in the mail to show up at the local recruitment center anyway.

The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts. Zyuganov’s, Mironov’s, and Slutsky’s statements could be aimed at raising concern and patriotism among Russians to encourage them to get more involved in the war. The bill could further facilitate the ongoing crypto mobilization campaign, which aims to promote recruitment into contract service via deception, coercion, or promised financial rewards. Recruitment centers throughout Russia have been delivering unofficial summonses that look like conscription notices via mail and phone calls, but many men are aware that Russian law requires military recruitment centers to issue conscription notices in person. Russian men who have responded to the unofficial summonses have recounted recruiters attempting to persuade or pressure them into signing a military contract. The bill legalizing mailed conscription notices will facilitate this dishonest practice. Both the bill and MPs’ statements may evoke fear of general mobilization among men, which could incentivize some to sign military contracts and receive financial bonuses for volunteering, as opposed to being conscripted and forced to serve without such compensation.

Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly. Large-scale conscription would very likely overwhelm the Russian MoD’s ability to induct, train, and equip new soldiers, particularly since the Russian training base appears to be strained in preparing the limited numbers of volunteer battalions currently being fielded. Russia would likely first have to expand its training base significantly, a time-consuming process, and then find and prepare for combat sufficient equipment to kit out large numbers of new units before it could even begin to handle a large influx of new conscripts. Widely-reported Russian materiel shortages suggest deep failures in the Russian military industry that would make generating the necessary equipment, ammunition, and supplies for a large conscript army very difficult. ISW has not identified any indicators that preparations for such activities have been ordered or are underway.

The Kremlin has adopted narratives that echo longstanding milblogger demands and complaints, suggesting that Putin seeks to appease and win back the critical milblogger community rather than censor it. Russian milbloggers have long complained about the Russian MoD and the military high command, and now the Kremlin state media is openly expressing dissatisfaction with the progress of the war and the lack of situational awareness of events on the ground. Milbloggers are advertising Telegram channels covering frontline developments 24/7 and urging readers to subscribe if they “believe” in Putin. Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-influenced media are now openly calling for an intensive missile campaign against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure and transit routes, an idea with broad support among many milbloggers. These new calls are a stark departure from the Kremlin‘s previous line claiming that Russian forces did not target civilian infrastructure, and this new narrative is earning the Kremlin public support among milbloggers. Slutsky’s statement at the Duma meeting pointing to the disinterest of most Russian civilians in the war echoes frequent milblogger complaints about the harmful side effects of conducting a limited war.

Russia’s defeat in Kharkiv Oblast is causing panic among Russians in occupied Ukrainian territories, servicemen, and milbloggers. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) reported that Russian authorities in Crimea urged their families to flee to Russia, while employees of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) are selling their homes on the peninsula and are urgently evacuating their families due to Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that forcibly mobilized proxy units are suffering low morale and psychological problems. Russian milbloggers are increasingly worrying about Ukrainian counter-offensives in different areas along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblasts frontline, and preemptively identifying vulnerable Russian positions.

Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating a Russian-brokered ceasefire and attacking Armenian forces along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border on September 13. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and convened a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states later in the day but did not invoke the CSTO’s collective security agreement, according to government readouts of both meetings. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on whether the Kremlin would fulfill its CSTO obligations to Armenia if Azerbaijan continued to press its attack. Russia’s hedging approach may damage Russia’s relationship with Armenia and with other CSTO member states, particularly If Russia cannot provide military or peacekeeping support.

The CSTO is a Russia-created and Russia-dominated intergovernmental military alliance that the Kremlin claims is about collective security, but typically uses to justify or further its hybrid war aims.  The degraded Russian military likely does not have sufficient forces to enforce a ceasefire or to deploy additional peacekeepers to the area after six months of devastating war in Ukraine. ISW reported on March 13 that Russia pulled 800 personnel from Russia’s base in Armenia and elements of its Nagorno-Karabakh “peacekeeping deployment” to replenish early losses in Ukraine. ISW has observed no redeployments to Nagorno-Karabakh or Russia’s base in Armenia since then.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin has recognized its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first defeat Russia has acknowledged in this war. The Kremlin is deflecting blame from Russian President Vladimir Putin and attributing it instead to his military advisors.
  • The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts by intensifying patriotic rhetoric and discussions about fuller mobilization while revisiting a Russian State Duma bill allowing the military to send call-ups for the regular semiannual conscription by mail. Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly in any case.
  • The successful Ukrainian counter-offensive around Kharkiv Oblast is prompting Russian servicemen, occupation authorities, and milbloggers to panic.
  • Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union as Russia appears unwilling to enforce a violated ceasefire it brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan or to allow Armenia to invoke provisions of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in its defense.
  • Ukrainian troops likely continued ground attacks along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line in northern Donetsk Oblast and may be conducting limited ground attacks across the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources indicated that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground maneuvers in three areas of Kherson Oblast as part of the ongoing southern counter-offensive.
  • Russian troops made incremental gains south of Bakhmut and continued ground attacks throughout Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces provided the first visual evidence of Russian forces using an Iranian-made drone in Ukraine on September 13.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 12

September 12, 2022 | 8:45pm ET

Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive is continuing to have significant impacts on Russian morale and military capabilities in southern Ukraine. Satellite imagery of known Russian positions in Kyselivka, 15km northwest of Kherson City, shows that all but four Russian vehicles have departed from previous forward positions, consistent with rumors that Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) troops have abandoned Kyselivka and moved back towards the Dnipro River. Kyselivka is an operationally significant location for Russian forces around Kherson City because it is the last major settlement along both the E58 highway and a railway line between current Ukrainian positions and Chornobaivka, the outermost part of Kherson City. The apparent withdrawal of Russian troops from this position may compromise the Russians’ ability to defend the northwestern outskirts of Kherson City and suggests that Russian troops in this area perceive an imminent threat to their positions. Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command, Natalya Humenyuk, stated on September 12 that Russian forces located along the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast are attempting to negotiate for surrender under the auspices of international law. Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast are unlikely to have had such a dramatic psychological effect on Russian troops this far south, and both the withdrawal of troops from forward positions in Kyselivka and reports of surrender negotiations are indicators that Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south are progressing in a significant way, even if visibility on this axis is limited by the shift in focus to Kharkiv.

The success of recent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations may be impacting the will or ability of the Russian military command to use newly formed volunteer units in Ukraine in a timely fashion. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that the Russian military command has suspended sending new, already-formed units to Ukraine due to recent Russian losses and widespread distrust of the Russian military command, factors which have caused a large number of volunteers to categorically refuse to participate in combat. This assessment is still unconfirmed, but low morale due to Ukrainian counteroffensive success may prove devastating to the Kremlin’s already-poor ability to generate meaningful combat capability. The deployment of these newly formed units to reinforce defensive lines against Ukrainian counteroffensives would be an operationally-sound decision on the part of Russian military leadership; and the delay or potential suspension of these deployments will afford Ukrainian troops time to consolidate and then resume the offensive, should they choose to do so, without having to face newly arrived and fresh (albeit undertrained and understrength) units.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces are continuing to make impactful gains in Kherson Oblast and are steadily degrading the morale and combat capabilities of Russian forces in this area.
  • The Russian military command may be suspending the deployment of newly formed units to Ukraine due to recent Russian losses and overall degraded morale.
  • Russian forces are failing to reinforce the new frontline following Ukrainian gains in eastern Kharkiv Oblast and are actively fleeing the area or redeploying to other axes.
  • Ukrainian forces continued targeting Russian military assets and positions in Kherson Oblast, likely steadily degrading them.
  • The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum has likely degraded Russian forces’ ability to conduct artillery strikes along the Izyum-Slovyansk highway.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced the restoration of the second reserve power transmission line to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive is damaging Russian administrative capabilities and driving Russian departures from occupied parts of Ukraine far behind the line of contact.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 11

September 11, 2022 | 10:00pm ET

Ukrainian forces have inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, recapturing almost all Kharkiv Oblast in a rapid counter-offensive. The Ukrainian success resulted from skillful campaign design and execution that included efforts to maximize the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS. Kyiv’s long discussion and then an announcement of a counter-offensive operation aimed at Kherson Oblast drew substantial Russian troops away from the sectors on which Ukrainian forces have conducted decisive attacks in the past several days. Ukraine’s armed forces employed HIMARS and other Western systems to attack Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts, setting conditions for the success of this operation. Ukrainian leaders discussed the strikes in the south much more ostentatiously, however, successfully confusing the Russians about their intentions in Kharkiv Oblast. Western weapons systems were necessary but not sufficient to secure success for Ukraine. The Ukrainian employment of those systems in a well-designed and well-executed campaign has generated the remarkable success of the counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.

The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum ended the prospect that Russia could accomplish its stated objectives in Donetsk Oblast. After retreating from Kyiv in early April, the stated Russian objectives had been to seize the complete territory of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The Russian campaign to achieve these objectives was an attack along an arc from Izyum through Severodonetsk to the area near Donetsk City. That attack aimed to seize Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut, and Kramatorsk, and continue to the western boundary of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces managed to take Severodonetsk on June 24 and Lysychansk on July 3 after a long and extremely costly campaign but then largely culminated, seizing no major settlements and little territory. The Russian position around Izyum still threatened Ukrainian defenders of Slovyansk, however, and retained for the Russians the opportunity to return to the attack on the northern sectors of the arc, which they had largely abandoned by the middle of July in favor of a focus on Siversk (near Lysychansk) and Bakhmut. 

The loss of Izyum dooms the initial Russian campaign plan for this phase of the war and ensures that Russian advances toward Bakhmut or around Donetsk City cannot be decisive (if they occur at all). Even the Russian seizure of Bakhmut, which is unlikely to occur considering Russian forces have impaled themselves on tiny surrounding settlements for weeks, would no longer support any larger effort to accomplish the original objectives of this phase of the campaign since it would not be supported by an advance from Izyum in the north. The continued Russian offensive operations against Bakhmut and around Donetsk City have thus lost any real operational significance for Moscow and merely waste some of the extremely limited effective combat power Russia retains.

There is no basis for assessing that the counter-offensive announced in Kherson Oblast is merely a feint, however. Ukrainian forces have reportedly attacked and made gains at several important locations on the western bank of the Dnipro River. They have cut the two bridges across the river and continue to keep them cut as well as interfere with Russian efforts to maintain supply via barge and pontoon ferry. Ukraine has committed considerable combat power and focused a significant portion of the Western-supplied long-range precision systems it has to this axis, and it is not likely to have done so merely to draw Russian forces to the area.

The Ukrainian pressure in Kherson combined with the rapid counter-offensive in Kharkiv presents the Russians with a terrible dilemma of time and space. Russia likely lacks sufficient reserve forces to complete the formation of a new defensive line along the Oskil River, as it is reportedly trying to do before Ukrainian forces continue their advance through that position if they so choose. Prudence would demand that Russia pull forces from other sectors of the battlespace to establish defensive lines further east than the Oskil River to ensure that it can hold the Luhansk Oblast border or a line as close to that border as possible. But Russian troops around Bakhmut and near Donetsk City continue offensive operations as if unaware of the danger to Luhansk, and Russian forces in Kherson still face attack and the threat of more attacks on that axis. Russian President Vladimir Putin risks making a common but deadly mistake by waiting too long to order reinforcements to the Luhansk line, thereby compromising the defense of Kherson or ending offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City without getting troops into position to defend against continuing Ukrainian attacks in Luhansk in time. The Ukrainian campaign appears intended to present Putin with precisely such a dilemma and to benefit from almost any decision he makes.

The current counter-offensive will not end the war. The campaign in northeast Ukraine will eventually culminate, allowing the Russians to re-establish a tenable defensive line and possibly even conduct localized counterattacks. Ukraine will have to launch subsequent counter-offensive operations, likely several, to finish the liberation of Russian-occupied territory. The war remains likely to stretch into 2023. 

Ukraine has turned the tide of this war in its favor. Kyiv will likely increasingly dictate the location and nature of the major fighting, and Russia will find itself increasingly responding inadequately to growing Ukrainian physical and psychological pressure in successive military campaigns unless Moscow finds some way to regain the initiative.

Russian officials and milbloggers involved with the Russian war in Ukraine are increasingly blaming the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for Russian failures on the frontlines. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated that if there are no changes to the Russian “special military operation” today or tomorrow, then he will contact the Kremlin to “explain the situation on the ground.” Kadyrov’s statement is a thinly veiled criticism of the Russian MoD for its lack of situational awareness (or honesty) and highlights the MoD’s preoccupation with maintaining the façade of a successful and swift Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The Russian MoD has not acknowledged the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Kharkiv Oblast, instead promulgating a clearly false narrative of a deliberate Russian repositioning without any meaningful justification. A milblogger also noted that a civilian such as the head of the Wagner Group private military company Yevgeniy Prigozhin should replace Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu because civilians can better handle the harmful nature of the military bureaucracy. The intensifying public attacks on Shoigu and the Russian MoD shield Russian President Vladimir Putin from the responsibility for setting unattainable goals for the invasion and likely micromanaging military operations by pinning all the blame for Russian failures on the MoD and higher military command. Putin may accept and even support these attacks to continue this diversion of blame from him.

The Kharkiv Oblast counter-offensive is already damaging the Kremlin’s relationship with the Russian MoD, further alienating Putin from the higher military command. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Putin has postponed all his meetings with the leadership of the Russian MoD and representatives of the Russian defense industry in Sochi—a bizarre decision in the face of the military operational and defense industrial crisis facing Russia.

The Russian defeat in the Battle of Kharkiv Oblast will only intensify public criticism of Shoigu and the MoD, which may lead to personnel changes. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the western grouping of forces has been placed under the command of the Commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Alexander Lapin who is currently commanding the central group of forces in Ukraine. The GUR added that the Kremlin is looking for a replacement for the commander of the western grouping of forces Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov, who had just replaced Lieutenant General Andrey Sychevoy on August 26.

Ukrainian authorities shut down the last active reactor at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on September 11. Ukrainian nuclear energy agency Energoatom announced that it began to prepare nuclear reactor no. 6 for a cold shutdown after Energoatom restored a backup powerline connecting the ZNPP to the Ukrainian power grid on September 11. Energoatom stated that the reactor had been producing energy at 10-15% of its capability, the bare minimum necessary to sustain ZNPP operations. Energoatom stated that a cold shutdown is the safest state for the ZNPP as frequent Russian shelling continues to damage power lines necessary to operate the plant safely. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces shell the ZNPP as part of a broader campaign against energy infrastructure in occupied territories and Russian milbloggers amplified this narrative. Energoatom and the International Atomic Energy Agency reiterated that shelling the ZNPP must end and that Russian authorities must demilitarize and declare a safe zone around the ZNPP.

Russian forces conducted a wave of precision strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on September 11 causing widespread power outages. The attacks are likely meant to let Moscow claim that it is launching a new phase of offensive operations even as it loses on the ground, and possibly also to punish Ukraine for shutting down the ZNPP despite Russia’s desire to keep it operating.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces have inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, recapturing almost all Kharkiv Oblast in a rapid counter-offensive
  • Ukrainian authorities shut down the last active reactor at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on September 11.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that Russian forces are withdrawing from positions throughout all but easternmost Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers have defined the Oskil River that runs from Kupyansk to Izyum as the new frontline following Russian withdrawal from positions in eastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces have advanced into Vovchansk and Velykyi Burluk, just south of the international border.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to fight positional battles and conduct strikes on Russian military, logistics, and transportation assets along the Southern Axis.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Avdiivka and Bakhmut areas.
  • Russian authorities are continuing to pull combat power from various external sources to support operations in Ukraine and are struggling to compensate volunteers.
  • The success of recent Ukrainian counteroffensives likely contributed to the Russian announcement that annexation referenda will be indefinitely postponed.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 10

September 10, 2022 | 11:30pm ET

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast is routing Russian forces and collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis. Russian forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum. Russian forces have previously weakened the northern Donbas axis by redeploying units from this area to Southern Ukraine, complicating efforts to slow the Ukrainian advance or at minimum deploy a covering force for the retreat.  Ukrainian gains are not confined to the Izyum area; Ukrainian forces reportedly captured Velikiy Burluk on September 10, which would place Ukrainian forces within 15 kilometers of the international border.[1] Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places and captured over 3,000 square kilometers of territory in the past five days since September 6 – more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.

Ukrainian forces will likely capture the city of Izyum itself in the next 48 hours if they have not already done so. The liberation of Izyum would be the most significant Ukrainian military achievement since winning the Battle of Kyiv in March. It would eliminate the Russian advance in northwest Donetsk Oblast along the E40 highway that the Russian military sought to use to outflank Ukrainian positions along the Slovyansk – Kramatorsk line. A successful encirclement of Russian forces fleeing Izyum would result in the destruction or capture of significant Russian forces and exacerbate Russian manpower and morale issues. Russian war correspondents and milbloggers have also reported facing challenges when evacuating from Izyum, indicating Ukrainian forces are at least partially closing a cauldron in some areas.[2]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, falsely framing the retreat as a “regrouping” of forces to support Russian efforts in the Donetsk Oblast direction – mirroring the Kremlin’s false explanation for the Russian withdrawal after the Battle of Kyiv.[3] The Russian MoD did not acknowledge Ukrainian successes around Kharkiv Oblast as the primary factor for the Russian retreat, and claimed that Russian military command has been carrying out a controlled withdrawal from the Balakliya-Izyum area for the past three days. The Russian MoD falsely claimed that Russian forces undertook a number of demonstrative actions and used artillery and aviation to ensure the safety of withdrawing Russian forces. These Russian statements have no relation to the situation on the ground.

The Russian MoD’s inability to admit Russian failures in Kharkiv Oblast and effectively set information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space. Kremlin-sponsored TV propagandists offered a wide range of confused explanations for Ukrainian successes ranging from justifications that Russian forces are fighting against the entire Western Bloc, to downplaying the importance of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) in Kupyansk.[4] The Kremlin’s propagandists appeared unusually disorganized in their narratives, with some confirming the liberation of certain towns and others refuting such reports. Guest experts also were unable to reaffirm the hosts’ narratives that Ukrainian successes are not significant for the Donbas axis. Such programming may reveal the true progress of the Russian “special military operation” to the general Russian public that relies on state media and the Russian MoD for updates.

The withdrawal announcement further alienated the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision for capturing the entirety of Ukraine. Russian milbloggers condemned the Russian MoD for remaining quiet, choosing self-isolation, and distorting situational awareness in Russia.[5] One milblogger even stated that the Russian MoD’s silence is a betrayal of Russian servicemen that fought and still fight in Ukraine.[6] A Russian milblogger also noted that the Russian MoD has repeatedly ignored or demeaned the milblogger community that raised concerns with Russian military leadership and lack of transparency on the frontlines.[7] The milbloggers called on the Russian MoD to take the information space into its own hands and stop relying on silencing information.

Prior to the withdrawal announcement, the Russian MoD released footage of Russian military convoys reportedly moving to reinforce the Kharkiv direction on September 9.[8] Many Russian outlets and milbloggers expressed hope that these reinforcements would stabilize the frontline and repel Ukrainian advances on Izyum despite the Russian MoD failing to address the unfolding situation days prior. Russian milbloggers would have likely accepted MoD’s announcement of a withdrawal like they previously did with the Russian retreat from the Snake Island and other tactical Russian losses if the Russian information space was not oversaturated with footage of Ukrainian successes. Such inconsistencies in messaging further support ISW’s assessment that the Russian MoD faces challenges in responding to unexpected developments within the established informational framework, which portrays Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation.[9] Most importantly, such unaware information practices erode the Russian public’s trust in Russian MoD messaging and disrupt the Kremlin’s propaganda facade.

Russian milbloggers also criticized the Russian occupation authorities for failing to organize evacuation measures in Kharkiv Oblast. Some milbloggers noted that occupation administrations are disoriented and lack initiative.[10] The Ukrainian counteroffensive is effectively paralyzing the Russian occupation leadership that is likely afraid for its fate.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv Oblast are collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis, and Ukrainian forces will likely recapture Izyum itself in the next 48 hours.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, and the Russian MoD’s failure to set effective information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space.
  • The withdrawal announcement and occupation authorities’ failure to organize evacuation measures is further alienating the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision of capturing the entirety of Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces reached positions within 15-25km of the Russo-Ukrainian border in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, Izyum’s northern outskirts, and Lyman’s south and southwestern outskirts, and captured the western half of Kupyansk.
  • Russian forces are reinforcing frontline positions in Kherson Oblast while Ukrainian forces conduct positional battles and continue their interdiction campaign against Russian logistics lines.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults north of Kharkiv City, south of Bakhmut, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian recruitment drives are generating some criticism among Russian milbloggers and regions.
  • Russian forces are reportedly intensifying filtration measures in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts in response to Ukrainian counteroffensives on the Southern Axis.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 9

September 9, 2022 | 11:15pm ET

Ukrainian forces have captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers in Kharkiv Oblast in the Kharkiv area counteroffensive as of September 9. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhnyi stated on September 8 that Ukrainian forces liberated over 1,000 square kilometers between September 1-8 – a day before Ukrainian forces reached the southern approach to Kupyansk and the Oskil River on September 9. Ukrainian forces are likely clearing pockets of disorganized Russian forces caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance to Kupyansk, Izyum, and the Oskil River, given the influx of observed pictures of Russian prisoners of war in the past 48 hours.

Ukrainian forces may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) north and south of Izyum. Ukrainian forces continued to advance on Kupyansk and towards Izyum on September 9, and are undertaking measures to isolate the Russian Izyum grouping of forces. If Ukrainians are successful in severing the Russian GLOCs, then they will have an opportunity to create a cauldron around Izyum and collapse a major portion of the Russian positions in northeastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin is rushing resources to the Kharkiv City-Izyum line in an attempt to halt Ukrainian advances after Ukrainian forces achieved remarkable operational surprise. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Kremlin wires published footage of Russian military convoys reportedly en route to reinforce Kupyansk, Izyum, and the general Kharkiv direction but did not acknowledge Ukrainian successes in the area. While Russian milbloggers largely welcomed the reports of reinforcements, some criticized the Kremlin for first relocating units away from the Kharkiv City-Izyum line, only to deploy them again to the same location. Russian forces have been redeploying out of southern Kharkiv Oblast to reinforce Donetsk Oblast and the Southern Axis to address the threat of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast and to resume offensive operations west of Donetsk City for several weeks. The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive is upending the Kremlin’s effort to make Izyum an economy of force area. Some milbloggers also noted that September 10 will be a decisive day if Russians are unable to generate reserves and capable command in time.

The Kremlin is refusing to publicly address Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv Oblast, but the counteroffensive likely prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to convene a meeting with top Russian security and political officials on September 9. The Kremlin did not discuss the topic of the security council meeting, and the Kremlin’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that the Kremlin will not comment on the “situation around Balakliya and other events in the special operation zone.” Peskov directed all inquiries regarding the issue to the Russian MoD.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive operation in Kherson Oblast to degrade Russian forces on the Southern Axis is continuing simultaneously with Ukrainian operations on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line. Ukrainian forces are continuing to target Russian pontoon and ferry crossings daily, which indicates a long-term commitment to consistently destroying re-emerging Russian GLOCs. Ukrainian forces are maintaining a strict operational silence in southern Ukraine, which may appear as if Ukrainian forces are not advancing. Ukrainian forces are also likely operating in several directions in Kherson Oblast.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces have captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers in Kharkiv Oblast in the Kharkiv counteroffensive as of September 9.
  • The Kremlin is rushing resources to Kharkiv Oblast in response to effective Ukrainian operations.
  • Ukrainian forces reached the outskirts of Kupyansk and are advancing on Izyum from the northwest, north, northeast, and southeast as of September 9 and will likely sever Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) to Izyum within the coming days.
  • Ukrainian forces may have advanced north of Hrushivka towards a Russian logistics hub in Velykyi Burluk, northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine, including interdicting Russian GLOCS, degrading Russian morale.
  • Russian forces conducted ground assaults north of Kharkiv City and across the Eastern Axis.
  • The United Nations released a report detailing poor Russian treatment of Ukrainian POWs and detained civilians.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 8

September 8, 2022 | 11:00pm ET

Ukrainian successes on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line are creating fissures within the Russian information space and eroding confidence in Russian command to a degree not seen since a failed Russian river crossing in mid-May. Ukrainian military officials announced that Ukrainian forces advanced 50km deep into Russian defensive positions north of Izyum on September 8, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) notably did not issue any statement regarding Ukrainian advances in Kharkiv Oblast. Ukrainian successes and the Russian MoD’s silence prompted many Russian milbloggers to criticize and debate Russian failures to retain control over the city of Balakliya, approximately 44km northwest of Izyum. Some milbloggers claimed that Russian forces fully or partially withdrew from Balakliya in good order, while others complained that Ukrainian forces beat Russian forces out of the settlement. Others noted that Rosgvardia units operating in the area did not coordinate their defenses or have sufficient artillery capabilities to prevent Ukrainian counterattacks in the region. Milbloggers warned about an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive northwest of Izyum for days prior to Ukrainian advances, and some milbloggers noted that Russian command failed to prepare for “obvious and predictable” Ukrainian counteroffensives. Others noted that Ukrainian forces have “completely outplayed” the Russian military command in Balakliya, while others encouraged readers to wait to discuss Russian losses and withhold criticism until Russian forces stabilize the frontlines.

The current tone and scale of Russian milblogger criticism echo the response to Russia’s loss of a large amount of armor in a failed Russian river crossing in Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast, in May. ISW assessed at the time that the catastrophic Russian losses suffered due to incompetence shook the confidence of pro-Russian milbloggers, sparking criticism of the Russian war effort. Russian milbloggers and social media users accessed satellite imagery that showed devastating losses of Russian military equipment, which caused many to comment on the incompetence of the Russian military and analyze the scene on a tactical level. The Russian MoD did not comment on the situation, fueling burgeoning doubts about Russia’s prospects in Ukraine.

The Russian MoD repeated its Bilohorivka information mistake by failing to acknowledge the situation around Kharkiv Oblast and establish a desired narrative, leaving milbloggers to fill this gap with criticism of Russian forces. The Russian MoD only claimed to have destroyed a Ukrainian ammunition depot in Balakliya. Some milbloggers complained that the Russian MoD did not seize the information space in a timely manner to prevent the spread of Ukrainian social media on Russian Telegram channels, leading to distrust among Russian audiences. Milbloggers largely supported the Russian MoD’s narratives that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast had completely failed just days prior to Ukrainian breakthroughs in Kharkiv Oblast. Such a shift in milblogger perceptions of Russian progress in Ukraine can be partially attributed to the flaws in the Russian war-time information strategy, namely that:

  1. The Russian MoD struggles to address unexpected Ukrainian operations because its information strategy relies on portraying the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation. This promotes a lack of situational awareness within the Kremlin and the Russian media space.
  2. The Russian MoD needs a significant amount of time to develop and spread false narratives in the Russian information space. The Kremlin and Russian MoD successfully did so prior to the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, and milbloggers largely followed the Kremlin’s line. The Russian MoD failed to have a narrative ready for Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast.
  3. Milbloggers will share and promote footage and imagery of fighting unfavorable to Russian forces that will dominate coverage in the Russian information space if the Russian MoD does not provide its own media.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian successes on the Kharkiv City-Izyum line are creating fissures within the Russian information space and eroding confidence in Russian command to a degree not seen since a failed Russian river crossing in mid-May.
  • Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv Oblast counteroffensives advanced to within 20 kilometers of Russia’s key logistical node in Kupyansk on September 8.
  • Ukrainian forces will likely capture Kupyansk in the next 72 hours, severely degrading but not completely severing Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Izyum.
  • Ukrainian forces are continuing to target Russian GLOCs, command-and-control points, and ammunition depots in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to intensify crackdowns and filtration measures to curb Ukrainian partisans and pro-Ukrainian saboteurs.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks across the Eastern Axis.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 7

September 7, 2022 | 9:30pm ET

Ukrainian forces in southeastern Kharkiv Oblast are likely exploiting Russian force reallocation to the Southern Axis to conduct an opportunistic yet highly effective counteroffensive northwest of Izyum. Ukrainian forces likely used tactical surprise to advance at least 20km into Russian-held territory in eastern Kharkiv Oblast on September 7, recapturing approximately 400 square kilometers of ground. Russian sources claimed that Russian troops began deploying reinforcements to the area to defend against Ukrainian advances, and the Russian grouping in this area was likely understrength due to previous Russian deployments to support ongoing efforts to capture the remainder of Donetsk Oblast and support the southern axis. Ukraine’s ongoing operations in Kherson Oblast have forced Russian forces to shift their focus to the south, enabling Ukrainian forces to launch localized but highly effective counterattacks in the Izyum area. Russian milbloggers voiced concern that this Ukrainian counterattack seeks to cut ground lines of communication (GLOCs) to Russian rear areas in Kupyansk and Izyum, which would allow Ukrainian troops to isolate the Russian groupings in these areas and retake large swaths of territory. These milbloggers used largely panicked and despondent tones, acknowledged significant Ukrainian gains, and claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south may be a distraction from the ongoing actions in Kharkiv Oblast, which they name as the main Ukrainian effort. The level of shock and frank discussion of Ukrainian successes by Russian milbloggers speaks to the scale of surprise achieved by Ukrainian forces, which is likely successfully demoralizing Russian forces. While it is unlikely that the southern counteroffensive and effort to attrit Russian forces in southern Ukraine is a feint for renewed operations in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukrainian forces likely took prudent advantage of a reallocation of Russian troops, equipment, and overall operational focus to launch localized counteroffensives toward critical points in Kharkiv Oblast.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Putin claimed that there is no Russian military equipment on the grounds of the ZNPP other than Rosgvardia elements. Rosgvardia elements have carried out both occupation functions and frontline combat operations during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s admission that there are Rosgvardia elements on the plant’s grounds further confirms that Russian forces have militarized their presence at the ZNPP despite constant Russian denials. Putin also accused the IAEA of acting under Western pressure to not directly blame Ukraine of shelling the plant. As ISW previously assessed, the IAEA report was a coded yet damning condemnation of Russian activities at the ZNPP.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces are skillfully exploiting Russia’s deployment of forces away from the Izyum-Kharkiv area to retake territory and threaten Russian GLOCs in the area, prompting demoralized responses from Russian milbloggers.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Ukrainian forces continued strikes on Russian logistics nodes, manpower and equipment concentrations, transportation networks, and command and control points in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources reported kinetic activity in northern Kherson Oblast and in western Kherson Oblast along the Kherson-Mykolaiv border.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks north of Kharkiv City, northwest of Slovyansk, northeast of Siversk, south and northeast of Bakhmut, and northwest of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces gained 400 square kilometers of territory northwest of Izyum on September 6-7 as part of an opportunistic and highly effective counteroffensive in southeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian occupation authorities announced November 4 as the potential date for annexation referenda in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 6

September 6, 2022 | 10:00pm ET

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) September 6 report on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) described numerous ways in which Russian occupation authorities and the Russian military are jeopardizing the safe operation of the plant.The report does not attempt to determine which party is responsible for the shelling that has damaged the facility and repeatedly calls on “all relevant parties” to take measures to improve the situation. The moderation and apparent neutrality of that language can overshadow the extremely clear articulation of the Russian activities undermining the plant’s safety and the fact that the report attributes no dangerous actions to Ukraine. The IAEA’s report is thus a coded condemnation of Russian moves that have created and are perpetuating the danger of nuclear disaster in Ukraine.

The report specifically notes that Ukraine reported to the IAEA that Russian forces had positioned military equipment in two turbine halls and various other facilities in and around the ZNPP. It adds that the inspection team that finally visited the plant recently directly observed Russian military equipment in turbine halls and elsewhere around the plant. It added that personnel from Russia’s state atomic energy organization, ROSATOM, were at the site and observed that “the presence of Rosatom senior technical staff could lead to interference with the normal lines of operational command or authority and create potential frictions when it comes to decision-making.” It also noted that “the operating staff did not have unrestricted access to some areas, such as the spray cooling ponds, roofs of the buildings, and structures in the area of the water intake, and that access to the cooling ponds area was required to be granted by the military personnel at the site.” The IAEA’s inspection team was told that “the on-site emergency centre was not accessible to the plant staff for emergency response as it was occupied by the military authority.” The team visited the alternative emergency center and observed that it lacked “an independent power supply or an independent ventilation system, and there is no internet connection to enable effective communication with all parties involved in an emergency response.”

The IAEA report thus demonstrates that Russian officials have placed military equipment in locations inhibiting access to essential facilities, installed their own personnel to oversee the plant’s operations in ways that the IAEA judges could undermine effective response to a nuclear emergency, restricted the Ukrainian operating staff’s access to key parts of the facility, and shifted the emergency center to a location lacking essential components vital to an effective response to a serious nuclear emergency. The Russians have thus created conditions at the ZNPP that increase the risk that an emergency could occur and significantly increase the danger that the operating staff will be unable to respond efficiently and effectively in such an event.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could seek to use the fears that his actions are causing to coerce the IAEA and the international community into a de facto recognition of Russia’s right to be involved in the operation of the ZNPP, which he might seek to portray as de facto recognition of Russia’s occupation of southern Ukraine. The somewhat coded language of the IAEA report reflects the fact that Ukraine remains the operator of the ZNPP and the party responsible for its safe operation and for complying with the IAEA under international law. The IAEA cannot directly engage Russia regarding the plant’s operation without at least tacitly admitting that Russia has some right to be consulted. Putin might seek to take advantage of this situation to attempt to create a process analogous to the Minsk Accords that established the “ceasefire” in Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 invasion. The Minsk and Minsk II agreements treated Russia as a neutral party rather than a participant, thereby tacitly accepting Putin’s assertion that Ukraine was in civil war rather than the victim of Russian aggression. Putin might seek to use the conditions he has created at the ZNPP to establish a parallel international framework undermining Ukraine’s sovereign rights over the much greater expanse of Ukrainian territory Russian forces now occupy.

Ukrainian forces conducted a counterattack in Kharkiv Oblast near Balakliya that likely drove Russian forces back to the left bank (north side) of the Severskyi Donets and Serednya Balakliika rivers on September 6. Ukrainian forces likely captured Verbivka (less than 3 km northwest of Balakliya) on September 6. Geolocated footage posted on September 6 shows Ukrainian infantry in eastern Verbivka (less than 3 km from Balakliya).Multiple Russian sources acknowledged Ukrainian gains in Verbivka and reported that Russian forces demolished unspecified bridges in Balakliya‘s eastern environs to prevent further Ukrainian advances. Images posted on September 6 also show a destroyed Russian bridge over the Serednya Balakliika River—a geographic feature behind which the Russian front line in this sector likely lies. Social media users reported that Russian forces withdrew from checkpoints six kilometers west of Balaklia on September 6.

Russian forces likely no longer maintain their previous positions in Bairak and Nova Husarivka (just south of Balakliya on the right bank of the Seversky Donets River). Russian forces likely abandoned Bayrak and Nova Husarivka in late August. Images posted on August 30 show that Russian forces blew the bridge over the Seversky Donetsk River near Bayrak on an unspecified date. Bridge demolition activity indicates a planned Russian withdrawal. Ukraine’s General Staff reported on September 6 that Russian forces conducted air strikes against Bayrak, indicating that Ukrainian forces may have advanced in the area.

Russia’s deployment of forces from Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine to Ukraine’s south is likely enabling Ukrainian counterattacks of opportunity. The September 6 Ukrainian counterattack in Kharkiv was likely an opportunistic effort enabled by the redeployment of Russian forces away from the area to reinforce Russian positions against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast. Obituary data on Russian servicemen indicates that Russia deployed elements of the 147th Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army to Kherson Oblast no earlier than late August. This is the first time ISW has observed elements of Russia’s elite 1st Guards Tank Army operating in southern Ukraine. Elements of the 147th previously fought in Bucha in Kyiv in March and elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army were active primarily along the Kharkiv Axis after the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv.

Key Takeaways

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency report released on September 6 describes Russian activities that increase the likelihood of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant while decreasing the ability of the plant’s personnel to respond to such an accident effectively.
  • Ukrainian forces have launched likely opportunistic counterattacks in southern Kharkiv Oblast and retaken several settlements. Russian redeployments of forces from this area to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson likely prompted and facilitated these counterattacks.
  • Ukrainian forces are continuing an operational-level interdiction campaign and striking Russian logistics nodes, transportation assets, manpower and equipment concentrations, and control points across Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources discussed kinetic activity northwest of Kherson City and in western Kherson Oblast along the Inhulets River.
  • Russian forces made incremental gains south of Bakhmut and continued ground attacks north, northwest, and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities continue setting conditions to Russify Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 5

September 5, 2022 | 10:30pm ET

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in occupied southern Ukraine. As ISW has previously reported, Ukrainian officials explicitly confirmed that Ukrainian troops seek to attrit Russian logistical capabilities in the south through precision strikes on manpower and equipment concentrations, command centers, and logistics nodes.[1] These counteroffensive actions also have intentional radiating effects on Russian occupation authorities. The head of the Kherson Oblast occupation regime, Kirill Stremousov, told Russian media outlet TASS that his administration has paused annexation referendum plans in Kherson Oblast due to “security” concerns.[2] The Ukrainian Resistance Center similarly reported that Russian occupation authorities are abandoning plans for referenda due to the ongoing counteroffensive.[3] Shortly after TASS published his comment, Stremousov posted on Telegram denying he called for a pause because his administration had never set an official date for the referendum.[4] Both of Stremousov’s statements indicate a high level of disorganization within occupation regimes that is likely being exacerbated by the effects of the counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces intend to slowly chip away at both Russian tactical and operational level capabilities in Kherson Oblast, and in doing so will likely have significant impacts on the administrative and bureaucratic capabilities of occupation officials.

Putin publicly praised DNR and LNR forces (and denigrated the Russian military) on September 5, likely to motivate proxy recruitment and reframe Russian coverage of the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on September 5 that personnel in the 1st and 2nd Army Corps (the armed forces of the DNR and LNR) are fighting better in Donbas than professional Russian soldiers and insinuated that he is unhappy with the performance of the Russian Ministry of Defense.[5] Putin’s comments are likely intended to promote recruitment and force generation in the DNR and LNR and refocus coverage of the war in the Russian media space away from the fighting in southern Ukraine. Russian forces have increasingly relied on DNR and LNR personnel as core fighting forces, and the Kremlin likely seeks to rhetorically elevate their role in the war to enhance recruitment and increase morale. Putin additionally likely seeks to elevate the Kremlin’s preferred (and false) narrative of its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to “protect” the DNR and LNR by praising their forces.

Key Takeaways

  • The Ukrainian counteroffensive is tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in occupied southern Ukraine.
  • Putin publicly praised DNR and LNR forces (and denigrated the Russian military) on September 5, likely to motivate proxy recruitment and reframe Russian coverage of the war.
  • Ukrainian military officials maintained their operational silence regarding the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but reported on the further destruction of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Central Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks east of Siversk, northeast and south of Bakhmut, and along the northwestern outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian special forces conducted a limited operation against a Russian FSB base in the Enerhodar area.
  • Power unit No. 6 of the ZNPP became disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid.
  • Russian authorities continue to seek unconventional sources of combat power and are increasingly turning to ill and infirm individuals.
  • Occupation authorities set a 1.25 ruble/1 hryvnia exchange rate in Zaporizhia Oblast in order to facilitate the economic integration of occupied Zaporizhia into the Russian Federation.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 4

September 4, 2022 | 10:00 pm ET

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is making verifiable progress in the south and the east. Ukrainian forces are advancing along several axes in western Kherson Oblast and have secured territory across the Siverskyi Donets River in Donetsk Oblast. The pace of the counteroffensive will likely change dramatically from day to day as Ukrainian forces work to starve the Russians of necessary supplies, disrupt their command and control, and weaken their morale even as counteroffensive ground assaults continue. The Russians will occasionally counterattack and regain some lost ground and will of course conduct likely fierce artillery and air attacks against liberated settlements and advancing Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces have made substantial enough progress to begin evoking more realistic commentary from the Russian milbloggers, who had been hewing very closely to the Kremlin’s optimistic rhetoric until today.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukrainian forces liberated two unnamed settlements in southern Ukraine and one settlement in Donetsk Oblast on September 4. Zelensky added that the Ukrainian 54th Mechanized Brigade also advanced in the direction Lysychansk-Siversk and established positions on unspecified heights. Ukrainian officials shared geolocated footage that shows Ukrainian forces raising a Ukrainian flag on a hospital building in Vysokopillya, south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast administrative border. Social media sources confirmed that Ukrainian forces crossed the Siverskyi Donets River and liberated Ozerne, 20 km northwest of Siversk.

Geolocated footage from September 2-3 shows Russian forces firing MLRS rounds from positions on the grounds of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) within 1km of a nuclear reactor. Russian opposition outlet The Insider’s footage of Russian forces operating MLRS systems at the ZNPP reaffirms ISW’s prior assessment that Russian forces have militarized the ZNPP. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on September 3 that the ZNPP has been disconnected from the power grid for the second time in its operational history (the first instance occurred on August 25), likely due to continued Russian false flag attacks and other military activities in and around the ZNPP. Russian sources claimed the ZNPP has stopped providing energy to Ukraine.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia is ready to negotiate Moscow’s conditions for ending the Russian war in Ukraine on September 4, but the Kremlin is maintaining its maximalist goals to  “denazify” Ukraine. Peskov said that the Kremlin would discuss with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky how Ukraine would meet Russian conditions during peace negotiations and noted that Russia will complete all stated objectives of the “special military operation.” Peskov also noted that all conflicts end at the negotiations table and expressed that relations between Russia and the West will improve soon. Peskov’s statement comes amidst the reports of the Ukrainian counteroffensive progress in southern Ukraine. The stated objectives of the “special military operation” include regime change in Kyiv as well as the surrender of all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to the Kremlin. Russian efforts to integrate occupied areas of Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Kharkiv Oblasts demonstrate that Moscow expects to keep those territories permanently as well. Peskov’s statement is thus a reiteration of Moscow‘s demands for Ukrainian surrender and offers no indication that Moscow is willing to negotiate seriously and on the basis of a realistic assessment of its prospects in a war that is turning in Ukraine’s direction.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukrainian forces liberated two unnamed settlements in southern Ukraine and one settlement in Donetsk Oblast. ISW has independently confirmed the liberation of the settlement in Donetsk Oblast and one of the settlements in Kherson Oblast.
  • Geolocated footage shows Russian forces firing MLRS rounds from positions on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs), ammunition depots, and key positions to exhaust Russian forces and restrain Russian combat power.
  • The Ukrainian liberation of Vysokopillya ignited critical discussions among some Russian milbloggers while Russian Defense Ministry maintained that Ukrainian forces continued to conduct “unsuccessful attempts” to advance.
  • Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 127th Regiment of the 1st Army Corps personnel reportedly refused to fight due to a lack of supplies.
  • Ukrainian forces regained territory on the left bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Bakhmut and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces are reportedly moving military assets to areas situated along major ground lines of communication (GLOCS) in rear areas in Zaporizhia Oblast.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 3

September 3, 2022 | 8:00 pm ET

Ukrainian officials directly stated on September 3 that the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine is an intentionally methodical operation to degrade Russian forces and logistics, rather than one aimed at immediately recapturing large swathes of territory. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovych told the Wall Street Journal on September 3 that the current goal of Ukrainian forces in the south is the “systemic grinding of Putin’s army and that Ukrainian troops are slowly and systematically uncovering and destroying Russia’s operational logistical supply system with artillery and precision weapon strikes. Arestovych’s statement echoes ISW’s assessment that the ongoing counteroffensive will likely not result in immediate gains and that Ukrainian forces seek to disrupt key logistics nodes that support Russian operations in the south and chip away at Russian military capabilities.

The Kremlin could intensify its efforts to promote self-censorship among Russian milbloggers and war correspondents who cover the war in Ukraine. Russian authorities arrested and later released prominent Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov (employed by Telegram channel WarGonzo) in Moscow on September 2, due to what WarGonzo described as Pegov drunkenly threatening a hotel administrator. Pegov is an experienced military journalist and WarGonzo has extensive links to the Russian military and access to Russian military operations in Donbas in 2014, Syria in 2015, and Ukraine in 2022. ISW continues to track anomalous activity regarding Russia's milbloggers. We cannot confirm the circumstances of Pegov’s arrest, but WarGonzo’s explanation may be correct.

However, ISW previously assessed in July that the Kremlin seeks to promote self-censorship among milbloggers who have undermined Kremlin efforts to portray the war in Ukraine as a decisive Russian victory, and the Kremlin may seek to amplify this censorship. Russian military bloggers have candidly reported on Russian forces‘ poor performance in Ukraine and have discussed how the Kremlin has attempted to censor their coverage in Ukraine.[v] Prominent milblogger Rybar noted that the relationship between the Russian military command and war correspondents particularly soured after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with war correspondents during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17, during which Putin likely tried to defuse milbloggers’ discontent.[vi] The Kremlin later likely intensified efforts to promote self-censorship among milbloggers by using a leaked letter from mothers of Russian soldiers who demanded the ban of journalist activity on the frontlines in July.

The Kremlin so far has not escalated to detaining milbloggers for their coverage. Pegov’s arrest—if connected to his coverage in Ukraine—would be a significant development in Russian efforts to control the Russian information space. ISW forecasted that the Russian information space would change significantly if the Ministry of Defense cracked down on milbloggers and stopped them from operational reporting since ISW uses milbloggers and Russian war correspondents as sources of Russian claims on a daily basis. We will continue to observe and report on milblogger and war correspondent behavior and will flag significant changes in the Russian information space as we observe them.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian officials directly stated that the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive is a methodical operation to intentionally degrade Russian forces and logistics in the south, rather than one aimed at immediately recapturing large swathes of territory.
  • The Kremlin may be intensifying efforts to foster self-censorship among Russian milbloggers and war correspondents who are covering the war in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces continued positional battles along the Kherson-Mykolaiv frontline and that Ukrainian troops are focusing on striking Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs), equipment and manpower concentrations, and logistics nodes along the Southern Axis.
  • Social media footage shows evidence of effective Ukrainian strikes in western and central Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian mibloggers continue to claim that Ukrainian forces are fighting in western Kherson Oblast, along the Inhulets River, and in northern Kherson south of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut and north and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian forces may be conducting localized attacks along the line of contact in Western Zaporizhia Oblast to disrupt ongoing Russian troop deployments.
  • Russian authorities continue to generate combat power from recruitment through state-owned enterprises and prisons to circumvent general mobilization.
  • Russian occupation authorities are increasingly struggling to provide basic services in occupied areas of Ukraine.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 2

September 2, 2022 | 9:00 pm ET

Russian independent polling organization Levada posted survey results on September 1 indicating that while the majority of Russians still support military operations in Ukraine, public support for the war may be gradually declining. Levada stated that the overall support for Russian forces in Ukraine has not changed significantly over the summer, with 76% of the survey’s respondents in favor of the action of Russian forces in Ukraine (46% strongly supporting and 30% generally supporting).[1] Levada also noted that 48% of respondents believe that it is necessary for Russian operations in Ukraine to continue.[2] The polls showed that 44% of respondents were in favor of peace negotiations and that a majority of Russia’s younger segments of the population (18-39-year-olds) favor negotiations.[3] In March of 2022, Levada found that 53% of respondents strongly support Russian military actions in Ukraine but that the percentage of respondents in this category declined to 46% by August.[4] This is a minor deterioration and will not fundamentally impair the Kremlin’s ability to conduct the war. However, declining support and war weariness will likely increasingly impede Russian recruitment and force generation efforts.

Russian and proxy officials are solidifying their narratives surrounding the Ukrainian counteroffensive to amplify false claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is detrimental to Ukraine’s continued existence. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed on September 2 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky planned the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast solely to create an illusion among “Western curators” that Ukrainian forces can conduct an effective counteroffensive.[5] Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Deputy Interior Minister Vitaly Kiselyov claimed that Ukrainian forces’ engagement in the counteroffensive was (referring to the offensive in past tense) “collective suicide” and suffered high casualties.[6] Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on September 1 that internal Ukrainian divisions will soon force the military conflict to end.[7] Russian milbloggers increased their amplification of these narratives on September 1-2 as the information space around the success and tempo of the Ukrainian counteroffensive remained murky.[8] Russian sources will likely continue propagating these false information narratives to exploit Ukrainian operational silence. As ISW has previously noted, complex counteroffensives cannot be resolved overnight or in a matter of days, and the Russian presentation of an immediate Ukrainian failure due to a lack of constant Ukrainian claims of territorial gains is a deliberate obfuscation of reality.[9]

Key Takeaways

  • Independent polling showed that a majority of Russians still support the Russian war in Ukraine.
  • Russian and proxy officials are solidifying their narratives surrounding the Ukrainian counteroffensive to claim it will debilitate the Ukrainian military.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that positional battles are underway in unspecified areas of Kherson Oblast and that Ukrainian forces are continuing to strike Russian ground lines of communications (GLOCs), logistics nodes, and reinforcement efforts throughout southern and central Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks south and northeast of Bakhmut and along the western and northern outskirts of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued targeting Ukrainian rear areas along GLOCs and may be reinforcing the Southern Axis by reallocating equipment from Russian rear areas in Donbas and Crimea.
  • Ukrainian sources claim that Russia can pull an additional 300,000-350,000 military personnel from support units in Russia, Syria, Armenia, Tajikistan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Kazakhstan. These figures do not accurately represent the fact that support units placed into combat roles will not generate substantial combat power and are necessary for supporting combat, training, and other operations.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 1

September 1, 2022 | 11pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his false framing of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a defensive operation to protect Russia on September 1. During a meeting with schoolchildren in Kaliningrad, Putin stated that the purpose of the “special military operation” is to eliminate the “anti-Russian enclave” that is forming in Ukraine and is an existential threat to the Russian state.[1] Putin similarly invoked the concept of an “anti-Russia” in his February 24 speech declaring a “special operation” in Ukraine.[2] Putin’s reiteration of an “anti-Russian” entity that must be defeated militarily to defend Russia reaffirms his maximalist intentions for Ukraine and is likely intended to set the information conditions to call for further Russian efforts and force generation going into the fall and winter of this year.

Russian milbloggers continued attempts to claim that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has already failed. Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist and former commander of militants in the 2014 fighting in Donbas, stated that Ukrainian forces are continuing to attack after the “failure of the first attack”—falsely portraying ongoing Ukrainian operations as separate attacks after an initial failure—and reiterated the common Russian narrative that what he claims are Ukraine’s “Western handlers” pushed Ukraine to conduct a counteroffensive.[3] Girkin additionally stated that Ukraine’s Western partners poorly planned for the counteroffensive, underestimated Russian capabilities and assumed Russians are incompetent, and principally accounted for political—not military—considerations.[4] One milblogger stated that Ukraine’s defeat in the south will be the strongest psychological blow to Kyiv and that this failure will have a continued long-term psychological effect on Ukraine’s morale.[5] The Russian milbloggers are increasingly centrally describing Ukrainian attacks as tactless and “suicidal” rushes.[6]

As ISW has reported, military operations on the scale of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive do not succeed or fail in a day or a week.[7] Ukrainians and the West should not fall for Russian information operations portraying the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast as having failed almost instantly or that depict Ukraine as a helpless puppet of Western masters for launching it at this time.

The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin has extended the deadline for Russian forces to capture Donetsk Oblast from August 31 to the still highly unlikely target date of September 15, and Russian forces are conducting several redeployments to meet this goal.[8] Deputy Chief of the Ukrainian Main Operational Department Oleksiy Gromov stated that Russian forces are regrouping elements of the Central Military District (CMD) operating in the Luhansk-Donetsk Oblast directions in an effort to increase the number of troops west of Donetsk City.[9] Gromov added that Russian forces deployed two battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the direction of the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline from Belgorod Oblast, which he noted might support resumed Russian offensive operations in Donbas.[10] Gromov stated that Russian military officials are continuing to form the 3rd Army Corps to deploy to Donetsk Oblast, also likely to resume offensive operations in the Donetsk operational area.[11] Gromov noted that it is unclear if all mobilized 3rd Army Corps servicemen have undergone military training.[12] Russian forces also reportedly introduced one BTG each to the Slovyansk and Mykolaiv directions.[13] RFE/RL’s footage also shows that Russian forces are continuing to react to Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast by consistently transferring military convoys to southern Ukrainian via the Kerch Strait Bridge.[14] These Russian deployments are likely intended to set conditions for a revised operation to capture Donetsk Oblast, but Russian forces remain highly unlikely to make the progress necessary to capture the Oblast by September 15.

The Kremlin is likely seeking to capitalize on the significance of seizing areas around Donetsk City that have been contested since 2014 to boost the morale of Russian and proxy forces. Russian forces have not been successful in advancing toward Siversk or capturing the E40 highway to Slovyansk-Bakhmut since the fall of Lysychansk and are likely experiencing challenges incentivizing Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) elements to continue fighting to reach the Donetsk Oblast administrative borders.[15] Russian forces had minor territorial gains around Avdiivka, which have generated positive chatter among the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) fighters in early August after which the advances stalled west of Donetsk City.[16]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian logistical nodes and key positions throughout Kherson Oblast in support of the ongoing counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian milbloggers reiterated claims that Ukrainian forces are fighting along four axes of advance in Western Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks northwest of Slovyansk, south and northeast of Bakhmut, and northwest and southwest of Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities escalated claims that Ukrainian forces are threatening both the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and the newly arrived International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation on the territory of the ZNPP.
  • The Russian 3rd Army Corps is continuing to form for deployment to Donbas.
  • Russian occupation authorities are likely increasingly recognizing their inability to successfully hold sham referenda in occupied areas of Ukraine due to Russian military failures and ongoing Ukrainian resistance in occupied territories.

Previous Updates

Related Reads

In the winter of 2021-2022, CTP and ISW launched a forecast series in response to the Russian military build-up on Ukraine's border. The reports in this series are listed below. CTP and ISW have also maintained this indicators document with daily information on the crisis through February 17, 2022.

Putin’s Likely Course of Action in Ukraine - Part 3: Updated Course of Action Assessment

January 27, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis he created by mobilizing a large military force around Ukraine to achieve two major objectives: first, advancing and possibly completing his efforts to regain effective control of Ukraine itself, and second, fragmenting and neutralizing the NATO alliance. Russian military preparations can support a massive invasion of Ukraine from the north, east, and south that could give Putin physical control of Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, allowing him to dictate terms that would accomplish the first objective. Such an invasion, however, might undermine his efforts to achieve the second objective because it could rally the NATO alliance around the need to respond to such a dramatic act of aggression. An invasion would also entail significant risks and definite high costs. A Russian military action centered around limited military operations in southern and southeastern Ukraine coupled with a brief but widespread and intense air and missile campaign could better position Putin to achieve both aims as well as reduce the likely costs and risks to Russia.

Putin's Likely Course of Action in Ukraine - Part 2

December 11, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin is amassing a military force on and near Ukraine’s borders large enough to conduct a full-scale invasion. Western intelligence agencies have reportedly intercepted Russian military plans to do so by early February. Visible Russian military activities and these plans so clearly support preparations for an invasion that it seems obvious that Putin really might invade if his demands are not met.

Putin is rarely so obvious, however, and a massive Russian invasion of Ukraine would mark a fundamental transformation of the approach he has taken for two decades to advance his interests and respond to threats. We cannot dismiss the possibility that such a transformation has occurred. The United States, NATO, and Ukraine must seriously consider the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and prepare military, diplomatic, and economic measures to deter and respond to that threat.

Putin's Likely Course of Action in Ukraine - Part 1

December 10, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin is amassing a large force near the Ukrainian border and reportedly has a military plan to invade and conquer most of unoccupied Ukraine.  Western leaders are rightly taking the threat of such an invasion very seriously, and we cannot dismiss the possibility that Putin will order his military to execute it.  However, the close look at what such an invasion would entail presented in this report and the risks and costs Putin would have to accept in ordering it leads us to forecast that he is very unlikely to launch an invasion of unoccupied Ukraine this winter. Putin is much more likely to send Russian forces into Belarus and possibly overtly into Russian-occupied Donbas. He might launch a limited incursion into unoccupied southeastern Ukraine that falls short of a full-scale invasion. 

A full-scale Russian invasion of unoccupied Ukraine would be by far the largest, boldest, and riskiest military operation Moscow has launched since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It would be far more complex than the US wars against Iraq in 1991 or 2003. It would be a marked departure from the approaches Putin has relied on since 2015, and a major step-change in his willingness to use Russian conventional military power overtly. It would cost Russia enormous sums of money and likely many thousands of casualties and destroyed vehicles and aircraft.  Even in victory, such an invasion would impose on Russian President Vladimir Putin the requirement to reconstruct Ukraine and then establish a new government and security forces there more suitable for his objectives.